by: Mark Nott
I came to god under similar circumstances as most of us who find god later in life: I was looking for something. I was in need of something. I was 12. Years of bullying, that I hid from my parents like a cherished journal under a mattress, had taken its toll. I was awkward, unattractive, too smart for my own good, and incredibly shy. Above all, though, I was incredibly depressed. And I was incredibly depressed because, unbeknownst to me, I was also incredibly gay. The universe, as we all know, isn’t without a sense of irony; so, it came to pass that in my desperate need to express a sexuality, that I didn’t even know existed, I turned to God and his church to help create me anew.
My parents weren’t particularly religious. Of course they both believed in God, as is required by all individuals who live in rural Kentucky who don’t want to be glared at by angry neighbors. My father was a “lukewarm” catholic. By “lukewarm,” I mean that the last time he attended Mass was when he was baptized. As for my mother, her religious roots ran a little deeper. She was raised in the stereotypical backwater, fire and brimstone, establishment that you see depicted in movies like There Will Be Blood. I always found these sorts of religious settings completely terrifying, which really made the fact that the only time we did go to church (Easter Sunday, of course, like all True Christians) horrifying because we always went with my mother’s family. The older ladies and mothers of the congregations would comment on how sweet, quiet and shy I was, and my mother would beam with pride for her sweet, quiet, shy boy. I wasn’t being sweet. I was quiet and shy because I was afraid everyone around me was going to have a stroke. The denim skirts were pretty awful, too. Unsurprisingly, then, when I found it time to have my Joan of Arcadia moment, I found God sitting beneath the decorative cherry trees of the Catholic Church on West Main Street.
At this point, I had grown from a shy, quiet boy who was afraid of seizing individuals, into a tortured middle school student who just wanted to be accepted by everyone else: everyone else being the guys on the football team, basketball team, golf team, baseball team, soccer team and whatever other sports team I was too non-athletic to win acceptance into. Even in band class, I fought for acceptance, but I was hard pressed to convince my classmates that everyone was playing the oboe nowadays. I couldn’t even push the buzzer fast enough for the quick recall in our academic team matches. I was the epitome of social outcast. Yet, I still chased those I wanted to be like all over our middle school campus. My “best friend” was the most attractive guy at school (I bet you know where this is going), and he kept me around for the sole purpose of maintaining positive communications with his girlfriend (of course, he did).
In my loneliness and attempts to endear myself to my peers, the only actual people who were endeared were my teachers. I befriended almost all of them: always coming in early to say hello, always staying late to say goodbye. I had in-jokes with the librarian, shared secret winks with the office secretaries, and was constantly being slipped new reading material by the English faculty. Two of these faculty members were members of the local Catholic Church and one day I approached them about going. They, just like my mother, beamed at me with pride. A wayward sheep, desperately in need of a Shepherd, was about to enter their flock.
At first I regarded going to Mass as a curiosity. I had only ever attained Mass with my Catholic relatives once before and I was far too young to remember the experience. Everything was a new and strange experience: the smells of the burning incense, the intoning of various prayers in a strange new language and the constant exercise. It wasn’t until the day my great-grandmother sent me my first rosary that I began to regard the church as my heritage. The rosary was made of dried and rolled rose petals. As I removed the cover of its broken case, I was bowled over by the fragrance. Immediately I knew this little piece of my great grandmother’s faith was to be cherished. It became my most prized possession. I would stay up late into the note, rolling the beads between my fingers, praying the rosary, until my fingers were stained with the smell of roses. This became the most comforting and important meditation in my daily life, as I descended deeper and deeper into a depression that seemed, at least to my parents, completely unwarranted.
Finally my emotional state became too severe, and it was deemed necessary for my “removal” from the other students at my school. I was sent to an outpatient program for a few weeks in which I quickly discovered that my problems really didn’t matter. I was sad. I was lonely. I was secretly homosexual. But I had discovered God. And everything was going to be okay. I left the outpatient program a new person. Like a risen Lazareth, I had a new lease on life, a new positive outlook. Later that year, I was baptized and confirmed along with the rest of my family, who had been inspired by my struggle and acceptance of my new faith. And so began my transformation into a theological juggernaut.
I began to devour religious texts, studies and commentaries. I would stay after mass for hours talking theology with our priest. I fought with the nun who ran our parish (how does a nun not know what the “harrowing of hell” is, it’s in the flipping Creed for heaven’s sake). I wanted to cantor. I wanted to be a Eucharistic minister. I wanted to do it all. And I did. As my passion for my faith and my church became more apparent, so did the promise of a potential vocation. In another twist of irony, whispers about my becoming a priest began to spread. Would I come back and run the parish? Would I maintain and foster the dwindling Catholic community in my small town? My sexuality had other plans.
By this time I was in high school, and I, like all real gay men, had discovered the wonders of musical theatre. And it was here that I suddenly started to realize certain truths about myself: I had never been attracted to girls. I had always spent my time chasing around boys that I “admired” and “wanted to be like.” I was very sassy and could make people laugh. I always picked out the right shoes. At a cast party for Les Miserables, I kissed a boy who told me that all he wanted for a graduation present was a kiss from me (this was also my first experience with shitty one liners that lead to nothing but disappointment). I obliged him. Two seconds. Two seconds behind a wall that felt like they lasted a lifetime. And I knew. Only months before this I had discovered what “gay” meant. I still had no idea how it was supposed to work. But when this boy, this really annoying boy with fabulous hair who was soaked to the bones in Abercrombie cologne, when he kissed me, I knew I was gay. From here there was no turning back.
Coming out was a very slow process. My musical theatre friends were, of course, the first ones to find out. I was meet with choruses of “Oh wow!” and “Good for you!” and “It’s about FUCKING time!” That was the easy part, though. Next I had to tell my priest. I’m not sure why I had made it a priority to tell my priest immediately. It just felt like the necessary thing to do. I stalked him outside of church for a month before I discovered the courage to do it. And when the moment came when went to the last place I wanted us to go: the confessional. For those of you who aren’t aware, confessionals aren’t like they used to be. There is no little box for you to sit in, with a conveniently placed screen to shield your face from the judgment of your confessor.
No, it’s not like that now. Instead, you sit in a room, directly across from the priest, his judgment filled eyes looking directly into your disgustingly sin filled ones. So, there I sat, looking directly at my priest, my portal to god here on earth, prepared to tell him I liked kissing boys. The words spilled out of my mouth as inarticulate as a two year old trying to express a complexity. Once again, I found someone smiling at me. He told me he was proud and that I was brave. God still loved me. But I should keep this a secret, at least until college. I was just happy I wasn’t damned. No, the damming came later. And when it came, I wasn’t just a shower of damnation. It was a flood, sent to sweep me away from the country side to somewhere my “kind” belonged.
I was shopping with my mother. We were having a nice enough day and we had been laughing and bonding over various things throughout the day. These are the times when you feel so close to a person, that your humanity is so intertwined and connected that you can share the deepest truths about yourself. And so I did. My mother casually brought up me seeking out the vocation of the priesthood. Sister Ruth thought it was a good idea. She was okay with giving up grandchildren. And then I dropped the bomb. I had to explain myself several times: what I meant by “gay” and how I knew I was “this way.” As my explanation unfolded, with a confidence that still amazes me, my mother seemed to have the life drained from her. She demanded I take her home. I did. She didn’t speak or look at me for days afterwards.
The first method of rebuttal was to have a family meeting. Not just her and my father, but her brothers and sisters. All who decried me for what I was doing to my mother. All who told me that we would figure this out. God would help us. God. I had already assumed that god had wanted me to come out. Now, I was being told that this was not what God wanted. Even more, God was going to “make me better.” God was being used against me. My faith had given me the courage to express myself truthfully and now that truth was being denied to me. This wasn’t the worst of it. The most damaging blow came later when my mother discussed the “matter” with Sister Ruth. I was informed that God would still love me and accepted my homosexuality, just so long as I did not act upon it. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly. If the act of being wasn’t action enough, what was? Kissing a boy? Sucking his cock? Fucking? It became apparent that all of these things were exactly what constituted action. I found out because my mother was secretly reading my journal (the one I kept between my mattresses) and reporting it to St. Ruth. It had been a busy month. I had my first kiss and lost my virginity. I had a lot to write about.
The death blow was then delivered: as a full-fledged, boy-kissing, cock-sucking, ass-pounding homosexual, I was to be refused communion. In my theological studies, I had learned that, in today’s church, the refusal of communion was something not really heavily enforced. Basically, the priest was told to refuse to communion to anyone who might cause a “scandal”: people like Hitler and Elizabeth Taylor (both of which share many of my “communion refusal” requisites). I was considered a scandal. A scandal of Elizabeth Taylor proportions. At the time, I didn’t know that this was something to be proud of, but I digress. I had essentially been ex-communicated. Separated from god. The institution that had given me the courage to express my true self had turned its back on me. I was lost and confused. I stopped attending mass. I could only take appearing on the prayer list week after week for so long. I decided to leave and let the congregation pray for me when I was standing next to them.
I didn’t set foot in a church for years. Instead, I explored “metaphysics” and the world of positive affirmations. Not only was this completely opposite to what I had spent years studying, but it was also just complete and pure crap: down the rabbit hole, indeed, if the rabbit hole were a sewage pipe. After this brief stint, I just became resentful. I told my mother that I didn’t believe in God, which just affirmed my standing title of the family godless homosexual. This wasn’t true, however; I never stopped believing in God or some higher power. In essence, I never stopped being Catholic. My faith had become too connected to my system of morals, to my very person. I am Catholic. But I choose not to affiliate with other Catholics.
As I continued to learn more and more about the church, as I continued to explain what remained of my faith, I found myself, surprisingly, becoming more and more conservative in Catholic tradition. I became more and more attached to the Old Roman Rite. I developed resentment for several Vatican II reformations. I came to the conclusion that having a guitar in church was an abomination. Essentially, I felt that in making the church appear friendlier and approachable, lead to the “turning over of god” to the people. God was removed from above the altar and set out amongst the people. This was the problem. The people. The people had no idea how to handle God. When he was set amongst them, instead of above them, he was easily manipulated and distorted. I never wanted God to be my best friend or to come and sit in the pew next to me. I wanted God to be, well, God. I wanted to stand before the alter in wonder, amazement and fear. I wanted to squeeze my rosary tightly and mediate upon the mysteries while Latin and incense whirled around me. And so I sought out this fulfillment.
I started going into churches alone. I would take my great-grandmother’s rosary and knee and mediate quietly in the empty church to the glow of the devotional candles. This is how I preferred to find and experience God. This is what I needed. I did not need someone to read the gospel to me. Nor did I need someone to deliver homily after homily, seemingly cleverly fashioned to resemble one of Christ’s parables, but devoid of any True message.
Things changed once again when I began attending Loyola University. I befriended a priest who was the head of my department. Little did I know that that priest was the head of the Jesuit Order on campus. And as the teacher’s pet that I am, I started staying late after class. We would talk for hours, about our shared loved for music, church aesthetics, my antiquated ideas, and he slowly began convincing me to come back to the faith. Inch by inch, I slowly began to feel comfortable around the Church again. The Jesuits showed me that not all of the Church’s orders were off putting and ostracizing. I was accepted for what I was. Moreover, I was welcomed and encouraged to participate.
I was in the middle of a confusing two-year relationship at this time. Honestly, all my relationships are confusing, but this one was by far the most befuddling. I told my professor who invited my partner and me to have lunch with him. This would become a regular thing as he tried to help us, indirectly of course, resolve our relationship issues. I had never been more appreciative of a person’s show of kindness and compassion. And my hope was suddenly being restored in the institution that had forsaken me. As my relationship slow began tearing itself apart, I made jokes about how I should probably just join a convent. In all the earnestness in the world, my friend told me that the Jesuits would gladly take me. For a time, during my deep depression after our relationship ended, I considered staying with them. But I was too self-conscious to, once again, become the depressed kid walking the halls alone.
When I left Loyola, because of rising tuition that I simply couldn’t afford, I left behind my friend. And in doing so I left my only connection to the positive aspects of the Church. Since then, things haven’t gone so well. The over-politicization of the church led me to resent it again. The Pope, and his many affronts to common sense, have driven me away once again. It has been made evident, time and time again in the last few years, that individuals like me are not wanted within the church. The Church seeks to make itself smaller, to cast aside any notion of “the universal” and has abandoned any message of Christ’s compassion. I fear for the good people in the Church: the Jesuits who tried to atone for the unforgivable experience I had when I was younger; the nuns and sisters who are out in the world actually doing the work of Christ; the kinder, gentler Catholics who seek to make the Church more inclusive. These individuals are being cast aside as the Church becomes more secular, more conservative, and less understanding of the world around it.
There was one other priest at Loyola who made an impact on me. A very wise priest, who as it happens, has delivered the only homily that I’ve cared to listen to. He posed this question as a metaphor for the church: “What do you do with a broken pot? You throw it out.”
It seems than rather heed his advice, Mother Church has decided to throw out the good pots instead.
Mark Nott is the Director of Business and Legal Affairs for In Our Words. He is also a career undergraduate student. After a brief spell studying Music Theory at the University of Cincinnati, he went on to study Music and Philosophy with the Jesuits of Loyola University of Chicago. After spending a quarter at Truman, he is an incoming transfer student at DePaul University, where he plans to study Philosophy and participate in the Pre-Law program. Fret not for his artistic side: every now and again he’ll sing a few bars from Matthäus-Passionand and wack you with his conducting baton.