The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir by Carl Siciliano. We were so moved by his testimony that we asked if we could publish this on Via Lucis.
In the fall of 2001, I was reeling under the weight of personal and collective catastrophe. For the past seven years I had been the director of SafeSpace, a program for homeless teens in New York City. That September I learned that the parent organization had stolen over $2 Million in federal funds I had acquired to house and protect the youths and I was ordered to beginning shutting down programs and discard homeless kids to the streets. On September 10th, after unsuccessfully imploring the CEO to report the misuse of funds to the federal authorities, I reported it myself, and was summarily fired. And then the next morning the terrorist attacks felled the World Trade Center, bringing unspeakable suffering and loss upon my city. Everything was in ruins.
Long before the implosion at SafeSpace, Gary and I had planned a journey to Chartres and Vezelay. Now, in my ravaged, demoralized state, I felt an even greater longing to return to those sacred places.
The first distant sight of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres rising from the wheat fields was a balm to my soul. That her two towers–the Romanesque tower stark and sober, the Gothic one all wildness and flamboyance–remained standing after centuries of wars and chaos, seemed to profoundly assert the permanence, the indestructibility of the Spirit.
I stood for hours before the magnificent sculptures on the north and west portals of the cathedral like I was standing among manifestations of all I hoped to recover within myself. Those remarkable creations! Such depths of contemplative silence and stillness wrought from stone! The immense serenity and dignity of the royal personages standing below Christ in the west portal. And on the north portal, the aching tenderness of John the Baptist holding the Lamb of God, the even greater tenderness of God cradling Adam in his lap, seeming to embrace humanity into being. All gently speaking to me of the mystery of God’s great love.
And then to return to Vezelay. The architecture of that great basilica moves me more than any other church I’ve ever visited. Through a kind of mystical alchemy, the interior of the church–with its undulating, harmonious Romanesque arches and the light streaming through the great windows of the gothic ambulatory and resting luminously upon the cream-colored Burgundian stone–seems to embody the shape and structure and atmosphere of my soul. How grateful I was to sit inside for hours in prayer, and to wander slowly and meditatively through the medieval streets among the ancient stone buildings with their flowering rear courtyards.
While praying, I wrestled with my inner hurt, wanting to put it into perspective. I was astounded that my efforts to protect homeless kids had been exploited and troubled at how deeply the hurt seemed to have reached its tentacles into me. I thought of how I had responded through the years in encountering the hurt of others who had been mistreated far more savagely than me: Marcel in Vietnam, Trudy in Auschwitz, our homeless kids on the streets of New York City. All those encounters with human woundedness had profoundly upset me, but I felt a more intense sense of inner ravaging now that the wrong had been done to me directly. Only in Ali Forney’s death had the ravaging penetrated more deeply.
The basilica in Vezelay was built as a shrine to Mary Magdalene, and I prayed for her help. Mary Magdalene was remarkable among Christ’s disciples. She was present for the unspeakable horrors of his crucifixion: Mary saw her beloved Lord treated like one of the wretched of the earth; saw him stripped naked, saw his flesh ripped and scourged by the whips and pierced by the nails, saw him screaming in agony, saw him die in utter humiliation. She was present for his burial–what an abysmal defeat it must have seemed when his murdered, brutalized body was placed in a tomb. How final his death must have felt to her when she saw the massive stone set upon the entrance of the tomb, how complete the obliteration of his goodness. But them the greatest of all miracles! Mary Magdalene was the first witness to his risen, glorified body. How deranged with amazement and joy must she have been to look again into his eyes, to hear his voice call out her name: “Mary!”
I needed faith. I needed hope. I needed to believe, contrary to every shred of evidence, that the love I had summoned forth in my work with the youths of SafeSpace would not end in wreckage and defeat. Those days of devotion at La Magdalene and at Notre Dame de Chartres were a time of reminding myself rebirths were possible, even when they seemed utterly unimaginable.
(In 2002, Carl Siciliano founded the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which has grown to become the world’s largest organization dedicated to the housing and protection of homeless LGBT youths. For more information visit http://www.aliforneycenter.org )