Updated: Apr 29, 2021
What a fool I’ve been all these years! I’ve been thinking about, putting it off, not doing it for nearly 20 years. oh, what’s that you ask? What have I avoided doing?
Telling my story. I’ve avoided telling my story. I’ve tried to think about how to frame my story. You know, Priest becomes an Atheist! Shocker! Wham, bam such a big deal. And ultimately, it’s pretty boring. Sure, great stories are there, and I’ll share them, but this is not the story of an atheist being freed from the oppression of religion, bigotry, denial. This is the story of a little boy who has always been in love with the idea of loving. My story is a life woven into a rich tapestry of connections. My road is paved with the songs, stories and lives of those who’ve walked with me, left me to go forward on my own and ultimately, is the story of love.
But as I‘ve mulled this story over and over in my mind; as I’ve thought about my journey from faithful Catholic son to faithless heathen atheist, I was missing the point. In the start of my story, “The Beginning Not Really but Close Enough” I was on the right path. Yet as I outlined and planned my story, increasingly I have become aware that my life hasn’t been a journey of faith as much as this has been a journey of love. Good ol’fashioned love, with a bit of gay love thrown in for good measure because yeah, I’m also a gay guy.
To be super honest, I’ve avoided framing my journey of a life of celibacy, faith and my long, hard decision to leave the church in context of how, who, what and where I have been loved, have loved and will love. Yet, as I sit here, a man over 50, writing these words, it’s become clear to me that my journey of faith, atheism, loss, denial and self acceptance has been a journey of love.
When I and my parents first rolled up to the seminary all those years ago on that dark stormy night, the stones beneath the wheels crunching, it was the beginning of a love story, not the beginning of the end of faith as I had supposed for so many years. I, upon stepping on the cold Missouri ground in 1989 at the monastery, stepped into a world where I would discover the absolutely ecstasy and burning ember of love. My joy in love would pour out of the cup of my life, and in the desert of loneliness I would learn to quench my thirst with my tears. But in each ebb and flow of connectedness to others and to myself, my life has been one of sparkling sun. The Long Dark Nights were, no are, there. But each day has it’s dawn and this story is not about breaking free of anything but coming into the truth of who I have always been. I was set free by none other than discovering in life that learning to love is the story.
When I entered the lighted room of the monastery for the first time I was enamored. That first day, upon arriving at the monastery, following little Brother Aaron into the dining room of the monks, I started to fall in love. Such graciousness I encountered there. Brother Aaron, in the midst of a retreat himself, not supposed to engage us with conversation passed me, my mother and father, over to a wonderful monk, Father Kenneth. As we stood in the doorway of the monastery, light spilling around our feet and into the darkness, Father Kenneth, with a wide grin and open face greeted us.
”You must be the Burkett's!” He exclaimed, gently leading us out of the dining hall filled with monks eating their supper in total silence. I don’t remember saying too much, probably nervous telling him that we had gotten lost coming to the monastery and seminary. As he exchanged these pleasantries with us, he was guiding us through the halls of the monastery and into the main hall of the seminary building connected by a long hall to the monks’ quarters. Father Kenneth assured us that all was well and we were welcome.
As we walked through the darkness of the monastery on that January evening, what sticks in mind is the smell. On the cold air swirling around our feet in the monastic hallways, the cloying smell of incense, bees wax and candles filled the air. The floors beneath our feet creaked as the weight of our bodies pressed upon them. Each movement, each sound seemed a cymbal crashing against the silence. And as we walked down the hallways into the seminary proper, each step sent thrills up and down my spine. This place, this building, this man wearing the long black Benedictine robes, smiling warmly in the winter night was bright like the sun. And as he asked me little questions about who I was, I fell just a little bit in love with him, with the place, the time, the situation. This moment seemed like a lifetime in the making for me and here, at the monastery in Missouri that “dark stormy night“ parted self doubts about how I could or would fit in a world that to this point, didn’t know or accept me. I was already in love and that was just the beginning because I would fall in love with more than the idea of a place or feeling accepted, I would fall in love with so many people, and they would love me too.
As Kenneth lead us, we came into the actual “seminary” portion of the campus and it was another world! It turns out that the monastery and students were just finishing a silent retreat. I had come to the seminary in January whereas most of the others came to the seminary in September. I had delayed joining the seminary class because after graduating from high school, I wanted to experience college life and life in general outside my faith, my family my community on my own. I had attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley Colorado. It was a lovely few months, but I knew that I was going to be lost there. So many students, so much complexity and living in a traditional college dorm just didn’t fit me well.
I was a quiet, kind of a shy kid. I’ve never been especially athletically inclined and as an academic, I had survived mostly by just being able to get by with minimal effort, as one might say, I floated by. At Greeley I quickly discovered that getting to know my identity, would be so hard there. I also had come to traditional university with the intention to prove to myself that I needed to go to seminary and that was a self fulfilling prophesy. I quickly found myself disapproving of the folly of college life, the drinking, dating, mindless prattling about sports and identity politics. And so soon into my university experience, I knew I needed to do something different and seminary was the place.
And as I walked behind Father Kenneth, into the lighted halls of seminary coming out of the monastery, it was true, this was the place for me. My heart swelled and I drunk it all in. The quiet, the cold, the lighting, the black robes and finally, coming to the actual building where other boys my age were living it was just absolutely right for me.
I was, as you will come to see, as a kid, an eccentric. I grew up in a small town and was well know around town most of my childhood. I was the random kid who neighbors saw often wearing a cape, dressed like a superhero whenever possible. I rode my bike everywhere, walked everywhere. I was the kid who shoveled snow for the church for years in the winter. I was the kid who was the dishwasher and occasional bartender at a local dive Mexican restaurant called ”The Side Step” (before it burned down and was rebuilt for any current Steamboat natives). I was the high school kid who worked for 3 years at the Haggen-Dazs ice cream shop. I was the kid who played dress up way to long into his teens. I was the skinny awkward boy that never had a lot of friends but was liked well enough by lots of folk.
I used to play for hours as a young boy pretending to be King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Indian Jones. I wanted to be a superhero, a wizard, a savior. I wanted to fight demons and monsters. I wanted to marry the princess (well prince but didn’t really understand that part of myself for a long time). So when I walked into the monastic world, which also contained the seminary, well this world was the one I had been creating for myself for 18 years.
Father Kenneth leading us into the hallways of the seminary, chatting amicably with my mom and dad, turned and with a smile asked me, “are you ready to meet the guys in your class?”
I was ready, god my whole life was built to make me ready. But then, I wasn’t really ready but that’s part of the story isn’t it.?