Tag Archives: Jesus

“Coming Out” as Wrestling with the Divine

At this time of Pride, marking the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I wanted to post something on the important legacy of visibility and coming out.

After mulling over some thoughts on what to say, I picked up Richard Cleaver’s “Know My Name” for re-reading, and was delighted by the synchronicity of finding that his Chapter 2, “Knowing and Naming”, deals with exactly this subject.  So instead of rehashing or expanding the ideas I presented in my opening post 6 months ago (“Welcome:  Come in, and Come out”), I thought I would share with you some of Cleaver’s insights.

First, Cleaver points out that in addition to the modern association of “coming out” with escaping the closet, there are two other important contexts. It can also call to mind the Exodus story of coming out of the land of Egypt, of escaping slavery and oppression; and it was used before Stonewall to mimic the English debutante ritual of “coming out” into society, of achieving the first recognition as an adult in polite society .  For us then, coming out is both a liberation from oppression and an acceptance and a welcome into a new society.  He then continues by arguing that coming out in the modern sense is an essential first step in hearing the Gospel message of liberation .

To do so, he points to the well-known costs of not coming out:  psychological self-oppression,  increased suicide risk (especially in the young), and the arrests for sexual activity in restrooms / cottages of men who are usually married or otherwise closeted.  Against that, he contrasts the personal rewards of coming out.  After speaking the truth to ourselves, the next stage, of meeting with others like ourselves,

“is generally even more of a transforming moment than the private recognition and acceptance of our gayness….Coming out publicly (a continuous process, not a single  event) brings a sense of freedom that must be experienced to be believed.  Coming out is one of our many seasons of joy.”

This is a sentiment which, from my own experience, I heartily endorse, and to which I would add the observation that  “Joy is an infallible sign of the Holy Spirit.”

He then turns to some possible costs of coming out: active discrimination, including in employment; difficulties in securing adequate access to children; a misguided steering into inappropriate marriage, in the expectation of a ‘cure’;  and finally the hostility or even misguided interference of the churches.  This leads to a stinging repudiation of the Church’s involvement:

“It is no surprise that whether we leave or stay, we react to the church with suspicion.  Something about what the church is teaching, something about how the church conceives itself, is not right.  In the case of the church’s relation to gay men and lesbians, we can dissect out two particular explanations for this suspicion.

First, the church has allowed itself to subordinate the commandment of love to the demands of heterosexist culture, defying Paul’s injunction, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Rom 12:2) ……It is.. the result of the church’s long-standing obsession with sexual activity, which leads to a reduction of the lives of lesbians and gay men to the realm of sexual experience.”

“This brings me to my second suspicion about the church, which is why it is willing to accommodate itself to the mind of the age, to compromise with bourgeois culture:  it hopes to maintain its authority and thus its institutional power in society by preventing lesbians and gay men from speaking about their own experiences. The institution benefits.. from a theology that permits it to hand down decisions without any data even being collected, let alone examined“.  (Emphasis added).

To which I add once again that this is why I am convinced we need to be out and visible in the church.  As long as we remain closeted and out of sight, as long as we refrain from speaking of our own experiences, we are complicit in our own oppression.

Cleaver then goes on to discuss several well-known Gospel stories, drawing from them important lessons for us in the LGBT community.

Reflecting on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, he avoids some of the better known observations, and makes two other  points.  He notes that while recognising her sexual noncomformity, Jesus notably does not admonish or condemn her, nor does she express repentance.

“Jesus is no welfare caseworker… his goal is to transform society, not to ‘fix’ those who suffer injustice so that the existing social order may run more smoothly.“

The second point is that after the initial exchange, the woman proceeds to put to Him some “theological” questions on worship.  The story, notes Cleaver, is not about promiscuity at all, but about “who is capable of doing theology” .

This point on doing theology is made again when he looks at the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10).  While Martha works, Mary sits and listens to Jesus speak.  Mary complains, but the reply is that Mary  “has chosen the better part”. In Jewish society, women were expected to do the domestic work, only the men participated in religious study or debates, and the sexes sat apart when guests were present for meals.  It would have been unheard of for women to participate in religious discussions, yet Christ not only condones this, he commends her for it.  Jewish women and other social outcasts were expected to be invisible:  but for the Lord, no-one is invisible, all are welcome to join in making theology.

In telling of the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 -31), Cleaver compares Lazarus with the LGBT community “outside the door” of the church, while the rich man is compared with the institutional church, which even by its indifference  contributes to our oppression.

His final biblical reflection is an extended discussion of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel (Gen 32:  22-32). For Cleaver, there are two important themes in this story:  the wrestling itself, and the act of naming. From this he reflects on the importance to us of naming honestly our oppression.  Noting that

“We learn to name our oppression by struggling with it”,

he insists that we should present ourselves in full frankness and honesty, implying that we should resist the temptation to mimic conventional patterns of morality out of a mere desire to avoid offence:

“The strategy of putting forward only “acceptable” images of ourselves is doomed to failure… We should be forthright about who we are.”

For me, the 3 key lessons from Cleaver, all of which I endorse whole-heartedly, are:

In spite of the obvious dangers and costs, coming out publicly is invigorating, liberating and life-giving;

We need to extend the  “coming out” process into our lives in the Church, where we should expect to be fully visible, and to speak out frankly and honestly of our views and experiences;

and that by doing so, we will be exercising our right to share in making theology, in spite of the efforts of the institutional church to exercise a monopoly.

“We must speak with our own voices, in all their imperfections, when responding to God’s overtures.  Moses stuttered;  Israel limped.  What matters is not image but integrity.  If God calls, we must know who answers. We answer to our true names, because these are the names God calls us by.  The cost of learning them is wrestling with the divine.”

Amen to that.

My Homoerotic Retreat: Six days that changed my life.

(In offering the story below, I do so with some trepidation.  I know that many readers will be sceptical or cautious, may even find it ridiculous. I myself, given my particular background in faith and religious temperament, would have been made distinctly uncomfortable if any of my friends had asked me to take such a story seriously. Still, I think it is time to share it.  I leave you to decide for yourself:  was this a genuine mystical experience, as my eminently well qualified spiritual directors believed?  Or was I just suffering from some kind of spiritual delusions of grandeur?  Make up your own mind.)

During Advent of 2002, I underwent a 6 day directed retreat which turned out to be the most extraordinary spiritual, even mystical, experience of my life, which in certain key respects fundamentally changed my outlook on faith.

Background & Context

As the experience really was remarkable, sounding like an account that I myself would previously have dismissed as ramblings from the sentimental / superstitious wing of Catholicism, I want to begin by setting out my prior religious / spiritual background, as well as the context in which I began my retreat.  This will provide both context and contrast for what followed.

After drifting away from the church during my twenties as a married man, I later came out as a gay man.  Ironically, it was only after setting up in a committed long gay relationship that I was moved to return to the church.  The parish I then joined was led by Jesuit priests, and in time I began to explore the Ignatian approach to spirituality, by way of increasingly heavy involvement in the CLC – “Christian Life Community”.  In spite of this involvement, I did not see myself as particularly “religious” (a word I detest), nor “spiritual”, with all its connotations of “piety” and mysticism.  I simply knew that I enjoyed profound satisfaction in setting aside time for quiet reflection on my life.  My take on all matters of faith was primarily cerebral. (I was distinctly uncomfortable with the more ostentatious displays of images and relics, of novenas and special prayers “guaranteed” to bring results, or of mystical voices and apparitions.)  I did, however, find value in the Jesuit emphasis on balancing the promptings of head and heart, and on the value of paying attention to experience.  I became of convinced of the truth that Prayer is not just about speaking to God asking for favours, but also of attempting to listen.  I knew that by proper attention to the discernment of spirits within, one could, with care and imperfectly, hear the voice of the Lord speaking directly to us.

The context for this retreat was that after a long period of careful discernment, my partner and I had taken the important decision to leave South Africa, the only country I had ever known, to take up teaching posts in the UK – a country which I had never even visited. This was to be my final Christmas in South Africa, and the decision lay heavy on my mind.  I was also reoccupied with the nature of my gay relationship.  I had repeatedly considered the issue of homosexuality in prayer and under spiritual direction, and was comfortable that there was nothing immoral or reprehensible in our relationship.  Still, I was just a little bothered by the possibility that perhaps after all, I was fooling myself, making excuses and rationalising away some inner doubt.  So I was looking for final reassurance on two key questions in my life:  the decision to emigrate, and my status as a sexually active gay man in the church.




monstrance

Image via Wikipedia

The Retreat Experience

The setting for the retreat, which had been set up by our CLC team, was a Franciscan house and retreat centre on the banks of South Africa’s Vaal River. On arrival the first evening, we had a very simple liturgy, and were allocated to one of the two directors, with first appointments set for the morning.  During the first meeting with my director, I shared some of my preoccupations, and was advised to reflect among other readings, on the Song of Songs, and on the passage of Moses and the burning bush.

I knew of course that the Song of Songs was written as a love poem, wit the lover serving as a metaphor for god, but had never really looked at it closely before.  Approaching it afresh, I was struck by the clear eroticism, and also by how easily it could be read as two male lovers. (I later found that it may well have been written with that plain intent, but did not then know that). This reading, as homoerotic love poetry, was in case the way I read it, and found myself intensely moved and frankly aroused.

Later, I went out of doors under the shade of the riverbank trees, enjoying their cool and protection from the December African sun. I turned now to the story of the burning bush, which I had encountered before as a graphic illustration of how the Lord, in certain circumstances, speaks to us directly.   After reading and reflecting on the text a few times, I set aside my bible, and looked up at a bright blue sky through the dappled shade of the foliage.   Quite specifically and consciously I put a direct request to the Lord:  “Speak to me, Lord”, I said.  I am convinced that for the next 5 days, he did, in the most direct and unsettling terms.

I did not immediately realise what was happening, but later realised that I was gradually being drawn into an increasingly intense relationship with the human person of Jesus Christ, something that had previously always seemed remote and inaccessible from my faith experience.  During the Eucharistic adoration that ended the first day’s formal programme, I became totally absorbed in every second of the experience, fully involved and rapt from start to finish, with never a moment’s loss of concentration, nor any discomfort from my position sitting cross-legged on the floor for the full hour.  I was also completely self-aware of the intensity of the experience, so conscious of the intensity, far exceeding anything I had previously known, that I would not have been surprised to find myself levitating.  At the end of the exposition, I found myself in agony that my precious time of intimacy had ended.  I followed the group who removed the Sacrament to its place in the chapel, and then stayed behind for a couple more hours totally lost in the presence in front of the tabernacle.

So it continued for the rest of the retreat:  every morning I was up early, and into the chapel for an hour before the 8:00 Mass which began the formal programme, at intervals during the day, and for a long period before going to bed. During these times, was quite literally not just in conversation with Jesus Christ as a friend, but with Him as a lover, and with Mary during frequent rosaries as the mother of my boyfriend.

The intensity continued to increase. On the following day, I remembered the well-known image of the “Bride of Christ”, an image that was clearly inappropriate to me as a man.  But thinking in terms of gay marriage, I imagined myself as the “groom of Christ”, which took my moments of intimacy with my “lover” to an entirely new level:  ever more intense, and frankly erotic. By extraordinary synchronicity, the following morning I was in a disused room of the retreat house, where I came across some old magazines that had once been art of the library.  Among these were some copies of a journal of spirituality. Picking one up at random and glancing at the contents, the first title I saw was something like “The Groom of Christ:  a Reflection for Men.”  This turned out to be a variation on the old metaphor, but from a male perspective. Recognising that most men would have difficulty imagining themselves as brides, the writer proposed instead turning the image on its head, imagining Christ as the bride. This seemed to me equally implausible, and I was grateful that as a gay man, I had not needed to make this distortion of gender to benefit from what is a perfectly good and powerful meditation just as it is.

I deliberately pass over the impact of direct reflection on the Passion, which came later, and move immediately to the sequel.

I remember one morning leaving my room with the clear intention of going to visit “my pal, my lover” Jesus in the chapel.  But while my definite intention was to turn left, my body was pulled right.  I knew I was being deliberately pulled aside, and tried to argue.  “I’m going to meet you in the chapel”, I said. The answer was clear:  “But I want you this way.”  There was clearly no point in arguing, so indeed I turned right, not knowing where I was headed.  This turned out to be the monastery’s private graveyard, leading to further deep reflection, in that Advent season, on life and death. But then I was pulled on further, to a large open field.  Around the perimeter were erected a series of almost life sized wooden crosses (about 8 feet high), each with a caption for a station of the cross.

Stations of the Cross

As I approached the first station, I was suddenly filled with powerful, uncontrollable emotion and fell to my knees, sobbing out loud. (This was out in the open, and in full public view not just of the retreat centre, but also of anybody passing in the street alongside.  I paid no attention)  It took quite some time before I could regain enough composure just to get back on my feet and move on – to the next station, where once again, entirely outside my control, the full emotional spectacle was played out once again.  And again, and again, over the full 14 stations.

After an experience so intense, so outside the experience of one previously so reserved in religious matters, as sceptical and cautious about the demonstrative, almost superstitious Latin / Mediterranean brand of Catholicism, where cold I go next?  In fact, the only way was to ease out of it.  I had of course been reporting on my increasingly intense experiences daily to my retreat director, who now advised me to ease off.  A day earlier than normal, she started to lead me through some gentler meditations to ease me gradually back to a point where I could re-enter the real world outside.  So the last two days were largely filled with riverside nature walks, and meditations through art, including a simple painting of a monstrance, as I remembered it so vividly from the Eucharistic adoration.

In my final debriefing with my retreat director, she warned that would I had experienced had been unusually intense, even mystical, and would need to rounded off with my regular spiritual director, a senior Jesuit priest.

The Aftermath

When I did meet up with Fr Mike, I was fully expecting him to agree that the experience should be taken seriously.  I was not prepared though, for quite how seriously he took it.   He too described it as “mystical”, and said that encounters of such intensity were “blessings, rarely bestowed on just a few.”  He thought long and hard, and continued by saying that in his experience, where such encounters were given, it was usually in preparation for exceptionally difficult times ahead, a way of storing up spiritual strength as sustenance for the dry periods to come.  Thinking of my pending emigration, I laughed, and said that I well knew the years ahead would be tough.  “No”, came the response, I mean really tough.

So it proved.  Within weeks of arriving in the UK, my partner of nearly 20 years concluded he had made mistake in coming, and soon returned to South Africa.  I in turn was even more convinced that I needed to be here – that indeed, in Ignatian terms, I had been “sent” on mission, and so I stayed.  So began several years of serious difficulty, including emotional trauma, financial and professional difficulties, uncertainty over my immigration status, and recurrent bouts of depression, some of which remain problems to this day, 6 years later. Throughout all of this, at all the darkest times, I do exactly as Fr Mike anticipated:  I look back on that retreat on the riverbank, once again drawing on spiritual reserves to carry me through.

It would be good to say that I have remained in some kind of exalted, mystical or advanced spiritual plane – but it would also be completely untrue.  Indeed, removed from the firm structure of my closely bonded CLC group, my conscious practice of deliberate prayer and spiritual practice has moved somewhat behind where it used to be back in Johannesburg, and needs to be deliberately revived.

Two things, though, I have taken away from away from the retreat with unshakable conviction. First, given the context of the start to the retreat, with a specific question about sexuality and some clearly homoerotic reflections, I have never since entertained even a moment’s doubt about the validity of a gay sexual life in faith.  Second, after I was given such a strong preparation for the difficulties around my emigration, I am more convinced than ever that the move was chosen for me as mission.  Indeed, I am firmly convinced that the specific reason why I was called here was to live openly as gay and as Catholic, and to help others to do the same.

Why He should have called me in particular, is completely beyond my understanding.  I claim absolutely no special training in these matters, no great wisdom and certainly no holiness.  But He moves as we know in mysterious ways, and sometimes chooses the most unlikely people to do His work.

Related Posts at QTC