We Can Be Heroes

I started responding to one of the comments that I received on yesterday’s post, and the response kind of took on a life of its own. Jose Ma writes:

A gay person trying to live the Church’s teaching is a hero in a way that a chaste straight Christian just can’t be. They will always have a legitimate outlet for their needs for affection and sexuality. Gays can’t have that. We can’t get around that fact. Celibacy is a beautiful sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom when freely chosen. When you have to be celibate forever because of things outside your control it’s a lot less beautiful at first.

This concern is really common amongst LGBTQ Christians who find themselves in the position of having to live celibately when they have not chosen this state of life. From a purely academic point of view, it’s an interesting reversal: in the early church, celibacy was a radical and liberating option precisely because it gave people the ability to exercise choice with respect to their sexuality. In most cultures, throughout most of history, marriage has been the unchosen vocation: people were routinely forced into conjugal intimacy through circumstances beyond their control. Although the Mediaevals romanticized the Virgin Martyrs as icons of purity pitted against lascivious Roman governors, in fact the reason that consecrated virginity was a scandal to Roman society is that it undermined patria potestas, allowing young girls to refuse the marriages that their fathers had arranged for them.

Of course, the fact that historically straight people were in an analogous, though mirrored, position to that of gay Christians today is only minimally comforting. Generally, we’re more inclined to compare ourselves with our contemporaries than with the whole human race throughout all time. An adequate response to the problem that Jose Ma raises therefore must show how Christian sexual morality calls married people today to a similar type of heroism.

I was actually discussing these issues a couple of days ago with a friend of mine, a lay religious man who was visiting for a couple of weeks. He spoke about how celibacy calls a person into loneliness, and how in that loneliness the person learns to know and rely on God. Marriage calls people into intimacy. Instead of meeting God in solitude, the married person finds God primarily in the other. It’s a mistake, though, to think that this is an easier path. Although solitude itself can certainly be a source of suffering, the God that one meets there is always perfect. Celibacy is a quest towards a sublime ideal, and one suffers when the ideal seems absent or distant. The God that one finds in marriage is always housed inside of a deeply flawed, concupiscent human being.

Unfortunately, married people, especially good Christian married people, tend to present family life as a kind of perpetual shiny-happiness. Writers in Christian pro-family magazines will admit that “Sure, we have our bad moments” or “like every family, sometimes we fight,” but then they go on to talk about how after the fight was over Johnny caught a fish and Susie chased butterflies and the parents held each other and sighed and the birds sang and the whole world was made of cherry pie.

That’s not marriage. Those moments are about as common in married life as the moments in celibate life when you feel yourself held rapturously within the infinitely loving and beneficent gaze of your Creator and know that you need nothing else because Christ is your all in all. If you think of marriage as a venue in which you get to fulfil your needs for affection and sexuality, you’ve missed the point – and this is exactly the error which drives both divorce culture in the secular world, and annulment culture in the Church. Marriage in fact is the exacting and difficult calling to learn how to fulfil another person’s needs for affection and sexuality. Most couples do get a foretaste of this to start them off, the “honeymoon period,” but it doesn’t last very long. After that, it’s a lot of work. You don’t know what the other person needs, you make tremendous sacrifices trying to give them what you think they might need, you guess wrong, you hate them for being ungrateful, they hate you for hating them, and all the while they’re doing the same thing in reverse. The heroism of marriage involves learning how to see God in someone who you have just been fighting with for four hours, and who has now passed out drunk on the floor after telling you that they hate your guts and wish that you were dead.

The needs for affection and sexual bliss have to be crucified in marriage just as they have to be crucified in celibacy. In celibacy, this crucifixion takes the form of self-denial through abstinence and its fruit is that sexuality is resurrected as interior freedom and an orientation towards the sublime. In marriage, this crucifixion takes the form of self-denial through self-giving and its fruit is that sexuality is resurrected in the image of Trinitarian intimacy and the love of Christ for His Church. Both callings involve the crucifixion part, and the thing about crucifixion is that it’s kind of all-in total suffering. There is no such thing as an ergonomically designed cross.

In both cases, choice plays an important role. A gay Christian who is unable to pursue straight marriage has a choice: they can have a gay relationship and try to fulfil their needs that way, or they can choose to pursue celibacy because they earnestly believe that its fruits are worth pursuing. It’s the same deal with a person who is called to the married life: they can choose to sleep around or to have a tentative marriage in the hopes of fulfilling their needs, or they can choose to pursue Christian marriage and to accept the demands that it makes upon them. The only real difference is that the Christian who pursues celibacy generally has to make the decision to bear the Cross up front, whereas a lot of people seem to get married without really internalizing what it is that they’re agreeing to do. For those people too Gethsemane will come, and they will feel that “sorrow unto death” that one feels when accepting that it is the Father’s will for us to die to ourselves.

At this point I’m supposed to say “but but but…” and promise that when the crucifixion is over you’ll get to the part with Johnny and the fish, and Susie and the butterflies, the perpetual whipped cream,  the eternal cherry pie. But it’s not like that. Better perhaps to think of the “staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount,” the strange and wonderful paradox of beatitude where mourning is comfort, and meek suffering is victory over the Earth.

Melinda SelmysMelinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.

11 thoughts on “We Can Be Heroes

  1. I’ll be returning to this, I think, for a while.

    As a single, straight Christian, called to chastity, if not celibacy (only God knows). I sometimes struggle to see the heroism I myself have been called to.

    Right now, especially, I am being called into loneliness, and drawn further in to God. Your words are an encouragement in that place, thank you.

  2. Wow, really profound article! The only thing I would want to caution is that we not totally flatten peoples experiences so that everything is the same, when in fact it isn’t. At the end of the day, a married person still has someone to come home to, whereas a gay Christian does not. Granted, BOTH situations require dying to self and submitting to Jesus, but not in the same ways. The fact is that there are problems and crucifixions in all areas of relationship (or lack thereof), but there are distinctions and levels of good and bad in those problems. I like how Eve talks about it here…

    “People in these vocations would still have problems, since devoted friendship, community, and family aren’t easy, but they’d be better problems.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/2012/10/to-come-first-for-someone.html

    I know that you aren’t saying that, and I was really helped by the article, but just my cautionary two cents! Thanks so much for the great thoughts!

    • I agree about flattening people’s experience…though I’m inclined to think that in all cases a person is given a cross exactly proportionate to the gifts and graces that they have been given in order to carry it. Specifically, the cross will always exceed your ability to carry it by precisely the right amount to show you that you really do need Christ to carry it for you 🙂 That said, I think the risk of any comparison lies in the fact that the recognition of common suffering can bear two different kinds of fruit: on the one hand, it can produce callousness (we all have our crosses to bear, so quit your whining…) on the other hand it can produce solidarity. I know that for me, the recognition that single gay Christians experience a depth and intensity of suffering in solitude that is equivalent to the depth and intensity of suffering that I experience in marriage and parenting a) makes it easier for me to accept my situation, and b) compels me to try to ameliorate the sufferings of single gay Christians.

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  4. Melinda, Wow this gave me so much to think about. Thank you.

    Wondering if, however, this article falls into the trap of putting both marriage and singleness/celibacy on a pedestal with very high expectations (resulting in very great disappointments) – where is the role of Christian community, the body of Christ, in all of this? Your treatment of both singleness and marriage feels like the effort of individuals, not a body – and some of your comments about marriage feel very bleak. I have family members and know others who are happily, joyfully, married. Are they somehow “less” married, less “heroes” if they’ve been happy from the start and have never hated their spouse or even been tempted to? My sister and her husband have never had a real fight, never even been tempted to. Love like that does exist, and it is what we all hope for at some level. I don’t feel the need to tell her “her Gethsemane will come” to her marriage just because I know if I ever get married, I will likely limp through it. I am happy when I see marriages that I can tell reach an ideal of freedom and joy most do not, even as I know most married people are struggling just like the rest of us. It is not always a Christian myth or lie to portray the joys of family life – it is wrong to elevate that in isolation from the struggles and hopes of the rest of the body.

    • I mean to say, this piece is a cross-centered approach to marriage and celibacy – a resurrection-centered approach may be a necessary balance – since that is the reality we all live into – even as we live in a now/not yet so that the cross is a daily reality even as resurrection life is the ultimate reality. It feels good and right to emphasize the freedom, joy, and mutual giving of life that is resurrection intimacy in both marriage, singleness, life in the body – as the ultimate reality Christ has won for the church. That feels more right than emphasizing primarily the suffering and cross-bearing of the church. When I see those rare people who have been lucky enough to be born into, find through marriage, a freedom and joyful way of life, that for me is a place for hope and the truth of resurrection life – not a place for me to warn them darkly that their time of suffering will come.

    • Alas, one of the pitfalls of the blog medium is that no one will read a post if it’s ten-thousand words long so you end up having to focus in on a single aspect. I’ve written elsewhere about the role of Christian community in the pursuit of chastity http://sexualauthenticity.blogspot.ca/2013/04/systems-of-grace.html and http://sexualauthenticity.blogspot.ca/2013/04/sad-bad-sex.html.
      w/r/t people who seem to have very happy marriages, yeah, it can happen. As I pointed out, the blissful moments of conjugal unity happen about as often as the moments of celibate rapture — every so often you get one of those Saints who just seems to be winged up to heaven on the breath of angels every time they kneel down in prayer. To draw hope from such examples isn’t a myth or a lie, but it becomes a serious omission when Christians portray that experience as if it were normal, accessible to anyone who seriously tries, when in fact it is a miraculous grace. It’s the same kind of error that faith healers fall into when they point to the miraculous healings in the gospel and then suggest that anyone can have that sort of healing if only they have enough faith. No. The miracles are given as a sign, but their significance is dependent on their rarity: if they were common and reliable they would cease to be miracles and would become magic and as such would cease to signify.
      The other thing that I think is important to remember is that some people carry their crosses inside. I have a very close friend who probably appears to most of the world to be extremely happy, balanced, even-keeled, and generally blessed. He lives in a wonderful religious community. He seems constantly at peace. Because he’s my best friend I happen to know a little about what his struggles look like, and they certainly aren’t easy. I seriously doubt that his family has any clue. I think a lot of the time this kind of quiet heroism flies under the radar.
      The other thing that happens, unfortunately, is that people end up with a very prolonged honeymoon period. I know of one couple who appeared to be marvellously happy for years. They didn’t fight. They were well off. Their happiness seemed to be the kind of loving bliss that we all dream of. Then his father died. Overnight, the marriage went from being a joyful idyll with a happy, low-maintenance husband to being a real trial. Because the couple had no prior experience of really suffering together they were totally unprepared and the marriage failed within a year. This is why I think it is important to caution people about becoming too comfortable in their own happiness. We don’t have to prophecy doom and gloom, but we should also not be afraid to point out that the Crucifixion is the paradigm of all love and that therefore, wherever real love exists, it will come.

      • Thanks, Melinda, very insightful response to my concerns. I liked the post at first, then when I reread it I started to feel very discouraged – am I supposed to give up on hoping for a love that isn’t prolonged misery? I see now where this piece is coming from.

  5. Wow, it’s awesome that my comment resulted in this beautiful response. I will however have to agree with Nick on the issue of flattening experiences. I am not “out” with any of my close friends, maybe I should but I just can’t see much benefit, and I constantly hear the single ones say things like “well, gays have to do the same as I, and be celibate” What they fail to realize is that it is so much more of a choice for them than for a gay person.

    A smart fellow gay Catholic once said to a group of my very straight guy friends that “a gay person has a much harder time figuring out his vocation”. It is so true. I’m still trying to figure that out. Marriage seems out of reach and even though I have felt called to the priesthood I feel that the Church has been adamant in not wanting men with “deeply-seated homosexual tendencies”. Even though I believe I would be accepted I would still feel very uncomfortable. I’ve been encouraged by my vocation director who knows my full story but I just feel dishonest. If they don’t want me I don’t want to push myself in. So that leaves me scrambling to find a vocation. I am pretty sure if I was straight I would probably had already decided on what to do with my life. Oh well. Thanks again for your great insight!

  6. I completely agree that the vocational vacuum is a huge and unnecessary burden placed on gay people within the Church. I know I’ve spoken about it before, but I’m not sure that I’ve actually written a piece on it. w/r/t your own situation, it sounds to me like you’re scrupling. The vocation director is the gatekeeper of the priesthood: it’s your job to discern whether you feel called, which you say that you do, and it’s his job to discern whether you are a good candidate.I think that one of the problems that a lot of people have results from a failure to recognize that the hierarchical nature of the Church really is essential to Her functioning: it’s a body. The brain issues directions which are transmitted through impulses by the nervous system, the impulses reach the various tissues, the tissues act as directed by the local nerves. It can’t work properly any other way. Unfortunately in contemporary, modern societies we tend to want a much more streamlined and less complex system in which each individual gets his orders directly from the commanders in chief. This produces all kinds of disorder within the Church, because the individual will often misinterpret directives that were intended to be understood and applied in accord with local conditions by people higher in the chain of command. Trust the vocational director. If you’ve been honest with him, you’ve been honest and your fear that you’ve been dishonest is just a manifestation of Satan in his guise as the Accuser.

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