But what brought me into the Church was a mixture of two graces. The first was having fallen in love with a Catholic classmate at school some years earlier. He was and is straight, but I perceived a certain warmth of personality in him which seemed untypical of the world of Protestant schoolboys in which I lived, and I associated that warmth with his being Catholic. The second was a special grace at a time when I was at a very low ebb, having just started to “come out” as a gay man in a very hostile conservative evangelical environment, shortly before going to University. This grace I associate absolutely with the intercession of Padre Pio, since it came at a time when I glimpsed something of the link between his stigmata and the sacrifice of the Mass; and I then knew, and have always since known, the Mass to be no mere memorial supper. This grace, which was accompanied by an astounding joy, literally blew me into the Church. It was the gift of the Catholic Faith. Once it had fallen upon me I knew myself to be involved on the inside of something which has been a love affair ever since, something which just seems to open out and get bigger and better all the time. I was aware even then that my often tortuous journey of self-acceptance as a gay man and my becoming a Catholic were part of the same movement of joy. And God has been faithful, keeping the texture of those loves intertwined and slowly bringing them into one love and one blessing, nurturing the heart that it has been his idea to give me and keeping it safe from Lord alone knows how much erratic behaviour, slowness to trust, and cowardice, on my part, as well as from the defamation of love and the hatred espoused by so many whose job it is to speak in God’s name.
Then again, one of the reliefs about coming into the Church was precisely that it was not ethics-obsessed. I remember, a year or so after becoming a Catholic, realising that one of the first things I had to learn about being a Catholic – bizarrely – was how to sin. In the world of my formation, being good was obligatory and boring. And sinning, being bad, was a terrible letting down of the side. A sort of failure of English gentlemanliness. This meant, in fact, a constant struggle to live up to “being good”, whatever that meant. Curiously, a strong belief in “Justification by faith alone” seemed to have as its psychological counterpart an extreme need to justify oneself. As a Catholic I had to learn that sin is boringly normal, and that what is exciting is being pulled into learning new things, called virtues, which are ways in which a goodness which is not ours becomes connatural with us, and that this is something of an adventure. I had to learn how not to be so concerned with whether I was getting things right or wrong, but to learn instead to relax into the given-ness of things. I can scarcely tell you how strange it sounds in retrospect, but I was discovering that it is part of the mercy of the Catholic faith that those of us who are infected by spiritual haughtiness find ourselves being lowered slowly and gently into the mud, the slime, of being one of ordinary humanity, and learning that it is this ordinary humanity which is loved as it is. If there are to be any diamonds, they will be found amidst the clay, and as the outworking of the pressures in the clay, not perched on high, on stalks, trying to avoid being infected by so much common carbon.
Part of this induction into being Catholic has been the discovery of the secret presence of Our Lady, permeating everything. For many of those of us brought up in Protestant backgrounds, it takes a long time to begin to make sense of what can come across as a psychological weirdness with which it is difficult to identify, which doesn’t seem to strike chords in us. But I have come to rejoice in and love Our Lady and the difference which she constitutes in the Church. For it is she who makes it impossible for the Church successfully to turn itself either into an ideology or into a moralistic enterprise. She can never quite be co-opted into standing for something other than what she is. And what I have come to associate her with being is the link, the non-opposition, between the old creation and the new, between nature and grace, between the Israel of the Prophets and Patriarchs and the new, universal Israel of God. Far too delicate to be clearly delineated, and far too present to be dismissed, she has underlined, seated, and made three-dimensional for me elements of the faith in what her Son is doing which can only be lived-into over time.
The feast of the Assumption, in particular, is one where my heart soars, and I have, over my twenty-seven years of being a Catholic enjoyed two special moments of grace from our Lady on the Solemnity of the Assumption. One, when out for a walk in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where a sense of the openness of heaven gave me the inspiration for the second half of my book “The joy of being wrong”. And more recently, and even more surprisingly, a grace came when I was desperate to think of a way to finish “Faith beyond resentment: fragments catholic and gay”. I was in Rio de Janeiro, running out of time before I had to hand in the manuscript, and was stuck, at the end of my tether, and on my way to sleep, having spent Sunday 15 August failing to do anything on the computer other than play FreeCell and Solitaire. And as I fell asleep, I was given the parable of Nicodemus, the Inquisitor and the boys in the square, which became the end of the last chapter of the book. I remember giggling as I fell asleep, as the parable was given to me, so preposterous did it seem as an ending for the book. Just as I remember thinking as I wrote it out the next day that Our Lady’s love for her queer children, one of the best kept but also best known, secrets of the Church, is something which no amount of ecclesiastical homophobia can vanquish.
I recently came across what was, for me, an entirely new and wonderful avocation of Our Lady. This is Our Lady Undoer of Knots. I stumbled upon a locally carved statue of her in Brazil, which I bought without knowing anything about the devotion. This turns out to come from Augsburg in Germany, from a painting by an unknown artist dating from 1700. What on earth, you may ask, is a devotion from a Baroque part of Germany doing being sculpted in Salvador, the most African part of Brazil? But this is part of the uncanny wonder of the Catholic Church. The image is of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception holding a cord with knots, which she is undoing. This Avocation gives me great peace, since it is clear to me that the knots concerning the relationship between grace and desire, sin and concupiscence, which have been so tied up into a skandalon for gay people in the life of our Church are being gently and carefully undone by hands blessed with far more patience and delicacy than I could hope to muster.
- James Alison, "Is it ethical to be Catholic? – Queer perspectives"
Derek, coincidentally, writes about Mary today, too.