Each time I walk into a church building I feel like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. When will the boulder come careening my way? There’s reason for this. Eighteen years ago, when I came out as a gay man, members of my church met in council and gave me an ultimatum. I was to repent of my homosexuality and attend a reparative therapy boot camp to set me straight. Otherwise, they would excommunicate me and turn my soul over to Satan.
They meant well, I’m sure. But they engaged in a form of spiritual abuse.
I walked away shaken, sad, angry, resolute. Nowadays I smile to think I have it on official church stationary: I am going to hell. Nevertheless, this has not endeared me to the folks who this month celebrate the birth of one they tout as the ultimate example of love and goodwill.
Once I was one of them. Growing up I believed my fellow church members and I had the inside track on salvation, VIP passes to heaven. We were the only ones who had our theology right. All other other religions, all other Protestant denominations, certainly all Catholics, could go to hell. Would go to hell. Were headed for eternal damnation unless they believed the same way we did. In this I bought my church’s teaching hook, line and sinker.
Surety of salvation helped me feel safe and certain, let me make sense of my world. When I was teased and bullied, I told myself I was suffering for my faith (not for being a sissy or an arrogant prick). I wasn’t tempted to lust after girls; I was a good Christian. I was headed for heaven. I knew I therefore couldn’t be Catholic, Communist or homosexual. I suppressed, repressed and denied any leanings towards liturgy, socially-engineered equality and Kevin Carlson’s legs. I had no idea what went on in the Catholic church across town, but I could almost smell the sulphur the few times I passed their white clapboard building.
Soon after I turned 20, I made friends with a Catholic priest. This felt daring. He was 50, funny and a bit dangerous. (He openly admitted to being a Democrat.) Thirty-plus years later, he remains my link to organized religion. Not long ago he led a weekend retreat for about a dozen men. I was one of them.
Sunday morning he celebrated mass with us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He kept up a running commentary on various components of the service. We watched as he poured wine into a chalice, then added water. “The poor never drink their wine straight,” he said. “They can’t afford it. The church honors the poor each time mass is said.”
He prayed over the communion wafers, then passed them around the circle. “This is the bread. It represents the blessings of the week, the blessings of life.” One man after another took a sip from the goblet, then wiped its rim with a soft white cloth. “Let us pray for each one as he receives the wine, for this is a bitter cup,” the priest said. I appreciated the timing of his comment. The man then reaching for the goblet had told us he is reeling from a bitter divorce, serious physical ailments and job loss.
In lieu of a formal homily (that’s Catholic for “sermon”), we split into small groups and discussed our relationship with the church. I said I had reached out my hand to organized religion only to have it cut it off. My priest friend nodded. “You gave them a hand,” he said. “I’d give them the finger.”
In that spirit, perhaps even with his blessing, let me wish you a merry effin’ Christmas.
Photo credit: rubenshite, sxc.hu