Beyond the experience of duality

Homosexual Love

On Homosexual Love

Bede Griffiths

By homosexual love I mean love between people of the same sex.   Such love is just as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex.  Another word for it is friendship, which can be quite a superficial relationship but can also touch the depths of one’s being.  Friendship is normally between people of the same sex and many people have found in it the deepest experience of their lives.  A classical example of this is the love between David and Jonathan in the Bible, of which it is said: “Jonathan loved David with his whole soul”. (1) But the supreme example of this love is that between Jesus and the ‘beloved disciple’.  No one knows who this disciple was; but we know that he wrote the Fourth Gospel, which goes by the name of John.  He is called there simply the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ and we are told that he “reclined on Jesus’ breast”.(2) This means that they were reclining at supper in the Graeco-Roman style and this disciple was reclining next to Jesus and had only to turn his head to be in direct contact with him.  As a result he has gone down in history as the disciple who had the closest intimacy with Jesus.  It may be remarked that in India this relation between guru and disciple may be one of extreme intimacy.  They share one another’s inmost being, so that it can be said that they are really one and not two.  This is probably the closest intimacy which has ever been known.  There is a total oneness of being in which both guru and disciple share in a relationship of love in which all duality in overcome.

In Greece the love of Achillles and Patrochus, the heroes of the Trojan War, was celebrated by Homer and in Athens homosexual love came to be considered the normal path of growth in human love.  This was, no doubt, because women, except in some outstanding examples, played very little part in Greek society.  Socrates himself was married, but when he was in prison and his wife and other women came to visit him and began to weep and wail, he had them all turned out so that he could discuss the immortality of the soul with his disciples.  Plato, his most famous disciple, told us nearly all we know about Socrates and described how he went among the young men in Athens, challenging them to think what they really meant by words such as justice, truth, goodness and beauty.  For Plato, as for all that circle, homosexual love was the one way to discover the meaning of love and beauty, He described how young men begin with the love of physical beauty, but they have to learn how to pass to love of the soul, of character and true humanity.  Then they have to learn to go beyond all created beauty to the one, eternal, absolute beauty which alone can satisfy human love and desire.

This may seem a very remote ideal, but is it really so?  Is it not true that physical beauty, whether of man or woman, or of this marvellous universe, in which we find ourselves, can never finally satisfy us, and that human love, both in marriage or between friends, can never fully answer our need?  We are all in search of an unattainable ideal and we feel frustrated because we cannot attain to it.  That is why friends parts and marriages break up, and nations go to war, because the society they have built up cannot satisfy their needs.  There is something which is dragging us out of all settled institutions and all conventional society, awakening the hope of a New Age, which will come nearer to our ideal. Today, perhaps more than ever, people feel that our present system of society, which is destroying the earth on which we depend for our existence, and seems in many places to be dissolving into chaos, is on its death bed and only a new beginning, a new age, can save us.

But it is in the sphere of human relationships that the conflict in society is most acute, and human relationships ultimately depend on love.  For many people religious organisations no longer provide an answer and marriage as an institution is losing its hold.  This brings us back to the problem of love.  We realise now that marriage is not simply a matter of begetting children and bringing up a family.  In its ultimate meaning and intention it is a communion of love.  This communion can be realised by people of the opposite sex, but many are finding that homosexual love can reach a depth of communion and self-surrender which conventional marriage fails to evoke.  This view is not so new as it might seem.  Apart from the examples I mentioned it is well known that Shakespeare and Michelangelo both wrote sonnets of impassioned love to someone of their own sex.  But it may be new to many people to know that in the Middle Ages many monks, including some distinguished saints, experienced extraordinary depth of love, which came to them not as a contradiction but as a fulfilment of their love of God.  This most famous example of this is found in the little book on Christian Friendship by St Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk in England in the 12th century.  “The day before yesterday, as I was walking the round of the cloister of the monastery, the brethren were sitting around forming a most loving crowd.  In that multitude I found no one whom I did not love and none by whom I felt sure I was not loved.  I was filled with such joy that it surpassed all the delights of the world.  I felt indeed my spirit was transfused into all and the affection of all to have passed into me, so that I could say with the prophet: Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity”.(3)

How was it that St Aelred and his brother monks were able to reach this extraordinary degree of communion in love?  I think that it was due to their prayer and their belief in the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ which they shared.  According to this doctrine a Christian is united to Christ as a member of a body is united to the body as a whole.  This doctrine is derived from St Paul, who wrote: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body.  So it is with Christ. For us the one spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of the one spirit”. (4) This union of human beings with Christ in one body is conceived realistically by St Paul when he says: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ”. (5) This union with Christ is therefore not only in the spirit but also in the body.  The human being is indissolubly a body-soul and this body-soul is united with others in the spirit, the deepest dimension of the human being, so that St Paul can write: “Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him”. (6)  In other words a human being is an integrated whole of body (soma), soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma), and at the point of the spirit the human being is united with the Holy Spirit and becomes a member of the mystical body of Christ.

There is always a danger of ‘spiritualism’ and forgetting that it is our whole being, body, soul and spirit, which has been redeemed by Christ and made a member of his mystical body.  We are an integrated whole and no one part of our being can act independently of the whole.  When we love we love with our whole being, body, soul and spirit.  That is why St Paul regards sexual sin as so serious, because it breaks the bond of the body with the soul and spirit and likewise when love takes possession of the whole person, body, soul and spirit are all involved. This is what constitutes the sacredness of marriage.  But equally when any two persons enter into a deep relationship of love, their whole being is involved.  There is an element of sex in all human love, as Freud discovered, though he misinterpreted it.  In the love of a mother for her child and of a child for its mother there is implicitly a sexual bond.  The ‘Oedipus complex’ which Freud uncovered, is a reality.  Parents and children have a sexual bond, whether it is recognised or not, as so many cases of child abuse are making us aware.  It is necessary, therefore, to recognise this sexual element in all genuine human love.  It may be wholly implicit and consciously unrecognised, but it is always there in the unconscious.

This is what constitutes the problem of homosexuality.  The purest spiritual love between two people of the same sex, such as that of St Aelred and his monks, will always have a sub- conscious element of emotion and this in turn will have a sexual basis.  We should not be ashamed of this sexual basis in our nature.  It is how we are made and has to be recognised as a gift from God.  How we relate this sexual instinct to the other dimensions of love affects all love relationships alike.  If the sexual instinct is allowed to dominate the relationship, it can degrade the whole person.  But a spiritual love without any basis in sex would be inhuman.  This is one of the greatest dangers in the spiritual life – to try to ignore the body and its instincts and aspire to a ‘pure’ spiritual love.  This only means that the sexual instinct is repressed and causes conflict in the soul.  What unites body and soul is the emotional nature and it is in the control of this that the virtue of chastity consists.  If the emotions are guided by the spirit and opened to the presence of the Holy Spirit, then the whole person is integrated and the sexual instinct becomes a positive force – eros and agape, human and divine love, are united and we experience ourselves as members of the body of Christ, realising in ourselves the fullness of the love of God.  But if the sexual instinct is repressed, either consciously or unconsciously, it becomes a negative and destructive force which can prevent our growth in love.

This applies equally to heterosexual and homosexual love.  The indulgence of the sexual instinct at the expense of the soul and spirit can be equally destructive in either case.  So also can the repression of this instinct.  We have to become fully human beings, consciously recognising our sexual nature and bringing it into harmony with our love for God and for other people.  Whether those people are of the same or of a different sex makes no difference.  The love of Jesus and the ‘beloved disciple’, of St Aelred and his monks and of any man or woman in the body of Christ, is a fully human love, which reaches every level of our being and opens us to the fullness of love for which we were created.  In an animal the sexual instinct exists for the reproduction of the species, and in a marriage between human beings this is one way in which love can be expressed.  But human love goes beyond animal instinct.  As Plato understood, it is a way of growing beyond our animal nature and opening the whole being to the power of the Spirit of God.  As St Paul reminds us: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ.  The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord and the Lord for this body”.(7)  It is as members of the Body of Christ that we realise, whether as men or women, the fullness of the love of God and of our own human nature.  It is in the Eucharist also that this communion with one another in the Body of Christ is most clearly expressed.

(1) 1 Samuel 20, 17

(2) John 13, 23

(3) Christian Friendship, by Aelred of Reivaulx, translated by Hugh Talbot (London 1942)

(4) 1 Corinthians 12, 12-13

(5) ditto 6, 15

(6) ditto 6, 17

(7) ditto 6, 13

This article by Fr Bede was not published in his lifetime. A Photocopy of the original manuscript is to be found in the Bede Griffiths Collection in the archive of Douai Abbey.