My Conflicted Relationship With Religion—From Gratitude To Guilt

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Born_Again_2Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
I’ve given up on faith for Lent. Now, that sounds harsh, but eight years of living with the guilt of not pleasing something I cannot see has taken its toll. The way I approached Ash Wednesday this year was not with my head down, but quite the opposite, rather. Here stood a former born-again Christian who, years after turning his back on the establishment, had been haunted by a shadow of inherent wrongdoing. That shadow disappeared when he turned his light off on the night of Fat Tuesday only to wake and find a guilt-free shadow on Ash Wednesday.

Now, the story behind this change is, in no way, meant to demean a faith. I happen to be a firm believer in spirituality, a higher being, God, what have you. But, writing is my vice, and one that provides more clarity and understanding than inhaling a cigarette outside my window. I was raised in a Roman Catholic family, went through the motions of confession, communion, served as an alter boy, and eventually got confirmed. Church, however, was never a focal point in my immediate family. We were what you’d call CEO Catholics (Christmas Easter Only) whose attendance at Saturday evening mass dwindled as I grew older. I attended church school, but never practiced what I was supposed to be taught until high school, where two things happened: I realized I was gay and I joined a Christian youth group.

Those things happened almost simultaneously because I had developed a crush on the boy who invited me to the group in the first place. He seemed genuinely interested in me, and I was just into the fact that an older, popular kid wanted to hang out with me, the new freshman. Growing up in suburbia is wonderful, but, despite its spaciousness, there isn’t enough space for a budding homosexual to come into his own. So, I came out as Christian.
Born_Again_1Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
I threw myself into the organization. I brought my friends into it and, within weeks of joining, committed myself to Him. The boy and I became fast friends, too. I knew he had had a gay history, and that he started dated girls, so I felt comfortable asking him about these homosexual feelings I was repressing. While I don’t remember the details of our conversation, I do remember being told that prayer was the answer to my query.

Perhaps this is my own fault, but I began to pray the gay away. I began going to a non-denominational church, attending bible studies, and updating my AIM profile to have some bible verse in it. I was in it, man, but I was losing it, too. I tried dating girls I met through the organization, but to no avail. I became conflicted. I couldn’t find the energy to keep playing heterosexual without feeling like I was lying to myself, but I also felt like I was lying to my faith when I had tapped into the “gay.” There were two options I had at the time: deny it all and live a lie, or accept my homosexuality but keep it secret. (Little did I know how accepting my peers and family would have been had I seen the third option of just coming out of the closet.)

I chose the latter. This proved to be a lot harder than I assumed. The more I began to understand my sexuality, the guiltier I felt. I was sinning for thinking these thoughts and wanting to experiment the way I wanted to experiment. Shame and guilt are tricky, tricky emotions and spread through your body faster than any other feeling. So, while I’d immaturely giggled when the pastor would say “fall on your knees,” a part of me knew how wrong that was — not my immatureness, but alluding to homosexual oral sex.

That feeling — this dual set of beliefs — followed me through college and into post-grad. Did I grow to be more comfortable with myself? Most definitely, but I could not keep the little voice in my head saying how sinful I was being. Perhaps I wasn’t praying hard enough. I tried church again, but that, even though the community was fully accepting, only brought back the guilt. I had let a minuscule part of an organization’s message get the best of me, and shedding that was something I had to do on my own, with or without this newfound faith.
Born_Again_3Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
What I've come to realize is that, perhaps the friends I made early on, despite their incredible companionship, accepted me not for who I was but for what I could be through faith. I signed a proverbial dotted line when I devoted myself to that faith. Don't get me wrong here, the experiences and people I met through my journey were wonderful, and I'm ultimately grateful for who I am because of them. I've definitely tried to place the blame for those years of self-ridicule and uncommitted faith on them, but that's not the reality here.

The reality is that who you are cannot be prayed away. I know many people who have gone through similar situations, denied themselves better than I did, and are only now coming out. (I wish I knew what happened to the boy who started it all, but I've lost touch.) You see in order to have faith in something you cannot see, you have to have faith in yourself. It's taken me years to know that, and, frankly, blind faith just doesn't work for a boy who's already going blind. Luckily, hindsight is 20/20. There's comfort in faith and prayer, but without shamelessly believing in yourself, prayer is just a motion done for the sake of doing so. I'm learning to do things for myself, and discovering that kind of truth is more powerful than any testimonial I've ever been lucky enough to hear.