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FROM ILLUSIONS TOWARD TRUTH:
THOMAS MERTON’S “TRUE SELF’ AND GAY SPIRITUALITY
REV. PATRICK W. COLLINS, PH. D.

“To respect the personal aspect in man is to respect his solitude, his right to think for himself, his need to learn this, his need for love and acceptance by other persons like himself. Here we are in the realm of freedom and of friendship, of creativity and of love. And it is here that religion begins to have a meaning…” Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, (N. Y: Doubleday, 1989) p 82.

“Being gay is not about sex as such. Fundamentally, it is about one’s core emotional identity.” Andrew Sullivan, “Here I Am,” America, May 8, 1993, p 7.

“The homosexual experience may be deemed an Illness, a disorder, a privilege, or a curse; it may be deemed worthy of a ‘cure,’ rectified, embraced or endured. But it exists… It occurs independently of the forms of its expression; it is bound up in that mysterious and unstable area where sexual desire and emotional longing meet; it reaches into the core of what makes a human being who he or she is.” Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal, (N. York: Knopf, 1995) p 17.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the great American spiritual master, has become a wise and extremely popular mentor for the interior journeys of many persons at the close of the twentieth century. His life and his message speak to the intense, contemporary quest for authenticity and truth in living. Merton himself was always in search of his True Self. This always involved honestly acknowledging the many layers of false self which blocked his path toward his own unique truth. This Trappist monk experienced life as a series of unfolding questions which he sought to answer, not only from the Christian tradition and interreligious dialogue with Eastern religious, but also from his growing intimacy with the mystery of the God Within who is the True Self of everyone.

Merton’s passion for human growth rather than for certitude about a fixed human nature dominates his writing in the last decade of his life. He wrote in 1966: “I am not so sure of myself and do not claim to have all the answers.” (1) As such, Merton can be particularly helpful to same-sex oriented persons whose experiences may have raised more questions than answers about one’s unique identity. Like him, gay persons too are in search of their unique, God-created identities. His appeal to such persons lies in his life-long search for Truth, often without hard and fast answers to either guide or limit him.

Merton never explicitly addressed issues of same-sex orientation, certainly not as these realities are understood and experienced today – - or even then perhaps. He himself was “enthusiastically heterosexual” and struggled throughout his life to integrate interpersonal intimacy. In a 1967 letter to his abbot, Dom James Fox, Merton specifically stated that he had no inclination to same sex attraction. (Witness to Truth, p. 240.

Merton viewed all human sexuality as a challenge of growth toward personal wholeness and communion with others. He learned this by personal experience - first through fleeing the muddle of humanness to find “God Alone” in Kentucky’s Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941. In retrospect this was perhaps his way of avoiding sexual issues in his own life. He sought to put order into his chaotic life after some depersonalizing sexual experiences during his university years. Then, in 1966, Merton opened himself to the world of intimacy through a brief but intense relationship with a young nurse. This both softened and warmed his heart. After that he opened to an even deeper commitment to monastic life out of the depths of his evolving humanity. (2) With regard to same-sex love, Merton’s monastic colleagues have said that his attitude reflected the general negative and uninformed views of the society of his day. He spoke of “fairies” and, as novice master, did what he could to keep active homosexuals out of the monastery. He was, however, tolerant of the gay orientation in his students if this did not become a problem for them and for the community. (3) Merton’s grasp of gayness, of course, did not have the benefit of these past years’ of greater exploration, experience and knowledge. 

So why might this celibate, heterosexual monk be a guide for gay spiritual journeys? I suggest this is because Thomas Merton developed a deep, compassionate sensitivity to all persons, particularly the vulnerable and oppressed minorities. Therefore I contend that it is fair to ask: Can his writings about minorities and compassion and general spiritual growth apply to persons whom he himself did not understand? If so, what might Thomas Merton write today about spirituality for same-sex oriented persons?

The Issue of Justice

Given his intense concern during the 1960’s for justice and peace and for the human rights of marginalized peoples, it is not difficult to imagine that he might have become involved in contemporary gay struggles – both for reasons of ongoing personal integration as well as the cause of social justice and the rights of suffering minorities. The interior pain and societal rejection experienced by gay persons would have spoken to Merton’s contemplative heart since he deeply believed “that the suffering required for sanctity in a secular age must originate with the pain of the world.” (4) Conceivably he may even have counseled creative disobedience as well: “When custom and law systematically conceal rights and truth, then the Holy Spirit inspires men to carry out actions that violate custom and law in order to bear witness to truth.” (5)

Gay persons’ spiritual journeys are unique, different from those oriented toward the opposite sex. Both the crosses borne and the gifts received and given into the world are different, valuable and necessary for the on-going evolution of humanity. Same-sex oriented souls are unique images of the ever-creating God. Whether by nature or nurture or a combination of the two, a minority of persons have always been created in this way – including some of the world’s greatest leaders and artists. This does not mean, of course, that one’s sexual orientation defines one’s interiority. It is, however, surely one of the most significant determinants of human identity. One cannot enter paths of spiritual growth only by dealing with one’s own sexuality.

It is essential to make clear one often undifferentiated point. Sexuality is not simply genitality. Sexuality is about intimate relationality. It shapes the way every person exists in relationship to the rest of reality. As such, one’s sexual orientation is a significant qualifier of both the kind of inner life and relational life which a person develops. Sexuality is about one’s identity, not one’s lifestyle.

Soul is who one is in the very core of one’s being. The human soul is one’s unique, personal identity. It is the inner reality which joins spirit and body into an integrating embodied spirit. Soul is not a ‘thing’ one ‘has’ – or ’saves.’ “One ’saves his soul’ by discovering that the soul is what one is.” (6) And who one is is a unique image and likeness of God. Spiritual journeys spiral both upwards and downwards into soul and, for Merton, the principal metaphor for spirituality was The Journey.

Coming Out and Coming In

Spiritual growth for gay persons involves two distinct, although not necessarily separate, movements. First there must be the Coming Out of the closet of denial and repression. One comes out to oneself, to some significant others and to the One who creates us all. Full spiritual maturation is unattainable from a closeted environment. After or perhaps even during the Coming Out period, there can be a Coming In, entering into what, if anything, is unique to same-sex identity in the very core of one’s being. As stated by gay author, Tim McFeeley, “The coming out process and the quest for spiritual transcendence are affiliated journeys, and the skills acquired in leaving the closet are useful in understanding our spiritual needs as well.” (7) In these complementary centripetal and centrifugal energies, gay people can begin to discover and develop the modes of unique interiorities.

This engages people in what Thomas Merton called the Journey from the false self toward the True Self which is the GodSelf Within each person. Merton believed that the real journey in everyone’s life is interior. On that journey same-sex oriented persons need to learn to stop looking primarily outside the self to find one’s identity and truth. No longer should one look principally to others – either heterosexuals or homosexuals – to define one’s identity and to prescribe how one should act. Being and identity are discovered on the journey into one’s interiority. As such, this inner quest for gay people can become a rich source of life for all people because the inner quest can only be entered in communion with other persons of any sexual orientation.

One gay writer, Ed Steinbrecher, put it this way: “Many gay men are looking for something outside themselves when they should be looking within themselves and creating this incredibly satisfying inner man. You’re not going to find it at all unless you go within and do the work of consciousness.” (8)

Thomas Merton’s approach to spiritual growth is similar. As one of his former students said, Merton taught that “if you really want to know what the Will of God is for you, then simply honestly listen to the deepest yearnings of your own heart, and believe that expresses the Voice of God for you.” (9) Merton wrote that the transformation of human consciousness which “will seek to transform and liberate the truth in each person, with the idea that it will then communicate itself to others.” (10)

Therefore, after first Coming Out and then Coming In, same-sex oriented persons can receive a deeper, richer sense of true identity with which to Come Back Out again. As stated in I Peter 4:10, “Put your gifts at the service one another, each according to the measure received.” Through engaging in this outward, inward, outward journey, one gradually comes to realize the truth expressed in the popular tale, Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “It is good to be a seeker, but sooner or later you have to be a finder. And then it is well to give what you have found, a gift into the world for whoever will accept it.”

Social Justice for Same-Sex Oriented Persons

The transformation of both persons and society was dear to Thomas Merton’s heart. As a contemplative social critic, his words about discrimination toward Afro-Americans might be used appropriately to decry the rampant contemporary discrimination against gay persons by both society and church. Merton complained that one of the grave problems of religion was “the almost total lack of protest on the part of religious people and clergy, in the face of enormous social evils.” He judged the mentality of the clergy to be “not in touch with reality.” They dealt only with “abstract dilemmas.” He called upon the conscience of the Catholic layman to play a positive and decisive part in moving persons to see and remedy the great social disease of racial discrimination. (11)

Is not the same true today? With regard to gay discrimination in our time, many in ministry seldom grasp the gay situation from within the reality of that experience – - possibly because too many mature and responsible gay persons remain closeted regarding their sexual orientation and perhaps some of these are clergy themselves. Too often, at best, both those in ministry and others try to deal with injustices toward gay persons from partial and inadequate understandings of human nature. This is what is meant by the dominance of heterosexism which does not include and accept same-sex orientation as one of the equal but different ways humans are being created. Stereotypes of gay persons – like stereotypes of “Negroes” in Merton’s times – do not help the gay and straight quest for the True Self.

In the 1960’s “Negroes” – as they were called then - were rising up to protest the violation of their civil rights. Thomas Merton joined his voice to “The Black Revolution.” Let us see if his prophetic words about interracial justice in the 1960’s can give hints and emphases for the the contemporary struggles of same-sex oriented persons for justice, even though, admittedly, the two experiences are only analogous and not exact parallels. As Merton’s word “negro” is read in the following quotations, one might read “gay” and for “white society” one might read “homophobic, heterosexist society.”

Merton wrote of the black revolution: “Why, in this particular crisis…is there so much hatred and so dreadful a need for explosive violence?…. as long as white society persists in clinging to its present condition and to its own image of itself as the only acceptable reality, then the problem will remain without reasonable solution… if the Negro, as he actually is…enters wholly into white society, then that society is going to be radically changed… We must dare to pay the dolorous price of change, to grow into a new society. Nothing else will suffice!” (12) The same would be true in heterosexist society if same-sex oriented persons were given an open and equal place at the table.

Heterosexuals must come to understand gays’ experience of oppression just as Merton noted whites had to do in the 1960’s with regard to blacks. “Most of us are congenitally unable to think black, and yet that is precisely what we must do before we can even hope to understand the crisis in which we find ourselves… Furthermore we do not bother really to listen to what he says, because we assume that when the dialogue really begins, he will already be thinking just like ourselves.” (13) Honest, non-prejudical dialogue is essential. To achieve this, non-violent protests by gay people may be required in order to accomplish what Afro-Americans’ “acting up” did in the 1960’s: “awaken the conscience of the white man to the awful reality of his injustice and of his sin…, rooted in the heart of the white man himself.” (14)

Merton concluded that a Catholic approach to racial relations would assume that whites and blacks are “essentially equal in dignity” and are “correlative,” mutually complementing one another. This would be true for gay and straight people were it not for the sin of homophobic injustice which prevents this complementarity from being appreciated and relized in a society in which heterosexuality alone is considered to be the acceptable sexual orientation and norm. Today persons who are same-sex oriented have a gift to offer the heterosexually constructed world just as Afro-Americans did in Merton’s day and still do today. Perhaps Merton’s awareness of the need to hear the Negro voice could be applied to the prophetic insights of gay persons: “There has generally been no conception at all that the white man had anything to learn from the Negro. And now, the irony is that the Negro…is offering the white man ‘a message of salvation,’ but the white man is so blinded by his self-sufficiency and self-conceit that he does not recognize the peril in which he puts himself by ignoring the offer….” Today some people are slowly learning to tolerate and even accept same-sex oriented persons as equal human beings. But few seem aware of the gift which those who are same-sex oriented offer to everyone, namely, a gift of a larger imagination about human identity and human relationships.  As with the white-black dialogue of past decades, gay people could offer heterosexuals the occasion to enter into a relationship of providential reciprocity willed by God. What Merton wrote of the black person could apply: “He is inviting us to understand him as necessary to our own lives, and as completing them…. What is demanded of us is not necessarily that we believe that the Negro has mysterious and magic answers in the realm of politics and social control, but that this spiritual insight into our common crisis is something we must take seriously. By and large, in the midst of the clamor of every possible kind of jaded and laughable false prophet, the voice of the American Negro has in it a genuine prophetic ring. Who knows if we will ever get another chance to hear it?” (14) Who knows if same-sex oriented people will have the courage to be truly prophetic in ways which others can hear?

 Thomas Merton believed that the vocation of the monk always includes a dimension of societal marginality – a kind of living on the edge as a witness to what could be lived in the center. Perhaps that is true, for now at least, for those who are same-sex oriented in our society and churches. Perhaps it is Merton’s awareness of the value of “marginality” which would help him to both appreciate and speak to the gay experience. Shortly before his death in 1968 Merton said “the monk in the modern world is no longer an established person with an established place in society… He is a marginal person who withdraws deliberately to the margin of society with a view to deepening fundamental human experience… The basic condition for this is that each be faithful to his own search.” (15) Surely those who are same-sex oriented are marginal persons in today’s culture and church. Like the mission of the monk, gay persons are called to expand the horizons on what it means to be human.

Gay Spirituality

For Merton, all spirituality is a search to become a full a human being as possible. This involves a journey from the false self toward the True Self. It means moving toward final integration with the True Self which is the God-self in each person. Merton wrote: “To be holy is a question of appreciating where one is in life and learning to foster the vital connections that are already operative.” (16) Merton’s words about himself can be addressed as a challenge to same-sex oriented persons: “I must therefore know myself, and know both the good and the evil that are in me. It will not do to know only one and not the other: only the good, or only the evil. I must then be able to live the life God has given me, living it fully and fruitfully, and making good use even of the evil that is in it… To live well myself is my first and essential contribution to the well-being of all mankind and to the fulfillment of man’s collective destiny…. To live well myself means for me to know and appreciate something of the secret, the mystery in myself: that which is incommunicable, which is at once myself and not myself, at once in me and above me.” (17) That is the True Self.

So how might gay people “live well” and “contribute to the well-being of all” at the end of the twentieth century? What must be both courageously faced and joyfully appreciated in gay realities? What are the vital connections already operative in contemporary gay experiences?

First of all let it be said clearly: there is no univocal “gay person” nor is there any unilateral “gay community.” Same-sex oriented persons span a wide spectrum between the two extremes described by Bruce Bawers in his book, “A Place At The Table,” namely, those totally immersed in the gay-sub-culture and those who have assimilated into the lifestyles of straight society. As Bawers has written: “…there is no one ‘gay lifestyle,’ anymore than there is a single monolithic heterosexual lifestyle…. There is in fact a spectrum of ‘gay lifestyles’…. There is a broad cultural divide, and often considerable hostility, between gays who tend toward the two extremes of the spectrum. We might call them, at the risk of drastic oversimplification, ’subculture-oriented gays’ and ‘mainstream gays.’” (18) It is perhaps most accurate to say that there is a spectrum of gay population stretching from persons from “radicals” to “status-quo” persons and groups. Yet, despite these many external, superficial differences, there are deeper commonalities which can shape the spirituality of gay people.

Second, despite this diversity, all same-sex oriented persons who wish to grow spiritually must experience both the inner of Coming Out to oneself, to some others and to God, the journey of Coming In to one’s identity and the Coming Back Out again to move toward spiritual maturity. Admittedly this is difficult. Why? Because gay people begin their journeys toward self-identity and self-affirmation several steps behind heterosexuals in our culture. Heterosexuals at least think they understand their orientation and identity. Straight reality is assumed to be “normal” by the culture, the churches and even some gay people. Everyone is presumed to be heterosexual.

Gay persons are considered abnormal, at least statistically. Some religious traditions even describe same-sex oriented persons as “intrinsically disordered” and “an abomination.” Yet, throughout history, a small minority has always been same-sex oriented – and often these have been some of the most creative and spiritually aware leaders in every age. But their gifts usually have not been understood as coming from their full human identity which of course includes their sexual orientation as a major energy of love and creativity. In society usually this has been either unknown, denied or dismissed.

The Gay Wound

Thomas Merton was deeply aware that God deals with human beings in and through their vulnerability, their wounds. It is at the point of what may appear to be one’s powerlessness that divine power can act to make one whole. Heterosexist and homophobic assumptions and attitudes have created what has been termed “The Gay Wound” – i.e., internalized homophobia. Guy Baldwin has said: “At this time in history, homophobia is the single most defining element in … gay consciousness.” (19) It is not being gay in itself that is a wound but the stigmatization of gayness.

Gays are socialized to imagine, feel, act and be different by straights who, in the past, have set the standards for “normal” sexual orientation and interpersonal relationships. Environments and structures established by society and church have implanted within gay people a sense of being a misfit and an alien. This, in turn, can create a profound self-loathing in the gay soul which very often leads to self-destructive behaviors and the unhealthy stereotypic acts which negatively characterize the gay population among straights. Ram Dass says: “One of the deepest issues plaguing gay men is inner-directed hate.” (20) Yet such suffering can become the gateway to deeper truth and healed wholeness.

Gay spiritualities must take into account that, at least until recently, this negativity is the point from which most gay persons have begun their life journeys. Because of this deep wound, same-sex oriented persons often spend a disproportionate time consumed by sexual orientation issues. Others are simply presumed to be oriented toward the opposite sex. No one has to struggle, in this culture, with an orientation toward the opposite sex. The same-sex oriented, on the other hand, must engage this inner reality as something making him different. In the process more focus is often placed on questions of some unique “lifestyle” and special genital behaviors than on a quest for one’s unique human identity. Gay persons too readily come to experience their identity as primarily erotically focused as well as erotically different from others.

A distinction is necessary. How much of this is due to an un-integrated sexual identity in those who are same-sex oriented? And how much is related to the broader narcissistic damage caused by societal homophobia which then leads to sexualization as a compulsive behavior as an attempt to stave off the feelings of emptiness in the core self. The latter influences all persons, regardless of one’s sexual orientation.

Healing the Gay Wound

As Andrew Harvey, a gay contemplative writer says, “From the deepest wound of my life grew its miraculous possibility… transforming the pain of self-betrayal into self-discovery… Had I not been so wounded, I wouldn’t have constantly hungered and searched, certainly not with the intensity I have.” (21) Such a wound can be a “cut in” that becomes a “breaking out.”

How heal the gay wound? Through personal and communal prayer and through sound spiritual companioning, gay people may be opened to non-judgmental attentiveness to their whole being. In so doing, those who are same-sex oriented can become aware that the wound is in one’s ego personality – or in Merton’s terms the “false self” - rather than in the depth of one’s soul where the True Self resides. This is the God Within, present as the center still point of the self. Ram Dass says he does not regard being gay as a central, defining characteristic. He even goes so far as to say that describing oneself as gay is not “anything” but rather just awareness of one’s unique identity. (22) Merton would most likely agree.

Perhaps one might say that the core of one’s self -the True Self – needs to be extracted from all of one’s psychic modalities (thinking, willing, feeling, remembering, imagining, including sexual orientation)in order to free it to infuse those various modalities  rather than those modalities themselves becoming the ultimate basis of personal identity. All of the above - including being gay – are mere descriptions of the self, not the real self. To make part of oneself the magnet for the whole of oneself is what Merton calls living out of the false self. This would mean living out of only one’s partial self and partial truth. The truth of who one IS – the “I AM” of us all – is larger than any single modality and description. Indeed, it is more than all of our many modalities combined. In Merton’s later writings, the True Self is presented as our whole self in God. In Christian terms, this is the self found in and through Christ. It is the self God is creating us to become from the inside. We simply become who we are. Merton puts it this way: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us” (23) This True Self, our God-ness, exists within our socially-constructed and self-constructed ego self.  In Christian terms the True Self is the self which is found “in Christ” in which Spirit merges and meshes with spirit. It is the person of whom St. Paul speaks when he says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, woman nor man, slave nor free. All are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3, 28) One might add to Paul’s parallelisms that there is “neither gay nor straight, married nor single.” In Christ all are whole and all are one.

Such growth from self-hatred toward self-appreciation is what may happen when someone Comes Out from hiding one’s true sexual orientation from self, others and God and begins to Come In to one’s truth. Those who have successfully Come Out and Come IN feel full of something never experienced before: a sense of power. That power is caused, in part, by freeing the energy previously used to deny and disguise oneself. (24)

Entering this journey with intentionality and passion is what it means to become true, whole and holy for all persons in every age. Thomas Merton wrote of this with great clarity and beauty: “For me to become a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to become whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it… We are called to share with God in creating our true identity.” (25) Honesty is the path.

What might this call toward the True Self mean for the unique spiritual journeys of gay persons? Gay spiritualities can open people to understand and experience inner realities and the innate attractions and loves of the soul as a blessing rather than a curse. Many gay persons are forced to live closeted, untrue lives both by the homophobia which permeates our culture and our churches as well as by gay persons’ own internalized homophobia. Such self-hatred poisons the journey toward one’s own unique reflection of the image and likeness of God an may block the inner and outer freedom required to create with God one’s true identity. This “falseness” is not unique, of course, to those who are same-sex oriented. Merton wrote: “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person; a false self.” (26) He believed that we come to realize that true identity is not that which appears on the surface. Who we really are is not the mask we wear or the role imposed by our upbringing and our society. No, we are much more than that. In fact, much of what is on the surface is not truly us at all.

The Second Closet

This is sound spiritual insight for gay persons. It encourages leaving the closet of imposed deceptions, roles and masks of the false self created by heterosexist and homophobic definitions and expectations. But regrettably, at least some gay people can then become trapped in another closet created by gay people, namely, the gay sub-culture. This becomes the “second closet.” This “lifestyle” can trap persons in uncommitted and irresponsible promiscuous behaviors and/or materialistic consumerism. (27) Gay spiritual growth involves moving beyond both of these false selves which are simply new forms of imprisonment.

A new ghetto of prescribed places, behaviors, images and stereotypes can replace the original closet for subculture-oriented gay persons. While there is clearly a value in safe places and joyous and comfortable sharing with like-oriented persons, the danger is that this can become a new kind of isolation and separatism. Mature spiritual growth leads rather toward integration of the whole of creation. It is not a closet imposed by heterosexism but rather one freely chosen by same-sex-oriented persons for the sake of security and the avoidance of those engagements with heterosexuals which could stimulate mutual growth of all persons. Gay spiritualities need to be especially attuned to this second false self and its entrapments. Like everyone, gay persons need to transcend the cultural location of the ego personality, false self, and discover it more profoundly in the True Self.

Speaking to those who may become trapped in the gay sub-culture, Ram Dass reflects the wisdom of an integrating gay identity which is becoming increasingly common among the maturing gay population today. He encourages those who live largely in the gay sub-culture to let go of models of gay existence and live into the richness of the moment. He warns: “You’ve reduced yourself into a shadow of who you are…through clinging to concepts instead of understanding that true nature of being is not knowing you know, it’s simply being… there’s something else going on, and realizing this is awakening…. Sex and social relationship is not enough – eventually you will be driven into spiritual awakening…. Awakening is the recognition that there are many planes of consciousness and that you exist on them all. You are limiting yourself incredibly to define yourself only in terms of the physical / psychological planes, as if they were absolutely real…” (28) Ram Dass would probably agree with Merton’s related words: “If what people want is food and sex, let them have that, and see if they can get along with that only, and without meaning.” (29)

What to do about the falsity and illusions created first of all by heterosexist and homophobic attitudes and values and then by the gay sub-culture? How to avoid or exist from this second closet? Merton’s words seem applicable: “The difficult ascent from falsity toward truth is accomplished not through pleasant advances in wisdom and insight, but through the painful unlayering of levels of falsehood, untruths deeply embedded in our consciousness, lies which cling more tightly than a second skin.” (30) It is like peeling away the layers of an onion – tears and all!

After living or trying to live the lies of the first closet due to experiencing years of homophobic self-hatred, many joyously Come Out into the light of gay identity and self-affirmation with others who share the same sexual orientation. David Whyte’s poem “The Opening of Eyes” can be seen as expressing this awesome, liberating experience: It is the opening of eyes long closed. It is the vision of far off things seen for the silence they hold. It is the heart after years of secret conversing speaking out loud in the clear air. It is Moses in the desert fallen to his knees before the lit bush. It is the man throwing away his shoes as if to enter heaven and finding himself astonished, opened at last, fallen in love with solid ground. (31) But there is more to learn and still more falseness to face. Gayness is not a lifestyle but a unique way of a whole variety of persons being in, of and for the world. The illusions of the gay lifestyle must be confronted. One’s sexual orientation must become a friend, a servant and a midwife to the birthing of one’s True Self. But persons oriented toward the same sex can become quite defensive when confronted by the “lies which cling more tightly than a second skin” which permeate the gay lifestyle and subculture. Yet such confrontation is unavoidable if liberation is to be spiritual. Merton, quoting C.G. Jung’s Spiritual Disciplines, wrote: “People will do anything no matter how absurd to avoid facing their own psyches.” (32) Somewhere else Jung wrote: “Where lies your fear, there lies your task.”

Merton could be describing persons caught in the limitations of the gay sub-culture when he wrote: “This false, exterior, superficial, social self is made up of prejudices, whimsy, posturing, pharisaic self-concern and pseudo dedication. The false self is a human construct built by selfishness and flights from reality. Because it is not the whole truth of us, it is not of God. And because it is not of God, our false self is substantially empty and incapable of experiencing the love and freedom of God.” (33) The false self is an idol to which the True Self says: “I will have no strange gods before me.” Whether the gay sub-culture thumbs its nose at straight lifestyles through separate constructs of bars and bathhouses, promiscuous pursuits and effeminate posturing or whether gay assimilationists imitate in exaggeration the straight values of materialism and consumerism, neither can be, in the long run, an authentic path toward the True Self. Both prove to be illusory treks, ultimately unsatisfying. These phases need to be both moved through and then beyond.

Out and Free

What can gays – caught in these double closets, the untruths of two cultures – do about the false self? Merton says the false self is annihilated neither by being denied, ignored nor by being uprooted and cast out. We are as sick as our secrets. The true reality must be named for healing and wholeness to happen. Merton says that the power of the false self is diminished in the person first of all by being acknowledged as truly a part of ourselves and accepted. He adds that its power is diminished “as it is integrated into our conscious selves as truly a part of who we are. In this way, over a lifetime, the true self gradually emerges. We are healed of the fracture between the false self and the True Self by discovering the presence of God, the True Self, within our consciousness.” Merton puts it this way: “The Christian is left alone with God to fight out the question of who he really is, to get rid of the impersonation, if any, that has followed him into the woods.” Yet, Merton contended, “We can’t really find out who we are until we find ourselves… in relation to other people.” We are not isolated individuals. We are persons and he held that “a person is defined by a relationship with others.” (34) This is the way “out of the woods.”

Perhaps Merton’s quotation from Gandhi may apply here: “A person who realizes the particular evil of his time and finds that it overwhelms him, dives deep in his own heart for inspiration, and when he gets it he presents it to others.” (35) So, in order to Come In after Coming Out, gay people must face, possibly with even more pain, “The Music of the Night.” Regrettably, in the American culture, we seem to prefer the glitz of light to blind us to the darkness and inevitability of our pain. The realization of one’s true identity “means that we become transformed from within by God’s inner Presence in order to become like God, living in God, seeing as God sees, loving as God loves all creation – with compassion. God does it in us, not we.” (36) At least not the “we” of the false self, the ego self, the socially constructed self.

A Shared Journey

Paul Monette, the late gay author, confesses that “…to come out is not to fully understand who we are. You have to take the energy of coming out and then you have to study.” He adds: “I’ve come to understand in the last couple of years that being gay is about something more profound than my sexual nature, my carnal nature… This deeper core that we’re calling ‘gay soul’ is something we have to learn from one another as we grow more human with one another.” (37)

Here lies the importance of the sharing of gay spiritual journeys with others: family, friends and particularly with other gay people. Particularly after the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, those who are same-sex oriented began to form communities to discover the self through a relationship with others of the same orientation. No longer was gayness simply a closeted group of individual sinners with disgusting yet discreet and private behaviors. It was Gay Life “in your face” in open communities of solidarity and compassion, especially in the light of the AIDS epidemic. The gay population began to be less the victims of history and more subjects of that history. Gay persons began more and more to decide together what gay experience means through dialogues, publications, organizations and the arts. But some of those decisions may have lead into the second closet of a segregated and illusionist gay lifestyle rather than the promised land of liberty and connectedness with all people.

Regarding such choices Merton’s words may be applicable and offer courage: “The more earnestly we hope to tell the truth, the more secretly we are convinced that we will only add another lie to all the others told by our contemporaries. We doubt our words because we doubt our very selves – and woe to us if we do not doubt our words and ourselves!…. Nevertheless, we must risk falsity, we must take courage and speak, we must use noble instruments of which we have become ashamed because we no longer trust ourselves to use them worthily.

We must dare to think what we mean, and simply make clear statements of what we intend.” (38) What may have seemed a shared journey of the oppressed toward freedom in the model of The Exile of the Hebrew scriptures can become a new oppression rather than an equality of respect, reverence and mutual nurturing. Like God’s People leaving “the closet” of Egypt, the trip may involve a detour through the desert rather than a straight path toward home. As theologian Richard Cleaver writes: “We are still wandering in the desert, trying to figure out what it means not to be slaves anymore.” Cleaver suggests that the movement toward liberation has been sidetracked into “a system of commercial products and institutions… We have created a new Egypt, where we can feel as if our liberation has already been won. Such outcomes are inevitable once gayness and lesbianism are conceived of as lifestyles rather than as membership in an oppressed class. We have tried to buy ourselves out of bondage…” (39) A good number - with no children to support – have the disposable income to do just that. One’s security then comes to reside in what one has rather than who one is. The quest for more and more can be insatiable because it is doomed to be unsatisfying.

Coming In, then, is more about the deeper core. It is about the soul’s essence more than about one’s experience. In this study I have raised questions of gay identity and gay purpose. Who is the gay person? What, if anything, is unique about the soul of a same-sex oriented person?

Chris Glaser, making a play on “The Wizard of Oz,” says that Coming In involves entering “The Land of Awes” – not “Somewhere over the Rainbow” but here and now. “The recovery of a sense of awe at our life experience creates a valuing of it.” (40) This calls for journeying both through and then beyond the more familiar issues of sexual and genital behaviors, interpersonal relationships and unions, AIDS, human rights, ethics, church teachings and societal attitudes. Coming In means moving into the depth of the soul where sexual orientation is not seen as a curse but a divine blessing.

Jeff Leeds, a former Jesuit, expresses this exilic journey well for gay men: “I desire to become a liberator beckoning not only myself but others from their place of exile. In my desire to embrace this truth I have come to realize why I have spent a lifetime running from myself. I ran from place to place and from job to job never knowing the motivating force behind my restlessness and search for peace. I thought I was searching for success, and instead I was searching for myself. I needed to look no further than my heart, for it was there that I found the key to what I had been yearning a lifetime to find… It is to that horizon that I long to traverse and reach out to embrace.” (41) This is the “giveness” and “surrender” involved in Coming In to the True Self. The invitation is “Friend, come up higher.” As Paul Monette suggested, reaching out and embracing the True Self cannot be done alone. Spiritual companioning is essential at this stage in the inner and outer liberation of gay people. This is particularly true because of the double closet and trap of gay illusions. Susan Rakoczy describes such spiritual sharing as “a privileged meeting of hearts. Built on trust in the bond of the Spirit of God, two persons come together in faith to hear the story of the workings of the Spirit in the life of one of them. For the person who shared her or his experience of God, there is always the moment of ’stepping out on the water’ as one begins to speak of what is most sacred in life. The listener, who is companion on the journey, is called to receive that sharing in trust and love, with encouragement and support, and, at times, with the invitation to challenge to further growth, even at the cost of pain and suffering.” (42)

In the process of spiritual questing with a companion or companions, gay people discover what Merton understood so well. “The perfect person…is not the one who has it all together – the one who has ‘arrived.’ No, perfection is never such a possession of the person… It is not a matter of achieving some impossible and inhuman saint like condition, but of being fulfilled as the person we were created to be. Perfection is rather a pursuit, ever moving forward deeper into the mystery of God… and each fulfillment contains in itself the impulse to further exploration.” (43)

Becoming Whole

Becoming whole, finding one’sTrue Self, means, for all persons, discovering “that there is a deep underlying connection of opposites.” (44) This is uniquely true for gay people given the difficulties they face in coming into communion with the True Self. It means passing through the bewildering wilderness of the false selves which are both assigned by others and constructed by same-sex oriented people. A gay person on a spiritual journey may well understand from painful yet rich experience one of Merton’s most profound statements: “We must contain all divided worlds within ourselves.” (45)

There is a deep down freshness in things, says Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is that unity in diversity which constitutes the core of one’s soul. Perhaps this is something of what Robert Goss means when he suggests that gays can help “deconstruct the rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity and social constructions based on these definitions.” (46) In Jung’s terms, this involves a reconciliation of the animus (the masculine spiritual energy) and the anima (the feminine spiritual energy) in each person’s soul, creating a sacred marriage within each person. Merton’s words about the stages of the human spiritual journey have particular applications to the divided worlds which exist both within and around gay persons. He wrote: “In the first part of our life, our psychic energy flows outward in the construction of our social role or persona. The more rigid the society, the stronger the mask – till we get so far out of touch with our true self that a neurosis may develop which stops the outward flow of energy. Our psychic energy then seems to be damned up, it returns to us and often we find a reintegration more in tune with our deepest selves.” “This permits us to experience and reach an inner unity, which is the noblest effort man can make for his own good and for the good of all men.” (47)

Gayness As Gift For All

Spiritual journeys are, indeed, for the good of all, not just the one on the quest. And gay journeys today can be a great gift to all of humanity at the close of the twentieth century. As Andrew Harvey says, “Gays have a unique function in registering the cruelty and craziness of patriarchy and working to transcend it… We’ve had a false masculine presented to us, an ideal of control and domination that is really a frozen hysteria, a condensation of fear and panic. It has nothing to do with the real masculine. In fact, gay men are closer to the real masculine than the so-called masculine ones are. Gay men in the way in which they interpret and live masculinity might be models for straight men, models for a deepening of the heart, a more tender and playful humor, a greater acceptance and tolerance of diversity.” (48) A Real Man is a whole person!

Harvey’s sense of the gay mission in culture may sound somewhat rhapsodic but, if there is even some measure of truth to it, it is profoundly challenging. Gays “…are freed from the responsibilities of procreation to cultivate the artistic, the spiritual, the values of living itself, as people who point to an inner fusion of male and female, a holy androgyne, that all beings could aspire to. God is both male and female and beyond both… gays can be the living presence of that non-dual male-female character of the divine and revered as such. I think the homosexual, by virtue of his or her makeup, may have a greater chance of realizing this androgyne and its end in divine childhood.” (49) Harvey noticeably omits to acknowledge the fact of gay parenting which happens today.

C.G. Jung suggests, too, a unique quality in the interiority of those who are same-sex oriented which could be a great gift for humanity at the close of this violent, competitive and materialistic century. It is the capacity for the primordial Sacrament of Friendship. He sensed that the gay person has “a finely differentiated Eros instead of, or in addition to, homosexuality. This gives him a great capacity for friendship, which often creates ties of astonishing tenderness between men and may even rescue friendship between the sexes from the limbo of the impossible. He may have good taste and an aesthetic streak which are fostered by the presence of a feminine streak. Then he may be supremely gifted as a teacher because of his almost feminine insight and tact… Often he is endowed with a wealth of religious feelings which help him bring the ecclesia spiritualis into reality, and a spiritual receptivity which makes him responsive to revelation.” (50)Little wonder that so many in spiritual ministries are same-sex oriented persons!

Conclusion

Gay spiritual journeys, then, begin with a Coming Out which then can open toward a deep Coming In to the identity of a soul whose partial truth is gay. But, in the end, one’s identity and one’s sexual orientation is more than simply for something for oneself. One must Come Out Again for the sake of others, indeed, all creation.

Tim McFeeley writes: “Gay people and homosexuality are essential components of creation – for the religious, part of God’s plan – and concealing these components dishonors the creator and shrouds the fullness of creation itself…. By revealing and celebrating even the most minute aspect of creation, we make the creator evident and the universe even richer…. I believe we are here to reveal a further dimension of the diversity of life, and, in so doing, jolt our fellow human beings into celebrating life’s differences.” (51)

This awareness that the gay gift is for others is important in order to avoid the pitfall of explicit or implicit narcissism in gay people. There must be a return into the rest of the world for the sake of all humanity, indeed, all creation itself. Gay people may have a unique mission at this time in history to help humanity expand its imagination about what it means to be human and to be in loving relationships. Such broadening and deepening in the human imagination - personally and collectively – can lead all beyond the binary systems and dualisms which so constrict humanity at the end of this millennium. Merton’s words about the creation of new human values out of love seem to speak of this mission. “The Law of Love is the law that commands us to add new values to the world given us by God, through the creative power that He has placed in us – the power of joy in response, in gratitude, and in the giving of self.” (52)

St. Paul (Galatians 3:28) wrote of the Holy Spirit’s overcoming such dualistic divisions among humanity: master-slave, Jew-Greek, male-female. As the gay psychologist, John McNeill, has written: “Overcoming those divisions is a very slow historical process that has been going on over centuries. But today, I believe, the gay spiritual movement has emerged out of the heart of the world to play a decisive role in overcoming this final division… Scripture says that the stone that was rejected will become the cornerstone. The gay spiritual communities are being called by God to play this ‘cornerstone’ role. The only way, however, that gays can play that role is to overcome their fears and have the courage to come out of the closet. Gays must model in a very public way their ability to balance the masculine and feminine dimensions within themselves…” (53)

Gay experience can also become redemptive for others as they bring to the fore the importance and the delight of the human body in responsible, reverential and relational ways. Christianity has suffered from a body-negative mentality for too long. A spirituality which ignores or denigrates the body was unacceptable to Thomas Merton since this would block the total response of healthy and fruitful living. “The ’spiritual’ life thus becomes something lived ‘interiorly’ and in ‘the spirit’ or worse still in the ‘mind’ – indeed in the ‘imagination’). The body is left out of it, because the body is “bad” or at best ‘unspiritual.’ But the ‘body’ gets into the act anyway, sometimes in rather disconcerting ways, especially when it has been excluded on general principles.” (54)

Persons gifted with an orientation to their own sex and who join the journey “out and in and out again” will undoubtedly experience the searing flames of life. But this is a necessary and inevitable purgation of the unique “untruths” which have been given to and assumed by gay people. As Merton wrote, surrendering to the fire of the Spirit within – the True Self – is essential for all human growth. Poetically he described all human souls as being like wax, wax waiting for the seal of one’s true identity to be impressed upon them. By themselves souls have no identity, he believed. “Their destiny is to be softened and prepared in this life, by God’s will, to receive, at their death, the seal of their own degree of likeness to God in Christ. And this is what it means, among other things, to be judged by Christ. The wax that has melted in God’s will can easily receive the stamp of its identity, the truth of what it was meant to be. But the wax that is hard and dry and brittle and without love will not take the seal; for the hard seal, descending upon it, grinds it to powder. Therefore if you spend your life trying to escape from the heat of the fire that is meant to soften and prepare you to become your true self, and if you try to keep your substance from melting in the fire, – as if your true identity were to be hard wax - the seal will fall upon you at last and crush you.  You will not be able to take your own true name and countenance, and you will be destroyed by the event that was meant to be your fulfillment.” (55)

FOOTNOTES

1 Merton quoted in William Shannon, ed., Passion for Peace (N.Y.: Crossroad, 1995) p 3.
2 Robert Nugent, “Thomas Merton and Sexual Wholeness”, Merton Journal, pp 9-11. Also Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984), pp 435 ff. Merton did write one letter specifically on the subject of homosexuality in 1967. It is published in one of the books of Merton’s letters as a letter “To an Unidentified Friend” – with the obvious meaning that this was not a subject to treat “out of the closet.” His remarks would reflect the compassionate pastoral practice of that day, offering advice that sees homosexuality principally if not exclusively in terms of same-sex genital behaviors. “Homosexuality is not a more ‘unforgivable’ sin than any other and the rules are the same. You do the best you can, you honestly try to fight it, be sorry, try to avoid occasions, all the usual things. You may not always succeed but in this as in anything else, God sees your good will and takes it into account. Trust His mercy and keep trying. And have recourse to all the spiritual aids available. Maybe psychiatric help would be of use. “As I see it, there is a special sort of masochism that gets built into this pattern of inversion. A sort of despair that robs you of any urge to fight back. I’s say that was probably the problem and it is probably psychological in its root. That is what has to be handled, that need to fold up and give up resistance. But why? That is for you to find out. I am not a psychiatric counsellor. All I can say is that God will surely understand your good intentions as well as your weakness, and He is on your side. So have courage and don’t give up. And don’t waste energy hating yourself. You need that energy for better purposes…” Thomas Merton, The Road to Joy, edited by Robert E. Daggy (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989), p 345.
3 Nugent, op.cit., p. 9. Merton’s negative attitude toward gays as he then understood that reality was confirmed through personal conversations which I had in 1995 with several Trappists who knew him, such as James Connor and Matthew Kelty.
4 Anthony Padovano, The Human Journey: Thomas Merton, Symbol of a Century (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1982), pp 22 &#.
5 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp 227-228.
6 Thomas Merton, A Vow of Conversation (N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1988) p 23.
7 Tim McFeeley, “Coming Out as Spiritual Revelation,”
The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, p. 9.
8 Ed Steinbrecher in Mark Thompson, ed., Gay Soul (San Francisco: (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) p.  204.
9 James Connor, “Thomas Merton: A Prophet for the 21st Century,” The Merton Seasonal, Summer, 1995, p
5. Connor states that he believes rights for gays and lesbians would be one issue confronted by Merton as prophet and social critic. p 7.
10 Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions) pp 332-333.
11 William Shannon, ed., Passion for Peace (New York: Crossroad, 1995), p 127, 129 and 131.
12 Ibid., pp 156-157.
13 Ibid., pp 182.
14 Ibid., pp 175.
15 The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1968), pp 305-307.
16 Toward an Integrated Humanity: Thomas Merton’s Journey (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1988), p 236.
17 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 95.
18 Bruce Bawers, A Place At The Table (New York: Posidon Press, 1993), pp33 and 35.
19 Guy Baldwin in Thompson, op.cit., p 190.
20 Ram Dass in Ibid., p. 164.
21 Andrew Harvey in Ibid., p. 51.
22 Ram Dass in Ibid., p. 157 and 167.
23 James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1978) pp 19 and 149 quoting Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 142. In conversation with psychologist John Fortunato I learned that, regretably for some psychologically damaged persons, there is a “hole” in their center which is too big due to failures to be loved. In such case it can be seen only as an impoverishing emptiness rather than the poverty of self which is the True Self, God in us. A great deal of psychopathology is due to defects in the self, missing pieces of the potential personality that never get built into the self due to early developmental deprivation or damage. This can be only destructive and limit the inner freedom for growth into one’s personal truth. The application of Merton’s thought about growth toward the True Self presupposes this basic defect is not present.
24 Richard Isay in Thompson, op.cit., p. 41.
25 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp 31-32.
26 Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p 34.
27 Urvashi Vaid, “New Republic, May 1993. Cf also
Bawers, op,cit., pp 31-33.
28 Ram Dass in Thompson, op.cit., pp 161 and 166.
29 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 301.
30 Ibid., p. 296.
31 David Whyte, “The Opening of Eyes” from Close to Home, a collection of poetry performed by the author on a compact disc.
32 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 251.
33 Patrick Hart, ed., The Legacy of Thomas Merton (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1986), p 148. 34 Merton quoted in Ibid., p 135.
35 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 59.
36 Thomas Merton, The New Man (New York: Mentor Omega, 1963), p 46.
37 Paul Monette in Thompson, op.cit., p 28 and pp 23-24.
38 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp 92-93.
39 Richard Cleaver, Know My Name: A Gay Liberation Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), pp 24-25 and 39 and 35.
40 Chris Glaser, Come Home! (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), p 50.
41 Jeff Leeds, “Wrestling the Spirit: Exercises in Discernment,” in “White CraneNewsletter”, Fall, 1995, p 7.
42 Susan Rakoczy, Common Journey, Different Paths (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), p 9.
43 Hart, op.cit., p 54.
44 Patrick Hart, ed., Thomas Merton / Monk …A Monastic Tribute (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1983), p 61.
45 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, (New York: Doubleday, 1989) p 21.
46 Robert Goss, Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), p 3.
47 Merton quoted in William Peatman, “Spirituality reunites us with selves” National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 1995, p 26.
48 Andrew Harvey in Thompson, op.cit., p 62.
49 Ibid., p 56.
50 Jung, Complete Works, 9/1, p 71.
51 McFeeley, op.cit., pp 10-11.
52 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 123.
53 John McNeill, Freedom, Glorious Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), pp 192-193.
54 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p 277-278.
55 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p161.

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