Friday, 19 June 2009

Sexual Authenticity

Just today I finished reading this book by Melinda Selmys.

As someone with more than one openly gay colleague, the book caught my eye when I saw it advertised in the latest catalogue of my local Catholic bookshop. On a whim, when I was there a couple of days later picking up another volume, I bought it. I am very glad I did.

Melinda Selmys is one of those rare people who does not begin an apologetic with her guard up. I have noticed this about converts of almost any sort (even in myself) - there is a reflex to go on the defensive. Perhaps because at one point there was war within oneself, speaking of the issues again revives that quasi-military mode of the mind. There are truths to be defended, errors to be refuted, cases to be proved. In the midst of this, it is tragically easy to forget that there are persons involved (all the more so because, when one first fought these battles it was solely within oneself, so there were no other people to worry about, only ideas battling bravely against one another), so love can get lost amid the truth. This is a great temptation in any work of apologetics, especially for converts of whatever sort.

Melinda Selmys' work is refreshingly free of such things. She brings the benefits of experience and personal insight to the issues she talks about, but also understanding liberated from opprobrium and platitudes. For this reason, what she says, though she says it gently, is that much more persuasive. And there are some fascinating insights in this book.

Several things stood out for me, which I will enumerate.

1. Selmys strikes a tricky but refreshing balance on the issue of identity. On the one hand, she calls into question the stark Us and Them felt by both gays and straights. She suggests that in fact, although certain individuals may be temperamentally disposed towards compulsive same-sex acts, homosexuality per se is possible for anybody- thus the division of humanity into 'gay' and 'straight' is misleading. This is discomfiting for both parties- gays because their firm self-identification as such is not as airtight as might have been wished; Christians because the ick factor many feel so strongly is no guarantee that they are immune to this particular temptation. On the other hand, Selmys strongly affirms that the identity issue is not a smokescreen- that identity is necessarily bound up in the way we relate to those around us, especially those to whom we have bound ourselves (whether those ties be romantic, familial, or whatever) and that to call into question the basis for those relationships and the choices that led to them is no light matter.

2. Selmys, from her own experience, suggests that trying to make gays straight i.e. trying to get individuals with same-sex attraction to be attracted to the opposite sex, is in the end kind of pointless, even if it works. She cites her own experience where her encounter with God and conversion to Christianity came first, and it was only later that she found herself ready to marry and have children.

3. Selmys gives a basic outline of the history of thinking about sex in the Church, ending with a basic (but quite decent) outline of the Theology of the Body. She looks honestly at the general suspicion with which sex has been viewed by Christians without trying to justify or make excuses for that view (I was particularly interested to read her take on certain saints whom I was obliged to study for my Honours thesis eg. several canonised couples who took vows of continence within marriage, or virgin martyrs who refused to get married). She regards the Theology of the Body as a vital intellectual and theological project by the Church which is long-overdue.To suggest that the Church had, for a long time, dropped the ball on this issue (because it genuinely saw other things as being far more important) but had recently begun to take it seriously was a welcome thought. Most folk I know, depending on which side of the fence they're on, would claim either that the Church never dropped the ball in the first place and that TOTB was the outworking of something which had been brewing for centuries, or that the Church just generally misunderstands sex and will never understand it until it abolishes celibacy/institutes priestesses/allows contraception/allows premarital sex/allows homosexuality/insert pet dissent here. Melinda Selmys introduces some welcome balance and perspective.

4. I was deeply challenged, in light of my own vices (and I shall say no more than that), by this idea: Selmys, who is also a poetic type, mentioned several times throughout the book the extent to which fantasy supported and dominated her relationship with her lesbian lover. Later, she writes beautifully of the glory of sub-creation, as Tolkien called it; of the ability of an artist or poet or writer to bring into being creatures, characters, with the innner consistency of reality, who seem to take on a life of their own, who have their own personalities, their own quirks, their own lovable idiosyncrasies. But there is a danger in this. "An artist creates characters, nourishes them within her own mind, allows them a little breath of her own free will, and transcribes them in a flesh of words or paint. She does not marry them. She does not raise them to her own level, and try to form a union of soul and mind with them...[t]he risk, whether with imaginary or physical promiscuity, is a fragmentation of personality...if you wed yourself to a host of your own creations, to the lesser fragments of your own psyche that populate your sexual fantasies, you lose the centre and core of your being. It becomes like a pulverised mirror, returning a more and more shattered image until, at last, it is dust and reflects nothing at all."

5. I was particularly gratified and decidedly moved at one particular point of her testimony. Selmys speaks at one point of coming to accept that Someone was directing things behind the scenes of her life and of the desire to know this Someone so as to thank Them. So she began to pray, to seek after this Person. All the while, she was secretly hoping that the Someone would be female, that she might after all get a goddess to worship. Sure enough, after some time she felt a distinctly female presence responding to her prayers. For a moment, she thought she might get her desire. But a moment of confusion. For some reason, Selmys felt the proper form of address for this entity ought to be 'Virgin' and 'Mother'. And, bizarrely, this feminine personality seemed to be nudging her, pointing her toward something else, beyond itself. With a shock, the realisation came- this was no goddess. This was Mary. And if Mary, the something else she was nudging her towards must be Jesus Christ.

This testimony moves me particularly, not least because of my decidedly rocky, on-again off-again relationship with the Mother of my Lord. It delights me also, for two reasons. (i) It gives the lie to all that Protestant nonsense about Mary as a goddess. Even someone who has imbibed the various ideas of New-Agey feminism, when they finally get to meet her, can tell the difference in an instant. (ii) The Blessed Mother's life is and remains wholly referred. Intellectually, I know perfectly well that Mary herself, everything she has ever done and everything the Church has ever said about her is ultimately about Jesus. But still, the suspicion lingers in the blood that it is not so. It is delightful to have the contrary confirmed, especially by someone who didn't know a thing about it either way and who would have liked very much for it to be otherwise.

In conclusion, this is among the best books on Christian sexual ethics I have read and is certainly the best book on homosexuality I have come across. I highly recommend it.

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