Saturday, February 10, 2007


Philip Gambone writes:

It was impossible for me not to find a religious dimension in that first love affair. I felt blessed, graced, smiled upon with divine permission to love this man. Nothing in my Catholic education had prepared to feel that way. Indeed, it should have been otherwise. So many other Catholic gay men I know agonized through their first homosexual experiences, repressed them, fought them, sublimated them, repented of them. Why was I so lucky as to escape all that? In part, I'm sure, it was the idyllic context in which Andrew and I conducted our affair.

More so, it was the fact that I could trust him: his intellect and his comfort with his religion. To be able to relax with one's faith — especially, to be a gay man and relax with one's faith — seemed extraordinary to me. Rather than guilt, I had found God.

We were together, on and off, for about five years. During that time, Andrew earned his degree at the Theological School and I finished my undergraduate education at Harvard. There was still no possibility of our being open about our love, but increasingly I was invited into his circle of friends, most of whom were serious Episcopalians. Under the circumstances, it was only a matter of time before I fell in love with his church, too.

What attracted me to the Episcopal church, at least that small segment of it that I found in Cambridge during those final years of the sixties, was its comfort with — indeed its celebration of — the physicality of the world. I remember Andrew showing me a cookbook by an Episcopal priest, Father Robert Capon, called The Supper of the Lamb. The very fact that a priest — whom I had always thought of as pious and ascetic — would write a cookbook astounded me. Father Capon’s message thrilled me all the more. The “theology” of the cookbook was that food is another kind of sacrament, another mediator of God’s grace and love.

Everywhere I turned in Andrew’s Episcopal world, I found more of the same: permission to be fully in my body, fully in the material world. The sensual stuff of the world —music, food, nature, at (at least privately) sex —all of it was part of God’s creation, God’s “plan” for His world. It was good. More to the point, there was an incarnational aspect to all this: the world and all its pleasures were good, not in some hedonistic, pagan sense, but because it was the physical manifestation of Christ. Deus caro factus est. As God had become flesh, so too the world’s delights — especially sex — were the “enfleshment” of the Divine. I needed this divine permission. It was the only way I could come to accept my homosexuality…

This need to understand and explain my homosexual self in a theological context was the only way I could accept the feelings and behaviors I found myself trying to deal with. There was a kind of elaborate stratagem involved here — an almost Jesuitical circumvention of the plain truth. In the eyes of the Church in which I had grown up, what I was doing — this homosexual life I was leading with Andrew — was wrong. But, by the neat trick of replacing my childhood Catholicism with a Catholicism that I had convinced myself was as legitimate, if not more so (even if it was somewhat unorthodox), I could have my cake and eat it too…

By the time I graduated from EDS with a Master of Theological Studies, I was something of an expert on matters of homosexuality and the Church. At the same time, I was very much not an expert in the nitty-gritty of sex and dating and relationships. My preoccupation with religious studies had kept me from knowing myself — my feelings, my needs — in some basic and fundamental ways.

It would be easy to be dismissive of this period in my life. It would be easy to say that I was indulging in elaborate “mind games,” games that began way back on that first night when, trembling with excitement and fear, I crawled into bed with Andrew and told myself, “God wants this.” It would be easy to say that my pilgrimage through Catholicism and Episcopalianism was just a way to avoid asking myself what it was that I really wanted. It would be easy to say that what I really wanted was just a boyfriend, or sex, or a way to feel acceptable. It would be easy to say all this, but I’m not sure it would sum up everything that I was struggling with. I’m not sure I wouldn’t be leaving out part of the story…

It still amazes and embarrasses me that I took so long to see how precious and silly and stiff my religious life had become. Or how stiff my marriage [to “Alfred”] had become. It still amazes me that I could tolerate the stultifying atmosphere of either for as long as I did. But the truth is, I was still looking to Catholicism (Anglo-Catholoicism in this case) to keep me in check, to speak my life for me.

Why did I feel I needed that kind of reining in? What was I afraid I would lose if I cut loose from either the Church or Alfred? What did I think I was getting from them that was so absolutely necessary? … by now I was beginning to understand that my search was not so much for the right denomination or parish as it was for a mode of spirituality that would clear away all the bullshit and let God truly speak.

I want real words, not this rhetoric of inane piety,” Richard Gilman writes in his memoir Faith, Sex, Mystery. That’s what I was looking for, too — real words from myself, real words from God. How ironic that the realest words I had to speak in those days were words I needed to tell Alfred, but couldn’t: “I want out of this relationship!” By the time Alfred and I split up (it took my having an affair with another man, my current lover, Bill, to pull it off), I was again feeling the old restlessness with regard to religion…

I’m not the kind of person who needs a religious “high” every Sunday. In fact, if anything, what I missed during my three-summer sojourn with the Unitarians was the “ordinariness” of the Mass, its predictability, and the opportunity it presents for someone to be with his or her own thoughts and prayers. I missed the idea that my participation, or lack thereof, did not affect the profound mystery that takes place at every Eucharist. Yes, I missed that sense of mystery — that sense of the universe as a place that cannot be taken at face value — which seems to be at the heart of what is best n Catholicism.

Toward the end of his great Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh inserts the story of the final days of Sebastian Flyte, “the joyful youth with the teddy bear” who had been the best friend of the novel’s narrator-protagonist, Charles Ryder… Drunk and ill, he’s taken in by the Superior of a monastery and allowed to hang on as a kind of under-porter, “a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys.” Cordelia, Sebastian’s sister, who is telling the story, ends by speculating about Sebastian’s death: “Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.”

Cordelia is Waugh’s spokesperson for the Catholic interpretation of life’s meaning. Her point is that, in the eyes of the Church, Sebastian is not a tragic figure, for in his degradation and abject humility he has achieved a kind of holiness. His final acceptance of the sacrament, which rescues him from eternal perdition epitomizes this. This scene has always struck me as one of the most stunning moments in this stunning novel. With great dramatic economy, Waugh manages to get at the essence of the Catholic message: that “salvation” (our ultimate reality and destination) does not hang on wordly or personal achievements of any kind. There is another factor, another dimension, operating in our lives that means more. Catholicism is gloriously clear about the fact that he who has the most toys at the end is not necessarily the winner.

I want to be rigorously unsentimental about this. I want to say that my nostalgia for a sacramental religion is just that, a piece of nostalgia that I must get big enough to overcome. I want to say that the Church as I know it today — the Church of papal encyclicals against homosexuality, the Church of an all-male celibate clergy, the Church in whose name all manner of oppression and intolerance continues to be practiced — that that Church is an irrelevancy in my life. I want to say that I wish it a swift death.

And yet…

“Do you think God will throw you away?” Gilman is asked by his French confessor. “You know,” the confessor continues, “it is such a mystery how belief of the kind you describe comes and goes. We cannot know why we have it — except that it comes through grace — or why we can lose it. But really it is never lost, it only makes itself unknown for a while… although I admit it can be a long while.

…On the last page of his memoir, after he has been away from the Church for twenty-five years, Gilman writes, “[It] isn’t quite the power of repentance I’m hoping for, nor, whatever my distress, do I anguish over my possible damnation. I want to be ‘saved’ (who would wish to be lost?), but outside the temple I don’t know what that means anymore. I only know that I don’t want to die as an act purely of nature, of this world.

Perhaps this is why I have asked John [a Catholic priest] to be with Bill during these final weeks and months, why I have asked him to be in my life, too. I don’t want Bill to die as an act purely of nature. I want to believe that none of us dies that way.

And right now, those are the realest words I can say about my religious life as a gay man.

Philip Gambone (born in Massachusetts) is an American writer and Harvard professor. His short-fiction collection The Language We Use Up Here was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His short stories have appeared in more than a dozen magazines and anthologies. His essays, reviews and feature articles have appeared in Bay Windows, the Lambda Book Report, the Advocate, Frontiers, and the New York Times Book Review. His essays have been included in the anthologies Hometowns, A Member of the Family, Sister and Brother and Wrestling with the Angel. He now lives in Boston, Massachusetts, teaching at Boston University Academy and the Harvard writing program, where he has received two Distinguished Teaching Awards.

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