Spiritual Friendship: Reflections of Celibacy and Same-Sex Attraction
The historic Christian view of marriage and sexuality seems to confront same-sex attracted Christians with a predominantly negative emphasis. Those of us who are same-sex attracted mostly hear in the historic Christian teaching a requirement that we say “no” to something. A certain form of self-denial is demanded of us. We’re asked to renounce and reject something. This negative tone or emphasis was once described by the writer Andrew Sullivan in stark terms:
Abstinence forever; abstinence always; abstinence not for the sake of something else, but for its own sake; abstinence not just from sex, but from love and love’s hope and the touch of a lover’s embrace. Abstinence even from recognition, acknowledgment, family.
But when you’re a young gay person who’s coming to embrace the biblical Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, as I was, you need something more than the message, “Just say no.”
I remember multiple conversations I had with pastors, friends, trusted mentors, and counselors when I was in my twenties, and my questions then were never mainly about the renunciation. What I wanted and needed to know instead was that there was some life-giving future that was open to me if I came to embrace celibacy. I feared that if I accepted the traditional Christian view that marriage is for a man and a woman and that all other erotic partnerships were ruled out, then I would be sentencing myself to a life of loneliness. Melodramatic as it sounds to me now, what I envisioned was waking up at sixty years old in an empty house, without a life partner or children, while my friends got to wake up next to their spouses and look forward to spending a day with their grandchildren. And so my question wasn’t primarily about why and how to say no to sex, but rather “Can I, as a same-sex attracted Christian, have a future in which close, intimate relationships are a permanent part of my life?” What I needed was a positive vision of celibate flourishing.
I feared that if I accepted the traditional Christian view that marriage is for a man and a woman and that all other erotic partnerships were ruled out, then I would be sentencing myself to a life of loneliness.
The Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov has written that “in all the cases of deprivation Scripture speaks of, grace offers a gift; out of a negative renunciation it creates a positive vocation. To renounce one thing means to be totally consecrated to another that this very renunciation allows us to realize. It is not a mutilation at all, but a re-making.” In saying this, Evdokimov is standing in the main current of classic Christian reflection on calling or vocation. As the gay Catholic writer Eve Tushnet often says, you can’t have a vocation of “no.” A calling from God always has a negative moment, in which something is renounced or laid aside, but the calling doesn’t end there. We are always called toward something positive; we’re called to embrace something good and beautiful, to say “yes” to some form of loving service and generosity. And that’s what I, as a young gay Christian, needed to hear in the historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexual intimacy. I needed to hear that I could aim for something life-giving, not merely deny myself a certain form of sexual expression.
And, thankfully, I did eventually find my way to such a positive vision. One of the first things I read that set me off on this trail was a letter Lewis wrote to a young man named Sheldon Vanauken in 1954. Shortly after he had become a Christian, and while leading, together with his wife Davy, a Bible study for skeptics and other newly converted believers, Vanauken wrote to Lewis to ask for advice about what Christians ought to think about homosexuality. At least two members of Sheldon and Davy’s Bible study had come privately to each of them to talk about the matter, and neither Sheldon nor Davy was sure how to reply. Lewis wrote back:
[O]ur speculations on the cause of the abnormality are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (Jn. IX 1-3): only the final cause, that the works of God [should] be made manifest in him. This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e. that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, [which] will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’ Of course, the first step must be to accept any privations [which], if so disabled, we can’t lawfully get. The [homosexual] has to accept sexual abstinence just as the poor man has to forego otherwise lawful pleasures because he [would] be unjust to his wife and children if he took them. That is merely a negative condition. [But what should] the positive life of the [homosexual] be?
Notice three things that Lewis achieves in this letter. First, in contrast to many contemporary conservative treatments of this issue, Lewis professes ignorance about what causes some people rather than others to develop same-sex attractions. He deliberately avoids a one-size-fits-all approach, comparing gay people’s situation to that of the man born blind in the Gospel of John: both find themselves with an unchosen condition over which they have no direct power, and both find that this condition has led to pain.
Second, Lewis doesn’t envision an easy “fix” for homosexuality. Having mentioned a healing story from the Gospels, it would have been very easy for Lewis to the draw a parallel between the blind man’s regaining of his sight and a contemporary gay Christian’s regaining of her (allegedly native and original) heterosexual desire. But Lewis doesn’t do that. Instead, he talks about sexual asceticism and self-discipline. He speaks of “accepting privations,” “abstinence,” and “foregoing pleasures,” rather than achieving heterosexual functioning or finding psychological “healing.”
Third, and most important, he puts his finger on the ancient Christian conviction that Paul Evdokimov articulated — that whatever renunciations the Christian life involves can never be the final word. Rather, yielding up one thing — same-sex sexual intimacy, in this case — is always about the embrace of another. A loss or a place of pain becomes a gateway into a greater benefit that one wouldn’t have been able to find without the loss and pain. And that benefit is best described as a “vocation,” a calling and a divinely given commission, to make one’s loss and pain a means of service to others.
In all these ways, Lewis gestures toward a way of thinking about what it means to be a gay and Christian that requires same-sex attracted people to ask of themselves: What am I being called to, positively? Or, even more pointedly, how might my being gay itself constitute a call, and how might it be the very means by which I discover new ways to love God and others?
As soon as you start asking these questions, you may end up saying the sorts of things Lewis goes on to hint at in his letter to Vanauken. In the next paragraph, Lewis speculates that perhaps “there [are] certain kinds of sympathy and understanding, a certain social role which mere men and mere women [could] not give” that are open to gay and lesbian Christians. Perhaps gay and lesbian Christians are called to express, rather than simply renounce and deny, same-sex love. And perhaps this is where, for all the potential trials and temptations that come with this way of thinking, same-sex friendship represents one way for gay Christians who wish to be celibate to say: “I am embracing a positive calling. I am, along with every other Christian, called to love and be loved.”
Armed with that thought, I eventually found my way to Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth-century abbot of a monastery in the north of England. Aelred himself probably experienced what we today
would call homosexuality or same-sex attraction. But Aelred, apparently, came to distinguish between two different types of fulfillment of his attractions. In his famous dialogue on Spiritual Friendship, he contrasted “carnal” and “spiritual” friendships. He characterized his former life, prior to entering the monastery, as a life of fleshly, worldly indulgence. But he described his monastic experience not primarily in terms of his renunciation of those behaviors (though he did renounce them) but, more powerfully, in terms of his bonds of love with his fellow monks. “See to what limits love should reach among friends, namely to a willingness to die for each other,” he wrote. “Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always.”
Aelred, in other words, viewed his longings for intimacy with men as sanctifiable. Although he lived a life of monastic celibacy, he evidently interpreted his desire for same-sex love as something capable of stewardship, redemption, and holy expression.
What does this mean for same-sex attracted Christians today? Certainly we can’t simply repeat the conclusions of a Lewis or an Aelred in our very different culture. But what these writers (among others I don’t have space to mention) open up is the possibility of a positive message for those gay Christians who embrace celibacy. By speaking of a certain role for gay people, Lewis suggests that there may be a unique way celibate gay Christians can give and serve in the church. By speaking of spiritual friendship, Aelred suggests that there is a form of same-sex companionship and closeness that is available to celibate same-sex attracted Christians. These messages, I suggest, create the space for gay people like me to pursue stronger relationships and practices of community and hospitality in the church today.
These messages... create the space for gay people like me to pursue stronger relationships and practices of community and hospitality in the church today.
In the most concrete and practical terms, I imagine a future for myself and other same-sex attracted Christians in the church when the call to chastity would no longer sound like a dreary sentence to lifelong loneliness. I imagine Christian communities in which friendships are celebrated and honored—where it’s normal for families to live near or with single people; where it’s expected that celibate gay people would form significant attachments to other single people, families, and pastors; where it’s standard practice for friends to spend holidays together or share vacations; where it’s not out of the ordinary for friends to consider staying put in their neighborhoods and homes, resisting the allure of constant mobility, for the sake of their friendships. I imagine a church where genuine love isn’t located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.
In all these ways and more, I imagine a way of articulating the historic, traditional Christian teaching on marriage and family and celibacy in such a way that the main thing gay people hear is that we, too, can embrace a positive vocation. Love, service, generosity, relational connectedness, friendship, and kinship are open to us. Along with discipline and sacrifice, we are called to love.