A Happy Convergence

Sometimes it really does seem that Providence arranges remarkable and helpful convergences.

This week, just after I’d read these hope-giving lines from Eve Tushnet’s reflections on her role in the whole “gay Catholic” conversation and the upcoming Revoice conference —

We’re constantly being told that same-sex sexual desire is disordered, which I accept, as I accept all that is taught by Holy Mother Church. But when people (or ducks) try to tell you how to order your desires, they always try to get you to keep the expression of desire the same, but change the object. This is the “become straight” option, if “option” is the word I want. There is another way for desire to become ordered: same object, different expression. People who long for same-sex love and intimacy should maybe be encouraged to learn how to do that, since it is good, and holy, and beautiful.

— I happened to get an email from a friend that pointed me to a letter written by the great Evangelical Anglican preacher Charles Simeon (1759-1836) to his friend Mary Elliott. This letter, it seemed to me, dovetailed beautifully with Eve’s blog post. Here is an excerpt from the letter, written the year before Simeon’s death:

In your letter of this morning you express a fear that you may love your dear Mother or a friend too much; and I am anxious to correct that idea without loss of time; first, because it is a source of disquiet to the conscience, and next because it is an error which almost universally prevails in the Church of God. That we may show our love improperly I readily grant; but that we can love one another too much I utterly deny, provided only it be in subserviency to the love of God. I think I have explained to you that word fervently (‘see that ye love one another with a pure Heart’): its precise meaning is intensely. No two words in any two languages more exactly agree than ‘intensely’ does with the original. If then our love be with a pure heart, this alone were sufficient to establish the point. . . .

Christianity does not encourage apathy; it is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections. It admits of their full operation, but tempers them as to their measure and sanctifies them to the Lord. I have often been comforted by knowing that Lazarus and his sisters were peculiarly beloved of their Lord, and that John was an object of His more than ordinary attachment; and from hence you will see that, if I have written this for your instruction, I have had an eye also to my own vindication, if I should appear to err in the discharge of the most delightful of all duties.

If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire—not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself—is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted—it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”

It’s not a sin for men to love men, or women to love women. On the contrary.

Spiritual Friendship: Learning to Desire Love

Conference Announcement!

On July 26, 2018 from 1-5pm, Spiritual Friendship will host a pre-conference, immediately preceding the Revoice Conference in St. Louis. Featuring Ron Belgau, Matthew Lee Anderson, Johanna Finegan, and Br. Joe Trout, OP, the pre-conference will provide a theological foundation for thinking about desire, the fall, and the sanctification of human love.

All Revoice attendees must RSVP in order to attend the preconference.

Memorial Presbyterian

Description

How can gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians love and experience love if God created human beings male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage? This conference will provide a theological foundation to answer this question by fleshing out what the Bible and Christian tradition have to say about:

  • Human desire in light of the fall and the process of sanctification;
  • How beauty can draw us toward truth;
  • The role of ascesis in purifying desire;
  • Friendship and its counterfeits; and
  • How authentically Christian love—in marriage and family life, in friendship, and in Christian community—is outward focused, not turned in on itself.

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Celibacy: Tragedy or Deep Comedy?

I started the process of coming out as gay and celibate just over a year ago when I came out to one of my best friends. It was the last Saturday in Lent which, ironically, also happened to be April Fool’s Day. Tragedy and comedy mixed together as Lent with all of its tragic-like focus on sin, its darkness, its cross bearing is mingled with April Fools’ Day, there to make a joke of it all. I’ve thought a lot about that day over the past year and I’ve come to think that there is something theologically significant about these themes of celibacy, tragedy, and comedy. Is celibacy merely a tragic existence that is to be pitied? Or is it a deep comedy, to borrow Peter Leithart’s phrase, in which there is ultimately a happy ending? A happy ending that is not simply a restoration of something lost, but is a surprise that moves us beyond anything that we could ever have been imagined?[1]

A few days after I came out to my friend he sent to me a link to “Treaty,” a dark, haunting song by Leonard Cohen. In the email, he wrote: “Kevin, I’ve wanted to show you this song for several months, but I’ve been afraid to. It seems so fitting for you, and for me. Now, it feels even more fitting than before.”

I have to confess, I loved the song (and still do). After he shared it with me I listened to it over and over and over again. The prospect of coming out had left me gutted, feeling empty. I binged on the song, letting it poke and prod my already festering wound, wanting to feel something, anything. I listened to it at night, alone in a dark house. I listened to it for what I am sure was more than half of the five hour drive to visit my friend the following weekend.

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

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Benedict XVI on Friendship with Christ

Benedict XVI blessing a child in Zagreb, Croatia

On Tuesday, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI sent a letter to an Italian newspaper. In response to a question about his well-being, Benedict wrote of the “slow waning” of his physical strength, and spoke with hope of his “pilgrimage toward home.”

“It’s a great grace, in this last, at times tiring, stage of my journey, to be surrounded by a love and goodness that I could have never imagined,” he wrote.

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Sexual Minorities in the Orthodox Church: Towards a Better Conversation

A few months ago I was invited to become one of the contributors to a new Eastern Orthodox blog called Orthodoxy in Dialogue. At the time I had just written my post How Should We Then Live? which was a response to conversations around Giacomo Sanfilippo’s post on Conjugal Friendship. Giacomo is one of the editors at Orthodoxy in Dialogue and asked if I’d contribute from time to time. They are hoping to “provide a space for the discussion of topics relevant to Orthodox Christianity.” Some of those topics, will overlap with Spiritual Friendship’s ongoing discussions around the place of sexual minorities in the church. One of their recent posts, “Transgenderism” Isn’t a Thing is in the same vein of subjects we’ve written about here on Spiritual Friendship.

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I recently published my first essay with Orthodoxy In Dialogue continuing the themes of How Should We Then Live and wanted to share with you all.

Most often, the rehashing and restating of the Church’s concrete theological positions grate against me. It pains me not because I personally disagree with its conclusions; rather, I find it lacking in practical advice or teaching that actually helps make sense of the life I’m called to live. Discussions around celibate relationships, committed friendships, life in community, sexual abstinence, and many others just don’t happen. I’ve found the Church leery of engaging in these gray areas for fear of somehow failing a test of “Orthodoxy.” Simply even engaging with the lived experiences of queer people in the Church is dangerous, or has the possibility of contaminating what is seen as “pure” theology.

I want to affirm the need for theological preservation, and for ancient truths to continue to have a place in the teaching of the Church. But the problem comes when it starts to feel as if I’ve been forgotten by the Church or reduced to a theological anomaly.

You can read the rest of the post here!

Joseph Nicolosi, Rest in Peace

Joseph Nicolosi

Yesterday Joseph Nicolosi, who played a prominent role in promoting reparative therapy, passed away unexpectedly from complications from the flu. Although Spiritual Friendship exists in large part to provide an alternative to Dr. Nicolosi’s approach, we join in praying for the repose of his soul and for those who were close to him, that they may find consolation in this difficult time.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

Permission to Lament

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.

Amid the Wreckage of the Christian Right

eastern-airlines-401

Just before midnight on December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 was descending toward Miami International Airport with 176 souls on board. The night was a clear with no moon.

When the pilots attempted to lower the landing gear, the green light indicating that the nose gear was down and locked failed to illuminate. They informed Air Traffic Control that they were aborting the landing, and requested a holding pattern. The controller directed them to climb and circle over the Everglades.

Over the next few minutes, as the pilots sought to trouble-shoot the problem with the landing gear, they didn’t monitor their instruments, and so did not notice that the plane was slowly descending. Over the next several minutes, the crew became so focused on fixing the landing gear problem that they lost situational awareness. They weren’t paying attention to their altitude, and missed warning chimes informing them that the plane was drifting downwards.

A few minutes later, the plane slammed into the Everglades, killing 99 of the passengers and crew on board; all of the survivors sustained injuries, most of them serious enough to require hospitalization.

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Revelation

Notre Dame Basilica and Dome

 

In the fall of 2009, I moved to South Bend for a year-long exchange at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. At the Ethics and Culture Conference that November, I met Chris Damian, a Notre Dame freshman interested in philosophy and theology.

For the first couple of years after we met, we had interesting conversations when we ran into each other (which was not often) and exchanged occasional emails if one of us saw something we thought would interest the other. He was popular and charismatic, and I saw his natural leadership talents emerge as he immersed himself in pro-life activism and defending the faith on campus.

After a couple of years passed like this, I was in South Bend again for a conference, and we arranged to meet for dinner. At some point in the conversation, we got into a discussion of homosexuality and changing sexual orientation. Chris thought Christians should talk more about hope for orientation change.

I disagreed.

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The Desires of the Heart

Today’s Office of Readings includes a meditation from St. Augustine on Jesus’ saying that “No one can come to me, unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44). Augustine thinks that we are not drawn to God by necessity or under compulsion, but by love, even by desire: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

Augustine reminds his readers of how lavishly the Scripture appeals to our sense of delight: “How precious is thy steadfast love, O God! The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light” (Psalm 36:7-9).

And this of course echoes what may be his most famous saying, found in the Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, oh God, and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in You.” The Confessions are an extended meditation on desire, on the many false objects of desire that Augustine pursued until he discovered that they could not truly satisfy the desire of his heart.

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