Ever Ancient, Ever New

Finding God’s Love in Unexpected Places

Referring to God’s love, a college theology teacher of mine once used the Latin phrase prorsus indebitum, “completely undeserved.” He told us the phrase came from St. Augustine, who taught that the love of God was pure gift and that there was nothing we could do to win it. I was nineteen at the time, and it would be years before I would find a link between Augustine’s theological fundament and my own experience of love and intimacy.

Three years earlier, the summer I was sixteen, I worked as a mail carrier, a job I got through my uncle, who worked his whole life at the city’s main post office. The branch to which I was assigned served black and Jewish row-house neighborhoods where I delivered mail from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., six days a week. Every Saturday, after completing the regular route, I drove the red-white-and-blue jeep to drop off mail at the city’s Catholic seminary, a formidable structure set back behind high iron gates.

The seminary was nearly empty in summer. The monsignor who took the sack of mail would offer me a glass of water, and we’d chat a bit before I returned to the PO to punch out on the time clock. After a few weeks he asked, “Did you ever think of becoming a priest?” I hadn’t, but, eager to please, I answered, “I was an altar boy”—and soon he was describing a college education that would be almost free if I did decide to think about it. I knew by then I was gay, and maybe he knew too. There was nothing lascivious in his invitation, just another link in the chain of Catholic society that swells the clergy’s ranks with homosexual men: one priest who as a kid felt he had no options casts a line to rescue another.

In any case, I enrolled. I was a busy, dedicated seminarian, but the life was circumscribed. We wore black, went to services four times a day, had long hours of Grand Silence, watched no TV without permission, and were allowed off campus only eight Saturdays a semester. Though I’d been a heavy-drinking, larcenous teen, seminary disciplines helped me clean up my act. I was restless, with boundless energy for learning and reading. At night in my tiny dorm room I’d sit by the window with a book, a little light clipped onto the cover to let me read without detection, in violation of the 10 p.m. “lights out.” Late into the night I’d study principles of medieval philosophy, I’d memorize declensions and conjugations in Greek and Latin, all while idly keeping track of the city buses that ran behind the school. My grandparents lived along one of the bus routes, and somehow I felt stabilized by the sight of a bus that would pass my grandparents’ window ten minutes after it passed mine.

Approaching graduation, I fell in love with a fellow seminarian. The moral theology I had studied didn’t supply twenty-one-year-old me with the consolation and direction I needed. To stem my distraction and desperation, I started running long distances, I played basketball and racquetball. Still, dreams and demons of not-so-celibate passion frightened me, and in the seminary environment—punctuated every few steps by beautiful marble statues and stained-glass windows of pious, virginal saints—I felt traitorous, and decided I had to leave. On the recommendation of a spiritual director I went to a monastery for four months of transition, during which I talked only to the prior and only from 1:30 to 2:00 on Tuesday afternoons. I got up at 3 a.m. for the first of many daily services, worked hard washing eggs hatched in the henhouse during the night—dancing around the chicken cages, my bad singing and worse dancing unnoticed by monks and hens alike.

Early in my stay, the prior asked me to stop doing a few things that irked the community: to stop wearing my bright red hooded sweatshirt; to close whatever I was reading in the refectory as soon as I was done eating; and to stop sending and receiving letters. I was corresponding with the seminarian I had fallen in love with. The prior knew I’d come to the abbey after leaving seminary, and must have suspected that the letters were curbing freedom for spiritual growth, keeping me stuck in the past rather than helping me discern God’s will for the days and years ahead. I followed his instruction. The letters ceased.

Eventually, I emerged from this process of transition and continued with my life and my education: a degree in philosophy, a job waiting tables, then graduate school, where again and again I was struck by new theological ideas. Courses in the New Testament taught about Jesus of Nazareth, the social inciter on the ground, friend of tax collectors and prostitutes, killed for breaking the law and stirring up crowds against political and religious authorities. The letters of St. Paul showed that saints were not dead people, but living members of the churches he founded, which opened my eyes to the saints of my life. I learned about Christian worship in the early centuries, when assemblies proceeded through city streets and roamed inside church buildings—a mobile Body of Christ, some free to nurse or jiggle babies, others going out to take a leak or grab a smoke. This was a theology that met the world I saw, a social salvation in which many played an active part, not because they were worthy, but because God was generous, solicitous, embracing: here was prorsus indebitum, the attentive, loving God of tumultuous societies like the first-century Palestine of Jesus and our own twenty-first-century America.

My theological studies were complemented by experiences outside school. Renting an apartment in a row house as a graduate student one hot summer, I found a decomposing body in the apartment above mine. For weeks before the discovery, whenever I turned on the lights or took a shower, maggots dropped from the ceiling, and when finally I broke into the studio of my upstairs neighbor, a car mechanic, I found a black, oily puddle soaking into the carpet in the middle of the room—buzzing with big, fat flies and surrounded by pornography and cigarette butts stacked up to form a perfect triangle. How had he been dead for so long with no one missing him? The unembalmed corpse forced me to consider anew what Christian theology means by “heaven” and “hell,” by “afterlife” and the Creed’s “resurrection of the body.”

Around this time I started jogging four or five times a week with a mostly gay running group. As we trained for marathons together, I came to love athletes who cared daily for former fellow runners now dying of AIDS. I witnessed affection among loved ones overflowing into corporal works of mercy, sacrifice, and generosity. It was an experience of conversion. The time had come to consider what love—always God’s gift, always undeserved, prorsus indebitum—might look and feel like from the ground up, and to try to reconcile this look and feel with the church’s teachings about God and sexual morality. God and church teaching had never been separate before for me, but now conscience told me that the tradition had somehow missed the mark.

Decades later, Catholic tradition, ministry, and preaching still grace my days and reveal God’s love wherever two, three, or hundreds assemble in Jesus’ name. Yet the institutional church defines me and those like me as “objectively disordered,” unfit for physical intimacy, and homosexual behavior as acts “of grave depravity.” This is at odds with the God I have found among compassionate, loving men and women I know whose intimate lives abound with goodness and charity.

American Catholics today struggle with the harm caused by church leaders, and believers try to reconcile the legacy of hurt people with the church’s proclamation of good news and the love of God. For many the experience of God is at odds with Catholic social teaching, and people work to find a reconciling balance between the illumination of love in Jesus Christ and the institutional church’s shady history of covertness and self-preservation. One prays that the church will be humble enough to proclaim God’s Word with conviction and transparency to people whose faith is flagging—people who don’t doubt God’s undeserved love but who, for one reason or another, sometimes doubt the church’s ability to recognize, proclaim, and celebrate it.

I don’t think homosexual relationships will ever be sacramental in the Catholic tradition, but there’s a wide span of holiness between “sacrament” and “sin” unacknowledged by church leaders. Should shrinking collections at Mass be squandered on anti-gay politics? Need all physical intimacy outside the sacrament of marriage be wrong? Do anti-gay bishops truly reflect the gospels’ portraits of the Palestinian peasant whose execution changed the world, the social reformer of human society who “raises up the lowly” and “fills the hungry with good things”? The real lives of most homosexuals in America contradict the church’s teaching, as witnessed by the daily reality of service professions and volunteer groups teeming with lesbians and gays—not procreative, perhaps, but creative, generous, and full of love.

Over the years, prorsus indebitum has supplied me with a model of discernment in love, which is ever ancient, ever new. Prorsus indebitum helped me figure out how to move down the crooked path from falling in love to living in love, reminding me of the generous bounty of God’s love at every pass, manifest in those who love me. Though far removed in time and place from that window by the city bus line, I still comb through the writings and sermons of the Greek and Latin church fathers nearly every day. Recently I decided to find out just where in Augustine’s work he’d used the cherished phrase. It turns out that in the Patrologia Latina—the enormous database of all Latin church authors—the phrase prorsus indebitum never appears. Disappointed at first, I eventually came to realize that no matter what the phrase’s provenance, its truth remains undeniable, its insight reliable.

Published in the 2012-08-17 issue: 

Martin F. Connell teaches at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

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