Sunday, May 17, 2009

Gay People and the Spiritual Life

Below you’ll find excerpts from an insightful article by John McNeill from the March 26, 1993 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

Now don’t let the fact that this article is almost twenty years old put you off from reading it! True, some aspects are dated (fewer gay people today, for instance, experience a sense of “exile” from family and culture), but as you’ll see, it’s central premise – that there is a unique gay dimension to the spiritual life and that, accordingly, gay people bring valuable gifts to the church – remains timeless.

I especially appreciate McNeill’s observation that for most gay people, the “spiritual struggle” is to achieve “self-trust” in the face of a church that teaches that their sexuality is an “orientation to evil.”

“Gays must learn a new level of spiritual maturity,” writes McNeill, “basing their spiritual life on inner convictions and not on outside expectations. . . . They must [discern] what God is saying to them through their hearts and trust what they hear, even when it conflicts with homophobic authorities.”


McNeill concludes his piece by sharing an insight with which I particularly resonate: “Gay people constantly are in a process of discernment on how to integrate their growth in intimacy with God with their search to live out human intimacy in its fullness.”

How true! And how exhausting this process can be. I mean, it really is never-ending, isn’t it? And not just for gay people, of course, but for everyone. Still, it is more of a challenge for gay folks as, within Roman Catholicism for instance, homo-negativity is rife. Accordingly, our experiences of God in our lives and relationships are dismissed and maligned. We’re told to distrust and view as life-denying our discernment of God’s call to seek and build loving and sexually-expressed relationships with others of the same gender.


Thankfully there are prophetic people within the church like John McNeill and many others who lovingly yet firmly challenge the entrenched homo-negativity and homophobia of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Trust me, my friends, there will come a day when the institutional component of the church will repent of its long and sordid history of homo-negativity and homophobia. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but it will happen eventually. Of that I’m sure. And the basis for my certainty? Maybe it’s to do with Carl Jung’s observation (noted by McNeill) that gay people are endowed with a “wealth of religious feeling” that, among other things, makes us “responsive to revelation”!

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Excerpts from
Gay Dimensions to Spiritual Life
By John McNeil
National Catholic Reporter
March 26, 1993


Carl Jung recognized a special spiritual quality that characterized the homosexuals with whom he worked as a therapist: “He [the homosexual] is endowed with a wealth of religious feelings which help him to bring the ecclesia spiritualis into reality and a spirituality which makes him responsive to revelation.”

Anthropologists note that in many [pre-urban] cultures, gays and lesbians play a strong role in spiritual leadership. For example, an American Indian tradition, the berdache or the heyoehkah who gave spiritual leadership to the tribe were usually drawn from among the gay members of the tribe.

Gays and lesbians also have played a leading, if hidden, role in Western monastic tradition. Matthew Kelty, the Trappist monk, speaks of a special spiritual quality in his life as a hermit and contemplative that he attributes to his homosexuality: “The reason [for this special quality], as I have worked it out, is that [homosexuals] are more closely related to the anima than is usual. The man with a strong anima will always experience some inadequacy until he comes to terms with his inner spirit and establishes communion – no small achievement.” (Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, Doubleday, 1980.)

In his book We Drink From Our Own Wells, Gustavo Gutierrez makes the point that the unique experience of suffering by the poor in the Third World gives rise to a very special type of spirituality. In a similar way, the unique and frequently painful experience of being an exile from family, church, and culture can give rise to a special spirituality among gay people.

John Fortunato spells out that experience and the resulting spirituality in his classic work Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians (Harper and Row, 1987). The only healthy spiritual way to deal with their exile, according to Fortunato, is for gay people to go through a process of mourning and letting go of their desire to belong and be accepted by all the structures of this world. This mourning process recapitulates the ancient spiritual practice of “detachment.” One must go through the five stages of mourning outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, compromise, anger, depression, and acceptance.

Many gays and lesbians fail to complete this process. As a result, they get stuck, for example, at the the denial or compromise stage, trying to live out their lives as a false self, suppressing or denying their reality as gay people. Or they get struck again at the stage of anger or depression, becoming full of bitterness and cynicism.

But gay people who complete the mourning process have completed the detachment process from this world that most people are challenged to achieve only as they approach death. “What gay people have to give up is the attachment to rejection and the need for people (incapable or unwilling to do so) to affirm their wholeness and lovableness,” Fortunato says. . . . Consequently, by deepening their spiritual life, gays can turn what they see as the curse of gayness, the curse of being in exile, into spiritual gold by realizing that in proportion as they are exiles in this world, they belong ever more deeply in “the Kingdom of God.”

Hans Kung, in his book Does God Exist?, makes the point that the essential human psychological foundation and presupposition for faith and a spiritual life is the virtue of trust. Trust is the cornerstone of a psychologically healthy personality; without it a spiritual life is impossible. The principal challenge, then, of our spiritual life is to experience the goodness of creation and its essential ultimate trustworthiness.

However, lesbians and gay men face a unique challenge to their ability to trust creation. Because they do not choose their sexual orientation, they experience it as a given, a part of created reality. Insofar as they are taught to see themselves as negative, as created sinful, sick, or evil, they will necessarily experience a deep crisis in their ability to trust the creator. If they accept that their sexual orientation is part of the created reality and at the same time that it is an “orientation to evil,” then they will experience a deep crisis in their ability to trust creation and God. Their only alternative is to begin the development of a deep spiritual life. They must achieve an even deeper trust of self, body, nature, the cosmos, and God.

As Matthew Fox asks in his essay “The Spiritual Life of Homosexuals and Just About Everybody Else” (Crossroads, 1984): “Who knows more about the beauty of creation and the New Creation than those who have been told verbally and non-verbally by religion and society that the way they were created was a mistake and even sinful.”

The spiritual struggle, then, for most gays and lesbians is to achieve trust, first of all, self-trust. To achieve that self-trust they must develop their capacity to hear what God is saying to them directly in their own experiences. They must learn to trust the words of scripture: “Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence; for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it” (Wisdom 11:24).

The presence of homophobia in so many mediated sources, even the translations of scripture, gives a special urgency to the development of autonomy in gay spiritual life. Gays must learn a new level of spiritual maturity, basing their spiritual life on inner convictions and not on outside expectations. They must develop a personal prayer life and learn how to discern spirits so they can hear what God is saying to them through their hearts and trust what they hear, even when it conflicts with homophobic authorities.

Finally, gay people have a keen awareness that spiritual life is not a head trip but a heart trip. Thus, a healthy spiritual life must be holistic; it cannot be based on a denial and rejection of the necessary sexual component in our search for intimacy with God. To totally suppress that component can place a major obstacle in the path of spiritual growth.

Gay people constantly are in a process of discernment on how to integrate their growth in intimacy with God with their search to live out human intimacy in its fullness. Many gays are fully aware of their need for spiritual community to successfully carry out this discernment process.

- John McNeill
National Catholic Reporter
March 26, 1993



See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Homophobia? It’s So Gay!
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Making Love, Giving Life
In the Garden of Spirituality - Toby Johnson


Image: Raphael Perez.

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