My alternative lifestyle: It's a love that has wings, a countercultural calling that turns restraint into liberation

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Author: Ron Belgau

“Looks about half full,” I say as I hand the dipstick to Mark. I’m awkwardly perched on the wing strut of a Cessna 172 under a drizzly Northwest sky. I tighten the fuel cap and climb down from the wing, then walk around to the other wing and climb up. After checking the oil level, looking for water in the fuel and inspecting the control surface linkages, we strap in and go through the pre-start checklist. The engine rumbles to life, and we taxi out to the runway. We go through another checklist, then Mark opens up the throttle. We’re off, down the runway and into the battleship gray sky.

As we fly over an open field at the end of the runway, I remember: Almost a decade ago—long before Mark and I became friends and began to fly together—another friend, whom I will call Jason, and I lay side by side in that same field, our hands behind our heads, watching the summer stars.

“Think there’s Someone out there?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I think so.”

We were both at a spiritual crossroad, existentially troubled, grappling with the Jekyll-and-Hyde reality of life outside Eden. For several years I had doubted the Christian faith with which I had grown up. Scientific evidence about evolution made it difficult for me to accept the Bible, and modern psychology made the church’s sexual morality seem out of date. At the time, I was breaking free from my parents and resented God’s authority even more than the kind imposed by adults. Jason’s doubts were more about the problem of evil: How could a good God allow so much meaningless pain and suffering? How could one believe in a God who let innocent children die?

But as we both wrestled with these doubts, we also felt that the alternatives offered shallow answers to life’s deepest questions: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? How should we deal with death? The highest wisdom of modern philosophies seemed to be “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

And so we lay in this field, where the dry grass prickled our backs and the sky stretched overhead, and talked about these questions and about things ephemeral as well.

A distant humming caught our attention, and we sat up. Far away to the east, a small constellation of blinking lights banked toward us, then hung stationary in the night sky, gradually growing brighter as the noise rumbled louder and louder. We sat, arms hugging our knees, watching. Details materialized out of the darkness: the skeletal arms of the landing gear reaching down from the wings, the ghostly outline of the cockpit windows. And then several thousand pounds of aluminum, a few dozen passengers, and two powerful turbine engines roared about 30 feet over our heads. We quickly craned our heads around and watched the plane settle onto the runway behind us. As the adrenaline rush passed, we lay back in silence, needing no words to share the thrill we felt.

This wordless communion stood in sharp contrast to our awkward first meeting the previous fall.

“I’m terrible at this social-mixing thing,” I had said to a face I knew slightly, the sort of acquaintance you nod at in passing on campus. We were standing by the food table at a party, trying to make small talk.

“I don’t like it that much either,” Jason replied, creating an instant sense of solidarity. We were two sane introverts amid the mixing, extroverted crowd.

Balancing a plate of chips and vegetables in one hand, holding a plastic cup in the other, we moved off to find a corner where we could chat. We spoke awkwardly of this and that, stumbling through the weather, the food and such topics as “So, what do you want to be when you graduate?”

“An aeronautical engineer,” I said.

“A pilot,” Jason said.

In memory, the party becomes a vague blur, like farmland from 30,000 feet. Yet the light in his eyes and the image of his hands illustrating maneuvers in the air between us remains.

Hours later, as the party died around us, we left and found an empty stairwell, where we kept talking until the night was almost gone. Short on sleep, we parted on the promise to meet again.

***

“Nervous about the speech?” Mark asks, breaking into my reverie.

“Yeah,” I reply.

If you’d told me during my teens that I would talk to a group of gay Catholics about why I believed in celibacy, I wouldn’t have believed you. In high school I had my career mapped out as a gay-rights activist. During my senior year, I made it to state semifinals with a speech favoring gays in the military.

Yet God has a way of throwing curveballs. In my late teens I was talking with friends, making fun of Catholic sexual ethics (“every sperm is sacred” and all that). Then the thought struck me: The sexual revolution may be easier than Catholic teaching, but does it make people happier? I thought of families I knew, broken by divorce. I thought of my friends’ dating dramas. I thought of my mother’s work with AIDS patients. But I quickly shoved all such thoughts out of my mind, because even to think them was intellectual heresy. An educated, postmodern person would no more become a Catholic than he would join the Flat Earth Society. I went on trying to be modern, but with the same uneasy feeling I have whenever my car is running rough and I can’t afford a mechanic.

Was I searching for God? Not really. I had plenty of gods: romance, academic success, money and power, just to name a few. I wasn’t looking for One who said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” God, however, was looking for me. In those days I had no car, which forced me to walk from place to place. During these walks, I became more and more aware that God was walking with me. I didn’t see or hear anything, of course, but I knew I was not alone.

This worried me, because I didn’t want Judeo-Christian morality. An abomination, the Bible called it, to lie with a man as with a woman. Those who did so without repenting, Paul said, would not enter the kingdom of heaven.

There was, I hoped, some mistake here. So I tried to explain to God why a gay relationship would be okay. I pointed to the Old Testament’s King David and Jonathan, whose love was “greater than the love of women.” For weeks God listened silently to my slowly evolving theories on the subject. Then the silence ended.

I hesitate to say that God spoke. I heard no words. Yet a thought landed in my mind with all the force of a bomb. “Love,” it said, “is not the same as sex.” It does not seem so profound in hindsight, but it was a great shock to my teenage self.

It was in the aftermath of this earthquake that Jason and I met at the party. As I walked home that morning, I wanted to make him the protagonist of an epic novel about the early days of flight or to sculpt a statue of him (very Michelangelo, very David) and put it in the center of town. For the umpteenth time since I had turned 15, I had fallen for another guy.

Unlike many previous crushes, this was not just physical desire. What did I want? I think the most honest answer would have been “to be near him forever.”

We soon discovered, as we spent more and more time together, another common interest: arguing politics. Conveniently, we took opposing sides.

He dreamed of a military career, and when he heard about my speech on gays in the military he lost no opportunity to tell me why they should not serve. I, in turn, spared no effort in convincing him that he was behind the times. Week after week we would tackle the argument, from every angle, often late into the night. One evening in November we were once again debating The Topic. “Doesn’t the concept of two men holding hands weird you out?” he asked.

Then he reached for my hand.

My body froze. Don’t show any emotion! Remember to breathe! I tried to keep my face a mask as I explained that my personal feelings about whether or not two men holding hands was weird did not factor into the question of whether gays and lesbians could honorably defend their country. Fairness, I said, isn’t about how comfortable people feel—the idea of my parents having sex might weird me out, but that doesn’t mean we should discriminate against them.

“But aren’t you totally weirded out by two guys cuddling?” Jason persisted.

Then he laid his head against my chest, where presumably he could hear my heart racing out of control. We sat like that for the next couple of hours—he maintaining that homosexuality was disgusting, while I maintained that, whether it was disgusting or not, we should not discriminate against those who happened to be gay or lesbian.

The next day, he went out of his way to reiterate that he was not gay.

“I never said you were,” I replied, choosing my words with some precision.

The strange dance continued. One night a couple of months later, we watched Out of Africa, his head again resting on my chest.

“Have you ever thought about becoming a missionary?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” I replied, not quite truthfully.

We talked, long after the movie had ended, about getting a plane and doing missions in Africa, but I was far more interested in the idea of being with him than I was in bringing the Gospel to remote tribes. Were we searching for God? Perhaps, but my heart resisted more than it searched, and I feared above all that this love would be the first thing nailed to the cross.

Meanwhile, life went on. We built a radio-controlled airplane, and after weeks of gluing balsa wood together we took it out for its first flight. He took the controls. The plane rose into the air, climbed a hundred feet or so, stalled and spun into the ground—a complete loss. To this day Jason and I debate whether the crash was due to my failure as an engineer or his failure as a pilot.

***

The Cessna hits a pothole in the air, jerking my attention back to the present. A glance at the instruments: We are moving at autobahn speeds, half a mile above the traffic that winds slowly along Highway 101. We are extremely safe, I remind myself, safer than we would be on the highway—and yet the jolt of turbulence is a reminder that a few seconds of inattention at the wrong moment can be deadly. That is why there is a rigid structure to the freedom of flight: training, checklists and regulations. Yet this structure sets us free to fly above the constraints of roads, land and water.

The reality of flight seems very different from my early dreams. I did not fall in love with flying because, as a boy, someone took me aside to explain the Federal Air Regulations. Yet Mark and I fly safely these days because those regulations protect us. Without that structure, the reality would not be more like my dreams, but less so—deadly tailspins were no part of the romance of flight that Jason and I shared as we lay side by side in the moonlight watching the planes land.

Now, as then, I think our friendship was a good thing. Even a decade later I have many powerful memories of those days, recollections too big for my mind, recollections that spill over into my heart and gut. In the long conversations we shared about life and about God, I began resolving the doubts that held me back from deeper faith. In addition, loving him taught me a lot about loving God. This should come as no surprise: Like all human beings, he was the image in flesh and blood of the God who numbers the stars and calls each of them by name.

Therein, however, lay the danger. Precisely because there was so much good in our friendship, I could make him into an idol. Would I honor God by putting his commands ahead of my desires? Or would I, as I was strongly tempted to do, put my desires for the relationship ahead of God’s will? Was I willing for Jason to put God first, or did I want to be number one in his life?

I would like to say I had an epiphany that helped me understand perfectly what I needed to do and why, but all I had were two vague intuitions: God seemed to exist, and the Bible seemed to prohibit sex between two men. Whenever I tried to ignore them, my conscience would nag me. So I tried to obey what God seemed to be saying, even though I felt little assurance and feared that obedience would be very lonely.

And God threw another curveball: Obedience actually deepened friendship. Jason and I had been drawn together by our shared passion for airplanes and by our search for meaning amid the confusion in life. The emotional drama of “he loves me, he loves me not” was a distraction that threatened to tear the friendship apart.

More important, however, obedience brought an inner peace and rest in God that had been missing from all the years of my heart’s restless hunt for love. Instead of fighting against the growing awareness of God’s presence, fearing interference in my plans, I began to welcome that presence and seek to be guided by it.

Saint Augustine says that God gives the law to educate desire. Out of the hopes, dreams and desires of my heart grew actions—actions that would either help love grow or tear it down. When we built our radio-controlled airplane together, we did not get someone to teach us how to fly. The result was that our dream was destroyed less than a minute after takeoff. But when it came to our friendship, I tried to obey God’s law, with much happier results.

A couple of years after we met at the party, Jason went to the East Coast while I remained at the University of Washington. To this day, we stay in touch. His doubts, nurtured by disastrous turns of fortune’s wheel, have grown into a full rejection of God and a deep frustration with life. My baby steps into obedience have born fruit in a deepening inner peace and a growing hunger to know God’s will for my life.

My last year in college, in an attempt to make sense of what I had learned about Scripture and sexual ethics, I wrote an 80-page essay and gave it the bold title The Joy of Celibacy. I showed it to my friend Matt, a Catholic who also struggled with same-sex attraction and had chosen to be celibate. He said that several sections of my essay were reminiscent of Veritatis Splendor_. I asked him what that was, and he told me it was one of the pope’s encyclicals. After I’d sorted out what an encyclical letter was, I looked it up.

It was as deeply rooted in Scripture as any theological reflection I had ever encountered—not something my Protestant upbringing had led me to expect in the Catholic church. I was particularly struck by the way the pope taught the moral duties of the Christian life without ambiguity, while remaining open to seekers and all people of good will. He offered an attractive blend of grace and truth.

At this point, I began to be a Catholic fellow-traveler. I did not think of being received into the church, but I did become more and more interested in Catholic theology. Then, shortly after finishing school, I began to go to Mass (one of the first Masses I ever attended was at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart). I rapidly fell in love with the Mass, and in January 1999 I was received into the Catholic church, taking Francis of Assisi as my confirmation saint.

I was drawn to Francis because of his desire to be an instrument of God’s peace. When it comes to homosexuality, some Christians show little mercy or compassion. Virtually all men and women with same-sex attraction I have talked to have painful memories of vicious condemnation at the hands of Christians. I prayed that I, too, would become an instrument of God’s peace.

And now I am on my way to tell my story for Seattle’s Archdiocesan Gay/Lesbian Ministry. I know that many of those in my audience will reject Catholic sexual ethics to one degree or another. I could try to quote the catechism or expound natural law. But I did not embrace the Catholic church because I thought the world didn’t have enough rules.

But I do continue to come back to something C.S. Lewis wrote: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I let out a sigh. “I keep struggling with how to express the positive side of obedience,” I say to Mark, gesturing at my notes.

“One thing you might mention,” he says.

“What’s that?”

“You know how sometimes you just want to forget about God, forget about the struggle and just ‘feel good’? So you tell yourself that it’s normal, that everyone’s doing it, that you’re only human. And maybe it does feel good for a few minutes. But afterward you feel awful because you know in your heart that what you did was wrong.”

I nod my head. As a teenager, I thought my straight friends could not possibly understand what I was going through. But with Mark, I have found that the differing details of our struggles and temptations are much less important than our shared desire to follow Christ. For him, discipleship demands purity in his relationship with his girlfriend; for me, it means celibacy. For both of us, it is a path that demands struggle, sacrifice and self-control.

He continues, “With following God, it’s the opposite: You have to fight. And the fighting can last for hours, even—off and on—for a lifetime. But God’s peace will last forever. And even in this life nothing compares with the joy and peace of overcoming temptation. But it’s really hard to keep that perspective, because lust is right there, and we can’t see eternity.”

But seeing is not necessarily believing. We are half a mile above wind-swept water, without visible means of support, flying as free as birds.


_Ron Belgau is a member of Courage, a Catholic organization promoting celibacy for persons with same-sex attraction, who has spoken on chastity around the country. He was for several years a member of the Steering Committee for Bridges Across the Divide and also served on the Steering Committee for Seattle’s Archdiocesan Gay/Lesbian Ministry.

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