In February of 1979 I became acutely aware of the fact that I see things differently, that not everyone— maybe not anyone—sees the way I see. I don’t remember when I began to see the sacred in secular symbols. It always seemed normal to me and it didn’t occur to me for a very long time that not everyone saw things this way.
This way of seeing likely developed in high school and college where the Jesuits taught us “to seek the presence of God in all things,” a core spiritual practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
I don’t remember committing to this practice consciously. Then in 1979 I attended the Advocate Experience, an intensive coming out workshop for LGBT community. A friend of mine recently referred to the encounter I had there as a “Baptism of Fire.”
The workshop was created in 1978 by psychologist, Rob Eichberg and David Goodstein the publisher of the Advocate, a national newspaper and news magazine that covered the LGBT world —hence the name of the workshop.
The workshop began on Friday evening at the Long Beach Convention Center and went on until after midnight. We reconvened Saturday morning at 9:00 AM and again continued, with meal and bathroom breaks, until well after midnight. We regathered for the last time on Sunday morning at 9:00 AM and finished around 9:00 on Sunday evening.
The atmosphere in the convention hall was tense and uncomfortable as the 100 plus lesbian and gay participants waited for the proceedings to begin. The group was not made up of the typical gay activists of the time who had grown out of the hippie counterculture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. The men and women gathered there were professionals—doctors, attorneys, business executives, academics and school teachers, even a few military and clergy, and a substantial number of film and television executives, agents, writers and directors (all members of what was at the time one of the most closeted industries imaginable.)
I remember attending a Sunday afternoon gay cocktail party at an agent’s home. The curtains were all closed, the lights were dim and the guests were clustered in corners. This led talent agent, John Gaines, one of Hollywood’s most outrageous and cutting wits, to proclaim, “For God’s sake open the curtains, it’s darker in here than a gay bar in Phoenix!”
As some of the participants began to recognize each other, the fear was palpable; it wasn’t uncommon to hear people say: “Let’s not tell anyone we saw each other here.” There was a very real and reasonable fear for many of us gathered there that being outed as lesbian or gay could result not just in the loss of jobs, but in the destruction of careers.
One of the first people I recognized was a TV producer, the late Philip Mandelker; an acting client of mine was a regular in one of his shows and my client and I had met in Philip’s office earlier that week. Philip confided in me later later he almost bolted the room when he saw me there.
The Experience, as the workshop later came to be known, was life-changing for me and many of the others present; life-long friendships were created during these weekends although many of these friendships were cut short by the arrival of the AIDs epidemic just a few years later. It transformed me; it insisted that I, as a gay man, had an equal place in the world and that I must take responsibility for and claim that place. It changed the way I saw myself.
At some point during the weekend David Goodstein said, “Everyone has an inalienable right to make a difference in the world.” I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve tried to live by that truth which aligned perfectly in my mind with the Jesuit exhortation to “be a man for others.”
I remember, in particular, a moment, during the workshop, immediately after an exercise in which the participants gathered in small groups and read aloud to each other their coming-out letters to their families. When everyone had finished, all of the lights were turned out. The dark room was filled with the sound of the crying, sobbing and laughing of more than 100 participants. I opened my eyes for a moment and the only illumination in the huge room was coming from the red exit lights over the doors. Through my tear-blurred eyes, the red lights looked like flames hovering over the gathering and I instantly made the connection that Advocate is another name for the Holy Spirit. “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.” (John 14:16.)
The connection was crystal clear to me. I thought of myself and the other closeted participants who entered the workshop on Friday evening as being not unlike Jesus’s disciples who, filled with fear, had hidden themselves away, locked in a room. (John 20:19) Now we were, for the most part, fearlessly bursting out of the closet like the disciples came forth on Pentecost. The memory of that moment stirs emotions in me today, nearly 40 years later.
When I shared my “aha” moment with my small group, and later with David and Rob, the response was underwhelming. I’ve rarely shared it since—until now.
Nevertheless, that moment was a momentous conversion experience for me and conjoined my Catholic and gay selves so that I never struggled with or questioned the both/and of my identity again.
Since I had acknowledged my sexuality orientation in the early 1970’s, my Catholic identity had taken a back seat. I hadn’t foresworn that identity as much as it I didn’t think much about it. I occasionally attended masses presided over by Catholic priests at Dignity, an organization created to minister to the Catholic LGBT community, but I was much more deeply involved in volunteer activities with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center (as it was called at the time) and the Advocate Experience.
Then, three years later, I had an even deeper awakening at the Camaldolese monastery in Big Sur, CA, which revived re-awakened all of the altruistic idealism of the Catholic adolescent I had been when a student at a Jesuit high school some 25 years before.
In the time between my experience at the Camaldolese Monastery in Big Sur and making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I threw myself into making sense of what had happened at Big Sur.
My friend Donald, who was my companion at the monastery, insisted that I had received a call.
In the tradition of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church in which I was raised, a calling meant only one thing: the priesthood.
This made no sense to me. What diocese or religious order would accept a 41 year old out gay activist? My new spiritual director Father Larry Herrera, S. J. reminded me that God works in mysterious ways.
I had entered the Jesuit seminary in Florissant, MO after graduating from high school but I left after a few months because I couldn’t imagine not having my own family. If you want to make God laugh . . . I was told at the time I left in early winter of 1959 that if I left I could never return. https://jimcurtan.com/2017/08/15/do-you-want-to-risk-sending-your-parents-to-hell-for-all-eternity/
That was then: a lot had changed in the intervening 23 years. I met with Wilkie Au who was, at the time, the master of novices for the California province. He was completely welcoming and we discussed over several meetings the possibility of my returning to the Jesuits. Much later Wilkie would himself leave the Jesuits, marry, and, among other things become my spiritual director which he has been for nearly 20 years.
I was referred to a Passionist priest named Steve Mudd, at the time the Executive Director of the National Conference of Religious Vocation Directors of Men. He gave me a book with the names and contact information for all the Catholic religious orders in California. I made the rounds. In addition to the Jesuits, I met with vocation directors for the Passionists, the Claretians, the Dominicans, the Marianists and lastly the Carmelites (not the cloistered order but the teaching order).
As I sat in the Carmelite vocation director’s office in Encino telling him my story, he interrupted me. “Hold on a minute. You should meet one of our gay priests,” he said and picked up his phone, dialed an extension and said, “Dave do you have time to stop by my office for a few minutes?” This was completely surreal to me. I thought to myself, “This is certainly not my mother’s Catholic church.” A few minutes later Dave Walsh, the chaplain at the Catholic Newman Club at Northridge University, burst through the door. “I’m sorry I can’t stay,” he apologized, “but I’m late for a meeting on campus.” He gave me his card, “Call me and we’ll make a date.”
We met three weeks later (it felt like an eternity) at the El Coyote Mexican restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. Had I known at the time that the Coyote is the archetype of the Trickster in Native American lore I would have insisted on meeting somewhere—anywhere—else. In retrospect the meeting place made perfect symbolic sense. God, in my experience, is a playful trickster.
Dave and I sat at a table in the corner of the bar, drank Coronas, and ate nachos while I told my story one more time. Dave interrupted me to ask if I’d like another beer. He’d finished his first beer before I had finished mine. That doesn’t happen often.
I finished my story as he finished his second beer and ordered a third round for the both of us. After the beers had been served, he asked me directly if I was happy being gay.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Are you happy being Catholic?”
“Yes,” I repeated.
“Don’t be a priest.” he said firmly.
“Great,” I thought to myself, “I’m sharing my life with a bitter alcoholic gay priest.”
“Don’t you be a cynic,” I said.
“I’m not being a cynic,” he smiled, “You’re not being called to be a priest you’re being called to be a prophet.”
I immediately summoned up a mental picture of myself walking the streets in a rough woolen robe with a sign around my neck announcing “Queer and Catholic.”
“I’m not a prophet,” I pleaded, “I can’t predict the future.”
“Prophets don’t predict the future,” he countered, “they model it. You’ve integrated being gay and Catholic and are comfortable with it, something most gay people and Catholics don’t believe is possible. Your job as a prophet is to model this integration. You won’t be free to do that as a priest.”
In the shock of hearing the word prophet, I didn’t register for some time the more important guidance, “you won’t be free.” Whatever I was being called to do, it necessitated that I be free. Maintaining and expanding freedom, living in freedom, is essential to my calling. I’ve been reminded of it again and again.
We talked for a few more minutes. I asked him where I would find community.
“It’s a lonely business being a prophet,” he smiled. He pulled a much thumbed paperback copy of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander from his bag. “Read this. It might help.” I still have the copy he gave me.
I ran into Dave only one other time and I had to remind him where and why we met. It’s amazing how an encounter between two people can radically change one of them and barely register with the other.
In spite of the multiple beers, I was restless and unable to sleep when I got home so I opened Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander hoping it would put me to sleep. When I was in college, I had tried to read Merton’s first book, The Seven Storey Mountain and couldn’t get through it. My experience with Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was just the opposite. I couldn’t put it down. The book felt like an intimate, chatty, alternately deeply serious and hilarious, personal letter from a dear friend who knew me better than I knew myself. I stayed awake and kept reading through most of the night.
The book remains one of my most treasured possessions. Nearly every page is highlighted or underlined. The margins are filled with notes. I keep the book in the nightstand by my bed. It has begun to fall apart. I keep it held together with rubber bands. Several years ago I bought a newer, sturdier and considerably more expensive edition of the book but it doesn’t feel holy in my hands.
This book introduced me to the poetry of Kabir, the writings of the Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin, and French author, Julien Green, and the mysticism of Julien of Norwich among others. More than that, it has for over 35 years provided me with a moral compass and in so doing has modeled the prophetic voice as well as anyone in my lifetime. And Merton is laugh out loud funny!
This is on page 15:
“This sentence from a book being read in the refectory, about the wonders of nature leaves me lost in thought: ‘After his two-legged master, the pig is the most abundant large mammal on the face of the earth.’
“Perhaps the time has come for a formal and conciliatory speech addressed to men and swine together, beginning something like this:
“’There is a tide in the affairs of abundant large mammals . . .’”
On page 143, Merton writes
“Julien Green continually asks himself: can a novelist be a saint? Can a novelist save his soul? But perhaps the salvation of his soul depends precisely on his willingness to take that risk, and be a novelist. And perhaps if he refused to challenge and accept something that seemed to him more “safe,” he would be lost. ‘He that will save his life must lose it.”
I had no idea who Julien Green was but Merton’s reflection pierced me. I wrote in the margin beside this passage: “so it must also be for me as a gay man.”
Merton refers several times to Julien Green’s journals so I decided to read them for myself. Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered that Green was a devout Catholic convert who was also openly homosexual.
Merton’s introduction of Green’s work was serendipitous and wonderfully affirming. For me, it was a sign.
Over the years I became friends with another Carmelite priest who presided over the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s ministry to lesbians and gays. We’d have lunch once or twice a year. During the course of the lunch, he would invariably shake his head, smile, and remark, “Jim, you are so free.”
At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant. I responded, “You can be free, too.”
His reply surprised and saddened me. “It’s too late for that,” he said quietly.
Over time, Dave Walsh’s words have defined and refined my vocation and have come to impact everything I do.
I had asked Dave that night where I would find community; Merton’s book has given me something equally precious: the author’s unfailing companionship. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read or re-read something by Merton. He gives me consolation in a life where I long to be settled and certain but am called, instead, to be free.
“How men fear freedom!” -Thomas Merton
“In the beginning freedom feels like exile.” -Rollo May
“The most important question in the spiritual life is not “Are you happy,” but “Are you free.” Thomas Merton