Poetry by Robert Gross: “Poor Souls”

Poet and dancer Robert Gross, whom I met last year at the Ollom Movement Art summer program, has kindly given me permission to reprint this prose-poem. It was first published in the current issue of the St. Sebastian Review, an LGBTQ Christian literary webzine. As I read it, “Poor Souls” suggests that every sin and regret that seems to separate us from God is trivial compared to the magnitude of God’s love, if we could only see it properly.

Poor Souls

Little by little, they unfold out of purgatory; origami figures undone in silence, each a metaphysical yawn, a backbend out of time. Everything slow-motions to the beat of rosaries and suffusions of incense, the unclocked passage of steady repentance. Atom by atom, the gilt wears off; innocence emerges. Back then, I would’ve given anything . . .

They stagger out of the dead-letter office, each one exhausted by the dusty bins of misaddressed intentions, insufficient postage, the vast shabbiness of venial offenses. They squint, contemplate the deserted plaza, sigh. No such thing as an original sin, they chuckle, just the steady dissipation of extenuating circumstances, endlessly recycled . . . the gun misfired. . . I couldn’t get it up . . . I thought desirously of his lips, then sneezed . . . sins of omission and implication, of reverie and miscalculation, inertia and cliché. Nothing and everything mortal.

I was determined to offend big-time but my mother came to visit . . . Imperceptibly, each infraction becomes unfascinating, silly, dwindles before the massiveness of love. I even considered . . . I know this sounds ridiculous . . .I can’t remember how . . .

One by one, the penitents come unmoored and are carried out to sea. A delicate flotilla awash in perpetual indulgence and plainchant; crystalline buoys impelled toward a luminous horizon. 


Some Readings for Holy Week

Reiter’s Block fans, I apologize for the shortage of original material lately. I have been keeping my vow to give up worrying about my writing for Lent, and accordingly have been working hard on a scandalous and completely unpublishable experiment in personal prose. I hope you have been enjoying the poetry reprints from writers I admire.

For Christians following the Western calendar, we are now in Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, when we commemorate and meditate upon the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Here are some timely links that I found helpful to my Lenten reflections.

At the Jesus in Love website for queer spirituality and the arts, Kittredge Cherry is showcasing a Stations of the Cross paintings series by Mary Button. These arresting images find parallels between the stages of Christ’s journey to Calvary and pivotal moments in LGBT history. For instance, Button pairs the nailing to the cross with a gay person forced into electroshock therapy to “cure” homosexuality.

Last week, a number
of Christian and former-Christian feminist bloggers participated in
Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week. Progressive evangelical writer
Rachel Held Evans
has posted a good overview of the series. I particularly liked this quote from her interview with Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E., an organization that educates churches about how to combat sexual abuse: “In the nearly two decades I’ve worked as or with prosecutors, I never get asked about false allegations of burglary, robbery, arson or a host of other offenses. However, nearly every time I speak to lay persons about child abuse the question of false allegations is among the first things lay persons ask.” Yes indeed…why do abuse victims have the additional burden of convincing people that the crime really happens? Our uncritical acceptance of rape myths is a good place to start our repentant soul-searching.

Christian feminist blogger Sarah Over the Moon, inspired by James Cone’s liberation theology, rejects the abusive image of God in traditional “penal substitution” atonement, in favor of a vision of Jesus who stands with the oppressed, even unto death:

The cross cannot just mean that we are “saved from sin,” and “going to heaven.” Our speaking about the cross cannot just sound like those cliched platitudes that Christians often tell those who are hurting. The cross that Jesus reclaimed from the Roman Empire has fallen back into the hands of oppressors, becoming a tool of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of heterosexism and transphobia, of the military and prison industrial complex, of those who wage warfare on the poor.

But I want to reclaim it, like Christ did.

If we are to find liberation in the crucifixion, then the cross must stand as a middle finger to oppressive power structures.

The cross of Jesus reveals the ugly truth behind oppressive power, and then the cross mocks that power through the resurrection.

The cross of Jesus calls those of us who are oppressors (most of us–myself included–are oppressed in some contexts and oppressors in others) to humility, repentance, and a new way of living.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed–in a world that tries to convince us that we are not even human–that we are not only made in God’s image, but that God came to earth to be made in ours.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed that we can take up our crosses and our protest signs and join together, armed with the power of love, to defeat the powers that rape, abuse, and murder us.

The cross of Jesus tells us that they can kill our bodies, but that doesn’t mean they win.


Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Woman in the Day Room Crying”

Reiter’s Block contributor Donal Mahoney describes the inspiration for this poem as follows: “Fresh out graduate school in English in 1962, I had a pregnant wife and couldn’t find a job. At that time, a degree in anything qualified a person to be a caseworker in Chicago. Seeing hundreds of clients, one sometimes suspected child abuse in the adult the child had become. PTSD isn’t the product of war alone.”

Woman in the Day Room Crying

Lightning bolts in childhood
can scar the soul forever.
They’re a satanic baptism
when the minister’s your father,
mother, brother, sister,
anyone taller, screaming,
shooting flames from the sky
all day, all night.

The years go by
but the scars remain.
The pale moonlight of age
makes them easier to see
and scratch until they burst
and bleed again,
another reason I wake up
at night screaming.

When the daylight comes,
I talk about the scars
when no one is around
to say shut up!
I draw the details in a mural
on the walls and ceilings so
everyone can see the storms
that never left a rainbow.

Poetry by Rosalía de Castro: “Dos Palomas” (The Two Doves)

Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885) was a Spanish Romantic poet who is recognized as the most outstanding modern writer in the Galician language. Australian writer John H. Reid, who is affiliated with our Winning Writers contest resource website, also happens to be an expert on de Castro and introduced me to her work. He kindly shares his translation of her poem “Dos Palomas” below. Apologies if the accent marks in the Spanish version don’t appear properly in your browser.

Dos palomas
Rosalía de Castro

Dos palomas yo vi que se encontraron
cruzando los espacios
y al resbalar sus alas se tocaron…

Cual por magia tal vez, al roce leve
las dos se estremecieron,
y un dulce encanto, indefinible y breve,
en sus almas sintieron.

Y torciendo su marcha en un momento
al contemplarse solas,
se mecieron alegres en el viento
como un cisne en las olas.

Juntáronse y volaron
unidas tiernamente,
y un mundo nuevo a su placer buscaron
y otro más puro ambiente.

Y le hallaron al fin, y el nido hicieron
en blanda cama de azucena y rosas,
y en ella se adurmieron
con las libres y blancas mariposas.

Y al despertar sus picos se juntaron,
y en la aurora luciente
sus caricias de amor se retrataron
como sombra riente.

Y en nubes de oro y de zafir bogaban
cual ondulante nave
en la tranquila mar, y se arrullaban
cual céfiro süave.

Juntas las dos al declinar del día
cansadas se posaban,
y aun los besos el aura recogía
que en sus picos jugaban.

Y así viviendo inmarchitables flores
sus días coronaron,
y nunca los amargos sinsabores
sus delicias turbaron.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

¡Felices esas aves que volando
libres en paz por el espacio corren
de purísima atmósfera gozando!


The Two Doves
rendered from the Spanish of Rosalía de Castro
by John H. Reid

I saw two doves flying in the sky
when suddenly their wings touched
and they were momentarily joined together…

A light touch it’s true, perhaps by magic,
but the two trembled. They were shaken,
and a sweet charm, brief but indefinable,
infused their souls.

Suddenly their two single flights
became twisted into one,
and they were happily rocked in the wind
like a swan on the waves.

Joined together, they flew tenderly attached.
To their pleasure, a visionary world opened,
and a more totally captivating environment.

At last, at the end of their flight,
they jointly find their nest
in a soft bed of lilies and roses,
where they sleep together,
free and white, like butterflies.

At dawn, they raise their beaks together,
and in the shining light of the new day,
their loving caresses make a bright,
cheerful parasol over their nest.

In clouds of gold and sapphire,
they row a rolling ship
in a tranquil sea,
and coo gently
in the day’s
cool breeze.

Together the two exchange
the honey in their beaks.

And thus their days were capped
in these living, unfading flowers,
and bitter disappointments never
disturbed their delights.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Happy those peaceful birds flying free
enjoying the expanse and purity
of a virginal atmosphere!

Ayn Rand, Trauma Survivor?

Second only to Jesus for today’s Republican politicians, the libertarian novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand is their favorite author they’ve never actually read. If pressed, they’d mumble something about cutting welfare and returning to the gold standard. But that’s where the overlap begins and ends. Rand–an atheist, intellectual elitist, pro-choicer, celebrator of the sexual life force, and opponent of all state-sponsored coercion and pork-barrel politics–would shudder to be associated with the militarism, corporate welfare, and religious fundamentalism of our GOP.

However, most liberals viciously reject her, too. Some of it is guilt by association. Anyone Glenn Beck admires must be an evil kook, right? Another problem is that feminists have never known how to react to right-wing women. Rand frustrates feminist categorization because of her hyper-masculinity combined with sexual masochism. She brazened her way into the male-dominated field of philosophy, sang the praises of career women during the “Leave It to Beaver” era, and became a bestselling author and lecturer, but despised traditionally feminine characteristics (emotion, softness, intuition, “weakness”, altruism) and wrote sex scenes that anticipated 50 Shades of Gray.

More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, Rand’s novels continue to be wildly successful 31 years after her death, but you’ll never see them on those highbrow male-dominated lists of the Greatest 100. One could say that The Fountainhead was the Twilight of its day. It’s not only that Howard Roark and Edward the vampire (oh, I’d love to read that slash fanfiction!) display a similar icy-hard beauty and ruthlessly self-controlled masculine energy. It’s also that their audience is that much-despised breed, the lonely teenage girl.

The sensitive girl. The girl who reads. The girl whose feelings are so strong she needs an 800-page-book to hold them down. The victim who would be more than a victim, who would fling her masculine shadow-self against the universe and dream of him returning to her as a glittering protector.

The trauma survivor.

Tragically, for someone whose watchword was integrity, Rand’s work is shot through with the faultlines of unhealed psychological splitting.

On one side, all the parts of the self that could make a person prone to trauma (or to remembering it): The subconscious. The unknowable. The need for connection to others. Empathy. Emotion. The female body. On the other side, all the traits of her fantasy protector: Reason. Control. Independence. The macho machine. One must identify completely with the “strong” traits and wipe out the “weak” ones.

Rand’s detractors have pointed to this obsession with strength as a sign of fascist sympathies. In this case, though, the personal isn’t political. Rand’s politics were always closer to free-market anarchism than fascism. The war is not against the untermenschen but within the self.

I began to understand her this way after reading some essays in the excellent anthology Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Revisiting Rand’s quoted sex scenes, which I hadn’t ever read very closely, I was struck by her fascination with the near-invisible line between rape and rough play. Each of her heroines tests how close she can get without going over the edge. Rand had a homeopathic approach to consent; one molecule of it, apparently, could transform a sordid violation into a grappling of titans. The omniscient narrator always assures us that the heroine signaled her desire (without anything so pedestrian and vulnerable as talking about feelings, naturally), and that the hero would stop if she indicated otherwise.
Several essays in the anthology predictably debated whether Rand was anti-feminist because she glorified rape, or feminist because she wrote unashamedly about the complexity of women’s desires. Coming from a trauma-theory perspective, it seemed to me they made the mistake of assuming that Rand said exactly what she meant. Certainly that was the claim she always made for her fiction–all conscious planning, no subconscious counter-currents. As if any writer could do that.

I think, instead, that these scenes represent an imaginative rescripting of a powerless experience into a powerful one. The raw material is so raw that it can’t be acknowledged directly. It has to be hedged around with flowery abstractions so that any possibility of a real, un-enjoyable rape disappears from view, becoming simply inconceivable in the novel’s universe.

Do I have any evidence that Rand herself was repressing a sexual assault memory? No. The trauma of her family’s persecution by the Bolsheviks may be enough to explain her lifelong quest to expunge or reinterpret any symptoms of powerlessness in her writing. In this she reminds me of Margaret Mitchell. Scarlett and Rhett’s legendary rape-seduction scene in Gone With the Wind can be understood as a reaction to the perceived emasculation of Southern white society after the Civil War. Like Dominique and Dagny, Scarlett is an unwilling feminist icon. Her dominance is actually a sign that the men around her have failed to lead, until Rhett restores the proper order of things. But that’s a subject for another post.

The Heartbeat of an Inclusive God

Integrity USA, the group that works for LGBT inclusion within the Episcopal Church, recently announced the winner of their St. Aelred’s Day sermon contest. Rev. Heather O’Brien from the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, was honored for her sermon “The Heartbeat of God”. She preached about how her relatives’ homophobic attitudes prompted her, a straight ally, to search for a better way to imagine the God of love. Read her sermon in PDF format on their website. Here’s an excerpt:

It wasn’t until I got to seminary that I found people who knew the God I had been looking for. The God whose most core trait was love, not judgment.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Aelred. Aelred was a monk who eventually ended up leading the monastery of Rieveulx. One of his most famous works is called Spiritual Friendship. In that work, he writes that God is not our Judge but our Lover. Judgment can only inspire change through fear. But love transforms us; changes our hearts. Aelred saw Christ as a companion for our soul, longing for union, rather than a ransom to be paid.

Aelred wrote at length about the ideal relationship of love between Jesus and his beloved disciple John. As one author describes it, Aelred portrays John as striving to hear the heartbeat of God in Jesus and Jesus showing the secrets of his heart to John.

Imagine, in the chaos surrounding thirteen men eating dinner, John quiets, leans over and presses his head to Jesus’ breast. Jesus accepts the show of love and affection as John closes his eyes and allows his heartbeat to begin to echo the one beating against his ear, beating in his soul since before he was born.

God’s grace and love are not forces that must twist and change us into something new and stamp out our true nature in order to re-form us. Rather God’s grace and love are a reminder of a memory so old and so basic that it was a part of us before anything else was. Our hearts have forgotten in a world grown loud – like trying to remember lyrics to a favorite song when the radio is blasting music so loud you can’t think.

God sent Jesus not to sit in judgment over creation but rather as a showing of God’s love for creation. Through his life and death Jesus’ lifeblood beat out the rhythm of God’s heart beat for all to hear and remember themselves. Though we are often weighed down and may feel like we have cotton in our ears. The beat remains a clarion call to all who would remember, to all who would dance.

Marriage Equality Foe Has Change of Heart

Former marriage equality foe David Blankenhorn, founder of the conservative think tank The Institute for American Values, made waves last summer with a New York Times editorial describing his conversion to supporting equal rights for same-sex couples. He describes his journey of belief in more detail in a recent interview with Brent Childers of Faith in America, a foundation that combats religion-based prejudice against LGBT Americans. The 20-minute video is well worth watching.

I was inspired and impressed by the depth of Blankenhorn’s new understanding. He might have stopped at mere inclusion of “them” in “our” social institutions, but instead he was led to examine his own privileges as a straight white Christian man, and to refocus his theological priorities from legalism to empathy. Around the 13-minute mark, he discusses his realization that any time we use our doctrines and scriptures as a wall or a veil to avoid seeing the other person’s full humanity, we completely miss the point of our faith.

What changed Blankenhorn’s mind and heart? He says he had been parroting anti-gay rhetoric from his conservative Christian culture, but the people affected were still only abstractions to him, till he met actual queer families and heard their life stories. Ironically, these encounters occurred because of his role as an expert witness in favor of California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8. Looks like Harvey Milk’s advice still works: real-life examples of “out” LGBT people have the power to break down the myths that keep oppression in place.

I’m reminded also of Rachel Held Evans’s recent post, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart“, where she chastises her fellow Christians for being willing to suppress compassion in the service of doctrinal correctness. While the examples she cites have to do with natural disasters and genocide, her point applies equally well to privileged straight Christians’ glib dismissal of the burdens they would impose on LGBT people.

…[W]hat makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority? What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?

Perhaps in reaction to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” evangelicalism of late has developed a general distrust of emotion when it comes to theology. So long as an idea seems logical, so long as it fits consistently with the favored theological paradigm, it seems to matter not whether it is morally reprehensible at an intuitive level. I suspect this is why this new breed of rigid Calvinism that follows the “five points” to their most logical conclusion, without regard to the moral implications of them, has flourished in the past twenty years. (I heard a theology professor explain the other day that he had no problem whatsoever with God orchestrating evil acts to accomplish God’s will, for that is what is required for God to be fully sovereign! When asked if this does not make God something of a monster, he responded that it didn’t matter; God is God—end of story.) And I suspect this explains why, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, so many evangelical leaders responded like Job’s friends, eager to offer theological explanations for what happened instead of simply sitting down in the ashes and weeping with their brothers and sisters…