It’s Time to Get Real About Your Spirit
Moving from self-shame to self-love
I am an atheist. Which is another way of saying I put my faith in the here and now. The present moment. Rather than whatever came before or might come next. I believe in the power of the human spirit. And my prayers are an attempt to invoke our better natures, rather than messages to some all-knowing being. While I believe bodies of superior intelligence inhabit this universe, there is no grand architect. Much less one that requires or even wants our supplication.
Some call this secular humanism, but for me the label is unnecessary. In my spiritual journey I have sat with Quakers and Buddhists, have stood with Lutherans and Episcopalians. Yet I do not feel part of any particular movement, nor any group-oriented faith-based practice. In this way, I am connected to everybody. Which is another way of saying there is nowhere to hide. That everyone is my soulmate. And that we are all in this together.
Maybe someday I will join others. Find a spiritual home that celebrates the innate goodness of all things. That understands the beauty of radical inclusion. That teaches the value of continuity with an eye toward opportunity. Has a bias towards action. And then share that home with all who enter. Such that we might raise our voices and sing of togetherness.
But the reality is I am not yet ready. I am still focused on my own personal growth and development. Doing what long ago should have been done, and undoing much of what was done. To prepare myself. Make myself whole so that I might one day be equipped to serve. Extend my arms to all comers in gratitude. But for now I am practicing the small gifts of humility. Owning my story. Clarifying my purpose. Beginning the process of embodying my mission, vision, and values. Working with life’s training wheels. As I heal the old wounds. And learn to love. Reaching out to one heart at a time.
I come from a Christian family, and experienced Christian abuse. My family questioned, shamed, and ridiculed my sexuality and gender expression, until they forced me in the closet altogether. With the help of our primitive culture. All in the name of Jesus. But even worse was that as a child the spark of my nascent spirituality was left entirely unlit. And the wisdom I should have acquired through ceremonies, initiations, and rites of passage was never transmitted. I earned my insight exclusively through lived experience. Meaning unnecessary tragedy and heartbreak.
So perhaps my secularism is a response to the vile behavior I witnessed. The shaming of souls. The othering of neighbors and loved ones. The consolidation of power in a select few. The homogeneity of narrow mindedness. Usually bound by race, gender, and sexual orientation. All ostensibly sanctioned by the church of Jesus. Yes, I also witnessed tender mercies, true selflessness, and love writ large. But one does not obviate the other. Harm can be amended, but never undone. What we say and do to ourselves and each other is sacred. Even wrongs made right are never truly unwritten, no matter how much honor there might be in the effort.
We must start with the harm, as in all things. And the harm has been legion: innumerable GBTQ men have been tortured and killed in the name of Christ for centuries. Cast out of their families and communities. Rendered helpless and hopeless. Laughed at. Spit upon. Imprisoned. Institutionalized. Physically and chemically castrated. Psychologically tortured. Forced to choose between quiet desperation and public humiliation.
Until at long last the church awoke to find itself as part of a shrinking cultural minority. And some organizations split between those who wanted better, and those who wanted worse. Some members left for greener pastures. Others were driven out. While those who remained consolidated their ugly power. For bigotry is a relentless process of purification. Distillation through prejudice and certainty. Whittling away all we thought we knew. Until all that is left is a circular firing squad, and the ugly mirror of our personal self-loathing.
It is tempting to lie to ourselves, as we grow accustom to our privilege and power: we are good people, have a well-meaning congregation, and would never harm anyone. But if we are members of a “well-meaning” church that pays lip service to inclusion, yet does not explicitly celebrate GBTQ lives and bodies, then we are participating in spiritual abuse. If we belong to a church that does not embody equality by conducting GBTQ weddings and celebrating GBTQ marriages, we are part of the problem. If our church has no openly GBTQ priests, preachers, or officers, it is a house of bigotry. If our congregation does not hold up GBTQ families, it is participating in child abuse. It is easy to pat ourselves on the backs while sitting in the cheap seats. To say we love everyone. To put up rainbow flags and send a few parishioners to Gay Pride events. Without risking anything, and never truly leaving our comfort zone.
If we truly want to be a house of inclusion, we’ve got to get real. Own the actions of our ancestors. The inter-generational trauma that has become our collective inheritance. If we want to extend our hands in caritas, then we must get in the fight and get to work. Actually do something. Go somewhere that frightens us. That challenges our delicate sensibilities. Leverage our privilege for the benefit of those less advantaged.
For many of us, that will require risking more than what’s comfortable. But let’s ask ourselves this: how loudly are we willing to love? To those GBTQ men who might be part of such congregations, it’s time for rigorous honesty: are we truly working within the system to enlarge it on behalf of all people, or are we staying cozy while garnering crumbs of proximal power from those who have a vested financial incentive in oppression?
That humans regularly fall short of their highest values is not news. That those who hold themselves in high esteem have long tried to obliterate GBTQ men is well-documented. But what we rarely discuss is the marked absence of any sort of spiritual replacement for our community. We who barely escaped with our lives (and lost so many brothers along the way) have long sought refuge in lesser places. Safe solitude. Illicit substances. Rampant sex.
In many ways that’s what a spiritual practice is: where we seek refuge. When things get tough, where do we turn? And what does this practice yield? Does it connect us to something larger than ourselves? Does it sustain us throughout the arc of our life? Or is just it a quick fix to mask the pain? What does our refuge cost? Our friends, family, relationships? Our job? If the costs of our spiritual practice outweigh the benefits, maybe it’s time to change.
Some might feel called to fight for change in existing places of worship. Others might want to change churches, or leave the current system of faith entirely. But the key is all of us have options. As GBTQ men, we are not beholden to their stories about us. We get to find our own way. Chart our own path. So it’s time we get informed and empowered.
These days there are so many genuinely welcoming and affirming churches, sanctuaries, synagogues, and houses of worship. There is also a wealth of free information at our fingertips to help support our personal spiritual practices. And our spirituality can be based on whatever we choose. We need not wait for the apologies or amends of others. We need not suffer in silence or slink in the shadows. We can create our own seat at the table, or even build a new table altogether.
Even as an atheist, I too get to have a spiritual practice. Because spirit is entirely separate from religious organization, and does not necessarily imply faith in the divine. For me the word connects me to my best self and highest good. That part of me without ego. That longs to serve.
My current spiritual practice is based on various principles associated with loving kindness. The daily work of taking care of my body, creating space to clear my mind, actively seeing the best in my loved ones, and giving until it hurts. Taking the time to rule people in, rather than rule people out. Remembering that relationships are the reason, so I don’t get caught up in the details or sweat the small stuff. Cultivating an active and abiding love for this planet. And celebrating the persistent mysteries of the universe. The whole point is service. Honoring all that I have been given by giving it away. Such is the chain of life. Passing from one person to the next. A web of love and interconnectedness.
If you are struggling to create your own spiritual practice, concentrate on daily engagement with your body. Whatever your beliefs, we are all of us having a physical experience on this planet. So it is essential to start there. Examine your nutrition and physical fitness. Spend time in nature. Extend this depth of awareness to your mind through some mix of prayer, meditation, breath work, and chanting. Then stir your mind by engaging with others, both in person and with literature. Lastly, cultivate your commitment to your values by regularly engaging them. If you are committed to forgiveness, then practice forgiveness. If you are committed to humility, then practice humility.
I don’t have the greatest memory, so I tend to put pen to paper in order to help guide me each day. I started by creating a general intention to guide my life:
- I intend to be present, authentic, and compassionate. To let my heart unfold as it may. To lovingly challenge and inspire myself. And extend myself to others.
I winnowed this down to a mission statement:
- To serve others through art, advocacy, and strategic problem-solving.
Then I extended this intention to my core values by writing this vow:
- To minimize my possessions and debt
- To minimize my participation in that which perpetuates cultural ignorance
- To minimize the amount of physical harm I inflict on the earth and its creatures
- To minimize my participation in dishonesty by omission or commission
- To minimize my judgments of others
- To maximize my involvement with community
- To maximize my participation in those activities that connect me with higher power
- To maximize my participation in activities that spread love, peace, compassion, and understanding
- To foster knowledge and creativity in my community
- To take any risks which offer increased wisdom and spiritual growth
These are just a few statements I created to help guide my thinking and actions each day. At the end of each day I sit in reflection and assess my success in upholding these intentions and values. I can then celebrate my successes and course-correct wherever necessary, including any associated apologies, amends, etc.
I also find it important to create regular traditions and ceremonies that honor the sacred and meaningful elements of each year. One easy place to start is by marking the seasons. Then you can overlay that with the seasons of your life. That will give you a nice mix of annual and perennial touch points with which you can honor something larger than yourself. Frequent reasons to celebrate this world, as well as your place in it.
The key here is you are in the driver’s seat. It’s up to you to take ownership over this practice. Nobody is going to do it for you, and you should not allow anybody (or group) to do it to you. Your spiritual practice is yours and yours alone, regardless of whether you practice in solitude or in community. You own it. You are responsible for the maintenance, management, and results. That means if it’s not working, change it. There are no rules, other than tracking to your values and connecting with something larger than your own ego.
When you assess your success, ask yourself this: “How efficiently and effectively am I serving others?” Because spirituality without service invariably becomes self-indulgent and unsustainable. It is through service that we manifest humility and acknowledge our limitations. It is through service that we know interdependency, and learn to love and be loved. It is through service that we are healed and made whole. And nobody can take that away from us. It is ours alone to give.