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The Other Side of the Mirror

From Transcendentalism to the Catholic Church

It rained every night that summer, it seems to me in hindsight, but only at night, and it was sunny every day. That was the summer of 1984, in Ithaca, New York, where I was attending a summer program for high school juniors. This was one of the many honors I pursued throughout high school, living my mother’s fantasy—she had been valedictorian at St. Jerome High School in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, but later felt stifled intellectually. Mom poured her intellectual gifts into countless hours of educating me. Meanwhile, I saw my academic pursuits as a way to power and recognition, and ultimately, as a ticket out of Mayfield, Kentucky, where my parents ran a gas station. Mom later wished she had torn up that letter from the summer program when it came in the mail, but in the summer of 1984 she was thrilled about it. Her only concern was that since I was going to study at Cornell, an Ivy League school, I might need a dinner jacket.

Dad, on the other hand, was anxious about it from the beginning. The strange, “furrin” people we encountered when we pulled up at Telluride House did not help. He showed a tenderness I had never suspected—”this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Dad said tearfully—before I finally persuaded him to let me stay, that I would be all right.

Friendship and the Meaning of Life

I was melancholy for the first couple of days. Most of my fellow students were faculty brats from world-class universities. I had never known anyone from such a background, nor was I acquainted with any Jews or Asians, who made up a large percentage of the students. I did not know what to say at first. On the third night, however, a group of us got to talking about the meaning of life. This gave me an opportunity to share the cosmic wisdom I had learned from the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Walt Whitman, William Blake, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Before the night was over, our own philosophy had evolved. We dubbed it “Synergistic Pantheism.” We then swore undying loyalty, around five in the morning, deep within one of Ithaca’s magnificent gorges.

I won’t present the tenets of Synergistic Pantheism; suffice it to say that we had rediscovered that perennial American creed known as Transcendentalism. The important thing, of course, was the friendship and acceptance which shook the bars of my self-centered, isolated, imprisoned soul with seismic force. Thus it was that I could say sincerely to my fellow Synergists, “You saved me from myself.”

Some of those friendships endure to this day; one that did not last, however, proved the most influential on my conversion. Peter was older than I, but he let me call him “little brother”; once I had been accepted, I felt free to express my personality in increasingly flamboyant ways, and so I claimed a sort of dominance over the Pantheists in my role as “evangelist.” Peter, on the other hand, had an intense interiority—deep sensibility combined with masculine reserve. The French would have called him silencieux. Peter introduced me to this type of Christian virtue. He was a Catholic, though a somewhat tormented one.

Evelyn Waugh—whose works I had already begun to devour, though I did not yet understand why they attracted me so strongly—wrote in Brideshead Revisited that “to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.” My love for Peter remained chaste, even after I told him I was a homosexual. I never even thought of Peter sexually. This was really remarkable, given the state of my soul at the time. I look back at my brief friendship with Peter as a first stepping stone on the path of conversion.

But there was another relationship in my life at that time. It seemed no more significant to me than a pebble along the way, but it ultimately proved just as consequential. My grandmother was a daily Mass-goer. My mother had lapsed, my sister and I had had no religious instruction, and I was (prior to my Pantheist awakening) a self-proclaimed atheist. In Mayfield, this was hardly the way to win friends and influence people. We received letters and phone calls from evangelicals concerned about my eternal destiny. Grandma, though she was also concerned, took a more discreet approach. Every now and then she would take me to Mass (more frequently, Bingo). Mostly she offered a solid, no-nonsense peasant wisdom, self-assured but never pushy. Grandma’s humility showed in the postcard she sent me that summer: Don’t bother writing back, she said, I know you are busy with many things.

The Quest Begins

Grandma died that winter. At the time I did not grieve, but I believe now that her prayers for me began upon her arrival in heaven, and that this, more than any other factor, led to my conversion.

It was a foregone conclusion that I would attend Cornell and live at Telluride House. Shortly after the Greyhound bus let me out for my freshman year in Ithaca, I began the process known as “coming out.” Like my family background, my coming out was fairly typical for gay men. I learned to smoke, drink heavily, experiment with drugs, use pornography, “cruise” for sexual partners, and have sex in public men’s rooms. My grades also were in the toilet as I devoted myself to these pursuits and to non-stop political activism as well. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the more dangerous, though also common, pitfalls of the gay lifestyle. I never used hard drugs, had no interest in sadomasochism, did not have sex with adolescents (though I did know some pedophiles), and was not nearly as promiscuous as I wanted to be.

Though he theoretically accepted my homosexuality, Peter obviously found my increasingly manifest “gayness” distasteful and we drifted apart. No other “ideal friend” came along to replace him, although I had a hole in the center of my being that, I thought, could only be filled by such a personage. This is the built-in tragedy of homosexuality. The homosexual seeks a strong, masculine lover to make up for the love he never received in boyhood from his father, his brothers, his friends. But, of course, he is not going to find this type of lover in the gay community. Earlier generations of homosexuals were at least honest about the futility of homosexual desire. Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band, for example, contains the famous line “You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

But I’m getting away from my story.

Having climbed to this pinnacle of despair, there was no place to go but down. I came crashing to earth one November morning in 1988, around five A.M. While reading William Faulkner’s The Bear, I experienced my first panic attack. I took to my bed, as panic sufferers do, fearing to go anywhere else lest the next panic attack should hit. My father had to drive to Ithaca again to take me back home. I went on medical leave from school.

The following spring I returned to Ithaca, got a job, and set about figuring out what had happened. I entered therapy. It was of limited utility since my therapist was also homosexual, but I did begin to face the abyss of my emotional life. The natural beauty of Ithaca, which I loved more completely than I loved any person at that time, was also therapeutic.

My appreciation of nature, and explorations into the personal history which had given rise to my panic attacks, led me to one surprising conclusion. I believed in absolute truth. I didn’t know what it was, yet. Once I returned to school in 1990, I found myself in the absurd position of defending this truth, though I had no idea of its content. I only knew I saw an order, a pattern in my experiences—and in history (my new major)—which was too striking to be the result of random chance.

Truth vs. Nihilism

Truth was decidedly unfashionable at Cornell, for this was the heyday of deconstruction, which teaches that it is impossible to express any positive truth using language. There is some meaning to be had from the activity of writing, according to the deconstructionists: Writing is subversive of the Logos, the Western sense that Christ, the Word of God, confers meaning on the spoken word. But even the meaning conveyed through writing, according to Derrida and his followers, is provisional, a “trace” of an absent divinity. Thus, any kind of positive statement should be placed “under erasure.” Like this: God is dead. Thus, deconstructionism is the reductio ad absurdum of Nietzschean nihilism, as expressed in that famous maxim about the death of God.

Because it is unable to state categorically that God does not exist, deconstruction arguably reopens the question of the transcendent, which was refused by positivist science and philosophy. Indeed, “radically orthodox” thinkers like Catherine Pickstock have used deconstructive methods against Derrida himself. But the human mind cannot function on this nihilistic plane for very long, and the deconstructionist fad in the academy quickly collapsed into a chaos of competing “postmodern,” “postcolonial” ideologies. This represented a retreat to the Nietzschean idea of the “will to power.” Derrida’s “trace,” or void of discursive meaning, was suddenly filled with a variety of loudly demanded, highly subjective desires. Gay liberation was one of them. I thought my gay ideal would lead me to the truth I sought, and so even as I first began struggling toward the light, I drifted further into the dark side.

My descent into darkness reached its nadir when I joined the Ithaca chapter of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—the group that desecrated the Blessed Sacrament in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Fortunately, I was not present that day; our local chapter was chiefly devoted to spreading disinformation (AIDS was a “blood disease,” we insisted, not a sexually transmitted disease). I wore my ACT UP T-shirt, with its pink triangle on a black background, and I frequently participated in ACT UP’s trademark demonstration, the “die-in.” This involved lying on the ground and feigning death, after which all the “corpses” would arise and let out a bloodcurdling shriek. The point was supposed to be healing through redemptive anger. But there was really no resurrection on the other side of this perverted religious ritual, which remains for me painfully emblematic of the “culture of death.”

If Telluride House had been for me a substitute church, with its own rituals, customs, and jargon, my homosexuality placed me under a type of law. My quest for the ideal friend and lover was certainly idolatrous. In a way, however, the law and the quest did predispose me for what was to come. I sought a male savior, and though I would never have thought to name him Jesus, my ideal was nevertheless a dim mirror image of the Messiah. Pope John Paul II spoke of shame as “a certain ‘echo’ of the same original innocence in man: a photographic negative, as it were, the positive of which was precisely original innocence.” My own shame was such a negative image of the face of Christ. The truth I sought turned out, after all, to have something to do with love. Thus when my conversion came, it happened with surprising rapidity.

At the Blessed Mother’s Feet

Most of my friends had scattered during the summer of 1991, leaving me with time on my hands. I found myself rereading the Catholic writers I had always appreciated: not only Waugh but also Flannery O’Connor. If I remember correctly, I first heard the name Thomas Merton from O’Connor’s letters. That summer I picked up The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton’s book led me to ask, for the first time, whether the truth I sought might be Jesus.

I decided to venture into the local Catholic church, named Immaculate Conception. The first time I crossed its threshold, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. It was all I could do to keep from running out. That settles it, I thought; the Catholic Church couldn’t possibly be for me. So I went to Sunday services at the Episcopal church a couple of times, but what I found there was not much different from the general milieu at Cornell. Then I began to reflect on my first encounter with the Real Presence. What had been in that church building to cause such a strong and seemingly involuntary reaction in me?

I went back to Immaculate Conception to find out, but this time I made a beeline for the Mary statue, and at her feet I asked to be enlightened. Pretty soon I was praying the Rosary, and I was comfortable enough with the Eucharistic Jesus to attend Mass. There I saw a humble piety that was utterly different from anything I had experienced before. By the end of the summer, my friends were filtering back into town, and I began telling them I was thinking of joining the Catholic Church. It was as if I had said I was joining the French Foreign Legion, or the Barbary pirates. At best the Church was picturesque, at worst vaguely sinister, but it was in every respect foreign to the gay experience.

So I began to doubt. One Sunday morning I was lying on my bed, trying to decide whether to go to Mass. Finally I leaped up and started running toward the Church. At some point, it dawned on me that I was wearing my ACT UP T-shirt. But I kept going.

When I arrived at the parish, everyone was leaving. They had switched to the fall mass schedule, and I was an hour late. But I made my way through the departing crowd into the church. In the vestibule, a man was giving out programs for a baptism that was about to take place. I looked at him.

He looked at my T-shirt.

I kept looking.

He gave me a program and motioned me in.

At that infant baptism, I was able to recite the responses to the Baptismal Creed in good conscience. I joined the RCIA and at the Easter Vigil in 1992, I was baptized; incorporated into the Body of Christ; anointed priest, prophet, and king; and given my Lord and Savior to eat.

Was there a happy ending on the other side of that mirror where I first glimpsed the distorted image of my Lord? No and yes. I had a “honeymoon period,” during which I simply bathed myself in his newfound light without being asked to make many hard choices. But, inevitably, I had to face myself and start testing myself against what I now knew. That process has been both salvific and intensely painful. I lost nearly all of my friends, and left the way of life which, for all its faults, had provided me with a community. For obvious reasons, this has been hard to replicate within the Church, but if I have not always been welcomed as a friend, I am acknowledged as a brother, and that is enough.

Accustomed to instant gratification, I had to learn patience and perseverance. And God gave me healing, but he also taught me that I had to live with that dull ache within my being because the ultimate fulfillment of my quest is still to come. I did learn, however, that my initial reaction to his Real Presence had nothing to do with his attitude towards me—rather, it sprang from my fear of real masculinity—the masculinity of Christ, as well as my own. This first caused me to panic while I read The Bear, and I am still learning how to live with it.

But all that is another story. Meanwhile, I am an adopted son in the household of God, and I am fed on his Eucharist against the day I will be drawn into that “unapproachable light” I first saw dimly refracted in the cracked mirror of homosexual desire.

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