Obedience: history makes it an issue

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Two weeks ago I complained in this space about the slowness of our faith communities in embracing those among us who are identify with a same-sex community and are active sexually. The issue is very clear to me, and yet if I am to be honest I have to also share how much this question tests and is changing my faith, hinging on the experience and understanding of Obedience.  And to do that, I think I have to tell about the path that led to my current position.

Early Piety

I have been Roman Catholic for just over half my life.  Up to age 17 I was exposed to a variety of protestant churches and chose to be Anglican at 11, attending Confirmation classes in a fairly ‘high’ C of E church in the neighbourhood.  Preparing to take the vows was a very serious matter to me and I studied every word in the Book of Common Prayer and the instruction booklets provided.  I reveled in the solemnity of it all, identifying with Princess Elizabeth whose Coronation would be requiring her to step over a threshold also, into a new life where duty and obedience were primary.  She would, and I would, be God’s servants. Confirmation was sanctification and my private prayer life was intense.  This all served as a necessary anchor to considerable emotional confusion in that year during which my father and mother separated permanently, my sister, just 17, became pregnant, married, and settled to live with the baby in the room that had been our shared bedroom, and my mother had a nervous breakdown.  My initiation into the rituals of high Anglicanism was my personal path to stability and salvation.  I followed a strict regime of prayer derived from the prayer books.

Departure from a Life of Purity

At 17, when I was going steady with the tall blond football player who drove his dad’s car (only one in the school), I took a huge step sideways and decided I would have to ask God to please allow me a hiatus from my vows of purity and to please be there when I learned whatever I had to from this new adventure with Ian.  Four years later we broke up but it was now 1962 and I was on the cusp of entirely new journeys

A Roundabout Journey Back

Seventeen years later (is that a special number of something?) I had entered into and left behind a non-religious marriage overseas, had traveled to Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist lands, had dabbled with some occult practices, and experienced transcendent states with powerful hallucinatory drugs.  I was astonished at what the world had to offer but also did considerable emotional harm to myself and some others, testing moral boundaries that proved to not bear such stretching.  Pain was now very familiar, as was ecstasy.  A child of the 60’s.

God always felt close.  But I didn’t now fit with any one religion.  My face was turned away from the person of Christ.  Then, in a time of illness, loneliness and despair, Christ seemed to reach out from an icon on the wall at the foot of my bed.  In my heart, through several days of fever, Christ addressed me and said I was loved, I was his, to come back into his community of fellow-souls.  And so I did.  As soon as I was well I sought out instruction and made a Profession of Faith in the Cathedral of Mary Queen of the World in Montreal (great big glorious bastion of Catholicism).  Why R.C.?  Just seemed like I might as well go for the whole shebang.  Right to the source – heart of the beast – oops – bad choice of image.  (Later learned my dear Granny in England was R.C. – I think she prayed me right into the church that her five children had abandoned).

Charismatic Shift

Dave, my new (non-Catholic and down-to-earth) husband, and I found a little house in downtown Toronto in a calm friendly neighbourhood.  It was 1982. Two doors over, the matriarch of a Guyanese-British family, Joyce, proved to be a startling woman to me.  People came to her home to find shelter, to be restored, to find themselves, to be loved.  She and her husband stretched their resources to allow people in.  There were four foster children and numbers of her own grandchildren.  In the third storey room on Wednesday nights words of amazing grace flowed out the open window in summer, as the prayer group meetings brought people to pray and sing together.  I couldn’t resist.

For the next 20 years I attended just about every one of Joyce’s weekly meetings.  That group prayed me through the one successful pregnancy of five, and into years of happy motherhood, and completion of a PhD.  Joyce guided and instructed and gave me a chance to let God fill my life.  It was new and uplifting to share an ecstatic sense of the presence of God among us, and to regard it as something that anyone could experience if they wanted to.  Our duty was to take that sense of a healing presence to people who needed it, who asked for it.  So Joyce and a little group of us headed out when requested and laid on hands and prayed.  Many people appeared to be healed.  It was a time of living continually with hope.

Obedience was required.  If someone needed prayer, one arranged things and went.  If my inner voice told me Joyce needed a hand, I went there.  There were conflicts – Dave sometimes wondered where the heck I had disappeared to.  But it was clear to me that I was privileged to be literally so ‘hands on’ in doing something for God.

The beginning of change grew slowly, out of the biggest act of obedience of my life.  I read about Sister Susan Moran and knew I was ready to take that kind of leadership in my own church.  Joyce and I approached our local priest and started an Out of the Cold within 5 weeks (20 years later it’s still operating, tho moved to another location).  It was when working with so many people who couldn’t accept the possibility of healing and hope that I began to move away from the certainties of the charismatic mind-set.

There are simply no straightforward easy ways to help people stuck in poverty.  Maybe few ways at all, except to love them.   I found that when I began to actually love beggars and thieves and whores and addicts, I had fewer and fewer answers.

And then that urge to love began to take in all people practicing non-traditional sexuality.  And now I cannot make common cause with those who would exclude them.  The hope shared with those brothers and sisters isn’t gone but I can’t stand on the side of the line they’ve drawn.  If there are those who are saved, or who CAN be saved, and those who can’t, I can’t be among those who think they can tell the difference.

When Joy asks about who it is that God speaks to, I’m now puzzled too.  Obedience to God’s voice seems fundamental, but I have to know from head to toe it’s God.  And as disobedient as it sounds to most of my former teachers, leaders, guides, I have to say we as Christians have to not try to change anybody but to love and pray for her or him, and trust them to God.

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3 Comments

Filed under Rosemary's entries

3 responses to “Obedience: history makes it an issue

  1. Rhonda Teitel-Payne

    Rosemary, can you say in very concrete terms what you mean when you say the only way to help people stuck in poverty is to love them? I may agree with you entirely, but “love” is such a vague term.

    My other reaction, for what it’s worth, is wow…

  2. Amen to Rhonda’s ‘wow’!
    Thanks Rosemary. As one who has been on both sides of the divide between those who can identify the line between the saved and the unsaved and those who won’t, I resonate deeply with your story.
    If I may take an introductory stab at Rhonda’s question about loving those stuck in poverty, it is to be committed to their welfare, their friendship, their community, their advocacy so much so that you begin to experience the truth that ‘blessed are the poor’.

  3. Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

    To Rhonda and John; John’s comment about the actions and commitments that arise out of love and express it are absolutely right to me. St. Paul is clear about our love being seen in action. But I think I understand Rhonda wanting a more concrete example. And for me it’s being able to be with another person without an agenda and getting to the Buber “I – Thou” state where, I think, we’re just hanging together. Genuinely wanting to enter into a few minutes of connection. And I think Joy is so right – that there are often just moments. But those are the building blocks of whatever core self exists in me. So many living in deep poverty haven’t had much real connection. So that’s a starting point…will add more thoughts on love-in- immediate-action as they come…Rosemary

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