I spent this last weekend at a retreat set up by the Gay Christian Network's Side B community.* There were about thirty people there, tucked into a surprisingly expansive resort ground in the Appalachian Mountains. Most of the community came from relatively near, though a few came from further off. Indeed, one of them, I am told, was a foreigner from the wilds of Canada.**
Pictured: A barbarian from the savage lands to the north.
(Though Seth Rogen wasn't there this weekend. That we know of.)
It was a fairly simple affair: meals cooked by a talented amateur chef of our party, some times in prayer, a hike, a few games (I still maintain that I should have won that first round of Cards Against Humanity). It felt rather homey; a feeling I don't often enjoy, and for which I thank the people who were there.
I'd been nervous about going. I don't generally do well in large groups unless I already know everybody there, and even then it isn't entirely predictable; in this group I think I'd previously met two of the people who would be there. Well, I drove down, genially cursing the bad reception. There was dinner, and some introductions, and we all talked casually for a while before going to bed. The hike was the next morning; we made our way through a surprisingly rocky path to a swimming hole and waterfall, complete with a fairly intimidating thirty-foot jump for those who wanted to try it. Rather to my own astonishment, I tried it, twice -- though both times I was only able to trick my brain into thinking that jumping was a good idea and totally not a thing that would make me die by shouting "I am titanium."
It's my coming out song.
All that time, and on the hike back, as I listened to the story of Vincent, a man of about forty, sharing his own very recent coming-to-terms experience, there was something unusual that I could feel. Or rather, the lack of something usual was what I was sensing.
At last, what it was hit me. I was sitting on the couch with Frank, another gay Christian blogwright, and I said something like, "I don't feel uncomfortable, and it's making me uncomfortable."
That, for me, is one of the primary elements of being a gay man: the perpetual feeling of otherness, of alienation even -- not necessarily hostility from the outside, but of needing to be alert and careful and on the defensive. It's so normal that I didn't even notice the feeling until it was gone; the way you can not notice an ache in your joints, until you take medicine for a cold and feel the ache go away. I'm so used to that subconscious feeling that this place is not secure that, when I finally came to a place where I was secure, I didn't know what to do with the feeling. There I was on the couch, taking huge gulps of breath, even crying a little, because I finally had some peace and yet was around people at the same time -- contrary to all of the default settings of my brain, which kept scanning for some kind of computation error. Suddenly being around people who understood, people for whom gayness did not require any explanation and Jesus did not require any justification, was almost startling.
That same feeling has expanded out into these last few days. It's just such a huge experience. Those forty-odd hours together with people who get it, didn't do justice to the magnitude of what it meant. I think it gave me an inkling of what the communion of the saints must be like -- total interpenetration of persons by knowledge and love together, pure intellectual light fulfilled with love as Dante has it. I wonder, too, whether some part of Purgatory may not consist in learning to lay down the habitual defensiveness we have here on earth, learning that it's okay to be simply receptive and open, that nothing There will harm us.
Witty readers may have cottoned on to the potential double entendres in the last couple of sentences. I am content that they should be there; we know well from St. Paul (and St. John of the Cross) that sexuality is, or can be, an image of the entry of God into the soul, tenderly and intimately filling it and bringing it both delight and fertility. I'm not at all perturbed by sexual images of the Divine operations, although, like every created thing, they are unlike God as well as like Him, and this fact must be periodically borne in mind.
Yet another reason to love Baroque art.
And, in the unusual abundance of hugs and even cuddles that I got while I was there, I discovered far more deeply, and wholesomely, what I thought I had already discovered through sex: namely, that sex, while awesome, is really not that important. It feels great -- barring conscience pangs and/or lousy performance -- but it is not, in itself, that fulfilling. Moralists and/or experienced lovers (by which I mean people who have experience in love, not people who have experience in sex) will tell you that often enough; but experienced lovers are hard to come by, and, to be blunt, moralists tend to give the impression of being experienced in neither sex nor love, and it can therefore be hard to take them seriously.
Part of the difficulty, of course, is that it is really hard to get enough touch in a culture like ours outside of a sexual context, and people need to be touched. More than once, I've had sex because I was starving for that, and I won't pretend it doesn't feel good to be touched all over in that way; but this past weekend, I found that the simpler, chaste, affectionate touch I received there was not only free of the pangs of conscience: it was orders of magnitude more fulfilling than sex. It was to illicit sex what a five-course meal is to a bag of potato chips. I got less touch there than I wanted -- chiefly owing to shyness on my part, I think -- and yet, I can still feel some of the effects of the refreshment it obtained me. It's kind of amazing.
One of the reasons that celibacy has been so hard to wrap my head around is that it feels like such a cop-out: the very tone of so many reassurances that "Celibacy doesn't mean living without love" sounds like someone trying hard to convince a pianist who's lost his hands that this doesn't mean he has to live a life without music. I had nothing concrete to connect those assertions of the possibilities of celibacy to, except the love I share with friends; and the brute fact is that, as good as that is, it isn't really the same thing.
But this past weekend, I felt that something more was hinted at: something more intimate and familial, without being at all more erotic or sexual. It wasn't so much that sex would have been "going too far" in that setting, but that it would have felt incongruous, irrelevant. I felt as if I could perceive, if only dimly, what it would be like to be happy without a husband. I feel as if God cracked my heart right open, there in the mountains, and started showing me things inside of it -- some of them nice things and some of them ugly things, all mixed up in a glorious, upsetting mess together.
I'm not surprised, though I am disappointed, to be jealous of my married friends; not that I resent their being happy, but that I'm angry and extremely apt to self-pity at feeling shut out of that possibility. My willingness to snatch at fleeting pleasures out of total despair of ever getting real and lasting affection may seem like a pitiable flaw, but my readiness to disregard the well-being of others in doing so is certainly not. Yet even in the midst of all that, it only took one graced weekend for the feeling of hope for something more -- hope, like gratitude, being something I can barely remember ever feeling in my life -- and that's heartening to me.
That hope is the strangest part of all of this. Faith I sort of get, and love perhaps more so; hope, I can scarcely understand or even desire. Having dealt with depression since I was a small child, having lost so many places and people that I treasured, having slogged my way back to the confessional with the same dismal sins over and over again, I'm so used to pain, defeat, and frustration that I literally do not know what to do with the glimmer of hope that I now have. It's a very scary feeling -- I want to smother it, so it can't trick me and hurt me. The idea that hope could actually be accurate, could be how God and reality really do work, can't even seem to present itself to my mind as a possibility. I suspect, too, that I have been misunderstanding my Carmelite guides for some time now, and interpreting the call to walk in the dark as a call (among other things) to try and do without hope, which is probably like trying to climb Mount Carmel without water.
I'm not sure where this leads. I'm inclined to think that the answer to the perplexities I find myself in with regard to celibacy may well lay in community life, although I must admit that that raises plenty of questions in its own right. For now -- for once -- I am content just to be a little grateful and a little hopeful.
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
*GCN, founded by Justin Lee (author of the excellent book Torn), has existed for about thirteen years now, and offers space to talk and share to all LGBT-identifying Christians, regardless of their denomination or their convictions on sexual morality. "Side A" and "Side B," terms inherited from the now-defunct Bridges Across the Divide site, signify the progressivist and traditional stances on homosexual behavior -- i.e., Side A believes that God does not forbid gay sex as such (though many do believe that it must be saved for marriage), while Side B believe that gay sex is not part of God's plan for human sexuality. GCN does not take a stance on this issue: the majority of its members are Side A, but the organization as such is primarily oriented toward community and mutual understanding, not towards promoting a specific doctrine of homosexuality, except that GCN does specifically reject the ex-gay approach.
**Not everyone who attended this retreat is out of the closet, for varying reasons, and I do not consider it my business to expose other people's private affairs for any reason whatever. I have been extremely careful in writing and editing this post to leave no tell-tale indication of the presence of any individual person other than myself (I have extended this even to people I know to be out, partly because there's less risk of mixing folks up that way, and partly because a person might be out to some people but not to others, out but not eager to be strongly associated with GCN, and so forth). Correspondingly, names other than mine are pseudonyms.