Some friends of mine were recently married. As a part of their wedding ceremony, they included the prayer:
“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.
Recently, one of my friends on Facebook pointed me to an article on the Gospel Coalition blog about a man who experiences an intensely deep friendship with another guy. It really is beautiful. The author’s name is Chad Ashby, and in the article, he makes what I would consider to be a correct distinction between deep love between men and homosexual attraction. He says,
To love another man as your own soul (1 Sam. 18:1) is not homosexual love; it is the love of Christ. It is a true willingness to lay down your life for your brothers (1 John 3:16). We must build these kinds of relationships with one another: men who truly love other men.
As I read Ashby’s description of his friendship, I found my heart soaring. It is this type of deep relationship that I long for (and experience with a select few of my close friends). This “Spiritual Friendship”, it seems, is one of the many life-saving graces that God has given to me and many like me in order to successfully live a chaste life.
And yet, as I read the article, I also felt strangely alienated. Ashby makes it very clear that the type of love he is referring to is not homoerotic. But what about when this type of love is also accompanied by a homosexual orientation? What happens when I, as a Christian celibate gay man, experience this type of love, but right alongside of it experience erotic attraction as well? Would Ashby be so quick to tell me to pursue close, intimate friendships? Or would he tell me that it now becomes too dangerous? I’m not sure…
Have you ever been dominated by a single word? One that follows you around like some indelible curse, tacked on by barbed comments or dragged along by a tether of your own design?
Mine was weak.*
It coated me like a toxin on my skin, in my soul; I saw it in every mirror and tasted it in every breath. I hated it. And yet, at the same time, I needed it to survive. So long as I was weak nothing could be demanded of me and I could push away all that might complicate my life. If I’m so weak, I thought, I must protect myself. Tension and complexity and nuance became the enemy—threats to my fragile stability and brokers of an inevitable compromise. After all, I’m weak, I can’t handle it. A pious and poisonous half-truth that I believed for most of my life.
But that’s all changing. Through the years, as I have been increasingly involved in the discussion on faith and sexuality, God has used my weakness in countless ways to bring about moments of life and grace. Over and over I am reminded that being weak isn’t the problem—being selfish and bitter is—and what used to be a barren scar of paralyzing insecurity has proven to be fertile ground for solidarity and passion.
So you think I’d get it by now. But…
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923
I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!
With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.
Last year, Joseph Bottum wrote an essay for Commonweal entitled, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” With a title like this coming from the pen of a former editor of First Things, Bottum’s article was almost certain to generate voluminous commentary. And it did.
One year later, the commentary continues, with the most recent issue of Commonweal including responses to Bottum’s thesis from two high-profile Catholic journalists. Ross Douthat—a columnist for the New York Times—criticizes Bottum for going too far. Douthat argues that if Catholics “are to continue contending in the American public square,” then “there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be.” Jamie L. Manson, on the other hand, thinks that Bottum does not go far enough. She argues that gay couples should not only be allowed by the secular government to contract civil marriages, but that Catholic teaching should change to recognize “the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage.”
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 written quite eloquently 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.
Melinda Selmys has a new book out. Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections is a wonderful collection of reflections on sexuality, Christianity, mental disability, fiction writing, conversion, and much much more. It’s an incredibly rich work. Her love for her readers really shines through in this deeply personal and reflective book. You should order it here.
In a section on “12 Things Every Catholic Should Know About Homosexuality” she seeks to convey that “Truth told without affective love is not true love.” She writes, “Truth is not an abstraction. It’s a person.”
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.