Re-Pairing Opposites- Jan Phillips
“The quality of true genius is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously without losing your mind.” —Charles Baudelaire
I’m a photographer. I‘ve been looking through the lens of a camera for fifty years, and through its tiny aperture, I find myself wherever I look. Images are my currency. They tell me everything I need to know. They tell others what I want to say: this is who I am, this is what I cherish, this is what happened.
Every story is made of pictures. She knelt by the bedside. She entered the dark cave alone. She watered the flowers with her tears. Always, a beginning, a conflict, a resolution, an ending. The story may be short, but an arduous journey separates beginning from end. It is fraught with danger. Questions crash like waves against the shore of our minds. What are you made of? What are you after? How will you survive this?
Tribulation is the medium of self-definition. I know who I am through my dealings with trouble. Conflict is a mirror, reflecting my grit—every struggle an opportunity to see what I will live for, suffer for, die for.
When I was a child, I prayed to be a martyr. I memorized the Baltimore Catechism. I hated myself for being queer. I read the lives of the saints and went to daily Mass. The Catholic Church owned my imagination. It colonized my brain before I was ten. I thanked God I was born Catholic, though it was my religion that made me wish I was dead—such an evil, sinful person I thought I was.
My quest to disentangle from the Church has been a struggle for self-preservation. I am who I am because of the Church, and yet I was forbidden absolution, denied the sacraments for being a practicing homosexual. These contradictions are grist for a genius, if Baudelaire was right and I keep my sanity.
I am one of millions in a modern-day Exodus movement, abandoning religious institutions, rejecting traditions that are sexist, homophobic, patriarchal, hurtful. I am the author of my own Apostle’s Creed. I write my own Psalms and Lamentations. I do not study the mystics and prophets of the past. I am in conversation with the mystics and prophets of today, and together we are co-creating what the future is calling forth. Extricating ourselves from thought patterns that have dominated humanity for centuries is the work upon us now. Every institution created without a sense of our commonness, our interdependence, our role as guardians of this planet is in a state of collapse. There is nowhere to turn for comfort, no organization we can count on to meet our needs, calm our anxieties. Some still worry, as churches around us are sold or converted to bookstores and banks, can I be spiritual without my religion? Some sorrow over the loss of ritual, forgetting we are born creators— born to mend what has been torn apart and give birth to what will bring us together. Rituals and revelations right for these times are in our hands, our imaginations. We are the new sacrament-makers, the writers of new sacred texts, the healers and priests for the days Ahead.
Yes, I have turned my back to a Church that has failed me, and yes, I am a font of gratitude for all the places I found myself in her vast and holy hollows. I hold these opposites in the palm of my mind, maintaining my peace, imagining true genius winging its way to my garden gate.
My Gratitude to Catholicism
Thank you for the Mysteries—
joyful, sorrowful, glorious—
and for teaching me early
that the Divine is too ineffable
to ever comprehend.
Thank you for the communion lines
I watched every Sunday—
for the holy water font
with something wet and real
to dip my fingers in and feel
the difference between before and after.
For the Bishop’s slap on my cheek
confirming me as a warrior for peace;
for the flame in the sanctuary
that let me know God was
in the house;
for the Stations of the Cross
that gave me a path to walk
with the love of my life;
for the ciborium full of hosts,
the ever-changing rainbow of vestments,
the gold monstrance of Benediction,
the frankincense, the Novenas,
For the ashes on Wednesday,
the washing of feet on Thursday,
the tears on Friday,
the tabernacle —empty—on Saturday,
the Hallelujah chorus on Sunday.
For the statues of the saints
lined up on my dresser,
for the scapular tangled up
in my undershirt, the miraculous medal,
my white Missalette,
St. Christopher on the dashboard.
For the fish on Friday
that made something sacred
of an average day;
for two years in the convent to learn
the necessity of solitude and prayer,
community and service.
I loved you then
and thank you always—
but I will not return
until you open your doors to me
as a woman, a lesbian, a prophet and priest.
My altar now
is the world at large.
The candle announcing
the presence of God
burns day and night
wherever I am.
I am a servant of unity.
The language of this church
is my mother-tongue,
but I would rather be fluent
in the language of Love.
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Jan Phillips is the author of eleven award-winning books, has taught in over 25 countries, and has published work in the New York Times, Ms., Newsday, People, Parade Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, New Age Journal, National Catholic Reporter, Sun Magazine, and Utne Reader. She has performed with Pete Seeger, presented with Jane Goodall, sung to Gladys Knight, and worked for Mother Teresa. She has three CDs of original music, several videos, and a seven-hour audio program produced by Sounds True Audio.