Wrestling With God: The Sacrament of Irony

Last week I re-posted an earlier piece on Richard Cleaver’s conception of coming out as wrestling with the divine.  Kevin J Calegan, writing in one of several pieces that made up an NCR cover story on gay and lesbian Catholics for Sep 2 1994, says it’s not just coming out that is wrestling with God, but the full gay experience “wrestles with God in an embrace that calls me to a new identity“.  Here are some extracts:

Recently I had the opportunity to see a performance of Tony Kushner‘s, “Perestroika,” Part 2 of his tour de force, “Angels in America.” In his play, Prior Walter, a 31-year-old man living with AIDS, is visited by an angel who declares him a prophet and tempts him to forgo the suffering ahead and find peace in heaven.


Borrowing the story line from Genesis 32, Prior wrestles with the angel, saying, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me!” The angel refuses, incredulous that Prior still wants to live. “Who demands: More life?/When Death like a Protector/Blinds our eyes, shielding from some tender nerve/More horror than can be borne.”

“Bless me anyway,” Prior replies. “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who have lived through much worse, but …. You see them living anyway.”

The metaphor of angel-wrestling has helped me make some sense of my relationship to God, to myself and the world. In the dark of night, I, like both Jacob and Prior, find myself in mortal combat with mysterious figures: angels, demons, viruses.

I just can’t seem to let go.

Finally, after an all-night battle, the combatants release me — not just with a blessing but with a whole new name and identity, a new Israel, “one who strives with God.” I have been in many a wrestling match — political, theological, medical. I have wrestled with God, with God’s ostensible representatives, with sisters and brothers — often in a sweaty, straining, forceful embrace that calls me and those with whom I contend to new identities and new relationships. The fight becomes an act of love.

……..

We who “strive with God” prove those well-meaning but frightened folks wrong every time we jump onto the mat to fight for our rights — our civil rights and the rights of our baptism.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our church when the courage and willingness to go to the floor on the issues that count, to speak the truth when it hurts, is cause for oppression and contempt (see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith‘s two recent documents on homosexuality, 1986 and 1992). What continues to amaze me is that God’s powerful grace is so palpable precisely where the hierarchy denies it can be. I call it the “sacrament of irony.”

The Church constantly reminds us of the fundamental importance of truth. Even the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger concluded “Homosexualitatis Problema” with a reminder to “Speak the Truth in Love”. So indeed there is profound irony that those who control the Church condemn and even penalize gay and lesbian Catholics in their moments of greatest honesty (as with the Canadian altar server, or by withholding communion from Catholics who wear a rainbow sash to declare publicly their orientation, or by driving out priests and religious women who speak honestly about sexuality). Yet, in the same document which preaches the importance of speaking the truth, their own case is based on falsehoods, half-truths, and rhetorical sleight of hand. To counter the lies, it is essential that we take the injunction seriously, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, telling and disseminating our stories as they are, not as the Vatican would like them to be: just as Kevin Calegan has done.

In all those times of wrestling with the tough issues, with church leaders, with each other, with disease, I have been pinned down and squeezed, touched, massaged, embraced, cuddled and, yes, pleasured by a challenging and everloving God. I have been transformed and reconciled. No longer frightened or ashamed, I am learning to confide in God’s love and the love of my fellow wrestlers. And after the match is over, I look forward to walking humbly with my God, even if it is with a limp.

(Read the full reflection)

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