Pneuma

Your wind-borne dancing
Sows the lambing fields with grass,
Our tears with soft praise,

The river, or the delta,
Its muck that formed this flesh-ness.

By swoon of labor
Spread the seed, that fertile speck
Of stars longer gone.

These lips now taste your sweetness
While the wind twists through our hair.

From dawn fields seeping—
Mists and wheat and tears, distilled,
To fill these cupped hands

With prayers spread on musky bread
And drink to conspire with night.

Kissing the flower
Deep into your deepest self,
The world, trembling, sighs

As saplings listen, waiting,
Fill themselves with longing breath.

Nectar of blossoms
Soaks into the ancient bones,
Whose roots reach deeply

Seeking flesh that remembers
The sacred hymns of these trees.

Above—the swarm-dance,
Their songs spent in sweetly praise
Of heaven’s bright queen

Proclaim the Mother’s calling
To curry the sweetest comb.

© Brother Karekin M Yarian, BSG

Documenting Truth

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Truth: there is no such thing as alt-right. It’s called white supremacy.

Truth: there is no such thing as alt-left. There is opposition to white supremacy. There is resistance.

Truth: opposition is not equivalent to hateful ideologies. It is a moral imperative to do so, not a moral equivalence.

Truth: there are no such things as alternative facts. These are called lies.

Truth: there are such things as facts. That they contradict your opinions, agendas, or point out evil behaviors used by corrupt power doesn’t make them less than facts.

Truth: a white supremacist occupies the White House. The administration is comprised of out-of-the-closet fascists.

Truth: fascists will constantly try to convince you that your allies are your enemies, and your enemies are your salvation.

Truth: fascists will try to convince you that the truth is false news, and that their story is the only truth. They will always seek to control the narrative.

Truth: American Christian evangelicalism has become the new Reich Church. They will stop at nothing to destroy and delegitimize opposition to their power over all aspects of American society.

Truth: Donald J Trump has unleashed hell on the American people today. And while it’s only just started to get warm, make no mistake. Fire is coming. And we had all better be prepared.

Truth: Silence is complicity.

Primer on Religious Life - Part Four: On Struggles and Strengths

Keeping It Real

Having had the good fortune to be a pastoral leader in the Province of the Brotherhood that I live in, I have had many opportunities to watch as new brothers move through the stages of life in the community. From Postulancy when they receive the cross, to Novitiate when they receive the habit, on to first vows when they receive the scapular and knotted cincture — each is a chance to watch them grow and struggle with the public and increasingly identifiable nature of their vocation.

Each stage on the journey for them is filled with excitement. I relive my own experience each time I watch a new member of the community make this journey. First Professions always make me cry. Life Professions fill me with awe and terror — the same terror I experienced when I made that commitment in 2001.

Here is a truth for new religious, and for those of you who are not religious but chance to meet us in the parish or on the street…it is a beautiful and difficult thing!

Men and women who come to religious life don’t do so because they think they’re special or better or more holy than anyone else. But we do come because we wish to be holy and trust religious life as a path towards that end. And by “holy” I mean set apart — for God and for God’s service.

And we all have to start somewhere.

When we begin the journey we do so with the knowledge that we are about to embark on a journey that requires strength and also entails struggle. No one learns to be a brother or a sister by reading a book or taking a course of study. Books and study will provide us with a framework of teachings and ethics and provide us tools to discern the road we walk upon. But it is only in the living of the journey that we will be, by God’s grace, transformed into who God wants us to be.

From an interior perspective, it requires us to be challenged about our own views of the world, learn our own interior geography, be willing to become vulnerable, lovable, loving, and diligent.

From an exterior perspective, it requires us to learn about what the world needs. And it requires us to come to terms with all of the “stuff” the world will now expect of us!

Let those who are not in religious life listen and hear!

We will be eager to love and serve you, to bear witness to God, to the teachings of Jesus about mercy and forgiveness and justice. We will be eager to pray with you and to work beside you. But we will also struggle with your expectations of us based on what you think we’re supposed to be and what you think we’re supposed to know.

Religious don’t start off with any special insight about God. We do have special insight about our particular way of striving to serve God, and a willingness to do so. But we will often be confronted by expectations, some quite reasonable and some not so reasonable, about what we know and what God is like and what God wants for our lives and the lives of others.

Religious come to know God through experience not through intellect. And while some religious can be quite intellectual and use that gift to further their ministry of witness and presence, all religious brothers and sisters will learn to witness to God by the fruits born of long and wonderful and even frustrating attempts to be in relationship with God through prayer and daily encounter.

Just because a new brother or sister has taken up their habit or their cross doesn’t mean they will yet be able to teach or witness to more than their experience allows for. And sometimes they will struggle.

So, to my fellow religious who are new to the road — the cross and the habit will be exciting. You will look forward to putting it on. And then you will be afraid. That’s OK!

You will struggle with public perceptions and expectations. That’s good, too. You will have to learn phrases like “I don’t know,” and “No,” and you will learn how to speak from your experiences rather than your own expectations and the expectations of others about what holiness means and what religious are supposed to know.

Over time, with your prayer and experience and the wisdom of a community of men and women who have lived religious life longer and will share it with you and support you, you will grow and be conformed into a suitable servant of God.

 

What Not To Do

From the first time you put on the cross, a question will constantly arise. “Do I wear my cross today?” Or, “I’m going to do _ today. Should I wear my cross?” This is not a dialog with the outside world and it’s rules and norms. It is, rather, an interior dialog. Let me be clear…most religious today do not wear a habit all of the time. And there are times when the prominent cross may also not be appropriate to circumstances. But the question is not about fashion, it’s about behavior. “Does what I’m planning to do today conform with what it means to be a witness?” “Will people scrutinize me?” “Am I willing to be a witness in the place that I am going?”

The answer to these questions is telling, because it will unveil for you whether or not you are setting yourself up to live an integrated life. This is especially a challenge for brothers and sisters who live in contemporary communities like I have discussed in prior parts of this primer. Do not, my brothers and sisters, set yourself up to lead a bifurcated life. But let the cross and the habit be tools to conform you to the life you have chosen. And don’t bring merely parts of your life to God, but bring God into all parts of your life.

Questions like these will force you to confront what you believe about God, how far you are willing to go to serve the world, and what kinds of fears you harbor about living a godly life. And as you struggle with these questions, you will slowly be conformed to God’s service. Because, after all, the whole journey is about leaning how to do that!

Be at ease, my brothers and sisters. God will transform your heart and mind. You will struggle to let go of old patterns and to learn new ones. You will take up a small cross to wear and larger ones within your heart, so that you might follow the one whose cross was far greater a burden to bear. And in doing so, you will learn to emulate his life of love and mercy and justice.

And you will learn that the goal of religious witness is to get yourself far enough out of the way so that God will be the glory to which your life points. Not you, and not the signs and symbols of religious life. Not what you know, but how you love and serve is what will show Christ’s compassion in the world.

This is the life you’ve chosen. Because you believe you are called to it. God will be your strength. The Rule will be your guide. The community will be a comfort. And as time goes on, your time in prayer and discernment, in learning and loving, and your experience of God’s present love and mercy in your life will transform you into who God wants you to be.

As Francis de Sales said, “God never asked us to be successful. Only faithful.”

Primer on Religious Life - Part Three: On Work and Service

“It is the work of the Brotherhood to witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus, which has been freely bestowed upon us and upon all of creation.” — Of the Work of the Brotherhood, BSG Rule

 

Why do we serve?

Rather than get into a very old, and in my mind questionable, discussion about whether it is faith or works that justifies the sinner in the eyes of God, I’d rather just upend the idea and start from a different place. The religious impulse to serve God and others is, or at least should be, love and gratitude! In an earlier part of these reflections, I made note that the taking of vows was, first and foremost, an act of love.

Religious community is not about working out a brother or sister’s personal salvation, although there should be no doubt by now that life in community acts as a forge, helping the individual conform themselves to a Godly life. Virtues such as patience, forbearance, generosity, charity and compassion can’t be learned easily without engagement with others. But, while community acts as a school for learning these things, it is the modeling of these things — witness to them in the world — that is at the heart of what religious witness is about.

Christians are called to be participants in seeking the conditions to help usher in the Reign of God. We are called to partnership with God in the healing of what is broken in the world. And, as such, community life is our testing ground for what shape the Reign of God might take, and a support for us as we demonstrate it in daily life to the world around us.

Religious witness is not about earning God’s love and grace. Rather it is a grateful response to the love and grace that we believe we have already received! It is, as noted in the quote from our Rule above, a witness to the love of God that has *already* been bestowed on us and all of creation.

Religious witness should also begin from a place of humility — the recognition on the part of the individual that without the love of Christ which precedes it, and the support of a community of others to support it, the individual is incapable of discerning the path and doing the work alone. It is a fierce critique of the individualism that our culture so values.

A life of love and service stems from a desire to share a blessing we have already received with a world terribly in need of blessing. We love because we are loved first by God, and we serve because our hearts recognize the abundance of that love and it impels us to share it in acts of love and compassion modeled by our teacher, Jesus, who taught us that in doing these things the Reign of God draws near.

 

How do we serve?

“Work, being our share in creation and partnership with God in that creation, can be sanctified. All labor is equal in glory, honor and importance and the work of a brother should bear these qualities. Keeping in mind that all talents are gifts of the Holy Spirit, the work of all brothers must be to the greater glory of God. Work is an oblation to God, as is service to our fellow man.” — Of Work as an Apostolate, BSG Rule

The vision of all labor being equal is not a stretch for those in religious witness. This in spite of the fact that the world may strongly disagree. But in a tradition that emphasizes the dignity of every human being, it should come as no surprise that the gifts and skills of each individual are a part of that inviolable dignity.

When communities of religious come together around a particular set of gifts and skills such as teaching, preaching, hospital ministry, etc. we call this a charism. Communal charism is workable in an enclosure like a monastery or convent, but becomes untenable in a community that is dispersed like my own.

The vision of the Reign of God pre-supposes that everyone will have a place and that everyone will have a role to fill. And, they will all be different based as they are on the unique gifts of the individual. The charism of the individual is lauded as a gift of the Spirit, and it’s use is put toward God’s purposes. What a vision!

It is not just the life of prayer and study, not just the work of the Church as an institution, not just those things we might lump under the heading “ministry” like teaching or preaching or worship that constitute “holiness” of life. But our work is an integral part of the wholeness of the individual, and bringing it under the discipline of a Rule of Life makes it an essential part of religious witness.

Imagine if every person approached their work with a sense of equality of labor rather than status as the world demands? Imagine if everyone approached their work in a way that modeled the qualities of fairness, justice, mercy and love. Or if they exercised patience, humility, quietness, and generosity in their work rather than seeing these qualities as reserved for “other” areas of their lives — how would the world change for the better?

Imagine if we looked at those we serve and those with whom we work - or those who provide for our needs by serving us — as having their own inherent dignity, and whose labor is equal in importance to God — how would the world change? This sanctification of work, and its understanding as part of the apostolate of every individual, is what religious bear witness to. Religious communities that are dispersed are in a unique position to bear witness to these qualities.

 

Where do we serve?

Our culture is filled with images straight out of Hollywood film or an Umberto Eco novel about what religious life is supposed to look like. The monastery is an idealized place, whose rhythms reflect the balance between work, study, prayer and silence. The monks or nuns in residence diligent in order and purpose, models of Godly life that are somehow working out their salvation by participation in the ordered life of the cloister.

Work in the enclosure is intended to keep hands from being idle, and the fruits of those labors largely in support of the monastery or the immediately surrounding community — the farming of vegetables, the kitchen bustling to feed an army of religious and the occasional visitor, the laundry and cleaning to maintain the order and dignity of the house. Today, these types of cloistered religious life are largely gone. And while this is a model still maintained in some rare places, these orders are disappearing as vocations dwindle and the realities of maintaining property financially strap the communities.

Within the contemporary communities that are dispersed, we often say that we carry the monastery on our backs. The trend of movement is away from the enclosure and into the world where religious witness might reach more people. The balance intended by the order maintained in religious houses must now be cultivated in the world among the myriad distractions the world has to offer. Work, study, prayer and worship must now be balanced with family obligations, secular job responsibilities, civic and community responsibilities and other needs in a manner that requires tremendous discipline. While many may be tempted to believe that being a religious in the world requires less of the brother or sister than a commitment to live in a monastery, quite the opposite is true.

The opportunity for ministry and witness by dispersed religious in the world is greatly expanded, and the potential for service is limited only by our imaginations. We serve whom God has placed right in front of us. Even, and perhaps most especially, by our labor — our work — in love and service to the glory of God.

Primer on Religious Life - Part Two: About Vows

In a recent article on Religious Life in the Church, I was asked to clarify what vows signify in a religious community, especially in a contemporary one such as our own Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. The article touched on our Rule of Life as a distinguishing characteristic of religious witness, as opposed to lay and ordained ministry in the Church. Neither of which is mutually exclusive to religious life, but brothers and sisters in communities simply have a different paradigm by which we experience the Church and religious witness.

The vows taken up by religious in the church are one of the tools by which we seek to conform ourselves to God’s will, as witnessed in the life and teachings of Jesus – our Teacher. These vows differ from community to community – the Benedictine tradition holding to Stability, Conversion of Life, and Obedience. The Franciscan tradition follows the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. It is these latter three that I will offer in this reflection, being the three that my own community follows, and the most readily recognized when one speaks of religious vows. I also readily acknowledge that our community, being a contemporary expression of religious life, interprets these vows somewhat differently given our nature as a community that lives in the world – in diaspora – and that we allow for individuals regardless of marital status. So, I suppose a little history might be in order before we get started.

 

Out of This World!

During the long history of religious life, many more sisters and brothers were confined to the monastery or convent than were permitted to live in the world. Traditional Benedictine religious life was confined to the enclosure and many monastic traditions developed out of that way of life. Stability, Conversion, and Obedience were tools by which the personalities in a monastic setting were subsumed into the discipline and order of the house in which they lived together. Obedience to the Abbot or Abbess was required for discipline, and Stability and Conversion of Life referred to conforming to and accepting the manner of life required to maintain order. The spiritual significance of these vows in the lives of the women and men who took them up were explored and written about for centuries as being fruitful in their own right in also conforming the individual to a godly life, where the needs and concerns of others held precedence over the needs of individuals, and where pride, hubris, selfishness and vanity could be overcome by a life dedicated to principles intended to transform the individual into someone more becoming follower of Christ.

St. Francis gave new Counsels to his followers, intending as he did that they would not be confined to the monastery, but live in the world as itinerant preachers, teachers, and care-givers for the poor and outcast. For Francis, what was important is that his followers also be poor and live in solidarity among those they served. The admonition of Jesus to “sell all you have and come follow me” was taken quite literally by those Franciscans named for their visionary founder. These Franciscans relied on the hospitality of others and begging for alms to make their way through the world. Before his lifetime ended, the Church – in terror of the witness to Poverty among the followers of Francis – brought them under the authority of the church and then required them to live in common houses like their monastic predecessors. We call these houses “friaries.” Francis was not pleased.

Over centuries of witness, the shared life and teachings of religious who took these vows, and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience have come to be associated with very specific meanings and practices. Poverty signifying the giving up of possessions to enter the religious house, and the holding of all goods in common so that no one had anything more (or less) than any of the others. Personal possessions were a no no. Chastity signifying sexual abstinence – not only generally but also, quite particularly, abstaining from sex with others in the monastery! And Obedience signifying, again, obedience to the heads and masters (or mistresses) of the order for the purpose of discipline and self-conformity to the will of God, and obedience to God’s commands as taught by Jesus and interpreted by the particular manner and form of the community of followers.

 

Fast Forward

One of the most startling, and in retrospect impactful, reforms of religious life since Francis happened in the 1960’s during the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church. And it was not entirely intentional. Married life was declared as an entirely equal, authentic, and spiritual value for the individual as was the celibate life of those religious who professed Chastity as one of their vows! No longer were religious brothers and sisters considered to have a better, more exalted, or more dear quest for godly life than those who were married, raising families and ministering as lay people in the Church.

There were two unexpected consequences to this pronouncement. One is that traditional religious left their communities in droves to get married! The other is that communities of religious were either forced to rethink what religious witness looked like, or other new communities were formed that began to bring religious life into this new modernity of the Church. The religious orders in the Episcopal Church were likewise affected.

The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, my own community, and many others can be said to fall squarely in the realm of this vision for new, modern expressions of religious witness.

 

Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience In The World

So, how do you explain to folks who ask – How do you have a vow of Poverty when you own your own home? How do you practice Chastity when you’re married? What does Obedience mean today when individuality is everything?

As with most things, the value of the vows is what they point to, and not in the particular ways that one or another community chooses to live them. This has always been the case even among the traditional orders that flourished over centuries, each of which had differing opinions, implementations, and practices around what the vows meant specifically. But, over time, the deeper meanings of the vows – and more importantly the spiritual value to which they pointed – got lost in the minutia of specific practice of the vows conflation with one and only one particular. Sure, Chastity meant celibacy for traditional religious. But the spiritual value of Chastity as embodied in the celibate life became less important than the specific practice, the discipline and struggle of maintaining it, and became weighed down by the suspicion of the body that accompanied it.

So, if we take up the vows in the world, in the context of communities that allow for married or partnered life, where we might no longer beg for bread or have to conform to the rigors and order of the common house, the vows need to return to their roots. What are the spiritual values to which the vows point, and what practices can be built up around them that conform to the world in which these new orders inhabit while still providing the means of spiritual transformation and discipline that are the hallmark of religious life?

 

A Gregorian Perspective

People have often asked me to distill the three evangelical counsels (our vows) into what we see as essential, in order that we might live them while being fully in the world. Far from being “simpler” than the traditional vows, they are in some ways more difficult in that they apply to every relationship that we encounter while being religious fully in the world.

Poverty - No matter what you have, it isn’t yours. Use everything in your possession for the benefit of God’s people and for God’s glory. It’s not about what you have, but what you do with what you have.

Chastity - People are ends and not means. They are not possessions. They have integrity and dignity and wholeness and so should you. Free yourself to love.

Obedience - Freedom is not about doing what you want. It’s about being released from the prison of selfish desires. Stop manipulating circumstances and people to get what you want.

Our vows are not ends in and of themselves. They are means. They force us to become aware of the idols we have erected in our lives that distract us from our responsibility to love and serve God and others. They are the means by which we learn to tear those idols down. What idols, or obsessions if you will, do the vows help us to recognize? Poverty points to our obsessions with security and safety. Chastity points to unhealthy pursuit of affection and the esteem of others.

Obedience to our desire for power and control. We are distracted from God when our inordinate attachment to these things warps our sense of perspective and proportion. The three vows provide starting points for dismantling the systems we have built up, culturally and individually, that draw our love inward towards the self and it’s desires rather than towards God and other.

When vows become an end rather than a means to an end, they turn quickly to false idols. When Poverty becomes just about money and possessions; Chastity merely about sex; Obedience solely about submission to authority; then we lose the opportunity to focus on what the vows are meant to accomplish. We miss the thing to which they point. Vows don’t lead to the relinquishment of the will, but our stretching of it so that it can be conformed to the will of God – which is to love God and neighbor.

The taking of vows is, in its essence, an act of love. It is a gift of the self to God and an acceptance of God’s gift of self to us. It is a costly gift, because it is predicated on the acceptance that the journey will transform us from what we are into what God intends for us to be. This means the laying aside of selfish assertions of the will, and the learning of its right use. This can only be accomplished by trusting the love of God to be the central defining locus of our identity, and the true measure of our value.

 

A Final Thought on Vows

There are many and varied new expressions of religious life coming into being all over the Church today. Each of them will undertake different forms of witness, require different vows or interpretations of those vows, and come up with increasingly creative ways to express religious witness while maintaining continuity with the long history of traditional religious life. Some will last for a long while, others only for a time. Most of them will be in the world rather than inside a monastery or other enclosure.

Each of them will have an opportunity to bear witness to what it means to love and serve God and others, whether through prayer or action. Each will have opportunity to build community using their Rule and vows to foster that community’s strengths and cohesion, while offering a vision of transformation into what it means to become a follower of Christ into the love of God.

The opportunity for these communities to do so as visible members of the Church is an extraordinary change and blessing. But ours is not to believe that we are the light, but only to “become messengers for the One who is the light.” To that end, whatever vows we take up, we ought to remember that it is not the specifics of practice that are the point, but only the spiritual benefit that they point to, and the fruit they bear in the lives of the individual and in the common life of the community that will lead the Church into its true calling to help usher in the Reign of God based on justice, mercy, truth and love.

Hey, What Are You? - A Primer on Religious Life

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One of the joys of being a senior brother in the religious community that I belong to is the myriad opportunities I have to watch newer members of the Brotherhood learn about what it means to be a brother in the Church.

I remember well the days of learning to articulate what it meant to suddenly be a brother to those in my life who had known me long before I made that choice. What was it (or is it now) that makes me different than I was? What IS a brother? “Are you like a priest or something?”

Even in our beloved Episcopal Church, there is little to no understanding of what a brother is, or does…or what makes us different. What makes us a religious — brother or sister — and what is the Church supposed to make of us?

This is nothing new. Even in the days of St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi as they founded religious communities, the Church was perplexed as to what to make of us. And often, the Church’s response was to quickly gather religious into and under the authority of the Church to keep them from becoming troublesome. Especially when they bandied about words like Poverty and Simplicity in the midst of a Church whose coffers were overflowing with money, and a magisterium that was filled with men referred to as Princes of the Church - ostentatious in their displays of wealth and power.

The community I belong to, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, is a religious community that lives scattered about rather than living in a monastery or a friary. We are open to individuals regardless of marital status, so many of us have spouses and families, and we live as religious in the world rather than behind a cloister wall. This adds another layer of complexity to trying to define what role religious play in the world and in the Church when we are no longer tucked away in quiet gardens out of sight.

So this is a primer — for those of you who want to know more about who we are and what we do, and also a primer for those newer members of religious communities who might find it hard to articulate what being a brother or sister means to those who don’t quite understand what your new place is — in or out of the Church.

 

One Rule to Ring Them All

The first and foremost thing that makes a religious brother or sister different is a document called a Rule of Life. A Rule (from the Latin regula for yardstick, measure) is a document that governs the life of a religious community and its individual members. A Rule contains a set of instructions for how we live, what we ought to do, and how we should measure our spiritual lives. It often contains “vows” and those vows vary from community to community. Poverty, Chastity and Obedience in some cases, Simplicity and Conversion of Life in others. But the vows are ways in which religious brothers and sisters vow to regulate their lives in areas of possessions, relationships, and decision making.

The Rule also governs such things as how often we pray and worship, how we study sacred writings such as Scripture and the lives of the saints, our perspectives on work, how often we take retreat time, meditate, and how we ought to treat each other in community and in the world. A Rule outlines perspectives and goals for living a full, balanced, and healthy spiritual life and how we take care of ourselves and others.

In the case of my own community, we see the Rule as a concrete way of living out the promises we as Christians make when we are baptized. The Rule is the way we check ourselves to make sure that God is at the center of our lives and actions, rather than our own selfish pursuits or the pursuits that the world tells us are valuable. This is why it is often said of religious that we live “in the world, but not of the world.”

The Rule is a tool that we use to check ourselves when we are out of balance, and a tool that we use to measure whether we are in balance and health with God, with our own selves and with others around us. It is the regula  or the measuring stick by which we evaluate that we are being true to God’s desire for us.

The Rule is a fundamental definition of what makes us religious. In the Church, people tend to divide the world into lay people (the ordinary folks in the pews) and ordained people (bishops, priests, deacons). Not so for religious. We see the world and the church in terms of regular (under a Rule) and secular (not under a Rule).

 

A Rose By Any Other Name

In some religious orders, it has remained tradition that new religious change their names on entrance to the community. This comes from a time when, again, mitigating individual status was important when living in a monastery. it was also useful when there were 20 or 30 men named John or 40 women named Mary to give them another name to avoid confusion!

Today, the symbolism of names in religious communities is different. Some choose to keep their given and baptismal names as a way of expressing continuity with their old life. Some choose to take a new name entirely to symbolize a complete break with an old life and the beginning of a new one in Christ. Either is perfectly fine. The only time it isn’t is when taking a new name results in one identity in community and another outside of it. God wants us to be integrated and whole, not lead double lives.

The challenges of taking a new name in religion lies in those who have known you for years with a different one. Especially when living as a scattered community such as ours. There are no hard and fast rules about whether to take a new name, and the challenges that come when one decides to do that. Even if one decides simply to take up their full baptismal name (i.e. Brother John Edward, or Sister Marie Grace), there will be moments for the new religious to explain exactly why they’ve chosen to be so called, and challenges on the part of those who have known him or her to use the new name in recognition of the new vocation, commitment, and role of their friend or family member in the world. It takes some stretching and patience on both sides.

 

Habit forming

Some religious communities wear a distinctive garb and others don’t. I belong to a community that does. This distinctive dress is called a habit, and it hails from a long ago time, and the parts of it originated with specific purposes — many of which are forgotten. The habit did not, in fact, originate as a garb distinctive from what everyone else wore at the time, with a couple of exceptions. The knotted cincture (belt) indicated the vows that religious brothers and sisters took, and the hood on the habit was introduced to solve the particular problem of the wandering eye! The cross, which is a strong symbol of a life dedicated to Christ, his life and death and resurrection, as a symbol for a way of self-giving. But, over time, the habit remained in some fashion or another as a distinctive clothing for religious even while the fashion of the world changed and moved on.

The habit, when it is used as part of religious tradition, marks the brother or sister in the same way a collar marks those who are ordained, even though some religious orders also wear collars as a part of their distinctive garb. It can be equally confusing for folks in the Church as in the world.

The habit also, when living in community, was a great equalizer of individuals. When some were rich and others poor, when some had means and others didn’t, when family ties and connections and status threatened to divide brothers or sisters the same way it does in the world, the habit was a tool for making sure that everyone appeared the same.

The habit is, like the Rule, a tool for religious that helps them conform their lives to the new role they take up in the world and in the Church. Its various parts and their symbolism (purity, labor, strength, etc.) along with the cross (the true habit of an order) can be useful to the religious and those they meet to mark a life dedicated to the service of God and others, and to signify a life set apart to a specific purpose that is God’s alone.

 

Who is My Brother (Sister)?

The word Brother or Sister is not an honorific (like Doctor or Father or Madame President). It is not a title. It is an indicator of relationship! And it is a relationship that is based on equality rather than hierarchy. A new religious does not take up the indicator of Brother or Sister in an attempt to be better than, more authoritative than, or more important than anyone else. We take it up so that you might know us as equals, relatable, and present in a way that embodies shared experience and desire, bountifully expressed in our shared status as children of God.

Because we are representatives of mutuality in our relationship with God, we are not like clergy who are sacramental presences of God’s authority. This is why we don’t do things like absolve of sins or celebrate Eucharist. We share in sin and we share in Eucharist equally with others, and our presence is meant to symbolize that.

We often play a pastoral role in the lives of others. So do clergy. To understand the difference, imagine sharing your secrets, your fears, your concerns with your parents as opposed to your closest sibling. Both are valuable. Both are cleansing. But they are different. Clergy who are fashioned Mothers and Fathers are vital to the life of the Church. So are Brothers and Sisters.

The Church often has a hard time understanding the role of Brothers and Sisters in religious community. Unfortunately, there is a long history of demands, educational requirements, responsibilities of clergy in the Church that has led to an equal sense of entitlements and privileges. We call this clericalism in the Church. And although in the Episcopal Church we have tried to mitigate it, it has found its way into the institution nonetheless. As a result, the presence of religious in the Church has created a dynamic that is confusing.

Again, while the Church sees lay and ordained, we find the distinction largely problematic for us. We religious don’t seek entitlement or privilege or authority. We only seek the exercise of a ministry of presence, a life of compassion, encouragement in gifts, and a deep sense of mutual responsibility to God and the mandates of Christ in the Gospels. We know that clergy seek this too, but we also recognize that the requirements and duties of ordained life often compromise the ability to pursue this witness to our mutuality. We try, in most cases, to avoid the entanglements of ordained life (unless it becomes a logical extension of our vowed life) to pursue a life that symbolizes what we refer to in the Church as the “priesthood of all believers.” This priesthood comes from our Baptism, and we as religious try to be icons of the life that Baptism calls us all to live as believers and followers of Christ.

There are Brothers and Sisters who are also ordained to one of the orders of ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) in the Church. We call them regular clergy (as opposed to secular clergy). Interestingly, in most cases, they still refer to themselves as Brother so and so, or Sister so and so…rather than take up the honorific of Mother of Father. This is telling, in that they still recognize that their approach to presence with others is still deeply informed by equality rather than authority.

 

Eat Pray Love

In the olden days of the Church, while clergy were tethered to the Church building, the parish and the local community, religious Brothers and Sisters especially in the era of the Franciscans and Dominicans, were wandering, itinerant preachers and teachers. The Franciscans were a radical departure from the communities of old who stayed firmly ensconced in the monastery and rarely left.

Most religious in the world today are closer to the Franciscan model, being permitted (or in some cases required) to walk in the world. Communities confined to the monastery or convent are more rare than ever given the way the world has changed. And, in the Episcopal Church which has claimed its Catholic heritage while remaining true to its Reformation roots, there is ever more likelihood that religious will be present in its congregations and life than at any time previously. And so, it is imperative for those religious, and for the Church itself, to understand what role religious play in its life and order.

Brothers and Sisters under a Rule of Life are called to bear witness to the vocation that all Christians are called to live. One of heeding the call of the Gospel life, one of helping to usher in the Reign of God promised by Jesus, and one that takes seriously the requirements that he laid down for his followers to bear witness to the God and Father he called “Abba.”

This means bearing witness to the shared life of all believers that is summed up in the breaking of bread (Eucharist), constant engagement with God (Daily Prayer), and the Great Commandment (love God and one another). Or as the title of a recent bestselling book succinctly put it, “Eat, Pray, Love”.

Religious Brothers and Sisters are engaged in a unique approach to this Gospel life that not only requires them to engage in this manner of living, but also to bear witness to this life to others — both in the world and in the Church. The world is surprisingly open and receptive to this ministry of presence, to the compassion, love and service that religious offer. The Church, too often sadly, simply doesn’t know what to do with us — convinced that we must either be clergy or some other anomaly that is peculiar and curious and perhaps irrelevant. 

The clergy often see us either as adversaries, pretenders, or second class citizens. The laity often see us as failed clergy or a different kind of clergy. We are not any of these things. We are, simply, what you are called to be. We are not better at it. We have no deeper knowledge or mastery of prayer, meditation, or more clear knowledge of God. We simply bear witness to what it means to take these things as central and essential qualities of life, and then to engage in them more deliberately as means by which we may discover what it means to live — as Jesus called us all to live — as people who claim to follow him more deeply into the love of God.

--Br. Karekin, BSG

Mary! That's a Man's Name

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Warning: some of the language here might be triggering or offensive to some. If it is, please forgive me. I am not, however, sorry for having to use it. I need to say this.

 

***********************

 

"Oh, what a pretty daughter you have."

 

"You know he's gay, right?"

I was 4 years old.

 

Yeah, I couldn't swing a little league bat. I crossed my legs the wrong way, carried my books the wrong way. A fay little thing.

 

"Hey, Grandma, I want to learn how to knit like you."

"Of course you do, you big sissy."

 

"Hey...are you a girl or a boy?"

What if I'm not sure?

I wasn't sure...

 

I put on my first dress when I was 12. Did my first drag at 15. I thought I'd die of shame the next day. I was a pro by 18. By 19, wearing a skirt was an act of defiance.

 

"No son of mine is going to wear his hair that long. I should start calling you 'Raquel.'"

 

I was a teenager the first time I asked the gender question. "Am I supposed to be a girl?"

“Hmmm…I don't think so?”

 

I agonized with my first boyfriend over whether we should hold hands on the street. We did. For him, it was freedom. For me it was life. I wanted a boy to protect me. I didn’t care that I was also supposedly a boy. No…I am a boy! Partly.

 

"Hey, are you QUEER?!"

"Yes."

 

"OUT OF THE CLOSET AND INTO THE STREETS!"

 

My first Pride march was in 1980. Everyone just called it "Gay Pride." NYC. We've come a long way. Not far enough. Every act of asserting my gender expression in all of its variety seemed like political dissidence.  Now its’s just dangerous.

 

"Your so androgynous. Like Bowie. It's 'kind of' sexy.”

 

Some cop mistook me for a female prostitute once when I was 17. Sitting on the hood of a car outside of Uncle Charlie's – a gay bar in NYC. Told me if I was looking for trade there, it was going to be a long night.

 

“Hey, faggot, you walk like a girl."

 

When I came out as a teenager, the bar I went to routinely refused entry to women. Gay male misogyny.

 

“No women allowed.”

“I'm not a woman.”

“ID please? Good luck buddy.”

“I’m not your buddy.”

 

I wasn’t even legal to drink. But I was a “boy” and young was a bonus.

 

Thank goodness for the punk scene. I got to play with the politics of being femme.

 

"What ARE you, a freak?"

“Yes.”

 

"You need to butch up, girl."

"Oh, that ugly queen? She could never pass."

 

“Dude, you’re really extreme.”

“Oh…I’m SO NOT a dude.”

 

Yeah…there’s the weird place…neither masculine enough nor feminine enough to make sense to small minds. What was I? Not who. What? That's what our culture does. Reduces us to objects. Even in our own thoughts.

 

"Masculine seeking same."

"Sorry, I'm not into femmes."

 

Why is it the worst thing in the world to be effeminate as someone named male at birth? Straight men think so. Most gay men too. I have endured someone trying to beat it out of me. I have survived having someone try to rape it out of me. I have silently tried to check it out of my own self and didn’t entirely self-destruct.

 

"Jeez, dude! If you're gonna act so nelly, why don't you just go be a girl!"

 

I asked the question again in my twenties. And my thirties. And my forties.

 

Because I thought I had to choose. And not just which parts were right, but what presentation. Meanwhile, I was at war with my own self. Don’t stand that way. Don’t sit that way. Watch the hands. Lower your voice.

 

“Yes, ma’am, how can I help you?”

No, I'm not a woman.

 

"God doesn't make mistakes." (church lady says)

 

No. You’re right! God surely doesn’t! Society does. Cultural privilege marginalizes those of us who don't fit whatever ungodly arbitrary definition of "normal" is until we all start to believe we don't even exist. Or, if we do, we are a pathological aberration.

 

"I'll make you scream like a little bitch."

Yeah…he actually said that. A gay guy who thought he’d “fix” me.

 

I don't think I was born in the "wrong" body. Not entirely. I think I was born in the wrong society. One that told me that my femininity was wrong for the body I was born with. That I was the wrong "kind" of "boy."

 

Nelly.

Nancy.

Lady-boy.

Mary.

 

"Mary? That's a MAN'S name!" (Billy G. used to say that, may he Rest In Peace.)

 

I got married. Twice. Once to a woman, then to a man. It's been 18 years and counting. He’s my rock, my husband.

 

I became a Brother in a religious order in my late twenties. It put God at the center of my world. It taught me to love and to serve others. To be patient and prayerful and self-sacrificing. It also invited me to continue diving more deeply into my own truths. To discover my land mines. To learn my interior geography. You can only do that for so long before you have to answer the unasked questions. Before you have to open the box that you’ve packed half of yourself away in and that you only periodically check on to make sure  “she’s” not dead yet.

 

“How can you be a Brother and be gay?”

“I’m not gay. I’m queer.”

“What does that mean?”

“Thirty years ago, we knew what it meant.”

{{{crickets}}}

 

Queer was dissident. We reclaimed a word that was used to hurt us and turned it  into an affirmation. A one size fits all word. No alphabet. No one excluded. A category of defiance. A royal “fuck you” to a world that used that word like a grenade tossed into back alleys and school locker rooms and the streets we claimed for our own selves. They lobbed it at all of us regardless of what part of the rainbow we inhabited. We took it back.

 

We have gotten so caught up in carving out niches in alphabets, the politics of Pride flags, the logical limitations of trying to find a letter or a stripe that could possibly represent the infinite variety of gender and sexuality. The strange inconsistency of having a category that contains non-conformity.

 

The first time I used the word "we" during a conversation about gender variant and non-conforming folks, my breath caught in my throat and I nearly burst into tears. You know, that choking, barely able to breathe sobbing that happens when you realize you're never going to have to push that rock up that hill again? It pushed against my insides until I couldn't breathe.

 

I am not your boy.

I am not your girl.

I am both.

I am neither.

I am not a stripe.

I am not a letter.

 

I was 50 years old.

 

"Oh, you too? Isn't everyone doing that these days?" (Says the gay black cis-male drag queen.)

 

"Why did you wait until you were so old?" (says the gay white cis-male Millennial)

 

I know what it's like for my body to betray me. To give away that I'm not like other so called boys. And for the constituent parts of my body to mislead about what place femininity rightly holds in my physicality, in my mind.

 

There is another whole completely legitimate and beautiful part of me that society wants to suffocate or put in a proper box. A box that says where I belong. Who should have power over me. A box that defines my body, my sexuality, my place. I hate boxes. And I hate lying. Carrie Fisher once said “I am not a box. I don’t have sides. This is all of me.”

 

"Isn't she just a woman living as a man?"

No. You need to step back! He's a man finally able to live that way.

 

I felt like my body chemistry was at war with my self. That my hormones forced my body to conform to a half truth. 

 

Most people can't even work out two. How they going to work out three or three hundred? Infinite variety? I inhabit it and I could barely figure it out.

 

I feel like I’ve finally found myself. Now I get to apparently lose a bunch of stuff too. Not the things or people that matter. But, yeah. Authenticity is dangerous.

 

There are so many people I haven’t told. It has nothing to do with love or trust. It has everything to do with being in control of my story. There are people who know even though I haven’t said a word to them. Because they read between the lines. Because they read my face and see a whole self smiling back.  Because they get it or at least try to. If you are one of my most beloved and I haven't told you, it's only because I lack courage. Writing is the way I do it best. I love you.

 

"Are you a boy or a girl?"

"No."

 

The last time I checked, that was a complete sentence.

 

"Pardon me. Do you mind if I ask your gender?"

"Well, my ID says male."

"Is it right?"

"-ish"

 

Why does my ID not tell the whole truth? Or, why does it make me tell half-truths?

 

How does the Devil win? When I stop speaking the truth.

 

This year was my 37th Pride. We have a long way to go. But we're still here. I'm still here! I've survived the plagues of disease and toxic masculinity. I've survived suicide attempts and the utter absence of vocabulary to speak about my experience. My being.

 

Perhaps because I'm old enough now to realize that it isn't about the party but about our personhood that I’m not afraid in any deep sense.

 

Perhaps it is that God has finally after 24 years of religious life given me absolute security in my belovedness…or perhaps because I was a stubborn old fool I finally listened to what God was saying all along.

 

“Are you going to stop being a Brother?”

“Not if I have anything to say about it.”

 

I have the most extraordinary privilege to love, serve, listen, hold so many people who hurt. Being a Brother is about being with folks in their hurt, not above them. And no one can tell me I'm not “man” enough to keep doing it.

 

“How does your husband deal with it?”

“With greater grace than I have.”

 

Am I happy? Oh, God! I'm beyond happy. I am usually happy. Most of my adult life I've been grateful, joyful, satisfied, and sometimes even blissfully happy. This new happiness is a little different. It's happiness minus the weight of an unanswered question.

 

“Girl! You look twenty years younger!”

“Yeah. Youth is the point after all.”  {{{shaking my damned head}}}

 

“My sister brother, when I saw you walking down the street you took my breath away. Like you finally fit yourself! I nearly broke down and wept.”

Yeah…that's it.

 

Celebrate, my sibs! Be your beautiful selves. If you do that, you'll save lives. It took me a while to name myself. I’ll walk with you -- and if you need, I’ll stay while you figure yourself out too. These are dangerous times indeed. We know who seeks to harm us. Fight. Resist. 

 

Are you our ally?  Because right now, we need you. Don't turn your backs on us now. Our lives depend on it. My life depends on it. Because I've only just discovered myself, and now is when I need you to get it. 

 

“Are you a boy or a girl.”

“Yes. And…”