The Back and Forth of Starting Over

By: Autumn Elizabeth

By some ways of looking at my life, I have spent the majority of the last few years starting over. Starting to reclaim a new spiritual path after my church refused to marry me and my partner, starting over with a new life in Europe after that unsanctioned marriage ended. But the truth is, I am not sure starting over is even possible.

Starting over spiritually has not meant giving up my lifetime of faith and starting fresh. On the contrary, starting over has led me both forward and backwards. I have rediscovered some of the beauty and radical justice buried in my Catholic heritage, and I have found deep wells of solace and a place to pray in my yoga practice. I have also kept a deep admiration for my church as they struggle to more radically embody the love of Jesus and move to embrace all types of love.

I think starting over is always about moving both backwards and forwards simultaneously. No matter how much someone hurts us, no matter how broken our hearts, none of us really forget, we keep tiny pieces of all the people we love in our hearts forever. For me, in times of heartache, starting over often looks a lot like going back to the people who knew me before my heartache, and it also often involves finding new relationships of love and support. So it seems, for me at least, that starting over is more a process of growing in wisdom and love than a process of erasing our past.

For me starting over has been a process of going back and moving forward. I am blessed to have found solace in both places. 2015 stands to be a big year for me in both directions. Looking to the future I will graduate from my master’s program, and I will celebrate entering a new decade of wisdom. Looking back, this site will turn two and my oldest friendship with turn 21. To me, this is what starting over looks like—it is the growing of new branches while my roots grow deeper too. This January, may your new year be rooted in all the blessing of your past, and all the possibilities of the future. Here’s to staring over, and to keeping all the wisdom we’ve already gained.

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It’s Your Church Too

10304700_10100837314741541_5443715570065754002_nToday’s post is from Patrick Cousins, who works as a campus minister at Saint Louis University. Patrick grew up outside of New Orleans and spent fifteen years in a Catholic religious order, teaching in high schools in Zimbabwe, Louisiana, and Arizona before moving to St. Louis in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His post is a beautiful reflection on what LGBTQ people of faith can face and really relates to Autumn’s post about her own experiences with the church as an LGBTQ person. His post is filled with insight, wisdom and hope for LGBTQ people, and really all people of faith.

I have worked as a campus minister at Saint Louis University (a Jesuit university in St. Louis, MO) for a long time, and over the years I have worked with a number of students who have been in the midst of the coming out process. For many of them, religion has been a source of pain, shame, and confusion: churches claim to speak on behalf of God, and therefore too easily claim absolute and unchanging certitude for themselves. But religious communities and traditions can still be places of affirmation and growth. There is still plenty of misunderstanding out there, but more and more, members of religious communities are coming to understand that using appeals to tradition or church history or doctrine to deny other people the ability to form communities and relationships does not further people’s well-being.

For too long, members of  LGBTQ communities have been faced with terrible options when it came to dealing with their religious lives. These terrible options include:

  1.  Hide in plain sight. Religious communities that impose a culture of silence, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of situation, tell LGBTQ people that they can only be loved and welcomed if they wear a mask or simply don’t share their personal lives in community. That is no way to form healthy relationships or build trust.
  2. Deny your own experiences and self-understandings. As the Jesuit priest Tony DeMello says, “When reality comes in contact with a rigidly held belief, reality is usually the loser.” That is, when someone else gets to tell you what is true about you, your experience can easily be dismissed or chopped up to fit their beliefs.
  3. Leave. For too many people coming out means losing their spiritual homes, the rituals and traditions that have been so formative in their lives, and even feeling that God has told them they have no place in the community.

So, what would I like you to know about religious life as a member of  LGBTQ communities?

 

  1. There are a lot of straight allies out there, even in faith traditions that do not support LGBTQ equality. A lot of people are struggling with how to stand with their LGBTQ friends. For some of them, that means leaving their religious communities, but for more of them, that means offering a voice of encouragement and welcome. We don’t always do that like we should – we put a foot in our mouths, we don’t understand your experience, our cowardice overcomes our love and we don’t stand with you like we want to – but we want to make our religious communities and our society a place that makes real the love we talk about on Sundays.
  2. The God I believe in does not want you to lie. Having to pretend to be something you are not is no way to wholeness or well-being. If God knows you in your deepest self, then trying to deny who you are is like hoping God won’t know who you really are, and that seems a little silly to me. Trying to lie to yourself about who you are does not seem like an expression of loving kindess for yourself, either. Knowing and acknowledging yourself in your greatness and smallness and beauty and silliness is part and parcel of allowing yourself to know that God knows and loves you that way too.
  3. It’s your church too. Often enough I hear people say something about how if you are a Catholic and you support same-sex relationships, then you aren’t really Catholic (or whatever other denomination). It can feel like “the church” is really the leadership – the Pope, the pastors, the officials, but your voice and your experience matter too. I don’t fault anyone who no longer feels at home in the tradition they grew up in, and for those who stay, it can still be a challenge, but I know a lot of people who have simply refused to allow someone else to dictate to them whether they are “good enough” or not.
  4. The risk is worth it. I can’t tell you that your religious community won’t let you down. Mine lets me down all the time. But the alternative is worse: presuming that religion can only let you down, that religious people can’t change or will only act on their worst impulses, is a lonely way to go.

I could run through all the Bible verses that get used on either side of the aisle, but you probably know them better than I do. I can tell you about church teachings that have changed, advances that this or that denomination has made in its affirmation of the dignity of LGBTQ people and their relationships, but you already know what is going on; progress is happening, sometimes slowly, but there is still a long way to go for a lot of religions.

Instead, I encourage you to do something that is at the heart of the Jesuit tradition, the driving force behind SLU’s mission: reflect on how you see God active in your life. If God is active in our world, then surely God is active in your daily life, not just in headline-worthy news stories and political decisions, but in how you care for your friends, how you go about your job or your studies, and how you share your gifts with people. Think for a few minutes about how you have seen healing, reconciliation, mindfulness, and encouragement in your daily life. Think about the communities that have fostered that kind of well-being. If you can find a community that energizes you, keeps you engaged in being thoughtful and generous, and helps you to see the activity of God in your daily life, that’s a community worth hanging on to.

Awakening to the Unity of Grief on Easter

 

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“Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll” –Psalm 56:8 NIV

By: Autumn Elizabeth

This is the first Easter that I won’t call my grandmother. I won’t update her on the sermon I heard, or tell her about which language I said the Our Father. I won’t describe the city I am in, the old church I found, or the breathtaking celebration of Easter I discovered. After years of celebrating Easter all over the globe, this year I will tell my Easter story to no one.

Except, I am not alone in my loneliness. Holidays after losing a loved one are always the hardest. The pain of their absence is keenly felt when we see their empty chair at the decorated table, their empty pew at high mass, the empty entry in our contact log.  This is the part of humanity that becomes general, global, universal. Whether it is Passover or Easter, Eid al-Fitr or Holi, the missing presence of a lost loved one is palpable.

As some point most spiritual quests must deal with death, with loss, with grief. In this way, we as humans are united. Not one of us can live forever, not one of us can avoid loss. As we grieve we must awaken to new possibilities, new life. As we celebrate holidays, we must awaken to our unity despite our differences.

This year as I awaken to a glorious Easter morning, as I attend a beautiful Easter mass in an ancient church, I will grieve the loss of my grandmother, and that grief will unite me with strangers I haven’t met yet, and I will find me someone new with whom I can share my Easter story.

Turkeyless Thanksgiving

By: Autumn Elizabeth

This year there will be no turkey on my Thanksgiving table, and not just because I don’t eat meat, or because I am thousands of miles from the United States of America.  This year, both in preparation for the coming advent season and to honor and raise awareness for those who go hungry everyday, I will be fasting for Thanksgiving.  

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As someone who was raised Catholic, I have been aware of the power of fasting since childhood. When we remove the metaphorical and literal filler of food, we can become aware of other ways to fill ourselves. To mark this year’s U.S. Thanksgiving, which comes to close the the start of advent, and which has already been embroiled in controversy about worker’s rights, with an absence of food seems the only right course for me.  I will have time to think about the meaning of gratitude, of gifts, of wealth, in light of both the upcoming advent season and the existence of massive worldwide poverty and hunger.

Given the confluence of Advent and American Thanksgiving this year, I have to wonder, how would Jesus celebrate Thanksgiving?  It is hard for me to imagine the Jesus I know, the Jesus of the poor, the outcast and the overlooked, sitting at a table overflowing with food in a nice warm house discussing how early he will be getting up to stand in like for the best black Friday discounts.  I imagine Jesus might be at a soup kitchen, or might hang out on the street corner with those who don’t have houses or dinners.  Jesus might be so shocked by the gluttonous feast, he might spend the day in the temple praying.

I don’t really know how Jesus would celebrate Thanksgiving, but I can do my best to follow his example. Maybe next year I’ll be out on a street corner, but this year it feels right to pray for wisdom, for change, for love.

There will be no turkey on my table this Thanksgiving, no mashed potatoes, no green bean casserole. I will sit, at my table, an ocean away from Black Friday plans and pumpkin pie, and pray for the wisdom to celebrate all my blessings the way Jesus might. So, no matter how, or if, you celebrate Thanksgiving, I’ll be praying for you.

Breathe it all in

By: Autumn Elizabeth

I breathe in the smell of incense at a Catholic church.   When I walk into a church, and smell that smell, I relish it. It reminds me of Christmas Eve midnight masses with my family, of Sunday mornings singing at church with my grandmother, of my baby brother’s baptism, and much more.

I breathe in the peace I find in watching the smoke of those incense curl and move and finally drift away. I think of each curl as a prayer being absorbed into the vast holiness of the universe. Each wisp a kindness that lingers just long enough to be noticed.

I breathe in the hurt and disappointment of the temporal nature of all things. Nothing stays except the holy, nothing is forever except the divine.  Like smoke we all disappear eventually, leaving only a vague impression of ourselves behind.

I breathe it all in. I breathe in that which is good, that which is mysterious, and that which is painful. I breathe it all in and know that it is the complexity of each breath that makes us human, and the unity of that breathe that shows us the divine.