Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Wildwood Eucharist

(Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock--original collage, 2010)

The following memoir appears in the current issue of  RFD, no. 164 (Winter 2015/16).

On a mountaintop at the end of a twisting road through the redwoods, at the end of a six-day Body Electric retreat, eight of us make Eucharist a little after dawn on the first day of the week. The valley spreads out beneath us, a river of blue fog catching fire and flowing in reverse as the sun rises over it. The ashes of dozens of men have been scattered here over the years of the AIDS epidemic. A sublime spot, holy ground, and blessed by gay men who through perilous experience have forged of irony an essential tool for negotiating the Sacred, smashing the idols, looking on God and continuing to live: we call it Julie Andrews Point. These hills are alive. 

Peter, a physician from Mississippi, reads the Epistle; Bill, a Christian Brother who teaches at a Midwestern Catholic college, the Gospel. Facing Bill across our circle, I recall from earlier in the week our sweet evening of animated, heartfelt talk, at the end of which we drifted to the hot tub to float naked in each other’s arms late into the night. Listening to Peter, I think back to the exercise for which we found ourselves partnered two days ago, bearing silent, intentional witness to one another’s erotic self-exploration, out on the same sweeping overlook where we’re now celebrating the Divine Liturgy. I’ve known extraordinary bliss in his presence: my ejaculation marked only the beginning of an orgasm that played over my body and soul like living phosphorous stirred in the nocturnal waters of a luminescent bay. I couldn’t pinpoint the moment when it finally ended, as the light poured down over me through the branches of the oak above our blanket; as dragonflies and grass fulfilled their glorious, mortal natures; and I along with them.

Robert, a Roman Catholic church musician from Milwaukee, chants the psalm. At last year’s retreat, he and I sat on sarongs spread at the edge of this same promontory to exchange the stories of our erotic lives. The telling led to half an hour of caresses and synchronized breath while we gazed into one another’s eyes. 

We hold history’s shortest (and probably chattiest) Quaker meeting in lieu of a sermon; and yet by some miracle, though all eight of us in the course of fifteen minutes have something (conscientiously brief) to say about the readings we’ve just heard, our words emerge from the silence without diminishing its power. 

Bob, a Disciple of Christ from Oklahoma, says the Words of Institution over bread confiscated for our dark ritual purposes from the yesterday’s lunch buffet. These last few days, he’s been the beloved of my New York friend Hank. 

Dell, a Presbyterian turned Sufi turned Anglican turned seeker who now contemplates another foray into organised Christianity, pronounces a benediction. The warm connection between us falls short of what I long for. I’ve hung helplessly head over heels for him since our first fifteen minutes together six days ago. Two days into our time together I patched together the courage to tell him this, in a nightly checkin group that includes as well the man who by then had already won his most intense and focused affection for the remainder of the week. I nearly hyperventilated at the risk of owning my jealousy of the bond between them; and received from each of them in turn acceptance, grace, and words of respect for my courage.
Forty of us have spent a week creating a miracle of mutual love, support, and radical honesty, a community of the beloved. All of us have come to this place as men of Spirit–the eight of us in this circle, the thirty-two still asleep up the slope–Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, atheists, radical faeries, souls of the New Age, none of the above. The lived experience of love–the vibrating, enlivening, penetrating, transforming experience of love–has united us all, however variously we’ve understood what’s happened here. The confessional distinctions that divide us have fallen away like skins we’ve outgrown. And here the eight of us stand to take up once again the words and gestures of one tradition among many–a path toward the Divine as flawed in its unfolding as any other; a tradition that has misled so many gay men so heartlessly, in so much of the world, for so many centuries.

The fearless, grace-filled truth-telling that we’ve learned together to practice over the last five days, the acceptance of deep joy into our lives, the blessings we’ve laid on one another’s lives in compassion for our own wounds and one another’s, under the tutelage of two extraordinary men who have led us through the process–these constitute a culture of love and mutual support. What overwhelms me this Sunday morning, in the presence of the seven brothers who’ve come with me out to the Point to commemorate the life and death of God made visible in human flesh, is how deeply and how authentically that culture has become the hermeneutic ground for theological reflection. The day’s reading from Colossians 3:5-11 would normally have me muttering under my breath against Paul, the narrow prick who never got a life. The words sound here and now as though they’re spoken to us of the community that we ourselves have embodied: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” In that renewal there is no longer Protestant nor Roman Catholic, neither Californian nor Argentinian, and ultimately neither Christian, Buddhist, nor atheist; but for us, Love among us in our flesh is all in all.
In short, I’ve never heard the Scriptures opened so powerfully by the Spirit as I do this blessed morning. I’ve never heard the Words of Institution spoken so powerfully to those who happen to be present at the moment of their recitation. Like Wesley listening to the words of Luther read aloud, I feel my heart strangely warmed. 

Christianity, I said last night to Dell as we sat looking at the moon over this valley, is a crock of shit, but it’s my crock of shit. It’s my flawed, broken vessel for carrying what cannot and must be carried, what must and cannot be contained in human language. To stand with these men, to claim together– fearlessly, defiantly, subversively, and lovingly–the power and authority of the People of God: this is to behold the vessel at once broken and mended, at once marred and perfect. This is to behold all things being made new.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Big You: Some Wisdom from Richard Rohr

As Lent looms with a whole range of narrow and potentially toxic associations, here is Franciscan Richard Rohr on another way of framing the practice of self-examination:

“Grace and mercy teach us that we are all much larger than the good or bad stories we tell about ourselves or about one another. Please don’t get caught in your small stories; they are usually less than half true, and therefore not really ‘true’ at all. They’re usually based on hurts and unconscious agendas that allow us to see and judge things in a very selectrive way. They’re not the whole You, not the Great You, not the Great River. Therefore it is not where your big life can really happen. No wonder the Spirit is described as ‘flowing like water’ and ‘a spring inside you’... or, at the end of the Bible, as a ‘river of life’.... Strangely, your real life is not about ‘you.’ It is a part of a much larger stream called God.
--from Richard Rohr’s meditation for February 4