I lost my faith long before I lost my virginity. My defection was not a single act of apostasy but rather a slow unwrapping of belief, a long series of minor dispossessions in which I abandoned one tenet of faith after another , each leaving behind a trace of emptiness, as if I were disrobing an invisible man. Small things at first, the scarves and brooches of religion, a man in a whale’s belly and my guardian angel, haloed doves and apocalyptic floods. Later the broader garments of Hell and the Trinity would come undone.
My falling away began with a question about the demographics of heaven, and I am 11 years old when I ask it. Naturally, I ask my Uncle Leonard, whom I go to whenever I have something serious to talk about it. He’s the only grown-up who seems to be interested in what I have to say.
I ask him how all the souls who die and go to heaven can fit in the Garden of Paradise. He tells me heaven is a very big place.
“No, I don’t mean just the people who are alive now,” I say. “But all the people who came before and who will come now and forever and ever until the world ends.”
“That’s complicated to explain,” he says and leaves it at that.
A few days later he takes me to the beach. It’s too cool and windy to go swimming so we walk for a while along the dunes, stopping when we reach a bluff from which we can look out over the ocean.
“Let’s do a little experiment,” he says. “Close your left eye and look out onto the surface of the ocean. Somewhere in the middle, it doesn’t matter exactly where.” Then he makes a fist and lays it over my right eye, relaxing it just a bit so that a pea-sized shaft of light can open through his hand. “Now count the waves.”
I get to fifty. The whitecaps rise and fall quickly, and new ones keep appearing. I keep counting, Leonard opens the aperture in his fist just a tick. “Keep looking at the ocean,” he tells me, “and count.” The numbers race in my head and I stop counting and start multiplying. He relaxes his fist further and further. “Think of these as the souls in heaven,” he says and draws his hand away.
I’m startled by the expansion of ocean that suddenly fills my field of vision. I think I can hear the murmur of the sea resolving itself into voices, thousands and thousands of voices whispering stories and prayers I can’t understand.
“And this is just one narrow strip of water off a small bit of land. And there are millions and millions more waves breaking along the shore, down to where your cousin Karen lives and even further south where Uncle William and Aunt Mary have their house. And that’s just New Jersey. Then there’s New York and Massachusetts to the north and Virginia and the Carolinas, and then Florida to think of. And the West Coast, too, of course, and Canada and Mexico and South America, and we haven’t even gotten to China yet.”
Back in the car I ask him if heaven won’t be mostly just old people. “Seeing as most people die when they’re old except for the poor children who die before they have a chance to grow old,” I say.
Leonard tells me we will all be resurrected “in a glorified body.”
I’m not sure I know what a glorified body is, but I think of my cousin Harry, who sometimes comes to stay with us for in the summer, who has muscles like the ones the soldiers had in that painting of St. Matthew’s martyrdom I had seen in class. I think of the photograph of my father as a young man, not the wedding photograph on the mantelpiece but the one where he’s in his sailor’s uniform from the time before he got married. The one where my father looks like a movie star in the picture. An actor playing a sailor.
The thought that I will meet my father in heaven as a young man with a glorified body is somehow disturbing and I don’t ask Leonard to explain. But over the next few years I continue to share my doubts and questions with Leonard. Did Cain and Abel marry their sisters? And Noah’s grandchildren, didn’t they marry each other? None of the answers satisfied me for long, and like the Lernaean Hydra, for each one posed, two new ones would arise.
I didn’t have problems with the Immaculate Conception, though, but mostly because I didn’t know anything about sex to start with. And no one wanted to talk to me about sex. Not my father, nor the teachers in grade school. Not even Leonard.
I thus escaped the Church’s traditional teachings on the “grave offence” of masturbation. But my lack of instruction also meant that I had no idea what it was that I experienced the first time I brought myself to orgasm, or the milky fluid that squirted out of me (and which, like countless other boys my age, I first thought would be pee).
How could nobody have told me about this? Not just the technicalities of the act but more shockingly, that my body was capable of experiencing such intense pleasure. And that I could bring it about myself! That I could be its cause and author, spurring and guiding it until the pleasure took over at the very last stretch and threw me off and up into the darkness. Why hadn’t anyone told me about this?
I had heard about jacking off, but only obliquely, in snatches of talk overheard from boys at school who weren’t my friends. And I had heard stories, though I can’t remember where from, about how “playing with yourself” could give you warts or blindness. I was sure this wasn’t the case. My mother was obsessed enough about how I ate and dressed myself in the winter that she would surely not have let me play with the risk of going blind.
I was at an age when I could get aroused just by the swish of seawater in my swim trunks. I could get aroused simply watching an actor on TV as I lay on the carpet of the living room floor. I didn’t need to see anything. But I looked nonetheless, and soon the images of rock musicians and gymnasts and divers began infiltrating the fantasies I created in my mind.
Except for that one summer night when Harry slept in the attic cot across from mine (and perhaps for a few nights more after he left), the object of my desire was always anonymous. That is, until Brother John entered my fantasies in sophomore year in high school.
He taught chemistry. I wasn’t fascinated with the subject the way I was with English or math. I liked the puzzle part of it—figuring out valence electrons and balancing equations—but I was indifferent to the physical stuff of chemistry, the polymers, crystals and acids that played in the theatre of transformation that so fascinated my friend Simon. But chemistry gave me a chance to look at Br. John. I could watch him as much as I wanted without worrying that my look would be noticed, returned or remarked on. Nowhere else could I look so freely at a man.
Br. John was a beautiful man, though at the time I wouldn’t have used that word to describe him. Instead I thought he was the kind of man an artist in another age might have used as a model for a sword-wielding archangel. I recalled what Leonard had told me about the resurrection of the dead. A glorified body. Even more than my cousin Harry, Br. John had a glorified body.
Years of lifting weights had added further bulk to his broad-shouldered frame. I would watch his back muscles tugging at his cassock when he lifted his arm to write on the board. I sometimes saw him in the weight room when we had a lifting session there for wrestling practice, and I could see the two plates of muscle that his chest described beneath his t-shirt. As the term drew on and we moved from the geometry of ions to acids and bases, Br. John began making appearances in my fantasies, the ones I wove after school as I lay on the couch in the downstairs rec room.
Br. John also team-taught sophomore religion. One day he announced we were going to discuss masturbation. But he didn’t talk to us about grievous offences and the near occasions of sin. Instead he talked about giving and receiving. Sex, he said, was, or should be, an act of giving yourself fully to another person in the context of relationship—he may have said marriage, though I’m not sure. It was a turning out, whereas jacking off, he explained, was a turning in on oneself. The worst kind of lover, he said, was the selfish one, a man who’s only concerned about his own pleasure (it didn’t occur to me at the time to ask how he knew all this). He assured us that it was normal for boys our age to masturbate but reminded us of the threat of self-absorption. “You don’t want to become anti-social,” he joked.
His talk, intended to liberate us from a guilt of sin with which ironically I was not burdened, imposed instead a different kind of anxiety. I was already an introvert and I thought if I withdrew any more, I’d vanish. I may not have believed in hell by that time but I did believe in psychology to the extent that I knew any, and more importantly, I believed in Br. John. Now every time that I closed the door to my bedroom and loosened my belt or headed down alone to the rec room I would ask myself whether I could be out with a friend right now or spending time with my brothers.
Br. John’s presence in my fantasies eventually yielded their place to others my age, to classmates I saw in the hall but didn’t know and then in my last year at school to Simon. My falling away from faith, now almost completed, coincided with a growing awareness and acceptance of my sexuality. As one was stripped away, the other began to take shape, though I did not connect the two in my mind.
In the end, I didn’t need Br. John’s warning. Rather than enclose me in a shell of self-absorption, jacking off made me want more and more to enact in real life what I scripted in my imagination. But if in the years of my adolescence I could more clearly discern the desire that lay at the heart of my differentness, I could not begin to imagine myself staking claim to it. Growing up Catholic I naturally had a large store of images of the afterlife, but I had none of a life in this world in which two men could love each other. I knew the stories of prophets and martyrs and apostles but knew of no one whose life could show me how to live my life as a man who desired other men.
Luckily I discovered these stories in books. My fantasies were slowly enriched with the thread of experiences I gathered from books I read, discovered on my own of course and at first quite by chance, that spoke of love between two men. Baldwin and Whitman and Maurice and trashy pulp novels.
These were the stories of my conversion, my catechesis. No one attempted to proselytize me—what a ridiculous idea indeed!—though I wish that someone had. Bereft of confessors and mentors, I was obliged to construct, at least at first, a world in which the attraction I felt could be expressed, and I did so with the stories I read and the men I fantasized I about.
Years before I would enter this world and first make love to another man I was already convinced that even if there were life after death, a prospect I thought highly improbable, and even if some divine entity determined my place in this afterlife, which seemed even more unlikely, I would not be judged because of my sexuality. Only a sadist would bestow such a wonderful gift upon someone and then punish the person for using it to make love.
I got some things wrong about the world to come, of course. When I came out after high school I discovered that were many more people like me than I had thought possible. It was like that time with Leonard in the dunes when he opened his fist to let in a wider expanse of sea and I could suddenly see more whitecaps than I could ever count.
Image: Jared French, “Monk’s Dream”, 1932