In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that as humans are a “story-telling animal,” and goes on to say, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
Over the last week, I’ve written a lot about my experiences and the experiences of my friends. In different ways, each of those stories grappled with its relation to the larger Christian story. Through those stories, I’ve tried to sketch some part of the range of gay experience, from anonymous hook-ups to highly idealized unrequited love.
Many Christians are suspicious of experience. They think that in our present fallen state, we are far too likely to be misled by our sinful desires, and that the only reliable source of moral judgment is found in the Bible or (for Catholics) in the Church’s teaching.
Pope John Paul II offered a more nuanced view. The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel.
[This post was originally written for Friday, October 14. A combination of weather-related travel delays and getting feedback from my friend Chris delayed posting until now.]
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.
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.
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).
It is a gray Tuesday in November. The year is 1994, and I am a sophomore at the University of Washington in Seattle. I am pacing nervously up and down the sidewalk in front of Terry Hall, waiting for my friend Matt. Although long experience has taught me that he will be a few minutes late, I am five minutes early.
I rehearse the scene. Matt will arrive (a little behind schedule) and apologize that he didn’t make it on time. I will say it’s no big deal. We will shake hands. Then we will walk into the cafeteria, where we will grab lunch. We will chat about this and that—my classes, his job search, good books we’ve read recently, how we think the election will turn out.
In yesterday’s post, I alluded to a pilgrimage to France with my friend Steve in October of 2002. Today, I want to reflect more deeply on that experience.
On the morning of September 17, 2002, Steve had checked into Swedish hospital in Seattle with stomach pain. That afternoon, following a wide array of tests, an oncologist broke the news that he had pancreatic cancer, and had as little as three months to live.
Later that week, I received a cryptic phone call, asking if we could meet to talk. We met at a Vietnamese restaurant, and over enormous bowls of Pho soup, Steve asked if I would be available to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Europe. He wanted to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes, and if his time on earth was to be limited, he wanted to use some of it seeing some of Europe’s great pilgrimage sites.
I had a conference to attend in San Diego in early October, and another in New York in early November. But if we spent the last three weeks of October, I could do it. We hastily booked plane tickets, and sketched out an itinerary.
Over the last few days, I’ve been attending a private retreat for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians. Sunday evening, I was asked to offer a few words of reflection for the group. This is a rough transcript of what I said.
Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.
A retreat is an opportunity for refreshment. We leave behind the troubles of our everyday lives, and come here to spend a few days seeking God together.
Each of us comes from a different place. Some of us bring joy and hope to the retreat, others come burdened by grief and anxiety: struggles in prayer, struggles with loneliness, struggles with sin that you may feel mired in. Some had travel problems, unexpected traffic, airport delays, etc. And some bring more serious issues like depression.
Most of the people in this community originally met through online forums. This weekend, we’ve deepened our friendships face-to-face. The conversations this weekend are a reminder that we are really made to know each other face-to-face. It’s far more affirming to sit with a group of friends and talk than it is to exchange messages online—though it’s wonderful to be able to keep in touch with distant friends in a way that was impossible in the past.
But as wonderful as face-to-face contact can be, we are returning home tomorrow. I’d like to reflect a bit on how to move forward.
Next time you’re near a time machine, I recommend traveling back to one of the earliest Christian churches—say, in 2nd-century Rome—and paying close attention to what you see and hear. You’ll be struck, of course, by the diversity and the odd, sometimes troubling juxtapositions: Here is a community where slaves and slave owners are drinking from the same Communion cup, where the grip of Caesar’s reign is loosened by a stronger cry: “Jesus is Lord.” Here is a group of people who give alms to the poor, who fast and sometimes mourn for the world’s pain, and sing hymns in open defiance of death, as if dying has somehow lost its terror for them. And here, perhaps most strikingly of all, is a community in which a large percentage of people are single—by choice.
The early Christians, in spite of the “family values” their differing Jewish and pagan pasts had taught them to celebrate, prized virginity. Women and men alike in the early days of the new Jesus movement gave up sex and marriage in droves. As many historians have noted, it’s one of the most extraordinary things about the beginnings of Christianity. In a world where sex was as readily available as the body of the slave in your anteroom or the prostitute in the brothel down the street, a disproportionate number of Jesus-worshipers opted for celibacy. And this may be our first clue as to what a Christian “spirituality of sex” might be: Sex, for Christians, isn’t necessary. It doesn’t “complete” anyone. It isn’t god, and it doesn’t save. If the early Christians shocked Rome by their refusal to worship Caesar, they were equally shocking in their refusal to worship sex.
It has been a difficult season for me. I’ve been transitioning cities, working through heartbreak, living with nearly constant heartache, beginning the long-term career job hunt, and learning to live life without the basic structure provided by classes and coursework. Many of my friends are also struggling through difficult break-ups, divorce, depression, addiction, and deep loneliness. Life is difficult and it is messy, but it also has profound moments of beauty and restoration woven between the pain and lament.
Today’s Office of Readings includes this letter from St. Francis of Assisi to all the faithful:
We must be simple, humble and pure
It was through his archangel, Saint Gabriel, that the Father above made known to the holy and glorious Virgin Mary that the worthy, holy and glorious Word of the Father would come from heaven and take from her womb the real flesh of our human frailty. Though he was wealthy beyond reckoning, he still willingly chose to be poor with his blessed mother. And shortly before his passion he celebrated the Passover with his disciples. Then he prayed to his Father saying: Father, if it be possible, let this cup be taken from me.
Nevertheless, he reposed his will in the will of his Father. The Father willed that his blessed and glorious Son, whom he gave to us and who was born for us, should through his own blood offer himself as a sacrificial victim on the altar of the cross. This was to be done not for himself through whom all things were made, but for our sins. It was intended to leave us an example of how to follow in his footsteps. And he desires all of us to be saved through him, and to receive him with pure heart and chaste body.
O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as the Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul; and your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshippers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers saying: Our Father, who art in heaven, since we must always pray and never grow slack.
Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind them in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.