Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Saturday Night Massacre

Our dog chewed on Henri's words.

Recent events in the United States regarding President Trump’s firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey have prompted comparisons to the so-called “Saturday night massacre” in the fall of 1973, when then-President Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor of the Watergate affair, prompting the resignation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general rather than comply. A newly-appointed acting attorney general then fired Archibald Cox.

That weekend I was taking a personal retreat at Mercy Center along the Long Island Sound. One of the Sisters of Mercy that ran the place confided to me that she thought the only thing left for Nixon to do was commit suicide.

I was there because I had just arranged and hosted the first openly gay speaker at Yale Divinity School: the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Churches. It was the most “out” thing I had done as I became the first openly gay activist on the campus.

The student body president had fought to prevent Troy’s appearance, telling me that “It’s time we remembered that most of the student body here are white, male, and straight,” apparently also miffed that women and racial minorities were getting attention.

I was warned by others that attendance at the lecture would be slight; as it happened, the large Common Room was packed. Henri Nouwen was the only faculty member I could identify at the gathering, and, as I recall, he asked the most penetrating question. Rev. Perry seemed to please his audience with his genuine faith and passion, as well as his sense of humor.

My book, Uncommon Calling, described my feelings arranging the visit as being like birth pains, and I was exhausted. As a student in Henri’s course (whose lectures became the book Reaching Out), we had been encouraged to take personal retreats, and so I opted for one that weekend at Mercy Center. That fall had been spectacularly colorful in New England: bright blue skies contrasted with the vivid autumn colors of the leaves just beginning to descend from the trees. I could hear the gentle lapping of the Sound on the shore.

It happened that Henri was also spending the weekend there, preparing a sermon, one of a series of three for the university’s Battell Chapel. He gave me the manuscript and asked me to take a look at it, offering feedback. I was thrilled to do so. Henri frequently sought advice from others on his writings, including his students.

When we met to discuss the sermon, we were outside, and as I recall, sitting on big boulders, but this could be my memory playing tricks on me. A comment I made to Henri found its way into what became the book, Out of Solitude: 
A student from California who had to leave many of his good friends behind to come to school at the faraway east coast recently said to me: “It was hard to depart; but if the good-bye is not painful, the hello cannot be joyful either.” And so his sadness of September became his joy at Christmas time. 
Tears are in my eyes as I write this sentence, because to quote the book accurately, I have opened my mother’s copy and saw for the first time that she had written beside the text, “Chris was the student.”

Quite a different “Saturday night massacre” occurred when our dog Calvin ate much of my copy of the book, apparently jealous I was spending so much time with Henri’s books as I prepared my first retreat on his life and writings after his death in 1996.

It was in our conversation about the sermon that I asked Henri what he thought of Troy’s talk. Hesitant to be critical, he finally said that he was looking for something more—how Troy’s spirituality strengthened his resolve to affirm his sexuality. It didn't occur to me that Henri’s wish for more might be personal.

But it did tell me that my own spirituality had to “come out” alongside my sexuality, and that is why my talks to advance the inclusion of LGBT people over the past 40+ years have always included spiritual dimensions. I’ve gone so far as to write that spirituality is the final frontier of intimacy, and that the failure of the church to be inclusive of LGBT people was a spiritual rather than sexual problem.

Beginning next Wednesday, I will be offering four posts during Pride month (June) speculating on what the LGBT movement in the church meant, for God’s sake!

I’ve joked that if the church had not been so concerned with my sexuality, it might have been more troubled (or perhaps more blessed) by my interest in progressive theology and contemplative spirituality!  I sometimes feel as if I’m trying to make up for lost time writing this blog.

It is said that at the height (or depth) of the Watergate affair, Nixon prevailed on Henry Kissinger to kneel with him in prayer. Such a humbling posture could make for better leaders as well as better activists.

View from Mercy Center, October 1973.

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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.  


  1. I did and do indentify with spirituality helped affirm my sexuality and to come out and to model such in spiritual fellowships and with friends and family and bars and clubs, etc. I identify that it was oddly received not as truth but (even by gays) as self-delusion to justify and as sign that i could not accept it myself and so had to get outside affirmation. Very frustrating. THanks for sharing this. And i really am glad you shared this way back when. You were my "fellowship" and still are. I am great FULL that the fellowship is growing.

    1. Thank you for your fellowship! I appreciate your comments on this blog and today's post. It's always good to hear from you!

  2. A lot of good stuff here, including some history of Yale and Nouwen. I think the church's LGBTQ issue is spirituality AND sexuality! My favorite part: your mom's note in the margin of her book. Barry Smith

    1. Love hearing your favorite part--thanks! And yes, one of the challenges--perhaps the biggest--was erotophobia. Strangely, as you know, we ran into the same reservation about blending spirituality and sexuality in the LGBTQ community at first. Good to hear from you, Barry!

  3. Chris, thank you for sharing these beautiful, intimate moments - birth pains and all! This post evoked two special memories for me, both of which you nurtured through Henri's hospitable spirit - a retreat you led at Ghost Ranch which created the safe space for me to birth into my authentic self, and the invitation to write "Queer Quest for the Broken Grail" for Open Hands in 2001, just shortly after leaving the United Methodist Church. What felt like a "massacre" became a birthing place. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Joe, for this insight and your thanks! It was the week-long retreat you attended that prompted Calvin, whom you later met (as did Henri previously) to chew on Out of Solitude! You brought much to that gathering, and I am grateful that that is the context in which we met. It forever sealed our friendship.