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One Gay Man’s Return to the Catholic Church

The following story is taken from the fascinating sociological study,  Sense of the Faithful, How American Catholics Live Their Faithby Jerome Baggett (2008). I find it most interesting that this inspiring anecdote constitutes the opening of the book itself.  I originally posted this at my blog, Gay Mystics, as a complement or contrast to a previous posting entitled, 50 Reasons to Boycott the Catholic Church. Those readers who are interested can access this article at Alt. Net. It offers (from an outsider’s point of view) a horrific list of crimes and offenses committed by the official Roman Catholic Church in recent times. None of these alleged crimes are new, but taken together they provide a shock to  anyone’s sense of complacency and a timely reminder that such offenses are more than an internal family matter, negatively impacting as they do upon countless lives outside the parameters of the church itself.   That being said, stories such as the one below offer inspiration and hope that the Spirit is indeed at work in manifold ways within the mystical family of the Church.

 sense-faithful-how-american-catholics-live-their-faith-jerome-p-baggett-paperback-cover-art

(Unfortunately, as I copied this from a PDF file, there is not much I can do about the formatting.)

Ending and Beginning

“The thing about American Catholicism is that it both exists and doesn’t exist!” Bill
McNamara blurts out these words but then seems surprised by them, as if he had
happened unexpectedly upon someone from his past. He tarries a bit, refl ecting.
“What do I mean by that?” he asks, now seemingly reacquainted and rightly confi -
dent that he has anticipated my next question. “I mean it exists in the sense that it’s
an it, something you and I can talk about, and we can identify elements of it and so
forth. But it doesn’t exist as some monolithic, unchanging thing. It’s not as if any
one person understands it and lives it out the same way all the time or in quite the
same way as anyone else.”
Even though Bill was among the very first people I interviewed for this book,
I permitted myself an early conclusion: He knows what he is talking about. After
many cups of tea and through constant interruptions by Rusty, his seal-point
Siamese— whose name, like those of all of the respondents in this book, is a
pseudonym—Bill’s account of his life and faith demolished the idea that American
Catholicism could be “some monolithic, unchanging thing.”
Born into a working-class family in the early 1930s, Bill grew up in an almost
entirely Irish section of Philadelphia. His upbringing was typical of the “urban villagers”
about whom sociologist Herbert Gans once wrote so compellingly.
The ethnically defined neighborhood, the modest economic means, the large family that
included Bill and fi ve younger siblings, the clearly prescribed gender roles to which
his contractor father and stay-at-home mother purportedly strictly conformed, the
traditional—and, in this case, traditionally Catholic—mores: Bill can recall it all in
vivid, if not wistful, detail. The particulars of his religious upbringing are especially
memorable to him. He attended nearby parochial schools until he was swayed by an
unexpectedly generous fi nancial aid package to enroll in a large public university,
where he majored in accounting. He went to church each week without fail, and,
unless serving as an altar boy for an unpopular (read: inordinately early) Mass, he
was typically accompanied by his entire immediate family. This instilled in him
an enduring love for the beauty of the Mass and especially its music, which he
still compares favorably to the “cacophonous crap” one hears at other, mercifully
unnamed parishes. One of the younger parish priests served as a “friend and kind
of mentor” for Bill who could talk to him about nearly anything, including at one
point his own—admittedly short-lived—thoughts of entering the seminary. And,
of course, there are the stories that seem to be standard fare among Catholics of
Bill’s generation. From the accounts of his mentor’s many kindnesses to the somewhat
overwrought “ruler-wielding nun” tales, from now-humorous accounts of
fi rst confession trepidation (“Hell, it was scary in that little booth!”) to feelings of
intense piety while accompanying Jesus along the Stations of the Cross each Friday
afternoon during Lent, Bill’s world was Catholic through and through.
However, once he entered his twenties, that world came to an end. “I never
had any animosity like a lot of gay Catholics who had bad experiences in school or
things like that,” he confi des. “I wasn’t against it, but I didn’t feel that comfortable
with it anymore.” Always attracted to men, Bill fi rst became sexually active at the
age of twenty-six. Then, rather than concealing from others what he considers his
“honest, true self,” he moved to San Francisco, where he got a well-paying job with
an insurance company and eventually began his new life as an openly gay man.
He closed the door on his Catholicism slowly at fi rst, then fi nally slammed it shut.
This age-old tradition seemed incongruous with his new city and job, new friends,
and, after ten years or so, a relationship and then a newfound level of intimacy with
Daniel, his partner for eighteen years. Daniel attended weekly Mass at Most Holy
Redeemer church in the city’s burgeoning gay enclave, the Castro District. But he
went a bit less often when he and Bill bought a house together across the bay in the
Oakland Hills. Bill, on the other hand, preferred to sleep late most Sundays.
Everything changed when Daniel contracted AIDS, and Bill became his primary
care provider. This tragedy brought Bill agonizing stress and heartache, but
it also introduced him to a face of Catholicism that he had not previously known.
The AIDS Support Group at Most Holy Redeemer sent volunteers to help tend to
Daniel’s health and personal needs, which, toward the end of his life, required daily
visits. Even in his grief, Bill was impressed by these people’s witness to their—and
once his—faith. This was not the intolerably dogmatic “Churchianity” that had
come to seem ossifi ed and irrelevant to him. Nor, of course, was this the vicious
“God hates fags” message he had heard while doing some church shopping before
moving from Philadelphia. He found this open-hearted and open-minded incarnation
of the faith to be very alluring. So much so, in fact, that Bill began attending
Mass at Most Holy Redeemer not long after Daniel’s death and soon became an
active member of first the AIDS Support Group and then the parish itself.
Bill’s story might appear to fit the familiar “lapsed Catholic returns to Mother
Church” mold, but Bill has not returned to anything; he has begun something new.
On the one hand, he is quite the unabashed Catholic: “I love the traditions, and I love
the mystery; I think it’s a very, very, very rich religion.” On the other hand, though, he
is adamant about his freedom, even obligation, to mine those riches on his own terms
and in accordance with his own needs. He has chosen to be a member of Most Holy
Redeemer across the San Francisco Bay rather than of his own neighborhood parish,
which he considers less “open and affi rming” to gay Catholics. He respects priests
enormously (although he is less generous in his assessment of bishops), but he is also
a strong advocate for the laity’s role in both pastoral ministry and parish governance.
He is a “greeter” at the main (10 am) Mass on Sundays and has sponsored several Rite
of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) candidates. At the same time, he bristles at
the thought of being presumptuous enough to even talk to others about faith in a
way that might be perceived as inappropriately pushy. He calls himself a “very strong
Catholic” but, without hint of apology, eagerly embraces the pejoratively intended
moniker “cafeteria Catholic” as a testament to his own religious agency and capacity
for discernment. In short, Bill has begun something new as a Catholic in response to
developments in his personal life and because he has lived through a period in which
the American church itself has witnessed important social and cultural changes. As
a result, it has also begun something quite innovative.
***

Much as I would like to end this posting on such a glowing note, I can’t help but link to a recent article just posted at Iglesia Discalza’s Blog about the recent silencing of Colombian Jesuit, Fr. Alfonso Llano Escobar, S.J., for having the temerity to criticize Pope Benedict’s most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (specifically, Benedict’s comments on Mary’s Virginity). Benedict has once again silenced a prominent theologian, bringing to an end his thirty year career as a journalist. This is yet again another imperative sign   of why lay Catholics must reclaim their church and become the public voice of theological debate. Read the whole article here.

 

Tongues of Fire Burning the Building Down

(Mother of the New Pentecost:: taken from the wonderful site St. Andrei Rublov Icons)

I’ve been reflecting today on the wonderful interview given by Matthew Fox, regarding the publication of his new book, The Pope’s War. Fox is also one of the keynote speakers at the ongoing American Catholic Conference in Detroit. Thanks to Colleen Kochivar-Baker of Enlightened Catholicism for alerting us to this interview and for her own insightful comments, and thanks to Betty Clermont’s posting below, with her provocative question about possible reform, which prompted these reflections: I am waiting for anyone to suggest a path to reform of the Roman Catholic Church which would be more effective than Catholics staying away. )

I’ve chosen several passages from Matthew Fox’s interview which particularly struck me as very prescient of the future of Christianity, and have followed them with my own reflections:

As a theologian I am trying to ponder how the recent events of Catholic history can be seen through the eyes of the Holy Spirit. Is there some good that come out of so much anguish, so much betrayal, so much disappointment with the false direction the church has taken under Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger? And I come to a clear conclusion that Yes, the Holy Spirit is still at work in the events of deconstruction and reconstruction that are at hand. It is time to restart the church. Let many of its forms go; let them die as they are doing.

With the death of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 [most likely by assassination], I felt that we were being given a sign by the Holy Spirit that we were not meant to have a ‘reformed Church’ along the lines proposed by Vatican II, as so many of us of the Vatican II generation were longing for. In a way my hope for meaningful ‘reform’ of the Church died along with the saintly, gentle, collegial and open-hearted Albino Luciani, who reined for only a short 33 days, and who died in such mysterious circumstances which have never been adequately explained to this day. If one ventures down into the crypt beneath St. Peters, which contains the remains of past Popes, John Paul I’s coffin has been placed on the side of the central aisle, the least significant location for any pontiff. Pilgrims rush past it, oblivious to this genuinely saintly martyr to reform of the Church, in their haste to get to the far more dramatic and spacious alcove which contains the remains of his successor, John Paul II, with the ‘eternal flame’ burning to the side and the permanent guard standing by. I always bring a bouquet when I visit Papa Luciani’s tomb, but I have never seen any other evidence of tokens of devotion and affection for this most ‘perfect’ of collegial minded Pontiffs. If the Spirit had intended us to have a reformed Church, without any radical reconstruction, John Paul I would have remained alive to have fulfilled that destiny. His death must be read as a sign of the Spirit that a much more radical purging of the Church was intended and that we were being asked to ‘let go’ of the forms of the old Church, to surrender our longing for renewal itself, even to cut the umbilical cord to Mother Church herself (in her present institutional structure) and to find the courage in the Spirit to venture out into the unknown, living in trust that the Maternal Spirit of Wisdom would find a way to preserve the lineage of Catholic Christianity outside the present, moribund institutional structure. However, I could not have imagined a more terrible or more profound purging and deconstruction than that enacted, albeit obliviously, by Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. Such is the irony of history that the genuine saint is ignored and (taking my cue from Matthew Fox) the ‘schismatic’ Polish Pope in his spacious alcove down the aisle is honored beyond belief. Using the “S” word will be seen as contentious, but I am in agreement with Matthew Fox here when he says:

The “S” word rarely gets used these days but I think that Schism properly summarizes what the past two papacies have been about. They deliberately turned their back on a valid Ecumenical Council and in doing so are in schism. This means that its appointed cardinals and bishops are in schism. They do not represent the lineage of the church. This opens up whole new possibilities of seeing the church anew. All the Yes men and sycophants that have lined up at the papal trough for a piece of the power these recent decades are seen for what they are in their transparent reality.

An ecclesiastical system in schism? Is that too strong a word and does it not make us similar to those ultra conservative Catholic sects (St.Pius X), who consider Vatican II itself to be in schism and every pope elected after Pius XII? A contentious issue and a very strong word, but sometimes honesty, courage and directness in language are necessary instruments to pierce the boil that is infecting the Church. However, rather than hurl invective, I prefer to follow Fox’s inspiration and ask what the Holy Spirit is telling us through these powerful and painful ‘signs of the times.’ It is my own view that we cannot understand the present crisis in the Church without taking into account the overall shift in religious and spiritual outlook in the culture at large. Sincere spiritual searchers are no longer so dependent upon or so trustful of large religious institutions, but are finding alternative sources of nourishment in a variety of places and religious communities. The time for the great institutional structures has past, and what is to replace them remains a mystery and perhaps a cause of anxiety, as we fearfully contemplate fragmentation, splintering, chaos. But I feel such fears must be faced and overcome in the peaceful, interior conviction that the Spirit is leading us towards a radical reconstruction of the whole Catholic tradition and to forms of community which are at present beyond our imagining. Fox continues:

I have tried to sketch out some directions for new versions of Christianity that are needed today with of course the primary emphasis on lay leadership. We do not need another Council (after all the last one was totally stuffed); what we need is a rise and indeed a take over of the church by lay leaders. Jesus was not a clericalist. He never heard of the Vatican (or of cardinals) all of which developed centuries after his death. Time to start over. And with the courage and imagination and generosity that characterizes all authentic spirituality.

These words themselves need to be deconstructed and their implications laid bare. A “take-over” of the church by lay leaders ultimately must mean a take over of the sacramental system, and a refusal to be intimidated by the monopoly of control the hierarchy presently maintains over the sacraments through the myth of ‘apostolic succession.’ (Readers of Terrence Weldon’s blog, Queering the Church can find an abundance of documentation for exploring the justification for calling this doctrine a myth.) And here I am in complete agreement with another key note speaker at the Detroit conference, theologian Anthony Padovano, who is simply following the great Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx by insisting that a ‘validly ordained’ minister is not an absolute requirement for a genuine celebration of the Eucharist. In the absence of ‘ordained priests,’ communities must find the courage within themselves, through the most profound and heartfelt prayer and discernment, to bless their own lay leaders and celebrate the sacraments independently of episcopal approval. This is a radical act that requires the utmost trust in the Spirit, because ‘the real presence’ is among the great treasures of the Catholic tradition. Such communities will find themselves under fire and will endure censure and ‘excommunication,’ but it is already happening in increasing numbers of breakaway communities. Until increasing numbers of communities are willing to take this painful step – in the absence of ‘officially ordained’ priests – no real revolution within the church is possible. Lay leaders must rise up and take back the church and that means listening to the interior movements of the Spirit, experiencing the peace and joy which are the signs of the Spirit, when and as they celebrate the Eucharist on their own. The Holy Spirit is already imbuing communities with the fire of Pentecost, the interior joy and consolation that bring with them the assurance of conscience that this step is the right one. We are already being blessed, we are already being assured, we are already being led into the new Church of the Holy Spirit. It simply requires more and more laypersons to listen to this interior call. This will not happen overnight. It is too radical, too frightening, it calls for too great a sacrifice, too painful a wrenching from the security of the Mother Womb, but in my opinion it is way the Spirit is leading increasing numbers of us. The official organizers of the American Catholic Conference in Detroit are ‘following the rules,’ but I would not be surprised to learn that informal Eucharists on the periphery of the conference are fulfilling Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s worst fears. To take such a step, however, requires the most prayerful discernment and this brings me to Matthew Fox’s final points.

I believe, the most important direction that religion needs to go in its reconstruction—that is spirituality, the experiential dimension of religion. The mystical-prophetic tradition I have been recovering including the Cosmic Christ, Hildegard, Aquinas, Eckhart, Julian and others, together with today’s post-modern science, offers new and deeper expressions of healthy religion. They are among the treasure to take from the burning building.

Let us remember what Thomas Aquinas taught about religion. That it is, he felt, primarily a virtue, that is a habit that persons carry within them. Indeed, for Aquinas religion’s essence is Gratitude. Gratitude for existence. This means that institutions are NOT what religion is primarily about. What goes on in the heart and mind and gives birth to outer form is what is at the essence of religion. This means that social constructs like basilicas, cathedrals, churches, vaticans, popes, cardinals, bishops, canon laws, etc. are on the periphery of real religion. And they render themselves religiously irrelevant when their thrust at certain times of history is very far from the love and compassion and service that Jesus preached. They have more to do with accumulation of power and prestige and institutional and personal ego.

(All the more reason, then, for alternative communities to branch out of their own, while maintaining their ties to the larger community through prayerful discernment, counseling, advice, and listening to the authentic voices of wisdom within the community, born of contemplation and prayer. Nothing could be more important than the spiritual witness in peace and joy of lay led communities, celebrating the presence of the Resurrected Lord. The time for waiting upon ecclesiastical leaders for change has past. The ecclesiastical system must be bypassed, and only when increasing numbers of lay led communities are forced by circumstance to take this painful step, and discover within themselves the Pentecostal peace and joy assuring them that the Spirit is with them, will the real revolution of the Holy Spirit within the Church have begun. For this to happen, we need increasing numbers of genuine prophets and mystics who are attuned in the depths of their being to the life giving movements of the Spirit.

At the bottom, the crisis in Roman Catholicism is a crisis in spirituality or the lack thereof. Real people want spirituality. The church as we know it today is the last place they go looking. We are talking about the future of religion, the future of spirituality and very likely the sustainability or unsustainability of our species on this planet. This is why the issues at hand are of deep importance to us all, whether within or outside of organized religion.

I would like to close these reflections with these moving words from another contemplative teacher of the Catholic mystical tradition:

DIARMUID O’MURCHU: There’s certainly a part of me as a human being, a part entirely of being a Christian, that feels I don’t want to abandon any sister or brother on the journey of life and the journey of faith. But this is a very real question for me and for people who are like me who facilitated for renewal programs and chapters of religious congregations, because this one comes up often. What do you do with the people who don’t want to move, that want to keep things as they always were, and are so rigid and frightened and scared, and you can’t get them to move without badly damaging them, which I don’t feel I have any right to do or anybody else has a right to do. And so I think the delicate balance has to be something like this and for me Gerry Arbuckle is the person who has named this very, very clearly. Supposing you have this group…and let’s put this into percentages…and you have 50% that are totally rigid and stuck, if you like, and you have 50% that are yearning to go. Insofar as there are people that are committed primarily to life and to the evolution of life, the primary energy should move with the 50% that want to move. And then we keep a secondary energy to try and help and maintain the others in a meaningful way. So this principal is that you go primarily where the life is! I think the tendency, particularly in churches, is that we try to keep everything at the lowest common denominator to please those who want to keep things the way they are. That, in my opinion, is not what Jesus would do. That is not Christian gospel. I think we need to go where the life is, primarily, without abandoning the others. And we need to try and bring them with us, in so far as we can, in love, in charity, and also in challenge! And ok, if they choose to remain totally stuck, or totally where they are – let me not be too judgmental about it – ok, that is their freedom, that is their right if you like, but I think in the overall sense of things, whether at the human level, at the religious or spiritual level, I think this commitment to life always has to be honored. And so go where the life is primarily, put your energies primarily there. And then also spare some to try and maintain, in kindness and dignity, those that pretty much want to remain. And a corollary of that, of course, which is much more difficult and this requires a lot of skills, we do not allow this subgroup to dictate. And I think that’s where leadership has a huge responsibility. Leadership has to put it’s commitment with the new primarily.

Website for Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu : http://www.diarmuid13.com

Joy in Adversity: Petr’s Vocation as Minister to Gays

(Photo is of Jan Hus, Catholic reformer burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1414 for teaching the fundamental equality of laypersons and priests, insisting that both should receive communion under both species. He is frequently and mistakenly described as a “Protestant Reformer,” but at the time of his death he considered himself a full member of the  Catholic Church, despite its ban of excommunication against him. His witness and death gave inspiration to the Czech Hussite Reform Churches, including the Czech Brotherhood. Nearly six centuries after his death, Pope John Paul II expressed “deep regret for the cruel death inflicted upon Jan Hus.”)


Just had dinner tonight with my young gay Christian friend, Petr (pronounced Petra), who is studying for his Master’s in Divinity with the seminary of the Czech Brotherhood Reform Church, of which he is a member. His seminary shares many of the same professors as the Catholic Faculty of Theology of St. Charles University. Petr has a strong sense of calling to be an openly gay minister in his Church, even though ‘officially’ the Czech Brotherhood is not at all open  to acknowledging gay people and their relationships. In fact, Petr was eligible for ordination two years ago, but was denied this privilege because his Church elders are quite suspicious of what he might do with his ministry. So he is being monitored closely and his Master’s thesis is also being carefully scrutinized. He is being required to read a great many books (in English!) on reparative therapy, designed to ‘turn’ homosexuals into decent, healthy, well-adjusted heteros. I felt a certain chill go through me as he showed me his extensive library on the subject, but Petr is such a sensitive, fair-minded, tolerant soul that he gently protested that, in fact the books, have some worth, and many of the authors are genuinely sympathetic to gay persons and only suggesting that, perhaps, they might be happier and more well adjusted if they could turn their sexual orientation around. Furthermore, many of the gays they deal with are coming from profoundly addictive lifestyles and the therapy does have some benefit in healing them of their addictions, which then allows them to see themselves with greater clarity and objectivity. Many of them discover that they are in fact bisexual, and therefore capable of harmonious and fulfilling sexual relationships with the opposite sex. Many, as well, discover after the therapy that they truly are same sex orientated, for which the therapy is a blessing for making that clear. Petr says he stays clear of the more aggressive and intolerant forms of reparative therapy in his studies. He also said it was very good for his thesis to be able to understand and evaluate both sides of the argument, and that his professors were not insisting that he endorse reparative therapy, only that he give evidence of having fairly considered it. In the face of Petr’s gentle charity and  wise tolerance, I felt somewhat chastened in my own resentment and anger towards such treatments, though I remained concerned that Petr not be too ‘brainwashed’ by these studies he is compelled to make. However, in his library he also has extensive literature on the spiritual values and gifts of being gay and being gay partnered. There is no question of Petr’s own very strong sense of calling as a gay Christian man, who is open to normal same sexual relations with other gay persons (at 26 Petr is not yet partnered, but open).

And as I sat on the carpet in his small upstairs study, with the books scattered all around us on the floor, with gentle flute music from the mountains of Northern Thailand playing in the background, I was conscious of Petr’s own special gift as a charismatic gay man chosen ‘in the Spirit’ to remain within a suspicious religious congregation and to seek to change it from within. For some reason, I was reminded of the fourth vow of stability Trappist monks take, promising to remain in their monastery for life. This vow is a gift as well as a promise, one which  the monk cannot make without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. So, too, Petr seems to have received a similar gift of perseverance, which gives him his inner strength and his radiant serenity within a trying situation. Many of his church members, he tells me, are closeted gays, too afraid to come out, yet unwilling to leave the church which they love and which feels like their spiritual home. They come to Petr for advice as to  how they, too, may persevere in their faith and within an unwelcoming community. Yet, as Petr described his elders to me and their relationships to him, it sounds like his gentle, compassionate, understanding self is gently wearing away the walls of intolerance and suspicion. They are, after all, allowing him to complete a Master’s thesis on the topic of Gay Christianity, and to take a primarily positive approach, but they are not quite ready yet to allow him access to full ministry in the Church. However, I’m confident this will come in time.

Feeling Petr’s inner serenity and grace – which is as palpable in the room as the fragrance of  incense – I had to marvel at the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, calling us each to our own special place in our own  special time. Some gay Christians are being given the grace to move beyond their intolerant communities and to find more welcoming, life affirming sources of spiritual support. Others are being given the grace of heroic perseverance, to remain where they are, giving a firm, but gentle, persistent,  and loving non-violent witness to the holiness of being a fully sexualized gay human being. I had to marvel at the signs of the Spirit at work everywhere in a wide variety of religious communities in such a similar fashion. Petr’s grace and serenity, wisdom and compassion testify to the life giving fruits of his own religious community, which is the locus of God’s grace for him, despite its present intolerance towards gay persons. Such a witness makes relative any claims to exclusivity or superiority on the part of any religious community. Many gifts, one Spirit, working her own wondrous miracles of openness and tolerance, but doing so through the life giving, long suffering passion of  devoted Christians such as Petr.

As a further sign of the Spirit’s synchronicity,  I casually opened one of Petr’s books resting on the carpet,  Donald Bloesch’ Spirituality Old and New, and I came across this remarkable passage which I felt encapsulated our entire evening with its spiritual colloquy.

The Church Within:

One of the hallmarks of mystical spirituality is to uphold the invisible church over the visible church. The true church is the company of the committed who reside in all denominations and sometimes outside of any particular religious fellowship. According to Gerad Heaard, the true church is comprised of holy souls in all religions. The real people of God are those who are making progress toward sainthood. They are those who have put to death the animal nature within them and have become fully or purely spiritual.

Christian mystics, in contrast to generic mystics, continue to affirm the role of sacraments and rituals in the life of faith; yet they consider these things expendable or at least not absolutely essential. Meister Eckhart regarded the sacraments and even the “human shape of our Lord Jesus Christ” as obstacles to spiritual grown. The important thing is to get beyond visible signs to invisible reality. According to Geert Grote, founder of the mystical Brethren of the Common Life, the valiant soul will leave “the scriptures and external signs behind” as he or she makes progress in the Christian life toward the perfection of faith.

As a type of religious association, the mystical society is a fellowship of kindred souls, not a mission station to convert the world. The mystical society will often take the form of a parachurch fellowship that is generally supportive of the church as a social institution. Yet mysticism in its celebration of religious experience unwittingly loosens the tie to the institutional church. …

As I have noted earlier, institutional Catholicism has always mistrusted mysticism, though it has sought to use the mystical witness to consolidate its hold over the faithful. Christian mysticism at its best calls us to rise above parochial loyalties to a genuinely catholic vision of the truth.

ONE NATION UNDER GOD: Sacred Art and the Mystical Dimension

This extraordinary portrait of the face of Christ, entitled “The Light of God Within,” was created by the remarkable artist, One Nation Under God (formerly known as Steve Kreuscher. He is now seeking a suitable Church that would like to incorporate this great image into its sanctuary.) By a fortuitous “accident,” we became friends when I posted one of his mystical paintings of  The Immaculate Conception of the Divine Degausser at Gay Mystic – without permission, I might add.

When I first viewed this astonishing painting, I was stunned into silence, because One Nation’s work has such a powerful effect on the viewer, drawing her into the interior depths of being. It took me several minutes before I realized this was not an image of The Immaculate Conception, as we have come to think of it (mythologically or not) because then the feminine figure would be that of St. Anne, the mother of Mary. Rather, this is a painting of The Annunciation, that moment when Mary’s YES to the Spirit incarnated the Divine Son within her womb (which can actually be seen within the figure’s lower quarters). Other symbols include the flowering boat, the stream flowing into the horizon, the citadel on the left, the frozen fountain on the right, the flames of fire, and of course the white Dove itself, descending from a mysterious figure above. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a more powerful image of the spiritual fecundity of the feminine than this radiant work of art. It stuns the viewer into silence, suggesting realms within realms of infinite and multiple spiritual dimensions,  and resonating with the viewer’s own interior depths. In fact, it brings the viewer’s spiritual depths into conscious awareness, symbolizing for us our own most intimate mystical reality, and the indwelling Spirit within. Such is the power of great religious art to evoke the mystical and the sacred. Even the title is shocking in it’s originality, The Immaculate Conception of the Divine Degausser. ‘Degaussing’ is the process of eliminating an unwanted magnetic field (Wikipedia), and clearly the artist means to suggest the power of the Divine Son to eliminate from the world the negative magnetic field of “Original Sin.”

One Nation Under God’ very graciously thanked me for featuring his work (rather than scolding me for my presumption) and we exchanged a series of emails through which I came to know more of the work of this very unique and deeply spiritual artist. He referred me to his website, Yessy Art Gallery, where more of his work is on display and for sale.  Preparing this post on One Nation’s work reminded me of the remarks made by Robert Dessaix, quoted in my previous posting, Twilight of Love, that ‘the music, paintings, Cathedrals,’ don’t make up for the ‘huge disappointment’ the Church has become to many. Perhaps for some, but for those individuals whose hearts are open, sacred art of this quality has the rare ability to assist in a religious awakening. At the very least, it conjures realms of mystery within our own being that make us pause, reflect and wonder.

Another astonishing painting, which evokes the power of the Church at it’s most mystical is this one, entitled, The Angel Comes.  The symbols need no explication, the divine light within, the luminous cross which casts a shadow before the couple below,  the beads of prayer evoking the rosary, the parent figure  pointing the way to the young girl, the severe angular designs – which, when the viewer steps back from the whole, clearly become the welcoming arms of the Angle figure, which is the Church itself. In times such as ours, when so much heartfelt (and heartbroken) criticism is leveled at the Church and it’s official leadership, it’s well to be reminded by such glowing works  of art of the mystical dimension of the church which transcends all reasons and disputations, divisions and disputes. Even the black cross itself that shadows the path for the two figures below, suggests the trials of faith that await the seeker before one can cross into the threshold of Divine Light.

One Nation has since added this ‘correction’ to the above painting. Rather than amend the posting itself, I will quote his comments in full as a reflection on how we subjectively interpret an artist’s work:
The Title of the piece is “Trinity’s Angel”, and it is about my very close personal love relationship with my 8 year old granddaughter, (who also is a great artist herself, for 8 years old. ), and it is also about me teaching her about Jesus and the things of the Lord, and about angels watching over us, and about what her name, Trinity, means spiritually speaking.  When she was 4 years old, I had her pray with me to ask Jesus to come and live in her heart, and Jesus has meant everything in the world to her since that fateful day at 4 years old when she had her very powerful mystical experience.

As a fitting end to this reflection  on this remarkable religious artist, here is another heart stopping piece (in honor of artist, M. C. Esher) which evokes the formidable and disorienting power of the sacred, turning our ordinary perspective upside down and dissolving our customary sense of self through the relentless and terrifying power of the purifying Spirit. Look closely at the eyes as the ichthus (fish) becomes the dove becomes the ichthus becomes the dove again (The ichthus is the Christian symbol from the Greek, taking the first letters of the phrase, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). The dark, blood-red cross transforms into the luminous, glowing Angel figure, whose wings blend with the dove-like figure above, whose own outstretched wings embrace an image suggestive of a sea shell,  a symbol used for centuries in the Catholic tradition for pilgrims engaged in the religious quest. Pope Benedict, in fact, has a scallop shell at the point of honor on his coat of arms.

For those familiar with the image below, the  sea shell in One Nation’s painting above might also conjure in the memory  the great painting by  Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, the chaste goddess of Love.


 

As mentioned above, One Nation Under God is looking for a suitable Catholic Church that is interested in using his portrait of the face of Christ, posted above. If you know of such a church, you may contact him at his website, Yessy Gallery.

One Nation has made this final comment about his intentions for his Christ portrait, “The Light of God Within”:

I want the portrait of Christ to be about 12 to 20 high, multi-layered, very powerfully 3-D, with strong white light shining through the inner most white layer, and the necessary lighting to light up each layer, so that even in a candle light service the whole portrait of Christ will be lit up and glow outwardly towards the congregation, in such a powerful way, that it almost enraptures their spirit into Heavenly places just by gazing upon it as their heart and their minds dwell upon God.

I have found the work of this remarkable ‘Catholic’ artist to be deeply inspiring and uplifting. Contemplating his work has brought a healing to my own soul and a clarity and serenity as well, making me more conscious of and more grateful for the infinite riches of the indwelling Spirit of the Divine Degausser.

By way of a lovely contrast, I would like to close these reflections with the work of another spiritual artist who draws inspiration from another great religious tradition, Buddhist Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat.

TWILIGHT OF LOVE: Loss of Faith and the Religious Quest

I recently read ‘lapsed Catholic’ Colm Toibin’s travel book, The Sign of the Cross, which chronicles his journeys through Catholic Europe, and his own ruminations about his loss of his childhood religious faith. I was particularly moved by his encounter with Scotland’s “only Catholic novelist,” Thomas Healy, author of Fathers and Personality. Healy replied to Toibin’s description of him by saying the thought had never occurred to him, but that, yes he supposed he was Scotland’s “only Catholic novelist,” though, like Toibin, he was of the lapsed variety. The two men then went on to discuss the importance of there being ‘Catholic novelists,” particularly of the lapsed variety, to chronicle both the experience of having grown up Catholic and the pain of loss experienced when one leaves the womb of mother church. Once again, we see writers chronicling that sense of nostalgia for a long ago time when the sacred seemed near and comforting within the Catholic institution, coupled with the bittersweet sense of loss and regret when the institution seems to fail to sustain them in their faith (though the issue is more complex than this simple summation).  This tragedy is now being compounded many times over, as thousands in Europe flee the Roman institution in light of the sex abuse scandals and the institution’s failures to protect its own children. How can one believe in a benevolent spiritual Power at work within the institution and which the believer presumably can access through the aid of the institution, when this Power seems impotent to prevent the most horrific forms of corruption within the power structure of the Church, a corruption that leads to the debasement of children. “Get behind me, Satan,” would seem to be a very sensible reaction to such a religion (though one which I don’t personally share, since there is evidence of a spiritual power at work throughout the larger church independent of a corrupt hierarchy). The loss of faith for many as a result of this crisis is going to be devastating and the moral responsibility for this loss falls like the blade of the guillotine upon the necks of those responsible.

Reading Toibin’s books led me by a circuitous route to Australian novelist Robert Dessaix’s lovely travel memoir, Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. Dessaix’s thesis is that Turgenev was the first great modern Russian writer to exemplify the prophecy of Dostoevsky that once God and religious faith are banished from the world, the human person loses its soul, and ‘love’ in the full human sense becomes impossible. All that is left is lust and sentiment, affection and friendship, dalliance and flirtation, but the depth of love has been lost with the loss of all faith in God and the Sacred. The human person becomes flat and one dimensional.

 

This reminds me of Graham Greene’s criticisms of modernist writers, Virgina Wolf and E.M. Forster:
for having lost the religious sense, which, he argued, resulted in dull, superficial characters, who “wandered about like cardboard symbols through a world that is paper-thin”. Only in recovering the religious element, the awareness of the drama of the struggle in the soul carrying the infinite consequences of salvation and damnation, and of the ultimate metaphysical realities of good and evil, sin and divine grace, could the novel recover its dramatic power.

 

Of course, Greene himself strongly objected to being called a Catholic novelist, rather than a novelist who was Catholic, and in his later works, his religious themes were replaced by humanist ones.

Dessaix also maintains that Turgenev was the first great modern Russian author to simply lament the state of emptiness of the modern world, without the frenzied religious agenda of a Dostoevsky or a Tolstoy. Paradoxically, Turgenev chronicled this loss while himself living out a passionate and quite extraordinary love affair of  over forty years with the opera singer, Pauline Viadot, herself a married women. As far as we can tell, their relationship was never consummated sexually and was accepted by Louis Viadot, the husband, even when Turgenev moved to Paris and bought a home near the Viadot’s, frequently dining with them and playing with their children. It is one of the most unusual love stories in history, a menage a trois without the sex, but there I go trivializing it in the modernist sense, when in fact the quality of Turgenev’s devotion and fidelity was something quite profound. Nonetheless, Dessaix insists that the tragic sorrow of Turgenev’s life was his deep conviction that without religious faith, human love in all it’s depth and profundity had simply become impossible.

 

(Here I must pause to say a word of thanks to my dear friends Bill and Steve (you know who you are) who so graciously led me to Stamford’s Travel Bookstore (on Floral Street, off of Long Acre Street in London). Among the many riches  I found on Stamford’s shelves were the works of Colm Toibin and Robert Dessaix’s sensitive and insightful study of Turgenev, Twilight of Love.   How mysterious are the ways of Providence, leading us – through the interventions of friends – to those books we seem to need right at the moment, which turns out to be a moment of grace and synchronicity.)

Speaking of Turgenev’s desolation of soul, Dessaix remarks:

Given his spiritual desolation, his joylessness (unrelated, as I see it, to unhappiness) and given his comfortable circumstances, I find it odd that Turgenev did not drift into mysticism of some kind. Inner emptiness and a full stomach, after all, make a good start. He did dabble in the supernatural, but that is not the same thing at all. Some trigger was missing in his psyche, something failed to fire.  He made an effort from time to time to put his spirit in order, as one does at a certain age, but putting your spirit in order best follows some sort of insight, surely. No transforming insights were granted him.” (pg. 67)

That concluding sentence reminds me of Colm Toibin’s “Why?”, referred to in a previous posting of mine at Gay Mystic. Why is no supernatural insight granted, when the seeker is so sincere? What is the source of the mystery of religious faith and it’s absence?

 

Later in the book (pg.169), Dessaix refers to Virginia Woolf’s own judgment about Turgenev, a judgement I find highly ironic in light of Graham Greene’s own criticism of Woolf.
I believe that Virginia Woolf was essentially right about Turgenev. What the seer tries to understand in Virgin Soil, I said, thinking aloud, is not the historical details of the failed attempts of high-minded radicals to foment revolution amongst the peasants in the late 1860’s, but how it is impossible to believe in anything – even a cause as just as revolution – or to sacrifice yourself to that cause, when you don’t believe in yourself (don’t love yourself), when you see yourself as nothing but a pinprick of mould on a grain of sand, about to be dead forever, just a biochemical reaction in a brain, as we might say nowadays. Commentators can argue endlessly over whether or not the radicals in Virgin Soil are Bakuninists or Blanquists or unhistorical fabrications, but such cogitations are beside the point: they are just the scenery for a play about the complete breakdown of any rational for acting (or loving) in an utterly senseless world.

 

As Dessaix explains, religion as a solution to his inner emptiness left Turgenev cold:

 

Religion (and in particular Orthodoxy and Catholicism) seems simply to have failed to hold his attention. I feel much the same way about astrophysics and sport, for example, although I know that for millions of human beings the cosmos revolves around these things. ‘God’, or at least the Orthodox Christian god, was not the answer to any question Turgenev was interested in putting.He was aware, however, …that ‘whoever has (religious) faith has all there is and can lose nothing, while whoever has no faith has nothing’. In need of consolation (as we all are), he kept a close watch all his life for something to have faith in, some sign that he might not after all lose everything in dying…



Born at a time when most people still believed in some sort of three-tiered universe -there was the supernatural world, the natural and, at some remove, there were human beings – he had lived on into an era when there was only indifferent nature left, which is more or less where we find ourselves stranded today. Everything else… was just words. Outside the natural universe, there was nothing.

Ironically enough, one of Turgenev’s most affecting characters, the young girl Liza in Nest of the Gentry, is possessed of a burning religious faith:

 

Liza (had) in a sense already been ravished by God, just as Pauline had been by music. At an early age ‘the image…of God squeezed with a kind of sweet force into her soul,’ Turgenev tells us with unusual directness,’filling her with awe and reverence…and Christ became something close and familiar to her, almost kindred.’ After an episode like this, any ‘possession’  Lavretsky (her suitor) had planned had little chance of fulfillment. (pg. 230).

This was, however, a ravishment of soul that remained foreign to the great Russian writer,  Turgenev himself, just as Colm Toibin looks on from afar at the burning faith of Polish Catholics walking on their knees around the sacred icon of the Black Virgin of Czestochowa.  Turgenev was not contemptuous of the power of religious faith, far from it, he seemed to harbor a deep seated respect ,coupled with a lilting sadness at his own incapacity for such devotion.

 

The naturalness of death is far more frightening than its suddenness or unusual form,’ he wrote to ‘ Countess Lambert, for whom, like Liza, the solution was simple: religious faith. Turgenev was not about to argue with her (‘Only religion can conquer this fear,’ he agreed), but ‘religion itself must become a natural need in man,’ he wrote, and in him it wasn’t. If a man doesn’t have a natural religious bent, he went on ruefully, ‘all he can do is avert his eyes frivolously or stoically (and in essence it doesn’t matter which).’

In the absence of any viable, living religious faith, love, then becomes impossible, the love, that is, that ruptures time and reveals to us a hidden, transcendent dimension. Love-sickness is still possible, as are desire, affection, infatuation, lust, sentimental attachment, adoration, married bliss, enduring fondness, passionate but passing infatuations.  But not the love that breaks through the barrier of time and reveals to us Eternity.

 

The love that saves us from time… or at least opens up a crack in it, allowing us…’to think we have glimpsed the other side’, is of a different order. It is this kind of love which seemed hardly possible any more to the mature Turgenev. If it proved impossible, that would mean that what we see is all there is. And that would mean that ultimately everything is futile. …(pg. 249)

Only religion, as Turgenev noted ruefully, has made any serious attempt to call time’s bluff and remove our fears of the executioner. Yet, for all it’s huffing and puffing, what a huge disappointment Western Religion has turned out to be. We were expecting so much more. The music, paintings and cathedrals don’t make up for it. Jesus mentioned something about the kingdom of God being revealed to us – and quickly, too – and what might that be if not a rent in the fabric of time? However, as Mark Twain remarked, what we got instead, with lighting speed, was the Church. (pg. 250).

 

As I stumble my way towards a conclusion to these spontaneous reflections, it will certainly not be the judgment that the present sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is responsible alone for the loss of religious faith in Western culture at this present moment, since this malaise has been a long time coming.  But it has certainly contributed to the decline! It is more like the final nail in the coffin for many struggling Catholic souls who were already hanging on by their fingernails to a religious practice that seemed to leave them atrophied and an institutional authority they found abusive. Just how abusive is now being made graphically clear day by day in what amounts to one of the greatest trials of faith the Catholic community has ever had to face.

 

Heartbreaking as such experiences of mass exodus are to contemplate, beyond them all is the unfathomable mystery of the religious quest itself, which does not always end in fulfillment  even for the most sincere of spiritual seekers. Lapsed Catholics like Colm Toibin and Thomas Healy look back on the Church with a kind of nostalgic sadness, willing with part of their being to accept the sign of a healing light within the walls of mother church, but for all their goodwill unable to find it. Who is to say why or why not? Some do  maintain or discover an open door into the sacred within the traditional religions (and I continue to be passionately ‘Catholic’ in my own devotion), others through meditation on their own, or through an unaffiliated spiritual master like Eckhart Tolle,  others through nature, and others simply seem to have discovered a “little white bird,’ within their souls which sustains them in times of the most horrific terror without the mediation of any faith or explicit spiritual practice. 

I’m thinking here (among others) of Heda Kovaly, wife of Rudolph Margolius, who was condemned to death during the infamous 1952 Slansky trial in Prague. Spurned by all of her friends, spied on by her apartment building neighbors, Heda contracted a mysterious illness that left her completely paralyzed on her bed, while her ten year old son Ivan remained powerless to help her, the two of them facing starvation. Yet during this ordeal, Heda maintains a ‘little white bird’ visited her interior being, assuring her that all would be well, as indeed it was some days later (of complete paralysis), when an old friend found her and broke through the door.

But Robert Dessaix himself, in The Twilight of Love,  offers another example of this inexplicable faith in the  worth of life, a faith that seems to find its sustenance completely outside the realms of organized religion:

 

Riding in the funicular later that afternoon through the firs and pines to the top of the Merkurberg, I took pleasure once more, as I always do in (Ilse’s) company, in her effortless ability to make life good and revel in it. How does she do it? I can never quite work it out. Certainly not through resignation – Ilse is not resigned to anything. Yet she by no means closes her eyes to the things that chilled Turgenev’s soul – she grew up in Berlin during the war, after all; until recently she worked in an old people’s home, listening to the ‘crackling sound of death’ on a daily basis; she has seen what nature and humanity are capable of, from Phnom Penh to the football stadium in Santiago. She, too, I think, although much loved, has failed to win what Turgenev thought of as ‘the main prize in life’s lottery’ (a mere spouse does not qualify). And she has no religious faith at all, as far as I can see, or even much sense of its absence. Yet she is joyful. I almost turned to ask her how she did it in the funicular car, but didn’t. And once we got to the top, as happens on the top of mountains, it didn’t seem important any more to find the words. (pg. 67) 

This reminds me so much of a passage from a ‘secular saint’, that I’ve always found so inspiring. As a fitting close to these reflections, here is Albert Camus’ glorious paean of praise to the light of his childhood on the beach at Tipasa, Algiers,  which sustained him through a lifetime of witnessing and resisting humanity’s cruel injustices:


At noon, on the half-sandy slopes, strewn with heliotropes as if by a foam which the furious waves of the last few days had left behind them in their retreat, I gazed at the sea, then gently rising and falling as if exhausted, and quenched the two thirsts that cannot long be neglected if all our being is not to dry up, the thirst to love and the thirst to admire. For there is only misfortune in not being loved; there is misery in not loving. We all, today, are dying of this misery. This is because blood and hatred lay bare the heart itself: the long demand for justice exhausts the love which nevertheless gave it birth. In the clamour in which we live love is impossible and justice not enough. This is why Europe hates the daylight and can do nothing but confront one injustice with another. But I rediscovered at Tipasa that, in order to prevent justice from shriveling up, from becoming a magnificent orange containing only a dry and bitter pulp, we had to keep a freshness and a source of joy intact within ourselves, loving the daylight which injustice leaves unscathed, and returning to the fray with this reconquered light. Here once more I found ancient beauty, a young sky, and measured my good fortune as I realized at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of this sky had saved me from despair. I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new buildings or our crumbling towns. There, the world was born again each morning in a light that was always new. O Light! This is the cry of all the characters who, in classical tragedy, come face to face with their destiny. Their final refuge was also ours, and I now knew that this was so. In the depths of the winter, I finally learned that there lay in me an unconquerable summer.

Barbarians at the Gate: Chris Hedges on the Threat of the Christian Right

Another powerful, prophetic warning from Chris Hedges at TruthDig

Posted on Jun 7, 2010
Truthdig collage based on a White House photo by Pete Souza
Tens of millions of Americans, lumped into a diffuse and fractious movement known as the Christian right, have begun to dismantle the intellectual and scientific rigor of the Enlightenment. They are creating a theocratic state based on “biblical law,” and shutting out all those they define as the enemy. This movement, veering closer and closer to traditional fascism, seeks to force a recalcitrant world to submit before an imperial America. It champions the eradication of social deviants, beginning with homosexuals, and moving on to immigrants, secular humanists, feminists, Jews, Muslims and those they dismiss as “nominal Christians”—meaning Christians who do not embrace their perverted and heretical interpretation of the Bible. Those who defy the mass movement are condemned as posing a threat to the health and hygiene of the country and the family. All will be purged.
The followers of deviant faiths, from Judaism to Islam, must be converted or repressed. The deviant media, the deviant public schools, the deviant entertainment industry, the deviant secular humanist government and judiciary and the deviant churches will be reformed or closed. There will be a relentless promotion of Christian “values,” already under way on Christian radio and television and in Christian schools, as information and facts are replaced with overt forms of indoctrination. The march toward this terrifying dystopia has begun. It is taking place on the streets of Arizona, on cable news channels, at tea party rallies, in the Texas public schools, among militia members and within a Republican Party that is being hijacked by this lunatic fringe.
Elizabeth Dilling, who wrote “The Red Network” and was a Nazi sympathizer, is touted as required reading by trash-talk television hosts like Glenn Beck. Thomas Jefferson, who favored separation of church and state, is ignored in Christian schools and soon will be ignored in Texas public school textbooks. The Christian right hails the “significant contributions” of the Confederacy. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, has been rehabilitated, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is defined as part of the worldwide battle against Islamic terror. Legislation like the new Jim Crow laws of Arizona is being considered by 17 other states.
The rise of this Christian fascism, a rise we ignore at our peril, is being fueled by an ineffectual and bankrupt liberal class that has proved to be unable to roll back surging unemployment, protect us from speculators on Wall Street, or save our dispossessed working class from foreclosures, bankruptcies and misery. The liberal class has proved useless in combating the largest environmental disaster in our history, ending costly and futile imperial wars or stopping the corporate plundering of the nation. And the gutlessness of the liberal class has left it, and the values it represents, reviled and hated.
The Democrats have refused to repeal the gross violations of international and domestic law codified by the Bush administration. This means that Christian fascists who achieve power will have the “legal” tools to spy on, arrest, deny habeas corpus to, and torture or assassinate American citizens—as does the Obama administration.
Those who remain in a reality-based world often dismiss these malcontents as buffoons and simpletons. They do not take seriously those, like Beck, who pander to the primitive yearnings for vengeance, new glory and moral renewal. Critics of the movement continue to employ the tools of reason, research and fact to challenge the absurdities propagated by creationists who think they will float naked into the heavens when Jesus returns to Earth. The magical thinking, the flagrant distortion in interpreting the Bible, the contradictions that abound within the movement’s belief system and the laughable pseudoscience, however, are impervious to reason. We cannot convince those in the movement to wake up. It is we who are asleep.   Continue reading

THE SPIRIT BLOWS WHERE SHE WILL

The Prague Fringe Festival is underway in this city of many theaters (almost as many as there are churches). One of the venues hosting events is the lovely little Hussite Church of St. John the Baptist in Mala Strana at the edge of Kampa Park. I attended a concert there last evening – local pop/folk singer favorite, Alasdair Bouch, accompanied by friends on sax, oboe, cello and exotic timpani. The musicians entered the church carrying lighted candles and placed them around the sanctuary, which only increased the sense of  holiness of this tiny place of worship. The feeling was palpable and I’m far from the only one to pick up this vibe from Kostel Sv. Jana Kritele Na Pradele, as the Church is known in Czech. This is a holy place of prayer and worship which also serves as a concert venue for some carefully chosen artists, from Japanese flute players to performers of Tibetan ritual instruments, the Dun, Kangling and Drill-bu – celebrating the Tibetan New Year of the Metal Tiger. Yesterday evening we listened to the soulful melodies of Alasdair Bouch, who performed under the very striking wooden sculpture of the Risen Christ above the chiseled stone altar. Seen from the distance of the back row, the figure above the altar seems to be a young woman. Squint a little and it appears to be an angel with upraised arms and hands. After the concert, I went up for a closer look. The figure does indeed have feminine curves, but looks more like a very youthful male with blond ringlets, page boy style, arms upraised over his head, palms turned upwards – with wounds in the palms, signifying that this is indeed a figure of the crucified and Risen Christ. The angel image? An angel is behind the figure embracing it with its wings, it’s left arm around the torso of the Christ with it’s hand placed over the youthful Christ figure’s heart. It is an astonishingly homoerotic and deeply spiritual, joyful image of liberation, freedom, intimacy and love. Who designed it and when? Don’t know, but it reflects a very liberated artistic vision. This is indeed a holy place imbued with the spirit of the Risen Master – embraced like a lover by a youthful angel.

This peaked my interest in the Hussite Church, and a bit of research later that evening revealed that it was founded in 1931 as yet another breakaway  Church from Rome, with ties to the Old Catholic Church. It’s heresies were the familiar ones. The liturgy should be celebrated in the vernacular, the faithful should receive both elements of Communion, celibacy should be optional, women should be ordained. And in fact, in 2000, the Hussite Church ordained it’s first female bishop, with Catholic representatives attending the consecration. What this tells us – yet again – is that, while it is important to respect and preserve the uniqueness of particular religious traditions, the boundaries are slowly dissolving, and the Spirit of the Risen Christ is no respecter of dividing walls, but moves and blows where she will. She was certainly moving and stirring last night, during the concert of Alasdair Bouch, and many of us in this sacred space felt deeply moved.

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