Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Call to Celibacy

St. Bernard Abbey Church
Cullman, Alabama
 During a week's visit in 2014.

I distinguish between the “gift” of celibacy and the “call” to celibacy, which I will come to later in this post.

The gift of celibacy is a debatable proposition. Is someone “blessed” with that gift or simply avoiding intimate relationships? Is it a rejection of God’s gift of sexuality and more broadly sensuality and embodiment, or a prioritizing of one’s energy and involvement and commitment?

The occasion for these musings is my morning prayer time reading of the recently released Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri J. M. Nouwen. Alongside his deeply profound spiritual insights and occasional religious bromides are the idiosyncrasies of a confounding personality.

I am quick to say that almost anyone’s personality, especially my own, can be considered idiosyncratic and confounding. But reading my friend Henri’s letters reminded me of how frustrating a correspondent and friend he could be!

From the beginning of the book, I missed the context of the letters, being one-sided. This is understandable, given the problem of permissions to use his correspondents’ letters. Editorially this is handled as well as it can be by italicized introductions, yet the larger picture will only be gained by researchers who read both sides of the correspondence.

But I can immediately give examples by referring to the three letters written to me, only the first of which is introduced by both my first and last name, a compassionate letter about the scourge of AIDS in my community (Dec. 20, 1985; p 113).

The last letter is also a kindly letter, but one that refers to the “busyness” of my and my then partner’s life, him as a professional HIV/AIDS activist, and me as a writer, editor, and LGBT Christian activist. “Thanks for telling me about your busy lives. Please slow down a little so that you can be more creative,” he writes (Dec. 26, 1995; p 337).

This is sweet, and speaks really to his own needs, as is revealed in the letter. But the context is his repeated challenge to me to give details of our lives in my letters, and so I did just that, only to be unnecessarily chastened to slow down! But this is a minor and petty concern.

What really troubled me was his letter of Oct. 22, 1986 (p 137) toward the middle of the book in which I seem to be questioning his celibacy and using him as a “good connection” to read a manuscript, which happened to be my first book, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Man’s Struggle to Serve the Church (on a later edition given its original subtitle, A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church—the first publisher thought “gay Christian” would sound like an oxymoron at the time!).

I wrote two letters in response, but only mailed the second, less angry one, though both are in the Nouwen archives, to which I donated our correspondence at their request a few years ago.

Henri never helped me publish a manuscript, nor wrote any intros or blurbs for my books, nor did I ask him to do so.  I had sent him a copy of my manuscript because, as I say, he was always asking about my inner life, how I came to my choices, especially about affirming my sexuality in the context of my spirituality.

Subsequently I asked permission to dedicate one of my devotional books to him, as I felt he had contributed so much to my spiritual life, but he declined, describing the Vatican’s watchful eye, and only after his death was I bold enough to dedicate a later book to him, ironically (given his closeted ways), Coming Out as Sacrament.

Later he did give me advice about the content of my first book, suggesting readers would be more interested in my story than the story of the church dealing with homosexuality. I chose rather to tell both stories, as I considered my story only an instance of the church’s discernment process.

More troubling was the question of celibacy raised in his letter. I do believe there are those who truly have the gift of celibacy, and I support those who choose it as a spiritual discipline for a time or a lifetime. But my conversation with Henri around celibacy was about my Protestant view that professional ministers do best when their most intimate personal, emotional, even spiritual needs are met in marriage (and I include in this any intimate relationship) and family—otherwise they can sometimes look for that among the people they serve, crossing professional boundaries with personal needs, even demands.

For Roman Catholics, that’s partly why those with religious vocation congregate in religious communities, to meet those needs. But diocesan priests, of which Henri was one, can be at a loss for that kind of support. That’s why, I believe, Henri chose to spend the last ten years of his life in the L’Arche community in Toronto.

But there, the intensity documented in the book between Henri and his patient but straight friend Nathan is an instance of this. I had also experienced this intensity, and I kept my distance because that was not how I viewed our friendship. This is why Henri is distressed in the letter written to me in 1986.

Henri, so taken with his own needs in the letter, does not respond to the reason I had written to him, to tell him I had made the painful decision that it was time for me to resign as Director of the Lazarus Project, a ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community, a position I had held for nearly ten years. At the time, he was one of only three people I confided in about that decision.

We all stumble through life, we all overlook others’ needs in favor of our own from time to time, and I have wondered about my own inclination to write of this.  I loved and still love Henri, and am grateful for all that he was and is. I am still learning from him, as I am still learning from my parents and all my teachers, and I am grateful. And I am finding that, as I continue to read Love, Henri, his spiritual acumen deepened toward the end of his life.

In my view, Henri had less the “gift” of celibacy than the “call” to celibacy. He strongly believed in his calling as a Roman Catholic priest, and celibacy for that tradition comes with the territory, as tough as that can be.  He rightly bristled at the notion of a correspondent that he had not prayed hard enough for healing to “re-orient” his sexuality (Oct. 11, 1988; p 188)!

It would be good if the Roman church could adopt ancient Celtic practice or contemporary Orthodox and Protestant practices of allowing both marriage and celibacy in the professional ministry.

The Presbyterian Church, where I spent most of my professional life eking out a non-ordainable living, confused celibacy and chastity, demanding the latter of LGBT people. But chastity is “purity of purpose,” and that is a good spiritual discipline both within marriage and as a single person.

I have learned as much about myself, others, and God in my sexual community as I have learned in my spiritual community. I have needed both to learn compassion, that which ultimately unites us, I believe, to God.

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"In Earth"

On my way to Petra, 1981.

Thank you, Huston Smith, for widely sharing your lifelong spiritual quest.

The morning that I write this, I completed my re-reading of the Gospel texts of Jesus’ Nativity, a habit of Advent for me. As I have several posts already prepared, this will be published toward the end of Christmastide, a few days before Epiphany. Given that it’s a “Christmas epiphany” of sorts, that feels just about right. Epiphany and its season have come to mean for me a time to celebrate all glimpses of divinity, including spiritual and scientific, and this “glimpse” juxtaposes both categories.

The reading this morning was the Gospel of John’s famous prologue about the Word, the Word that called creation into being, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. My blogpost “The Word We Need This Christmas” reflected on this passage, and I had this in mind as I read again John’s very grand interpretation of Jesus’ birth.

But my “a-ha” came when I recited the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, as I do every morning. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth”—and here I stopped, not adding my usual “on earth,” an alternate wording that suggests an alliance of human will. “Thy kingdom come…in earth.” “The Word made flesh.” The connection was obvious and inescapable. From the beginning, God’s “kingdom” and God’s “word” has been embodied, enfleshed, in earth, in matter and energy.

God’s kingdom and God’s will is the spark that began the universe in the eyes of people of faith. “Thy kingdom come in earth as in heaven” is as much about origins as it is about hoped-for destinations. Faith posits that the more we know of our origin—our reason for being who and what and where we are—the better we know our destination, our purpose, our meaning.

The scientific search for the origins of the universe is no less than an attempt to find our place in it, how and why and when we came to be. For most of human history, we have relied on our spiritual imaginations to speculate on our place: myth-making, ritual-performing, story-telling. Now that our scientific imaginations are given a freer reign, we have fact-oriented, experiment-performing, evidence-gathering methods of discerning something like what our spiritual imaginations have sought.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “arc that bends toward justice” may be a way of recognizing that justice (God’s will, God’s kingdom) is built-in. This is a high-view of creation in general and humankind in particular, and would seem to belie the notion of “The Fall,” but to “fall” requires heighth. In my belief, “The Fall” is not built-in, though most Christians probably believe that to be so. As Matthew Fox and others have pointed out, it’s our “original blessing” that is built-in.

Genesis has us created in God’s image, thus in Jesus’ lineage the Gospel of Luke calls Adam “son of God.” The Gospel of John has the Word giving us “power to become children of God,” restoring us to our rightful heritage.

My reasoning will seem sophomoric to some, but the profound sense that matter and energy and we are also incarnations of God’s will and kingdom will not leave me.

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The intense beauty of colors in the stone of Petra 
brought involuntary tears to my eyes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Christmas Memory

"Tree of the Gods"

Christmas morning I awoke from an extremely pleasant dream. I was back in the home I grew up in, in Southern California, with my mom and dad, sister and brother. I looked out of our living room windows, and discovered it had begun to snow, a rarity in L.A. The window frames had a white dusting, as did our deodara outside, a tree that had been our Christmas tree one year. Only checking on its spelling for this post did I discover the term deodara’s  mystical origin, meaning “tree of the gods” in Sanskrit, a sacred forest for Hindu sages.  And “dara” is related to the words Druid and truth!

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I had read once more Truman Capote’s story, “A Christmas Memory.” Some months ago I rescued it from storage in my crawl space, a bit damp from its place of safekeeping. I allowed the boxed edition to dry, and now it has character: a bit warped, like its author and the true life characters he writes about.

I know the story well. For years I read it at Christmastime to a Wednesday night Bible study. I’ve also viewed two film versions, the most memorable having Geraldine Page as the doting and doughty elderly cousin who befriended the author as a boy, otherwise  abandoned until the age of ten.  

One day, late in the fall, she would announce, “Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather,” and together they assembled the ingredients and prepared the Christmas fruitcakes that they sent to everyone from President & Mrs. Roosevelt to that nice California couple who spent an afternoon on their porch when their car broke down.

As I read the story once more, I was delighted by Capote’s turns of phrase, painting a portrait of a time long past—yes, harsh in its poverty and sad in its way, but with a kind and gentle lilt to its voice that uplifted my spirit.

What surprised me on this reading, however, was the glimpse of grace toward the end of the book, reminding me of another Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, at the end of her story, “Revelation,” of which I wrote in a post entitled “Tricked by Grace.”

The boy and his cousin fashion kites as their Christmas gifts to one another, as they had done the year before, and the year before that.  They go out to fly them with their terrier Queenie in a neighbor’s meadow, when the old woman has a startling revelation, “like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven”: 
“My, how foolish I am! You know what I’ve always thought? I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes that the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—“just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” 
“As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

I thought back on their sacramental preparation of a communion of fruitcakes, and of the many, often women, who consecrated our kitchens with the incense of baking, the breaking of bread, the squeezing of juice. I thought of my mother baking Christmas cookies, red and green, and giving me the “failures,” the ones that didn’t look as good as they tasted, as she sorted them in tins for relatives and friends.

In her poem “Answers,” Mary Oliver envies her unlearned grandmother picking and canning fruits in the kitchen even as Mary “wakened / To books and music and circling philosophies” at the kitchen table, concluding:

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career.
So to please her I studied—but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

This poem brings back the aroma of my maternal grandmother’s Swedish pancakes, the colors of my fraternal grandmother’s jars of fruits and vegetables at the farm, the salty crunch of the batter on my mother’s fried chicken—and it honors them all as gods bringing order from chaos, as priests and poets and psalmists reminding us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” even as we are, in Mary Oliver’s words, “sorting through volumes of answers / That could not solve the mystery of the trees.”

We didn’t have a Christmas tree this year, because we are downsizing, packing, and moving. But I had the mystery of home and our deodara in my dream. And, as I fixed breakfast for us, I heard Eugene Peterson (The Message) on the radio program “On Being” say, “Prayer matures into the practice of memory.”

I thought of a spiritual formation program paper I’d read earlier in the week by a minister who works with the elderly, and how those with dementia and Alzheimer’s seem to remember the ritual of Communion, even as they forget so much else.

The Lord has already shown herself.

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Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Word We Need This Christmas

Christmas lights, Pine Mountain, Georgia, 2006.
Photo by Wade Jones.

For the first time, I am re-publishing an earlier post, “The Right Word.” It was my third post on this weekly blog, March 2, 2011. It has had only 144 visitors, in addition to the few subscribers I had then. Originally it was a meditation on Christmas Eve for MCC San Francisco, December 24, 2007. It feels appropriate for this time.

We’ve all been there. Trying to find the right word to say. The right word to say to a friend who has lost her mother. The right word to say in a letter seeking acceptance. The right word to let someone know how much you love him or her.

It’s true that words are not the answer to everything. Sometimes silence is healing. Sometimes silence lets you think. Sometimes just listening, either to a friend or to God or to your own heart is all that’s needed. But when the silence is deafening, when the silence is lonely, we need to hear a word. A word of hope.  A word of encouragement. A word of love.

The Bible is the story of a God who tries a multitude of ways to speak to us. A voice in the wilderness. Commandments written in stone. Oracles of prophets seeking justice and mercy.

But then God changes strategy. Instead of speaking from the top down, from the outside in, God decides to speak from the inside out. Christian scriptures assert that God became Emmanuel, God-with-us, so as to be able to speak as an insider about the human experience. And began with the humblest human form, that of a baby. Then was manifest as a teacher and healer and martyr.

Instead of a commanding presence, God decided to manifest a compassionate presence. Instead of taking charge, instead of being in control, as in creation, God decided to persuade us rather than coerce us, to be our shepherd rather than our ruler. (Maybe even creation was less about manipulation than inspiration. Maybe that’s why evolution took so long!)

God wanted to touch us, to teach us, from the inside out. And so touched our hearts with just the right word, the Word made flesh—a baby, a builder, a rabbi, a lover.

The mystic John had a vision that this was always God’s intention—that the Word made flesh was one and the same with the Word that was the inspiration of creation, the cause not only of our being reborn from above, but the origin of our being born at all. The Gospel writer John is cast as one of the first Christian theologians because of this. We may find that a little off-putting because we often associate theology with doctrine—things you have to believe even if you don’t. Many of us prefer “spirituality” to “theology” for that reason.

But for the Christians of old, the term “theologia” was used to describe their highest form of prayer: a mystical communion with God in which words were unnecessary. For them, theologia was an experience, not words. Theologia was what we call spirituality.

The Genesis passage of creation which John echoes depicts a God who simply speaks things into existence: light and dark, earth and sea, fish and mammal.  John gives us a vision of a primordial Word before words. I think of this as a mystical version of the Big Bang theory of the universe, in which something the size of a marble exploded into infinite galaxies. The Word exploded into many words that came to light.

You probably think the emphasis on this primordial Word and on the Word made flesh would please me as a writer. But it frustrates me more than it pleases me. Because I know that no matter what I do as a writer—find the right words, construct them in the best possible way, put as many together as possible—will never be complete, will never draw a breath, will never approximate either the primordial Word of awe and majesty or that Word made flesh full of grace and truth.

The only satisfaction I can derive from this metaphor is the knowledge that, as a writer, I am following a sacred strategy to transform things from the inside out. No matter how much I get a sense of being in control by putting words on paper, how it touches your heart is entirely up to you.

And, this may sound heretical, but no matter how awesome God’s power to speak universes into existence, no matter how awesome Emmanuel’s power to love us into abundant life, how either touches our hearts is also entirely up to us.

Because that’s what Love allows. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, RSV).

Love becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. In our loneliness and in our solitude, in our relationships and in our congregations, in our communities and in our world, Love is the right word. And it never ends.

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Copyright © 2011 & 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.