February 06, 2015
January 05, 2015
January 04, 2015
December 26, 2014
September 30, 2014
September 10, 2014
May 10, 2013
The day finally came that I was able to return home, even to this moment I have almost no memory of returning. I know the few friends I had at while I studying in Rome were surprised that I was leaving, even though I think my sorrow was apparent, worn on my face like a mask of tragedy. I only vaguely remember sending my few possessions back to St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado. Books mostly, a few pieces of art that I had collected while I lived in Europe, the rest papers and texts books of my theological studies. I remember one of my last exams at the Gregorian Pontifical College where I took my studies, it was in apologetics, and I was totally unprepared. I went before the professor, a Jesuit Italian priest and when I walked into his office to begin my test I burst into tears. He, used to intimidating students because of his great knowledge, was at first thinking it was because I was unprepared for the test. Then as he looked into my tear filled eyes realized that my tears had nothing to do with the testing but with faith. He in those last moments in Rome was gracious, he comforted me and allowed me to weep. I never took the test, but he gave me a passing grade for his class all the same.
I returned to Denver in the summer of 1993, and was given a job working for Fr Don Willet in Frederick, Colorado serving the migrant workers. I and another seminarian, Rocco, with whom I had started college went together there. Rocco and I had been best friends at the Benedictine College Seminary, Conception in Missouri. I could hardly wait for his company, but those days that summer ,driving from migrant camp to migrant camp offering religious education classes, I slept. Rocco was our designated driver, and every moment I sat down in the seat of his little Geo, I feel asleep. I was practically narcoleptic, no doubt my emotional and physical needs were exhausted by the experience I had just left behind. I knew that almost no seminarian who returned from Rome would go on to become a priest, and my failure to survive in Rome rested on my shoulders, and I became determined to not fail again, regardless of my faith issues. I invested in my work as Christian minister to the poor migrants, teaching them the joys of baptism, the grace of Eucharist, the wonders of our Church and the kindness of her people.
The next year, 1994 I was assigned a year long live in internship at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greeley, Colorado. I knew the pastor from several interactions at other diocesan events, and found him to be a generous, kind spirited man who loved his church, its people, his priesthood. He was a great mentor, a good friend, and I thrived at St. Mary's. I was working with the educational department of the church, mostly with RCIA (Roman Catholic Initiation of Adults), a conversion group, and with 5th grade religious education. I came to adore the church and her people, all of whom were kind and supportive of my living dream to become the person of Christ. The weariness that I wore on my shoulders from my experience in Rome seemed to be cast off, and I found there at St. Mary's the ability to actuate my faith, see a congregation who worked to educate, care for the sick and poor, to teach, sing, laugh and praise. I embraced that life, and all my doubts from Rome faded, and I felt once again a closeness to the divine call to be in persona christi.
Life of course cannot be so simple - one Sunday night, while I was working with the youth group, the teenagers group, I met a young woman who caused me to sit back and question everything about who I thought I was, who I thought I could become. That night, just meeting for the first time, we had to play act or sing a song for the kids, in an ice breaker, the details of why I can't remember, but I do remember what we did, she and I sang a song. I remember her staring into my eyes, her blue eyes shining, and she said "What shall we do?" I looked at her and said, "Well one song I know all the words to is I'm a little tea pot." She nodded and together, Debra* and I sang a song, breaking the ice not just for the kids at our youth group, we broke the ice for each other. Following that evening Debra and I became close friends, we fell in love.
That night, for the first time I questioned the entirety of everything I had been doing. I had forgotten my brief love affair with Ricky*, that awkward moment of lust in the warm Mediterranean sun was something I was afraid of, not just because of my sexual orientation, but because of what that would mean for my family, my values, my faith. Here though, looking at this beautiful young woman I suddenly for what I thought was a brief moment of sanity knew that I could be the master of my own destiny, that here, in a moment I could become a normal American boy. Images of white picket fences, two, maybe three children running around my feet. A beautiful wife who would support my hobbies, take me to the movies, cook me dinner, allow me to cook for her, all these dreams that at some point we all have came into my mind and I hoped, I wish, I dreamt, they would be mine.
|The Woman - by Thom Burkett|
We spent so much time together, we laughed, we held hands, we danced, we sang, we drank, we smoked. Debra became this woman in my life that set me on fire; everything about her was the inspiration to get up and enjoy my day. Everyday I would work at the Church, teaching, ministering, preaching, and everyday I wanted the end to come because Debra would come by my office, and there, in those afternoon moments all in the world was right.
I started to write her letters on cards with images of lovers. I think my first card was of a little boy and little girl playing. We started to exchange letters almost daily, most certainly weekly. They were silly, fun, innocent, but we were in love. I loved her more than anyone I had ever loved before. We were able to bring a smile to each others lips with only a glance. At one point she wrote me a poem:
Your name is Harvey, mine is Marge.
You are skinny and I am large.
You make me laugh like I never have before.
To you, I'm just a big bore.
I think I should end this, as I keep cutting myself down,
Enjoy, Harvey Cold-heart, I'll see ya around.
For the entire summer of 1994 and into the winter we shared our love affair. It was innocent on so many levels, but it created inside my inner mind a hurricane of fear, doubt. I wrestled within myself the conflicting doubt of my vocation to in persona christi, I felt the memories of a long human tradition of marriage of man to woman. I wanted to be, no wait, I felt normal. There dancing, laughing, singing with that sweet woman I felt normal. I wasn't a oddity as a seminarian, I wasn't an oddity as a young man struggling to identify his sexuality, there with my dear Vito I was a young man in love with a woman. She was alone when we met, and she had dreams too, and there in that perfect moment of space and time our dreams walked side by side, hand in hand. She wrote me, following a letter I had sent her professing that I was falling in love with her, in her letter she said, "I was shaking so bad after I read your letter today. This is not what I expected to happen, Thom, I really thought you'd tell me we're just friends. Why? Because you're just too good to be true!!! Everything you are is what I need and desire. The qualities I only thought were in my dreams, the man I dream of who never had a face is now you."
We both knew that I was studying for priesthood, and most of my time was spent working in the parish. This mission though unlike all the others I had undertaken prior was much more filled with work related to education, working with teenagers, young adults. I didn't spend as much time with the dying or sick, instead I found myself with those folks discovering Catholic faith, middle class white kids who needed to belong to a youth group so as to feel more part of the community. There in Greeley I was able to pretend, to dream a new dream, to forget the magic of stones and sky, to see faith and church as a place you go occasionally, not as a place you live in.
Today as I sit thinking back to those warm summer nights I spent holding her hand, dreaming of her as my wife, I can barely read her letters, spilt out on my desk, covering it like an account's on April 14th. I sat with her in September and told her that we should slow things down, that I wanted to enjoy my life at Greeley that I wanted to be her friend, that I couldn't allow myself to fall in love so fast. I have on those glasses that give me 20/20 vision in the past, and I wish I could reach out and touch my younger self, pull him down into a chair and tell him it was okay he was struggling with faith, sexuality, celibacy, life and love. Now I know these things better, yes I'm still learning too, but then, as a young 24 year old man, in love with a woman that I could never love, working through a faith that I could never have, I was alone, scared, and ultimately I returned to that life of dreams and magic. The easier path then was to go back to the world of books and studies, school and prayer. At least there I had people who could work with me in discussing faith. With Vito, my sweet girl, I had no one to talk to me about sexuality, that I was a gay man, that my sexuality wouldn't, couldn't change no matter how deeply I feel in love with her, because it wasn't love, not really, it was another dream. I did the right thing for her and me, I ended our affair, breaking her heart, breaking mine too.
|Broken Pane - by Thom Burkett|
I remember I cried when I told her that I couldn't see her anymore, and that feeling that washed over me was the same feeling I've had when I've sat alone in a dark room. The forlorn feelings of abandonment could have easily killed me. I cursed my mind, my body, my sex. I wanted to love her, to be her husband, to be the father of her children, but my own sexuality betrayed me. My fear of telling myself I was gay threw me to the floor of my mind, and there on my mind's knees and palms, I bowed my head and forced myself to accept journey back to the church. This decision for me was one I made because I couldn't bear to tell myself, my family, my world, that not only was I gay, but I wasn't in love even with god. In that dark corner of my mind, I buried my doubts, fears, l went back to that dream of gods and magic, the childhood fantasy that maybe I could become the person of Christ. There from the darkness I forgot the light and decided that deception both of my ability to love and my ability to have faith would be my reality. This moment was the last before the end of my studies that I could have easily admitted to myself and those who supported my journey to priesthood that I was on the wrong journey; my desire for magic in bread and wine, to be in persona christi was only a dream of childhood. At least that winter of 1995 I had the courage to stop lying to the girl that I loved and to break her heart only a little. My heart would continue to break until it nearly died for another 5 years, and then for nearly 19 more it would rest in a tomb of ignorance and sorrow. I have only just begun to wake up from those dreams of bread and wine, magic in air and stones, love of a girl and our future children. But I think before I wake I have to continue to explore my life as it lead me to become in persona christi.
The words of Emily Dickinson's "Heart we will forget him!" have stuck with me after I left my dear Vito; I imagined these words may have flittered in her mind, for we were close, Vito and I, and no doubt she drew sorrow from them just as I did. I, when reading it and thinking back to her, dancing to my ridiculous song, "I'm a little teapot," twirling and setting me on fire for a moment, change the gender focus and sometimes whisper, "heart, we will forget her........"
Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done, pray tell me
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you're lagging.
I may remember him!
April 30, 2013
I've been wrestling with my own "demon" lately. The bellowing of his wings around my ears has nearly deafened me to the rest of the universe around me. I can feel his taloned toes digging into my shoulders; his forked tongue licking my ear, whispering to me, "Fool." The weight has been there a long time, the weight of my "demon." Yet even in this burden I've grown used to it, I carry the weight with me now, much easier than at first, in fact I think I kind of like him there, a bit of company when I'm alone.
What is the demon? What am I wrestling with you may query? My demon, my weight, has been the guilt of own early life, the journey I took into the life of priest. Looking back on the road I've traveled, up until 1999, I was ashamed. Afraid to acknowledge that life, who I was, that this journey, the one I took, the journey to become "in persona Christi," the person of Christ, had been a series of deceits, missteps, fear, and doubt from the beginning.
I've started my blog in the last few months, finding inspiration in the writings of a young atheist, Chris Stedman from his penned work, "Faitheist." His story of struggling to find a place in the world, of trying to fit in, to reconcile his sexual orientation with his world, loosing himself in fundamental religious "acceptance", then finding himself through the compassionate act of his mother was a marvelous story. His desire as he wanted to better understand religion and theology, a realization he didn't believe in God, and finding then the desire to bridge the gap between belief and non-belief were an inspiration. In my own world my entire family is religious, still embedded in their theology, Catholic mostly, and as a man who has also gone from belief to non-belief, finding common ground to bridge the gap between belief and non-belief were refreshing.
My second inspiration came from the words of Mary Johnson in her marvelous tale, "An Unquenchable Thirst." Her superbly written story of her journey from life as a sister in the Missionaries of Charity to freedom outside of the community and theological system she had lived in for so many years. This story, this story was the story that inspired the most in me. I have maintained for years that being Catholic is more akin to being part of a community, almost an ethnic group unto itself. At the very least, akin to a small town. Reading Mary's struggle with the impetuous of rules that were arbitrary, and meant in many cases only to hurt, and in other cases meant to drive a sister towards greater holiness through suffering, well this story resonated with me on a level of my own experience. While my journey from believer to "persona christi" to non-believer was nothing as dramatic as Mary's, the thread that is woven in the theological expectation of holiness in religious study and community binds us together.
My imagery, my usage of words all flow from the theological context of my education, both as a child and as an adult. My words developed fine tuning in my college education that was spent as four years in the rolling hills of Missouri at a Benedictine Monastery that offered a seminary college for young men wishing to be priests. There was a medieval aura about the place that like a blanket of fog created an air of mystery and wonder that to my young, eager mind was delicious. I wanted to live in a world where heroes are real, where magic works, where angels dance on the heads of a pin, and where demons thrust their claws into your shoulders and influence you to do wrong. I learned in this world that using words make dreams seem real, that fantasies, if you close your eyes just right, feel as real as a chair beneath you. That dreams, when a song of praise vibrates your lips, seem more powerful than waking. My words, sometimes only spoken in my mind were able to craft a fantasy that I didn't feel I ever needed to leave. My entire life had up to that point, college, been crafted around words of prayer, Jesus and Mary, Holy Spirit and God the Father, and so those images in my mind, they became brighter than the actual images in my eyes.
As a young man during the late 1970's and early 1980's in the mountains of Colorado I would explore the pages of books in our local public library that contained references to the mythological gods of the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse lands. I would read books about magical spells, the components necessary to make them actuate, about spirits and demons that on more than one occasion I sought to summon and control. I grew up not believing so much as hoping that the unseen world of myth and legend was real. It was there I formulated my opinion about the world around me, there I wanted to escape the everyday and discover the world of dragons and demons. I tried so hard to read, understand and reignite the theologies of mythological worlds, the gods that dwelled in the legends of mystery and time. Yet in all my exploration as a child, I continued to find no gods, no angels, no demons. I cast spells, attempted to turn myself into a raven, tried to make the neighbor boy fall in love with me, all to no avail.
But in the quiet solitude of a little Catholic Church, nestled in the valley of the Yampa high in the Rockies, I found the myth that I was seeking. There, surrounded by adults who believed that the God who is, who was, and who is to come, came to them daily, in bread and wine, I realized that maybe, even though I couldn't see it, this God was real. I strained my eyes, my heart, my mind, and hoped that I would see him too, veiled in fermented grape, unleavened flour. I never did, but those adults around me told me that He could not be seen with eyes of flesh, but only with eyes of faith. This legend, the God of Judaea, the God who calls us each to his son Jesus, was also compelling. There nestled in the stories of the Old Testament were legends of angels, demons, myth, magic and power. These legends, so familiar to my growing mind resonated with my own secret desire to live in a world of fire and magic. And these legends weren't to be found on a dusty rarely accessed shelf in the public library; they were resting in the working hands of the men and women who raised me, these legends so mysterious, so powerful, had to be true - didn't they?
I spent nearly every weekend at this little church, finding there acceptance on some level for my hope that the mysterious world of angels and demons was real. Lifting our voices in prayer, the space lite with candle light, incense sweetening the nostrils, all created the powerful perception that there, in that small space, swirling around our minds, our heads, in our hearts, was a divinity pulling us ever closer towards a world of magic and mystery. How easy it was for my already inspired imagination to start to accept these legends of the Judaic Christian tradition that they were not legends at all, but were in fact reality, and the world that I did encounter, the mundane experience of the doldrums of everyday life, the everyday real world was the lie. How I hoped this were true. And thus, as I grew into my teenage years, an outcast because of my oddities as a lonely boy, my sexual attraction to men, I found the idea that the perceived world was myth and that the unperceived world, described in the Old and New Testaments as God's kingdom to come, was the real world. Further I walked into legend, to the point where the reality of the life around was shadowed by dreams and no longer perceived by my own eyes.
It was no difficult task to imagine myself a priest in those years. I had practiced all my childhood at spell casting, pretending to be a magic dweller. I donned a superhero's cap so frequently that in my small town the locals knew me as Batman. When as I grew older I was encouraged to put childish things away, those dreams of dragons and fire, and to embrace the mysterious life of Christ, his Father, his Judaic traditions and history. These dreams were not considered so childish by my family, the adults and leaders of the "real" world around me, and so I allowed my hope to rest on them. Looking at the world I had dreamed of, heroes and magic as a boy, I did not believe a "normal life" of the working man would suit me, and thus I stepped into the journey of evaluating the possibility that perhaps somehow, in my uniqueness, I was summoned by the God of Israel to be his hero, his magic user, his persona christi.
I asked my parents, I asked my friends, I asked my priest, they all agreed, it was a good life to be called to, the priesthood. There was never any doubt that the life of a man called to be in servitude to the proclamation of a legend of Christ was at all undesirable or bad. In fact, every person I asked encouraged me in the journey. Never once did a single person in the life I lived ask me if in fact it was because I believed in God that I felt called to serve as a priest, or if it was because I hoped that the legends of the Gospel and Judea Christian traditions were true. The difference rested between dreaming and believing. I, in all my desires of a fantastical world, never once questioned the reality of the dream I was in, and instead casting my sight onto the fantasy created in Gospel and Christian prayer I walked boldly into a life of the priestly based on the Roman Tradition of faith and mystery.
And so, when first I placed my soles on the ground of a monastery, the rising cathedral above me, soaring like a castle set in one of my medieval fantasies of childhood, it was apparent that I could dwell further in the legend of the Christ. The swirling black robes of Benedictine monks summoned from me my own dreams of boyhood into this adult fantasy, and I could not help but be seduced. There even upon praying on the altar of God, wondering one lonely evening why, wondering how, this myth of God in bread and wine could possibly be true, I did not turn from the fantasy. I pushed from my mind those crafted doubts of my reason, refusing to end the dreams of boyhood, and continued to step on the hallowed ground of faith. My soles guided my soul into further mystery, further fantasy, and as I sank lower and lower into the faith world of God and angels, it was easier and easier to ignore the rattle at the back of my mind shaking at me the words, "but this doesn't seem real."
I thrived in fantasy there. My childhood made that easy. Once I figured out how to study and grow into educational excellence, the rest was simple. Surrounded as I was by handsome young men on the same myth's journey, it was only a matter of practicing the fantasies I had always hoped for, that I would be a hero, and my power would come from beyond my own capacity. I became a leader in my community of young men, the head of the student government, fervent in prayer, wrapped and tasseled in accolades thrust upon me, I knew that my call, as fantastic as it may be, would continue to allow me to dwell in dreams, and there upon dreaming, I feared awaking, and so I stayed asleep. My college years were tremendously successful by all the measures of the college and seminary expectations. I was prayerful, a leader, educated, smart, and clearly marked for some level of leadership within the confines of this world of dreams and fantasy.
College taught me how to laugh. I found joy there in raising my voice in songful praise to god. I found that I laughed with the monks there: Brother Pious binding ancient books together, Brother Thomas in support of my inability to learn French: Father Peter taught me to have humor at my own short comings. College taught me to love. I learned it was okay to feel a spiritual connection to other men of faith and in that faith nourished by Christ to tell them that I loved them. College taught me that sorrow was part of life, that people when they die should be properly mourned, but that the veil of death was thin and torn asunder by the rolling back of the rock across the entrance to the tomb by Jesus. College taught me that people are unendingly generous. Old men, called Knights of Columbus, mostly farmers, sending me financial support because they believed in me, in my magic. They wanted to see me become in persona Christi, and they sent me the money to do so. My family taught me how much they could exhibit pride in my accomplishments. College taught me to be proud.
I learned in college all about the other faiths of the world. I learned about the Shintoists, their understanding of the world around them through a spiritual connection to the stones, the rivers, the forests, the mountains, the valleys, their kami. I learned about the Buddhists and their quest to be free from suffering by being free from desire. I learned about the Muslims and their discovery of Allah and his greatness in their destinies both now and in the future by submission to His will. I learned about my Jewish brothers and sisters and their selection by their God as chosen. I learned about the Hindus and their worship of their gods creating and destroying like life itself while at the same time we return time and time again in reality. I learned about Tao, paganism, Egyptian tradition, the Greek and Roman gods I learned about the various ways Christians express their love of their god from faith to faith, based on Gospel and resurrection through being reborn in Christ.
Living in college I was afraid though. I loved the magic of the place, monks, the students, my friends whom I had come to love. But I was afraid, because by then a small nagging doubt shifted in my brain. I had learned about all the other world's explorations of their definitions of truth, their hope to experience what is divine, what is magical, what is beyond their sight of the here and now. Upon learning these things, many of which were many centuries older than my theological upbringing, many thousands of years older than the Christ story, I wondered why my story would be more true than theirs. I remembered standing on the mountain in the rockies as a young boy invoking incantations to draw ancient mystical power out of the sky and stones and knew that my whole life to that point had been a journey to live in a dream. I was afraid in college because I knew I might wake up.
Upon graduation of college my bishop, encouraged by the college seminary advisors, asked me to go to Rome. That famous place nestled in the Mediterranean, a cradle of Western civilization, home of the world's oldest Christian tradition. There I could further emerge myself into the dreams of my childhood, there for most certain in the ancient cathedrals and homes of God I would finally see the dreams of my faith playing out in reality. While I loved the dreams in college, I still hoped that somehow, with the right incantation, the right place, the right light perhaps, I would see the divine; I hoped that the fantasies so well described in gospel and faith would become more than dreams and I would experience beyond that hope, reality. I remember so well setting foot upon the crumbling streets of Rome, their cobblestones grabbing at my toes, almost as if in protest to my walking there, almost personal. There in Rome, thrust from the dreams of a monastery I entered the nightmare of fundamentalist society of Roman Catholics who pushed me to leave the niceties of those faith dreams behind, and to look at the faith dreams of blood and tears. There, standing before the church of Cephas, looking at the grandeur of a place that should have sparked a fire of fantastical dreams, thrust upon me the stones cast of a belief system that ultimately would come to hate me.
Seminarians clutching at rosaries, papal masses, long black cassocks, religious societies, Jesuits, Legionaries of Christ, nuns, friars and brothers, all swirled around me, joyful in their fantastical praise of the Christ, his mother, the Church's martyrs and saints. I arrived in this ancient city and was immediately aware of how inadequate my doubts in faith would prepare me to live in a community of believers who had NO doubt about their God. I lived with men in seminary who laughed at other faiths, found flaws in other faith systems, in other Christian beliefs, and would do everything they could to tear those beliefs apart. In some way in their deconstructionism of faith, they believed they were building their own walls of faith stronger. Using the cast off sad philosophical debates which they believed they always won, they would rest back and sing praise to Christ for allowing themselves to be so bright, so powerful. Every time they mocked the belief of another faith I cringed, cried inside and wondered what would they do to me if they knew that when I slipped rosary beads between my fingers I didn't believe in virgin mothers, that I doubted if the Christ had ever even existed. My faith started to become as real as the magic on the mountain, a dream that while so nice in theory, never became anything than a dream, a boyhood fantasy. Yet like a drug, being offered the chance to become, in persona Christi, to become like the person of God, I still wanted to know if that spell would hold, maybe in that moment, when oil is dripped on my head, when the stole and priest's chasuble is placed on my shoulders, maybe then the magic would be real.
Walking in Rome, it taught me to dwell in sorrow. My life, surrounded by the fundamentalism of Catholicism became darker, more dreadful because I was not a theological man, I was a dreamer, someone who loved fantasy. These men in Rome, studying to be priests were not interested in fantasy, they were interested only in ensuring that their truth, Catholic as it were, would be the only truth, and their mission as men of God, as they would become in persona Christi themselves, well it was to rid the rest of the world of any other belief, to convert, and if not able to convert, at least to mock and ridicule. My sorrow arose from that nagging doubt of College, and I wasn't able to laugh here or love, not really. When I walked into the giant cathedrals of Rome, all of Europe, I remembered all the lonely men and women that I had encountered thus far in my life, the boy who died of AIDS, the old man dead in his bed alone for weeks, the very poor, the sick, the elderly, and looking at these ancient huge temples of worship I realized that this faith lacked the authenticity of its own creed. Monks and priests wrapped in silk and wool, finest leather on their feet, didn't represent their own Christ, they, these monks and priests were supposed to be in persona Christi, yet looking at them I realized they were nothing like the Christ I had sang songs of praise about in college, they were nothing like the naked, sacrificed man on the Cross. My sorrow deepened, and I wondered if maybe the spell that would make me in persona Christi might in fact too be a myth, a legend. Would I stand again on the mountain in Colorado calling upon the power of the sky and stones, hoping to turn into a raven so as to fly away, to swim in my dreams, and there in that hope discover the magic wasn't real? Would the anointing with oil, laying on of hands, stole and chasuble all result with me one more time climbing down the mountain on my hands and knees over stone and dirt, shaking my head wishing that the dream were a reality. This tainted the laughter I had left at college with sorrow. Rome taught me that dreams are not reality.
In Rome I had the chance to travel in Europe and in Africa. I discovered a love for the catacombs of the ancient city resting above me, her old dead dusting beneath her. I found my heart in Florence, a city so filled with creativity and art that at every turn I was inspired to create art myself. I went to the valleys of the Swiss Alps, seeing there a wonderful hamlet where I got drunk with the locals, the only language we had in common at that time was laughter. I walked the dusty streets of Tunis, surprised at how much citizens of the USA were disliked, but inspired by how warm and welcoming the Tunisians were to guest; there I met Muslims who were gregarious and kind, welcoming us to their homes with tea and honey. In Rome I had my first sexual experience with a boy named Ricky*. It was awkward, it was difficult, and it filled me with shame. In Rome I looked from the top of a building and found myself glad for once that I didn't have wings as I thought about throwing myself to the cobbled stone streets below, my anguish, my conflict in being faithless and dreaming of sleeping with boys pushing me to the edge.
I wanted so much to be the man I had already for so many years of dreaming of being. I knew that I could not remain in the heart of the Catholic Church, for my love affair with the trappings and rituals of this place had already faded. I begged my bishop to bring me home, that I would continue my studies in the USA. There at least I thought I would be closer to men and friends I had from college, there I could find my community. There I could run away from my love affair, there I could hide my doubts in moving from place to place. They agreed, still finding in me the hope that I would become a great man of God, in persona Christi. For a time at least this became very true.
April 24, 2013
April 22, 2013
As I grew further and further away from my seminary studies, having successfully finished my master's degree in divine theology, and after having served some time working as a priest, my doubts about faith and god shifted further and further to the back of my mind. Those doubts, which had on many occasions kept me awake were like distant memories, and if I turned my focus from them they didn't exist at all.
At my parish, which I joined in the spring of 1998, a year after my ordination to the priesthood, I worked with our pastor Father Ed on a key ministry, care of the sick and dying. The parish was located in the southeastern part of city, near a major highway, and we had easy access to all the area hospitals. Our ministry, while focused in only one parish on Sundays, was city wide when it came to visiting the sick in hospital. We would drive from hospital to hospital, hospice to hospice to visit the families of our parish, their loved ones, and sometimes strangers.
I am a glutton for punishment. Well maybe not punishment, I'm not a sadist or masochist, I guess I should better describe myself as someone who loves the darkness, the sorrow of life. I listen to music written primarily in minor keys. In hero stories I am most attracted to the darkest of heroes (Batman for example). I have always preferred late night musings to those in full daylight, and I dwell in sorrow more frequently than joy. I was the perfect theologian to preach happily about the death of Christ. And increasingly, as I stood at the pulpit, at the altar, I focused my ministry almost entirely on the theological significance of the cross to Christians.
I knew I was personally unable to reconcile my own sinfulness to ministry as a priest. I wanted to be the most holy priest, a saint. I built in my house a chapel where I left the Holy Eucharist exposed in adoration so that I could prostrate myself before my God, the person of Jesus, beheld in the mystery of bread become flesh. I would stop at the chapel and kneel for hours in contemplation, trying to weave my own desire to end the suffering I experienced in my personal sin into the experience that was described by the Gospels of Jesus while he knelt in the garden the night before his crucifixion. My own desire to end this inability to reconcile my weaknesses to my priesthood translated strongly to my preaching.
I journaled while I was a priest, letters I wrote to a young man that I had wanted to help on his journey, I was hoping he would want to become a priest. Again I wanted to find that way to holiness, I wanted God to show himself to me, and I thought perhaps my doubts were the greatest test of my faith. In my journal to him I wrote, "I complain like a spoiled child sometimes in my own weaknesses and sufferings. Compared to my sweet savior, who carried his cross without complaint, with grace and dignity I cannot go a day without feeling sorry for myself in my very minor sorrows and sufferings......yet we must join our savior in carrying the cross to know salvation and the fullness of joy, life and peace."
Most of the people I would visit at the hospital on a regular basis were there for a serious condition. Rarely did we get called to minister to minor ills (tonsils out, minor surgeries, etc.). We spent most of our time visiting the terminally ill, or visiting people who fought most often cancer. Several times I visited with a woman named Pat O'Hare who was dying of brain cancer. When I first started to visit with her, she was awake, alert, full of life and a powerful example of a woman determined to beat the disease that eating away her life. I struggled with seeing those people suffering so slowly, and what to me seemed in such a lonely place. Hospitals, with all their technology are so cold, and the beeping monitors and neutral colors are depressing. The more I visited Pat, the further she slide into the toxic depression her disease flung upon her, and increasingly she became less and less the vibrant joyful woman I met the first time, and more and more she became the woman afraid to die, not willing to let go of life. The last few times I visited her lying in her hospital bed she was no longer conscious and finally my visits were one sided. I would hold her hand, tell her that I was there, anoint her head with oil, pray over her. I would beg God that in that moment, looking at the shrunken cheeks of Pat that God would give me her cancer so that she might live. I hoped, I prayed that my life would be miraculous and I could lay in her place on the bed and she would jump up and be free.
When I would return to my parish life after holding the hand of a dying woman, I was always at odds with the life I returned to. Most people don't experience this type of suffering very often and frequently when we do we forget, move on, return to life as it was, Focusing on our own needs, shopping, eating out, movies, sports. Life becomes so mundane, and as a young priest I so wanted my parishioners to spend their days contemplating the life they profess on Sunday, and more than in profession, live the life they proclaim. I felt so powerless being the only person in the parish, along with the other priest, Father Ed, to spend time with the dying. Sure we had a group of Eucharistic ministers who would take the sacrament of communion to shut-ins, and occasionally to the hospital bound, but they didn't spend their time praying over the dying, the sick. They weren't trained for such ministry. Their job was to bring the sacrament of communion, offer an "Our Father" and go to the next person. Yet in this parish of nearly 10,000 people, even those who were carrying the sacraments to the home bound and sick numbered only 10 or so. The rest of the parishioners would leave their profession of faith on Sunday and head home to catch a "game" or breakfast with the family. I knew as soon as I said the words, "the Mass is ended, go in peace", the parishioners would run out the door and leave the world of prayers and sacraments behind.
Increasingly over those months in the summer of 1998 I would focus my homilies on the connection that the Church makes between sin and suffering. I would emphasize that our own sins, while forgiven through Christ, still had an effect on pushing us further and further away from God. Our sins, no matter how minor, caused suffering in the world. Our sins were the cause, the reason for death, cancer, we were like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, each time we choose to move away from Christ, from God by not being holy, we cast ourselves, our loved ones, into the abyss and there we were going to continue to find death, suffering, pain, loss and sorrow. My preaching would remind the parishioners that Christ's time on the cross was meant as a sacrifice, but even in that sacrifice, we were still called to sin no more. We were waiting here, for the second coming of Christ, and until that day arrived we had the mission to join Jesus as the most holy of holy's, to be saints in our time. Yet increasingly, as I spent time with the faith filled people, I realized that holiness was not the primary goal of most worshipers. I discovered pettiness, bickering, mean spiritedness. There were lots of people who were good, kind people, but as I contemplated increasingly the life I was called too, that path I walked down, I realized that my emphasis on faith wasn't being returned by the very people I was ministering to. I realized that my preaching about needing to be holy, to be "Christlike" fell on deaf ears. My time spent so many days with the dying filled me with sorrow, but I had originally hoped as a young seminarian that my ministry as a priest would set the world on fire and people would flock in droves to support one another, to care for each other.
I know that many people did just that, cared for each other. Yet those wonderful volunteers were ever increasingly the minority. Of the 10's of thousands of parishioners, it was the same 100 or so people who did good work. Faith for the majority was an obligation to come and pray on Sunday in Church, then the rest of the week was left to be their own. My parishioners would return to their large homes in rich white suburbia, and the lonely dying woman with brain cancer would rest in her hospital bed alone until finally her body could take no more and ceased living. Those few volunteers were heroes in my parish, but even they would have their moments. Many of them did their holy work for recognition, to be acknowledged in the parish as leaders. Many would do their holy work simply because they felt obligated, but not one of them worked to expand this mission beyond their own work. In my proclamations of the Gospels, in my preaching, I would pound my fist on the pulpit calling these believers to take action, spread their belief, proclaim to the world without fear that they loved God, Christ. No one ever did. They would shuffle uncomfortably in their pews hoping I would wrap up my homily quickly.
That summer in 1998, I would rest for hours by the bedside of dying people. Yet I would grow angry, hurt, that on my Sunday worship services, 50% of the congregation would leave the Mass immediately after receiving communion. Here where we worshiped together, beheld what was taught to be the greatest mystery, we received and ate the flesh and drank the blood of God, yet people, more than 50%, fled the church as soon as they could. Most complained to me that my homilies were too long (10 minutes), or that traffic getting out of the parking lot was too difficult, or that the sports team that playing was too important to miss. I would preach ever increasingly that their faith was broken, that it was fake. I took to finishing my masses in the back of the Church to confront people who desired to leave early. They wrote letters to the bishop, told the pastor that I wasn't kind. The more complaints I received the more justified I felt. Yet the more time I spent with the dying the more lonely I became, clinging to a faith that I didn't truly embrace. I had hoped that as a priest the faith of the faithful would fill in the gaps of my own disbelief. Instead like dynamite it blew my disbelief apart. I discovered that people found faith only when they or someone they loved rested quietly on the bed in a hospital. Otherwise, faith was a routine event that was endured. And even in those moments of crisis, after the crisis fades, the suffering is healed, the faithful return to faithless lives.
I know I'm painting with broad strokes, and there are a few believers in Christ, in the Catholic Church, who truly embraced the life of Christ. They want to reconcile themselves to the God they've been taught to know. Yet my broad strokes are built upon a lifetime experience. As a theologian I knew that true Christian faith, the one that so many profess to hold, means a sacrifice. The Gospels and writings of the New Testament are clear about the faith. Great saints were notable because on some level they exhibited the dedication to the God that all faithful are supposed to exhibit. Instead most people who are "Christian" move from routine to routine, ignoring each other until they're forced to do otherwise. As a priest I wanted to wake up in the faithful a life of prayer, passion for God that set them on fire. I wanted the parishioners to eat of the body of Christ with me, drink his blood with me and then be so beholden of their faith that they would have to rest in the Church for hours. Yet I found this was not the case, instead the parishioners would take of the Eucharist and most would practically run out of the Church, glad it was over. I knew that from my study of the Gospels, the teaching of the Church, that the call of Christ was an all or nothing call. The lukewarm faith that I encountered was the faith that most people professed. Saints are remarkable because they are so few and far between.
If Christians really studied and knew their gospels, sacred texts both of the Old and New Testaments, if the Catholics truly studied their doctrines, they would be surprised at how infrequently they were in good standing with their own faith. As a young priest, struggling with disbelief, I became invested fully with wanting to be a saint. I threw myself, prostrate, before the altar. I breathed upon the bread and wine during Mass with such reverence that many people would weep. Yet, I would look up from my sacramental offering, and see a distracted majority. I ever proclaimed to my parishioners that it was their own lack of holiness that contributed to suffering in the world. Their sinfulness, their disinterest, their lack of genuine passion for their god was a direct cause of evil in the world. Yet upon this preaching, most people would shift uncomfortably. People would approach me after mass and ask that my homilies focus more how nice god is and less on the need to not sin. My preaching they said made them uncomfortable. I nodded then, smug, and said good, my preaching, like the Gospel, was intended to make you uncomfortable. My preaching was a challenge for them to be the Christ in life themselves. To take literally the words of their god and live them. Yet most people did not.
It was these moments, seeing people interact with each other, with me, that helped to drive that disbelief I had in my heart further home. I realized as a priest that faith was play acting for most people. Platitude's that people could spout off, yet in their "non" faith time, they could return to being petty, bickering, judgmental, hurtful. Their faith didn't matter if saw a beggar, someone of color, a gay person. They didn't need to be like Christ all the time, just when it was convenient. I had hoped as a priest creating sacraments, acting as the person of Christ to the faithful, that I would be inspired to grow myself in faith. Instead what I discovered was a faithless world of Christians going through the motions. Those small motions were the ones that made me realize how far I was from faith myself. It was seeing the gospels in action, living faith with a parish of faithful, I realized it was a myth. A story told to make us feel better about ourselves. It was a story told to give us hope when we are lonely, dying, afraid. They are stories told to control us, make us respond to those in power so as to keep them in power. No amount of gospel reading, homilizing, or sacramental life changed these things. No amount of holding dying women's hands made me see God. It was in the heart of the lion's den I had hoped to find faith, but there was no faith to be found there, instead it was in the heart of the lion's den that I was eaten alive.