There's a new pope in town, in case you'd forgotten. Certainly the LGBT community has been at the forefront of much media attention this week as we watch history unfold before our eyes, with regard to not only marriage equality but how faith can once again play a vital role in the democratic process. Pope Francis has already alluded that his papacy is to be one that embodies humility, which, if memory serves, is what Jesus would do. Memory serves, because I've been blessed to speak that iconic phrase, "forgive your greatest enemy," among many others, hundreds of times around the world as I play "gay Jesus" in Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi. The privilege of performing a role for this long is that you're afforded not only a greater understanding of the language but a deeper connection to the feelings behind the words. And what a role to learn from and grow with: Jesus, who, to many, is the ultimate embodiment of pure compassion and love.
Yet so often still, his words are attached to vitriol, bigotry and violence, and hate-filled slurs are spewed toward the LGBT community in his name. Unfortunately, this "humble" pope, who is the head of the 1.2-billion-member Catholic Church, has said that homosexuality is the work of the devil and a "destructive attack on God's plan." This coupled with the fact that, on a daily basis, I'm told that I am a "blasphemous sinner" and will "rot in hell" for who I am (curious seekers can just take a quick gander at our film's promo trailer on YouTube) has taught me that although we have accomplished so much in the fight for equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters, there's "still a lot of work to do!" (a line from the play). So, on a deep level, and after many years of repeating it as a personal mantra, both onstage and in my life, I have begun to understand what this phrase "forgive your greatest enemy" may actually mean.
For me, forgiveness has been a personal quest since I was a child. My father was an alcoholic and used it as an excuse to verbally and physically abuse me on many occasions. When he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer just months before my graduation from high school, I spent nearly every day in the hospital with him. Sometimes we'd just watch TV. Sometimes we'd sit in silence as I massaged his body, which had once been full of muscle and strength but now melted in my hands like soft play-dough. Sometimes we would talk -- endless talks about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, lessons he had hoped to be able to communicate with me throughout life but now only had moments to share. As he lay on his hospital bed, apologizing through deep, sobbing inhales and surrendering to the unknown in the deep exhales, I would just listen until he drifted into a delirious sleep, and then I'd hold his hand in mine and cry. My journey into the field of forgiveness had begun.
Throughout the years I have been forced, through many self-created challenges and obstacles, to acquire a greater sense of what forgiveness actually means. I think we can all intellectually understand the desire to forgive someone who has done us wrong or whom we may not agree with, and the emotional necessity of doing so. But playing this role has taught me that thought alone is flawed at its foundations. It assumes that there is another to blame, and therein lies the rub. When I first started receiving letters of hate pointed directly at me (an example of which can be found here), I was filled with resentment, anger, shock and eventual sadness and fear. Who do these self-righteous people think they are? And who takes the time out of their lives to sit down and write such words of hate pointed at a total stranger in the name of a man who only preached love?
It was a challenge that I worked on throughout the years of performing, trying let it go and not let it affect me, but all the while struggling with the painful emotions it brought up within me. Many friends I spoke to simply reiterated that sentiment, saying, "Just let it go; they don't know you," but it was more than that to me. This was personal. I spent years trying to open a dialogue with them, to change their minds about who I was, until it suddenly dawned on me one night when speaking the very words I struggled with: "Forgive your greatest enemy" is not about the enemy outside you; it's about the enemy within you.
The feelings that were brought up within me by their words of hatred were my choice to feel. So really, instead of me asking them to accept, love and understand me, I was asking it of myself. If I was blaming them for my feelings, I was just as guilty as I proclaimed them to be. The ultimate question for me then became: What has stopped me from not loving, accepting or understanding myself more fully? And the answer crystallized: My greatest enemy will always only be me.
These protesters then became some of my greatest teachers. Every time I received a letter or an email from one of them or encountered one face-to-face on tour, I would feel a deeper sense of compassion, love and understanding. I understand the desire to stand up for something you believe in, I understand the desire to feel fire and passion within, and I also understand the power of wanting your voice to be heard. All these things I know personally. In fact, this play and film are the very outlets through which these feelings are expressed. The more I began working from that place of awareness and knowing, the more their words of hate fed my fire of love within. "Forgiveness" actually became a thing of the past, an ego-derived form of attachment that no longer fit the deep self-love I was living and am living today. And the protesters were only the true beginning, a catalyst for my catharsis. Friends, political leaders and, yes, even the pope himself continue to teach me more self-awareness, and it's a journey I now wholly embrace rather than resist.
I have heard it said that through creating and experiencing "contrast" in your life, great "desire" for something new is born within, and that that is how we expand as humans, how we expand the world around us and how we can have a powerful impact on the planet. To this day I believe that as I watched my father take his last breath on this earth, I experienced what a "soul" is. Our bodies are mere vessels for the playful interactions we feel, the joyful laughs we share and the ultimate love we can recognize in each other, especially the ones we may not agree with, as they become our greatest teachers of compassion. After all, isn't that what Jesus ultimately stood for?