Guadalupe: Mother of My Cross-Bred Soul

The year is 1531.

It is not quite dawn and the hills outside Mexico City are still shrouded in darkness, the sky lightening where the stars are disappearing in the east. A Native man, dressed in the simple cactus-fiber tunic that the peasants here wear, is making his way to Mass on this Saturday morning.

It is December, and the air is crisp with cold. The man, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, stops as he hears voices. He looks up to Mount Tepeyac, from where it appears the sound of singing, like that of precious birds, is coming. From the summit of the hill, he hears a voice. “Dignified Juan,” the voice says, calling him by name. “Dignified Juan Diego.”

Juan begins up the hill uncertainly. Up ahead, he sees a lady, standing and beckoning him to come forward. She is beautiful and glows with a radiant light. This most amazing light illumines the rocks and shrubs surrounding her. She speaks, saying, “I am the entirely and ever Virgin, Saint Mary.”

She goes on to tell Juan Diego that she wants a shrine, a hermitage, a shelter built in her honor, here on Mount Tepeyac. And that she wants Juan to go to the palace of the bishop in Mexico City with this request.

Taking his leave of her, Juan Diego goes straight into the city to the palace of the bishop. The bishop, of course, is a ruling-class Spaniard, and this is the imperial city of Tenochtilan, and Juan is, of course, a peasant and an Indian. The bishop’s attendants leave him waiting for a long time, and when the bishop finally speaks to Juan, in passing, he dismisses his vision.

Returning, Juan finds the heavenly lady waiting for him in the same place he had encountered her earlier. Juan tells her what has happened, how he was kept waiting, and how the bishop dismissed him without even hearing his story. Juan begs the Virgin to send somebody nobler, better known, somebody respected and esteemed. “No one will believe me, my Lady and my Queen. I am nothing but a campesino.” The Virgin rejects these protestations, insisting that he is the one to make her message known to the official church.

Again, Juan heads into the city, and again is put off from seeing the bishop, and again is admitted reluctantly. This time, the bishop tells Juan that he must provide some proof that this vision he says he keeps having is actually the Virgin Mary herself.

The next day, Juan hastens to the bedside of his uncle who is dying of a pestilence. His uncle begs Juan to fetch a priest to give him last rites before he dies. Juan hurries off into the crisp December dawn. He needs to take the path upon which the Virgin Mary has appeared to him, but, because his last interview with the bishop didn’t go so well, he wants to avoid her, so he goes another way. Despite his attempt, the Heavenly Lady again appears before him glowing with preternatural light, surrounded by the sound of birds.

“Where are you going?” she asks. Juan confesses that he needs to get the priest before his uncle dies. She tells him that his uncle is well, that he has been healed. She tells Juan to go back to see for himself that his uncle is well, and that when Juan returns, she will provide proof of her identity for the skeptical bishop.

On December 12, 1531, the Virgin Mary appears again to Juan Diego on top of Tepeyac hill. Flowers, rich, fragrant roses from Castile in full bloom, surround her though this is neither the place nor the season for such flowers. It is the desert in winter in Mesoamerica.

“Collect these flowers,” she tells Juan. “They will be your proof to the bishop so that he will believe it is I who am requesting a shrine be built for me upon this hill.” With the flowers gathered up into his simple tunic, Juan heads for the bishop’s palace. This time, the attendants are astounded that the poor Indian who doesn’t seem to know when to go away is back, and back with what seems to be miraculous flowers. Juan is ushered into the bishop’s presence right away. Juan unwraps his tunic, and the fragrant, out-of-season, Castilian flowers tumble out triumphantly at the bishop’s feet.

And there, on the fabric of the poor Indian’s tunic, is an image. It is an image of the Ever Virgin Holy Mary Mother of God.

Virgen_de_guadalupe1

You can see this image today, at the basilica in Mexico City dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The bishop, it seems, heard and believed, and built a shelter dedicated to her on that hill. The image in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the original cloth, though about a hundred years after these events, somebody has touched it up to make it look a little more like the European representations of the Virgin Mary. They added stars and a crown and a crescent moon beneath her feet and a halo around her entire body. It is, of course, possible that the entire image was painted on and there are many who claim this is the case, a seventeenth century fiction fabricated (so to speak) within a discourse that pitted Native piety against Church hierarchy.

Her mantel drapes her head and falls about her shoulder and arms. Her hands are clasped before her. She is not carrying a baby. She is serene. And all around her, the spiky body halo. The most remarkable feature of this now ubiquitous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the fact that she is brown-skinned. She is widely known in Mexico as la virgen morena, the dark-skinned virgin. She looks more like an aboriginal princess than a European lady. The very name Guadalupe, in fact, is probably a reference to the statue of the Virgin Mary in northern Spain by that name. That statue is carved out of a very dark wood, giving the impression of a dark-skinned Goddess more than the pale images of Mary current in European art. Many of the Spanish troops stationed at Tepeyac were from this region of Spain and may have identified the Mexican virgin with the one in Spain.

I was first introduced to the Virgin of Guadalupe soon after her feast day many years ago, when I found myself in Trinity Church in Boston, hearing about a pilgrimage somebody had made in her honor. When I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico a few weeks later, I discovered such pilgrimages were common there, with pilgrims not only going to the basilica in Mexico, but to various sacred places in the state. Sante Fe is the home of the first church dedicated to her in the United States.

The more I learned her story and saw her image, the more fascinated I became by this figure, and by the meanings that resonate out from around her like the glow of her halo. I became intrigued with what seemed to me a rich, archetypal symbol of the divine feminine and an incarnation of liberationist, post-colonial wisdom.

The fact that this is the story of a Native, an Aztec who converted to Catholicism first caught my attention. My ear is always inclined toward colonized peoples and the stories we tell through our art and religious expression. It is the story of an indigenous person whom the divine visits, and whose narration of this visitation is disbelieved by the colonial powers that be.

Who is authorized to narrate stories of the miraculous, of the divine? By what authority does a Native talk back to the power that subjugate his people, take his land, that erase his language, religion, and existence? What empowers the poor and disenfranchised to talk back to the ruling class?

“Send somebody else,” Juan Diego says. “Send a nobleman, a Spaniard, somebody educated and literate. Not me.” But the Heavenly Lady insists it must be him, and it is the bishop, representing imperial Spain, that must be converted to this poor indigenous person’s simple message to honor her wishes.

Also of note is the fact that the mountain on which Our Lady of Guadalupe is asking to be honored happens to have been the mountain that was sacred to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The memory of the Goddess, officially erased by the church, asserts itself. Like a flashback through the clouds of amnesia, the Goddess remains alive. The Franciscans whose missionary activities accompanied Spain’s colonization translated the Virgin Mary into the local dialect as Tonantzin, meaning “our precious mother,” though this word was also the name of the erstwhile Aztec goddess.

Her extinction is resisted by subterfuge; she lives on inscribed within the image of the European Christian Mary. The memory of Tonantzin persists in an act of resistance, in opposition to the disappearance of Native culture and religion.

What also interested me were the uses Our Lady of Guadalupe has had by the First Nations of Mesoamerica. In the 1500s, there were several Native and mestizo uprisings against Spanish rule that took on Guadalupe as their patron. The Mexican patriot Hidalgo, leading bands of mestizo and Native rebels, carried a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle in the 1880s, as did Emiliano Zapata in 1914.  The republic’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria took his patroness’s name after she helped him, he believes, win a decisive battle. In the 1960s and 70s, the Mexican-American labor activist Cesar Chavez marched under a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe as he agitated for the rights of migrant farm workers.

Guadalupe is an oppositional symbol, a sign of resistance to the powers that be. She is referred to often as the Madonna of the Barrios, the protector of the poor. She is the compassionate mother, and also the defiant Mary who proclaimed the Magnificat:

“[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Colonized people respond in many ways to our colonizers. One way is to adopt wholesale the imperial culture, to speak its language and learn its customs, to play its music, to practice its visual art and its religion. This was the so-called “civilizing mission” of the Spanish, along with of course the French and the British. As their empires spanned the globe, these imperial cultures thought of themselves as bringing civilization to the savages. At the same time, they didn’t really believe that the indigenous peoples of the continents they conquered were actually capable of becoming civilized. So the colonized person who adopts wholesale the culture of the colonizer is never really admitted into the circle of civilization despite his or her best efforts.

Another response is for the colonized to reject the colonial culture entirely, to assert our own, aboriginal culture and identity. This is the way of nationalists and separatists, who insist on preserving and promoting the traditional ways of the people. Traditions of language and art and religion are maintained with a sense of pride and self-worth.

One other response might be what we see in the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Aspects of the colonial culture are adopted, but not wholesale. They are invested with meanings the colonizers did not intend, oppositional meanings that, like Juan Diego, talk back to the powers that be. The indigenous cultures are not wiped out wholesale, not silenced definitively, but rather remain present and in constant dialogue with imperial power.

Colonized people do not passively accept domination, even as the unequal power relations strip away all means of cultural production and self-determination. Liberatory, transgressive, and self-affirming messages from the dominating culture are highlighted and drawn upon. An evolving, hybrid culture emerges that is a vehicle for the self-expression of the colonized using the narratives and images imposed by the colonizer. Juan Diego is the prototype of the Indian who is a Christian but not a traitor. Juan Diego is a convert who does not abandon the traditions of his ancestors.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is mestiza, a mixture of Spanish and Native American. I myself am a mix of cultures and national identities. I am drawn to her. She gathers in all of us caught between worlds, between languages and cultures and religions, between the worlds of home and foreign land, of belonging and exile.

I see myself in the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. More often than not, I am the bishop, the skeptic. I don’t believe in miracles. And if you say you have experienced something miraculous, I want proof.

But I see myself in Juan Diego, too. Caught between cultures, wanting to move into new territory religiously without abandoning the old altogether, finding a voice to talk back to the powers that be, a bearer of dangerous memories–like him, remembering the Goddess on the hill and using the language and piety of the changed circumstances his people found themselves in.

In the collage of our soul’s world, we rearrange the pieces we are given, creating our own works of art and beauty. I had once dismissed the Virgin Mary as a useful potential archetype of the divine feminine, hopelessly trapped up there on her sexist pedestal, meek and submissive, lauded only for who her son turned out to be–until I met Guadalupe.

Guadalupe is for me the figure of America, the Americas–not European, but not Native or African either, but rather mestizo, creole, an emblem of the hybridity and mixed cultures that is both my own heritage and the fraught heritage of the encounter of Spanish, French, English, African and First Nations peoples. Guadalupe is the figure of my own queer spirit, my own immigrant, cross-bred soul–and can be, I think, for any of us who grew up strange and queer to our own families, who adopted the ways of this country to our parents’ chagrin, who are nostalgic for a homeland we have never seen, who have crossed oceans of loneliness to make our own way in an unfriendly land, who are émigrés from devastated places that no longer exist, who are unrelated by blood to those closest to us, who long for companions to speak to us in a mother tongue we have forgotten. For all of us lost, forgotten, and abandoned, she comes.

Without knowing what I needed until I met her, I am devoted to her now. She represents the creating, subversive power within and the creative subversions of post-colonial peoples. She is the invitation to speak, to narrate, to tell, to talk back. She is an emblem of the long march toward justice and inclusion in which I walk.

The voice that calls will not choose somebody else. It is we who must do this work, to use what is found to forge a religion of the present and future–we who have been unauthorized and demonized, silenced and sidelined.

And so I invite you to a place in the twilight of dawn, where the imagination, the soul, is awakened. Into this numinous space we come, this place of potential for creating religious culture that is a vehicle for our self-expression, for our becoming, that can re-imagine the past in order to create a future that includes all of our hybrid, complicated, contradictory selves.

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JESUS, SANTA & CAESAR: Christian vs. Capitalist Christmas

Religion is popularly thought of in terms of faith—personal faith. One’s beliefs, values and practices may be nurtured in houses of worship, but are largely personally held and seen to be private.

Yet religion is also a cultural phenomenon, a discourse of stories and signs that are represented in art, re-presented and acted out in performance (including worship), and expressed in many other forms of culture.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined religion as

… a system of symbols which establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [individuals] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Myths, legends, and rituals help form personal and community identities, embody communal life, and frame a worldview. They help give life meaning.

It may surprise some to hear consumer capitalism defined as a religion. And stranger still to think of Christmas as a holiday of this religion.

The capitalist festival of Christmas is “religious” in the sense that consumer capitalism creates and maintains a system of symbols that motivates people to shop for consumer goods and creates an all-encompassing atmosphere during “the holidays” of cheer, generosity, and togetherness.

Symbols of this religion—including Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, candy canes, snow men—are ubiquitous. Its symbols (unlike a nativity scene or crèche) are not considered controversial or inappropriate for public display.

Indeed, the culture at large compels participation in this civic religion. Tree-lighting ceremonies are observed at city hall, public spaces are festooned with lights, and the media are full of “holiday” stories—Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and more–and “holiday” music–songs about bells and snow.

Civic, secular and cultural spaces are used for this ever-present festival precisely because it is a “religious” festival promoted by the dominant “religious culture,” that is to say the capitalist economic order. This commercial carnival called Christmas is not Christian, nor is it at all the same festival as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

In European and Euro-American cultures, the winter solstice was a time of feasting and carousing. For these agrarian cultures, it was a slow time of year and the darkness needed to be fended off in some way. Festivals involving drinking ale and mead that had had time to age, feasting on foods that would spoil by midwinter, and assuaging anxieties about the darkness evolved.

Here in New England, Christmas was banned or not celebrated not because the Puritans were anti-Pagan, but rather because it was a time of drinking wassail, carousing, and (most importantly) of working people demanding favors of the well-to-do. Revelers going door to door and asking for treats (“bring us a figgy pudding! we won’t go until we get some!”) and threatening mischief if not satisfied was a common practice.

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his fascinating book The Battle for Christmas, details how this celebration was transformed by the US ruling class into a domestic holiday in which children asked for or received favors from adults. The action went indoors and the holiday was literally domesticated.

Traditions involving Saint Nicholas were expanded in the late nineteenth century with the popularity of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy promoter of the domestication of Christmas. The story that Santa Claus descended the chimney to give good little children toys and presents became a central element in the Christmas mythos.

The contemporary Santa, with his red suit trimmed with white fur, was popularized tremendously by the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s.

Santa Claus comes to town on Thanksgiving Day, purportedly, in a nationally televised parade of other commercial icons (the Smurfs, Kermit the Frog, Sponge Bob, Scooby Doo) sponsored by a department store.

Santa Claus may be visited this time of year—where else?—in the local shopping mall or department store. Children queue for hours to commune with him—and to ask for things.

Stating the obvious—that commercial culture and forces of consumer capitalism created and sustain a quasi-religious festival—is not to condemn it. It is, rather, to clarify what is and what is not happening in North American culture from US Thanksgiving to Superbowl Sunday.

The birth of Jesus Christ is not being celebrated.

That is another festival practiced by another religion. It, too, is called “Christmas” and that has caused an unfortunate confusion.

From its agrarian beginnings in material culture, through its domestication and reinvention in the late nineteenth century, through its growing prominence in twentieth century capitalism, this Christmas has only incidentally ever been about Jesus. It’s been about money, material goods, and commercial trade all along.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Jesus was never really the reason for the season.

The Roman Empire had a festival celebrating the birth of a savior, a man worshipped as a god who brought salvation to the people. Weeks long reveling took place in his honor, celebrating not only the new year, but a new era that began with his birth, an era of peace and prosperity. Civic sponsored parades, philanthropic giving, and lavish feasts celebrated the birth of this prince of peace.

It was Caesar that was being celebrated as savior and lord.

The Christian Church in the third century began to associate the birth of Jesus with this time of year.

From the very beginning–indeed from the very story of Christ’s birth found in the gospel of Luke–followers of Jesus have been subverting political culture by speaking of Jesus in Roman and Jewish political terms (messiah, savior, lord, kingdom, gospel, church [“assembly”]—these are all from the Hebrew and Greco-Roman political and civic lexicon).

By saying that Jesus was the only ruler, they were saying that Caesar had no power over them. The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is subversive. If Jesus is lord, then the emperor is not.

By pledging allegiance to the kingdom of God, they were stating their opposition to and noncompliance with the kingdom of Caesar.

A different kingdom and indeed a different kind of kingdom altogether was lurking in the shadow of the world’s kingdoms, small and unnoticed and yet, like a mustard seed, growing. A different social order was being lived out in the margins–a society based in forgiveness, jubilee, compassion, nonviolent resistance, sharing and love.

When the church came to power, the festival was baptized as Christian. Christianizing the winter solstice, the church hoped to transform culture. The worship of Jesus was to replace the worship of the emperor. With the shift in power, what had been acts and rhetoric of subversion began to more closely resemble the discourse and apparatus of imperial rule.

In the era of Christendom that followed Constantine, the church was in the position to create culture.  Its feasts and fasts, heroes and heroines, liturgies and ceremonies, became continuous with civic culture, political governance, and—let’s face it—empire.

Now that that era is gone… What? Oh. Yes. Sorry. That era is over. It has ended. So sorry. Bummer, eh? Welcome to post-Christendom.

Now that that era is gone, it seems to me that followers of Jesus have a choice to make.

Jesus or Caesar?

Jesus or Santa?

Will we pattern our days after the current empire with its gods and mythos and festivals? Will we participate in the feasts and holidays of the dominant religion—capitalism—or will we not comply?

Which kingdom has our allegiance?

The Kingdom of God as described in the gospels is in opposition to the kingdom of Caesar. The imperial savior brought peace through domination, military might, and the fear of violence. The peasant savior from the margins of the empire brought peace through cooperation, soul force, and trust.

How is it that US Christians still believe that claiming the corporate-sponsored frenzy is or ought to be a Christian holiday? That Christmas is a different holiday. Let those who find meaning in it celebrate it. And, you know, really. Quit bugging them that they are not celebrating what you celebrate.

What you celebrate is different.

And maybe it’s time to differentiate the Christian Christmas from the capitalist Christmas.

A Tale of Two Christmases

There are two holidays that are celebrated on December 25.

One is the twelve-day Christian feast of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins with a vigil on the evening of December 24 and runs through until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. It is a time of feasting and merry-making, singing carols and visiting family and friends. As a sign of God’s generously giving himself to the world in Jesus, gifts are exchanged, and the poor are served by the more fortunate. This twelve-day holiday is preceded by four weeks of introspection in anticipation of the arrival of Christ known as Advent.

The other celebration on December 25 is a consumer-capitalist holiday which, although it is dipped in the flavor of the religious holiday, has only its aroma. This secular “holy” day makes some reference to generosity, but mostly in the guise of buying and giving consumer goods. It, too, has habits of feasting and merry-making. It generally begins after Halloween and ends abruptly on December 25.

Many people find it confusing that both holidays are called “Christmas.”

I respect those celebrating the capitalist holiday, though I understand it to be completely different from the Christian one. Not worse, just different.

The capitalist celebration of Christmas has something to recommend it. Secular people with no connection to religious tradition or community have the opportunity to spend time reflecting on the season’s themes: light in the darkness, generosity, new life, birth, the blessings of children and family, magic. Many donate time and money to charitable organizations.

More often than not, individuals unconsciously act out family traditions (decorating the home, bringing an evergreen tree into the house, putting presents underneath the tree, making certain recipes) without thinking too much about it. Is this a religious observance? Tradition? Why are we doing this?

A hero of this consumerist holiday is Santa Claus, the jolly white-bearded man who lives hidden in an enchanted workshop at the north pole and magically distributes gifts to children by coming down the chimney while they sleep. He is a symbol of the capitalist Christmas, embodying the generous, gift-giving spirit of the holiday.

The symbol of the Christian holiday is a little newborn baby.

The two different stories of Jesus Christ’s birth found in the New Testament each act as an overture to the gospel that follows. One represents Jesus as the new Moses, fulfilling prophecies of a new divinely appointed leader (Matthew), and the other that a leader has come for the lowest, most outcast of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish (Luke).

These birth stories are theological reflections, meant to convey who and what Jesus is and was to the communities out of which these gospels were formed. Reading and reflecting on these two narratives—the sheep herders, the animal stall, the star, the magi and the wicked ruler—and understanding what is being conveyed can be a meaningful exercise once a year.

The Christian church adopted a pagan holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ as it developed its liturgical year. The winter solstice (broadly, Saturnalia in southern Europe, Yule in northern Europe) celebrates the return or rebirth of the sun in the darkest time of the year. This fit the Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ – his birth and life were like divine light dawning on a darkened world.

Christians who get upset by the “commercialization” of Christmas may be helped to know that the capitalist Christmas is a different celebration from their own and is entirely commercial—commercialism is, in fact, its raison d’être.

Christians who want to “put the Christ back into Christmas” have my sympathy. But rather than judging others (wait, didn’t somebody wise say something about judging others?) for not celebrating the Christian holiday, it may be more helpful to practice one’s own holiday with integrity and spirit. Before you remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye, maybe it’s time to pluck out the Yule log stuck in your own!

Those who celebrate the birth of Christ in December may want to ask ourselves what is the best way to do so.

  • Is it by trampling people to death at the shopping mall?
  • Stressing out about buying (or making) presents for loved ones?
  • Becoming apoplectic about travelling, decorating, baking, entertaining, shopping?
  • Getting snotty about other people celebrating holidays at this time of year? (and yes, “happy holidays,” because there are a number of festivals being celebrated this time of year—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, winter solstice, Yule, New Year’s, among others, as well as both Christmases).

In what ways is the Christian observance of Christmas exactly similar to the capitalist observance? In what ways is the Christian celebration different from the commercial one? In what ways are practicing Christians smooshing the two together?

I don’t celebrate the capitalist holiday. I haven’t for years. For a while, my only celebration at this time of year was New Year’s. But now I see the wisdom of observing a threefold religious occasion—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany.

I try not to use “Christmas” language, because I like to distinguish what I’m doing from the capitalist holiday. Rather than reclaim “Christmas,” I call what I do by other names, even as the capitalists begin to relinquish “Christmas” in favor of “holiday” or “winter.”

I invite practicing Christians to consider withdrawing their support for the capitalist version of Christmas and finding ways of celebrating the birth of Christ with integrity and spirit.

  • Remember that Advent is a time for reflection, not crazy making. What about taking up a spiritual discipline of meditation or vigil keeping or prayer or journaling? What are some of your most significant hopes? What calls forth your forbearance and patience?
  • Remember that Christmas (the Feast of the Nativity) is a twelve-day celebration. Merry-making, visits, singing, gift-giving, baking… why not spread it out over the twelve days? Why not choose an activity to do with the members of your household, friends, and family for each of the twelve days? What about serving the poor and disenfranchised in some way?
  • Remember that Epiphany is also a holiday. Sometimes called Twelfth Night, some traditions include “king’s cake,” a cake with a coin baked into it, and progressive dinners.

Rather than grumbling that the cashier at the store didn’t say “Merry Christmas” while you handed over fistfuls of money, why not get out of the stores altogether?

Put the Christ back into Christmas by putting your cash and your credit card back in your wallet.

Spend less time at the mall and more time at church, with your loved ones, and with the poor and oppressed people in your community.

There are lots of resources for having a more simple, meaningful and joy-filled Christmas. Visit  Buy Nothing Christmas and the Advent Conspiracy for inspiration and resources. There is so much out there!

(And by the way, you don’t have to be Christian to want to change the way you experience the December holiday season. Many of us unconsciously go through the motions, perpetuating family customs and traditions we haven’t really paid much attention to and may even find joyless or meaningless. You, too, may want to withdraw your support from the capitalist Christmas and find some more authentic ways of celebrating the themes of the season).

Many Christians are having a hard time adjusting to living in a post-Christendom world. Christianity is no longer the established religion, seamlessly woven together with civic society and political governance. That sucks for some Christians and they get all crankypants about not being the definitive, dominant culture. That’s how I experience the resentful complaining of a so-called “war on Christmas.”

As much as it is a loss, the fall of Christendom is also an opportunity for followers of Jesus to bear authentic witness to his life and teachings. Cultural accretions that have nothing to do with—or are antithetical to—his gospel message can be stripped away.

It’s hard when in-groups get pushed to the margin. It requires humility and grace. But the margin is a good place to do religion, especially if your religion actually teaches humility and grace.

In fact, that reminds me of a story. A young unwed woman, under the rule of an empire that taxed and oppressed ordinary people, gives birth to a baby in a squalid barn, heralded only by homeless ruffians… and angels…

The Tattered Web of Life: Individuality, Autonomy and Liberalism

Here in Massachusetts, a question on our ballot on election day would, if a majority votes yes, make it possible for a physician licensed in the state to write a lethal prescription for a patient suffering from a terminal illness and deemed to have fewer than six months to live, which the patient could then self-administer to end their own life.

This “death with dignity” initiative is highly favored among Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals. Most of us are probably going to vote for it.

My congregation this past week sponsored a week of programming around this question and more broadly around choices at the end of life. Last Sunday, I participated in a panel discussion of local clergy on these issues. In that conversation with my colleagues from across the religious and theological spectrum, something came clear for me.

Autonomy is a cherished value among Unitarian Universalists, as well as among other religious liberals. Political liberalism, too, is founded on individual freedom. The ability of the individual person to make and affect choices in their life is paramount. Any interference in an individual’s ability to choose for him- or herself is anathema.

I certainly affirm the basic principle of having control over my own body and life. There is no way I would give the state more power to regulate what I can and cannot do with my own body. It is a basic freedom for every citizen and person in a democratic society.

Who we have sexual relations with, whether to get pregnant, whether to give birth, whether to eat your broccoli, whether to drink 28 ounces of soda all at once… the state may have an interest in the choices we make in these and other regards, but ultimately the choice is ours to make. And ought to be ours to make.

Autonomy and integrity of the individual person are the starting point for much liberal theological ethics. While I am not interested here in defending or promoting the death with dignity initiative (and certainly not in denouncing it) I do want to reflect on this enthrallment we have with autonomy as the foundation of our ethics.

One of the arguments for physician-assisted dying is the loss of dignity a person experiences when ill or disabled. In a culture like ours that prizes individuality and autonomy, disability is stigmatized in very particular ways. Disability, and people with disabilities, are thought of as a burden; others need to help care for them, sometimes even to do routine functions for them.

Temporarily able-bodied people fear this loss of autonomy and consider it undignified. Impairment, pain, incontinence, lack of control, not being able to feed ourselves—these   are conditions many temporarily able-bodied persons want to avoid.

In states where physician-assisted dying is legal, patients often cite “feeling like a burden on others” as one reason for wanting to end their lives. In the name of our dignity, we would rather have the ability to end our lives than endure these circumstances.

And yet people do. Many disabled and elderly people do live with these conditions.

And often enough, they depend on others.

And they do so with dignity. And insist on the dignity and worth of the lives they are living. This insistence, this living with dignity rather than dying for lack of it, rubs against the grain of a culture that does not see, let alone affirm, the worthiness of their lives.

The biblical affirmation (one of my co-panelists reminded us) is that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. As such, the human person is a reflection and icon of the divine. The sacred worth of the person is intrinsic. It cannot be granted or withdrawn, given or taken away.

The dignity and worth of every person is inherent–inherent in being human.

What is anathema, if we truly affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every person, is to claim that some lives are worth more than others, that some persons are more worthy than others, that dignity accrues to some individuals and not others.

That some lives are not worth living.

I used to be a bookseller in a large bookstore in downtown Toronto. One busy evening, a cyclist came to the cash register. I was training a new cashier and she greeted him and began ringing up his purchase.

She noted that he didn’t have a bike helmet with him, and made a lighthearted remark about biking without a helmet.

This customer answered, “You know, I’m a physician. And I’ve worked in the emergency room. I see what happens to people who survive a car crash on their bike because they were wearing a helmet. Believe me, I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be dead than quadriplegic.”

He took his purchase and cheerfully left the store.

That casual remark has stayed with me all these many years. Partly because it was a customer service training moment (“Just keep smiling!”). Mostly because of the chill it gave me.

My bicycle was my primary means of transportation and I always wore a helmet.  I had never thought seriously about surviving a collision with an automobile. Of course, I would get rushed to the hospital and they would do everything they could to keep me alive. That’s how it works. But what if the pain was unbearable? What if I survived but was severely disabled? Would I rather be dead?

His remark was chilling also because this was a physician who had been and would be called upon to treat people with disabilities. What might his attitude with these and other patients be?  What level of care would he offer to patients he might think would be better off dead?

If I had a disability or a chronic illness, would I want to be treated by a doctor who thought of me as a waste of a human life?

Would my life, in fact, still be worth living?

Why is depending on others considered undignified? Are we not part of an interdependent cosmos—isn’t all of existence an interrelated network of relationship?

What might our vaunted autonomy and radical individualism look like refracted through the lens of an essentially social reality? Does our affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of the person come at the cost of recognizing that individuals are social beings, socially constituted and interrelated with our social and natural surroundings?

The heroic self, rising above entanglements with others, is not a natural and universal understanding of the human person. It is the heritage of Western, male-centered hetero-patriarchy. (Oh that!). The rhetoric of “being who I am” and “becoming my own person” and “forging my own path” is expressed in everything from artistic sensibility that favors uniqueness and novelty, to psychology that stresses individuation over relation.

It has been, and can be, very liberating.

It can also lead to a distorted individualism that breaks down community. When there is only “me” and no “we,” a commitment to human solidarity and environmental responsibility breaks down. Greed and narcissism, self-indulgence and covetousness, flourish.

What kind of ethics and theology emerge when rather than the radical autonomy of the individual, the individual’s sociality takes center stage? What kind of ethics and theology emerge when the interrelated, interdependent nature of all existence is affirmed as a first principle?

Who Owns the Public Square?

One year ago, citizens protesting the Wall Street practices that created the current economic turmoil marched in New York City’s financial district. They descended on Zuccotti Square and occupied it, setting up a protest encampment which acted as a springboard for further demonstrations and was itself a form of dissent against the prevailing economic order.

For months, the Occupy Wall Street protest lived out this form of dissent. It inspired similar encampments across the United States and elsewhere, and similar protest actions against Wall Street greed and government corruption.

Eventually, the occupation of Zuccotti Square came to an end when police forcibly cleared the park of protesters.  Other encampments across the country faced similar fates, in what appears to have been a coordinated effort by the Department of Homeland Security with local law enforcement.

The square was once known as Liberty Plaza Park and was created by the property owners in conjunction with the city of New York as a space for public use. After being renovated in 2006, the park was rechristened Zuccotti Park for the man who is chairman of the company that owns the space. John Zuccotti once sat on, and also chaired, the city’s planning commission. It is a popular spot for workers in the area who eat their lunches at its tables and in the shade of its trees.

When Occupy Wall Street arrived, they reclaimed its original name, welcoming people to “Liberty Park.”

Because the space is privately owned, city ordinances–including a curfew–do not apply to Zuccotti Square. It is meant to be available to the public 24 hours a day. Though a court ruled the protestors should be able to return to the space after police removed them by force, police barricaded the park, refusing to allow the activists back. Higher courts subsequently ruled the protesters could not camp or spend the night in the park.

In Boston, a similar protest took place at Dewey Square, a part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway project of the city of Boston. The greenway was the result of the “Big Dig,” the project that removed an elevated highway that sliced through Boston’s downtown. The space that was created in its absence is a green space for the city’s people, a civic space for residents to enjoy together.

I love those urban spaces in which the public can gather. Strolling through lower Manhattan this past Sunday, I was reminded of that love. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm and clear. Sunbathers, guitar players, drummers, magicians, Tarot card readers, people tossing frisbees, walking, picnicking, blowing bubbles (no, really!) rollerblading… In Washington Square there was a group with homemade signs that were promoting “good vibes.”

But what happens when the public uses these spaces for dissent? What happens when economic, political, and social opinions are expressed in these public squares?

Why, the police are called, and these citizens are pepper sprayed, maced, caged, handcuffed, beaten, kicked, and arrested by law enforcement officers.

In other words, certain forms of expression are criminalized. Any kind of dissent–even popular dissent–is treated as a criminal activity. In Quebec, in response to a student strike opposing tuition increases, the provincial government last May actually passed a law punishing protest activities.

What kind of society has no public square? No place where residents gather in solidarity, not just to enjoy the sunshine and blow bubbles, but to express their political beliefs? What kind of a society represses the free expression of its citizens? What kind of a society creates a deliberately freezing effect on the expression of dissent by subjecting protesters to excessive force, subduing them with violence?

Not a free society. Not a society committed to democracy and democratic ideals.

The public square is so symbolic, and in many practical and significant ways has been replaced by the Word Wide Web. But the physical assembly of citizens creates something that individuals alone at their computer terminals do not. Assembling freely in public is so sacred to the democratic spirit it is enshrined in the US constitution as a right.

It is precisely for this reason that the powers that be have an interest in regulating the common spaces of this republic.

Take for example the whole notion of needing a permit from the police in order to hold a protest march. A 1939 US Supreme Court ruling declared that using sidewalks and streets for political speech was constitutionally protected. Marching down the street, picketing on a sidewalk, handing out leaflets, getting signatures on a petition—all are protected forms of speech.

At the same time, the ruling delineated that such speech needed to be “exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order.” Lower courts have elaborated on this to restrict protest—a restriction enforced through the granting of permits—which the Supreme Court deemed “prior restraint” on free speech. Which is to say, permits are a form of government censorship.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, nevertheless, have upheld the permitting system, even while recognizing it is a form of government control of citizens’ political speech. Many people have become used to the idea that if the police do not grant permission, the protest is “illegal.”

I think the public square belongs to the public.

And it is being taken away from us. Our access to it is denied or controlled. The public’s right to raise our voice in public spaces is being curtailed. Even when granted a permit, protestors in US cities like New York and Chicago have been allowed only remote, fenced-in pens in which to rally. These pens are not the public square; they are a physical embodiment of the state’s power and desire to limit and contain popular protest.

The forces that would have us not question the excesses and crimes of Wall Street, the complacency of federal agencies, the corruption and incompetence of Congress, would like to see us silent, ignorant, afraid to speak up and–most importantly–completely preoccupied by endless distractions (the Kardashians! Snookie! a new iPhone!).

They win when we are afraid. They win when fear keeps us away from a legal protest march or picket line. When we are isolated from each other, cowering fearfully in our private corners, they win. When all we can see and hear are mindless stories about pop stars or kitten videos on YouTube, they win.

If Occupy Wall Street does nothing else, it should reawaken in the citizenry an awareness of how many of our constitutional freedoms are being chipped away at. Bit by bit, basic civil liberties like the right to freely assemble, are being denied. We’re being gently corralled into accepting censorship and silencing.

Like many other public institutions, governments (often strapped for cash) are collaborating with private interests to create or maintain public parks, plazas, and squares. And like other public institutions, the influence those private interests have on public spaces curtails what can happen within them. Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto is one such space, a private-public square which can be “booked” for events, including rallies, for a fee. When the site first opened to the public years ago, a lone person in the square holding a sign which simply read “Peace” was arrested.

Advertising in urban spaces is allowed, but protesting is not. Unsightly billboards and giant, flashing video screens are allowed, but holding picket signs, distributing flyers and handbills and newspapers, gathering signatures on a petition can get you arrested–even though these are constitutionally protected.

The corporations that are now shaping our public spaces–our spaces–want only what propertied, well to do consumers will tolerate as they shop. So a whole host of activities (skateboarding, begging, cruising, busking) and people (youth–especially youth of color, homeless, sex trade workers) are deemed criminal. In the name of making the city “safe” and “clean,” they make repression seem reasonable and desirable.

Many city centers in North America have come to resemble outdoor suburban malls. Ubiquitous chain restaurants and big box stores have replaced mom-and-pop stores.

This happened by design when Yonge-Dundas Square was created.

With a handful of notable exceptions, Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another example, is no longer home to locally-owned small businesses. Independent diners, hardware stores, bookstores, five-and-dime shops are all gone, replaced by chains, or taken over by chains (the cinema, the foreign language bookstore). The nature of Harvard Square–who now uses the square and its sidewalks and for what purpose–has changed.

In many urban areas, thriving sexual subcultures have been shut down completely and “red light districts” made safe for suburban shoppers—no whores or homeless people or queers. Times Square in New York is the most well known of this trend, though the forced disappearance of Boston’s “Combat Zone” is another. Suburban theatre-goers shouldn’t have to walk by prostitutes or adult cinemas! They need to get from their SUV to Applebee’s to the Disney Store to the theatre to see The Lion King unsullied!

Here in the US, taking our democracy back from the corporations to which Congress has sold it is the most urgent task of our time.  That is what the Occupy Movement is all about. The microcosmic, symbolic but no less urgent need to reclaim the public square is part of that democratizing project.

Liberal Religion: Temporary Stop or Permanent Home?

Observers of the religious landscape are noticing that it’s not just liberal and mainline denominations that are declining in membership.

After the heyday of organized religion in the post-World War Two era in North America, it was a truism that the liberal and mainline churches were bleeding members. Everybody talked about mainline decline and evangelical ascendency. Liberalism was out and conservatism was in. We were all assured that fundamentalist religion was the way of the future.

Now the religious conservatives are losing members.

And the category of “Nones” is growing exponentially. The “Nones” are so called because that’s how they respond to the survey question of what their religious affiliation is. People are leaving organized religion in droves. (This, we are now being assured, is the way of the future).

Our losses were bigger and came earlier, I believe, because religious liberals were closer in spirit and outlook to the secularity of no religion at all. And if that’s where North Americans are moving to—no religion at all—then we’re already halfway there.

When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, more than twenty-five years ago now, my minister at the time described the religion as a spiritual vestibule. It was a place between. Many were on their way in from the secular world and going to some place more orthodox. Others were on the way out from some place more orthodox to a completely non-religious place.

We were a way station, as the old joke goes, between the Methodist church and the golf course.

I really didn’t like this characterization of my newfound faith at all! I loved my new church and everything that it stood for. Didn’t we have a compelling message and way that were worth being committed to? Why would anybody leave? I wasn’t going anywhere. If only more people knew about us, we would swell our ranks.

All these years later, I’m much less sanguine.

We talk a lot about the spiritual journey, but sometimes forget that being on a journey implies movement. People grow and change, and oftentimes what they initially found compelling in their faith community no longer speaks to their condition. And so they move on. Sometimes they need to leave our congregations for pastures that really are greener from their new and evolving perspective.

In the congregations I have served, I’ve made it my practice to have a pastoral visit with those who are withdrawing their membership. Sometimes these are folks we hadn’t seen in a while who, when asked, want to be dropped from the rolls. Other times, these are more or less active members who had made some kind of decision. Non-member attenders are a little more slippery and harder to track.

Sometimes what they needed was a visit from the minister to voice some complaint, the color of the new rug in the parlor or the new order of service or to describe some interpersonal spat. After getting it off their chest with a sympathetic listener, we would frequently see them at worship the next week.

Yet at other times, folks leaving the church would share that they were seeking something deeper and richer for their spiritual lives.

These friends had spent time sojourning with us, discovering and discerning what fed their soul. This is something we do well, explore. We offer an open space in which to examine spiritual, religious and moral traditions without prejudice.

Many, having come from conservative Christianity, discover with us for the first time that there are liberal Christian alternatives. And, yes, then leave for those alternatives. I’ve seen this as well with UUs of Jewish heritage.

Over time, these friends realized that they were more nourished by their participation in yoga retreats or a Buddhist sangha or neo-Pagan ritual or Christian worship and with sadness, but without regret, it was time to move on. They were grateful to their liberal religious community for helping them find their way.

Instead of making “lifelong UUs” out of everyone who comes our way, what if we saw our mission as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self?

What if we understood the sojourn, the journeying with us for a while, as part of our ministry? What if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path? And if that means letting them go, doing so graciously?

And yet…

When I make these visits, I ask, “What was missing for you in your experience of this congregation?” The almost unanimous reply is: spirituality. When I explore this with them, it turns out this means a sense of depth or purpose other than mere community. Sometimes this means an aesthetic component to corporate worship. Sometimes it means prayer. Sometimes what’s missing is God or God-talk. “Spirituality,” they answer, as a kind of shorthand for all of this.

Diana Butler Bass suggests there is a grassroots revival and renewal of liberal Christianity that has been going on unobserved. Liberal Christians, she says, have had longer to figure out what faith and practice is going to look like for them in the twenty-first century.

“Some local congregations are growing,” says Bass, “having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”

The great awakening that she describes in her recent book is an open, spiritually vital religious movement that crosses religious and denominational lines. It is one that engages basic spiritual disciplines and theological reflection.

The “Nones” are not without spirituality or a desire for a spiritual life. Many of them believe in God. They just don’t believe in religious institutions.

What many are looking for (or have given up looking for) is a faith community that has spiritual depth and maturity, without dogma or rigidity. Many are looking for God or God-talk that is not doctrinaire but rather open ended.

Reading Bass’s book has given me pause. Would our local congregations experience growth if we lived into our own description of what we say we are and were unabashedly religious embodiments of the liberal spirit?

What would have to change if we understood our mission and ministry as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self? What would we have to do differently if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path?

I’m betting that in the answers we give to these questions are the seeds of flourishing liberal religious communities of the twenty-first century.

The zeitgeist currently seems to feature an interest in–and a longing for–what Unitarian Universalists offer when we are at our best. Can we offer our times and our world our very best?

We could be more than a rest stop on the way to the golf course.

“Gay Pride is for Straight People”

I was in Toronto recently for Pride Day. I notice that these days, most North American cities no longer celebrate Gay Pride Day, nor do they celebrate Gay & Lesbian Pride Day, or LGBT Pride Day. It’s just Pride Day.

I had thought for the longest time that this was because of our own ever-growing alphabet soup of nomenclature, trying to create the broadest coalition of sexual minorities. We want all sexual and gender dissidents included.

In Toronto, for example, the call goes out from the organizers to “LGBTTIQQ2SA” constituencies to come out for the week of activities culminating in a parade on the final day. That just gets too complicated to keep saying so “Pride Day” truncates all those letters (and one number) for the sake of conversational ease.

It has also occurred to me that plain old-fashioned shame, ironically, could be the reason for the erasure of the word “gay” in one of the biggest celebrations of queer (and other) identities on the calendar.

After the Dyke March on Saturday during Pride Week, I asked my friend if she would be coming to the next day’s parade. “Are you kidding,” she said wrinkling her nose. “Gay Pride is for straight people.”

I laughed out loud, realizing the wisdom in her pithy remark. “It’s not really for us,” she continued, joining my laughter.

More than a million people turn out for Toronto’s Pride parade. The parade participants and spectators fill the streets to watch the hours-long parade and attend the street fair that takes place on dozens of streets closed to motor vehicles. Most, I would venture to say, are non-LGBTTIQQ2SA people.

It has become de rigueur to complain about the commercialization of Pride Day. It’s worse than Christmas. Corporate sponsorships and participation in the parades and street fairs have generally crowded out the community-based groups and small (queer-owned and oriented) businesses that were the mainstay of Pride Day in years past.

Pride Day has become little more than an opportunity for multinational corporations—everything from banks to alcohol companies to automobile manufacturers—to market their wares to gay and lesbian consumers (all those other letters don’t seem to interest them).

And it’s a day for straight allies to demonstrate their solidarity with sexual minorities. Even the ones who are not only doing it because they want to take your money.

But that’s a post for another day.

I want to tell you about the straight people who come to Pride Day.

They come to Pride Day because it is fun. They come because it’s a fantastic party with really good dance music. They come in costume, masqueraded in makeup and body paint and glitter. They wear feather boas and skimpy shorts and fierce leather boots. And I’m talking about men, women, older, younger—straight people of different cultures. They make of their bodies a demonstration, a celebration, and they do it in a very queer way. They vamp, they cheer drag queens and leather dykes, they kiss their same-sex friends on the mouth.  Gender nonconformity and same-sex desire are being both celebrated and enacted by these participants and spectators who do not ordinarily identify themselves with queer constituencies.

It’s like Saint Patrick’s Day, only instead of being Irish, everybody is “gay for a day.”

For one day of the year, a whole city comes out for play and revelry that celebrates all kinds of sexual desire and the fluidity of gender expression. For just a little while, the erotic, the body, is at the center of a civic celebration, along with subversion of norms around pleasure and gender and propriety.

The kids who come with their heterosexual parents have the right idea: this year, I saw a number of children dressed in masks and capes, in disguise as their favorite superheroes. It’s like Halloween, but with Mardi Gras beads instead of candy.

It’s an occasion for presenting a self that is hidden, a secret identity –like Batman and Spiderman crossing over between their secret self and their public self and back again. The children understand intuitively the costuming, the disguise, the crossing categories of identity — and show up as Batman and Spiderman.

It’s an occasion for the hidden self cloaked in shame to reach for the light. Anyone who has ever had a secret to shamefully hide comes out and takes pride in themselves on the main street in the sunshine.

It’s an occasion for presenting a sexualized self to the world, and not just to one’s private admirers. It’s an occasion for playing with the boundaries of gender and self-expression.

What person, working their nine-to-five job in their grey wool suit, wouldn’t want that? What person who chafes under the restrictions allowed to their gender wouldn’t want this? (I love how straight men show up in their kilts or sarongs).

Eroticism is exciting. Life would be a drab routine without at least that spark. That’s the point. Why has all the joy and excitement been concentrated, driven into that one narrow, difficult-to-find alley of human experience, and all the rest laid to waste? There’s plenty to go around within the spectrum of our lives. (Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution)

Eros is banished from that everyday world. And in the world created by queer carnival, it is allowed open and public expression.

Carnival: the one revolutionary impulse beating inside the disco rhythms of Pride Day that are my hope for resistance to the day’s complete takeover by consumerist capitalism.

Historically, carnival is the occasion for inversion of the social order. It exposes the power relations in a society as malleable, the social structures as able to be subverted. The pleasures of the body that have been banished from public view, from the polis, from the political, erupt in a joyous abandon during carnival. The pleasureless world of speeches and manifestos, boardrooms and offices, factories and classrooms are swept aside in an explosion of festive Eros.

The liberation of sexual desires and the resistance to the repression of what is queer is going to be a party. To rebel is to revel; the words are related. ACT UP, Queer Nation, Reclaim the Streets, Carnival Against Capital, Occupy Wall Street and others have the right idea. Nothing is more deadening and unsexy, than traditional protests, marches and demonstrations.

When the occasions of our joy, our jouissance, our pleasure, are the sites of our rebellion and resistance, of course our rebelling takes the form of revelry.

In Pride Day, we have the potential to turn up the volume of mockery and transgression inherent in its role as latter-day carnival. There are elements of Pride Day that mark it as spectacle, as entertainment. And yet there is also mass participation—even from heterosexuals and their offspring.

Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World)

Everybody participates through costume, drag, the overt expression of desire, the playfulness around gender stereotypes—even when there are barricades that separate “spectators” from the parade, or “audience” from performers on stage.

A major part of Pride Day happens after the official parade, when everybody unofficially parades up and down Church Street. Drag queens, muscle boys, Brazilian dancers with enormous headdresses, the outrageously clad and costumed, pose for pictures, accept the accolades of passers by, and dole out kisses and winks. And yet everybody is acting like they are fabulous, and kiss, wink at and squeeze total strangers.

Some people are completely naked, others merely shirtless. Others are conventionally attired but wear masks, horns, glitter, rainbow leis. Others are in leather chaps and harnesses, jockstraps, bras. Everybody is in on this street party, this display; every body is on display, with their tattoos and piercings and body paint.

In a way, the LGBT liberation movement has been pioneering a politicized social change movement around sexual freedom and expression. Despite the many ways the revolutionary impulse in this movement has been co-opted and dispersed, the potential is still there.

Ultimately, I think the future will not see a divide along the lines of sexual orientation at all (i.e. “straight” vs. “gay”). I think we will have sexual dissidents and gender transgressors of all sexual orientations on the one hand, and on the other, people of all sexual orientations committed to bourgeois conformity and propriety. (The biggest complainers about the nudity and cross-dressing at Pride Day that I have ever known were gay men).

That so many “straight” people participate in Pride Day reminds me of a column I read by the novelist Jane Rule in The Body Politic in the 1980s. I clipped it out and saved it for a long time because of it’s essential truth.

If straight people have the decency to be modestly ashamed of their own sexual natures, what right have we to be proud of ours? … Everyone is supposed to be ashamed. … We won’t move freely in the world until all people are required to confront their sexual natures in order to understand, take responsibility for and celebrate them, as we have had to. For no one who is disappointed or ashamed or frightened of his/her own sexuality is to be easily tolerant of anyone else’s.

Her column was titled “Straights Come Out.”

At the root of our oppression and marginalization as sexual minorities is erotophobia—fear of Eros, the repression of sexual desire, the refusal of one’s sexual nature—as well as the enforcement of rigid gender stereotypes. That heterosexuals participate in some way—even for one afternoon, even in the context of a banal civic celebration framed by corporate consumerism—is for me a measure of hope.

Everybody has closets of sexual shame to come out of. Everybody has closets of body shame to come out of. Many long to come out of the drab, grey everyday into a rainbow-colored world in which they are fabulous.

So maybe it’s not so bad that it’s no longer “Gay Pride Day” or “Lesbian and Gay Pride Day” or “LGBTTIQQ2SA Pride Day.” Maybe simply calling it “Pride Day” is portentous of a future world in which everyone who has reclaimed their bodies and desires marches together up the main street in the sunlight.

Aside

American Idols

My last several years living in the United States of America has been an exercise in, as my Canadian friends would say, living in the belly of the beast. It hardly feels this way, of course, surrounded as I am by people of good will. I reflect on the wars and the violence, the inequities and injustices, and it is easy to not feel that I am somehow contributing to it. I ignore the reality that the taxes I pay here go to fund things I do not in good conscience support. I float along feeling that if I am not actively contributing to the things that I find objectionable, then I am doing all right. I get momentary flashes, however, when I think, If I am not actively resisting, then I am participating.

That is the nature of living in the midst of what the New Testament calls powers and principalities. The social ills one would actively resist are actually systems, whole networks of power relations. It is difficult to stand apart from a system. Daily life is a mundane series of choices that one makes unthinking, and many of these are aspects of the powers and principalities of the nation.

I like to personify these powers and principalities as idols, false gods, to keep them as personalities before my eyes to better clarify the choices that I make. Idolatry, in the monotheistic religions, is the worship of deities other than the one true God. It is the deification of objects; idols are objects made of stone and wood and metal and are revered as divine. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have prohibitions and limitations on representing the divine. The caution is in mistaking the representation for what is represented, the sign for what it signifies, thus drawing worshippers away from the one true God and toward the worship of symbols and images.

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:1-6).

The Bible describes idolatry as the worship of images and also of polytheistic deities. The biblical language of idolatry (the Hebrew literally means “foreign worship”) is a polemic against the indigenous nations of the ancient Near East, which saw the natural world as imbued with supernatural forces. Hebrew monotheism, by contrast, saw the divine as entirely beyond the world. The pagan religions that surrounded the ancient Hebrew people used statues, talismans, and natural objects in their worship, frequently believing that the divine was immanent within such objects or within certain geographical locations. In setting themselves apart from the nations, the ancient Hebrews shored up their national identity by forbidding the worship of foreign deities, and banishing the use of sacred objects. To do so was unpatriotic as well as irreligious.

Devotion to pagan gods and goddesses was nevertheless not uncommon among the ancient Hebrews, as we read throughout Hebrew Scriptures. No sooner had Moses received the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai, than the Israelites below fashioned a golden calf to worship. They built poles to honor the goddess Asherah and frequently worshipped other Canaanite gods such as Baal.

The prophets and judges decry such infidelity to the God of Israel and frequently lambast the creation and worship of idols. In separating themselves out from other ancient peoples, the Hebrews not only strictly forbade the use of any created thing in worship, they also set limits on ways in which the divine could be mediated or communicated through objects. Though such things as the Ark of the Covenant, or the equipment and vestments of the Temple were sacred, they were not worshipped as such, for God was utterly transcendent.

The Bible affirms that the one true God is shapeless and formless, so no image or idea or created thing can represent God. The reverencing of images is thus forbidden. The Protestant Reformation renewed among Christians the sense of God’s transcendence and the caution against sacred objects and images. Puritanism is the stream of Christianity that is most similar to the Jewish view. The more sacramental currents of Christianity allowed icons and statues to be reverenced as mediators of God’s grace, and bread, wine, water and oil to be signifiers of God’s presence and grace. Our Puritan forebears (those of us who stand in Unitarian and Congregational traditions) were iconoclasts, literally destroying icons, images, and statues in an effort to purify Christian faith and practice from idolatrous distractions.

For each of the monotheistic traditions, the sole object of worship and adoration is the transcendent God. Valuing something or somebody that hinders the love and trust owed to God alone is considered idolatry. God and God alone comes first and God and God alone is foremost in the lives of the faithful. Though God provides many gifts for our use in a life that glorifies him, we are not to confuse the gift with the Giver. Though all of creation speaks of God and God’s handiwork, we are not to confuse the creation with the Creator. It seems to me that we offer our blind and excessive devotion to powers and principalities that are neither God nor godly. Refusal to worship them is deemed unpatriotic.

The idols and false gods that reign here in the United States are militarism and wealth. These are our contemporary American idols. We put our trust in military might. We worship Mammon, the New Testament personification of wealth. We lay waste to the Earth in the name of our economies, feeding its fires with our children’s futures, feeding the voracious appetites of economic growth with no less vigor than ancients fed their own children to the god Molech. Militarism is a false god whose parents are nationalism and violence. Militarism is the belief that a strong military is needed for security and peace, that a strong military must be maintained at all costs, and that the military must be prepared for preemptive and aggressive action in defense not only of the nation’s borders, but of its economic and geopolitical interests.

The ideology of the nation state and the legitimacy of violence are the faith and practices of this false religion. This is most clearly seen in totalitarian regimes. The image of its despotic leader is ubiquitous, its bureaucratic apparatus all-powerful. God is replaced by the state and given the humanizing face of its leader. Its scriptures are its laws and constitutions, its spirituality appeals to blood and soil, its worship military and nationalist parades and processionals. Discipleship with this idol is obedience, patriotism, and an unquestioning loyalty to our own ethnic, racial, linguistic and national group. The theology of the state is its reinforcing ideologies; whether that be democracy or free enterprise, state socialism or Marxism, pan-Arab nationalism or jihadist Islamism.

We are not without our own processionals and parades in the United States of America. We celebrate the American Revolution and the principles of democracy in a haze of nostalgia. We play out the rituals of a constitutional democracy, even as the Supreme Court grants legal personhood to corporations, as lobbyists for banks, oil companies and other industries become government policy makers, passing through a revolving door of influence and governance, as public institutions are handed over to private interests. The republic transmogrifies into an empire, marching ever further away from the ideals of the founding fathers, and we are swept up and carried along in the patriotic parade willy-nilly.

We are a nation at war, and war has become so ubiquitous and unending that it is no longer remarkable. Warfare is the air we breathe. War is our daily reality. Yet we are inured to its violence, its daily death, its very presence. Unlike the Second World War, we are not asked to conserve electricity and other resources, plant victory gardens or participate in a popular mobilization around a war effort. American soldiers, many of them young, working class, and people of color, are deployed again and again, unnoticed and unseen. Lost in a flurry of distractions, we forget the wars that we wage overseas. The wars seem to go on in the background, with the volume muted, not interfering with our day-to-day lives.

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.They have mouths but they do not speak; they have eyes but they do not see; they have ears but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust in them shall become like them.” (Psalm 135:15-18)

Have we become like them? Unspeaking, not using our voice? Unseeing, turning a blind eye from what our actions and inactions are causing? Unhearing, refusing to listen to the cries of the hungry, the cries of the non-human animals, the cries of wounded soldiers and grieving civilians a world away?

The United States government budgets more than one trillion dollars in military spending. The false god of militarism is literally consuming our national treasure. A fraction of the money spent on war and war preparations could fund homes, schools, university scholarships, teachers salaries, and equip homes with renewable electricity.

Our technologies, our wealth, and our economies are three of our other false gods, fed by and fuel for the American idol of military might. Competition for resources, especially cheap oil, is the motivation for our militarism and global belligerence. Americans consume far more than our fair share of the planet’s resources and to maintain our bloated lifestyles of acquisitiveness and overconsumption, we need to maintain by force the steady flow of natural resources into the fires of our economic engines. Our styles of life, based on growth economies that devour the Earth, are quickly rendering the planet uninhabitable.

“If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

In biblical religion, to love and serve God heart and soul, to not be turned away by the false gods, leads to an abundant, lively relationship with the Earth. To be devoted in love and service to the divine, we need nothing less than a conversion, a turning away from domination and violence, hoarding and destruction, limitless growth and greed.

We need to convert our elected government’s priorities from funding endless wars to funding the common good. We need to convert our petroleum fueled war economy of the past into the sustainable, ecologically sound economy of the future. To love and serve the divine is to take seriously biblical and humane values: cooperation and sharing, conservation and stewardship, mutuality and nonviolence, prudence and justice.  We need to be converted anew to these principles as individuals and as a society.

I love the glimpses the Bible offers of a divine dream for the earth; it offers us direct “thou shall not’s” as well as the visions of its prophets. Security and peace are not gained by outgunning the enemy, by clobbering those who we view as competing with us for limited resources. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and others foresaw a time when war and war making were banished, and peace the order of the day.

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor with they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree and no one will make them afraid.”

The causes of war – economic disparity, scarcity – are removed. Everyone has their own land, their own vine and fig tree; everyone has enough. Security comes with having enough.

This is peace in the holistic sense of shalom, the integrity and wholeness of creation. In Isaiah’s vision, animals that typically fight each other lie down together in peace, and even the mountains and hills burst into song, the trees of the field clap their hands, in the day of God’s shalom on earth. The biblical injunction to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy is an exercise in setting limits. A balance of work and play is required in the worship of the one true God. Work is given meaning and dignity, as forms of tending the green garden bequeathed to humankind. Overwork and exhausting the soil are anathema to biblical principles and its Sabbath economics. No person or animal or farm should have the life squeezed out of it by overwork.

The holy invites us into a spacious sense of abundance and plenty by giving us enough. Ostentation and material gain for its own sake are rejected in favor of limits within which we flourish. We need only enough. Mammon is the biblical word for riches, the personification of wealth as a false god. Greed and excessive love of money are forms of idolatry, a betrayal of a trusting relationship with the God who provides us with enough. Mammon is the endless treadmill of wanting and getting, getting more and wanting more. Manna, the food the Israelites ate while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, is the antidote to Mammon. It was provided freely by God and rotted if it was hoarded. Everybody had exactly enough, everybody had exactly as much as they needed.

We read in the book of Acts this description of the earliest followers of Jesus:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. … they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46)

Goods were shared and wealth redistributed to all as any had need.  The economics of manna is a joint venture in everybody having enough, in everybody having a glad and generous heart. This is a small echo of the biblical vision of the Jubilee Year, a time when there is rest for the land, forgiveness of debts, when land is returned to its ancestral owners and slaves are freed. Land, in the ancient world was wealth. If you became indebted and had to sell your land, it would be returned to you in the Jubilee Year. Nobody could buy up land and keep it for him or herself in perpetuity. The fact that the Bible mandates a regular dismantling of structures that might keep wealth in the hands of few points toward a vision in which there is enough for everyone. Wide gaps between rich and poor are not God’s dream for his world. Nobody has more than is needed and nobody hoards. Everybody has enough. This is a vision of work and prosperity for all, indebtedness and slavery being relieved, balance between work and play, and personal and environmental rejuvenation.

Crossing Over: Spiritual Reflections on Pride Day

The observance of lesbian and gay pride day has its origins in an event that has taken on the proportion of legend. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 symbolize the beginning of the lesbian and gay liberation movement. In the heady atmosphere of the late 1960s, with the student, anti-war and countercultural revolutions in full swing, the police in New York City conducted what was then a routine raid on a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall catered primarily to low-income gay, lesbian and transgender patrons who were used to police harassment. On the night of June 27, 1969 something extraordinary happened. Instead of routinely submitting to the harassment and brutality, the patrons of the Stonewall fought back. The situation quickly developed into a street riot, with the police seeking shelter in the bar until reinforcements arrived to do battle with the enraged crowds in the streets of the Village. The riots continued for three nights with pitched battles between gays and the New York City police.

To understand the significance of Stonewall is to appreciate what sexual minorities were up against. Homosexual behavior was illegal, and same-sex desire considered pathological, immoral and sinful. The public expression of same-sex desire or of a homosexual identity was to risk losing everything: job, family, home. The places where gay people could meet were, for the most part, underground, furtive, and constantly under attack from thugs and police officers. Most importantly, gay men and lesbians themselves believed themselves to be flawed or perverted. Attempts at reform on the part of homosexuals before 1969 were tepid and fraught with the contradictions that come with self-hatred.

Like the first gunfire of the American Revolution, the Stonewall Riot was the shot heard around the world. It became possible to fight back. Taking their cue from the civil rights and anti-war movements, within which many gays and lesbians had been active, the Gay Liberation Front was formed within weeks of the riots, and within months similar groups had sprung up across the continent. These groups took direct action, picketing, protesting, zapping, held sit-ins, teach-ins and guerilla theatre demonstrations. They began consciousness-raising circles and newspapers, all spreading the until-then unheard message “Gay Is Good.” Stonewall changed the way that sexual minorities viewed themselves forever.

A year after the Stonewall Riots a newly energized, politicized lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in New York decided to mark the anniversary by having a protest march, the last weekend in June, starting in Greenwich Village and ending in Central Park. Called Christopher Street Liberation Day, nobody knew how it would turn out. Or indeed, if anybody would even show up to march through the streets for no other reason than they were gay or lesbian and wanted to defiantly celebrate these identities as good in the face of all that said it was not. Similar marches took place in other cities. Thousands turned out for it. A tradition was born.

As the lesbian feminist and gay liberation movements blossomed in the 1970s, so did the commemorations of the Stonewall Riots at the end of every June. Now celebrated as “Pride Day” the parades swelled with people exuberant in their newfound sense of themselves. The exhilarating pride they felt as gays and lesbians organized unions and caucuses, publishing houses and bookstores, softball leagues, marching bands, religious organizations, churches and synagogues, professional associations, magazines, political and self-help organizations and as each one of these paraded up the main streets of North America and Western Europe. No longer marked by secrecy, shame and isolation, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities celebrated the momentum of coming out in festive parades and demonstrations.

Pride is not just a community on parade, a celebration of our diversity and accomplishments. Though obscured now, in our time of greater visibility and equality, it is also a festive observance of the journey out, the crossing over from underground to aboveground, the journey from darkness to light. The merry-making and partying that mark Pride tap into profound spiritual cultural traditions of gay and lesbian subcultures.

The campy self-presentation inherent in drag balls, costume balls, masquerades, and gay revelry draw us into a world of festivity and fantasy. The fantastic, the imaginative, are not merely flights of fancy, flighty escapes from the world. The utopian visions of many radicals have been, after all, a kind of political fantasy. Festivity and fantasy point past the real to what is possible, what could be.

The political nature of festivity and fantasy can be seen in the medieval European celebration of the Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools began at Vespers on the day of New Year’s Eve with the chanting of the Magnificat, that celebrated passage from the Gospel of Luke where the mother of Jesus declares: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” It was a period of time in which roles were reversed: the beggar with the bishop, the fool with the lord or sheriff. Lowly clerics painted their faces and strutted about in the robes of their superiors. There was cross-dressing in every sense. Masks were put on, outrageous ditties sung in the streets, and all the stately rituals of the church and court were mocked. During the Feast of Fools, every social convention and custom was ridiculed, every ruler lampooned by the common people.

As you might imagine, the Feast of Fools was criticized by higher ups, being condemned outright by the Council of Basel in 1431. Nevertheless, it survived into the sixteenth century, primarily in Germany and France, eventually being transformed into various theatrical and homosexual traditions. It represents in many ways the class conflict of the times, the peasants keeping alive many of their folk traditions while expressing resistance to feudal and ecclesiastical rule.

In gay slang, we talk about camp. When something is overly exaggerated and theatrical, it is campy. Camping is the practice of extravagant mannerisms, usually parodying or mimicking something or someone. It is ironic, playful, and biting. In the sixteenth century, on Shakespeare’s stage, it was illegal for women to act. The parts of women were played by boys. This act of cross-dressing was known in English as camping. Camping is the corruption of the French word campagne (or the Italian campagna), meaning not only countryside, but the level playing fields where travelling theatre troupes entertained. Campaign and campus are related English words. Theatrical troupes played on such fields throughout the medieval and early modern period. Such troupes often kept alive the spirit and practices of the Feast of Fools through the performance of political satires.

In gay and lesbian slang we also talk about drag as the act of cross-dressing, or more recently any kind of costuming or self-decoration (office drag, for example, being a suit and tie). Drag queens represent a particular kind of theatrical self-invention. Drag performers are known for dressing up like famous people in order to parody them. Drag queens are fantastic, fabulous creatures more than they are impersonators of women. In the restrictive binary of “male” and “female” there is nowhere else to go if one is not male–but female. Drag occupies a place along a gender continuum, not male but not female.

“On the drag” or “flashing the drag” was English slang right into the nineteenth century for men dressed in women’s clothing. It comes from an older English slang word for a cart used for hauling (or the street such a cart was pulled down). The main drag, we might say, in a town is its main street. Drag racing is, of course, the practice of driving down a strip of road.

These are possible linguistic remnants and echoes from the days of the Feast of Fools where the dressed-up or cross-dressed were dragged in carts along the main streets, parodying the well to do and powerful. The folk traditions kept alive by such festivities as the Feast of Fools are rooted in even older, pre-Christian European religions. These were likely animistic and pagan traditions–pagan in the root sense of the word meaning “country-dweller.” Christianity in Europe was, for the longest time, an urban phenomenon. The pagans or heathens of the countryside, the heaths, continued to practice their animistic, earth-centered traditions, other fragments of which survive to this day in such things as Halloween and Easter eggs.

The Inquisition actively suppressed the old religion of pre-Christian Europe. It is interesting to note the kinds of things that became illegal and persecuted. It became illegal to hold processions of men dressed as women in carts down the main streets; it also became illegal to wear animal skins in such parades. Could it be that the Church was trying to stamp out the burning embers of nature-based religion of the peasants that seems to have included a role for gender-variant behavior? Was it banning sacred parades of people dressed up as the goddesses, gods and animal spirits of their nature religion? We know that by the twelfth century, homosexuality was conflated with heresy and the two were actively persecuted.

There are many fascinating anthropological studies that link cross-dressing, same-sex desire and sacred function. In many cultures across the globe, certain shamanic, healing and mediatory roles were assigned to gender-variant people. The shaman impersonates the spirit of powerful animals, in many societies, taking on the persona of power animals. The shaman is able to cross over into the spirit world and return. It is possible that remnants of a European nature-based religion that included the sacred function of cross-dressed, homoerotically-inclined shamanic figures has survived through the Feast of Fools, the troubadours, and western theatrical traditions and is echoed in contemporary gay and lesbian slang and sub-cultural practices.

As late as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, one of the few societal niches that afforded gay men a place to be themselves was the theatre, the world of the performing arts. Theatre, itself rooted in pagan rites, reenacts transformation. The curtain rises, the veil between this world and some other is lifted, and we are transported into a world beyond the ordinary world. Where players use costume and makeup to take on the personae of people who are not themselves.

Celebrating Pride Day, we draw on these rich traditions and associations. Reversing roles, as happened in the Feast of Fools, is a critique of such roles. Power and gender arrangements are shown not to be natural or God-given, but made up by humans. They can be unmade. The inherent critique of power involved in reversing roles also taps into our powers to transform ourselves. Masquerade, costume, camp and drag remind us of our ability to create ourselves anew, to become fabulous. We can cross over, we can enter a new world. This is what social change movements do, showing us how personal and social transformation are possible.

Celebrating Pride Day, we evoke our powers of becoming who we are, our potential to be all that we are meant to be, by drawing on the theatrical, shamanistic threads in western European lesbian, gay and transgender subcultures. It has the possibility of simultaneously being political theatre, protest and ritual.

The central metaphor of Pride Day is one of coming out, coming out of the closet. It seems to me that coming out is a profoundly spiritual occasion. Yet in a world that cannot appreciate gayness, it is a spiritual occasion without ceremony. Jewish kids come of age with a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, Christians with confirmation, but no similar rite of passage exists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who make the difficult, treacherous passage from the closet to the daylight. There exists no formal apprenticeship, no ceremonial initiation for us as we wake up to the inward truth of who we are.

The themes of transformation, of passage from the ordinary world to an extraordinary one, of shamanic crossing over that are all inherent in Pride Day make it a psychologically and spiritually powerful event for sexual minorities, we who have been denied ritual expression of our wrestling with the power of being. It is for this reason that Pride celebrations can be emotionally charged and moving events for many of us.

We remember the Stonewall Riots and their important place in defining a change of consciousness, where sexual minorities came out of hiding. At Pride Day, we remember our past and festively celebrate our hard-won freedoms. Like the Jewish festival of Passover, it is a yearly reminder that we came out of oppression. Pride Day is a dramatization and reenactment, like the ritual occasion of Passover, of our coming out into freedom. On Pride Day, we celebrate our arrival, like the “coming out” balls of debutantes.

Celebrating our coming out, our crossing over, we invite those we love and those who love us to join us. Not only to support the equality, dignity, and worth of sexual minorities, but to create with us a new world. Not only to demonstrate our opposition to oppression, discrimination and unfair treatment, but to journey together on a road of personal transformation, celebrating the possibilities–for all of us–of becoming who we truly are.

Pauses, Grace Notes and Gratitude

Growing up, my family only said grace at special occasions, meals that the whole family was there for. We might have said grace at other holidays, but it was consistently said every Thanksgiving. Because of the nature of the holiday, a meal eaten with thanks, it would have all seemed rather hollow had we not paused before the turkey was carved, the feast of vegetables and sweet potato and stuffing and cranberry sauce spread before us, and actually given thanks. This was usually a perfunctory, rote prayer uttered by one of us children.

In the years that followed, I’ve noticed a space at the front end of every meal, every social occasion that included sitting down together to eat. There would come a moment, as everybody was assembled and seated, before the food was served. Everybody settles in and a quiet, a hush, comes to rest upon the assembly, an expectant pause, a breath, a glance around the table. Often, somebody would cheerfully say, Bon appétit! Or lift their glass and say, Cheers! Something needed to be said in that silent, ceremonial moment. It was only as my social network began to include more churchgoers that somebody might suggest, Shall we give thanks before beginning?

Give thanks. Those are the words of the wordless pause, the voice of the silent moment before the meal. As you regard those gathered around the table with you, as you look at the food and drink, the bounty of labor and love, delight and delicacy, even if you don’t have the words, or are not in the habit of saying grace, there is that space that is filled with gratitude, a breath of satisfaction and contentment. I’m so grateful we could all be here. I am grateful for friends and family and food, that I have enough, that I have what I need. I am grateful for these necessities of life, for life itself.

I think of those moments as grace notes in the unending musical score that is life. In music, a grace note is ornamentation, an unneeded or unnecessary embellishment. It’s not essential to the melody or harmony. It’s a little addition that enhances the beauty of the unfolding sequence of events. The grace note sounds as glasses clink in a toast to life, as the host thanks you for being present, in the hushed recognition of the holy moment before you dig in. There are other decorative moments that come unbidden, times of wonder and a sense of peace, times of clarity, when the mind unwraps the vivid sense that all of life is a gift.

Pausing to give thanks in the face of our blessings is an essential religious act, an essential human act. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. If only that recognition could be more frequent, more regular, how our lives would be filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace!

The word grace comes from the Latin gratia, which means favor or charm as well as thanks. In the Romance languages, the words for thank you echo this origin: gracias, in Spanish, gratzie in Italian. To say grace before a meal, then is to say thanks, affirming that our daily bread is a gift. Yet the word grace is resonant with meaning. The reverberations of its roots—gratia—are found throughout our lexicon. We are grateful for what we have, we are gratified by good news, congratulated when we have achieved something, a grace note, as we’ve already observed, is gratuitous, we leave a gratuity when a person’s service has pleased us. Something given with no expectation of repayment is gratis. We’re sometimes given a grace period on paying bills. A generous, accepting sort of person is gracious, an unthankful person an ingrate.

Echoing through this vocabulary of grace, those parts of our speech that ring with “gratia,” is an essential religious affirmation. Theologically, grace is the unmerited, freely given mercy and kindness of God, a gift of divine favor and love. It is universal and unconditional, given to all who are aware it is available. That love is so persistent, so generous, so overflowing that it offers forgiveness to all who ask. Wholeness, integrity, and peace are the gifts of being in right relation with God and one another and all we have to do is open ourselves up to it, acknowledge our shortcomings and brokenness and give ourselves over completely to the justice-making, relation-repairing power.

Have you ever experienced a kindness from somebody that came out of the blue? An act of generosity that you did not expect? When somebody did something for you that they did not have to do? Remember how that made you feel. Imagine how that might make you feel. Gosh—thanks! What a wonderful, wonder filled occasion! I feel blessed or fortunate or special.

Such acts may also stimulate an aspiration to go and do likewise. Such generosity gives us permission to do something similar for somebody else. We can add a gratuity to everyday acts—being friendly to strangers, sincerely thanking a cashier at the grocery store, a gratuitous kind word to a co-worker, making small talk to one who everybody passes by. Sending a handwritten note to somebody just because you were thinking of them with fondness. Listening patiently to one you find dull and usually interrupt. It doesn’t take much to produce this sort of grace among people. It doesn’t take much to add such ornamentation, such grace notes to our daily lives.

The thing about grace is that the more it is offered to us, the more we offer it to others. The more space we make in our lives for grace, the more gracious we become to others. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have been offered and blessed with, then we become more generous. When we realize how far we fall short of our potential, and humbly understand how much we are loved and forgiven despite our shortcomings, when we comprehend how much we have been forgiven, then we become more forgiving, more charitable. The one who has been forgiven little loves little, Jesus says.

When we have experienced loving acceptance just as we are, when others are gracious with us, we are more likely to look kindly on our failures, less likely to beat ourselves up over them. When we can be at peace with our own inadequacies and limitations, holding them lightly, we can be more generous with the inadequacies and limitations of others. Recognizing that no one is perfect, of course, one wants to work at perfecting what we can. But we do so with a sense of ease, of compassion with ourselves, and we extend that compassion generously with others. It is in knowing how much we have been forgiven for our failures that we can forgive others.

It is possible to reflect on all that constitutes one’s life and think of what we have as unexpected gifts, and not necessarily from a divine source. No one is an island entire of itself, to paraphrase John Donne just a little. We are all connected. Much of what we have we received with somebody’s help. Recognizing how dependent upon others we are and how others depend on us, how our lives are sustained in a network of mutual relation, how our very lives are interrelated in a common life larger than our own individual, we receive and give such gifts thankfully.

Of course, it is entirely possible not to accept a gift. It is possible to choose to turn a blind eye to the blessings that surround us. We are endowed with freedom, including the freedom to reject what is so generously offered. It is possible to be ungrateful, to look around at all that we have and see only what is missing, to look at all that we have been given, and be unappreciative. It is possible to focus only on the wants, the unmet desires, and blot out everything else. Indeed, there are things in our lives that we’d just as soon not have. There are needs that go along with this gift of life. We may look to tomorrow and wonder how they all will be met. We may worry. We may be afraid. Gratitude for what we do have dispels fear. When we cultivate an awareness of what we are thankful for, we see what a treasure trove our lives actually are. Listing what we are grateful for is taking inventory of the treasure we do possess.

And in gratitude, we share that wealth with others. There are others who can benefit from your gifts, even if you would never think of yourself as “gifted.” When we can finally see that we possess something valuable—a specific skill, particular knowledge, money or time—we are free to offer it to others for whom it is useful. As we learn to share what we have, we begin to have enough. As we give, so we receive. The greater generosity of spirit we cultivate, the more we are fulfilled and gratified.

Awakening to the movement of grace in our lives might need some practice. Awakening to our daily life as a precious gift can take practice. Listing what one is grateful for is such a practice. Time can be taken at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect and review the day. What good thing happened that day that you could not have accomplished on your own? What elements of your day can be savored—the fresh air, the beauty? Did somebody—anybody—show you compassion or hospitality or kindness? Did you to do so for others, maybe being patient and friendly with a slow cashier, even though you were in a rush, or a giving money or time to a charitable and just cause, or not raising your voice or getting angry with a family member. Were there times of serenity or joy or laughter or peace? Be thankful for those moments. Be thankful for the good things that happened that you did not create.

If you’re too busy to make lists or sit quietly, there’s always saying grace. It’s a spiritual practice that connects us with our families, sitting together for a meal once every day. If saying grace before that meal is awkward, simply holding hands around the table for a moment of thankful silence might work. Pausing before a meal whether one is alone or with others, whether silently or aloud, and being mindful of what we have to be thankful for is a form of grace. Remembering that the meal itself involves the work of many hands both within our household and beyond it, and that the Earth itself sustains us. We need to eat in order to live, so hopefully the thankful pause will happen daily.

Awakening to the holy in our daily lives, listening for those grace notes, produces in us the fruits of a gratified life. We become artists of grace, giving freely of ourselves to others and creatively standing in the way of anything that detracts from the blossoming of love and mutuality in the world. We become change agents for others, for the social order, helping to shape a more gracious world grounded in the values and practices of kindness and generosity. Hospitality toward those in need, reaching out to the hungry and lonely and marginalized—these are precisely the ways that grace is felt in our world. We do it not out of duty, but because we are participating in an endeavor to humanize our world.

We would be aware of our dependence on the Earth and on the sustaining presence of other human beings. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. As we intentionally take time to recognize this, as we develop practices that bring us to recognize this, our lives are filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace. We are showered with sacred blessings that cause us to blossom and grow in thankful, expansive ways. We are bathed in grace and we in turn become gracious.

There are moments when we survey the banquet of our lives and are thankful. We have what we need. There are times in our lives when we are given exactly what we need. We cannot command them or produce them, but there are moments of pleasure and delight that grace our days unexpectedly. A sense of serenity, that all is well; the comforting silence between companions. The special quality of such moments is that we don’t bring them about by overachieving or being perfect. We don’t bring them about at all. They are given freely, gratuitously. In such moments of clarity, we understand that all of life is a gift.

It comes as simply as the quiet, sacred moment before a meal.