I recently received an email from a young man in his twenties who told me that he hates that he’s attracted to men. I really can understand where he’s coming from, since I felt that for most of my life. The great question for so many men and women who live with same-sex attraction is the great “why me, why this?” I have had my fair share of being angry with God, and crying at night, wondering why God would allow this in my life, and why he wouldn’t take it away after praying so much for it to be gone. When you live with same-sex attraction, and you realize that the God you follow tells you that you can’t act on those desires, it’s easy to start to view God as a despotic tyrant who’s no better than Zeus, playing with the fate of mankind like a child might torment an ant with a magnifying glass on a sunny day. That’s how I came to view God, and so about ten or so years ago, I turned my back on him and flipped off the Basilica in my home town every time I drove by it as an act of defiance. If Jesus had been around at the turn of the new millennium, I would have been at the front of the throng yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
With the passage of time, however, I’ve come to view that three-domed Basilica in town as the most beautiful feature of the skyline of my city, and I no longer view my life with same-sex attraction as the result of a despotic deity who views people as playthings, but rather as allowed in my life by a loving God, for my good and for my sanctification. I’ve come to view his “no” as the “yes” I would choose if I could see myself clearly. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “Those divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us to where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted.”
The question of “why” still remains, however. In trying to make sense of “why,” these words from Thomas Merton have helped me immensely:
Suffering, therefore, must make sense to us not as a vague universal necessity, but as something demanded by our own personal destiny. When I see my trials not as the collision of my life with a blind machine called fate, but as the sacramental gift of Christ’s love, given to me by God the Father along with my identity and my very name, then I can consecrate them and myself with them to God. For then I realize that my suffering is not my own. It is the Passion of Christ, stretching out its tendrils into my life in order to bear rich clusters of grapes, making my soul dizzy with the wine of Christ’s love, and pouring that wine as strong as fire upon the whole world.
This was a jaw-dropper of a quote when I first read it, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the suffering I experienced living with same-sex attraction was a part of Christ’s suffering, a suffering that could be united with His, and that He allowed in my life as a “sacramental gift of Christ’s love.” But even if that’s taken on faith, it makes one wonder why God has to love me that much, and in that way.
C. S. Lewis calls this sort of love of God ”the intolerable compliment,” allowed by God, and used by God, because we’re like works of art, as this famous passage from The Problem of Pain describes so well:
St. Peter speaks of the whole Church as a building on which God is at work, and of the individual members as stones. The limitation of such an analogy is, of course, that in the symbol the patient is not sentient, and that certain questions of justice and mercy which arise when the ‘stones’ are really ‘living’ therefore remain unrepresented.
But it is an important analogy so far as it goes. We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. Here again we come up against what I have called the ‘intolerable compliment.’ Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life–the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child–he will take endless trouble–and would, doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.
In all of those past moments of wishing away my same-sex attraction, I slowly began to realize that I would be wishing not for more love, but for less. Now, I no longer hate my same-sex attraction and instead I’ve actually come to embrace it. Not because it is good, or because I desire to celebrate my “gayness.” No, I embrace it because I realize that it’s the most important and valuable tool God has used in creating the Divine work of art that (hopefully!) is my life. I think I’d be an intolerable person if it weren’t for the chiseling and softening effect that same-sex attraction has had in my life. I view same-sex attraction in the words of William Wordsworth from his poem, Nature and the Poet, where he says, “A deep distress hath humanized my soul.” The distress I’ve faced in living with same-sex attraction over the past three decades of my life has “humanized my soul” in ways that I’m convinced nothing else could. It’s a blessed and precious instrument in the hands of God, shaping me into the man God wants me to be. In that light, I view it as something that Lewis might call a “severe mercy,” and thankfully, in coming to that conclusion, it no longer is distressing to me as it once was.
But let me be clear: I don’t embrace it, for its own sake, as if my same-sex attraction is objectively a good because God brings good from it. No, it’s definitely a disturbance in my person, something that’s amiss within me, a weakness and a disability. In the hand of God, it becomes like a surgeon’s knife, where the pain that comes from it isn’t good, in and of itself. It’s the purpose behind its use, when used deftly by the Great Physician that brings good from it, and through it. The good is the result, not the instrument of transformation. Seen through that lens, I have come to embrace it, and wouldn’t rewrite it out of my life. In that sense, I view it in a similar way as Joseph the Patriarch viewed being sold into slavery by his brothers, when he told them in Egypt,
Joseph’s response to being sold into slavery reveals two important responses I need to have towards living with same-sex attraction. The first is the humility to realize that I am not God. I never would have planned to live with same-sex attraction, but again, in the words of C. S. Lewis, to write this out of my life, I would be wishing for not more, but less love. As God (sort of) said to Isaiah, “shall the clay say to the potter, you don’t know what the heck you’re doing up there? Make me, and shape me–just do it in the way I think you should shape and make me. Oh, and by the way–that tool you keep using to shape me into who you want me to be? Put that thing away, because frankly, I’m not a fan. It hurts, so lets ditch it and find something else a bit more pleasant, thank you very much.”
This brings me to the wisdom of the second of our two Thomases, this one a saint, St. Thomas More. He wrote these words while locked up in the Tower of London, awaiting death at the hand of King Henry VIII:
If we determine with ourselves that we will take no comfort in anything but the taking of our tribulation from us, then either we prescribe to God that he shall do us no better turn, (even though he would), than we will ourselves appoint him; or else we declare that we ourselves can tell better than he what is better for us. And therefore, I say, let us in tribulation desire his help and comfort, and let us remit the manner of that comfort unto his own high pleasure. When we do this, let us not doubt but that, as his high wisdom better sees what is best for us than we can see it ourselves, so shall his sovereign high goodness give us that thing that shall indeed be best.
This is not to say that St. Thomas More didn’t pray that he be released from prison, or that we shouldn’t pray for release from that which disturbs us. He speaks of St. Paul, praying three times that his “thorn in the flesh” would be taken from him. Even Christ prayed that the cup of his death should pass. It is good to cry out to God for relief, just as Christ did in the garden, but what St. Thomas, Joseph the Patriarch, (and most importantly Jesus) show us in common is the humility, and deference, appropriate to Our Heavenly Father. We must abandon our future, completely, to Divine Providence. This is the most difficult virtue to acquire, but the one that ultimately brings peace to our lives: willing acceptance of the permissive will of God.
Secondly from Joseph comes a bit of wisdom that is the real biggie that makes sense of same-sex attraction in my life. It comes back to Thomas Merton’s quote, and the whole story of the Cross: our suffering, the “distresses that humanize our soul,” can become united with the Passion of Christ, “for the survival of many people.” Our suffering, especially when we hate same-sex attraction so much, is the greatest means by which we enter into the Passion of Christ, and as St. Paul says in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” This is not without purpose: we can suffer on behalf of others and for their salvation. When life is hitting the proverbial fan, and I’d like to just wake up tomorrow and shut off the pain of living, the question God continually wants me to ask is for whom am I willing to endure this particular moment of sadness, loneliness or pain. Suffering then becomes focused outwardly, through the prism of love of others, and in this way, it becomes much more tolerable. In a certain sense, this response is one that no longer feels like we’re being bandied about by the winds of circumstance. Rather, we can choose it, in that moment, out of love for others, and in that way I think we can connect more with Christ’s love for others too. It’s nothing new. The old adage, “offer it up,” is the best option we can choose, if we desire peace in the midst of the storms of life.
And now for some wisdom from a hobbit and a wizard. A passage from The Lord of the Rings has given me hope that though I never would have chosen to live with same-sex attraction, there is a purpose to it, that transcends by far the discomfort, pain and distress that it has caused in my life. I have to think of the end of the story, not the beginning, and not the chapter I’m in now. Thanks be to God, the agonizing parts of the story in the opening chapters I’ve lived with already, and now in the middle, the confusing parts of my past life, where things made no sense in my concept of what a loving God should be like, are becoming the best parts of the story, because I see in them the foreshadow of a damn good ending. I realize now that the Author of my story is writing a far better book than I ever imagined for myself, and it’s a darn good yarn because of same-sex attraction, and loneliness, and the challenge of being chaste. These words of Frodo and Gandalf I think have meant a lot to people over the years, and they have meant the world to me in trying to make sense of same-sex attraction.
‘I wish it had not happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong. His plans are far from ripe, I think, but they are ripening. We shall be hard put to it. We should be very hard put to it, even if it were not for this dreadful chance.’
‘I am not made for perilous quests! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’
‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’
‘But I have so little of any of these things!’
‘And now,’ said the wizard, turning back to Frodo, ‘the decision lies with you. But I will always help you.’ He laid his hand on Frodo’s shoulder. ‘I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear.”
That’s it, in a nutshell: the decision lies with me. How will I respond to this quest I would never have chosen? Will I chuck all of my beliefs and convictions out the window (as I once did), and settle for companionship with a man? Nope, that’s not for me since I view that as staying around in Bag End, trimming the hair on my feet and smoking pipe weed all the time, which isn’t a story worth reading at all. It’s so, well…pedestrian and common and easy. Heck no, I’m diving in for the adventure of a lifetime, even if it is filled with lots of crappy moments, and moments of painful depression and loneliness and times when I just wish it was all over, and wish the Eagles could just swoop me up and drop me into the mouth of Mt. Doom. I’ll take the challenging path, through Mirkwood, through the Dead Marshes, past Shelob’s Lair and the gates of Mordor, thank you very much, because that’s where the great story lies, that’s where the adventure is. Besides, I don’t journey on this trip alone. I’m in a Fellowship, and along the way I get to meet and know and love and learn from people I view as wise as Galadriel, and Elrond. I’ve met bishops and priests, monks and nuns–some of them are like the Elves, and some more like the Dwarves, and some a bit quirky like the Ents, and my life is more rich for it. I’ve yet to meet a Tom Bombadil, but hopefully one day I can meet and get to know Cardinal Dolan. All in all, I think now how boring it would be to not try to live chastely, even if I feel that I’m not naturally cut out for it.
In, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis has a line that has totally opened my eyes to what I must always remember when I think about living a life with same-sex attraction, especially when the nature of the quest for chastity seems overwhelming for me, and I just want it over, or to go back to Bag End and quit. The most important aspect of our journey through life is that I have to remember the end of the story, in the way that Abraham did when he showed faith in God. As Francis puts it,
As a response to a word which preceded it, Abraham’s faith would always be an act of remembrance. Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope.
I must remember the future. What a strange and poetic concept. I need to remember that in the difficult-to-grasp-craziness of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the story’s already done, even though I’m in the middle of it now, and it’s still being written. God, over all and above all, is there, now, since Time holds no bonds on Him, because He is its author. He can’t wait to show me how it ends, and so to with everyone else who walks the earth in this valley of tears. In times of despair, I consciously choose to remember the end, which is exactly what all the saints showed us before: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Besides, we’ve got more than a white wizard–more than a victor over a mere Balrog–to help bear this burden for as long as it is ours to bear. We’ve got the King of Kings, the one who conquered Death, once and for all, to walk not just with us, but in us.
“Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”