Loving Men: Gay Partners, Spirituality and AIDS
By Richard P. Hardy
New York: Continuum, 1998, paper. 192 pp., $17.95
Throughout the late 1980s, many of my friends and former students were succumbing to AIDS. As a professor of Spirituality at a university in Canada at the time, I began to reflect upon the impact HIV/AIDS had on the lives of these people -- and particularly their spirituality. Some retained close connections with various churches. Others had left the church of their youth long ago, but maintained a spirituality which aided them greatly at this time. I could see that their experience of life was fundamental to their spirituality. After listening to their stories, doing research and reflecting I began to teach courses on Spirituality and HIV/AIDS, as well as write some articles.
However, it was my own personal experience of caring for and losing my lover in the early 1990s, which brought me to write this book. As we went through the various stages of our relationship in the context of HIV/AIDS, I came to see something unseen before. Certainly, the person who lives with HIV/AIDS develops an experiential spirituality, but his/her lover also finds one's spirituality changed as a result of their relationship. Yet, at that point, only Paul Monette's Borrowed Time had been published and this did not concern itself directly with spirituality. So, I began the project of finding out how lovers experienced their partner's infection. For this third party (HIV/AIDS) in a relationship was bound to affect the relationship and the spirituality of both.
At first, I asked friends if they would mind being interviewed so that I could determine how their spirituality was affected. Then, others heard of my project and contacted me, wanting to tell their story too. Over a period of about four years I interviewed over 30 partners whose lovers were affected by HIV/AIDS. They came from several cities in Canada and the United States. From these stories, I tried to find the spirituality that these men were living and I began to realize how deeply they had entered into an authentic spirituality.
It became clear to me that the book should clarify what spirituality is in the first place. Some identified spirituality and religion. Some could separate the two, and rightly so. I did not ask them what their spirituality was. I only asked about their lives, their experiences, their loves, their hopes, and their values. For an authentic spirituality comes from and thrives within life as it is lived more and more consciously. Within the first chapter, I speak of spirituality -- both humanist and religious. Essentially determining that spirituality is a life lived in pursuit of a chosen value, which moves one to constructive concern for others, I had the perspective with which to hear their stories of spiritual living. Each one fleshed out this notion by speaking of how they lived and how HIV/AIDS had affected them in every way. This spirituality is not something up in the air, but a very bodily, living reality that includes every element of life -- including sexuality.
Each of the following chapters deals with the elements of their stories. How they met, the difficulties they encountered along the way, the sense of loss and powerlessness, their values and supporting communities, their images of God and prayer as well as some advice to others in similar situations made up the rest of the book.
Many of the same characteristics came to the fore in each of the stories. Each experienced certain times of crises in his own way. Stan said "The last couple of months I couldn't think clearly because I couldn't get enough sleep. I would just get to sleep and he would need me for something. Then it would take me an hour to get to sleep and he would wake me again . . . After several nights of this I would get desperate. I remember thinking if I prayed hard enough and did things right maybe he wouldn't die, but emotionally I couldn't face it. I didn't even want to let myself think about it." Greg said "The day my brother died from AIDS, I thought I was going to come apart. My doctor wanted to prescribe tranquilizers, but I didn't want them. I felt everything was lost. I felt powerless. It seemed the world was falling apart, but I also felt I needed to be there with Al [his lover]. My two worlds were coming apart."
At different times each partner experienced being absolutely powerless. There was nothing they could do. However, the powerlessness paradoxically contained the solution. What could be done was to surrender, but this was a special kind of surrender. Most often when we think of surrender, we think of passively giving up. But the surrender, which held the answer for them, was an active surrender -- a determination to live out whatever their situation was at any given time. It was a path that was fraught with risk. One could follow that path only because of a deep love which one had for the other.
As I spoke with these men and saw their lives through their eyes, I felt like a child at the feet of very wise men. Their concern for each other was amazing. One man was a paraplegic who cared for his lover until just a month before he died. He would bathe him, feed him, and even take him to the doctor. From his wheel chair this partner did everything for his sick lover. Others, too, spent every free moment sitting with their lover, giving him care which people rarely see. They were able to do this because of the emotional support they received from friends and families of choice and sometimes even from biological families. Occasionally, they found that support in clergy or church people, but this was not always the case. Where they found support, they found constant, non-judgmental love.
Each of our stories speaks our spirituality. We may find connecting points. We may find differences. However, our journey in life remains at once our own and yet part of all human beings' journey. I would be interested in knowing how you found those connecting points and those differences. Moreover, do you see spirituality as something key in your relationships of love and how? Does spirituality mean something more particular to you after reading this book? The meeting of these men made me aware of the deep meaning of life when love is present. I am thankful to them and I hope you will find a similar experience in getting to know them.
- "Authentic spirituality, in whatever form it takes, destroys the body-spirit split to engage us in a life which values and enhances bodiliness and interrelationship. As we discover that ultimate value which gives meaning to life, we enter the process of living a spiritual life which is in fact living authentically the self we really are [ . . .] Both humanist and religious spiritualities are equally valid. One is not better than the other except in the sense that it is better for the one who chooses it. In an existential sense, the gay man who chooses a humanist spirituality chooses the better way for him. The same is true for the gay man who chooses religious spirituality. Each one chooses the path to his full empowerment as a human being relating to the mystery of life and lives in awe and wonder in that life which is always embodied." [pp. 29-30]
- "Within every human person there is deep longing for fulfillment -- a fulfillment which only relationships render possible. That openness to the other is the very heartbeat of humanity. We all live our lives permeated by desire for the other. It is in recognizing this desire we see that one is meant to be for the other. It is in the mystery of the other that we discover our real selves and the real meaning of life [ . . .] Like all human beings, gay men meet that other in a variety of ways. Some have met in bars, some at parties. Some have met through friends, in religious settings. What is important is that they met each other and were able to form loving relationships, which would see them through extremely trying times. Most discovered the other when they least expected it. This fact often provides the assurance that the relationship is real and not simply created by a desire. Some might call the meeting of that special other a mere chance or coincidence. Others might call it God's gift, or fate. Whatever we call it, what cannot be denied is the special reality that meeting precipitates in the lives of the men who came to love and find life in each other. This love and their life together become the foundation for their strength in the crises of their lives." [pp. 51-52]
- "Whatever disturbed Mario affected Stan. Yet, he felt he had to control himself in order to comfort Mario as he went through one thing after another. Stan spoke of one time when Mario, a Hispanic of Roman Catholic background, wondered out loud what would happen to him after he died: 'Then there came a time when he said he didn't like what was happening to him. He knew he was going to die, and he wasn't sure where he was going to go. I said "You've never been bad . . . You're such a beautiful pure spirit that nothing bad could happen to you." After that he was very calm. He spent a couple of nights not sleeping at all. We were lying in each other's arms the whole night crying. I guess saying goodbye to each other.' Stan's words spoke of what he saw in Mario and enabled his sick partner to feel God's deep love for him through his lover." [p. 55]
- "For all of us, wholeness is found by following our chosen path to its very end. While we may hope that the final result will be positive and will conform to what we've imagined, there are no guarantees about or life. The best answer to the question 'What path shall I take?' is 'The path which your heart shows you.' The only way to know is to choose and to act upon that choice. Every human being discovers the unfolding of the self in the very living out of that self in authenticity. That self is the heart of the person, pointing the way one must follow to become truly and fully the human being one is meant to become. For gay men the life path can be no other than following who we are an risking all that we are for the sake of the other. In doing so, we embrace the exile. Through fidelity to the unique story that we are and have been given in the face of mystery, we find what makes us whole. Knowing that our humanity is essentially tied to our sexual identity, we discover that our acceptance of who we are as gay men goes beyond mere acceptance. We affirm and celebrate the gift of the totality of our being, which includes our sexuality, attraction to other men, and more." [p. 80]
- "One summer I attended Shaun's twenty-seventh birthday part in Quebec. His partner Claude, had done most of the organizing. Along with about fifteen of their friends, Shaun's mother and father were there -- seeing for the first time their son's family of choice. They enjoyed all the celebrations, the jokes (on color and off-color) but were especially impressed by Shaun and Claude's friends. Shaun's mother said, 'I now see what wonderful friends you have, and I am really comfortable knowing they are with you.' When Claude became very ill and was hospitalized, Shaun's mother and father came to support him and help care for Claude. Shaun's father, who had an intense dislike of hospitals, not only visited Claude, but also spent the whole night on a cot next to his bed so that Shaun could go home and get much-needed sleep. They both loved and cared for Claude as well as Shaun, their son. Claude's family lived far away. Hence, while they supported the two partners, they were not so intimately involved in Claude's care. When Claude died they allowed Shaun to arrange the burial. Shaun purchased the headstone and told Claude's family to put on it whatever they wished. Later, the family called and told him the stone was in place and that they had written Claude's name, date of birth and death, and this: 'Spouse of Shaun.'." [p. 99]
- "The gay men who live passionately as lovers within the context of HIV/AIDS and whose stories are shared here have found that key of love and unity. They are not saints -- if one envisions saints as characters living out of this world. But they are saints if one sees saints as people who live and love passionately, each in their own way, place, and time. For those partners who were believers, the heart of this passionate love was a God who lived all that live has to offer with them. Theirs was a God of life now. For those who were not believers, the heart of their passionate love was life in all its mystery and sacredness. It was life lived now.
Perhaps the gift of gay men in this century is to offer the whole human community an authentic way of living spirituality. Rejected because of being different from the majority, gay men have to live many losses -- family, friends, careers, even religion. But rather than allowing these losses to destroy them or define them or cause them to remain inauthentic, the gay men whose stories we have heard dare to affirm their innate goodness. They have had the courage to live honestly and humanly the love which life has given them. When passion and sensuality are condemned by others, these gay men affirm the fundamental wonder and goodness of human passion and sensuality. By so doing and by so living, they offer a challenge to the human community at large and to the Christian churches in particular to reexamine life and see the goodness of all that is. They integrate in a variety of ways the core value of human life. In doing so, each one offers a very special gift to the humanization of the world and ultimately to making the world into the home of God who is Life." [p. 183]
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