“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.
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 These extracts are interspersed with excerpts from a previously unpublished autobiography, and supplemented by a chapter reproducing some of the countless letters he has written over the years to Catholic bishops, Catholic papers, to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 Through the evident honesty and frankness of his writing (he was writing, after all, for himself and for God, and not for publication), he does more than respond to the voice of the Spirit speaking to him: he channels and repeats that voice for his readers to hear, also.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.
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 Values
- Joseph Gentilini – “Hounded by Heaven”
- Our Stories as Sacred Texts
- Finding God in Gay Lovemaking
- The Gay Closet as a Place of Sin
- Hunter Flournoy’s “Erotic Body of Christ”
- “Finding God in the Erotic”: Fr Donal Godfrey
- The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality
- Share Your Stories – It’s a Theological Obligation. (queeringthechurch.com)
- A Trinity Sunday Message from the Equally Blessed Coalition . . .(thewildreed.blogspot.com)