The earliest memories I have of the first steps in my faith journey are a large wooden statue of Our Lady of Grace that I played with, and my mother teaching me a song at age four, “Jesus Loves Me”. At four years old, I had a sense of knowing Jesus and learning the song was more of a reminder that Jesus and everything about Him was true. In looking back, the sense is less that I was being taught and more that I was being reminded somehow of something that I already knew. I also knew at the very early age of four that there was something else that was different about me, something that made me somehow different: I knew I was supposed to serve God.
Around the same time as I knew this was what I was supposed to do, I also started realizing that I found boys magical, alluring. I was too young to see other boys as sexual—I wasn’t at a place where I was capable of sexualizing anything, but I was keenly aware that boys were far more interesting than girls. While I didn’t see these two aspects of myself as being incompatible, at a young age I didn’t see how these would pan out; there were no goals, they were just basic beliefs.
I liked boys. I was going to serve God.
My father began taking me to the United Church when I was about five years of age. For those outside of Canada, the United Church is what our American cousins would refer to as a liberal protestant congregation with conservative groups and liberal groups both within the same organizational framework. While I didn’t understand fully what was going on being the age that I was, I did know that this was close to what serving God would look like. But at the same time, it was distant, not quite what I had envisioned. Then one year as a cub scout, we took part in a World Day of Prayer service at the local Catholic Church. And I knew there and then, this is what I was supposed to be. I was supposed to be a Catholic, I was supposed to be a priest.
The next Sunday when I attempted to genuflect in the pew at our local United Church, my parents chuckled and asked me not to do that anymore.
But I at least had an idea of what it was I was supposed to do. As I matured, the most challenging aspect of my life was trying to sort out what being gay meant in a world where the only queer representation in our small town where two people who were considered on the margins, people it was ok to interact with, but you didn’t want to spend a lot of time with in case someone started to talk. I felt isolated, and drew closer to an uneducated kind of faith experience. I didn’t read the Bible, but I did spend a lot of time alone, walking, talking to God. Being the son of an alcoholic also brought challenges. Home was not safe. It was predictable, it was uncomfortable. It shaped me into how I interacted with my peers. I started telling lies about myself, my family, not even being aware as to why I did it. Maybe I didn’t think I was worth while as a person and needed to fictionalize aspects of myself so people would want to associate with me. Maybe I didn’t have a reason to do it at all, or wasn’t truly aware of it. What I knew was that life was a tension wire that constantly vibrated. My base line was being on alert at all times. The lies caught up to me, and my friends walked away from me. I walked alone even more, isolated even further. At eleven years old I had no friends, my family was a family in name only. I had a roof over my head, I had food in my stomach, but the relationships in my life were very limited. People loved me, and I loved people. But there was always the tension.
God was always there in some way, in some form. As a small child, I’d found a large faux wood statue of Our Lady of Mercy that I played with off and on. My grandmother gave it to me to take home, and the statue had a place of prominence. I knew Mary was there, was real, tangible in the same way I’d known Jesus was there. I couldn’t express to anyone how I knew this, or why, so I never talked about it with my family. To me, it would be dangerous to do so. This was sacred, this relationship that I was developing was something to keep safe, to protect from the world that in my existence would potentially destroy it.
When I was 12, my family moved into the city, I had an opportunity to change things. I stopped lying to people, but I also intentionally chose to associate myself with people at the margins of school culture. While the popular kids came over the first day and welcomed me, wanted me to join their group, my sense was that if I did this I would become too visible, and visibility was a threat I didn’t want to engage with. I was also keenly aware at this time that my interest in boys had moved to something more than just curiosity. I knew by the beginning of my teens that I was at the very least gay, even though the only word I had for it was homosexual, and with that word was a sense that somehow there was something wrong with it. Worse, it was even more real in my world that being Christian and homosexual was completely incompatible. At least that’s what I learned from the people around me; my family, my culture, my friends all saw being homosexual as somehow being deficient, being sick, requiring treatment.
But I knew differently. I knew that my existence as a queer person was completely in line with what God was about, what the diversity of God’s creation was about. I concluded it wasn’t being gay that was the problem, it was the belief system. I walked away and began to pick up books, struggled reading beyond my ability. I would check out books about theosophy, eastern mysticism, meditation, take them home, try to read them and not be able to understand anything. It was like walking through mud. I played around with paganism, witchcraft, and in the end gave it up because while I thought I understood what I was doing, I didn’t have the ability to comprehend the philosophy behind what I was doing. I knew that it was more accepting of who I was as a person, but I wasn’t able to settle there.
Then I picked up a book on Buddhism, “The Three Pillars of Zen”, and it strangely made sense to me. It was about sitting, breathing, being still. Sitting, doing zazen, began to give me some peace in a turbulent world, a world where my parents divorced, I was finishing high school, and I had no idea of what I wanted to do or the confidence to leave my home to find out. I retreated into zazen. It became an excuse not to participate in the life my parents wanted me to have, the life society said I was supposed to have.
Somehow I found a twelve-step group which began to help me see the situation in better context. I started going out more, I found a job. I wasn’t completely happy but I was happier. I met someone in one of the meetings I attended and we became very close friends. One summer, we took a camping trip to the badlands in the southern part of Saskatchewan. In the weeks prior, I’d picked up a book by Wallace Black Elk and found myself intrigued by the spiritual traditions of the First Nations people. I made tobacco ties and took them with me on the trip to the badlands, got up early one morning and went out to a hill top and planted a large tree branch in the ground I had found dead at the bottom of the hill, re-enforced it with stones, and hung those initial ties. Two golden eagles flew up, flew around me. Two antelopes came about 5 yards towards me, chirped, and ran off. I found myself somehow strangely connected to the land, to that experience. We spent nearly a week there, and the night before we left I walked alone, cried, sobbed as if I was leaving the embrace of a lover I’d met and could not fathom walking away from.
At a retreat for adult children of alcoholics, I met a few people who were attending a healing circle at the local friendship centre, and was advised to call the gentleman who was running it to see if I could attend. I made the call and went to my first circle that week. I experienced fellowship in a way I was totally unfamiliar with. There were seekers around me who were looking as well, and I was draw to the ideas of the Medicine Wheel. There was room in this belief system for my being gay. Over the weeks, I became more and more committed to the practices of smudging, praying, and the connection to nature that I’d always felt. God was present in His creation, and I was comfortable talking to Him more in that creation. I simply started addressing Him as Grandfather now. Four moths into the healing circle I was attending sweat lodges, and then I was taking part in my first fast ceremony (new age term would call this a vision quest). The four day ceremony started and finished with a sweat lodge and a feast. On the way out of the sweat, the elder prayed over me and gave me the name “Bear Coming Out”. I kind of laughed internally at that and still chuckle at how literal that name was, is; it’s something I’m still proud to carry and the longer I live the more meaning and depth the name has for me.
Three nights and four days without food and water is an experience in itself. I built a small hut from red willow branches, covered it with blankets, and remained inside for most of the time. I slept a lot. When I wasn’t sleeping, I would look outside and see the spiderwebs of early spring, dew covering them where snow had only been a few weeks before. Mornings were cold, days were a bit warmer. The elders would come by each day to talk for a little, but not long, just to check and make sure you were ok. I didn’t see anything prolific. I dreamed vividly, but can’t remember most of those dreams now. The walk back to the sweat lodge on the last day was a stumble. I sang for the sake of singing, joyful but also exhausted. The sweat was hot, painful at times, but the first drink of cold water in the lodge was something I could feel from my lips to the pit of my stomach. The first taste of berries was like an explosion of sweetness that was the best taste I’d ever experienced. I did two more fasts subsequently, each with different elders but the same group of people, each time learning something new.
The summer after the last fast I participated in, I asked the man who was running the healing circle to be my teacher. He paused, said he’d need to think about it, and said that it would be a very long commitment that I’d need to think carefully about. He said that he’d had a dream about me where he’d seen me surrounded with a lot of wonderful gifts, but implied those gifts weren’t something he would be able to give to me. I walked away from the conversation feeling foolish for having asked, somewhat humiliated for thinking that he would say yes. It hurt.
A few months after that, he moved away and left the circle unattended. There were about 20 of us who attended and I picked up where he had left out of a sense of needing to keep the tradition going for those who still required it. I’d felt that perhaps my initial call to be a priest had been misguided and given my practice now, I was a fit for a medicine person. Slowly attendance dwindled until there was just me and one other person. Eventually that other person moved on and I became a solitary practitioner again. Attending sweats became more and more infrequent as the contacts I had once knew moved away or moved on.
The healing circle and it’s attendants had been a powerful time for me. Not only had I found a community of people I could belong to, it was also the first place that I came out. They accepted me for who I was, and coming out to them gave me a little bit of hope. If they accepted who I was, maybe I could accept who I was as well.
The experience of coming out led me to meet more people who were involved in the LGBTQ community in the city I lived in. It provided a social outlet where I didn’t feel alone and I could experience what it meant to be gay. I got involved with the Pride Committee and helped organize the Pride festival. I came out to my family, my co-workers, my friends. I felt joy in being able to be honest about who I was. I still carried my beliefs about the Medicine Wheel, but I had a newfound evangelism in Queer Liberation. I marched, shouted, danced, sang. And after the festival was over, I went back into isolation, waited patiently for the next festival, read, walked, talked, prayed.
I started working for a woman who I became fairly close to. We went on many walks in the valley near where we lived. We talked about life, we talked about the way people thought, we talked about how we thought, why we thought the way we did, why we did what we did. That friendship was instrumental in growing my mind, giving me the power to not only think, but how to think critically and honestly. Up until then, no one had ever talked to me about how to think, how to try and look at a problem without being involved in the problem emotionally, trying to work a solution free of emotion. The relationship was not a completely healthy one, and in many ways I allowed myself to be manipulated. But on the whole, the friendship lasted for fifteen years and helped me to expand my consciousness.
It also opened doors to parts of myself I was not prepared to deal with. While I still felt connected to nature, I had not felt at home with the traditions and slowly gave them up. It was a place to dwell but not rest, and it was time to move forward whether I was aware of it or not. I had continued to pray every night from the end of the first fast ten years on. But one night I started praying the Our Father over the prayer I had been making to Grandfather. That praying continues to this day. But about a year into doing that, I experienced a depression like nothing I have, nor I hope ever will again, encounter.
I cracked emotionally wide open. I cried every day, often unaware as to why I was crying, or for how long I would be crying. The skin around my eyes was worn red and raw. I wasn’t able to complete tasks at my job, and the woman who was my friend and employer wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to continue working for her. She was worried, but I don’t think she was fully aware that the conditions she was having me working under were a great part of why I was feeling the way I was. The one thing that got me through the night was listening over and over and over to a podcast/class on the history of philosophy and Christian thought taught by the late Dr. Ronald Nash. I would listen to the classes over and over, repetitively, because they were not only entertaining but they engaged my mind in such a way that it gave me a moment of peace from the tears that I knew would eventually come.
I’d get home at night, sit in my car, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out to God and asking why I was suffering. Sometimes I’d ask Jesus to take the suffering I was experiencing and join it in union with His own. It didn’t always make the pain easier, but sometimes it did. Always there was moments where I would walk and pray, but also the idea that as a Christian my homosexuality was something that needed to be kept secret, that somehow it separated me from the rest of the people, put me at the margins like those people I’d known growing up in that small town. Yes, there were congregations that were opening, welcoming, but they weren’t catholic. I’m pretty convinced that conflict between knowing I was catholic and knowing I was gay were, at least at that time, incompatible. For me, knowing I was catholic was just as much a basic belief as knowing that I was gay.
I cried for three years. The people around me carried me through much of it in ways I can’t possibly repay. One night I was again sleepless. I went to my computer and looked for something to read to help me go to sleep. I googled “God existence of” and printed off Steven Law’s “Evil God Challenge”. I read the paper, which is an argument I will allow you to read yourselves, and was confused: Dr. Law had provided a sound argument against the existence of God, and yet, I knew that God existed. Where was the problem? I spent the night awake, confused, trying to work the problem out. In the morning I got out of bed and was changed. I stopped crying. I spent the next couple of days trying to work out why it was that the argument could at once be both true and false. I reverted to philosophy, tried to find the answers, couldn’t. People around me didn’t believe that I was better, I laughed more. They were threatened by the laughing. They brough the fact I was laughing up to me, said that they were confused by it. I replied with “Would you rather see me crying?” They couldn’t leave it alone. They’d lost trust in my ability to be happy, even though I’d suddenly returned from the grave of my depression a new man. God had brought me from my worst to the light of my best through an atheist.
I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t stop the headaches from reading, and re-reading. I discovered the writings of the reformed philosophical movement that stated it wasn’t a matter of God existing or not existing because belief in God was properly basic and didn’t need an explanation as to why. It was a belief in the same category of one plus one equals two. I loved this, I loved that it felt like my brain was waking up and expanding and growing beyond the limits of my skull. I asked myself, could knowing you were queer also be a basic belief? Could this be true along side the basic belief that God existed? And could it also be true that, in order to reconcile both in the line of knowing I was also catholic would require both to exist in such a way that my gayness would need to be somehow limited, controlled, confined to a celibate existence?
I resigned myself to this. While it gave me suffering to know I could not, or should not, act on my impulses, I could not help but feel a strong sense of loneliness. I prayed the rosary, my connection to God, Jesus, the Blessed Mother, the Saints, grew. I began to reach out to the local diocese and inquire about attending church, even though I knew doing so would be a commitment of allowing my gayness to exist in the confines of a catholic dogmatic ‘container’. I was happier, but I wasn’t completely happy. I knew from my past that I had wandered from religious experience and tradition to another and a part of me questioned whether I was simply at another stop on the way to a destination unknown to me.
Through a series of meetings and conversations that happened with my employer and friend, I realized that I had spent the better part of my working life doing what other people had wanted me to do, and had not been living for myself, not following my passions. I decided to try university and studying philosophy for the challenge and because I thought it would be fun. The first semester was very enjoyable, but the more I studied the more I realized that professors didn’t want me to challenge ideas, didn’t want me to think outside the box. I wasn’t learning the way I had thought I was going to learn. It climaxed when a professor shouted at me two inches from my face, frustrated that I had chosen to see beauty in a philosophical model he didn’t agree with. University wasn’t safe. Learning this way wasn’t safe. I was disappointed, but also glad I tried, glad I knew that I could learn at a higher level and get great grades for the most part.
I decided that I needed to accept that I was gay, that being gay and fully gay was the only way I was going to be truly happy. I also realized that I had to find a way to live my vocation, answer the calling to holy orders, even though it was highly impossible. I was in my early forty’s and I needed to do it now before it was too late. I went to the internet and found Mission Sts. Sergius and Bacchus run by Father Bob Johnnene. My mouth fell open. I had never heard of Independent Catholicism, never considered there were people who were both Franciscan and queer/queer friendly. I shook as I wrote the e-mail to him, thinking that I had found a door that I could open. Father Bob wrote back and said because of the distance he wouldn’t accept me as a novice, but that there was a good man who lived in Toronto I should contact, Archbishop Roger Larade, who led another congregation I might be interested in. I googled, realized there were so many communities all over North America, but was drawn to the Eucharistic Catholic Church.. I e-mailed Abp. Roger, we talked via e-mail a few times and he agreed to be my spiritual director. We talked on Skype, he helped me to learn about the movement and what the church in Canada looked like. After a few months I reached out and asked if I could attend the distance learning seminary and he agreed, asking if I would like to profess as a Franciscan as well. I agreed and flew out to Toronto in June of 2017 and was baptised, confirmed, and professed first vows as a Franciscan of the Annunciation of the Infinite Love of God. I took my first steps to priesthood by being initiated into the minor orders of porter and lector. Our congregation is very small, but the sense of coming home was immense. During my baptismal vows, I knelt on the floor of the chapel and stared deeply into the face of the San Damiano cross that hangs on the wall, knowing that the commitment I was undertaking was the fulfillment of a journey 46 years long, a journey that took me through valleys and over mountains, into caves and through the heart of despair. I was told after baptism the graces I would experience would be numeral. And they have been. I met my fiancé shortly after returning to Regina, I found a job that allows me to work through my vocation and help those who are at the margins of society, and in May of this year I will be traveling to Toronto to take my final vows as a Franciscan, be admitted into the last of the minor orders, and be ordained as a priest. The next few months of study are going to be very intense, and every day I work to improve my Latin, read the mass from my missal, and attempt to be the best human being I can be.
The first steps I took towards priesthood gave me hope that I would be serving a group of people in my community, that I would be making a difference and being a voice. What I found in going into the community was actually the opposite: most people were and are puzzled when I explain that I’m going to be a priest, aren’t able to see the connection, or are interested. In many ways, the practice of my faith is as solitary as it was when I was practicing to be a medicine man. Yet there is so much more in that I feel connected not only to my own denominational community across the world, but to those who identify as Independent Catholics and Independent Sacramentalists. There are many days where I feel a distance from Christ, where there is a struggle to find that connection I once had as a child. Yet I am living my vocation, and in small quiet moments I see Him, feel His presence, know His love. Perhaps my mission as a priest is one of prayer, one of visibility. To just be seen, to know, to write, to read, to contemplate, to love God, to serve at the altar of the mass.
I have felt at home in my beliefs in the last 4 years in a way that I can’t compare. While the journey still continues, it feels more like leaving home, going out into the world, and returning. It’s in a strange place that I find this, where queer people question my vocation as a religious, and religious people question my vocation as a queer person. Yet in the middle are a group that not only understand, but practice their faith in different ways, but all ways who honour the truth that we understand, that we know as a basic belief: God created diversity because God loves diversity. Our job in life is to know who we are truly, and trust that God has reconciled this from before we were born.
Pete MacNaughton professed his second year of vows as a member of the Order of Franciscans of the Annunciation of the Infinite Love of God, and is attending seminary within the Eucharistic Catholic Church, an Independent Gender and Sexually Diverse Affirming Catholic congregation based in Toronto, Canada. He lives and works in Regina, Saskatchewan and is an active member of the LGBTQ Pride movement.