In 2012, I visited the Martyrs’ Shrine with my church’s confirmation class. This Roman Catholic church in Midland, Ont., honours the 17th-century Jesuit priests who brought Christianity to the Huron people and died for their convictions.
On a wall inside the shrine is a display of canes, crutches and walkers, each one sent or left by a person claiming to have been healed after praying in this place. The facilitator asked us to prayerfully consider what we’d brought to the shrine that October day. For me, the answer was my own complicated history and memories of my Uncle Dudley, a Jesuit priest.
Dudley was an uncle on my dad’s side. When I was born — out of wedlock and biracial — Dudley did something that my mom’s family wouldn’t do: he prayed over me, made the sign of the cross on my forehead and kissed me. His blessing gave Mom and me a visible sign of God’s unquestioning, inclusive love.
Mom’s side, all United Church members, didn’t accept me as quickly. Some even suggested that I be put up for adoption to preserve Mom’s “honour and dignity.” It was two years before I was baptized in the United Church. Even then, a few members of the congregation opposed it.
Uncle Dudley didn’t care about Mom’s morals. When we visited his parish, we received communion along with everyone else. He often told me about his Jesus, who suffered and died but was also alive in a way that was incomprehensible and holy. His Jesus pushed past pain and into a place of unconditional love. Uncle Dudley always said he was able to love because his Jesus loved him first.
Looking around the Martyrs’ Shrine, I saw Uncle Dudley’s Jesus everywhere: arms pinned into a macabre openness, welcoming all even in the pain of a tortured brokenness. It’s a difficult image of both hatred and love.
Across from my pew was another difficult image: a glass box containing a portion of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s skull. People knelt on the bench before it, devoting themselves to prayer and contemplation. I took my turn and found myself talking to God about the strange relationships between suffering, healing, affliction and joy; about the complex ambivalence of my personal theology while confronted by the remains of a Jesuit priest who died for his faith. I thought about being a baby rejected from one church and accepted by another. And I wondered: how in God’s name do I make sense of all this?
I rose, exhausted and frustrated. I left nothing at the wall; I didn’t experience healing. Instead, I carried away personal discomfort.
Three years have passed since that visit, and I finally have an answer. How do I make sense of my contradictions? I don’t. I simply embody them.
Uncle Dudley’s Jesus was also full of contradictions: fully divine and fully human; accepted and rejected; dead and alive. My Jesus is his Jesus: the complex Christ who is Holy Mystery. It is that Jesus whom I glimpsed at the shrine, who blessed and affirmed my complexities through his own and gave me peace.
Rev. Debbie McMillan is a minister in Vasey, Ont.
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