In my post on celibate partnerships I noted that “the more unusual your vocation, the more actively you should seek out spiritual guidance from an outside party.” But of course there’s a catch-22 here: The weirder your vocation, the more you need spiritual direction; and the weirder your vocation, the harder good direction is to find. In both my book and the partnerships post I spoke mostly to the person seeking direction. In this post I’ll try to speak mostly to people in positions of spiritual leadership: priests, spiritual directors & spiritual fathers & mothers, mentors, pastors… if strangers come to you for ongoing help in their walk with Christ, this post is for you. (And it’s actually for all Christians, since many of these points will be applicable to the ways friends can help one another walk with Jesus as well.)
To me the most important point is that the list of vocations is not fixed. Vocations emerge in response to social context–nobody was a Sister of Life in 1800–and they fade as the contexts in which they emerged begin to disappear. There are no more beguines in the last beguinage. So the fact that a vocation is new–incorporating elements of older and more-developed vocations, but banging them together in weird new collisions–shouldn’t automatically make it suspect.
Moreover, even old vocations need to be lived differently in new social contexts. Robin Darling Young’s vow of friendship didn’t mean what it might have meant three centuries ago, because her social world viewed it differently. If someone’s life is primarily shaped by love of friends, by being a godparent, by becoming a part of a family as an “unofficial aunt,” the challenges they’ll face are different now from what they would have been back in Don Corleone’s day.
What all of this suggests to me is that people need the freedom to explore. Human beings desperately need to give and receive love. We need vocation as much as we need food. And yet once you identify yourself as gay or same-sex attracted, far too often your spiritual director will be super afraid of anything which looks like it’s stepping off the safe path. People have been cautioned against having close same-sex friends, against any form of physical contact including hugs, against anything which might be misunderstood by other people (aka literally every human action–five seconds on the internet will tell you that you’re constantly being misjudged, because globalized culture is awesome?), against, against, against.
The “safety first” approach is not safe. I talk about this in-depth in the book, so for now I’ll just say that fear of making mistakes or setting a toe out of line makes people crazy, it drives them to despair, and it cuts them off from that love of other people which, quite often, is how we come to understand God’s love.
That doesn’t mean that gay Christians never act imprudently. There are times when we really need a spiritual director to suggest that we’re not acknowledging obvious temptations; we may be creating a fantasy vocation which is exactly what we want and then demanding that other people play the roles we’ve assigned them, for example. We may be naive about the power of sexual desire, or about the realities of sexual difference. (“Oh, we talk for hours every night, but I’m sure he just sees me as a friend–I mean, he knows I’m a lesbian,” said Jill, but Jack murmured to himself, Someday….) But in order to know when these things are happening you need to know the actual, specific person–not just the fact that he or she is gay.
The most important thing in any spiritual direction is deepening the directee’s relationship with God. That relationship will often flow through and into relationships with other people, so helping the directee clear away the debris of ego and fantasy which can block those channels is another big part of the director’s task. But none of this requires that the directee act normal. The directee doesn’t have to be that marketing demographic, the “singleton,” with a personal watermelon and a brownie in a mug. (Yeah, I’m not over the mug brownie. So tasty, yet so creepy!) She can create a “chosen family,” and live out devotion and commitment in a society which expects her to be drifting and alone.
So here are some bullet-point guidelines which strike me as useful:
* Deepening love of God often leads us to connect with other people. Devotion to God often bears fruit in devotion to others.
* Vocation needs to be viewed holistically. A situation can present certain temptations, e.g. to lust, yet still be best overall for someone’s spiritual life.
* You don’t have to understand why a person’s way of life works for her; if you can see that, over time, she is growing toward God, something is working. But the more you listen the more likely you are to understand what God is doing in her life.
* For lots and lots of gay or same-sex attracted Christians, our biggest spiritual needs have nothing to do with lust and little to nothing to do with our sexual orientation. I’m going to do a whole post later in this series on how everybody sexualizes celibate gay Christians, and acts as if our whole spiritual lives (good and bad) revolve around our orientation, so for now I’ll just say that “I’m gay” tells you basically nothing about the kind of direction someone needs.
My own first spiritual director was super great about this, by the way. I learned much later that he and I take really different approaches to Ye Olde Gaye Questionne, but he listened to what I was saying and accurately identified the areas in my prayer life, my moral life, etc, where I needed guidance. The only aspect of my sexual orientation I think we ever talked about was the pressure of being a professional homosexual, a poster gay.
That last bit suggests, by the way, that when gay people’s sexual orientation does affect our spiritual lives, it may not do so in the way straight people would expect. Resentment toward the Church, struggling to find a way of being accountable and “on call” to others when the only greeting we receive after work is the yowl of an unusually diffident cat, or self-righteousness about how hard we struggle may be much bigger sources of temptation for us than lust or loneliness. Again, you’ll only know when it matters that your directee is gay/ssa if you listen.
I don’t mean this to be lecturey. The whole reason people seek spiritual direction in the first place is that we know we need to humble ourselves and listen to others. We really need to trust our spiritual directors–but those guides are most trustworthy when they listen to us, and accept that God may be doing weird things with us. Strait is the gate and narrow the way, already. If you narrow it beyond what’s strictly necessary–if you put a wall where God’s put a door–you will be preventing people from living out their vocation, and like, you have one job. Whereas if you help people live weirdly but well, you will be doing a great work, one which we know we need and for which we’ll be, I can pretty much promise, intensely grateful.