Although theoretical reflection about spiritual friendship is important, there is also an important place for talking about the practicalities of how it gets lived out day-to-day.
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know a number of young Christian professionals and grad students here in St. Louis. Although our careers spanned a range of disciplines, we had enough common interests that we could get along well and have meaningful conversations.
In some ways, the life of this group of friends is quite mundane. We’re all quite busy with our studies and work. But we still make time to go hiking on weekends, or grab dinner and a movie, or hang out at a pub, or walk around Forest Park or the Botanical Garden. Sometimes there are more of us involved in these activities, sometimes smaller subsets of the group—even just two or three—will do something.
I don’t suppose there is anything too unique here—most people probably have some sort of social circle like this.
As it happens, several members of this group of friends are gay (though most of us believe that gay sex is wrong, and some of us blog on Spiritual Friendship). However, the friendships within the group were not particularly defined by our sexual struggles. We relate to each other as human beings with a broad range of interests and ways of connecting. We were not just “strugglers” who needed help, but friends with gifts and talents to share.
I’ve gained a lot personally from having these friends to hang out with, but I’ve gained a lot professionally, as well. Intelligent conversations with well-educated friends are an enormous gift to a budding philosopher (and even philosophers as old as Socrates seem to benefit from such friendships).
Of course, as we’ve gotten to know each other and built up trust, we have been able to bring up issues related to sexual struggles when the need arose. However, we don’t constantly obsess over sexual struggles and sexual sin. We’re more interested in talking and thinking about other things.
For those of us who are gay, we talk about what it looks like to live faithfully. How can we build healthy, Christ-centered friendships? How does that connect with our straight friends’ vocations to marriage or the religious life? And how does all this connect with our broader call as human beings with the intellectual and artistic gifts we had been given?
When I first got involved with this group, I was also going to an support group sponsored by a local church (I could name the ministry, but I see no reason to single it out for criticism for a problem that is, as far as I know, pervasive in Christian ministries directed at those with same-sex attraction). There were a number of helpful things about this “official” support group, but in the long run, I came to the conclusion that it was doing more to undermine my commitment to chastity than it was to support it.
One problem was that in the weekly meetings, the members would always go around the circle and talk about their struggles with lust in the past week. It seemed to me quite unhelpful to be in a group where I did not necessarily know the other members’ last names, their outside interests, their careers, etc., but did know how often they masturbated or looked at porn or hooked up with other men.
Moreover, when these confessions were made, everyone was supportive and encouraging. This is appropriate in a way (harsh judgment wouldn’t really help someone do better). But this had a subtle effect, in my view, of normalizing this kind of sexual sin.
I don’t mean to suggest that all the members of this support group were engaged in ongoing, in some cases compulsive, sexual sin. But at least in some groups I’ve been in, the plurality of the group who were struggling with serious, ongoing sexual sin tended to set the tone for the conversation as a whole. It gave the sense that everyone was doing it.
Hearing these struggles confessed week in and week out raised the question for me: “if others are giving in all the time, why should I hold out? Why not just try it out, and then go to confession? After all, that’s what most of the others do.” Since that voice gradually became louder the longer I was involved with this support group, I came more and more to the conclusion that, despite other positive aspects of the group, my involvement was wearing down my commitment to chastity, not building it up.
On the other hand, spending time with friends, some of whom were gay and celibate, others of whom were straight, was much more helpful.
I am, of course, only describing my own experience. I certainly don’t deny that others may find this sort of group helpful. But I do question whether it is ever helpful for chastity to dwell on failures of chastity on a regular basis. There are multiple reasons for the privacy of the confessional. And Paul’s advice to “forget what lies behind and press forward to what lies ahead” is worthwhile counsel in many struggles.
In any case, I think that as we consider how to provide support for chastity, it’s worth thinking about how to shift the focus from the sins we have committed to the positive vision we are called to. My own impression of the support group I attended for a time was that I was getting a lot more reminders of sin than I was getting a vision of what God was calling me to. On the other hand, the friendships I described were much better at pointing me forward, and much less likely to focus my attention on “what lies behind.”
And I think that this kind of support, much more so that a support group that focuses on weekly confession of sexual sin, does a better job of reflecting the “badly needed context” that Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of a quarter century ago:
The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.