I suppose this is a very belated Lenten reflection, and with reason too. I certainly do not know the worth or value of any spiritual reflection I have to give, so I will not dare to assign one. All I can is say is that in the past few months I have come a long way, certainly not far enough, but conversion is always a process and not a destination.
In the liturgical season of Lent, for the past two years, I have kept the Ramadan fast strictly following the rules as practiced by Muslims. In place of the prescribed Islamic prayers throughout the day, I prayed the Divine Office. For forty days, at least, my life was completely and utterly centered on God and awareness of His presence in a way that it normally is not, sad as it is. This second year in keeping the fast I felt more than a spiritual solidarity with the poor as I had the year before. I learned much more about fasting, so much that it bothers me greatly that this potent tool has been diminished in the contemporary Church.
Lent, or the Great Fast, as it is called in the East, is not simply about giving up soda, or candy, or reducing the amount of food intake. Fasting rather calls us to prayer and penance and to divorce it from these vital elements is to forsake the meaning of fasting. After all, what does it gain you to eat less, avoid meat, or abstain from temporal goods, if you are ready and willing to “chew up” and consume your brothers and sisters in an argument with such venom and heat? Why sacrifice the joys of eating good food and not sacrifice the sinful “joy” of gossiping?
It struck me ever so clearly why I should fast all the time. Though it seems obvious, we often forget that fasting is intimately related and undoubtedly necessary for conversion—of heart, mind, and will. Now, at the completion of the Pauline year, this mystery, of conversion, stands at the forefront of my life and at the heart of my reflection over these past few months that begin on Ash Wednesday.
Nothing, I think, is more profoundly interesting in the field of human psychology than the mystery of conversion. I have experienced this phenomenon radically and I hardly understand it. In the study of the psychology of religion, conversion is considered the most perplexing and fascinating behavioral change. This year marked my third Ash Wednesday. My first year, I was to be baptized the coming Holy Saturday. The second year marked my first Lent as a baptized and confirmed Catholic. This year, I think I was finally paying attention. Repent and believe in the Gospel. Those words carried a profound sentiment as the priest made a Cross of Ashes on my forehead.
The subjective experience of this has been at the forefront of my reflection during Lent, throughout Easter, beyond Pentecost, and still now. Why exactly do people radically forsake their entire worldview, life-philosophy, and ethical codes for something different? And what can similar experiences, if the process is not the same for everyone, tell us about the human condition?
The questions began as general and evolved into something personal, very personal. I have been asking myself a simple, but complex question. Why am I Catholic? This question seems odd. I don’t think I have presented myself to people in such a way that would leave them suspicious of the fact that I have internally debated my status in the Church, that is, whether or not I can or will keep this up forever. Indeed, I have thought intensely about this, quite consciously actually. To be completely honest, I never had any intention of talking about or even discussing this matter. What business is it to anyone else?
As it happens, a certain individual on The American Catholic a while back read a long comment I posted in response to a column that involved personal conversion details that I used to make a point, only to notice upon reloading his browser, I had thought twice about it and decided to remove it rather promptly. In the same evening, he encouraged me to not withhold it unless I felt the matter too personal to share, for he believed that it had the potential to be an incredible witness. So, following his advice I am going to share it—though I am not entirely sure he knew what he was asking.
Without further adieu…
When I was 8 years old, I attended a church service with my grandmother, who is a Southern Baptist that was life-changing. To put it in context, no one in my family is religious. My father has not been a part of my life in any meaningful way. My mother and sister are religiously indifferent. My oldest brother is dead from overdosing on drugs. My youngest brother has two children already, was (or still is) involved in a similar lifestyle as our oldest brother, and too, is religiously indifferent as he had been raised. I attended church with my grandmother freely and this happened routinely for a while. It made her quite happy I wanted to go. Though, one Sunday, the pastor gave a sermon about “modern evils.” As far back as I can remember, around the age of four, I have always been deeply drawn to men and this yearning only grew stronger as the years went by. Mind you, it was not “sexual” because I had little to no awareness of such things, but it was a clear desire to unite in some way with another male. I had no idea of how or why, but the desire was, and had been, manifestly there. This already existent condition, I knew intimately. I cannot recall any aspect of my life without it. The pastor, on that one Sunday, condemned homosexuals as “depraved” and “corrupt” individuals. Those words are precisely his. I have not forgotten them, or his voice. He described the gay lifestyle and the damage homosexuals desire to inflict upon Christian families and their children with their destructive “choice” of behavior. These people, he said, the Lord will burn for eternity in the fires of Hell. I never entered a church again after that day (I still have not gone to a Protestant church) and it is, as far as my memory goes, the beginning of my atheism.
For the longest, I was indifferent to the reality of God. I never talked about Him, thought about Him, or prayed. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I believed to be an atheist was to face reality. I had not heard a more compelling or convincing argument to many existential questions I already had nor did I have a credible Christian witness around me to make me a believer.
At the height of my atheism, my freshman year in high school, I began my first and only long-term relationship with a classmate named Kyle. I can hardly talk about this time period without addressing the fact of how my family was simply a group of autonomous individuals living in the same household, my existential conundrum (in terms of meaning), an overwhelming sense of isolation and alienation, psychological depression, self-esteem issues, and a lack of sense of self. In regard to Kyle, to this very day, I have never had a more profound friendship, attraction, or love of another human being. My life changed. I felt happier and less fragmented. Unfortunately, there were other problems that I will bring up momentarily.
My college career began at Xavier University of Louisiana. This was largely meant to be an opportunity to escape my family and “start over.” God seems to have thought that to be a good idea, or at least, He embraced half of it. This escape lasted two weeks. Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans and I inevitably ended up back in Houston, at the University of St. Thomas where my conversion would occur—so God approved of the “start over” part. My atheistic existence was breaking down. I was a self-described agnostic. Have you ever met someone who is “spiritual but not religious?” I think what individuals mean to say is that they acknowledge that the world, in the state it is in, is not perfect, but the resources and means to transform it are unavailable, not because they do not exist, but because such a person is confused or uncertain as where to find them. It is understandable, in terms of our humanity, that given the fact that we’re literally thrown into existence, in a world with suffering, evil, competing life-philosophies, worldviews, religions, the mystery of death, and unspeakable violence against one another over our disagreements about these very things, it is easy—not reasonable—to be skeptical any of these competitors has a hold on the truth about life itself. That would require some divine intervention. I was ignorant of such an occurrence, at least, to the extent that it would render some sort of personal response. This was my agnostic stance and why I rejected those laying claim to know the truth, a truth I claimed I did not know.
Now, of course, I believe the existence of God is self-evident and through the use of reason we can know something, though limited, about His existence and His nature. The second point is more complicated. There is this sort of common experience, which we all know, that reveals to us the mystery of God in different ways. I am not very sure how to talk about this. I am not used to talking subjectively or referring to personal experience to make a point. I like to box everything into a category of objective truths, not what I “think” or “feel” because I tend to think such points hold no water in philosophical discussions. Though, I’m not sure anymore if human experience is entirely irrelevant to the question of God.
As it happens, by February 2006, I believed in God and was regularly talking to a priest about religion, spirituality, and ethics, but only in a general sense. By this point, I still had my boyfriend—same one, no fights, no break-ups. The priest I spoke with is perhaps one of the greatest advocates of traditional marriage and family that I know. I have witnessed him give homilies or lectures (e.g. Theology on Tap) about abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and all the “non-mentionable” topics. Though, I find it interesting that he never once said to me, blatantly, even after I was seeking entrance into the Catholic Church, “Eric, you cannot both be a practicing Catholic and in a homosexual relationship. Choose one.” Rather, I always believed that he loved me for who I was. He was not ambiguous either. I knew his views explicitly. But, for the most part, we did not have to discuss it and there was no relativism involved, for neither of us believed that the opposite view was acceptable. This somehow did not create a rift in our relationship. I was a person to him, not a homosexual. I cannot put into words how wonderful a feeling that can be.
In the fall of 2006, I began RCIA for educational reasons not for the end of becoming Catholic. The university chaplain was an Oxford graduate, a vibrant theologian, a traditional Catholic priest, and a genius. This was a rather difficult time for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here since it doesn’t strike me as necessary. To say the least, I knew “too much” to sell out and become a Catholic. I was no atheist or agnostic. I was not exactly a deist. Yet, I remained religiously observant to a world I didn’t believe in anymore, a world without God, without meaning, and without providence. I studied various world religions and everything about them, doing my best to remain removed, searching for what I thought might be the truth. I had no idea what I was looking for. Though, admittedly, Christianity just plainly was interesting. Our Lord incarnate, historically speaking, is an enigmatic and fascinating figure.
Finally the real moment came. I don’t know precisely when I “converted.” Perhaps it was when I started to show up daily to Mass, or though not a Catholic, I was coordinating 24 hour Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, going to Bible Study every week with a priest-theologian, and explicitly had a Catholic spiritual director. I am not certain. I like to think of conversion as a moment of surrender when you stop fighting. I simply let go of all the moral and existential questions that were tormenting me and distancing me from God. I did not feel that I needed to know the answers to those questions, even though I desperately wanted to. God knew the answers and that was the point. I wanted the impossible—to know everything there is to know and I wanted this because I felt I had to know these things in order to know Him, which is absurd. I finally convinced myself no theological dispute, social issue, or even other Christians would keep me from honoring my Creator. In fact, by this point, my relationship was under intense pressure because of conflicting worldviews and how rapidly I was changing. In truth, my dedication to my relationship was fading with my newfound fascination with Christianity. I did not know how to stop talking about God and religion. I didn’t know how to go out anymore or just spend time with people, even the one I cared about most. I had countless books that I “had to” read, points to argue, facts to look up, and questions to be answered.
God was in my life and all the barriers were gone, or so I think. I recall an atheist friend asking me would my new “God-friend” send him to Hell. I replied simply, with no need to think beyond it, that no one would go to Hell by accident. I did not need to know whether or not people were in Hell at all, how many would go there, or whether or not non-Catholics could go to Heaven. I just knew that God’s justice was beyond our imagination and my “formula” as to how salvation would be attained for those baptized, but not in the Church, for those virtuous non-baptized who have remembered the least of Jesus’ brethren, or anyone who has never even heard His Name, was unnecessary. I didn’t even need to conceptualize how damning them would be just. God was God and that’s all I needed. I sincerely miss this simplicity dearly. These questions torment me now.
The real mystery of conversion, I think, is beyond the scope of psychology for one reason: the key ingredient is God’s divine providence. It is not simply a human change. We do not lift ourselves up, but are lifted up if we give a free and genuine “yes” to God’s invitation. No one can change for the greater good except by the grace of God. In the case of my own conversion, I think this theory is remarkably true. The providence, in fact, is a clear and impossible miracle. If my thoughts on the matter don’t work for you, as C.S. Lewis often says, disregard it and think of it no more.
Now, I feel that God made my conversion possible, in ways that spoke to me individually and He in His Mercy allowed—not willed—me to sin, so that upon rising, I would see His glory. Bare with me, I have never really described this mystery—a mystery it is. In retrospect, I knew a lot about the Catholic Church, while, at the same time, I knew nothing about it. I hated, what Archbishop Fulton Sheen would say, I thought the Catholic Church to be. In this sense, I knew the Church and did not know her at all.
I was conveniently ignorant of a multitude of things about the Church, even while surrounded by Catholics and even regularly asking priests and professors questions, I never thought to bring up or address these matters. Had I asked certain questions and gotten an orthodox response, I might have been confused, hurt, or even angered. More than likely, I would have not proceeded to become Catholic. This is the miracle of Divine Providence: mysteriously the arrangement of my free decisions and God’s activity in the world acted in unbelievable concert, as arbitrary my decisions seem at times as well those of others—others who both influence me and whom God is attempting to save in the same way. All this somehow played out magnificently, even if it is not noticeable at first glance. Complicated, I know. Let me explain further.
Today, I am easily an advocate of John Paul II’s “new feminism.” Previously, I was a “liberal feminist.” If I had known during my process of conversion, the Church’s stance on the ordination of women, that it not only was declared, but was, in fact, infallible and irreversible, and the fact that it was based largely on gender—being ignorant of metaphysics, ontology, sacramentality, and the nature of which our Lord instituted the priesthood—I would have likely dismissed such a teaching as “hypocritical doctrine” or some “injustice in the name of God.” The Lord knows what I would have called it and what it meant for my conversion, I cannot say would have been good.
Better yet, if I were more knowledgeable about the political polarization within the Church by the so-called “left” and “right,” particularly statements by certain Bishops and priests that borderline indicate that Catholics could not be Democrats or support Democratic political candidates at all, I would have seen that as the use of religion as a political weapon. In fact, I used to despise people with an “obsessive-compulsive pelvic theology” that could not escape focusing solely on the issue of abortion.
Most obviously, if I had known any public pronouncements given by Church authority on issues of human sexuality, particularly on the status of homosexuals within the Church, my conversion would have been impossible. I cannot conceive otherwise. If I read any line of the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexuals Persons, or Always Our Children, I would have ceased interest in Catholicism, if not Christianity all together. If I read Humane Vitae or Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body with the strong emphasis on gender roles, male-female complementarity, and statements claiming that only licit sexual acts are open to new life, I would have been devastated. If I had know that the sacrament of marriage was utterly unchangeable and that it was impossible, dogmatically speaking, for the Catholic Church to ever bless same-sex unions or approve of same-sex parenting whatsoever, I would have been brokenhearted and unable to reconcile my life-experience with the tenets of my new faith. I would have searched for God elsewhere, or even perhaps, I might have stopped talking to Him again and retreated into agnosticism.
What is the miracle then? Somehow, someway, I had no idea about any of these things! My knowledge of certain things were so vague, I drew no connections and was utterly oblivious how far-reaching many of the Church’s teachings were and what they truly meant. My focal interest was with the figure of our Lord, with Christology and soteriology—ecclesiology became an interest much later. I was obsessed with the Lord and I wanted to know everything about Him. I saw no reason to be concerned with the obsession with sex and marriage in politics, which, I felt was dividing churches and leading Christians to be so concerned with temporal things and not those of the Lord. People were arguing and hating each other, not praying and fasting for one another. I wanted no part of it.
As a matter of fact, if I had not read the works of dissenting Catholic theologians advocating gay sacramental marriage and “inclusion” in family, or women’s ordination, had I not known of groups like Dignity USA, Catholics For a Free Choice, Catholic Democrats, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Catholics United, or even the Roman Catholic Conference for Women’s Ordination, I am not sure how I would have been able to convince myself not to worry. For homosexuals, I simply believed our time would come and I trusted in God. The same is true for the ordination of women and politically for those Catholics like me who had chosen to do more with their time than oppress people like our Republican brethren. I convinced myself to focus not on the problems and to focus on what drew me toward the Catholic faith, which seems astonishing.
Strikingly, my comfort with dissent and the choice of others to dissent from church teaching not only assisted my conversion, it helped me to convert and ultimately become orthodox. If I had an inkling of suspicion that such matters were more than mere prevalent Christian opinions in a slowly evolving human world, but rather unchangeable teachings, I would not have been so content to focus my energies on other teachings—the ones that drew me in, which basically allowed me to come across everything I would need to know, so that when the time came, the teachings I did not want to accept, were acceptable because I would be able to see the relevance and the deep harmony of all the teachings with one another. If someone alerted me that these teachings were not able to be reformed, ever, that would have clashed with my understanding of human sexuality. How could I not worry if it is a mortal sin to have sex outside of marriage, but homosexuals cannot marry religiously; by all means, given my views on homosexuality, the Catholic Church was doing homosexuals a grave injustice. It is an absolute miracle that I did not focus on this. I simply rationalized it and never made it a point to fight with other people about it, which seems impossible. I cannot put into words how great an advocate of gay marriage I was, or how I supported the fight against the Texas marriage amendment with both time and money.
All of this somehow prepared me for a specific point—accepting the Church’s teaching on life issues, birth control, women’s ordination, and homosexuality. The latter was obviously the hardest. I accepted, intellectually, the fullness of Catholicism by February 2007.
By this point, my relationship with Kyle had entered its final stages with all the tension my religious observance and obsession with God had put on it. He all but accused me of adultery with the Catholic Church. Yet, without warning, I began to spend an inordinate amount of time around him and even went out of my way to see him. He thought I had finally come around and we were going to work things out. I never told him that I decided to become Catholic. He had no idea. I stopped talking about God and religion around him. He found hope that things were going to get better. Selfishly, I withheld the truth from him—I was going to leave him for God.
My memory of this is quite clouded. I have so much guilt, I hardly wish to remember. I feel as if I were dying from cancer and could not bear to tell him. In some ways, this shaded my views about becoming Catholic—though in a literal sense, becoming Catholic is to die to yourself. Most people, though, are excited and thrilled. I was too, until reality set in.
Shortly before Lent began, I decided I was going to tell him. Each day turned into tomorrow and soon enough, we were in Lent and I had said nothing. Days turned to weeks and we had reached Palm Sunday and still I had said nothing. Every touch, every kiss, and every hug was like the last. Holy Thursday was unbearable evening because our time was almost up. I had to tell him that night, I said. I said nothing.
I remember looking in the mirror, rather foolishly, practicing what I would tell him for I did not want to discuss such a thing, difficult and complex as it was, unprepared. Good Friday came and went; I said nothing.
My conscience did not allow me to sleep. I cried most of Holy Saturday morning. I called him early and met with him late that morning, less than twelve hours until I was going to enter the Church, very, very undeservedly.
I do not even wish to recount the course of things. I can hardly describe the dreadful surprise of my secret to the one person I never thought I would lie to. The expression on his face is immortal in my memory and demons use this against me in battle. I will leave to your imagination the hurt he felt and the tears of sorrow he wept in front of me. But, what is most distressing of all, is that he loved me so much that he forgave me right there and yielded to my request that for the sake of my soul, we not see each other again—he agreed to all this because he loved me so and the intense agony and loneliness he would have to endure was of no consequence to my happiness. For such a horrible deed, I could not believe he would have such terrible mercy. It did not relieve me at all; in only made me feel worse that he would be so unbelievably loving and forgiving after a relationship that lasted six and a half years ended with no warning.
Words cannot exhaust the sincere lacking of what was meant to be the greatest night of my life. I remember someone, after the Easter Vigil liturgy, telling me that my tears of joy during my baptism and confirmation were very moving and that they were happy for me. When in reality, those tears were borne of sadness. Or, in another instance, a new student I met in the last year having learned of my decision to be faithful to Church teaching on homosexuality suggested that such a deed warranted sainthood. Indeed, the only real tragedy in this life is to not be a saint. But it is the absolute irony of such a reality that makes me believe should it happen (though I have severe doubts about this) I am uncomfortable living with.
In the last few months prior to Holy Saturday, Kyle was enduring one of the most arduous periods of his own life. His parents had regularly fought for years, but tension grew at an alarming rate after his father was laid off from work. The two began to fight vehemently, sometimes, violently. I have been told that shortly after I departed from his life, government authorities took his siblings (temporarily—though this was highly uncertain at the time) from his family and his parents have separated indefinitely.
In many ways for him this was a retreat, deeply, back into a world, he and I always discussed escaping: broken homes, isolation, and emotional instability. He did not have the financial resources to go to college after high school and always expressed anxiety over his future. When I met him, he felt terribly isolated and had a low self-esteem. Sadly, Kyle, due to the lack of religious observance by his culturally Irish Catholic family never made his First Communion or Confirmation. As far as I ever knew, his experience of Catholics were those in his family who were observant, who largely came across (and I still think this) as sanctimonious and judgmental. In many ways, I feel I might have had the potential to reach him, as a Catholic, if I were honest. How things played out was not absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, the one Christian closest to him, lied to him and hurt him unbelievably for selfish reasons.
I can hardly imagine the lasting effects of my choice of action, considering both what I have described here and the personal demons that I know Kyle deals with, that I have not mentioned here. What are the consequences of my actions? The fact that I don’t know the eternal answer to that question is very upsetting.
The “problem” of conversion is that it fundamentally is a choice. I have struggled to understand, beyond intellectualism, why I made the decision I did. It would be a lie to say that it was not definitively the most difficult moment in my entire life. My troubles remind me of a point made by St. Thomas Aquinas, pointing out that the embedded “curse” of choice. As humans we desire infinitely, though every choice we make is a renunciation of all other possibilities and each choice is a permanent, irreversible action that will forever be a part of us.
An inspiring woman once wrote, “It’s an awful truth that suffering can deepen us, give a greater luster to our colors, a richer resonance to our words. That is, if it doesn’t destroy us, if it doesn’t burn away the optimism and the spirit, the capacity for visions, and the respect for simple yet indispensable things.”
Christians understand that suffering has redemptive value. But is it not the project of the devil to get us to forsake this idea and lead us into despair where suffering alienates us from God? In one of the most famous Jewish todah hymns, the psalmist writes “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Our Lord cried this out from the Cross on Calvary. The saying is the first verse of Psalm 22, which begins as a cry in the midst of peril and suffering but ends on the triumphant note of salvation and deliverance.
A recurring theme throughout all the Scriptures, not just so, but throughout human history, in each and every individual life, is that the Lord will deliver you in your hour of need, if you seek His Mercy. I try to remember this. God will deliver me. St. Paul reminds us that the Lord will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. Though, I regretfully must admit that the Lord believes me to be stronger than I wish to be.
Not even three years ago, I had radically different life plans. It involved marriage and family. It involved a lot of things. God humored me and revealed something else: a vocation of celibacy. St. Paul, my patron saint, made a revolutionary claim in regard to such a vocation: “It is good for man not to marry.” This statement has much potential to be gravely misquoted. But it is a striking statement. How can it be good for man not to marry? St. Paul goes on to tell us: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided… I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”
This is how I am called to live and it does not appear to be something I have a choice in as others have—at least, it is not the same sort of choice. Mine is literally do or be damned. But, in a real way, I do have a choice, a choice I’ve made, a choice I must embrace. There are days of deep loneliness and isolation. Some of these days are a reflection of the psalmist—experiencing the plight of suffering with the joyful hope that the Lord, the faithful God, will deliver His servant from all evil.
Other days—and this is truthfully, most often—I simply engage in self-pity and a self-imposed prison of sorrow. I remember the embrace of another person and the intimacy that can exist between two people, even in this fallen world—something that far too much taken for granted. After what seems like a lifetime of isolation, I remember my first real sense of solace in another person, which, due to circumstances, began as secretive, could not be celebrated, and morally cannot be approved. I remember my first kiss and unlike others, it is nothing I can remember with joy or any sense of comfort. Though, I can attribute most of the changes in my life—changes that I believe necessary for my conversion—to my relationship, which includes helping me move away from hatred and bitterness toward society, ending suicidal impulses, healing depression, and giving me a sense of identity and meaning in life. Despite this, I have trouble remembering much of my past, particularly Kyle, if I wish to maintain any sense of peace. I am not sure if such activity (remembering my romantic history as a part of who I am, whether I can deem it as “happy” times, or should forget it) is either scandalous or sinful or neither. But the one person that was once a symbol of personal joy now exists to me as a temptation, of a world and a life I may never know again, a life that to even think of, gives me sadness. This is precisely the predicament. I wish to and wish not to ever remember such times. If you refuse to give in to homosexual desires, one must inevitably be nailed to the Cross with theodicy and despair. Yet to forsake these things is to be a man without a past or history, which inevitably makes me a man without an identity.
Even so, somehow there is an even greater paradox. My very weakness is my spiritual strength. I believe, rather boldly, that homosexual men and women because of their experiences must be incredibly strong creatures, stronger than most. For most of my life, homosexuality was the central barrier to a communion with God. Today, it is one of the primary reasons I talk with Him and apart of embracing the Cross.
This experience is beyond the general condition of having a homosexual orientation; it is profoundly personal. Kyle and I found something in each other that dramatically changed our lives. We were the agent of change, for better and for worse. The end result, at least immediately, has benefited me. Kyle, as I said, did not have the resources to seek higher education. I am the first in my family to go to college, free for the most part. He has never left the state. Whereas I have walked the catacombs, served a priest at the altar (a side altar, but an altar nevertheless) in the Basilica of St. Peter’s while on study abroad, stood less than 15-feet of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, traveled to several other states for various reasons including witnessing the inauguration of the first African American President of the United States, again, for free. My family is in no way wealthy, or even “middle class.” Neither is Kyle’s family. Yet, these remarkable graces have been repeatedly given to me. But these worldly blessings are scarcely the principal source of my sorrow.
It seems arbitrary that I was chosen, according to God’s divine providence, to be blessed to know what it is I know and to have the intellectual competence to understand what I have been graced to comprehend. With the growing crisis in the Church, too few are so adamantly interested in theology and philosophy, living out one’s faith consistently, and remaining in adherence to Church teaching. I can only imagine the psychology of St. Paul after he, perhaps nonchalantly, traveled to Damascus only to have his life radically changed forever.
The night I was baptized and confirmed and encountered the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, I experienced a gift not even endowed unto angels and the victim of my choice to lie and be deceitful was weeping and hurting whereas I found sacramental paradise. Each day when I go to Mass and live out literally what is written in the pages of the Book of Revelation and share in the marriage feast of the Lamb through the liturgy of the Eucharist, I experience the greatest thing a person can know in this life—to know, to live, and enter into the Heaven in our “not yet.” How is it that I, the sinner I am, can enter the heavenly liturgy when my “garment,” as described by the Lord in the Gospels, is tainted by my sins?
Whenever I go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I cannot help but think of my family, broken and divided, whom I constantly fail everyday at trying to relate to or care about. All of my family (as unbelievably large as it is) to my knowledge is Protestant. I take for granted my blessing in being Catholic and sharing in the “fullness of the truth.” I think of people throughout my life I have hurt, ridiculed, and said terrible and hateful things to that either damaged or delayed their journey to Christ. Inevitably, I think of Kyle, whom I lied to, used, led on, and took for granted. I think of his plight and his personal demons beyond homosexuality, some of which involves moral dimensions that constitute grave enough matters to fall into the category, knowledge and circumstances permitting, of mortal sin. I always recall this and remember that he is in the world, trapped in a cycle that, if not transcended in some way, is self-destructive. I recall that “actual” grace substantially is not the same as “sanctifying” grace. There is a fundamental difference to simply be oriented toward mortal virtue through God’s grace and to the additional, transformative reality of being incorporated into the very life of God—that is, to live the process of theosis.
And in remembering Kyle, I never cease to feel a sense of irony as I walk to Christ sitting on His Throne of Mercy while those I have done evil to, or neglected, do not share the same grace. For what I did, why is it I, not he, who should receive such a gift? Some, I am sure, might imagine that I incredibly hard on myself. Perhaps they are right.
Yet I cannot forget the most frightening revelation that Christianity has to impart: we do not only have an influence on our own salvation, but on that of others as well. It is a very serious thing to remember that the most simple-minded, uninteresting, and insensitive of persons that we might talk to in the course of our life one day might be a creature in Heaven so beautiful and radiant in their reflection of God’s glory, that if we saw them now we may imitate St. John’s encounter with the angel in the Book of Revelation where he was so awestruck by the beauty of the angel, he fell down to worship it. Or, the opposite, which is almost unmentionable—they might be a horrific and ghastly creature in Hell that if we saw now, could not even be described sufficiently as the worst nightmare our imaginations could conceive. Each and every day we are, to some degree, assisting each other to one or the other of these two eternal ends. Bearing in mind these possibilities, with the circumspection proper to them, we ought to properly and consciously conduct ourselves with one another, in all friendships, loves, play, and politics. There is no such thing as “ordinary people.” No one in human history has ever spoken to a mere mortal. Civilization itself, states, empires, nations, cultures, language, the arts—these things are mortal and their life to ours is the life of a gnat. Those whom we love, with whom joke, work with, marry, criticize, fail to acknowledge, exploit, hurt, these creatures are damnation or glory in the making—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
It is unbearable to love someone so dearly and to know that their soul, as is all of our souls, is in jeopardy—and there is nothing you can do about it, as is my situation. I cannot find solace any longer in the thought that no one simply goes to Hell by accident. For some of the things that I have done, I perhaps, rightly, deserve damnation for no one has a right to eternity with God. But what I cannot bear to think of, is the possibility someone I love so dearly, particularly having wronged them so, being in Hell because my lack of virtue created a situation where they later chose not to respond to God’s grace, with the knowledge that the situation could have potentially been different had I acted with courage and not cowardice.
I sometimes wonder where I would be, who I would be, if I made the opposite decision. I wonder if I would be “married” somewhere in the Northeast, completely divorced from my family, having remained consistent with my detailed life plan. But this is not how it played out. Somehow, someway, when my “hour” came, despite all my sins and weaknesses, I did what I had to simply because it is was the right thing to do.
I often ridicule those who say those who have “no regrets.” What an absurd thing to say. I have regrets. My sins are many in number and grave, grave indeed. But more abundant still is the grace of God. The path that lies before me undoubtedly runs through a Savage Garden, as Anne Rice would put it. Though, what should I say to this? “Lord, take this cup from me?” I wish I could. But I cannot. It is a false desire. No Christian can have the Resurrection without the Cross.
Each of us has a story within a great Story. This great story is one of deliverance and redemption. Mine is not yet complete, but I pray that my weakness and loneliness does not destroy me and that I persevere to the end. I pray that Kyle perseveres to the end and the abiding mark of sacramental baptism makes way for unbelievable grace in his life. There is no greater hope that stirs my heart, no greater sentiment I can think of than to see his face one day in Glory and to love him purely and perfectly and as a brother, as I always was meant to. I can only pray that the Lord outwits us and reveals to us the folly of our evasive human tactics to delay eternal surrender to his ineffable Mercy. There is nothing more I want in this world. For this, I would die without a thought. In fact, it is because of Kyle that I still and must go on. Heaven help us.
I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:13-17)