There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet Act I, Scene 5
One of the rich rewards of my work as a spiritual director is the discovery of how many of my directees have an on-going, rich and intimate connection with the communion of saints and the communion of ancestors.
Over the years of doing this work, I’ve lost all doubt about the truth of these events and experiences of communion these directees share with me.
I’ve wanted to write about Communion for a while and then today happened.
I was at Staples picking up office supplies and as I waited in the check-out line which is filled with displays of chips and candy, I saw a Toblerone bar and instantly I was filled with the presence of the late Phillip Blake, S. J. who, in June of 1982, guided me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Communion through a candy bar!
Phil Blake was not “supposed” to lead me through the exercises. I had carefully researched the retreat directors and found Father Joe Caldwell who I was told was “gay friendly.” When I arrived at El Retiro San Inigo in Los Altos, CA and signed in at the reception desk I discovered that Caldwell had been called away on a family emergency and I had been assigned to spend the next eight days with Phil Blake, a Bronze Medal of Honor recipient who had arrived at El Retiro the previous week after completing many years of service as a chaplain in the armed forces. I was his first retreatant.
We got off to a rocky start.
I told him my story and he told me he’d never met a homosexual before. I told him he couldn’t have spent all those years in the military without meeting homosexuals; they just weren’t comfortable enough either with him or their sexual orientation to disclose it.
He asked me why I was making the Exercises. I described a transformative spiritual experience I’d recently had at the Camaldolese monastery in Big Sur that convinced me that God was calling me and I was making the Exercises to try and discern the nature of that call.
“It’s clear to me,” Father Blake said, “that God is calling you to be celibate.”
It was going to be a long eight days and I wasn’t sure I would get through it.
I replied that it was hard for me to imagine that God had gone to all of the trouble of creating the experience at the monastery, setting my soul on fire, and bringing me back to the church just so I would become celibate. “I will agree,” I continued, “to pray each morning of this retreat that God let me know if it’s His will that I be celibate, if you agree to talk with me about what I came here to talk about.”
When I arrived for the next morning’s session, Father Blake was apologetic. “I didn’t mean to seem so judgmental about your sexuality. I mean, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’”
“That sounded very condescending, didn’t it?” he said.
I told him I’d dealt with far worse and recounted my experience of coming out to my parents a few years earlier.
This led to a discussion of “coming out”. (Remember this was thirty-five years ago.) Father Blake couldn’t understand the necessity of “coming out”. “Why do gay people (the first time he used the word ‘gay’) have to make such a fuss, be so pushy, so visible?”
As I was leaving his office, he asked me to pray for him; he said he needed my being there for him as well as for myself.
In my journal I wrote: “What does God have in mind putting me with Father Blake? Am I here, among other things to open up Father Blake?”
At Mass that afternoon the entrance antiphon was:
I will be witness to you in the world, O Lord. I will spread knowledge of your name among my brothers, Alleluia.
The first reading from Acts 5 included the following sentence in which the angel of the Lord appears to the Apostles and says:
Go stand in the Temple and tell the people about this new life.
The kicker, though, was the day’s gospel reading John 3:16-21
But the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.
In one sentence the gospel reading crystalized my response to why gay people come out, in fact, must come out. The antiphon pointed to my responsibility as a Christian living in the gay community. Acts spoke of my responsibility to be an open and unashamed gay man in the presence of my church community.
I wrote in my journal: “I must relate to Father Blake not only as my spiritual director but as my brother. This perhaps will give me the clearest insight into what God wants me to do and how to go about doing it. If I can communicate clearly with this man and listen—through his preconceptions and my prejudices— to his heart. Not simply use him as an impersonal tool of my own discernment, but see through to his heart so I may more clearly know my own.”
From then on my hour-a-day sessions with Father Blake shifted into an unexpected intimacy. In directing me he disclosed things about his personal struggles with his own vocation. He talked about his loneliness, the longing for intimacy independent of sex, the mystery of grace. He told me that the holiest, most profoundly spiritual person he had known was an adulterous wife who had found God in this illicit relationship after living with an inattentive, alcoholic husband for many years.
All the while he continued to assign scriptural readings and question and challenge the authenticity of my calling. I became grateful to him for doing so.
He assigned the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42).
The next day Father Blake asked what I had taken away from the reading.
“Jesus is a radical feminist,” I said.
He was astonished. “Where on earth do you see that?” I asked him if he knew the story of Yentl? It’s about this devout Jewish woman who disguises herself as a man so she can sit in the presence of the rabbis, which women are forbidden to do. Mary seated herself at Jesus’ feet and he told Martha to do the same! “That’s radical! That’s a scandal!”
Father Blake was silent for what seemed like a very long time.
One night, I was taking a walk around the beautiful, fragrant retreat house grounds when I heard someone playing Broadway show tunes on a piano. I looked up; it was Father Blake. I waved. He saw me and waved back. “May I listen?” He nodded and I stood beneath the second story window as he played “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Bali Hai” from South Pacific, my favorite songs from my all-time favorite Broadway musical.
Toward the end of the eight days, Father Caldwell returned and we spoke for a couple of hours.
“Your insights into scripture have become a lively topic at the Jesuit dinner table.”
I didn’t know what he meant.
“Phil’s reporting them to us. He’s never met anyone who hears scripture like you do. You’re making him think. See things differently. Phil thinks it’s a sign that your sense of calling is authentic.”
In my last meeting with Father Blake, I asked for a blessing. He said, “To be honest, I have no idea what God is calling you to, but I bless you in it, whatever it is. And I give you my word I will never knowingly harm or cause pain to a gay or lesbian person who comes to me for counsel.”
In December of 1986, I was escorting my client, Linda Kozlowski, the female lead in the Crocodile Dundee movies on a multi-city publicity junket for the first movie. We were in Geneva on a Sunday and we had the day off. I asked the concierge if there was a church that had a Mass in English. She said yes and gave me directions. There were no more than a dozen people in the small chapel. The celebrant entered and I was surprised to see Phil Blake, come to Geneva to study Carl Jung (how’s that for a small world—I did not yet know what an archetype was). He saw me and stopped in his tracks and grinned. I waited for him after Mass and we spent most of the day together. He told me that he had never forgotten me and that he prayed for me every day. At the end of our visit, he asked me to wait a minute. He went into the hotel gift shop and returned with a bar of Toblerone chocolate. He handed it to me and said, “For you, a souvenir of Switzerland.”
Whenever I catch sight of a bar of Toblerone, not that often, I am reminded that Phil Blake prayed for me every day, and I have no doubt, that as a member of the communion of saints, St. Phil still prays for me every day. Occasionally he draws my attention to a Toblerone bar to remind me that he’s watching over me.
One of the most beautiful songs I know is called Breaths by the female African American acapella singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Those who have did have never, never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in our homes
They are with us in this crowd
The dead have a pact with the living
Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis’ the ancestors’ breath
When the fire’s voice is heard
Tis’ the ancestor’s breath
In the voice of the waters
Ah — wsh Ah – wsh
I was originally introduced to the song by another acapella singing group, The Flirtations. Michael Callen, the pioneering AIDs activist was a founding member of the group Michael had the voice of an angel and he was my friend. Michael was fourteen years my junior. One day, not too long before his death at age 38, he sat down next to me and asked, “What’s it like to be forty? It doesn’t look like I’ll make it to be forty.”
I turned seventy-six last week. I wish Michael was here so I could tell him what it’s like. I know he knows.
St. Michael is another member of the communion of saints, one of the holiest human beings I’ve ever known. Take the time to know him. Take time to listen.
“Those who have died, have never, never left; the dead have a pact with the living.”