BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 13
BORN AGAIN SEX AND RELIGION

Religion was always an important issue for us throughout our childhood and beyond. Mum and Dad were strong pillars of the Queenston United Church of Canada and we three brothers were dutifully marched off to Sunday School each Sunday at 10:00 AM. Dad was Sunday School Superintendent for some time and taught the senior class of students. But somehow none of us was inspired in those early years and we ignored their pleas for daily prayers and solemn Sundays.

[Queenston United Church] After Sunday School all of us were then lined up and marched into the 11:30 AM Sunday Church Service. Oh how we hated Rev. Stevenson’s long boring sermons and dreary prayers. When we were young, we were excused after the children’s story and could escape those numbing sermons. But once we hit 11 or 12 we were expected to endure. For me, Sunday was merely a chance to wear my new clothes purchased through my earnings from my paper route or odd jobs around the village. My new charcoal gray sports coat looked cool with my new pink shirt and gray and pink patterned tie.

Then suddenly I was somehow "born again" at twelve years old. I could hardly wait to share my religious conversion with Mum and Dad. They surely must have been a little confused after all the time we spent at church. They had to wonder why I should need saving again. Yet, in my long letter home sharing the good news with them, I was ecstatic about the new heights I had reached.

Just before eighth grade, a year after my lusty stopover on my bike trip through Hamilton, I had my first sobering and moving spiritual experience. I had only been to summer camp once before. My time at Cave Springs was a disaster in failed masculinity. I was just as rotten in team sports at camp as I was at school and I just could not get the hang of swimming. This time I was going further away to, Pioneer Camp on Georgian Bay. My folks must have been unaware that an evangelical religious group ran the camp. I was a most impressionable and vulnerable twelve year old. And it was one of the first times I had been among so many other boys my own age.

We boys were supervised by a most attractive, active and eager group of young counselors. They were sportsmen all, but without that intimidating swagger that I feared in so from my peers in my village beneath the Heights. Our tent's counselor, Dave, was older than most of the eighteen to twenty year olds assigned to other tents. He eventually told us he was a reformed alcoholic, saved from his evil ways by accepting our Lord as his personal saviour. Dave was warm and kind and shared himself fully with us.

Swayed by the rousing hymn singing and testimonials from other of the male camp leaders, I soon succumbed to their emotional message. In a tearful confession to Dave, I accepted Jesus with all my heart. I had never felt closer to another human being than I did to this man through this revealing religious sharing. To me it was a kind of coming out, a freeing of a spirit long imprisoned deep inside.

But back home again and off the emotional high of the camp experience, I tried in vain to bring that thrill back. I wrote to tell Dave how much I admired him and loved him for what he had done for me. I yearned for his response to my ardent letter, but I never ever heard from my Saint David again. I feared that perhaps he’d fallen on the wagon and “backslide” into sin again. And I was unable to help him. Years later, I could imagine his fear and possible revulsion in reading my “love letter.”

After this experience at Pioneer Camp, I became even more pious. I had now even less in common with my old friends my own age. How could they understand the depth of feeling that I had experienced there in the north woods. Then later that year at just thirteen, I volunteered to teach Sunday School. The teacher's meetings were a thrill for me. Working for Jesus with the grownup folk was so much more satisfying than playing with kids my own age. We teachers shared so many concerns about safe guarding the morals of our charges.

[Five Oaks United Church Camp, c. 1962] My second rebirth was at a United Church retreat at Five Oaks just a few years later during my high school years. Once again it was an emotional time, sharing the experience with young people my own age. And once again the time was mixed with deep confusing feelings for people with whom I shared the experience. Here was a spirit of companionship and closeness that I had never experienced in my small village life. I soon found myself double-dating with two girls from Wiarton Ontario and a smartly turned out young man with white bucks, a snub nose and soft blond hair that fell over luminous dark eyes. Again, my spiritual heights involved strong sexual feelings. I was smitten with Danny, but disguised my passion with an apparently healthy interest in Deana.

For the first time, I shared experiences both moving and fun with regular church people my own age. We four were inseparable. When I got home I shared my holy experiences once again with Mum and Dad and told them of my new thoughts of future church ministry. But back from my second mountaintop to the village beneath the Heights, the thrill and new missionary spirit soon cooled without the soul mates to share my feelings.

Mum and Dad had been involved with the Oxford Group and Frank Buchman since the thirties. I always suspected that had something to do with why it took them seven years to get married. Sporadically over the years they tried unsuccessfully to interest we three boys in “quiet times” and the four absolute moral standards: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Somehow, I always got hung up on the second one. Moral Re-Armament grew to be a worldwide organization out of that earlier English Oxford Group. Their European headquarters was in Caux Switzerland, but they founded a new American Center on Mackinac Island, in Michigan where Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron flow together.

My third spiritual coming out came later in high school. Up until that time, we boys steered clear of the demanding standards Mum and Dad and MRA espoused. Then suddenly one Fall, a whole troop of Africans and English descended upon us, touring Canada with a new MRA film about Africa and some amazing changes in human nature. Freedom was a challenging tale of how black and white Africans had been united by a common cause bigger than their own petty rivalries. Years of racial hatreds on both sides melted when some chose to ask forgiveness of their brothers and sisters. A black Nigerian student and a white Scot in kilts stayed with us in our home during their tour of our area.

Again I was moved by the fervor and purpose of these young men committed to God. Their charm was electric, men who traveled the world to spread their simple message of change through absolute moral standards and the guidance of God. They told stories of meeting great world leaders like Adenaur of Germany, Smuts of South Africa and Gandhi of India. MRA was not a religion though it helped people of all religions find a common ground. The following Christmas I was invited “The Team” for a retreat on Mackinac Island.

As I recalled earlier times with Mum and Dad, MRA began with quiet times and sharing. Everyone would sit quietly for an hour each morning to pray alone and to listen for God’s voice. Later we would share our guidance with others to see how we were measuring up on those moral standards that we had resisted for so long: absolute honest, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love. Now the standards seemed so simple to me after being explained by eager young men who traveled the world and had wonderful stories to tell. They taught simply that we were all human and erred from time to time, but God could give us the power to change our human nature, if we were willing. We shared our battles with pride and selfishness. And like many of the other men, I had to share those struggles with the toughest absolute of all, absolute purity.

Once clear on these moral absolutes, the Team went on to address world issues and constantly shared how personal change had lead to forgiveness and solution of long-standing hatreds, divisions and distrust between men and nations. I reveled in the personal encounters with plain folk like me, with actors, with politicians, with labour leaders and with educators, all united in wanting to put the world right by putting their own lives right. And here at last were people that judged me by my intelligence, personality and spirituality rather than my athletic ability.

Each meal hour was another treat when we got to meet new people and hear new stories from around the world. Everything had gone so well and I was on a new high meeting so many new people and getting a better idea of a spirituality that I seemed to crave. Then, on the last day of this first trip to Mackinac, an engaging young man named Sandy insisted on having lunch with me. Part of the teamwork was meeting new people and sharing their lives. He was a fascinating fellow, twin brother of a leading California industrialist, an American actor working in Japanese theater.

Sandy was sad to hear I was leaving that day, and asked if he could walk me back to my room to chat as I packed to go home. His attention was flattering for a 17 year old and I enjoyed his easy company. We talked very little of the standard MRA talk, but I had hardly noticed. As I began to fill my old battered suitcase, he was suddenly talking about his circle of friends who lived all over the world, in Japan, England and Los Angeles. They seemed to have some unique bond, these men together, and Sandy seemed to be having a difficult time in sharing that concept with me.

"I have a lot of close friends," he was saying hesitatingly. "Some are very special to me, we share things together. Anything we want to do, we do with each other and there are no holds barred."

By this time his line of conversation was beginning to puzzle me. What did he mean by “No holds barred?” And on he went.

"I would like you to be a special friend too."

Suddenly I froze, something was wrong here. All I could do was to keep on with my packing.

"I don't expect you to return my feelings, at first. I don't want to upset you, but I had to let you know how I felt before you left today."

What was he going to say next? I could not believe what was happening.

"I love you, Robin."

My packing was suddenly more furious and more confused. My socks that I was trying to pack in neat rolls were suddenly starting to unravel as my hands shook. I could not find my underwear in the dresser drawers.

"This is all running off your back like rain off a duck's back, isn't it," he blurted out, hurt at my seeming indifference and lack of response.

"I don't know what to say... Is it right to feel this way about another man? I don't think that this is what MRA teaches exactly, is it?"

At that critical moment the door burst open and in marched my Scots roommate and Clive, a burly rugby player from South Africa. They grabbed Sandy roughly and hustled him off out into the hall.

David returned a moment later looking most solemn. He quizzed me why I had let Sandy come to the room.

"What was going on here? Didn't you see us trying to break up your conversation over in the Great Hall? We moved that big rug under your sofa to keep you two apart." I was even more confused and even more ashamed. Was I so eager to talk to this man that I hadn't noticed something was odd? I was astounded that we had been watched since then, and all through lunch as well. They must have seen us come back here together too, and knowing Sandy’s history and interests they had rushed over to “save me.”

David decided we had time for one last “quiet time” before the ferry arrived to take me home. In times of turmoil, MRA always turned to the guidance of God for direction. We got out our notebooks and pencils and sat quietly, waiting for direction from above.

Although in shock at what had just happened, I wrote firmly. My quiet time revealed to me a very clear thought, one that which I shared with David after we put our pencils down.

"This guy would not have approached me unless he saw something willing in me. I must have wanted, his attention."

Thus, it seemed to me I was just as guilty as Sandy. As I had heard Frank Buchman and so many other MRA men say so many times, I had dutifully written down, “I just wanted to be a man-pleaser so that I would be liked.” I did not really know until many years later how true that was. But the guilt of that first encounter with Sandy and God has never fully left me. While I have made my peace with God, finding peace with man-made guilt seems to have taken much longer. And once again my strong new spiritual feelings were mixed with even stronger, though suppressed sexual feelings.

Thankfully, the incident was over and I was on my way home within an hour. Once home again, this brief episode did not seem too significant. I did not dwell long on it, and after sharing it with my parents; it was all but forgotten, at least by me. But more was waiting for me on my return.

Along with my proud parents, I became part of the "Team" of MRA people centered in the city of Hamilton. Most were older folk, but recently they had recruited a group younger people after the Freedom film showing there. I was teamed up with another young man equally moved with the MRA spirit. Dennis was a little older than I, tall and one of the most handsome men I had ever met. He had an easy natural charm that immediately drew all people to him. I was soon, as Teamwork demanded, sharing my guidance with him. As often as I could I eagerly made the drive in my old Volkswagen the forty-five miles up to Hamilton from Queenston to “share” with him. That next summer Dennis and I both joined the Team at Mackinac, along with our parents. We were only into the meetings a few days when some of the men challenged the two of us directly. What was the meaning of the little looks and winks between us? Were we serving God or each other? Once again it seemed that I was guilty of that weak sin of man-pleasing. Yet even more shocking, Dennis and I stood accused of that most dreaded charge of all, our relationship to them seemed clearly “homosexual.”

We were both absolutely astounded and confused. Neither of us had thought there was anything here but our mutual Christian joy of caring and sharing. They thought otherwise. Both families left Mackinac that summer confused and somewhat angry. Dennis’ family had nothing more to do with MRA after the cruel accusations about their beloved son. I myself then wondered if perhaps it was true. I had really did want to be with Dennis more than anything else. And I mourned the loss of our easy intimacy.

Yet after that I was too embarrassed to see him again. Nor did he seem to want to see me. Somehow again I felt I must have been to blame. Had this same thing not happened to me on the last trip?

Once again I shared my shame with my parents. But soon our sharing stopped. No longer could I find peace or any answer to my pain from my daily guidance. And so it slowly started to slip away. No comforting voice came from out of my quiet morning hours. Only doubt, confusion and, a disconnection with all around me. Mum and Dad and I had shared something that my brothers David and Ralph, never appeared to savor or fathom. Now that was gone, and we never seemed as close as that first intense MRA experience.

Despite slipping in and out of the absolutes, religion was still important to me. All through high school I had tried to spurn the impurity of girls and masturbation. God had wanted me to save my energies for fighting for the right. It meant a lonely and isolated life, with few friends, but I was willing to pay the price.

Girls could be great pals, but no real threat to my purity anyway. There were dates through high school and college, but a kiss good night was as daring or as interested as I got. The lure of “impure thoughts” and masturbation was not so easy to dismiss. Fantasies hovered darkly over me, bringing with them an over-bearing sense of guilt and shame.

By the time I was in college, however, I was still determined to be a United Church Minister. During the summer of 1961, at the age of nineteen, I filled in for our vacationing minister at Queenston United. I was soon hooked by the piety and power of leading other Christian souls. It all seemed so easy and so natural for me. I had never found it difficult to be good, on most counts. I would not smoke, I would not drink, and I kept myself “pure” with women. The total discipline of the MRA standards may have been beyond me, but the United Church did not seem to demand such absolutes.

Was my attitude toward women a spiritual goal, or was it a way to avoid reality?

[Ann and Robin, Graduation 1964] Then suddenly, my celibate and lonely life seemed over. During the third year at MacMaster, Ann, a beautiful and bright girl in my English and History major appeared. She captured my mind and then my heart. We shared a love for poetry and European history. She was a hardy and loyal Scot and Presbyterian and we also shared a love of church work. There was some kind of drive urging me on here. I learned too late that urge was more for competition and once again “being first” than it was for sharing our lives. Each semester I was doomed to repeat my grade school curse. The two of us constantly bickered over who had the best ideas for papers and who had earned the best grades. Each year we usually ended up within a half a grade point of each other.

By our last year in college, we somehow we ended up engaged. I had only told her as I gave her my senior pin if I would not be doing this if I wasn't thinking about marriage sometime in the future. Ann, whose best friend Fran was soon to be married, took this as an immediate engagement proposal. When I dropped her off that night, she asked, “Should we tell our folks we're engaged?”

“No, not yet,” I stammered. Panic overcame me as I drove down the Hamilton mountain and back to our home on Norfolk Street. I guess “going steady” was a thing of the past in 1963. Why hadn't anyone bothered to tell me? Was I engaged or not?

During my second year at Mac, the family had moved into Hamilton and I no longer had to board at rooming houses. The next morning at breakfast I had some confusing news to share with Mum and Dad. I told them that I thought I might have proposed the night before. Mother just snapped, “Well at least give the girl the satisfaction of a decent proposal!” That night like a dutiful son, I offered a complete proposal. And so we became engaged officially and seemingly irrevocably.

Then, over that next year, I fell hopelessly in love with someone else. No spiritual awakening here, just pure obsession. David was newcomer to Mac and the Drama Society of which I was now President. He walked in and just took over. His vitality seemed to overwhelm everything and everyone, including me. A younger, cute and cocky little guy who could do anything: act, direct, produce and be as charming as hell. I couldn't wait to see him again, to talk with him, to double date or have coffee or lunch.

He seemed to enjoy my friendship and we spent endless hours in my room talking about theater and life and loves. Our relationship was not at all sexual, but I quickly became jealous of everyone else who demanded or got his time. He boarded in a house just behind ours and I would watch each night from my bedroom window, stalking him to see when he got home.

I became so crazed and confused by my feelings that in February, several weeks before our senior finals, I had to escape. I knew nobody to whom I could go to share my pain and confusion. How could Ann understand this obsession? I had long since given up sharing with the folks, and besides, how could I talk about something I could not control? The faceless United Church minister at the church up the street was nowhere to be found in my moment of need.

All I could do was run away. I packed a bag, grabbed a bus and ended up at a second cousin's home just outside Detroit. Fran was a woman with strong opinions on every topic. “Nothing against Truman, but won't support him for President again,” she had told us years ago prior to Ike’s election win. She was an outspoken and outrageous lady who lived with her less vocal husband Gus who worked for Ford. I had only met them a couple of times, but we had taken an immediate liking to each other. Somehow I knew I would be welcome there, with no explanations needed.

I called from the bus station and Gus came for me. Not much was said that week about what was wrong, but I cried a lot, watched TV with them, and learned pinochle. Then, a week later, I went home. I never saw the two of them again.

Neither Ann nor my parents could understand. On my return, I reminded Ann about the plot of the recently released Lillian Hellmann film, The Children's Hour. Although she couldn’t believe what I was telling her, she sympathized and promised to help me through this weakness, if I worked to fight it. I found a psychiatrist who the family had met through MRA. The doctor told me we all have such fantasies. I could just cut them off with a more positive concern for world issues, and cold showers. Not true, but I did manage to close out thoughts of David until exams were over. Dreams of theology school faded when I could got no answers about the strange feelings I had for David. Ann and I were now in demand as new teachers in the over-burdened school system of 1964. All we needed was eight weeks in summer school and we would be in the high school classroom of our choice that fall. After we graduated that May, we both headed for Teacher’s College at the University of Toronto.

One month into summer school, I found what I feared and longed for most in Queen's Park behind the Ontario Parliament Buildings. Mel, the handsome husband of Ann's newly married friend Fran, commented one night as he dropped me off at St. Michaels' College where I was living in residence, “Watch out for the guys you see along Philosopher’s Walk.” Did he mean they were after my money? Somehow, I was drawn there by a force that both frightened and sickened me. Somehow I sensed what I would find in that park. It did not take long to discover a new life.

The first time I met someone in the night to share my passion was thrilling and frightening. I had not realized there would be kissing. My face was raw from beard burn and I was sure everyone would know immediately. When I finally was dropped off back on campus, I rushed over to St. Basil's chapel next door and cried and prayed for hours. Despite my fears and prayers, a night or two later I was back on the prowl in the seductive park. The fourth man that I met at Queen’s Park Circle was my first lover Frank.

That fall I said a tearful goodbye to Ann and our Christmas wedding plans. She gave me Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, dutifully inscribed with her favorite Robert Frost quote.

The woods are lovely dark and deep.
But you have promises to keep.
And miles to go before you sleep,
And miles to go before you sleep.
Good luck dear.
Love, Ann

Mother was not surprised at our break-up and even seemed a bit relieved.

"You two always fought, and besides, she was too tall for you." Ann was five eight to my five six. The shoes I purchased with elevated heels only jammed my toes into the narrow pointed toes fashionable at the time. I gave them up after only a couple of times. Now I was giving up another bad fit as well. This was not the life for me and I could no longer fake it.

Finally I was able to admit that my efforts to maintain spiritual purity were clearly a way to avoid close relations with women. And somehow sex and religion had become interwoven. Looking back on all my strong spiritual awakenings, they were clearly associated with even stronger longings for close male friendship and more. Whether from guilt or a sense that religion had failed me, I abandoned my spiritual bent and plunged headfirst into the sexuality that I had so long suppressed.

“If I am going to hell for thinking these thoughts, I might as well act on them.” And so I did and there was no turning back. It would be ten years before I could finally bring some reconciliation and peace between my spiritual life and sexual life.

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