I was riding my bicycle on Lake Drive into the beautiful northern suburbs of Milwaukee on a perfect late summer day, Labor Day afternoon.   My body was racked.  Alcohol was responsible, er…, I was responsible for the racking, but this was nothing new.  I had really been having a nine-year hangover, one day at a time, until late in the day each day, at which time I would nurse the egregious condition by taking a drink.

This particular hangover resulted from the previous night’s celebration of the departure of one of my friends who would soon leave to begin his studies in theology , to eventually  be ordained a Jesuit priest.  My own theological studies were already underway, having just completed the first year of theology in preparation for my own ordination.  I was in my ninth year in the Society of Jesus, seven days away from my thirtieth birthday.

My bicycle wobbled up yet another hill when I heard the words:  You don’t have to drink anymore.

Not you can’t, nor you shouldn’t nor you won’t .  Strategically, You don’t have to.

I knew with an intense clarity that it was over.  The dozen years in its grip, really, the thirty, the embarrassments and the shames and the fears and the haunting feeling that I was dying.  Gone.  Lifted.  Removed.  Over.

In an instant.

My first thought:  I’ll never be able to go to a party again.  I did like parties.  And people.  And singing.  And the camaraderie that came, or seemed to come, from the sauce.  But I did not doubt that it was over and I sensed that whatever it meant would be revealed in time.

That night I went to a party.  Having a drink did not enter my mind, nor has it on any day since.  Thirty years ago this past September.

A compulsion , yes.  A disease, well, yes.  Self-medication, yes, and very effective, I might add.  Repression, certainly and, within the cultures I lived, appropriately so.  But a grace, too, a gift with which I would not willingly part, the beginning for me of the journey I find myself yet on.

Four weeks after the lifting, I put on my Roman collar and left my Jesuit community in the abject ghetto of West Oakland and took BART into the City.  I was going to attend a political rally, this one a very important one indeed, though its importance not yet revealed as I crossed under the Bay.  A proposition was on the ballot in the State of California (it might appear that this is the only form of government we exercise here, and there is some truth in that) that would cause all schoolteachers who were gay or lesbian to be fired from their positions.  The offense?  Being.  Gay.

There was to be a rally of religious leaders who were against the proposition in San Francisco’s elegant Civic Center where the nation’s only out-gay elected official, city supervisor Harvey Milk, would speak, along with several others.  The highest ranking Roman Catholic who was willing to be on the podium with Milk was a Good Shepherd Sister, Eileen de Long.  Milk, as you know if you have seen the eponymous and fine Gus Van Sant movie, gave a standard speech rallying the community with the focus on those young people who were still caught in their horrific systems and who lived in fear that they were the only ones, the only ones who suffered this untenable affliction, this draw to love someone of the same gender.  So simple, isn’t it?  Or seemingly so.  Love.  Love denied, thwarted, judged, condemned, perjured, slandered, beaten, attacked, vilified, marginalized.  I need not go on.  For them Milk held such compassion.

I went to the rally poised to be another concerned liberal friend of this nascent gay community.  I wore my Roman collar for what protection I thought I needed to ward off…what?  My self, my desires, my knowledge of my own sexuality that had been irrevocable since puberty, and in its fullness, constituent in me in a correspondence with my date of birth.

Milk was giving his moving exhortation and in front of me were two young men holding each other.  I had never before seen such a sight.  Their tender regard was breathtaking and deeply disconcerting.  How could this be, all of this, this whole thing, this life so parsed out and compartmentalized and moralized and effected into life scripts that caused such pain and wreaked such havoc now upended  in the sight of these two beautiful young men.  I pulled the white plastic tab from the Roman collar, and I wept.  I wept tears of joy and of shame and of relief and of exhaustion and of hope and of enough.  Tears of enough.

At the rally’s conclusion, fired up by Milk and all of that beauty and tenderness, I took BART back to my small Jesuit community in West Oakland, put a piece of paper into my Selectric (a machine yet to be rivaled for efficiency and style) and typed out the words:  I am a gay man. 

It was an astounding act.  A declaration.  A submission.  A response.  A moment of truth telling I had waited unconsciously for since my first inclinations at Creighton Preparatory School, when I wanted so badly to be so close to a boy in my homeroom who appeared to be for me everything one would want to be close to.  And for me this shame and disgrace.

I pulled that piece of paper with its newly minted declaration out of that typewriter and pinned it onto my bulletin board where I would see it every day.  As if I would ever again need to be reminded.

A second gift, a manifestation, a  great grace, this finally acknowledging being gay.

Sober thirty days and lots had been happening!

That next day, I returned to my classes, notwithstanding this recent potent declaration with all of its meanings.   This coming out did not alter my sense of vocation, my call.  I had felt called since a boy, and was shaped, too,  to be feeling these things that I was feeling.  I grew up in such a cultural moment that the priesthood was an active possibility for every Catholic boy, and for some of us, the path that we somehow had always been on.  At thirteen, I considered going to a minor seminary, but waited.  After four years at Prep, I considered again entering the Jesuits, but waited.  After four years at Creighton University, I made the decision to join the Jesuits and give over my life to them and to the One who in my heart had always been the primary object of my desire.

How is it one feels these things?  How is it one discerns that course of life, especially when so young?  What else is it or might it be about?  What grace is being manifest? What compensation does it mollify, what repression does it hold, what shadow does it cover?  I suspect for me the movement was complex, consisting of motives over a wide range of my understandings, needs and desires.  And I sensed the presence of Someone whose name I could really not know but whose finger, if you will, was pointing to something just over the horizon, almost imperceptibly touching my right shoulder, nudging me on.  But who knows?  I trusted what I knew.

And for what I didn’t or what I couldn’t, I drank.  Not so unusual, really, considering the time and place, and I managed to keep it from being so apparent or a sloppy or chaos-making (at least externally) as so many of us were able to do so that it was yet another part of the complexity that was me.  And I was far from alone.  But when my drinking was lifted Labor Day afternoon, uncovered ground was now exposed, and some large accounting within necessarily had to occur.

As I returned to classes, I shared the news of my gaying awareness broadly.  I had no intention of leaving the Society of Jesus and believed I could find a place to provide ministering as a self-identified gay Jesuit priest.  My fellow theology students were only encouraging, and my spiritual director, the late Peter Fleming, SJ, blessed me, but warned me, too.   But when I shared this good news with the superior from my Midwestern province, he told me to never speak of this again.  He clearly did not get the coming-out part, of which I already was and could only continue to be.  But he departed for the Midwest from his annual visitation to Berkeley, and I continued my journey.  I flew to Omaha and came out to my extended family Christmas 1978 (I’m sober, too!).  My mother’s first words when I came out to her:  I’ve known this since you were about four years old.  I didn’t know how to talk about this with you lest I’d  been wrong.  A more endearing response is not imaginable.  My father, conversely, channeled the Jesuit provincial, and said only:  Now you never have to speak of this again.  He missed some essential piece of the story, not that was not new information for me, either.

That spring, young Jesuits in the second year of theological studies, as was I,  were invited to ask permission to make formal application to be ordained.  One could not make such application without the prior approval of one’s superiors, a winnowing out step that would prevent some greater mishap from occurring a bit later.  The letter was to be a compendium of one’s understanding of one’s years in the Society and of one’s ongoing call to orders, that is, priesthood.   I asked for such permission and was, without comment, invited to so apply to be ordained a priest in and of the Society of Jesus.

I had been a Jesuit for going on ten years, the first decade of my adult life.  I had been their pupil for the eight years prior, and hence, I truly had belonged to them for eighteen years.  Their ways, their language, theology, intellectual erudition,  cultural savvy, manners, elevated status, illustrious saints, deep spirituality, vision, clarity of purpose, preferential option for the poor, situation ethics, worldliness,  equal aptitude for the arts and for science, illustrious history,  and life-giving brotherhood were in my very marrow .  This way was the way I knew much that I knew of the world.  This way was in many ways the way I knew myself.  This way acknowledged the vagaries of my personality, blessed my gifts and worked with my deficiencies, and embraced my person.

With my formal letter of request due on Easter Monday, I preached my first public homily at the Maundy Thursday Eucharist, feeling deeply alive and grateful for my being and for Being itself.  I went home that evening to my little community to write my formal request, now that I had been permissioned, to be ordained a Jesuit priest.

I prayed for clarity that night, to be myself.  Afterwards, I once again put a piece of paper into my Selectric, and typed, on this occasion, nothing. No words came out onto the page.   No words were capable of being shaped by my mind to seek these orders.  That which I had spent much of my conscious life preparing for could not find expression as a request.  The response to my desire to be a priest was silence.  And I felt peace, just peace, and knowing, and an acceptance of it all, of the previous ten years, and of the eighteen, and of the thirty, and I knew it all and what was to come were but of a piece, a piece of a story we are privileged to live, of which we are its authors and are not at all, a story writ large of which part we give it its distinctions and uniqueness and flavor and extension but not its breath or blood or body or even the dailiness of its events.

I knew that for me what and how I was to do and be was to be a true man for others, a priest, if you will, laid elsewhere.  I loved the Jesuits so much, they had been for me a gift of profound proportions, an extended grace, and  I found my departure (thirty years ago this week) bittersweet.  I wrote my Jesuit brothers a letter of love and gratitude for all that they had been and given to me and allowed me to become in their midst.   As hard a letter I have not since written.  But I was to be one no longer.

A week ago Scott and I went to the home of a friend, another former Jesuit and his husband, for a dinner party.  Present were several former Jesuits and their spouses, all working effectively in the fields of love, and several Jesuits, friends of all of ours, and several women and men, in pairs and singly, the widow of another former Jesuit among others, all ministering in several kinds, all sitting around an extended table, all sharing bread and wine, along with spaghetti and meatballs, and homemade apple pie.  It was  a most expansive evening, and glittering too, the lights and candles glancing off the stemware, illuminating beautiful faces of all present, women and men, Jesuits and not, all committed to the poor and to the work of justice and each aware of the paradox and contradiction in all of our lives, and moving with and against it all into some kind of new light, some new way, some new intuition, of what the divine is like, or might be, or is emerging into, with our minute parts being only our willingness to be but ourselves and remain open to all the voices that invite us to that place within, that seat of wisdom, that still small voice, the one the world cannot know but which, in the din of material desperation, in its loneliness and vacuity, it hopes against hope we each are listening to, and discerning, each in her wisdom and his intuition, and then willing to become, with all the clarity of purpose it requires, simply, for others, for the earth, for all of this graced creation.

Gifts are given when they will.  We are only to be present and available.  The triptych of events that visited me between Labor Day of 1978 and Easter Sunday of 1979 altered the outward direction of my life, while shedding more light on the ongoing interior work.  Sometimes the visitations we receive are sweet, sometimes not.  But afterwards, and always, the work to become a human being remains, really only each day, one day leading into the next.