Monday, May 12, 2008

In the Footsteps of Spring


With the welcome return of spring to Minnesota, I’ve decided to take time over the next few weeks to share key elements of In the Footsteps of Spring, the creative arts component of my 1996 thesis, the final requirement for my degree of Master of Arts in Theology from the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota.

This thesis explores the coming out process of gay men as a spiritual journey, and is supported by three distinct though interrelated areas of study – theology, mythology, and psychology. Insights from these perspectives provide the tri-focal lens through which I define and explore the coming out process of gay men as a potentially sacramental experience, as an expression of the archetypal “Hero’s Journey,” and as a path to psycho-sexual wholeness.

A creative expression of celebration

As I began researching my thesis I soon became aware that I wanted to present the various insights I was discovering not just in an academic way but in a creative way as well. I wanted to employ poetry, music, and photography. I wanted to share my experience of God’s presence and action in my own coming out journey. The idea of In the Footsteps of Spring thus came into being and evolved in unison with the academic paper I was writing.

In its final form, In The Footsteps of Spring can best be described as a creative expression of celebration; one which through word, image, movement, and music discerns and celebrates the loving and transforming presence of the sacred that many have experienced in their journey of coming out as gay.

In the Footsteps of Spring is basically a “performance/arts piece,” one that was first presented at the College of St. Catherine on May 2, 1996. Throughout the late 1990s I had the honor of presenting it to numerous audiences within the Twin Cities area, and even once in San Antonio, Texas.

The creation of In the Footsteps of Spring could not have been possible without the support of a number of friends who encouraged and challenged me to be as honest and artistically creative as possible in sharing the story of my coming out journey. Accordingly I remain, to this day, indebted to Margaret McDowell, Joan Demeules, Michael Peterson, and Mary Carol Wagner.

Another influential person was my thesis adviser.
As I noted in a previous Wild Reed post, I had the honor of experiencing theologian and author Joan (pronounced Joanne) Timmerman as one of my professors at the College of St. Catherine, where I studied in the Masters of Theology program from 1994-1996. In my final year of study at St.Kate’s, Joan served as my adviser in the writing of my thesis.

When people ask me what type of theology I specialized in during my years of study at St. Kate’s, I reply, “sacramental.” I have Joan to thank for this, as she was the first to provide me with the words – the theological terminology – that I’d long desired to put to certain experiences of my journey as a gay Catholic man. They were the words of sacramental theology.

Experiencing God’s transforming love

Coming to terms with my homosexuality as a teenager was a confusing and painful time. Yet a deep part of me always held fast to the realization that, as Joan says, “the Mystery of God . . . present and accessible . . . permeates all things.” I intuitively knew this – though I could not put it into words at the time. Regardless, I knew at some deep level that God was okay with my being gay – even if I myself was having a hard time facing up to and accepting this aspect of myself. (Interestingly, the
words of a hymn from my high school years played an important role in keeping me hopeful during this difficult time.)

An awareness that all was ultimately well was also conveyed to me by my parents. Although I wasn’t out to them or to any members of my family at this particular time in my life, I nevertheless discerned in my parents an openness to the complexities of human life, a trust that God was present and active in all aspects of life, and a reluctance to embrace the more narrow and exclusionary expressions of Catholicism. My parents kept the windows of possibility open – through which nurturing rays of hope shone. For this I will always be grateful.

As a boy struggling with the growing awareness of my homosexuality, I also can vividly recall experiencing the breaking through of what Joan describes as that “hidden-from-the senses transcendent divine reality.” It was a transforming reality that infused my being and facilitated the long journey of self-acceptance. I now talk about this reality as God’s transforming love – a love that calls each one of us to embody and express the gift of our sexuality.

I wrote about this early experience of the “transcendent divine reality” in a poem entitled “The Light Within.” It comprises part of In the Footsteps of Spring, and will be shared in the next installment of this series of posts. This poem was also included in Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective, the book I edited and which was published last year by the Haworth Press. (As part of this book, “The Light Within” serves as one of many focal points for reflection and discussion for Catholic high school professionals dedicated to creating environments of respect, inclusiveness, and safety for all students – though in particular, students who either identify as LGBT or who are struggling with questions related to sexual orientation and/or identity.)

The scandal of sacramentality

As an out gay Catholic man, I can attest to the ancient sacramental principle (and its various implications) that theologians like Joan Timmerman articulate: Matter channels spirit while remaining matter. Tragically,
elements within the Church seek to minimize or ignore this fundamental spiritual truth. Yet considering its implications such downplaying and denial is not surprising. Just think about the implications: Matter channels spirit while remaining matter means that there is a spiritual dimension to all human experience, not just those mediated by organized religion. It also means that God’s transforming and liberating power is experienced in the flesh, not by the escape from the flesh.

The sacramental principle is also known as the “scandal of sacramentality,” as throughout the centuries there have always been individuals and movements who have struggled with and even denounced this wondrous “scandal” of God's grace-filled presence in our lives and relationships.

At various points along my journey I have been blessed with sexual experiences that confirm that this transforming presence of God can and has been embodied in my natural, that is, my sensuously experienced reality as a gay man. Although some may view the manifestation of the sacred through such experiences as scandalous, I think others – gay and straight – would not. Indeed, for those who are attuned to the spiritual dimension of human life, a dimension inextricably bound to the sexual dimension of human experience, there is an awareness that God cannot be boxed in by the hierarchical Church’s current doctrinal statements regarding sexuality.

The impoverishment of such statements is glaringly obvious and not in the least bit surprising given the fact that, as Joan Timmerman
observes, the Church’s “documents of official teaching” have failed to “formulate or capture the corporate body of Christians’ experience and wisdom regarding sexuality.” Indeed, far from offering insight and truth, such teaching reflects the institutional Church’s own “unhealed wound” around human sexuality.

Contrary to what official teaching insists, an ever-growing number of Catholics are recognizing and celebrating the reality that gay people have the potential to embody, through the expression of their sexuality, the wondrous and life-giving “scandal of sacramentality.” Accordingly, there is not only a rejection of the official teachings that declare non-procreative expressions of sexuality intrinsically selfish, exploitive, and devoid of God’s presence, but a growing awareness (throughout both the Church and society) that gay people can and do experience sexual relationships marked by justice, wholeness, and life-giving love.

That such relationships, such sacramental embodiments, bring about human flourishing – individually and communally – is without question. I look forward to the day when all elements within the Roman Catholic Church recognize and celebrate such sacramental embodiment regardless of the sexual orientation of the “bodies” involved. For as Joan Timmerman reminds us, “God’s self-expression is rendered in our dimension in a mode that we can appreciate . . . as the desire of our hearts, whatever form it may take.”

NEXT: Part 1 – The Light Within

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Coming Out: An Act of Holiness
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
My Advent Prayer for the Church
Darren Hayes, Coming Out . . . Oh, and Time Travel
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Real Holiness
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
Spring in Minnesota

Photography and artwork: Michael J. Bayly.


crystal said...

The hero's journey - Joseph Campbell?

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I'd liken coming-out to that transformative life event, while each encounter with another opens the possibility to a sacramental experience. Having made these religious analogies, however, I hasten to withdraw them.

The "coming-out" is more a process than a singular event, which culminates most often in self-disclosure and disclosure to others, and/or in the first homoerotic encounter. In my experience, the unexpected homoerotic encounter was and remains a life-changing event, while disclosure to others seemed suitable to the situations, rather than a single event.

After "coming-out," most men undergo "coming-to-terms," in which they try to integrate themselves, their values, their eroticism, their desires for intimacy, the craving for variety, the exploration of "more than a phallic fixation," and so forth. In many aspects, "coming-to-terms" is the more difficult of the two processes, since few "ideal role types" exist, and even if they did, we might be unprepared to understand or accept them. And that fact is also good, if one has the courage of his convictions, the self-worth beyond one aspect of himself, and the curiosity to find where those convictions, worth, erotic desires, all "fit" in some unique and distinctive way.

Our creative language, which explores our ineffable experiences through analogies, helps us to understand ourselves, may help others to see a perspective, it may help two individuals to find common ground, but while creative language and poetic license articulate in the ineffable, we are not ineffable, we are concrete human organisms in search of our homeostasis, and that requires a lifetime of searching.

Nice poetic approach, Michael.

kevin57 said...

Nice post. Good discussion. Healing and Affirming.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Yes, Crystal, Joseph Campbell does talk about the hero’s journey.

In chapter two of my thesis, I identified and discussed the hero’s journey as the mythological framework for perceiving the coming out process as a spiritual journey.

Here’s the first bit of this chapter . . .

The employment of sacramental theology so as to define the coming out process as spiritual journey [chapter one of my thesis] builds upon a mythological framework, that being the myth of the hero’s journey.

Throughout human history, the physical act of journeying has been used as a metaphor for the development of the inner life – regardless of whether such a development is understood spiritually, religiously, or psychologically. This metaphor stems from the myth of the hero’s journey, or similar myths whereby transformation occurs as a result of the undertaking of a quest, journey or adventure.

Joseph Campbell notes that “the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Many of these rites relate to sexual development, as many are carried out at the time of puberty.

Campbell refers to the three stages of the hero’s journey as the Call to Adventure, the Road of Trials, and the Return. Different cultures employ different symbols and metaphors to denote the hero’s experience of these stages. Thus the myth of the hero’s journey resonates throughout time and across all cultures.

In fact Campbell acknowledges the universality of the myth of the hero’s journey, in all its manifestations, by terming it “the monomyth.” The true hero is every human being. Although in his writings Campbell refers exclusively to the male as hero, the quest that the hero undertakes is one in which all humanity is called to participate: “The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women.”

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell analyzes and compares numerous hero myths from around the world and contends that all hero myths have the same plot and accordingly the same meaning. This uniform meaning of all hero myths is both psychological and metaphysical: “Hero myths describe not the outward, physical adventures of legendary or historical figures but the inward, mental adventures of adherents to the myths. Rather than the discovery of a lost continent by some famous figure, a hero myth actually describes the rediscovery of a lost part both of the human personality and of the cosmos.” Thus hero myths originate in encounters with the lost dimensions of the mind and the world. Their function is to encourage and enable others to encounter these same dimensions for themselves.

The shared psychological meaning of hero myths enables them to be read symbolically. Whereas literally the myths have the hero discover a strange external world, symbolically he discovers a strange internal one. Whereas literally the hero discovers that there is more to the world than the physical/temporal plane, symbolically he discovers that there is more to him than his consciousness. Whereas literally the hero discovers the ultimate nature of the world, symbolically he discovers his own ultimate nature, his true identity.

Literally, the hero brings back to his country the boons of his quest. Jason, for instance, returned with the Golden Fleece. On the symbolic level, the hero is able to share with others the fruits of self-knowledge and, in so doing, encourage others not to mimic his thoughts and actions, but to undertake their own journeys of self-discovery, discover their true identity, and thus articulate their own self-authenticated thoughts and actions.



crystal said...

Your thesis sounds very interesting - thanks for posting part of it :) I've used Campbell's idea of the hero too in writing fiction stories.