I haven’t yet been able to read Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert cover to cover, but I do want to highlight one portion of it that I’ve been thinking about recently in relation to our project here at Spiritual Friendship. Towards the end, Butterfield writes:
What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be “healed” by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God. But healing, to the sexual sinner, is death; nothing more and nothing less.
From the context, I think it’s clear that Butterfield is making an anti-Pelagian point. She’s saying that what we sexual sinners need is not a touch-up operation that amounts to little more than a project of moral self-improvement. What we need, instead, is total, absolute surrender—death to the entirety of our old ways of thinking and living, and rebirth on God’s terms. So, for instance, she goes on to say that a lot of young Christians think their pornography addictions will be cured if they can just get married. (A misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I might add.) But no, Butterfield says, “Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus can do that.” The project of self-salvation, even with something sanctified like marriage, is doomed from the get-go.
Now, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is that it could be read as antithetical to the work we’re trying to do here at SF. We say things like this: Our same-sex love can “express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.” Which could imply that we think our being gay shouldn’t be surrendered to daily death so much as it should be reinterpreted or redeemed or reformed.
I wrote a post earlier this week that highlighted some of my fears for the future related to loneliness. As some of my closest friends have moved away, I’ve caught myself coming home to an empty apartment more often than I’m used to, more often than I would like. People responded with such thoughtful feedback: encouragement, challenges, pertinent questions and words of solidarity.
It seemed fitting to respond to some of the questions in a consolidated manner, and this one opens the door to exploring some related questions about how exactly we might all come alongside one another: “Julie, when you put on your hoodie and stare into space in your apartment, what are you really longing for?”
“I’m lonely”, I said a few weeks ago in a phone conversation with a friend. I wore my favorite grey hoodie with the hood pulled over my head as I leaned against a bookshelf in my empty apartment. A few of my closest friends recently moved away, and not only are they top-notch folks that I miss for who they are, they’re also glue-like folks who bring people together.
When they left, they left a hole significantly larger than the size of their lives because the relational dynamic they created dissolved along with their physical presence. ”I know I just feel lonely tonight, and that when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be bright-eyed and chipper, but I can’t keep from blowing this moment up into an entire future strung together by thousands of nights like tonight until I become an 81 year old sitting in a cold cabin with cats scurrying around while I listen to Lesbian Campfire Music and reflect on the tragedy of a long life shared with no one.”
I can be dramatic. But few things are as adorable as elderly intimacy. Whether it’s lifelong friends laughing together or an old couple holding hands, elderly intimacy wins the Most Adorable award in my mind. The laughter and hand-holding tell stories of years of intimacy created over witnessed embarrassment, shared silence, long rants, quotes read aloud, being let down, saying “I’m sorry”, choosing forgiveness, choosing vulnerability, choosing “Yes” day in and day out for a shared lifetime. It looks sacrificial and painful and comforting and boring and beautiful and—when it’s shared with the same person for tens of thousands of nights in a row—adorable.
During college, I was part of a young men’s prayer group, and our leader, an Anglican priest, once gave us a copy of a letter C. S. Lewis sent in 1956 to Keith Masson, an American reader of his. The topic of the letter was masturbation. Here is an excerpt:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.
The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.
This is a wise and humane letter, and when my fellow students and I received it from our mentor many years ago, it generated several lines of fruitful conversation. But rereading it now, I’m struck afresh by its particular vantage point: It is written with the assumption, it seems, that its recipient will one day marry. The harem that the lustful young man keeps in his imagination “works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.” I’m sure Lewis was right to take that approach, but it makes me wonder what he would have said to many of us who are celibate and not planning to be married. If we are going to avoid masturbation, we need a different incentive than the one Lewis offers, since few of us expect to “unite with a real woman” someday.
Over the last few months I’ve been slowly working through what it looks like to grieve the loss of the “what might have been.”
For me the “what might have been,” is the husband I will never have. As a celibate gay man I will constantly wrestle with the intersection of my desires and my convictions. By following my desire to become like Christ through the life of the Orthodox Church, I must always be willing to give up anything that runs contrary to that life. For me, I’ve experienced this sacrifice most profoundly as I slowly grieve the real cost of my celibacy: saying no to a romantic and sexual relationship with another man.
The main thing I want to try to communicate is this: We have to resist equating celibacy with loneliness. I wrote an essay once about being gay, Christian, and lonely, and a blogger picked it up and said, basically, “I was in the same boat once when I was a young man. And then love broke in….” Notice the dichotomy: single and lonely, or partnered and able to experience love.
But what if those aren’t our only choices? What if that’s a false dichotomy? What if, instead, celibacy could be seen as an occasion for love? What if choosing sexual abstinence doesn’t automatically equate to choosing isolation and repression? What if joining a parish community as a single person could be seen as a choice for close-knit familial bonds? Those are the questions I want us all to be thinking about.
When I was twenty-one, I talked with a pastor about my sexuality for the first time. It was the pastor of my parents’ Southern Baptist Church, and in the course of our conversation, he told me about a man in the church who had been gay, but now was married and had children. He presented this as what I could hope for if I, too, pursued marriage.
However, I happened to know his wife’s side of the story. They had been married eleven years. During that entire time, he had been addicted to gay porn, and was regularly unfaithful to her on business trips. All this was going on during the height of the AIDS epidemic, before any effective treatments had been discovered. After years of forgiving repeated—and potentially deadly—infidelities, she was seeking a divorce. The pastor knew of this, because he insisted that as a Christian wife, it was her duty to keep forgiving her husband, and “not to deprive him” of his “conjugal rights”—despite the potentially deadly consequences.
In Part 1, I argued that efforts to present Catholic teaching on sexual ethics as if human sexuality were ordered toward “heterosexuality” are misleading. Human sexuality is ordered toward self-gift through celibacy or marriage.
I think that the Christian community can learn much about both marriage and celibacy as expressions of human sexuality from the experience of Christians living with homosexual attractions. First, let’s talk about celibacy.
Even in the Catholic Church, one of the few major denominations in which celibacy is a widespread practice, a spirituality of celibacy has, in recent years, been seriously lacking. Discussions of celibacy are often restricted to discussion of priestly celibacy, and spiritual and theological considerations are sometimes downplayed in favor of practical arguments about how celibacy puts people at liberty for mission.
“For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality… If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong.” -Fr. James Schall
When I was a child, I used to have night terrors. When I had bad dreams, I would sit up in my bed and cry or yell while I was sleeping. My parents would have to come up to my room, gently wake me, and then help me fall back to sleep.
I don’t have night terrors anymore, but I do occasionally have bad dreams. Like the night terrors, I don’t always remember them. Once, when I was visiting a friend, he told me one morning that he had woken me up the night before. Apparently, he heard me having a bad dream, so he woke me up, made sure everything was fine, and told me to go back to bed. I don’t remember any of this.
This is one fear I have: suffering under a bad dream in the night and not having anyone around to wake me up, and to tell me to go back to sleep. It sounds silly. It makes me sound like a child. But this is not a childish fear. It’s a human fear. It’s a fear of falling into a brokenness that you don’t even realize and that can only be alleviated by those who have loved you so much that they know you better than you know yourself. It’s the realization that you can become careless or tired and unaware of your failings and that, from time to time, you need people to make up for your inadequacies. It’s the commonly admitted fear of dying alone that acts as a mask for the real, underlying fear: the fear of living alone.
I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”
It’s a refreshing change.
One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.
The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so notbecause they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.