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As a young gay Catholic, I equated sexuality with sin. Then I learned to let go.

Views Seandor Szeles / May 1, 2024 Print this:
Photo courtesy of Pexels/cottonbro studio

As a boy, I was fascinated by the way my grandmother’s disposition changed when she entered a church. She would locate the Blessed Sacrament, bow her head towards it and close her eyes as she genuflected. If she spoke, it was in a hushed tone. She made sure that us kids kneeled correctly: no butts on the pew. 

Our church had wall-to-wall stained glass windows that let off an otherworldly glow. Entering the church gave me an almost magical sense of possibility which, for a young boy, was a wonderful entryway to a life of faith. When the priest held up the Eucharist and the altar boys rang the bells, I was mystified. In response, I wanted to sit up right and be good.

My grandmother’s best friend was a chain-smoking priest from South Africa. When he visited us for the summer, he told stories about spiritual battles, exorcisms and witch doctors with spiders crawling out of their mouths. I became terrified of hell and demons. My faith, always a source of awe, then took on an element of grandeur and fear. I began to seek calm in things that made me feel certain about salvation.

I began to seek calm in things that made me feel certain about salvation.

In the second grade, we learned that we had to be free of mortal sin in order to properly receive the Eucharist. I imagine that most second-graders heard this and moved on to the next thing, but I was a fretter. I latched onto this teaching, despite the unlikelihood I had committed any mortal sins at that age. 

I began to keep track of my sins; I monitored my thoughts as if my salvation might slip through the cracks. On the day of my First Communion, I thought: “Don’t think of a curse word. Don’t think of an angry thought.” By the time I finally received the Eucharist, I was in the midst of an internal battle.

Going to confession provided me an instant, momentary relief from my constant feelings of moral unease, fueled by the fact that I was different from the other boys. On Tuesday evenings you could find me, a  14-year-old boy, sitting next to a row of grandmothers wearing out their rosaries near the confessional. I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a ride, so I would find other reasons to leave the house and casually ask if we could swing by the church.

My habit of confessing bled into my family life. Once, I called my parents into my room and confessed that I had a thought: I didn’t like them. I didn’t believe it, I told them. I just had the thought.

As a spiritual try-hard, I equated all sexuality with sin. So I didn’t allow myself to focus too much on the fact that I was reacting to guys rather than girls in teen movies. I held myself above the other boys, who were so beholden to their bodies, and somehow expected my flesh to be above the confusion of adolescence.

I developed an identity as a “good kid” and received much validation from this persona.  I was obedient and removed from my own experiences—the type of boy who would call home from a sleepover to ask  permission to watch an R-rated movie. 

As a spiritual try-hard, I equated all sexuality with sin.

I carried this try-hard energy into adulthood, where my “good boy” tendencies were channeled into my professional ambitions. I stayed at work late. I was always busy and proud of it. I loved to be needed by my colleagues, but most of my relationships were surface level. I was like a stray cat: a nice enough friend to many, but there were few people with whom I could be honest.

One night in my 20s, I was driving home from a party with my mother. We were winding down a suburban street when she suddenly asked me to pull the car to the side of the road. Teary-eyed, she spit it out: “I know that you’re gay.” 

I grasped the wheel with my hands and felt the truth of her statement, a truth that had been there in some other form. I understood that I was attracted to men but had become accustomed to calling it something else. I experienced my desires as unwanted, sinful thoughts or simply as a chronic feeling of shame. Keeping my sexuality a secret created a disconnect. I thought that only I felt it, but others did too.  My mother knew me well enough not only to see this, but also to know that I needed a nudge to look at myself clearly. 

I was hit with a familiar hot flash of shame. My mother told me that she loved me. I knew that this was true, but the late hour and heightened emotion of the moment saturated that love with a sense of drama. 

Being gay, I began to realize in the months that followed, is about far more than the physical aspects of sexuality. It affects how I relate to myself, to others and to God. This part of myself had been reduced to the label of sin and confessed away, but now I was forced to confront how it seeped into other areas of my life.

My intense self-awareness left me unable to be open about simple things, like my taste in music. Conversations about attraction and dating could only go so far, often requiring little lies or feigned attraction to women. As a result, friendships felt incomplete and half-hearted. 

Being gay is about far more than the physical aspects of sexuality.

My understanding of God had become so narrow and abstract, focused primarily on keeping score of my good deeds and sins. I assumed that all of this was directed by God but as I began to look inward and see myself more holistically, I discovered deeper desires and more complicated vices. 

I wanted to connect with others in a more authentic way, but my pride kept me isolated. I could be as judgemental of others as I was of myself. Many of my good deeds were driven by a desire for approval. I was distant and withholding with friends and family, missing opportunities for love and connection. 

I began to discover the down side of my “best boy” morality: a false belief that God’s love is earned by my own goodness. I revealed this all to a spiritual director, who grabbed my hand and assured me: “You’re not a project.”

At the beginning of a retreat, I was prompted to ask God for what I wanted. My answer was: “I want to feel okay.”  

It was probably five years later. I was walking into my house. I was now in a loving, committed relationship. My life had shifted towards the domestic. My partner was upstairs waiting for me and I was thinking about what to make for dinner. A river breeze hit me and I felt it in my bones. I was okay. 

I remembered asking for it and was surprised to notice, in the moment, this little gift. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I was able to savor it for a moment. Most importantly, it was not a big deal. It was a relief to feel that, for once, everything was not so important.

I began to discover the down side of my “best boy” morality: a false belief that God’s love is earned by my own goodness.

I began to discover what St. Teresa of Ávila meant when she said that “God walks among the pots and pans.” My prayer became quieter and more mundane. I started to notice God in small things. I spent less of my prayer time with books and journals and began to simply look out the window and let God do some of the work.

I noticed that I felt consolation when I cooked a meal for my loved ones or listened to them talk after a long day of work. I discovered that folding the laundry could be an act of love, not a chore. Once I stopped making everything spiritual, I loosened my grip and discovered that everything is already spiritual.

When I was trying to be the best little Catholic in the world, I thought of the Eucharist as a reward for my good deeds. Now, when I walk up the aisle to receive Communion, I try to focus on the goodness of the one doing the loving and forgiving. As a result, I’ve discovered the great freedom of being not special, not “good enough,” but just another person in a line of many people, all eager for some nourishment.

Seandor Szeles

Seandor Szeles is a licensed professional counselor in Harrisburg, Pa. He holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Towson University, in Maryland.

All articles by Seandor Szeles

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  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I can relate a lot.

  2. Thank you very much for this. There is a lot here that is very familiar (though I could never express it so well!).

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