Although theoretical reflection about spiritual friendship is important, there is also an important place for talking about the practicalities of how it gets lived out day-to-day.
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know a number of young Christian professionals and grad students here in St. Louis. Although our careers spanned a range of disciplines, we had enough common interests that we could get along well and have meaningful conversations.
In some ways, the life of this group of friends is quite mundane. We’re all quite busy with our studies and work. But we still make time to go hiking on weekends, or grab dinner and a movie, or hang out at a pub, or walk around Forest Park or the Botanical Garden. Sometimes there are more of us involved in these activities, sometimes smaller subsets of the group—even just two or three—will do something.
The Fall, 2013 issue of Leadership Journal has an article by Stanton Jones up entitled, “Help, I’m Gay.” It is billed as “A pastoral conversation about same-sex attraction.”
The editors chose to illustrate the article with the picture at left.
This would be a good image to use on a gun range, where shooters can see the outline of a human head with no human features to disturb them as they practice aiming to kill. It is not an appropriate image for preparing Christian leaders to respond like Christ to the plea, “Help, I’m gay.”
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have faces. If Christian leaders want to offer pastoral care to us, they need to be able to look us in the face. If they will not show our faces, or are uncomfortable looking at our faces, they are not seeing us as human beings, and are not ready to be Christ to us.
A couple of the commenters on my last post have pointed out that this line from Chris Roberts—“Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household”—could be taken as implying a one-sided notion of celibacy, whereby straight people condescend to bestow pity on gay people. Here’s one commenter: “Why are you assuming that a generous, hospitable household would be populated by heterosexuals?” And here’s another, much more pointed one: “In other words, take the short stick that is your lot in life gay person, and enjoy the charity of the straight people you idolize.” I see how Chris’ words could be misconstrued along these lines, but I want to respond by sharing two anecdotes.
The first is from last weekend, when I spoke with Chris face to face about these matters. Over breakfast one morning, I made a comment to this effect: “It always encourages me when I meet straight people who care so deeply about the flourishing of gay people in the church, especially when there’s no obvious reason why they would have to care.” I was thinking of people like—well, people like Chris. People who aren’t gay themselves, who don’t have any gay family members, and who could easily choose to “pass” on making this “their issue.” They wouldn’t have to be burdened with it if they didn’t want to. And yet they do care. They go out of their way to seek solidarity with people like me. They look for opportunities to express and deepen the unity between us.
Later in the day, though, Chris circled back to that breakfast conversation and gently tried to correct or qualify the gratitude I’d expressed. Here’s what he said (in so many words): “I don’t view my concern for gay and lesbian Christians as somehow removed from my experience. I don’t think I’m making some special sacrifice to care about something that doesn’t involve me. Rather, I think I need your pursuit of chastity to remind me of my own need for chastity. And your faithfulness is reinforced and bound up with mine.” There is “solidarity amongst the many ways of patiently cultivating chastity.”
I’m just back from a studium with a brilliant group of (largely) gay Catholics (about which I’ll say more later—watch this space, as they say), and one of the papers featured a paragraph that might be considerably modified in its final published version. Not wanting to lose the original, I asked the author—Christopher Roberts, whose book you should read!—if I could post it here at Spiritual Friendship, and he agreed. Here’s what he wrote about singleness and celibacy:
If we follow the tradition’s logic, celibacy cannot be a synonym for singleness. Classic, orthodox celibacy is not a solitary priest rattling around in an oversized rectory, or an isolated yuppie in a high rise apartment building a profile on an internet dating site, or a gay person toughing it out solo at Christmastime. All these are modern day tragedies, the kind of things which deserve compassion but which cannot be normative. Classic, orthodox celibacy is rather a way of enabling us to be present to one another, free of concupiscence and free of the pressures arising when we audition for mates—one might even call it a gratuitous presence. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine and his friends forming reading groups and monasteries after their joint conversion. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine insisting that virgins cannot ground their vocation in any disdain for marriage, but rather base their vocation in longing for the heavenly social life. Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household, or the adults in a parish who collaborate in works of mercy and the catechesis of children who aren’t theirs. Classic, orthodox celibates are the monks, nuns, and consecrated laity whose continence and discipline sets them free for high adventure in contemplation or service.
This, it seems to me, is exactly what I need to hear, even if (at present) I haven’t discerned a call to join a religious order.
I had told my parents I wanted to be a philosophy major. They were not amused.
My mom tried to understand. “What can you do with that?” Do meant job.
“Mom, that’s not the point. I want to pursue the truth!”
My dad interjected, “That’s great, Chris, but you have to get a job eventually. You have to support yourself.”
As I continue to work on my book on friendship, a project primarily for other celibate gay/lesbian/same-sex attracted Christians, I’m increasingly aware of the need to speak honestly about all the ways friendship can involve significant disappointment and struggle. Finding the appropriate way to articulate this will, I suspect, be the defining factor in whether or not this book can offer realistic hope to people.
I believe in the thesis I’m arguing for—in many ways, it’s simply my effort to expand on this post by Ron Belgau from the early days of the Spiritual Friendship blog. Gay and lesbian Christians, in and through their celibacy, are “called to love,” as Eve Tushnet’s forthcoming book puts it. We are called to something positive and hopeful, not simply to a negative renunciation. We are summoned and enabled by God to give and receive love.
And yet the danger lurking here is that I’ll present friendship as a kind of panacea for how difficult sexual ascesis can be in our culture. “Having trouble feeling fulfilled in celibacy? Here’s a great solution to your lack of intimacy and closeness with others—it’s called ‘friendship’!” This is the problematic message that Stephen Long over at the Sacred Tension blog has spent so much time exploring, and I think Stephen is right that there are serious problems with this approach.
I was on the basketball team at Wheaton my freshman year in college, and I imagine I’m one of the few players in the history of Wheaton College to sit out the second half of the season due to failing fitness class. My coach called me into the office, remained as calm as I could’ve hoped, and asked how on earth I could possibly fail fitness class. “I have no idea,” I told her with puppy dog eyes. “This is totally shocking.” After going to bat for me with the Fitness for Living prof, she returned to say: “Julie, maybe you failed fitness class because you missed eighteen out of twenty-four classes.”
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are told that “tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’” (2357). Tradition hasn’t always claimed precisely this, of course, since no-one put the label “intrinsically disordered” on anything during the first millennium of Christian history. Tradition has, however, always claimed that such acts were seriously wrong, and this amounts to the same thing, as I pointed out in a previous post.
But it would be naive to think that because some aspects of the Church’s teaching cannot change, therefore no aspect of it can change. A quick look at history shows that Catholic beliefs about homosexuality have already undergone significant change.
I wrote a post about celibacy recently, where I shared some of the ways God has surprised me in the middle of this awkward celibate gay path. I said I hesitate to talk about celibacy because I’ve heard many gay people feel the traditional sexual ethic is burdensome—that the call to celibacy feels like a death sentence to them. Since the last thing I want to do is contribute to shame in vulnerable people, it can be difficult for me to discuss it. But I write about it because I want people to know some of us are experiencing a robust life in our quest to align with the church’s teaching on sexual ethics. I want them to know this awkward path that’s often framed as impossible can be the place where we experience the richest intimacy with Christ.
Some of my closest friends are gay affirming in belief and practice. I love these friends and these friends love Jesus. We see this point differently, and we have endless discussions about the Bible and God’s intention for sexual expression, but we love each other and we all love Jesus. We’ve walked together as we’ve prayed, cried, struggled and strived to discern how to honor God with our sexuality. Because I love my friends, I’ve got to share with you a common thread that runs through their stories and tears me up.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently established an online resource entitled Marriage: Unique for a Reason, to educate Catholics on why marriage “should be promoted and protected as the union of one man and one woman.”
Done properly, this is an important task. But it must be remembered that the debate about gay marriage is less about homosexuality than it is about the nature and purpose of marriage as an institution and as a sacrament. Precisely because we are in need of sound teaching on this topic, it is disappointing to see the USCCB’s website—whose posts are written by anonymous “staff” rather than by bishops—used not to teach about marriage, but as an opportunity for promoting half-baked theories about homosexuality.