Category Archives: 40 Spirituality

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

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 unshakeable 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.

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A 2nd Cent. Queer Hymn of Praise: "The Father Who Was Milked"

Sometimes, I come across an idea or image that is so remarkable, so fresh and new (to me) that it just has to be shared.  This one is hardly new (itdates back to the late second century), but it is startlingly fresh, remarkable and new – to me.
I have been trying to research a number of themes from the history of the early church.  While reading Ivor Davidson’s “The Birth of the Church:  From Jesus to Constantine AD 30 -312”, I came across a passage which had nothing to do with the subject(s) I was investigating, but which I want to promote.
Wall painting from a Syrian house church, showing the healing of the paralysed man.
The context is a Chapter on Christian worship.  After some discussion of the regular practice of community Eucharist on Sunday morning and Agape (“love feast”) on Sunday evening, he goes on to discuss the practice of regular fasting, prayer and praise. Services of “praise” incorporated psalms and hymns of praise into other Bible readings, as in the Divine Office.  Davidson then goes on to refer to a less familiar from of praise for worship, lost for centuries and rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th Century. Originating in the church of Eastern Syria, these are Gnostic in flavour, but probably orthodox in origin. The hymn quoted, Ode 19 of the “Odes of Solomon”, introduces an exaltation on the original conception.  Davidson says the odes contain some “striking” language.  The imagery of the Trinity as presented here, in its description of the conception of the Son, is not just “striking”:  it slams one across the face with a force sufficient to shake up one’s brain, and with it all  preconceived ideas of Trinity, and also of God and gender.
I present it here without comment:  see what you think.
A cup of milk was offered to me,
and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup,
and the father is he who was milked;
and the Holy Spirit is she who milked him;
Because his breasts were full,
and it was undesirable that his milk should be released without purpose.
The Holy Spirit opened her bosom,
and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father, ……
The womb of the Virgin took [it],
and she received conception and gave birth.
How’s that for a new idea?
Read the full, text, and other Odes translated by James Chattlesworth, here.
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The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality

Spiritual direction is one of the best -kept secrets of the Catholic Church. This is unfortunate- the process needs to better known and used. This is how Jesuit theologian James L’Empereur describes it:

the process in which a Christian accompanies others for an extended period of time for the process of clarifying the psychological and religious issues in the directee so that they may move toward deeper union with God and contribute to ministry within the Christian community.

I have unexpectedly been able to borrow L’Empereur’s “Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person”, which I would now like to prescribe to all my readers as required reading, with a 3 hour examination at the end of the course. I began reading last evening, and have been devouring it with enthusiasm. I am now about half way through, and not yet ready to offer a full and balanced assessment. (That will come later). Still, every page has important insights that I want to share or explore further. As an appetizer before the main course to follow, I offer some snippets today:
Here are the opening sentences:

 

Homosexuality is on of God’s most significant gifts to humanity. To be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. to be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. All humans receive their own special graces from their creator, but god has chosen some to be gay and lesbian as a way of revealing something about Godself that heterosexuals do not.

This is a startling, unexpected beginning, but of course he goes on to explain and fully substantiate it, in a chapter that had me engrossed, and anxious to explore also all his references and sources (a task, I fear, which may be well beyond me.) Elsewhere, he makes another startling claim: he calls the gay state a “charism”, exactly comparable to the charism of celibacy embraced by Catholic clergy. Both are charisms granted to just a few, from which the wider church can learn. Here I was reminded of an observation in one of our Soho Mass homilies, that if “homosexuality” is an environmental threat because it cannot lead to procreation, so is celibacy.) The key manner in which we who are gay or lesbian can teach the wider Church is in the manner of our sexuality, which is not exclusively about genital contact (in complete contradiction to the popular stereotypes), nor is it based in patriarchal patterns of domination and submission.
I should stress here that L’Empereur very carefully does not either endorse or condemn any specific form of sexual expression, whether in committed, faithful relationships, in recreational sex, or in voluntary celibacy: those decisions are to be reached by the person being directed, through the process, and not decided a priori. However, he does argue strongly that for all people, gay or otherwise, the historic dichotomy between sex and spirituality has been destructive. Instead of thinking of spirituality OR sexuality, we should be looking for spirituality THROUGH sexuality , possibly (but not necessarily) including genital sexuality. Gay people, he says, may find this easier than heterosexuals, who are often startled during counselling before , when he asks whether they expect to use their sexual union as a form of prayer.
In this book L’Empereur presents with great clarity and authority a number of the themes I have been grasping at on these pages. Another is the view that authentic Catholic teaching fully supports, not condemns, the homosexual and his/her struggle. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We know from painful experience of course, that approached from the perspective of sexual ethics, standard Catholic teaching is deeply hostile. L’Empereur reminds us that Catholic teaching is far broader than just sexual ethics. Approached from social justice, which is at least as important to the totality of teaching, a completely different picture emerges, one which demands compassion and support for the marginalised and oppressed, and requires that we work towards justice. This latter perspective has been profoundly influential in my own faith as it was formed under South African apartheid, and why I found Cardinal O’Connors instruction to the Soho Masses to present Catholic teaching on sexuality “in full, and without ambiguity”. This is impossible: “in full” implies from a range of approaches, which are self-contradictory. When we think of the structure of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, far too often we see only the dominating monolith of the official Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, and especially the scaled down, reduced travesty that we find in the catechism. Reading this book, I am reminded that the teaching “in full” more closely resembles a crowded, diverse city, with many strands coming from the Vatican centre – and also important subsidiary nodes, such as those presented by theologians like L’Empereur. Historically, cities grew around single, strong centres. During the twentieth century, the development of private transport led to dramatic changes in city morphology, with the major growth occurring on the suburban or exurban fringes and in suburban business nodes. In some cities, it has been suggested, the traditional centre has virtually disappeared.
We may be seeing the same thing in theology. Comparable to private transport, the emergence of lay theologians and secular schools of theology have privatised the construction of new ideas. Instead of the ancient central monolith dominating the skyline, steadfastly preserving and protecting its traditional inheritance, suburban nodes are bubbling away, creating new forms and structures: liberation theology, feminist theology, gay and lesbian theology, queer theology; theology by discerned experience, theology of spirituality through sexuality – and so many more I have not yet encountered. With so much vitality at the suburban fringes, the “margins” lose conceptual significance. Will Vatican City in time become irrelevant, as some physical central cities have done?
Jayden Cameron thinks so, at the Gay Mystic. Read “Life Finds a Way“.
 
(I will have more on this important book later – probably repeatedly.)
See also:
Previous QTC Posts:

"Heal the Broken – Hearted"

“Healing” is the central them for today’s Mass (5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year B). This healing can be either physical (as in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus heals Simon’s mother – in- law, among others, or it can be emotional and spiritual, as clearly expressed in the response to the psalm:

Praise the Lord who heals the broken-hearted.

For LGBT Christians, it is this spiritual healing that will have particular relevance. Just like everybody else, we too will have need for physical healing at different times and to varying degrees, but will also have a particular need to be healed from the hurt and pain unnecessarily inflicted on us by some elements of Church teaching, and by some other Christians, in defiance of the clear Gospel message of inclusion and love for all. When we feel hurt in this way, we need to remember that while some people may reject us, God will never do so. When we turn to Him,  Christ will indeed “heal the broken- hearted” – and we can receive that healing either by turning to the texts of the Bible (especially the Gospels), which really are “Good news”, as Paul says, or even better, by applying direct, in prayer

There is more to the day’s reading though, than just the reminder of God’s healing for us. There is also an implicit command to take that message, and offer it to others, so that they too may be healed. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul stresses that preaching the gospel is “a duty which has been laid on me”. That duty however is shared by us all, as Pope Frnncis spelled out in “Evangelii Gaudium”.

(Readings for the day:

  • First reading: Job 7:1-4,6-7
  • Psalm: 146:1-6
  • Second reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23
  • Gospel Acclamation: Jn8:12 or Mt8:17
  • Gospel: Mark 1:29-39 )

Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary

Historically, October 7th was the feast of Saints Sergius and Bacchus – and so of particular relevance to same – sex lovers, and to all gay or lesbian Christians. In the modern Catholic lectionary, however, it is celebrated as the “Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary”.

rainbow rosary

The lectionary readings for today’s Mass (which do not refer directly to the rosary), have much fruitful material for queer reflection. Continue reading Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary

"All Will be Well, and All Shall Be Well" : Julian of Norwich, 8th May

There is no way that we should be thinking of Julian as gay or lesbian, but we should certainly think of her as queer (and as, she was undoubtedly female, in spite of her name). There are two reasons for including her here. The first is her pioneering unequivocal feminism. These are shown by her gender bending references in her book to God as mother – and even to Jesus as “mother Jesus”, which are habits for us too to acquire in our prayer. In her own career, she was remarkable for producing the first book to be written in English by a woman. Can we think of her as the first feminist theologian?

“The Mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven with inner certainty of endless bliss.

 

The second is the fundamental nature of her spirituality, which was centuries ahead of her time, and can be especially valuable to those who, like the LGBT community, feel threatened by an accusatory and hostile  institutional Church.  Here, it is important to note that her optimistic spirituality, as indicated in the well-known quotation in my headline, is not simply a Panglossian, mindless “always look on the bright side”. There is a very sound theological basis for it, made clear in an expanded formulation of the idea:

“And so our good Lord answered to all questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortably: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well”.

All will be well – because God has promised to make them well. Hope is a virtue – and optimism a theological obligation.

Julian (not her birth name) was born in 1342. At the age of 30, she fell dangerously ill, coming close to death. At this time, she experienced a series of mystical visions on the Passion of Christ and on the love of God. After her recovery, she became an anchoress, and recorded her experiences which she described as “showings”, in her book. She is renowned for her insistence in these on God’s unbending love and care for Her people, which was unusual for a time when religion was seen in much stricter, more judgemental terms of avoiding eternal damnation.

Read “The Showing Of Love” on-line

The “Umilta” website has an astonishing collection of links to scholarly work on Juliana and her times ( including this useful one : Equally in God’s Image  Women in the Middle Ages

Friends of Julian describes itself as the  “official” Julian website. I don’t know on what authority they make the claim, but the site is at least attractive and informative.

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St John of the Cross: 14th December

John of the Cross was born in Fontiveros, in Spain, in about 1542. He spent some time as a Carmelite friar before, in 1568, Saint Teresa of Ávila persuaded him to pioneer the reform of the Carmelite order. This was a difficult task and a dangerous one: he suffered imprisonment and severe punishment at the hands of the Church authorities. He died at the monastery of Ubeda in Andalusia on 14 December 1591: the monks there had initially treated him as the worst of sinners, but by the time he died they had recognised his sanctity and his funeral was the occasion of a great outburst of enthusiasm. His works include two major mystical poems – he is considered one of the great poets of the Spanish language – and detailed commentaries on them and the spiritual truths they convey. He was canonized in 1726 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926.
He is important for queer Christians, especially gay men, for two reasons. First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunize ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality. Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

Continue reading St John of the Cross: 14th December