One of the warnings found on cigarette cartons is Smoking can seriously injure your health. Most of us who have lived a bit might be inclined to add, that its not just cigarettes that should carry a warning, so should relationships. Relationships are often so difficult that they too can seriously damage our health. For so many the world of close relationships can be a minefield and while a good relationship is one of life’s greatest blessings a bad one can be something of a curse. An American lady was wearing a fabulous looking diamond ring that was being admired by another. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘it is beautiful but it came with a curse’. ‘What kind of curse,’ asked the other? ‘His name was Rudolf Hazeldon, he was the one who gave it to me and I married him’! So for that reason I would like to share a few thoughts on this subject of relationships in the broad sense, whether they be close friendships, partnerships or marriage.
The starting point is in the Book of Genesis that we heard read. God in his work of creation said of everything that he had made that it was very good. The one and only thing he said was not good was for man to be alone and so he made Eve as a companion for Adam. We know that when he first set eyes on her was so enthralled all he could say was ‘wo-man’. In saying what he said, God was condemning isolation and affirming that he wanted each of us to enjoy companionship and not to feel alone in the world. The curse of society today is an ever increasing drift towards isolation which is at the root of so much loneliness, depression and mental health problems
Here let me be gut level honest and share some of my own struggles in this regard. What I’m going to share represents just one attempt to live an authentic life, to be true to myself, and at the same time to remain true to what I believe to be my calling. A common perception of a priest is that he is someone who lives in splendid isolation; someone who is expected to love everybody but who is not allowed to love anybody to the extent that if he does he is regarded as living a double life. Someone who is expected to be there for everyone in their trouble but when he hits a crisis himself there is nobody there for him. With that perception so strong to this day is it any wonder there is a shortage of priests and seminaries are empty. Would any parent wish that on their son. Who could possibly want a life of loneliness like that?
Therein lay my dilemma in becoming a priest. It was compounded by the fact that my family circle was extremely small and I knew that within a few years my family would be gone and I would be utterly on my own. This has been the case for quite a number of years. It seemed perfectly obvious that if I did not create a support structure of strong friendships I would end up living a very lonely life with very little to offer but my own emptiness.
In seminary we were taught to avoid close relationships, especially those with the opposite sex because to do so would pose a threat to our vocation. Such teaching never made sense to me. I loved female company had had girlfriends before entering and to deliberately shut off that side of my life made no sense whatsoever especially given the fact that over half the people I would be ministering to were going to be women. So to try and understand the feminine and learn to be at home in female company seemed to be of the utmost importance.
My thoughts were clarified by an old priest who in his 80’s, while talking to a group of fellow priests, said one of the saddest things I have ever heard spoken. With deep regret in his voice he said that while he had been utterly faithful to celibacy all his life he had never loved or let himself be loved by anybody. He had preached love made flesh, God incarnate, but never known love in the flesh of another human being apart from his mother. That was a defining moment where I realized the importance not of avoiding relationships but rather seeing them as Gods gift without which we would never mature and become fully human and fully alive.
In case you get the wrong impression I’m not talking here about a free and easy kind of lifestyle, or being irresponsible where anything goes and leaving a trail of destruction behind. However, to relate well and deeply to another human being has to be the only way to mature as a person and ultimately to gain self-mastery where we are not controlled by our instincts. To avoid relationship is one sure way of ensuring that problems with emotions and sexuality are bound to arise because what is repressed will always find expression, and in a way that is far than appropriate. The result is all the abuse scandals we have seen in recent years. Their origin lies not in evil intent but in deep levels of repression. I have seen teachers fall in love with students half their age just as I have seen priests my own age fall head over heels for someone in their 20’s and not be able to handle it. The reason being that in their 20’s their own emotional and sexual development got stunted so now they found themselves sixty plus chronologically, but going on twenty-five emotionally. Those kind of scenarios are all too common and utterly tragic when they happen and cause a lot of hurt.
So throughout my life I choose to open my heart and as a result have known some very deep and wonderful friendships with both men and women and for them I am eternally grateful because they have made me who I am. They have made me feel quite comfortable with my own body, with my emotions, and with my sexuality. Have I made mistakes along the way? Of course I have, even some delightful ones, and so has everyone else. But, none that I need to beat myself up over and keep me awake in the wee small hours. The greatest mistake of all would be to have played it safe and never to have taken risks with the game of life.
I can freely admit that the way I did it, was not the way I was supposed to have done it, and certainly not the way I was taught to do it in seminary, but I’m sure glad that I followed my own wisdom, that I prayed for wisdom and allowed the Spirit to lead me in these areas. To be honest had I gone down the traditional route I don’t think I would still be in priesthood today; I would have found it untenable, and even if I were still in, I would now be struggling with the legacy of a half lived life.
In the end of the day life is all about relationship. The Blessed Trinity is about relationship. Communion is about relationship. Community is about relationship. Life is never about fear and avoidance. We could even go so far as to say that if we succeed in relationships, no matter how hard they might be, or how many mistakes we make, then we are successful in life. However if we have preserved ourselves in the pickle jar of splendid isolation or even chose to live in a holy bubble then what really was our life all about? Its God’s own judgment that, ‘It’s not good for man or woman to be alone.’