Wrestling With God: The Sacrament of Irony

Last week I re-posted an earlier piece on Richard Cleaver’s conception of coming out as wrestling with the divine.  Kevin J Calegan, writing in one of several pieces that made up an NCR cover story on gay and lesbian Catholics for Sep 2 1994, says it’s not just coming out that is wrestling with God, but the full gay experience “wrestles with God in an embrace that calls me to a new identity“.  Here are some extracts:

Recently I had the opportunity to see a performance of Tony Kushner‘s, “Perestroika,” Part 2 of his tour de force, “Angels in America.” In his play, Prior Walter, a 31-year-old man living with AIDS, is visited by an angel who declares him a prophet and tempts him to forgo the suffering ahead and find peace in heaven.


Borrowing the story line from Genesis 32, Prior wrestles with the angel, saying, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me!” The angel refuses, incredulous that Prior still wants to live. “Who demands: More life?/When Death like a Protector/Blinds our eyes, shielding from some tender nerve/More horror than can be borne.”

“Bless me anyway,” Prior replies. “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who have lived through much worse, but …. You see them living anyway.”

The metaphor of angel-wrestling has helped me make some sense of my relationship to God, to myself and the world. In the dark of night, I, like both Jacob and Prior, find myself in mortal combat with mysterious figures: angels, demons, viruses.

I just can’t seem to let go.

Finally, after an all-night battle, the combatants release me — not just with a blessing but with a whole new name and identity, a new Israel, “one who strives with God.” I have been in many a wrestling match — political, theological, medical. I have wrestled with God, with God’s ostensible representatives, with sisters and brothers — often in a sweaty, straining, forceful embrace that calls me and those with whom I contend to new identities and new relationships. The fight becomes an act of love.

……..

We who “strive with God” prove those well-meaning but frightened folks wrong every time we jump onto the mat to fight for our rights — our civil rights and the rights of our baptism.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our church when the courage and willingness to go to the floor on the issues that count, to speak the truth when it hurts, is cause for oppression and contempt (see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith‘s two recent documents on homosexuality, 1986 and 1992). What continues to amaze me is that God’s powerful grace is so palpable precisely where the hierarchy denies it can be. I call it the “sacrament of irony.”

The Church constantly reminds us of the fundamental importance of truth. Even the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger concluded “Homosexualitatis Problema” with a reminder to “Speak the Truth in Love”. So indeed there is profound irony that those who control the Church condemn and even penalize gay and lesbian Catholics in their moments of greatest honesty (as with the Canadian altar server, or by withholding communion from Catholics who wear a rainbow sash to declare publicly their orientation, or by driving out priests and religious women who speak honestly about sexuality). Yet, in the same document which preaches the importance of speaking the truth, their own case is based on falsehoods, half-truths, and rhetorical sleight of hand. To counter the lies, it is essential that we take the injunction seriously, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, telling and disseminating our stories as they are, not as the Vatican would like them to be: just as Kevin Calegan has done.

In all those times of wrestling with the tough issues, with church leaders, with each other, with disease, I have been pinned down and squeezed, touched, massaged, embraced, cuddled and, yes, pleasured by a challenging and everloving God. I have been transformed and reconciled. No longer frightened or ashamed, I am learning to confide in God’s love and the love of my fellow wrestlers. And after the match is over, I look forward to walking humbly with my God, even if it is with a limp.

(Read the full reflection)

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A Gay Catholic at Georgetown U.

All gay and lesbian Catholics have difficult decisions to take on dealing with the apparent contradictions between Vatican doctrine and their inner identity. Some find an easy path to reconciling the two, some simply deny the doctrine and walk away from the Church – and some deny their sexuality. Jon Soucy was one of this last group when he was a student at Georgetown U.

As he describes it, he threw himself into several religions activities, in the Knights of Columbus and other activities, becoming an unofficial “defender of the faith”.  Conversely, for fear of being thought of as gay, he stayed well clear of any courses or activities that dealt with gay issues, even deriding those who participated in them.

While at Georgetown, I took it upon myself to openly mock Professor Ingebretsen’s class Unspeakable Lives: Gay and Lesbian Narrative, while secretly longing to take the course. I criticized GU Pride in The Hoya, while, in my heart of hearts, wishing I could gather the courage to go to a meeting. And, in countless conversations over the years, I disparaged gay people and defended my Church’s harmful teachings on homosexuality.

The result – loneliness and misery.

I lived this lie for many years, “bearing my cross” and committing myself to a life of loneliness and despair. The loneliness is hard to describe to straight people. It’s the loneliness of seeing straight couples together, and knowing you’ll never know the love of another human being because it’s forbidden. It’s the loneliness of seeing your best friends pair off with their girlfriends to leave you alone to contemplate your solitude. It’s the loneliness of knowing that, no matter how much fun you may be having with your friends today, you know the day will come when they’ll be married, and you’ll be feeling sorry for yourself because you have no love in your life and never will.

Now, looking back, he says this was a mistake. He now says he wishes he had spent less time defending the faith, and more time. being true to himself. Even the Vatican, in its infamous Hallowe’en Letter, reminds us of the Scriptural injunction to “Speak the truth in love.” This is what he has now, belatedly done.

Allow me to introduce myself. I graduated from the College in 1999 with a major in government (really, a major in Father Schall — the best teacher I have ever had. If you haven’t taken his classes, DO SO!)

Some of you may notice the crucifixes on the walls in most of Georgetown’s classrooms. I was the President of the Georgetown University Committee for Crucifixes in the Classroom. I was Grand Knight of the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus. I was the Treasurer of the Philodemic Society. I was the Georgetown Academy’s Man of the Year. I was one of Georgetown’s unofficial Defenders of the Faith. I was — and am — a gay man.

Not that I ever told anybody I was gay at Georgetown, except for a couple of my dearest friends, and then only in hushed tones, as if confessing to a crime. How could a Defender of the Faith be gay? Perhaps I became a Defender of the Faith because I was terrified of my sexuality. Who knows?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of most of the activities I was involved in at GU. I met great people in the Knights, the Crucifix Committee and the Philodemic. I am still in close contact with my two best friends from Georgetown and visit the Hilltop once or twice a year. I just wish I’d spent less time saving Georgetown’s Catholic identity and more time trying to come to terms with my own identity as a gay man.

Read Jon Soucy’s full story at The Hoya (Georgetown University Newspaper of Record) for March 04, 2003 .

 

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

An Erotic Encounter With the Devine” is the title of a post by Eric L. Hays-Strom at Jesus 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 church’s fuller understanding of spirituality: Read the rest of this entry »

“Hell’s Teeth”: Some Nostalgia (Just for the Fun of It)

Michael Worsnip at Hell’sTeeth appears to have a background resembling my own: a once married, gay Catholic (Anglican) man from Johannesburg, later settled in whaat he calls Cairp Tahn, and I call Cape Town. (UPDATE:  My apologies to Michael for labelling him incorrectly as Catholic.  He has politely but firmly told me he is an Anglican, of the “spikey variety”.  I thought I had seen a clear reference to “Catholic” on his blog, but didn’t do the fact checking when writing.Iguess that’s why I’m a blogger, and not a proper journalist. )

He writes “from the sanguine side of life”, which is a frame of mind often induced by those lucky enough to be in Cape Town – at least, those with homes and incomes. He says of himself:

I’m not cool. Nor do I have have aspirations to being cool. Most of the time, I don’t even understand cool. I happen to live in Cape Town, (“Cairp Tahn” if you are cool) which is supposedly cool. I am Gay. I am 52 (which is Gay terms is way past cool). I have two adopted boys aged 6 and 7 and partner who doesn’t want to get married. I have a job in a rather curious field. I like music and reading and writing and cooking. Oh, and eating.

But don’t be fooled:  while writing about and exalting the ordinary, daily things in life he is not blind to the difficulties and social problems around him – he just doesn’t dwell on them.

I particularly liked his reminiscences of the “Butterfly Bar” at the skyline Hotel in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, brought back to him by a visit to a present day gay bar in Cape Town.  The Butterfly Bar was the first gay bar he ever visited, as it was for me a few years later, as it was for probably most Johannesburg gay men at around that time. Read the rest of this entry »

Come Out, Stand Proud. (The Catechism Commands It!)

Yes, really – in a manner of speaking. Browsing through the Catechism section on sexuality, which you will find under the sixth commandment, I was struck by two passages in particular:

“Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.” (2333)

and

“Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another” (2337)

Of course, that it is not at all what the Vatican means – the rest of the passage assumes that this can only be done by violating your identity in a heterosexual relationship, which we know from the experts in social science, from the testimony of others, and and from personal experience, is a violation of our identites, not an acceptance.  But then, the Vatican has never been noted for freedom from contradiction.

There are more compelling reasons though, than the Vatican’s mixed messages for coming out, and indeed for coming out in church. For “coming Out Day”, I want to look instead at some of these.

Rereeading Elisabeth Stuart’s “Gay & Lesbian Theologies“, I was struck by the realisation that she puts the start of the formal development of gay & lesbian theology to the early 1970’s.  the first notable text she discusses is Loving Women/Loving Men (eds Sally Gearhard and William Johnson), published as long ago as 1974 -fully 35 years ago this year, and “Towards a Theology of Gay Liberation”, edited by Malcolm Marcourt.

An essential aspect of this early thinking takes its cue from Paul Tillich, and his notion of “the courage to be”. In these terms, it is important to recognise our own experience.

Johnson accuses the church of being over concerned with “intellectual theology”, and  under concerned with the grounding of theology in experience.  It is therefore vital that gay people come out, articulate their experience and reflect theologically upon it, for “we who are gay know the validity of our experience, particularly the experience of our love. That love calls us out of ourselves and enables us to respond to the other. Through our experience we experience the presence of God………..

For Johnson, gay liberation is vital for the liberation of the Church to enable it to better incarnate the Gospel. The essay ends with a call to all gay men in the Church to come out, to  ensure that liberation takes place.” (Emphasis added.)

Previously, I have looked at Richard Cleaver‘s view that coming out is “Wrestling with the Divine” (Know My Name), and Daniel Helminiak‘s that is a “Spiritual Experience” (Sex and the Sacred)John McNeill, former Jesuit theologian and psychotherapist, makes similar points in “Sex as God Intended”.  Today, I want to look at the ideas of  Chris Glaser, who in a full length book presents his view of “Coming Out as Sacrament“. Glaser is one of those treasured writers on gay religion of whom it can said, as with James Alison, Daniel Helminiak and JohnMcNeill, that everything they write is worth reading, and accessible even to non specialists. Glaser writes from a backgroound in the Baptist and Presbyterian faiths, but as a Catholic I find this helpful, in broadening my perspective, rather than getting ini the way of his argument. The starting point for this book was some reflection on the importance of the idea of sacrament to lGBT people, who are so often denied access to the sacraments by mainstream churches.  Talking to a close friend (sympathetic, but not LGBT), this is how his thinking went:

“Having visited our Wednesday night Bible study, she told me that what impressed her most deeply, what she thougth was our sacrament as gay people, was our “ability to be vulnerable with one another” – in other words, to xperience true communion by offering our true selves.  As Christ offers himself in vulnerability,   so we offer ourselves, despite the risks. Being open and vulnerable may be preceivesd as weakness, but in reality it demonstrates our strength.  By sharing our  “brokenness”  – how we are sacrificially cut off from the rest of Christ’s Body – we offer a renewed opportunity of Communion, among ourselves and within the Church as the Body of Christ.”

Later, he added a conclusion that had not occurred to him earlier-

” that coming out is our unique sacrament, a rite of vulnerability that reveals the sacred in our lives – our worth, our love, our love-making, our context of meaning, and our God. “

Later in the opening chapter, he carefully notes the ways in which coming out has deep affinity with not just one, but each, of the traditional seven sacraments of the broader Christian community.  Above all, however, he says there is one where there is an extra special affinity: the sacrament of communion is intrinsic to coming out – it is hardly possible to come out entirely in private.

Coming out in public is important for one’s own mental health, and also for one’s spiritual being.  Doing so in the Church cam help the Church to recognise and proclaim the true Gospel message.  If you possibly can, do it:  quite literally,  for the love of God.

Further Reading:

Barefoot Theologians, Twitching Experience
Homoerotic Spirituality
The Road From Emmaus:  Gay and Lesbians Prophetic Role in the Church
Coming Out As Spiritual Experience
Coming out As Wrestling With the Divine

Sergius & Bacchus – and me.

Sergius Bacchus

While away the last few days, I missed the opportunity to write about the feast of SS Sergius and Bacchus, and sadly lacked the foresight to post in advance.  Now, both Jayden Cameron and Michael Bayley have on any case done the job for me, with excellent posts on the topic.  Read them at Gay Mystic and The Wild Reed.  So instead of writing about their lives or importance, I will just share an anecdote about my personal involvement with them.

I first heard about these legendary gay saints over 5 years ago, shortly before I started attending the Soho LGBT Masses.  I was astonished that there might have been such people as gay saints, and took careful note.  Some time later, I was in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral, and thought it might be an opportunity to do some simple research.  I went into the  Catholic bookshop outside the cathedral, and sought out a couple of comprehensive books of saints.  One listed the two men and their story (without reference to their relationship) and their feast date.   The other gave the dates, but included a disclaimer to the effect “Their cult was suppressed in 1969”.  Read the rest of this entry »

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