An Altar Under Crossed Stars

Thanks to Calvin Burke for sharing this very personal story.

** All identifying details have been changed to protect privacy. I loved this boy too much to tell you or anyone else who he is. You will never find him; don’t even try.

The problem is, when he smiles, he knocks stars out of the sky.

He has soft eyes, the kind of color blue that reminds you of the cotton candy you’d eat on a Ferris Wheel.

The Hebrew word for “altar” comes from a verb meaning “to slaughter for sacrifice.” In Ezekiel, another word translated as “altar” literally means “mountain of God.”

The problem isn’t women, you see. It is me dating women. Spoonfuls of gelato and fudge sink like cyanide to the stomach while trying to make it work. I look every girl in the eyes across the table, smile, and pray ice cream will numb the wounds.
I wish this was someone else’s lie to cover up.

An altar is a table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity. After given the Law of Moses, the Israelites were taught an altar was the only acceptable place to make an offering to God.

“I’ll make a pact with you, Heavenly Father,” I pray one night across my bed. “If there is someone I am supposed to date, bring her to me.” Words tumble out like falling rain against the ground. “You drop a ton of bricks on me when I meet her.” The words are whispers. “Then I’ll know.”
In the twilight before sleep comes, there is soft warmth from God— a distant fireplace, an old kitten curled against my toes.
I know God hears me.
I know nothing else.

In biblical times, they’d build altars of earth and unhewn stone— stone untouched by human tools. Knives raised against stars and sky, they’d kill the best of their flocks for God.

I sit in Sunday School, my navy suit nestled against the coarse fabric of the chair, upholding wrinkled leather-bound scriptures I got when I chose to be baptized.
The lesson is on chastity. I know it forwards, and backwards. I can recite the Mormon standards for youth, For Strength of Youth, and every sermon made by our leaders.
“Same-sex love is counterfeit love.” I’ve heard that a million times.
I am wrong. I am evil. I’ve known this for a long time. It is why I am still going to marry a girl.
Counterfeit means “to be made in exact imitation of something valuable or important with the intention to deceive or defraud.”
Maybe someday I will tell the difference.
I live behind blackout curtains, wondering what the sky and the stars really look like.

Altars were also places of refuge for fugitives. Built with a horn covered with gold at each corner, those who had committed crime could seize hold and plead for mercy from their God.
Sometimes, they’d even find it.

I don’t notice him in front of me in Elder’s Quorum. I don’t notice his defined jawline. The way his taut muscles fill his suit. The way his eyes, keen like a hawk’s and even more intelligent, dance across the room, making a challenge and a victory of it all.
He only makes a joke, God forgive me for forgetting it already, yet with his voice, he tears the blackout curtains in two, and light pours in. When our eyes finally catch, something terrifying happens.
The bricks begin to drop.
One by one. A brick, and then another.
I smile, astounded and terrified.
Brick. Brick. Brick.
And he just sort of sits there, smiling back at me. Bright eyes. Bright smile.
Clink, clink, clunk.
What is this emotion supposed to be?
The lesson ends. We speak. The bricks still fall.
I go to my car. I can’t remember a thing we spoke. I don’t remember anything except the feelings.
But the bricks— they keep falling, stone after unhewn stone.

According to Mormon lore, the ancient prophet Abraham was well familiar with altars. Raised in Egypt amid idols, he was nearly sacrificed by his father upon one at an early age.
The sights, the scents, would have been familiar to him.

He’s a renowned athlete. But you never could guess that just from talking to him. He wears humility like a second skin.
He’s agreed to meet up with me that night, for ice cream. The air is warm; I’m wearing my lucky sweatshirt. It’s the color of a creamsicle, and it feels even softer.
Is this counterfeit? It doesn’t count as a date. I doubt he is gay, too; he’s an athlete, after all. He’s just being nice, I reason.
He steps into view in front of me, grinning. I rise to meet him, smiling.
I swear we knew each other before, someplace. That’s what it feels like.

Abraham escaped Egypt to avoid being sacrificed. Abraham left so that he could have a family. Abraham prayed for years to have a son. Years and years later, after mistakes and mishaps, he finally had one. Assembled through tears, mishaps and tragedy, he had one.
I’m sure having what he’d prayed for years to have was a beautiful experience for him.

Talking to him is like coming home. It is the feeling you get when you have an accident scuba diving, and you finally get your regulator back in. The feeling you get when you’ve been caked in swamp mud for hours and you’re finally standing under a warm shower, and the copper clay begins peeling off your skin. The feeling you get when someone understands you for the first time. And he is understanding me, from the first time.
He’s sitting at the table outside. I’m lying on the ground next to it, laughing. I have no time for tables! Between ice cream and the moon, my dreams are coming true. He laughs with me, and that’s when I swear, I glimpse a shooting star. I’m so happy I forget to wish.
The stars do not forgive me.

Abraham built an altar of earth and unhewn stone. He was asked to sacrifice his only son. He’d been promised the world if he’d do it.
All Abraham ever wanted was a family. Then they asked him to kill his son.
But it wasn’t just his son they asked him to kill. They asked Abraham to kill his dreams.

“Who do you think you’ll marry?” He asks me out of the blue, one night, as we’re out again in town, where no one will find us. I whirl around and find his smile.
Does he know?
He must know. His grin is broad. His eyes are knowing.
“You,” I want to say. I can’t find the words. Instead, I blush.
It feels like we made promises to each other in another place, another time.
I have never felt this feeling before.

Adonijah was the eldest son of King David. When Solomon instead was crowned king, he fled, fearing for his life. As the armies of the new king pursued him, he took refuge in the tabernacle, grasping the horns of the altar.

He tells me he loves me for the first time. Of course he does. It is a day and night spent with his family, with his nieces and nephews. He cradles them gently, then lifts them onto his shoulders. Their smiles dance together under the stars alongside the fire.
After the rest retreat home, we find ourselves alone under our familiar stars. The bonfire is gas lit; it dances over stones and metal grates, an altar all its own.
He smiles at me. We’ve shared every secret now. I glance away from his warmth, though I still feel it all around me.
The greatest temptation is not to make love to him.
The greatest temptation is to build a life with him.

“Please,” Adonijah must have begged the assembled soldiers.. “Let me prove myself worthy of life.” Panting, weeping, under uncountable stars, his pleas and prayers were heard.

It’s night again in his bedroom, back at his apartment. His medals and trophies are scattered everywhere, numberless, nameless, twinkling in the glow of the Christmas lights strung above his bed.
I admire his hands, strong, determined. They bear the marks of his sacrifices. For his sport. For his talents. For his dreams.
I don’t know what his hands feel like. I can only wonder. We’ve shared our feelings; we know the rules. We’ve promised not to break them. The cost would be great.
BYU is not kind to gay kids.
The church is not kind to gay kids.
“It feels like our spirits talk to each other,” he says. We are mere inches apart now.
I imagine his hand against my cheek.
He means more than anything to me, more than the world.

The Apocrypha teaches Isaac went willingly with his father to the altar, knowing he would die. Isaac lay down, willingly, against the stone built up against Mount Moriah. Isaac knew. And he still chose to go.

“How can something beautiful be wrong?” I ask God at night, alone. It feels like we have no choice but to end it all. The pressure, the pain, the secrecy, the hatred of friends and family.
The light of my room blends together; I can no longer see anything else through the water in my eyes.

How did the taut rope feel around Isaac’s wrists? How heavy was the knife in Abraham’s hand? How bright were the robes of the angel sent to stop them? What color was the wool of the ram in the thicket?
Are we not worth an angel, or a ram?

At night sometimes I think of him. Beneath the Christmas lights. Beside the fire. Under uncountable stars. Sometimes I swear my sweatshirt still smells like him.
Sometimes I dream we lie upon the altar together, while I hold the knife above us both.
Those nights, heaven is quiet.
What am I to do? Bring the knife down, destroy my dreams like even Abraham was not asked to do?
Invariably I pause, knife in air, waiting for an angel.
If no angel comes, should I grab the horns?
I pray in my heart, asking God for direction.
At first there is nothing. And then I feel it. Soft warmth from God, a distant fireplace, an old kitten curled against my toes.
I glance over at him.
He smiles, and the stars begin to fall.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    That was beautiful. And difficult to read. Thank you.

  2. vancebryce says:

    Thank you for your valuable voice, Calvin. You’ve put words to feelings I haven’t been able to describe. Your writing is a gift.

  3. KerBearRN says:

    This is beautiful. I’m in tears. Thank you so much. I plead with heaven for you happiness and for the world to be a kinder and more welcoming place for you and him. Love, your sister.

  4. Yesterday I heard the “what sacrifices we make” line again, from a straight white authority figure man. I boggled at the pronoun.

  5. Careful that you don’t become like Romeo, as fortune’s fool. Star cross’d lovers have been making the mistake of letting sexual emotions influence their judgement for many thousands of years.

    Get on, Stay on, and/or find your way to the difficult strait and narrow path. which lead’s to eternal life.

  6. Calvin, this is beautiful. I hope that you find someone you can build a life with.

  7. Chorus,
    Don’t assume that for Calvin the strait path is a straight path. That is for him to figure out.

  8. Camille says:

    Thank you, Calvin. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing a piece of your heart.

  9. Cameron says:

    Thank you for your writing. I pray for the time to come when there will be no question that something this beautiful is absolutely right.

  10. Margaret Blair Young says:

    So worth reading! Thank you!

  11. Calvin, you put into words feelings and emotions that I’ve struggled with for years and haven’t been able to adequately express. I haven’t wept like I did when I read this in a long time – your writing is absolutely beautiful and heart wrenching. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since I read it when it was first posted. I’ve sent this to several people I know and had them read it in an effort to help them understand. You are truly talented; thank you for sharing.

  12. That was beautiful and wrenching. Thank you.

  13. Rexicorn says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  14. Painful, important, and absolutely beautiful read. Keep sharing your story…<3

  15. I give it another 3 months before you’re excommunicated.

    You’re leading others away. Speaking evil of apostles. Calling doctrine false doctrine.

    You are the definition of false prophets that will come before Christ returns.

  16. Jeff,
    Speaking from personal experience (validated by the Next Mormon Survey) it’s not posts like Calvin’s that have led to a rise in disaffiliation among the current generation; what caused me to leave was people like you speaking with authority you don’t have, unrighteously attacking members you don’t know for expressing their life experience which you can’t comprehend and never will unless you cultivate charity towards your fellow man. Your comments are uncalled for and unchristlike.

  17. Jeff,
    Speaking from personal experience, it’s not posts like Calvin’s that have led to disaffiliation among church members; what has caused me to become less active is comments like yours spoken with authority you don’t have, attacking members you don’t know for sharing their life experiences which you don’t understand and likely never will unless by some miracle you learn to cultivate charity for your fellow man.

    Your comments were uncalled for and unchristian.

  18. Another Roy says:

    Beautifully written. For those moments, I thought I saw what you saw … felt what you felt. Thank you!

  19. A Friend says:

    Such a tender and personal story. I’m praying that someday the medical community will find a cure to that gelato cyanide!

  20. Mike Hunt says:

    And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.

  21. MTodd.. I’m saying it like it is. Its the truth. He is following the path of John dehlin or Kate Kelly. Thinking he knows more than apostles of God.
    You obviously don’t follow him on Twitter. He has bashed apostles and called them bigots, homophobes, fallen prophets. He claims he received a blessing that he was to weed out false doctrine in the church.

    He isn’t following the gospel.. he is leading others away from the gospel path with false doctrine.

  22. @Jeff, it hasn’t quite been a month and I know your prediction was 90 days for Brother Calvin to be excommunicated, but I wanted to direct you to Calvin’s Twitter feed today. Please try to be more like Elder Costa who hasn’t written Calvin off as an apostate but instead treats him like a brother.