April 30, 2013

In Persona Christi, part 1

 

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.
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