Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Holy Communion, Batman!

I had the chance at a family wedding two weeks ago to receive communion for the first time since Christmas. If you don’t know, receiving communion refers to eating the wafer that represents the body of Jesus. I know, I know... cannibalism. A friend has often said that her greatest obstacle to becoming Catholic would be the fact that Catholics believe that the wafer IS the body of Christ. When my mother was a kid, she was told by the nuns who ran her communion class that if she bit into the wafer, it would bleed. Again, revolting. With craziness like this, it’s amazing anyone’s Catholic, right?

So, when communion came around at the wedding, I had a decision to make. My brother stood down, and I had a lot of respect for that, as it’s consistent with who he is. As I sat in the church pew and awkwardly bent into position on a kneeler made slippery by the contact of dress slacks with the plastic kneeling cushion, I remembered with various levels of success how each part of the mass goes.

I recalled my fascination with the Latin Mass and how I memorized certain common prayers in Latin and would recite them silently as communion approached. “Lord, I am not worthy... Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectam meam, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea.” Did I get the declensions correct? It doesn’t matter. A few Latin phrases got me in the mood for the mysteries of trans-substantiation and receiving the corporeal wafer. Then, after the communion procession, I returned to my seat, where I would begin my litany of prayers. These started with the same abridged version of the Act of Contrition I learned as a second grader. Then the Hail Mary and Glory Be, in Latin or English or both. With tears in my eyes, I would express contrition for specific failings. In harder times, I would move on to beseeching the creator for some respite from the anxiety and depression that gripped me so frequently. Finally, I would conclude with a short monolog about my current state of life and some more requests for assistance. My eyes red and my body transformed through intellectual and emotional communion with creation, I would blink my eyes open again and gear up for singing the recessional.

I have good memories of this part of church. It seemed important, where the droning stopped and there was time just to think, reflect, and let the anxiety, fear, sadness, and guilt of a week of living catch up with and move through me.

But now, I’m a gay guy who doesn’t really believe in god. I definitely see Joshua of Nazareth, or Jesus Christ, if you prefer, as a prophet with only as much of the divine in him as each of us possesses. I disagree with Catholic teaching on the human body, women’s rights, individual relationship to creation and divinity, the morality of governments, power, patriarchy, and war, and with the tradition of deceit within Catholicism. I differ with the papacy and the church’s approach governance, as well as their views of the feminine in the divine and the relation of humans with the environment. I disagree with their stances on marriage, abortion, birth control, and now, it appears, gay clergy. I don’t believe in sin as such, nor in heaven, hell, or confession. I could pretty much add “don’t” to every line of Catholicism’s creeds. So why, ultimately, did I receive communion at this family wedding?

In light of my brother’s moral rectitude, I find myself interested in exploring my reasons for participating in a Catholic sacrament. Some of my answers, I’m afraid, are a bit trite and edging on spiteful. First of all, I like the idea of doing what I’m not supposed to. I think some of the things I’ve done since my last, forced confession and general absolution fifteen years ago would disqualify me from receiving communion. Even though my lack of contrition invalidates the presence of Jesus in the host, I like the idea of making a quiet little protest of the church’s dogma on homosexuality.

Second, I feel like I’ve earned it. I did my ten years of religious education. I was confirmed a Catholic as my family wanted, despite the priest’s insistence that we should only undertake the sacrament willingly. I taught religious education and was an altar boy and all-around church volunteer. My brother and I even helped paint the lines on the church parking lot. I’ve earned the privilege of receiving communion, regardless.

The other reasons are a little more humble. One is that my great aunt, who was my first communion teacher, was in the church. I loved having her as a first communion teacher, and I loved that she chose seven-year-old me to be a reader at the first communion mass. I felt an important connection with the past.

The best reason, though, is that I did it for my grandmother. Without saying too much about her own relationship to the church and the divine, I’ll say that she doesn’t want me to feel that I’m not worthy to receive communion, possibly because I’m gay. She seems to want me to know that in the eyes of God, as she sees the divine, I am a good person. So, whenever we’re in church together, I receive communion because I feel a connection with her. In that moment of connection, I feel the joy of having her as my grandmother, and I think she’s happy knowing that we’re both receiving communion.

So, when it comes to Catholicism and communion, my approach remains equivocal. Catholicism was an important part of my upbringing. My priest was an important role model to me. When I was eleven, I knew I wanted intimacy with guys and not gals, and I still was a good and active member of the church. I’m still the same person. In the end, it’s a lot like trying to break an addiction. More accurately, I think I’m afraid to make the final separation, to sever the final tie to my mother church, the only act that definitively separates me from non-Catholics like my dad during mass. It takes a lot of courage to leave a disrespectful lover once and for all, knowing you can never go back. I guess I’m just not ready to close that door, once and for all.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Words' Power

Gray Panther and social activist Maggie Kuhn exhorted those who seek justice to do the following:

Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind - even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.

I’ve never felt that brave. It’s easier for me to show up alone at a party than at a rally or demonstration. So I speak out in smaller ways about smaller issues that have an effect on smaller numbers of people. I speak out at work. I speak out in groups where I am a member. I speak straightforwardly to friends. I advocate for kids and for humane treatment of each other. I use my powers of verbal articulation where I can.

As a kid, I learned that words could cause pain, and for a long time, I used my skill with words as a weapon. Now, I try not to use words for violence, at least not against the powerless nor against people I care about. I’ve learned some temperance, and I’ve learned that using sharp words can complicate my life, as their sort of pain exacts its penalty slowly–through ruined friendships, estrangement, or ill will. I’ve also learned that well-crafted words can change minds, and changed minds can change individual lives and world events. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heros in part because he knew how to use words powerfully. His brilliant speech created change through the articulation of what it means to be fair, free, and brave.

Eleanor Roosevelt was heroic in a somewhat different way. While her words were powerful, they were accompanied with nuanced actions–often small things that were symbolically enormous–that allowed her to communicate her views unmistakably. She was born into a circumscribed life and spent most of it dancing on the edges of acceptability. She flouted the requirements of her position in society and stretched the limits of what was expected and accepted. She presented her life as a visible alternative to those who lived only to fill a previously-defined role. With dignity and humor, she took her position of wealth and power and used it to challenge complacency all around her.

The levees of conservative greed and duplicity are beginning to rupture against the unexpected floodwaters of those who think freely and demand justice. Though we express our unity differently, each word, step, or banner is a droplet that further erodes the bank of stony-hearted indifference to suffering that was, just yesterday, believed to be impenetrable.

[Quotation from]