Sexual Abuse, Security, and the Seal of Confession

A reflection by Sarah

Over the past few days, a couple of news items have led me to reflect more on my experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse. Scrolling through my Facebook feed this week, I’ve encountered an array of discussions about whether a priest should ever be permitted to violate the seal of confession. On Sunday, I came across an article discussing the Anglican Church in Australia and its newly authorized amendment to a canon on the seal of confession. The decision, subject to acceptance by individual dioceses, authorizes priests to disclose the contents of confessions in cases of serious crimes. Then yesterday, I stumbled upon another article about a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeff Bayhi in Louisiana who is being sued by a family. The family claimed in 2009 that their preteen daughter revealed to Fr. Bayhi in confession that she was being sexually abused, and he had instructed the girl not to report the abuse. The canon law of the Roman Catholic Church prevents priests from even disclosing whether a particular person has had a confession, so it is impossible to verify the family’s claim. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Fr. Bayhi is required to testify about the confession, but he refuses to do so because of religious obligation. I have been following both of these stories and have seen a wide range of reactions. Some people praise the Anglican Church for becoming more transparent while accusing the Roman Catholic Church of doing nothing more than covering up abuses. On the flip side, many people are horrified by the Anglican Church’s decision while praising Fr. Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge for their commitment to upholding the seal of confession.

I belong to a Christian tradition where confession is offered, and it is encouraged that people make confessions as often as needed. Confession is, without a doubt, one of the most meaningful spiritual practices in my life. Every good confession makes me feel like a newly-illumined handmaiden all over again. Forgiveness is the most incredible of gifts. Each experience of this mystery leaves me feeling washed, renewed, restored, made whole, joyous, grateful, and empowered. At times, going to confession has brought me out of dark depressive episodes. It reminds me that I am a fallible human being, I am far from perfect, I cannot heal myself, and I need the prayers and support of the Church as I journey towards Christ. Sin, repentance, and forgiveness do not happen in a vacuum where it’s just me and Jesus. When I experience a good confession, I leave feeling refreshed by God’s grace and goodness, humbled by my human frailty, and overwhelmed by God’s willingness to share my humanity as much as Christ shares in the humanity of every person. Confession is a great equalizer among people. When we come in repentance, we all strive to humble ourselves to receive God’s grace as fully as possible. In confession, everyone is a sinner.

There are times when I can’t help but remember myself as a 12-year-old experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a member of my childhood faith community. I did not reveal my abuse in the context of a sacramental confession. I remember that when I first told my parents about the abuse at age 14, they refused to believe that I might be telling the truth. Eventually, I learned that other people in my faith community knew this man was an abuser and likely even knew that I was among his victims. However, no one did or said anything to stop him or to make my parents aware that a very real danger was lurking in the pews. As a teenager, I spent many a night lying in bed, muffling the sound of my sobs because the two people I had told about the abuse didn’t believe me (until some time later) and no one else seemed willing to do anything to help. In those moments, I prayed continually that someone would eventually say something.

In my early twenties, I started dealing with the emotional aftermath of my abuse. Working through my trauma with therapists has been a critical part of my healing process. But unlike priests who are committed to upholding the seal of confession, therapists don’t hesitate to break confidentiality in certain circumstances. They are required by law to disclose if a person is a danger to himself/herself or others. Early on in my attempts at help-seeking, I struggled to find the boundary regarding what I could honestly share with a therapist that wouldn’t lead to a response of, “I’ll have to break confidentiality.” As I began to navigate the world of mental healthcare, I wondered, would it ever be safe to share if I was feeling slightly suicidal but with no real intent to act? What would happen if, in a burst of emotional processing, I were to blurt out, “I’m so angry that I could kill (a person)!”? I was also uncertain of what would happened if I would ever disclose more specifics about my abuse, making clear that it had occurred in childhood. Once, I had a therapist at an eating disorder treatment facility tell me that, as a mandated reporter, he had to report my abuse because it had not been reported previously. It didn’t seem to matter that I was 22 at the time I was seeing him, or that the abuse had happened years before and in a different state. I found out later that he had misinterpreted the law, but nonetheless his response to my disclosure removed any agency I might have had in deciding whether or not to report the abuse myself. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been duped; I lost confidence in this person’s commitment to keeping any part of my story confidential despite the almost-total guarantee that what one says in therapy remains private.

I have always been glad that priests and therapists follow different standards. I find it tremendously reassuring that a priest must hold my sacramental confessions in complete confidence. Because of the seal of confession, I feel safe in ridding my closet of every possible skeleton, disclosing the worst of the worst, and opening myself completely for God to heal my brokenness. In confession, I experience an abiding freedom to admit all of the times I have murdered my parents in my heart because they failed to protect and believe me. I have reconnected with my humanity as I can admit to the terrible ways I have abused my own body through eating disorder behaviors, alcohol, and drugs. I have sought reconciliation after so many instances of harming others and myself. I have been able to confess to God parts of my past that are so dark I would never dream of sharing them publicly. Such is the nature of confession. The seal of confession has been a part of Christian traditions for more than a thousand years. It gives us all an equal opportunity to unburden our souls, receive forgiveness from God, benefit from the prayers of the Church, and walk in a new way of life. In confession, the worst criminal imaginable is my equal, even though I have never killed, stolen from, or abused anyone.

If a priest were to break the seal of confession, that equality would be no more. As it stands, Christ waits at the door of the Church shouting, “Come all who wish to repent! Encounter God in the depths of divine mercy!” However, if priests all of a sudden began employing the same standards as therapists, the message would change. Few penitents would come to confession after hearing consistently, “Come all who wish to repent, but do know that there’s a chance you might be waking up the next morning in a jail cell or a hospital bed.” As much as my preteen self was dying for someone–anyone–to know what was happening to me and offer support and help, even if I had disclosed the abuse to a priest in confession I cannot see how breaking the seal would have been in my best interest. Quite the contrary: it would have robbed me of my sense of security within the safest place I’ve ever known. I would have been grateful to know that a religious leader was watching out for me or taking other measures to assess my safety that would not have involved breaking the seal. But I hope that in all circumstances, no matter how severe, priests in my Christian tradition will always honor the seal of confession. Whether I like it or not, my abuser needs God’s mercy and forgiveness as much as I do, and if he seeks it, I say let him. Christ did not come to save only those who have “minor” struggles with sin. Christ does not pour out mercy in a differential manner; He lavishes mercy on all. When Christ himself was dying on the cross, he offered forgiveness to the repentant thief dying next to him. If that action were not incredible enough, he also called out to his Father saying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” inviting an extension of forgiveness to the very people who nailed him to the cross. Who am I to deny anyone, even my abuser, access to an opportunity to fall at the feet of Christ and ask forgiveness? As I see it, to advocate for a priest’s breaking the seal of confession is to risk denying someone an opportunity for forgiveness.

As I write this, I pray that people in all churches will become increasingly aware of child sexual abuse and other serious crimes, especially those that occur within the Church. I pray that Christian traditions will do everything they can to educate people about child sexual abuse and work diligently to prevent it from occurring. But when it comes to confession, if I had to face the possibility that my priest were on the lookout for the “worst” sins to determine whether to break the seal, I fear that I would never return to this mystery again. Christian traditions that offer sacramental confessions need priests who would face imprisonment, torture, or even death before the revealing the contents of any confession. One who fails to do so endangers the spiritual welfare of all who seek God’s forgiveness through this sacrament.

UPDATE: A friend kindly pointed out to me that if read in a certain way, this post could be taken as my advocating total inaction on the part of the priest when it comes to child sexual abuse being revealed within the context of sacramental confession. To clarify: that’s the last thing I’d ever want to see happen. In my opinion, any priest worth his salt would do everything possible to help the child in question without breaking the seal of confession. In the comments below, I’ve listed some things that my own priest friends have told me they would do if they were to find themselves in such a situation. As always, you can contact us with any questions, and respectful disagreement is welcome in the comment box.   -Sarah

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Erotic Eucharist: Nurturing Deep Attraction Between Friends

Today’s post is a guest reflection by Dan Brennan, author of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. We believe it is just as important to give voice to heterosexual experiences of deep, meaningful, relationships outside of marriage as it is to create space for the stories of non-marriage relationships among celibate LGBT Christians. Dan, who has been married to his wife Sheila for several years, has also grown spiritually from a close relationship with his friend Jennifer. We are fascinated by Dan’s work in the area of sacred friendships and are honored to share a sample of his writing with you today. As always when reading guest posts, please keep in mind that everyone’s story is different, and the experiences, perspectives, thoughts, and theological ideas presented by the author will not necessarily match completely with ours. If you are a celibate LGBT Christian or ally, or if you have a story to share that is related to the themes we discuss at A Queer Calling, feel free to Contact Us.

A reflection by Dan Brennan

She sat to my left. Sheila, my beautiful wife, sat to my right. We were about ready to celebrate the Eucharist which we did weekly in our Anglican church. My attraction toward my female friend who regularly sat next to my left was deepening. Before I had any theories about “erotic” Eucharist, before I knew any language to describe “erotic” Eucharist, I was thoroughly processing my attraction.

Looking back on this season in my life nine years later, I can definitely rejoice in the spiritual eros I experienced in participating in the Eucharist at the time. Ever since I became an Anglican several years earlier, I longed to meet Christ every week in the Eucharist. Liturgy was no-run-of-the-mill religious ritual where I went through the motions. The Eucharist was where I celebrated the Feast. Each week I lifted my heart before the Lord’s presence. Christ was my sweet desire in Eucharistic intimacy. The real presence of Christ was my sweet delight. Each Sunday, I yearned for the deep beauty, goodness, and delight of Christ’s presence in drinking “the cup of salvation” and eating “the bread of life.”

So perhaps in hindsight, it was no coincidence I became open to explore the connection between the divine eros in the Eucharist and my deepening attraction toward my female friend.

Before I proceed, I’m honored that Lindsey and Sarah have invited me to write a post on their blog. Ever since I came across their blog a couple of months ago I’ve admired their particular calling and how are they are engaging subjects like chastity, sexuality, friendship, and the LGBT community. I’m writing from a straight white male perspective aware of my privilege. My journey has led me to a deep curiosity of how sexuality and friendship can flourish in close friendships and community. I admire Lindsey and Sarah’s call to celibacy.

Taste and See that the Lord is Good

Opening my desires, my attraction, my longings, and my anxieties while I ate the bread, drank the wine, and fed on Christ’s love and presence was a powerful discipline for me during this season. I had intuitive trust in seeking Christ through Eucharistic intimacy. I had come to know Christ, I had come to receive Christ, and I had come to trust Christ through this intimate connection. Opening my attraction for my female friend to Christ was a natural thing for me to do.

Each week I surrendered my friendship, my attraction, my desire for deeper connection before the Lord as I drank the cup of salvation and ate the bread. Wisdom is better than jewels and all that I desired could not compare with my knowing the sweet and sheer delight of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist (Proverbs 8:10-12; 30).

What is deep attraction? I desired ongoing intimacy with my friend at multiple levels: spiritual, emotional, physical, and intellectual. Did I have a sexual attraction for her? Or was it a nonsexual longing to deeply connect with her that included physical affection? It’s hard to sort that out when you are opening yourself up to deep attraction. I was not physically attracted to her when we first met. But as our friendship grew she became deeply beautiful in my eyes. But I was fiercely committed to my wife and I was also committed to seeing my friend as more than an object to be pursued for sexual gratification. So what I mean by deep attraction is the desire to connect with the whole person in friendship with passionate commitment to not make a move toward sex.

I was seeking the delight and presence of Christ in the Eucharist among other things. Years later, I would read something Amy Frykhom suggested: “True, deep, real pleasure is an avenue to the Holy” (See Me Naked). That was my intuitive posture as I sought Christ in the weekly Eucharist. I was not seeking self-indulgence. I was seeking the beauty of the Christ I knew in the Eucharist.

My attraction to my friend was utterly paradigm-shifting for me and opened up a whole new world as I sought to bring the wholeness of who she was before Christ in weekly Eucharist. It was conventional wisdom for evangelical men to run away from any kind of deep attraction toward women in which both parties had no romantic potential. I was seeking Christ as my wisdom as I explored this deep attraction; not a conservative list of dos and don’ts.

Too Good To Be True

Nine years later I can say I’m so grateful for the Eucharist and the gift of deep attraction. I have no regrets about continuing to talk about delight, pleasure, and mutual cherishing with a trajectory toward deep attraction in friendship. One of my differences with Christians who are my critics is right here: they think I am promoting something too good to be true for our present culture and world. Some think I’m a “daredevil.” Some think I’m suggesting a practice akin to “emotional dating.”

For many years, my conservative evangelical sexuality prohibited me from experiencing “too good to be true” moments outside of my marriage. In the past 10 years I have intentionally chosen to be open to attraction in friendships—including deep attraction with my other sex friends—with the Eucharist at the heart of integrating my sexuality and my friendships.

As Christians living in a post-Freudian culture, we are going to have to address the question: are we are going to view the Eucharist through a cultural Freudianism or are we going to view the cultural Freudianism through the Eucharist? Viewed through popular Freudianism, sex in a materialistic world is the ultimate, too good to be true story. Viewed through the Eucharist, the ultimate too good to be true story is union/intimacy with God and with one another.

At the center of the Christian faith is the Eucharist which invites us all—straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer—to this “too good to be true” intimacy where we eat and drink and take in Christ, we digest his body. Eucharistic intimacy summons us to the life and love of Christ, of shared intimacy in the present world but also into a future world. In the midst of chaos and dysfunction, it is hard to believe—‘too good to be true”— deep attraction toward healing, human flourishing, shalom, and deep delight. The Eucharist offers us a narrative where friends know the powerful delight of Christ’s love in this world.

I’ve now lost track of the many “too good to be true” moments in my various female friendships and in my marriage. What a deep joy to experience too good to be true moments with Sheila as a result of/in the midst of our other friendships. If we have good marriages, families, friendships, we all experience moments of that kind. But I am deliberately including those moments birthed of deep pleasure and love which involved my other sex friendships.

I have no doubt, that Sarah and Lindsey have experienced some of those “too good to be true” moments in their own friendship. The cultural Freudian narrative would believe Sarah and Lindsey could not experience such depth in their relationship sans sex. However, if you view their friendship through the lens of an Eucharistic intimacy, there is no ceiling on spiritual beauty in their relationship.

I continue to nurture a deep attraction toward my wife and to this day, I find her more beautiful than ever. I also continue to nurture a deep attraction toward my female friend. We have been close friends for twelve years. I had made several decisions back while I was “staying with” my attraction in a contemplative posture in my practice of the Eucharist. I took responsibility for my own actions and refused to ever act on any sexual feelings or any erotic energy I was experiencing in my friendship. I refused to fantasize. I also stayed clear of any pornographic material. I continued to nurture my attraction and love toward Sheila.

It just so happened somewhere about nine years ago that as I was experiencing the sweet and delightful love of Christ in the Eucharist and my growing delight and attraction toward my female friend, I encountered the gift of sexuality and friendship. Instead of running away from it, ignoring it, or seeking sex, I chose to nurture something deeper: a social desire for an alternative intimacy in friendship which did not neuter my sexuality. This didn’t happen overnight. But I continued to seek Christ, engage in conversation with trusted others, and eagerly search for wisdom on a wide range of issues pertaining to sexuality and friendship.

I now have a wide range of friendships. I view nurturing a deep attraction with my other sex friends as an intentional practice for being authentic in my sexuality and being authentic as a trusted and safe friend. “True desire,” writes Philip Sheldrake in his rich book, Befriending Our Desires, “is non-possessive. It is an openness to the future, to possibility, to ‘the other’ whether human other or God.” Nurturing a deep attraction is to choose the path of Eucharistic intimacy: to learn to receive, to learn to be open, to learn attentiveness to real presence, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to let go, and to attend to delight and beauty in our deepest relationships. It is too good to be true. But this is the trajectory of the Christian faith. To find the greatest treasure in the world—Christ in our relationships.

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In Which the Woman at the Well Appears in My Dreams (or, When Armchair Spiritual Direction Fails)

A reflection by Sarah


She encountered Christ personally during his ministry. The Gospel of John tells us about his meeting her at the well. During this encounter, Christ gently called her out for sexual sin: living with a man who was not her husband, and having five husbands before. She experienced an immediate conversion upon speaking with Christ and went back to her village to tell everyone about this particular trip to the well.

My patroness, St. Photini, is a familiar figure across all Christian traditions, though most know her simply as the woman at the well. When I was in the process of converting to my current Christian tradition, I felt her pulling me like a magnet. She appeared to me in my dreams, and clearly as I can now see Lindsey on the other side of the living room, I saw St. Photini sitting at the well with her jar waiting for Christ, or perhaps waiting for me. She was beckoning me to draw near. When I made the decision that she would be my saint, I felt as though I was answering an unexpected phone call from a not-so-close-yet-still-friend sort of person from my high school days. She hadn’t even made the short list of saints I’d been considering. As I shared all this with friends and acquaintances who were part of my soon-to-be-new Christian tradition, few were surprised that I had chosen St. Photini. However, I think many would be surprised to learn what did motivate and what did not motivate me to take her as my saint.

At the time I had transitioned from exploring this faith tradition into beginning the formal conversion process, people were full of suggestions as to which saint I should choose as my next patroness. Because keeping my patroness from my previous tradition was not an option, I was at a loss for whom to select. I felt strongly connected to St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Monica, but I didn’t get an especially strong impression that I should choose one in particular. I listened intently as other people offered their thoughts, hoping that in a moment of epiphany I would realize something profound about myself, or about one of these great women of faith. That moment never came, but after about the fourth person I talked to I began to notice a troubling repetition. Everyone seemed stuck on St. Mary of Egypt, who hadn’t even crossed my mind because little in her story seemed relatable to my experience of life. And those who actually asked me which saints I had been considering would stop me mid-list at St. Mary Magdalene, proclaiming triumphantly, “That’s the one for you, Sarah!”

After hearing the names of these two saints repeated one after the other for weeks, I finally asked someone, “Why do you think so many people are advising that I take either St. Mary of Egypt or St. Mary Magdalene as my patroness?”

Seemingly puzzled by my lack of insight, he replied, “Because they’re both women who repented of serious sin.”

Having spent years reading and learning about the lives of the saints, I pressed further, “That’s true for many holy men and women the Church recognizes. What’s so special about St. Mary of Egypt and St. Mary Magdalene in that regard?”

He took a moment to stare at his shoes. Then, in a muted tone he spoke, “They repented and overcame their passions. They asked God to rid them of lustful desires…something like what you’re doing with celibacy.”

I walked away from this interaction without saying much more. Many people in Christian traditions feel qualified to offer armchair spiritual direction to others who identify as LGBT, and this advice tends to focus on helping LGBT people overcome sexual temptation. Most of these folks genuinely mean well and may even think they are complimenting a celibate LGBT person by comparing him or her to saints who once struggled with lust. Others might think they are performing a work of mercy by offering unsolicited warnings to LGBT Christians about inappropriate sexual behavior. But intentions notwithstanding, frequently these bits of guidance do more to induce feelings of shame than to help in any real way. In my experience, they give Christians and non-Christians alike a reason to believe that, “Don’t have sex!” is the only bit of wisdom and “love” the Church is willing to offer LGBT people.

Of all things I wish straight people within my Christian tradition knew about LGBT people, the fact that we aren’t just loose cannons full of insatiable sexual desire tops the list. Some weeks at my own parish when I hear bombastic claims at coffee hour about how gay people are “sexually perverting and destroying everything that’s good about America,” I ache for the opportunity to share that one’s sexual orientation is not an indicator of political views, level of sexual activity, or morality in general. I want to help people understand that for LGBT Christians, identifying with one or more of those letters does not necessarily have anything to do with what’s happening between the bedsheets—rather, it involves how one relates to others, to the world, and even to God.

I question the appropriateness of assuming that an LGBT person struggles primarily—or at all—with sexual temptation. To be sure, living up to the examples set by any of the saints is an extraordinary challenge, and having a deep sense of connectedness with these holy men and women is a great privilege. But this doesn’t change the fact that I find it painful (not to mention unhelpful) to receive counsel again and again that the best role model for taming with my own passions is a woman who was once so licentious that she wouldn’t even accept payment for prostitution.

Eventually when I did decide upon St. Photini as my patroness, the well-meaning folks who had been giving me feedback reacted positively. I think it’s likely that many who affirmed my selection felt comfortable knowing that I had chosen a saint who had repented of sexual sin. In the weeks leading up to my reception, I heard a lot of, “Ah, yes, St. Photini…the woman at the well who lived with a man she had not married, and had married five men before him.” What I didn’t hear much about was the incredible life she lived as an evangelist—the very reason I had begun to feel drawn to her after she had appeared in my dreams. My straight brothers and sisters did not have much to say about how she was baptized “the enlightened one” by the apostles, converted seven members of her family, and led all of them in spreading the good news of Christ. No one mentioned that she preached and led many others to know Christ, spat in Emperor Nero’s face when he asked her to renounce her faith, and died a martyr after being thrown down a well.

Everyone seemed glad for my awareness of St. Photini’s life pre-conversion and experience of repentance, but to this day, only two other people in my Christian tradition have ever asked me, “Why did you choose her?” I’m still learning the full answer to that question—I believe that in many cases, the saints call out to us rather than the other way around. But I hope the next time somebody inquires, it will open the door for a long, meaningful conversation about something other than lustful desires.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Green Leaves, Red Flames, and Glimpses of Vocation

A reflection by Sarah

One of the many lessons I keep repeating is that God often uses unpredictable means to get my attention. This was especially true during a season of my life when I was feeling strongly pulled towards a celibate vocation but knew I wasn’t going to be able to live it at that time. As I’ve written before, I’m glad I waited to commit fully to a celibate vocation because being ready for this way of life takes time. I wanted to be reasonably sure that God was in fact calling me to celibacy before completely embracing some form of celibate life as my vocation. At the time of this story, I thought I was crazy for even contemplating celibacy, as I was in a non-celibate relationship with a woman I’ve chosen to call Leah.

One summer while on retreat, I sat at the dinner table nearly every evening with a priest who seemed to understand my uncertainty intuitively. Frequently, I asked him questions about how he understood the role of celibacy in his vocation to the priesthood, if he experienced loneliness, and if he had any regrets about forgoing marriage. This priest could tell that I wasn’t casually exploring monastic life with no real intention of committing to a celibate vocation of some kind. Though I never shared anything with him about my sexual orientation or relationship, I believe that he could actually tell I had a sense of where God was leading me, and was trying to figure out how to get there despite doubts about meeting my need for human companionship along the way. One evening after our meal, he pulled me aside and drew something from his satchel: an icon of the Mother of God the Unburnt Bush, though I did not yet know this name for it. Then he said to me, “I’m leaving tomorrow to go back home to my parish, and I feel very strongly that the Mother of God would like you to have this icon.”

Icon of the Mother of God the Unburnt Bush

I was totally surprised, completely flattered, and taken aback. The icon was absolutely beautiful. What could have inspired this priest to leave me—adrift and pitifully clueless—with such an amazing gift? I’m not sure anything else in the world could have spoken to me in that moment as this icon did. Throughout my life, one of the ways I’ve felt God’s presence most strongly has been via my perceptions of color. The Mother of God the Unburnt Bush icon remains to this day one of the most colorful I’ve ever encountered. Even more captivating than most I’ve seen, it is packed full of action, containing a multiplicity of stories on a mere 9” by 12” wooden panel. Simultaneously blown away and honored, I asked if he could tell me more about the meaning behind different images within the icon. He responded by directing me to take the icon back to my bedroom and let the Mother of God teach me about it herself. In time, the icon would tell me the fullness of its own story. I received the gift with gratitude and carried it away.

As I sat on my bed staring down at the image, the first sight that caught my eye was the Mother of God, surrounded by green leaves and red flames. I realized that this icon was a representation of Moses and the Unburnt Bush from The Book of Exodus. I recalled that Exodus describes the bush as burning, yet unconsumed. Gears turned in my head, and it clicked that the Unburnt Bush was a prefiguring of the Mother of God in the paradox of her virgin motherhood. At that time, I found myself focused on the primary images of the icon rather than those in the background. I noticed Moses, removing his sandals, kneeling below the Mother of God as she holds her infant Son. As I contemplated the three central figures in this icon, I felt inspired and convicted that saying yes to God’s call would not always be easy. Sometimes doing what God asks is incredibly hard and involves saying, “I’m committed,” even when that means arduous tasks and frightening possibilities. I thought about how Moses stood before the Unburnt Bush in preparation for leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Perhaps I was beginning my own period of preparation for what God would have me do even if I wasn’t able to do it yet at that point. I also thought about how two celibates are central images in the icon: the Mother of God and Jesus himself. As I gazed into the eyes of the Mother of God and of Jesus in the icon, I caught the first glimmer of hope that perhaps a celibate life could be worthwhile and fulfilling even if those qualities seemed fleeting and out of reach at the time. Surprisingly, I also felt an overwhelming sense of peace even though life seemed uncertain and my questions of vocation were far from settled. In that moment, God reached into my heart and assured me that things were in process, and I was in process.

Over the past four years, that icon has been a source of strength for me almost daily. Within that span of time, I’ve experienced beginnings and endings of relationships, a move halfway across the country, a reevaluation of my own sexual ethic, and the beginning of my celibate partnership with Lindsey. The Mother of God the Unburnt Bush icon currently hangs in Lindsey’s and my living room, alongside many other images that are spiritually significant for both of us. Sometimes when I walk by this image, I catch the eyes of the Mother of God for a moment, and I get a reminder that she’s here praying for me and helping me to find strength at times when the demands of a lay celibate vocation are at their greatest.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Choosing Celibacy: Why I’m Glad I Waited

A reflection by Sarah

There’s a story that celibate gay people are supposed to tell with regard to how and why we became celibate. It’s little more than a variation on the ex-gay narrative that dominated the discussion about LGBT people in the Church until recent years. It goes something like: “I lived the gay lifestyle, was a slave to promiscuity, did a lot of drinking and drugging, and then years later, realized something was missing from my life: Jesus. I repented, began seeing a Christian counselor, and ultimately God helped me to stop having sex.” That’s not the story you’re about to read. That story, excepting the substance abuse bit (a topic I might address in the future), is not mine.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a certain type of popular article emerging on the Internet: different riffs on the theme, “Reasons I’m Glad I Married Young.” I have a number of friends who married immediately after high school graduation (some during high school) and many more who tied the knot during college or within a year of graduating. My younger sister met her future husband in college and married last June, just three weeks shy of her 23rd birthday. My parents were high school sweethearts and married two months after my father’s college graduation. I have no opposition to people embracing the vocation of marriage at early ages if they feel so inclined. I’m happy for my friends who have felt called to this pathway, and I wish them many joyous years of life with their spouses and children. But reading articles like this one and this one tends to evoke a consistent reaction in me: “I’m glad I waited until my late twenties to choose celibacy, and to begin a celibate partnership of the forever kind. I’m glad that I did not commit to this vocation at an earlier age.”

At this point, you might be perplexed. To many, celibacy seems like a default condition in life. It’s the temporary state that traditional Christianity teaches a person is supposed to maintain until marriage. It only becomes permanent once a person reaches his/her marriageable expiration date and becomes a bachelor or old maid, or less often, once a person embraces a call to religious life. Many view it as the state of life for those who are too young to have sex, those of age who are simply waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right, and those who don’t have a prayer of ever experiencing sexual activity in their lifetimes. And if you’re young, society tells you that you’re supposed to avoid the last category at all costs. If you’ve been reading any of our other posts, you’re probably well aware that Lindsey and I don’t see celibacy this way. We believe that celibacy is as much a commitment to a way of life as is marriage, and that in order to make such a commitment, either as a single or with a partner, one needs to be prepared.

I wasn’t born prepared for celibacy any more than my sister was born prepared for marriage. In fact, if someone had told me as a teenager that I would eventually end up living a celibate lifestyle, I would have thought that person was a few apples short of a bushel. Even by age 19 when I had begun to consider the possibility of a monastic vocation, celibacy was still more of a faraway possibility than a realistic pathway for working out my salvation. During my time as an undergraduate and, to a lesser extent, as a master’s degree student, I visited several monasteries and attended a number of retreats aimed at vocational discernment. There was something about the way nuns loved and gave selflessly to the world that captivated me. The witness of several sisters I had known personally spoke to my heart in a way nothing ever had before. But I never could conceive of myself actually becoming a nun.

In many ways, I desired what the sisters had, but every time I visited a community and started to head home afterward I thought, “This way of life isn’t for me. There’s something about it that just doesn’t fit.” I attempted to discuss this with friends, spiritual directors, and other people I trusted. Everyone seemed to have the same set of questions: “Is it the celibacy thing? The fact that nuns can’t have sex? You can’t see yourself living a life without sex, can you?” Though I knew all along that it wasn’t the “not having sex” part that was bothering me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem was. The way the sisters cared for each other and the people they served, the spiritual life they shared in community, the generosity that was so apparent in every moment of every day at the monasteries…though I’d had a couple of less-than-pleasant monastery visits, in general I could think only of the positives. Still, it was all too easy to reach the premature conclusion that if I didn’t feel called to join a religious community, God wasn’t calling me to a celibate vocation after all.

In the midst of all my monastery adventures, I was also engaged in another type of exploration. Though I can now remember being attracted to other females from as early as age 8 or 9, the idea that I might be “one of those girls who likes other girls” hit me hard for the first time around age 17 when I was a senior in high school and was dating a boy. It took me a few years more to realize that “lesbian” was the most fitting term for describing my sexual orientation, and slowly I began dating other women. My first sexual experience with another woman came during my senior year of college. The relationship I had with this person was significant on many levels, and I’ll always value the ways in which our emotional intimacy helped me to learn about loving and being loved. Throughout most of my twenties, I pursued a number of romantic relationships, many of them having a sexual element. Some were more serious than others, and some included aspects that I am not proud of, but I can say with confidence that each of these women had something to teach me with regard to becoming more fully human and coming to understand Christ’s love with greater intensity. I struggled a great deal with the conflict between my positive experiences of love shared with other women and my perception of the celibacy mandate I heard constantly from clergy and lay members of the Church. While I am now grateful for the celibate vocation I eventually committed to cultivating in partnership with Lindsey, I am also thankful for many aspects of the intimate relationships I experienced before making this commitment. Those two feelings are not mutually exclusive.

All things considered, why am I glad that I waited to choose celibacy? The answer is simple: because when I did choose this way of life, I was ready to embrace it fully—its beauty, its mystery, and its challenges. Taking the time I needed to mature and prepare for this vocation was absolutely necessary–even though during the process, I wasn’t always aware of that for which I was preparing.

When Lindsey and I first decided to become partners, all the missing pieces from my active vocational discernment period began falling into place. The notion that celibacy might be the way God was calling me to live reemerged, and this time it made sense in a way it never had before. It no longer felt like a distant possibility or an order handed down from a tyrant. The very first hour we began to envision what life together might look like, I remembered wise words I had heard from a nun during a monastery visit eight years prior. I had asked Sister Elizabeth, “When did you know for sure that God was calling you to this vocation, and in this specific monastic community?” I’ve never forgotten her reply: “I knew when I visited the monastery and felt an unmistakable sense of joy.” From day one of my partnership with Lindsey, there has been no expression more fitting than “joy” for what we experience together—whether we are taking an exciting road trip, praying Compline, visiting our favorite cupcakery, wringing out laundry due to the washing machine’s malfunctioning mid-cycle, or arguing because of a misunderstanding. But even as powerfully as I feel that joy now, I am equally convinced that if I had attempted forcing myself into celibacy within the wrong context for me or at a time when I was not prepared, profound depression and emptiness would have been the most likely result.

I am glad I waited to choose celibacy because I believe it is a gift—or at least it can be. Waiting allowed me the opportunity to listen as God gradually, in His own time, invited me to discover it and begin unwrapping the layers. Waiting also gave me several years to reflect and reach the conclusion that celibacy is not simply the default state for the unmarried—that it is a way of life one must actively choose, and defining it as “the absence of sex” limits the meaning of all celibate vocations. All too often, Christians encourage celibate LGBT people to forget the experiences of their non-celibate pasts, viewing these as times of sin to be regretted and pushed aside. I believe this approach is unhealthy and detrimental to the development of a mature spirituality. Because I waited to choose celibacy, I am able to look fondly upon all previous stages of my emotional, spiritual, and sexual development and know that each period of my life thus far has brought with it new wisdom, insight, and lessons taught by others far wiser than me.

The decision to embrace any vocation is just that—a decision, and one that requires careful thought and formation within the context of a supportive community. Sometimes, I wonder what might happen if the Church were to take as much responsibility for guiding and directing those God calls to celibacy as it does for those God calls to marriage. But perhaps that’s a question for another time.

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