In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, the most powerful moments occur when the action of grace breaks through and changes a life. In a film that’s attempting to change the ground on which the discussion of same-sex attraction in the Church takes place, these little epiphanies are a potent witness to the truth of Catholic teaching.
Desire of the Everlasting Hills is a 60-minute documentary from Courage International, the apostolate helping people with same-sex attraction to live chaste lives. The film was showcased at Courage’s national conference, July 17-20, in Philadelphia.
It is part of a two-pronged strategy to deliver the Good News. Desire does it by avoiding controversies and loaded terms and focusing entirely on human stories. A forthcoming, five-part catechetical series will tackle the issue from the bedrock of Church teaching on the issue.
The title is part of the Litany of the Sacred Heart and comes from Jacob’s blessing at the end of Genesis: “The blessings of thy father are strengthened with the blessings of his fathers: Until the desire of the everlasting hills should come, may they be upon the head of Joseph and upon the crown of the Nazarite among his brethren.”
The three people who tell their stories in Desire are the reason it works so well. These are not tidy stories with easy morals, but, rather, the tales of real human beings with complex and ongoing struggles. The trio took part in a panel discussion after the movie was screened Saturday evening at the Courage conference.
Their testimonies bring an important and previously unheard voice to the discussion of same-sex attraction in both the Church and secular spheres. They are people who, prompted by God, took a different path: one that led each back to the Church and a decision to live a chaste life.
‘Our Best Ambassadors’
As Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage International, says, “Many members have a sense that now is the time to give witness, and at no small cost or sacrifice, by going public. There’s a generosity and courage there that is admirable and edifying. They are our best ambassadors and the most persuasive teachers because they have the credibility of lived experience.”
That lived experience is on ample display in Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which tells the stories of Dan, Rilene and Paul. (No last names are given.) Each was raised at least nominally Catholic, but that is where the similarities in their lives end.
Dan was deeply conflicted about his homosexuality; it wasn’t until he began exploring the Internet that he felt comfortable engaging these troubling desires. He built up a mountainous rage at God, going so far as to flip-off the cathedral every time he passed it on the way to work. When he met someone online and drove to Flint, Mich., for his first sexual encounter, it was, he says, “very unmemorable.” A steady boyfriend and a brief heterosexual love affair only added to his sense of unease and confusion, though, until he finally committed to chastity.
While Dan knew he was same-sex attracted from a young age, Rilene had never considered it. In her younger years, she assumed she would meet a man, date and marry, but that never happened. Instead, Margo came into her life, and they fell in love.
“She wanted me,” Rilene recalls, “and I needed to be wanted.” They were together 25 years — a successful, out-and-proud lesbian couple — until Rilene started to feel the tug of something else.
Sex, Drugs and Disco
Paul was an international model during the sex, drugs and disco days of Studio 54 and the New York scene of the 1970s. He counts his sexual encounters in the “thousands”: When he wasn’t modeling, he was enjoying a wildly hedonistic lifestyle that left him empty. As AIDS devastated New York, he watched his friends die one after another, and, ultimately, he fled to San Francisco.
Their stories are unique, as befits detailed portraits of individuals, but the broader contours of their lives will be familiar to many with same-sex attraction. There is a movement into a lifestyle that is embraced with various degrees of acceptance and gusto, a life as a person attracted to persons of the same sex and then an interruption: an epiphany. Something radical and unexpected breaks through.
The most striking story is Paul’s. While driving to get his HIV test results, his sense of impending doom is interrupted by a feeling of peace and comfort and a voice: “Paul, you do not have AIDS because you have too much to do to make up for the way you’ve been living.” He was, indeed, HIV-negative, which was something he never expected, given his number of partners.
These moments are what drove the three to go public with their stories. Paul calls the documentary “a prayer answered. I felt that I came back to the truth very late in life, so, suddenly, I felt that need to use any time I have to express my love to God and my appreciativeness for all he’s done and that he never forgot me during all the decades I forgot him and turned against him. I prayed: Jesus, please give me a few years of strength and energy. It’s not because I don’t feel he has given total forgiveness and mercy, but so I can make up for the lost years when I couldn’t tell him how much I loved him.”
‘This World Is Not Home’
Dan was hesitant to make the movie because he was never publicly “out” and didn’t want to just be “Dan the gay man” to his colleagues. But he thought of “Dan of 18, Dan of 28,” and he realized he wanted to help those people more than anything.
“I know that because of the journey and the pain I’ve gone through, this world is not home,” he observes. “We have a short bit of time on this earth, and we have to make the most of it. I thought how good God has been to me if I can help other people with my story.”
In Rilene’s case, she was drawn to the project out of a desire to “make reparation for what I’ve done. I fought pretty hard for the other team. I recognized a lot of damage I’d done.”
Both Paul and Rilene tell powerful stories of their encounter with the transforming power of the sacrament of reconciliation. Rilene, visiting a church for the first time in years, describes her yearning for the Eucharist as the “strongest desire for anything I’ve ever had in my life.”
Each had something to risk in participating in the documentary. Paul already lost clients and friends when he “walked up the stairs of a Catholic church in my town. People were in shock that an educated, relatively intelligent man could believe in Jesus Christ.”
What they discovered on the journey back to faith and into a life of chastity was that chastity is both a struggle and a gift, and sharing their experiences is part of that gift.
As Dan observes, “Chastity isn’t a consolation prize. Our lives are better because of the Church’s teachings. The Church shouldn’t be embarrassed. They should shout it from the mountaintops. This is the Good News!”
Thomas L. McDonald is a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.
He blogs at God and the Machine.