This past Sunday was Pascha (otherwise known as Easter) on the Orthodox Calendar. It was a weird and ‘off’ time for me this year; rather than celebrating life and rebirth, my thoughts were more on death, specifically the death of my faith. Pascha marked one liturgical year since the last time I received communion in the Church. It brought back vivid memories of last year’s painful Winter and Spring: the months of holding onto my faith and the Church for dear life; the final weeks of standing in the Liturgy feeling like a hundred daggers were being thrust into my soul at every litany; that awful final confession on Holy Wednesday, which was essentially me just sobbing uncontrollably on my priest’s shoulder knowing that I was at the end of the road and entirely emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually spent; the attempt to hope for some paschal miracle in my soul that would enable me to persist in the Church; and that joyless Pascha ‘celebrated’ in the midst of spiritual ruin.
This strange anniversary got me thinking once again about the past year, past two years, past fourteen years. In some ways, everything that has happened to me makes perfect sense; in other ways, it makes no sense at all. It all depends on one’s presuppositions. With that in mind, here is the story as best as I can tell it. As is always the case with stories, the details and narrative wrapping change with every retelling, and I don’t think there is much in this story to make anyone happy, regardless of their beliefs and presuppositions. So in advance, forgive me, brothers and sisters of all political and religious persuasions, for what I write.
I had been a very committed Christian since I reaffirmed my faith shortly before my eighteenth birthday. For thirteen years, every decision in my life — no matter how big or small — was made first with a view to being faithful to Christ. This involved a lot of sacrifice for me, but because it really felt like Christ had given me a new life, the sacrifice was more than worth it. I had a deep and meaningful prayer life, was involved in every facet of Church life, and practiced the spiritual disciplines with joy. My spiritual journey brought me from Anglicanism through various evangelical and charismatic circles, and eventually into the Eastern Orthodox Church, where I found a real peace, a genuine spiritual home, a coming together of all the things that were important to me, and a deeper experience of Christ than I had elsewhere.
All this is in the way of preface. The story I need to tell starts in earnest about two years ago. One morning, I woke up and walked to my prayer corner to do my daily rule of prayer, but found I could not pray. It is difficult to explain what this means, but it’s true. This was unusual; prayer had always come easy to me. In addition to my prayer rule, prayer permeated my day. But that morning — and subsequently — this was just no longer true. The Church Fathers spoke of prayer as a gift from God; I had never understood what they meant by this until that gift was seemingly taken away. At first I was able to “trick” this prayer block; I would mix up my prayer rule or pray it in French or Greek and I could find prayer in that. But as that Spring turned to Summer, even this ceased to work. At that point, the only place where I could pray was the chapel during the services. However even this was fleeting: my parish was undergoing a time of deep crisis and as that year progressed I ended up having to take on more and more responsibility during the services and was faced with having to give more and more at a time when I had less and less to give. I continued on “business as usual” — kept on attempting my rule of prayer, made sure I prayed whenever I could, attended all the services I could, was prayed for and anointed with holy oil many times — but things just kept on getting worse and as time passed the ‘spiritual reserves’ I’d built up over the years were increasingly depleted.
This would be problematic for any Christian, but for me it was devastating because I am gay, and I had wanted to deal with that fact in a way that was consonant with the Scriptures and Christian Tradition. The ascesis this involved, while not without its rewards and joys, was always very difficult, and I was dependent on my life of prayer to sustain and strengthen me in the struggle. The thing with this kind of struggle is that it is so very complicated and hits on so many levels. There is the obvious level of the libido and having no outlet for it (celibacy is a beautiful and empowering lifestyle; it is less so when it is forced upon you), but the effects are also profound on the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual planes. (It’s curious how something we call “sexuality” can have so little to do with sex.) To be clear, I was very blessed. I always had excellent pastoral care: I was never made to feel shame for my sexual orientation, nor was I blamed for my temptations or ostracized in any way (as has sadly been the experience of good friends of mine). But despite this, my life was wrought with confusion, frustration, and complication. When one believes in a loving and caring God who is the Physician of Souls and Bodies, and when one desires the holiness desired by God more than anything else, being wired in a way that is fundamentally alienated from the vision of the whole person put forth in that faith means there can be no answers. Add to that the loss of basic shared cultural experiences, the often contradictory and ultimately unhelpful advice of well-meaning Christian psychological/self-help / spiritual material on the subject, and the ungracious, uninformed and inflammatory comments and opinions of fellow Christians, it is a perfect storm of struggle, confusion, doubt, and pain.
This is so odd to talk/write about because my sexuality ultimately had everything and nothing to do with why I am no longer a practicing Christian. One the one hand, it was most definitely the locus of my faith and my wrestling with God from day one. And when initial naïve expectation of miraculous ‘healing’ fades into hope for a slow, gradual process of change within the soul, and when this subsequently fades into teeth gritting and prayer against becoming bitter at seeing the joys of your brothers and sisters in Christ, and this too fades into a simple prayer to keep on going, and even this ultimately fades into screaming into the Winter darkness for God to respond somehow, it would be ridiculous to say that my sexuality played no role in what happened with me. But it would be equally inaccurate to say that I left the Church because I’m gay: I wasn’t cowering in a closet somewhere, afraid of a wrathful God who “hates fags”; my faith was full of beauty and life and love and I saw my ascesis as a simple matter of love. And, for years, I felt supported and sustained by my life of prayer despite all the confusion and frustration. And, my sexuality has never defined me and it certainly never defined my relationship with Christ; I wanted to be made holy and to be transformed into Christ-likeness in all aspects of my life — sexuality was just a small part of it. I even bristle at the thought that I “left” the Church; it’s not like I stopped attending or believing as soon as my prayer life ceased or things got hard. Things had always been hard. But I fought as hard as I could for as long as I could. Yet the toll everything took on me was great. By last Spring, I was slipping into depression, was unable to eat or sleep, was experiencing problems with my neck and shoulders, becoming an emotional wreck, and spiritually, well see the above comment about the hundreds of daggers in my soul. My massage therapist said one day, “I don’t know what’s been going on in your life, but it’s clear there’s far more than bad posture at play here: it’s like your entire body has been in fight or flight mode for twenty years.” That comment was an icon for me of everything that had happened; I was thirty and had known I was gay since I was ten; it had literally been twenty years of constant struggle and my body, spirit, and psyche were paying a very dear price. I never thought I had a “price”, but in so many ways, my faith was destroying me and apparently my “price” was my sanity. I stepped back from my faith because it honestly felt like my only option. In hindsight I still can’t think of anything I should have or could have done differently to produce a different outcome.
As I said in the introduction to this post, my story can’t really make anyone happy. My experience of abandonment is impossible within the Christian understanding of God and “I had no other option” is not an acceptable answer to the Christian mind. And, to non-Christian (or more broadly, non-religious) ears, the story of my struggle is simply incomprehensible and can seen as nothing more than denial and senseless psychological torture. That’s one of the hardest things for me now, a year later: It seems like I need to apologize to both sides when I really feel I have no need to apologize or defend myself to anyone. The fact is that my life is pretty good. I have a wonderful and supportive family and great friends. I live in a beautiful city and have had the opportunity to travel a lot this year. And the changes in my life have freed me to explore aspects of my personality and creativity I didn’t feel comfortable exploring before. Everything is good and I’m filled with hope for the future.
I’m not sure what to make of faith now. I can’t say I am a Christian, but I cannot (and would not want to) deny the profound influence Christ and Christianity have on me. The best term I can think of these days is borrowed from Flannery O’Connor, who described the South as “Christ-haunted”. I have a deep love of Jesus and still seek to cultivate his ethic and the life that shines through the Beatitudes. If the Gospel is true, then I just have to trust that God is who the Scriptures reveal Him to be: loving, gracious, and merciful, and that He will know my heart and receive me as the least into His Kingdom.
In the coming weeks and months, I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on all these issues more. For now, I’ll just urge everyone to be kind to one another, to always choose grace and understanding, and to listen and speak without the need or hope to persuade.