Sunday, November 1, 2020

A Piece of Personal Testimony on All Saints' Day: The Sanctity of Many Queer People and Their Loving Relationships

This All Saints' day, I think of a little iconostasis I kept for some years next to my desk. The saints whose pictures or icons I had on the iconostasis were my own personal saints — an idiosyncratic collection, almost all of whom would never be canonized by the church.

I had on the iconostasis, for instance, an icon of Harvey Milk. There was a picture of Sister Kathleen, a chaplain at Loyola in New Orleans who made a real impression on me when I was a timid, befuddled young undergraduate student with few friends there.

She would take me for walks in Audubon park across St. Charles Avenue from the university, and talk to me about the spiritual life in terms that made a lot of sense to me — talking to me as if I were a real human being capable of having my own spiritual life, though I was just a timid, often bewildered undergraduate student with few friends.

Not many years after I graduated, the Jesuits fired her with no explanation, causing her great misery, and she returned to her motherhouse in New England and found she had terminal cancer, and died very soon after she had been fired. The Jesuits sent someone to her funeral to apologize to her community for how they had treated her.

Also on the iconostasis was a photo of our friend Bruce. We met Bruce soon after my husband Steve and I began to live together in 1971. He lived in our neighborhood and did his and his grandmother's laundry in the same laundromat to which we took our laundry. On a visit to the laundromat, Steve struck up a conversation with Bruce, and he invited us to meet his grandmother, with whom he lived, and we began to know something of his life story.

He had been born premature and had been placed in an incubator that caused him to have growth problems for the rest of his life, and caused him to lose much of his sight. Because he was wizened and had serious developmental problems, perhaps, his mother never treated him as if she wanted him. His father was something of a wimp, with his wife dominating him.

Bruce's grandmother was a lifesaver, literally so. She took him in and raised him very lovingly, and he was intensely devoted to her.

Bruce was gay, and down the road, he developed AIDS. His grandmother had been dead for some time when this happened.

He spent the final months of his life living in a hospice in the French Quarter that the Franciscans had set up, receiving very loving care. In the final weeks of Bruce's life, Steve and I had returned to New Orleans from North Carolina, where we had been teaching, so that I could teach a summer course at Loyola.

When the Fourth of July came around, Bruce asked if we would help him have a party in City Park at which he'd treat his friends and caregivers to grilled steaks and the trimmings, with lavish desserts. He had done this annually on the Fourth, but this year, couldn't manage on his own, because he was — quite literally — dying. 

We issued invitations on his behalf, bought the food, and on the Fourth, took him to City Park to host the party. He was so weak and tiny that Steve carried him in his arms to a chair where he sat happily, watching his friends enjoy the food he had bought on their behalf, which he himself could not eat, because fungal infections had virtually destroyed his throat.

Around this time, Bruce woke one night in his hospice bed to see his grandmother standing at the foot of the bed. She told him he'd be with her soon but not right then.

Bruce died several days after that Fourth of July party. The one member of his family in addition to his grandmother who had ever treated him with dignity and kindness, a brother, was with him as he died and called to tell us.

It felt to us as if Bruce had waited for us to be back in New Orleans before he died. Given how he had been treated from birth forward, he had very low self-esteem and he feared no one would attend his funeral.

But when the day of the funeral arrived, the chapel was jam-packed with people he had worked with at Charity Hospital, people he knew from various venues, black, white, gay, straight.

One of the Franciscans from the AIDS hospice presided at the funeral, and he said in his funeral homily that, in his estimation, Bruce was a saint, to whom we could confidently pray.

Before the funeral began, Bruce's mother cornered us and instructed us to tell no one he had died of AIDS. We told her that, of course, we wouldn't do that; it wasn't our business to tell anyone such information.

But we thought to ourselves how she was sadly deluding herself if she thought that everyone at the funeral did not know full well what that tiny young man, already wizened by birth problems and practically gaunt by the time he died, had died of. People are not fools.

One of his sisters threw a fit when she learned he'd be buried in the family's tomb. How could she go there and pray for other family members if he was buried there? she said. 

The day after Bruce's funeral, I told myself I'd like to find some little thing at the flea market in the French Quarter to remember Bruce by. For some reason, what I had in my head was a little Buddha: I wanted to find a little Buddha to keep Bruce alive in my memory.

We parked the car at the outskirts of the flea market, walked to the market, and when we entered the market area, the very first thing I saw on a little table of knick-knacks was the little Buddha above. It now lives in our kitchen window, and I think of Bruce every time I see it.

There are many more saints in the world than the ones religious groups recognize "officially." Some of them won't ever be canonized — at least, not as things now stand — because, like Bruce, they're queer people. 

But I happen to think Rilke is absolutely correct when he writes, in his poem "The Portal,"

For it's only (this we know) from the blind, the cast-out, and the mad that, like a great actor, the Saviour emerges.

A happy All Saints' day to Bruce, Kathleen, Harvey, and my other saints.

P.S. This morning, I happened to read a journalist's interview with Bishop Catholic Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island. Following the release of the snippet of videotape in which Pope Francis states that same-sex couples deserve social support and affirmation and should not be thrown away, Bishop Tobin took it on himself to bear down on what he believes to be the "sinfulness" of same-sex relationships.

In his interview, he told the journalist interviewing him that it's his responsibility to "teach" people — to compel them to see as immoral and deeply sinful relationships that they have learned to see with their own eyes as loving and, in some cases, holy. 

As I finished reading the interview, I must admit, I felt sorry for Bishop Tobin and religious "teachers" like him who are so blinded by prejudice and distorted "teachings" that they cannot see what is in front of their own eyes: the normalcy, the potential for love, in same-sex people and same-sex relationships. And, yes, the sanctity of many committed, loving same-sex relationships….

What a gift offered to them by a loving God some men who want to convince us they have a gift of "teaching" are casting off and belittling — to the harm of their own souls, as they fret about the souls of others.

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