Learning to See: To Look or Look Away

Part 1: Obese People

My dad always had a thing about obese people when I was growing up–and as a family of genetically thin people, they were easy to gawk at and make fun of from a safe distance. Fortunately, my mother spoke up about how distasteful she considered these reactions to the strangers across the food court, the parking lot, etc. Usually Mom would remark that such individuals often have genetic or other less-than-controllable situations underlying their weight–while my dad would observe that since no-one was born that big they ate their way to that size, obviously doing this to themselves through what could only be spectacular ignorance or lack of discipline. I would often laugh with him but later nod thoughtfully to my mother’s critiques. In either moment, the most important rule was “don’t stare.”

Part 2: Homeless People

Around the time I started to ponder these things somewhat critically, I also started at a privileged Catholic high school which was located in a rough part of downtown by historical accident. Students made jokes about prostitutes roaming our campus at night, we were regularly panhandled going to and from the parking lots, and in a move which Pope Francis would certainly have discouraged, the administration removed the outdoor benches to keep the homeless from sleeping in our plaza. I did find the homeless particularly unnerving. I had a good friend with a phobia for the “hobos” the way other people are afraid of spiders who told spooky tales of close encounters. It was hard not to stare at them from the car on the way to school, even though staring is rude.

Thanks to my spirituality and the repeated and emotionally conflicting encounters with the obese and the homeless, I eventually devised a new response when tempted to gawk or comment about an outsider to a fellow person of privilege. I would silently pray: “Thank you God for this beautiful person you made.” Disfigured, disabled, dirty, or otherwise jarring people became a constant challenge for me to recognize their humanity, and sometimes pause for additional prayers. “Please protect this woman at the street corner and help her see that she is beautiful.” “Please guide this man toward whatever help he needs from the neighborhood’s social services.”

Only as I write now am I recognizing that the appropriate next step toward imitating the gaze of Christ on such people be working harder to answer those prayers with my own actions and outreach. Regardless, the power of looking with new eyes became wildly greater than looking away. Continue reading

One Extreme is Worse than the Other

Saint Sébastien soigné par Irène, Francesco Cairo, 1635. Oil on Canvas, 68x84cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Tours, France

Saint Sébastien soigné par Irène, Francesco Cairo, 1635. Oil on Canvas, 68x84cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Tours, France.

It turns out when talking to sexual minorities as a Church, it is very hard to say that “you shouldn’t have sexual relationships or get married” at the same time as “We love you and want to offer a path to personal joy and fulfillment in your life.” Recent Post II described when I stopped believing the second part because the first was so overwhelmingly loud. And Post III described when I willfully ignored the first message, because I bought into an exaggerated, mushy version of the second. Both times were terrible–I did call the posts “The Danger of Extremes”–but I believe one is worse than the other.

In my experience, the sense of rejection by the Church that I internalized for a period was far more damaging than the time I gave myself a pass on the Church’s sexual teachings. Why? Continue reading

The Danger of Extremes – Part II

This is part II of a series which is introduced in the previous post.

By my 20th birthday, I was a confident and happy young man who had spend the last 6 years as a proud Catholic who was actively discerning a vocation to the priesthood. This identity survived a lot during that time, including the private recognition that I was gay. Over the next year I pursued a desire to be more open about my sexual orientation with both myself and close friends–an impulse which I think was healthy and necessary. However, I got swept up in the media maelstrom surrounding gay marriage and lost my sense of vocation and my faith as a result.

When I first came out to close friends, most of whom shared my Catholic faith, they were extremely supportive and understanding. However, I did not let these interactions determine my perception of what being gay should mean for me as a Christian. Instead, because I acknowledged that I was a gay person, and because I was (and still am) a news junkie, I paid a great deal of attention to what was said about gay people in the media. I could easily read a dozen stories about LBGT issues each day as the culture wars over gay marriage raged. As a gay person in the process of figuring out what my sexual orientation should mean for my life, I started to take what I read personally. When I read something positive about gay people and their relationships, I felt affirmed. When I read something negative about gay people or their relationships, I felt insulted and indignant. And over that year there were many opportunities for indignation in relation to the Catholic Church, and none in which I felt affirmed.

I paid close attention as a cast of Hollywood all-stars reenacted the blockbuster Proposal 8 trial and lampooned the defenders of California’s gay marriage repeal and their comically irrational and ignorant arguments. My Church had proclaimed itself an ally to that side of the debate. Other groups on the larger “side” of the culture war included the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God hates fags”) fame, and the hateful lies that gays were child molesters, bad parents, and wanted to “turn” kids gay.
Continue reading