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.
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.
|The Woman - by Thom Burkett|
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.
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.
Today as I 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.
|Broken Pane - by Thom Burkett|
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!