The Hierophant or the Ink Blot Test

Continuing my transformation into a Western Massachusetts woo-woo hippie, this past Saturday I had my first professional Tarot card reading with Carolyn Cushing at Art of Change Tarot. That evening, my husband and I attended the last 20 minutes of Amherst’s Extravaganja festival (you really haven’t lived till you’ve seen a mom shopping for bongs with her baby in a stroller) and then we saw a fiery new documentary about young feminists fighting the campus date rape epidemic.

Hard to believe that 10 years ago, my idea of a good time was the Vision New England conference.

I remember a strange moment (well, there were a lot of strange moments) at that conference, which was a pretty typical evangelical gathering with praise bands, bestselling inspirational speakers, and a bookfair of Jesus kitsch. Keynote speaker John Eldredge was using a clip from the film “The Last of the Mohicans” to illustrate his theory that all men want to be heroes and all women want to be rescued. Wait a moment, I thought to myself. Don’t evangelicals hate godless liberal sex-crazed Hollywood? Why is it suddenly a source of eternal truth–or even factual truth? Isn’t there a chance that our desires reflect media indoctrination, rather than that the media is objectively recording our true natures?

This recursive paradox confronts me on every spiritual path I explore. The religious impulse is a yearning to connect with some all-encompassing source of life and wisdom that is greater than our individual perceptions. But what I seek,  and where I choose to seek it, are determined by my personal psyche at this moment. So am I just finding myself, not anything “outside” me? Is the Hierophant just a Rorschach test?

Traditional religion mistrusts the self. The heart is deceitful above all things, the Bible warns. Accountability to a community, a deity, or a sacred text is required to keep us from falling into self-indulgent delusion. As I’ve said before, growing up with a “spiritual but not religious” narcissist made this line of reasoning plausible to me in my youth. However, because I came to religion as an adult, with no peer pressure to pick any particular tradition, I couldn’t make myself forget that the choice had been mine, not handed down from on high. Believe in the inerrant Bible? Okay, but fallible you made the initial decision that the Bible was more reliable than the Koran or the fortune cookie at lunch. I also discovered, over the years, that skilled narcissists can manipulate any religious accountability structure in their favor. The doctrine of self-mistrust is a perfect way to hide your own biases behind a convenient Bible verse, while gaslighting victims whose only authority comes from their personal experience.

“I’m not looking for a guru,” I told Carolyn at our initial meeting. “I want to use Tarot to get in touch with my own intuition.”

Or so I thought…

The cards we drew from the beautiful contemporary Gaian Tarot deck continue to reveal nuances of meaning as I reflect on them this week. We asked a two-part question about my movement through Christianity into Tarot. What am I retaining and losing from my old faith; how should I approach this new path and who is my support?

The cards in the first series, about Christianity, had muted tones and shady woodland settings. One showed spawning salmon and fish bones (resurrected Christ?), the others were solitary pensive women. All the cards in the second series, about Tarot, made my heart leap up. They were some of the most colorful cards in the deck. The women in them were sensual, confidently standing in sunlight, and rejoicing in their connection to other people and animals. The card for “Who is my support?” was The Seeker, a/k/a The Fool: a young girl who, we agreed, represented my inner child.

Among other things, the spread suggests that although I’m following a more individualistic spiritual path, I’m heading toward more connection to others. I came to Christianity from a place of fear and isolation. It protected me from psychological dangers that were real in my personal life, but which the religion also encouraged me to project onto the world as a whole. Now I’m pursuing the life force rather than running away from death.

Right after I left Carolyn’s studio, however, my inner critic was ascendant. What did I learn that I didn’t already know? I feel stifled by my current worldview and want a fresh one. I feel joy calling to me from a new direction but a lot of shame about being ungrateful and unfaithful to my old communities. This is not exactly news, but I think some part of me did want a guru to make the decision for me. I was secretly hoping for the cards to make those painful feelings go away.

I think there is accountability in Tarot. The cards don’t tell me what to do, but my reaction to them tells me where my heart is. And my life, especially my creative work, reveals the consequences of following or not following my heart.

But I’m still not buying a bong.

April Is the Cruelest Month: Mommie Dearest Links Roundup

Is it just a coincidence that April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Poetry Month?

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(Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism.)

In that spirit, I’d like to share some excellent articles I’ve discovered this month about family trauma and recovery, and a poem from my new collection, My Miserable Life…oops, I meant Bullies in Love. Special #NaPoMo promo: Order your copy of Bullies, email me the receipt (jendi@winningwriters.com), and I’ll mail you a free copy of my award-winning chapbook Swallow. Even if you live in Tasmania.

Swan and Cygnet

I’m a dry tit, a blackened heartsteak.
Since memory
began a pink baby tumor has been cradled
on my ribs, curtaining
my girlhood’s one-act ballet.
Where is it now, inseparable sucking warmth,
sleepless fury, what selfish operation
uprighted me? Pounds of wet fat gone,
the thin belle shivers
in the too-wide spotlight, the crowds of love
never enough to heat the distance.
Don’t blame her for dancing
with such momentum she topples off the stage
like a drill bit spun askew in a splintered board.
I’m that dragged ankle, that pin in the bone remaining
after the symphony has laid down its burden
and the cheap statues
trundled into the closet,
the Act One virgin with no hands to save money
because the plaster baby is supposed to fit there.
Like all frivolous things, it’s a cruel vocation
always to be missing you, mother-
less child, as the feet miss bleeding,
as the red shoes miss being danced to tatters
in the ruthless illusion of flight.

 

My mother was a charismatic, creative person who always acted like normal rules didn’t apply to our family. Including the rules of sanity, I eventually noticed. So it’s both validating and slightly deflating for me to go down the checklists in these articles about emotional abuse and mother-daughter role reversal: “Yeah, we had that… and that.. .and that too… wow, I didn’t know there was a name for that…” She wasn’t even original in her narcissism!

But this late revelation highlights a deficiency in our cultural picture of “abuse”. The movies-of-the-week and PSAs usually feature a man hitting a woman. We have trouble recognizing that women can be equally harmful perpetrators, and that their violations are often disguised as affection that’s hard to refuse. Look at the Internet reaction to Madonna’s forcing a kiss on young rapper Drake at the Coachella music festival last week. Because of the mockery surrounding the whole concept of female-on-male sexual assault (see also: Shia LaBeouf), he’s had to pretend that he didn’t mind it, when his body language tells the opposite story.

And now, the links:

*At the website Womb of Light: The Power of the Awakened Feminine, life coach Bethany Webster discusses the complex interplay of patriarchy and mother-daughter emotional incest in her 2014 essay, “When Shame Feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters”. This piece was extraordinarily close to my own experience.

The road between a little girl and her mother is supposed to be a one-way street with support flowing consistently from the mother to the daughter. It goes without saying that little girls are totally dependent on their mothers for physical, mental and emotional support. However, one of the many faces of the mother wound is the common dynamic in which the mother inappropriately depends on the daughter to provide her with mental and emotional support. This role-reversal is incredibly damaging to the daughter, having long-range effects on the her self-esteem, confidence and sense of self-worth.

Alice Miller describes this dynamic in “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” The mother, upon having a child may unconsciously feel that finally she has someone to love her unconditionally and begins to use the child to fill her needs that were not met in her own childhood. In this way, the child begins to carry the projection of her mother’s mother.  This puts the daughter in an impossible situation to be responsible for her mother’s well-being and happiness…

…Patriarchy has deprived women to such a degree that when they become mothers, they often turn to the love of their young daughters starving and  ravenous for validation, approval and recognition. A hunger that a daughter could never possibly satisfy. Yet generation after generation of innocent daughters have been offering themselves up, willingly sacrificing themselves on the altar of their mother’s suffering and starvation, with the hope that one day they will finally “be good enough” for her. There is a childlike hope that by “feeding the mother,” the mother will eventually be able to feed the daughter. That meal never comes. You get the “meal” your soul has been longing for by engaging in the process of healing the mother wound and owning your life and your worth…

Why it’s hard to face how your mother was a perpetrator: 

  • As little girls we were culturally conditioned to be caretakers and to not advocate for our own needs
  • Children are hard-wired biologically for unwavering loyalty to mother no matter what she does. Mother love is critical for survival.
  • Having the same gender identification as your mother; the implication that she is on your team
  • Seeing your mother as a victim of her own unresolved trauma and a culture of patriarchy
  • The religious and cultural taboos of “Honor thy father and mother” and the “holy mother” that instill guilt and silence children about their feelings.

Why is self-sabotage a manifestation of the mother wound?

  • As a parentified daughter, the mother-bond (love, comfort and safety) was forged in an environment of self-suppression. (Being small = being loved)
  • Thus, there’s a subconscious link between mother-love and self-attenuation.
  • While your conscious mind may want success, happiness, love and confidence–the subconscious mind remembers the dangers of early childhood in which being big, spontaneous or authentic caused painful rejection from the mother.
  • To the sub-conscious mind: rejection by mother = death.
  • To the sub-conscious mind: self-sabotage (being small)  = safety (survival).

That’s why it can feel so hard to love ourselves, because letting go of shame, self-sabotage and guilt feels like letting go of mother. 

*The Invisible Scar is a website devoted to raising awareness about emotional abuse of children. This article, “Not Only Shouting: Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse”, explains why certain behaviors are so damaging, and why it’s hard for us to name them as such. Again, I am a texbook case. Silent treatment, triangulation, pathological lying, sabotaging… Look, I completed my Bingo card, what’s the prize? Recovery!

…The abusive parent will withhold attention and affection until the child caves in and apologizes for whatever the abuser perceived as a slight or insult. Through a series of silent treatments, the abused child will learn to be silent, to be docile, to never speak against the parent—because if the child does, he will not be loved or spoken to or even acknowledged as a human being…

…“Bunny Boiling is a reference to an iconic scene in the movie “Fatal Attraction” in which the main character Alex, who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, kills the family’s pet rabbit and boils it on the stove. Bunny Boiling has become a popular reference to how people sometimes exhibit their rage by behaving destructively towards symbolic, important or treasured possessions or representations of those whom they wish to hurt, control or intimidate.” (Out of the FOG website) Whatever the child treasures, an abusive parent will take away or destroy…

…An emotional child abuser will sabotage a child’s calm and peace. For example, if a child looks forward to a television program, at the last minute, the emotional child abuser may deliberately set forth a ridiculously long chore list to be done before the child can watch the show. (Think of the evil stepmother in “Cinderella,” who set up Cinderella to fail by giving her too long a list of items to do before the ball.) Or the father will deliberately schedule a family meeting at the same time that a child had planned ahead of time to attend a friend’s birthday party. Like all forms of emotional child abuse, sabotaging ruins a child’s sense of security…

That was a real downer, so here’s a picture of two cute bunnies, in what we hope is an emotionally healthy relationship. Thanks for reading this far, kids.

easter_bunnies

(Photo credit: Twiniversity.)

Recovery, Not Return: A Conversation About Faith and Suffering

Ysabel de la Rosa edits the online journal Getting Along with Grief, a home for poetry, memoir, other prose, and artwork about life after loss. In an email conversation between us during Holy Week, we got onto the topic of Christian interpretations of suffering. We were both struggling with the ways that our spiritual traditions can sometimes reinforce abuse rather than challenging it.

Having followed my “Survivors in Church” series on this blog, Ysabel mentioned that she’d been part of a congregation where the lesbian pastor severely betrayed people’s trust. The surrounding community then exploited the scandal to argue against LGBT acceptance–shaming victims of spiritual abuse, in order to advance “Biblical truth”. Meanwhile, I felt my faith hanging by a thread after hearing a sermon to the effect that “Jesus ended the cycle of violence by absorbing violence”, a sentiment often repeated by progressive Christian writers during the Lenten season. Anyone with a basic education in domestic violence knows that absorbing abuse fuels the cycle of violence; believing otherwise (often with the church’s encouragement) keeps victims trapped in trying to be good enough and forgiving enough to magically change the perpetrator. And isn’t that one of the popular theories of Christ’s Atonement–that his perfect victimhood moves our hearts to repentance?

I’m through with taking victimhood as a role model. And I also refuse to identify with perpetrators who need someone else’s blood to make their own wounds visible. If that’s being a Christian… SmashMouth said it best: When you’re done…you’re really done.

I asked Ysabel: “A lot of traditional Christian doctrine seems to reinforce psychological distortions that prevent trauma healing–all that self-negation and glorification of suffering. I keep searching for more positive ways to understand Jesus. Do you have any favorite books or websites along these lines?”

She’s given me permission to quote an edited version of our conversation below.

Ysabel:

“These will not address childhood trauma directly, but Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity may be just right for you at this point. It was a turning point book for me for many reasons. I highly recommend John Dominic Crossan’s books that cover Roman and Christian history. He does an excellent job of putting Jesus’s life and message in context, and that context was one of occupation. If you are going to fight having your people occupied by another, that entails some necessary suffering…and there, to me, is a key. Some suffering is necessary, and one of the things I find comforting about Christianity is that it acknowledges that all suffer, but I believe the glorification of that suffering came about as a tool of a human and power-seeking institution, that was served well by making people feel sanctified about their suffering and encouraging them to stay in a suffering state or place. Other suffering is not necessary…and that’s one point where we tend to get hung up and start to look on our suffering as an accomplishment or as something that entitles us to privileges…

“I see the church as the tomb—and only the tomb–where the resurrection takes place. We have to have a tomb. :-) Don’t let the dark walls of the tomb (doctrine) rob you of the resurrection of the spirit.

“As for childhood trauma, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. I was not abused, but my life has been deeply affected–and painfully so–by people who were.

“At some point, there needs to occur a deep letting go into the light. I don’t completely understand it, but I have seen that when adults cannot do that, they stay stuck, stuck, stuck in the trauma. And, whether conscious or not, they traumatize others. One thing I have thought about is Mary at the foot of the cross. Does her suffering not equal any other?

“Christianity does not promise me ease or lack of suffering. However, it clearly tells me that a life with suffering is NOT a sign of failure nor is an easy life a sign of success. I find acknowledgment of my suffering in the crucifixion and a strange kind of healing in the resurrection story. It does not matter to me one whit if Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead. My own father, a Methodist minister with a Ph.D. in theology, believed that the primary aim of the resurrection was to reveal eternal life to others, to make a statement that suffering is not the final answer. Did Jesus appear physically, spiritually? It doesn’t matter. That message about eternal life and suffering not being the final answer remains true.

The resurrection also tells me that to ‘recover’ is not to ‘return’. There is often some loss in healing. I had heart surgery in 2013. I have ‘recovered’, but I won’t ‘return’ to where I was several years ago. I said I did not suffer abuse in childhood, but I certainly have in my adulthood. I have recovered, largely, from that, but I will never return to the state of innocence or even joy that  I lived in before the abuse. So, that return/recover distinction has helped me see that healing does not mean erasing, it does not mean we get to recover something we never had, but we do get to recover what and who we are now, and that is no small thing. ‘Shake the dust off your sandals and move on.'”

I wrote back: About “recover versus return”, I like to meditate on the idea that the risen Christ still had wounds. (I always picture that Isenheim Altarpiece image where his body is glowing with light and the wounds look like rubies.) The Cross and Resurrection are such paradoxical symbols, because it is a fine line between de-stigmatizing inevitable suffering versus glorifying self-destruction. My heart continues to be drawn to the mystery despite the headaches it gives me. I remember a video of Crossan saying that Jesus didn’t die FOR our sins but BECAUSE of our sins. It’s not the suffering that’s redemptive, but the love, which only entails suffering as a by-product of his encounter with a flawed world.

Ysabel:

“You are right. SUFFERING IS NOT REDEMPTIVE!! It is necessary, though. It comes with the life package. What it can do is teach…but it is another power which is wholly redemptive. The good news is that suffering can lead us to that power. The whole business of Christ dying for our sins is a notion come quite late to Christianity.”

 

So I guess I’m not done with Jesus. I am, though, for the time being, exhausted with Christianity.

I believe I can connect with a Jesus who speaks truth and healing into my particular experience. But participating in this collective thing called Christianity, I’m struggling uphill against a headwind of codependent myths, triggering images, and the simple ignorance of good people who don’t prioritize abuse prevention or trauma recovery in their theology. On the flip side, I understand that congregations include people in all stages of psychological growth. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear about these issues 10 years ago! Should I graciously get off the bus instead of trying to turn it around?

The cold never bothered me anyway.

Easter Thoughts: God’s Joy and Ours

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Happy Easter!

As I mentioned earlier on the blog, I gave up doubting my intuition for Lent. That’s a practice I certainly hope to continue through Easter season and beyond. I often “give up” things that have a religious stamp of approval but are actually blocking me from hearing and trusting God.

Lent was unusually hard for me this year, not because of what I gave up, but because I no longer needed a prescribed season of gloom as social cover for my dark moods. To the contrary, I was just beginning to understand joy and self-acceptance as my birthright when seven weeks of self-abasing Bible verses slapped me upside the head.

The doctrine of redemptive suffering, so prominent in this season, has also generated increasing cognitive dissonance with my trauma recovery framework. I’m edging closer to John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus didn’t die for our sins, but because of our sins–in other words, that suffering in itself is not holy or divinely commanded, but rather a side effect of perfect love tangling with an imperfect world.

That’s why I liked this Holy Week essay in Fare Forward, a moderately conservative online journal of Christianity and culture. In “Transactional Salvation”, Leah Libresco says we typically misunderstand Lenten disciplines as if the pain was the point. But God demands no payback or proof of our devotion.

It can be nice do something flamboyantly generous for a loved one, and Christ praised this impulse in the woman with the alabaster jar, but exhausting ourselves in arbitrary ways has the potential to remind us less of the woman with the costly oil, and more with all the other painful, pointless-feeling sacrifices we practice on a day to day basis.

It is often better, whether during Lent or as a Friday discipline, to choose to offer God something that doesn’t seem arbitrary or arduous-for-the-sake-of-being-arduous, but something that is good for us, that we trust God will receive well because He delights in our good.

More than any other relationship, God’s interests are united with ours. The “sacrifice” God wants is for us to do what is truly good for ourselves.

This Easter, what obstacles will we give up, to make way for clarity, courage, and compassion?

 

Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness

Christian artist Mary Button’s annual series of “Stations of the Cross” collage-paintings depict the torture and execution of Christ in the context of a social justice issue. For instance, last year’s Stations took on the injustice of mass incarceration in America. The 2015 series is devoted to mental illness. In the artist’s words, it “addresses the cross-cutting theological implications of the treatment of people with mental illness. Individual stations address both the special gifts and insight of people living with mental illness as well as social justice issues such as race, gender, homelessness, and stigma.” Read her interview about this year’s project in the Huffington Post.

Each image, with artist’s commentary, can be viewed on Flickr. I was struck by the fact that these pictures are gorgeous with color and creative energy, while also being chaotic and sometimes scary. Button portrays the creativity of mania, the allure of the special and mysterious chambers of the mind, as well as the cost of getting lost in that labyrinth. Surely many of Jesus’s contemporaries must have thought he was crazy! Those who explore the frontier of spiritual experience often seem so, especially when their confidence in their inner truth sets them at odds with their family and their society’s interpretive authorities.

Some of these pictures show Jesus sharing the suffering of depression and schizophrenia, while others, such as “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, critique the mental health system’s complicity in sexism and other oppressions. Several deal with suicide as a political consequence of racism and veterans’ PTSD. I would have liked to see childhood trauma and its aftermath explicitly included, but even so, survivors can certainly find a lot to identify with in this series.

Leah Umansky’s “Mad Men” Inspired Poetry

The final season of the AMC TV drama “Mad Men” begins this Sunday, filling me with anticipation and some first stirrings of withdrawal as I contemplate saying goodbye to my idol, Peggy Olson (above). How to keep the magic alive?

Leah Umansky’s poetry chapbook Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press, 2014) sustains that lingering atmosphere of cigarette smoke, perfume, and unfulfilled dreams. Though the book makes more sense if you have a general idea who Don, Peggy, Roger, and Joan are, it’s not only of interest to fangirls like me. Rather than recapping events from the show, the subject of Don Dreams is the cultural ambience of the 1960s advertising agency and the America it created. Catchphrases, images, and snippets of dialogue are layered atop one another like the collage of peppy poster girls and noir silhouettes in the show’s opening credits. The voice, or should I say voices, of this book mimic the subliminal background chatter of television.

Umansky understands that “Mad Men” is fundamentally about how our identities are constructed by what we desire. And what we desire–such is the promise of advertising–links us to whom we desire. Or, as Peggy said in her career-defining pitch for the Burger Chef fast food chain at the end of last season, “We can have the connection that we’re hungry for.” In the poem “Don Discovered America”, the lonely ad man ends his seductive plea thus:

     [Here’s a fact from Don: 45% of people see the color
blue as the same color.]

I want you to see what I see. My blue. See my blue.
I want to be the 55%. Be with.

Try one on with me.

The author has kindly allowed me to reprint the following poem. After reading, you’ll want to check out the “Mad Men” episode recaps and fashion analysis at style mavens Tom and Lorenzo’s blog. They’re counting down the days till the next episode with photographic highlights. My favorite, of course, is 8 Badass Peggys.

It’s the Selling

The most important word is N-E-W !! And, in the face of optimism

It’s all about getting things done. You need to feel
something

That’s what sells. That’s what steals over you, across your face,
down the back of your neck; into the flush. It’s the selling.

Some part wanders off and actually likes the remembering.

The remembering of being told what you like and what you don’t.

It is almost-precious the way the back of the head is both cushion

and target [and I’m aiming]. You can feel after it, but the
reality of the sale

is there: you want to be told. Your personal territory is

harvested [Some would argue deforested] but remember the feeling

right before you put your finger on it; right before you knew

what it meant to want. It was delicious. It was savory.

It was: pure. Now. Quickly now.

Go brush away those crumbs—

That remembering.

               [or are you saving those for later?]

Survivor-Centric Liturgy: An Example from Inclusive Church (UK)

Inclusive Church is a UK-based resource for making the Church of England more welcoming and sensitive to diversity around sexuality, race, class, disability, and mental health. The latter topic caught my attention during my ongoing search for materials for a trauma survivors’ Christian study group. What’s great about Inclusive Church is that they see the disabled and mentally troubled not merely as categories of consumers to be reached with an existing product, nor as objects of Christian charity, but as co-creators of theology from the standpoint of their lived experience. That’s been the goal of my “Survivors in Church” series on this blog as well. It disappoints me that most Christian books recommend using faith to suppress the socially uncomfortable symptoms of trauma, such as anger and rumination on the past, rather than heeding their radical challenge to faith.

This article from the Inclusive Church’s mental health resources page, “The Secret Holders and Bearers”, is by two community mental health chaplains who are willing to take up that challenge. In the portions quoted below, they consider how some standard prayers in the Sunday Eucharist service may reinforce abuse survivors’ distorted sense of themselves as broken and powerless. We need much, much more work like this.

…Are we prepared to be changed, transformed, outraged, and can the secret-holders enable our secrets to be borne more gently, even if they need to remain hidden for a while? Can we bear to hear when the practices and the theologies heard in some churches have not contributed to the empowerment of lives and voices but to their continuing silence? Even where genuine expressions of compassion and pastoral care have embedded the idea of ‘victim’ rather than the radical Gospel idea of partner and co- theological agents?…

…Let’s hear their words and attend afresh to our own and let’s attend to our liturgical language, see again the symbolism and architecture of our services and hear the clamour and the whispers, the invitations and the barriers that inhabit the theology in our liturgy and hymns. I am not saying that the brief account of these liturgical examples are wholly problematic but they are an example of a presently largely cataphatic liturgy with very little liturgy of lamentation and an apophatic perspective that speaks so much of human experience and especially the lived reality of those with long term and abiding mental health issues:

Just some examples from the present Common Worship Order 1 Service for Holy Communion:

Confession Prayer: We have wounded your love and marred your image in us (so many secret holders bear the woundedness that is wholly the responsibility of others and blame themselves throughout their lives and have been forced to blame themselves, lives overwhelmed by guilt. We tentatively suggest that such a statement echoes the feelings they already have about themselves, ‘knowing’ they are wholly unworthy of any kind of love, let alone the love of God).

… Lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light (on the face of it, who could argue with such a sentiment? However it represents a larger problem with the ‘darkness’ imaginary that suffuses Christian liturgy and theology. So many of us, in so many different ways, have found the metaphor of darkness wholly positive and therapeutic and the prospect of light almost unbearable at times. We need to look again at these intimately related metaphors.)

Prayer before Distribution: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs… (We know this is an optional prayer but nevertheless, and because it has been taken wholly out of context from a biblical story which effectively says the opposite, a sense of unworthiness just before we break bread together is, for all of us, and especially for those who live every day with an overwhelming and unbearable sense of unworthiness, wholly unfortunate directly before the gathering at the feast. We are worthy, all of us; we do not have sinful bodies but beautiful bodies and minds. Neither of us, personally, has been able to say these words for a long time because of our own inner battle with a sense of unworthiness imposed upon us by others).

Lenten Reading: “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision”

 

 

gay_passion_cover

In Holy Week, which begins next weekend with Palm Sunday, Christians all over the world meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death. Catholics and some Episcopalians enact the liturgical drama of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the events leading up to the crucifixion. There are many ways to find ourselves in this story, a large cast of characters with whom to identify, both guilty and innocent. And sadly, there are many LGBT people who feel crucified by the church itself, cast out and forbidden to imagine a Christ who is for them and of them.

Douglas Blanchard’s 24-painting series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” stretches loving arms across this divide. A new book by Kittredge Cherry (Apocryphile Press, 2014) brings these images together in book form for the first time. Cherry, who curates the Jesus in Love blog about LGBT spirituality and the arts, here gives invaluable in-depth commentary on the paintings’ inspiration and their place in art history. Each chapter includes a prayer to say while contemplating the image, like a Stations of the Cross liturgy. Toby Johnson, formerly of Lethe Press and White Crane Review, closes the book with reflections on new directions in gay spirituality.

This suite of paintings is radical by virtue of its traditionalism. Inspired by 15th-century master Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts of the Passion, and visually quoting famous works such as the Isenheim Altarpiece, these paintings boldly situate themselves in the mainstream of Christian iconography. At the same time, Blanchard transforms the meaning of those scenes by placing them in contemporary urban settings that include LGBT characters. The Jesus figure, a clean-shaven, simply dressed, handsome young man, could be (but does not have to be) read as gay. There is no doubt, though, that his followers include people of diverse sexualities, gender identities, ethnicities, and class backgrounds, while the crowds attacking him bear close resemblance to the hellfire-spouting protesters on the fringes of Pride marches.

I found this book very helpful for my own prayer life. I would love to have a stronger heart-level connection with the person of Jesus, but often struggle to connect with the ubiquitous beard-and-bathrobe representation of the Savior, which feels cliché and remote from my experience. I felt a stronger bond with Blanchard’s Jesus, who could be a divinized version of my imaginary gay best friend/novel protagonist, or simply a safe male friend and ally to my queer family. I also loved the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a female angel.

Whether or not I picture Jesus as the man in these paintings, this book gave me permission to imagine “my own personal Jesus” in the way that speaks to my soul. What makes him Christ is not his gender, his archaic clothing, or the straightness and whiteness that Western orthodoxy has attributed to him, but his works of love: speaking truth to power, creating community for outcasts, laying down his life for his friends. By that measure, the Jesus in this book is the real deal.

Get your copy here!

Watch the video “Introduction to the Queer Christ” at the Jesus in Love blog. It includes a selection from Blanchard’s “Passion” and other artists featured in Cherry’s book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.

Queering the Tarot: Gender Roles and Diversity

I wrote last month about my new attraction to tarot cards as a source of archetypal images that nurture my intuitive side. My starter guidebook, The Tarot Bible by Sarah Bartlett, works off of the Universal Waite deck, the most mainstream and familiar version of the modern tarot. As I discovered at Namaste Bookshop, there are many fanciful variations featuring dragons, kittens, angels, scantily clad fairies, and other characters that wouldn’t look out of place on a 10-year-old’s diary cover. However, I wanted to begin my studies with the foundational set of symbols. There’s one problem, though:

Who are all these straight white people in my tarot deck?

It’s funny, because tarot seems so transgressive and anti-authoritarian to me as a questioning Christian, but coming from a media literacy/social justice perspective, it looks like a step backward. After all, the Waite deck is a mishmash of multicultural symbols compiled by 19th-century bourgeois Europeans. It makes sense that the deck would be peopled with British storybook knights, ladies, and peasants. Although charming, these illustrations can make me worry that I’ve traded the radicalism of Jesus for a white hipster card game.

The implied gender roles can also be confining. I’m drawn to the cards that combine masculine and feminine energies in one character, such as the female personifications of Strength and Justice, and uncomfortable with cards such as the Empress, which seems to essentialize womanhood as fertility, beauty, and nurturance. These are good qualities, but not ones that I have wanted or been permitted to express for a lot of my life, a mismatch that has made me feel like a failure as a “woman”.

I’m a big fan of queer-identified writer Beth Maiden’s Little Red Tarot website. In an archive post from 2011, “Passivity and Activity – the High Priestess”,  she wrote:

“It’s only laziness that keeps us believing such things [active versus passive] are related to masculinity or femininity. My big bugbear with tarot is when I find it clinging rigidly to silly gender stereotypes, but actually, the more I study and learn, the more I realise tarot itself can totally elude those types of restrictive ideas–it’s only in interpretation that we get taught what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ as a shorthand for the qualities we assign to each.”

Her analysis explores how the two priest figures in the Major Arcana, the High Priestess and the Hierophant, can reverse our gendered expectations:

“By exploring the inner world and dedicating herself to understanding what is ‘behind the veil’, she shows courage, she encourages us to do some seriously hard work. Being quiet and listening to our inner selves does not equal passivity! Meanwhile the Hierophant receives knowledge from books/tradition. It’s not about thinking for yourself with this card–so in what way is this active?”

Now what about those white Disney princesses? A post from 2010 on the Integrative Tarot website questions whether it’s possible to have a multicultural tarot. We mustn’t simply repeat the Eurocentrism of the original tarot creators by appropriating Native American or African cultural symbols, as an overlay on what’s still a fundamentally Western feudal iconography (knight, page, queen, king, swords, etc.). The discussion in the comments is also worthwhile.

The Pagans of Color website recommends some decks with more inclusive imagery, though many of these are not readily available for purchase. The multicultural Daughters of the Moon goddesses deck looks intriguing.

Of course the one I really want is Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano’s Gay Tarot. Perhaps the Hierophant in this deck took Beth’s criticism to heart, since he’s breaking with tradition by officiating at a same-sex wedding!

“Bullies in Love” Book Launch Video

My new poetry collection Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015) had a successful book launch party this weekend at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. My collaborator, fine art photographer Toni Pepe, gave a fascinating presentation about her artistic process, inspired by sources as diverse as Old Masters paintings, family snapshots, and Cindy Sherman’s conceptual portraits.

Please enjoy this 37-minute video of my reading, introduced by Little Red Tree editor Michael Linnard.