The Rosary for October: Subversive, Queer. (Repost, with Update)

May is Mary’s month and I
Muse at that and wonder why?
Her feasts follow reason
Dated due to season:
Candlemas, Lady Day
But the Lady Month, May
Why fasten that upon her
With a feasting in her honour?

-GM Hopkins, the May Magnificat

virgin-mary-statue

Why, indeed?  For reasons I have never clearly understood, this is one of my favourite poems by the gay English Jesuit GM Hopkins,  which has stuck firmly in my memory since my school days.  ( It was note even one that I studied in school, but one I found in my own exploration of Hopkins’ work, inspired by those poems we did study. Apologies to GMH if my memory has failed me and I have misquoted him).

October too is a Marian month, and a time to be thinking particularly of the rosary.

The extract above, and that which follows, are taken from a post I wrote for October last year. The original post drew some encouraging comment, October is still the rosary month, and it is still useful to consider how we pray the rosary.  That alone makes it worth re-posting. However there is another reason to consider this afresh.

Last month, some weeks in advance of October and its rosary devotions, the original post drew a comment from the original developer of the Relational Mysteries,  raising some important questions which I think are worth thinking about. Read the opening of the original post for a sense of the original, cross to here if you like for the full post, read the comment after this excerpt,  read my response – and then consider your own reaction.

 

120px-Rosary

I enjoyed reading a reflection on his experience of the rosary by Michael J Iafrate at Catholic Anarchist.  Michael tells how the rosary was very much part of his schooling, but as an adult he moved away from praying the rosary – except at times of desperate need. My experience has been similar.  Marian devotions were very much a part of my education in Catholic schools – but less so, oddly, in high school, where I was taught by OMI priests (Oblates of Mary Immaculate) .  But as an adult, I have been less interested in the rosary, or other forms of fixed, verbal  prayer, than with different forms of spirituality, or more cerebral explorations of faith and its implications for living. But like Michael, I too have found myself praying the rosary at times of desperate need, even when I thought of myself as agnostic rather than Catholic.  It was at precisely at such a time, catching myself praying through the rosary to a God I thought I didn’t believe in, that I began the process of returning to the Church.

I also appreciated Michael’s observations of his experience studying theology:

As most Catholics who study theology will tell you, there is a certain crisis of faith that occurs somewhere along the line, a crisis of faith that comes from exposing one’s beliefs to new kinds of scrutiny and where it feels as though the floor has dropped out beneath you. The de/reconstruction process that often occurs in the course of theological study is somewhat terrifying at times, but can also be a profoundly liberating process, as it gives more opportunities to rediscover and reappropriate the faith of the Church as one’s own. It doesn’t take entrance into a theology program to experience this. All it takes is a serious commitment to enter into the reflectiveness of faith seeking understanding, a reflectiveness that all Christians are called to: all Christians should be, and are, theologians.

Of the Rosary, he describes his journey away from it as “a type of theological elitism that looks down on popular devotions.”  (This was my attitude too, until that was rather shaken by experience of the stations of the cross while on retreat).  But he goes on to note he is rethinking his views of the Rosary, as his theology too is taking a new turn:

Some of it might have to do with another theological turn that I am  making — toward a recognition of the importance of popular religious practices as a source for theology, as Latino/a theologians and others are making increasingly clear. My interest in the theologies of marginalized peoples, for example, has impressed upon me that Our Lady of the Poor is also Our Lady of the Rosary.

(One of those Latina theologians is Marcella Althaus-Read, whose “Queer  God”  currently has me simultaneously fascinated, stimulated and perplexed .)

Reflecting further on his relationship with the rosary, he describes his continuing difficulties with the traditional form of the rosary, then presents the surprising observation that praying the rosary is “counter cultural” (because it is so out of step with the prevailing values and aspirations of American (or other Western) culture, then leads to discuss a new “subversive” rosary developed by the social activist Capuchin, Bro Vito.

His solution was to rethink the mysteries of the rosary in a way analogous to John Paul II’s introduction of a new set of christologically-focused mysteries to the rosary a few years back……In a similar way, and noting the Pope’s emphasis on the “freedom of individuals and communities” and respect for their needs, Br. Vito has developed a set of mysteries called the “Subversive Mysteries,” five events in the life of Christ that he finds particularly fruitful for reflection from the perspective of a Catholic engaged in social justice work. Each mystery includes a “fruit” for which one could pray for that mystery, as well as a prayerful reflection question.

(Read the rest of the original post, and the comments that it produced. )

Now read the comment by Eugene McMullan, the originator of the relational mysteries, who describes himself as “perplexed” at the response to them:

Hi everyone,
Here it is a year since the “queering the rosary” controversy erupted; I haven’t said much publicly in response, as I have been busy with marriage equality activism, and honestly, didn’t quite know how to respond. I was disturbed for two reasons, one being that the right used “queering the rosary” to effectively deflect attention from our criticism of the bishop and his anti-gay, anti-marriage activism [the demonstration the California Catholic reported on did not even involve praying the rosary, much less “queering” it]; and two, that our work has always been about social justice more broadly. I do not object to the use of “queering the rosary” to describe the Relational Mysteries for a particular audience (I used the term when co-teaching a course at MCC, and have never used it in my own RC context), but that is not my usual language. I began to develop the Relational Mysteries a few years ago when, as a practicing Roman Catholic layperson, I would pray with the rosary group on Sunday mornings at Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco. Since then I have developed a Peace and Justice Rosary which includes Relational, Prophetic, and Incarnational Mysteries. To learn more  see my updated post at
Catholics for Marriage Eauality.

McMullan says that he “didn’t quite know” how to respond, and nor do I. I think he and I share some common aims, but actions frequently have unintended consequences. In his case, these were that an approach that was designed for a broad reflection on social justice (hence the name, “relational”) was appropriated by another group for a specific focus on gay  / lesbian reflection, and conservative groups reacted in anger to the public expressions of this as “queering the rosary” (their expression, not mine, although it clearly fits well with my own blog title. What does this mean for me here at QTC, and my own use of words?

I believe that misappropriation and angry reaction to provocative new thinking are important – but should not discourage us from producing fresh thinking in the first place. We cannot be held responsible for the abuses and distortions of others.  I have myself seen some outraged reaction in some rule-book Catholic blogs to my own words, here and on my satellite sites, to the whole concept of “queering the church”, “queering scripture”, “queering theology” and “queering spirituality”. Is this entire process a useful one, or an offensive misappropriation?

McCallum says in his comment that he does not “object to the use of “queering the rosary” to describe the Relational Mysteries for a particular audience”, and also takes the opportunity to thank me for my support, so I take this as a sign that we are indeed on the same wavelength. My purpose in taking possession of the term “queering” here, is that I am writing for a specific audience, and attempting to take the several aspects of faith that can too easily be seen as unsympathetic and hostile to queer Christians, and present them in ways to counteract the poison – not by distorting the truth, but by correcting some existing distortions, offering alternative but valid interpretations, and by considering new approaches that are theologically sound and and also sympathetic to the many people who too easily feel themselves marginalized in the Church.

In focussing on a specific application of the relational mysteries, I was quite specifically addressing a clearly defined, particular audience, and also did try to make clear that the origin of the relational mysteries was the broader context of social justice generally. I was also thinking (but may not have made this clear) that I saw their value in the realm of personal prayer. I certainly do not endorse the appropriation of the rosary for political purposes as political demonstration.

I thank Eugene McCallum for his comment here, and welcome the opportunity it has given me to rethink and clarify for my readers precisely what I mean by “queering” the rosary, and the church, and the rest.

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11 Responses to “The Rosary for October: Subversive, Queer. (Repost, with Update)”

  1. Phillip Clark Says:

    I’m glad you covered this topic! Ideally, I’d be praying the Rosary every day myself. But a combination of laziness, fatigue, and distraction have recently kept me away from it. But I do intend to become regular with this devotion once again, especially in this month which is dedicated to it.

    Although some progressive Catholics may dismiss Marian devotions as a “hindrance” and reminiscient of a “medieval” piety I’ve never thought them to be so, in fact, I find them to be exactly the opposite, drawing us ever closer to Our Lord Jesus Christ, just as Our Lady’s role within the Church was always intended to do.

    Of course the Relational Mysteries of the Rosary have provoked the ire of conservative Catholics, but I think this is a wonderful idea, counteracting discrimination with INNOVATION!

    When I have prayed it, the Rosary has always done nothing but brought me closer to Christ. I’m able to sympathize with Our Lord in an especially personal way when contemplating the Sorrowful Mysteries, calling to mine the times when I have personally been discriminated or ridiculed because of my sexual orientation or how homosexuals throughout the world have been persecuted in various, unfortunate ways. The Rosary encourages us all that if we keep our eyes on our Mother in heaven we will be strengthened and brought closer to Christ her Son. I think we as gay Catholics need all the more encouragement from a loving Mother, because as we know all too well, in the end, the ones who bore us are ultimately the ones who can truly and sincerely understand and love us as we should be.

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      When I first began my journey back to the church after some years as “lapsed”, these wise words by a Jesuit friend were formative: “Faith is not a matter for the intellect, but of experience”. Jayden Cameron, in his series at Gay Mystic covering the papal visit to Prague, has noted that one can be intellectually as cynical as all hell about the little infant of Prague, or about the papal pomp and finery, but in the experience there is something clearly present and important that simply cannot be denied. think the same thing can be said about the Marian devotions: their validity is not established by rational debate, but by the experience.

      I do not pray the rosary regularly, but have done so in times of desperation, as I wrote, but also at times of intense spiritual experience, as on the retreat I wrote about. Whatever my cerebral thoughts about the rosary, the experience has always been positive.

  2. William D. Lindsey Says:

    The problem for me right now with the rosary is how it’s being used as a weapon for some really unsavory right-wing political groups. This may be an American phenomenon.

    Throughout the U.S., the Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property is organizing “America Needs Fatima” rosary rallies in October. In my area, these are being advertised by the statewide Catholic paper as a “solution” to the “problems” of abortion and same-sex marriage.

    Wherever these occur, they’re overtly political, a battle cry to the faithful to return to the (Republican) fold and vote solely on those non-negotiable issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.

    I just passed one of these rallies in my car. It wasn’t clear to me whether this was officially an America Needs Fatima rally or some spin off. One sign seemed to indicate that a local Catholic parish was sponsoring this rally. All along the sides of a busy road for a mile or so, people were standing with signs condemning abortion–but no mention at all of the need for health care for everyone to prevent abortion, of the need to fight capital punishment, etc.

    Only abortion. And the rosary. And voting the “right” way.

    All of that makes me wonder if there are ways those of us who see a value to various traditional meditative forms of prayer can appropriate them today, without reinforcing the ugly political meaning many of the faithful want to attach to those devotions.

    • Phillip Clark Says:

      *sigh* I agree with you completely Bill. It is frustrating that certain forms of popular devotion have just been taken over by the right-wingers to promote their agenda. But I think if everyone just appreciated these devotions, as tools to bring them closer to the Lord, rather than fostering an agenda, more credence might be given to them.

      Or, on the other hand, perhaps we as progressive Catholics could integrate these devotions for our own means, such as praying the Rosary for Marriage Equality or Healthcare Reform. Perhaps if such initiatives (well, the gay marriage one obviously couldn’t be promoted in most parishes without the assent of the pastor…) were advertised in these ways that would appeal to progressive as well as liberal Catholics the Rosary could once again be a tool that would unite rather than divide. I do think it can be done!

      Gary Wills, an ex-priest, and prolifc progressive Catholic author wrote a beautiful book on the fruits contained within the Rosary. So, I think simply dismissing certain devotions just because we might not find visible results immediately contained within them is unwise and gradually disintegrates the Church’s rich faith.

      • William D. Lindsey Says:

        Phillip, thanks for the response. I like your suggestion of praying the rosary for health care reform.

        Sadly, the event that took place in my community today seems to be tied to anti-health care reform groups. I have discovered that it has ties to Fr. Frank Pavone’s Priests for Life.

        Pavone endorsed George W. Bush for the last elections, spoke out against Obama in this election, and has stated that we need to get rid of the Obama mess in 2010.

        He has also appeared on national public conference calls opposing health care reform, collaborating with Focus on the Family, with which he is closely associated.

        He is, in other words, one of those Catholic political figures now working actively against health care reform and the current administration, who is convinced that a single party, the Republicans, represent the only option for Catholics.

        Having the rosary associated with these anti-life groups posturing as pro-life groups strikes me as sad. I hope there’s a way to retrieve a significant Catholic devotion that’s being put to overtly political uses in American culture today.

      • queeringthechurch Says:

        Bill, Phillip.

        I have my own experience of the right wing rosary: our opponents at the Soho Masses routinely use it to pray against us during the Mass. Imagine: the rosary as a prayer weapon against fellow Catholics attending Mass! Last night I was at the Mass, where the celebrant, Phillip Endean SJ (professor of theology at Oxford University), delivered an astounding sermon which is directly relevant. (I am still hoping to flesh this out into a full post, if my memory serves well enough). The key point here, though, came in his references to St Therese of Lisieux, whose relics are presently touring the UK to a rapturous reception.

        In the context of readings for the day on the theme of marriage, he made it clear that while we should not be distracted from the task of seeking reform of injustice in the church on sexual matters, we can use the Marian devotions to grow spiritually, which will strengthen us in the main struggle. I imagine this will be even more true if we “appropriate”, to use Bill’ term, the rosary to our own ends with the subversive or queer variations I described.

        This parallels his argument writing about Karl Rahner and Ignatius, which I have also been looking at recently. Endean notes in his book “Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality” that we all have the opportunity to achieve the direct experience of God. When we do, no words of man, not from the church, or even in Scripture, can contradict that experience.

      • William Lindsey Says:

        Thanks for the information about the sermon from your liturgy this weekend, Terry. It’s encouraging.

        Interestingly enough, Rahner is very apropos to the discussion. There’s a story that used to make the rounds of Catholic theology circles, about one of his visits to the U.S. In fact, it may have been his solitary visit to the U.S., or one of few. I think perhaps he wasn’t a traveler?

        If the story is correct, what happened as he appeared at some conference was that his English was not so good, so after he had read his paper, he sat on stage praying the rosary as others read theirs. This convinced many Catholic theologians that it’s possible to engage in high-powered progressive theological work, and still find value in “old-fashioned” devotions like the rosary.

  3. Vito Martinez, Capuchin Says:

    I wanted to say I love your blog. I’d be interested to read about the Relational Mysteries whenever the link is found, and I hope you “queer” whatever devotion you feel brings you closer to the Divine. (I use quotation marks in hopes not to offend anyone.)

    I also wanted to mention that while I have a religious title, the source for the mysteries came out of my life experience, not that I have some great insight to God not available to others. There was a need to recognize an image of Christ that I felt was being left out of older devotions. Rather than allow things like the Rosary, Adoration, or other devotions to become irrelavant to my life, I’ve fought and been criticized for my “subverting” of traditional faith practices.

    Tomorrow is the Memorial to Mary of the Rosary. Perhaps people will be inspired to pick up their rosary and look at it in a way they didn’t before your post.

    Peace.

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      Many thanks to you, Vito – for developing the Subversive Mysteries, and for your encouragement. I would like to say more, and to explore “The Jesus Manifesto”, but I am awy from home this week, with interent access only on an ancient PC with a VERY slow web connection – so give me a couple of days for a proper response.

      But I do want to state now that incresingly I am convinced that using personal experience is key, to spiritual growth, to a relevant faith, and to withstanding theological nonsense.

      Peace and blessings in Christ to you, too.

  4. Eugene McMullan Says:

    Hi everyone,
    Here it is a year since the “queering the rosary” controversy erupted; I haven’t said much publicly in response, as I have been busy with marriage equality activism, and honestly, didn’t quite know how to respond. I was disturbed for two reasons, one being that the right used “queering the rosary” to effectively deflect attention from our criticism of the bishop and his anti-gay, anti-marriage activism [the demonstration the California Catholic reported on did not even involve praying the rosary, much less “queering” it]; and two, that our work has always been about social justice more broadly. I do not object to the use of “queering the rosary” to describe the Relational Mysteries for a particular audience (I used the term when co-teaching a course at MCC, and have never used it in my own RC context), but that is not my usual language. I began to develop the Relational Mysteries a few years ago when, as a practicing Roman Catholic layperson, I would pray with the rosary group on Sunday mornings at Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco. Since then I have developed a Peace and Justice Rosary which includes Relational, Prophetic, and Incarnational Mysteries. To learn more see http://www.jointhecatholicimpact.com.

    I also like Bro. Vito’s Subversive Mysteries, which are new to me.

    Thanks for your support!

    Eugene McMullan

  5. Terence@queerchurch Says:

    Thanks for this thought- provoking comment, Eugene, and for the link to the Peace and Justice Rosary.

    I found your comment initially difficult to respond to, especially in the confines of a short comment box, so I delayed with the excuse of waiting for October – then I was overtaken by some personal/domestic events.

    I have now placed a full response as an independent post.


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