Acts of Forgiveness Book Review
Today is Holy Saturday, the day when, as my professor, Sister Janet, put it: Jesus is really, really dead.
It is not the whimsical procession of Palm Sunday. It is not the wailing evening of Good Friday. Neither, of course, is it the bell-ringing morning of Easter.
Holy Saturday is the pit-in-your-stomach, keep-the-lights-off day of prolonged grief. As a practicing Christian in a tradition that acknowledges this in-between, this space between tragedy and hope, between past and future, I am grateful.
I am grateful that my tradition is offering me, this year of all years, the ritual space (if not the physical space) to acknowledge the time-bending, brain-altering, productivity-stifling nature of trauma in the midst of pandemic.
That is why it is precisely the right time to review Acts of Forgiveness: Faith Journeys of a Gay Priest, a loosely-chronological memoir of retired Episcopal priest, Ted Karpf.
I was asked to review the book way back in February, when the world felt boringly normal. At the time, I was really excited to be able to read the words of a priest who came out as gay in an era before it was formally permissable to be a gay, ordained person in the Episcopal church. This is a story that needs to be heard by as many people as possible.
What I wasn’t betting on was that Karpf’s journey navigating his place in the church and in the gay community in the horrifying middle of the HIV/AIDS epidemic would align with another epidemic already on the rise across the globe.
I began reading while nestled into a window seat on an airplane bound for Florida, my home, though it doesn’t really feel like home anymore. It was March 9th, and I was headed down for my sister’s wedding.
Karpf begins the book with his own reflection on home, and the pain of finding and holding onto it when life has been topsy-turvy. It’s a fitting way to begin the book – a centering point – because it becomes clear that, while Karpf believes that New Mexico is his spirit’s geographical home, the homes he can’t resist even in spite of the pain they have caused are those of family, God, and beloved community.
Acts of Forgiveness
Throughout the book, Karpf interweaves two patterns of abuse. His parents’ neglect and physical violence flit through and around narratives of alienation and abandonment undertaken by the church he has committed his life to. As representations of home, each location brings both blessing and, at times, excruciating heartache.
Acts of Forgiveness, while at first a seemingly obtuse title, is clarified through Karpf’s no-holds-barred, yet nevertheless grace-filled, storytelling. Each individual story is intended to lead, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, toward the inarticulable, deep peace of God that comes with being able to forgive.
In Chapter Two, for instance, Karpf reveals that when he was abruptly fired from a church he served in Dallas, Texas (we will find out in time that it was because he was known to be gay), his first question is, “So how do I forgive?”
Karpf does not represent himself as a hero. He struggles to forgive, and yet he knows that his own liberation comes with the ability to unclench the fists that bind him to suffering. The chapter continues:
“Pray for him until you love him.”
My mouth was agape in incredulity and disbelief. “Until I love him? Are you kidding” I had not reckoned with forgiveness in my rage at the unfairness of things, and now particularly as he was suggesting that forgiveness would have to become a way of life…
When Karpf is removed from his position at the church – and subsequently barred from working in the same Diocese (region) – he is at a loss for how to move forward. But it also gives him the motivation to finally live out his sexual identity.
Before his firing, Karpf’s Dallas church became a safe space for gay men, many of them diagnosed with AIDS as the virus ravaged the community and, indeed, the world. It became clear to Karpf that he was withholding a part of his life from parishioners who desperately needed to know that they were loved. In ministering to gay men, Karpf had to acknowledge that his acceptance of these individuals as parishioners and friends was a grace he was not granting to himself. Things had to change.
A Gay Priest
After Karpf is removed from his position, he finds new purpose in working for both the national Episcopal church and the federal government on HIV/AIDS programming, both nationally and internationally. He and his then-partner, Buck, both take up posts in Washington DC, and commit the next several years to advocating for those with HIV/AIDS, setting up clinics, writing public health documents, and serving the most vulnerable in places like South Africa, where medical resources are hard to come by and AIDS, as it is in the U.S., is considered taboo, a consequence of “sinful” living.
I want to include here a passage from Chapter Five, when Karpf is still serving his Dallas church:
The monthly AIDS deaths at St. Thomas would continue to rise unabated for years, mirroring the death rates in Dallas as 150 perished within the confines of St. Thomas alone…
Jerome died in late November, giving witness to his newfound faith. He struggled for breath, suffering from lung-strangling pneumocystis pneumonia, but asked me, “How do I know when I have received my last Communion?”
I waited a bit, considering this question and its layered meanings, carefully replying, “Every Communion is our last Communion.”
He quickly said, “Good, I don’t want to miss it.”
Perhaps the most astounding component of Karpf’s narrative is the persistent thread of faith that binds each story like a quilting square to the larger project of his life.
Acts of Forgiveness is, ultimately, a spiritual memoir. While Karpf is gay – and spends much of his adulthood and career navigating what that means in a world that is still resistant to his very existence – his identity is found in God:
In [Julian of Norwich’s] time, Julian looked out on the burning yards of plague victims and also into the hearts of many fearful men and women of her day, who came seeking her counsel, and there saw visions of divine completion in the image of the nursemaid who sweeps us up when we fall, giving us the assurance that we are eternally embraced…
We are not the first to know this grief or this loss, nor are we to be the last. That is the essential meaning of the story of the incarnation of God.
Karpf reveals that he wrote this book, in part, because he is dying. Not quickly, but nevertheless dealing with the inevitability of mortality, as various chronic conditions wrack his body. The book, then, stands as a testament to his life – to the struggle of that middle-day between the pain of birth and the glory of eternity.
He finds in God a mysterious peace that allows him to reflect on his life with gratefulness:
I think what I am pointing to here is the nature of human hope…even in my most lost or confused moments, I found myself in the hands of God, who often was cleverly disguised in the words of a quiet old lady, the observations of a gentleman of faith, in the particularly clear vision of a child, or in the anxious moments of a sick and dying person…No assurances were given per se, just indicators prompted by questions and insights which kept calling me out to stand for a different reality.
While Karpf finds an avenue to hope through the long journey of forgiveness, readers will find, perhaps, a blessed shortcut to hope in the midst of global suffering through Karpf’s wisdom, honesty, and courageous declaration of his multi-faceted personhood.
Acts of Forgiveness is a thoughtful, raw, sensitively-told memoir about an ordinary man who navigated – and still navigates – both the extraordinary and everyday events of his life with a deep sense of the Divine. It’s also a glimpse into the life of someone navigating being gay, working as a priest, and serving the sick and the dying through an epidemic that, like ours today, caused unspeakable pain and loss.
It, like Holy Saturday, reminds us that, while we are in the in-between, we must grieve. But hope comes in the morning.
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