In yesterday’s post, I alluded to a pilgrimage to France with my friend Steve in October of 2002. Today, I want to reflect more deeply on that experience.
On the morning of September 17, 2002, Steve had checked into Swedish hospital in Seattle with stomach pain. That afternoon, following a wide array of tests, an oncologist broke the news that he had pancreatic cancer, and had as little as three months to live.
Later that week, I received a cryptic phone call, asking if we could meet to talk. We met at a Vietnamese restaurant, and over enormous bowls of Pho soup, Steve asked if I would be available to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Europe. He wanted to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes, and if his time on earth was to be limited, he wanted to use some of it seeing some of Europe’s great pilgrimage sites.
I had a conference to attend in San Diego in early October, and another in New York in early November. But if we spent the last three weeks of October, I could do it. We hastily booked plane tickets, and sketched out an itinerary.
Then I flew off to San Diego. An incident from the flight back to Seattle is worth recording. I sat in the window seat, and two middle-aged women sat between me and the aisle.
“So, are you on your way out or are you headed home?” one of the ladies asked, shortly after takeoff.
“I live near Seattle,” I said, “but I’m not actually headed home. Once we land, I’ll just hang around the airport for a few hours, then fly out to Europe this afternoon.”
“Oh?” one of the ladies asked. “Business or pleasure?”
I thought about that one for a moment. Neither description really seemed to fit a pilgrimage to Lourdes, but then again I didn’t know if I wanted to explain the idea of a pilgrimage to strangers on a plane. “Well,” I said, plunging recklessly in, “a friend of mine was just diagnosed with cancer, and the doctors say he has only a few months to live. He wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and to see some of Europe’s religious sites before he died, and I’m going with him to drive and generally take care of things.”
“Has he thought about the Mayo Clinic?” one of the ladies asked. “If I had cancer, I’d go to every doctor in the country and try any treatment they’d offer me.”
“When your friend gets back from Europe, if he’s looking for somewhere to get away,” said the other, “he should try a cruise. My husband and I go on a cruise every year. It’s a wonderful environment, beautiful scenery, comfortable quarters, delicious food, a variety of entertainment.”
I longed to explain how the spiritual healing offered by the Great Physician differed from medicine and how a pilgrimage differed from a vacation, but I could find no words that seemed adequate, and I was too self-conscious to try to trust the inadequate words that came to mind.
* * *
A pilgrimage, or at least a pilgrimage such as we took, is almost the opposite of a vacation. Steve had only a few months to live, and he was determined to make the most of the time he had. So our days started early and ended late, and in between we saw as much as we could see. I was amazed at Steve’s stamina—I was thoroughly exhausted, and I did not have an extremely painful cancer eating away at my body.
There were, of course, lighter moments. On our first day in Paris, we were trying (and failing) to find the way to the convent where we had arranged to stay.
I walked up to a man in hope of getting directions. “Bonjour,” I began, trying to make a good impression by speaking his native tongue. “Parlez vous Englais?”
“Don’t—speak—French,” he said, very slowly, nodding his head emphatically from side to side and starting to walk away.
“Oh, wait!” I called after him. “I speak English!” Unfortunately, he did not know the way to the convent.
There were more serious moments as well. We stopped in a small parish Church in Paris to pray the Rosary. About half-way through, we were joined by an elderly lady, who prayed the Rosary softly along with us, she in French, and we in English. After we were finished, she spoke with us; she spoke no English and I spoke only a little French, but I managed to explain that we were from the United States, and were here on pilgrimage.
At this, she became very excited, and told us that we must go to Lourdes. I could not follow all of her story, but it appeared that she had been an invalide, unable to walk, or else only able to walk with difficulty. She had gone to Lourdes, and her leg had been healed. We must go there, she said, and see God’s goodness.
I tried to explain Steve’s condition to her, but I did not know the words for cancer and I had not brought the letter, translated into French, which described Steve’s condition (this was really rather foolish of me, as I would have needed if Steve had run into a medical emergency as we walked around seeing the sights).
* * *
After several days in Paris, we picked up a car and headed out to see the rest of France, including Lourdes. This part of the trip was even more stressful for me, because the rental company did not have the midsize car I had reserved; instead, they offered a free upgrade to a full sized car, which I accepted before I thought about how much narrower the roads in France are than the roads in the US. So I found myself driving almost five thousand miles in two weeks in a car that was much larger than mine, on roads that were narrower than I was used to, among drivers who were more aggressive than I was accustomed to.
The stress of this added up, and,when Steve looked at the map and discovered a new place to see that was “just fifty kilometers or so” off our route, I had another opportunity to meditate on Christ’s command to love our enemies.
Whenever we stopped to see a new cathedral or basilica, I would usually make a beeline for the Blessed Sacrament chapel, and pray. This was not because I was particularly pious; it was because this was the place where I could close my eyes, rest my limbs, and ask God to drain the tension from my body so that I would have the strength to keep up the pace that Steve wanted to keep up and see the things that he wanted to see. But however imperfect my motives, God was truly present, and I learned much about my own heart during those times of prayer.
Emotions, I began to see, are a bit like weather. You can’t necessarily control them; but our heart is deeper than our emotions; in the center of our being, there should be a dwelling place whose walls and roof protect it from the weather. It is when we maintain that center that we can offer love and hospitality to others even in the midst of emotional storms, just as a good inn offers travelers shelter from the storm.
The stress and exhaustion of that trip were real. The human body, the human mind, cannot endure long hours in stressful environments without it taking a toll. But it is not necessary to take that stress out on those around us. In moments snatched for prayer in cathedrals, basilicas, and shrines throughout France, God helped me to build that interior castle which could provide a calm and peaceful dwelling in the midst of stress.
In Lourdes, I spoke with a priest about the stress and the anger that came from these hardships, and complained about how they distracted me from the point of the pilgrimage.
“No,” he said, “A pilgrimage is supposed to have struggle. It is not a vacation. These hardships don’t ‘distract’ you from the pilgrimage; learning to deal with them, learning to be charitable to your fellow-pilgrims even when you are tired and frustrated—that is one of the most important points of the pilgrimage.”
* * *
Steve described the process of dying as a long letting go. Letting go of hopes, of dreams, of future plans, of loved ones; slowly emptying oneself of this world in order to be prepared to embrace the next. Letting go of the flesh so that one could pray, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Steve often quoted the Scripture, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Death did not merely end life on Earth; a holy death was the Earthly consummation of Steve’s New Life in Christ, and he went to France to pray and prepare for that death. Yet this preparation did not begin with his diagnosis; dying of cancer was merely the final stage in a much larger process of dying to self which he had begun in earnest more than a decade before.
* * *
Steve came of age in the late sixties and early seventies, and in his early twenties, he plunged into what seemed at the time to be the glorious liberation of the sexual revolution and the gay rights movement. Like Walt Whitman, he hoped vaguely that out of the torrent of experience there would come a kind of wisdom, that if one simply allowed oneself to be carried down the current of passion, one would eventually reach a certain interior harmony and communion with others.
Needless to say, this did not happen, but for nearly twenty years, he found himself caught up in a whirl of Chicago’s gay community. He maintained a tenuous connection with the Church by attending the Dignity Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Halstead, near the heart of Boystown, as Chicago’s gay district was known.
Yet in the back of his mind he had the sense that he was on the wrong path, even as he saw no way to break out of the rut he was in. Finally, a little over a decade before he was diagnosed with cancer, he took early retirement from the Federal Government, left Chicago, bought a house in the West Seattle suburbs, and devoted himself to gardening, hoping to break out of the rut he had fallen into in Chicago.
* * *
His garden was his great passion in life. Indeed, I have never met a man who knew as much about plants as Steve. From the derivation of the Latin name for the walnut tree to the evolutionary history of the pine tree, Steve seemed to have a never-ending reservoir of botanical information.
For this skill, he was often hired by gardening magazines to travel around the world, working with a photographer and providing detailed scientific information to accompany the photographer’s photo essays.
His dedication to his own garden (which often consumed as much as forty hours of his time each week) was rewarded, as well. He won gardening prizes, and was featured in the April, 2003 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. The story had been written and the pictures taken before he had any hint of illness; but the production process and other delays meant that the tribute to his garden was published in his last days, when cancer meant he had not been able to tend his garden for months.
But there was more to his garden than just a hobby. It became a purpose for him, a thing good in itself simply because it was alive, it was growing, and it was beautiful. The garden is a unique artistic medium, because the gardener can plant, tend, prune, and water; but his work only succeeds when he cooperates with nature (and ultimately, God), encouraging the plant’s natural tendency to grow, checking its natural tendency to grow wild.
To be a gardener, then, demands a heart and mind which seeks beauty through harmony with nature.
* * *
According to Plato, eros arises when we perceive a gleam of eternal beauty through the beloved; but the human soul, says Plato, is like a charioteer, whose chariot is pulled by a team of horses, one well-trained and disciplined, and the other wild and unruly. Thus, when the soul perceives beauty in the beloved, it is all too easy for the wild and unruly part of the soul to leap out of control, sullying the character of both lover and beloved in the process.
Yet it is not ultimately the beloved’s body that is desired above all, but the glimpse of eternal beauty. “You have made us for yourself,” St. Augustine cried out, “and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in you.”
Steve had a keen eye for beauty—in art, in architecture, in gardening. And he found that remembering the true delight which he found in his garden helped to remind him how false the results of lust were to the beauty promised.
In the Gospels, Jesus warns of the danger to a soul from whom a demon has been cast out which does not fill its place with something better: for the demon will return, and finding the house empty, will move back in, and the soul’s final state will be worse than its first. In the same way, Steve found that it was not enough simply to try to remove lust from one’s life; it was further necessary to replace it with something healthy.
For example, he sometimes told the story of a temptation he’d faced while on vacation. He was in Washington, DC, and he happened to pass an adult bookstore (which is really a misnomer: we should call it an adolescent bookstore). In his younger, wilder days, he had often gone into such bookstores, and as he walked by, he suddenly felt all the old temptations return.
Instead of simply trying to push away the temptation, he thought of the guesthouse where he was staying, and of two of his fellow guests, one a woman from Japan and the other a man from Holland, both of whom had seemed to be interesting people who had been through many fascinating experiences. He imagined walking back to the guesthouse, inviting the two of them out for dinner, going out to a nice little restaurant in the area, then returning to the guesthouse for an evening’s relaxed conversation, perhaps over a bottle of wine.
He walked back to the guesthouse, invited his fellow guests out to dinner, and had a wonderful evening.
When he told this story, he would quote Proust: “It is in the imagination, Celeste, that paradise is regained.” For him, an important part of separating himself from his lustful life involved learning to direct his imagination to healthy and productive outlets.
And slowly, as the years passed, the beauty he found in his garden and in healthy friendship began to lift his eyes up to the eternal beauty of God. His return to his Catholic faith did not come about all at once, but slowly, little by little, as in John Henry Newman’s poem:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that
Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path;
But now lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blessed me,
Sure it will, will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent,
Till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I
Have loved long since, and lost awhile!
If this process was gradual, it was nonetheless real—a long letting go of the desires and passions of the flesh aided by the gradual dawning of spiritual light.
He found special solace in the Rosary, and in the intercession of Mary, whose purity became the goal he aspired towards. He also immersed himself more deeply in the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, and began to experience the “renewing of the mind” which the Scriptures promise to Christians who turn away from the world.
“Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body,” the Apostle Paul writes; “but the sexually immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
Sexual purity is not easy, as Christ’s disciples recognized, and as St. Augustine realized. But God’s law is a kind of annunciation. It tells us what, by the grace won for us by Jesus Christ on the cross, we are to become. But, like the virgin birth, it is not something we can achieve on our own. When the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear a son, she replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Gabriel did not tell her that she was just going to have to try harder. He simply replied that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Mary did not imagine for a moment that she could fulfill the angel’s prophecy on her own, but she trusted God and replied, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Her obedience was not easy. As she presented her newborn son in the temple, the prophet Simeon prophesied part of that cost: “A sword shall pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35). That prophecy came true as Mary stood at the foot of the Cross, watching her Son being made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10).
Steve certainly did not pretend that chastity was easy. In our fallen human state, the purity of heart demanded by Christ is impossible—as impossible as the virgin birth. But what is impossible by human effort is possible for God. It was by relying on the Holy Spirit within his heart that Steve gained the strength to “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (Catechism 2359).
* * *
All of this, letting go of the past, pouring himself into his Catholic faith, and immersing his mind in the Mind of the Church, prepared Steve to meet cancer with courage and faith. He offered up all the sufferings brought on by the cancer for the return of lapsed Catholics to the Church and in reparation for sinners. As his sickness worsened and his chances of recovery diminished, he confirmed this vow before three priests and a group of friends.
In the fall, one of his friends who had not been to confession for 20 years, returned to the sacrament and full participation in the life of the Church, and has been growing in holiness. Just a few weeks before his death, a neighbor for whom he had been praying for years sought out the priest for confession and has returned to the Church—this after he had not even entered a church in forty years. There are many other similar stories—many of those who were with him in his last days were those whom he had helped to lead to the Church—or whom he was still helping to lead into the Church.
* * *
After his return from France, the treatment efforts went up and down. For a while, it appeared that the doctors might beat the cancer—they even began to speak of a remission. But then the side effects of the chemotherapy began to stack up, and they had to cease treatment for a month, during which time the cancer grew stronger.
Through all this, a support group had grown up around Steve—though it was often difficult to say whether it was the group which supported Steve or Steve’s courage and faith which supported the group. Tuesday nights became movie nights, with historical dramas of the kind Steve loved to watch, followed by refreshments and a Rosary.
On April 6, his friend Lisa, a movie-night regular, drove by to see him, and found him completely sapped of energy. She took him to the emergency room, and he was admitted to the hospital with his lungs filling with fluid and a blood clot lodged in one of his lungs. The doctors said that he would likely have died within hours had Lisa not found him and rushed him to the hospital. He was in the hospital 9 days. During that time, the doctors drained 4.5 liters of fluid from his lungs.
When I spoke to him about this, he said that on some days, he felt it would have been better if Lisa had not come by, and he had just quietly expired at home. The reprieve had only earned him more time in the hospital, with no real hope of anything but more days of sickness with the same inevitable end. Although he had prayed for the grace of a happy death, and I believe that the Lord had something better in mind than dying alone at home.
He was at peace with death by that time, and ready to go. He stayed at home for two weeks. But he gradually weakened, and returned to the hospital on April 29, again because his lungs were filling with fluid. As late as May 2, the doctors were saying that they expected him to recover and go home again. But by the morning of May 4, it was clear that he was going downhill.
That morning, I sang in the choir for the crowning of Mary celebrations at my home parish, then participated in the rosary in the gym before returning home, where I received word that Steve was expected to die within hours or days. I hurried over to Seattle, and sat with him in the hospital Sunday night. He was barely conscious at all, and what little consciousness he had left was largely blunted by the drugs he was taking to dull the pain and reduce anxiety.
Monday morning (May 5), I arrived at the hospital early, and spent the morning sharing with several friends the task (it was no duty) of sitting with him, holding his hand, letting him know that we were there for him. Though he spent most of the day sleeping, he did have several lucid spells, and was able to recognize and speak very briefly to many of them.
I went to the 12:10pm Mass at the Cathedral with a friend, and we were able to arrange to have the Mass intention be offered for Steve.
His condition seemed stable through the afternoon. But shortly after 7:00pm, he began to decline rapidly. We pulled the curtain shut, placed a crucifix in his hand, held him, and prayed the rosary together. About halfway through, we paused, and made the sign of the cross on his head, his hands, and his feet with holy water. Then we continued to pray. His breathing became more and more labored, the breaths farther and farther apart, and more irregular. He took his last breath during the fifth Glorious mystery, the Crowning of the Blessed Virgin (he had developed an intense devotion to Mary in his later years, and it was to this devotion that he attributed his own return to the fullness of the faith and growth in holiness). He still seemed to have a weak heartbeat, and so we prayed the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy.
Then, we closed his eyes, arranged his body in the bed, adjusted his clothes, and combed his hair. We crossed his arms on his chest, placed the rosary in his hands, and each kissed him goodbye.
David, a photographer with whom he had worked on a number of magazine articles, arrived a few minutes after death. He saw Steve on the bed and said, “He would thank you for arranging him like that. He was the sort of guy who would comb his hair before he called you up on the phone.”
I reflected as I drove away from the hospital that in the Book of Genesis, death is not simply a punishment for sin; it is also a part of God’s mercy. By eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve brought death upon themselves and all their children. But in His mercy, God kept us from the tree of life, so that we would not be confirmed in our sin forever.
Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and I think all human beings must weep as the image of God is returned to dust. But Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, I am the life. If you believe in me, even though you die, you shall live forever.” Steve’s mortal body is dead, but we believe that his spirit endures, and he will be raised up on the last day.
* * *
As I reach the end of these reflections, I look over them and see how much is missing. There are a thousand things I could have written of, but didn’t, and likely ten thousand that I should have written of but was too blind to recognize while he was alive.
Steve strikes me, above all, as a man whose life shows the beauty that comes from turning from the world and trusting God. If I complained of my own stress on pilgrimage, I should note that Steve maintained a perfectly even temper the whole time, dealing not with the stress of French roads and French drivers, but with the pain of cancer and the reality of impending death.
He was attractive, also, because he did not merely possess God within his heart; he desired to share his discovery with others, not in an overbearing way, but in a gentle way which always respected those around him.
It had taken many years for God to build that temple within him—years when he often felt lonely, uncertain. It came as a gift, but a gift which required his own, often painful, cooperation. And thus out of his own struggle, he became a compassionate, gentle guide to lead others towards the light in which he lived.
Eternal rest grant unto him, Oh Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
This post is part of a larger series of posts loosely organized around the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?” To see other posts in the series, click here.