‘HOW DEEP dare I go? How far might I reach?’
These challenging questions form part of a framed display of the life story St Ignatius of Loyola on the wall of Loyola Hall Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Merseyside. I went there with an early draft of of my ‘coming out’ story to make an eight day silent retreat, with the intention of writing more while I was there. God had other ideas.
The questions leapt out at me from the display, which I had passed many times before unseen. They got me thinking, ‘What have they got to do with me? How would I answer them?’
It came to me in the early hours of the morning on the final day of the retreat that the first question could be an invitation to look at this story again, but this time to have the courage to go deeper, and the humility to recognise God’s presence throughout it.
The story’s title sums it up. The original working title was ‘Out Of The Depths’, chosen for three reasons; it referred to the opening line of Psalm 130, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord’, which I prayed with many times when I felt far from God, cut off by fear, guilt, depression and shame about my sexuality. It also gave a nod to the poem Oscar Wilde wrote while serving a sentence of hard labour in Reading jail for ‘gross indecency’, called De Profundis, the Latin translation of ‘Out of the depths.’ It also played on the word ‘out’, as this was to be my ‘coming out’ story, my journey to openness as a gay man.
But that is not all the story is – it is also my faith story; how I became a Roman Catholic by accident of birth and a believing Christian by the power of God to work into the story an experience of unconditional love and forgiveness, in spite of my fear of rejection and my belief that I could never be ‘good enough’ because I am a ‘defective heterosexual’, otherwise known as a gay man.
And God knows I love a good word play – in the words of M.D. Smith: ‘You can create sparks in your writing by banging words together like flint’. So God gave me a play on words that not only created sparks, but started a fire. During the retreat I awoke in the night, not through fretful dreams, but because I felt excited about the inspiration coming to me during those days. I had never heard so many words in silence before. One phrase stood out, because it spoke to me of what God was asking me to do with my experience: ‘Put a brave faith on.’ So I did!
You will no doubt be familiar with the expression, and perhaps the experience, of ‘putting a brave face on’, to hide fear and distress. I know I was, so much so that for a while the wind changed and it stuck! But that is because it involved hiding the fear and distress, or trying to, not being real and honest about them and bringing them to God in prayer.
In the experience of that retreat I believe God was calling me to ‘put a brave faith on’, not to boast in my own courage, because I was holding on to a lot of fear, but to entrust those fears to God and to boast in God’s power to show strength in my weakness: “For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.” (2 Cor 10:18). The experiences of isolation, rejection and distress that you read here would have kept me in fear if left to my own devices.
So this ‘brave faith’ I have begun to accept is a gift from God in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fear that caused a split between my sexuality and my spirituality. Without it I longed for integration and doubted I would ever find it. The story I brought on retreat with me was one of God’s absence from my times of greatest distress, and feelings of separation and isolation from God that the attempt to separate my sexuality from my spirituality had caused. In between the lines of that first draft was a voice of self-pity, a victim of an unjust world and an unjust Church. Yet I am not a victim. I am a survivor, and this brave faith empowers me to share the story of my survival, my struggle, my healing and forgiveness – my forgiveness of God for ‘making’ me gay, forgiveness of myself for being less than perfect, and forgiveness of those whose rejection, betrayal and unjust judgement I feared or experienced.
Through it I believe God calls me to have empathy for others who feel marginalised by the community of believers they long to call home. Although I am from the Roman Catholic tradition, I believe I have more in common with other Christians who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) than sets us apart, and my hope is that there is enough universal truth in this experience to transcend the particulars of my experience and speak to others of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. I know we are not alone in experiencing the shortcomings of the imperfect Body of Christ that is the Christian church in our world; women, people from other cultures and faiths, those living with disability or mental distress, the young and old, the poor and the homeless. There is no special pleading here. It is not the case that ‘our lot’ necessarily have it worse, or better, than anyone else.
But my God-given sexual orientation is a part of the core of my being, the image of God in which I was created. Therefore it does give me a unique perspective that has set me apart from the norm and challenged me to find my voice and be heard over the din of negative messages reinforcing the fear that I didn’t belong.
I now know with confidence that I do belong to the Body of Christ, that I am indispensible, by the grace of God through my baptism and God’s continuing call to intimate relationship with my Creator in all areas of my life, including and especially my sexuality. (1 Cor 12:22)
As for the second question: ‘How far might I reach?’ That, dear reader, is in your hands. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, and my prayer for you, is that you know, or come to know with the help of God, that you belong too. This mission is not impossible and you will not self-destruct if, through faith in Christ, you too can approach God with freedom and confidence as St Paul assures us we can. (Eph 3:11-12)