Heartbreak and Celibacy Pt. 3

(See Part 1 & Part 2)

Part 3: What Heartbreak and Heartache Have Taught Me About Community

I’m a verbal processor and am usually a miserable failure at not gushing most details of my life with anyone trustworthy who will listen. I must have shared about my feelings for Corey with dozens and dozens of friends those first first two years, even if it was difficult for me to find the right language. Many of my celibate friends empathized and connected through their own stories of heartache and longing—friends who listened to the same laments over and over again and friends who called things as they saw them. My Side A friends, who were open to same-sex relationships, were thankful that I was finally coming to terms with my humanity and experiencing what most typical boys experienced a decade earlier. They helped me know that what I experienced is merely a part of life and a part of growing up. I had few examples of what to do with romantic feelings as a celibate gay man, which made it difficult to know how normal or abnormal my experiences were. As I learned, falling in love and going through heartache and heartbreak is just a part of life, celibate or not. I was thankful for the advice and empathy my friends shared as well as their enduring patience with me.

As a celibate gay man, I never thought I was supposed to fall in love. Matthew Vines, the popular gay-affirming apologist, has said that one of the worst things that can happen to a celibate gay man or woman is to fall in love. I don’t know if it is the single worst thing, but I think it is an especially excruciating challenge for many of us. In the celibate world, there are few models or examples of just getting through experiences of falling in love, and as a result, few talk about that experience openly. More than one of my celibate friends have participated in the wedding of the man or woman they were in love with at one time. For many of them, that was a heartache they endured silently. What they were feeling was something they believed they needed to reject or fear. So often they endured these intense feelings silently and alone.

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©️ Gregg Webb 2014

 

Some of my affirming friends lost faith in their convictions about celibacy after they experienced mutual romantic connection. It was easy to get caught up in the rush of feelings that you never thought were possible and a connection you never believed could really exist. In most cases they eventually experienced heartbreak but almost always didn’t stop pursuing romantic relationships after that first experience. The veil had been torn down, and they suddenly realized what, in a sense, they’d been missing. The challenge for celibate gay Christians is: How do you walk right up to the edge of the brink, look your feelings in the eye and acknowledge that they are real and important, but still choose not to walk down the path that these feelings are naturally inclined to lead? Continue reading

Heartbreak and Celibacy Pt. 2

(See Part 1)

Part 2: What Heartbreak and Heartache Have Taught Me About Heart

The second time I fell in love was with a new friend I met during my last year in St. Louis. I’ll call him Brad. This time, I wanted to learn from my last experience and decided to dive head first into the feelings and try and embrace them as best I could. My friends and counselors had been showing me all the ways I had grown callous and dismissive toward my emotions, and they encouraged me to try a different approach than repressing them. I was threatened by my feelings, and so if they didn’t make sense, or if it seemed pointless to feel them, I would try and reject or repress them. As the wiser voices in my life knew, though, rejecting and ignoring them only made them fester. This time I decided that I was going to take these newly learned lessons in emotional congruence and let my feelings be rather than fighting them. I was moving away from St. Louis several months after meeting Brad, and so whatever happened, it would have a firm end when I moved to Chicago.

Part of expressing what I was feeling was finding language for it. Unlike my experience with Corey, I more readily admitted to a few close friends my attractions to Brad and would effusively share with those friends around me about the feelings. I was a man who had a crush on (and eventually fell in love with) another man—it seemed simple enough. I had no intent of pursuing anything with brad other than, perhaps, a lesson in increased emotional intelligence. Even after my experience of falling in love with Corey, I still felt that I’d never fully accepted the part of me that was romantically attracted to other men. My lust and sexual desires were all too familiar, but I still largely resisted and ignored the more complicated side of my attraction to other men. This side of myself longed for a deep, intimate connection with another person, which I had largely ignored or repressed. I knew that all of us long for love and connection and that self-sacrifice and deep love can exist in friendship as well as marriage. What I didn’t know was if there was some goodness in my romantic feelings for Brad that could be genuinely loving and selfless without having to be rejected altogether.

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©️ Gregg Webb 2014

I believe that part of why I was so emotionally shut off to my own experiences was out of a fear of what those feelings might mean about me. They scared and threatened me because they weren’t as clearly rooted in sin as my lust was. My lust was selfish and grounded in my own pleasure, but my feelings for Brad felt more connected to what I believed was selflessness—the same feelings that lead someone to forsake father and mother and give over their life to the good of someone else’s. This self-giving and person-focused side of my attractions was what I wanted to begin opening myself up to in a way that I hadn’t with Corey. I wanted to try and be more open to the parts of these feelings that could be pleasing to God, like selflessness. My faith told me that I was called to resist lust for the same gender, but it wasn’t as clear to me if these other parts of my feelings for Brad could somehow be good. Continue reading

Heartbreak and Celibacy Pt. 1

Part 1: What Heartbreak and Heartache Have Taught Me About Myself

How do you live with heartbreak when you were never supposed to fall in love? What happens when you fall in love with a friend and you don’t want to ruin a friendship? How do you find the goodness in loving someone even if those feelings are, at some point, also romantic? I still don’t think I really know the answers to these questions, although the circumstances of my life seem hell-bent on teaching me. Heartaches and heartbreaks have taught me about myself, about my heart, and about my community. These are lessons I’m slowly learning, and I hope that in these ramblings maybe you too will find some semblance of an answer. At the very least, you’ll find something that you can empathize with, because at some point, gay or straight, heartache and heartbreak happen.

Twice in my adult life I’ve fallen in love with a man. Early crushes may have happened before adulthood, nothing significant enough to write about. The first time I fell in love was for a writer I’d gotten to know through his blog. I’ll call him Corey. As much as I struggled not to fall in love with Corey, I eventually did. I was madly in denial about what I was experiencing because it felt so incongruent with my values and, in many ways, pointless. Hundreds of miles separated us, and he never reciprocated my feelings, so there were fewer kicks to the face emotionally that would have made the nature of my feelings more apparent to me.

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©️ Gregg Webb 2014

Caught up in all of the heartache was fear. I feared what these feelings meant for me and for my future life as a celibate gay man. I couldn’t figure out which of the feelings I experienced were acceptable and which I was supposed to try and kill off. It took me over a year just to start finding language I felt comfortable with to describe what I was feeling. In many ways, because falling in love seemed pointless as a celibate gay man, I just wanted to forget about the whole thing altogether. My heart, and sometimes my dear friends, never really let me ignore it entirely, though I tried. It took Spotify listing my number one song of 2014 as “I Don’t Wanna Love Somebody Else,” by A Great Big World, for me to begin accepting that even the music I was (cluelessly) listening to somehow expressed what I could not. Experiences like the one I wrote about in “Forsaking All Others also helped me come to terms with my myself and slowly began to help me identify what I was feeling. Continue reading

How Should We Then Live?

The recent debate surrounding the essay “Conjugal Friendship” by Giacomo Sanfilippo has yet again reminded me of a the importance of dialogue surrounding sexual minorities in the Orthodox Church. I’m not an expert in the theology of Florensky so I will leave the theological particulars to Sanfilippo and other theologians. I do have experience though in how the Church discusses sexual minorities and interacts with the LGBT community. I have read a few critiques and seen several posts by Orthodox writers and clergy reacting to the post on “Conjugal Friendship.” Most seem to be reading into his essay or assuming the worst about it and lamenting what they see as just another attack on the Church’s steadfast commitment to the traditional sacrament of marriage. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on how we as a Church can better discuss the various paths available to sexual minorities within the Church rather than Sanfilippo’s specific content or that of his critics.

   ©️ 2017 Gregg Webb

What I took away from Sanfilippo’s essay was less the specific arguments or case he makes for developing an Orthodox theology of Same-Sex love, and more the fact that he is attempting to find paths of living for sexual minorities within the church. As both a gay man and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I wrestle daily to try and figure out what I am called by my church to surrender and to give up. I am constantly reminded of all that I am asked to forsake at the Church’s request of fidelity to its, and my own, understanding of same-sex sexual expressions. I don’t need to be reminded that the path my heart most naturally is inclined towards, that of pursuing a husband and a family in a same-sex partnership, is not available to me. I don’t need to be reminded that I am called daily towards chastity and celibacy and to remain steadfast in following all that the Church teaches related to sexual intimacy. I know these things all too well and those battles within my heart rage continually. I need no reminders of these battles or allegiances. Continue reading

On Gay Loneliness

This Huffington Post article, by Michael Hobbes, on “gay loneliness after gay rights” has been making the rounds. I first saw it when a friend of mine sent me the link last week, and I was truly moved by it. Here’s a taste:

The term researchers use to explain this phenomenon [of disproportionate experiences of depression, loneliness, and suicide among gay men] is “minority stress.” In its most direct form, it’s pretty simple: Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.

For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it.

John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people. Even relatively small stressors in this period have an outsized effect — not because they’re directly traumatic, but because we start to expect them. “No one has to call you queer for you to adjust your behavior to avoid being called that,” Salway says.

James, now a mostly-out 20-year-old, tells me that in seventh grade, when he was a closeted 12-year-old, a female classmate asked him what he thought about another girl. “Well, she looks like a man,” he said, without thinking, “so yeah, maybe I would have sex with her.”

Immediately, he says, he panicked. “I was like, did anyone catch that? Did they tell anyone else I said it that way?”

This is how I spent my adolescence, too: being careful, slipping up, stressing out, overcompensating. Once, at a water park, one of my middle-school friends caught me staring at him as we waited for a slide. “Dude, did you just check me out?” he said. I managed to deflect — something like “Sorry, you’re not my type” — then I spent weeks afterward worried about what he was thinking about me. But he never brought it up. All the bullying took place in my head.

The whole article is worth your attention, and it’s already prompted a lot of conversation in my circles, but I just want to make two brief points that I haven’t seen others making in quite the same way.

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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.

“Beyond marriage and religious life”

Our own Eve Tushnet has a new piece in America magazine about non-marital ways people can belong to one another. I recommend it enthusiastically.

My housemates Aidan and Melanie Smith and I—about whom I’ve written before—were interviewed here, along with other friends of SF like Tim Otto. Go read the whole thing!

My favorite part of the article was how it ended:

Several people I spoke with emphasized that they had not had any expectations for their way of life—or they had to lose the expectations they did have. They did not feel that they had successfully achieved friendship, partnership, community membership. These were things they received through luck or Providence. Love did not solve their problems; it was as likely to sharpen their loneliness as to relieve it. As Zoe Mullery said, “You’d think [community] would deal with your loneliness better—and it doesn’t.” They are grateful, not satisfied.

The God who emerges in their words is a weird and unpredictable God. It is a God who wants you to love others, to make your life a gift, but who offers no guarantees that anybody but him will take you up on the offer. This God may call you to break societal norms but give you no guidance in how to do it well. This God will use your loneliness and insecurity to drive you to love others, but then make you see that no human being—and maybe nothing in this life—can satisfy your hunger to be loved. In the battle between solitude and community, community wins—even contemplatives rejoice in and suffer the intense relationships found in a monastery. Yet it might be said that our willingness to accept and sacrifice for our community obligations must rest on the bedrock of our solitude with God.

As someone pursuing an intentionally single, chaste life in community with dearly loved, “committed” friends, I would co-sign every single word of this. And I want that phrase “grateful, not satisfied” carved on my tombstone.

When Friendship Isn’t a “Solution”

Paul Wadell, author of some of the few contemporary treatments of friendship in the Christian tradition (that draw on St. Aelred, among others), has an article in an old issue of the Christian Century on a complicated friendship of his. Going through some of my old files today, I ran across Wadell’s essay and found myself thinking about it again. (The piece is behind the paywall, sadly. But for the few of you who may subscribe, here’s the link. It’s worth reading.)

Wadell tells the story of an especially rich friendship from his high school days that later became painful and led to heartache and a “parting of the ways.” He and his friend started traveling different roads and lost the ability to understand and sympathize with one another. But neither of them, it seems, gave up on the friendship entirely. Wadell only tells snippets of the story, but it seems to me from what he wrote that the relationship remained pretty touch and go until the friend’s death. There was genuine love, even reconciliation and forgiveness, but never a return to that joy that sparked the friendship in the first place. And this got me reflecting on a paradox at the heart of friendship.

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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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Bearing One Another’s Burdens

What should the Church’s message to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people be?

Typically, this question is quickly framed in terms of sexual ethics: should the Church bless same-sex marriage? Framed in this way the traditional answer—which I fully believe—is that the Church cannot bless same sex marriage, because both Old and New Testaments teach that gay sex is contrary both to God’s plan in creation and to His revealed law. I have written tens of thousands of words and participated in numerous public debates defending this position and responding to various revisionist arguments.

But there is a danger here. In today’s Gospel reading, Christ says, “But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Again, He says, “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).

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