Imagine a man who quits his job and moves across the country for the woman he loves. This act is either incredibly beautiful or incredibly stupid. One critical fact makes the difference: how she responds.
“Love at first sight” only works for those who have not learned the labors of love. For how can one love another when he does not yet know how to love the other? The greatest love is less like a disembodied hook-up and more like one striking image from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (the tragically funny book, which I saw as a movie and laughed when I wasn’t supposed to—sorry, fellow movie-goers!). The protagonist reflects, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
A love which is truly for the other is a slow love, because it is a patient love. It does not demand that the beloved immediately open himself until he is ready. And it is a love that constantly adjusts itself as more of the other is revealed. It constantly adjusts its giving according to the beloved’s need. And if the beloved is not prepared to receive love, it will not thrust itself upon the beloved.
Some friends of mine were recently married. As a part of their wedding ceremony, they included the prayer:
“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.
But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.
Falling in love is like falling ill. It often happens unexpectedly, and you don’t really realize what’s going on until you wake up one morning and find yourself in the throes of it. As finite created beings, we are often interrupted by that which is outside of ourselves. The interruption of desire disrupts our daily lives and drives us to active pursuit.
This is partly why the Ancients were so wary of erotic desire. It’s disruptive and not easily susceptible to reasoned control. It’s thrilling and exhausting. To desire another person is wearying. Love really can make one sick: few things are as painful as the unfulfilled desire to be near to another.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923
I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!
With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.
Botticelli: St. Augustine
Christian faith is not the conclusion of an argument: it begins in some sense or other in a personal encounter with God. Some people experience this encounter in a dramatic way, for others, it is much gentler and quieter. But we believe because we believe God, who, in some way, speaks to us. This belief is more a matter of personal trust in the God who loves us and has revealed himself to us than it is the conclusion of an intellectual investigation.
We are created in God’s image, and God is love. Our faith is thus best nurtured by experiencing God’s love through prayer, worship, and the sacraments, by acts of service or contemplation that we do out of love for God, and by Christian community, where we love others and experience and are nurtured in love.
God also knows and understands everything, and our desire to understand Him and the world He has created is part of His image in us. Although belief and trust are primarily personal responses to God’s love for us, we also want to understand what we believe and who we trust. There are, moreover, parts of Christian teaching—like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the virgin birth—that are difficult to understand. And Christian faith also gives rise to difficult questions: for example, if God is all knowing and all powerful, and He desires what is good for everyone, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?
Fr. James Martin – a Jesuit priest who has written quite eloquently on LGBT issues a number of times before – has a column in the latest edition of America magazine, “Simply Loving,” in which he asks why “so many gay people say they feel hatred from members of the church” despite the fact that most Catholics claim not to hate gay and lesbian people.
Fr. Martin suggests that one reason – aside from the obvious fact that a lot of LGBT people don’t agree with Catholic teaching about homosexual acts – is that it is very rare to hear many Catholics “say something positive about gays and lesbians without appending a warning against sin.”
The language surrounding gay and lesbian Catholics is framed primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of sin. For example, “We love our gay brothers and sisters—but they must not engage in sexual activity.” Is any other group of Catholics addressed in this fashion? Imagine someone beginning a parish talk on married life by saying, “We love married Catholics – but adultery is a mortal sin.” With no other group does the church so reflexively link the group’s identity to sin.
Melinda Selmys has a new book out. Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections is a wonderful collection of reflections on sexuality, Christianity, mental disability, fiction writing, conversion, and much much more. It’s an incredibly rich work. Her love for her readers really shines through in this deeply personal and reflective book. You should order it here.
In a section on “12 Things Every Catholic Should Know About Homosexuality” she seeks to convey that “Truth told without affective love is not true love.” She writes, “Truth is not an abstraction. It’s a person.”
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing an intellectual autobiography. It would be an imprudently premature work, but, as I’ve turned the idea over in my mind, I’ve come to see the work as an immature inevitability, awaiting only time and much (though inescapably insufficient) work. When I first started to think about this, I considered titling it, “The Men Who Have Loved Me.” I’ve been remarkably lucky to be radically loved by various men in my life: my father, spiritual directors, priests, professors, mentors, roommates, and friends. I’ve been lovingly taught, mentored, cared for, listened to, corrected, and nurtured. I have fond memories of falling in and out of love with friends, with the tenderness of friendship lasting beyond the spark of romance.
But my loves have not only been other men. They’ve also been women, they’ve been other relationships, and they’ve been communities. More than anything, they’ve been the people who have noticed me.
Nathan O’Halloran has an interesting article over at Vox Nova on the “richness of homosexual relationality.”
O’Halloran points out something I’ve highlighted before, which is that when the Church speaks negatively about “homosexuality,” it is not talking about the same thing we generally mean by “being gay.” When the Catechism speaks about “homosexuality,” it doesn’t even mean the same thing we mean by “homosexuality” in everyday speech (as opposed to its meaning within the technical discourse of Catholic moral theology). The teaching of the Church against homosexuality, as O’Halloran notes, “extends only to same-sex genital acts and does not refer to the sexuality as a whole.” The Bishops of England and Wales make this very clear in their pastoral letter Cherishing Life:
In so far as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life … it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered. However, it must be quite clear that a homosexual orientation must never be considered sinful or evil in itself.
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.