The Rosary for October: Subversive, Queer. (Repost, with Update)

May is Mary’s month and I
Muse at that and wonder why?
Her feasts follow reason
Dated due to season:
Candlemas, Lady Day
But the Lady Month, May
Why fasten that upon her
With a feasting in her honour?

-GM Hopkins, the May Magnificat

virgin-mary-statue

Why, indeed?  For reasons I have never clearly understood, this is one of my favourite poems by the gay English Jesuit GM Hopkins,  which has stuck firmly in my memory since my school days.  ( It was note even one that I studied in school, but one I found in my own exploration of Hopkins’ work, inspired by those poems we did study. Apologies to GMH if my memory has failed me and I have misquoted him).

October too is a Marian month, and a time to be thinking particularly of the rosary.

The extract above, and that which follows, are taken from a post I wrote for October last year. The original post drew some encouraging comment, October is still the rosary month, and it is still useful to consider how we pray the rosary.  That alone makes it worth re-posting. However there is another reason to consider this afresh.

Last month, some weeks in advance of October and its rosary devotions, the original post drew a comment from the original developer of the Relational Mysteries,  raising some important questions which I think are worth thinking about. Read the opening of the original post for a sense of the original, cross to here if you like for the full post, read the comment after this excerpt,  read my response – and then consider your own reaction.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

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 Cotter and 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”.

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


 

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.

 

Gay Spirituality

Gay Spirituality

At Nihil Obstat, Censor Librorum has posted without comment two versions of the ad campaign for “Catholics Support Condoms”.  Leaving aside (for now) the issue of the condoms, what caught my attention was the first two lines in the copy:

“We believe in God.
We believe that sex is sacred.”

Indeed.  So it is, so it is.

 

Essential Gay Mystics

While doing some bibliographical research yesterday for my expanding book pages, I was struck by the number of worthwhile books I came across on the topic, from Catholic perspectives and other traditions, from gay, lesbian, transgfendered and other perspectives .  Thes will soon be added to the Book Club (a small selection are highlighted alongside this post).

Last Sunday afternoon, I was privileged to join a dozen other people from our Soho Masses group to hear Michael B. Kelly, writer ofSeduced by Grace“, discussing his paper Unlikely Prophets of an Erotic God.” Michael has forged a career as a spiritual director and academic specialising in the erotic, and specifically gay men’s erotic experience, as a valuable pathway to the spiritual. He is currently in the United states for an extended visit.  If any of my US readers have a chance to meet or hear him – grab the opportunity.)

 

Seduced by Grace

Seduced by Grace: Michael B Kelly

He too pointed to the rich vein of the erotic in traditional mystical writing, referring also to St Theresa and St John of the Cross in particular , using as illustration the same poem as that posted on the Wild Reed.   He also discussed the obvious fact that far too much of the Church’s writing and teaching on sex has been done by “celibate men in frocks”, who self-evidently either had no practical experience, or were unable to disclose any that they had. To counter this, it is important that we as laity need to speak much more frankly about sex. There was much more, but I will not go into the rest in this post:  he deserves a full analysis later, which I am working on. I do, though, want to point out his central point: while it is clear to many that erotic experience (including gay men’s experience) is valuable in spirituality, this has received limited recognition or scholarly attention.  He is currently engaged in doctoral research, using personal stories as raw material.  He urges us all to speak out openly and frankly of our own experiences, to bring the truth to wider attention.  This is a sentiment I heartily endorse.  I have promised to send to Michael my own stories, and urge my readers to do the same.  (If you want to take me up on this offer, just post a brief comment, and I will send you an email address, if you do not have an alternate access)

 

In the same spirit of openness, I have posted on my personal page on this site, a deeply personal story of my own homoerotic retreat experience. (Health warning:  if you are squeamish or sceptical of claims about ‘mystical’ experiences, by all means stay away.  I would once have reacted in the same way.  But if you are more open – minded, take a look and make up your own mind.  I simply tell it as it happened.)  Read the story at  “6 days that changed my life” .

More  books on lesbian & gay spirituality:

Boisvert, Donald L: Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men’s Spirituality

Glaser, Chris: Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends

Glaser, Chris: Coming out As Sacrament

Harvey, Andrew:  Essential Gay Mystics

Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

Coming Out as Spiritual Experience

Over 40 years since Stonewall, it has become commonplace to recognise the value of coming out as a growth experience, bringing benefits to mental health, self-esteem and personal integrity. Less widely recognised is the value of coming out as spiritual growth. This idea, which well deserves to be better known, gets extensive treatment in Daniel Helminiak’s book, Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth.

(Helminiak is an openly gay Catholic priest with doctorates in both spirituality and psychology, who teaches spirituality in a faculty of psychology – so he is eminently well qualified to write on the subject. For more  on Daniel Helminiak, see his own website, “Visions of Daniel)

Sex and Sacred

In his preface, Helminiak notes that the argumetns in the early days of the gay liberation movement were purely reactive & defensive, making the case that homosexuality is NOT a sin, NOT a sickness, and NOT a mental disorder. Read the rest of this entry »

“To the Tune of a Welcoming God”

Michael Bayley at The Wild Reed has drawn my attention to David Weiss’ book “To the Tune of a Welcoming God”, and posts two excerpts from the book.

To theTtune of a Welcoming GodIn the first, David describes his journey in coming out – not as gay, but as a gay ally.  The second is a prose poem,   “Words Offered at the End of the Day to an Unknown Friend Living in Fear”. Both are worth reading:  we as LGBT people of faith need to speak up opnely and in our own voices, but we also need allies, and we need to hold firmly to the knowledge that God is always welcoming:  not “in spite” of our sexuality, but just because we are all God’s people.

I do not reproduce the text here, but encourage you to read it.  Go to Read the rest of this entry »

“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 .

Read the rest of this entry »

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 ocassions.

But we were still not done.  After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder of Rainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. Read the rest of this entry »

“Sex As God Intended” (Book Review)

sex-as-god-intended-_-john-mcneillJohn McNeill, Lethe Press 2008.

I have just two small niggles about this book, so let me get them out of the way now. First, I was initally disappointed to find that this is not all new wrting by McNeill.  Only half the book is by McNeill, and the rest is a collection of celebratory articles, a “Festchrift”, by others. This Festschrift is welcome, but even his own writing is not all new.  I have not read all the previous works, but even so I recognised large chunks of the material as not just a restatement, but verbatim reprints, of  sections of  “Taking a Chance of God.” So big chunks of this are not new material.

Also irritating was the poor editing.  McNeill appears to have gone to a new publisher, who have clearly made good use of a spell-checker – but paid insufficient attention to grammar.  There were many instances  where the flow of the text was interrupted by obvious missing words, with important parts of speech simply not present, leading to incomplete sentences or clauses that just did not hang together.

Celebrating John McNeill

But these were irritations only.  It does not matter Read the rest of this entry »

The Value of Experience as Spiritual Self-Defence

I referred yesterday to a post on Nihil Obstat in which Ned O’Gorman paints quite a depressing picture of the difficult position in which the established church puts us LGBT Catholics. He refers specifically to how some people enter heterosxual marriage to maintain some form of acceptance. As this goes directly to my own experience, I responded immediately with a lengthy comment.  Later, I realised that much of this is also fully relevant to the ongoing theme I am trying to develop, and that you might like to know a little more about me, so I repeat my comment here:

“It is undeniable that the established Church puts us in a difficult position, and that too many people simply evade or avoid the issues. I was one of those who married (very unwisely) ‘to maintain a place in church and society’. The irony is that it was during those years, when I was trying to live faithfully within the bounds of Catholic teaching on sexuality with all its restrictions, that my faith life was sterile, leading to a gradual disconnection from the church, and to a 10 year flirtation with agnosticism.

My return to the church came only after setting up a committed relationship with another man. I then developed an active faith life, and an exploration of prayer and spirituality, far richer than anything I had ever experienced while operating within the bounds of official teaching. Later, since developing an active participation in an explicitly LGBT Mass, and especially since I started blogging on the subject, I have been led still further, to readings in theology, church history and ministry that I would never previously have gone into.

St Ignatius teaches us to trust the ‘movement of spirits’ as we discern them deep in our hearts, by prayerful reflection on the experiences of our own lives. My own reflections on experience confirm that I have most directly felt God acting in my life,  when I have lived honestly, as a gay man, not in what was (for me)  the pretence of straight marriage.

O’Gorman is too pessimistic. There is no need at all to feel ‘abandoned’ by the Church – just by the Vatican. There are increasingly many supportive priests, even including some who will indeed bless same sex unions, and many other ways of finding support in faith – not least through a an expanding network of welcoming parishes, a publishing explosion on LGBT theology and spirituality, and on websites and blogs such as this one, my own, and many others.

Faith and Sexuality

So far on these pages, I have been able first to set up a shell, and then to begin to  populate it with the easy & fun bits: listings, directories, book recommendations.

I suspect, though, that for many LGBT men and women exploring matters of faith, the more important issues are the tough questions I have so far avoided: dealing with the perception of a supposed conflict between their faith and their sexual identity.  Personally, I no longer believe that there is a real conflict, as many excellent scholars have been showing. I will, in these pages, lead you to some of these writers, and will in time summarise the arguments for you.

My greater interest, however, is not in the defensive mode of answering our critics, but in finding the “Good News”, in Scripture, in the formal teaching of the Magisterium, and in the formation of an internal spiritual life.  I have begun today  the development of pages specifically intended to explore these themes. In telling you this, I must present it with two spiritual health & safety warnings:

First, I have absolutely no particular expertise in these matters. I am not myself a saint, nor have I any spiritual wisdom, nor am I a biblical scholar, nor have I any training in formal theology.  All I have, is an honest interest in exploring these issues.  If I am wrong, I would be grateful to be corrected on matters of fact or flawed reasoning.  In developing these thoughts, I am convinced my own understanding will increase.  If at the same time, I help to extend your own thinking, that would be great.

Second, I must stress that this is no more than a start.  To push the ball along, I urgently ask for your help, by responding with your own thoughts.

Now, to begin the exploration, see the new pages:

Scripture

Church Teaching

Spirituality

Terence