Monday, October 14, 2019

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

[Originally posted January 6, 2008]

A friend asked me how I felt about Jesuits having their sad histories as pedophiles show up in the news—and the courts.

My first response approaches profound embarrassment—that some men with whom I shared the ideals of Ignatius took advantage of their position as priests to prey on children; I can hardly believe that their pathology wasn't checked. Was a bishop or religious superior not being responsible? The evidence seems to point in that direction.

But the word “embarrassed” is not exactly right. “Profoundly disappointed” might be closer: I have experienced the power of the Spiritual Exercises, and felt the enthusiasm and vision of Ignatius who was a religious genius, again for want of a better word. I felt I shared that deep feeling with so many men I admired, Arrupe, Berrigan, Chardin, Colombiere, Dulles, Drinan, Faber, Nobili, Ricci, la Salle, to name just a few famous ones, but many others, ordinary men who lead prayerful, inspired lives for a few years or a lifetime, Charlie, Joe, Thom, Drew, Joep, Kaiser, TJC, Marshall, Morgan, Neal, Bob, Jan, Freddie, Ray and many more. These men were, and continue to be interested in dedicating their lives to help others. They are all my heroes.

My naivetĂ© allowed me to think that I shared this spirit with every priest, every Jesuit, and that I had enough experience with human nature, as the old confessional examination goes, “with myself and others,” to recognize the shadowy demons that most every human has. Not every priest is an idealist, and my experience of human nature is limited.

My next reaction is tremendous sorrow for those who placed their trust in a person they thought close to the teachings of Jesus, a conduit for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and were manipulated. This is not how the universe is supposed to work. This cannot be the world that Jesus has saved, or the Mystical Body that believers hold up as a beacon to the world.

There was still some piece of the puzzle missing.

I noticed that the institutional response in every diocese and religious order across the United States was always the same: stonewall all investigations and never admit guilt. There were of course plenty of apologies, especially from those whose behavior was the most egregious, Law and Mahony. As one commentator said, profound apologies are not an admission of wrongdoing. Airlines routinely issue profound apologies to families of those killed in a crash caused by mechanical failure or an "act of God," as the insurance companies’ liability claims quaintly phrase it. The game seemed to be protecting the assets and “good name” of the institution which precludes any admission of guilt—“Our lawyers will not allow us to comment any further. Thank you. Next question?”

Then I noticed that institutional response did not come close to addressing anyone’s real concerns. When asked why he did not tell parishioners the reason he removed a priest who was arrested having sex with teenage boys in the back of a car, a Jesuit Provincial said: "Why should they [need to know]? This is an Internet cruising thing. This is anonymous sex. This doesn't involve people at the parish. It wasn't a priest thing. He wasn't dressed in a collar." No, he actually was in drag with lipstick and blush. Apparently the private life and professional conduct of a priest were now separate and distinct, something I had never learned in the 11 years that I trained to be a Jesuit. People under pressure say and do stupid things.

I never had any inappropriate contact with a minor, during the time I was a Jesuit or since. And I do not know any Jesuit, gay or straight, who did. It was simply unthinkable, even in a time when the freedoms felt after John XXIII’s aggiornamento were leading to all kinds of experimentation. It was unthinkable, and yet it happened. 

My third response was to look again into the situation more deeply, and this time include an examination of my own responsibility as a gay man with a vow of celibacy, to see if I could find in myself something beyond embarrassment, disappointment, blame, or, yes, even relief.

I make no secret that my last years in the Jesuits were very difficult and painful for me. I wanted to be a Jesuit, but I found celibate life extremely difficult, and I intended to honor my solemn promises if I remained in the Society. I was in therapy dealing with my own self-sabotage, self-loathing, and unconscious homophobia—parts of myself that lagged behind my intellectual acceptance, but there was never any real doubt in my mind that being gay was totally OK, healthy and a perfectly acceptable way of living in the world.

It is an open secret that there are many, many gay men throughout the entire body of Roman Catholic clergy, members of religious orders, and even the hierarchy. It is also no secret that the official position of the magisterium is that homosexuality is “disordered.” And the solution to this contradiction for most gay priests, even if they have never broken their vow of celibacy—Secrecy! You might talk about it with your partners, if you have any, perhaps your superiors, perhaps your confessor, but never go public. Or as I say in the header for this post: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That is the first commandment.

Never having been circumspect about my own opinions or process, I was very open within the Jesuits community when I was coming out. I broke the first commandment.

Perhaps John McNeill had the same experience. If he had not come out openly "as a Jesuit priest, as a moral theologian, as a psychotherapist, as a person who is himself gay, and as a human being," he might still have a comfortable psychotherapy practice on the Upper West Side. I cannot answer that question for John, and I do not know if he would agree. But this I do know, if I had not come out fully as a gay man, I would have missed out on being able to know and express some of the deepest emotions that a human being can feel. For me there never really was any choice, but that non-choice, for some very difficult reasons, was the hardest choice of my life.

There is a pact of complete silence that gay priests are forced to obey. I was shocked by what I discovered, and if it is true, which feels very likely to me, it shows that the cult of secrecy starts right at the top.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

In honor of Mahatma Gandhi

Originally posted on August 15th, 2008

I wrote this essay for Intimate Meanderings as part of an exploration of Hindu meditation in conversations between Dilip Trasi, Nitin Trasi and Morgan Zo-Callahan. I focus primarily on the unique contribution to Mohandas Gandhi, or Mahatma Gandhi. Tomorrow, August 15th is Indian Independence Day, and I publish this essay here in “Buddha S.J." as a tribute to a man who contributed so much to the spiritual practice of all humans everywhere on our planet.

Taking the Next Step, A Note on Activism as a Spiritual Practice

The Blessed Lord said: "Time I am, destroyer of worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you, all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.’’ Bhagavad-gita 11:32

Dilip Trasi and Nitin Trasi are committed and skilled practitioners who speak out of their own experience of meditation. Both have a deep understanding of the Hindu meditation tradition and both have worked with authentic teachers. They are also both laymen, not Brahmins, gurus or clergy, who set themselves apart by claiming special knowledge and this, in my view, allows for a freer exchange of ideas as well as a search for a common language in which we can share our experiences. However, when questioned about activism and practice, we entered a territory where they felt that they had to offer cautions and reservations. Not that their reservations might not valid in some cases, but I hope to show if the heart of the spiritual activists’ motivation and practice is of the simple “do-gooder” variety, it does not work as a spiritual practice much less effective community organizing.

One argument against activism runs like this: when faced with a choice between several courses of action, or taking no action whatsoever, we cannot say with certainty which one is the better, and, even if we practice some form of meditation, given that maturity in practice seems to sharpen our ability to discern shades of gray, we cannot favor one position over another. This caution halts us in our tracks. The idea is not exclusively Eastern. Albert Camus said; “The evil that is in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” (The Plague)

However, in all cases, no matter what our motivation or position, in any situation, in any relationship, in any community, country, tradition, or time, all actions produce results. Religious precepts, as they are called in Buddhism, recognize that living our lives leaves a trail of consequences. The possibility of making a mistake does not relieve the obligation to try to act responsibly; rather it imposes a further, perhaps more difficult obligation to remain open and test your experience, examine the results, and then change course if you find yourself embarked on an unproductive or negative course of action.

There is a second argument: that the desire to relieve universal suffering really stems from a desire to relieve one’s own suffering, that it is a myth to believe that we actually help others. From a Buddhist point of view, we are all intimately interconnected in a world that is always in flux. Most practitioners recognize that the source of suffering is not outside ourselves, that we are ultimately responsible for the conditions that cause suffering. That is in fact one of the reasons why we act. Activism is not reserved for enlightened beings. Submitting to moral obligation is for both ordinary and “enlightened” people. Besides, the conservative position—don’t act unless you are certain that your actions will have no harmful consequences—presupposes that omniscience, being able to foresee all the consequences of our actions, is available to humans. I have seen no evidence that such awareness is possible, even in supposedly enlightened beings.

And finally, what I would like to call the “conservative position” asserts that the strain on the social order caused by righting a wrong, causes far more pain, confusion and upset than any possible benefit of the actions. I do not buy into the argument that activists are wrong headed, self-indulgent and create harm because they upset the status quo.

The only part of that analysis that I can support is that some consequences of our actions will be unforeseen. But what is wrong with that? It will not stop me from trying to prevent women and children from being sold into sexual slavery or help innocents caught in the crossfire of the civil strife in Iraq. I will say more about any strain on the social fabric when I touch on the practice of non-violence.

Take ending of the enslavement of Africans in America or stopping the holocaust of the Jewish people that came with the allied victory over Germany in 1945. These were patent evils ingrained in the fabric of a society, or the programs of a powerful single party fascist regime. They had to be eradicated by whatever force necessary though we may have to sort out the consequences of both the American Civil War and World War II for several more generations.

Morgan, who is deeply involved in the activist world, said that he regretted that some activists, though relatively very few, get carried away by their own self-importance. When I questioned Morgan, his objection was that “full fledged” activists who had a lot of unexamined personal motivations made organizing difficult, not that they were prone to mistakes that would cause harm in the outcome. But even this is not my experience. Perhaps my position is biased because my sample of activists comes largely from a group that creates effective actions in support of a cause as spiritual practice, not an add-on, or something to do during the rainy season when you don’t feel like meditating. Practice does more than keep an activist focused. It is the source of their action.

Nitin Trasi used this definition of activism in his analysis: A doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue (Webster). I want to suggest that this definition is not broad enough to include cases in which spiritual practice is the real operative factor.

The greatest modern proponent of the spiritual practice of activism was Mahatma Gandhi, and the traditions from which he derived Satyagraha, Sanskrit for “truth force,” were mostly Indian—Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. He also read the gospel of Jesus and was undoubtedly influenced by the saying: “whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do also to me.” In the Western monotheistic traditions, taking care of the world, tikkun in Hebrew, caring for the least fortunate of society, caritas in Latin, has always been part of religious practice, much more so than in Hinduism. When we talk or write about the practice of non-violence as Gandhi developed and practiced it, we are translating the Sanskrit, Ahimsa, which means literally “the avoidance of violence,” but it is impossible not to see the influence of his western education.

Gandhi himself, Martin Luther King, Dick Gregory, as well as the Dalai Lama in his efforts to free Tibet from the oppression of Han Chinese overlords, have all undertaken practice to quell selfish motivation and focus on the goals of clearing a path to justice and equality. Many of Jesuits and ex-Jesuits represented here in Meanderings use the discernment of spirits outlined in the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius” to weigh their activism. The American abolitionists of the 19th century were for the most part inspired by their religious convictions, transcendentalism or Quakerism, worldviews that hold all the created, visible world to be intricately connected and their practice had the flavor of the Great Awakening, with all its limitations—preaching and conversion.

Without humans, aggression, hatred, anger are not a perpetual motion machine. They need our energy to keep the pendulum swinging. A problem arises when, by applying a force strong enough to counteract the prevailing intransigence of a social order which supports evil, inequality and social injustice, we perpetuate the underlying mechanism that holds those structures in place. Halting that engine also has side effects—what will fill the void?

There are always far-reaching effects accompanying any action, violent or non-violent. For example, World War II, which was to be the war that ended war, has not marked the end of aggression and killing. It was not enough to defeat Hitler just as winning the US Civil War was not sufficient to cause the complete freedom of African slaves. (Though there is some evidence that the amount of armed conflict has been reduced since the defeat of Germany and Japan). In the ending of the British rule over India, the Mahatma struggled with the immediate consequences of partition and the bloodshed between Hindu and Muslim. The fast he undertook in an attempt to halt the violence nearly cost his life. He says in The Story of My Experiments with Truth, "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall—think of it, always." It’s just simplistic to think that any one action can end injustice or suffering. It is more a continuing struggle in which humans must engage. The birth of modern India, the largest functioning democracy on earth, has increased wealth and opportunities for Indians of all social strata. This is neither a myth nor inconsequential.

Whether or not one holds to some vague concept of “progress” or the endless repetition of karma due to the consequences of our actions, it seems that the world has changed and continues to change. That all life is impermanent, always being born and passing out of existence seems almost self-evident. Though I have never studied all the ways that the Hindu point of view differs from the Buddhist view, in Buddhism lived experience opens the door to religious practice.

Those who have some taste for practice seem to have chosen the path that was begun by Mohandas Gandhi. As with any discipline, Ahimsa takes practice. It is not a theory. Though solidly based on the most ancient understanding of man’s place in the universe, it launches us into the unknown territory of caring for all of humanity, the entire earth in a new way. It requires the most courageous action and deep meditation. It requires that our spiritual practice take on a wider goal than our own salvation or enlightenment.

We are in the middle of such a revolution. The aims of the revolution seem to be clear: clean the environment, curtail the destructive power of our weapons, find new ways of resolving conflict, create universal recognition of human rights. They also include what Jesus taught as ‘charity’—to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners. What is not clear is the path we chose to follow to achieve those goals. The old institutions have failed or are crumbling. What will emerge? Where do we place our bets and focus time and resources? Those who are in the middle of a revolution are least likely to recognize it. They are certainly among the last to appreciate it—they are way too busy tending to immediate concerns of Right Now! We don’t even know if we will succeed.

It will also demand new myths, and I mean myth in the most powerful sense, not fantasy, but images that capture the imagination in a powerful way. And it seems that one of those myths will be the story of the Bhagavad-gita, which has inspired Hindus and fascinated Westerners. In Philip Glass's Satyagraha, An Opera in Three Acts (2001), huge chariots for Arjuna and Krishna with larger than life puppet figures are drawn up on the stage; the prologue is verses from the Gita sung, chanted in Sanskrit. On the Kuru Field of Justice, Lord Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna to put aside pain and pleasure, that action is his moral duty: “Be unconcerned with consequences, with victory or defeat, but act with the world's welfare as your intention” (LA Times, April 2008). Then when the figure of Gandhi walks onto the stage, small and clothed simply in a loincloth as he appears in later pictures; it is a powerful statement of “Truth Force.” But the performance is not left in some reverential version of Indian history—in the third act, Martin Luther King appears behind Gandhi, superimposed in a TV clip of his famous “I have a Dream” speech which electrified a generation of civil rights activists.

I would like to quote what J. Robert Oppenheimer said about his experience at the first test explosion of the atomic bomb, July 16, 1945. “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” There may be some exaggeration in his statement. By the time he said it on TV in the 50’s, Oppenheimer had already become an activist working to stop the “Arms Race” and curtail the use of both nuclear fission and fusion in the manufacture of weapons.

Man now has developed a technology powerful enough to destroy himself, certainly to visit unfathomable pain and destruction on his fellow beings. The usual political balance for checking power, aggression and greed do not seem to be adequate to the task. It is not surprising to see that creativity, coupled with the spiritual dimension of reverence for all life, have shown up as potential sources for finding a way, not just to remedy injustice and relieve suffering, but to ensure human survival.

Because Dilip or Nitin didn’t have the opportunity to read and respond to my argument, I will give Dilip the (almost) last word on the subject.

“Let me investigate the useful side of [activism]. Activism in a beneficent sense can be defined as aggressive action towards a specific goal. We always find that in nature there exist thresholds. Right from the atom onwards, we find that a minimum energy barrier has to be crossed to overcome the forces of nature, which is called the threshold force. For example to get free of the force of gravity of the earth, a minimum velocity called escape velocity has to be exceeded (approximately 7 miles per second).

“Applying activism to inventiveness, we find that many of the great inventors were intoxicated with only thoughts concerning their invention. Scientists were considered as absent-minded people. But this is the kind of aggressiveness and activism that is necessary to break the thought barrier.

“Finally, applying activism to spirituality, we find that a paradigm change in understanding is necessary, like the quantum jump of an electron, freeing from the influence of the nucleus. Maya is like the intra-atomic force that binds the electrons to the nucleus. To overcome the influence of Maya or ignorance, one has to be intoxicated with Atma-consciousness or God-consciousness. Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Ramana Maharshi were typical examples of such persons.”

In the last analysis, any call to action for the spiritually centered person is an act of faith, in the deepest sense—that he or she is called to participate in the action of God loving, caring for our world, that the easing of suffering is part of the dynamic of God’s love. To close, I am not going to quote scripture or give a sermon, but rather quote one of my heroes, the visionary architect, Bucky Fuller (from NO MORE SECONDHAND GOD by R. Buckminster Fuller):

Yes, God is a verb,
the most active,
connoting the vast harmonic
reordering of the universe
from unleashed chaos of energy.
And there is born unheralded
a great natural peace,
not out of exclusive
pseudo-static security
but out of including, refining, dynamic balancing.
Naught is lost.
Only the false and nonexistent are dispelled.

Mahatma@150: 4 questions Gandhi asked of himself, and all of us

Historian Judith M Brown explains the contemporary relevance of the Mahatma through answers to questions Gandhi searched for all his life. She is Emeritus Beit Professor of Commonwealth History in the University of Oxford. She has also written the book, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope

150 years after Gandhi’s birth there are many Gandhis, in India and worldwide. Diverse people and groups have valued and used some of his ideas and practices. Sometimes he has been deployed in support of causes he would not have recognized. In a real sense he has become “global property”.

If we turn to the historical Gandhi, to a man living in a particular time and place, working in a specific social and political context, I would argue that his real relevance to India and the wider world today is that he had a depth of character and vision to pose fundamental questions for modern men and women: questions about the value of the human person, the proper nature of public identity, and the right ways to live in community and to deal with inevitable disagreements and conflict. This is in contrast to those “Gandhians” who would argue that he provided answers relevant in any situation. Let me suggest just four of these major questions which Gandhi in his own time in South Africa and India was to ask — of himself and of those around him.

1 What is religion?
This may seem a strange question to start with. But Gandhi’s answer to this question was very different from the answers which would have been given by many of his contemporaries in India and beyond. Moreover, it had fundamental implications for his understanding of the significance for all human persons, and for his commitment to enter public life to serve others and to work in such a way as to preserve their dignity and autonomy. For Gandhi, religion was not a clearly packaged and labelled set of beliefs and practices; neither was it a communal or semi-tribal identity. It was a pilgrimage in search of truth, a lifelong searching for God as truth rather than for a divinity which could be described in a simpler way. It was significant that he subtitiled his partial autobiography, written in the mid 1920’s, as “The Story Of My Experiments With Truth.” This understanding set him at odds with contemporaries for whom religion was a particular orthodoxy of belief and practice, or the cement of specific socio-political identities. He believed that Truth resided at some deep level in every individual, and that consequently he was called to serve humanity, particularly those who were weak and disadvantaged in ordinary human terms. Other fundamental questions flowed from these assumptions.

2 What is the nature of political identity, particularly the ‘nation’?
This was an urgent question in the context of late colonial India. The nature of the family, of case, religion, community and nation were all under scrutiny in the final years of empire as Indians contemplated the shape of their country and society after independence, Gandhi’s answer to these sorts of questions was rooted in his belief in the primacy of a common humanity which would override all other social and political connections. Consequently he favored small-scale communities where people knew each other face to face, and where it was more difficult to categorize people as ‘other’. As far as the Indian nation was concerned, he envisioned it as being made up of many of these small-scale communities. India was not to be defined by language or creed or even place of birth or heritage. What mattered in making “an Indian” was living in the subcontinent, making it one’s home, and valuing its ancient and complex civilization. The identity of the nation was urgent in his time because of the imminent departure of the British rulers, and increasingly violent controversies over the relationship between national and religious identity. The question is as significant as ever — in contemporary India, and in a global context marked by the rise of exclusive right-wing nationalisms, which would discriminate against minorities, particularly those created by immigration.

3 How should one conduct oneself in the practice of politics?
Gandhi recognized that disagreement and conflict are inevitable in human society and interaction between individuals and groups. If all people shared a common humanity then the crucial question for him was how to manage conflict, and particularly how to conduct oneself in the political arena when addressing differences and controversies. His answer to this question, forged over many years in public life in South Africa and India, was the multi-dimensional practice of non-violence or satyagraha. Conversion rather and coercion was his remedy for conflict. Non-violent resistance to what was perceived as wrong was most likely to create long-term change in all the parties to a conflict, and would protect the integrity of all those concerned. In many ways non-violence was his most creative and long-lasting idea, though his life showed that it was not the universal panacea for peaceful change which he had envisioned. Even though non-violent modes of public and political actions often seem to have failed in his lifetime and beyond, his life and teaching raise the perennial question of the right ways to behave in the public arena. 

4 The final question Gandhi raised, not least by his mode of life, was the broad one: how should one live?
This really coupled together several issues relating to the obvious inequality between individuals and groups within India and also globally. It has taken on new urgency as we are increasingly aware of the impact of humankind on the environment as people and groups strive for even greater patterns of consumption. Gandhi is said to have uttered the powerful aphorism that “there is enough for every man’s need but not enough for every man’s greed.” He also drew on his lawyer’s training in London to deploy the idea of “trusteeship” to denote how those who have more resources should consider and use them for the wider good. His own lifestyle in the last 25 years of his life back in India is well known — and Gandhi was well aware of the publicity effect of his freely chosen poverty and simplicity on food, clothing and possessions. In his lifetime, people commented on the effort and expense it took other people to “keep Gandhi poor”; and certainly an ashram life is not one to which most people are called. But the question remains — how should we live? Our answers are critical for the future of our world — for the relationship between the privileged and underprivileged within nations, for relationships between richer and poorer parts of the world, and for the very existence of our planet as a place fit for human habitation.