Gay Dimensions to Spiritual Life
Reflections of Father 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.
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.
* Father John McNeill is a pioneer in the gay liberation movement. John helped found Dignity New York City, a spiritual support group for gay and lesbian Catholics, in 1972. In 1976 he published The Church and the Homosexual, the first major theological critique of traditional church condemnation of lesbian and gay relations. In 2007 he was awarded The National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce lifetime achievement award “for leading the way in understanding that being gay is a gift from God.”