Some birthday musings I shared yesterday with an online interfaith community.
Tomorrow is my birthday. I mention the fact not because I seek attention — or sympathy (well, not exactly!) — but for another reason: tomorrow I’ll be 57, and that has led me to reflect, for the fifty-seventieth time, on the various flavors that infuse my personal creed. Heinz-sight is 20/20, right?
What follows is a very small portion of those reflections.
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Like so many others before and since, coming out for me meant leaving religion behind in the closet. I walked away and for three decades stayed away. But now I’ve come to a more mature, reasoned, and, yes, selective appreciation for my family’s faith tradition — a tradition whose founder proclaimed that “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth,” and who taught (so memorably to my young mind), “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith,” and “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
My parents — both of whose recent passings I also mark this birthday week — understood this and taught it to me with their own special twist. I have a book on my shelf which they gave me more than four decades ago, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. This is what my mother inscribed on the flyleaf:
We are pleased that your interests lie in the areas that encompass such things as your heritage and the cultures of our ancestors. I hope that your thoughts, dreams and aspirations will continue to seek high levels and that this volume will sustain and expand your desire for knowledge of creative pursuits such as architecture, art, music, etc.
How deeply I would come to take those words to heart. A very few years later I had the great privilege of attending midnight mass at an historic church in Montreal (where I was living at the time, as one of those young men in white shirts recently made famous on Broadway). What first caught my eye, immediately upon entering the church, was this glorious altar:
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the very first thing that came to my mind at that moment (well, once I was able to catch my breath) was this, designed at about the same time:
Well. Whatever peculiar draught compounded of art and philosophy I grew up imbibing, the recipe was potent. I felt right at home that memorable Christmas Eve in the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal, and no barrier of language or unfamiliar mode of worship could prevent me from recognizing and honoring the spiritual value of that experience, the yearning for “light and truth” we all share. All of that (and more) from a half-dozen or so vertical spires. Go figure.
All spiritual roads may not lead to Rome (not my road, at least), but I have learned that they all lead to the same hoped-for destination. And now I am finally coming to realize that my ecumenism, hard-won and honestly come by, still new yet deeply ingrained, is generous enough to include at least parts of my own family’s spiritual heritage — which I have loved long since, and lost awhile — and the ironies in my present situation are not lost on me. This is perhaps the very queerest thing I’ve ever done in my queer life; it’s like coming out all over again.
Ah, coming out. It was at another, smaller church in Montreal where I first crossed that threshold, on a snowy Sunday evening thirty-six years ago. I sat on a yellow oak pew in the midst of a congregation singing “Lead, Kindly Light” and tried to calm my trembling soul, for I had just begun to admit to myself that I was gay. Something about that hymn, which I had sung countless unthinking times since childhood, went to my very core that winter evening. Perhaps it began with the first verse:
The night is dark, and I am far from home, . . .
I was far from home, for the first time in my young life; and for some little while my soul had been wandering in the darkness, trying to find its way along a path it had not chosen and was not prepared to travel. But as I continued to sing John Henry Newman’s beautiful, humble prayer, and the deepest notes of that small church’s fine pipe organ stirred my physical being, I felt hope and courage likewise stir within me.
As the service came to a close I made a difficult decision: I went to the most important person I knew, my mission president, and asked to speak with him. We retired to a small office next to the church’s sanctuary and there I came out to him. I confessed — not to any sin, but to my identity as a gay man.
It was a wrenching moment, but to his everlasting credit this man, who stood in loco parentis to me during that period of my life, treated me as my own father would later treat me when I came out to him: with wisdom, sensitivity, supreme kindness and, yes, love. In the years since then I’ve liked to think that this was because he was also a man of some experience in “the world,” for he had recently been (and would again be) a member of Congress; but a more likely reason is simply this: he was a good man. His name was Wayne Owens, Democrat from Utah. The specifics of our interview that evening are both personal and still very private, but I will say this: he could have sent me home to my family under a cloud of shame and marked with disgrace, but he did not. With his (literal) blessing, I successfully completed my two years’ service and returned home to begin my adult life’s journey. When soon after that I left the LDS Church it was my own decision, not someone else’s; a small thing, perhaps, but to my self-respect and dignity it would mean a great deal.
Parents, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, a congressman: they taught me perhaps better than they intended, those Mormons, but they taught me, by precept and by example; and, thanks to them, love, and beauty, respect and kindness have blessed my life. Though my spirituality would go dormant for many years, it would never die completely; and this, too, I credit to them.
Could I have arrived at the same place by another route? Yes, obviously. But I didn’t, and as it turned out I didn’t have to — and that, I suppose, is my point: that this is how it was for me. This has been my unique path. And for that I will always be grateful.
“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” I’m still trying to do exactly that; it’s just taken me many years of pride ruling my will to realize that I needn’t toss the baby out with the bathwater.