Standing in the Grave of Alphonsine Plessis

Mount Hollywood Congregational Church, Los Angeles, Calif. 
Readings for Ecumenical Welcoming Sunday: Job 10:1-9, Job 27:1-6

A convocation of cemetery cats perched on fallen stones in the Cimetière de Montmartre, and Jeff and I stopped to look. We had made plans to meet in Paris, and I was leading him on a quest. Five years had passed since I left New York, which meant five years of missing the daily company of my best friend. It was as if we needed the backdrop of Paris to say all the things we had to say to reaffirm our bohemian friendship in the second half of our lives.

In another lifetime we had met often in our little run-down apartments in their vastly run-down buildings to throw together what money we had to make pasta, with chicken if we were flush, and perhaps a quart of beer in those years of our early 20s.

And now we stood in these streets of the dead; those for whom revolution had been reality, whose lives Hemingway harked back on and Hugo knew intimately. To the right there were orderly rows of small houses. They were roughly 9′ tall, 6′ wide, and 8′ deep. Each had gothic spires and a small window in the back, which held cracked stained glass, or shards of glass, or nothing at all but wind and the autumn leaves passing through. Most had a gate; many were locked to visitors, and others hung open and beckoned.

But first, to our left on old tables of stone-those cats. I had heard a romantic story about the cemetery cats of Paris. The ancestors of these cats were brought to the graves of their departed at the burial, and abandoned there. They do not look loveable because they do not look like they have ever received love. We stepped closer. They tensed their haunches, and stared us down. Each cat bore marks of a rough life. Mange, missing parts, decrepitude, and overall filth from a lack of self-care unusual in cats. But they could do something powerful. They could look into our souls. What their eyes spoke we felt deeply; “You-we know you-one of those who brought us up, took care of us, told us you loved us. Then something happened, and we are here-with no love, no mercy, and no justice. We recognize you.” Jeff and I looked long-and they looked back. Finally we turned toward the streets of the dead, and I was haunted by something from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats:

“His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;
His coat was torn and seedy, he was baggy at the knees;
One ear was somehow missing, no need to tell you why,
And he scowled upon a hostile world from one forbidding eye.”

We looked back from a distance, and they still watched. After walking past row after row of these mausoleums which looked like little gothic or neo-classic chapels, we found what I was looking for-the borrowed grave of Alphonsine Plessis, la Dame aux Camelias. The door of the tomb was laid open, and Jeff walked in. I took his picture in the doorway.

There was a real Camille, and Dumas fils, the author of the novel about her life, is buried nearby. There was a real Violetta and her lover Alfredo in a story that Verdi put to music in La Traviata. Her door was open, as in the old days of her grand salon in Paris when gentlemen came to visit, and we too, stepped in to join her as gentlemen callers. Like the fictional Marguerite of Camille, and Violetta of La Traviata, Alphonsine Plessis was cut off from the love of her family and depended on the kindness of others. Wealthy male admirers set the beautiful young woman up in style, and she was seen and admired in all of the best places. She became a courtesan; her home was a salon where the cream of society came. When she began having trouble with her health, in what would become tuberculosis, a young man stated his love; he would take her to the country and marry her. She loved him, and began selling her effects so that they might make a home.

One day while he was away, his father paid a visit to Alphonsine. He needed to make her understand how the world works. People like her could be admired for their beauty and talents, but must be made to grasp that they are outside the bounds of society and not a part of decent family values. He convinced her that it was for her lover’s sake that this scandalous marriage should not happen. He convinced her that she was not worthy of belonging to a sacred family unit, so she agreed to go back to Paris and never tell her lover why she had left.

Her tuberculosis grew worse and, as depicted in Camille, she returned in poor health and finances. As she lay dying, she heard the auction of her belongings taking place in the salon. She was far from decent society now, dying alone in a hallway without her lover nearby. One admirer lent one of these small houses, and we were standing in the grave of Alphonsine Plessis, who gave at the least an equal love, yet somehow the world found her lacking in traditional family values. We know people like her. Friends who struggle to give their love in equal measure despite being told that their love is wrong. Friends, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, who stand on the outside looking in at empty chairs at the table where they would sit if only the concept of “all persons are created equal” were meant to apply to them as well. People who have been bashed physically or mentally who hide their pain, who lick their wounds on the outskirts, not expecting to be invited in. The family and friends of Matthew Shepard stood in one such graveyard and can tell you more about that. We know or are people who have felt the sting of racism, or whose gender or age has consigned us to the outer circles of power. The political waters have been tested to demonize gay and lesbian people in order to assure the support of another specific voting base. The results may have played out well in terms of elections, but the inflammation of hate from those who know better has surely resulted in the recent death of a young man who wanted to serve his country. And yet two weeks ago, a cartoon by Michael Ramirez in the Los Angeles Times carelessly took this young man’s life as well as the lives of all gay and lesbian people who wish to serve in the military, and demeaned them by making the comparison that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” equates sexual orientation with bestiality. The cartoon is on our bulletin board.

More insidious perhaps than the hate stirred up today in order to build a power base, heedless of the pain and suffering that is inflicted upon the targets, is the low self esteem that is engendered in the targets of hate.

I add Jeff to my list of friends who are living with AIDS. Suffering from AIDS Dementia, Jeff was found in his apartment sleeping and starving himself to death. His behavior had troubled us for a while, but we never would have known that he had AIDS, as he managed to hide his illness and his sexuality from all of us, even his best friend of 20 years. I met him when he was in an unhappy relationship with a woman. When it ended, he never had a relationship again. Only anonymous meetings late at night when he could no longer stand the suppression of natural needs, which he believed, were shameful; then back home where he could pretend it never happened.

Because it’s not supposed to happen, you see. There is a myth about God that God doesn’t accept. For eons people have attached the face of God to their own prejudices in order to elevate the debased: People can’t be naturally attracted to their own sex, one race is superior to another, and feminists are evil — they can’t be good people from good families, and you surely couldn’t know any of them. It’s impossible to even think that they might find healthy love and happiness in a committed relationship, because the good folk of decent society say so. And they’ve got God to back them.

Virginia Woolf once said, “I sat up last night and read the Book of Job. God doesn’t come out of it very well.” I can identify with Job, admiring him as he holds on to his integrity. Faith is a difficult enough enterprise for many of us, isn’t it? Hard enough, without being blasted by the righteous trance channellers of God; the Gary Bauers, Alan Keyes, James Dobsons, Pat Robertsons, and Jerry Falwells who give us a god at “his” worst.

Here today is a community of people whose churches turned against them first for being born who they are, again in the face of the most horrifying plague our generations have witnessed, and again as political fodder to stir up fear. Why do these outcasts and their loved ones maintain faith in spite of it all?

I think it is perhaps because of a secret knowledge. A knowledge innate in those who are oppressed and hated for any reasons, who raise themselves up without benefit of role models, who refuse to believe what they are told about themselves, who dodge blows and verbal abuse, who believe in their worth, and who seek after lasting love believing they are worthy. Most importantly, here is a community of people who know that God made them and loves them, as they are in the face of the self-righteous who worship a god made in their own image. These are people of faith, who refuse to believe they can be separated from God by the ignorance of many who go about calling themselves Christian. But like the cemetery cats, in this age where the victim is blamed, in this age of hate crimes against minorities, we now look up from graves and from the outside saying, “You. We know you. You brought us up, took care of us, told us you loved us. Then something happened, and we are here, without your love, with no mercy, and no justice. We recognize you, but we don’t recognize your notion of God”.

Communities of outcasts learned the meaning of faith, grace, hope, and love, by experiencing the loss of each in the withdrawal and disdain of family, society, and the false idea of a God who wouldn’t love us. By being put to the test in the age of sanctioned hate. And by passing that test in deepened compassion, self-examination, and caring, in communities like this one with friends we can trust.

Apparently now the institution of marriage needs to be protected from some of us by a pre-emptive strike. A sweet young thing marries for money. A rich old man marries for something else. A CEO dumps his middle-aged wife to marry a trophy wife. A multiple divorcee marries out of habit. Dennis Rodman marries . . .period. Some marriages aren’t made in heaven, at least by majority standards. But the public doesn’t usually try to annul marriages of which they don’t approve. Yet now, the institution of marriage itself needs protection from some of us asking for equal rights. But, as comedienne Lynn Lavner says, “The Bible contains 6 admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that some of them need more supervision”.

Those of us who have experienced hate or diminishment have had to learn to love ourselves because of who we are, and to do so not just without those whose command is to love their neighbors, but in spite of them, and to say as Job did:

“As long as a shred of life is left in me, and the breath of God breathes in my nostrils, my lips will never speak evil, nor my tongue utters any lie. Far from admitting you to be in the right, I shall maintain my integrity to my dying day.”

I don’t think anyone ever has the right to break the law; but I do think that upon occasion, everyone has the duty to break the law — when the law begins to dominate rather than serve humankind. [Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Riverside Church -August, 1968] In another month we will be asked to “protect” the institution of marriage.

I flew to New York to bring Jeff, in his state of dementia, to his parents’ home. We needed to discuss removing him from his drugs so that he could die. When we got back to New York, his mind was close enough to the surface for me to ask him if in any of his encounters he had at least once felt love or even tenderness. His answer was swift. “Of course not.” He had believed what our culture told him about himself; therefore he went about setting his life apart in a series of denials of who he was, cutting off all opportunities for love or happiness. He didn’t deserve it.

On the morning I had to leave, I sat at the empty table where we had shared so many meals and conversations, and looked at his empty chair. It hit me that I might be saying good-bye to him forever. Every day, I would go into his room. Each time I tried to leave the room he’d say “don’t leave.” Now, I was leaving for good. We held each other for the first time, and cried. It was a last “goodbye.”

Jeff was taken to a new doctor, who put him on protease inhibitors. The miracle in this friendship has been that he has been fully restored to me, and that he has accepted himself and is learning slowly how extend the part of God called “love” that is within him for the first time to another human being.

On this Ecumenical Welcoming Sunday, we need to examine our personal responsibility in the evil of crimes of hatred and the emotional and spiritual crime of exclusion by looking at that table and saying that empty chairs cannot exist. We need to build better bridges of understanding. We need to examine the draftsmen of divisiveness and the institutors of intrusiveness and unfairness who bring us reasons why some of us cannot and should not approach that table as children of God.

Theirs is the greatest disease today. “Too often we show symptoms of a deadly disease called psychosclerosis, a hardening not of the arteries, as in arteriosclerosis, but of the psyche, the spirit. As a result our hearts no longer remain vulnerable. Our minds can no longer see, let alone embrace others in our midst. For a cure, the trick in life is to die young as late as possible. But sufferers of psychosclerosis clearly seek to die old as young as possible.” [Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Riverside Church – 1984-85] If only they had a knowledge, a “gnosis” of a God who blesses and restores, perhaps they would not ask us to step outside, away from this table or the halls of privilege. This knowledge simply says, “I have given you the great gift of knowing yourself to be born exactly who you are, when others can’t see. To know that God loves all, not punishes the other.”

To know that God loves you when the world and its institutions tell you otherwise calls for a big leap of faith. In that leap, God is freed, liberated from the perceptions, projections, and restrictions of humankind. Simply, as Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

Those who suffer from homophobia, from racism, sexism, and the unset place for the disabled, see the world through a window where everyone else is at a feast and no chairs have been set for them. Yet in our love, some of us are lucky enough to see the face of God. We are just so astonished at first to find God outside standing with us, in the graves of so many Alphonsine Plessis’; with our hands on the gates, some open, and some locked. God standing with us; looking in at the world through the broken shards of sharp stained glass hanging from gothic windows, which have only served to cut at the light. Standing with God, loving the unlovable, like the cemetery cats of Paris-with mercy, and with justice. AMEN.