In an earlier paper Ignatius Feaver unfolded the experience of walking with Harold in the initial weeks of having been told that he was HIV+. The experience evoked in him memories of journeying with Peter, a young man who was in the last stages of AIDS. More recently he has come to realize the richness of memory in light of the Jewish notion of remembering. That is; remembering makes that which you remember, present. The Greek word 'anamnesis' embodies this meaning. It is not just a nostalgic looking back; but the essence of what is remembered is made 'present':In this article I would like to trace some specific remembered moments in journeying with Peter; events, as I look back, that profoundly changed me; and contributed in how I am 'with' those that I work with in spiritual direction. There is something in this experience that deepens the words of St. Paul; "The life and death of each of us has its influence on others". (3) I would like to frame this paper with this experience of Peter's dying, as a way of reflecting on the transformative movements that took place within my own self. This experience profoundly effected my moral awareness and plunged me into a questing that continues up until now. My deepening appreciation of the meaning of 'anamnesis' has helped me 'frame' my experience, and to find the words that I have intuitively felt in my heart."What was 'changed' in me in the experience of walking with Peter is present in me now; that is, the embrace of 'truth' in one's life or the immersion in the immense suffering of that moment, lives in me now. It enabled me, in the present, to be with Harold in a way that was not an isolated event but rather as a 'moment' in the unfolding drama of human suffering. It is what Metz calls the "memoria passionis"; the insertion through remembering of the waves of human suffering that the post-modern world seeks to avoid." (2)
A few years ago I had the privilege of journeying with a gay man, Peter, who was dying with AIDS. Up until that time I had had no contact with anyone living with this disease. Peter was an exceptional person; a gifted teacher, talented musician, witty and a man of wisdom, insight and faith. We developed a close friendship of trust and he subsequently invited me to walk with him in the last months of his life.
There are several moments in these last months of Peter's life that I would like to speak about. As I reflect back, I am able to articulate the mysterious and profound movements in Peter's life that announces the unique and sacredness of the human person. This sacredness is, as Palamas says; "a participation in divine things".(4)This was something that Peter fully embraced in his life, that initially I was not aware of. As a gay man he had come to see his life as 'blessing'; and the only way he could authentically journey to God. In fact, it is as James Alison would say; the only way he could be a truly moral being. In his book, Faith Beyond Resentment, Alison articulates my experience of Peter in this way:
....for those who feel themselves excluded, or treated as defective, by the reigning social and moral order, it is of incalculable importance to discover that this feeling of being excluded or defective has nothing to do with God.(5)My sense was that Peter saw this; that God had nothing to do with anything that trivialized the sacredness of the human person; and most especially the capacity to relate at the level of human love and suffering.
I was not with Peter in the early days when he was diagnosed HIV+. However, reflecting on the Ricouer/Heidegger scheme of movement through the crisis moments of our life, I believe that Peter had embraced the second naiveté. He had come to the level of knowing his suffering not as 'enemy' but in a way that he felt connected to something greater than himself. I believe that Peter had come to an inner freedom. Perhaps something of Mary Ward's "state of verity". In speaking of Mary Ward's understanding of freedom, Cover says it is; "...integral to human beings that real freedom is a return of oneself and one's choices to God."(6)
There are three very different incidents of my journeying with Peter where I sensed this "return". The first one happened about two months before he died. I had found a poem by Dylan Thomas entitled; "Do Not Go Gently into that Good Night".(7) Thomas had written this poem as a way of dealing with the dying of his father. I decided to bring this poem to Peter and to read it to him. Peter quietly listened as I read the poem, his eyes never leaving me. When I finished reading the poem, feeling somewhat satisfied that I had communicated something quite deep and meaningful to Peter; maybe offering him hope in this moment. Peter, still looking at me, a small smile on the side of his mouth said; "Ignatius, fuck Dylan Thomas! He wrote that poem for the living!". I stared at him seeing a wide smile came over his face; and in a moment I 'saw' how profoundly self-serving this gesture had been. We both broke into to laughter. What did Peter teach me in that moment? My poem reading was really a denial of his experience. I was missing his dying; and his living in the moment. In fact, it was as Bruggemann (asked) in Prophetic Imagination, could I be there in his suffering, in his struggle, in his 'lament'? In my own denial of the 'truth' of the moment, I was there with this kataphatic sense of trying to 'fix it'; all you have to do Peter is "rage against the dying of the light". The reading of the poem became a metaphor for me of how I remained outside of Peter's experience; and thus I missed the 'darkness' of his suffering and the movement of 'presence ' in his life that was changing him. I think of Metz's recounting of Elie Wiesel's experience of the gas chambers in Auschwitz as they in silence faced the horrors of this immense suffering; and as Wiesel says;
... then, very quietly at first, but finally crying out louder and louder, like madness we began to speak that eternal prayer of the Jews: Shema Israel - "Hear oh Israel, God is our God, God is one" - once, twice, five times ... (8)I was missing the real 'poem', the real prayer of Peter's connectedness with all those dead and dying of this horrendous disease . In that moment I heard, as if for the first time, Peter's invitation to walk with him in these final months. It was avoidance, or not recognizing that place where the rich experience is. We can never underestimate the negativity of human suffering; it is reduced to "nothingness if it is not a suffering unto God", as Rahner says. (9) This "suffering unto God", the heart of Rahner's theology, is not in isolation. The Shema Israel, Wiesel's remembering of the condemned is preceded by their spontaneous reaching out to each other. This is the suffering unto God: and in the remembering and the reaching out, there is God. The "memoria passionis" is, as Metz relates, "the basis of a universal morality."; that is, "there is no suffering in the world that does not concern us." (10) It is here that God is most profoundly encountered. This was the 'place' where Peter was. From then on I began to be present to Peter in a different way. I found myself listening more and talking less. I began to notice that Peter had changed, not only physically. There was a peacefulness that seemed to emanate from within. Bob Doran S.J., in an article entitled; "AIDS Ministry as a Praxis for Hope" reflects on the quality of love he saw operative in the gay community, most especially among those infected with HIV/AIDS and those who ministered to them. His words reflect my own experience; and I found myself affirming his quote from Rosemary Haughton's book, The Passionate God, "many homosexual relationships exhibit a fidelity and tenderness whose holiness is evident".(11) This was most especially evident in the following incident.
One day, a few weeks before Peter's death he asked if I could visit him. When I arrived I found that there were two other friends there. He said, from his sick bed, "this morning I saw this great recipe on TV and I want to make it for you". You must understand, he was skin and bone and literally had been confined to his bed. Asking us not to help him, he got up and made the recipe and then he served it to us; and retired back to his bed to watch us eat it. I was so overcome by the 'sacredness' of this moment. It was truly and most profoundly a eucharistic moment. I felt immensely connected not only to those I was eating with but most especially to Peter. What made this such a profoundly, sacramental moment? In reflecting back I sense that Peter understood the Jesus of John's gospel; the one who washed feet at that last meal "....you ought also to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should so as I have done for you".(12) He understood Jesus' message and actions as one of brotherhood, that takes its shape and purpose in service.
What happened in Peter's gesture was the visualizing of how deeply he believed in the sacredness of the human person, and how important sharing this with close friends was to him. The entire moment was clothed in an immense love. Although there was no overt religious language used, it was profoundly that. The gesture evoked a strong sense of 'Presence'. The irony of this sacramental moment 'celebrated' by a gay man dying with AIDS was not lost on me. Alison's book, Faith Beyond Resentment, has helped me to find words to express why this was such a profoundly, holy moment for me. Alison's reflection on church as fraternity expresses my experience of this moment. In his outstanding chapter entitled, "Jesus' fraternal relocation of God", Alison says;
When we talk about discipleship, it is to this sort of fraternal listening and imitating that we are referring. It is through this horizontal discipleship alone that people will come to perceive who God is, and discover God's paternity.(13)In reading Alison's words there was a deep, resonating "yes" within me; and it took shape in the remembered experience that afternoon in Peter's apartment. That this was exactly what Jesus had envisioned when he gathered his disciples around him; a "horizontal discipleship". This has helped me in exposing the untruth, that there was something "intrinsically disordered" in this gathered community that shared this final 'meal' together. Peter's making of this final meal - a dessert -was indeed a profoundly incarnational moment. Something deep shifted inside of me that only now finds the confirming words; a very deep conviction that God moves in all of us and no one is excluded from this. There is also another awareness that has grown within me; that the truth of who God is, and how God is with us, is revealed in the seeming ordinariness of our everyday experience. It is what Metz comments on in Rahner's insightful reflection of First Vatican Council when he says:
The matter of which Christianity speaks from its core, even today in the continuing process of the Enlightenment and in the widely heralded diffusion of postmodernism - this is, the God of which it speaks - is a fundamental matter on which everyone can join in the conversation and on which therefore everyone must be heard.(14)The First Vatican Council was more than century ago and the notion of exclusion is still very much a part of the frame of the hierarchical church. Alison is very direct as he reflects from the excluded position of the gay person;
The realization of how much I have been bound in by lies. I don't think that we gay people can accede to truthful talk except by undergoing the utterly disorienting discovery that we have been lied to from the beginning ... we have bought into and been driven by these lies. (15)Alison notes that this toxic reality is systemic. It is the;
... complete discovery that what we had been breathing for years was in fact not oxygen but some noxious and corrosive gas that sought our death.(16)The exposing of the "lie" is the in-breaking of God in something that had the vestiges of a mystical moment, because it revealed the heart of the sacredness of humanity. Dorothee Soelle in The Silent Cry, in speaking of mysticism says; "One cannot think of mystical experience and certainly not speak of it without eroticism".(17) Soelle points out that in the mystical moments of the Sufis, the Kabbalists and certainly in Christianity, they are always embodied. Bernini's statue of St. Teresa in ecstasy is a striking example of this. Teresa is portrayed as in a moment of orgasm. Her whole being, caught , if you will, by God. Bernini has caught in marble what is the essence of eros; holy desire. Peter Black quotes Sebastian Moore in his article; "The Broken Wings of Eros: Christian Ethics and The Denial of Desire"; "Real desire, what I really want and have always wanted, is to be more and more myself in the mystery in which I am".(18) Like Soelle, Black states that eros is the way we love; it is, in essence, our desire for God..
The final incident for my reflection is the actual dying of Peter. About a week before he died I went to see him and to bring him some chicken soup. He would eat nothing in those final weeks except to try the soup. I was to leave the next day for Vancouver. He spoke about this trip and showed great interest in it. Peter had a wonderful gift of focussing the conversation on the other. As we parted he thanked me for the soup; and I said to him, "Now, I want you to be here when I get back". He smiled and said he would. There was a moment of silence and then he asked if I would do his memorial service that he had prepared. We wept together and then I left. Less than a week after I arrived in Vancouver I received a phone call that Peter was dying and could I come home. I changed my ticket and flew back to Toronto, and went directly to his place. Peter was near death, surrounded by his family and a few close friends. I held his hand and prayed into his ear; he died about twenty minutes later. His nurse said to me later; "I couldn't understand why he was hanging on; he should have died this morning. Now I understand".
As I reflect back to that day I ask myself what really happened there? There was something of a 'covenant' here. ... from the feeding him the soup ... to his asking me to do his memorial ... to his saying he would be there when I returned. There was a linking there of a deeper connectedness; the place of mystery. In a sense he had crossed the "great abyss" that Kilcourse speaks of in his article on Merton. Merton says that the abyss, that is, between the finiteness of our corporality and the transcendence of mystery, can only be bridged by response to presence which results in the ethics of relationship.(19) Peter had come to understand in these last months of his life, and in his dying that the sacred image of God emerges in the bonds of friendship; and because of this, it is the only place of true ethical living.
In those months of journeying to his death Peter had so embraced his authentic self that mystery surfaced in him; and the paradox was that when he was most unfree physically, his human spirit was most free. In Faith Beyond Resentment Alison reflects on Jesus' releasing of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus' freeing of the Gerasene is one of insertion; insertion into the very heart of God's desire;
... what had been outside the demoniac as one who talked to him is now within him as the heart of the Creator who longs with a passionate and visceral longing for us to be free, and rejoices in nothing so much as our quiet, gentle contamination of each other with the first hints of that longing, translated into the first stutters of a right mind.(20)Alison has so caught the fundamental sense of what this journey is all about. It is nothing less than to be free. Caught, if you will, in the "heart of the Creator"; and quietly, gently , contaminating each other with this freedom. This is the level that Peter moved to in those last months, weeks and days. His waiting for me was an indication of this mysterious bond, which we call love, that connects us at our deepest level. As I reflect back over the years that I knew Peter, the seeds of that inner freedom were always there. For his memorial service he chose this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Silent friend of many
In this immeasurable
darkness, be the power
Most assuredly he 'knew' the mystery as his "silent friend" most especially in the "immeasurable darkness". I felt and feel an embarrassment at the memory of my 'immoral' reading of the Dylan poem. The irony is that he did "go gentle into that good night". As unaware as I was of the embracing Presence that was so much a part of those last weeks of his life; of that "breath (that) enlarges all of space", I intuitively felt a sense of the 'holy'. Elizabeth Johnson says it beautifully;
In a community of companionship in the Spirit that circles the globe today, living saints seek the face of God ... then they pass through the shattering of death into the life-giving hands of God.(22)Peter's last statement really came after his death. He chose not to have a traditional Catholic funeral. Rather, he prepared a memorial service that celebrated the truth of who he was; where the categories of secular and religious were woven together as a celebration of life as holy. And, so we prayed psalm 91 and listened to Joni Mitchell and Garth Brooks. In a way, Peter moved our horizons in his memorial service, to be able to see the weaving of the sacred on all of life. The poem of Rilke says something of this;
Move through transformation, out and in what is the deepest loss that you have suffered? If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.(23)Those of us who were his close friends had already celebrated the sacred meal with him. So I ask myself what is it that I carry with me of this reflected experience of Peter's dying? More pointedly, what are the words of truth that I must listen to from my experience of walking with this gay man dying with AIDS? My experience tells me that our gay brothers and sisters have something quite profound to say to the Christian community, most especially from that place of exclusion, the place of human suffering and violence. Bob Doran has helped me to articulate the 'words of truth';
In my experience there has been no other group of people where self-sacrificing, unconditional love plays such a prominent role in establishing the mood and atmosphere of life; and I am convinced that wherever this kind of love is present the God in whom I believe is present and active ... .God's love and grace are here manifest precisely where the dominant mentalities in religion and culture would tend to deny God's presence.(24)My experience, not only with Peter, but with the many people I have journeyed with right up to Harold, echo the truth of Doran's words. I am so deeply convinced of the presence of God in every life; and that God yearns to voice the truth in each person. The challenge for me as spiritual director is to be present to the other so that I can hear that voice of truth in the other's experience. Being present means letting go of the 'blocks' that I carry with me. As Doran says;
... let people come to know you, and to love you, and to challenge you to let go or the pretensions and hypocrisies and fears and cowardice that any of us coming from an organized religious affiliation will have. (25)In shedding these illusions we come to what Alison speaks of; the "fraternal level" As Jesus says "you are all brothers". This journey, in its most profound sense, is about brotherhood/sisterhood. The only authentic notion of discipleship is this ... "God himself the Creator of the universe, has spoken to us definitely as brother ... this is the point of Jesus". (26)
The truth of fraternity speaks to my soul, Maybe it is the Franciscan in me, but I suspect it is much more cosmic. It is about what the Creator has done and is doing through us; and I take comfort from having known someone who moved into that fraternal space before he died. The last verse of Rilke's poem says something of this deep connectedness even in dying:
And if the earthly
no longer knows your name,
When we move into that place of presence, of imagination and creativity; the place of lament and fraternity there is sense of living in wonder and awe; and most excitedly, surprise! The challenge is to listen deeply for the "I am" that will most assuredly be the voice of 'brother/sister'.
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Black, Peter, "The Broken Wings of Eros: Christian Ethics and the Denial of Desire". Theological Studies 64 (March 2003)
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Johnson, Elizabeth, C.S.J., "A Community of Holy People in a Sacred World: Re-Thinking the Communion of Saints". New Theology Review 12/2 (May 1999)
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