Category Archives: Spirituality

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

An Erotic Encounter With the Divine” is the title of a post by Eric L. Hays-Strom atJesus in Love. (Eric has a Masters Degree in Catholic Life and Worship from St. Meinrad School of Theology). In his post, he has a moving account of how deliberate prayer immediately before making love with his husband has led to intensely spiritual experiences – especially on one notable occasion in particular.

kiss

It would be unfair to copy too much of this personal story here, but some things are worth noting.  Eric’s journey in combining the sexual and the spiritual came after listening to some tapes prepared by Michael B Kelly, who is a noted spiritual director and writer, specialising in the contribution that gay men’s erotic experiences can give to the the church’s fuller understanding of spirituality:

…..we discovered a tape series about spirituality and sexuality, “The Erotic Contemplative” by Michael Bernard Kelly. I was immediately intrigued. On our two way drive home from Los Angeles to Omaha, we started listening to the tapes and discussing the questions that came in a guide with the tapes.  It was probably amongst the most intimate conversations of sex, sexuality and spirituality I have ever had.

…..

Through the years our lovemaking has risen to an entirely new level when we intentionally invite God to be present to and with us. That is, when we prayerfully invite God’s Divine Presence to bless our lovemaking and to join with us in our lovemaking.
In my blog (
http://scottneric.com/ontheroad) I have written about several experiences in my life in which I have known God’s presence, either as God or in the person of Jesus or of the Holy Spirit. So, in my own heart, and in my own soul, I know what the ecstatic experience of the Divine is like.

…..

(Here Eric recounts a particularly intense experience. To read it in the original, go to An Erotic Encounter With the Devine at Jesus in Love).

This is an important experience, and not uncommon. It gives the lie to official teaching, as do all other such experiences. If we are able to find God in our lovemaking, how can it possibly be wrong?

With their pathological aversion to any form of sexual expression, the Catholic hierarchs insist that any from of lovemaking outside of marriage, and not open to the possibility of procreation is sinful, and gay lovemaking in particular is “fundamentally disordered.”  Anybody who has experienced the sheer joy of giving oneself to another, of whatever the gender, in an intimate loving relationship will know how disordered is the teaching – and not the action.

“The joy of God is humans fully alive”, said St Ireneaus. Many people would confirm that the experience of this kind of intimacy is about as fully alive as two people can become.  It is not surprising that many priests and ex-priests, writing about their experience of celibacy, have described it as dehumanising.  Thus, the celibate theologian’s teaching on sexuality, by trying to impose their own restrictive standards on the rest of us, is leading us not towards God but away.   Fortunately, many Catholic theologians outside of Vatican control our now joining their Protestant counterparts in correcting these misunderstandings – for example John McNeill,  Daniel Helminiak and Michael B Kelly among the Catholics, joining Chris Glaser and many others among the Protestants.

It is basic to theology that consciously inviting the Lord into any activity will make it into a prayerful and hence spiritual one.  It is natural that this should also apply to lovemaking, which is one of the most basic of all human activities. Writing about our experiences of finding the divine in love, sharing the truth, sharing the truth about them, helps to dispel the destructive poison of official teaching.

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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):

Conscience Formation, Spiritual Formation, and The Holy Spirit

A dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, who is be...
Image via Wikipedia

David Ludescher, a regular OT reader, has put to me some important questions on the formation of conscience. These arose in response to my post on empirical research findings on the current state of British Catholic belief, and some observations I made on the implications for our understanding of the sensus fidelium (on sexual ethics and priestly ministry in particular).

These questions were put in a comment box, which I have reproduced in an independent post for easy reference. Just follow the link to read the questions in full. This is my response:




Continue reading Conscience Formation, Spiritual Formation, and The Holy Spirit

A Healing Church

(This comes as a guest post from Irene, a dear friend who is a committed regular at the Soho Masses – travelling long distance to get there.  This is her account of a recent experience attending Mass, on the night when Mass was followed by a musical concert presentd by our own “Schola Assumptionis”):

The REAL PRESENCE.

A few weeks ago a tendon in my left leg became taut and painful to match the one in the right leg that has been damaged. After walking for hours around London I arrived at church early so I could take the weight off my feet before going up to mass. Lying on the chairs was such a relief. I didn’t manage to stand through all the appropriate parts of the service but the pain was less when I was chatting downstairs over tea before the concert. After the concert I helped distribute the wine and walking to Bistro 1 afterwards, I noticed I had no more pain in my leg – and I have had none since. I must have had a spontaneous healing during mass. I am delighted.

Some of you may know that I work as a healer. Once healing was part of the Christian and Jewish ministry but the Enlightenment put a stop to that! Witchcraft!! Healers, however,  have kept going, secretly though, as it is a gift and one which works. In Sarajevo, where there is no NHS  to limit people’s minds, people are open to it and have amazing reactions.Openness to holistic medicine has made it more acceptable but when I talk about it to Christians they are more than a bit suspicious. Now, something has happened to me during Mass, a total spontaneous healing, something totally unexpected and which has never happened during my healing and meditation sessions. Why? A stronger presence of God? I don’t know. I do know that I am no longer in pain and I am absolutely delighted.

(And we are delighted with you, Irene.  Thank you for sharing this.  And may I remind the rest of you, that I am always open to posting guest contributions from any other readers who have something to say.)

The Vocation of Being Caught in the Middle

When I set up this blog, I reflected on the difficulties we LGBT Catholics and other Christians face as double outsiders.  Others have written on the same theme.

But I have not yet seen a depiction in terms quite as startling, refreshing, and provocative as this one:

“From the perspective of Christian faith, this awkward business of living on the boundary looks very much like vocation – a call from God.  When you answer such a call, you discover the meaning of your life.  God has drawn us to this difficult place in order to reveal God’s grace to us and in us and through uis.  The boundary where we’re living, however inconvenient, is a place rich in spiritual discovery – which means of course, that it is also largely uncharted territory.  No ready  made tradition tells us how to be gay and lesbian Christian.  This is a vocation God has created in our own time to bring about a new enrichment of the gospel.”

Had it ocurred to you that this difficult place you occupy is a place of special grace, that it is aspecial form of vocation to be both gay or lesbian, and Christian?   It seems to me to be well worth thinking on.

The passage quoted comes from the introductory chapter of “Gifted By Otherness”, by William Countryman and L. R. Ritley.

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