Ascending Mount Carmel – One Step at at Time – Part Two
This is the second part of a series examining how pro-gay and ex-gay theologies deal with purgation. We’re looking at Kenneth Leech’s "Soul Friend" and seeing whether the ex-gay ministries act as a classic spiritual director in guiding the disciple down the path of purgation. ———– Leech is not averse to addressing the issue of the interconnection of sexuality and sexual awareness with the spiritual life:
"The area of sexuality is crucial to the entire discussion. The spiritual director is concerned with union with God, and this process of union demands a profound degree of self-knowledge and maturity. Because we are sexual beings it involves the acceptance of our sexuality, and the integration of sexuality with the rest of life. The integration is one of the central purposes of religion. Hence the insistence in the spiritual tradition that the guide should be a person experienced in the passions … One of the most vital tasks, therefore, for contemporary spirituality is to learn from and work through the contemporary insights and understandings of sexuality, and much of the time of any spiritual director may be taken up with this. Nor can such a task be separated from the work of discovering one’s own identity as a sexual being. The spiritual director must be a person who is facing his own sexuality and sexual needs, a person who is on the way towards sexual integrity and wholeness. Spiritual health and sexual health are closely joined, for, as Julian of Norwich wrote, our substance and our sensuality together are in God, and together constitute our soul."
Now of course, when Leech here writes of sexuality he is not referring to orientation, but rather to the whole understanding of a human of him/herself as being a sexual being. This said, the issue of sexual orientation and one’s understanding of one’s sexual being are crucial, for sexual expression and the forms of sexual union are deep spiritual signifiers . The key message of course from the "ex-gay" community is that a true understanding of one’s sexual identity, not the one arrived at through the impact of a fallen world is crucial for any necessary spiritual growth and discipleship. As Joe Dallas writes:
"You’re not called to give up homosexuality just because it’s ‘bad’; you’re invited to a life of wholeness which you can’t attain as long as you hold on to anything that’s second best. Attaining wholeness, though, means growth. And growth cannot come until those things stifling it are abandoned".
Andy Comiskey agrees:
"As I learned so painfully, overcoming broken sexuality requires giving allegiance to a greater desire, desire for deepening intimacy with the Father through Jesus Christ. The struggler yields the cries and yearnings of his heart to the Father. He finds that his Creator has made a way for him through Jesus. Where sin and brokenness have resulted in sexual problems, Jesus enters in and assumes the struggle himself. All the struggler can do is bow down and worship. The creature desires the Creator and now healer of his soul more than he does the lesser objects of illicit sexual desire".
Such language is not alien to one versed in the history of spiritual discipline – it is the language of suffering and engagement, of "purgation" within the darkness that is articulated by the likes of St John of the Cross:
"It now remains to be said that, although this happy night brings darkness to the spirit, it does so only to give it light in everything; and that, although it humbles it and makes it miserable, it does so only to exalt it and to raise it up; and, although it impoverishes it and empties it of all natural affection and attachment, it does so only that it may enable it to stretch forward, divinely, and thus to have fruition and experience of all things, both above and below, yet to preserve its unrestricted liberty of spirit in them all. For just as the elements, in order that they may have a part in all natural entities and compounds, must have no particular colour, odour or taste, so as to be able to combine with all tastes odours and colours, just so must the spirit be simple, pure and detached from all kinds of natural affection, whether actual or habitual, to the end that it may be able freely to share in the breadth of spirit of the Divine Wisdom, wherein, through its purity, it has experience of all the sweetness of all things in a certain pre-eminently excellent way. And without this purgation it will be wholly unable to feel or experience the satisfaction of all this abundance of spiritual sweetness. For one single affection remaining in the spirit, or one particular thing to which, actually or habitually, it clings, suffices to hinder it from feeling or experiencing or communicating the delicacy and intimate sweetness of the spirit of love, which contains within itself all sweetness to a most eminent degree."
For St John of the Cross, purgation of the senses, the renouncing of the fleshly desires of the heart is the key to truly entering into union with God. This from The Ascent of Mount Carmel:
"Wherefore the soul that is enamoured of prelacy, or of any other such office, and longs for liberty of desire, is considered and treated, in the sight of God, not as a son, but as a base slave and captive, since it has not been willing to accept His holy doctrine, wherein He teaches us that whoso would be greater must be less, and whoso would be less must be greater. And therefore such a soul will be unable to attain to that true liberty of spirit which is attained in His Divine union. For slavery can have no part with liberty; and liberty cannot dwell in a heart that is subject to desires, for this is the heart of a slave; but it dwells in the free man, because he has the heart of a son. It was for this cause that Sara bade her husband Abraham cast out the bondwoman and her son, saying that the son of the bondwoman should not be heir with the son of the free woman. And all the delights and pleasures of the will in all the things of the world, in comparison with all those delights which are God, are supreme affliction, torment and bitterness. And thus he that sets his heart upon them is considered, in the sight of God, as worthy of supreme affliction, torment and bitterness; and thus he will be unable to attain to the delights of the embrace of union with God, since he is worthy of affliction and bitterness. All the wealth and glory of all creation, in comparison with the wealth which is God, is supreme poverty and wretchedness. Thus the soul that loves and possesses creature wealth is supremely poor and wretched in the sight of God, and for that reason will be unable to attain to that wealth and glory which is the state of transformation in God; for that which is miserable and poor is supremely far removed from that which is supremely rich and glorious."
"The soul, then, says that, ‘kindled in love with yearnings,’ it passed through this dark night of sense and came out thence to the union of the Beloved. For, in order to conquer all the desires and to deny itself the pleasures which it has in everything, and for which its love and affection are wont to enkindle the will that it may enjoy them, it would need to experience another and a greater enkindling by an other and a better love, which is that of its Spouse; to the end that, having its pleasure set upon Him and deriving from Him its strength, it should have courage and constancy to deny itself all other things with ease. And, in order to conquer the strength of the desires of sense, it would need, not only to have love for its Spouse, but also to be enkindled by love and to have yearnings. For it comes to pass, and so it is, that with such yearnings of desire the sensual nature is moved and attracted toward sensual things, so that, if the spiritual part be not enkindled with other and greater yearnings for that which is spiritual, it will be unable to throw off the yoke of nature or to enter this night of sense, neither will it have courage to remain in darkness as to all things, depriving itself of desire for them all."
What St John, Theresa, Ignatius before them and thousands after them have discovered is that it is the abandonment of those aspects of oneself that are sinful that is the key to any form of development. It is of course the natural response to encountering God, to realise one’s sinfulness and to die to it. When Ignatius was developing his exercises, the pattern of the opening week or so, of encountering and listening to God and then confessing sin was a keen observation of the natural process of the encounter with God, a pattern found clearest expressed today in the "Evangelical" gospel message, but present in all strands of Christianity. An curiously, it is the same path to confession that is practised in "ex-gay" courses such as Andy Comiskey’s "Living Waters". Session 5 of 20 is entitled "The Realignment and Empowering of the Will" and the content reads like a reworked 21st century version of St John’s Dark Night:
"But first, the Spirit compels us to repent, to realign our will with His. The Father asks us to humble ourselves, and to die to our own wilfulness. We face a lot of resistance to this yielding. When we can honestly answer yes to His call for us to die to the mastery of evil in our lives, then we come face-to-face with our utter need for Him. We are prepared to receive His will. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, His will becomes ours, and enables us to stand upright as His sons and daughters. We are in turn equipped to hear and obey the will of our Father … Confession and repentance are inseparable, and needfully so. Having agreed with the Father about the specific ways we have failed to hold fast to Christ, we must release the sin forthrightly to Him. Letting go of longstanding patterns of self-indulgence and protection accompanies the naming of these patterns. The clear call to repent reveals the often divided nature of our desires and loyalties, as well as the weakness of our choice-making faculty, or will".
A similar theme is found in Mario Bergner’s "Redeemed Lives" course:
"The Cross empowers us to put the false-self to death.
- The Bible exhorts us to put the false-self to death and to take it off.
- Romans 6:6 – For we know that the old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves to sin.
- Col 3:9b – You have taken off your old self with its practices.
- The false self avoid reality through defense mechanisms and rigid coping mechanisms.
- Dr James Masterson writes in The Search for the Real Self (p23), "The purpose of the false-self is not adaptive but defensive; it protects against painful feelings. In other words, the false-self does not set out to master reality but to avoid painful feelings, a goal it achieves at the cost of mastering reality".
- We soothe our painful feelings with diseased sexual thoughts, food, gooey dependent relationships, alcohol, drugs, romance novels, etc. etc.
- The false-self employs a rigid manner of dealing with problems and challenges.
- The false-self relates to others as we would wish they would be. We quickly idealise others and then quickly devalue them.
- The false-self develops in monologue.
- The false-self includes an inflated or a deflated sense of our personal growth and achievements.
- We can have an inflated false-self rooted in pride, grandiosity and fantasy.
- We can have a deflated false-self rooted in self-hatred and negative attitudes."
And from the next chapter:
"Suffering in a Christian way means asking the right questions and focusing on Heaven … We must be willing to suffer, choose to suffer and choose love in our suffering; all the while practising the presence of Jesus".
This idea of "redemptive suffering" or "purgation" as the classical writers called it is a major strand of classic spirituality and spiritual direction, but is noticeable lacking in large amounts of modern "spirituality". Bergner has noted this is an important article written last year:
"In ages past, spiritual direction was sought as a way to grow the soul in maturity within a specific Christian context–and it worked, too. But is today’s spiritual direction the same as that offered by Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, St. Ignatius or St. Francis De Sales? Some is, some is not. Some of today’s leaders of the modern spiritual direction movement are heavily influenced by C.G. Jung, psychological guru of the New Age and disciple of Freud. The result is Christian anthropology is replaced with a Jungian anthropology that is difficult to detect. This is a serious matter since Jung’s anthropology is incompatible with Christian anthropology … In Anglicanism, the practice of spiritual direction has included training the conscience and the will to collaborate with the Spirit’s work in sanctification. During the seventeenth century, Anglicanism treated Moral Theology and Pastoral Theology as the two sides of the same coin. Training the conscience to ascertain right from wrong is the role of Moral Theology. Such training begins with reading of the Bible and the practice of the confession of our sins. Curing and strengthening the will to choose what is right is the role of Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care. Only when the conscience and the will are bathed in Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit do we transition from sinful moral chaos to holy moral order … Classic spiritual direction has long held that Christians share a three-fold pattern of spiritual formation. The first is purgation meaning the application of the Cross of Christ to our soul for the cleansing of our sins. The second is illumination meaning discipleship that teaches Christians to walk in the light of special revelation, namely the Bible and Jesus. The third is union meaning a life lived in union with Jesus Christ in such a way as to be in continual prayer or to Practice His Presence. In the Walking the Labyrinth brochure I read, these three stages of purgation, illumination and union were stripped of their outward focus on the Atoning work of Christ and special revelation. Rather, these became a subjective journey into the self. Purgation was equated with moving inward, a time to cast off, release, let go, discard, divest, unwrap, to quiet and empty the mind. Illumination was equated with centering, a time to be open, emptied, expectant, receptive. Union was equated with moving outward, a time to gain direction, comfort, satisfaction, energy, empowerment. There was no mention of Jesus and no mention of our sin nature … Christians seeking to grow in Christ through spiritual direction will find a great safeguard against spiritualized narcissism in the practices and liturgies of the historic Church and Her Christ-centered calendar. Additionally, the confession of sins and the ministration of Word and Sacrament are sure ways to continually straighten the incurved bent of our fallen nature and direct our focus outside the self and onto Jesus. These are all God-given means for drinking deeply of the living waters He promises to those who follow Him."
———- In part three we’ll start to look at pro-gay literature to see whether this elements find themselves there.