There’s a distinctive pleasure to a visit with a friend who knew you in your twenties.
Yesterday morning I had a pot of tea and – appropriately – two madeleines on the table in front of me. The spring weather had moved into a sunny mode, and other customers who strolled into the coffee shop, sitting at tables around Steve and me, were in a good mood.
Two men in their fifties, Steve and I have a common history on which to draw in our conversations. We were both students for the ministry three decades ago, and we make easy allusions to people who taught us and advised us and studied with us in that earlier chapter of our lives. Two gay men, we share a perspective on the experience of church that has evolved over the years. We will see one another at services later this morning.
When people know one another in their twenties, there is a shared landscape that remains fresh and ready for their later reflections on life’s mysteries and questions. What might take long, nuanced explanations to make real to someone you meet in your thirties or forties or fifties can rise around you as effortlessly real as the morning sunlight out of which you have just walked on a Saturday in May.
A topic into which Steve and I delved yesterday over our madeleines was the discernment process by which we had each of us separately come to the decision almost thirty years ago to abandon a career in ministry.
It had not been for either of us a simple or obvious step to take. We had each of us grown up with a solid admiration for the men who had embraced this life and lived this lofty vocation. We had made close friendships with men who shared so many of the key values by which we ourselves wanted to live and grow spiritually and intellectually. So many practical questions about our lives had gotten answered by deciding to pursue the goal of celibate ministry.
It’s just that we were gay. And there were things we might soon be ready to do and be that weren’t the stuff of seminary catalogues and brochures. I had even begun to see a divinity student named Ken from a nearby university.
The focus of yesterday’s conversation, however, was not the ways we had each of us eventually claimed our identity as gay men and as people of faith and prayer. Rather, it was the way we had each of us faced the daunting prospect of changing our lives, no matter the reason, no matter the precise circumstances.
When and how had it happened that a discernment process earnestly and sometimes fearfully pursued with spiritual directors and formation superiors arrived at the awareness that – well, that it was time, that it was right to go?
I offered the memory of having secretly waited through session after session with spiritual counselors for some dramatic enlightenment – Paul-at-Damascus style – that I was no longer required to pursue the ministerial path I had selected years earlier. Wasn’t clarity going to be blinding and undeniable? How else would I be free to go? How else could I expect the people around me to understand that of course a good man like John might leave the celibate ministry if it meant being true to himself?
It had been an almost random conversation with my spiritual director one evening after a community dinner that surprisingly completed the long discernment process. He asked to talk to me, and we sat in my room while the noises of clean-up in the kitchen drifted up the stairs. He was kind. He was thoughtful. At a certain point he simply asked what kind of evening I would prefer to be having – an evening with the community like the one that was going on downstairs or an evening with a special someone like Ken. It was a simple question to answer at that point. I admitted to an affection for the people downstairs, but I would prefer being with Ken – or someone like him – exploring a different kind of evening, engaging in a different kind of conversation.
My spiritual director smiled quietly. “Well,” he said, “there’s the answer you’ve been searching for.”
I stared at him a little in disbelief. No, I was ready to tell him, I was simply telling you what I would want to do. Wasn’t there a bigger question than that for me to answer?
It turns out there wasn’t. Not in the mind of this wise spiritual director.
Now thirty years later, and Steve was facing me across the pot of tea and the madeleines. He had listened to my narrative before offering his own. It was a landscape through which we had both traveled years ago, but its simplicity rising around us on a sunny morning in May could still prove disarming.
Photo of a madeleine from Blue Vicar