Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Trouble with Nice People

If you’ve found a reasonably inclusive faith community, where as a queer man you feel more or less fully enfranchised, you’re lucky–and you’re blessed. But, malcontent that I am, let me ask: if you belong to a welcoming “mainstream” congregation, what, if anything, about your queer experience do you have to check at the door? Do you pay a toll for acceptance? And does that toll limit in any way the integration of your erotic with your spiritual life? (And please answer! I’d genuinely like to hear back from you if you’re reading this post.)

I attend one of the most progressive Anglican congregations in Canada. The last time I heard statistics, about a third of us self-identified as lesbian, gay, or otherwise queer. We’re fully integrated into the life of the parish at all levels of participation and leadership. We push the envelope in creative end-runs around the Canadian Anglican prohibition on church weddings for same-sex couples. The Toronto chapter of Integrity meets in our space. Still, I remain surprised and skeptical that we could possibly make up a third of the church. Sometimes we blend in so well you’d never guess. Maybe that’s not really such a good thing. Week in, week out, it's not all that easy to find each other, except by personal association.

Which is another way of saying, we’re in a particularly comfortable and roomy closet. Nothing says we can’t be open, but we’re assumed to be just like everybody else, so how would anyone ever know, unless you make a big deal about it? (And being Canadian Anglicans, oy, how we don’t make a big deal.) The struggle for equality slides easily into a quest for homogeneity: we want to get married like everyone else; we don’t want to be denied ordination.

Worthy goals, to be sure; and don’t get me started on what I think of the bishops' poor excuse for leadership in continuing to treat the issue of inclusion as one of charitable harmony and good order rather than of justice. But the notion that, in fact, we’re not the same as everybody else gets swamped here. Any possibility that our presence could offer a radical leaven to force a more general rethinking of the theology of sexuality goes straight out the window.

In most liberal Christian theology, the value of committed relationship replaces procreation as the principal justification for sex. Liberal church statements may go as far as incorporating bland language about celebration and the intrinsic goodness of the body. But sex remains something we’d still better monitor carefully, maintain a tight, voluntary control over, and not talk about any more than absolutely necessary. The perplexing--and endlessly fun--depth, variety, and muddiness of our erotic lives get pushed to the periphery, almost as effectively as they did when we weren’t allowed in at all. Our short-term relationships; our one-night stands; our autoeroticism; our multiple partnerships; the complexity of our fantasies and our experiments with playing them out; none of these makes it past the door as material for serious theological reflection, much less as possible sites of grace and the presence of God in our lives.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Consecrating Space

The problem isn’t missing the sacred when it rears up and smacks you in the face. Well, wait a minute, yeah, that’s a problem too, but it’s another problem. The problem is making a home for the sacred in the midst of the daily and the ordinary. The five minutes in the morning when it wouldn’t cost all that much to stop, sit down, be still, read a short meditation, focus on what anchors and sustains your life. The gatepost in the garden, if you have a garden, just wide enough for a small bronze Buddha on an improvised ledge. Or else next to the door of your walkup on Avenue B. In the bedroom, a spare corner that could hold a modest altar. An icon on the bulletin board between the office wall and the computer monitor.

I’ve never found it easy to hold for more than a week or two onto a daily spiritual practice of any length or complexity: it’s almost impossible for me, as easily distracted by shiny objects as I am, to set time aside as sacred without setting aside space. I need something tangible to help me focus on the Presence that otherwise I might ignore, or just take for granted. I need an address I can visit, and shiny objects to hold my attention. Any daily prayer or meditation that I can’t associate with this spot that invites me in as I pass will likely spring up like grass on the wayside, then wither in the next drought.

It’s not a mere matter of installing these objects and then leaving them to themselves. It needs an act of focused intention. A shrine is only a shrine as long as you tend it: with the windblown flower laid at the feet of the Buddha in mindfulness that all things come into being and pass away, and are no less glorious for their mortality. With the nod of reverence to the icon before booting up for the morning. With a blessing to consecrate the corner altar, perhaps like that of the Havdalah service at the end of Sabbath, addressing God as somehow at work, alongside human convention, in the division of sacred from profane, of light from darkness, of the rhythm of ordinary time and hallowed time–and of this one small corner of the bedroom from the tangle of dirty laundry on the futon four feet away.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Alexander and Ismael

Fanny and Alexander: a painting by Boris Muller after Bergman's film

Nearly thirty years ago, seeing Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander changed my life. Last weekend, I watched it again, ravished once more by its stunning cinematography, moved by its profound compassion, and grateful to be reminded of the deepest lesson it taught me: that if religion and spirituality sometimes coincide, at others you have to flee religion to save your soul. In my late twenties, exhausted and chronically bruised by the homophobia of a Toronto Lutheran congregation whose most upstanding members spent the better part of a year variously making it clear to me that I wasn’t welcome in their midst, Bergman’s film helped me find the resolve to walk away. (I wouldn’t set foot in a Christian church for fifteen years thereafter; looking back, I regret not one day of that long sabbatical.)

A short synopsis can’t possibly convey the wondrous complexity of the movie’s plot and imagery. You have to watch it for yourself. Suffice it to say that it’s a loving (and yes, romanticized) celebration of a chaotic extended family that, despite its pervasive heterosexuality, is profoundly queer in its flouting of bourgeois norms. The film’s most devout character, the local bishop, is also its most demonic. The abuse he inflicts on Alexander and his sister, the children of his second wife, never succeeds in crushing their imagination.

Their deliverance comes in the magical household of their grandmother’s sometime lover Isak, an elderly Jewish merchant who smuggles them out of the prison the bishop’s palace has become, hiding them in his labyrinthine warehouse-apartment of precious antiques, nodding masked effigies, and luminous animated mummies. With him lives his unsettlingly intense nephew Aron, a master puppeteer whose alluring attentions to the eleven-year-old Alexander are subtly erotic and less than subtly sadistic; behind a locked door lives Aron’s disturbed brother Ismael, heard singing in the night.

When with Alexander we meet Ismael, the danger he presents isn’t what we’ve been led to expect. A lithe, soft-spoken androgyne, in him all oppositions are dissolved and flow into one another. He is male and female, Self and Other, spirit of light and dark angel, and he guides Alexander to the realization of the terrible, saving, desire of his heart.

Amidst its many other riches, the film offers a parable for the spiritual abuse so many queer men and women continue to suffer–after decades of debate, after dozens of task forces and hundreds of study groups, after various pathetic, gutlessly nominal gestures of inclusion–at the hands of most Christian denominations; it’s a parable, too, for our ongoing resistance, our resilience, and the unexpected wellsprings of the Spirit where we find improbable sustenance for our own and one another’s inner life.