In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.
As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.
In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.
Mike Allenlives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai, China, where he teaches English at a private Chinese school. He volunteers with an international youth group, and he blogs in his spare time about faith, sexuality, and life as an expat in China at Adventure in Shanghai.
To most people most of the time, I’m just married. They see me with my wife and daughter, and just see a normal family. Every so often, however, I mention that I’m in a mixed orientation marriage. Then, the response is usually something like, “Wait a minute, a mixed what?” accompanied by a befuddled gaze. I elaborate, and the person then stumbles awkwardly through the conversation, asking in several different ways if, by that, I mean that although I’m married to a woman, I am gay. Once I’ve confirmed that they’ve understood correctly, the befuddled gaze doesn’t always go away.
It’s hard enough for many people to get past the gay-and-Christian part, let alone the gay-and-married-to-a-woman bit. Most people just don’t have a category in their minds for something like this. How in the world can a marriage even exist under such circumstances? Why would either party want it to? Upon what is such a marriage built?
Today is the feast day of Aelred of Rievaulx, often called the patron saint of friendship. The image above is a photograph of an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, that some dear friends of mine gave me at Christmas this year.
Rounding the bend in the road from the village of Thirsk in North Yorkshire, your first glimpse of Rievaulx Abbey will take your breath away. One minute you’re on a backcountry lane, charmed by the gentle slopes and the green of the farmlands but unprepared for the sudden sight of gray stone walls and arches. The next minute you’re staring at an eleventh-century Cistercian ruin, enclosed in a wooded dale like an unearthed treasure. Coming from the opposite direction, from the east, you might have the reaction my friend described to me once in an e-mail: “I’ve only ever approached Rievaulx on foot, after the over-the-moors-and-through-the-forest walk from Helmsley, but whenever I go there, I imagine those first monks standing in that valley, with the lovely little river running through it and the low wooded hills to break the wind, and saying, ‘Yes. This is the place.’”
My one visit to Rievaulx was a pilgrimage of sorts to honor Aelred, the abbey’s fourth abbot who ruled the Benedictine community from 1147 until his death in 1167. Known best for his treatises On Spiritual Friendship and The Mirror of Charity, in which he sketched a vision for monastic community, Aelred has become the unofficial patron saint of friendship, owing to his powerful depiction of the spiritual fruitfulness of same-sex love. I went to Rievaulx out of gratitude for that witness. I stood in what remains of the abbot’s quarters—now just a stone outline indicating where the four walls would have been—and said a prayer of thanks for the treatises that say of friendship what we moderns typically reserve for marital love: “See to what limits love should reach among friends, namely to a willingness to die for each other.”
I don’t know how you might choose to mark Aelred’s feast day today, or if you’re even comfortable marking saints’ feast days, but I’d encourage you to try something, be it small or large. I myself am planning to make a simple dinner for my housemates to give thanks for their company tonight. Perhaps you would want to start planning an “anniversary of friendship” trip to celebrate the years you’ve known a particular friend, as a friend of mine is planning at the moment for a longtime friend of hers. Or perhaps you’d want to write a note to a friend, expressing your gratitude with words. Maybe you’d want to approach your pastor or priest and ask him or her to come and pray a blessing over you and your friend. Or maybe you’d want to suggest to your priest that there be a Sunday School class or church retreat on the topic, and you could help with the planning and implementation of it. If you’re in college, maybe you’d want to suggest to your campus minister that there be a small group Bible study on the theme; I know one campus minister who’s just written one for her students, and she tells me it’s been a big hit.
I published a column in Notre Dame’s Observertoday. The Observer has had some debate over marriage in recent weeks, and I thought I would give some thoughts from a gay Catholic perspective:
The first dozen times I came out I cried. For many of my friends, it was the first time they had seen me cry. Ever. A high school friend once told me that I had two emotions: happy, and more happy. She was wrong. I felt a lot of things, but I had to hide them.
Before coming out, many LGBT kids worry that all love is conditional: conditional upon a secret, conditional upon an unmanifested condition, conditional upon being normal. Reading Tyrel London’s viewpoint, “Overcoming Hate” brought back memories of my undergraduate years. Almost no one knew. I suffered. At one point, an evaluator through health services said I may be suffering from major depression, PTSD, social phobia and agoraphobia. The screening urged me to contact a mental health professional. I started looking at graduation requirements at other universities. A semester abroad eventually gave me an escape from Notre Dame without having to answer awkward questions.
The semester away helped me to finally share my secret. Coming out was painful for me. It was painful, not because I was rejected, but because I was accepted. When you spend so much time fearing rejection, acceptance is something that cuts deep into you. It hurts to be loved in the places you’ve been ashamed of. I found acceptance, and I started to accept myself. But even after receiving acceptance from my friends and family, many questions were unanswered. How do I move forward? What does it mean to be gay and Catholic? How do I love?
Today is World AIDS Day. According to UNAIDS, over 75 million people have been infected by HIV, and over 35 million of those have died. Behind each of those lives and deaths is a story. I thought I’d share this story (originally written in 2002), from my friend John Corvino. It’s a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills:
Last month I learned of the death of an ex-partner. It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation. But it’s a loss nevertheless.
Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas. I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin. It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist. (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)
Robert approached me at the new students’ party. Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing. He had a keen intellect and a razor wit. We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on. We quickly became friends, and then something more.
The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did). It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable. The contradictions suited us. Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us. (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?) Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.
He had a brilliant sense of humor. Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots. He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”
I was talking a bit this week with Todd Billings, who is a professor of Reformed theology at Western Seminary in Holland Michigan, and he passed along an essay he wrote when he was single and in his late twenties. The piece is a reflection of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, and I found it very engaging.
Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love — non-virginal love — is poor love.
Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.
Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.
We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack — an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.
The whole essay is thoughtful and accessible—do read it all—and it’s doubly encouraging to me to think of it originally being published in the ecumenical magazine Regeneration Quarterly, which had a sizable evangelical readership when it was still in print. Sometimes working against their own history and current church cultures, many Reformed and more broadly Reformational evangelicals whom I know want to try to rediscover and honor celibacy in their churches today. May their tribe increase.
The book tells the story of Aaron’s son Samuel, who was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 in September, 2011. Most Trisomy 18 babies die in utero; of those who are born alive, 90% will die within the first year. Even the tiny minority who live past their first year face significant challenges and handicaps.
Despite this difficult prognosis, Aaron and his wife, Alisha, chose to carry Samuel to term. He was born in January, 2012, and died five short, difficult, precious hours after his birth. Aaron comments:
Fulfilling this vocation was difficult and required a choice to embrace the suffering it would engender. But we are convinced that this choice is part of what it means to love; to choose to love is to open oneself simultaneously to both joy and suffering. Thankfully, a community of fellow sufferers provided the gifts and grace of friendship, seconding and sustaining our choice. Fostering courage and hope, they made it possible to live well in the midst of our suffering.
In my last post, I drew attention to the very different way that the New Testament dealt with the Old Testament laws concerning food and sex. In this post, I want to reflect a little bit on the significance of this difference. My goal is both to help shed light on the issues raised in my previous post, and also to provide a foundation for some further thoughts on the nature of Christian sexual ethics.
At the most fundamental level, food is a thing, while properly ordered sexual desire is always a desire for communion with a person, created in the image of God. This is an important insight, and I want to explore the implications of it. However, my reflections in this post are intended to be suggestive—to offer avenues for further thought—rather than providing the deductive conclusion to a rigorous argument.
While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)
I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…
It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”
I’ve met Vicky once, when she attended my confirmation in the Church of England at St. John’s College, Durham, where I was based at the time. I was touched that she wanted to attend, and I was grateful for her warm friendliness.
Sean Doherty tweeted yesterday morning after the story was published, “Respect to @vickybeeching today – should not be but *is* still hard to come out and praying for you that you are overwhelmed with support.” I think that’s just exactly right, regardless of where your convictions about sexual ethics fall.
It’s easy for me now, as someone who writes and speaks publicly and frequently about these matters, to forget how difficult it was at first to talk with anyone about my sexuality. Despite the fact that I had a loving, close-knit family, an especially committed group of friends in high school, and an unusually sensitive, thoughtful youth pastor, it still took me until college to tell someone about my feelings. And even then, I was deathly afraid of what my peers would think.