Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Testimonies of Grace and the Vanishing Table

I'm struck this morning by how perfectly congruent two postings are on blogs I follow: Claire Bangasser writes at her Seat at the Table blog about how her heart has been warmed by the sweetness of divine encounter in which she finds Godde reaching out to embrace everyone, and not merely an approved elite; and Thom Curnutte writes at his Faith in the 21st Century blog about the tears that ran down his face when he first heard the hymn "All Are Welcome" at a Catholic liturgy.

I understand both testimonies, since I've been there--or in a similar place, since every human life is unique in some ways, and the experience of each heart differs in key respects from every other heart's experience, even as we share the fundamentals of experiences such as having our hearts warmed, touched by grace, filled with the sweetness of divine encounter.  I've been there, and I find my own heart touched and warmed today as I read what Claire and Thom have written.

I feel a sense of profound gratitude for the amazing technology of the internet, which can bring us together with people who share our inmost longings--for peace, for a hopeful future, for a healed world in which the children of future generations can play without fear.  It is humbling and reassuring to listen to the voices of others who have walked along the path of conversion, and who can point the way for me, as my feet stumble blindly towards that path.

Claire speaks specifically of the attempt of the Catholic church at its center, through its highest authorities, to limit service at the altar during official liturgical celebrations to males.  The Godde who has enfolded her in divine embrace does not, however, make that crucial gender distinction.  Godde's embrace is for all equally.  The sweetness offered at the divine table is there for anyone who wishes to taste it.

Thom writes about his experience growing up in a Holiness Pentecostal tradition in which the insider-outsider rules--the rules separating the holy and elect from the unholy and damned--were very clear and unyielding.  And in which only the holy were welcome.  And in which he heard gay men called, on repeated occasions, faggots.  In which he heard gay men called faggots from the pulpit itself.

And so the power of that hymn sung as he entered the Catholic church, in which he heard for the first time words he had never heard before in any church: All are welcome in this place.

I understand.  I understand both breakthrough experiences.  I've shared them, in my own way.  I, too, have found tears pouring from my eyes at eucharistic celebrations in which I felt suddenly, and beyond all of my wildest expectations, welcome.  Merely welcome--welcome in a way in which the world has not made me and my kind welcome.  And it is deeply humanizing to read the testimonies of people whom I've come to admire--Claire and Thom--recounting their own similar experiences out of the depths. 

For years after Steve and I found our vocations as theologians destroyed by church authorities who assured that each and all doors to employment were slammed in our faces by Catholic institutions when we acknowledged that we were a couple, I had a recurring dream.  It was, over and over again, a dream of being in a church at which the eucharistic table was impossibly far away.

This church was almost always round, and Steve and I were always on the periphery of the worshiping community.  Wondering how to reach the table, which was down in the bowels of the round church with the tiered pews.  And, somehow, when we'd managed to make our way there in each of these eucharistic celebrations, in each of these recurring dreams, there was always this: tears flowing down my face, as I realized I had finally reached the table.  Tears that woke me up, since we cry out in our sleep when we dream of crying, and the sound of our crying voices wakes us from sleep.

Tears of gratitude at finally finding the table.  Tears at the humbling experience of being fed, of being offered the body of the divine as food.  

Tears at the knowledge that, in our waking lives, we remain impossibly far from any Catholic eucharistic table at which all are welcome, since it is a lie to say that a community welcomes those for whom it makes no place at the table.  And excluding members of the community from a job, a vocation, a livelihood, the wherewithal to make house payments and buy the necessities of life, from health insurance: this is excluding those brothers and sisters from the eucharistic table, as well.

Because the table of life, the table of daily bread, is continuous with the eucharistic table, and a church that does not assure that all of us can sit at the table of daily bread is not authentically inviting us to the table of the Lord, to the eucharisitic table.

I am deeply grateful for the faith Claire and Thom share, and for the way in which they share it with me in these postings.  I also feel an immense gap, now, after Steve's vocational experience and mine as Catholic theologians excluded from employment, between the experiences they describe and Steve's and my experience.  And I feel saddened by that gap, because I want, in my heart of hearts, to feel the same welcome at the table that Claire and Thom describe.

(And I do feel it in their testimony, in what they offer me through their blogs, as my sister and brother in Christ who aren't, unfortunately, synonymous with those powerful men who stand at the top of the Catholic food chain.  "Unfortunately," in that only those powerful men have the power to take down the official signs of unwelcome with which every Catholic church in the world now plasters itself, for those with eyes to see them.)

At the same time, I find myself entirely unable now to imagine even the possibility of experiencing that warm divine embrace in the context of a Catholic eucharistic celebration--ever again--given the eye-opening experiences through which Steve and I have walked as openly gay Catholic theologians decisively expelled from the table.  For me, the church has become a countersign to what it professes.

It is not about welcome.  It is about the opposite of welcome.  And, having had my eyes opened to that reality, I do not know how to close them again.  I cannot unsee what I now see, after our experiences with church leaders who would not even meet us face to face as human beings after they took away our jobs, to explain to us why they had done this to us and what we were to do with our lives--with our real human lives--without employment.  And without the prospect of employment ever again in a Catholic institution.

And once my eyes had been opened by these experiences, they began to be opened, of course, as well, to the far more brutal exclusion from the human community and the table of the Lord of those sexually abused by priests as youths, whom church officials have equally repudiated.  Whom they have equally refused, over and over again, to meet, to see face to face.

To whom they have refused to issue any apology, as has been the case with Steve and me, too.  Never a single word of apology.  A word.  A simple, life-changing word that might, for once, signal that someone with power and authority in the church, someone colluding with those who have power and authority in the church, understands.  That someone understands the soul-tearing pain people experience when they are told they are unwelcome at the table of life (and therefore at the eucharistic table that is continuous with the table of daily bread).

A word of apology which might recognize--finally--that such behavior is radically destructive of every claim the church makes about itself, at the most fundamental level possible.

That word has never been there for Steve and me, after we lost our jobs as theologians and found we were no longer employable in Catholic institutions.  Not as openly gay theologians in a committed partnered relationship which we refuse any longer to hide or for which we refuse to apologize.

And so I no longer even have that recurring dream of the table now.  The table has receded so far from my imagination that it does not even occupy space in my dream life any more.  

For Steve and me now, the experience with the table of welcome is different than the experience both Claire and Thom describe for themselves: our experience is, I suspect, an experience shared by a growing number of Catholics for whom the table is now not merely a table of unwelcome.  

It is now a table that is simply not there any longer, since the dissonance between what the church proclaims about itself as a table of welcome for all, and what the church actually does to many of us, is too great to bear.  And the only way in which we can deal with that cognitive dissonance is by letting go of the dream of the table itself.

In any shape, form, or fashion.  At all.

The graphic is a photo of the interior of a church in the 9th ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, from the Wings of Love blog.

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