Women Writing About Complicated Desire Saved Me When the Evangelical Church Couldn’t
What I’d been looking for at the convent, I could find in reading and writing. If other writers could channel their desires, I could use it, too.
I arrived at the convent unannounced. I hadn’t called or emailed ahead. I got in my rattling Honda and drove the sweltering Texas freeway at seventy-five mph, hoping not to change my mind. The convent was tucked inside a neighborhood south of downtown, wedged between the airport and university, hidden behind an eight-foot-high wrought iron fence among acres of woods, gardens, and winding footpaths. Once down the long driveway, a canopy of live oak hung over the stone fountain and tree tops swished in the breeze. I parked, and sat in my car with the engine running, AC blasting my hair into electrocuted spikes. I rehearsed the story I would tell the nun I thought would greet me like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
“I am in love,” I said to the air conditioner. “I am obsessed.”
I was not well-versed in talking about desire. Before I became a Christian, attraction was its own force, it was non-verbal, it carried me. Later, as a Christian woman inside an evangelical community, I’d expected marriage to absorb and de-complicate desire, and for a while it had.
But I was not simply a Christian woman who could experience a marital rough patch, find herself with illicit feelings and accept them as normal, or wait for them to pass. Because I was paid to stand before the congregation singing and praying each week, I believed this meant I had to be proactive in preventing my own spiritual demise. I believed I was held to a higher standard, and was vigilant in adhering to it, at least in appearance.
I prayed at every meal and sent my daughter to a Christian preschool, but privately I’d begun to feel self-conscious about these choices, like I was out of place in my own life. I briefly lived as a missionary in a foreign country but was troubled by the colonialist legacy of Christian mission work around the world, though I kept this concern to myself. I published a Christian-themed mommy blog, but secretly gave money to liberal political causes like the DNC and Planned Parenthood. The cracks in my carefully constructed life were beginning to show, at least to me. I feared that adultery would dismantle it.
In truth, I was exhausted—not just of keeping up the performance, but of the men who ran my church and thus my life. Though there had been many moments of beauty during the years I was a worship leader—even moments of what felt like transcendence—I had also been talked over, minimized, underpaid, and undervalued. I’d been verbally threatened by a band member, and groped by a pastor.
But that summer I went to the convent seeking absolution, I believed acknowledging the disparity and misogyny in my church was too risky. If I wrecked my marriage I knew I’d lose my job, and be ejected from the church, and in one way, I’d never have to face the misogyny head on. It was a cop out, but it was a way out.
I approached the giant oak doors of the convent and pushed hard. Inside was a cool, hushed marble entryway and a neatly dressed receptionist. “Do you have an appointment?” she asked. While she made a phone call on my behalf, attempting to fit me in with one of the spiritual directors, I stood sweating despite the blast of frigid air conditioning. A faint cloud of Frankincense hung in the air from the midday vespers in the adjacent chapel. I adjusted my skirt. I checked my phone. And then I met Carol—my new spiritual director.
Carol was not a nun, which disappointed me. But it also relieved me of any ideas that I would be struck by lightning in the presence of a Holy Mother. Carol was a Protestant, like me, and I’d soon learn a former Southern Baptist—the same conservative, evangelical denomination that spawned the church I worked for and attended. Carol shared her spiritual history with me—how she was raised in a strict religious community and had left to find herself. How she landed, somehow, on staff at a convent. She insisted that the Christianity she observed and practiced was more inclusive of women than the faith she’d left behind in her youth—the faith I was still very much a part of. Carol was married with grown children. She had silver hair and burned incense in her book-lined office. I admired her immediately.
“You can be both,” Carol said, one day while we sat in facing armchairs by a large window that overlooked the circular drive. “You can be who you are and still be a Christian.”
I began visiting Carol for hour-long sessions once a week, and each time I left her office with a piece of spiritual wisdom, and validation that my desire to serve a faith community that treated me as equal to my male counterparts was a good desire. But our talks did nothing to stem the tide of my other desires. When I talked to Carol about my feelings for this other man, she would say very little. She listened intently, but I felt that she was holding back, that she wanted very badly to caution me, or even reprimand me, but she didn’t.
She would often ask, “Where is God in this?” and it felt as though she were changing the subject. Though, in her mind, I imagine, God was the subject, was every subject. God was why we were there, in her office, or on the planet for that matter. But the truth was that God was nowhere in my romantic obsession—I felt almost entirely disconnected from the faith I’d once been so sure of. I felt that I couldn’t say that to Carol. That was not the answer she was looking for. My romantic obsession remained. If anything, it was getting worse.
Eventually Carol became frustrated. Her graciousness and patience wore thin. She let a few judgmental quips fly. One afternoon, after I’d been visiting her faithfully for nearly a year, she said, “Do you think you’ve been helped by coming here?” I was in the middle of a monologue about my feelings about marriage, my fears about what I might do that would destroy it. After I’d failed to respond to her question, my face flushed with embarrassment, she said, “I don’t think I can help you anymore.” I climbed into my Honda feeling rattled, and drove back down the winding driveway, past the stone sculpture of Mary and under the leafy oak trees that had become so familiar and comforting over the past year. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to cry. I left the convent that day and never returned.
I was hurt by Carol’s dismissal, but she was right. She was not a therapist, and my avoidance around the issue of therapy and self-care—avoidance that was coming from conservative religious ideas I’d long outgrown—was not going to turn her into one.
I stumbled through the next weeks and months trying out different therapists, trying to find one who would understand the strange place I found myself as a religious person and a married person. I didn’t want to end my marriage, I wanted to fix it.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my faith, but it took several years before I found a therapist who was able to help me look at the ways I had made a knot of divine and human love. How the marriage I’d made in the wake of my religious conversion was going through the same deconstruction my faith was experiencing, and how my desire to sleep with a stranger was also about a desire to dismantle a religous patriarchal structure that relies on the perception of female erotic virtue. A value—a repressive and dangerous one—I felt incapable of continuing to uphold.
Nothing about my desire was shameful, or even unique. It was material.
After months of this work, I decided to apply to graduate school. I shaped my old blog posts into essays and submitted my application for a low-res MFA in creative nonfiction. I couldn’t afford to go to graduate school—financially or emotionally, but I knew I had to do something I loved, was good at, and brought with it no religious expectations.
I was accepted to a program and spent the next two years reading and writing about inconvenient desire. I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson and The Lover by Marguerite Duras. I read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Theran and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I read Jamie Quatro’s short story collection about evangelicalism and lust, I Want To Show You More.
I chose to read and study women writers who were looking directly and unflinchingly at religion, family, and culture, at the complications of identity and desire. I began to see that nothing about my desire was shameful, or even unique. It was material. And what I’d been looking for at the convent, in Carol and maybe in religion itself,I could find in reading and writing. If other writers could channel their desires, the writers whose work I’d admired and read, I told myself, I could use it, too.
I talked to my husband, for the first time, about my own inconvenient desires, including my feelings for someone else. Our marriage hit a crisis point I didn’t know we would recover from. Slowly, over time, and with support from a good therapist, we got honest, and vulnerable. We stopped hiding. We’re still working on this, everyday.
I began to teach spiritual memoir. The first time I stepped in front of a class to teach, I was terrified. I hadn’t stood in front of a group of people for any reason other than to lead a worship service in more than ten years. The classroom was in the fellowship hall of a church, and at first I wondered, oddly, if I should pray to begin the class, like every pastor I’ve ever worked with would begin any public gathering. It was a sort of crutch, a way to transition a group’s attention. But I knew that was not what my students were there for. It was not what I was there for.
Despite the location of the class, my students came from a variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds, including no background at all. We were there to share our work, our stories, and our search for meaning in those stories. I reminded myself of one of the most important lessons I’d learned from the women I’d read—that not all spiritual direction is religious. I had done the hard work of learning to write, and to teach, and I told myself to trust that. I lay my notes down at the head of the table where each of my twelve students sat, notebooks open, pens at attention. I turned to face the white board behind me, heart pounding, and wrote this quote from Anton Chekhov: “My holy of holies is the human body.” This would be our prayer, and it was enough.
God began to come back to me in that season, but it was not the God of my evangelical past. When I prayed quietly to myself before a class, or when I was stuck with a piece of writing, or when my husband and I struggled, I allowed myself to let go of the male-gender-identifying God I’d met in my twenties. I replaced the male pronoun of Christianity with “She” or “They.” I found that this simple change opened me more fully to the idea that if there is a God, God is fluid, resilient, kinder, and stronger than I’d previously believed. Strong enough to hold me and all my complicated desires.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in Ecotone, The Rumpus, The Literary Review, The Butter, NYLON, Them, The Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. Her essay “Infirmary Music” was named a notable in The Best American Essays 2017, and she is a contributor to The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers (W.W. Norton), and My Caesarean: Twenty Mothers on the Experience of Birth by C-Section and After (The Experiment, 2019). Her debut book This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession is forthcoming from Lookout Books on October 22, 2019. Follow @camerondhammon