Recently, I sat down to watch Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a newly released documentary about three Christians who pursued their attraction to members of the same sex but then—after diverse experiences and disappointments—embraced chastity and their erstwhile faith. One had pursued the New York fast life, another monogamous stability, and the third had attempted to eschew an Evangelical upbringing in response to his inclination toward men. The documentary was produced by Courage, the much-maligned ministry of the Roman Catholic Church that aids those with same-sex attractions who seek to live chastely.
The subjects, Rilene, Dan, and Paul, respond to the prompts of interviewers with apologies for being a little too honest, or slightly too graphic, but their candor lends the film its potency. Artfully focused bar shots, breathtaking vistas, and jangling cityscapes add texture as each story repeats the same refrain: Our hearts thirst, but what we consume cannot slake. One recounts sleeping with a thousand men, another reveals being consumed with materialism, and the third expresses a desire for stability and children. Rilene, Dan, and Paul describe their world-weariness and the peace they’ve found in Christ.
As they cried, overwhelmed by the confirmation of love and mercy poured out in the Eucharist, I could not hold back my own tears. These are not “gay issues”; these are human issues. Indeed, they were my own. At twenty-one I’d been drunk on sexual power, alcohol, and the quest for social affirmation, presuming God’s mercy while living a double life. I was spiritually dead, unable to see the demolition of which I was both perpetrator and victim. It wasn’t until I experienced sexual assault that my life came to a stand-still. I finally had to admit to myself that this chase had proven self-destructive and fruitless.
And so I tried something different: I tried to re-orient my desires to God. I pursued therapy and sobriety, but the best remedy was undeniably the outpouring of grace that came when I stepped into the confessional, knelt down, and uttered those beautiful words, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Despite my presumptuousness, Christ met me in the Eucharist, opening me to His grace. He pursued my thoughts, quietly removing the corruption in my heart, immediately filling each spiritual cavity with Himself. Soon, I even began to no longer desire false things.
It seems that I am not alone in finding Rilene, Dan, and Paul’s experience deeply relatable. “These stories are as richly textured as a nineteenth-century novel, suffused with hope and mystery, and told just about as well as I can imagine,” writes Eve Tushnet for the American Conservative. She goes on to highlight the commonality of faithfulness within Christian diversity, saying, “I think this movie would challenge any Christian—no matter their church affiliation or views on sexual ethics. It shows the wild diversity within orthodoxy, the sheer weirdness and unpredictability of faithful Catholic lives.” Faithfulness is the key. “If you care about the victims of the Lonely Revolution, you should see Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” Anthony Esolen says in Crisis, after detailing how thirsty for Christ is our post-sexual revolution. Rod Dreher, writing for the American Conservative, distills the movie perfectly. He writes, “That’s what startled me about the film: how it doesn’t make plaster saints of these three, or make them fit into a neat, clean story line. All of them obey the teachings of the Church, and do so with a palpable sense of joy. It’s very clear that they struggle, but what is so interesting about this is the paradoxical sense that this yoke is easy, the burden light, compared to the lives they had before.” Indeed, the burden is almost forgotten in their experience of joy.
Desire of the Everlasting Hills initially appears to be made to show how those with same-sex attraction can embrace Christ and chastity. But, as Dan, Rilene, and Paul’s stories flow, it becomes clear that the film’s ambitions are much greater. It shows that these three individuals’ struggles, fears, and triumphs are in no small measure our own. It reminds us of our shared humanity in emphasizing our basic human desire to love and be loved.
“What would younger Rilene think of Church Lady Rilene?” the interviewer asks. “Oh you know, all that church stuff,” Rilene laughs. “That’s just for people who are weak, people who can’t get it together. People who are poor and sick and who can’t manage their lives. True enough. Here I am.” You and me both, Rilene.
Claire Levis writes from Philadelphia.