Monday, February 13, 2006

"The 'Rock' Quality"

Word from the West is that our dear friend James Alison blew the roof off the joint at the University of San Francisco yesterday, giving a talk about the Catholic ethic and how it relates to the life of the LGBT community.

I'm told James also celebrated the world-renowned 9.30 Mass at Most Holy Redeemer Parish, where he gave an extemporaneous 40-minute homily on Jesus as "Stealth Warrior" -- how He had to stay under the radar because, if He didn't, the Establishment would have moved ever more quickly to try and contain Him in its instinctive defensiveness about encountering things new.

Suffice it to say, I know the feeling.

Anyways, James' talk has already been posted. It will cause some disquiet in certain corners, but it is here to make all of us think.

Some snips:
I became a Catholic when I was eighteen, at a time when there was no Pope (Paul VI had just died), and so at my reception into the Church I recited a formula of obedience to “Our Pope N”. He’s been one of my favourites ever since. Every now and then over the last twenty five years or so I’ve been tempted to want him to come back soon, though at the moment I’m very happy with his substitute.

But what brought me into the Church was a mixture of two graces. The first was having fallen in love with a Catholic classmate at school some years earlier. He was and is straight, but I perceived a certain warmth of personality in him which seemed untypical of the world of Protestant schoolboys in which I lived, and I associated that warmth with his being Catholic. The second was a special grace at a time when I was at a very low ebb, having just started to “come out” as a gay man in a very hostile conservative evangelical environment, shortly before going to University. This grace I associate absolutely with the intercession of Padre Pio, since it came at a time when I glimpsed something of the link between his stigmata and the sacrifice of the Mass; and I then knew, and have always since known, the Mass to be no mere memorial supper. This grace, which was accompanied by an astounding joy, literally blew me into the Church. It was the gift of the Catholic Faith. Once it had fallen upon me I knew myself to be involved on the inside of something which has been a love affair ever since, something which just seems to open out and get bigger and better all the time. I was aware even then that my often tortuous journey of self-acceptance as a gay man and my becoming a Catholic were part of the same movement of joy. And God has been faithful, keeping the texture of those loves intertwined and slowly bringing them into one love and one blessing, nurturing the heart that it has been his idea to give me and keeping it safe from Lord alone knows how much erratic behaviour, slowness to trust, and cowardice, on my part, as well as from the defamation of love and the hatred espoused by so many whose job it is to speak in God’s name....

Part of this induction into being Catholic has been the discovery of the secret presence of Our Lady, permeating everything. For many of those of us brought up in Protestant backgrounds, it takes a long time to begin to make sense of what can come across as a psychological weirdness with which it is difficult to identify, which doesn’t seem to strike chords in us. But I have come to rejoice in and love Our Lady and the difference which she constitutes in the Church. For it is she who makes it impossible for the Church successfully to turn itself either into an ideology or into a moralistic enterprise. She can never quite be co-opted into standing for something other than what she is. And what I have come to associate her with being is the link, the non-opposition, between the old creation and the new, between nature and grace, between the Israel of the Prophets and Patriarchs and the new, universal Israel of God. Far too delicate to be clearly delineated, and far too present to be dismissed, she has underlined, seated, and made three-dimensional for me elements of the faith in what her Son is doing which can only be lived-into over time.

The feast of the Assumption, in particular, is one where my heart soars, and I have, over my twenty-seven years of being a Catholic enjoyed two special moments of grace from our Lady on the Solemnity of the Assumption. One, when out for a walk in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where a sense of the openness of heaven gave me the inspiration for the second half of my book “The joy of being wrong”. And more recently, and even more surprisingly, a grace came when I was desperate to think of a way to finish “Faith beyond resentment: fragments catholic and gay”. I was in Rio de Janeiro, running out of time before I had to hand in the manuscript, and was stuck, at the end of my tether, and on my way to sleep, having spent Sunday 15 August failing to do anything on the computer other than play FreeCell and Solitaire. And as I fell asleep, I was given the parable of Nicodemus, the Inquisitor and the boys in the square, which became the end of the last chapter of the book. I remember giggling as I fell asleep, as the parable was given to me, so preposterous did it seem as an ending for the book. Just as I remember thinking as I wrote it out the next day that Our Lady’s love for her queer children, one of the best kept but also best known, secrets of the Church, is something which no amount of ecclesiastical homophobia can vanquish.

I recently came across what was, for me, an entirely new and wonderful avocation of Our Lady. This is Our Lady Undoer of Knots. I stumbled upon a locally carved statue of her in Brazil, which I bought without knowing anything about the devotion. This turns out to come from Augsburg in Germany, from a painting by an unknown artist dating from 1700. What on earth, you may ask, is a devotion from a Baroque part of Germany doing being sculpted in Salvador, the most African part of Brazil? But this is part of the uncanny wonder of the Catholic Church. The image is of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception holding a cord with knots, which she is undoing. This Avocation gives me great peace, since it is clear to me that the knots concerning the relationship between grace and desire, sin and concupiscence, which have been so tied up into a skandalon for gay people in the life of our Church [1] are being gently and carefully undone by hands blessed with far more patience and delicacy than I could hope to muster....

There is something special about [God's gift of life], something characteristic and odd. We find our hearts, minds and imaginations being opened up to perceive that Yahweh, the God of Israel and Creator of all things, was present in the life, teaching and signs worked by Jesus of Nazareth in such a way that that very special rock solidity of presence associated with Yahweh was recognised in Jesus’ own person. A group of not particularly distinguished people who Jesus had chosen to be the witnesses to what he was about, found, after his death, that he was present to them in the way that was proper to Yahweh, the rock, the one who knows not death and who causes all things to be. These same undistinguished people began to understand that that Rock, the one who makes all things to be and keeps them in unfrustratable being, had been present in Jesus all along such that his acting out of his life, living into the role of High Priest, victim, altar and sacrifice on the Cross was a new and definitive glimpse at the “inner” life of God, showing just how much God loves us as humans, and wants to empower us to come and share God’s life from within, so that we can be much, much more than we ever thought possible before.

This undistinguished group of people even became aware that when Jesus had nicknamed one of them, the notoriously volatile and unstable character Simon, “Rock” this wasn’t just an ironic joke, but was part of the way that the Rock of Israel was going to make itself present in the life of humans to their advantage. In other words, the rock solidity of salvation opened up and made present by Jesus was not just going to float in the air as some sort of spiritual doctrine for cognoscenti, but was going to be made available to anybody at all through a witness given by a whole collection of highly implausible and improbable characters. In the midst of these characters, a certain derivative rock-quality, associated with the ministry of Peter, would also, always, be made available as part of the indestructible opening up of the gates of heaven on earth. This indestructible quality resists all our death-bound-ness, all our waves of desire, patterns of hatred, fear and refusal of life. This gift of a continuing rock-quality, a sheer, unsnuffable-out “having already happened and being open for us”, quality is largely independent of the character and of the highly mutable moral qualities of all of us, and certainly of the often undependable and mutable character of Simon Peter’s successors.

From my perspective, John Paul as a character was high on bluster and sounding firm and certain about everything, and so the quality of divinely-given “rockitude” was rather more difficult to glimpse beneath the showier elements of his own personality until his last weeks, when he gave a glorious witness to the palpable abundance of eternal life in the midst of his failing. But one of the things I especially like about Papa Ratzi is that he is evidently a much more modest, self-effacing and even timid man, and this enables the rock quality, the authentic Petrine touchstone quality, to shine through rather more perceptibly. He knows that it’s not about him, and yet I think that ordinary Catholics in Italy have sensed rather quickly that the Petrine charism, the surety, is alive and shining in him.

Now I’d like to suggest that this Rock quality actually permeates the Catholic faith in a whole lot of different areas. I sometimes describe it as the “just there” quality, and I suppose the area we tend to know it from most regularly is the liturgy – the “just there” quality of the presence of Jesus in the Mass. There seems to me to be something quite wonderful about this, the quiet, serene, relaxedness, the lack of self-consciousness about Catholic worship, because we all know that Jesus is “just there”, giving himself for us and inviting us in, and that he’s bigger than the flakiness of so many of our liturgies, and he’s bigger than the idiocy of so many of our homilies and he’s obviously bigger and better than the flawed-ness of our priests and of course of ourselves....

My concern with the matter of ethics at the moment is this: let us be magnanimous victors. There are some people in our Church who have been seriously upset by the way that ordinary Catholicism is breaking out again under Pope Benedict. They are going to be terribly sore as it becomes clear that the Church, in its stumbling, bumbling, chaotic way is just learning how to deal with the new reality of honest, straightforward lesbian and gay people, learning how to treat differences of opinion in this sphere as discussions concerning third order truths which do not exclude from the life of the Church.

There are also a good number, maybe a majority, of priests and Bishops who genuinely don’t know what to do, who are themselves to some degree implicated in all this, who have never been able to face for themselves the issues of conscience which go with the deep fear about just being gay; people who have been hoping against hope that Church structure would somehow save them from having to face the issue of their own truth squarely, and who are now genuinely at sea with coping with all this. For them the gentle temperature-lowering way in which, as far as I can see, Papa Ratzi wants to deal with this issue is, maybe for the first time in their lives a permission not to have to be certain about this, not to have to get it right. It will take some time for people like this to be able to say “I just don’t know what’s right here, but let’s try and help each other out of the hole”. So, let us be gentle! Ethics is very much to do with how we extend mercy to the fearful, just as we have found ourselves the recipients of mercy at a time when we have been frightened, tortured, annihilated by the voices which told us how evil we were.

For me the real ethical challenge as a Catholic now is: I don’t have an excuse any more; it’s no good pretending that the Pope or the Church is really against me for the long haul, so that I have to fight him or them. Instead I’ll have to grow up and learn to love, starting where I am, and being aware that the gift of a gay Catholic heart is a heavy responsibility, pregnant with love and opportunity.
Also, several Left Coast sources are speculating -- and we have no way of knowing one way or another, but it's what they're saying -- that Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland is being "groomed" (and by whom?) to succeed Cardinal Adam Maida as archbishop of Vigneron's native Detroit. It was reported here some weeks ago that the 75 year-old cardinal hopes to retire shortly after celebrations for his Golden Jubilee of Priestly Ordination take place in early June.

A favorite of the church's right-wing and a staunch supporter of the Holy See's enhanced presence in questions of liturgical translation and adaptation, Vigneron, 57, was reported to be on the shortlist for last year's vacancy in the number-two position of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Ordained an auxiliary of Detroit in 1996, Bishop Vigneron served in that archdiocese as Rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, and a professor of Philosophy and Theology at its minor seminary. From 1991 to 1994, he was a staffer in the First Section of the Secretariat of State.