In one of Henri Nouwen’s newly published letters, there comes this moment of real human transparency and frailty:
What I keep hoping for are friends who protect, support and care for my celibate choice while not withholding from me a nurturing affective friendship that allows me to shed some tears of loneliness from time to time and return to the “battlefield” knowing that I have friends who support me.
Nouwen, for those readers who may not know, was a renowned priest and spiritual guide, in person as he taught at Harvard and Yale and worked among disabled persons at L’Arche and through his many books and talks, and was outed as gay after his death in 1996 by his first biographer. His story of ongoing, unchanged same-sex longings and vowed, evidently lifelong celibacy has given a lot of hope and courage to many of us who blog here at SF. If an evangelical Anglican may be permitted patron saints, Nouwen is certainly mine. (I even have an icon of him hanging in my office; just don’t tell the Dean of my seminary!)
When I read this portion of one of his letters, I underlined it immediately. It sounds like the sort of thing I’ve said to numerous friends over the years: “Please do support me in my choice to be celibate—please help me live out that commitment well. But please also let me also talk openly from time to time about the loneliness it inevitably involves. Let me lament, and please don’t offer cheap comfort.” As I’ve sought to live my life as an openly gay, celibate Christian in the church, one of the most encouraging gifts I’ve received from my fellow Christians is permission to “shed some tears of loneliness from time to time.”
For me it’s crucial to distinguish lament from despair. The Catholic theologian Josef Pieper has described the latter as the conclusion that we will never arrive at our heavenly home. If hope is the characteristic posture of wayfaring Christians, of believers who are “on the way,” then despair is its inversion. If hope says, “I’m not there yet, but I’m counting on what I can’t see,” despair says, “I’m not there yet, and I never will be.” Despair is a rejection of wayfaring. Despair is giving up on the pilgrim way. Despair is sitting down on the side of the road in the certainty that it leads nowhere, that there is no new Jerusalem lying at its end.
But lament is different. If despair says, “The road has no destination,” lament sounds a contrasting note: “I know there will be joy when I arrive at the destination, but I’m not there yet, and this road feels very long and hard sometimes.” If despair gives up on the pilgrim way, lament keeps putting one foot in front of the other—while crying (Psalm 126:5-6). If despair’s head is downcast, lament’s face may be shining with tears but it is upturned, addressing God. If despair gives up, lament gives way on occasion—to frustration (Psalm 13:1-2), to groaning (Romans 8:18-25), to complaining (Psalm 22:1).
From all my years spent in evangelical Christian churches, I feel confident in saying that many Christians are good at resisting despair—and also, alas, equally good at resisting lament. Theologian Ben Myers’ reflection on sadness is diagnostic:
In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalization of a well-ordered life. Sadness is moral failure…. Where evangelical churches theologize happiness and ritualize the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracized. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person’s spiritual failure.
And the real casualty of this pathologization of sadness is, paradoxically, hope. “A culture without sadness is a culture without hope.” If hope is the virtue of wayfarers, then hope must involve sadness and lament. If you erase sadness, you’re in danger of erasing the sad pilgrim herself, whose sadness is a sign that she hasn’t given up the pilgrim way, that she’s not joined despair on the side of the road, that she’s still waiting for the city of God. Her sadness is an index of the hope she still carries.
Three stories in conclusion to try to make all this more concrete.
When I was in my early twenties and just beginning both to come to terms with my homosexuality and to talk with my fellow Christians about it, I remember sitting with a friend whom I trusted and trying to describe for her how it felt to watch many of my friends from the Christian college I attended pair up and get married. I said I knew marriage wasn’t “the answer” to my loneliness, but also, I confessed, attending all these weddings made me wistful, desirous, and often tearful. And without missing a beat, I remember my friend saying, “Wes, you will get married one day. I know that. You may not see it now, but I believe God will give that to you.” And just like that, in that one instant, my desire to talk any further about my ambivalence, confusion, and frustration in celibacy evaporated, and I looked for a way to end the conversation. Lament suddenly felt as if it had been prohibited.
Fast-forward ten years to my early thirties. I was sitting with another friend, an Anglican priest whose children were almost all grown and out of the house, confiding in him that much of the angst of my twenties had diminished but also that I still wrestled with loneliness. I knew, I said, that marriage is arduous and costly and not in any way a “solution” to problems. And yet, and yet. I told my friend that when I read statements like Justice Kennedy’s—that those gay folks who want marriage equality “hope… not to be condemned to live in loneliness”—I find myself grieving a bit over the thought that marriage, and all that goes with it, isn’t likely in the cards for me. To which my priest replied, “Wes, even the very best marriages leave people lonely. I’m in a very, very good marriage, and I still deal with loneliness.” And again, although I knew he meant well—and despite the fact that I knew what he said was true!—I found that I suddenly had no more desire to talk with him about the particular shape of my loneliness and, as Nouwen wrote, “shed some tears” over it. My unique experience of loneliness had, I felt, been quickly subsumed under some generic umbrella of loneliness that married people experience too. My friend certainly didn’t intend to do this, but the effect of his words on me in that moment was to curtail my lament. I didn’t know how to go on from there to unburden myself, to give words to what seemed like a special kind of loneliness that I was wrestling through.
In contrast to both of these stories, I find myself thinking about another conversation that happened several years ago. I had just finished writing the manuscript for my book Washed and Waiting, and a friend who had gone over each chapter with a fine-tooth editorial comb had invited me to lunch to talk about it. When I arrived at her door, she gave me a hug and ushered me into the dining room. As I sat down next to her husband, I wondered whether I was about to hear correction or admonition: “Wes, you write a lot about the loneliness of being single, but…” That admonition never came. Instead, what my friend wanted to tell me was that she felt she had a better sense of what it felt like to be navigating life while gay and Christian. She said my manuscript had made her think of the gay believers she’d known over the years and how heroic—that was the word she used—they are. She said she better understood and that she wanted to think with me about how best to offer friendship and support to them—to me. I realized, leaving her house that day, that that’s what I had been most hungry for: I wanted someone to hear me say how hard this road could be. I wasn’t looking for an excuse to quit the road, to give up the pilgrim way. But what I felt I did need was someone for whom my sadness, my loneliness, wouldn’t be treated as an obvious sign of spiritual failure or a problem to be overcome or a misunderstanding to be corrected.
There’s a vast difference between lament and despair, and the friends I cherish most are those who know how to help me fight the latter while understanding and offering much leeway for the former.