Friday, November 30, 2007

A Modest Proposal: Mormon Monasticism

When I left the Mormon Church in 1986, one of the many mixed feelings I experienced was relief that I could be celibate. I fasted and prayed for guidance to decide whether celibacy was something I should pursue as an alternative to marrying a woman. Later, in the summer of 1988, I seriously explored celibacy at a Roman Catholic monastery. One of the things I loved about Catholics was, no pressure to marry. The LDS expectation that I must marry literally drove me to despair and deep depression.

Although I ultimately discerned that celibacy was not a calling for me, my experience at the monastery convinced me that had I felt called to live a celibate lifestyle, living it in the intimate companionship and spiritual community of a monastery would have been the most positive, healthy, life-giving context within which to do it.

Now, twenty years later, we have LDS leaders stating clearly and unequivocally that failure to marry in this life will not prevent us from achieving exaltation in the next life. Furthermore, they have clearly stated that lacking strong sexual attraction to a member of the opposite sex, we are specifically enjoined from marrying. For the first time, Mormons are talking about celibacy.

Technically, Mormons should not use the term celibacy. Celibacy connotes a religious calling, and is more appropriately used in the context in which I explored it. What Mormons are really talking about is life-long abstinence.

But if we are serious about life-long abstinence as a way of life for 3-7% of the population of the Church, just telling people that they can never marry and never be in a same-sex relationship is unlikely to work. Here's why:

1) Marriage and family are central to Mormon theology, practice, and community. We are strongly disinclined by Mormon culture to consider celibacy or abstinence viable.

2) Life-long abstinence sounds fine in theory (especially to people who are happily married). But in practice it means being alone. Friends -- no matter how good, close, and intimate -- can't possibly make up for or fill the place in a person's life that is filled by a soul mate and companion.

I suggest that if we are serious about this, we need a real, bona fide Mormon celibacy, not just the default of life-long abstinence. One way to do this would be to develop a kind of Mormon monasticism. Here's what this would look like for me:

1) Community living. You never have to be alone. You live in community with other men, men you are free to love spiritually and emotionally, to spend quality time with, and to bond intimately but non-sexually with.

2) The context of monastic discipline would help prevent "cheating." It would function on the same principle that is used in Mormon missions to prevent missionaries from straying into sexual sin: 24-hour companionship and supervision, and emotional support to remain true to one's convictions in relation to sexual abstinence.

3) Communities could be organized around service and other mission-oriented goals. This would give people who have made the Herculean sacrifice of life-long abstinence the reward of having a valued calling.

4) You would have to feel "called" to this. It would be unlikely to work if you are joining this as a default, or as a way to run away from your sexuality. You would need to embrace this calling based on positive motivations and on the call of the Spirit.

While this would not work for everyone, providing this option, especially if it were publicly blessed by the Church leadership, would do much to demonstrate a real, practical support for those who are being asked to renounce any possibility of intimate relationships in this life. It would demonstrate that being gay and celibate is nothing shameful, but rather that gay people are seen as having a positive contribution to make to the Church.

I believe that until we provide such options, we will naturally find gay Latter-day Saints bifurcating in two directions. A minority will stick with the Church and will continue to strive for marriage, many entering into marriages when they should not. The majority (perhaps the vast majority) will do what they always have done: drift away from the Church and choose same-sex relationships over their faith.


playasinmar said...

I know Stephen King once theorized that Hell is "repetition" but I think Hell is what you just described:

"24-hour companionship and supervision, and emotional support to remain true to one's convictions in relation to sexual abstinence."

MoHoHawaii said...

Why not just quietly quit excommunicating monogamous gay couples? The new policy would simply acknowledge, as some bishops are starting to do on their own, that same-sex monogamy is preferable to promiscuity, more feasible than life-long abstinence and more humane than mixed-orientation marriage.

No doctrinal change would be required.

Abelard Enigma said...

A Mormon monastery is an interesting concept; but, I think I have to agree with playasinmar. I have a lot of fond memories from my mission; but, the thought of living like that for the rest of my life isn't a pleasant one.

But, I do agree that the church could do a lot more to help those who choose to remain in the churches good graces by living a life of abstinence. What you are proposing is, basically, a gay Mormon polygamy compound (without the sex). Personally, I think it should be possible for two men to live together in an intimate relationship without sexual intimacy. But, inspired guidance is needed to learn how to make such a relationship work. Regarding homosexual saints, I think too many of our leaders are relying more on ickspiration rather than inspiration.

I think there is also some merit in what MoHoHawaii said. For example, the church has very specific policies regarding transgendered saints. It is possible for a person who has undergone elective surgery to change their gender to remain a member of the church. A non member who has undergone such surgery can even be baptized. However, such a person cannot be ordained to the priesthood, nor can they attend the temple - transgendered saints are essentially in the same position that blacks were prior to 1978. Why not do something similar for two gay people living in a committed monogamous relationship?

J G-W said...

Well, first of all, let me restate, as I did in the post, that this kind of option would probably not be for everybody. Perhaps even not, for the long term, for more than a small minority.

Having said that... For me, the 24-hour constant companionship I experienced on my mission was something like Heaven for me. I deeply loved every single one of my companions. I did not want it to end. If the Church had let me, for all I know I would still be on a mission.

This is probably why I seriously considered monastic life. As I said, I feel I could have been very happy in monastic life. And had I committed myself to a celibate lifestyle, I would have been grateful for the companionship, emotional support, and, yes, supervision, that would have helped me stay true to such a commitment. Literally the only reason I did not go that route was because I felt the Spirit was calling me to something else.

But it is conceivable to me that there are other gay Mormons like me who might feel called to that kind of environment and who might thrive in it. Which brings me to the reason for this essay.

I've been reading the Moho blogs for months now, and I can find no one willing to speak in favor of celibacy. Northern Lights, which I expected to be the biggest proponent for celibacy, seems to be devoted to encouraging mixed-orientation-marriage.

I know only one Moho blogger who's been trying to enhance space for celibacy, and that's Chedner. And when he wrote an essay in support of celibacy, Tito immediately wrote a post encouraging him to consider marriage.

This to me seems particularly odd, in light of the now official position of the Church leadership discouraging marriage except in cases where a "great attraction" is felt for a member of the opposite sex. In light of the current, official position, I'm surprised that there is not more positive, supportive discussion of celibacy.

I know I will rub some folks the wrong way by saying this, but I do not think celibacy is evil, so long as it is not coerced. Why is there not more positive discussion of celibacy as a life choice on the Moho blogs?

Abelard Enigma said... defines celibacy as the state of being unmarried or of refraining from sexual intercourse, especially in obedience to religious vows. Isn't that what the church encourages for gay saints, even though they may not be using that exact terminology? Aren't temple covenants essentially the LDS equivalent of religious vows? As far as I'm concerned, a gay man who has determined that marriage is not an option for him and, thus, chooses to refrain from any sexual relationship so that he can remain temple worthy is practicing celibacy.

I think there is a difference between practicing celibacy and living in an environment with other people who are practicing celibacy. It is the latter for which there is little or no discussion.

But, I agree that there needs to be more discussion on creating an environment where celibacy can thrive - be it in a group home setting, or between two men in an intimate platonic relationship. Unfortunately, it is a foreign concept for many of the saints. As you pointed out, it is very easy for someone who is happily married to tell a gay man to just be abstinent for the rest of his life. For them, no further discussion is needed. Yet, how many of them would have trouble practicing what they preach if they were suddenly thrust into a situation where they had to be abstinent (e.g. illness/death of spouse, etc.)?

And, it's not just a gay issue - there are other valid situations where marriage is not an option.

J G-W said...

Abelard - I won't argue with you about definitions. And everything you say about temple covenants, etc., is absolutely true.

But I was particularly moved by some sparring I noticed on the Northern Lights blog between Playa and Tito (and others). I've experienced close friendship -- really good, close intimate friendship -- and I've experienced intimate partnership. And I'm here to say without equivocation that friendship is just no substitute for the companionship that comes from intimate, committed life companionship.

You keep mentioning platonic pairings... I'd be curious to hear more discussion of this. This has come up just recently in some email correspondence I've had with a friend. I'm just thinking, two gay men, alone together in a house, how does that work and how does it stay platonic if there's any real attraction between them? Not that it's impossible, but I'd be curious to hear more discussion about exactly how that works. I know the Church doesn't have much tolerance for heterosexual cohabitation that is supposedly platonic.

If we're serious about celibacy, we need to discuss how we make it work, apart from just telling people they've got to go off on their own and spend the rest of their lives alone. Promises of friendship and support can feel pretty empty and hollow when you're all alone in the middle of the night.

J G-W said...

Oh, and one other thing.

Yes, I specifically thought that this type of support would be a HUGE benefit to straight people who for whatever reason never marry.

It's not just a gay thing.

Abelard Enigma said...

It seems to me that we are in violent agreement :)

To tell someone that they have no other choice other than to spend the rest of their life alone is, at best, a tremendous disservice. I've mentioned on my blog that our retention rate of gay saints is abysmally low. You are touching on an area where much could be done.

Man is not meant to be alone. Statistically, men who are divorced or widowed are more likely to remarry than women - suggesting that living alone is more of a problem for men than it is for women. We are communal creatures by nature.

But, where does that leave a person who is physically and emotionally capable of an intimate relationship, but for whom pairing with a member of the opposite sex is not an option? You are absolutely right! We need more discussion on this.

Some might argue that we should not encourage two gay men to have an intimate non-sexual relationship because it would create temptations which would be difficult for some to endure. And, that is true. Some men might begin such a relationship with the best of intentions only to ultimately give in to their passions. But, guess what, it happens with heterosexual couples too!

If we truly believe that we need to avoid all situations which may have temptations then we should adopt the Shaker philosophy and avoid sex altogether - for everyone!

J G-W said...

Abelard - I'm glad that we can agree to agree.

Let me add something here... I cannot strongly enough reiterate that coerced celibacy is a cruel and terrible thing. Coercion can include many components: spiritual, social, and legal. Denying same-sex couples legal protections is one form of coercion. Ostracizing individuals for choosing to live in an intimate partnership is another form of coercion. Judging and threatening individuals with hellfire and damnation is another form.

I believe that each individual has different needs and different requirements. I have felt strongly guided by the Spirit to make life choices that led me to my present committed partnership, and feel guided by the Spirit to honor that commitment. I believe that whatever arrangements there may exist in the next world, Christ our judge and savior will take all personal factors into account at the final judgment and no one need fear eternal vindictiveness because they felt unable to hack life-long loneliness. My experience with God suggests Heavenly Parents far, far more loving, merciful and kind than that. Man (and woman) were not made to be alone.

But I raise the issue of celibacy because I believe options are good. We need good options, not sucky, unbearable, cruel options.

MoHoHawaii said...

This is a very interesting thread. Now that you mention it, it does seem that the MoHo blogosphere is out of synch with Church policy. The official policy is much more supportive of life-time abstinence than Northern Lights seems to be. Church policy does not, as you point out, recommend mixed-orientation marriage.

To answer your question about why the church doesn't do more to support the life path it recommends for its SSA members, I'd say that the church isn't being very realistic about this issue. It's as if the church wants to group its single men and women together when in fact men and women are quite different. Women are usually much better equipped for single life than most men. The fact is that very few men have what it takes to be single for their entire lives. (You can look at gender-specific mortality rates to confirm this. Single women live longer than married women. Married men live longer than single men. Women are more resilient.)

In men (and that unfortunately seems to be where the church's entire SSA focus lies), it takes a very particular personality to remain single, and this personality is not common. Hence, the discrepancy between the official church position of life-time abstinence (favored by heterosexuals such as church leaders and Ron Schow) and the grass-roots advocacy of mixed-orientation marriage by homosexual church members.

That's why I think the next step is to acknowledge the reality of the situation by backing off slightly from imposing church discipline on monogamously same-gender couples.

J G-W said...

I don't know what data there is to support the assertion that singlehood is easier for women than men.

Growing up, we had a close friend of the family who was a single woman. I know from experience how terribly painful this was for her. Many, many nights she was at our home, crying on my parents' shoulders. I would never, ever wish that situation on anyone if it can be avoided; and I would never ever try to downplay or minimize how painful that was and what that must have meant to her.

I like asking the question, What could we as a Church community do more to make life not just bearable but joyful for people in her situation?

MoHoHawaii said...

I see where you are coming from on this. I certainly am sympathetic to the idea of improving the quality of single life.

Forester said...

How about the church letting single men and women, no matter their age, serve as many missions as they like? This would include gay and straight men and women. They could pair them with men and women of relatively the same age (say within five or six years). They could have special types of missions that aren't just proselyting, such as service missions or running the mission offices. There are really an endless ideas for full-time service for these individuals. It would probably have to be based on a "don't ask, don't tell" (other than your bishop) type system.

I think you have brought up a very good point in your post. The family ward setting is really not the best setting for single men and women - and the singles wards are often just as bad.

GeckoMan said...

Let me throw in a whole new wrench into this thread. It probably deserves a post of it's own, which I'll work on.

In my opinion, John, one of your best posts ever was the one about a month back on promiscuity. I think it articulated one of the best arguments I've seen for the Church's consideration of accepting monogamous gay couples as members of the Church. I encouraged my wife to read your post, which she did. Following ensued a discussion about what that would mean, and what kind of blessings and/or limits would be reasonable.

Then my wife asked the bombshell question: "So, if the church were to accept monogamous gay partnerships or marriages for time only, what would you do if I died?"

That is a big and a thought-provoking dilemma for the church and all mixed orientation marriages.

Forester said...

I really doubt the church would ever officially allow gay monogamous couples to be openly gay and in the church. I don't think the church would change its position that sexual relations outside of a married man and woman are not a sin.

GeckoMan said...

I agree with you. I would see John's idea of church sanctioned celibacy options happening before acceptance of monogamous partners. By conceding that such relationships are not a sin, then that certainly changes the rules for those of us already married, should we divorce or be widowed.

J G-W said...

Gecko - Obviously only you could answer your wife's "bombshell" question. I have given a lot of thought to a similar question. I've even talked to Göran about this. If anything ever happened to him, I would not seek out another relationship. I would remain celibate and seek full membership in the Church. Maybe I'd even found a Mormon monastery!

Actually I probably wouldn't seek another relationship even if same-sex marriages were accepted by the Church. It's kind of hard for me to imagine any other relationship taking the place of the one I have now.

Anonymous said...

re: bombshell question

in reality i would be celibate widower and would not seek otherwise, but if "mr right" came along, it would be very difficult to resist, relationship to the church (note i did not say relationship to God) notwithstanding.

Eccl. 4: 11
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?

J G-W said...

Gecko, Santorio - In the event of the sudden end of a relationship, I think part of the challenge for us -- and I say "us" because we each have been married/commitedly partnered for a major chunk of our lives -- is that so much of what is satisfying about a relationship after 10, 15, 20, 25 years together is the shared history and experience, the intimate knowledge of another person that only comes from spending every day of one's life with the person for decades, and the ways in which you have both grown and changed together. It just seems to me that after a relationship like that ends, any new relationship would seem shallow by comparison -- no matter how attracted sexually we are to the new person!

That is not to say it would be wrong to enter into a new relationship, just that I think it would be difficult in significant ways.

I've been watching this in terms of the grieving process of a couple of close friends who are getting divorced. They were together for almost two decades. (The divorce will be formalized on the exact date of their 19th anniversary.) Even though for the last two years the marriage was extremely painful and conflict-laden, that shared life history together means they feel like in the end of the relationship, they are losing major parts of themselves.

Gecko, that's what I meant when I posted on your site about what it means to have lives that are "interwoven." "Interweaving" two people -- emotionally, spiritually, physically/temporally -- is not something it is possible to do overnight. It is literally something you do day by day, just a little bit at a time.

Now, to throw yet another (related) wrench into the discussion... Extend that notion out to eternity. Isn't this what it means to build an eternal marriage? This is why it is simply not enough to have some magic ritual performed over you in the temple -- though I believe in the sealing power of the priesthood, and I believe that receiving that blessing is essential. But that sealing power does not have the power to seal if we do not do the nitty gritty work of building a relationship founded on love, mutuality, self-sacrifice... Day by day, hour by hour.

And the amazing thing about LDS belief in relationship to marriage is that we may have faith that the "relationship building" which starts in this life may continue profitably to the end of our mortal existence and beyond. We don't anticipate an end to that process.

Chris said...

I know I will rub some folks the wrong way by saying this, but I do not think celibacy is evil, so long as it is not coerced.

I agree, but it seems to me that the LDS Church is coercing gay people into celibacy. By that I mean that gay men and women, who are perfectly capable of coupling and finding deep fulfillment and happiness in such relationships, are repeatedly warned of the dire eternal consequences of doing so, and are often told that any such happiness they would experience in such relationships would be fleeting and artificial. If that's not coercion, I don't know what is.

In principle I don't see anything wrong with the proposal of supporting a sort of Mormon monasticism. But in reality, I think, free of theological and spiritual coercion, only a tiny fraction of people would choose such a life. (Something I know you have already acknowledged, but which I think is worth repeating only because even with Mormon monasticism, a great number of LDS will still mind-warpingly lonely.)

I know I'm tilting against windmills here. But I think it is tragic that we are left to contemplate how we can make celibacy more bearable for people who want to remain Mormon when I think the vast majority of us instintively understand that the simplest, most compassionate way to help gay Mormons in their struggles is to affirm them and encourage them to find happiness with a committed partner.

J G-W said...

Chris - I don't think we disagree here. But for me this is all about options. Celibate community, to me, seems far better than the only other two current Church-sanctioned options: mixed orientation marriage, and life-long singleness.