This post was originally published at Spiritual Friendship on November 12, 2013.
I had told my parents I wanted to be a philosophy major. They were not amused.
My mom tried to understand. “What can you do with that?” Do meant job.
“Mom, that’s not the point. I want to pursue the truth!”
My dad interjected, “That’s great, Chris, but you have to get a job eventually. You have to support yourself.”
I was a junior in high school applying to colleges. They had a point, but I knew what I wanted in my education. I had written in one of my application essays, “I will never forget that history is a record of God’s interaction with the universe. That fact was the single greatest thing I had ever learned in a history class… There is a meaning to the world, and this meaning is good. This meaning is God. I want to more fully know God, and I know that I can find Him in a Catholic education.”
Two years later, I sat in a small room on the third floor of DeBartolo Hall. Even today, I can remember the classroom scene. There were about fifteen of us, mostly men, all just out of high school. My professor began to speak, and I was instantly disoriented. “The point of this education isn’t to make you a better person. If you’re looking to become a better person, you’d better go join a seminary or something.” This was never believable for me. When you’re like me, your goodness is inseparable from how you come to understand the world, from how you come to understand yourself, from your education.
Not all Notre Dame professors have held the same views as my seminar teacher. In the middle of the last century, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain would frequently lecture at Notre Dame. For him, as for me, understanding is a matter of life and death. Maritain was a student in France in 1901. After reflecting on the spiritual desolation of French intellectual life at the time, he made a vow that he would commit suicide if he did not find some answer to the meaning of life within the year.
I understood his vow. I understood it in the nights that I stood in front of the mirror. I could see the vow in the drooping shoulders, the mouth falling down at the corners, the tired and empty eyes. I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and not know who—or what—I was staring at.
Late one night, I quietly left my room and walked down the stairs to my dorm’s chapel. The hallway was quiet, and I was nearly alone when I walked down the aisle and slumped into a hard wood chair. I came to the chapel after several months of trying to reconcile my faith with my attractions to Paul, and I saw no answer. He was my friend, and I loved him, but I saw no way out of my “intrinsic disorder.” I saw my love of this man, and I began to fear the love of any man. Would I be unable to keep myself from falling for any men I grew close to? Was I a monster? Was I God’s meaningless mistake?
I saw an emptiness in the mirror, and it was an emptiness in my world. I was living out the words of John Henry Newman: “If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflection of its Creator.”
Sitting at a table in front of a twelfth-story window in the library, I could see my dim reflection in the glass. Sometimes I would look up from my books and stare out the window. I would press my hands against the cold glass and wonder what it would be like to fall, down, down, away from the books that weren’t helping me and into the grey concrete that would end all this suffering.
G.K. Chesterton once called suicide a kind of anti-vow, “the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.” He said that suicide is not only a sin; it is the sin. It is the act of a man who sees no meaning in the world. For Maritain, for Chesterton, and for me, meaning is the only rival of suicide. If there is no meaning to this world, there is no value in living; at best we simply dwell in complacent brokenness until we finish out our days on this earth.
Jacques Maritain was saved from meaninglessness, and so was I. The search ended—and began—in Catholicism. Maritain’s Answer was found in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Mine was found when I started to tell my story.
When I came out to my friend Anthony, I still saw that emptiness in the mirror. I think that the only way I found the strength to say it was the unspeakable hope that the feelings I had for him were mutual.
We sat in his car in an empty parking lot at three in the morning.
“Anthony, I… I… I’ve wanted to tell you. I… I… I…” I couldn’t get it out. Getting even that short syllable to escape my lips was an exhausting task, and I couldn’t continue on after it. “I…” But I knew that I would just have to spit it out.
“I’m gay.” With those two words, the world changed. I could never take them back. He could never unhear them. My eyes were full of tears. I babbled on. “I mean, it’s much more complicated than that. But… that’s, I guess, the easiest way to say it.”
We talked. The feelings weren’t mutual. But he didn’t leave. He didn’t reject me. He just listened.
After a while, I told him about my fears. “When you’re like me, it’s just so hard to be honest. If people know about it, there are real social and professional consequences. Especially in the Catholic world. If you want to teach in a Catholic high school and you’re open about this, you can forget it.”
I looked straight ahead as he responded, “I think that one day I want to be a principal at a Catholic school, and I can’t think of anyone that I would rather have teach my kids.” It was too much. I put my head against the dashboard and started crying. He put his arm around me, and, after a bit, I just leaned over and put my head against his chest, sobbing as he held me.
“Man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another,” wrote Pope Benedict XV. “Only from the You can the I come into itself.” I remember laying against him and thinking, “I feel as though I’m loved the way I was made to be loved.”
His love was painful. I felt the pain of being released from a dark prison and being blinded by the sun, seeing it for the first time in a long while. I found a true love that made manifest a true wisdom, which according to Newman is “from above, chaste, [and] peaceable.”
One night a few weeks later, my friend Brittney and I sat on her porch. Brittney was a Catholic Studies major at the University of St. Thomas. She had also been one of the many students to actively promote Minnesota’s “marriage amendment,” defining marriage as between one man and one woman. We were friends, and I knew that if I wanted our friendship to continue to grow and develop, I would have to tell her.
She sat forward with her hands on her knees, her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and falling over her right shoulder. She had a gift for assuming the demeanor of a loving mother. I felt so much like a child. I had to tell her.
“Lately, I’ve been feeling like God’s calling me to reach out to people who feel misunderstood and alienated and can’t find a place in the Church…” I struggled for words. “I feel like I need to speak more about my personal experiences and… and.. and.. I’m gay.”
She responded slowly and softly. “I am so proud of you, Chris.”
Again, the burden lifted. Through Anthony, Brittney, and friends like them, I began to see myself. I took shape in the mirror, formed by those who saw me before I saw myself. They tell me: there is a meaning to my world, and this meaning is good.