[March 13, 2015]
I recently received an email from a young man, an Orthodox catechumen, who is concerned about his best friend. This friend recently came out as gay and, after being scolded by family and church friends, has joined an “affirming” church that will endorse his choices.
The young man writing to me said he was encouraged by something in one of my podcasts. I had said that there is room in our faith for people of the same sex to form loving relationships. This kind of love is called “friendship.” It has always been held in honor, and appears in the Bible and throughout Church history. It can be found between two siblings, or between people who met as children, or as adults. Same-sex, non-sexual love is unlike romantic love in that it doesn’t include a sexual component, but it can be every bit as strong. It is to our loss that the concept of nonsexual friendship love has largely vanished. Those bonds between men and men, and between women and women, run strong and deep, and are foundational to society.
We can see life-long, same-sex friendships among many pairs of the saints, for example St. Sophronius (AD 560-638) and St. John Moschus (AD 550-619), whose feast was March 11. While still in their twenties these young men set out on pilgrimage through Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine. They wanted to see and hear the wise elders of the desert, and the book they wrote, The Spiritual Meadow, is a treasure of the early church. The two men were companions until death, and St. Sophronius fulfilled St. John’s final wish to be buried in Jerusalem.
The young man who wrote me said that this possibility of same-sex, nonsexual love gave him hope:
“It’s something that I’ve actually been thinking about for a while. If it would save him from himself, if it would help him come back to Christian faith, I would be willing to live a celibate life with him. (Even though I want very much to be married.) We are best friends and roommates at present. We get along very well. Does the Church say anything about doing this? I can live without sex, and I love him more than my own life.”
It’s hard to think of a sacrifice more beautiful, more touching, than this offer to sacrifice love and marriage in order to stand by a friend. It deserves to be called heroic. My grandmotherly head can also see potential problems, especially if the friend is not, himself, ready to practice celibacy; also, the young writer of the email might yet fall in love one day, and find it harder in practice than in theory to give up having a wife and family. A young Orthodox catechumen obviously needs to bring the whole situation to his priest. Still, his desire to make such a sacrifice for his friend shows what Christian love can do—what Christ within us can do, when he gives us grace to love others the way he does.
(It’s worth noting, too, that the sacrifice this young man offers to make, to live a lifetime without sex and without a romantic partner, is what we traditional Christians are asking every gay person to do. It is no less heroic when they do it.)