Friday, August 28, 2009

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and I go to Mass

A couple of months back, I got a copy of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Touching Feeling (2003) and managed to start reading it in the last few days. For some time now I've also been doing a very common almost daily Mass at the cathedral in town. Because I've been working the last two to three weeks, I've been pretty much going to the evening 5.10pm Mass which is held in the little chapel. I must admit I quite like that chapel. It's a great place to stop during the day and just sit in the silence for a while. When I say silence, it's more a muffling of the sounds of the city but I can just sit there for ages and the muffling helps to give an impression of the city sounds almost as a musical performance. I must admit to a Brian Eno-ish ability at times to hear music in the day to day sounds of life. Sitting in the silence of this chapel provides a space to pick up on the music of the city. And often you can cut right through that to the silence underneath.

And so I enjoy Mass in the chapel because of the small scale and intimate quality of the place. And perhaps that intimate quality means that people get to know each other there in a way that wouldn't happen in the cathedral proper. The pews can seat four people closely but usually it's only three and often two in a pew. So you get recognised if you're a regular. I reached that stage a short while ago and as I'm there after work, mostly union work, I get the odd appreciative comments on my union T-shirts, especially those with a Your Rights at Work theme.

Last week I was at Mass with my flatmate and a mutual friend who is much younger than either of us. He's been doing theological studies and as I'm a biblical scholar we've had a few discussions on matters biblical. So last week we three were at Mass, three in the pew, young biblical studies friend between my flatmate and I. Come the sign of peace, my biblical studies friend and I hug. I will hug friends, often kiss them, at the sign of peace. One of the other regulars, who always sits in the pew in front, I recall commenting at the time about "the bear hug" as he put it. He had made appreciative comments on the union T-shirts so I didn't make too much of it at the time.

This evening, waiting for the Mass to begin, he approached me and offered me a flyer. I unfolded it and perused it; it seemed to be a list of events. He then said it was from Courage. Courage is a kind of Catholic ex-gay group. I say 'kind of' because it does not claim to try and change people into heterosexuals but rather to help people live a non-sexual life. Still, its goal is to get queer people to internalise official Church teaching on homosexuality and to try to live according to that. (Although, Courage UK underwent a complete change and is now a LGBT affirming organisation of Catholics, something yet to happen with Courage Australia) Consequently I gave it back saying that I knew of Courage and was not interested. And, of course, I'm not. His response was something to the effect of 'you can still dialogue with it'. To which I replied that I could dialogue but could not agree with it. At that stage the Mass started.

But I reflected on the fact that he had made an assumption based on the 'bear hug' he'd witnessed the week before, even though I generally assume that I don't look all that straight to begin with. The added irony is that my young biblical studies friend is not gay at all and is in a relationship with a woman, no doubt a fact that would shock my would be converter. Presumably he takes the 'bear hug' as a sign of erotic friendship, after all real men don't hug like that do they? And I was reminded of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick had to say about homosexual panic, the fear that one's bonds might be homosexual, or perceived to be homosexual. She identifies this dynamic as one particularly applying to men (although I have no doubt it also applies with women) so as to prevent ties of affection and solidarity amongst men. It is a regime by which men police themselves and others and regime resting always on the threat of violence. It is the regime of the closet.

I have been planning a series of posts based on my Mass attendance which I would call My Adventures with the Daily Lectionary. And this piece is one that could fit that series. I must admit I was quite taken aback by this approach, this Courage proselytising move. It was like a kind of violation and also a breach of the intimacy of the chapel space, an intimacy that relies in large part, paradoxically on a type of anonymity. The weekday Masses in the cathedral bring together a fascinating array of people. The religious studies scholar in me is often fascinated into observing the people and their performances around me. Some of it can be quite strange, dare I say even a tad queer. But it is religion alive, often a religion not quite subservient to the official approved forms. It strikes me that there are some rather strange life journeys unfolding around me and no doubt there are those who think I represent a very strange life journey too. The anonymity provides a space where everyone can be at home with their own journey. And that being-at-home-ness feeds the sense of intimacy.

So this attempted intevention marked a rupture of the being-at-home aura, a rupture that represented an attempt at enforcing the normative, a normative that is always hetero. This heteronormativity was further reinforced when the Mass began. Unfortunately, the Cathedral has instituted the practice of the Leaven Hour, once a month. The Leaven Hour is billed as a "place for youth and young adults to experience growth and energy through the power of mass and adoration" I term it the Hillsong mass. The music is all from Hillsong and so it's designed to manipulate the emotions. Tonight there was a female guitarist and a not especially attractive young male on keyboards to support the singing. Quite downmarket compared to Hillsong's production values but enough to make a presence in the small space (a couple of people actually raised their arms in the air). Generally the Leaven Hour Mass is celebrated by a 'young' priest and the one tonight was a definite go-getter, confident in his male power. He sounded like he came from Hillsong and in his sermon even spoke of the need to have a deep 'personal encounter with Jesus Christ', a not very Catholic concept at all.

The main thrust of his sermon was about sex and controlling sexual drives. It was a rah rah heroic exhortation to the young to be strong in the Holy Spirit and not give into the pagan ways around us. It was based on the first reading of the day from 1 Thessalonians 4.1-8, in which Paul warns his community not to be like the pagans around them and give in to lust. The priest really overdetermined the binary of lustful pagans, sex drive out-of-control, over against pure in-control Christians. The reading and the sermon seemed to follow on from the initial approach I had received, almost to intensify the effect. One part of me was thinking 'is this a set up'? But of course today is the feast of St Augustine and no doubt someone determined that the old erotophobe's day should be marked with that reading from Paul. Perhaps even without any sense of irony.

But for a moment then I could see the dynamics of homosexual panic at work in a very direct way and, in the context of the Hillsong songs and the Hillsong mode of address that the priest had used from the start of the Mass, the heteronormative was put front and centre. This is one appropriation dynamics that I hope fails. Excruciatingly the Mass was followed by exposition accompanied by more Hillsong songs and so I beat a hasty retreat into the reassuringly at-home gloom of the Cathedral proper to light some candled prayers before heading off for the evening walk home along the river, my other cathedral space.

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