About 15 years ago a new Catholic parish was erecting its single-building church and social center. The pastor asked the religious sister who acted as Director of Religious Education to choose the tiles for the parish center’s bathrooms. The gentleman’s bathroom was outfitted in a rather pretty shade of gray with darker accents. The ladies room, however, startled everyone who entered it; gazing into the mirrors at their bilious reflections, woman after woman grimaced and asked “who on earth decided on spicy-mustard yellow?”
Complete to a shade—with brown accents, no less—the lavatory quickly became known as the “vomitory,” and Sister Decorator made a sincere apology for the Jaundice Surprise. “I thought pink or rose would be too feminine, too Barbie, and the yellow would be less stereotypical,” she explained.
This was consistent with Sister’s feminist conscience, which had earlier caused conflict when she tried to introduce inclusive language to the Gloria, because “some people have issue with their fathers, and this makes it difficult for them to recognize God-as-Father.” Her intention was to wipe out any and all “feminine social constructs” while simultaneously inserting feminine perspectives or downgrading the masculine, wherever she could. There was a staggering incoherence to her efforts: femininity was bad, but women were good; men were alright but masculinity was a horror, except when a woman could achieve equality with masculine constructs. Equality was the highest good.
Sister was a good person; she was very kind and a hard worker, but she was so obsessed with notions of equality that she lost her ability to see people as anything but types and categories. At a ministry thank-you dinner, we shared a table and, emboldened by wine, I suggested her version of the Gloria was insensitive to many: “You’re right that some people have issues with their earthly fathers,” I said, “but it’s for that very reason that we want to hear about—and need to know—our Heavenly Father. When you take that from us, we have nothing—no earthly father, no heavenly one, either.”
The astonished sister answered that she had never heard such an idea before, and that she was sure I must represent a very small minority, and as interesting as she thought my sentiments, she was certain that the larger society was better served by gender-free prayer. Language mattered: it made us all equal before God and God equally accessible to all of us.
Language does matter. It was only after the inclusion of “church-protective” language that New York State’s gay marriage bill was passed. It was because the language of “civil unions” was deemed insufficient to the cause that only the language of “marriage” would do. “Equality!” was the word heard over and over again on the streets and in the headlines, and it is one of those powerful words to which we instinctively wish to add our assent, even if we know in our hearts that true equality exists only within the Triune God, and in our willingness to place ourselves before and within its mysterious depths.
Watching the men and women celebrating outside The Stonewall Inn—the jubilant young ones and the quietly pleased men who said they had been together and waiting for this moment “for 42 years”—I understood their glee, but couldn’t help thinking that they, like the sister from our parish, were ultimately chasing an illusion. Sister hoped to define God’s mysterious essences by “broadening” the language in a paradoxically narrowing way; to “equalize” the path to God-knowledge by removing from our language and imaginations any instinctively recognizable markers. The Stonewall partiers worked to deconstruct and redefine something that is both obvious and mysterious: the God-designed joining of two broken beings into one flesh, whose coming together is so powerful that humanity (which cannot create a flea) becomes co-creative with Him in a mutual assent to life.
In both cases, the emphasis was on defining an entity—be it God or marriage—according to one’s own lights and desires, and then tamping down or forbidding any instinctive understanding of that entity’s nature, for the sake of getting exactly what one wanted.
And since nothing is free, their “equality” came at a price: Sister’s obsessive focus on gender-language eventually closed her off to other voices and other words, until she became her very own cloister, leaving the very lively parish community for a safe-but-sterile environment where she is not challenged to relate to God in any way other than what she has permanently settled-on and declared for herself.
It is similar for the gay community now, too. Clutching a hard-won, if illusory, prize of worldly “equality,” and being “like everyone else,” they perhaps do not yet realize what they are rejecting—the challenge and adventure that leads to the pearl of great price: the call to be “other” than your own declaration. It is actually a personal call, and an individual one, made to each of us—it is a call that transcends the voluntary boxes we place around ourselves, our types and categories, and it is never sterile. The adventure begins when you hear the call, and respond not with a “give me,” but with a “please take.”
And this is not something new or a profound understanding:
though he was in the form of God,
Jesus not not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave . . . Because of this, God greatly exalted him
– Philippians 2:6-7,9
Nothing is equal, and it has been true since Eden; we can have our lives just as we like them. But what we claim for our own often limits God’s access to our hearts, and His working in our lives. What we give to God leads to the veriest pearl.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here. The New York Times article on church exemptions can be found here.