Of Gods and Saints

When I left the Catholic Church for the second time, I had vowed never to take part in a mass again. I was angry at the way the Archdiocese I had grown up in was investing tremendous resources on condemning people for who and how they loved while giving only lip service to standing up against war and economic violence.

Then, on All Saints Day, I found myself at the cathedral in San Salvador where Saint Oscar Romero was murdered for speaking out against the repression of his people. He was a prophet and a martyr in their true and original senses: the word “martyr” originally meant “witness,” death was just sometimes the consequence of bearing true witness, and as John Schuchardt of the Plowshares Eight had taught me, a prophet is someone who speaks the truth regardless of the consequences they might face. His killers, trained and supported by our own government, were never brought to justice.

Upstairs in the cathedral, where Oscar Romero was shot, the official mass went on, with little attention to the truth the Saint had died speaking. But downstairs, in a mass the Archdiocese neither dared sanction nor dared condemn, priests shared the Eucharist with the poor who had gathered at the foot of the Saint’s tomb.

Oscar Romero foresaw his own death and resurrection. But the resurrection he saw was not his rebirth in heaven but his returning with and as his people. Just days before his death he told an interviewer: “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.” And, there he was, among the people gathered at the feet of his sarcophagus.

It was not the first time I had encountered his presence. Several years earlier, I had been arrested along with five friends, blocking the entrance to a Raytheon plant that made guidance systems for Tomahawk missiles, the Clinton administration’s preferred weapon for its long attacks on Iraq, attacks whose devastation one of our number had witnessed first hand in Baghdad and Basra. We unfurled a banner proclaiming the plant “Closed for Disarmament” and managed to delay the morning shift from coming in before we were dragged away.

When we went to trial, the prosecutor successfully convinced the judge to bar us from citing international law or the provision of the Constitution that makes that law the highest law of the land – our planned defense was to say that our actions were necessary to prevent crimes against humanity. We were struggling to figure out how to tell the jury why we were there.

We were defending ourselves, and the judge took the unusual step of having us pick one of our co-defendants to cross-examine us on the witness stand. The prosecutor had been asking each of us if anyone had ordered us to leave. Praying, I had a sudden inspiration to have my friend Eddy ask me if anyone had told me to stay in the driveway.

I began by saying that I had seen in that moment dying Iraqi children who wanted me to stay in the driveway. The prosecutor teared up, but then gathered himself together enough to object. The judge, surprisingly, overruled the objection, saying that neither he nor the prosecutor could know what I had seen and heard. So I continued. I said that the sight of the image of those children had compelled me to stay, and that in the moment I saw them I heard the voice of Oscar Romero, repeating the words of his final homily:

“I beg you. I beseech you. I order, you in the name of God: Stop the repression.”

The court fell silent, and the presence of those spirits was palpable to all.

The jury did convict us of criminal trespass, but some of them seemed to be holding back tears as they entered and left the room.

The judge gave us the maximum sentence: 30 days in jail. We spent the first part of the time in maximum security. When we were moved to minimum security, there was a VHS cassette on the desk of the guard who signed us in to the new unit: it was the movie “Romero" in which Raoul Julia plays the saint. It was too incongruous to be mere coincidence.

So what do I make of this now, as a Pagan?

To the extent that we can reconstruct the theology of my Irish ancestors before the Norman Invasion – which we can largely only do through reading literary sources transcribed by Christian monks, an endeavor around which there is much controversy, but when I test those texts against my own encounters with the beings of whom they speak, the feeling of the texts matches the feeling of my encounters – the word we now translate as “god” referred to a person, sometimes human, sometimes not, who had skillfully and artfully served their people in life and continued to help their descendants when called on after death. The definition of a saint differs only in that it is situated in a different cosmology.

It is my own view that the cosmology of most forms of Christianity has done great harm by separating people from their bodies and the body of the living Earth. It is not an ideology I can share anymore. But more and more, I am questioning the primacy of ideology and belief in our culture. Indeed, the question of what people do and don’t believe does not seem to have been an important one for many people in the world prior to the Council of Nicea, as far as I can tell.

So I no longer judge the living or the dead by what they believe – but rather by how they act in relation to the community of all life. There are people who invoke spirits by names and rites that are alien or even anathema to me – but the shape of the prayer that rises up from the root of their beings through their hearts to infuse those words leads to their calling the presence of beings very much like the divine and wild ones I work with. There are people who call the Old Gods by the same names and rites by which I do, but the results of their prayers suggest to me that something in the way the prayer moved through them called up a being whose name and image may match those of a God I love but the being is not the same being, and that being's nature and aims are anathema to me.

My kin are all beings, living and dead and yet to be born, who would bless and love and defend the living world and the lives and freedom and well being of human and other-than-human beings. Mine is not an ecumenism that pretends all paths or all prayers or all Gods are the same, but rather one that recognizes that the deepest truths will arise in very different ways according to the customs and understandings of the people who engage them, and what matters is the spirit in which we engage spirits. Let us pray together in a thousand languages, a thousand tongues, a thousand rites, for the healing of our world.

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