I am sixteen years old and sitting in a church pew and I am committing an act of defiance. I am thinking about other guys and I am almost laughing about it. This is my micro-coup. Among a crowd of old people, I am supposed to be praying but I am really just thinking about what the priest’s physique may look like under his robes. Just kidding, the priest is not cute at all, but there is a guy in a dark gray blazer with nice five o’clock shadow over there. I am not hypersexual. I am hyperpolitical. I am mad at this church, I hate what it stands for, I am pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-whatever else this church opposes. The other churchgoers think I must be so pious in my checkered button up and old navy slacks, but little do they know that my thoughts are contraband, slipped past the moral metal detector at the door.
My dad is up in the choir loft singing hymns in a dead language. I have come to this church since I’ve been a toddler. I believed in God for a while when I was a tween. I was “straight” then, logged onto playboy.com and was absolutely terrified that my mom was going to find out. But now I’m 16 and I’ve seen the light and I know I’m gay and this is the institution that is keeping me oppressed. I’m oppressed, I’m crushed under the weight of the Bible and the cacophony of these songs in a dead language and the old people who bring bad coffee and Entenmann’s crumb cake to coffee hour.
I only have to go to church every other weekend, because my parents are divorced. I am thankful for the fact that my mom has come to disdain Catholicism and so I get to skip His services half the time. My dad is adamant, though, that I come to church during his weekends. Okay, I say. It is not worth the fight. I am past the days of my parents’ divorce, around age 8, when my and my brother’s church-going habits embattled my parents. I remember being picked up one time by my dad and brought to church, legs flailing about in husky khakis. (I don’t know for sure if this happened, but the image of my father forcefully carrying me down a city block is etched into my mind.) You’ve made me come here. You’ve won. But since I am here, Dad, I will transgress in whatever semi-cowardly way that I can. I will appreciate the jawline of that man over there, trace the outline of his tight twill pants with my eyes. I will also imagine myself justifying my misery of sitting here surrounded by people who would love to moralize to me about the wrongness of my “tendencies” by one day writing about the absurdity of the whole scenario: I am a nonbeliever who is in church pews. I’m gay and a badass, like a homosexual spy behind enemy lines, as if I am somehow representing the homo-nation – USA, USA! – this Catholic house of worship akin to some warped Soviet Russia.
Around age ten and eleven, I was into religion. I was no longer just a little boy who fidgeted in pews, clawing at my dad’s arm, whining, how much longer. I began to really thank God; I felt profound sadness as an eight year old, seeing my family ripped apart. During the divorce, I would often take my meals alone up in my room as my mom and dad duked it out downstairs, their shouts echoing through our row house while I spooned my alphabet soup into my mouth. I think with the passing of a few years, my ten-year-old mind latched onto God as an apt defense mechanism. Thank you, God, for the great things in my life. My brother, my grandma, my friends. I loved Him for a year or two, but my faith quickly fizzled out as I got older, realized my gayness, and national debate about gay marriage entered my consciousness. My dad’s stance was always very clear, his rationale firmly grounded in Catholic texts and tradition, and as I got further into high school, I became more and more alienated. This is why I am 16 and smug and sometimes laugh at religion. Religious people must be duping themselves into believing something, they’re so irrational, I never have irrational thoughts, we atheists are fucking clever. We are tactful. We don’t fall for stupid texts and scriptures. Religious people are so annoying. I scoff.
I am twenty years old and I am in Jerusalem. I am inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, touching the slab upon which Jesus’ body lay and feeling something powerful. I see pilgrims from around the world soaking their rosaries in the slab’s oil. Many of them are weeping. I want to say a prayer while touching the slab but I almost feel like an impostor; they paid so much to get here, they saved up, they care so much, and I am here just by coincidence – just one of my many stops as I explore Israel in a tour group. I suck up my pride and say a prayer anyway. Next, I am waiting in line to touch an indentation that was made by Jesus’ crucifix and the only thing in my life that I am comfortable calling a religious experience grabs me. I cannot contain my emotions and my eyes are welling up and I am covering them. My thoughts flow: is this supposed to happen here, of course here, it’s Jerusalem, don’t be a cheapo, crying in the holy city, having a religious experience here, wow, dude, so creative, is this your fucking Jerusalem syndrome, be more original. But I cry anyway and for twenty minutes I am proud to be here and to call myself Catholic, and all those moments in the back of my head, of feeling angry and pissed in church pews morph into valuable parts of my life story. I feel like I no longer want to memorialize those moments in an angsty memoir at age 50 because those moments have contributed to who I am. I am here with my hand in the indentation of Jesus’ crucifix because of those moments, quasi-weeping because of those moments. This is history and I can feel part of this history, spanning thousands of years, because of all the bullshit my father has put me through. It has been valuable bullshit, I guess. Maybe I should thank my dad.
I am on-campus and I am having a fucking hard day. I have felt emotionally battered recently – a close friend is soon leaving for study abroad, I didn’t do well on a test or a paper or assignment, I am glum about some family drama and some friend drama, etc. I am walking to Firestone, but I decide to tiptoe into the university chapel. I kneel down and start saying an Our Father. I get about two thirds of the way through the prayer and stumble over a line. I have to pull out my iPhone to look up the prayer’s exact wording. Google asks me which version I want and I have no idea. Google, can you just give me the one that Dad made me recite before bed each night before the divorce? I scroll through a few pages in Safari and find it and finish the prayer. I say it again all the way through. The chapel is dark and empty and I remember how I’ve barely been here since Freshman Opening Exercises. I think about how, if my dad were a student here, he would be here every weekend. I start to say the prayer a third time through, but two students walk in and I jump up, grab my bag, and flee the church, quickly and with my head down, as if I had been whacking off and my roommate walked in.
I am sitting down-campus and the air outside is frigid. I can feel it seeping in through a towering window with leaks in its frame. My dad still does not know that I am gay. My mom has known for nearly five years. The other day, I received an email from a campus chaplain, inviting me to a Christian focus group. He said that an undisclosed someone ask that I be invited. Part of me wants to close myself off from religion. But part of me wants to say I can be a good family member and gay and love Jesus, meanwhile giving my dad’s rigid conception of piety a big middle finger.