I recently taught William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A geologic epoch has passed since I first read the play, and I cannot remember my original response. What stands out now is my melancholic detachment from the kind of romance that makes the world feel all at once alive with radiance and susceptible to extinction. I never experienced that upheaval of emotion as an adolescent and only once, in a somewhat convoluted way, as an adult.
As time passes, I wonder if it is possible to reverse the years and see everything with young eyes again. When Juliet appears on the balcony of her house, Romeo does not see a teenager girl in all of her awkward glory. He sees the center of the solar system.
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she
Be not her maid, since she is envious
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
I spoke in a chapel service at Biola University last month on the themes of gay experience, Christian faith, and spiritual friendship. Here is the video:
I gave a very similar talk at Calvin College the week before, and I’m still working on trying to refine this and figure out exactly how I want to talk about these things. If you have any feedback for me, I’m all ears!
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 previous post of this series, I discussed overt sins of word and deed, where the nature of the sin is doing something that we should not do. In this post, I will discuss one major sin of omission, where the nature of the sin is not doing something even though we are commanded to do it. I personally find that sins of omission can be a greater struggle. It’s far too easy to just not get around to doing the sorts of good I am commanded to do, or to allow myself to be controlled by fear of man. However, failing to do what God has commanded is still sinful.
Although the sins I discussed in the last post relate to sexual minorities of all faith convictions, the particular issue I discuss in this post relates specifically to celibate gay Christians. In Galatians 6:2, we are commanded to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (ESV). As we have discussed previously here and here, celibacy for gay Christians is often involuntary in the sense that it results from obedience based on conviction, rather than from an otherwise felt gifting or calling. This type of celibacy can be a difficult burden for people, so if we are really bearing one another’s burdens, we should certainly be bearing that one somehow.
In her essay, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” (collected in Creed or Chaos) Dorothy Sayers writes:
There are two main reasons for which people fall into the sin of Luxuria [lust]. It may be through sheer exuberance of animal spirits: in which case a sharp application of the curb may be all that is needed to bring the body into subjection and remind it of its proper place in the scheme of man’s twofold nature. Or—and this commonly happens in periods of disillusionment like our own, when philosophies are bankrupt and life appears without hope—men and women may turn to lust in sheer boredom and discontent, trying to find in it some stimulus which is not provided by the drab discomfort of their mental and physical surroundings. When that is the case, stern rebukes and restrictions are worse than useless. It is as though one were to endeavour to cure anaemia by bleeding; it only reduces further an already impoverished vitality. The mournful and medical aspect of twentieth-century pornography and promiscuity strongly suggests that we have reached one of these periods of spiritual depression, where people go to bed because they have nothing better to do. In other words, the “regrettable moral laxity” of which respectable people complain may have its root cause not in Luxuria at all, but in some other of the sins of society, and may automatically begin to cure itself when that root cause is removed.
I recently started a series of posts about graced realities which I have found to helpful in the pursuit of chastity, defined deeply as the mastery through grace of internal sexual desires and passions, and their ordering according to the will of God. When people are married in the Church, they undergo marriage counseling; when people enter religious life, they have a period of intensive formation. Yet for people in the most difficult situation within which to pursue chastity, cut off from both marriage and the support of a religious community, there is little discussion of how to make this sustainable in a lifelong way.
To regular readers (or indeed, readers who saw the URL!), it may come as no surprise that the first graced reality I will talk about is friendship. In the little book from which this blog takes its name, St. Aelred of Rievaulx defines friendship as “that virtue through which by a covenant of sweetest love our very spirits are united, and from many are made one.” Like other contributors to this blog, I find St. Aelred’s vision of spiritual friendship, rooted in in a shared life in Christ and drawing the friends into communion with Christ as two souls knit into one to be deeply sustaining.
A dear friend recently asked me: how do you pursue chastity in a celibate state? I realized that I have never really written much on this question, though it is deeply significant to the whole project of helping to integrate gay people into a Church deeply committed to a traditional sexual ethic. Meanwhile, another friend has recently charged that we offer a false hope of a life which is ultimately unsustainable. As these questions come more to the front in my mind, it becomes clearer to me that there needs to be more discussion of how we hope to live chastely.
I was forced out of the closet by a phone call. A dear friend had confessed that she was struggling with attraction for a woman, but was trying to not act upon it because of her Christian faith. Our other two friends on the phone strongly recommended she accept her sexual identity rather than let her sexual practices be dictated by her religious beliefs. I—the once militant atheist—came to her defense and said she should let her conscience be her guide. If she believed her religion that deeply, then she should try to her best to adhere to it and we shouldn’t admonish her for prioritizing her religion over her sexual inclinations. This, of course, stunned them and I was forced to come out of the closet as someone interested in Christianity. I confessed that I had started doing Bible studies and attending church. These were the friends least surprised when I was baptized a few months later.
One of the common criticisms of a traditionally Christian sexual ethic is that it forces a lot of gay people into involuntary celibacy, which some find very lonely, painful, frustrating.
I want to start by saying I think this critique is at least partially right. Trying to be faithful to a Christian sexual ethic without the support of either a spouse or a religious community is difficult. When you add misunderstanding by many in the Christian community, the task is only made more difficult.
In this post I want to focus in particular on how to be honest about all that is painful and difficult, while still holding firm to the hope that obedience to Christ is good for us, that by conforming our lives to His will, we will blossom and flourish in some meaningful sense, even if we also face significant struggle.