Coming Out as Spiritual Experience

Over 40 years since Stonewall, it has become commonplace to recognise the value of coming out as a growth experience, bringing benefits to mental health, self-esteem and personal integrity. Less widely recognised is the value of coming out as spiritual growth. This idea, which well deserves to be better known, gets extensive treatment in Daniel Helminiak’s book, Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

(Helminiak is an openly gay Catholic priest with doctorates in both spirituality and psychology, who teaches spirituality in a faculty of psychology – so he is eminently well qualified to write on the subject. For more  on Daniel Helminiak, see his own website, “Visions of Daniel)

Sex and Sacred

In his preface, Helminiak notes that the arguments in the early days of the gay liberation movement were purely reactive & defensive, making the case that homosexuality is NOT a sin, NOT a sickness, and NOT a mental disorder.

Now, he says, we need to move on, and that is what he does. Throughout the book, he affirms that the state of homosexuality in itself inherently puts us on a quest for self-transcendence, which is what he defines as “spirituality”, whether  or not that includes a specifically religious or God-oriented element. If we move beyond the simple state of homosexuality to self-acceptance, coming out and authentically living in accordance with that identity, then, he says, we open ourselves to both emotional/human and spiritual development, to a degree that is greater than that of people who have not had to face such a journey. Although he begins his book by looking at “spirituality” from a nontheistic position independently of any religious consideration, he then moves on to elaborate the theme from within the Christian, and then specifically Catholic, traditions.

He does not pussyfoot around the matter of of the physical expression of sex. In Chapter 5 of the book, “Sexual Pathways to Spiritual Growth”, he describes the beneficial aspects of physical, sexual arousal and release on first the individual, then on the couple, on society as a whole, on the potential for “grasping the infinite”, and for the hope of union with God:

On the individual:

The experience of sexual arousal and orgasm has a physical healing effect.  It reduces stress and relaxes and calms the body. During sexual arousal, there occurs in the psyche the concomitant release of emotions, images and experiences…..a flood of powerful psychic material may flow out of psyche’s secret caverns…… It invites the healthy acceptance of your bodiliness.”

And (writing of Oriental practice):

“A natural human activity, sex, frees and opens the mind to experiences similar to those induced through other spiritual practices….. or induced chemically.  Sexual arousal becomes a doorway to profound psychic and spiritual experiences”

On the Couple:

“Such sharing, continued authentically with openness, honesty and love, is as much a spiritual discipline as any fasting, prayer, retreat, spiritual counselling, or vigil. “

“All the while thick bonds of sexual desire, physical and emotional, hold them entwined and force them to resolve their differences…..Thus organic and psychic sexual processes serve spiritual ends. Sexual togetherness serves interpersonal sharing and growth”

On society as a whole:

“Beyond the individual and the couple, sexual sharing involves the family and, indeed, the cosmos.  Inherent in the experience of sexual love is a movement beyond yourself….. Love opens our eys to a world of beauty beyond ourselves.  Loving another person opens you to identify with all people….Since authentic human love is an integrating experience, it leads you to identify with the whole human race.”

Of God:

“For the theist believer, sex is a gift of God……horniness, romance and caring… are inherent aspects of human life designed so by the creator. Therefore, they must be good and wholesome. Their authentic experience inserts us ever further into the ultimate Mystery of the unfolding universe.  God is the source and the sustenance – as well as the goal – of human sexual love.”

It may be wise to insert here a caution.  Helminiak clearly values and celebrates the authentic expression of human sexuality, including physical expression.  He does repeatedly warn though, of the parallel dangers of inauthentic and inappropriate expression. With the official teaching of the church on all matters so profoundly misguided, it is valuable to have the helpful guidance of a thoughtful and realistic commentary.  If I have ignored that part of the book here, it is only because it is quite a separatae theme, which will require quite a different post on another occasion.

Overall, this is a most useful book, worth returning to again and again.  I particularly recommended it to those of you who, like myself, have grown weary of endless defences against our critics.  Especially at this season of Pride, it is important to proclaim and affirm the positive value of who we are.

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

Related Posts

Our Stories As “Sacred Texts”.

Our stories, in their simple unadulterated truth, offer the best defence we have against the lies that are the fragile foundation of formal Vatican teaching on same sex relationships. These plain lies are manifold, from the claim that our sinfulness is demonstrated in the story of Sodom (not so),  or the claim that it is “indisputable” that Scripture disapproves (immediately contradicted by the many theologians who have so disputed), or the bland assertion that homosexual “acts” are purely self-indulgent self-gratification. This last assertion, based on absolutely no evidence, is perhaps the most egregious of all.

Acts-of-faith

Even conservative Evangelical theologians, grounded in their own personal experience of how a personal, sexual relationship can lead both partners through mutual self-sacrifice closer to God, have recognised that precisely the same process can work in same sex couples. Vatican bureaucrats, starved in their own lives of this particular path to the divine, fail to recognize it in others.  Yet basic mathematics has a simple remedy: to disprove a proposed universal rule or law, all that is required is a single counter-example.

In my own life, I have already provided that counter example. My own experience was that the attempt to live strictly within Vatican rules on sexual ethics led me to drift away from the church. Living honestly as gay led me back  in.  Of  course, the counter argument could be that the proposition was never intended to be universal, just a general norm: then we need more than a single counter-example. We need a mass of them, all testifying and bearing witness to the error in the teaching.

The Vatican itself, in “Homosexualitatis Problema” urges us to remember the Biblical injunction to “Speak the Truth in Love“, and “The Truth Will Set You Free“. There are both theological and political reasons for telling our stories: there is a clear biblical instruction to do so, and doing so will go a long way to undermine the bland, entirely unjustified assumptions underlying Vatican hostility. Destroy the foundation, and we can pull down the entire edifice. This  Saturday, 12th June, I shall be going in to London for a meeting of the RCC of theLGCM (“Roman Catholic Caucus of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement”), where this precise idea, of telling our stories. is the major theme for the day.

The principle, as I have summarised it above. is one I have long promoted. Duigan McGinley,   in “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts“, goes one step further. He says that  telling our stories is not merely helpful, it is sacramental. The tales that we tell, he says, deserve to be taken seriously, as sacred texts.

“For too long, gay Catholic lives have been shrouded in the secrecy advanced by official Catholic teaching. For many gay Catholics, the “closet” remains a powerful metaphor for the secrecy and shame which keep many of us to keep our sexual identity hidden. At times, the decision to remain ”in the closet” is carefully calculated and deliberate. At other to,es, the closetis forced upon us from outside. Yet it is in this context that gay Catholic must reconcile their sexual and spiritual lives.  Gay Catholic autobiographical acts reveal the delicate interplay between  sexuality, spirituality, and the many other components of identity which make a person unique.These acts of self-disclosure – of confession – stand as revelations of God’s intervention and actions in hay Catholic lives.  I offer an interpretation of Matthew 10:27, on open and fearless confession:

What I say to you in the dark,  tell in the daylight. What you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.

When a gay Catholic takes the risk of narrating his gay identity, transforming what was once secret and publishing it for public dissemination, his public act becomes a “whisper from the housetop”.

So, I say unto you…….

Obey the voice of Scripture, obey the clear command of the Church: tell it like it is, even if (especially if) in this respect, it is not what the ivory tower Vatican moralists want to hear.