Tag Archives: queer spirituality

The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality

Spiritual direction is one of the best-kept secrets of the Catholic Church. This is unfortunate- the process needs to better known and used. This is how Jesuit theologian James L’Empereur describes it:

the process in which a Christian accompanies others for an extended period of time for the process of clarifying the psychological and religious issues in the directee so that they may move toward deeper union with God and contribute to ministry within the Christian community.

I have unexpectedly been able to borrow L’Empereur’s “Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person”, which I would now like to prescribe to all my readers as required reading, with a 3 hour examination at the end of the course. I began reading last evening, and have been devouring it with enthusiasm. I am now about half way through, and not yet ready to offer a full and balanced assessment. (That will come later). Still, every page has important insights that I want to share or explore further. As an appetizer before the main course to follow, I offer some snippets today:

Here are the opening sentences:

Homosexuality is one of God’s most significant gifts to humanity. To be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. All humans receive their own special graces from their creator, but god has chosen some to be gay and lesbian as a way of revealing something about Godself that heterosexuals do not.




This is a startling, unexpected beginning, but of course he goes on to explain and fully substantiate it, in a chapter that had me engrossed, and anxious to explore also all his references and sources (a task, I fear, which may be well beyond me.) Elsewhere, he makes another startling claim: he calls the gay state a “charism”, exactly comparable to the charism of celibacy embraced by Catholic clergy. Both are charisms granted to just a few, from which the wider church can learn. Here I was reminded of an observation in one of our Soho Mass homilies, that if “homosexuality” is an environmental threat because it cannot lead to procreation, so is celibacy.) The key manner in which we who are gay or lesbian can teach the wider Church is in the manner of our sexuality, which is not exclusively about genital contact (in complete contradiction to the popular stereotypes), nor is it based in patriarchal patterns of domination and submission.

I should stress here that L’Empereur very carefully does not either endorse or condemn any specific form of sexual expression, whether in committed, faithful relationships, in recreational sex, or in voluntary celibacy: those decisions are to be reached by the person being directed, through the process, and not decided a priori. However, he does argue strongly that for all people, gay or otherwise, the historic dichotomy between sex and spirituality has been destructive. Instead of thinking of spirituality OR sexuality, we should be looking for spirituality THROUGH sexuality , possibly (but not necessarily) including genital sexuality. Gay people, he says, may find this easier than heterosexuals, who are often startled during counselling before , when he asks whether they expect to use their sexual union as a form of prayer.

In this book L’Empereur presents with great clarity and authority a number of the themes I have been grasping at on these pages. Another is the view that authentic Catholic teaching fully supports, not condemns, the homosexual and his/her struggle. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We know from painful experience of course, that approached from the perspective of sexual ethics, standard Catholic teaching is deeply hostile. L’Empereur reminds us that Catholic teaching is far broader than just sexual ethics. Approached from social justice, which is at least as important to the totality of teaching, a completely different picture emerges, one which demands compassion and support for the marginalised and oppressed, and requires that we work towards justice. This latter perspective has been profoundly influential in my own faith as it was formed under South African apartheid, and why I found Cardinal O’Connors instruction to the Soho Masses to present Catholic teaching on sexuality “in full, and without ambiguity”. This is impossible: “in full” implies from a range of approaches, which are self-contradictory. When we think of the structure of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, far too often we see only the dominating monolith of the official Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, and especially the scaled down, reduced travesty that we find in the catechism. Reading this book, I am reminded that the teaching “in full” more closely resembles a crowded, diverse city, with many strands coming from the Vatican centre – and also important subsidiary nodes, such as those presented by theologians like L’Empereur. Historically, cities grew around single, strong centres. During the twentieth century, the development of private transport led to dramatic changes in city morphology, with the major growth occurring on the suburban or exurban fringes and in suburban business nodes. In some cities, it has been suggested, the traditional centre has virtually disappeared.

We may be seeing the same thing in theology. Comparable to private transport, the emergence of lay theologians and secular schools of theology have privatised the construction of new ideas. Instead of the ancient central monolith dominating the skyline, steadfastly preserving and protecting its traditional inheritance, suburban nodes are bubbling away, creating new forms and structures: liberation theology, feminist theology, gay and lesbian theology, queer theology; theology by discerned experience, theology of spirituality through sexuality – and so many more I have not yet encountered. With so much vitality at the suburban fringes, the “margins” lose conceptual significance. Will Vatican City in time become irrelevant, as some physical central cities have done?

Jayden Cameron thinks so, at the Gay Mystic. Read “Life Finds a Way“.

Related Posts at QTC

 

Homoerotic Spirituality

Jesus Christ, in His recorded words, said nothing at all about sex.  Indeed, He spoke against adultery – which in Jewish eyes was a sin against a man’s ‘property’ (as women were viewed), not against sex.  He spoke against lust – at least, against lusting after another man’s wife; and He spoke against divorce.  But as far as we know, He never spoke a word against sex itself:  not inside marriage, not before marriage, not between unmarried partners, not between men, not between women. Nothing.  Zilch.
How is it then, that the Christian Church, and  Catholicism, in particular, have become so firmly linked in the public mind with the idea of sex as sin? For Catholics, all sex outside marriage is officially taboo.  Even inside marriage, sex is viewed with suspicion unless it is open to the possibility of procreation.  It is only recently that grudging recognition was given to the unitive value of sex – even inside marriage.  Yet it is clear to all that few Catholics pay any more than lip service to the official catechism on sin.  Whether as jerking – off schoolboys (or girls, or adults), as horny teenagers, engaged couples, cheating spouses, as faithful loving couples choosing to limit their families, as lonely divorcees, as gay men and lesbians, or as priests and other religious ignoring their vows of celibacy, the overwhelming majority of us are, in one form or another sexual transgressors in the eyes of the Church.
Is it any wonder that in the public mind, the equation “sex=sin” goes hand in hand with another:   “Catholicism = Guilt”?
The Confessional
But I do not want to dig deeper into the unpleasantness today.  (There is time for that later.  I will return to it soon, as part of my continuing series on clerical abuse.)




Other faiths do not make the same connection between sex and sin.  Judaism, for all that it has extensive purity laws and complex moral and legal codes, unequivocally supports and praises the unitive value of  sex, at least within marriage.  Part of the obligation of the spouses is said to include offering each other sexual satisfaction.   Muslims take a similar view:  part of the supposed motivation for suicide bombers in our day is the prospect of a martyr’s reward in heaven:  1000 virgins to satisfy their male needs.   Hindus celebrate sex as part of spiritual practice, with the promotion of tantric sex, the Kama Sutra, and famed erotic images on temple walls.  Many pagan religions employed temple prostitutes (of either gender) to heighten the spiritual experience of worshippers.Hindu Temple art
It is useful, then to recognise the increasing signs that more and more people are recognising that sexual expression is not only not necessarily sinful, but can be a positive expression of the sacred, and has a close association with spirituality. With great synchronicity, this message was brought home to me from four different sources over the past week.
At the Wild Reed, Michael Bayley has a great piece on this theme.

Shocked? Well, get over it.

Anyway, it’s really not such an outlandish idea – even for Catholics (actually, especially for Catholics!). I mean, if you’re going to dismiss what I’m suggesting, then you’d better be willing to also dismiss any number of saints and their highly erotic experiences of the sacred.

Erotic experiences of God?! (Okay, if you’re still shocked maybe this blog isn’t for you.) But seriously, I appreciate the perspective of Jean Houston, who points out that: “Eros has a mission with the soul. Without Eros, the soul cannot grow; the psyche remains infantile. Eros gives psyche its yearning, its impetus, its desire for the fullness of life.”

Much of the great tradition of mystical writing in the Catholic Church is expressed in clearly sensuous, even erotic language (see, for instance, St Theresa of Avila). Michael  quotes in particular St John of the Cross, whose wonderful mystical poetry is also frankly and explicitly homoerotic:
Nude couple profile

 

“Of course as a gay man, (Michael writes) the thing that appeals to me most about John’s poem is that it depicts his lover as another man:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..

“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

Go ahead, cross to The Wild Reed and read the full poem, with Michael’s commentary.

Related Posts

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

I would expect that most of my lesbian & gay readers have known the liberating growth experience of coming out:  at least to themselves and to close friends, or (where realistically appropriate), to family and colleagues.  But how many, I wonder, have found the even greater joy of coming out to God? I mean here not just superficially, but fully and frankly, taking your sexuality deep into your prayer life, giving thanks for the joys and satisfactions, even the exhilaration of orgasm; sharing the pain of the frustrations and disappointments; even building the Lord into your sexual fantasies, or turning your fantasies into prayer?

This appears to be heretical, sacrilegious, but is not.  It is an old idea, going back at least to the Song of Songs, and to the great mystics: St John of the Cross, St Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich.  Modern writers who have discussed this idea from a gay perspective include Daniel HelminiakMichael B Kelly and John McNeill.  (Jim Cotterand Jack Dominian are just two I know of who have done so from a more traditional heterosexual perspective).




Now I have come across another who has done so directly – Chris Glaser, who has put together a prayer collection under the title “Coming Out to God.”

Coming out to God

I first heard of this book when it was recommended to the congregation by the celebrant during Sunday Mass – so it has the warm approval of at least one Catholic priest in good standing.  Looking into it, I was particularly impressed by the powerful and moving writing of the introduction.

Glaser shares with us his own early struggle, torn between his innate sexuality and spirituality, which he believed, like most Christians, to be in some kind of conflict.  Using a striking metaphor, picturing each of these two as strangers wary of each other at a dance, he tells how they first put out tentative feelers, then began cautiously to dance, each struggling for dominance and attempting to lead – before finding true partnership, and allowing the dance to lead them:

Leather Dancers

“When my sexuality began to emerge,  my spirituality froze in fear, then nearly ran out of the room.  But then it noticed other souls dancing gracefully, and realised it was missing their grace. My spirituality wondered if the lack of grace had something to do with rejection of the stranger on the other side of the room, my sexuality.

Timidly, one invited the other to dance.  At first, they scarcely looked at each other… they were lousy dancers. Then they cast furtive glances at each other, sometimes angry or resentful, sometimes flirtatious and seductive….Finally they found times when the dance led them, and for brief moments they became perfect dancers, full of grace, true to each other.  They danced together as my soul.”

He also draws an important parallel between sexuality and spirituality, stating that they are both routes to intimacy in relationships:  sexuality builds intimacy in human relationships, spirituality does in our relationship with the Lord.  This equivalence thus makes them natural partners.

“Sexuality and spirituality are not opposing  forces, as is frequently supposed today.  Instead, both draw people into relationship. Sexuality draws us into physical relationships: touching, hugging…… kissing and intercourse.  Spirituality draws us into relationships that both incl ude and transcend bodies because it includes and transcends that which is visible……Both our sexual and spiritual powers are holy, and therefore both my be profaned. At their holiest, these powers lead to love in all its many expressions.  At their most profane, they may lead to apathy or hate. The integrity of both sexual and spiritual powers is called the soul.”

The final observation that struck an enormous personal chord with me, was his statement that when we come out to God,  we allow God to come out to us:  to enter more fully into our own lives, which is the best defence we can develop against the homophobic bigotry that masquerades freely under the name of religion:

“In prayer, coming out to God as sexual-spiritual beings opens us up, I believe, to God coming out to us in the dance of Substance and Sensuality, spirituality and sexuality.   Prayer becomes a place wherein the choreography of the dance of spirituality and sexuality gets worked out.  When we allow the Lord of the Dance to lead, sexuality becomes responsible and spirituality becomes responsive.”

For more details, and extracts from the introduction, see “Coming out to God”.

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

See also:

Homoerotic Spirituality

Coming Out as Spiritual Experience

At The Wild Reed:

Making Love, Giving Life

Song of Songs – The Bible’s Gay  Love Poem

 

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

Michael B Kelly: “Seduced by Grace”

Last night’s Mass in Soho was eventful for three different reasons – over and above the Mass itself.  Before Mass, I was interviewed for the first time by a reader, a visiting journalism student from Phoenix, Arizona.  After Mass, we arranged a screening of the powerful documentary movie, “For the Bible Tells Me So”.  I have written of this before (and hope to do so again), but a second viewing was welcome.  This was an entirely new venture, undertaken with some uncertainty whether people would stay for a further 90 minutes after Mass and refreshments, but we need not have worried.  Close on 30 gay men stayed behind – and our token straight woman.  (Where were our lesbian sisters, I wonder?). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we will undoubtedly repeat the exercise on other occasions.

But we were still not done.  After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder ofRainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. He is in London to present a paper at an academic conference on spiritualityin which he is to argue (if I understand him correctly) that gay men, by reflecting and sharing on their erotic experiences and using them in their own practice of spirituality, can make a valuable contribution to spirituality in the wider church.  This is a paper that I dearly long to read when I have the chance – and hope to persuade Michael to allow me to post it here.  After a brief meeting at the church, I was determined to continue the discussion, so accompanied Michael and others to supper in Soho, where we enjoyed further lengthy conversation on matters religious and sexual.  I will meet up with him again, and will certainly write more about his work and insights on other ocassions.




What I want to share with you now is some reviews I have come up against of his book, Seduced by Grace.

Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

I have not as yet had the good fortune to read it for myself, but on the strength of my meeting with him, and the reviews I have read, I would heartily urge you to hunt down a copy and read it for yourself.

From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:

“While the dyspeptic (iconoclastic?) Christopher Hitchens is content to go on bashing his straw-man ‘God’ (see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007), a more interesting set of insights into that tired, overworked tradition has come from what might seem to be an unlikely source — a self-professed Gay man and, moreover, one who knows from first-hand experience the shortcomings of his Church (specifically, its Roman Catholic incarnation). For Michael Bernard Kelly, as David Marr puts it, has ‘has come out but stayed in’—rather than quitting a homophobic Church in disgust, he is pushing for it to renovate itself from within. A potent collection of thoughtful writings by Kelly, the noted Australian Catholic dissident, Seduced by Grace gathers essays, articles, letters and talks he has produced over almost a decade, from late 1998 to May 2004, that are at once an acutely accurate critique of the shortcomings of the Church and a poignant testimonial to the heroic spirit that has, at times, invigorated it.

Kelly the activist is (in)famous in Australia. He was one of the founders of the Rainbow Sash movement that has been a thorn in Cardinal George Pell’s side, with its public challenge to the Catholic Church’s treatment of Gay and Lesbian people (the movement has been taken up in the United States, also) and in this role, he has become a prominent media spokesperson for Gay Catholics. But as is clear from the opening piece in this collection, “On the Peninsula, alone with God,” Kelly’s activism is grounded in contemplative practice. He has produced a stimulating video lecture series, “The Erotic Contemplative: the spiritual journey of the Gay Christian” (through Joseph Kramer’s Erospirit Institute) and leads Gay spirit retreats at Easton Mountain, in New York State, as well as in Australia and the U.K. His voice reaches loudly and clearly across the once impassable divide between eros and spiritus. Kelly is now working on a doctorate in the field of Christian mysticism and Gay experience at an Australian university.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Melbourne and educated in Church schools, Kelly was smitten early with the religious life and served as an altar boy, assisting priests in the celebration of Mass, as all good Catholic sons would do. As a teenager, he was inspired by the life and example of Francis of Assisi —“Who could resist a dancing saint?” he asks in his short piece on the inspiring 12th Century figure. He actually joined the Franciscans at 17, but eventually left the Order, and while remaining celibate, continued to work as a religious education specialist and campus minister in Catholic schools and universities for a further seventeen years, before taking the fateful decision to come out, and to come to terms with his sexuality — a decision which, of course, cost him his job. But he continued his studies in theology (including a master’s in spirituality in San Francisco) and today inspires many men with his revisioning of a spiritual life not predicated on a denial of the body. Kelly says his dick keeps him honest.

More power to him. This is the kind of “real world” starting point that earths his spirituality and renders his positions convincing to those of us who have found more breathing room outside the stifling environs of Christian idealism.”

Read the full review at the White Crane.

Or, for  a perspective which is Catholic, but not gay, go to Catholica Australia:

“By the time I’d finished reading I was convinced that every family with a gay* member should read this book — but I soon corrected that to everyone — full stop! Michael has something very important to say and we do ourselves and society a disservice if we don’t give him a hearing. As Catholics, we pay lip-service to any ideas of ‘compassion, sensitivity and respect’ if we don’t at the very least enter into a dialogue with gay people — which includes truly listening to them — and Michael B Kelly is certainly a worthy spokesperson.

“As a woman I don’t pretend to understand what it must be fully like to inhabit the body and psyche of a man, yet I love men, and particularly my husband and my own son. As a heterosexual I likewise find it extremely difficult to personally understand what it must be like to inhabit the psyche of someone who is sexually attracted to others of their own sex. It’s almost like me trying to imagine what it must be like to have been born black. In the music industry I have worked with many people who are gay, and some of them have become close friends.

Michael’s voice is a prophetic one. It enables us to better understand what it must be like to feel imprisoned as one of the sectors of society who are discriminated against and maligned because of the life circumstances they were borne into and have very little control over. Michael Bernard Kelly is a man who carries himself with great dignity and, in a very real sense, provides leadership not only to gays but to other sectors in society who are discriminated against and maligned unjustly.”

I was intrigued by the reference to Kelly as ‘out’ (as gay), but still ‘in’ (the Catholic Church).  Some of my readers may recall that that was virtually the title of my opening statement when I set up this blog – “Welcome: Come In, and Come Out“.  We clearly share a lot in common.

I repeat:  find this book, and read it.

St Aelred of Rievaulx, January 12

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

Collect

Pour into our hearts, 0 God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred draw many into your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The regard given to St Aelred by gay writers is based on his book, “On Spiritual Friendship”, in which he is clear in extolling the value of same-sex love. He does so on the basis of personal experience, and describes the impact that several of these friendships have had on him, and the desolation he has felt when a lover has died.

“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love;  in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness;  in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”

It is important to keep clearly in mind that although there is clear reference to the “embrace of love”, and to “kisses”, Aelred is writing about spiritual friendship, and that he stresses the spiritual riches  it brings, “with the Holy Spirit flowing over you.”

It is for this reason that opponents of homoerotic love deny that Aelred in any way presents a model of gay love as we understand it today. Instead, they point to his equally clear writing about chastity, and his lifelong struggle to remain chaste.

Personally, I see the battle to confirm or deny Aelred’s spiritual friendships as resembling or contradicting modern gay love as completely pointless. Of course they were different to modern relationships – just as all other medieval relationships were different to modern counterparts. Marriage then was different in many important respects to what we have today, ordinary friendships were different – as Alan Bray argues convincingly in The Friend. Aelred was also living and writing in a specifically monastic setting, about people who had taken a vow of celibacy. Discussion of whether those monks’ intimate friendships included physical intimacy is entirely irrelevant.

Aelred and his writing do nevertheless have profound importance for modern gay men and lesbian partnerships, and raises uncomfortable questions about the Catholic church’s rule on compuslory celibacy for priests. Saints Augustine and Aquinas both described the sacramental value of two people giving themselves to each other in (heterosexual) marriage. Aelred does likewise for  same -sex emotional and spiritual intimacy in monastic same-sex relationships. In the same way, modern gay or lesbian couples can and should recognize and nurture the spiritual, sacramental value  their relationships, whether celibate (as in the monastic ideal), or otherwise (as i heterosexual marriage).

In the centuries following Aelred, his celebration of love between monks was completely undermined and replaced in monastic life and in seminary training for the priesthood by a tragic and destructive prohibition on any form of particular friendships, fostered by a growing recognition in the late medieval period of widespread homosexual practices in the monasteries. (St Peter Damian, who was one of the earliest to argue vociferously for strong penalties against homosexual acts, directed his anger primarily at priests and monks). The problem is that if priests are allowed neither physical nor emotional intimacy with another, where are they to obtain the strength and succour to sustain them in their lives?

Praising the value of clerical celibacy in his extended interview for “Light of the World”, Pope Benedicts says that it “becomes possible” when priests live in community. What then, of those priests who do not, or those other gay Catholics who wish to live in conformity with orthodox teaching but are in practice expected to live alone?

St Aelred got it right. There clearly is deep spiritual value in intimate same-sex relationships, whether in monastic celibacy, or in marriage.

There are other reasons too, for us to take Aelred seriously as a patron of gay or lesbian committed relationships. His writing draws explicit attention to the nature of Christ’s own particular friendship, with the beloved disciple – describing it as a “heavenly marriage”:

“Jesus himself, is in everything like us. Patient and compassionate with others in every matter. He transfigured this sort of love through the expression of his own love; for he allowed only one – not all – to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love; and the closer they were, the more copiously did the secrets of their heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of their spiritual chrism to their love.”

Just to rub in Aelred’s direct connection to same sex unions or marriage, take a look at the Mass readings for his feast day: Psalm 36:5-10 ;Ruth 1:15-18Philippians 2:1-4 ;Mark 12:28-34a.

These all deal with love, but note especially the words from Ruth, words which are often used as readings for weddings – but which are spoken by one woman to another.

5 So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’

16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

So now you know. Celebrate the feast of St Aelred today – and with it, the sacramental value of same sex unions.

Recommended Books:

Aelred of RievaulxSpiritual Friendship

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, Alan: The Friend

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