It hurts the most after spurts of laughter. For instance: I was recently working out in my apartment and heard the Free Willy theme song. Naturally, I started singing because somehow I knew the entire Free Willy Theme song, and by the end of it I was raising my hands and singing (Throwback 90s Praise Band Style) in between reps of bicep curls. By the time I was doing tricep kickbacks, I could barely sing the words because of the lump in my throat created by the memory of how the kid saved the whale and the whale saved the kid. When I suddenly realized how ridiculous and hilarious the whole thing looked—the singing, the raised hands, the lump in my throat and the Free Willy Theme Song—I started laughing hysterically. By the time I got to shoulder presses, the sharp pain of loneliness set in: another moment gone unwitnessed.
Sometimes I feel it when I arrive at my destination after a long road trip. I pick up my phone with an urge to text Someone that I got where I was going, and it occurs to me that no one knew I left. Sure, some friends knew I’d be out of pocket at some point, but they didn’t know when I was leaving or when I’d be back. They weren’t aware of my existence in real time and space. Sometimes I turn to social media to let The World know I made it somewhere they didn’t know I was going—to let them know I still exist—and the “likes” calm the subconscious fear for a moment. Of course I call and text friends to talk of my excursions and hear about theirs, but that’s what’s disconcerting: I increasingly find myself telling them about my life rather than sharing it with them.
A reader of my book Washed and Waiting, in which I talk at some length about Henri Nouwen’s life as a celibate gay priest, just wrote me an email about how that part of Nouwen’s life intersected with his own. With my reader’s permission, I’d like to share a portion of his email:
I was his student at Yale, working on my Ph.D. when I talked someone into letting his masters level, divinity school lecture course count as a Ph.D. class. I was unable to profit much from the course due to my biases and the form my brokenness took at the time, but I did get into one conversation with him about [John] Calvin’s spirituality after a class. My profs that year featured one luminary after another—Luke Johnson, Sidney Ahlstrom, Conrad Russell (son of Bertrand), etc.—so I wasn’t awestruck, but as he invited me to walk back to his office, then to stay a while, I felt that I never so completely had the attention of someone who didn’t know me at all. He listened with a stunning focus—as if I were the only person in his world, that nothing could be more important than my shallow comments and questions. At the end, he encouraged me a little and gave me a copy of one of his books, with a lovely inscription. No one knew of his same-sex attraction, but some of us felt that he suffered from some wound that, coupled with his holiness and insight, expressed itself in his marvelous tenderness. So his grief, handled with maturity, became a light to us—a model for us all.
I was greatly moved by this remembrance, and I share it here as a reminder of what grace our gay Christian lives are capable of. Even in the midst of longing and yearning like Nouwen’s, we are given gifts that we may pass on to others.
Recently, one of my friends on Facebook pointed me to an article on the Gospel Coalition blog about a man who experiences an intensely deep friendship with another guy. It really is beautiful. The author’s name is Chad Ashby, and in the article, he makes what I would consider to be a correct distinction between deep love between men and homosexual attraction. He says,
To love another man as your own soul (1 Sam. 18:1) is not homosexual love; it is the love of Christ. It is a true willingness to lay down your life for your brothers (1 John 3:16). We must build these kinds of relationships with one another: men who truly love other men.
As I read Ashby’s description of his friendship, I found my heart soaring. It is this type of deep relationship that I long for (and experience with a select few of my close friends). This “Spiritual Friendship”, it seems, is one of the many life-saving graces that God has given to me and many like me in order to successfully live a chaste life.
And yet, as I read the article, I also felt strangely alienated. Ashby makes it very clear that the type of love he is referring to is not homoerotic. But what about when this type of love is also accompanied by a homosexual orientation? What happens when I, as a Christian celibate gay man, experience this type of love, but right alongside of it experience erotic attraction as well? Would Ashby be so quick to tell me to pursue close, intimate friendships? Or would he tell me that it now becomes too dangerous? I’m not sure…
When some of my gay friends talk about the struggles of living celibate lives, they are occasionally told by their more progressive friends that they should “just go get married.” I suspect that the speaker believes he is being compassionate, caring, and sympathetic. But he’s not. And neither are the churches who preach this simplistic message to gay Christians seeking to live celibate lives.
For a variety of reasons, many Christians (gay and straight) decide not to marry. Unfortunately, the unmarried life can be very isolating in our culture. Americans have a practice of treating marriage as the only (or at least the primary) means of intimacy and interdependency with significant and lasting obligations.
When many of my friends moved toward a theology that affirms gay sexual relationships, they did so because they grew weary of saying “no” to love. Several of them described an experience where they were fully committed to the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics when they grew to deeply love someone of the same sex. They remained chaste for a season and prayed for direction, then eventually sensed the Lord saying: You’re free to love.
While many Christians considered their shift an act of rebellion—a plunge into sin—they saw it as the only path to love and intimacy. They recognized that “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and they longed to serve the one they love, share their lives with the one they love, and mutually draw energy from that love to better serve those around them. Many felt like the traditional ethic required them to cut off fundamental aspects of being human in order to be chaste: they felt saying “no” to sexual relationships meant saying “no” to love, and that saying “no” to love meant saying “no” to any intimacy, and that saying “no” to intimacy meant saying “no” to feelings altogether, which eventually led to detachment and isolation. The burden felt unbearable.
Catholic teaching often speaks of the experience of being gay as a “cross” or “trial”:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination … constitutes for most of them a trial … These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).
Or, again, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:
What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption.
Here’s something that may interest some of you.
On Saturday I spoke at a conference on singleness at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and the videos are all online if you want to watch them. My session starts (I’ve been told, I think!) around the 40-minute mark in the video labeled “Morning Sessions,” and I was also on a panel with the other speakers in the afternoon.
It was a real joy to finally have the chance to visit Redeemer. I’ve been listening to Tim Keller’s preaching since I was in high school, so it was a huge honor to meet him and Kathy and Brent Bounds the other amazing conference organizers. If any of you are reading this, thank you again for the warm hospitality and the stimulating conversation!
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.
I’ve got an essay in the new issue of The Other Journal, which is now available online. It’s called “The Problem of Gay Friendship,” and it will give you some idea of how the book I’m writing is taking shape. Here’s an excerpt:
Going back to Aelred, it’s significant that most of the saint’s gay admirers admit that, although the eleventh century abbot likely experienced what we now call a “homosexual orientation,” he himself was celibate. The man who could describe a friend as one “to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul” and one whom you could embrace “in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing over you” apparently never had gay sex. What Aelred called “spiritual friendship” was a form of same-sex intimacy that sublimated or transmuted erotic passion, rather than sanctioning its genital expression. In light of this, I wonder what it might look like to part ways with Aelred’s largest circle of admirers today and attempt to recover the abbot’s original vision of an intimacy between friends that didn’t involve a physical, sexual union.
I’d love to hear from you in the com-box if you have a chance to read this. (That would help as I work on revising my manuscript.)
My main gripe about my own essay is that I think I should have engaged more deeply and carefully with the objection Gerald Bray raises—that speaking of “gay friendship” runs the risk of making sexual desire part of the definition of a friendship and therefore subverts friendship’s true character. Bray is not the only one to voice this worry, and it’s a question that deserves more of a response than I was able to give in this article.