The book tells the story of Aaron’s son Samuel, who was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 in September, 2011. Most Trisomy 18 babies die in utero; of those who are born alive, 90% will die within the first year. Even the tiny minority who live past their first year face significant challenges and handicaps.
Despite this difficult prognosis, Aaron and his wife, Alisha, chose to carry Samuel to term. He was born in January, 2012, and died five short, difficult, precious hours after his birth. Aaron comments:
Fulfilling this vocation was difficult and required a choice to embrace the suffering it would engender. But we are convinced that this choice is part of what it means to love; to choose to love is to open oneself simultaneously to both joy and suffering. Thankfully, a community of fellow sufferers provided the gifts and grace of friendship, seconding and sustaining our choice. Fostering courage and hope, they made it possible to live well in the midst of our suffering.
While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)
I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…
It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”
“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.
But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.
I always like seeing this emphasis in discussions of hospitality:
After seven years of marriage, my wife and I have welcomed numerous friends into our home. Once we decide to host friends for an evening, we usually kick into get ready mode, a fast and furious sprint in the days and hours before our friends arrive. We divide and conquer the to-do list: select a menu, complete grocery shopping, mow the lawn, sweep the floors, run the vacuum, clean the playroom, wipe the bird crap off our lawn chairs (we have lots of trees), set the table, clean the playroom (again), and somehow, someway, pray all that happens before the doorbell rings.
Over the years, that to-do list has prepared us for hosting company, but it has also prevented us from welcoming friends in our home. Unwritten Southern rules of offering hospitality with excellence have affected how often we invite people in our home. ‘We should have the __________s over sometime.’ And then we delay or postpone the invitation. Why? Because the to-do list is always there, the gap between our day-to-day home and the presentable, acceptable-for-hospitality version of our home.
But over the past several months, Emily and I are learning to lay those conventions aside. Why? Because inviting friends into our lives when we are only ‘excellent’ isn’t friendship. Sure, there are still times we like to go all out, spruce up the house and cook a huge, Jamie Oliver style meal. It can be fun and it’s enjoyable to do things well. But that standard of excellence is rarely possible with two children under the age of 3. Friendship isn’t about always being ‘excellent’ with one another. Friendship is about preparing a space for authentic conversation. And sometimes authenticity happens when everything is a bit scruffy.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted a beautiful video on Facebook about a couple that have been married for 50 years. The wife has Alzheimer’s Disease, so the husband also needs to be her permanent caregiver. “From the moment she gets up to the moment she goes to bed, I have to do everything,” he says: “clean her teeth, shower, dress her.” However, he tells us: “I don’t count it as a burden to have to care for her … I count it as a great privilege to care for this woman that I’ve loved all of these years and continue to love … She has done so much for me, over all of these years; now she can’t, but I can, and I can return her love.”
When I first saw it I was struck because it reminded me of another video that I’d seen several years previously, about a same-sex couple who had been together for 54 years. Bill was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and had to be cared for by his partner, John. “He needs a little more help and I’m glad I can do it,” John says. “It’s a real privilege. I call it payback time. I’m paying him back for all he did for me from day one.”
Fr. James Martin – a Jesuit priest who has writtenquiteeloquently on LGBT issues a number of times before – has a column in the latest edition of America magazine, “Simply Loving,” in which he asks why “so many gay people say they feel hatred from members of the church” despite the fact that most Catholics claim not to hate gay and lesbian people.
Fr. Martin suggests that one reason – aside from the obvious fact that a lot of LGBT people don’t agree with Catholic teaching about homosexual acts – is that it is very rare to hear many Catholics “say something positive about gays and lesbians without appending a warning against sin.”
The language surrounding gay and lesbian Catholics is framed primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of sin. For example, “We love our gay brothers and sisters—but they must not engage in sexual activity.” Is any other group of Catholics addressed in this fashion? Imagine someone beginning a parish talk on married life by saying, “We love married Catholics – but adultery is a mortal sin.” With no other group does the church so reflexively link the group’s identity to sin.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing an intellectual autobiography. It would be an imprudently premature work, but, as I’ve turned the idea over in my mind, I’ve come to see the work as an immature inevitability, awaiting only time and much (though inescapably insufficient) work. When I first started to think about this, I considered titling it, “The Men Who Have Loved Me.” I’ve been remarkably lucky to be radically loved by various men in my life: my father, spiritual directors, priests, professors, mentors, roommates, and friends. I’ve been lovingly taught, mentored, cared for, listened to, corrected, and nurtured. I have fond memories of falling in and out of love with friends, with the tenderness of friendship lasting beyond the spark of romance.
But my loves have not only been other men. They’ve also been women, they’ve been other relationships, and they’ve been communities. More than anything, they’ve been the people who have noticed me.
The main thing I want to try to communicate is this: We have to resist equating celibacy with loneliness. I wrote an essay once about being gay, Christian, and lonely, and a blogger picked it up and said, basically, “I was in the same boat once when I was a young man. And then love broke in….” Notice the dichotomy: single and lonely, or partnered and able to experience love.
But what if those aren’t our only choices? What if that’s a false dichotomy? What if, instead, celibacy could be seen as an occasion for love? What if choosing sexual abstinence doesn’t automatically equate to choosing isolation and repression? What if joining a parish community as a single person could be seen as a choice for close-knit familial bonds? Those are the questions I want us all to be thinking about.
“For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality… If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong.” -Fr. James Schall
When I was a child, I used to have night terrors. When I had bad dreams, I would sit up in my bed and cry or yell while I was sleeping. My parents would have to come up to my room, gently wake me, and then help me fall back to sleep.
I don’t have night terrors anymore, but I do occasionally have bad dreams. Like the night terrors, I don’t always remember them. Once, when I was visiting a friend, he told me one morning that he had woken me up the night before. Apparently, he heard me having a bad dream, so he woke me up, made sure everything was fine, and told me to go back to bed. I don’t remember any of this.
This is one fear I have: suffering under a bad dream in the night and not having anyone around to wake me up, and to tell me to go back to sleep. It sounds silly. It makes me sound like a child. But this is not a childish fear. It’s a human fear. It’s a fear of falling into a brokenness that you don’t even realize and that can only be alleviated by those who have loved you so much that they know you better than you know yourself. It’s the realization that you can become careless or tired and unaware of your failings and that, from time to time, you need people to make up for your inadequacies. It’s the commonly admitted fear of dying alone that acts as a mask for the real, underlying fear: the fear of living alone.
Five years ago, my friend Darrel started a church in Fort Worth called Southside City Church. The church’s primary focus is serving men and women living with HIV/AIDS, and they developed these relationships through a partnership with a local non-profit that provides housing and resources to homeless individuals living with HIV/AIDS. A significant percentage of the men and women involved in life at Southside are LGBT individuals who, alongside heterosexuals from all walks of life, have finally found a place to belong. Darrel has a day job. He doesn’t earn a living through his role as a pastor, yet Darrel and his family have devoted their lives to the church, which ends every service with a meal so folks from all social classes and every corner of the city can enter into one another’s lives in a meaningful way.
I lived closer to Fort Worth when the church was launched so I would attend every Sunday evening. What drew me there were the vans of previously homeless men and women that rolled up every Sunday. What drew me there were the children of all ethnicities who worshipped Jesus alongside me, Chaplain Jerry, and teens who showed up off the streets. Everyone played a part in preparing the food, creating the clothes closet, setting up for Sundays and cleaning up the kitchen. You didn’t know who was HIV positive and who wasn’t, who had a criminal record and who didn’t, who had a college degree and who dropped out of high school. Everyone was equally invested—with no distinctions—and the relationships were mutually transforming.