Ode to Solitude

Photograph of Igor Stravinsky by Irving Penn. New York, April 22, 1948

Photograph of Igor Stravinsky by Irving Penn. New York, April 22, 1948

A single man, like myself, confronts solitude every day as patient friend or relentless enemy, as cure or ailment, as mountain vista or obscure cave. The 20th century Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, experienced these binaries in his own life. Without solidarity, solitude is unbearable, as Neruda said about his foreign service in Rangoon, Burma: “Solitude, in this case, was not a formula for building up a writing mood but something as hard as a prison wall; you could smash your head against the wall and nobody came, no matter how you screamed or wept.” With solidarity, however, solitude is not only bearable but even productive, as he said in 1971 Nobel Prize lecture:

There arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song – but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

Continue reading

“You Must Not Be Afraid of Looking for God in the Eyes of a Friend”

A reader just sent an email with an excerpt from a biography that I think will be of interest to a lot of our readers here. The book is Evelyn Waugh’s life of Ronald Knox, the English Catholic convert and author of many detective stories, among other things. In his early adulthood, Knox developed a strong friendship with a young man named Guy Lawrence. As Waugh reflects on the place of this friendship in Knox’s life, he includes a lengthy quote from Fr. Bede Jarrett, which was originally addressed to a monk who was troubled by how intensely he had developed an affection for one specific friend:

Then, as for the point you mention, I would only say this, that I am exceedingly glad. I am glad because I think your temptation has always been towards Puritanism, narrowness, a certain inhumanity… You were afraid of life because you wanted to be a saint and because you knew you were an artist…

… Now evil is overcome by good, by God, by love of God, by reaching for Him everywhere. You must not be afraid of looking for Him in the eyes of a friend. He is there. You can at least be sure of that. To love others is not to lose Him but if possible to find Him in them. He is in them. You will miss finding Him only if you merely love yourself in them. That is the blinding nature of passion; it is self-love masquerading under a very noble disguise…

… I agree to say that your desire to bring God to Y. is sufficient justification for your friendship is all bunkum… You love Y. because you love him, neither more nor less, because he’s lovable. You won’t find any other sincere reason however hard you try… Enjoy your friendship, pay the price of the following pain for it, and remember it in your Mass and let Him be a third in it. The opening of The Spiritual Friendship: “Here We are, thou and I and I hope that between us Christ is a third.” Oh dear friendship, what a gift of God it is. Speak no ill of it.

Continue reading

What is Spiritual Friendship? A Basic Primer

Mac Stewart, a curate at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City, has just written a post on friendship that brings together so many of the threads we’ve talked about here at SF over the years. It’s basically a one-stop primer on some classic Christian thinking about friendship. But Stewart is also concerned to talk about friendship’s contemporary relevance:

A Christian understanding of friendship as the richest and most intense possible form of human closeness may in fact be one of the gifts that Christianity has to offer a post-Christian world that now has a very hard time imagining forms of intimacy and affection that don’t involve genital contact.

Specifically, Stewart wants to encourage us all—married or single—to think about friendship as a site for deep devotion and affection:

[T]here is a whole wonderful realm of relational intimacy that our culture misses out on by loading all of its human-closeness eggs in the basket of specifically sexual intimacy. We tend to refer to these latter relationships as “romantic,” and yet perhaps our sense of romance here is a bit impoverished. Perhaps there is room for a kind of romance with our beloved friends: doing for one another the little deeds of affection that we often associate with a lover wooing his or her espoused, things like writing letters that affirm the beloved’s virtues and beauty, attending carefully to the things that delight their soul and spontaneously and gratuitously fulfilling them, forbearing with their irritating eccentricities while dwelling on their excellences, overcoming their occasional coldness with a deeper kindness.

Continue reading

Desiring Differently

For my money, some of the very sharpest, most creative, most genuinely helpful stuff being written on Christian faith and (homo)sexuality is by my friend Steve Holmes, a Baptist minister who teaches theology at the University of St. Andrews. I’ve mentioned Steve before here at SF—if you haven’t already, do read about his “Queer Hippo” project, and check out this interview with Vicki Beeching—and I wanted to mention him again today because he’s just posted the paper he gave at this year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Here’s an excerpt that I hope will entice a lot of you to go and read the whole essay:

At some point in the twentieth century, we in the West became convinced that sexual activity is necessary for healthy and properly adult human life. Let me, inexactly, call this the ‘Freudian’ position. The call to celibacy in this context sounds like an act of astonishing cruelty, depriving someone of a basic necessity for human flourishing.

Our inherited ethical tradition does not have the language or arguments to deal with this challenge, because it is not the challenge it was crafted to address. We have, literally, nothing to say theologically (and this is true whether we think the right way forward is conservative or progressive, which is why there are presently so few good books on sexual ethics from any side).

It gets worse, though: for a couple of generations, we Evangelicals – and all other Protestants – essentially surrendered to this error by making marriage an inevitable part of Christian maturity. We constructed church programmes on the assumption that single people were either young adults preparing for marriage or elderly and widowed; we doubted ministerial candidates who was not married, because they could therefore not be properly ‘grown up’. This was a capitulation to an error, but it sort of worked OK – until the churches were forced to acknowledge that some people are lesbian/gay/exclusively same-sex attracted, and so not able to accept the inevitability of (traditional) marriage. If we think marriage belongs necessarily to the fulness of life, not in a response to death, then we have no answers for lesbian and gay disciples that are not culturally unimaginable and unspeakably cruel.

We can see this capitulation working itself out in the way in which, in many churches, the beginning and end of sexual ethics is telling young people to ‘save themselves for marriage’ as if sex was an uncomplicated human good that merely needs to be properly located by our moral reasoning. Let us be completely clear: that is not a Christian sexual ethic; that is the ethic of a pagan fertility cult that worships sex because it cannot believe in the resurrection of Christ. We should rather teach people, young and old, married and single – and in complex erotic relationships – that their lived responses to their sexual desires must be ever increasingly ordered to the resurrected life of the Kingdom.

The deep reflection of the Church on the Scriptures has led to the conviction that there are two, and only two, ways of life that are so ordered: marriage and celibacy. Marriage – if it is to be something good, and not merely a concession to our stony hearts, is absolutely not a space for the unlimited indulgence of sexual desires. Rather, it is a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. We’ve heard already Paul insisting on a mutual bodily surrender between spouses in 1 Corinthians; these internal acts of mutual submission, of re-ordering our sinful and selfish desires, are reinforced by the necessary openness to procreation that exists in the marriage relationship. Children, in the light of the resurrection of Christ, are not a way of responding to death, but an opportunity for our crabbed and incurved selves to be opened out in love.

Celibacy, if it is to be something good, and not merely the presence of an absence, is similarly a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. Lacking the opportunity to endlessly submit to a spouse, the celibate Christian will intentionally seek ways to open her life out in love – and the church, if it is to be faithful to the gospel of the resurrection – must offer her such ways. Inevitably these will involve practices of community, probably ordered by rule; I strongly suspect that they will need to involve the sorts of vowed friendships that Wesley Hill was talking about in part on Tuesday night.

Please read the whole thing.

The Future of Asceticism

Over the last couple of years, Eve Tushnet and I have batted around the idea of co-writing a blog post or essay as if we were looking back on the present from the vantage point of fifty years or so. What will be different in Christian conversations about homosexuality in several decades? And what will we wish we had changed sooner?

I’ve been thinking again about this as I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s newest book this past week, The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God, which I hope to write a lot more about here in the days to come (and which I’ll be reviewing for Books & Culture). One of the main things Coakley is concerned to do in this book is to help us all achieve better, more Christian disagreements with each other, and the sort of future she imagines for “sexuality” discussions is one that I am powerfully drawn to.

Continue reading

Protestant Opposition to Celibacy

Outside discussions about gay and lesbian people, I’ve found that most Protestants tend to have a very low view of celibacy. This manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, single seminary graduates often find that it can be difficult to become a pastor in an evangelical church without being married. Lack of marriage can be viewed with suspicion, as an indication that people are likely to fall to sexual sin. Some even argue that failure to marry is a sinful shirking of adult responsibility.

Solitary Tree

Underlying much of this attitude is the belief that for the vast majority of people, celibacy is either impossible or cannot be fulfilling. For example, many Protestants blame the Catholic sex abuse scandal on the requirement that priests remain unmarried, and this is taken as a cautionary tale against an expectation of celibacy. Many Protestants see celibate living as a needless source of loneliness, and as the sort of thing that can be viewed as a form of punishment. On the other hand, they see marriage as the universal solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual temptation.

This relates to the increasing movement of Protestant communities in the direction of viewing marriage as a legitimate vocation for same-sex couples. It is becoming increasingly well-known that there are people with a stable, enduring pattern of attraction to people of the same sex, without corresponding attractions to people of the opposite sex. There are a number of such people who blog here on Spiritual Friendship (although I’m not actually one of them). For such people, marriage to someone of the opposite sex can bring significant issues and is not always advisable.

Continue reading

On Bullying

The moment is burned into my memory. It was night, and I was sitting in my parent’s van. I could easily hear the thumping of the band through the gym walls as they were cheering on my sister and her volleyball team at the community college she was attending. My parents were inside, cheering her on. I was outside in the dark of a cold winter evening—confused, shaken, anxious, hopeless, full of anger, despairing.

The worst thing that my 7th grade mind could think of had just happened.

971

Twenty minutes before, I had been playing outside the gym when two college guys approached me. I thought that they were just walking by to go inside, so I was surprised when they stopped in front of me. They were talking to me. But, why? I didn’t know anyone who was in college beside my sister. It took only a moment for the confusion to disappear, as one of them had spouted off, “Hey, aren’t you that fag from [____] town?”

Continue reading

“Washed and Still Waiting”

Yesterday I was honored to give a lecture at a plenary session for the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting, held this year in Atlanta. The title of my talk was “Washed and Still Waiting,” riffing on my 2010 book title Washed and Waiting, in which I’d tried to describe my celibate gay Christian life as life of tension between the “already” and the “not yet”—I’m already washed, forgiven, and justified in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and I’m waiting eagerly for the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:23).

A few years after the book came out, the journalist Jeff Chu—who, I’m happy to say, has since then become a friend of mine—wrote a book called Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. Towards the middle of his survey of American Christian gay life, Jeff reflects on my Washed and Waiting:

When I finished Hill’s slim volume, I realized… that I would rather have read Washed and Still Waiting, the book that he might be ready to write three decades from now. It’s one thing for someone in his twenties to declare publicly his choice of celibacy—admittedly, a difficult, unorthodox, and bold thing. It’s entirely another to stand by that decision thirty years on. What are the effects of this kind of long-term chastity? What would life look like for the homosexual who, in his relative youth, chose this?

Taking my cues from Jeff’s questions, I decided I would use my ETS plenary lecture to reflect on how it might be possible for people like me to persevere in chastity over the long haul. Although I still can’t offer three decades’ hindsight, I do have some ideas about where to find hope.

In the lecture I explored three areas of pastoral theology that seem to me especially relevant for celibate Christian believers who are gay or lesbian. First—and I decided to take the tried-and-trusted Baptist preacher route of have three points with alliteration!—I discussed our need to rediscover the dignity of the celibate vocation in specifically evangelical Protestant settings. Second, I discussed our need for discipline in stewarding our sexuality. And third, I talked about how we need a theology of celibacy’s direction or destination.

Continue reading

A Friendship Poem

We’ve been known to post a poem or two in honor of friendship on this blog. Here’s one more for your weekend. This one becomes more poignant when you know it was written by a much-beloved friend who, even as he celebrated his friends in this way, was dying of cancer.

Brett Foster, “For My Friends”

Mark 2

The frequency of your kindnesses
to me is deserving of acknowledgment.
Will it provide you with some thin glimpse,
at least, to say that I have felt at my best,
because of you, in these worst of mortal days?
To have lived this one life so multiply
surrounded by friends of an uncommon sort—
immeasurable comfort, source of my pride.
You cared for me in ways that made me
feel like the paralytic who gets carried
over to that gathering at Capernaum, maybe
at the healer’s own place. The front door
is unapproachable because of the crowds.
And like so—: all summer you have hauled
me around on my stretcher, and when
the entrance was barred to us, you climbed
atop the roof and began sawing through it.
(Even hoisting me up there— keeping me
steady and leveled as we ascended
the ladder, what an effort it demanded!)
I usually picture, in my doubtless presumptuous
modern way, that the roof was thatch,
and even so, it would be no easy task
to open up that skylight on my behalf.
Just so you have lowered me into that room
where a message is being heard, something
about all things being restored, made new,
and there I am, well-meaning interrupter,
empowered by his well-meaning crew.
And I can still feel your presence above me,
the weight of me and your sustaining it,
the rope digging into and burning your palms.
Down here, I am unwavering in expectation
for some remark about forgiveness,
though I really don’t know what it will mean
to be told, “Get up, pick up your stretcher,
and make your way home.” I question
the home that is spoken of, and the nature
of that invited rising. In any case, I feel sure
I would do so quickly, both thrilled with sudden
motion but also, truth be told, glad
to be done with all of this fuss. I like to imagine,
too, you guys still on that roof, how easily
you’ll lift the empty stretcher out of the house,
your smiles and handshakes as you descend
from the roof, mission done, and then stash
the ladder somewhere, and race to meet me
in one of our places— a dark back corner
at Bavarian Lodge or Muldoon’s, or perhaps
the side porch, August evening at Two Brothers.
You will not forget the stretcher, exactly,
and neither will I. I don’t envision feeling confident
enough to throw it away for good, but how glad
and relieved I will be, after our pints (my treat),
to store it away in a closet, not thinking
about it, not at all, till I have need of it again.

Dinner Invitations, Yes, but also Sharing Houses

Matthew and me with our favorite figure-skating-obsessed, novel-writing gay Catholic friend Eve Tushnet

Matthew and me with our favorite figure-skating-obsessed, novel-writing gay Catholic friend Eve Tushnet

I recently had the pleasure of visiting my friend Matthew Loftus in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of inner city Baltimore, where he has lived with his family and worked as a physician for the past few years. Matthew has been a longtime friend of this blog—he was one of our early regulars in the combox, and he recently published his first guest post with us. But it struck me, visiting him, that one of the best gifts Matthew brings to us at SF is the witness of his life and the question mark it puts over all of our talk here about “community” and “hospitality.”

Matthew and his wife Maggie and their children are “relocators”: they moved from the suburbs of Baltimore to Sandtown in order to be part of a remarkable multiethnic church there and live among the urban poor. And when I stayed with them, they shared their small(ish) home with a single woman, a friend who, in the time she had been with them, had become like an aunt to their children. This kind of “thick” practice of community—where it isn’t just a dinner table that’s opened up but an entire home, and where mobility is off the table (at least until God calls you elsewhere)—is something we’ve paid comparatively little attention to here on this blog. We need to change that.

Continue reading