Monthly Archives: May 2012

Time for a plug! Check out gaysubtletly, a blog by two gay Christian men who are talking honestly (and with verve) about some of the really hard questions. Here are a few excerpts that particularly caught my eye.

On prayer:

I don’t often have moments where I feel as if the Holy Spirit is actively trying to tell me something. When people tell me to listen for God’s voice, I only end up hearing things like “Simmbaaaaa.”

On sexuality:

Ask anyone to define the term sexuality, and most people will give you an answer that centers around sex. I define sexuality as our embodiment as human beings that allows us to interact with one another in meaningful ways…

…I’ve already experienced degrees of intimately close relationships with several of my friends. I am blessed to be able to say that I have had many nights of epic conversations and fellowship with friends where I have gone to bed feeling overwhelmingly loved without a hint of loneliness. It is those nights where I’ve seen my sexuality be expressed in satisfying, meaningful ways that didn’t center on sex.

On human nature:

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we, to borrow C. S. Lewis’ famous saying (I am a Wheaton alumnus, after all), content ourselves with building mud pies by the highway when God has prepared a seaside vacation for us? Why are we often the saboteurs to our own sanctification? Do I really have such an impoverished understanding of the true character of happiness that I’m willing to settle for such a shabby counterfeit?

Yeah, good stuff. Watch these guys, and show ‘em some love in the comboxes.

I didn’t expect such a strong response to that celibacy post. I liked it because it reminded me of priests I know: men who became priests, not because they didn’t have it in them to be men or didn’t have it in them to be fathers, but because they did have those things in them. All the qualities that make a man a good father make a man a good priest.

But I do understand why it touched a nerve. A good friend of mine went through exactly what some of the commenters described. She became romantically involved with a man who later decided to enter the seminary. No problem there, except the man in question kept stringing her along after the decision was already made. He didn’t see a problem with having romantic evenings with a girl whose heart he was tearing to shreds. He used her as his crutch. A man like that needs to be punched repeatedly in the head, till he realizes that his grand, glorious story has characters besides himself.

In other news, last Sunday I moved in with my sister. Packing my things felt like slowly tearing out some living part of myself.

Moving in, on the other hand…I don’t know what it is about my sister and her family. It is as if they have the charism of peace. Peace in the yard, peace in the house, peace in the children and in the furniture and in the dog.1

I feel like a convalescent. Say I’m overdramatizing if you want, I don’t care: the last few months was one of the worst ordeals of my life. Now it is over, and it is time to grieve and heal.

This is a fine place for that. I had a perfectly normal day. I wrote some fine code, chatted with my coworkers, coded some more, came home, said hi to everyone, went to my room, and bawled like a baby for no reason at all. The dog was sympathetic, if nonplussed.

Then I set up my mat and Kung Fu’d myself into a sweat until I felt better. Tomorrow I will do it all again. I think it will hurt less tomorrow.

1 My sister will snort when she reads this paragraph, but it is true nevertheless.

Hey, this is a neat post from the Marriage Matters blog:

I don’t mean that [priests] simply acquiesce to celibacy, but they embrace it with their whole heart. I am not simply referring to men who think to themselves, “Golly, marriage would be good. Women are beautiful. Sex sounds nice. But, oh well.” I’m speaking of men who have stared into the eyes of a woman with the passionate desire to sweep her off of her feet, profess his love and fidelity to her at the altar, make sweet, sweet love to her, and have a huge Catholic family; men who have looked straight in the eyes of an individual, particular, woman with whom he is in love—and who is in love with him–and said, “I choose Jesus. I choose priesthood. I choose celibacy.”

Whole post is here. It’s quick and not overly ponderous, and I liked it for its genuineness.

In other news, the date for moving out is SOON, because I am DYING up in here; also I am taking a long-overdue week’s vacation to go speeding around New England on my faithful iron steed (if she’s out of the shop by then, ohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseGod) and see Sal & others; and also I just got back from my first session with a new therapist who, as far as I can tell, really gets it. So I am, relatively speaking, pretty chipper. Hoorah.

And I said “Help me, help me, help me, help me–
Thank you! I’d no idea that you were there.”1

A few weeks ago, when things were worst, I was having one of those very anguished prayer times where you are yelling so loudly for help that it’s hard to notice when it comes. I finally asked: “Just tell me something, Lord; tell me something I need to hear, and I’ll try to be quiet so I can hear it.”

So he said, “This is not a punishment.”

Which you wouldn’t think he would have to tell somebody like me who (allegedly) believes that God is loving and merciful. But we do sometimes get ourselves all twisted up.

My dear friend R. was telling me recently about something called the “Just World Bias”: we innately believe that the world is fair, so when we see somebody undergoing horrific suffering, if we’re unable to help them, we will often seek comfort by saying to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously: They had it coming, they brought it on themselves.

We do this because it’s easier to swallow the idea that all suffering is some sort of comeuppance than to swallow the idea that inexplicably horrific things happen to innocent people.2

And those of us who are predisposed to self-loathing tend to apply this damning logic to ourselves. We say: God is just, God is loving, and therefore the only conceivable reason I would feel like this way is that I’ve done something horrible. So I must thinkandthinkandthink until I figure out what it is.

But it ain’t so. The mystery of suffering is a mystery because there aren’t simple answers. And it’s important to remember that God is not only merciful (which I tend to think of in very abstract terms), but also very nice (which is much easier to wrap my head around), so he is quite aware of our blindness, even when it is wilful, and doesn’t ask us to put ourselves on the rack.

That is to say: even supposing that God would be quite within His rights to put us on the rack — or on the cross!3 — that is simply not the sort of thing he does.

Like Calvin says to Hobbes after breaking his father’s binoculars: “There’s no situation so bad that it can’t be made worse by adding guilt.” And the converse is true: when you remove the guilt, ordinary pain becomes tolerable.

Because really, there are things much worse than pain.

1 Paul Simon — “Rewrite”, from the surprisingly good (if understated and somewhat mawkishly titled) album So Beautiful Or So What.
2 Conversely, someone else has answered the age-old question (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”) by saying: There are no good people. This is true, strictly speaking (cf. Romans 3:10 and Psalm 14:1), but since it is true in a way that is too high for most of us to understand most of the time, it is not particularly helpful to think about when you are thrashing around in pain. In fact, if you meditate on this truth during such times, you are guaranteed to misunderstand it. So cut it out.
3 Is this, maybe possibly, what the Cross means? Because we really do deserve much worse than we think we deserve, but at the same time we’re incapable of realizing it?

Well, this is an interesting time: it’s the first time that the majority of the people I see most days know that I deal with SSA. I told roommate #2 last night (roomate #1 has known for several weeks), when we were discussing the imminent move and he wondered out loud if there was some way they could get me to stay.

“Well, here’s the thing about that,” I say to C., turning towards the sink.1 “I’m gay. So. Sorry to drop that on you out of the blue. But” — whoa, that’s weird, all the wind went out of my lungs. I’m more nervous than I thought — “that sort of makes things difficult. Sometimes.”

C.’s eyes are downcast. He pauses and then says, “Well…do you mean you’re gay, or that you have homosexual tendencies?” I almost laugh at him, because I know C. and his almost preternatural sense of integrity: he is torn between the desire to offer compassion and the need to speak the truth as he knows it.2

I also know he doesn’t mean “tendencies” as in “Awww, you’re probably basically straight except sometimes you want to have sex with men for no reason.” I know he’s aware of what this means for somebody, because we’ve talked about it before, when I brought up Henri Nouwen on the ride to work once and he said solemnly, “What a cross that must be!”

So I’m not offended, except maybe a teensy bit — does he really think I don’t know this stuff? — but I assure him I’m not about to jump on the gay pride bandwagon, that I usually use “same-sex attracted” but I wanted him to know immediately what I was talking about, etc., etc.

C. and I are not in the habit of having DMC’s, so it doesn’t go much further than this. We chat a little bit more and then say Compline,3 and that’s it. He says “God bless you, Steve!” about a thousand times and tells me he’ll be praying for me about a thousand more. Like I said, solid guy.

I’m getting the sense that this whole thing is a much smaller deal than I used to think it was.

1 It’s a well-known fact about men that we are better at talking to each other when we’re looking somewhere else. That’s why bars are built with the seats all facing in the same direction, and why road trips are so good for bonding.
2 Although if you straightsters should ever find yourself in a similar situation, the compassion part is probably better to start with.
3 Asking my roommates to join me for Compline was one of the greatest little decisions I ever made. So much better than saying it solo.

I want to give you some words from the best spiritual book of any kind I have ever read. I keep trying to say something beforehand as an introduction, so you will know how good it is, but the best way is probably to just give you some passages. It is called Beginning to Pray, by Anthony Bloom.

As long as we ourselves are real, as long as we are truly ourselves, God can be present and can do something with us. But the moment we try to be what we are not, there is nothing left to say or have; we become a fictitious personality, an unreal presence, and this unreal presence cannot be approached by God.

Unless we are aware that we are outside the kingdom of god, we may spend a great deal of our lives in imagining that we are inside, behaving as though we were, and never reaching that depth where the kingdom of God unfolds itself in all its beauty, its truth and its glory.

We must remember that all we possess is a gift…We have a body–it will die. We have a mind–yet it is enough for one minute vessel to burst in a brain for the greatest mind to be suddenly extinguished. We have a heart, sensitive and alive–and yet a moment comes when we would like to pour out all our sympathy, all our understanding for someone who is in need, and at that moment there is nothing but a stone in our breast.

St. John Chrysostom said ‘Find the door of your heart, you will discover it is the door of the kingdom of God.’ So it is inward that we must turn, and not outward –but inward in a very special way. I am not saying that we must become introspective. I don’t mean that we must go inward in the way one does in psychoanalysis or psychology. It is not a journey into my own inwardness, it is a journey through my own self, in order to emerge from the deepest level of self into the place where He is, the point at which God and I meet.

I must admit that the perusal of manuals of prayer very often leaves me very uneasy. I feel that if god was really present, concretely there in front of me, I would certainly not dare to make all these flat discourses to Him and tell Him things about Himselves that He has known long before I ever came into the world. So there is a need for choice, because if you are ashamed of your prayer, God may be uneasy about you and the prayer too, and you will never be able to bring it to God wholeheartedly.

Well, that’s all for now. The best thing is for you to just get the book. I have read it several times, but I think it would be better just to read it continually from end to end for the rest of my life. Happy Sunday!

[ This story started here and continued here. ]

IV: LEAVING VENUS

I’m almost home from DC, and I stop to text Father T: Nearly there. Stopping by chapel for half hour. If all goes well in prayer, is it okay to tell them tonight?

I hate having to ask about miniscule things like this, but by now I don’t trust myself to see straight. Father T. texts back: Yes. It’s tempting to take his terseness as a sign of impatience instead of firmness — like maybe he’s thinking Geez, Steve, you gonna ask permission to take a leak, too? — but this asinine thought doesn’t gain any traction. He is, after all, Father T.

Which is not to say that he’s not impatient (though he wouldn’t let me know if he was), but that I don’t care if he’s impatient, because he’s my friend and I need help. Good, I text back, thanks. I want to get this done.

You could describe what I do at the chapel as praying, because I’m sitting in front of Jesus, but really we are just kind of looking at each other, feeling awkward. And to be honest, I am a little pissed off at Him. The decision to move out looks small from the outside, but it’s huge to me, and I ask him questions that don’t have answers: How come I couldn’t be strong enough? Why did you let me get so close if I just have to leave again? I feel like Odysseus, coming in sight of Ithaka only to be blown further off course than ever.

And, unlike with other big decisions in my life, my gut won’t guide me. This time, someone else’s advice has to be enough.

But S. is out of town when I get back — for a week, I learn — and I vacillate for a few days, looking for another way out. Finally one night C. and I are chatting over dinner. I feel pretty collected, more or less at peace. I get up to put my plate in the sink and say I have some bad news. “What is it?” he says. “I’m moving out,” I say, and burst into tears.

Crap, I only thought I was collected. Oh well. If there’s one thing I can say about the last two months, it’s cured me of being ashamed to cry in front of my friends. C. is clearly baffled; we’re not terribly close, and since I am pretty good at being cheerful when I’m not by myself, he didn’t know I was going through anything at all.

I explain about the depression, about Fr. T.’s advice, how I don’t want to leave but I know I’ve got to be by myself for a while. He is compassionate, offers his prayers, asks me to do whatever is best for me, and doesn’t push further. When I finally say goodnight he grips my shoulder. “You’re a tough guy, Steve,” he says. “You’ll get through this.”

So why don’t I feel any better about it? I make plans to tell S. when he comes back; it’s not the kind of thing you want to do over the phone. But I eventually realize I can’t wait a week, so Sunday evening after dinner I say a prayer to the Holy Spirit, light up a smoke, and give him a call. I’m actually shaking.

His reaction is, I’m embarrassed to say, gratifying: “WHAT!?” he yells. “Why?” I know it’s selfish to be glad that he’s upset, but I can’t help it: the old wound, the part of me that always suspects I’m not wanted, can never be salved enough, not even by so much friendship as S. has offered.

I give him the same account I gave C. but with a little more detail, since I’ve already confided in him about my SSA and since he already knows the last two months have not been easy. And he is as gracious as C. was: prayers, encouragement, understanding, and all manner of well-wishing.

How do I always end up surrounded by such good people?

I hang up, cry maybe just a little — Lord, how did I get to be such a cryer — and breathe deep. Well: it’s early yet. The coffee shop will still be open, and it’s a nice night for walking.

I’m halfway there before I realize I’m singing, loudly, an old Beck song:

Holding hands with an impotent dream
In a brothel of fake energy…
I get higher and lower
Like a tired soldier
With nothing to shoot, and nowhere to lose
This bottle of blues.

That’s odd, I’m grinning; at the aptness of the words, and also because they are not apt at all; at the fact that, corny as it sounds, the sky literally seems clearer than usual, more open, as if I can sense the depth behind it; the world smells more fragrant, more like spring. I’m like somebody in love.

I’m so used to sadness that comes from nowhere and disappears the same way. So often, getting happy again has meant buckling down, sticking to the routine, waiting for it to pass. I’m not used to this simple, objective stuff, where the sadness has a cause, where the removal of the cause means you feel better.

I know it’s not over yet, because there’s still the wait, the search for someone to take my place at the house, the whole lengthy ordeal of moving. I know no feeling lasts forever, and that in fact I will probably be sad tomorrow out of plain habit. Who knows, I could be sad all week, or all month. But there’s an end in sight. For the moment I’m sane enough to keep from self-analysis, to keep from asking myself, like some tiresome, sanctimonious schoolmaster: Now what did we learn from this?

Okay, so maybe I learned something. It’s this: if I ever traveled to Venus, I’d probably take off my helmet and try to breathe the formaldehyde. “Idiot, what are you doing?” my fellow astronauts would be yelling. “People can’t breathe that stuff!” And I’d yell back, “Don’t worry! It hurts now, but it’ll make my lungs stronger in the end! I’m IMPROVING myself!” Then I’d keel over and die, a perfectly preserved monument to virtue and self-improvement.

Screw self-improvement. Forget facing terror and misery, except when I have to. Sometimes there’s a good reason to be miserable: that’s how it feels when you’re not where you’re supposed to be.

[ This story started yesterday. It will conclude tomorrow. ]

III: I KAN’T

I’m at the wedding reception in DC, catching up with L. after, what, three years? She’s concerned because my back is acting up, and the painkillers aren’t helping. But I’m doing a good job keeping it together, even if I can’t dance and I’m not as voluble as I’d like.

We’ve stepped out for a cigarette, and she is telling a story. I’m laughing, but I turn away because suddenly everything wells up, the sciatica, the Terrible Situation, the way nothing is going away. And — poor L., I have been doing this to people a lot lately — without warning I burst into tears.

By the time I tell her my story I have smoked at least two more of her cigarettes and downed the beer she’s brought me. You can hear the music coming through the walls, you can hear people dancing, and what a schlub I must look like, slumped on a bench outside the party with my face wet and my nose dripping.

I hate weddings.

L. tells me I can’t be so hard on myself, can’t keep pushing myself. She tells me we’re not supposed to put ourselves in occasions of sin. I misunderstand: it’s not like I’m in danger of sleeping with these guys. But that’s not what she means. She tells me, like a true grad student, that I’m being a Kantian — which is to say, I’m falling into the trap of believing that just because something’s difficult, it must be good.

I’m glad she’s here, but I don’t want to hear this, because that’s not how I live. The harder things are, the better you can use them to beat the weakness out of yourself. Didn’t Jesus say: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger?”

Maybe that wasn’t Jesus.

The reception’s over, and we say our goodbyes and head to an all-night diner, where after I’m done spilling my guts, we get some scrapple and eggs and decaf coffee and talk about other things, her dissertation, her boyfriend. It’s a good visit. Eventually I drop her off and head to my friend K.’s place, and share a smoke or two with him — it’s late, but he’s been up all night with his two-week-old and is happy for the company — and then I head to sleep. The next morning, I go to Mass, endure the bleating of the inevitably awful cantor of a foreign parish, and begin the eight-hour drive.

I love long drives: a chance to reflect, listen to music, do nothing in the world but smoke and daydream. But this one is spoiled: I was supposed to be getting away, recalibrating, but despite the good visit with L. and with K., I’m right back where I was. It hasn’t helped. I’m starting to see: this isn’t an interior problem. This isn’t about getting perspective, and it isn’t about growing in interior peace and gratitude and all the rest.

Or maybe it is about those things, but mainly it’s about getting the hell out. I call Father T. from the road.

Father T. never tells me what to do; like any good teacher, he lets me take as many steps by myself as I can. But this time I’m too close to the situation, too tangled up in my own fears and desires and theorems and strategies.

I’m like an animal caught in a bear trap, except I am somehow emotionally attached to the trap, and I keep poking the spot where the metal teeth have gone into my leg, to see if maybe the leg’s healing yet. I try one more time to convince him and myself, and finally ask: “I have to move out, don’t I.”

“Yes.” Fr. T. gives no sign of being put out by my everlasting masochism, but his voice is sure and firm as, for once, he just tells me the answer. “You do.”

I know this. Everyone else knows it too, everyone whose shoulder I’ve cried on for the past two months, everyone who really knows me. I know it, but I don’t feel it. And oh, how I hate it.

[ Part IV tomorrow. ]

I: ENOUGH PEANUTS

[Nota bene: This story is in four parts, and parts I-III are pretty grim, but there’s a happy ending. Also, there is a lot of smoking and no small amount of tears.]

I’m making Friday night plans with my brother Caleb. He’s saying we could stay in and watch a movie, or go out and get some drinks. “Or,” he says, “if you want to — and if you don’t want to, that’s fine — some of the guys are getting together to play basketball. We could do that.”

Do I like basketball? I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell whether you like something when the thought of it makes your stomach twist into knots. Some people would say that makes it easy to tell, right? But I make things complicated. Maybe, I think, it’s like someone who is allergic to peanuts, but actually loves peanuts, only he doesn’t realize it because every time he eats them, they make him wish he was dead. Maybe if I just eat enough peanuts, I’ll teach myself not to be allergic to them.

But maybe tonight, dealing with panic is a little bit much, so I say, Let’s stay in. I hang up; but I start to think about it, and think about it, and think and think andthinkandthink until I call Caleb back on my way home from work.

“Hey, so, um. I’m thinking, yeah, let’s go ahead and play basketball instead.” I’m trying not to hyperventilate.

“…Really?”

“Yeah, I want to,” I lie.

“Because, you know, I really don’t care. I really don’t.” He doesn’t.

“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I mean, I should. I’m a little terrified. But I want to because I’m a little terrified.”

Caleb pauses, triangulating my neuroses. “You know,” he says, “you’re going to have plenty of chances in life to be terrified. You don’t really have to look for them.”

“Hm,” I say.

“So, Let’s stay in.”

“Um,” I say. “Okay.”

“You can eat here. We’re having enchiladas. Unless,” he says, “you’re terrified of enchiladas.”

II: BETTER THAN BASKETBALL

I know I’ve told that story about Caleb before, but it’s been on my mind because of something my friend L. said last weekend, when I visited DC for a mutual friend’s wedding. I was hoping the trip would be a way to get away, to give me some breathing room from my Terrible Situation.

Oh, the Terrible Situation, I can tell you about that now. It goes like this: after a year of living alone, I moved into a house with two other guys last February. Things started out beautifully. Somebody to come home to! Someone to eat with! Someone to chat with at odd moments! Someone who’ll bring their friends around — more people to meet, more people to know!

All this was true, and all this was good. I became surprisingly fond of both of them in a very short time, S. in particular. Then fondness turned to admiration. For me, it’s a short step from admiration to envy, and from envy to neediness, and jealousy, and all the rest of it. There’s a certain kind of admiration that makes me reassess myself, and the everything I used to consider good about myself, to frame my entire life in what-if terms: would I be more like him if I hadn’t been so scared, or so wounded, or so lame…Those of you who have been there can connect the dots; the mind has mountains.

And then when their college friends visited, which they seemed to do in a steady stream — seeing them interact with each other, watching their comfort and hilarity, would drive the knife home. This is what you want, says the old ἐχθρός, and this is what you will never have. Manifestly untrue, as Sal gently pointed out to me later in an email, but somehow I couldn’t call the right memories to mind, couldn’t think of a time when I had ever been at ease with anyone.

I set myself the impossible task of being as comfortable with them as they were with each other — I’d will myself into it — despite the fact that they’d spent every day together for four years, and when I failed I blamed myself, called myself socially inept, a hopeless loner. I knew it was crazy, and I couldn’t stop. Before I knew it I was in the deepest funk I had seen in a decade.

I didn’t think this was going to happen. I didn’t want this to happen. So I did all the right things. I talked to Father T., opened up to friends, wept and prayed and wept some more, read and meditated about the peace that comes from absolute trust in God. My friends couldn’t see why, if I was so miserable, I didn’t just leave.

But they didn’t understand! This was my way out from loneliness, and more than that, a way to get good at what I had always wanted to be good at: being comfortable in the company of other men. It was a second chance at I’d missed, or thought I’d missed, over and over again, all through homeschool and high school and college.

This was better than basketball.

It would get better, I kept saying. And it did. But every time it did, something would happen: some party where I felt left out, some imagined slight in conversation that snowballed into a full-blown self-pity session, some night when I would be bone-tired but couldn’t fall asleep because I envied the sounds of cheerful conversation downstairs — and I’d be right back where I started. But I couldn’t leave! That would be admitting defeat, that would be throwing away this beautiful opportunity that had dropped into my lap. I should be able to deal with this.

Give me more time, and I will get it right.

[ Cliffhanger!!! Continued tomorrow. ]

Boy, I have a lot of kind readers. There are tough times ahead, but The Situation is drawing to a conclusion. I’m writing the whole thing up, although I can’t promise it’ll be ready very soon.

In the meantime, to everyone who offered me prayers and compassion, thank you so much and may your cups run over!

And to everyone who offered me advice, I’ll try not to hold it against you.

So, real post on the way. Happy Mothers’ Day, especially to mine.