St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles

There is much that is paradoxical in the figure of Paul. In his dual persona as Saul / Paul, he is renowned as both a one-time feared persecutor of Christians, and as the greatest of all the early missionaries, who spread the word far beyond it s original geographic compounds, and author of by far the most influential Christian texts outside the Gospels themselves. In the same way, as the author of the most infamous New Testament clobber texts, he is widely regarded as strongly condemning homoerotic relationships – and yet  Paul Halsall lists him in his Calendar of LGBT Saints:

There is considerable debate over those anti-gay “proof -texts”, but whatever the conclusions, there is much, as Anglican Bishop of Newark John Spong has pointed out, which leads one to suspect Paul might have been “queer” in some way. The fact he was never married, unusual for a Jew of his time, his companionship with a series of younger men, especially St. Timothy, his mention of an unnamed “thorn in the flesh”. and, possibly, his disdain for some types of exploitative homosexual relationship in his period, all raise questions, questions which cannot be answered it must be admitted, about his sexuality.
What are we to make of this?

First, let us dismiss the idea that Paul’s writing is anti-gay: it isn’t, and further, much of his message is precisely the opposite, arguing for full inclusion of all. For a counter to the standard view of Paul as anti-gay, anti-sex, see Reidulf Molvaer, Sex & St. Paul the Realist

St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians – most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about “natural” homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.

Then, consider his person. Astonishingly little is known for certain of Paul the man, but Bishop Spong is not the only one to have suggested that Paul may have had some close same-sex relationships  of his own. Gay Catholic blogger Jeremiah Bartram (Gospel for Gays), who recently spent time on a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of St Paul” has reflected deeply on the life and writign of Paul, and concluded that on balance, the suggestion is sound (“Gay Paul“).

In the absence of hard evidence, personally I am happy to leave this discussion to others with greater scholarship and expertise behind them. My interest in the queer saints is in the lessons they hold for us today, and here I think there is one clear message, which lies in the best known story of al about Paul, his conversion on the road to Damascus. This has entered language as a “Damascene Conversion”, and therein lies hope. For if Saul, the renowned persecutor of Christians, could undergo such a complete change of heart and become instead active as the most famous proselytizer,  so too is there hope for the religion -based persecutors of sexual minorities today. Not only is there hope, but there is already abundant evidence from the very many Christians in the modern world who have experienced just such Damascene conversions, going from direct, outright condemnation of same sex relationships, to actively advocating full inclusion in church.   These changes of heart, usually coming after intensive study of Scripture and extensive discussions with gay and lesbian church members, have already been responsible for changes of policy in several denominations, and a more welcoming atmosphere in many local congregations. This process will continue.

For those Catholics who like to pray to the saints, you can freely include St Paul in you prayers. This is not because he was queer (although he may have been), but because his own conversion experience provides a useful model for all those modern day conversions that we need among the bigots who use religion as a cloak for prejudice and discrimination.

The Powerful Witness of a Catholic Gay Union.

“Witness” is the root of the very Catholic word, “martyr”.  In this sense, we are all called to martyrdom. Joseph Gentilini’s “Hounded by God” is a powerful, moving example of  of the witness demonstrated by one gay Catholic’s triumphant, faithful witness.

CIVIL-UNIONS

I have just finished reading this book, which I did in two short sittings, over two days – but that is not the way to approach it, to derive the greatest benefit. That is not the way it is structured, nor the intention in the original writing. The structure is a selection of extracts from Gentilini’s spiritual journal over four decades, arranged not chronologically, but in thematic chapters. These extracts are interspersed with excerpts from a previously unpublished autobiography, and supplemented by a chapter reproducing some of the countless letters he has written over the years to Catholic bishops, Catholic papers, to politicians, including a US president – and to Anita Bryant.

So  there is no clear narrative thread, and even within chapters, there is thematic unity and some chronological sequencing, but the extracts do not always flow neatly, from one to another. And that is to the good, for forcing the reader at times, in between skimming from one idea or event to the next, to stop and think deeply about the importance of a particular section, to savour it, to reflect on it, just as one would one reading scripture.

In Ignatian spirituality, journalling is an important form of prayer, ideally undertaken daily. The point is that by reflecting prayerfully on our experiences after the event, and assessing our responses, we are able to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit deep within our hears – “Heart speaking to heart”. Journalling then, is a form of prayer that enables us not simply to speak directly and frankly to God, but also to learn from the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us. This process of listening (helped by a regular spiritual director) is what enabled Gentilini through many difficult years of substantial criticism and near rejection by his family, and the horrors of reparative therapy, to fully accept himself, first as gay, then as gay and Catholic – and finally to integrate the two.

Many of us who are also gay and Catholic (and others) will have grappled likewise with some or all of the themes that he works through. Through the evident honesty and frankness of his writing (he was writing, after all, for himself and for God, and not for publication), he does more than respond to the voice of the Spirit speaking to him: he channels and repeats that voice for his readers to hear, also.

Perhaps the single chapter  where this is most important, is where he describes a period of sexual promiscuity, contrasted with his subsequent growth in loving and committed union with a loving partner.Throughout his references to nights at the baths or other casual sexual encounters, he often writes of his awareness, afterwards, of feelings of dissatisfaction or worse. Occasions, that is, which may have been pleasurable at the time – but in which God was not present. In contrast, as he describes the gradually developing relationship with Leo, who became his life partner, and especially as he describes in joyful gratitude the continuing pleasure and satisfaction of giving himself in intimacy even into his seventh decade, the pleasures do not fade after ejaculation, or the end of the embrace. This is absolutely a love in which God is present, and several extracts describe explicitly how he and Leo at times find God directly in physical love, in simple touch,  and in dancing together.

This matters for the rest of us. The orthodox doctrine is self-evidently unrealistic (and so disordered), in its insistence that this self- giving in physical intimacy is licit only within heterosexual marriage, open to procreation – and so denied to those with a same – sex affectional orientation. (And to all others who are unmarried, or not yet ready to produce children). In the real world, the majority of Catholics reject the Vatican line – but having done so, what are they to put into its place? Far too many gay Catholics respond as Gentilini did in the beginning, by slipping into a life of promiscuity and hedonism (what some writers on gay spirituality describe as a second closet).

To steer a sound path between the sterility of a single life, devoid of physical love and self-giving, and the recklessness of selfish promiscuity, takes careful discernment. Gentilini’s frank reports of his experiences, and is conversations with God on the subject, can help us as well as him to negotiate the treacherous waters.

In referred yesterday to Duigan McGinley’s view that gay Catholic autobiographies should be seen as “sacred texts”. This descriptor applies to “Hounded by God” more completely than most. The nature of the text, with its origin in prayerful sharing with God, and in its structure, with its series of short extracts not always following directly on each other, lends itself admirably for use precisely in the same way as the primary sacred text, the Bible.  I have now read it in full, to get the flavour and primary message. I will now return to it in small doses, picking up on short extracts or specific themes. I will reflect on them, think about them – even at times pray, not on the texts themselves, but for guidance on what lessons I can draw from them. Some of these reflections and conclusions, I will spin out into posts, here at Queering the Church.

I strongly encourage my gay Catholic readers, unless they are those rare creatures who have already worked out for themselves a completely satisfactory and complete, workable system of sexual ethics, to do so too.

hounded by god

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Books:

Johnson, Fenton: Geography Of The Heart

McGinley, Dugan: “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts

McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal

 

Joseph Gentilini and His Catholic Family

When I reached the stage of my life that I was ready to come out as gay,  I was fortunate in the knowledge that I would not face the remotest risk of rejection by my family. By then into my thirties, I was clearly no longer a child or teenager going through a “phase” that i might grow out of. Having already been through a disastrous marriage, it was unlikely that marrying another woman would cure me of homosexuality. I had also seen, from the family reaction to my siblings who had found themselves in difficulty or trouble, that rejection was something that our family just did not do.

hounded by god

Joseph Gentilini was less fortunate. As the story emerges in “Hounded by God: A Gay Man’s Journey to Self-Acceptance, Love, and Relationship”, it seems that pretty emphatic rejection of his orientation (if not of himself) was for many years a constant part of the ordeal he suffered from his staunchly Catholic parents, acting in terms of their understanding of their Catholic obligation:

“In 1968, my mother and I attended the investiture of my good friend as a Dominican novice. By that time, I was coming out as gay. As I was driving Mom to the church, she told me that she and Dad had prayed about me an my homosexuality, adding that if Dad had a heart attack it would be my fault. Later, in the church, she passed a holy card to me that said that prayer is powerful, and she suggested that I had not prayed hard enough or even at all.

I found a small piece of paper under the statue of St Joseph in my parents’ home several years ago. On it my mother had written, “St Joseph, save Joe. Please!!!”

This rejection of Joseph’s gayness extended, naturally enough, to rejection of his partner. Unable to socialize freely with his partner and his family at the same family gatherings, left Joseph effectively withdrawing from those gatherings, except for occasional very brief visits.

My mother was depressed last week and called. I was also low, and she knew that and wanted to call and see how I was. I was somewhat low and depressed because my sister can bring her twice- divorced boyfriend to Mom and Dad’s, but I can’t bring over my partner, Leo. Mom says it’s her conscience, but I don’t believe that.It is a social embarrassment, and I feel the judgement! I told her it made me angry.

But relationships develop, and can improve. Early in life, it seemed that his father was the more critical, but came to a degree of accommodation and friendship with his son, that his  mother seemed unable to achieve. Joseph however, had a regular spiritual director, a religious sister, who formed a personal friendship with his mother. Slowly, she came fully to accept Joseph and his life partner Leo as part of their family.

My spiritual director, who is a religious sister, befriended my mother. She and my mother would talk on the phone every Thursday evening. It became an event that she looked forward to, although she would not say so to me. ….

In October, my mother was having a surprise 80th birthday party for Dad, and Leo was invited! She even kissed Leo! and, wonder of wonders, he was invited that year to our family Christmas! What a wonderful healing! After this, Leo was considered part of the family and invited to everything. With the help of my spiritual director, my mother broke through her barrier to loving me fully as her gay son.

My prayer has been answered. For years, I have prayed for reconciliation with my family. It is a grace, a total gift from God.

(Joseph’s mother is emphatically not the only parent who has prayed for her gay son to be “healed” – and found instead that it was she who needed to be healed, of her rejection).

Later she did even more, and went out of her way to show other mothers of gay sons the importance of maintaining loving relationships with all their extended family, gay and straight, and their partners. Reading this story of family reconciliation and healing, in a profound demonstration of authentic Catholic family values, brought tears to my eyes.

In 1999, I had heard that my mother read an obituary of a woman she knew whose son had died of AIDS. She went to the funeral home and spoke to the woman, who had not been reconciled with her son before his death.. She was able to bring peace to that woman. Mom told my spiritual director, “If God could give me grace, in spite of my stubborn righteousness, I had to be there for that mother.” What I didn’t know was that she went to the hospital and nursing home for other mothers whose sons were dying of AIDS. My spiritual director told me of one story when Mom went to a hospital. The son was dying in the room, but the mother was in the hall, refusing to go in and touch her son. My mother sat with her, comforted her, and asked, “If you, his mother, will not go in and touch your son, how will God touch him?” The mother got up and made peace with her son before he died. My Mother!”

In  Acts of Faith, Acts of Love, McGinley, Dugan describes gay Catholic autobiographies as “sacred texts”, which other gay Catholics can profitably use for reflection and study .Joseph Gentilini’s Hounded by God: A Gay Man’s Journey to Self-Acceptance, Love, and Relationship”  a selection of extracts from the extensive series of spiritual journals he has kept over several decades, interspersed with short excerpts from an unpublished autobiography, certainly qualifies as deserving that descriptor (“sacred text”).  I will have intermittent additional posts on thoughts arising from Joseph’s reflections, which raise some important points about what it is to be both gay and Catholic.

Books:

Johnson, Fenton: Geography Of The Heart

McGinley, Dugan:Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts

McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal

 

Related Posts

Our Stories as Sacred Texts

Joseph Gentilini – “Hounded by Heaven”