One of the questions that I’ve encountered several times is how I could, as a queer Catholic, consider something which is disordered to be a gift. Basically the argument runs as follows: perhaps gifts may come as a result of a disorder, but the disorder itself is never a gift. For example, a cancer patient may receive courage and growth in holiness through her cancer, but the cancer itself is a tragedy not a treasure!
I’m naturally inclined to disagree, but it would seem insensitive to tell a cancer patient that their illness is a gift from God — and to be fair I would never suggest that someone suffering is obliged to imagine their suffering in that way. Grief is normal, including anger and rejection of pain and the desire for it to just go away. But of my own sorrows, I can speak.
So a couple of nights ago I found myself in the back of an ambulance with my son on the stretcher in front of me. He’d been scalded, and a large swathe of skin on his chest and on the back of his leg had peeled off like shrivelled shrink-wrap, revealing painful raw, blistered skin. At the time when it happened I didn’t have the occasion to reflect much: I applied really basic first aid and rushed him to the hospital. But once I was in the ambulance there was a long, two-hour drive from my local hospital to the burn clinic at Sick Kids in Toronto and I had the opportunity to pray.
They say that the important part of prayer is listening. Looking the bandages across my son’s chest I actually wasn’t inclined to ask “Why?” My entire conversion was basically a confrontation with and embrace of the problem of evil, so at least on a theoretical level I’m very comfortable with the fact that God allows good and innocent people to suffer. I was much more trying to enter into that space, that moment of immediate contact with God where the nature of suffering is clear and where absolute trust is possible. So I looked at my son and I tried to find God there in the mystery of his suffering.
The answers to my prayers often occur in this form: a simple phrase, almost Zen-like, and a series of attendant images. In this case the phrase was “This is the gift.” The images were of Mary at the foot of the Cross, sorrowing but calm, receiving the gift of the Church in the wounds of her Son. My son’s injuries were nothing compared to the crucifixion but I could see that I was being invited in a small way into that profound moment of intimacy between Mary and Jesus.
“This is the gift” We are told at the end of the second chapter of Luke that Mary treasured the events of that chapter in her heart. It’s not clear whether this refers solely to the Finding in the Temple, or whether it refers to all of the events that Luke describes from Christ’s childhood.
I think the latter is a more reasonable interpretation: after all, it’s hard to imagine who would have related these events to the disciples and bequeathed them to tradition if not the woman who observed and treasured them in her heart. Yet two of the events here prefigure the crucifixion: the prophecy that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart, and the anxiety that she feels when she is separated from her son and does not know where to find Him. These things too she seems to treasure, to guard, to keep as an invaluable part of the gift that she received in the Incarnation, the body of the only begotten Son of God.
These events are, however, only a prefigurement. In the first chapters of Luke Mary accepts, in symbolic form, the death of her son. In the crucifixion she is there to return Him to the Father, and the mode of that returning is the Cross. It is also the mode through which she receives Him again as Church. In this moment we see that the gift of Christ’s body and blood cannot be alienated from the suffering and brutality, the palpable evil of the crucifixion.
St. Paul goes so far as to say that Christ “becomes sin,” His identity with sinners is so great that He enters into this mystery of evil with His body, blood, soul and divinity. When He is revealed to His disciples Thomas knows Him, verifies His identity, but placing his hands in His wounds. In the Eucharist, it is not in the presentation of the whole and perfect host that He is known but in “the breaking of the bread.” The greatest gift that God ever made to the world, the life of His own son, becomes true Bread, true Life, true Gift in the moment when it is defaced and destroyed by the disorders of sin.
This is the gift. I understand our desire to withdraw from that. To think that the gift that God is offering me is the hope of my son’s recovery, the grace of trust, the good that might be worked as I offer his injuries up in union with Christ’s. But to think that way is to miss the fact that the wounds themselves, terrible, ugly, frightening, are the medium through which I receive. The disorder is the means of redemption. Deicide opened the way to God. Paradox. Foolishness. Madness. A sign of contradiction. For we have a God whose greatest gifts are those which look to us like a terrible calamity.
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.