Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Role of Psychotherapy in Spiritual Journeys

American Association of Pastoral Counselors Plenary Address
35th Annual Convention, Miami-Biscayne Bay, Florida
"Spiritual Life and Professional Practice"
The Role of Psychotherapy in Spiritual Journeys: Finding the Ego in Order to Let Go of It.
First of all I want to say how greatly honored I was to be asked to address all of you here. I always have had a profound admiration and respect for this organization, especially for its effort to cultivate professionally the human skills of its members so that they can be effective instruments of God's healing and compassion.
I choose to center this talk on the interface between psychic growth and spiritual growth. I will base this talk primarily in my own 85 year old struggle to grow more healthy and mature in psyche and spirit. One key presupposition of this talk is that "grace builds on nature", or in the words of St. Iraneus: Gloria Dei, HomoVivens, The glory of God are humans fully alive. I'll never forget my great joy many years ago as a novice in the Jesuits: when I discovered a book in the novitiate library entitled: "Neurotic Sanctity", I remember thinking: "Maybe I have a chance after all!" While it is true that God's grace can overcome any psychic woundedness to produce a saint; still God's ordinary way of working is by building on a healthy psychic substructure. What is good psychologically, then, will be good spiritually and vice versa. Clearly, a belief system that destroys human psychic health cannot serve the glory of God.
My second presupposition has to do with terminology. I would like to make as my own, once again, a famous saying of the French essayist Montaigne: "Words are slippery planks set on a marsh; we must step on them lightly, pass over them swiftly; lest they sink beneath us." I am acutely aware of the danger of a superficial reductionism in an undertaking such as this. I will be passing back and forth between two distinct disciplines of psychotherapy and spirituality, but I do not intend to try to integrate; or reduce one to the other of these two radically different perspectives on the human person. At best we can hope to indicate certain continuities and discontinuities. In both disciplines words are used to point at inner experiences that can not be objectified without distortion.

Both of these disciplines can use the same word with completely opposite connotations, for example, the use of the word "ego" in my topic for today's talk. Freud provided us with two formulations that indicate the direction and aim of psychotherapeutic growth — to make the unconscious conscious, or, more fully "Wo es war soll ich werden." This can be translated literally as "Where it was, let the I become," where "it" signifies the impersonal and the unconscious and "I" signifies the personal and the conscious. As Loewald points out, these formulations imply a conception of human nature, promoting the individual's consciousness, fostering ego development; taking responsibility for one's self and one's unconscious. The soll or "shall" indicates the setting of a goal for growth. The idea of responsibility in its most basic sense refers to the ability of the I or self to transpose the chaos of raw experience, id drives, energies locked into the irrational compulsions of the superego onto a meaningful personal plane.
To shift into a theological perspective and terminology, we can, out of our own freedom be co-creators of our very self in cooperation with the divine spirit dwelling within us. "Veni creator spiritus; mentes tuorum visita. Imple superna gratia quae tu creasti pectora." Come, Holy Spirit, enter into our psyche and fill with divine grace the heart which you have created.
The original translators of Freud's work into English chose to translate "es" and "ich" in the more esoteric Latin words id and ego. Ego became the name of the authentic, free, conscious, personal self and strengthening the ego by giving it control over the energies of the "id" and "superego" became the goal of therapy. (Again a correction of my title seems in order. We never "let go of" the ego in the Freudian sense. That ego must mature and be transformed in such a way that it can help us in the spiritual journey.)
The word ego had close to the opposite meaning in most spiritual traditions. In Western Christian tradition this word was used to indicate the immature, prideful self that will not, acknowledge any dependence on others or on the divine. In Eastern tradition the ego frequently refers to the illusion of a separate self that stands in the way of enlightenment. Spiritual growth consists, then, of breaking through that illusion and experiencing our oneness with the universe. In both Western and Eastern spiritual traditions, having a strong and healthy ego in the Freudian sense of the term is, I believe, essential to having a healthy and mature spiritual life. We must possess our ego before we can freely let go of it (or, preferably allow it to mature and be transformed.). Otherwise our relationship to the divine or the universe will not be based on a free participation but on a symbiotic absorption.

A final caution which I wish to raise here at the onset has to do with my understanding of spiritual life. Because of my background, I will be dealing with spiritual life generically from within the Western Christian tradition which envisions spiritual life as the life that comes from the indwelling of the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love, within our psyche (which, I believe using other terminology is a universal experience common to all the great spiritual traditions).. Specifically, 1 will use the tradition of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, in his ‘Rules for the Discernment of Spirits‘. These rules are based on the belief that God speaks to us from within our psyche and we can tune in to God's voice speaking to us primarily from within our feelings. Whenever we place an action in conformity with the divine spirit of love, we can experience the presence of the divine spirit empowering us from within. That experience will take the form of feelings of deep peace and joy. I shall do my best to deal with insights that are present in a parallel way in all great spiritual traditions.
The original title 1 gave this talk was "Tapping Deeper Roots*" 1 would like to draw attention to the symbolism of that title. The implication is that there are even greater and more profound resources in the depths of the human psyche than those that can be tapped by a purely secular depth psychology. Those healing depths can be reached only by means of a spiritual discipline. The most effective spiritual discipline that I have discovered personally from within my own spiritual tradition is the practice of centering prayer. (The best book 1 knows describing this form of prayer is Thomas Keating's "Intimacy with God.” (New York: Crossroad, 1996))
One of the most universal symbols of the spiritual life is the image of a deep well of spiritual energy, in the title of his book on the spirituality of the religious liberation communities of Central and South America, Gustavo Gutierrez used a famous saying of Saint Bernard of Clairveaux concerning the spiritual life: “We must drink from our own wells!” Spirituality, Gutierrez says, "is like living water that springs up from the very depths of your own personal experience of faith. To drink from your own well is to reflect on your own unique encounter with the divine at the depth of your psyche.”
Possessing an Ego
I first entered into psychotherapy when 1 began the training program at the Blanton Peale Graduate Institute in New York in 1976.1 was already 51 years old and I had no idea how deeply wounded 1 was both in my psyche and in my spiritual life, and how much healing therapy could provide. I began training and therapy because I had just founded Dignity, New York, an organization for Catholic lesbians and gays, and I quickly realized that I could not help them without first attempting to heal my own woundedness.
The Institute wisely recognized that the primary path to a deep, personal knowledge of how therapy cures was to personally participate in as thorough a therapeutic experience as possible. For the first time I underwent a treatment of my own. I had the good luck of choosing as my therapist, Arnold Rachman, a brilliant, insightful, compassionate and highly skilled therapist. For the next four years we worked together twice a week on individual therapy and once a week in group therapy sessions. I had no idea how badly wounded I had been in my growing up - by the death of my mother, by my father’s emotional distance, by the trauma of growing up a self-hating gay man, by my prisoner of war experiences, and by my exposure to pathological religion. With Arnold's skilled help. I was able to raise most of these issues to conscisness and begin the process and with God’s help, of freeing myself from their pathological grip on my life. Through my own therapeutic process I learned firsthand the skills I would need to help my clients, for the most part other gay and lesbian clients.
The first and deepest wound in my psyche resulted from the death of my mother and the emotional withdrawal of my father when I was four years old. I emerged from that experience with my basic trust in the universe and God deeply wounded. How could I trust a God who would, as I saw it, take away my mother because I was a bad boy. I began at that point to relate to God primarily as an object of fear. "Perfect love," John tells us in his first epistle, "casts out all fear." But I had the experience of near-to-perfect fear casting out all love. I remember as a youth reciting the act of contrition: "Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell." The words went on… "but most of all because you are all good and deserving of all my love." But I could only identify with the fear of the opening line. Beaver in his book Psychotherapy and Growth; A Family Systems Perspective, claims there is a direct connection between the kind of parenting and the degree to which one’s religious beliefs are healthy or pathological. Those who had good loving parents will be open to a liberating message of love from their religion, Loving parents can "defang the poisons of religion" and allow the child to receive only its benefits. In contrast children who did not adequately experience the love of parents will tend to create for themselves an unloving God whom they obey out of fear. This contradicts Jesus' basic message. As Paul put it, ”You were not called to a spirit of slavery to let fear into your life again, you were called to a spirit of adoption. You have the right to call your God ‘Abba‘" ( the infant's word of total trust for a loving mother and father).
Part of my therapeutic process was to bring into full conscious awareness all hidden belief systems with their accompanying feelings of fear, shame guilt and low self-esteem, so that they can be challenged by the healthy religious values of the conscious ego. My favorite prayer at this stage was a collect from the second Sunday in Advent: "Lord, remove the blindness that cannot know you; relieve the fear that hides me from your face."
The second major wound in my psyche had to do with my homosexuality. Growing up in a homophobic family, church and culture I internalized that homophobia; this resulted in a very low self image, As Winnicott said: "Every child knows in its bones that in its wickedness lies hope, but in its conformity and false socialization lies despair." Because of my gayness I grew up thinking that there was something radically wrong with my self and my only hope was to repress that self and conform to the expectations of my family, church and culture.
The first result of that self-hatred was, again, a wound in my ability to trust God and the universe, How could I trust a God who created me in such a way that my desire to reach out in love was fundamentally evil? As a gay man my faith was above all else involved with the virtue of trust. Hans Kung, in his book, Does God Exist? makes the point that the essential psychological foundation and presupposition for faith is trust. Eric Erikson claims that the first task of the human infant is to learn basic trust. This trust is the cornerstone of a psychologically healthy personality; without it a decent human life is impossible. No deep intimacy, no true friendship, no vital faith is possible until we risk trusting.
My primary challenge, then, was to allow myself to experience the ecstasy and blessing that all life is; to experience the goodness of all creation and its essential, ultimate trustworthiness. It is trust that allows us to play all our lives like children in the presence of a loving parent. It allows us to know the joy and ecstasy of creation, nature, friendship, art, poetry, music, dance, noncompulsive work, noncompetitive sport, sexuality in the service of love.
Still another wound arose from my internalized homophobia. At an even deeper level all homophobia is, I believe, feminaphobia, a distrust and repression of the feminine dimension of the psyche. Because of that feminaphobia I distrusted and repressed my feelings and tried to live in my head. (I earned seven academic degrees in that effort!) This seriously wounded my ability to be open to the spiritual life. God speaks to us primarily through our heart, that is to say, through our feelings. As medieval theologians like to put it: "You can grasp God with your mind, never; you can grasp God with your heart, ever!" If we are cut off from our feelings we cannot hear what God is saying to us directly through our experiences and are left dependent on external voices to try to discern what God wants of us. As Maurice Blonde! said, "Our God dwells within us and the only way we can become one with our God is to become one with our authentic self." My authentic self was a gay self, so the only spiritual journey I could take was the journey into self-acceptance and take the chance that God could love the authentic me.

John Fortunato in his classic work on lesbian and gay spirituality, "Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians" makes the point that there is a special need for a spiritual dimension in the therapy of lesbians and gays. The more they become healthy and accept and love themselves, the more they will want to come out of the closet. But as soon as they come out of the closet they can expect rejection and a deeper experience of exile in a heterosexual world. Fortunato states that the psychological and spiritual growth of a gay or lesbian person depends on being able to let go of wanting to be part of the myth of finding our ultimate meaning in the structures of this world. We must go through a process of mourning and give up the myth of belonging and replace that longing with a deeper personal process of spiritual growth.
What gay people ultimately have to give up is attachment to rejection and the need for people (incapable or unwilling to do so) to affirm their wholeness and lovableness. It works like this: if you can't get confirmation of your wholeness and your rightful place in the universe from people and the myth, you have to look beyond them. You have no choice but to get it from someplace else, someplace deeper, someplace more cosmic.
If you give up denying, fighting, and wallowing in the oppression, you stop being stuck in the mud. Off you go, down the road. You begin to see that freedom and a sense of belonging aren't to be found in the myth at all. They never were. You begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said: "Mine is not a kingdom of this world" (John 18:36).
The spiritual process of accepting our exile status in this world and giving up the myth that we can find our meaning exclusively in this world can result in great spiritual freedom. This freedom can help us to live fearlessly and authentically in this world. By deepening our spiritual life, we can turn what many see as the curse of gayness, the curse of being a social outcast into spiritual gold. Matthew Kelty, a Trappist monk, speaks of this aspect of gayness in his book, "Flute Song Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit".
Sometimes I wish I were more like others. I am aware of a difference; some insight into things; some capacity for the poetic and the spiritual which, if not exceptional - and it is not - is still strong enough to set me off from others. Nor do I hesitate to say that this has some relationship to homosexuality. People of my kind seem often so placed, the reason, as I have worked it out, that they are more closely related to the "anima" than is usual... The man with a strong anima will always experience some inadequacy until he comes to terms with his inner spirit and establishes communion - no small achievement. Until then he cannot act truly as a complete person, since he is not one. The unhappy experience of many is that they are unable to relate in depth to others, not aware that their problem is a lack of communion with themselves.
Still another level of woundedness that I had to deal with in therapy came from my experience as a combat infantryman in World War II and my six months as a prisoner of war in Germany. These experiences increased my low self image. I felt totally inadequate to the demands put on me as a combat soldier and was badly demoralized by the terror and starvation I lived with in prison camp. But even in the midst of that pain and terror there were moments of awareness of God's presence and love.
One example of courage based on faith impressed me so deeply that it influenced the rest of my life. A group of us American prisoners, who were close to starvation were sent out on a work detail to a farm were SS officers where raising mink. Our job was to chop firewood. An Eastern European slave laborer was working close to me, mixing a mash for the animals. The mash included real potatoes and carrots. I could not take my eyes off the food. He must have detected my starving condition, for, when the guard's back was turned, he reached into the mash and threw me a potato. If the guard had caught him, the laborer would almost certainly have been killed. I quickly hid the potato in my jacket and tried to signal a thanks to him, His only response was to make the sign of the cross. That sign of the cross was like a flash of lightning on a dark night, Here was a man who was willing to risk his life to feed me, a stranger, and he found that courage and his freedom from fear in his religious faith. T date my vocation to the priesthood from that moment. My constant prayer from then on was that God would grant me the courage never to be ruled by fear. I wanted to be free enough to reach out, no matter what the cost, to help someone who needed me. I know that my vocation and ministry would demand of me the fearlessness and courage to reach out and share the suffering of others.

I became intensely aware that evil's primary instrument in this world is fear. If I could attain with God's grace a profound awareness of God's personal love for me, I could be freed from the personal grip that fear had on my life, I made my own the opening prayer of the liturgy of the fifth Sunday in lent: “Help us, Lord, to embrace the world you have given us, and to fearlessly transform the darkness of its pain into the life and joy of Easter."
Letting Go of (Transforming) the Ego
The most perfect expression of a philosophy of spiritual life that I know of is that of "The Philosophy of Action" of Maurice Blondel. Blondel defined philosophy as "life itself insofar as it attempts to achieve a clear reflexive consciousness of itself and takes direction of its action.” He took his central insight from a verse in Scripture: "…but whoever does the truth comes out into the light." (John 3:21). Blondel saw human life as a continual dialectic between thought and action. There is a kind of subjective experiential knowing that arises from human choice and action and that cannot be achieved in any other way.
In our search for self-fulfillment, according to Blondel, we come across a category of human choices and actions that are simultaneously "necessary and impossible," necessary if we are to achieve human fulfillment, but impossible by human means alone. This is a difficult category of action to hold onto. We are tempted to insist that if these choices are necessary for human fulfillment, then they
must be capable of being achieved by human means alone. On the other hand, if they are impossible to achieve by human means alone, then they cannot be necessary. Despite this internal contradiction, this category of action spontaneously arises within human consciousness in our striving for fulfillment. The only way to move forward when we encounter this category is to open ourselves to a paradoxically immanent/transcendent source of energy and power.
"We can reach the spiritual depths of our psyche" Blondel tells us, "by being willing to go deep within ourselves until we reach the point where that which is from ourselves ceases and yet there is a possibility of more". The key member of this category of the necessary and impossible is the action of loving. Genuine human love is essential to human fulfillment but impossible by human means alone. This is why scripture can say, “My dear friends, let us love one another, since love is from God and everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever fails to love does not know God because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8)
Within the immanent context of the dialectic of human action, the source of the necessary idea of God as transcendent power is understood as our projecting out of all the unused and unusable potentiality of the human spirit. "Humans can never succeed by their own powers alone to place in their willed action all that which is at the origin of their voluntary activity." Thus, God represents that which is necessary for the human if we are to achieve a state of self-adequation. By self-adequation Blondel understood that we have achieved a harmony between what we have willed and the deepest longings in our psyche. "What we can know of God is the surplus of interior life which demands its employment; we cannot, then, know God without willing in some way to become God!" As Blondel stated:
"To equal him or her self and to be saved, a human must go beyond him or her self. To consent to an invasion of all that stands for a life that is prior and a will that is superior to ours, is our way of contributing to our own creation. To will all that we will in complete sincerity of heart is to place in us the being and action of God. No doubt it does cost something, since we do not perceive how profoundly this will is our own. But one must give all for the all. Life has a divine value, despite the weakness of pride and sensuality, humanity is generous enough to want to belong more completely to the one who exacts more of it."
Many traditional analysts would identify any action that is impossible by human means alone as an illusion and see their therapeutic task as disabusing their clients of their illusions. I frequently detect a strong element of Stoicism in secular analytic writing. I am reminded of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius' letters to his subjects: "Citizens, do not fall in love. For everyone who loves desires immortality, but it is not given to the human to be immortal. Remember human that, in a little while you will be nobody, nowhere. Take great consolation in that thought!"
In contrast to that the Christian message is always fall in love, for love participates in the divine and is immortal of its very nature. Sebatian Moore has written a beautiful book entitled, Jesus: Liberator of Desire. "What we learn from Christ", Moore writes, "is the difference between liberation from desire (the latter equated with the insatiable self-promoting ego) and the liberation of desire from the chains of my customary way of being myself. Two contrary views of asceticism present themselves here. The conventional view is that it means denying ourselves things we want. A more discerning and disconcerting view is that it means dropping things we no longer want, admitting to ourselves that we no longer want them, and thus giving our journey, our story, a chance to move on." To say that we are created in the image and likeness of God means that there is a necessary craving in the human heart for intimacy with God by achieving a share in divine life. As we pray in the liturgy: "Grant us, O Lord a share in your divinity, just as you choose to share in our humanity",
My Spiritual Life Today
I would like to bring this paper to a close by saying a few words about my spiritual life today. I am now 85 years old. I have discovered that every decade of my life has been happier and more peaceful than the last. Each decade has brought with it a greater intimacy with a God of mercy and love and a greater trust in God's love for me. As my body grows older, my spirit becomes younger. I know this is a gift from God for which I. am grateful.
As the years have gone by my prayer life has undergone a radical change from a prayer of the head — words, concepts, thought processes -- to a prayer of the heart, God has given me the grace to be continuously aware of a longing in my heart for greater intimacy with God. My awareness of God is based on what I am deprived of, what I need and don't have, what I am yearning for, what I have a hunger and thirst for and have not yet achieved.
Privation is a paradoxical concept. Philosophers define privation as "the absence of that which ought to be." Privation then is the experience of absence in presence or presence in absence. To experience God as privation, then, necessarily means that somehow I have already had an experience of God's presence. I like to compare it to a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. If I see it, I will know it, because there is only one piece that will fit into the empty space in my heart. "You made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts will never rest until they rest in you!"
My personal knowledge of God has little to do with intellectual definition. The great mystics recommended in prayer that we should empty our minds of thoughts and concepts and enter the cloud of unknowing. My knowledge of God comes from the hunger and thirst in myself. In the words of Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
My prayer life consists, then, in being in touch with that hunger and thirst, not letting anything fill it in or block it off, Rather, I strive to be in touch with that hunger and thirst, to consecrate it by converting it intentionally into prayer and identifying with it. I spend a lot of time just being in touch with that longing, being open to it, and waiting. I continually ask God to come and meet the deep deprivation within me. I am like a desert waiting for the rain to come and soak in. As a result my prayer is continuous. Still 1 do set aside some time each day to enter into myself, empty out all thoughts and rest in the presence of God and experience the longing for that God.
At a recent Easter vigil 1 heard this passage from the Psalms: "As a deer longs for the flowing waters, so my soul longs for you, O God." (Pa 42:1) Suddenly I was in touch with a profound longing for union with God, a longing that was at the same time painful and pleasurable, and I began to cry, I am grateful to God for that moment and see it as a great grace. Since that time I have an even deeper awareness that what I want is intimacy with God and I will not settle for anything less. I am aware that being in touch with that longing is already a kind of awareness of God through privation. This awareness is God's gift and promise. All other touches of intimacy in my life, intimacies of family, friendship's, my intimacy with my lover of the past forty-five years, Charlie, are foretastes of that ultimate intimacy. But the only intimacy that can ultimately meet my needs and fill my heart is the intimacy with God. (I am certainly not advocating here any form of dualism. Everything that is authentically human plays a role in my journey to God. As Ignatius put it in his Spiritual Exercises: "All the good things of the created world belong to us, but the glory belongs to God!” Or as Meister Eckhart expressed it: "If the only prayer you ever offered in your life was one heartfelt ‘Thank you, God!’ that would suffice for salvation.")
I particularly love these words of St. Augustine's prayer:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new; late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unlovliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you. Created
things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and now I long for your peace.
Notice that in this prayer God is seen as the one who takes the initiative. The great spiritual leaders of the past have always taught that God in fact nurtures our growth in capacity and potential for a passionate intimate relationship with God. My own experience of spiritual development finds its closest description in the understanding of spiritual growth in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory describes beautifully the step-by-step nature of spiritual growth. He says that God always waits on our freedom. Our first serious "Yes!" to God enables divine love to begin to act within us. Our inner space, as a result of that "Yes!" is then ready to receive something of God. God fills that space as fully as we are able to accept. At the same time, this filling enlarges the space, and we long for more. Thus, the lover of God is always filled to her or his capacity and always longs for more of God. Yet this longing does not bring frustration because there is a fullness.
According to Gregory, this process goes on beyond death into eternity because God is infinite and we are always a finite capacity open to further growth in our identity with an infinite God. For all eternity, we continue to grow deeper and deeper in union with a God who is infinite and, therefore, can never be exhausted.
The most difficult spiritual struggle for me is the endeavor to center myself in God and the love of God versus the ravenous hunger in my ego to make itself the center of the universe. I am aware of a very real danger, that if God were to give me even a taste of the joy of God's presence and love, my ego could go completely out of control, I am likely to start searching to experience God's love as an ego fix, trying to use God as an object of my own ego satis-faction and my own feelings of superiority and specialness. Of course God will not let God's self be used in that way. In God's goodness, God allows my spirit to be plunged into the dark night of the soul, until I am ready to experience God's love in such a way that it only contributes to the greater glory of God.
I understand well the Sufi prayer: "Give me the pain of your love, O Lord, and not the joy. Give the joy to others, but give me the pain". The pain of God's love is the longing for that love from a sense of deprivation. That pain purifies me and makes me ready to experience the positive joy of God's presence. So in moments of dark night, I make an act of trust that through this emptiness and privation God is purifying me and making me ready to share in God's joy.
How do I go about lessening the grip of the ego on my life in this second and spiritual sense? The first thing I had to learn is that this process is completely out of my control and power. Trying to loosen the power of my ego is the equivalent of trying to lift myself by my own bootstraps. Only God can lessen the grip of my ego on my life by touching my heart with God's loving presence. One tiny touch of God's presence and I am outside myself in ecstasy and my ego is swallowed up in the glory and goodness of God. The only power I have in all this is out of my freedom to invite God in. I can ask God to come and purify me and make me worthy of the experience of God's love. I have reached the point now where I can invite God in and mean it: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus Come! As a young man dealing with a god of fear, I used to pray: Wait Lord Jesus Wait! One of my favorite prayers at this time are the words we say in the Catholic liturgy after the Lord's Prayer: "Deliver us, Lord, from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. Come Lord Jesus, Come! Come Spirit of love and fill my heart!”
I find myself, in retirement, daily becoming more fully identified with these words from John of the Cross' Spiritual Canticle:
Forever at God's door I give my heart, and soul, my fortune too.
I've no flock anymore, no other work in view.
My occupation "Love", it's all I do.
I intend to continue my spiritual struggle to center my life in God. Whatever time and energy I have left I will use to the best of my ability to bring the message of God's love to everybody and especially to gays, lesbians, transsexuals and transgendered people. I hope someday to be united with a vast crowd of colleagues, friends, family and my gay brothers and sisters in heaven, where we will eternally not only celebrate God's goodness but actually share in it. Thanks be to God!
John J. McNeill

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Gratitude to the Holy Spirit!

Acceptance Speech for New Ways Ministry's Bridge Builder Award
Presented to John J. McNeill on Sunday, October 4, 2009.

New Ways Ministry Bridge Building Award
presented to
Rev. John J. McNeill
For groundbreaking scholarship,
compassionate ministry,and personaal witness
to promote justice for gay/lesbian Catholics.

I want to express my gratitude to Jeannine Gramick, SL., Frank DeBernardo and the Board and Staff of New Ways Ministry for honoring me with the Bridge Builder Award.

Let us pause for a moment of silent prayer and invite the Holy Spirit to be with us here in this room and touch our hearts with God’s love!

Meister Eckhardt once wrote: If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was one heartfelt “thank you, God,” that would suffice for salvation!

And Ignatius Loyola in the preamble to his spiritual exercises wrote: All the good things in this world belong to us, but the glory belongs to God. The way we make sure that the glory goes to God, Ignatius pointed out, was by a continuous spirit of gratitude.

I am aware that the Holy Spirit has been with me always over the past 85 years. I would like to reflect with you on some dramatic moments in my life and ministry when the action of the Holy Spirit was palpable and express my debt of gratitude. I hope that you will search for parallel moments in your life.

One of those special gifts of the Holy Spirit over the past few weeks was reading the memoirs of Archbishop Weakland: A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, an extraordinary book by a gay member of the hierarchy which throws incredible hope-filled light on the future of the church. I emailed Archbishop Weakland and asked him if he had a message for this audience. Rembert wrote to me that his message would be simple: “Be not afraid. Cast out into the deep!”

My text for these remarks today is the words ascribed to Jesus in Mark 12 quoting Psalm 118: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.

The first moment I want to recall goes back 66 years. Having enlisted in the army when I was 17, I went into combat with General Patton’s third army on the border of Germany. My infantry unit managed to cross the border. The German army counterattacked. My unit found itself surrounded by German tanks. I remember taking off my T-shirt to signal my surrender. A German soldier was assigned to march me back to a prisoner collection point. I was certain that the guard intended to shoot me. As we walked down a country lane we came upon a roadside shrine with a crucifix. I signaled the guard that I wanted to say a prayer. As he leaned on his rifle and smoked one of my Camel cigarettes, I knelt to pray. I remember making an act of contrition. And then saying: Lord I am only 18; I am too young to die! Well, here I am at 85 still in decent health, so that prayer was certainly answered.

The next event occurred while I was a kriegsgefangenen (prisoner of war). The Germans starved the American prisoners. I went down to 90 lbs. and looked like a skeleton. One day we were sent out to a farm to chop wood where the SS were raising mink. A slave laborer from eastern Europe was mixing a mash of vegetables for the animals. I could not take my eyes off the food. While the guard’s back was turned the slave laborer took a potato from the mash and threw it to me. The guard would have killed him if he saw him feed a prisoner. I made a gesture of thanks and the slave laborer’s response was to make the sign of the cross. That action was like a flash of lightning on a dark night. I date my vocation to religious life to that moment. Here was a man who had the courage to risk his life to feed a total stranger. And he found that courage in his faith and trust in Jesus Christ. I wanted to be able to imitate that man. My prayer from that moment to this is: Lord, grant me the grace to know what your will for me is and grant me the courage to be able to do it.

The next memorable moment was my discovery of the philosophical writings of Maurice Blondel while studying theology at Woodstock seminary. Fr. Sponga, the rector, gave a seminar on Blondel. A whole new world of philosophical and theological thinking opened up to me and filled me with joy and hope. I was set on fire by Blondel’s opening words in his book, Philosophy of Action: “I find myself condemned to life, condemned to death, condemned to eternity, Unless I can choose life, choose death, choose eternity , I am not.” God created us free and will always respect that freedom! I will never forget reading this line in Blondel’s philosophy of action: “Our God dwells within us and the only way we can become one with that God, is by becoming one with our authentic self!”

One of the next striking manifestations of the Holy Spirit in my life occurred at one of the darkest moments in my life. I was in France doing graduate studies. In my loneliness, I began to compulsively act out sexually. I was so filled with shame, guilt and self-loathing that I began to contemplate suicide. Right at that moment I felt I heard the Spirit assuring me that I should continue to trust God; that somehow he would make use of this moment in my future ministry. I felt peace flood back into my heart. I did not fully understand what happened until years later when I first read Henri Nouwen's great book, Wounded Healers, with its message that the greatest gift a spiritual healer brings to his ministry is his own experience of having been healed in his woundedness.

The next occurrence was during a trip to Toronto from Le Moyne college in Syracuse, NY, during the Vietnam war, on New Years Eve of 1965. I had been an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. So much so that the Democratic party asked me to enter the Democratic primary for congress as a peace candidate against the hawk candidate, James Hanley. When I asked permission to do this from my Jesuit provincial he advised against it pointing out that Fr. Drinan was running for congress that same year in Boston. He felt that if there were two Jesuits running for congress that would be interpreted as a Jesuit conspiracy to take over America.

I had gone to Toronto to try to bolster the moral of my students who fled to Canada because their status as conscientious objectors to the war had been denied. While there, I visited a gay bar called the St. Charles bar and met Charles Chiarelli who has been my life partner since then for the past 45 years. I could never have carried out my ministry if I had not had a deep personal experience with Charlie of the goodness and holiness of gay love.

Another debt of gratitude I owe the Holy Spirit is the support I have received from my sister, Sister Sheila. Sis was a Franciscan nun in the convent of St. Mary of the Angels in Williamsville, NY. Sister had a progressive bone disease for many years and lived in the infirmary of her mother house. When she heard that I was involved in a ministry to gay and lesbians, she prayed to the Spirit for a sign to confirm that my ministry was from God. A fellow nun returned from the missions in Africa asked my sister if the John McNeill who wrote The Church and the Homosexual was her brother. When Sis said yes the nun asked her to thank me. Nearly all her personnel at the hospital she directed were gay men. She did not know how to deal with them until she read my book. That book put her at ease in dealing with the gay orderlies. Sis took that as her sign. She told me whenever I gave a retreat or talked to a gay or lesbian audience to let her know exactly when. She would gather twenty to thirty elderly nuns in the infirmary and they would pray in front of the blessed sacrament that God would use me to bring the message of God’s love to my audience. I was always consciously aware of the spiritual power of those prayers. As a symbol of that spiritual alliance, Sis had a beautiful rainbow stole made for me. We continued that ministerial alliance until Sis’s death from bone cancer in 1995. I am sure Sis is still with us with her prayers today.

Several events occurred during the writing of my first book that I ascribed to the Holy Spirit working overtime. After several years of research, I wrote a long article titled, The Christian Male Homosexual and mailed it off to the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a conservative priests’ journal. The editor wrote back that my article arrived just in time. He had made the decision to resign as editor and enter the Trappist order. So he decided to publish the article over three issues in 1972. The response was so positive that my Jesuit colleagues at Woodstock seminary asked me to major the articles into a book. While doing research on my book, the librarian at Union Theological gave me a copy of an anonymous research article on scripture and homosexuality which I found out several years later was the first draft of John Boswell’s brilliant book: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.

Once the manuscript of the book was completed, I began the process of undergoing censorship within the Jesuit order to receive an imprimi potest. First, on a request from Jesuit headquarters in Rome, I sent it to seven Jesuit moral theologians in the United States. All seven found it a serious theological contribution and approved its publication. General Pedro Arrupé hesitated and requested that I mail the manuscript to Rome where it would be censored by several Roman Jesuit moralists. They also approved publication.

Just as my manuscript arrived on Father Arrupé’s desk, a world famous sculptress named Jacqueline Ziegler arrived from the United States to sculpt the head of Father Arrupé. Jacqueline, several years before, had come to Syracuse, New York, after many years with the peace corps in Africa and joined the faculty of Le Moyne college as the professor of fine arts. We became close friends. Jacqueline made the decision to convert from Judaism to Catholicism and asked me to be her spiritual director. On the feast of St. Ignatius in July 1974, I baptized her in the student chapel at Le Moyne. Jacqueline created a larger than life sculpture of my head which is now with my archives at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

Just as Pedro Arrupé began to read my manuscript, Jacqueline began to sculpt his head and tell him about this wonderful Jesuit, who baptized her, named John McNeill at Le Moyne college. I don’t know what effect this had on Father Arrupé’s decision to grant me his imprimi potest. But I am sure it did not hurt. Archbishop Weakland in his memoirs has this to say about Arrupé: If from all the people I have known in my life in the Church, I had to select only one for sainthood, it would be Pedro Arrupé.

The next event was the actual publication of the book, The Church and the Homosexual in 1976. I had prayed to God to act as my public relations agent and God certainly delivered. A major article by the religion editor Kenneth Briggs was on the front page of the New York Times. Special articles appeared in Time magazine and Newsweek. I made three appearances on the Phil Donohue show and several on the Larry King Live show.

The day of its publication I was invited to appear on the Today show. It was Tom Brokaw’s first day as host. He did not feel confident to handle such a hot potato as a theological work on homosexuality, so he invited Russell Barber, the religion editor, to sit in with him for the interview. Russell told me later that he was furious at having to take my book with him for his weekend on Fire Island, but ended up delighted when he read the book and invited me to appear on his Review of Religion show a few days later.

There were innumerable manifestations of the grace of the Holy Spirit over the years. But the one that stands out as most remarkable occurred during a trip to Europe in 1988 after the publication of my second major work, Taking a Chance on God: Liberation Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Families, and Friends. Charlie and I had been invited to do a series of conferences at various universities in Holland. We decided to take a trip to Paris for a few days. On arriving in Paris, I called Jacques Perotti, the assistant to Père André and the founder of David and Jonathan, a gay group for French speaking Catholics. Jacques told me that there was an international meeting of David and Jonathan groups in a monastery outside of Paris and invited me to address the group. I warned him that my French was almost non-existent and I would need a translator. When I arrived I gave a one hour talk in the best French I ever used. I believe that God gave me the gift of tongues that day. As a result David and Jonathon translated my book into French and made it their official manual.

Once again I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit when I faced the choice of giving up all ministries to LGBT people or being dismissed from the Jesuits after 40 years. I went to Gethsemane Abbey to seek God’s help in making that decision. While there, a Trappist monk came to my room and gave me a copy of the Buddist boddisatva vow of universal compassion. As I read that vow it became clear to me what God wanted of me…to continue the ministry and pay the price. I sought the spiritual help of Fr. Matthew Kelty, the guest master at the monastery. I remember him saying to me: “John, God has put you in touch with the suffering of the gay and lesbian community in a special way. Now it is your duty to do whatever you can do to relieve that suffering!”

Shortly after my dismissal from the Society of Jesus, Walter Wink, the biblical theologian and my colleague on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, wrote me a letter in which he said: “John, when the Vatican imprudently slammed the door on you, it blew open a thousand other doors.” That was a prophetic statement. Bishop Paul Moore, of the New York Episcopal diocese wrote to me inviting me to join his church and carry on my ministry there. When William Sloane Coffin retired as minister at Riverside Church, the Maranatha gay group at Riverside submitted my name as a candidate to replace him as pastor. (I always hoped Cardinal O’Connor got wind of that!) Robert Raines, the Methodist director of Kirkridge Retreat Center organized a letter of protest to Rome signed by several famous protestant pastors and theologians, among them, Paul Moore, Harvey Cox and Sloan Coffin. In the letter, they asked the Vatican to restore me because my ministry to LGBT people was as important to their churches as it was to the Roman church. Scores of gay clergy from all denominations began to flock to my retreats for gay Christians at Kirkridge; among them Gene Robinson, the future openly gay bishop.

I would be remiss today if I failed to pay tribute to Rev. Joseph Doucé. Joseph was a Baptist minister. He was born in Belgium and became a minister in the church in Holland. He opened a specialized ministry in Paris called Christ, the Liberator, to all sexual outcasts, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and transsexuals. He had a special ministry to pedophiles and the victims of pedophiles.

When Rev. Doucé heard of my work, he came to New York to meet with me. On several occasions I attended and spoke at his Sunday services in Paris. Joseph was responsible for the publication and distribution of my books in French. In 1990, Rev. Doucé invited Charlie and me to come to Strasburg for me to be the keynote speaker at a meeting of all the Christian gay and lesbian groups in Europe. After the conference he and his lover returned together with us to Paris. The next day we flew back to New York. A few days later we received a tearful phone call from his lover. He told us that men disguised as Parisian police came to the center and arrested Joseph. When his lover went to the police station they denied any knowledge of the arrest. We eventually found out that he was kidnapped by secret police who brought him to a secret prison in Paris where they tortured him for several weeks and finally murdered him and dumped his body in a woods outside of Paris. They were acting on a rumor that Rev Doucé had a list of high government officials who were pederasts and they wanted that information at any cost. Later we heard that the murderers of Rev. Doucé were openly bragging about their murder of the pedophile Doucé. To my knowledge they were never brought to justice. Rev. Joseph Doucé is a true martyr in the cause of gay liberation.

To bring this reflection to a close, I believe that we are witnessing an extraordinary transformation of the Church from a patriarchal, authoritative institution into a Church of the Holy Spirit, a democratic Church that recognizes the Holy Spirit dwelling within all its members and sees authority as coming from the ground up.

At his discourse at the last supper, Jesus is reported to have said in the gospel of John: “It is necessary that I should go away before the Spirit can come to you. If I go away I will send the Spirit to you. The Spirit will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.” What was that necessity? Why could the Holy Spirit not come as long as Jesus was alive?

I believe that Jesus was expressing a basic law governing human growth into spiritual maturity. As humans, we must grow from dependence on external authority to dependence on an authority that dwells within us. To achieve that growth we need fallible authorities. If our parents had been infallible we could never develop into mature adults, making our own decisions and taking responsibility for them.

Thank God that Church authorities have proved so fallible. The result has been a maturing of the people of God. This began when the Vatican fumbled the issue of birth control, forcing millions of Catholic to exercise their freedom of conscience, make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is what the present Pope is against when he decries moral relativism. Speaking of our last Pope, Archbishop Weakland had this to say:

He (John Paul II) did not read the signs of the time, namely, the opening of Vatican II toward more participatory government on all levels of church life…Discerning the action of the Spirit in the whole Church was not on his agenda. This failure was probably the most important lost opportunity of the post-conciliar period (pp.407-408).

One of the greatest beneficiaries of the fallibility of church authorities has been the LGBT Catholic community. We came to realize early on that we could not accept and obey Church teaching on homosexuality without destroying ourselves physically, psychologically and spirituality. Consequently, as a matter of survival we had to take distance from Church teaching, develop our freedom of conscience and learn to hear what the Spirit of God is saying to us through our experience. The result has been that the LGBT community is leading the way to transform the Catholic Church into a Church of the Holy Spirit.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone! This is the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.” THANK YOU!! New Ways Ministry for your many decades of heroic service to the Church and to the Catholic LGBT community. Thank you, God, for all the special maturing graces you are pouring out on the people of God. Thank you especially for the special role you are calling the LGBT community to play in establishing the kingdom of God.

Veni creator spiritus. Mentes tuorum visita; Imple superna gratia quae tu creasti pectora. A special heartfelt thank you, Holy Spirit!

John J. McNeill