Day after day I was able to observe the austere way in which he lived. By profession he was a soldier and, after my mother’s death, his life became one of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church. – Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery
As a child, I revered my father and I didn’t understand him. I instinctively knew that my survival depended upon him. My father was a hard worker. He was industrious. He could create something out of nothing: a garden, a tree house, an addition to our home. He was a dispenser of my material happiness; a joyous day was when he occasionally brought home a cake or donuts. During those times, I knew my father was pleased and I was happy. Sometimes, when I did something wrong, my father would get angry. At that point, I feared him as he was the bestower of punishment. But I loved my dad, and I knew he loved me. But in the mind of a child, he was not human; he was a god. And a distant god.
My father was ambitious, bold, and loud. I wasn’t like him. My father was strong and stout. I wasn’t. My father was a man’s man. I considered myself less than a boy. I always shrunk next to him. My father could fix anything, always choosing the right tool and using it correctly; he could drive tractors; lift massive wooden beams with the power of his muscle; he was never bullied; he was no man’s fool. I felt safe but unsure when I was around him. As for myself, I couldn’t stay vertical on my bike; I was unable to throw a ball more than five feet; when I held a hammer or a screwdriver I inevitably hit my thumb or stripped the screw. Instead, I sat for hours with a pencil and drew little pictures of imaginary worlds filled with rabbits and rainbows. The boys at school mercilessly teased me while I stood by humiliated unable to say a word in my defense. I was ashamed. One day, I was so petrified that I soiled myself. Although my dad was nowhere near the schoolyard to witness my disgrace, I thought he was watching and he knew. In some strange way, I thought I failed both God and man.
The picture of Jesus presented at school, was of a slightly effeminate, constantly smiling hippie. He preached some nebulous doctrine about love, but eventually fell to the political powers of intolerance and oppression. I could never figure out exactly why He was killed, because no one should have even cared about Him. The most indelible picture of Christ implanted in my brain, during those years, was Jesus as the simpering flower-child from Godspell. The school-wide viewing of that film in the darkened gymnasium was an experience that would change the course of my life. If my father was more God than man, this Jesus was more man than God. If my father was larger than life and somewhat overpowering, this Jesus was mundane and cloying. And as I grew older, I scorned both of these gods. In homosexuality, I thought I could find the perfect man – someone who was masculine and powerful, but unquestionably accepting and compassionate.
I never found my gay god, because everyone else around me was looking for precisely the same thing. The more I expected and the more I hoped, the increasingly more desperate I became. My parents, especially my father, could not bear what I had turned into, but I didn’t care. Publicly needing a man was my way of getting back at him, although he didn’t comprehend this. I was proclaiming that I needed him, but I contended that he was never there. One day, he made a cutting, albeit honest, comment about the appearance of me and my friends. Testing the waters of acceptance, I had deliberately brought home one weekend some of my odder appearing gay compatriots. My father made it clear that they were not welcome in his house. I saw it as just another repudiation, so I walked away.
As the years passed, I got older, and I got sicker. My options were fewer and now I stood back and watched as a new generation of lonely young men looked for their potential savior; their new god. By then I should have advanced to the next level of gay consciousness. After years of sexual exploration and freedom, it was time to “settle down.” As a Catholic priest once told me, he thought that this was the best option. According to him, you could have both: gay and God. Only, I ended up with nothing. I hated myself, and I began to envy my long-vanished friends who died painfully of AIDS, because, I thought, at least their suffering was now over.
One night, I lay dying and forgotten on a cold and hard hospital gurney. I prayed for death while my mother prayed nearby to Jesus. I cursed her as she attempted to intercede with heaven on my behalf. I didn’t want her God. Where had He been my whole life? Anyway, he was scrawny and pitiful. Yet, in my pathetic death throe attempt at finally being assertive and confident, I became afraid. I panicked. And I called out to Jesus. Immediately, I felt His solid reassuring presence. Or, was He always there? In a way, it was the same feeling I had as a boy when my dad was around – I felt safe. Later, a certain uneasiness returned. Was this Jesus Christ the same long-haired social worker from the 1970s, who was here to give me a hug, a gift card for a free meal, and then send me back to the streets? I didn’t want to go back.
Having nowhere else to turn, I went home. The prodigal son was alive, and my parents opened the door. But I was too confused, exhausted, and ill to celebrate. For a while, I couldn’t speak or sleep. I was shocked back to near infancy. I was grasping for help; I was grasping for truth; I was grasping for life. I was reaching out for my father and I was reaching out toward God.
At first, my father didn’t know what to make of the situation. He stayed away, and I stayed in my room. I prayed to God, not knowing I was praying. Because I was in so much physical pain, I couldn’t concentrate on any of the simple prayers that I inaccurately remembered from childhood. Instead, I just pleaded for help. I begged. And for the next few days, I lived as a hermit. But I was still uncertain.
Slowly, I ventured out of my monastic cell and went in search of answers. I made my way almost directly to my parents’ bookshelf. Without even thinking, I took two books back to my room: The Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church; I had read neither.
Over the next few days, I selectively studied again and again certain passages. Primarily the forgiveness of the public sinner by Christ and the paragraphs in the Catechism dealing with homosexuality. There was compassion and then there was strength all residing in Truth. Christ was not the ineffectual wimp I imagined since grammar school. He stood up to the bullies, and then He consoled the wounded. But He didn’t leave them cowering in the dust; He gave us His Word to live by, and the laws which should guide our every thought. He offered a way out.
Carrying my two books, that I now placed all my faith in, I left my room to put them back on the bookshelf. On my way there, I saw my father praying. I had never seen him pray with such concentration. During my self-imposed imprisonment within homosexuality, my parents had gone through their own captivity in a world of diversions and excess. But they found the extravagance of expensive wine and endless nightly gourmet tours of the globe to be an essentially empty meal. Now, they had abandoned the luxuries which my father’s determination had afforded them. My father didn’t seem less driven, but his ambitions had changed. Everything used to be directed in his life toward a material goal; now his energies were focused on the purely immaterial.
I stood and watched semi-concealed, halfway up the stairway, as a few small beads on a cord passed through my father’s fingers. As a child, I never knew how to pray the Rosary. Over the past few years, my only recollection of a rosary was the one a young singer named Madonna constantly wore around her neck. In my mind, it had become almost a profane object, transformed from the sacred as the crucifix was always strategically situated inside Madonna’s ample cleavage. But in the rough calloused hands of my father, the Rosary had been restored to its rightful meaning and significance. Like my childhood conception of Jesus Christ, there was more to my father than I previously believed.
The father of the prodigal son who waited on the road suffered more than the prodigal son. – Archbishop Fulton Sheen
All the time I thought my father detested me, he actually prayed and wept for me. And in that act, often performed alone and silently, there was compassion. While I danced in some gay disco, my father prayed. While I had sex with nameless men, my father prayed. While I tossed my life away, my father prayed. Every day, He prayed the Rosary and I didn’t know it. In those long days of desolation, like on my deathbed, I would have thought that such senseless murmurings were incredibly stupid. It must have appeared to him that all his efforts on my behalf weren’t working. I didn’t return home. But he persisted, and that took strength and determination. The same qualities that seemed offensive when I was a boy were transformed into a means of my salvation through Christ Jesus.
Dissatisfaction with the world sometimes leads to regret. Next, unless you are to remain continually bitter and sullen, a radical revision of how we conceive ourselves and everything around us is required in order to move forward and survive, and that takes humility. In my present ruined physical state, my humiliation was complete. In my futile quest to the find a masculine man who would save me, I was sent back to boyhood. The damage to my body was horrendous, and the frightened little boy was still messing himself, except now I knew that no mere human could make me clean, forgive me, or wipe away the pain – not even my father, for another man, who was somehow more than just a man, had already saved me. And in that deliverance, my father played a part.