Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit
Navigating wine country on Christmas Eve, vineyards fast asleep beneath the downy comfort of a two-foot deep snow, I made my way carefully over the river, though the woods and on to what had been my friends Grandmothers house in a cozy hamlet in the southern corner of my home peninsula along the shores of Lake Michigan.
The plan was to enjoy dinner with friends, then cap the evening together with midnight Mass at Holy Rosary, a simple brick Roman Catholic church surrounded by the rural landscape an artist could only dream of. Tucked at the cross roads of what had originally been known as Four Corners, the construction of the church in 1883 warranted a new name for the hamlet: Isadore in honor of Saint Isadore, patron Saint of farmers.
My hosts for the evening were friends whom I had reconnected with upon my return after several years away from the peninsula. They accepted my recent conversion to Catholicism much more quickly than others, welcoming me back into the fold of their lives with no hesitation, a homecoming I was deeply grateful for. Though we had been close prior to my departure from the peninsula after ten years of residence, our friendship was now set to define itself within a new spiritual framework of understanding. Joining us to celebrate the Holy night would be the elderly though still smart and sassy mother of one of my friends, a third gentlemen whom I had known in the past as an acquaintance, and a widow, mother of five grown children.
As the evening unfolded, I realized, once again, that God had brought me into this home on this night for reasons I was to trust and embrace. If I have learned anything since my conversion, I have learned when to be quiet, when to listen and when to trust what is delivered into my life as nothing but the latest entry in a supremely divine plan.
The home had been built by my friends family on a farmstead they acquired via land grant following service in the Civil War. A plain white gable front, three-story house, it is stunning its simplicity, its lines efficient of proportion. Tall with a slightly narrow profile, it is visually supported by the grove of ancient Black Walnuts which surround it, now heavy with snow. The post & beam barn sited behind and to the north of the house held one small light in the window of the loft peak, a touch placed there each Christmas as one of many traditions borne over the years on this homestead. Inside, the main floor of the home holds just the number of rooms necessary for rural living. Religious icons owned by my host were discreetly but respectfully displayed throughout the house and now glowed in the candlelight of the evening as the wine began to flow, followed by the food and the slow telling of stories.
As the evening progressed I began to sense that I would be alone in attending midnight Mass. The promise to join me, given by my hosts days prior, seemed to fade. I realized it had been a gesture of good intention, one they knew would not be kept. At evenings end, I too chose not to attend Mass that night, to forgo, attending instead the third Mass Christmas day. After each ones story revealed itself comfortably, at times hesitantly through the course of the evening, it seemed more respectful to stay, in solidarity with my hosts, their friends and the matriarch. We tuned in at midnight to the Mass being offered by Pope Francis, pre-recorded earlier from the Vatican. Though all in attendance were Catholic, neither the matriarch, nor my friends had attended Mass in some time. By evenings end, my heart was heavy with understanding as to why.
My hosts partner had been an altar boy throughout his formative years, arising each morning and walking the few blocks to the church to help open the rectory, retrieve the cassocks, light the candles, etc., etc. His mother, our matriarch at the table for the evening, was also a cradle Catholic, devout, well-studied and obviously still guided daily by what she declared were her guideposts for life: the Ten Commandments. She had decided to file for divorce from her physically abusive husband when it became clear the lives of both she and her children were in peril at the hands of his madness, a choice she felt compelled to make in spite of the church teachings. She never remarried. At one point in the dinner, as her son spoke of his memories of life as an altar boy, often slipping into latin for effect, she reminded us all that she once expected him to become a priest. I smiled and offered that many times over the years of our friendship, he had truly given me excellent advice, always without bias and always with love. A bit later, our host, her sons partner of over a decade, pulled one of his most treasured possessions from the shelf for me to see: a reliquary containing a relic of St. Elizabeth Seton.
The widow, a late arrival, deposited her offerings of desert in the kitchen, parked herself on the sofa and began our conversation abruptly by stating that it was her understanding I had recently become a Catholic. With barely a moment for me to smile and nod in response, she continued by informing me that it would be best if we did not discuss that, that she was raised in a convent setting and remained very, very angry. “Guilt, guilt, guilt” she fumed, contorting her otherwise beautiful face. She caught herself at this point, softened her voice slightly, and stated that she was still processing it all, that we best not ‘go there’. I wondered how many decades that ‘processing’ had so far taken.
The third gentleman to join us for dinner was also a cradle Catholic. Well into the evening and the wine, he shared his story going back to the years when he was still consciously unaware of his sexual orientation yet was closer and closer to establishing awareness. When a priest exposed himself to him one evening in the bathroom of a local social establishment in his home state of Indiana, he found the opportunity to ask the questions that formulated within him over some time. Through conversations with this priest, was able to find clarity and understanding of who and what he was. When he later questioned the priest about his position as a priest and his behavior that night, the reply he received was that it (the Priesthood) was “just a vocation.”
We sat huddled in the candlelit parlor of the old farmhouse, windows frosted over, the snow swirling outside, our faces illuminated by lights of the Nativity displayed on the shelf. We watched as Pope Francis lifted the Eucharist and the bells tolled. I knew I was exactly where I meant to be, surrounded by devout, yet cast-out Catholics, castaway Catholics whose love of God, the Blessed Lady and of one another ran as deep as any parishioner I had ever sat next too in the pews of Holy Rosary on a Sunday. I wondered how many other able-bodied gay men, divorced mothers and angry widows were sitting in front of their televisions on this night, in the privacy of their own homes as we were, ‘attending’ Mass in the only way they dared. Castaway Catholics, reciting the Creed, crossing themselves and whispering ‘Amen’ in the silence of a snowy Holy Night.