Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sacred Silence

My first, real encounter with Catholicism was with Jean-Marie, a man I met while serving as a Mormon missionary in Aix-en-Provence, France.

During my mission in France, Catholicism was usually an excuse not to speak with the earnest, young, name-tagged Americans eager to share a message about Jesus Christ. Not for Jean-Marie. Jean-Marie's love for God made him eager to speak about Jesus with anybody, including these representatives of what most French regarded as a bizarre, polygamist American cult.

Our meetings with Jean-Marie were always thick with the Spirit. The warmth was almost tangible, and tears were frequent. He was so sweet, patient, and attentive. And his response to our account of Joseph Smith's vision of the Father and the Son was simply, "What a beautiful witness of God!" We felt certain that a man of such pure faith had to join the LDS Church. But he did not. To this loving, hopeful man, the thought of abandoning Holy Mother Church was inconceivable. Years later, I was reminded of our experience with Jean-Marie when I read H. Vinson Synan's account of the encounter between Pentecostals and early Catholic Charismatics. After experiencing a baptism of the Holy Spirit together, the Pentecostals assumed that the Catholics would of course convert to Pentecostalism. The Catholics saw no contradiction between belief in the modern-day work of the Spirit and their enduring commitment to the Catholic Church.

When we invited Jean-Marie to attend the LDS Church with us, he willingly agreed -- on condition that we go to his Roman Catholic parish with him! Willing to do almost anything to get Jean-Marie to go to church with us, we agreed. When we went to Jean-Marie's parish, he took us on a tour of the church building. I particularly remember when he showed us a stained glass portrayal of the crucifixion. Growing up Mormon, I'd heard plenty of scathing criticisms of the religious use of crucifixes and portrayals of the crucifixion. Why would we want to celebrate the murder of the Son of God? When I asked Jean-Marie about it, he replied simply that this image of the crucifixion reminds us how Christ suffers still today, because of our sins and the enduring sinful state of the world. As a missionary who saw his primary role as calling sinners to repentance, Jean-Marie's explanation made perfect sense to me. I was deeply moved. I've never seen a crucifix the same way again since. Jean-Marie gave similar explanations of other stained glass windows and statues in the church. Every corner of this sanctuary, I realized, held some sacred significance for him, and taught some valuable lesson about the nature of faith and repentance.

I stayed in touch with Jean-Marie after my mission. We continued to correspond, and I continued to hope and pray that he might some day join the LDS Church. His letters were much like our visits -- inspirational. His faith remained steady, even as mine was beginning to waver under the stress of coming to terms with my homosexuality. When I received a letter from Jean-Marie announcing his intention to join the Order of St. John (an offshoot of the Dominican Order), I gave up hope that Jean-Marie would join the LDS Church. That was kind of a turning point for me in terms of the naïve belief I grew up with that all good, God-fearing people everywhere were destined to convert to the LDS Church. It felt disillusioning to me at the time; but my encounter with Jean-Marie opened me up to a more complex, multivariate understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, and the role of many different kinds of faith in the accomplishment of God's latter-day work. The one thing I knew for sure was that Jean-Marie had a true, living faith, and he was living that faith out in fullness within the framework of Catholicism.

Some years later Jean-Marie and I were still corresponding. Now I had a special request for him. I was trying to figure out what was the most faithful way forward for me as a gay man. The Mormon emphasis on marriage as the only path had become a terrible burden to me. On the other hand, I found myself strangely comforted by the high valuation of celibacy in Roman Catholicism. I wrote Jean-Marie to ask if I might come to pay him a visit, this time with him in the role of missionary and me as humble investigator!

Jean-Marie had received permission from his superiors to allow me to stay with them on condition that I would accept to live under the rules of the order while I stayed there. I gladly agreed! I wanted nothing less! I spent eight weeks or so with him at a monastery of the Order of St. John (near Le Creusot, France), praying, studying the scriptures, and working with the monks. I and the monks had been granted one exception to the rules of the order. Normally, silence would have been the rule. But I was allowed to ask anyone any question I wanted, and the monks were allowed to answer my questions the best they could.

Still, I actually found the answers I needed to find at the monastery not in questions and answers but in the silence of prayer and meditation. My favorite time of each day was about 5:30 in the morning when the matins rang, and I gathered with the monks in the chapel, where we would kneel in silent prayer while the sun rose.

I was introduced to the order's founder, Marie-Dominique Philippe, and it was explained to him that I was a former Mormon who had joined the Lutheran Church and was now exploring his order. He made some quip to the effect that he hoped I would make it "all the way." I guess he was destined to be as disappointed at my failure to convert to Catholicism as I had been at Jean-Marie's failure to convert to Mormonism.

Jean-Marie and I reached our own understanding. Shortly before my time at the monastery was over, we went for a walk together. He asked me what I had learned from my stay, whether I had discerned a call to monastic life. I told him I had indeed heard the still, small voice. I had found my answer, and it did not involve taking vows. He smiled contentedly. "I expected as much," he told me, "I've felt all along that you had a more apostolic calling." When he said apostolic, he explained, he meant I was destined to be something of a missionary, out in the rough and tumble and mess of the world. That was where and how the Lord would put my gifts to the best use. Our relationship had finally reached a kind of equilibrium and intimacy. We had each explored the other's world of faith, each been touched, and, in consequence, found God's unique calling for us.

Actually, it was to be quite a few more years after that before I would find my spiritual bearings, among the Latter-day Saints again. Still, I reflect on my time among Roman Catholics with profound gratitude. Jean-Marie opened my eyes to a work of the Holy Spirit that was and is far larger, richer and further-reaching than anything I imagined before I first met him. My time in the monastery provided me with vital pieces to the puzzle of my own life, helping me come to terms with some of its most painful questions, and helping me still myself long enough to hear God's word to me.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Metaphysical" Spirituality, the Internet, and the Free Market of Religion

The constitutional separation of church and state laid the foundation for the American "free market" of religion. The "establishment" clause formally deprived any one religion of the special advantages of state support or sponsorship. The "free exercise" clause granted each American the right to affiliate with any religion or none at all. With the passage of the first amendment, religion in the American setting became strictly a voluntary matter. Consequently, ordinary citizens' religious choices could exert a kind of market pressure on churches. Religious communities had to work harder to cater to the needs and sensibilities of adherents or risk losing them. When there was a market "niche" that wasn't exploited by existing religious communities, new religions could spring up overnight to fill the void, expanding the range of religious choices available to Americans. Furthermore, there was only a small step between a religious free market, and a religious smorgasbord. Americans could not only pick and choose religions as they saw fit. They could pick and choose religious ideas. They could customize themselves a personal religion that mixed and matched spiritualities, teachings, and practices, if they so felt inclined. And they did.

There is some evidence that Americans, had, in fact, almost always taken this approach to religion. Even in Puritan New England, there were hinterlands where European settlers lived beyond the reach of colonial religious authorities. Throughout the American colonies, governments were weak and religious institutions underdeveloped, and, on the eve of the American Revolution, the vast majority of Americans -- an estimated 85-90% or more -- were unchurched. That alone increased the odds that religion would become, for most Americans, an individual affair.

Catherine Albanese, in A Republic of Mind and Spirit (Yale University Press, 2007), pointed out that historians have tended to overlook the ways American religion has always been fluid and individualistic. Previous generations of religious historians have focused on religious institutions, and the religious history of a people always looks more pristine and uniform when you look at it from that viewpoint. But when you look at it from the viewpoint of individual choices, religious life assumes a more amorphous quality. And American religion, she argues, cannot be properly understood without accounting for this metaphysical freedom and fluidity. Folk magic, transcendentalism, spiritualism, "new thought," and the "new age" are manifestations of spirituality that have always thrived outside of religious institutions, providing an alternative to religious establishments, and even becoming forums for counter-cultural movements of protest against religious complacency.

I witnessed an example of this the other night, while attending an after-show discussion at the Illusion Theater of Bare, a musical about two gay teens who fall in love in a Catholic boarding school. One of the things I loved about this musical was its serious treatment of spirituality. The first act began with a mass, and interspersed throughout the production were heartfelt prayers, priestly confessions, heart-to-heart theological discussions, and even a vision of the Virgin Mary! In the Q&A, I asked the cast to comment -- if they could -- on the importance of spirituality in the coming out process. What ensued, I thought, was very revealing.

An Episcopal priest, who had been invited by the show's director to be present for the discussion, launched into a lecture about how there were gay friendly churches (his own, for one), and he encouraged gay youth to seek out those gay-friendly institutions and get connected to them. He didn't really answer my question about spirituality. A young man raised his hand and began to talk about how "his generation" just didn't believe in religious institutions any more. I detected more than a hint of frustration in his voice; I don't know if he was directly responding to the priest's statement. But he talked about how Internet communities were creating forums where people could explore spirituality and religion totally free of the constraints created by religious institutions. People didn't believe in God anymore, he said, but they weren't uninterested in spirituality. There was, he observed, actually a hunger to connect spiritually, but on folk's own terms -- with or without churches, with or without traditional "God talk."

The Internet has in many ways accelerated cultural processes that are eroding the power of all institutions -- secular and religious. Five hundred years ago, the printing press played a similar role in medieval society, providing a democratizing forum for discussion that was difficult for the powers-that-be to control. The Internet is a thousand times more volatile than the printing press, both intensely individualistic but also profoundly connective, creating forms of immediate and interactive global community that never could have been imagined possible.

I don't think there will ever come a time when human culture can dispense with religious institutions, or when the more fluid, metaphysical approach to spirituality could ever replace religious institutions. But I think the metaphysical fringe will continue for the foreseeable future to exist in a kind of yin-yang relationship with religious institutions -- critiquing and being critiqued by them, and giving energy to and receiving energy from them.