THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 7
Who am I?
A crisis of identity is something that surely most of us have experienced at some time or another. Every gay man either knows from day one that he is gay or has to come to that realization – often painfully – at some later stage in his life. It may be when in his teens, or twenties – or it may be deferred until later on. But sooner or later we all have to face the question – who am I really? – Is this really me?
Although at the time we find going through an identity crisis difficult, often at the end of the process we are clearer, more defined and more at peace with ourselves. Why is that? Perhaps because we have come to a deeper understanding of ourselves. We have integrated into our consciousness another aspect of ourselves that seemed to stand out but actually, we now see, is very much a part of the real me.
I started down this line of thinking this morning because I have just reached the last few pages of a biography of Henri Nouwen (Wounded Prophet, by Michael Ford £10.95, Darton, Longman and Todd). If you have never read any of the books by Nouwen you have a treat in store. They are deeply personal and almost universal in their appeal.
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest who was gay. As he was born in 1932, he lived through a time when being gay was just not acceptable to anyone. Except to other gay people, that is! You might ask – well, what has changed? But the very fact that homosexuality was unmentionable in those days is indicative of the sort of atmosphere which surrounded gay people. It is almost impossible for people today to realize what a dark black shadow hung over the whole subject. And how those who suspected or knew that they were gay (a word not then invented) were caught up in huge doubts within themselves about their standing, both as people and as Christians.
Henri Nouwen died when he was 62 and although he seems to have known he was gay from a fairly early age, it seems he was only able to accept and integrate the fact of his gayness in the last decade or two of his life. In the early stages, like most other gay people, the disapproval of society and the churches forced him to think that his gayness was not only odd and deviant, but also evil and a thing to be hidden away. Indeed, in mid life, he underwent a severe nervous breakdown – and there cannot be any doubt that his homosexuality was the main reason for that.
As I read about Henri Nouwen in ‘Wounded Prophet’, I often felt I could understand from my own experience what he went through. As a gay person, I feel I can identify with him and with his writings almost instinctively. I can understand his frenetic activity. Have we not all hidden from our own innermost questions behind work at times? I can understand his inner weaving of a relationship with another man, but without that other man ever realizing how deeply it had affected Henri. I can identify with the feeling of obsession – with a man or with an idea. I can imagine the attraction of virile young men on the flying trapeze for a gay man. I can – do – feel the openness of heart and feelings towards all he met, and an outgoing love to all – a sublimation of the love of God in one’s heart and the result of repression of one’s natural instincts.
Above all I can imagine the torment that went on in Henri Nouwen’s soul as he struggled with the desperate desire to be true to himself as against the natural and strong desire to be true to his vast worldwide public – none of whom knew he was gay. Should he come out? Should he leave the priesthood and find the intimacy he craved with one of the loving men he already knew, or some other man whom God might send along? Should he declare himself and thereby possibly ruin himself in the eyes of many ‘correct’ homophobic Christians who were not yet at the stage where they could accept homosexuality as being a state blessed by God? Could he perhaps have a new and wider ministry if he came out – and so start to help Christians everywhere face the fact – the reality – that God created some people homosexual and that was acceptable?
The man went through torment. But he turned it all over to God. At times he could only turn over the desire to turn it over to God. Sometimes he could only turn over the desire to want to turn it all over to God! And sometimes he was so paralyzed that he could only sit still and wait for God to rescue him.
So it is with us all. We face our own identity crises. We may face many identity crises. There is the one about becoming a Christian. That is not an easy one. Then there is the crisis about accepting, before God, our gayness. That is not easy. Then there is the ever-present question of whether we should ‘live a lie’ or whether we should ‘tell the world’. Or some alternative between the two extremes. That is never an easy one – and if one decides for anything less than full disclosure then one goes on wondering for the rest of one’s life whether one has gone far enough!
Life is a sequence of identity crises. Over and over again we think we have got things sorted. Ordered. Organized. But then suddenly, or gradually, we become aware that we are up against a new problem – a new decision that has to be made.
This process actually has a name – it is called the journey of life. The pilgrimage through life. It is a basic and fundamental part of being human. We will have crises about our faith, our religion, our work, our friends, our everything. So what does that tell us? That all of life is an ongoing process of redefining ourselves in the light of experience.
For many years I blocked the idea that I was gay. I had so programmed myself (because of how I interpreted the bible, the illegality of homosexuality, the attitudes in society, the church rigidity etc.) against the idea that I could be homosexual. I could not countenance the fact of my own gayness. I lived as good a Christian life as I could and I was happy. I lost all conscious sense of being gay. Except of course that I was restless. The same sort of restlessness that Henri Nouwen had. A constant seeking to do better, to reach more people, to help others more, to be more loving, always experiencing a feeling of incompleteness, of there having to be more.
Then suddenly I discovered (perhaps rediscovered is more accurate) my gayness. It does not matter how it occurred. Suffice to say that for me the awakening did not come gradually. It came like a thunderbolt. One morning I woke up happy with who I was but by the time I went to bed my whole world had collapsed around me. I no longer knew who I was, nor how I stood with God, nor how I stood in my church, nor my family, nor even myself. Did I like what I now realized I was? Did I want to fight it or indulge it? Was I sick? Or was I deluded? Was I ‘possessed’? Was I ‘perverted’?
Over the next decade I came to terms with who I really was, and to understand the grace and mercy and love of God in an even deeper way. I realized how blind people are about their prejudice against gay people and recognized the blindness of the churches. It was a bumpy ride. But at the end of it my faith was stronger, my relationship with my Creator was deeper, my fear largely gone.
I went through an identity crisis. And, by God’s grace, I have come out the other side. And I think I have a much clearer vision now. A similar thing obviously happened to Henri Nouwen. It probably happened to you too. Each story is fascinating – it is the story of a person’s realization of the incredible depth of the love of God. It is a realization of the purpose of life – this pilgrimage towards God.
So if you are having problems about your identity – don’t despair. Tell God about it and ask him to help you sort out the way forward one step at a time. You may find the many helpful sites on the internet. Possibly join a discussion group – and stay as a lurker for several months while you sound out the attitudes of those posting messages. Maybe join a Christian group of gay people – discover that you are just one among many hundreds and thousands of gay Christians trying to make sense of it all.
Ask God to help you find a friend who loves you for yourself. Ask him to help you keep your physical desires in the right place. Ask him to send you someone you can share with – maybe even someone whom you can love and who will love you. Ask him to help you treat all those around you with love and honesty. Ask him to give you the grace of tolerance with all who disagree with you. And remember that the world is a big place and that your own particular worries and grievances shrink down to the right size in the light of the problems and difficulties of many Christians in the world.
Do you have enough to eat? Do you have somewhere to sleep? Do you have at least one friend? Do you have a job? Then you are among the world’s most fortunate people. Thank God for all you have and ask him to help you grow to match the challenges in your life. Treat each day as a special gift. Cultivate a grateful heart that looks for your Creator God in every person you meet, every situation that arises. Your true identity is in Christ. He is our hope and our salvation.
22 April 2002