Leading with Humility
Several months after I'd stopped seeing my first spiritual director because he'd been transferred to a different parish, I saw that he'd be giving a talk on Catholic understandings of homosexuality. Since I knew I wasn't his only gay spiritual directee—in fact, he'd been recommended to me by another gay Catholic who, like me, was trying to live in accordance with Catholic teaching—I was excited to hear his perspective.
I ended up sharply disappointed in the talk. I thought it relied on stereotypes, bad research, and unconvincing applications of natural law. I didn't learn much about homosexuality that day. But I learned a lot about spiritual direction.
I'd started spiritual direction because I desperately needed to quit drinking. My first spiritual director guided me through my last, fairly harrowing months of active alcoholism. I was drunk during one of our sessions; I was intensely hung-over for another.
My spiritual director was gentle and creative. He reminded me that while my moral failures might be more obvious, the problems really began in my prayer life. He was sometimes blunt but never harsh or scolding. And with his help I got sober.
My sexual orientation almost never came up. I was so grateful that my spiritual director didn't blame my spiritual and psychological problems on either my sexuality or my attempt to live chastely. He didn't pressure me to “change” or to accept somebody else's theory about the origins of my orientation.
That's why it was, in a weird way, impressive to learn that he actually held some stereotypes and false beliefs about homosexuality. I was struck by the humility with which he'd been able to put those aside while guiding me. He'd set aside his own expectations about what the average gay person is like, and instead focused on the individual gay person in front of him.
I've talked to many gay Christians, who seek to live according to the difficult Christian sexual ethic, whose spiritual directors and mentors weren't able to make that separation between their personal opinions and the Gospel. These Christians were told that they must have had a bad relationship with their fathers; that their problems all stemmed from calling themselves gay instead of “struggling with same-sex attraction;” that God could heal them, by which their spiritual directors always and only meant that they might become straight.
Their spiritual directors viewed them with suspicion. Every same-sex friendship was treated as a near occasion of sin. Every good experience they had in gay communities was treated as false or shallow. Ironically, these spiritual directors often said, “Calling yourself 'gay' is defining yourself by an ungodly identity”—but then spent every session focusing on the spiritual directee's sexuality. How is that not defining someone by her orientation?
A spiritual director who imposes his own theory or narrative on a gay or same-sex attracted directee makes an already difficult path much harder than it needs to be. We're doing something for which there are no examples in mainstream media and pop culture. We need guidance, and we often long for someone to light the way. We need the wisdom and experience of a spiritual director.
But we also need spiritual directors who can listen and lead with humility.
Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She is a freelance writer and blogs at Patheos.