Villanova, Pa. — “I think that we all have a deep, deep need for love, and we find that where it seems to fit most,” Rilene says.
“We’re made for better stuff than what we settle for,” Dan says. “My whole life, I’ve settled. I don’t want to settle anymore. Even if that means living my life single. I can do that. I don’t want to go back. But I wouldn’t rewrite the past, either.”
“I feel that I have been given hope,” Paul says. “And I want to do that for other people, to give others the same hope.”
A new documentary, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, begins with these words: “Look at the face of the other and . . . discover that he has a soul, a history, and a life, that he is a person and that God loves this person as much as he loves himself.”
And look and discover is just what this movie invites you to do. You meet Rilene, Dan, and Paul, and join them on a universal journey — to receive and give love, to see a glimpse of order and meaning in life. The three give intimate, courageous, beautiful testimonies in Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which premiered at Villanova University outside Philadelphia this weekend.
All three had been raised Catholic, as we say, but they had fallen away from any kind of religious faith. Dan, in fact, wanted God “dead” for being such a “brutal puppet master” who didn’t care about Dan’s happiness. “I basically said, ‘Screw you’ to God.”
It’s a remarkable work, remarkable because it is so honest — about life, about mistakes, about hope. The movie exists thanks to Courage, a Catholic ministry that spearheaded the effort. Courage supports people with same-sex attractions in living chaste lives in love of God, but this is not a sermon about the catechism of the Catholic Church. This movie is pure witness, in the individuals’ own words, of three people’s continuing journey as they discover God’s love for them.
Desire of the Everlasting Hills is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. In no small part, it’s about conversion and renewal, and knowing oneself and what one truly wants, for life and eternity. To watch it is to know that you cannot caricature it. It’s about living and learning; it reveals the truth of our lives, as discovered by three individuals who today are overflowing with a grace-filled, transparent joy — a joy deepened by redemptive suffering. All three leave regrets about the past to God’s mercy and entrust their future to His Providence, always acknowledging that the Way of the Cross is a rough road, but believing it to be the one with eternal rewards.
“I don’t want to denigrate the relationship I had with Margo,” Rilene explains. She was in a 35-year relationship with a woman. “I was turning away from the [homosexual] life . . . . I was not rejecting her, and I still loved her,” she explains. Even after breaking off the relationship, Rilene remained friends with Margo and cared for her in her final days as she died of cancer.
“I’m still as much attracted to men,” Dan acknowledges. “I still have moments of loneliness and longing.” He knows he’s human and could be tempted to turn his back on what he’s learned and committed himself to. He doesn’t have “it all figured out” and won’t pretend to, but he knows the road he’s on now is better.
Paul explains that his friendship with the man who was his intimate partner for about 25 years is better than ever, now that he is chaste.
Upwards of 90 percent of the people Paul knew in New York City in the 1980s died of AIDS, he says. He was a dashing model who worked around the world, and he had sex with “thousands” of men. “It became frantic,” he says, reflecting on how “insensitive” he had become to being with someone, “both body and soul.”
When he finally got around to going for an AIDS screening himself, he tested negative. He believes he was spared so he could make up for how he spent those days.
He began going to church. Eventually he went to Confession. He recalls his first time: “When I went into that Confession booth, it was so frightening and so foreign to me and so against everything I had believed for so many decades. I couldn’t begin to name the numerous sins of my life over so many decades.” It wasn’t his homosexuality that he felt so guilty about, he emphasizes. “I’m just talking about what my lifestyle led me to be — my self-centered way,” he says. “All about me. Taking care of me. Having a wonderful life at everyone’s expense. I couldn’t possibly begin to remember them all. Father, I’ve broken all the ten Commandments.”
“Including murder?” the priest asked.
“Oops, I forgot,” Paul answered, admitting that he didn’t actually remember what the Commandments were. “No, Father, all of them except murder.” At the movie premiere, his recounting of this story provides one of many tender laugh lines.
“He was so kind and polite,” Paul said of the priest in the Confessional that day. He encouraged Paul, saying, “Only God could have brought you back.” After the premiere, Paul told me that he’s only felt welcome in the Church since his return.
“I always think about chastity in terms of [how] I was miserable being unchaste,” Dan says in the movie. “I was perpetually looking in the mirror.” Chaste living, he says, leads you to “get outside yourself” instead of living as if “it’s all about me, me, me.” You start looking outward and investing in others.
Here, too, is the commonality of this love story: Chastity is a virtue for everyone, whatever one’s attractions. It’s about integrity. Chastity is, according to the Catholic catechism (again, there’s no preaching in this movie, I’m adding the definition), “successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” It’s a road out of that insensitivity Paul described when he was recalling how sex had become about self-service.
Dan talks about the misery. He doesn’t know where he got this in his head, but he figured that it would be “better to be a leper than to be attracted to guys.” He recalls googling at one point: He typed “I am gay and . . . ” in the search bar. What first popped up was “ . . . and I want a boyfriend.” Second? “I am gay, and I want to die.” He never actually tried to take his own life, but it occurred to him that “death wouldn’t be so bad,” he says. “I would be free of all this.”
For anyone who talks about this issue casually in a political or religious context, these are words to rock the conscience. Why has Pope Francis talked about homosexuality in some disarming ways, being merciful and invitational while not compromising Church teaching? Because he knows the life of faith is transforming and that people today feel excluded from that life. Preaching the Gospel without love is not preaching the Gospel or sharing its Good News. Do we love truly? Neither condemning others nor justifying ourselves?
As Rilene, Paul, and Dan attest, the sacraments are sources of tremendous grace and peace even amid the continuing crosses of life on earth.
“I wanted to be loved, and I wanted to love somebody,” Rilene says of her life with Margo. She lacked fulfillment during those years, she admits. “[But] she wanted me, and I needed to feel wanted.”
Rilene recalls a moment in the Eighties at a gathering that included “bare-breasted women.” She and Margo happened across two women who were being physically intimate with each other; they soon discovered that the women were identical twins. Rilene had a visceral negative reaction and asked Margo if she thought the sexual intimacy between siblings was “wrong.” She recalls that Margo answered, “Well, you know if we start judging them, then they can start judging us.”
“My conscience was alerted,” Rilene says. “I had the opportunity to step away . . . but I didn’t. . . . I thought about it for a while, and I just pushed it away.”
Eventually, she ended her intimate relationship with Margo. “You know how it is in a fog?” she asks, describing the walk away. “It’s like there’s a feeling of almost intimacy in a fog, like things happen in slow-motion almost. There is a different quality to the sound. That was the feeling. That you had walked out of a fog. I couldn’t really put together how I had gotten there in the first place.”
Once she was alone, she realized she had “been lonely the whole time.”
“Fifty-three years old and . . . you’re living as a single person in a single-bedroom apartment,” Rilene says in the documentary, reflecting on her life now. “You have no kids, you have no husband, you have no home. How in the world did I get there?”
“I think loneliness is the most desolate state that the human person can have,” Dan says. “Loneliness is not a state of your physical isolation. Loneliness is feeling that no matter where you are, nobody knows who you are. It is a strange thing to experience such isolation from people even though you are surrounded by them. And then putting on a happy face everyday.” By his early twenties, he “couldn’t keep up the façade anymore.”
Dan takes inspiration from C. S. Lewis, quoting from Shadowlands, about Lewis’s life. Lewis suffered tremendous losses — first his mother, who died when he was a boy, then his wife. “The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering.” In Dan’s life, “porn was ‘safe’,” he says. “Talking to guys online was ‘safe’.” Dan decided to quit settling. “I was going to live in it. I was going to consciously choose to figure out what the meaning was in the suffering. And I began to look at my whole life through that lens. God built into us a deep longing for him. Our longing points to the fact that we know we are not made for this earth.” This has been a path to peace for him.
There’s a church he used to flip off every time he passed it — now he sees it as “beauty,” and “a harbor.” “Where once I threw it the bird, I now embrace it. I embrace the Church, because it’s where I know where my peace is. I look with longing and love. I just marvel at how good God is.”
Now none of this means that he and Rilene and Paul have it all figured out. That, in fact, is where the liberation comes in. You understand that you don’t have to.
The lesson the three share is universal, and their stories are a challenge to us all: to encounter truth about who we are and what we were made for, and to do so together in human community illuminated by the light of reason and creation and, if you’re open to Him, the Creator Himself. It’s a way out of the fog to a life in everlasting love.
I wish you could have felt the peace and seen the joy at the premiere of Desire of the Everlasting Hills. At the annual Courage conference, it drew a crowd that knows and sees some of the most heartbreaking crosses of life; many people there would have a lot to teach us about courage. For anyone who feels in a fog, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is a light. To watch it is to see that people who have attractions different than yours are not all that different from you. They are people living in a fallen world — our universal condition. We can work to make sense of it together.
Watch Desire of the Everlasting Hills and know that you are not alone; watch and never let anyone feel alone. Our politics can make things seem intractable, but our lives with one another can be a balm; and this movie can be a catalyst for hope and for alternative conversations filled with honesty and compassion and love for life, living as we were made.
The journey to the Everlasting Hills is one for us to take together, joined by a shared desire for the good and the beautiful — for God. Desire of the Everlasting Hills will inspire you to give to another the true look of love we crave.
You can view Desire of the Everlasting Hills online for free at everlastinghills.org.