the prayer of suffering

Last weekend, I attended a conference on human sexuality, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Nothing prepared me for the opening prayer / icebreakers, which literally transported me in time to my worst experiences of seminary. I am a big fan of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and of the integration of body and spirit, but this experience was so painful that I had to become a Manichean dualist for about five minutes to cope with the situation: my body was doing one thing, but my spirit was definitely elsewhere in an effort to manage the pain.

The presiding priest (from here on, I will refer to him as Fr. C) led us in an opening prayer, fashioned on a Liturgy of the Hours service designed especially for World AIDS Day. Why we didn’t have Mass is still a mystery to me… but given this priest’s sense of the ars celebrandi, it was probably best to leave the sacred mysteries for another occasion.

Immediately before the prayer, we were asked to turn to the person sitting next to us, take both their hands in ours, look into their eyes and share one thing we hoped for from the day, and one thing we feared. I shared that I hoped to learn what the Archdiocese was teaching about human sexuality, and that my fear was the same thing. Curiously, my “intimacy partner” shared the same hope and fear. We bonded.

But then it was time for prayer. The makeshift holy table at the front of the room featured the obligatory swath of purple fabric with a lectionary atop the mound. Adjacent was a large rainbow colored candle with three wicks in it, burning bright. In front of each of our place settings was a tea candle, which we were asked to bring to the front, light in the large candle, and place in a tray to symbolize our togetherness. Then we processed back to our seats.

Everything else was pretty conventional until we finished the last strophe of the Song of the Body of Christ by David Haas. When it concluded, the music and atmosphere suddenly transported us to the Heavenly Romper Room. Fr. C donned a sorcerer’s hat with Mickey Mouse ears (complete with flashing lights) and proceeded to ask us to stand and participate in some Christian aerobics. So here I am, touching my toes, reaching to the God above, spinning in circles with thirty other catechists / teachers / religious sisters. Not kidding. Here’s what his hat looked like, and here is the soundtrack from this painful moment in my day.

I should have been prepared for this sort of Mickey Mouse. After all, Fr. C had mentioned at the very beginning that he was particularly good at making people uncomfortable, and in retrospect, I have to say he demonstrated these skills with verve and abandon. I just wish he had given some more thought to the matter. I mean, sometimes we make people uncomfortable because of a prophetic witness, other times we make people uncomfortable for… other reasons.

I was pleased to find that his presentation mellowed out significantly after this, and that he actually had some good things to say. I just wish he hadn’t put a stumbling block in the way of his credibility by the way he chose to launch the day.

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