The following column was published in The Observer on Tuesday, August 28, 2012.
I have gone to the Grotto many times. I have lit candles for my grandparents, for family, for friends, for myself. My freshman year, I visited the Grotto nearly every night before walking the covered path beside Corby Hall and making my way back to my bed on the third floor of Dillon.
I hardly ever noticed the young man I passed every night on that walk. He stands at the corner of the Grotto. He, who is not much older than I, holds a small boy in his arm and smiles down to a little girl at his side.
He was like me once. As a student, he often came here to pray. That was back in the 1940s. Now he stands in eternal vigil as a man made of metal. Now a letter to Fr. Hesburgh, preserved in a plaque before his statue, relates this man’s longings from his deathbed in New York: “Just now … and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto.”
I first learned the name of this man after praying at the Grotto with a gay friend. The friend told me that this metal man may have been gay himself. Dr. Tom Dooley, known internationally as a great American hero, spent much of his 34-year life establishing hospitals and clinics in South East Asia. He so influenced the world by his faith-driven work that one religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, sought recognition of his sanctity through canonization.
We do not recognize the man today as a canonized saint. Anecdotal speculation accuses the man of engaging in regular gay sexual encounters. I don’t know him in this way. I know him as the man always standing at the Grotto, and I suspect that this is how he would wish to be remembered. This is the man who once wrote in his letter: “If I could go to the Grotto now, then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion.”
I don’t know if Tom Dooley was gay. It doesn’t particularly matter to me. I don’t suspect it particularly mattered to him in writing these words. In them, he reveals that man’s greatest longing isn’t the desire for sexual union. He asks us: “How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?” He remembers protesting University policies, writing: “The Grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored. Do the students ever appreciate what they have, while they have it? I know I never did. I spent most of my time being angry at the clergy at school.”
Tom never made it back to the Grotto before his death. Like our gay friends, whose deep longings will be unable to find worldly fulfillment, he mourned that he would not return to his life’s anchor. He wrote that it was difficult to accept that he could not be there: “Like telling a mother in labor, ‘It’s okay, millions have endured the labor pains and survived happy … you will too.’ It’s consoling … but doesn’t lessen the pain.”
Dr. Dooley has something here to teach us. I used to think that reaching out to my gay friends meant a reiteration of Church teaching. While I still hold these teachings close to my heart, I no longer assume that obeying these teachings is easy. There is great consolation in faith, but this consolation does not always lessen the pain and loneliness of unfulfilled longings. It has always been a mark of Christianity that the teachings have been hard to follow. Over the summer, I read a book by a friend of a friend, Wesley Hill’s “Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.” The author addresses struggling with his homosexuality in the Christian community: “I began to learn to wrestle with my homosexuality in community over many late-night cups of coffee and in tear-soaked, face-on-the-floor times of prayer with members of my church.”
For Wesley, being both gay and committed to traditional Christian teachings on sexuality is no easy feat. He remembers speaking to a friend about feelings of shame and brokenness: “Even after a good day of battling for purity of mind and body, there is still the feeling, when I put my head down on the pillow at night to go to sleep, that something is seriously wrong with me … I feel in those moments that my homosexual orientation makes God disappointed or unhappy or even faintly upset with me.” These are the agonies of men and women who did not choose to be different. Yet, these are the men and women at the Grotto.
Christopher Damian is a sophomore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.