(Pictured above: detail from “Saint Francis in Meditation” by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1635-9)
“…many individuals think they are not praying when, indeed, their prayer is deep.”
– St. John of the Cross
After years of searching for happiness in the gay bars, in the bathhouses, among the sweaty throngs of near-naked dancing men in the discos of San Francisco, and then in a seemingly settled same-sex monogamous relationship, only to end-up back in the bars and bathhouses, one dark and lonely night I was near death on a hard and indescribably uncomfortable emergency-room gurney. For a while, all I could think about was how much pain I was in; then strangely enough I became acutely aware of everything and everyone around me. Separated by just a thin sheet of privacy, in the next station over: a woman was thrashing and vomiting following a bad case of alcohol poisoning; on the other side, I heard the doctor explaining to the mother of a young girl that her daughter had a sexually transmitted infection. As for me, I was ceaselessly hemorrhaging from every orifice. I was in the middle of a battlefield. But I didn’t know it and I didn’t care. After burying so many completely unrealized youthful hopes and dreams, I resolved myself that this was where it was going to definitively end. Now, I just wanted to sleep. I wanted rest. Yet, when the reality of death swept over me – it was unexpectedly cold and dark. I felt like I was being strangled. I panicked.
I hadn’t thought of God or Jesus in many years. As a child I was raised in the pathetic world of guitar strumming – laughing Christ Catholicism. Looking for God in gay, I never found Him there. What I did discover was disappointment, disease, and death. After watching so many friends and lovers collapse silently and forgotten into their graves, I wanted desperately to join them. Where? I didn’t know. But I knew that anywhere would be better than this.
Only, when death drew near, I wasn’t so proud anymore. For some reason, I wanted another chance and I wanted to live. From the depths of my being, from some forgotten corner of my mind, from a boyhood memory of a little holy picture on my nightstand – the image of Jesus Christ inexplicably entered my thoughts. Right then I knew that I only had one small breath still inside of me and I used it to call the Name of Jesus. I begged: “Jesus, please help me. I don’t want to die this way” And, He did help me. Immediately.
Since then, I have learned many prayers and I have grown much in my relationship with Christ due to a devoted and steady recitation of the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and the Jesus Prayer, but I often forget that day when I reached out to God in such desperation and humility. I overlook that little prayer. Because I’ve gotten complacent. Chastity becomes predictable. I think I have figured it out. Until I get lazy and slip. Then, I begin to wonder why old habits are so difficult to break.
As men who struggle with the temptations of homosexuality, masturbation, and pornography, we have frequently known times of great frustration, isolation, and sadness. For in our hearts, we understand that it is not only our actions which have caused us unrest, but the underlying desires that usually precede those sinful activities and are the source of our unhappiness. Again and again, we ask God to take those thoughts and emotions away from us. When He does not, we get angry and frustrated – sometimes abandoning our prayers and taking revenge on Him by delving deeper into our obsessions with a night of porn viewing and masturbation or even a sexual encounter. Afterwards, we can’t help but feel deceived and hopeless. By now, repeatedly going to Confession for the same offenses is embarrassing. As a solution, we constantly church-hop in an effort to avoid a priest who may know us or recognize our voice. The Sacrament has become shameful, though once we have been absolved we feel miraculously clean and determined to change our ways. Yet, somehow, we keep falling into the same pattern – often enduring a trying and stressful week of family and or work, then deciding to reward ourselves with a few moments of bliss on the computer screen or hunting guys on Grindr. Inevitably, these calculated lapses occur on Friday nights when we know the Sacrament will be available the following day. Then, we go to Mass on Sunday, starting the process all over again.
We try to grind through it. And, even though we are doing what we are supposed to: prayer, Confession, Mass, God seems curiously more distant than ever. Redemption, as well as sin has become routine. We settle into a sort of Cold-war stalemate. Sometimes, we stop praying altogether. In a sense, the struggle has become so discouraging and tiresome; we wouldn’t mind quitting for good.
In this scenario, which during times in my life, I have embodied – the problem is frequently not so much with the sin, which must be avoided, but with how we deal with the struggle. In my experience, the struggle must become a prayer. In other words, the struggle, but never the sin, must be embraced; albeit this is not an undemanding mission. St. Francis of Assisi, a man who at one time in his life apparently knew and enjoyed the sensual delights of the flesh – battled against lingering temptations:
As the merits of St. Francis increased, so too did his struggle with the ancient serpent. For the greater the gifts bestowed upon him, the more subtle were the temptations and the more serious the assaults against him. Though the devil had often proved him to be a man of war.
What I found most fascinating in this observation by Thomas of Celano is the description of the battle in military terms – as a war, and St. Francis as “a man of war.” Thomas used this same analogy several times in his Life of St. Francis; earlier, he wrote:
He fought hand to hand with the devil…But the most valiant soldier of God, knowing that his Lord can do all things everywhere, did not give in to fright…
During his conversion, and his struggle to leave behind a love of pleasure, and to understand his Heavenly Father’s plan for him, Thomas remarks of St. Francis, that the former libertine received – “the knighthood of God.” Yet, this reward did not come easy for St. Francis. Thomas of Celano observed how the Saint “was in anguish;” “filled with sorrows;” “he prayed and wept bitterly.” For in this war, even the holiest and most stout amongst us will break down into tears. With some men, that is not a pleasant place to be. But it’s a sure route to humility. And, it was in just a moment such as that when Our Lord gave solace to the suffering Saint after Francis simply uttered: “Let it be unto me, Lord, as you have said.”
Therefore, part and parcel with our purification, with our eventual “knighthood,” is the often tortuous path to inner healing; for the stubborn, one that requires our abasement. While its assuredly easier to shirk away from these repeatedly agonizing battles, and to wallow in the uneasy comfort of monotony, it’s been my experience that our prayers are most efficacious when we are tested to our mettle; when we are tempted, but we don’t fall into temptation; when we feel defeated, but we don’t surrender; when it seems like we are abandoned and alone, but we call out to God anyway. When we almost give-up then suddenly become child-like, offering up a prayer as if it were our first, God is listening to us. And, even if we were to briefly surrender and plunge back into perversion, once we acknowledge that what we did was wrong, and perhaps what we are doing isn’t working, finally, we realize that God is the only one who can save us – from ourselves.
To those who neither know or Lord Jesus Christ nor know any prayers at all – when life becomes impossible and you are tired of being alone – simply call out to Him.