One of the things I’ve often hoped we here at SF would write more about is disappointment and failure—disappointment and failure, specifically, in spiritual friendship. It’s very easy to want to clean up one’s stories of friendship, not only for oneself but also for the sake of the hope we’re trying to instill in our churches. Those of us who write here want to see our churches change and become more committed to friendship, and many of us want to find places to belong and love and serve, so it’s always tempting, for me at least, to let the positive rhetoric overwhelm the actual lived experience of friendship, which often is more ambiguous and complicated than my publicly hopeful statements would suggest.
What I love about this piece is that it limns the experience of “falling in friendship” (“I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more”) and then losing it with such recognizable honesty, but it also does what so many of us have trouble doing: it turns the spotlight back on oneself, on our tendency to blame and paper over our part in a friendship’s demise.
“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” wrote the German mystic Meister Eckhart. I think what he meant is that in order to construct something good, you need to be able to deconstruct what came before it. This applies generally: In order to create just societies, we need to be able to dismantle injustice; in order to cook a good omelet, we need to be willing to crack a few eggs, and so on.
It also applies on the personal level. In order for me to be the person I want to be, I need to be able to deconstruct the myths I’ve written about myself. When my friendship with M ended, my myth was that I was the victim. I was hurt, nursing wounds, feeling self-righteous and angry, and so I believed that the end of our friendship had been all her fault. More than wanting to examine my own intentions, I wanted to be able to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. I wanted to write the story without ever having to erase. There was too much satisfaction in refusing to revisit the story; too much sadness to get into it all over again.
A lot of us tend to imagine friendship, I think, on the analogy of other kinds of love. Our friends are like a brother or a sister, we say. Or our friends are such a permanent part of our lives, they’re like a spouse. Maybe better than a spouse, we think (and maybe we think that especially if we’re gay and celibate, like I am). For those of us who think that way, Turner’s essay leaves us asking what we do when those analogies break down, when friendships collapse. It’s a question I, for one, would like to read and write more about.
Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, whom I chose as my confirmation saint when I was received into the Catholic Church in 1999.
G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis was one of many books that helped introduce me to the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith. But Francis himself stuck with me in a special way.
I was particularly drawn by the powerful combination of joy and asceticism in his personality.
Asceticism was not new to me. I had grown up Southern Baptist, and joined the Presbyterian Church in America in college. I had been profoundly moved by Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had also been committed to celibacy since my late teens. So though I have learned more of asceticism and the cross since becoming Catholic, I already knew about the cost and sacrifice involved in responding to Christ’s call to come and follow.
What I did not realize, until I encountered St. Francis, was the deeper “Yes!” that made sense of and gave life in the midst of the many things I had to say “no” to in order to remain faithful to Christ. Continue reading →
This is a transcript of my presentation with my mother, Beverley Belgau, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, in conjunction with Pope Francis’s first pastoral visit to the United States. The World Meeting of Families is a global Catholic event, like World Youth Day. The first World Meeting of Families was called together by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 to celebrate the International Year of the Family. It has grown into the largest gathering of families in the world, and this year’s meeting in Philadelphia beat all previous attendance records.
This was also the first time in the history of the World Meeting that an openly gay—and celibate—Catholic was invited to speak about his experiences in the Church and in his family.
Because of a room scheduling snafu, we started late (the room was filled to overflowing and hundreds of people were reportedly turned away). To make up, we cut some material on the fly. This reflects the original transcript, not the presentation as delivered. Because this talk highlights a lot of points we have made at Spiritual Friendship over the years, I’ve included links to other posts, if you want to learn more.
After the formal presentation, we answered audience questions for over two hours; even then, we only left because the Convention Center staff said we had to leave; there were still dozens of people in the room listening, and people in line waiting to ask questions. This speaks to just how important it is for the Church to take more time to talk about how families and parishes can respond to their lesbian and gay members with Christ-like love.
Given the length of the presentation, I have added numbered paragraphs to help locate material within the text. Continue reading →
First, the short, un-nuanced version: I think that each movement has something positive to contribute to the Church. Courage provides anonymous support groups, while Spiritual Friendship is more public and works toward the day when gay and lesbian people can receive all the support they need in their families and parishes. Both of us agree that friendship is important for those who are trying to grow in chastity. Like the Pope, Spiritual Friendship is comfortable using the word “gay” to describe attraction to the same sex, while many in Courage misunderstand and criticize us for this. Spiritual Friendship tries to talk about the difficult intersection between friendship and same-sex desire in a way that takes the Catholic moral tradition seriously. Some (though not all) writers at Spiritual Friendship have some reservations about the 12-Step model Courage uses. And we all disagree in varying degrees with the Freudian theories of causation that Courage has adopted, though we haven’t made attacking those theories a priority.
Now, the much longer, more nuanced version. (Because this is a large topic, this is, unfortunately, a long post. In order to make it a little bit easier, I have broken it up into sections addressing different parts of the discussion. It may be easier to come back to it and read it a bit at a time, rather than trying to read the whole article at once.)
A common critique of celibate gay Christians is the perception that we attempt to swap out romantic intimacy for friendship. Instead of having same-sex romantic partners we simply have spiritual friends and too often are seen as playing a semantics game. I believe though, as do many of my fellow side-B Christians, that friendship was never meant to take the place of the intimacy that comes about in romantic relationship. Much of what we do is an attempt to celebrate the beauty and benefits of friendship as a good in and of itself and not as a new outlet for romantic and sexual desire. Friendship and relationships in general are not some equal alternative to marriage where finding the right partner becomes finding the right best friend. Friendship inherently makes room for not only the “other” in relationship but for others. I have quite a number of friends who I am quite close to. Some I live in close proximity to and others live thousands of miles away. Each is different and as a unique experience and relationship is worthy of celebrating. Like all relationships there are certain people with whom the bonds of friendship are especially close which allows for deep intimacy. Within an exceptionally close friendship there can exist the full sense of being known, being understood, and being cared for. But at no point in that relationship does my friend’s identity merge with mine. There is no “one flesh” aspect of friendship. This I think is the beauty of friendship and its contrast to a romantic and sexual relationship.
Update (9/18/2015):In his reply to this post (see his comment below), Deacon Russell says, “we can meet any time, face to face, to charitably address and correct things. I’d be all for that.”
He goes on to say, “As it is, now and forever, here is my challenge to you, Ron. We are engaged in public discourse. In that framework, I will gladly defend all my assertions and positions of the last three years in a direct exchange with you. I will do so charitably and fairly in any number of formats, including live and in person, publicly or privately. This offer will not expire. God bless.”
On July 1, 2015, I invited Deacon Russell to meet face to face with Saint Louis Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice mediating our conversation. He did not accept. My offer still stands.
Original Post: I rarely respond directly to Deacon Jim Russell; I generally find that there is so much “spin” in his posts that it is difficult to find a productive point of engagement. I usually have responded indirectly, trying to present Church teaching in a positive way that I hope clarifies some of the misunderstandings about Spiritual Friendship that I see in his writings. A couple of points he makes in a recent article, however, may deserve direct clarification (especially in light of the timing of his post and the amount of media attention focused on me because of the World Meeting of Families).
The gist of my response is simple: despite Deacon Russell’s efforts at spin, there is nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in ideas like, “obsessing over sexual temptation is unhelpful,” “service to others is helpful in overcoming temptation,” and “friendship is an important avenue of support and intimacy” for those seeking to live a chaste life. But since these straightforward claims have sparked Deacon Russell’s critique, I am taking the time to respond to his criticism at length.
In my previous post, I drew attention to the way the Catholic Church frequently references friendship in her pastoral advice related to homosexuality. In this post, I want to examine the nature of friendship itself more deeply, particularly as it relates to two other crucial Biblical concepts: love and covenant. The relationship between love and covenant will be obvious to most contemporary readers; the connection between covenant and friendship, however, is frequently neglected in contemporary Christian teaching.
If we examine the Bible, however, this neglect should surprise us. Each of the three most important covenants in salvation history is characterized by friendship between God and the human representatives—Abraham, Moses, the Twelve Apostles—to whom He entrusts the covenant. Abraham, the great father of all who share his faith (Romans 4:16) is also called a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). God “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And at the Last Supper, on the night when Christ instituted the new and eternal covenant, He said to the Twelve, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). He also frames His own sacrifice on the cross—the definitive act in salvation history—as an act of friendship: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). By calling His disciples friends, Jesus led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that charity (the Latin equivalent of agape love in New Testament Greek) was identical to friendship (Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae 23.1).
If we want to understand what God meant when He made covenants with His people, it’s important to understand what a “covenant” meant in the culture that God first spoke to. The most extensively described human covenant in the Bible is the covenant friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3). For this reason, a significant portion of this post will focus on their relationship, which not only helps us to understand the connection between covenant and friendship at the human level, but also should help us to understand the connection between friendship and covenant in our relationship with God. If we persevere in faith and love, we will ultimately see God face-to-face, as Moses did (1 Corinthians 13:12, compare with Exodus 33:11). True friendship can thus give us a glimpse in this life of the love that we will experience in its fullness in Heaven.
Friendship has been an important theme in the Catholic Church’s pastoral guidance regarding homosexuality. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which provides a comprehensive overview of Catholic teaching,
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
The Catechism also draws a more general connection between chastity and friendship:
2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.
Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.
Brent Bailey, a personal friend to many of us who blog here and author for the past several years of a blog about being gay and Christian called Odd Man Out, has just posted for the first time about his celibacy. He frames the post, in part, around a conversation he and I had the first time we met in Chicago:
By the time I met Wes during my second year of graduate school, I had begun to wonder whether my [sexual] orientation was only a temptation to be resisted or whether it might also hold some unexpected potential for grace. Wes and I happened to attend the same academic conference, and I jumped at his invitation to join a few others for lunch. I don’t recall the particular anecdote he told in that makeshift conference hall cafe, but I remember its punchline: “…and I realized that God is not calling me to not love men.” (He would later nuance the sentiment with more specificity: “God is radically pro-same-sex-love, and I know I am called to intimate friendships with other men.”) Of course, I thought to myself that day and in the months and years that followed, of course God isn’t calling me to not love men. What Wes offered as insight struck me, in that moment, as epiphany that illuminated my experiences in friendship. After coming out publicly, I found myself delighting in certain men in a way that was distinctly gay but also chaste, and my delight presented itself as the kind of supportive, unrestrained love that fosters affinity and trust. The same seems to hold today: When I allow myself to participate in the active work of loving men in the particular way I seem wired to love men, I can love them wholeheartedly. It’s sexual but entirely nonsexual; it’s platonic but electrically non-platonic; it’s confusing but profoundly satisfying.
In his own way, with his unique approach and style, Brent is putting his finger on a major theme that a lot of us who blog here at SF have united around: You have to think about your life of chastity as a gay Christian as a life of self-giving love. If you try to understand it only in negative terms—as if the goal were only abstention and refraining and fleeing and turning away—you will end up missing the main thing God is calling you to. You will end up with a white-knuckled version of Christian discipleship rather than one that revolves around Christlike generosity, hospitality, and loyalty to others. Around here at SF, we’re all agreed that gay sex misses the mark of God’s design for human flourishing, but we’re also persuaded that “not having gay sex” shouldn’t be the main goal of anyone’s life.
I’m reading Rachel Lu’s essay critiquing Spiritual Friendship in Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction. I have much to say about it—first that it’s much more articulate and well-argued than most of the criticism that I’ve read of our “movement” such as it is. But more importantly, because it is more articulate it’s actually possible to figure out what seems to be the bottom line. And it’s a massive misunderstanding.
Lu writes, “it’s also fairly clear that, in entertaining the possibility of a special, erotically tinged friendship, Spiritual Friendship writers are looking for a relationship that would be unique to same-sex attracted people, which has no natural counterpart among the married, or among single people who nevertheless are attracted to the opposite sex.”
Basically, she seems to be talking about celibate gay partnerships. There has been a certain amount of back-room discussion on how SF should deal with such relationships. The answer has basically been, with caution.