By Andy McQuery
“Where charity and love are, God is there.”
The 12th century Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx was self-evidently a remarkable person of deep faith, humility and wisdom. That he might have been gay should almost be irrelevant. However, the possibility does matter, precisely because so many of us, at large in the universal church and especially in our political leadership, insist that same-sex attraction is the product of a disturbed and warped mind, an “intrinsic disorder,” as the Vatican terms it, a rejection of God’s word and God’s intention for humanity. Homosexuality is often described as an addictive behavior, grouped with alcoholism and drug abuse, but is also thought of as if it were contagious, the mere mention of it in the presence of impressionable young ears enough to open the floodgates of unnatural imaginings and start children down the path to hell. Tennessee recently banned teachers from talking about it. The governor of Texas said Christians don’t have to go to church every Sunday to know that something is wrong with this country when gays can serve openly in the military.
As the apostle Nathanael might have put it, “Can anything good come from a homosexual?”
“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love; in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness; in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”
Few of us would bat an eye at the idea that there is something holy in the physical, sexual expression of intimate love, but the fact that these are the words of Aelred, a monk living in a community of other men, written in On Spiritual Friendship, his last and most famous work, means for some that if he is speaking of physical intimacy, it must be theoretically, and of course within the context of a mixed-gender union sanctified by the church. The suggestion that Aelred might have been describing an intimate relationship with another man, whether from his own experience or his unmet desires, is rejected. He is speaking of friendship, we are told. Spiritual friendship.
Upon the death of his “friend” Simon, Aelred is recorded to have said, “He was the refuge of my spirit, the sweet solace of my griefs, whose heart of love received me when fatigued by labors, whose counsel refreshed me when plunged in sadness and grief... What more is there, then, that I can say? Was it not a foretaste of blessedness thus to love and thus to be loved?"
We can’t really know, of course, whether Aelred was gay, or how he understood his feelings for Simon, or whether there was any physical relationship beyond “the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity,” but it’s not hard to see how gay men and lesbians can and would want to recognize themselves in these words. It’s harder to understand why so many would prefer that we didn’t.
The great, sweet irony of this year’s Integrity Eucharist in Portland in honor of Aelred is that it is hosted by the parish of St Matthew’s, which less than two years ago was devastated by the departure of the priest and the bulk of the congregation. Though the reasons were complex, one of the sorest of the sticking points was the increasing acceptance and visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk in the life and sacraments of the church. It is hard in this context to ignore the sting of chastisement in Paul’s words appointed for this feast day, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind….in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” I think that clearly cuts both ways in this sad situation, but ultimately the truth is that one group took their toys and went home. They saw some people in the church they didn’t think belonged there, and they wanted to go someplace where they could lock the door.
What were they afraid of? Did they think maybe a bunch of gay folk and their friends and families might try to coordinate a community service day and paint their narthex? Did they worry we might try to weed their memorial garden and power wash the parking lot in a gesture of friendship? Did they think we would try to organize a Eucharist and donate a dinner to feed 100 people?
If so, their fears were well founded, because that’s exactly what we did.
One version of the Eucharist in this church draws our attention to the fact that “we have denied our goodness in each other, in ourselves and in the world.” It is, rather, that fear of the potential for goodness in “the other” that drove them away. It’s why the hero of the parable is a Samaritan; Jesus wanted to challenge our assumptions, to get us to stop making generalizations about traditional outsiders, to get us to view each other as individuals and not as faceless groups; as people, not as issues.
Two years ago, Dennis, Catherine and Simon would likely have been warmly greeted by the people of St Matthew’s. But not Dennis and Michael; not Catherine and Heather; not Simon and Aelred. The possibility of goodness in those people and those relationships was rejected, and the idea that such relationships might be greater than the sum of their individual parts and, indeed, even holy, was denied. The suggestion that their inclusion was anything other than a mortal threat to the church and an affront to God meant schism.
“Where charity and love are, God is there.”
It is with a nod to Aelred’s first published work, The Mirror of Charity, that “Ubi caritas” was chosen to be the offertory anthem for this year’s celebration. Duruflé’s justly famous setting, based on the original Gregorian melody, unfortunately does not contain the full text of the ancient hymn. It goes on to say, “As we are gathered into one body, beware, lest we be divided in mind. Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease, and may Christ our God be in our midst.”
As we celebrate the truly good work that Integrity has done, both here in Oregon and around the country, and the wonderful life that continues and grows at St Matthew’s, let us also pause to lament our failures along the way that brought us to this moment. Let us pray, truly, for all people everywhere who seek to know God and, in discerning and following their conscience, make difficult and painful decisions with which we may not agree. Let us confess that we don’t have all the answers, and acknowledge that now we see through a glass, darkly. Let us pray that God fills the holy universal church with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where God finds corruption, may there be purification. Where God sees error, may we heed direction. Where God sees anything amiss, may there be reform. Where the church is right, may it be strengthened; where it has needs, may they be met; and, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, where it is divided, may it be reunited.
The Mass for the Feast of St Aelred will be celebrated beginning at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 12, at St Matthew’s Episcopal Church at 11229 NE Prescott in Portland. A catered supper and party follow in the parish hall.
All are welcome.