Wednesday, December 9, 2009

THE EUCHARIST AND THE JOY OF HOMECOMING:ENCOUNTERING CHRIST ON THE MARGINS

In a previous post of October 6th, entitled Emmaus Walk, I spoke of a highly personal development in my own life regarding the Eucharist, which I would like to repeat  here.

For twenty two years, I have been journeying on my own personal Emmaus Walk,  celebrating the Eucharist within a small community of gay persons who are disaffected from the Church, and occasionally in solitude on my own (in mystical communion with the whole church), though neither my friends nor myself have been 'officially ordained.' Twenty-two years ago in San Francisco, I underwent a transformative experience late one evening before the crucifix in the sanctuary of the church of Saint Antony of Padua which changed both my whole life and my understanding of priesthood and Eucharist. Because of it's personal nature, I don't feel inclined to describe it in detail at this time. However, my spiritual director at the time, a nun and a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley,  described it as a 'charismatic ordination in the  Spirit'. The experience would not have been complete, however, without the joyful confirmation and celebration of four very close gay Catholic friends. We gathered together to  lay hands upon one another, to break bread together on the Road to Emmaus, and we experienced our own gay Pentecost, our spirits burning with tongues of fire. Four months later, Cardinal Ratzinger issued his now infamous open letter on homosexuality, a clear sign to me that I was to let go of all aspirations for the formal priesthood because I was forced to ask myself- to quote Father Jeff Farrow from his posting today - "At what point do you cease to be an agent for healing and growth and become an accomplice of injustice?” That point was reached for me twenty two years ago and I have never looked back. The Eucharist has been at the center of my spiritual life, though I rarely attend formal celebrations of the Eucharist in Catholic communities (Pope Benedict's recent Mass at Stara Boleslav being one of the rare exceptions, an occasion of great grace for me). My own vocation is to remain on the periphery, just outside the door, ever wandering on the Road to Emmaus, while searching for the lights of Gheel, longing for safe harbor and a church all gay and lesbian people can call home.

Because of the highly personal nature of this disclosure, I prefer to limit my comments for today, except to say that besides discussing this with my spiritual director,  a spiritual theologian, I also discussed it with two Jesuit theologians, one of whom, a liturgist,  responded by taking out of his desk the accouterments  for the liturgy and celebrating the Eucharist with me. It has been a joyful, painful, mysterious journey of twenty-two years since that moment and there have been many developments and many graces. The full significance of this sense of 'calling' is still unclear to me and it would not be appropriate to ask for understanding or acceptance of a path that is seemingly so 'heterodox'  where the sacred mystery of the Eucharist is concerned. I continue to journey in faith, confident in the Risen Lord that the way will become clear.


Here we are two months later, and when I ascended the three flights of stairs to my tiny flat on Masarykovo Nabrezi on the Vltava River in Prague, and felt the customary warmth and joy that always greets me at the front door, I felt it was time to continue the reflection. I have kept 'the Eucharist' reserved in my home now for twenty two years, and my close friend, John McConville, one of our original community of four and now a practicing psychotherapist in San Francisco, does the same. I put the word 'Eucharist' in quotations marks, simply out of respect for those who might find this testimony a little too extraordinary, since we are dealing with the most sacred mystery in the Catholic celebration of life and the sacred, a mystery so rooted in tradition that one should not tamper with it irresponsibly. So out of respect for those who might find this experience incomprehensible, let me say this story will only take on meaning and significance when it is joined with hundreds of other similar stories across the world, when those stories are collated, and then subjected to proper theological reflection. This process will, of course, take many, many years and will not be completed in my life time. For the moment, I can only testify to my own personal, spiritual experience, since that is what I feel called to do.

In response to the question, "Is it the 'same' Eucharist we experience in formal Eucharistic celebrations with 'properly' ordained ministers and the 'same Eucharist' we find reserved in Churches,  the 'same Eucharistic presence' which has moved so many mystics and contemplatives in the history of the church, I  must honestly say, "I don't know." I can only testify to my interior, subjective experience and reply, "It feels, in the most intimate and sacred depths of my soul, to be exactly the same, and it is without a doubt, the greatest gift of my entire spiritual life." When I discussed the issue with the 3 theologians at JSTB, they were very warmly supportive, my spiritual director especially, since she knew of women's communities experiencing very much the same thing. The liturgist simply said that we four gay men had been called to minister to one another and had been empowered in the Spirit to do so. That was the source of our 'priesthood,' for which our own blessing of the laying on of hands was enough. Since that time, we four have split up to three different continents, and the fourth now stands before the face of the Lord Jesus and has no need of this unique charismatic form of communion.

I have continued the practice of celebrating the Eucharist in my own home, an experience I must reserve for another post to describe, because of it's intimate nature. At this moment, I simply want to describe what it feels like to have the 'Eucharist presence' in the home and what this effect has had on my own spiritual life and my understanding of the face of the church of the future.

Twenty two years ago, within the first week of this transformation, with the 'Eucharist' reserved in my living room on a small altar on the mantelpiece, I was overwhelmed with spiritual consolation and would remain in prayer for an hour or more during the day, basking in the extraordinary radiance and peace emerging from the pix and which  flooded my whole apartment. I kept candles lit whenever I was home. One day a good friend of mind stopped by to see me. He was a young Japanese graduate student at UC Berkeley, named Hiroki, which means "abundant joy," and whom I had met at a weekly meditation I attended for gay men in the Bay Area. Hiroki was very psychically gifted, as became apparent during out meditation sessions, when he would frequently receive remarkable insights into our own characters and our own pasts. He perfectly described my Italian mother as a 'woman under five feet tall' (correct) and my father as having only one lung (the other lost to TB many years earlier.) On this particular day, I opened the door to my apartment, which was at the far end of the flat with a long hall leading from it to the living room. Hiroki, full of joy, entered and gave me a wonderful embrace, and then said, "Oh, what is that wonderful peace that is filling your apartment?" Without waiting for an answer, he went bounding down the hallway faster than I could keep up with him. When I finally reached him in the living room, he was standing reverently before the Eucharistic altar, hands clasped in prayer, and asked again, "Oh what is that wonderful peace. It is so tangible and real." This was an extraordinary confirmatory sign for me, since Hiroki had next to no understanding of Christianity, other than the figure on the Cross, and certainly no understanding or foreknowledge of the Christian Eucharist, a lack which I then proceeded to make up for him.

During this same time period, I had a good Lutheran friend who was the organist at her Church for Sunday services. Every Sunday she went through the same frustrating experience. She would play the organ during the Communion service for the sake of everyone's devotion, then come downstairs herself to receive, only to discover that all of the elements had already been consumed and the minister had closed up shop, so to speak, having completely forgotten all about her. "One day, I got so mad that I went home and 'communioned' myself, " she later told me, and the experience was so wonderful  for her, so filled with peace and joy and consolation, that she said she now wanted 'to do it all the time.' When I suggested to her the Catholic custom of reserving the Eucharist in a small pix and reserving it in her home, she began the same custom and reported similiar feelings of warmth and peace and intimacy.

As with all things in the spiritual life, the original charismatic intensity waned and life returned somewhat to normal, with occasional moments of transcendent brilliance, warmth and presence emanating from the  Pix and flooding my home with light. However, in twenty-two years, I have never lost the 'sense' of presence and connection, even in the darkest moments of trial. The room and the house are simply not the same with the 'Eucharist' in residence, and it has been an extraordinary comfort and support to my own life of celibacy and solitude. I take it with me when I travel on vacations and so does my friend, John. For myself, the Pix is placed in a central position of honor with a candle burning when I am present in the hotel room. John himself has moved far beyond Catholicism, and is now deeply influenced by Buddhism and (coincidentally, Colleen, if you are reading this) Navajo spirituality, while still feeling his intimate connection with the Risen Lord. And so he places the Pix slightly to the side on his makeshift altar, to reflect his own shifting allegiances,  with other sacred artifacts from Native American spirituality accompanying it. But he has said that when he comes home or back to his hotel room, the "Eucharist' in its small container stands out for him like a 'glowing coal.' Occasionally I will forget to take the small pix with me on trips, as happened last weekend on a trip to Dresden to the opera. When I returned to my hotel room after the performance, it felt empty and void in contrast. It's simply not 'the same' without the Eucharistic presence in the room.

We now come to September 27th, the eve of Pope Benedict's Mass outside of Prague at the symbolic town of Stara Boleslav. I had gone to the small hamlet on this eve to join in the celebrations, and it was a wild party indeed with lots of good Czech beer being consumed by all, including some very jolly nuns, and lots of hot sausages to go along with the foamy beer. I had first paid my visit to the Church of the Assumption, which houses the sacred icon of the Virgin, called the Paladium, and which is considered the special protectoress of the Czech lands. As with so many of these sacred icons of the Virgin, this one gives off a palpable sense of warmth and presence the moment you walk into the Church. Having paid my respects, I then went to join the party and had some lively conversations with some very sweet and cheeky Czech nuns, not at all surprised at my preference for Hans Kung over the present pontiff (though one did wag her finger at me!). Two hours later, it was time for the solemn ceremony of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and I went back up the hill and climbed the steps to the Church of the Assumption. Having already been inside two hours ago and having already experienced the grace of the sacred icon, I thought I knew what to expect. But when I opened the door and went inside, I was 'hit' with a blast of such overpowering intensity I had to grasp onto the large marble holy water font to keep myself steady. The church was packed, filled to the brim with devout Catholics, most of them I would say under the age of 30 and many of them in their teens. There were backpacks all over the rear of the church so you had to step over them, clusters of young people squatting and sitting cross legged on the floor and up and down all three aisles. The sense of sacred presence emanating from the monstrance and bathing the entire congregation was the most intense I have ever experienced in all my life. It was shocking. I'm not really interested in constructing theories for an explanation, the cumulative devotion of so many on the eve of such a significant event, the overflowing gift of the Spirit affirming the extraordinary gift which the Catholic tradition cherishes so carefully, a combination of the two? It doesn't matter which explanation you try to come up with, the experience was overwhelming. I sat down in a pew and remained there for the next two hours, lost in the silence of the moment.

The next day was almost anti-climactic, but was great fun all the same. I joined the throng of 50,000 and  felt it was a day to forget our differences and I was as excited as all of my students, who were shouting gleefully "Here he comes, there he is," as Pope Benedict in white proceeded up the dusty pathways in his little white Pope Mobile, looking not so much like a rock star as a Sunday golfer out for a game. It was rather quaint and charming, and almost helped me to forget the harm this man has done to the church and is continuing to do. But for the moment, he was simply the symbol of all we love and cherish about the Catholic experience, of everything that joins us together in Christ, however poorly the man himself serves this divine mystery.

The return home, however, is what is significant for this reflection. I came out of the elevator with my bags and approached my front door and felt the same sense of 'quickening of the heart' I always do, because I had not taken the Eucharist with me on this trip, since I slept in my car (and wasn't even sure I would do that). The sacred element was still inside my apartment. When I opened the door, however, I was greeted with such a blast of radiance I almost thought I had forgotten and left the heat on. Just as there are those moments in all our lives when the Beloved seems to awaken within and one's soul is flooded with joy, this was a moment when the 'Eucharistic presence' in my apartment was manifesting itself with an extraordinarily intense radiance. It was so far beyond the usual intensity that I walked in and sank down in the chair before the altar with both bags on either side of me and remained in that position with the front door open for some minutes - until the landlady's cat came in and mewed plaintively. That gave me the presence of mind to get up and close the door, (with the cat settled comfortably on my sofa) and I returned to the altar, lit four candles, and remained sunk in prayer for the next half hour.  It was the most extraordinary manifestation of Eucharistic presence I had experienced since the first charismatic outpouring of some twenty-two years ago. Its significance seemed obvious. I was being shown by the Beloved that his Eucharistic presence in my apartment (and in John's and in Lynn's and in all the other maverick Christian's homes who are  practicing the same custom worldwide) is 'the same' divine presence that is encountered in any Eucharistic celebration and in any tabernacle in any Catholic church worldwide, and it is 'the same' sacred radiance that manifested itself so powerfully in the Church of the Assumption in Stara Boleslav.

And of course, the conclusion I draw from this experience (which I will reflect on at greater length at a later time) - at this extraordinary turning point in history, the Eucharist is being freed from the tyranny of ecclesiastical control. It is not inextricably and necessarily tied to 'authentically ordained' ministers by Bishops in a dubious line of succession. We are free at last, though it may take many years for the full significance of the experience to  reach maturity and acceptance and theological justification. Disaffected, gay, straight, women and trans, the future of the Church has arrived and it is us.


 Other posts I've made on the Eucharistic revolution.


Eucharist in the Home

Gay Eucharist

A Way Out

Solution to Crisis

8 comments:

colkoch said...

Jayden, I don't suppose it should come as any shock that I have been following a similar path and doing similar things.

It's not like I opted to do this out of some pique or "I'll show them attitude." It was exactly the opposite. It was a natural extension of my psychic/spiritual path. What I have found is I can feel the same intensity in meditative visualization as if I was actually carrying out a spoken Mass. I've read that priests who were incarerated felt the same thing. It's really an amazing feeling and more than that, it's very real.

To be honest, I'm very sure that my own experiences are the driving force behind my writing so extensively about the need to reformat our priestly and sacramental theology. Jesus said, "Take this all of you and do this in memory of me."

Here's what I think will come before any changes in the all male priesthood. The Vatican will tell us that it's OK to put bread and wine on our TV's during an officially approved televised Mass. They will actually be on the right track, but for all the wrong reasons. Peace, love, and joy. bro.

PS, and you are right. I have a very similar altar as your friend, sans the budha. Down here in New Mexico, it's all fine. Seems like everyone has a home altar with mixed spiritual messages. Everyone honors todos los Senores y Senoras de la luz.

Jayden Cameron said...

Thank you so much, Colleen, for this wonderful response! It is such a comfort to read this. This is just what I am talking about. We all need to 'come out of the closet' about this practice as well, and join these stories together. Laughed out loud at your image of the Vatican telling us to put bread and wine on top of the TV during officially approved mass. That is 'spot on!'I also have a beautiful Buddha image, which I keep to the side, however. "Take this all of you and do this in memory of me." Amen

johndburke said...

I have recently been thinking that if only "they, fom Pope on down" have Jesus but are agents of terrible paranoia and hate, then they really don't have Jesus and I don't need their Jesus.

Jayden Cameron said...

Well put, John, and you would think it would be an obvious insight, but unfortunately it isn't. There's a terrible degree of blindness at work here. Fortunately for all of us there are better ways of finding "Jesus" than relying upon these blind guides.

Contemplative Catholic said...

Dear Jayden, what a powerfully moving testimony. I have never celebrated a personal or family Eucharist, though feel that it would be so 'right' to do so. Even though I put together the website "Home Eucharist" found on my Blog, I have never undertaken one. . . strange. I would love to hear more about your experience, though I fully understand the personal nature of it. I too had what I could only describe as a 'conversion' experience some 30 years ago now that still is the source and centre of my pilgrimage in life.
Nick

Terence Weldon said...

Jayden, thank you for posting this intensely personal material. I have not followed your path yet, but have for some months been wondering if it shold not be the way to go. I do know that it was an intense experience in front of the exposed sacrament that kickstarted my own landmark retreat I have written about previously, and which underpins my present writing.

There is no dooubt in my mind that we as church collectively desperately need to "reformat" in Colleen's useful expression, the church structure, including approaches to ministry, liturgy, and teaching.

If the self-appointed hierarchy are unable to do it with us, we must find ways to do it alone.

Jayden Cameron said...

Nick,thank you for your supportive comment, it's encouraging to hear others testify to how 'right' this all feels. I really believe the Spirit is moving us in startlingly new directions, with each of us giving our own personal testimony and then listening to the voice of the Spirit within others as they offer their reaction. Slowly in this way we will be moved towards a new form of church.

Jayden Cameron said...

Thanks, Terence, your comment is much appreciated, since there are times when I feel a little too 'far out there,' and don't quite know what to make of it all. I do feel that collectively we will be guided in the right direction towards 'reformatting' church structure and no doubt there will be many surprises along the way. The expression 'self-appointed' hierarchy encapsulates the problem, who do these people really represent? Slowly and gently the Spirit is giving us the courage and wisdom to break new ground.