When I left the friary at age 17, I had completed all of the required credits to graduate from high school, but I lacked a course in U.S. History. I decided to go to a public high school for two semesters while working part time at nights. This would give me an opportunity to acclimate to “civilian” life again, while earning money for college.
Initially I tried to find a religious home as well, but that was sort of a failed effort. I elected to go to a nearby congregation that was not my parents’ church. For the previous three and one half years, my religious experiences were plentiful and varied. In the friary we woke at 5:00 AM for Matins and Lauds, canonical prayers to end the night and welcome the day. This was followed after breakfast by Prime. Daily mass, recitation of the canonical hours, bible and inspirational reading during meals, private prayer and meditation rounded out our days. Our week also included confession and spiritual guidance with our advisors. These later practices were said in person, sitting in an easy chair, in a private office. Only during absolution did we kneel.
A trip to St. Alexander’s for confession was not smooth transition. I waited in line to kneel at a free-standing temporary confessional at the front of the nave. During the process of my confessing, the priest stood up and looked over the top of the divider and said loudly, “You WHAT?” after I reported that I had sex with my boyfriend outside of marriage because we could not marry. In the friary this would have a big deal, but no one would raise his voice or express alarm. I am confident I will not engage in the practice of confession again, but if I would it would start with, “Bless my Father, for I have sinned. My last attempted confession was in 1965 when I was publicly humiliated for my honesty and courage.”
When I got to college, I periodically attended Catholic Church services to socialize with my friends. The guitar masses on campus were a good place to meet people and find young women and men to date. This was my last-ditch effort to consider bisexuality. Interestingly, it was moral qualms about leading someone on that made me decide once and for all to focus on my attractions and fantasies with men only. I held the belief that my bisexual attractions were okay, but confusing and duplicitous to women I would date.
For a brief time I attended some meetings of radical Irish Catholic liberals who were seeking to end English domination in Ireland. I also hung out for a time with a Catholic family that served lots of alcohol and connected me to a parish house in Chicago where I could take male dates for romantic weekends. This exposure to some radical Catholics also provided ample opportunity to get involved with the move toward racial justice and equality that was brewing in Milwaukee. But instead of drawing me into Catholicism as a faith community, these actions revealed the dubious morality of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-gay oppression in congregations.
I stopped attending Catholic church and it felt as if I stopped maintaining a charade. I liked the comfort, familiarity, order, beauty, and smoldering sexuality of the church. I did not and had not believed its dogma much past my belief in Santa.
At about the same time I was exiting Catholicism, I was offered a chance to audition for an Episcopal church choir that would provide a small stipend and pay my college tuition. Fewer frills, better music, sherry hours, and pay — what was not to like. Even though 50 years later they are still debating same-sex marriage and gay clergy, the Episcopal Church of the time was replete with queer pastors and participants in liturgy from musicians to crucifers and acolytes. Church music remained a fairly constant interest in my life, especially by composers like Britain, Howells, and Wilcox. In some ways that music served as a gay aesthetic for me. The Episcopal church also moved me into more of the fine and decorative arts. Surrounded by Tiffany, four-edge books, and beaux arts decorations, I danced from the disco into the middle class.
Later I would serve as chorister in a Methodist church and music director in two Lutheran churches. All along the way I desperately wanted to believe, but still found my attraction to be order, beauty, and comfort. There was a period when I explored my experiences with a couple of pastors. One, a Lutheran, was quite self-congratulatory about his liberal views that allowed for my salvation. The other, an Episcopalian convert from Judaism, decided to leave the church during our counseling sessions, a situation that sealed the deal for me. He had found anti-Semitism in the church too much to tolerate.
In the end, no longer a Catholic, I was also not a Christian.
Every day this week, I have been struck by the parallels between my experiences in religion and belief in god(s) to my friend, Tom’s. In One Whole Life, he is tracing his move from Protestant to Catholic to atheist.