by Friar Pete, O.F.A.
St. Michael's Hermitage
I'm stepping away from the Franciscan virtues reflection series for a day so that I can participate in Queer Theology's Synchroblog 2018! So what the heck is a 'synchroblog'? Today a bunch of us from all over are blogging on the theme of what our queerness calls us to be and do in the world. Once those blogs are assembled, they're all shared right here! So once you've finished reading this, go check out what some of the other people have to say. And as always, if you're interested in finding out more information about my particular church or the Independent Catholic Church movement, click here.
I've always had the certain knowledge that I was different, that I was queer. It's something I like to refer to as a basic belief that's existed in my mind as an innate idea, like the idea that God exists, and the idea that I was called to holy orders. For a long time I thought those ideas were at odds with each other, that in order to best serve God I would have to accept my queerness as a celibate and attempt to repress those feelings. In my teens, I began a long search to try and find a spiritual path that would accept my queerness and allow me to practice some kind of an aesthetic life. I began with Buddhism, practiced Zen, wandered through paganism and the New Age movement, passed through the First Nations spiritual traditions of the Cree, Saulteaux, and Lakota (having met amazing elders and very kind people along the way); but through all those practices I always had a sense of being unsettled, a feeling that somehow I was just passing through and I wasn't finished with my journey. One night, I found myself lying in bed, looking at the ceiling, returning to the Lord's prayer and slowly returning to my Christian roots.
At that point in time, I had resolved that if I was going to live as a queer man and practice as a Catholic, the only way that I could do it was in secret, in private, as an unbaptized, faithful who's only real hope was at the worst hell, and at best purgatory. If I was good enough, I would make it to purgatory and the suffering wouldn't be for ever.
I know, not a very happy outlook.
Lucky for me, something changed. I decided in my early 40's that I would look for some kind of a religious community that would accept me and allow me access. I stumbled upon a religious community in upstate New York and contacted the superior, Father Bob Johnnene, who directed me to Archbishop Roger LaRade with the Eucharistic Catholic Church in Toronto. Through talking with him, I was able to discern that I was in fact being called to the Franciscan life in the Eucharistic Catholic Church. I flew to Toronto in June last year, was baptized, confirmed, received holy orders, and was admitted into the Franciscans of the Annunciation. Everything that has happened since has been a door opening into a new direction and a new opportunity. I'm constantly feeling affirmed in my choice: I feel like I'm not unsettled anymore. I feel like I'm home.
There's a story from the life of Saint Francis about how he met a leper on the road one day. This is a particular favourite of mine as it was the story I used the first time I spoke publicly about my vocation. In the time in which he lived, leprosy was a disease who's only treatment was complete and total isolation from the community in which the infected individual lived. It consumed one's body and, after suffering disfigurement, caused death. It was painful, dirty, smelly, and uncomfortable. Francis was terrified of lepers. If a leper approached him on the road, he would cross to the other side of the road, cover his mouth and nose, and look the other way until he had passed by.
But Francis, in his pursuit of spiritual perfection, came to realize that to rely on the labels, the preconceived ideas of how people were better or worse than others, he was in fact moving himself further away from Christ's presence in his life. In order to be closer to Christ, he needed to transcend the labels and the emotions associated with those labels.
So after he'd resolved to move beyond these preconceptions, the opportunity arose to put principle into practice. As he was riding his horse down the road, a leper approached from the other direction. But this time, rather than avoid the leper, Francis dismounted from the horse, crossed over to the other side of the road, put a coin into the diseased, disfigured hand of the leper, and then kissed them before returning to the horse. After remounting his horse, he looked back to see the leper had disappeared. Some accounts say he believed this to be a sign that the leper had indeed been Christ come to test him.
As queer people, and as Christians, we are called to embrace the leper. We who have known so well what it is to be a people oppressed by cultural norms, by words, by names, by ideas; we have all experienced the pain represented in the figure of the leper. This not only calls us, it demands from us that in all of our interactions we grant the dignity and respect due to ever human being, even and especially if those people are in a state of appearing not to deserve this respect. To not do so transforms us into Francis, the youth who would cross the street, cover his face, avert his eyes from the suffering he saw in an attempt to deny that he too suffers as the leper suffers. We are called to dismount from the comfort of ideas and conceptions, cross the street through our fear and literally embrace those who embody our fears.
To do any less removes us from that condition which allows us to truly experience the Divine. But even more importantly, our queerness forces us to realize that our fears, especially when it comes to embracing those individuals who we are most afraid, must be embraced. Otherwise, we are putting ourselves back into the closet.
Queerness calls us to live a life of evolving realization about our identity that isn't different from any other human beings who have to live this way. But it is a gift which permits us to innately understand the importance of acceptance, of unconditional love, and the challenge of practicing that love even in the face of that which frightens us the most. To practice love doesn't mean accepting behaviour that demeans or oppresses us. Rather, it teaches us that our responses to these types of behaviours have to be radically different from what we have learned in the past. If we react with hate to hate, we play a game who's outcome is that two individuals pass each other on either side of a road and none interact.
Granted, the idea of serving a sandwich and a cup of coffee to someone holding a sign that says "God Hates Fags" seems redundant and repugnant to many people. But what happens when that person holding that sign is confronted by that kindness? What happens to the leper when they are confronted by the kindness of someone wanting to simply be closer to God, someone offering charity, kindness, love?
I'm not certain this kind of approach would work in the face of the kinds of armed struggle that appear, or in the amplitude of violence that has surfaced the last few years. But I do hypothesize that the reason it has escalated to the degree it has because this kindness hasn't been afforded to either party. Our queerness calls us, commands us to be more fully empathetic to our brothers and sisters in our community, and our families outside of those communities. This is a hard kindness that has to be offered to those people who we would hate, or fear, or avoid. It will hurt sometimes, it will be uncomfortable most of the time, and we will be faced with that voice inside that says "I don't want to do it" because of a hundred reasons.
It's at those times that we, like Francis, have to draw on the life of Christ. From the first day of His ministry, He knew that every miracle, every sermon, every person He touched, every smile He gave, every step He took was one step closer to His passion and death. And even in the face of that immense suffering, that immense pain and anguish, He still performed the miracles, still spoke the words, still touched the faces because the love was that great.
It's something as simple as not gossiping, and shutting gossip down when it happens in a polite way; as offering a glass of water to someone who looks like they need it, or respecting someone's right to a view that may be contrary to everything we believe and think to be true. The religious who would hold Scriptural references over us to prove we are sinful, the person who holds a sign that derides us, the person who challenges us to see the stereotypes we have by the stereotypes the hold up in our faces: these are the lepers who we too were, these are the people who suffer as we suffered. These are the people we have to find some way to love, some way to kindness. Because if we don't, we're not better than they are. We are all the same in our illness. We are all the same in our choice to live better lives that are driven by love, not by hate.
St. Francis was gifted by the stigmata, the wounds that emulate the wounds of Christ. I believe this happened because he was so able to embrace those who lived in hate and derision so well, and from a place of complete love. We won't necessarily be able to emulate this in our own lives, but luckily for us we don't have to be perfect. We just need to try. That's all. And when we are brought into doubt about our place in creation, a place that is part of God's creation, all you need do is to go out into the night, look up at the stars, and consider the vastness of the stars that you see. Consider the vastness of the stars that you don't see that are part of one galaxy that is one of as many galaxies as the stars you can see and the stars that you can not. A God who could create the majesty of that, a majesty that borders (or perhaps even excels) the infinite knew what He was doing when He made us queer. It might not be in Scripture in a way that you can tangibly hold onto, but it's in His works, in the diversity of His works. Trust in that diversity. Trust in that place you have in that diversity. And Love. Love every day, every way that you can, as best you can.
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