I have just watched an extraordinary and deeply moving film, soon to be released by the Catholic apostolate Courage, called Desire of the Everlasting Hills. It is knit together, like a polychronic chorale, from the personal witnesses of three people, two men and one woman, who have come out of a life of sexual sin and into the wonderful light of Christ. By “wonderful” I do not suggest breathless good cheer and drinks all around. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. When Peter, James, and John saw the transfigured Lord, they did not first glow with gregarious good fellowship. They were struck with awe and fear; and that deep feeling, that sense that in the quiet of the human conscience the Lord has wrought something like a world ransomed, or a world destroyed, will be well imparted to the faithful Christian who views this film.
The particular form of sexual sin to which these three people fell prey was homosexual in nature. In one or two respects, the form is significant. The most obvious attack on the castles of the home, the community, and the church happens now to be coming from that quarter; and the people in the film experienced from the sin certain kinds of confusion and suffering that the rest of us sinners may find hard to imagine. One of the most wrenching moments in the film comes when one of the men, after hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sexual encounters during the first fury of the AIDS virus, is persuaded to have himself tested for it, and he knows, he knows without a doubt, that he is HIV-positive. But he seems to hear a voice telling him that he is going to live, because he needs the time to make up for the wrong he has done. The test comes back, and when the doctor tells him the results, he sees the words on the doctor’s lips more clearly than he has ever seen anything. You are negative, says the doctor. This happens before he makes his slow and courageous way back to the faith.
There was another moment that made me gasp. The woman—like her brothers in the film, winsome, intelligent, and attractive, and yet also possessed of a quick feminine sense of the good in persons—was attending with her partner a feminist celebration of empowerment, out in the fields in Georgia. As they were walking along, they came upon two women on the grass, “loving on each other,” as she puts it, searching for polite words. When the women turned their heads, she saw with a shock that they were identical twins. Her conscience woke up for the moment, and she said to her partner, “Did you see that? Don’t you think that’s wrong?” The partner, also shaken by the sight, gave a predictable but revealing reply. “We can’t judge them,” she said, “because then other people would judge us.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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And we should remember that the inclination to this sin may make people feel particularly abandoned, in our time especially, when “sexual identity” is taken as fixed, and when the ordinary ties that used to bind people to one another, to a place and a history and a way of life, are so few and so frail. The second man in the film, once he found that his attraction to other men was not going to go away, did not conclude that there was no God, but rather that God did not love him. So whenever he passed the basilica near his home, he would turn to it with an obscene gesture, flinging it in the face of the loving God he did not know.
But in a more important sense the form of the sexual sin is not important. “All have sinned,” says Saint Paul, “and fallen short of the glory of God.” Jesus came to save sinners, and it is those who know they are sick who seek the physician, not those who believe they are healthy. All of us have breathed in the smoke of sin. No one’s flesh is clean of the char. The revolution in mores and in family life that struck the west with terrific force within my lifetime has hurt everyone. That revolution ought never to be called merely sexual. It is the Lonely Revolution.
Think of it. The conjugal act is the foundation of culture itself. It binds together the man and the woman, as man and woman, as representing all men and all women, because what they do makes the past present and ushers in the future; it is like a consummation of all of human history, and the seedbed of a world to come. This is not mystical thinking but plain fact. When I was thirteen years old and suddenly realized that I had changed, my first thought was not, “Now I can find out what is supposed to be so much fun,” because I hadn’t drunk in the poison. It was simply, with a quiet astonishment, “Now I can be a father,” meaning, I could enter into a new and permanent world of relationship.
What the Lonely Revolution did, under the cover of words like “love” and “freedom,” was to detach the sexual from the permanent things. It was to riddle the permanent with transience. A one-night stand is a kind of compressed marriage and divorce. To “love the one you’re with,” as the jauntily vicious song put it, meant to forget the one you weren’t with. It is to become not a giver of self but a consumer of selves, even if the selves are willing also to consume and be consumed. It is to use and to be used, even to be used up. So too every “relationship” which mimics marriage, but hangs an exit sign over the door. This is not philosophy. It too is a plain fact.
When my mother and father were married, and for about ten years after that, more than nine of ten people were married by age twenty five. Now that number is about one in ten. It isn’t just that people are delaying and delaying their entrance into the fullness of adult life. It is that marriageable men and women are harder to find; dating has disappeared; porn everywhere is a quick and wicked substitute; and parents themselves have no ground on which to stand and no good advice to give to their children, because they themselves have divorced, or they do not know what manhood and womanhood are all about, or they figure that marriages will just “happen,” like the rain.
The Lonely Revolution could not have come at a worse time, but then, it could only have gathered force in the world to which it came. For that world was already one of disintegration. People don’t know their neighbors. They have detached themselves from the old unifying institutions of culture, particularly the churches. Their schools are distant and anonymous. Children hardly play outdoors. Few mothers at home means few mothers to knit a neighborhood together. Yet we are made by the God who is Love, for love of Him and one another. What then to do?
C. S. Lewis once observed that a man may take to drink because he has failed, and then fail all the more because he drinks. Sexual sin, in the Lonely Revolution, is like that. You shack up, or go cruising, or hook up, or whatever the sad term may be, because you are lonely; and then you feel all the lonelier for having done it, once the thrill fades or the blood’s rage subsides. A whole society may go in for sexual sin because people must do something, anything, to keep away the loneliness, and then become a lonelier society than ever because of it.
This is what The Everlasting Hills brings steadily to our attention. It is a lonely world. We meet three people who were lonely (what could have possessed the boys at the time who ignored the woman in her youth, I can’t begin to fathom). We aren’t told, in the cases of the men, what might have lain beneath their desire for love from another man. There is no recrimination in the movie, no lashing out against negligent parents. There are no villains. Only us sinners, lonely, foolish, longing, confused sinners, in a world unusually harsh and barren.
And then these three people found the Lord.
One of the men used to go to church on the sly, afraid that he might be shunned by his friends if they found out about it. He had seen on television one day a “pirate nun” wearing a black eyepatch, whom he and his partner found hilarious, as they mocked her with pirate lingo; but she surprised him by saying something profound and unexpected about the boundless love of God for every single human being. The good sister from the Order of Blackbeards was Mother Angelica, just after the stroke she suffered some years ago. We too see her on the film—and so we watch what he watched, and can feel something of what he felt.
Finally, after searching on line for the proper form, he went to the confessional. He broke down. “Father,” he blurted out, “I’ve broken all the ten commandments!”
The priest was kind and gentle, with a sense of humor. “You’ve committed murder?” he asked.
“Well, no,” said the penitent. “Every one but that one.”
Confession was the hinge—we might say the cardinal sacrament—for each of the three. Each found a priest who knew that Jesus came to call sinners; who did not make light of the sin, which is but a self-approving way to make light of the sinner and his suffering. They met priests who wanted to welcome them to the feast.
They met priests who knew that the restless heart seeks Jesus and the kingdom of heaven, and who knew where the garden of love was really to be found.
One of the men has now lived chastely with his friend since his conversion. The movie ends not with the cardinal penance, but with the gift of gifts, the consummate sacrament. Never in my life, says this deeply sensitive, honest, and valiant man, have I felt such joy as when for the first time I received the body and blood of the Lord.
If you care about the victims of the Lonely Revolution, you should see Desire of the Everlasting Hills. Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.