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I wrestle with God in an embrace that calls me to a new identity.

Recently I had the opportunity to see a performance of Tony Kushner's, "Perestroika," Part 2 of his tour de force, "Angels in America." In his play, Prior Walter, a 31-year-old man living with AIDS, is visited by an angel who declares him a prophet and tempts him to forgo the suffering ahead and find peace in heaven.

Borrowing the story line from Genesis 32, Prior wrestles with the angel, saying, "I will not let thee go except thou bless me!" The angel refuses, incredulous that Prior still wants to live. "Who demands: More life?/When Death like a Protector/Blinds our eyes, shielding from some tender nerve/More horror than can be borne."

"Bless me anyway," Prior replies. "I want more life. I can't help myself. I've lived through such terrible times, and there are people who have lived through much worse, but .... You see them living anyway."

Despite the condemnations, the patronizing, the misunderstanding, the challenges of a pandemic, I want to live anyway. My spirituality as a gay man, a queer Christian and a person living with AIDS for the last seven years has been marked by both conflict and intimacy, filled with passion and ambivalence, anger and inexpressible joy and, above all, driven by a desire for abundant life.

The metaphor of angel-wrestling has helped me make some sense of my relationship to God, to myself and the world. In the dark of night, I, like both Jacob and Prior, find myself in mortal combat with mysterious figures: angels, demons, viruses.

I just can't seem to let go.

Finally, after an all-night battle, the combatants release me -- not just with a blessing but with a whole new name and identity, a new Israel, "one who strives with God." I have been in many a wrestling match -- political, theological, medical. I have wrestled with God, with God's ostensible representatives, with sisters and brothers -- often in a sweaty, straining, forceful embrace that calls me and those with whom I contend to new identities and new relationships. The fight becomes an act of love.

This kind of spirituality is not clean and neat, obviously. It's sexy. This erotic potential may put off some, convinced by late antique dualism that body and spirit must compete for human attention, and it may confirm the sneaking suspicion that queer folks are oversexed. (Time was, all women were considered oversexed by those men in charge, seeking to exalt reason over physicality. Some of the right-wing arguments against women's ordination demonstrate that this ideology is still operative.)

When challenged by those who demand of me a more chaste spirituality, I like to point to the Renaissance precedent of Bernini's "St. Theresa in Ecstasy," about as erotic a depiction of spiritual communion as one can find. It's a messy business and not genteel at all.

Queerness by its nature is critical and transgressive, challenging the prevailing system of heteropatriarchy, body/spirit and male/female dualism. And like the experience of Jacob/Israel, the ordeal can leave one with a bad limp. Often, this wrestling can get us into trouble, especially with people who think that religion ought to be orderly, with no sweat and no passion, with no tough questions left to deal with -- just a freezedried magisterium that demands obsequious obedience and must be zealously protected from the likes of me.

We who "strive with God" prove those well-meaning but frightened folks wrong every time we jump onto the mat to fight for our rights -- our civil rights and the rights of our baptism.

It's a sad commentary on the state of our church when the courage and willingness to go to the floor on the issues that count, to speak the truth when it hurts, is cause for oppression and contempt (see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's two recent documents on homosexuality, 1986 and 1992). What continues to amaze me is that God's powerful grace is so palpable precisely where the hierarchy denies it can be. I call it the "sacrament of irony."

In all those times of wrestling with the tough issues, with church leaders, with each other, with disease, I have been pinned down and squeezed, touched, massaged, embraced, cuddled and, yes, pleasured by a challenging and everloving God. I have been transformed and reconciled. No longer frightened or ashamed, I am learning to confide in God's love and the love of my fellow wrestlers. And after the match is over, I look forward to walking humbly with my God, even if it is with a limp.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Gay Men and Lesbians Describe Spiritual Journeys
Author:Calegari, Kevin J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 2, 1994
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