Today I set out walking to walk. Visiting a new city fills me with childlike wonder and awe—each nook a new treasure to behold, every turn an adventure. I’m in Toronto, Canada just two days after a terrible tragedy that took the lives of ten fellow humans. And while wandering in the wet morning, the rain poured down like holy water attempting to wash away the pain so many are feeling. As my eyes looked up on Bloor street I couldn’t help but be captivated by a local bookstore begging for my attention, despite the 100s of books resting unread on my bookshelf at home.
Much like my routine at any bookstore, I navigate the poetry, hunt for the Thomas Merton books, and explore the sections where my friends’ books might be. This time, a particular Merton book caught my eye: Road to Joy: The Letters of Thomas Merton To New and Old friends. With just having had the pleasure of dinner with Merton’s friend Jim Forest, the night before, I promptly picked the book up and hunted for Jim’s name in the index. Instead — homosexuality pg. 344 — stuck out as if it was written in bold red among the black and white I was holding. Homosexuality, I thought, but Merton never really wrote about that. Though I’d heard my friend, Dr. Christopher Pramuk discuss this in the past, I wasn’t prepared for the violent language I was about to encounter. I took a deep breath while considering what I might read on the page the reference linked to and was sure enough not shocked but painfully disappointed with the words that corresponded. Words that continue to deeply wound and haunt LGBTQ+ Christians everywhere. Among these words in a note titled “Letter to an Unknown Friend”:
“…In other words, the pitch is this. Homosexuality is not a more “unforgivable” sin than any other than the rules are the same. You do the best you can, you honestly try to fight it, be sorry, try to avoid occasions, all the usual things… Maybe psychiatric help would be of use.”
Though reading nothing surprising, my body tensed up and shuddered with the deep despair I once felt about my own personhood because of such lies being told to me that there was something innately wrong with me, there was something “sinful.” To compare homosexuality with sin is not unlike telling me being a woman in sinful. It is of one’s personhood. One’s very being. In the bowels of that bookstore, I took a moment to thank God I no longer have this way of thinking and resolved to buy the book so no one else would read these wounding words that, to me, are incredibly theologically unsound.
In this city of great acceptance, I was flanked on either side by rainbow flags at every turn. Despite that, this small moment stirred up years in which I sat in self-hatred because I was told a part of my precise personhood was a sin. Looking back, I can still easily weep for my younger self and those who might still be thinking like this, speaking like this or receiving such hateful words. Knowing how deeply that struck felt like a bolt energy to share my truth, my love, my personhood with those that think theirs is somehow damaged.
LGBTQ+ friends, listen to me: There is nothing wrong with you.
Parents, there is nothing wrong with your LGBTQ+ child.
Church, there is nothing wrong with your LGBTQ+ parishioners.
The damage we do when we insinuate one’s loving personhood is sinful or faulty is nothing short of hateful, dismissive, and ignorant thinking.
Last month I had the honor of co-hosting Fr. Jim Martin (most recently, author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity) on the Encountering Silence podcast. The work he’s doing is undeniably opening the minds and doors for many, many people. The conversations he’s having and the work he’s doing is changing many lives for the better. I sincerely believe that when it comes to inequality, the elevation of a group must be done so that they can be seen. And it is not until this seeing becomes a part of our lives on a regular basis—for all of our differences in love—that we can come to a place of seeing our common humanity and embrace a vision of unity. Without this sight how is it possible for us to come together in a loving way?
“Peacemaking begins with seeing, seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of… What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives…” Jim Forest, The Root of War is Fear
Of course, I don’t agree entirely with Fr. Jim Martin on a number of things. But that didn’t prevent us from having a loving conversation, it didn’t stop us from both discussing the LGBTQ+ community in a way that elevates its ability to be seen and loved. And, although conversion begins with conversation––conversation with the intention of conversion is a limited space to come from. In a Message to Poets essay Merton said, “We believe that our future will be made by love and hope, not by violence or calculation…a hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.” With this in mind, I speak to my fellow human in a way that is true to love itself for that is all I can do, that is all I can bring. And for my fellow LGBTQ+ friends who may not be able to have such conversations because of the pain it brings—I will continue to speak. I will continue to have these hard conversations that point to the destruction and violence this kind of language creates, the ways in which we’re limiting the spirit’s flow within people because we name their personhood as sinful instead of seeing the beauty, joy, and spirit’s flow within their lives.
There is a penalty in admiration when we only seek how it serves us. As much as I admire Thomas Merton and Fr. Jim Martin, I cannot agree with them on everything and certainly have never claimed to. Though people change and thoughts evolve in their own ways in accordance with their own personhood—who am I to say that a given stance is more evolved, lest for the these kinds of stances that directly point to lack of equal humanity, as the aforementioned rhetoric suggests. Merton’s untimely death (1968) will leave any of his current thought on this as a mystery. But, I must interject my own assumption based on the fact that most of Merton’s life was based upon love.
In 1966, Thomas Merton wrote young peace activist Jim Forest a letter that has since become referenced as the Letter to a Young Activist. In it, Merton addresses Jim’s frustrations with his work in the peace movement during the Vietnam war. Jim was working tirelessly at the Catholic Worker house after having left the Navy. He co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship in 1964, and served countless conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war era. Both Forest and Merton were doing unequivocally important work, despite just how different the work was. These words that he wrote to Jim wouldn’t have been written without Jim’s initial letter of frustration and agony. In fact, many of Jim’s letters allowed Merton’s own thoughts on things like war and pacifism to change, grow, expand, and evolve (see The Root of War is Fear).
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
Whether or not one chooses to see the LGBTQ+ community does not eliminate its existence. But it is not until we truly open our eyes to one another that we can begin to stop diminishing one’s personhood as sinful. And the LGBTQ+ community will go on loving. After all, it is the centerpiece to our personhood. It must become the centerpiece to everyone’s personhood. And it’s a beautiful centerpiece to sit at the table of. To have a conversation around. To create a personal relationship over.
It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
I could have let these few words I read today ruin my day. I could have chalked them up to Thomas Merton not being admirable. I could have minimized his words as a sign of the times. But that’s not what any of this was about. I set out walking to walk. And, I believe that when we set out loving to love, miracles can happen. We can begin to see one another. Truly see.
Toronto is assuredly not the same after this terrible tragedy. Beyond the rain, there is a dreariness that sits over the city as people discuss just what happened and how it could possibly happen here. But people are going on talking, they are going on being kind, saying sorry, greeting and smiling at one another. This city is truly a space of personal relationship.
And, now, as I sit across the table from my new dear friend Jim Forest, I realize the deep legacy of his life pouring forth in personal relationship and loving to love. Many know Jim by way of his friends including but not limited to Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, and so on. But having spent a few days with Jim, it’s hard to not count yourself among the list—his deep humility and sincere way of being has already taught me so much about listening, truly seeing, and deeply caring for my fellow human. Tomorrow, Jim will speak at a conference in Toronto titled Voices For Peace.
Between Toronto and Jim, I think I’m finally starting to truly grasp what Thomas Merton meant when he said to Jim in that 1966 letter: It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
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