On Julian, God, and Gender: A Sermon

I preached this sermon today, the feast day of the English mystic Julian of Norwich, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. The Gospel text cited is John 4:23-26.

When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad went about the usual business of considering baby names and preparing a nursery (mine was full-on Beatrix Potter characters). And in the early 1980’s, ultrasound predictions of an infant’s sex were not as common as they are today, so it was, for them, a matter of speculation whether I would be a boy or a girl. My mom was convinced that I was going to be a girl, and my name was going to be Ashley.

My parents had an artist friend around this same time who gave them an oil painting as a baby shower gift. It features a pastoral landscape with small human figures here and there: my dad carrying a fishing pole, and my mom standing by a bassinet with a little blond baby under a pink blanket.

After my birth (surprise! It’s a boy!) their friend changed the painting—brown hair, blue blanket. Now, in retrospect,could they could have kept it pink, and I’d have been perfectly happy with that! But I love that when I look closely at the painting now—it’s hanging in my room—you can still see little traces of the blond and the pink peeking through, the shadow of a different existence–a different, unrealized identity.

And I wonder about that other child who is not me—the Ashley who never arrived—and what her life would have been like, shaped by the expectations that are assigned to certain types of bodies. I am sure it would have been very, very different, and perhaps much harder in ways that I’ll never fully understand as a man.

And yet, in a way that I can’t fully explain, I still feel like I a carry a piece of Ashley inside of me; the part of my identity that doesn’t conform to some of the gender expectations that came along with that last-minute painting revision. Who we are is never quite as simple as appearances might indicate.

I tell you this story because it reminds me of the constructed nature of our identities, and especially of the ways in which our bodies and our genders and our  culturally-mediated self-understandings are always engaged in a process of becoming, from the moment we take our first breath, all the way up to our very last. Whatever labels have been assigned to us, rightly or wrongly,  and whatever identities we claim for ourselves, their meanings and significance can and will develop, both by the unfurling of our interior self-knowledge and by the changeable nature of our changing contexts. Who we are as social beings is always contingent, always being revealed ever more in its fullness. It is the journey of a lifetime, one that is never finished.

And that, I think, is as it must be, because the fullness of ourselves, the maximum horizon of our complex, nuanced personhood, is located in the heart of the God who draws us across time and space to a place as yet only partially revealed to us, as we are now, sitting here this morning. Today we might understand ourselves primarily as a seminary student, as a gay man, as a person of color, as a professor or a priest or spouse or child, or, in the case of our Gospel passage, as a Samaritan woman kneeling beside a well. And in our present contingency we know that we are also other things, other identities… some that we want to forget, and some that we yearn to become.  

But Jesus tells each of us today that the hour is coming, and is now here, when the “true worshippers” will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. In other words, the hour is coming and is now here when we will understand that God loves the fullness of who we are —this is God’s truth; AND the hour is coming and is now here when we will understand that God’s loves the fullness of every other identity too, especially those that the world has called suspect or worthless—this is the work of the Spirit. And in this confluence of truth and Spirt, we will know perhaps for the very first time how SPACIOUS God truly is. How FREE God truly is. How the love of God includes all of us, as we are now, and as we are becoming.

Julian of Norwich, the deep lover of Christ, the medieval mystic, the earliest known woman author in the English language, the person whom the Church honors today, was intimately acquainted with the spaciousness of God’s identity. Her text, Revelations of Divine Love, which describes her ecstatic visions of Jesus’ passion and the Holy Trinity’s deep yearning for the salvation of all creation, is one of the most beautiful accounts of Christian wisdom ever recorded. It is also a text, written in the late 14th century, whose treatment of God’s gender and identity is so fluid and liberating that it challenges any notion that the language of patriarchy is the only appropriate way of speaking about God. She writes:

“So Jesus Christ…is our real Mother. We owe our being to him—and this is the essence of motherhood! God is as really our Mother as he is our Father. He showed this throughout, and particularly when he said that sweet word, ‘It is I.’ In other words, ‘It is I who am the strength and goodness of Fatherhood; I who am the wisdom of Motherhood; I who am light and grace and blessed love; I who am Trinity; I who am Unity; I who am the sovereign goodness of every single thing; I who enable you to love; I who enable you to long. It is I, the eternal satisfaction of every genuine desire.” (Revelations of Divine Love, 167).

I say take some of that and put it in the Book of Common Prayer revision.

What Julian saw, and what she blessed us with in recording her visions for posterity, was the capacity of God to take on multiple identities, each in its precious specificity, and in so doing, to show us that all such identities—every last one—are holy in themselves.

And so, no matter how we continue to grow in self-understanding through our lives and relationships—whether we end up claiming for ourselves a pink blanket or a blue blanket or perhaps we decide we don’t want to be confined by any color blanket at all, thank you very much—whatever our becoming looks like, God holds it. God loves it. God IS it.

God is our Mother and our Father and our Spouse and our Sibling. And God is Spirit and Truth, and God flows through our fluid identities, bolstering their unfolding current with Christ’s life-giving waters, as we travel together with Jesus towards something beautiful and vast and mysterious, something in which all of who we are, all of the ways we name ourselves, ALL OF IT is revealed in its magnificence—in a place where we will indeed and at last be “true worshippers” in the fullness of our hard-won, fully embodied truth.

I pray for that day. I long for it. I hope I’m courageous enough when I leave seminary in a few weeks to keep working towards it alongside each of you.

Julian is perhaps most famous for one particular quote from her text: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but there’s an important clarification that must be made: these are not Julian’s own words. It is not a speculation on her part, or a vague, facile hope for the future. No, these are the words that Jesus speaks TO Julian in her vision, to assure her about the destiny of all creation.

And so Jesus says, to her and to us: All shall be well. ALL shall be well. All manner of thing—every person, every searching heart, every identity we name and encounter, every single thing—shall be well, in the fullness of what it is because it is OF GOD. It is OF SPIRIT AND TRUTH. That is our shared identity, commingled with all of those others we are carrying and discovering and painting in new layers over the landscapes of our lives.  Pink, blue, something else—it doesn’t matter. God is in all the colors. God is in every possibility.

All shall be well.

Poems on the Road

I’m on a night train heading through the Oregon wilderness, and I decided to share a couple poems I jotted down recently. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the spirituality of love and desire this past year, and these are small, imaginative windows into that journey, one from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and the other from Judas Iscariot. Hope they resonate for you in some way. Peace, friends.

Magdalene

I needed you so much that
I whispered my deepest longings into a jar
And poured its dark sweetness upon your feet
Not that you would grant them, but
That you would absorb them into your self
My desire like sweat on your skin

I wept tears of love so pure and burning
that they felt like grief
Salt water sonnets
Braided through my hair like jewels or
Serpents

And just now
In the garden of re-encounter
Which never looks like the old days
When love was initial:
I saw
Briefly, ever so
The glimmer of my longing, and my tears
Transfigured into something selfless and whole
In you

Do not hold on
You said
Not because I shouldn’t love you
(Impossible)
But because my love
Reached its home in
Your heart
The sweetness and the salt are yours now
Ours now
The world’s now
Now, always
Anointing
Washing
Outpouring
Shameless
Free

 

Judas

You offered me the cup, said it was your blood.
Oh how I hated you, and loved you
For your generosity
When all I wanted was to bite your flesh and make you bleed from my desire.
You called me by name once
And I thought I loved you
Purely, selflessly
But now I know I wanted what i thought you were
What I needed you to be
Most beautiful of men
And when I realized that your inner light was as perfect as your shining face
I hated you, because I could not possess you for myself
Apple, flesh, my joy and sweet poison
They killed you and I thought I’d find relief
From your perfection
But there is no rest apart from you.
My tears are silver discs
And I weep, not for you, Who is peace itself
But for myself, because I realize
We could never have been united
Until I let you be Yourself. And I couldn’t.
My desire was misplaced.
I long for you still.
I will join you.
Beyond death, somehow, find me.

Preparing for Lent

The season of Lent is almost upon us. The preparations at Mirfield have me learning about some very old customs that are quite new to me. Today, for example, is Collop Monday.  What’s a collop, you might ask? Apparently it’s a word that refers to bits of leftover meat, often bacon, which are traditionally eaten up on this day before the Lenten season of fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.  The grease from the meat (at least, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) is then used to fry up the pancakes that are traditionally eaten tomorrow, Shrove Tuesday. Mmmm, pancakes.

All the students at the College went up the hill to the monastery house this afternoon to eat Collop Monday lunch with the brethren. It was a feast, although sadly no bacon to be found. BUT there was brisket, roast chicken, stuffing, and tons of dessert. Gotta get those calories in before the menu is pared down for Lent!

Lent is taken quite seriously here, and many of my classmates have been pondering what sort of discipline they are going to adopt starting Wednesday. If you have been part of any liturgical church tradition, you are probably familiar with the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The idea is that in the relinquishing of a particular habit, or in the adoption of a new spiritual discipline, we are creating space in our hearts to listen to God as we approach the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Week. It’s 40 days of soul-searching, and I could sure use it.

At Mass this morning the homily talked about how in our soul-searching we tend to bargain with God, usually petitioning for favors or for the cessation of misfortune. I do this all the time, frankly, even though I don’t necessarily think God relates to us in that way. I’ve been doing a lot of imploring to the heavens lately as I adjust to life over here and battle some inner and outer demons. Maybe you can relate.

Truth be told, I get really annoyed by people who sneer at anyone who prays with a desperate heart. “Well, he only prays when he wants something!” Come now, we all want something–don’t kid yourself that you are holier just because you pray at other times, too. The fact that we are compelled to cry out to God in any circumstance is a sign of grace to me; it just so happens that our need and our fear is usually the hollow space in which God can enter us, if we let God do so. (See Luke 18:9-14)

The challenge, at least in my case, is to remain open–to allow God to dwell in the space that’s usually cluttered up with the distractions and novelties that pervade my life. And so Lent is a little bit like spring cleaning for the heart; it’s an intentional effort to clear out some room and prepare a seat for the Holy One to come and abide with me as we wait together for new life to emerge.

I’m pretty sure what my Lenten discipline is going to be, but I’m going to pray on it a bit more between now and Wednesday before committing. If you’ve already settled on something for yourself, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

God bless you, friends. If you’re reading this, I am grateful for your companionship on this journey. I’ll write in a couple of days to describe the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which I’ve heard is beautiful.

xo

Tea with the Monks

Sundays are a whirlwind at Mirfield. Mattins (morning prayer) at 7:30 with fellow students and the monks of of the Community of the Resurrection, then a sung Mass til 9, and then I dash off to my field placement church(es) in town: St. Mary’s in the center of Mirfield at 9:45, followed by St. John’s in the nearby village of Upper Hopton at 11:15. Four worship services before noon!

After Sunday lunch back at the College there is a bit of a pause when students are welcome to go up for tea in the large home where the monks live. I didn’t go my first Sunday and decided I would venture up today to meet some of the brethren (as the monks are collectively called).

A classmate and I got into a long conversation with Fr. Eric, who has been a monk with the Community since 1961 when he arrived at Mirfield as an “unwilling” young novice–he said that as a young man he felt the call to monastic life but he was resistant to it at the same time. He admitted that he even kept his luggage packed for the first three weeks at the monastery, ready (hoping?) at any moment to be dismissed and to go back to his regular life. And yet nearly 60 years later he is still there, still working out his calling, still seeking God each day in worship and contemplation.

Given my own struggles (see previous post) I was deeply comforted by Fr. Eric’s frankness. Do we ever really know FOR SURE that the thing we are doing is the only thing we could have/should have done? Whether it’s a career, a relationship, or any other major life decision, we always step into it with an element of blind trust, because we can never know how it will turn out. I asked Fr. Eric if he ever reached a place in his life where he ceased to struggle with his calling and he chuckled. “A retreat visitor once asked me if I ever questioned becoming a monk,” he said with a smile. “Before giving it much thought I answered her, ‘every day!'” He laughed merrily.

There are no guarantees when you commit to a relationship, even when it’s with God. There will be doubt and struggle, and sometimes you will question why on earth you are doing any of this. And when you think about it, God has no guarantees when entering into a relationship with us, either: we are fickle and resistant far more than we might like to admit.

Despite this, God remains committed, and that divine fidelity hopefully inspires our own faithfulness–to God, to each other, and to the loving commitments that we make in this life. Not out of a sense of duty, and not because we are free of doubts, but because we trust that fidelity itself is a transformative practice, no matter the outcome.

Fr. Eric then told us another story about an elderly monk who is visiting the Community right now from the northern reaches of England. He is not a member of their order, but he has a longstanding relationship with them. This particular monk lives alone on a mountaintop; he’s been there for years, waiting and hoping that some others will join him to form a community. Nobody has ever come, though, and so he lives as a de facto hermit. I was both fascinated and shaken by this image of a man waiting for a vision to come true despite all evidence to the contrary. What kind of patience and commitment must that take? Did he ever second guess his decision? How does he know that he should stay up on the mountain?

After the tea ended, with all of these thoughts lingering in my mind, we walked back through the garden towards the College building; the sun had set and the air was damp and icy. My classmate pointed toward a cluster of forlorn bushes and said that before I leave in June, they will be covered in roses. It was hard to imagine it then in the February twilight, but I imagine he must be right; the roses will arrive in their time. A few months from now, on a balmy night, the air will smell sweet and who knows what I will have learned. I can’t quite picture it, but I have to trust.

 

Fire or Fire

This morning I woke up far earlier than I needed to after a night of troubled sleep. In one of those “God, give me a message” moments, I grabbed a book of poetry from my desk and opened it by chance to this:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words, part of “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, inhabited the dark room with me like a corporeal presence. I have been struggling mightily with things I’ve lost and left behind and the fear of other things I might yet lose. The gratitude that I feel for this three-year seminary journey has often been tinged with sadness, and there have been moments when it all seems bleak and futile. The “flame of incandescent terror” is exactly what answering the call to priesthood has sometimes been for me: a burning away of old comforts and the scorching of my blithe naiveté about what priestly formation would entail, all carried down on the wings of a fearsome Love that feels more like grief. I think that anyone who seeks to follow God, no matter their path or vocation, has at some point felt the sting of what Bonhoeffer calls the cost of discipleship. Who we were must be relinquished for who God asks us to become. The fire of the Spirit is not for the faint of heart, and it demands everything we have to give.

It seems impossible sometimes. But what is the alternative? If Eliot is right, and we must choose to either be burned on the liberating pyre of faith or on the suffocating pyre of our own hardened hearts, then the choices are not in fact equal. Any fear I might feel about following Christ is still preferable to a life of deadening self-interest, and so I continue to turn my face toward the flames of God–however tentatively–and they continue to sting my eyes with their heat.

But how does one make a life of this? How do I let myself be kindled by God’s Love rather than fall back on the same old habits and neuroses that have gotten me by in life thus far? How to die to my old self and yet recognize that I remain a person who wants to be carefree, to laugh, to not trudge along in dreary self-importance? How can I be fully myself–complicated, vulnerable, earthy, needy–in a world (and even a church culture) that sometimes corrals people into a stultifying role that values piety and assurance more than raw presence?

These are some of the questions I’ve brought to Mirfield. I don’t know that they can be answered. But if “Love is the unfamiliar name,” I want to learn how to speak it with greater confidence. I want to adopt it as my own. Even if it burns, as it does, as I know it will.

God, give me the courage to be consumed by you.

First Impressions

I’ve intended to start a blog for a long time, at least since I was preparing to enter seminary a couple of years ago. For various reasons the practice never stuck. Like daily prayer, regular blogging is easily derailed by the petty anxieties of the present moment.

Now, though, I find myself thousands of miles from home (the western U.S.), adjusting to life in northern England for a semester at College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, and I realized I owed it to myself (and anyone else with a passing interest) to document the experience. So here we are.

Mirfield is, in a word, singular. It is the only seminary in the entire Anglican Communion (the worldwide body of churches that includes, among many others, both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church) that is adjacent to and deeply intertwined with a monastic community. The students and the monks pray at multiple short services per day, sometimes together and sometimes separately, and an interdependent communal life is emphasized, required, and celebrated.

I came to Mirfield after a year and a half at my own seminary, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, because I was yearning for a deep spiritual formation that a monastic setting might provide.  In addition, I was drawn to Mirfield’s Anglo-Catholic traditions (more on that in another post, perhaps) and saw that aspect as a helpful counterpoint to my experiences in parishes back home.

There is much uncertainty that I am carrying with me on this journey to England, in nearly every aspect of my life. My hope is that this will be a space where I can 1) describe some of the interesting aspects of my time in England (and there are many already!) and 2) do some written spiritual reflection that illuminates my formation. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get in the habit of blogging and keep it up after I go home in June!

If you are reading this, whether we know each other in person or not, take away two things about me. First, I am a gay man who wrestled with the intersection of my faith and my sexual orientation for many years, and I am still discovering what it means to believe that God loves me exactly as I am. Second, studying for the priesthood has shown me that we never “get there” to a place where we are 100% sure of ourselves and rest in some doubtless bliss where faith is easy. There are no experts in holiness, only fellow travelers. I fret and struggle and mess up. All. The. Time. And yet somehow God doesn’t count me out. God hasn’t counted you out, either. Promise.

Next time I’ll describe some basics of daily life at Mirfield.  Thoughts or questions or prayer requests? Send me a note in the “About” page.

Peace, friends.

Picture 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A week ago, jet lagged from the flight to the UK.