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!
A couple of the commenters on my last post have pointed out that this line from Chris Roberts—“Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household”—could be taken as implying a one-sided notion of celibacy, whereby straight people condescend to bestow pity on gay people. Here’s one commenter: “Why are you assuming that a generous, hospitable household would be populated by heterosexuals?” And here’s another, much more pointed one: “In other words, take the short stick that is your lot in life gay person, and enjoy the charity of the straight people you idolize.” I see how Chris’ words could be misconstrued along these lines, but I want to respond by sharing two anecdotes.
The first is from last weekend, when I spoke with Chris face to face about these matters. Over breakfast one morning, I made a comment to this effect: “It always encourages me when I meet straight people who care so deeply about the flourishing of gay people in the church, especially when there’s no obvious reason why they would have to care.” I was thinking of people like—well, people like Chris. People who aren’t gay themselves, who don’t have any gay family members, and who could easily choose to “pass” on making this “their issue.” They wouldn’t have to be burdened with it if they didn’t want to. And yet they do care. They go out of their way to seek solidarity with people like me. They look for opportunities to express and deepen the unity between us.
Later in the day, though, Chris circled back to that breakfast conversation and gently tried to correct or qualify the gratitude I’d expressed. Here’s what he said (in so many words): “I don’t view my concern for gay and lesbian Christians as somehow removed from my experience. I don’t think I’m making some special sacrifice to care about something that doesn’t involve me. Rather, I think I need your pursuit of chastity to remind me of my own need for chastity. And your faithfulness is reinforced and bound up with mine.” There is “solidarity amongst the many ways of patiently cultivating chastity.”
I’m just back from a studium with a brilliant group of (largely) gay Catholics (about which I’ll say more later—watch this space, as they say), and one of the papers featured a paragraph that might be considerably modified in its final published version. Not wanting to lose the original, I asked the author—Christopher Roberts, whose book you should read!—if I could post it here at Spiritual Friendship, and he agreed. Here’s what he wrote about singleness and celibacy:
If we follow the tradition’s logic, celibacy cannot be a synonym for singleness. Classic, orthodox celibacy is not a solitary priest rattling around in an oversized rectory, or an isolated yuppie in a high rise apartment building a profile on an internet dating site, or a gay person toughing it out solo at Christmastime. All these are modern day tragedies, the kind of things which deserve compassion but which cannot be normative. Classic, orthodox celibacy is rather a way of enabling us to be present to one another, free of concupiscence and free of the pressures arising when we audition for mates—one might even call it a gratuitous presence. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine and his friends forming reading groups and monasteries after their joint conversion. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine insisting that virgins cannot ground their vocation in any disdain for marriage, but rather base their vocation in longing for the heavenly social life. Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household, or the adults in a parish who collaborate in works of mercy and the catechesis of children who aren’t theirs. Classic, orthodox celibates are the monks, nuns, and consecrated laity whose continence and discipline sets them free for high adventure in contemplation or service.
This, it seems to me, is exactly what I need to hear, even if (at present) I haven’t discerned a call to join a religious order.
Via Helen Rittelmeyer on Twitter, here is a lovely post by Brooke Conti on what we miss when we miss friendships from our younger days:
When I was in my twenties, I was enmeshed in my friends’ lives in ways that went beyond our constant phone calls. We actually lived with each other, even after college, and even after most of us had gotten our own apartments. If we lived in different cities, we’d visit each other for long weekends—and if we lived in the same city, we’d crash at each others’ places when it got too late to go home for the night. We’d sleep in the same room, use the same bathroom, make breakfast together. Or we’d hang out at each others’ places for hours as afternoon turned into evening, watching bad t.v., reading magazines, drinking a bottle of wine and doing our makeup as we tried to decide what to do with the night.
Now we’re busier, with work and other things. Almost all of us are partnered and half of us have kids, and spending large blocks of time together is a trickier proposition. Even when Cosimo and I stay overnight with friends, it’s usually just one night (if we’re traveling), or there’s some event we’re all going to (reunion, sporting event), so the rhythms aren’t those of real life.
But over the past year, I’ve stayed for two or three nights, just by myself, with four or five different friends (and their partners and kids, if they have ’em), some of whom I’d never before seen in pyjamas, or whose kitchens I’ve never experienced flooded with early-morning sunlight.
CBS Sunday Morning recently featured a story about ten childhood friends, now middle-aged, who meet annually to reenact a ritual from their school days: the game of tag. The game is really a pretext for these men to practice what is seldom practiced by men in our society: enduring friendship. Male friendship is difficult to practice for many reasons, including the primacy of heterosexual romance and the perceived homoeroticism of same-gender friendship.
God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, the long-awaited first volume of Sarah Coakley’s theologie totale was finally published last month, and my copy has arrived. Coakley’s broad project is to find resources in the ascetic traditions of Christianity to help to deal with contemporary concerns about sex and gender. In her Prelude, she writes about the understanding of desire in contemporary culture and the theological tradition; I include some selections, which I hope will be of interest to our readers:
I had told my parents I wanted to be a philosophy major. They were not amused.
My mom tried to understand. “What can you do with that?” Do meant job.
“Mom, that’s not the point. I want to pursue the truth!”
My dad interjected, “That’s great, Chris, but you have to get a job eventually. You have to support yourself.”
This post just came across my Facebook news feed; I offer it as a playful reminder that, while we here at Spiritual Friendship talk about sexuality a lot, there’s more to life than being gay! The nature of this website means that sexuality and “allied fields” are mostly what we talk about here, but there’s much more out there! Those who denounce us for calling ourselves gay or queer or what have you are over-making their case, certainly; but there is a certain basic truth that underlies their argument. It is true that our fundamental identity must come from Christ; it’s just that Christ is not the only name by which we may call ourselves.
With that being said, gay is just one word that describes Stephen Lovegrove. Attraction to guys is just one characteristic that describes me. And my sexual orientation is a very small part of my multi-faceted, complicated, and spectacular life. So I write today to say, there’s more to life than being gay.
Growing up gay in conservative churches, I felt torn between two worlds and bounced like a ping-pong ball back and forth. One moment I was sitting in church hearing, “Homosexuality is the most disgusting sin in the world” (internalizing it as: “Who you are as a person, Julie Rodgers, is toxic and unlovable”). And the next moment I was in a gay coach’s office hearing, “God made you gay, Julie, and you’ll feel forever tortured until you depart from the faith you grew up with and celebrate the entirety of what it means to be a lesbian in our family.” Something deep inside of me resonated with both communities, but both communities usually insisted I cut off, hide, or deny an integral part of who I was in order to fully belong. I felt like there were conditions upon their acceptance of who I was as a person, and qualifications around “I love you” statements. All I wanted during all those years was for someone to walk with me where I was. I wanted someone to see me, to listen to me, to have some compassion, to get outside the culture war long enough to realize I was a complex person in the process of figuring out what it meant to be gay-as-all-get-out and love Jesus with all my heart.
I was in California last week to speak at Biola University about spiritual friendship (I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available), and I got to spend a lot of good time with a friend I’ve known since college days, named Chris. As we were talking one night, Chris pulled out a passage from a sermon by the twentieth-century German theologian Helmut Thielicke that struck me as unusually powerful:
I once knew a very old married couple who radiated a tremendous happiness. The wife especially, who was almost unable to move because of old age and illness and in whose kind old face the joys and sufferings of many years had etched a hundred runes, was filled with such gratitude for life that I was touched to the quick. Involuntarily I asked myself what could possibly be the source of this kindly old person’s radiance. Otherwise they were very common people and their room indicated only the most modest comfort. But suddenly I knew where it all came from, for I saw these two speaking to each other and their eyes hanging upon each other. All at once it became clear to me that this woman was dearly loved. And it was as if she were like a stone that has been lying in the sun for years and years, absorbing all its radiant warmth, and now was reflecting back cheerfulness and warmth and serenity.
Let me express it this way. It was not because she was this kind of a cheerful and pleasant person that she was loved by her husband all those years. It was probably the other way around. Because she was so loved, she became the person I now saw before me.
This thought continued to pursue me and the more it pursued me the more it lost all its merely edifying and sentimental features, until finally they were gone altogether. For if this is true, then I surely must come to the following conclusion. If my life partner or my friend or just people generally often seem to be so strange and I ask myself: “Have I made the right marriage, the right friendship; is this particular person really the one who is suited to me?”—then I cannot answer this question in the style of a neutral diagnosis which would list the reasons for and against. For what happens then is that the question turns back upon myself, and then it reads: “Have I perhaps bestowed too little love upon this other person, that he has become so cold and empty? Have I perhaps caused him to become what perhaps he really has become? The other person, whom God has joined to me, is never what he is apart from me. He is not only bone of my bone; he is also boredom of my boredom and lovelessness of my lovelessness.”