The Human Heart Is a Cactus, The Desert Makes It Bloom: Notes on Friendship and a Courage Conference

The Human Heart Is a Cactus, The Desert Makes It Bloom: Notes on Friendship and a Courage Conference September 7, 2015

So I was invited to a conference run by Courage, a Catholic ministry to people with same-sex attraction. Prof. Janet Smith and I had a dialogue which I thought went fairly well, and which I think they’ll eventually make available online. I also have an essay in the book that resulted from the conference, Living the Truth in Love. Here are three smallish thoughts about friendship, in light of what got said at that conference.

1. One of the speakers was Dan Mattson, and as always I was so struck by how similar our underlying spiritualities are and yet how front-to-back divergent our practical conclusions. He’s all, total abandonment to Divine providence, give yourself completely to God, through submission we learn to love, you have to love the bomb, humiliation and suffering are good for you so be grateful, you don’t get to choose your sacrifices, and I’m like yes, yes, preach, and then he swerves into, “…and that’s why it’s wrong to call yourself gay” and I boggle.

So in his essay in the conference book he writes, “To be seen correctly, SSA [same-sex attraction] must always be seen through the lens of suffering. It is allowed in the world as a tool and scalpel used by God to shape those of us who live with SSA into becoming more and more like Christ.”

Whereas I think we learn and grow in holiness through suffering, but not only through suffering. We also become conformed to Christ through, for example, solidarity. And solidarity is one lens through which I’ve often viewed my self-identification as gay. We are shaped by love of others, including community with them (which brings its own kinds of suffering! see below…), not solely through suffering in isolation. Rejecting the term “gay” for myself would be, for me, a rejection of gay communities–and therefore a rejection of relationship and responsibility.

Or on an even deeper level, Mattson argued that celibate partnerships and devoted same-sex friendships were wrong because they were a rejection of the loneliness God might be calling you to: “This is one reason I have always found the novel view of chaste or vowed same-sex relationships as being opposed to the will of God.” He cannot mean that all same-sex friendship is opposed to the will of God so I genuinely don’t know how intimate is too intimate, how devoted and self-giving is too much…. When Mattson tries to get specific he uses descriptions I & others have rejected explicitly again and again e.g. “pseudo-marriage.” See below for more.

I believe what Mattson believes about loneliness. God uses our loneliness to draw us closer to Him; we learn that we can depend only on Him and that He alone is enough, dayenu. In the desert we find God. In our bereft time we learn His constancy. This is all true and in its stark way beautiful.

But one of the many things I have learned about vocation from watching people live out their marriages is that devoted love of another person is not medicine for loneliness. Marriage brings its own characteristic forms of loneliness. Neither marriage nor friendship ease that ache in the heart, the longing to be helped and known and comforted in a way no human being really can.

That does mean, yes, that you shouldn’t seek a spiritual friendship or any other vocation because you expect it to salve your loneliness. Loving and being loved may even deepen your loneliness.

But it also means you don’t need to flee relationship in order to preserve your pristine desert. Believe me, God can make a desert wherever He d–n well pleases.

And while we’re here: You Should Be Grateful is a solitaire game. One player only and that’s yourself.

Having said that, I loved this line from his essay: “In my life, God has used my weakness in unchastity to help root out that most cancerous vice of the soul: pride.” I’m planning to write more about that dynamic later. That whole section, “Abandonment in the Face of Addictions,” is lovely and full of wisdom and comfort.

2. I really liked Joey Prever‘s talk on “The Ouroborous: Notes on Friendship.” It was a challenging presentation for that audience, since–and I hope Joey will correct me if I misinterpret him here–he was arguing that psychoanalytic approaches to homosexuality often encourage people to treat friendship as medicine. You’re taught that you need appropriate, disinterested same-sex friendship to cure your father wound or what have you, and so you start to evaluate friendships not on the basis of your own self-gift to the other person, but on the basis of what they can do for you. Friendship becomes an instrumental good, almost a tool whose purpose is curing homosexuality.

I think this criticism highlights the weirdness of how friendship is discussed in many swathes of the conservative Catholic world. If you say, “I’m pursuing healing through disinterested same-sex friendship,” people nod sagely. But if you say, “I’m pursuing a calling to devoted same-sex friendship,” suddenly this is scary–even though the language of vocation and devotion is a language of response, humility, self-gift. It’s a language that asks nothing of God except a call to love and be loved.

3. Melinda Selmys wrote a post, “Is Spiritual Friendship Just Code for Gay Unions?“, responding to Rachel Lu’s essay in the conference book. I liked a lot of Melinda’s thing but as always had to get my own oar in, so you can read my overlong comment screed here. I’d also forgotten how much I addressed this question in this older post, and you should definitely follow the links in that post to A Queer Calling if you are interested in this specific topic.

More later in the week, including a post on the one thing I most wish I’d said in the q&a.


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