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A spiritual self-portrait


I’ll start this reflection with a quick self-portrait.

As I looked in the mirror recently, I noticed that my eyebrows are turning white. I never gave much thought to the gray gradually taking over my beard and full head of hair, but the pure white strands above my eyes serve as quiet sentinels of the aging process.

Doctors are less subtle. The podiatrist tells me that I have arthritis in my toes, “which will only get worse,” and my primary care physician explains that my occasional chest discomfort is a thickening of scar tissue from the open heart surgery I underwent at age 13.

I’m now a middle-aged man of 48 years, but I do not feel old. In fact, I am grateful for this time in my life when I feel more consciously alive than I can ever recall. Yet, this awareness also includes the reality and gradually louder reminders of limitation and physical death.

Several years ago, I formally moved out of a commitment of 25 years in vows with a religious congregation, and 14 years as an active, ordained priest. The five-year process of discernment that preceded this decision was an excruciating, exhausting experience of kicking and screaming. Of course, few people witnessed it because, as an introvert “off the scale,” I felt that my therapist-spiritual director and God were already too large an audience.

Obsessed with what people would think of me, I finally and ungracefully grew to accept the wisdom, passed along by a friend, that “what people think about me is none of my business.”

I live alone but share a wondrously loving relationship with a man.

Following my call to nurture my Christian spirituality, but outside the structure of religious life and priesthood, I am self-employed as a spiritual director, retreat director, workshop leader and group facilitator. I bring good listening skills and perceptiveness to my direction and facilitation, and theological training along with musical and artistic talent to my presentations. While I’m not expecting this work to make me wealthy, I do look forward to a cash flow that alleviates fears of insufficient funds for my hefty health and car insurance premiums, and the next quarterly tax payment.

In my work, there always seems to be something more to do, and I have within me the essential ingredients for perfectionism. I consciously take time, however, to prepare and enjoy balanced meals, to take a brisk walk regularly and to pray daily. A monthly flow of people coming to my apartment for spiritual direction helps me to stay on top of the housework; birthday and anniversary celebrations give me an excuse to bake bread, cook a roast and make a pie.

This, in short, is who I am.

* * *

In the foregoing, I tried an old confessional trick: Take the most dramatic thing you have to say, express it in the least incriminating manner and stick it in the middle of a number of less serious sins. What you’re hoping is that the confessor’s attention will wander with the prelude of lesser faults or that he will refocus on the postlude of misdemeanors.

I’ve tried it often. It never worked.

In like manner, in the paragraphs above I snuck in the fact that I’m gay. I certainly don’t consider that a sin, but otherwise the parallel holds up. In today’s homophobic culture, both in society and in the church, the words “I share a loving relationship with a man” probably make all the other aspects of who I am seem irrelevant. No matter what other qualities I possess, I will be viewed primarily as a “gay man.”

Yet that’s not how I see it. As is true for any heterosexual person, my sexuality is important, but it is not my singular identifying mark.

Still, in striking a balance between ignoring or magnifying my homosexuality, I can make use of being gay as one way to develop an honest relationship with God. I willingly take my cue from the “Song of Songs,” which celebrates erotic love as a revelation, however fleeting, of the divine. In one possible translation of its conclusion, the book identifies the intense passion of love as “flashes of fire, flames of God” (Songs 8:6).

Like the woman in the “Song,” who admiringly eyes every inch of her lover’s body, so I delight in gazing upon the man I love. His muscular arms are strong enough to be tender with me, as well as with his nieces and nephews who adore him. He reminds me of Isaiah’s description of a strong and tender God: “Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm. … Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom.” (Isaiah 40:10-11).

This God is at work in the world in the person of Jesus, who is strong enough to lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). Jesus asks me to do the same by collaborating with him. He expects excellence, and I work hard to contribute my best to the fulfillment of his plans. Yet as a friend he also supports me tenderly, listening to and helping me sort through my fears, angers, prejudices and loves. The image of working side by side with Jesus energizes me. I am proud to be associated with him, and he with me. We laugh and cry and do good work together.

Like the woman in the “Song,” who fancies her lover to be an apple tree and pictures herself sitting in his shadow, so I enjoy lying back in the arms of the man I love. In this position, he gazes upon me, but I cannot see him; he embraces me, but I cannot embrace him. He strokes my hair, and all I can do is rest passively. I imagine that the total trust of this posture is the basis for Jesus’ dying sentiment, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

I suspect it will take me a lifetime to trust Jesus so completely. As a very young boy, I enjoyed going “swimming,” which meant a lot of splashing close to the shoreline. Sensing my delight, my dad tried to teach me how to float. Standing in waist-high water, he got me to lie back on the palm of his hand, which was more than sufficient support for my small body. He got me to relax as he suspended me at the water’s surface, but every time he lowered me slightly, I panicked, flailing legs and arms. I can still hear the reassuring tone of his voice: “I’m not going to let you drown!”

For a long time, however, my fear short-circuited my trust.

These days, Jesus has taken over for my dad. He continually invites me to trust his loving support and reminds my fearful self that there’s more to life than hugging the shore.

Like the man in the “Song,” who lies between his lover’s breasts, I like to lie with my head on the chest of the man I love. His heartbeat reminds me of how fragile life is. The thought that his heart might stop beating scares me, because I would lose what is precious to me. I imagine that the Beloved Disciple had similar feelings as he rested his head on Jesus’ chest during their last supper together (John 13:23).

The fragility of life is a good reason to make the most of the present moment. Doubt, hesitation and procrastination leave in their wake only regrets. As a self-conscious teenager, I avoided dancing. At weddings, my sister would beg me to dance with her. Although it looked like fun, and I desperately wanted to try, I doubted my ability to overcome a perceived awkwardness. My sister’s begging was in vain.

Today, when I hesitate to try something new, Jesus asks me to dance with him. In my imagination, I am sitting in a large ballroom. There is no one else in the room except Jesus, who silently coaxes me by motioning with his head toward the dance floor. Dancing with Jesus, I am discovering, frees my potential and makes life more precious.

* * *

With these images, I sit down and pray each morning. I look forward to this time, which lasts about an hour. When my schedule infrequently forces me to skip my prayer time, I don’t feel guilty, but I do approach the next time of prayer with a bit more longing.

I begin with the sign of the cross and try to delight wordlessly in God’s presence. Rarely does this last for more than a minute. Then, I give thanks for the gift of the day to which I have awakened. I take this gift as a sign that Jesus is interested in collaborating with me today.

I give thanks for the preceding day and review my actions and motivations. Did I recognize every expression of God’s love for me, and did I respond appropriately? Did I recognize and use my gifts wisely? I see this review as training my spiritual consciousness for the day that awaits me.

I ask God to bless the people in my life: family, friends, the man I love, those for whom I promised to pray, the people I will see for spiritual direction this day, those for whom I’m preparing a retreat and people of whom I am aware only through the media. I ask God to embrace them and help them to experience divine love and protection.

Then it’s time to fuss. Am I managing my time well? Did I spend enough time preparing for the day of reflection? Why is it taking so long to write my monthly newsletter?

“Remember, David,” Jesus whispers in response, “we’re doing this together. As a criterion, time is not as important as being open to my Spirit. Be gentle with yourself and allow me to share the work.”

What if my health insurance premium doubles again next year, as it did this year? What will happen if I need a new car, which I can’t afford? If I get sick, I won’t be able to support myself.

“I’m not going to let you drown,” Jesus reassures me.

Will a publisher be interested in my book proposal? Should I have accepted that invitation to present eight evening sessions on the meaning and application of the Book of Revelation? Will those retreatants be comfortable expressing prayer with their bodies during the worship service?

Jesus wordlessly invites me to join him on the dance floor.

Renewed in my sense of collaboration, protection and adventure, I lay out my plan for the day by reviewing appointments and the tasks I need to accomplish. I do this light-heartedly, knowing my inability to estimate timeframes and acknowledging that Jesus might have an alternate plan. Throughout my time of prayer, the Spirit of Jesus has been “distracting” me with insights and approaches for my work.

By the time the prayer is ending, I sometimes sense that Jesus has once more fanned the flame of my faith in order that I might fan the flame of faith within the people to whom I minister. On other occasions, I feel that my prayer is an opportunity to share our relationship with others.

I conclude by offering myself — gay and graying, introverted, self-employed and one who fusses — lovingly, graciously and generously to God. I sense that Jesus likes the offering of my entire self, including the white eyebrows.

A selection of books on the spirituality of sexuality

Ackerman, Diane, A Natural History of Love, Vintage Books, 1995.
Ackerman, Diane, A Natural History of the Senses, Vintage Books, 1991.
Harris, Maria, Dance of the Spirit: The Seven Steps of Women’s Spirituality, Bantam Books, 1991.
Keen, Sam, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, Bantam Doubleday, 1992.
Keen, Sam, Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life, Bantam Doubleday, 1995.
O’Murchu, Diarmuid, Reclaiming Spirituality, Crossroad, 1997.
Moore, Thomas. The Soul of Sex: Cultivating Life As an Act of Love, HarperCollins, 1998.
Moore, Thomas, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, HarperCollins, 1997.
Rohr, Richard and Martos, Joseph, The Wild Man’s Journey: Reflections on Male Spirituality, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1996.
Rohr, Richard, Gate of the Temple: Spirituality and Sexuality (tape program), Credence Cassettes, 1994.
Timmerman, Joan, Sexuality and Spiritual Growth, Crossroad, 1992.
Tisdale, Sallie, Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex, Doubleday, 1994.

David Schimmel has a master’s of divinity from Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., and an M.A. from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. From his Chicago home, he conducts a number of activities related to spiritual growth and writes a monthly newsletter titled Passion: Christian Spirituality from a Gay Perspective.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999