Monday, January 2, 2012

Get Over It

At left, Keith Haring's AIDS altarpiece at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City.

I’ve talked with a lot of queer men, over many years, about their experiences of organized religion. If any of us has completely escaped being wounded by the God Squad, I haven’t met him yet. Some of us have internalized vast, toxic reservoirs of homophobia. Some of us push back against the lies and bigotry with rage and alienation. Some of us learn just to switch off the voices of oppression—but end up switching off along with them everything else that speaks of spirit and soul in our lives.

If I reflect on my own experience, I’ve more or less done all three, more or less in turn. And I’ve gone on to rebuild my spirituality through long struggle, enabled by sheer gifts from unlooked-for quarters—the kinds of gifts that go beyond good fortune and can best be described as Grace. But if I’m really honest, I have to admit that those earlier stages still operate in my life, layered on top of each other, sometimes coming to the surface in turn, like geological strata of soil and rock.

I’m grateful—more grateful than I can say—that the homophobic guilt that robbed me of so much joy and spontaneity as a young man doesn’t any longer control my life, but its trace still lingers. It shapes the way I think about the ethics of sexual pleasure. It tinges with a certain defensiveness even my most sex-positive understanding of my inner life as a gay man: I may assert that my sexuality is a gift of the Mystery I choose to call God, but I always, somewhere deep within, have something to prove, and I’m never completely free of the need to push back against the repressive voices of my earlier years. Sometimes I push back with a renewed rage against the likes of (these days) Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum. (And take great delight in what Dan Savage succeeded in doing to Santorum’s Google profile.) Sometimes I want just to ignore those voices as irrelevant, and unworthy of my ongoing attention.

I see our spiritual woundedness as queer men—and our erotic woundedness as spiritual men—continuing to shape the possibilities of our lives whenever we close ourselves off from practices tainted with the association of past repression. I’m thinking here of the queer Catholic boys who can no longer look at a rosary; of the queer Jewish boys who haven’t darkened the door of a shul in decades. I’m thinking of my own deep aversion to many of the liturgical practices of Lent, which way too often conjure up for me self-hating celebrations of denial and retrogressive notions of personal, individualized guilt that inevitably include an implication of sexual impurity.

The toxic associations of the rituals of our upbringing often close us off from continued participation. I’m the last person in the world to suggest that gay men shouldn’t trust their instinct for the aspects of their spiritual pasts they have to leave behind in order to affirm themselves and move forward. But I’m also struck by how complex a blend of anger, empowerment, and regret can be involved in such refusals.

I’m struck by the number of possibilities we close off by not remaining open to rituals, symbols, and language that shaped our early experiences. We tend to get away from such trappings of our early religious indoctrination as fast as we can, avoiding the pain, or discomfort, or embarrassment, or impatience, associated with them. But instead of rejecting them outright, we might choose to take control over them and repurpose them in ways that serve our growth.

Here’s what I’m suggesting, then, for something new in 2012.

Pick some specific practice that you’ve left behind because it no longer serves you. Maybe it’s saying grace at the beginning of a meal. Maybe it’s Shabbas Eve dinner. Maybe it’s praying the rosary. Or Friday prayers at the mosque. Or lighting a votive candle before an altar. Or turning a prayer wheel. Or a Pentecostal altar call. Maybe it’s reading the scripture of the tradition you grew up with and have more or less left behind.

Perhaps go out on a long walk while you think about it. Notice what associations it calls up, what you feel in reaction to it. Ask yourself whether, beneath the negative associations, there’s something you regret about losing access to it. And ask yourself, what would it be like to revisit this practice, as the man you are now, without apology, on your own terms? Could you claim it as your own, as an out queer man, and assert that it no longer means what was handed to you, but what you choose to understand that it means, now, for you?

You may not decide to reclaim it as an ongoing part of your spiritual experience and practice. But you’ll expand your world and claim back territory you’ve relinquished. Two of my teachers, Michael Cohen and Collin Brown, often observe that our task is to turn our wounds into gifts, and that we create safety for ourselves not by avoiding risks, but by taking them. This is as true of revisiting the site of our early spiritual woundings as it is of other, more easily visible risks that we might take.

Light the candles at sundown on Friday. Or answer the altar call. Or say the rosary. Or turn the prayer wheel. Say to yourself, this is mine, to make into what I need it to be, to keep or to let go of on my own terms.

1 comment:

  1. David, Oh yes! Recalling Paul Ricour, can we emerge into post-critical naivete from our often angry critical thinking? This has caused us to jettison our early piety that tells us queer boys how bad we are. Yes, pick over the smashed pieces and maybe find something useful.Call it dumpster gold.