Father Matthew Kelty, OCSO, was a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he was the last confessor to Thomas Merton. He also came out as gay at the age of 90.
The full obituary is worth reading at Religion Dispatches – I want to reflect only on the coming out story, and Fr Matthew’s assertion that gay is a gift – especially in the pursuit of monastic celibacy.
Charles Richard Kelty Jr.was born in South Boston in 1915. While still a precocious schoolboy, he acquired a lifelong love of poetry. He studied at the seminary of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) in Techny, Illinois, and was ordained as a priest who took the name of Matthew in August of 1946. He served in Papua New Guinea (1947 to 1951), then moved back to Illinois (1951 to 1960). He was accepted into the community of the Abbey of Gethsemani in February 1960 and took up vows of Strict Obedience in 1962. As a new initiate, he came into contact with Thomas Merton, who was assigned as Fr Matthew’s spiritual director. Merton had made creative expression an important part of his own spirituality, through his well-known recourse to the written word, and encouraged the new monks under his direction to do the same.
What Father Matthew recalls of his early monastic formation was the way Merton encouraged the new monks to find their own forms of artistic expression, in whatever form, much as he himself had done in the written word. Creativity, spiritual and otherwise, was to be the watchword at Gethsemani; and even a cursory walk through the Abbey’s gift shop today demonstrates how many of the monks have taken up Merton’s call to creativity in the written and visual arts.
Father Matthew Kelty was no exception, though he came to his creativity slower than most. Like Merton, he left Gethsemani for a time; unlike Merton, he always intended to return. He spent three years (1970-1973) with a small Cistercian community in Oxford, North Carolina, then nine years more (1973-1982) back in Papua, New Guinea as a solitary.
Then he came home to Gethsemani.
It was there that his own life became his master work. Father Matthew turned to the craft of the Sunday homily, many of which he filmed and posted online in later life. His way of celebrating the Eucharist was just that, a ritual celebration, a theatrical event whose artistic gravity was never far from his mind. These are among his most moving weekly artistic creations. But Father Matthew Kelty also turned to the written word. His personal correspondence has the quality of a poem, where words discover a gentleness that they sometimes lacked in Merton’s less-calloused hands. Father Matthew also wrote a book. But his reasons for doing so were far less personal than Merton’s; they were, for lack of a better term, political. Father Matthew Kelty published a collection of homilies and spiritual essays entitled My Song Is Of Mercy(edited by Michael Downey) in 1994.
It was in one piece in that collection that Father Matthew came out, arguing that being gay was a gift – one that aided him in his chosen path of celibacy. This has important implications for the current professed horror of homosexual priests, with its assumption that identifying as gay necessarily implies that a man is sexually active, or identifies with the dreaded “gay agenda” – whatever that is. Both of course are possible for particular people, but neither is inevitable. Far more important, is that this self-identification is a sign of health and wholeness – Fr Matthew describes it as “a process of integration”:
There are none more called to it, more capable of it, more created for it, than the people we call gay. They begin from day one a process of integration others do not even have a hint of before they are 40.
-Fr Matthew Kelty, “The Gift of Gay”
My readers will know that I am strongly opposed to the imposition of compulsory celibacy as a supposedly universal rule on all Catholic priests. However, I am happy to accept that as a freely chosen path, it may have spiritual value for some people. I also agree with Pope Benedict, that this difficult discipline may become more feasible in a supportive community – such as a monastic one, like that of Fr Matthew. What I found particularly interesting in the argument expressed in “The Gift of Gay”, is that for gay men, celibacy becomes possible as an expression of love – not carnal, human love, but love of God.
In the spiritual and mystical Christian tradition, the use of erotic imagery to express the mutual love of God and the mystic is well established. As God is usually pictured as the second person of the Trinity, as the undoubtedly male Jesus Christ, it follows that for the men who adopted this approach to contemplation, the resulting imagery will be homoerotic – possibly intensely so. This will obviously be easier for men who have identified s gay than for those who either have a heterosexual orientation, or have attempted to suppress recognition of their homoerotic instincts. So it is, that Fr Matthew Kelty concludes that for the would-be celibate, gay is a gift, making the path easier than it is for the heterosexual. (Someone should tell the Vatican).
However, while Fr Matthew is writing specifically of his monastic, celibate context, the underlying argument applies equally to the rest of us, who have no need or desire to embrace celibacy as a spiritual discipline. All of us need to practice and develop a spiritual life (which is a valuable defence against the misguided hostility of the institutional church). Whether we choose to embrace voluntary celibacy or not, the use of homoerotic imagery as a metaphor for picturing the love between God and ourselves, and a means to experience that love directly in our spiritual lives, is invaluable.
What of those who are not, in fact, gay men or heterosexual women? Well, although the tradition customarily sees God in masculine imagery, this is not essential. The Trinity is more accurately thought of as omnigendered – and the Holy Spirit as specifically feminine. Choose any gender you like for your personal imagining of God – and the principle remains valid.
Here is an extended extract from the obituary at Religion Dispatches:
“Sex is no problem. Love is.”
The most startling, and one of the most moving, piece in that volume is the epilogue, entitled “Celibacy and the Gift of Gay.” Father Matthew Kelty decided, in anticipation of his ninetieth year, to uncloset his monastic self, and thus to attempt to describe what gifts gay and lesbian Christians have to contribute to the complex tapestry of Christian communion. He did so because he had come to feel a responsibility to those “least among us” who were not moving on a path toward acceptance in as straight a line as many in the late ’60s and early ’70s had hoped. But you also hear more than a subtle echo of what Matthew learned from Merton’s heterosexual torment.
It remains true that given our national climate, it will take a while to let love loose. And then to let love grow, deeper, greater, wider.
I may as well make it clear: …[this] is why so many heterosexuals abandon celibacy after a decade or two: they cannot handle it: they need an external woman to awaken the inner one, especially in our culture. Perhaps in a less divided one they do better…
And since those who tend to worry will worry here about sex, the answer is simple: sex is no problem. Love is. Where there is no love you can expect sex to emerge. All men want love, celibates too. Sex can be one way of loving, but it is absurd to say: no sex is no love, as absurd as saying sex is love.
A celibate priesthood, community, is a grace for the Church, a song of the Kingdom (where there will be no marriage but all will be whole),and a joy for all in it. There are none more called to it, more capable of it, more created for it, than the people we call gay. They begin from day one a process of integration others do not even have a hint of before they are 40. Bless them! (My Song is of Mercy, 258-259; italics mine)
In short, he wrote for others, never himself. Even in this, the most personal of spiritual confessions, the subject was not Father Matthew at all; it was humanity, the world, the Church, his astonishing and all-encompassing compassionate embrace of the Creation of which he saw himself an indelible part.
Merton lobbied hard to gain permission to live slightly apart from his community, in a small hermitage up the hill from the dormitory of Gethsemani—that some monks would resent his special pleading and special treatment was inevitable. But Father Matthew never did. Rather, he credited Merton with returning him and his fellow monks’ thoughts to the central values of mysticism and of solitude. It is only in such a manner that the monk can find the divine love in which celibacy makes sense.
Delightfully, the image of such God-infused love came to Father Matthew on his first experience with a motorcycle.
“One day everything fell together and I was mounted,” he says somewhat playfully and naughtily. “Is this a good way to make love? I do not know. I know only that it was for me.”
The meeting of the bride within is not had merely for the asking. Her hand must be won; love of her must be proven. Heroic effort is taken as a matter of course… Notwithstanding many find her, and these are the people who have truly lived. It is these who know God and who will see his face because they know what love is.
Recall the central insight that made his own monastic life possible: “Sex is no problem. Love is.” This was arguably his most distinctive insight; not owed to Merton (save as a decisive counterexample), it was all Matthew’s own.
The question of celibacy is discussed often on too shallow a level, and surely so if the mystical level is dismissed. To do that is to reduce celibacy to an act of prowess which as likely as not can end only in ruining the person. Celibacy without a deep love affair is a disaster. It is not even celibacy. It’s just not getting married. And the world has enough of such people, married and otherwise.
Sex is no problem. Love is. So celibacy is badly misunderstood if it is imagined as an unmarried life without sex. That just re-inscribes the sex obsessions of our own day.
Celibacy is a love affair—a love affair with God. That’s what you got from Father Matthew: his quiet, yet at times overwhelming, passionate love of God. He was infused with it, it cam pouring out of him in every homily, every letter, every smiling glance.
His most common prayer was a prayer for peace. His fundamental spiritual orientation was toward everlasting mercy, mercy he sang like a song and lived like a love affair. And as American Catholicism continues to rethink its relation to Rome, and its cultural future in embattled times, it is all the more important for us to remember that such voices as Father Matthew’s existed in the Roman, or any, church.
For the good people keep on leaving, just as other ones arrive.
(Read the full obituary here)
Alison, James: On Being Liked
De La Huerta: Coming Out Spiritually: The Next Step
Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth
Kelty, Fr Matthew: My Song Is Of Mercy; Writings of Matthew Kelty, Monk of Gethsemani
L’Empereur, James: Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person