Those long spring and summer days coming at the end of my living in Rome, my last in there, were the worst days. I was trying during that time to avoid Ricky*, the young man with whom I had a love affair. The interest in him was spent just as quickly as the love making itself. He desired a relationship, I desired nothing more than to be returned to my own safe haven in Colorado. He would leave me small gifts, notes, attempt to brush up against me. I hide in the shadows of the long seminary hallways, ducked behind trees when he would come by. I spent all my free time in those last days at St. Peter's Basilica, resting in the cool, marbled shadows of the house of Cephas. I would walk the entirety of St. Peter's interior as often as I could, staring at the ancient theological stories told in stone and marble. I would pause beside the monument to Clement XIII, his lions resting beside him, one fierce, the other sleeping. There capturing my spirt, above the sleeping lion rested the Spirit of Death, his sickle placed upside down, a genius of Death holding his hand back, only a moment. I had no affinity for Clement XIII, but the art of Antonio Canova drew me in, and many an evening was spent by myself kneeing before the moment, hoping to stay quietly with death, yet wondering how to come awake like the lion keeping vigil.
The day finally came that I was able to return home, even to this moment I have almost no memory of returning. I know the few friends I had at while I studying in Rome were surprised that I was leaving, even though I think my sorrow was apparent, worn on my face like a mask of tragedy. I only vaguely remember sending my few possessions back to St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado. Books mostly, a few pieces of art that I had collected while I lived in Europe, the rest papers and texts books of my theological studies. I remember one of my last exams at the Gregorian Pontifical College where I took my studies, it was in apologetics, and I was totally unprepared. I went before the professor, a Jesuit Italian priest and when I walked into his office to begin my test I burst into tears. He, used to intimidating students because of his great knowledge, was at first thinking it was because I was unprepared for the test. Then as he looked into my tear filled eyes realized that my tears had nothing to do with the testing but with faith. He in those last moments in Rome was gracious, he comforted me and allowed me to weep. I never took the test, but he gave me a passing grade for his class all the same.
I returned to Denver in the summer of 1993, and was given a job working for Fr Don Willet in Frederick, Colorado serving the migrant workers. I and another seminarian, Rocco, with whom I had started college went together there. Rocco and I had been best friends at the Benedictine College Seminary, Conception in Missouri. I could hardly wait for his company, but those days that summer ,driving from migrant camp to migrant camp offering religious education classes, I slept. Rocco was our designated driver, and every moment I sat down in the seat of his little Geo, I feel asleep. I was practically narcoleptic, no doubt my emotional and physical needs were exhausted by the experience I had just left behind. I knew that almost no seminarian who returned from Rome would go on to become a priest, and my failure to survive in Rome rested on my shoulders, and I became determined to not fail again, regardless of my faith issues. I invested in my work as Christian minister to the poor migrants, teaching them the joys of baptism, the grace of Eucharist, the wonders of our Church and the kindness of her people.
That fall of 1993 I was entered into the seminary St. Thomas, based in Denver. The campus and the buildings there had gone largely unused for a number of years, but the Archbishop of Denver, then Francis Stafford, wanted to create a theological institution in Denver that would mark his legacy. The seminary has since been renamed St. John Vianney by Archbishop Charles Chaput; it was originally run by a small group of Vincentian Priests who held the seminarian open by opening the doors to not only Roman Catholic, but Episcopalian seminarians as well, including woman who were interested in priesthood. This was a moment in the history of the theological studies that a small group of Roman Catholic seminarians were placed in context with a much more liberal group of theologians, and it was a mix of oil and water. We found ourselves being trained by other theologians who were ill prepared for a failing seminary, with a short fall of finances, and who were not prepared for the ill will that arose between the Romans and Episcopalians. I had a hard time adapting back to the real world, where not everyone was Roman Catholic, where others had different concepts of how God, faith would be revealed. I was just there, riding for a moment in a school that academically was a breeze, and I found myself quite able to continue sleeping, if not physically most certainly emotionally and spiritually.
The next year, 1994 I was assigned a year long live in internship at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greeley, Colorado. I knew the pastor from several interactions at other diocesan events, and found him to be a generous, kind spirited man who loved his church, its people, his priesthood. He was a great mentor, a good friend, and I thrived at St. Mary's. I was working with the educational department of the church, mostly with RCIA (Roman Catholic Initiation of Adults), a conversion group, and with 5th grade religious education. I came to adore the church and her people, all of whom were kind and supportive of my living dream to become the person of Christ. The weariness that I wore on my shoulders from my experience in Rome seemed to be cast off, and I found there at St. Mary's the ability to actuate my faith, see a congregation who worked to educate, care for the sick and poor, to teach, sing, laugh and praise. I embraced that life, and all my doubts from Rome faded, and I felt once again a closeness to the divine call to be in persona christi.
Life of course cannot be so simple - one Sunday night, while I was working with the youth group, the teenagers group, I met a young woman who caused me to sit back and question everything about who I thought I was, who I thought I could become. That night, just meeting for the first time, we had to play act or sing a song for the kids, in an ice breaker, the details of why I can't remember, but I do remember what we did, she and I sang a song. I remember her staring into my eyes, her blue eyes shining, and she said "What shall we do?" I looked at her and said, "Well one song I know all the words to is I'm a little tea pot." She nodded and together, Debra* and I sang a song, breaking the ice not just for the kids at our youth group, we broke the ice for each other. Following that evening Debra and I became close friends, we fell in love.
That night, for the first time I questioned the entirety of everything I had been doing. I had forgotten my brief love affair with Ricky*, that awkward moment of lust in the warm Mediterranean sun was something I was afraid of, not just because of my sexual orientation, but because of what that would mean for my family, my values, my faith. Here though, looking at this beautiful young woman I suddenly for what I thought was a brief moment of sanity knew that I could be the master of my own destiny, that here, in a moment I could become a normal American boy. Images of white picket fences, two, maybe three children running around my feet. A beautiful wife who would support my hobbies, take me to the movies, cook me dinner, allow me to cook for her, all these dreams that at some point we all have came into my mind and I hoped, I wish, I dreamt, they would be mine.
We spent so much time together, we laughed, we held hands, we danced, we sang, we drank, we smoked. Debra became this woman in my life that set me on fire; everything about her was the inspiration to get up and enjoy my day. Everyday I would work at the Church, teaching, ministering, preaching, and everyday I wanted the end to come because Debra would come by my office, and there, in those afternoon moments all in the world was right.
I started to write her letters on cards with images of lovers. I think my first card was of a little boy and little girl playing. We started to exchange letters almost daily, most certainly weekly. They were silly, fun, innocent, but we were in love. I loved her more than anyone I had ever loved before. We were able to bring a smile to each others lips with only a glance. At one point she wrote me a poem:
Your name is Harvey, mine is Marge.
You are skinny and I am large.
You make me laugh like I never have before.
To you, I'm just a big bore.
I think I should end this, as I keep cutting myself down,
Enjoy, Harvey Cold-heart, I'll see ya around.
We called each other pet names from then on, though I refused to call her Marge, so I told her I would call her Vito, life. We shared all humor in common, we would watch Mel Brooks films, hysterical at the joy found in "Young Frankenstein", "High Anxiety", "Blazing Saddles." We flirted, kiss, stared into each others eyes, all the while each of us struggling with my vocation to seminary, to priesthood. This time, for the first time I considered that magic, dreams would come true not in persona christi, but as a married man. She wrote me once, "I have never felt so close to someone as I do to you. Is it me or is it kind of odd we have so much in common?........Thom, it's hard to explain but for some reason I think you know special you are to me, I feel like I've known you 25 years instead of for 2 months."
For the entire summer of 1994 and into the winter we shared our love affair. It was innocent on so many levels, but it created inside my inner mind a hurricane of fear, doubt. I wrestled within myself the conflicting doubt of my vocation to in persona christi, I felt the memories of a long human tradition of marriage of man to woman. I wanted to be, no wait, I felt normal. There dancing, laughing, singing with that sweet woman I felt normal. I wasn't a oddity as a seminarian, I wasn't an oddity as a young man struggling to identify his sexuality, there with my dear Vito I was a young man in love with a woman. She was alone when we met, and she had dreams too, and there in that perfect moment of space and time our dreams walked side by side, hand in hand. She wrote me, following a letter I had sent her professing that I was falling in love with her, in her letter she said, "I was shaking so bad after I read your letter today. This is not what I expected to happen, Thom, I really thought you'd tell me we're just friends. Why? Because you're just too good to be true!!! Everything you are is what I need and desire. The qualities I only thought were in my dreams, the man I dream of who never had a face is now you."
We both knew that I was studying for priesthood, and most of my time was spent working in the parish. This mission though unlike all the others I had undertaken prior was much more filled with work related to education, working with teenagers, young adults. I didn't spend as much time with the dying or sick, instead I found myself with those folks discovering Catholic faith, middle class white kids who needed to belong to a youth group so as to feel more part of the community. There in Greeley I was able to pretend, to dream a new dream, to forget the magic of stones and sky, to see faith and church as a place you go occasionally, not as a place you live in.
We went once to Loveland, near Greeley, just north of Denver, and sat on the shores of Lake Loveland, cuddling, holding each other in the moonlight, drinking a bottle of wine. There in that moment of pale reflected sun on the moon's face, across the water's of love, I was hers and she was mine. That journey thus far, leading me to her in northeast Colorado, surrounded by farms and the plains of the west, was a perfect journey, a deep dream of life that I always wondered about. There I could be just her hero, I didn't need to strive to be a hero to the world, I just needed to be hers.
AsI sit thinking back to those warm summer nights I spent holding her hand, dreaming of her as my wife, I can barely read her letters, spilt out on my desk, covering it like an account's on April 14th. I sat with her in September and told her that we should slow things down, that I wanted to enjoy my life at Greeley that I wanted to be her friend, that I couldn't allow myself to fall in love so fast. I have on those glasses that give me 20/20 vision in the past, and I wish I could reach out and touch my younger self, pull him down into a chair and tell him it was okay he was struggling with faith, sexuality, celibacy, life and love. Now I know these things better, yes I'm still learning too, but then, as a young 24 year old man, in love with a woman that I could never love, working through a faith that I could never have, I was alone, scared, and ultimately I returned to that life of dreams and magic. The easier path then was to go back to the world of books and studies, school and prayer. At least there I had people who could work with me in discussing faith. With Vito, my sweet girl, I had no one to talk to me about sexuality, that I was a gay man, that my sexuality wouldn't, couldn't change no matter how deeply I feel in love with her, because it wasn't love, not really, it was another dream. I did the right thing for her and me, I ended our affair, breaking her heart, breaking mine too.
I remember I cried when I told her that I couldn't see her anymore, and that feeling that washed over me was the same feeling I've had when I've sat alone in a dark room. The forlorn feelings of abandonment could have easily killed me. I cursed my mind, my body, my sex. I wanted to love her, to be her husband, to be the father of her children, but my own sexuality betrayed me. My fear of telling myself I was gay threw me to the floor of my mind, and there on my mind's knees and palms, I bowed my head and forced myself to accept journey back to the church. This decision for me was one I made because I couldn't bear to tell myself, my family, my world, that not only was I gay, but I wasn't in love even with god. In that dark corner of my mind, I buried my doubts, fears, l went back to that dream of gods and magic, the childhood fantasy that maybe I could become the person of Christ. There from the darkness I forgot the light and decided that deception both of my ability to love and my ability to have faith would be my reality. This moment was the last before the end of my studies that I could have easily admitted to myself and those who supported my journey to priesthood that I was on the wrong journey; my desire for magic in bread and wine, to be in persona christi was only a dream of childhood. At least that winter of 1995 I had the courage to stop lying to the girl that I loved and to break her heart only a little. My heart would continue to break until it nearly died for another 5 years, and then for nearly 19 more it would rest in a tomb of ignorance and sorrow. I have only just begun to wake up from those dreams of bread and wine, magic in air and stones, love of a girl and our future children. But I think before I wake I have to continue to explore my life as it lead me to become in persona christi.
The words of Emily Dickinson's "Heart we will forget him!" have stuck with me after I left my dear Vito; I imagined these words may have flittered in her mind, for we were close, Vito and I, and no doubt she drew sorrow from them just as I did. I, when reading it and thinking back to her, dancing to my ridiculous song, "I'm a little teapot," twirling and setting me on fire for a moment, change the gender focus and sometimes whisper, "heart, we will forget her........"
Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done, pray tell me
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you're lagging.
I may remember him!