My parents couldn’t agree on where to have me christened. Neither one of them was especially religious but, like circumcision, baptism was one of those forms that parents in the 80s felt they had to honour. Mum was raised Methodist – had even been a Sunday school teacher – but after a crisis had abandoned her faith. Dad was raised Catholic, and though he still identifies as one it’s more for the form of the thing than any compelling felt reality. Both Mum and Dad had been married and divorced when they decided to marry, which made finding a venue for that event a challenge, too. Mum had inherited her father’s Masonic suspicion of Catholics: when she discovered that the Catholic Church would only marry them behind the altar, it confirmed her in her bias. Dad could not countenance being married in a Protestant church. In the end they settled on the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross – neutral, ecumenical ground. This too is where they had me christened. It took me some time to appreciate the way this placed me – broadly within the Christian tradition, but without a strong attachment to any one denomination. If I don’t belong to any church, exactly, I’m also free to learn from them all.

It’s hard to disentangle my experience of religion from my experience of family. Those of us who are religious generally encounter religion first through our families. Family is Christianity’s dominant metaphor. God is the Father, Christ the Son; Catholicism makes up for the patriarchal one-sidedness of this by emphasising the role of Mary the Mother. And though these relationships are intended as metaphor, it’s on this level that many of us experience religion. I’ve been struck by the mixture of hope and exasperation in the responses to the new Pope Francis: hope at the new notes he strikes in his rhetoric, exasperation at the gap between those words and the stubborn status quo (and at the bigoted attitudes he continues to endorse). It’s much like the adults who persist with the families that damaged them as children: unwilling (or unable) to swear off the relationship entirely, perceiving value and potential in their difficult relations. Religion marks us as surely and as permanently as does family.

When my parents separated I sided entirely with my mother. Mum had abandoned her faith after watching her grandmother die slowly and painfully: she could not square that protracted suffering with the existence of God. The end of my parents’ relationship had a similar effect on me: it so polluted the family metaphor that I wanted nothing more to do with it. My newfound atheism doubled as a handy way to mortify Dad. It upset him to think that his son was growing up Godless. As an eight-year-old, I took pleasure in the consternation I was causing him – felt it as a kind of power. It also struck me as a grave and momentous decision – the beginning of autonomy. When I ended up at an Anglican school, it became a point of pride to refuse to bow my head for prayer, to stand silent during hymns. I would not observe any form that I felt to be false. It made me stand out. It made me original.

If you take the Bible at its word, God is a terrible parent. When the human race is in its infancy, he responds to its first mistake not with rebuke or correction but with exile and permanent disfigurement. He sets one child over another. He orders a father to murder his son as a spiritual test. Again and again, God puts his offended sense of righteousness above love for his creation. This is the ugliness at the centre of the great Christian transaction: the way Christ is supposed to have died for our sins. If our offences are against God, then it is for God to forgive them: to require the death of his son for the sake of form – to balance the ledger – puts ceremony before feeling as surely as the murder of Iphigenia on the altar at Aulis. I wanted nothing to do with that bargain.

Looking back, it’s clear to me how much my feelings about God the Father were bound up with my ambivalence about Dad. We continued to live in the same big house when Mum and Dad split up, but on very different terms. Dad kept Mum on as a paid housekeeper, and she moved into a smaller room at the other end of the house. The big house wasn’t ours: Mum was the housekeeper and I was the housekeeper’s son. Dad was home only infrequently, and in his comings and goings I saw the arbitrary will of God. His bedroom became a sort of shrine, hallowed ground that I visited quietly, looking for clues to the mysterious deity. In particular I loved his walk-in robe: the ranks of gleaming leather shoes, the different colours and fabrics of his suits. They were religious relics. If I could not have contact with him, then these things at least had touched him. It was the next best thing.

The religious impulse found expression in other ways. Even as I emphatically denied the existence of God, I fell in love with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, and with Aslan the lion especially. I loved the tactile relationship that the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had with Aslan: the way that Lucy ran her hands through his mane, the gentle understanding in his eyes and voice. With no idea that the books were intended as a Christian allegory – that Aslan was a Christ figure – I began to cultivate my own relationship to Aslan, to pray to him. Even when I had most consciously struck out from God, I found my way back to him in fiction.

* * * * *

As a child I abandoned my faith not casually but emphatically: as a teenager I returned to it with equal enthusiasm. My school was tied closely to the Anglican diocese in Sydney, and Christian teaching was an important part of the program there. We had regular classes in Divinity, and Chapel before lunchtime. For most of the boys, it was something to be endured – the half-hour before lunch was a particular trial. (The Chaplain often kept us back if he thought we’d sung with insufficient gusto.) It was understood as a form to be respected, much like our uniforms of heavy grey wool or the year we spent as military cadets: the trick was observing the forms without allowing them to affect too much our sense of self. We were, for the most part, heathens, untouched by the prevailing orthodoxy. Given the Sydney diocese’s reactionary brand of Christianity (our Divinity classes featured diatribes against contraception, abortion, homosexuality – all the usual suspects) this was probably a blessing.

The message reached me. I started to pray in earnest; started going to church each Sunday morning. Now it was Mum’s turn to be discomfited: my life had taken a turn she had not anticipated. It was another chance to prove my autonomy. Each Sunday I put on my good clothes and walked to the local church. Mum was usually kneeling out in the garden, a trowel or a pair of secateurs in her hand; she looked me over satirically, as if I was putting on airs. I felt conspicuous at church too: the congregation was comprised mostly of men and women in their sixties and seventies. They were refined, obviously wealthy, with the sort of dulcet voices I have always associated with Radio National. I felt clumsy, coarse: my good clothes were not very good. The church dealt with its few young members by sending us downstairs halfway through the service. There was only one other teenager, and as we dutifully coloured in with five and six year-olds I began to wonder if I was in the right place.

It was the acknowledgement of human brokenness – and the promise of wholeness, of brokenness transcended – that touched me. The Gospels are full of broken people – people broken by illness or made outcast by intolerant communities. When they approach Christ he makes them whole again. He does this by literally curing illness but also through the simple power of acknowledgement, by affirming the human dignity of those he encounters. I found a new way to understand Christ’s crucifixion. On the cross he exemplifies human suffering – he goes to the limits of human experience. With his resurrection he transcends that suffering: he robs it of its permanence. It’s a beautiful dream of healing. As I began to experience the first symptoms of mental illness – as frightening chasms opened up in my consciousness – that dream became very precious to me.

I have a religious temperament. This impulse to worship, to commune intensely, is fairly promiscuous – it applies not only to religion but also to my experience of art and to my human relationships. As a teenager my depression became a mystical experience. Today, I bear with its onset as I would any other chronic illness: it’s become a routine. At seventeen, the numbing absence of self hit me like an opiate; it was as coldly intoxicating as morphine. I felt like St John of the Cross, whose frenzied search for his lover-God becomes a sort of ecstasy: the ecstasy of absence. I believed that I had been granted insights denied to other people. I believed that I saw things more intensely, more purely. I began to plumb the depths of my illness deliberately, to force myself to extremities. I was fascinated by my capacity for suffering. A certain vanity crept in – the vanity of the mystic.

At the same time I tried to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. The Christian teaching at school had made it abundantly clear that gay sex was a sin, that gay orientation was an aberration that could be overcome with prayer. (My school had links with Exodus International, the notorious “ex-gay” organisation that shut down last year.) My fantasy life was overwhelmingly populated by men; the locker room at school became an increasingly heady experience. These fantasies were followed by long bouts of apologetic prayer. I bargained with God, attempted to draw a line under each fantasy by instituting stern consequences: “If I do it again,” I prayed, “may I go straight to Hell.” I did it again, of course, which necessitated another round of contrition and promises I couldn’t keep.

All of this isolating intensity was bound to boil over. By this time I was living with Dad; one day he came home to find that I’d tried to electrocute myself in the bathtub. Even this awful moment felt religious to me: the mystic’s failed attempt to approach God. I sat in the bathtub and dropped a hair dryer into the water. There was a second that seemed very long: the dryer coughed blue sparks and the bathroom light blazed above me like the sun. Then the power cut off and I was sitting in darkness. Had God been present in that surge of electricity? Why had he left me behind?

My family closed around me then and rescued me from my madness. I had mistaken myself for a visionary. Neither of my parents had much use for abstraction: I had faulted them for their complacency, the untroubled way they inhabited the physical world. Now it was a bulwark; I could take shelter in that simplicity. Mum and Dad put aside their differences. They put me in hospital; when I was discharged they kept me sedated until I arrived at some kind of calm. I had struck out from my family, seeking identity, autonomy, a form for my spiritual impulses in religion. Now I made the opposite journey, taking refuge from what I had found. It was not the last time I shuttled between the two.

* * * * *

“Some kinds of love are mistaken for vision” – The Velvet Underground

For some time after that I kept God at a distance. My intense relationship with religion had turned dangerous: it was better to concentrate on what I could touch. I came out; had my first sexual encounters, my first boyfriend. These experiences held plenty of fascination: discovering what my body could do and feel, realising that it could be desirable to others. Both my parents were hedonists and I found I had inherited that trait: I threw myself into this new realm with abandon. I learned to navigate the gay scene, recoiling from its boozy, predatory aspects even as part of me longed to be taken. There were areas of shame that I had yet to exorcise, particularly around the act of fucking: afterwards I felt hot, sick to the stomach, all the noxious teachings of my Christian Studies classes come back to haunt me. While I was at school I had struck up a personal friendship with the Chaplain; I met up with him for coffee one day after the news of my sexuality had well and truly broken. (It was, for a while, hot gossip amongst my former schoolmates.) “I wish I could tell you that it’s okay,” he said, and he was, I think, truly sorry. However much he might love the sinner, though, he could no longer be my friend.

If it was a choice between religion and sex, sex had the advantage. Increasingly I could not see the point of trying to accommodate a faith that so pointedly excluded me: like Jane Eyre, I was ready to choose earthly love over a divine mission imposed by others. Then I learned of a church in Petersham that served a gay and lesbian congregation; a church that insisted that it was possible to be Christian and gay. Wary but hopeful, I went.

It’s always seemed to me that I live out my conflicts in a very literal way. Seeking to reconcile these two apparently incompatible impulses – the religious and the sexual – I not only started attending a gay church; I fell in love with one of the pastors.

His name was Johnathan: the allusion to King David’s friend (and possible lover) did not escape me. I fell in love with him almost immediately, and he with me. At the same time, I became a part of this new congregation; week by week I re-established my faith on new terms. The two discoveries became inextricably bound. It was the first time I had experienced the sudden, stunning certainty of love; before Johnathan, my relationships had been somewhat prosaic. It was like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus: a new reality was disclosed to me, and part of its beauty was how self-evident it was. There was no uncertainty, no ambivalence; it was simply a truth to be acknowledged.

He came from a Pentecostal background, which put the emphasis on the performance of faith: ecstatic states, emotional displays. I began to respond emotionally during services as I never had before: I was moved to tears while receiving Communion, the wafer burning in my chest. Johnathan was still in formation as a minister: he attended theological college while training under Greg, the church’s senior pastor. Greg came from a Methodist tradition that prized thought over emotion. His approach and Johnathan’s constantly chafed: Greg regarded Pentecostal displays with suspicion and bemoaned the lack of intellectual content, while Johnathan found the Methodist approach cerebral and cold. (The church would later split into two congregations along these lines.)

It was a public role that Johnathan held and I quickly grew to relish the role of preacher’s wife. It was a curious mixture of self-abnegation – I was defined chiefly in terms of my partner and what he did – and notoriety. Everyone knew who I was; I had, I felt, a special place. I worked the church hall after services, offering tea, making people comfortable, triumphant in my new status. The church drew – like so many churches do – sheepish, damaged people, and I practiced a very dubious sort of kindness towards them, conscious always of my superiority. At the same time, I chafed at the fact that my importance derived from my relationship with one of the pastors. I tried to convince myself that it was a form of Christian sacrifice to put Johnathan first; a part of me always rebelled, insisting on recognition on my own terms. I’ve never entirely settled that conflict.

I admired and envied Johnathan’s sense of vocation. I thought perhaps I could make a vocation of loving him. This is not to say that I experienced him as an abstraction: I loved him as a specific human being. I’ve always been drawn to goofy, daydreaming men, and Johnathan – from the redundant h in his Christian name to his passionate love of The Carpenters – was no exception. He came from a large, messy family in the country. There was no precedent in that family for what he did; he was the first to move to the city, the first to study for a degree. It took extraordinary ambition and focus to follow his vocation. I identified with his outsider status; I admired his courage. However, my love for him began to shade too easily into worship; this was only accelerated by the power he held over me as my pastor. I scarcely knew where he ended and God began.

The relationship was only short-lived; probably it was too intense to last very long. Part of the anguish of our separation was the conviction that I had also lost my new relationship with God. That relationship and Johnathan had arrived in my life simultaneously: how could it continue now? Somehow, I had to disentangle the two.

* * * * *

There’s a scene in the movie Higher Ground where Vera Farmiga – playing a woman on a Christian commune – stands in front of her bathroom mirror, willing the Holy Spirit to manifest itself in her. “Come on, Holy Spirit, come on,” she croons, breathing heavily; one moment she’s like an elite athlete preparing herself for a meet, the next a woman trying to coax a dangerous animal. Speaking in tongues seems to come easily to everyone around her, but no matter how much Farmiga might long for it, she cannot force an intimacy with the divine.

My relationship with Johnathan only lasted a few months, but it cast a long shadow. I spent years afterwards trying to capture the intoxicating sense of certainty I had felt with him. Furiously, I manufactured feelings, trying to work myself into the same zone; later I lashed out at the objects of those feelings for being pale imitations of Johnathan, and God. I was on the rebound.

I started going out with another man, and led him astray with this false intensity. I didn’t do this cynically; I really wanted to believe that I loved Brad as much as I did his predecessor. Johnathan had by this time moved on to another member of the congregation; this gave me another, prideful, reason for wanting to believe that I had moved on. At the same time I was curiously cerebral about the whole thing: I viewed it almost as an experiment. Brad and I had very little in common. His politics and mine were opposed: this was the Bush/Howard era, and he was all for the war in Iraq and the prison on Guantanamo Bay. He managed a large shopping centre, and his total identification with his corporate employer repelled me. I posed myself the question: can two people with totally different values and priorities build a successful relationship?

Looking back, I cringe at this cold speculation, and at the way I led Brad on. He entered into the relationship simply, sincerely: I tried to make him into Johnathan and then blamed him when he remained stubbornly himself. I was plunged back into the ambivalence of knowing what I should feel – what I wanted to feel – and how distant that was from what I actually felt. It was very much like my efforts as a closeted, guilty teenager to fake an infatuation with Mariah Carey. (I bought a large black-and-white poster of the wholesome, young Mariah and stuck it above my bed; every night before I went to sleep, I climbed up on my bed, kissed her lips and told her that I loved her.) Now, however, my delusions were no longer private: they had the power to harm other people.

I continued to go to the church in Petersham. I wanted to see if I could find a place there on my own terms, if I could tease my relationship with God apart from my relationship with Johnathan. I realised that I envied the latter a number of things: not only his power as pastor, but the way that his relationship with God and his developing understanding of his role serving God formed the central narrative of his life. He spent his life attempting to understand God and what God wanted of him. I envied the moral seriousness of this, and the sense of purpose. It was not a career that he fell into through accident or family connection; he felt it as a calling – as the only thing he could do. How I envied that certainty! While he and I were together I had seen some of the drawbacks of that calling – the way he was expected to be available constantly, the way his role often effaced his personal identity. I remembered the ease with which I navigated the church hall as preacher’s wife; I began to wonder if I too had a vocation.

I spoke to Greg about it, and though I could sense his dubiety, I began to meet with him on a regular basis. Though a kindly man, there was something in him that seemed to withhold approval; I was never quite sure what he thought of me. Perhaps it was his Methodist reserve; perhaps he sensed the way I confounded religious and romantic feelings; whatever it was, it made me even more determined to win that approval. He would see that I was serious.

I enrolled at the Uniting Theological College in Parramatta. By this time, after a succession of share houses in Newtown and Stanmore, I had retreated to Mum’s place in Lane Cove. To go to class I walked to Chatswood, caught the train to Parramatta, and then walked across the river and up the hill to Pennant Hills Road; the journey took a couple of hours. (I’ve never learned to drive.) I was pleased with the obstacles; it was an opportunity to prove my commitment. Mum regarded it much as she had my teenage churchgoing; she shook her head at my impracticality, at my dogged pursuit of an impulse she had abandoned long ago.

If I’d had a little more self-knowledge, I might have wondered how I could ever be useful to a congregation when I seemed compelled to do things in such a roundabout, solitary manner. But I was too intent on what I wanted to feel – on cultivating the self I had decided on – to think about what I might be suited for. I was Vera Farmiga in the bathroom, longing to see the Holy Spirit in the mirror. All I saw was my stubborn, limited self.