(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.
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.
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.