Yeah, I am back sooner than I thought I’d be. These past few weeks have been a time of intensely reconsidering about my vocation, the work I am doing and that complicated, confusing institution we call the Church, which Karl Rahner describes as always redeemed and always groaning for redemption. I stepped away from this blog because I needed to regain perspective that I was quickly losing and didn’t need to do it in a public forum. The next few postings are an effort to retrace some of the steps and maybe, reinterpret why it is that I am an Episcopal priest.
Michael was the first person I ever fell deeply in love with. I met him in 1980. I had dropped out of college and returned home so depressed, my life hung only from the gossamer thread of a new-found faith. After moping around my parents’ home and fighting with my mom for several months in Cali, I moved to Bogotá and went back to school. I also found my way to the small Episcopal Church, St. Alban’s, that still functioned as an expat haven in those years. The rector, Fr Patrick Hurley, took me under his wing and I found there a community that mediated the grace and hope I needed to start saying yes to life again. It was Fr Patrick who introduced me to Michael.
I was bedazzled. Michael lived and worked In Cali but came to Bogotá fairly frequently because he was in the process of becoming a postulant for Holy Orders. He was brilliant–a theologian, a poet, an accomplished musician. I got to know T.S. Eliot through Michael, especially T.S. Eliot’s plays which are not as well known as his poetry. One of his visits to Bogotá coincided with an excellent exhibit of the work of Paul Klee at the local modern art museum. We were both mesmerized and I remember walking and talking with Michael about the quote we’d read next to the piece we’d both been most drawn to. Describing his experience painting under the Northern African sun, the sign on the wall said that at one point, Klee exclaimed “¡Yo y el color somos uno!” (I and color are one). We had an hours-long discussion that ranged from mysticism to art theory.
During that year we drew closer and closer and there was also always this small and infinite distance between what I wanted in that relationship and what it actually was. We were both in transition (it didn’t take me long to figure out that I wanted to come back to the USA to finish college and Michael was headed to seminary out in Berkeley, CA) and at first I decided we were both cautious because life would soon be changing dramatically for us. There was also something I couldn’t quite name though and finally, I scrunched up what little self-confidence I had at that time and wrote Michael a letter asking him very directly about the nature of our relationship. His response came several days later, written in his wonderfully distinct and beautiful handwriting. In the gentlest and kindest way possible, he explained that he was gay and that some of what I so much wanted in our relationship simply wasn’t going to happen.
It’s still hard to remember that letter and at the same time, I’m fiercely glad I kept it and could go out to my garage right now and pull it out if I wanted to. For quite a while, I lacked words to respond. I felt so stupid and so exposed and so alone. Having just clawed my way out of that deep gully called clinical depression, where it seemed like morning hardly ever came, with my sense of myself and my self-confidence just beginning to return, I battled the sense that I was unlovable, that I would never find love. Until one morning, I woke up with a sense of crystal clarity. I had fallen in love with Michael because he was an extraordinarily lovable man. There was nothing to be ashamed of in my attraction to him and in fact, the opposite was true. It actually told me something about myself and about life that this was whom I had come to love. Whatever the terms of our relationship, I was so very blessed to have this person in my life. I was almost giddy as I wrote Michael that morning, knowing that if there had been loss, it was not the loss of our relationship.
Michael went on to Berkeley at the end of the summer of 81 and I went to college at Loyola in New Orleans. Our lives intersected many times, sometimes in unexpected ways. I got to visit him and his lover in San Francisco one year when I attended an HR conference out there during my time working in Memphis with FedEx. He stayed with Sherod and me a couple of other times. Whenever we talked, it didn’t take more than a few moments before we were engaged in these incredibly intense conversations that called me deeper into myself, that challenged me to think and be my best.
Michael was the preacher at my ordination to the priesthood. I am more than a little heartbroken right now, because the copy of his sermon was on a computer we had a while back now, and apparently, when Sherod dismantled it after it’s half-life was over, he did not keep backups, so the sermon is more than likely lost now. But the sermon was incredibly powerful and beautiful. I remember that.
It is a custom that your ordination sermon includes a charge. Michael and I were fortunate to be fluently bilingual and when it came time for the charge, he had me stand up and spoke to me as we had always spoken to each other, in Spanglish. He understood the fractures and ways in which my life is made up of bits and pieces of very different cultures that find their place in who I am. In a very real sense, his sermon gave me permission to take all those disparate pieces of myself and offer them to an Episcopal Church that didn’t quite know what to do with someone with an awkward and messy identity like mine.
In the busy-ness of the next few years, Michael moved from Washington DC to Minnesota and I started El Centro. We corresponded, now by email, occasionally, and on Christmas Eve of 2008, as I was driving to our first-ever bilingual Midnight Mass at All Saints, I called him bubbling over with excitement. I only got to leave a message on his answering machine to tell him about the bilingual service and to thank him again for his charge at my ordination. In August of the following year, a friend was moving to Minnesota and I went online to give her the information to contact Michael. To my absolute horror, instead of his church information, I found an online obituary. Michael had contracted liver cancer and had died in April of that year.
It was the nature of our friendship that though intense, it was always part of a far larger, more complicated pair lives. I’d gotten pretty isolated starting my new ministry and dealing with stuff with Maria. I simply cannot allow myself to dwell on the fact that I didn’t get to say good bye. But his death, more than any, was what led me to remind myself and my congregation, every Sunday, at the final blessing, that we are lent to each other for a very short time. Part of becoming a priest was learning how to love and how to forgive. Michael taught me much of what I know about both.