Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Groaning Table: Holy Week Resources for Readers

For readers for whom the theological-liturgical language of the Christian tradition is not yet an impediment to spiritual life, there are some rich resources at blog sites during Holy Week. Michael Bayly’s Wild Reed blog is featuring a series on the passion of Christ, with beautiful, provocative Stations of the Cross-like paintings by contemporary artist Doug Blanchard.

The first in this series is here. From it, readers can click their way through each subsequent offering. The postings are also a wonderful smorgasbord of important statements by contemporary theologians with pertinence to the passion story. I find the third meditation (on the Last Supper) reflecting on John Dominic Crossan’s notion of Jesus’s “open commensality” especially illuminating.

As Crossan notes, one of the leitmotivs of the gospel account of Jesus’s life and ministry is his astonishing practice of inviting anyone and everyone to his table, in a culture in which table fellowship was governed strictly by religious and social norms that prohibited such free-wheeling mixing of people—of men and women, of rich and poor, of slave and free, of sinners and the righteous. As Crossan has long insisted, these stories of Jesus’s open commensality are the germ from which the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist has grown.

Unless we incorporate into our own understanding (and practice) of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist Jesus’s notion of open commensality, we betray something very central to Eucharistic life. The ravenous need of some contemporary Christians to draw insider-outside lines at the Lord’s table could not be more antithetical to the practice of Jesus, at his own table.

I also highly recommend—always—Colleen Kochivar-Baker’s Enlightened Catholicism blog (here). During this Holy Week, it has contained powerful reflections on themes that should be important to contemporary believers, including a persuasive (for me, at least) call for the pro-life movement to practice holy silence at a time in which its loud claims about its goals and objectives all too often undermine those goals and objectives.

Finally, I also want to draw readers’ attention to a beautiful essay by Clarissa Pinkola Estés entitled “Political Catholicism vs. Christ’s Catholicism” at the National Catholic Reporter website (here). Pinkola Estés addresses the growing number of believers (and they include me) who find it increasingly difficult to find a way in the highly politicized culture of the church today.

She argues that there is a third way for such believers. It is the way of the Lone Man (that is, Jesus) who stood against the priests-thugs of his day. It is a way that renounces the desire to coerce, do violence to, or punish those who see things differently than we do. It is a path that refuses to hunt down the souls of others, even when strong, baying cries all around us urge us to engage in such a hunt.

As Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes,

In our time, when it too often has come down to our listening hard, but not being able to tell some priests from most politicians -- as they too often sound exactly alike, choosing the same rhetorical references and processes to defeat or demand a cause ... we, in our beliefs, our striving to hold life sacred, have to go a different way.

I find this meditation moving because I myself am searching for that different way. As I have noted in the past on this blog, for me, the church, in the lives of some of its pastoral leaders and its most ardent defenders today, has become an impediment. Im-ped-iment: something that stands in the way of our feet as we walk, trips us, blocks the path.

The church, in the lives of some of its pastoral leaders and most ardent defenders, is becoming an obstacle to me on my own spiritual path. I write about these issues because I am struggling to find a way. This blog is my attempt to journey further along the path that the church itself has placed me on, by its practiced cruelty towards me, my partner, and other gay believers.

To put the point bluntly: the church simply closes the way to us as believers. It does not invite us along its liturgical, spiritual path. Many of us long for that path during Holy Week (and all throughout the liturgical year), but the price of participation—pretending that we are not there, that we are someone other than who we are; rejecting, renouncing, despising ourselves as God has made us—is impossible to pay, if we are to retain any spiritual core at all.

That places us . . . nowhere. We have no clear path. With all its beauty and power to move our hearts, liturgy and theological language become a double-edged sword. It feeds us and at the same time often betrays us, denies us, tells us we do not belong as God has made us.

To illustrate the point I’m making here, the problem the church presents to many of us, the problem the church has become to many of us: yesterday, in Holy Week, the legislature of Vermont overrode the veto of the state’s governor, making Vermont another in a series of states that now offer gay citizens the right to marry. This follows on the heels of an historic Iowa Supreme Court statement about which I blogged several days ago (here), in which that body unanimously struck down an anti-gay marriage statue.

Following the Vermont decision yesterday, a friend called me. She was traveling through the Dallas airport and happened to see the news on television. She had to share her joy with me. This friend is a straight, married woman who has lost a son to AIDS. She and I butted heads when we first met. I did not know anything about her personal drama, that she had a gay son, that she was struggling with his illness and then his death.

I found her cranky and off-putting, and wrote her off the list of people I wanted to know. Fortunately for me—and as a sign that she is a better follower of Jesus than I am—she continued to reach out to Steve and me and then shared her story with us.

I’m extremely happy about this, because I now find her a valuable source of inspiration and grace. Her son’s death led her in a fairly astonishing way to a small Episcopal church whose saint’s name is the same as her son’s—Stephen—where she finds a nurturing community. After her son died, she began to do volunteer prison ministry with her parish.

Her experience with the HIV community has stood her in good stead in that ministry, and has allowed her to affirm people who would otherwise not be reached by her ministry. The stories she tells me from her ministerial experience nourish my soul. They are stories about the teacher learning from the one who is taught, about the righteous one with the answers and the grace receiving answers and grace from the despised, rejected outcast.

It was good to share my joy at the Vermont decision (and the Iowa one) with this friend.

But as I do this, it does not escape my attention that, when I click to the websites of my brothers and sisters at the center of the American Catholic church, I find nothing at all—total silence—about these two historic events. Though those websites profess to provide Catholic perspectives on current events, politics, culture, the church, they are deafeningly silent about important gay issues.

About me and my life. About all the gay brothers and sisters who find no place in the church these brothers and sisters of the center celebrate.

We go to these websites, and we read fulsome welcome statements for Mr. Gingrich, but never a welcome for us. We read abashed apologies to Cardinal George, but never an apology to us—for our exclusion. For the ways in which we are stereotyped, tacitly banned from conversations about us, as well as from all holy conversations of the center.

Silence. Silence that speaks volumes. It tells us that we do not exist.

And no message can be more painful than that, in the final analysis. Particularly during Holy Week.