Response, Part II

[Note: Since yesterday, when I wrote this post, a lot of good discussion, including some by the original commenter, has been going on in the comboxes for Part I.]

This post is a continuation of Response, Part I, in which I have a few words to say to a commenter who found me because of a tag involving whom else but that magnificent agent of providence, badassery, and freon-grade coolness, Keanu Reeves.1 Excerpts from the original comment continue below.

This isn’t like struggling with regular sin, where doing so actively improves your life and makes you a better person. You’re actively denying yourself a form of love — not even talking about gay sex here, just the kind of deep love one shares with a romantic partner — which is something that no other sin involves, and it seems to be hurting you, which would seem a natural effect of shutting off one of the best, most meaningful things about being human.

My first instinct was to talk about asceticism and self-renunciation, practices which are more or less defined by “actively denying yourself…one of the best, most meaningful things about being human.” Asceticism has always been understood in Christianity as a means of drawing closer to God, even though the secular world invariably calls such things “unhealthy.”

I’m also reminded of Matthew 5:30: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Your right hand is, arguably, one of the fairly nice (not to mention meaningful) parts about being human — but there are more important things.

So. All of that is perfectly true, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter here. The commenter believe I’ve cut myself off from romantic love. In a sense that is true, but in another sense, romantic love isn’t something that I deny myself; it’s something that I’ve never experienced.

I don’t mean I’ve never experienced what’s called “being in love”: delighting in another person, wanting to give yourself to him in some way, feeling more alive when he’s around. But is that “romantic love”? One of the particular confusions that goes along with SSA is a confusion between philia and eros, between (approximately) friendship and romantic love.

The experience of “being in love” as described above is partly eros and partly philios, even though the culture at large ascribes it solely to eros. This is still something I’m struggling to understand, but this quotation by (O strange serendipity!) Andrew Sullivan sheds a lot of light:

The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship. And I don’t mean what Saint Paul meant by love, the Christian notion of indiscriminate and universal agape or caritas, which is based on the universal love of the Christian God. I mean love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture…We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired all the hallmarks of a cult. It has become our civil religion.2

I’ll leave you to chew on that — it’s very chewy! — and move on to the next reason to say that I haven’t, properly speaking, ever experienced romantic love.

It’s this: romantic love is not an isolated experience. It’s part of a larger whole, and when it’s removed from that whole, it becomes no longer itself — the way that (speaking of cutting off hands) if you remove a hand from a human body, it isn’t a hand anymore at all. It’s just a lump of flesh.

The “larger whole” has to do with marriage, family, and at least the possibility of procreation. It has to do with the deep complementarity that exists by nature, physically and symbolically, between a man and a woman, and does not exist in the same way between two men. If you remove romantic love from this context, it isn’t romantic love anymore, but something else.3

But I’ve come to the part in this post where (1) I’m talking about things I haven’t fully understood yet, and (2) Whoa, it got long again! Maybe we need a Part III. On the other hand, maybe Part III happens in the comboxes.

1 I used to pretend that my admiration for Keanu Reeves was ironic. Turns out that, nope, I just think he’s awesome. Hey, do you know about Cheer Up Keanu Day? (With a HT to current lector, of combox renown.)
2 The excerpt is from Sullivan’s Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival. I haven’t read it, so I can’t recommend it, but it’s on my list, and I think this quotation is really wonderful. I first heard about it from Wesley Hill, whose Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality is also on my to-read-very-soon list.
3 Here, although it’s not perfectly apropos, I have to reference that bit in C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy where he talks about what happens when you remove Joy from its proper context.

19 Comments on “Response, Part II”

  1. Babs says:

    I have really high hopes for the comment discussion that will come from the whole necessity of a romantic partner.
    I myself am strange in that romantic love had no value or meaning to me until I started dating the man who is my husband. In a way, I never missed it. For all the things that I had angst about, this is not one. So, do we really need it, and if so, what about all those who live a celibate-by-choice lifestyle and seem so utterly fulfilled?

  2. Victor says:

    Hey Babs!
    Since every kind of love is just an image of our lovestory with God, I would say that no, we don’t need it in the sense that we can’t live a fulfilled life without it. In the end, nothing is essential except the love of God. We need the original, not the image (though it looks really pretty).
    I wanted to write something intelligent about Brideshead Revisited and how the four Flyte children represent four life choices, but I realize I don’t remember it well enough and I don’t have my copy at hand. Perhaps somebody else wants to take it from here?

  3. Eric says:

    Reading both what you say, Steve, and what the original commenter says, makes me think of two things.

    The first: I think it is less a question of denying yourself (pronoun being used in the abstract there) something good than it is denying yourself something bad. In other words, it is not a question of denying yourself the good of “romantic love” vs. having that love. It is a question of suffering in a holy way vs. suffering in a sinful way. Because, I think anyone who’s been in the SSA situation of looking for ‘that’ connection knows that there really is no way that it isn’t a suffering. On the one hand, trying a relationship with a woman is extremely painful. And on the other, trying one with a man is unnatural, and there’s no avoiding that pain if you’re a faithful Christian. So really – by staying celibate, you’re AVOIDING a great deal of suffering that would ALSO be sinful.

    The second point: we have to ask, is the celibate SSA man really denying himself a love? We know that God is love – and by saying that, we mean that within Himself he contains all love, and from Him alone proceeds all love. And so, if a man devotes himself to the Lord, and seeks that intimate relationship with God, what love will he not receive? What love will God not offer him? It isn’t as if the Lord would say, “Well, you’ve got most of my love, but since you’ve got SSA, you can’t have this bit of love. Sorry about that!” At the end of the day, humans have an infinite desire for love. No one has “enough love.” And the only answer to that infinite desire is an infinite love – and that’s God, obviously.

    1. MissFranciGirl says:

      Your comment about love reminds me of the character Julia(?) in T. S. Eliott’s Cocktail Party who finds that her love is too intense for a mere mortal, ends her affair with a married man, and subsequently enjoys the estatic death of a martyr. Beautiful writing! Wonderful play!

  4. Father Mike says:

    Excellent reflection — the strange duality vs. complemetarity of eros and phila is challenging!

  5. Gabriel says:

    Un-ironic liking of Keanu Reeves … I think this is the part where I deliver the most hostile and glowering of all Christian rebuke/ultimatums: “I’ll pray for you.”

    That Andrew Sullivan quote is some fine material. I’ve often — not that this is a positive thing, but it illustrates the truth of what he’s saying — I’ve often found myself jealous of my straight male friends’ girlfriends or wives, whether or not I was attracted to the men in question, because their eros felt like competition to my philia. The paucity of deep friendships in our own era — a wound which I rather think is gradually being healed — is a very serious detriment to our general psychic health (gay or straight). I don’t rule out the possibility that some couples who advertised themselves simply as friends in history may in fact have privately been something more, but I do think the modern tendency to regard all close, intense same-sex friendships as evidence of homosexual interest merely testifies to our own aching absence of philia, and a consequent inability to understand it.

  6. Rayjo says:

    If you have a battery with two positive ends and you lick it, do you experience electricity?

    Yeah, romantic love has to be fruitful, it has to be so abundant that it can’t be contained between the two spouses and it shoots off to create a third member, a child.

  7. Gregg says:

    Washed and Waiting change how I see a lot of things. Read it ASAP you won’t regret it!

  8. Joe K. says:

    I wish you’d write something that I disagreed with. Then I could make more interesting responses. I think that it is very true, though, that romantic love has a very special meaning, and it’s not overly sentimental like the modern world makes it out to be. It’s special and categorically unique in that it’s connected to the things you mentioned: marriage, procreation, family, etc.

    I’ve noticed in the world today that, and this is probably obvious, that the way we use romantic love (as something we can merely define to fit our interests) works to destroy genuine romantic love. That is, the more we try to spread it out and give it to everyone, the less people actually have it.

    I think also that once we recognize it as it Actually is (as part of the larger whole of children and family and not just that fuzzy gut feeling), we can begin to address the whole homosexuality issue in the Church. We can begin to say “Yes, that feeling you have is important, and it’s something we have to figure out, but it’s not This, because it can’t be this.” It’s only, I think, when we properly define things that we can ever get anywhere.

    Also, your first point that asceticism and stoicism are disprivileged today can’t be emphasized enough. What I fear most about telling people about my SSA is not that they’ll “judge” me or think I’m a sinner or any of that nonsense. I’m scared that they’ll start yelling at me for denying myself, repressing myself, wasting my life, etc. etc. I’m okay with my life (Happy even); but it never feels like the world is.

    1. Joan says:

      “the more we try to spread it out and give it to everyone, the less people actually have it.”

      Rather brilliantly put!

      Our society desperately wants everybody to have what they want and nobody to feel left out, and yet all around us are desperate people who’ve tried and tried to get what they want, but discovered that they can’t have it because what they want isn’t what somebody else wants.

  9. Victor says:

    @Joe K.: Agreed. There was a time when the desire to have gay sex was regarded depraved and perverted. These days, you get the same reaction for wanting to resist this desire. The whole world feels upside down…

  10. Fr. Brady says:

    Thank you for articulating what many have tried to express to me as a confessor and spiritual director. These truths are important, and validating for many. May God abundantly bless you my friend.

  11. Christine says:

    There have already been so many great comments that I don’t know if I have much to add, but I think you’re right about out society’s obsession with romantic “love” hurting friendship.

    I’ve seen this in my own life. My closest male friend is a Catholic priest. Because he is faithful to his vocation to celibacy, both of us know that their is no possibility of romance entering into our relationship. This frees us to love each other deeply because we’re not constantly afraid of being misinterpreted. I say things to him that I would not say to any other man except a family member of significant other. Because romance is not a possibility, our philia can be freely expressed. Now, if the possibility of romance entered into the equation, we would have to exercise more reserve with each other.

    Likewise, in an age when the possibility of romance didn’t enter into same-sex friendships, people were freer to love deeply in their friendships and express their love without fear of being misinterpreted by each other or by those around them. As a woman, I can’t say for sure if this is true, but it seems to me that the suspicion of a homosexual relationship lies especially heavily on male friendships, making it consequently more difficult for men to have close friendships than for women.

    1. Christine says:

      Oops, should have been “both of us know that there is no possibility of romance entering into our relationship” and “any other man except a family member or significant other.” I don’t know where my brain was while I was typing that comment…

  12. Gabriel says:

    @ Rayjo: I don’t agree with that characterization of romantic love. That is, I accept the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, and I agree that, in its own fashion, eros from one man directed toward another man is — how shall I put it? — mismatched. But it does not follow that it is no longer eros (if you are not, in fact, saying this, then I have misunderstood). Eros, after all, is a human psychological phenomenon; it isn’t one of the virtues. I think part of the reason many in our culture (like me) tend to want to approve of homosexual relationships is that we have an ingrained belief that romantic love is always good and pure and right. Conversely, I think that is why a lot of people opposed to homosexuality want to maintain that there is no such thing as eros between males or between females.

    But observation will show us that, whatever the differences between gay relationships and straight ones, eros does exist in both. The reason this doesn’t make a moral difference is that we are not commanded to fall in love, or for that matter not to fall in love; it can be a beautiful and enriching experience, or wretched and degrading, and it motivates us to actions that will probably be moral or immoral; but being in love has no moral content.

    It’s crucial to admit this, first, because it’s true. Pretending that true things are false gets no one anywhere, and doesn’t do wonders for one’s credibility. But, more importantly, if we are looking to refute the defenses of homosexuality set forth in our culture, it is the most attractive and convincing ones we must pay the most attention to. Attacking what is obviously false or degraded is something anyone of common sense can do — indeed, some homosexual activists have serious critiques of gay culture to make — and does nothing to answer the more persuasive, sympathetic arguments and examples. (It also helps, not just not to sound like bigots, but not to be bigots. When you listen to a group at their best, it helps you remember that they are valuable people; when you listen to them at their worst, it is much harder.)

  13. Viajero says:

    Great blog. Great discussion. Wish I could read quicker with better comprehension skills, but … there you have it. From what I’ve skimmed, I’d like to share several thoughts:

    -I experienced gay, romantic love. It was intense. It was wonderful. Didn’t realize how insecure and needy I could be. Did a lot of growing up. Boyfriend wanted to have a kid. I was open to it. Broke up before it even came close to that.

    -Breakup was awful. Literally cried for days (or at least got teary-eyed at one point each day). Finally understood the depth of emotions contained in all those cheesy breakup songs.

    -Still remained (what I thought was) a good Catholic boy. Kept on asking God why it had to end. I totally loved my ex (or thought I did). He “said” he loved me, too. His actions spoke otherwise.

    -Then it hit me. The pain I was feeling is just a fraction of the pain I cause God (Who loves me completely) when I, too, give Him lip service of how I love Him, yet don’t do what He asks, which is to follow His commandments. (Let’s just momentarily bypass whether God actually “feels” pain.) – Not sure how to express what I want to express. – Basically, I realized that here I was whining how my ex hurt me so much by not loving me the way I wanted to be loved, when I was doing the same thing to God, Who has always loved me, and protected me, and showered me with His blessings.

    -One of the problems with the relationship with my ex was communication. Meanwhile, God has His Church to communicate to me what He wants in our relationship, but I do my own twisting, distorting, and mis-interpreting so that I could do what I want and still believe I was doing God’s will.

    -So now I view sex as a wonderful, marvelous gift. But it’s a gift for a man and woman in holy matrimony. My having sex my way is like not accepting that God would give this gift to others and not to me, so I go ahead and grasp it for myself. Just a modern-day Eve grasping for the forbidden fruit.

    -Even when I was still with my ex, it hit me that no matter how much I tell myself my relationship is the same as that of a straight couple, there is no way our love-making could produce a beautiful baby boy or girl who is part me and the one I love. For me and my ex to have a kid, it would involve artificial insemination and a surrogate mother. In other words, it would involve manipulation. We want a kid, so we’ll manipulate nature to get what we want. More like being selfish than self-giving.

    -A gay couple is not like an infertile straight couple. With a straight couple, despite fertility, the parts still fit. The bodies are joined just as they are meant to. That’s not the case with gay couples. For gays, it’s a mis-use of the body.

    -Gay relationships are all about sex. If it wasn’t about the sex, then there would be no reason to call it gay. In my experience, the kind of deep love I shared with my romantic partner, if you take out the sex, is something I could share with my closest friends. Straight guys could have close same-sex friendships, but it wouldn’t be a gay relationship.

    -I am blessed to have wonderful straight friends who aren’t in relationships either. It helps me realize that even if I didn’t struggle with same-sex attractions, it doesn’t guarantee that I would be blessed with a wife and children. And so I try to focus on my relationship with God.

    I guess that’s about it. Thanks for listening. And thanks, Steve Gershom and commenters, for your posts. I look forward to reading more of them. God bless.

  14. Joe K. says:

    Thank you for sharing that, Viajero. You’ve no doubt accurately identified exactly what so many of us around here are going through.

  15. Gabriel says:

    That’s very moving. I’m so sorry that you had to experience such suffering in order to find the truth; at the same time, I am so happy for you that you were able to glean wisdom from that suffering. Thank you for your brave forthrightness.

  16. Joan says:


    I went through this same kind of thinking when I was single. I thought to myself, ‘maybe I should ditch this no sex outside marriage thing so that I’d have a bigger pool to choose from’. Then I thought ‘but where would that get me? I’d be sinning and still not married. Better to try to be single.’

Leave a Reply to Babs Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *