(Photo is of Jan Hus, Catholic reformer burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1414 for teaching the fundamental equality of laypersons and priests, insisting that both should receive communion under both species. He is frequently and mistakenly described as a “Protestant Reformer,” but at the time of his death he considered himself a full member of the Catholic Church, despite its ban of excommunication against him. His witness and death gave inspiration to the Czech Hussite Reform Churches, including the Czech Brotherhood. Nearly six centuries after his death, Pope John Paul II expressed “deep regret for the cruel death inflicted upon Jan Hus.”)
Just had dinner tonight with my young gay Christian friend, Petr (pronounced Petra), who is studying for his Master’s in Divinity with the seminary of the Czech Brotherhood Reform Church, of which he is a member. His seminary shares many of the same professors as the Catholic Faculty of Theology of St. Charles University. Petr has a strong sense of calling to be an openly gay minister in his Church, even though ‘officially’ the Czech Brotherhood is not at all open to acknowledging gay people and their relationships. In fact, Petr was eligible for ordination two years ago, but was denied this privilege because his Church elders are quite suspicious of what he might do with his ministry. So he is being monitored closely and his Master’s thesis is also being carefully scrutinized. He is being required to read a great many books (in English!) on reparative therapy, designed to ‘turn’ homosexuals into decent, healthy, well-adjusted heteros. I felt a certain chill go through me as he showed me his extensive library on the subject, but Petr is such a sensitive, fair-minded, tolerant soul that he gently protested that, in fact the books, have some worth, and many of the authors are genuinely sympathetic to gay persons and only suggesting that, perhaps, they might be happier and more well adjusted if they could turn their sexual orientation around. Furthermore, many of the gays they deal with are coming from profoundly addictive lifestyles and the therapy does have some benefit in healing them of their addictions, which then allows them to see themselves with greater clarity and objectivity. Many of them discover that they are in fact bisexual, and therefore capable of harmonious and fulfilling sexual relationships with the opposite sex. Many, as well, discover after the therapy that they truly are same sex orientated, for which the therapy is a blessing for making that clear. Petr says he stays clear of the more aggressive and intolerant forms of reparative therapy in his studies. He also said it was very good for his thesis to be able to understand and evaluate both sides of the argument, and that his professors were not insisting that he endorse reparative therapy, only that he give evidence of having fairly considered it. In the face of Petr’s gentle charity and wise tolerance, I felt somewhat chastened in my own resentment and anger towards such treatments, though I remained concerned that Petr not be too ‘brainwashed’ by these studies he is compelled to make. However, in his library he also has extensive literature on the spiritual values and gifts of being gay and being gay partnered. There is no question of Petr’s own very strong sense of calling as a gay Christian man, who is open to normal same sexual relations with other gay persons (at 26 Petr is not yet partnered, but open).
And as I sat on the carpet in his small upstairs study, with the books scattered all around us on the floor, with gentle flute music from the mountains of Northern Thailand playing in the background, I was conscious of Petr’s own special gift as a charismatic gay man chosen ‘in the Spirit’ to remain within a suspicious religious congregation and to seek to change it from within. For some reason, I was reminded of the fourth vow of stability Trappist monks take, promising to remain in their monastery for life. This vow is a gift as well as a promise, one which the monk cannot make without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. So, too, Petr seems to have received a similar gift of perseverance, which gives him his inner strength and his radiant serenity within a trying situation. Many of his church members, he tells me, are closeted gays, too afraid to come out, yet unwilling to leave the church which they love and which feels like their spiritual home. They come to Petr for advice as to how they, too, may persevere in their faith and within an unwelcoming community. Yet, as Petr described his elders to me and their relationships to him, it sounds like his gentle, compassionate, understanding self is gently wearing away the walls of intolerance and suspicion. They are, after all, allowing him to complete a Master’s thesis on the topic of Gay Christianity, and to take a primarily positive approach, but they are not quite ready yet to allow him access to full ministry in the Church. However, I’m confident this will come in time.
Feeling Petr’s inner serenity and grace – which is as palpable in the room as the fragrance of incense – I had to marvel at the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, calling us each to our own special place in our own special time. Some gay Christians are being given the grace to move beyond their intolerant communities and to find more welcoming, life affirming sources of spiritual support. Others are being given the grace of heroic perseverance, to remain where they are, giving a firm, but gentle, persistent, and loving non-violent witness to the holiness of being a fully sexualized gay human being. I had to marvel at the signs of the Spirit at work everywhere in a wide variety of religious communities in such a similar fashion. Petr’s grace and serenity, wisdom and compassion testify to the life giving fruits of his own religious community, which is the locus of God’s grace for him, despite its present intolerance towards gay persons. Such a witness makes relative any claims to exclusivity or superiority on the part of any religious community. Many gifts, one Spirit, working her own wondrous miracles of openness and tolerance, but doing so through the life giving, long suffering passion of devoted Christians such as Petr.
As a further sign of the Spirit’s synchronicity, I casually opened one of Petr’s books resting on the carpet, Donald Bloesch’ Spirituality Old and New, and I came across this remarkable passage which I felt encapsulated our entire evening with its spiritual colloquy.
The Church Within:
One of the hallmarks of mystical spirituality is to uphold the invisible church over the visible church. The true church is the company of the committed who reside in all denominations and sometimes outside of any particular religious fellowship. According to Gerad Heaard, the true church is comprised of holy souls in all religions. The real people of God are those who are making progress toward sainthood. They are those who have put to death the animal nature within them and have become fully or purely spiritual.
Christian mystics, in contrast to generic mystics, continue to affirm the role of sacraments and rituals in the life of faith; yet they consider these things expendable or at least not absolutely essential. Meister Eckhart regarded the sacraments and even the “human shape of our Lord Jesus Christ” as obstacles to spiritual grown. The important thing is to get beyond visible signs to invisible reality. According to Geert Grote, founder of the mystical Brethren of the Common Life, the valiant soul will leave “the scriptures and external signs behind” as he or she makes progress in the Christian life toward the perfection of faith.
As a type of religious association, the mystical society is a fellowship of kindred souls, not a mission station to convert the world. The mystical society will often take the form of a parachurch fellowship that is generally supportive of the church as a social institution. Yet mysticism in its celebration of religious experience unwittingly loosens the tie to the institutional church. …
As I have noted earlier, institutional Catholicism has always mistrusted mysticism, though it has sought to use the mystical witness to consolidate its hold over the faithful. Christian mysticism at its best calls us to rise above parochial loyalties to a genuinely catholic vision of the truth.