The Desires of the Heart

Today’s Office of Readings includes a meditation from St. Augustine on Jesus’ saying that “No one can come to me, unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44). Augustine thinks that we are not drawn to God by necessity or under compulsion, but by love, even by desire: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

Augustine reminds his readers of how lavishly the Scripture appeals to our sense of delight: “How precious is thy steadfast love, O God! The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light” (Psalm 36:7-9).

And this of course echoes what may be his most famous saying, found in the Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, oh God, and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in You.” The Confessions are an extended meditation on desire, on the many false objects of desire that Augustine pursued until he discovered that they could not truly satisfy the desire of his heart.

*               *               *

Yesterday, I described some of the wishes and daydreams I felt as a teen for the friend I called Luke. Luke did not return my love, and so all I had were those daydreams.

With another friend, whom I’ll call Jason, things were different. (I’ve not only changed Jason’s name—I’ve also changed some superficial details in the story to make it harder for those who knew us to guess his identity, while describing my own feelings and experiences in the relationship honestly.)

Jason had been a slight acquaintance for several years—we would occasionally run into each other at high school speech and debate tournaments. We’d never really gotten to know each other, however; he was just one of those guys I recognized by sight and occasionally exchanged a few words with.

When I arrived at freshman orientation at the University of Washington, I saw him at the registration table—we said hi and chatted briefly as we waited to get signed in. We were assigned to different groups, however, and went our separate ways.

That evening, there was a social mixer in the dorm. The lounge was dimly lit, and people were gathered in groups talking and laughing. I wandered over to the food table and was trying to decide what to put on my plate when I recognized Jason standing nearby.

“I’m terrible at this social-mixing thing,” I said, awkwardly plunging into conversation.

“I don’t like it that much either,” he replied, creating an instant sense of solidarity: two sane introverts amid the mixing, extroverted crowd.

Balancing a plate of chips and vegetables in one hand, holding a plastic cup in the other, we moved off, found a couple of stools in an out-of-the-way corner, and sat down to chat. We spoke of this and that, where we were from, the weather, the food…

“So, what do you want to be when you graduate?”

“An aeronautical engineer,” said I.

“A pilot,” said he.

Conversation soared.

Hours later, as the party died around us, we found an empty stairwell and sat, side-by-side, while our words—about flying, about our lives, about faith, about the dreams we hoped to accomplish—echoed until the night was almost gone. Finally, short on sleep, we parted on the promise to meet again.

Like farmland seen from 30,000 feet, my memories of the evening have faded into a vague blur. Yet the light in his eyes and the image of his hands illustrating Spitfires dogfighting Messerschmitts in the air between us remains.

The next evening, after orientation ended, we went to see The Fugitive at a suburban multiplex before I headed west to the Olympic Peninsula, and he returned north to Bellingham.

When school started a couple of months later, our friendship took off quickly.

We met often in the library, where we read and studied everything from Russian literature—he was fascinated with the conflicted, complex character of Ivan Karamazov—to the Theory of Relativity. Then we began to meet for lunch, and soon were eating together almost every day. Flying swiftly became our main topic of discussion, but we also discovered that we had other things in common. We had both been high school debaters. We had also both grown up conservative Protestants. We both had strong convictions—and difficult questions—about our faith.

We also began to explore the Seattle area together.

If I think back to those days, most of our time together must have been spent on the mundane prose of undergraduate life, studying, routine chit chat about daily matters, the long silences common in conversations between introverts. Most of that, however, is lost to memory—that most unreliable of narrators—which instead tells a story filled with the most interesting adventures.

Soon enough, we made a pilgrimage to the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field, a place full of memories for me.

When I was 8 years old, I had been able to attend the grand opening of the museum, then housed in the Red Barn, as a guest of my Uncle Steve, who was then working as a test pilot for Boeing.

A few years later, my dad took me up to Anacortes to meet his friend Sydney, a retired aeronautical engineer. The three of us then drove down to Boeing Field for the Emerald City FlightFest, an airshow which featured a takeoff and landing by the supersonic Concorde. In addition to the sights and sounds of the airshow, the day was filled with stories—stories I’d already heard of my dad’s years in the Air Force, as well as entirely new stories from Sydney, who had begun his engineering career in England in the late 1930s and received a true baptism by fire in the mad rush to develop new weapons during the Second World War.

One of the most exciting highlights at the museum for me, however, was the Blackbird, a Mach 3 spy plane which my uncle Steve had flown as navigator. I had grown up hearing his stories about flying the Blackbird, and seeing the plane brought back many of those stories.

Jason’s dad had been a pilot before retiring from the military, and he, too, had many stories to tell. And so we not only drank in the beauty of the planes around us, but also vicariously relived our elders’ adventure stories while dreaming of our own future adventures at the drawing board and in the air.

Another occasional pilgrimage site for us was Sea-Tac Airport, which in those days was still open to the public. We had only to walk through a metal detector—with our shoes and belts still on!—and we were free to wander around the concourses, watching the planes take off and land.

We had other adventures. On a cool but sunny Fall afternoon, we rode the bus downtown, then walked under the monorail tracks to Seattle Center, where we watched The Fires of Kuwait at the IMAX Theater, then had dinner at a Thai restaurant on lower Queen Anne before catching a bus back to the university.

Another time, we took the ferry to Bainbridge Island, grabbed dinner at a little restaurant overlooking the water, then stood leaning against the railing and watching the sun set behind the Olympic Mountains as we rode the ferry back to Seattle.

*               *               *

I don’t remember when we first began to argue about gays in the military. The year before, I had written a speech for competition favoring gays in the military. I won several trophies and ultimately made it to state semifinals with it, and at some point, he had seen me give the speech at a tournament. He dreamed of a military career (he was in the ROTC program), and he lost no opportunity trying to argue that the Bible condemned homosexuality and to tell me why gays should not serve in the military. I, in turn, spared no effort in convincing him that he was behind the times.

It might seem that, after my experiences growing up, I wouldn’t have wanted to get into endless debates about homosexuality with a conservative Christian friend. But a debate is quite different from what I experienced growing up.

For example, on one occasion during the 1992 election, a visiting revival preacher declared from the pulpit at my home church that if America didn’t bring back the death penalty for homosexuality, God would destroy it like He had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The congregation responded with a resounding, “Amen!” (It did not help that I was leading the music that week, and so I was sitting behind the pastor facing the congregation when this happened.)

There were a lot of ways I could have responded to that pastor. In the first place, God intended to destroy Sodom before the men of Sodom threatened to rape the angels (see Genesis 18:20-33). In the second place, the sexual aspect of Sodom’s sin involved gang rape, not a consensual and monogamous relationship between two men. In the third place, most references in both the Old and New Testaments identify sins other than homosexual activity as the cause of Sodom’s destruction (see, in particular, Ezekiel 16:48-50). And finally, despite the fact that Sodom was often invoked in my church as the epitome of human evil, the Bible actually compared Sodom favorably to God’s own people (Ezekiel 16:48, 52; Matthew 11:23-24), and promised to restore Sodom in the resurrection (Ezekiel 16:53).

But the pastor was not engaged in Biblical exegesis. He was engaged in the tribal rhetoric of the culture wars. Any attempt to challenge his rhetoric would have been met with shaming, exclusion, and condemnation.

Why would I question the Word of God? Was I one of those faggots, too?

One of the ironies of the prejudice that dominated the Church in the eighties and nineties was that it allowed pastors and other Christian leaders to get away with really bad arguments against gay relationships, offered in a profoundly unloving spirit. At the time, it seemed to suppress dissent. But over the past couple of decades, we have seen that the vast majority of young Christians who grew up with these arguments—gay or straight—were no more persuaded by these arguments than I was.

The difference with Jason was that we were debaters, and we knew how to engage in an intelligent argument. I started from the position that it was obvious that conservative pastors were bigots who didn’t know what they were talking about. He started with the assumption that it was obvious that the Bible condemned homosexuality—including that this was proved by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

At first, this didn’t lead to a very productive conversation. But he was smart enough to listen to my arguments and try to respond to them, which meant I could not dismiss him as an unthinking bigot: I had to listen to him and try to respond to his arguments. And so as the weeks went by, we gradually churned through a series of theses, antitheses, and attempts at synthesis.

These discussions fueled a rapid development in my own ideas. In part, I had to respond to Jason’s arguments. But now that I was openly discussing the issue (if not my own personal involvement), I also had a lot to think about, even when I didn’t discuss those concerns directly with Jason. Because of the conversations with Jason, I also began to pray and examine the Bible much more carefully on this question than I had been doing before.

Actually, maybe it would be more honest to say that I tried to explain to God why a gay relationship would be okay. For example, I pointed out that the Bible condemned divorce, but that was accepted by many Christians. I reminded Him of the problems with using the Sodom story to condemn monogamous, loving gay relationships. Perhaps more than anything, I pointed to the beautiful covenant between David and Jonathan in the Old Testament, whose love was “greater than the love of women.”

For weeks God listened silently to my slowly evolving theories on the subject. Then one day in October, while I was out walking along the Burke-Gilman trail, enjoying the first of the fall colors, the silence ended.

I hesitate to say that God spoke. I heard no words. Yet a thought landed in my mind with all the force of a bomb.

“Love,” it said, “is not the same as sex.”

*               *               *

The weekend before Thanksgiving, he invited me to come up to his parents’ house to watch the Apple Cup with his family. We left after classes Friday afternoon, drove up to Bellingham. We wandered around the Western Washington University Campus, reminiscing about the high school debate tournaments we had attended there. We stopped in the Viking Union to grab pizza.

That night, we split a few logs from the woodpile, built a fire in the fireplace, and made hot apple cider. Then we sat on the couch, staring at our physics textbooks and doing practice problems. Later, after the fire had died down and his parents had gone to bed, the conversation circled back to gays in the military.

“Doesn’t the concept of two men holding hands weird you out?” he asked.

Then he slid closer to me on the couch and reached for my hand.

My body froze. Don’t show any emotion! Remember to breathe! I tried to keep my face a mask as I explained that my personal feelings about whether or not two men holding hands was weird did not factor into the question of whether gays and lesbians could honorably defend their country. Fairness, I said, isn’t about how comfortable I feel—for example, the idea of my parents having sex weirds me out, but that doesn’t mean I would discriminate against them (I had used that line in my speech, and it usually got a good laugh, so I wasn’t above recycling it in conversation).

“But aren’t you totally weirded out by two guys cuddling?” he persisted. Then he laid his head against my chest, where presumably he could hear my heart race. We kept arguing. After a few minutes, I took the risk of running my fingers through his hair. He did not resist, and we sat like that for the next couple of hours—he maintaining that homosexuality was disgusting, while I maintained that, whether it was disgusting or not, we should not discriminate against those who happened to be gay or lesbian.

So far as I can recall, although I was quite happy with cuddling with him, the idea of trying to escalate this into a sexual encounter never seriously crossed my mind. At any rate, although I have extraordinarily vivid memories of this particular evening, I don’t remember struggling that much against sexual temptation. I just remember a feeling of incredible tenderness, somewhat offset by the cognitive dissonance in his arguments.

The next day, he went out of his way to say that he was not gay.

“I never said you were,” I replied, choosing my words with some precision.

The relationship lasted, in more or less that form, throughout our freshman year. We continued to study together, continued to explore Seattle together, continued talking late into the night. If we were alone—which was not often, since we both had roommates—we might cuddle.

We continued to argue about homosexuality as a theoretical question, gradually arriving at a consensus that the Bible did condemn gay sex, but that gay people could have a David-and-Jonathan-style friendship, as long as they didn’t have sex.

He continued to deny that he was gay, and I could read him well enough to see that nothing would be gained by my coming out to him.

*               *               *

A few months later, we watched Out of Africa. We shared a couch alone in his parents’ basement; we started the movie on opposite ends of the couch, but at some point during the movie his head ended up resting, once again, on my chest.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Karen von Blixen-Finecke (played by Meryl Streep), and her affair with Denys Finch Hatton, an Englishman (played by Robert Redford) looms large within her memories. Denys has learned to fly, and some of the most beautiful cinematography in the movie shows Denys and Karen soaring over the African landscape—mountains and waterfalls, grassy plains and sandy beaches.

The tragic romance between Karen and Denys figures very little in my memories of the movie. What caught our imagination were the images of Africa from the air.

After the movie, Jason asked if I’d ever thought of being a missionary pilot. I hadn’t, but we discussed the idea of becoming missionaries, and taking the gospel to remote tribes in Africa. This idea caught both of our imaginations, and was something we discussed on and off for several months, and something I often thought about, to the point that it became a consuming passion for a period of time. (I was quite surprised, several years later, when I watched the movie again, and discovered that Karen and Denys had not been missionaries, but had been involved in an adulterous affair. My memories of the movie had become so deeply connected with our discussions of becoming missionary pilots that I had lost all memory of the original context of Karen’s relationship with Denys.)

To elaborate a little on our dream: as missionaries in harsh conditions, flying from place to place, we would have a perfect excuse not to be married. This was a context in which a lifelong friendship between two unmarried men could be made intelligible to other Christians. But it was not just about that: it also offered a way to serve God. Since coming around to obedience on the question of gay sex, I had begun to think much more seriously about how I could serve God.

Still, my motives were decidedly mixed. I was more interested in the idea of being with him than I was in bringing the Gospel to remote tribes. There was also an aesthetic reaction to the natural beauty of Africa, and our mutual fascination with anything with wings. And it’s only fair to report that the dream was also frequently unrealistic: in my reveries, the temperature seldom exceeded 70 degrees, and our landing sites suffered neither from black mambas nor poisonous insects.

Yet at the same time, this conversation represented the seeds of vocation: the first glimpse of a way of serving God that would not mean deep loneliness, isolation, and despair, but could fulfill the desires of my heart.

*               *               *

I have rambled on much longer than I intended to do. Let me see if I can make some sense of why all of this makes sense (to me) in connection with the question of the hope that the Church can offer to lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians.

Do I really see God’s commands as something that God is doing for my good and to fulfill the deepest desires of my heart? Or am I celibate because I fear that God will send me to Hell, and so give Him my sexuality in the same spirit I would give a mugger my wallet, not willingly, but because the alternative is to risk death?

I suspect my story is, at the very least, unusual. I would hesitate to recommend that other 18-year-olds start cuddling with attractive soldiers. I doubt the result would be contented celibacy in very many cases.

Nevertheless, at least in my case, I think that this experience has made celibacy much easier, and altered how I see it. In the years after Jason and I began to drift apart, I could see that the romantic element created an emotional roller coaster, while the real strength of the relationship was not in the cuddling and holding hands, but in the intimacy that arises from shared interests, especially shared commitment to God, and the shared effort to understand His will and His ways.

When I meet a guy I click with, I am more likely to want to build a relationship that mirrors the solid friendship I first found with Jason than I am to want a gay partner. And over the years, those are the friendships that have proven a much more solid source of hope and contentment, and have lasted much longer than the relationship with Jason. On the other hand, I have found that nurturing sexual desire for another guy has always ended up creating obstacles to intimacy in friendship.

*               *               *

In The Theology of the Body, John Paul II dedicated several addresses to the question of whether Jesus’s words about “adultery in the heart” (Matthew 5:27-28) condemned the heart or called it to a higher kind of love. The Pope’s analysis focuses on marital love. But the Pope’s explanation of the call draws on Plato’s discussion of love, which was concerned with purifying same-sex eros into chaste friendship.

As I alluded before, friendship is an important love in the world of the Bible which has fallen into neglect in the modern world: Abraham was called a friend of God; God “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”; and at the Last Supper, Jesus framed His own sacrifice on the cross as an act of friendship. David could lament that Jonathan’s love for him surpassed the love of women.

St. Augustine recognized that good never depends on sin, but sin is always a corruption of the good. Same-sex friendship is a great good. Was there disorder, temptation, and sin in my relationship with Jason? Yes, of course. No human relationship is free of these things. But the message I received from Christians growing up was that there was no good at all in that relationship, that the only possible Christian message to me was one of condemnation.

What I began to realize, however, was that the Gospel could also be a call to purify love, and that as love grows in purity, it also grows in intimacy.

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.

One thought on “The Desires of the Heart

  1. Pingback: Notes for University of Dallas Talk | Spiritual Friendship

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