By Jeff Walsh
In "Seventy Times Seven," Salvatore Sapienza's debut novel, Brother Vito is living a double life. By day, he teaches the boys in his high school religion class. But at night, he might be anywhere from a Pet Shop Boys concert, a dance floor, or a sex club.
It's not the book you're thinking, though. Vito isn't living a double life. The brothers in his house know he's gay, and his gay friends know about his religious life. Throughout the course of the novel, Vito struggles to choose between two sides of his being that seem perfect and whole to him, except they can't coexist.
Obviously, you might hazard a guess at which side wins out, because otherwise they'd be writing this book up on religious websites instead. But the journey is interesting because of that duality. Vito has a true yearning for the gift that he finds in his religious life and its spirituality. It isn't the closeted priest and the big declaration or scandal that people might expect. As Vito weighs the pros and cons, he keeps making good points for each. It isn't that he just has a blind spot that prevents the decision.
On a summer retreat at an AIDS center in San Francisco, Vito has a love affair with Gabriel, the center's landscaper. This relationship ups the ante with Vito even more, but it isn't clear whether it will be enough to tip the scales, as he is about to return to the east coast and take his final vows.
The book is a fun read filled with pop culture references to Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Beverly Hills 90210, and Saved by the Bell. And there are a lot of great scenes where Vito gets a little Dead Poetsy with his class. If you personally have some hang-ups about integrating sexuality and spirituality, it's a good book for you, just to see someone have that same mental battle in their head. But, even if that isn't your thing, it's still a well-written book that has a nice pace to it, and makes you empathize due to the warmth and integrity of its characters. Since the time of our interview, the book was also nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards, in the Best Debut Fiction and Spirituality categories.
Sapienza was recently in San Francisco on book tour, and we sat down and had a discussion about religion, sexuality, my life as an altar boy, his life as a brother, original sin, and finding a purpose in a life that no longer has unwanted duality.
Why did you want to write this book? Obviously there's some autobiography in it... but what made it call out to you?
Well, I was meeting so many people who really struggled so much with their sexuality and their spirituality, and it wasn't something that I... I thought that I hadn't really struggled with that. What I mean by that is ... I think because I came out so young, and was out to my family and everything, and I thought, 'Oh, well I'm comfortable with being gay,' and it wasn't that my church messed me up in any way.
But over the years, I would meet people who were saying to me, 'Yeah, I really struggled with coming out because my church was telling me it was wrong, and so that's why I didn't come out until later in life, because my religion was so much a part of my life. And, I thought, 'Oh, I never really struggled with that.' I was Catholic, and I was part of the Catholic Church, but I was still able to come out as a teenager.
So, I think that whole thing just interested me, or spirituality and sexuality being two worlds that couldn't really connect. And I've been very into music and pop culture, so I knew that I was drawn to Madonna and Prince and Sinead O'Connor and people who really, in their music, were combining those worlds of sexuality and spirituality.
So, this is something that interested me, and they say you should always write about what interests you. And certainly I had the experience of being a brother, and going through that, but I didn't want to write a memoir by experience in the brothers, because I just wanted to create a character that had similar experiences to mine, but went through a love affair, and that didn't happen to me.
How I describe my novel, which also has a bit of autobiography in it, I think of it as using my own life for the scaffolding of the story, and the editing process is removing the scaffolding and what's left is the story.
That's a great way to do it. And I was a brother for six years and I didn't want to write something that spanned such a period of time...
And since we're going to have people from all different religious backgrounds reading this, a brother is...
There's a lot of questions I get on that from readers. I always explain it as it's very much like being what a nun is, only the male version of it. A lot of people know nuns or at least understand that. It's really just: you live with a group of people in community, and you take turns cooking and cleaning, just living together like a family; you take the same vows -- poverty, chastity, and obedience; and we pray together, live together, and mostly work together in either hospitals or schools.
And it's not a path to the priesthood?
It's not a path to the priesthood. People would always say that to me, 'Oh, you're a brother, when are you going to become a priest?' Well, I'm not, so... we couldn't do any of the sacraments. We couldn't marry people, hear confessions, say mass, or anything like that. It was really just being drawn to a communal life of living with people who shared the same visions you did, and you wanted to work together and live together. That's what a brother is.
Obviously, a lot of people on the site have an issue with the integration of sexuality and spirituality. No matter how much we write about it, it never goes away. You always see these books like what The Bible Really Says, and it is always coming from a confrontational place. It's always about how to morph your spirituality and that your sexuality is fine. Do you see it that way?
I definitely see it that way, but I think for me, when I talk to... not just people my age, but people who are younger than I am, there's this sense that they want to connect to something spiritual, and organized religion has really screwed so many of us up or has made us feel like, because of our sexuality, that we can never be a part of that church.
So, we tend to just give up religion and spirituality, like 'Well, I guess they don't want me, so I don't want anything to do with that.' So, we go off and have our sexual lives, but really forget about our spiritual lives, so they remain these two kind of separate entities. I just feel like I want to be a whole, integrated person. I want to be spiritual and sexual and, unfortunately, each of those worlds has some sort of disregard for the other.
I know when I was in religious life, and I was openly gay, my gay friends could not understand why I was doing this. They had such disdain for the Catholic Church, and understandably so. I understood it. But then, on the other hand, certainly the church had trouble with gays. So I really felt kind of stuck in the middle. And I really did feel pulled in either direction, and for all that time, I really prayed to be made whole. That's what I wanted.
And I'm not really sure, only because I had a very positive experience ... I went to Catholic schools my whole life. I had very positive experiences with the nuns and the brothers who were my teachers. In fact, the first person I ever told I was gay was a brother who was my teacher. But those people were always so loving and supportive, they weren't what people see as stereotypes of nuns and brothers and priests. They weren't judgmental. They weren't telling me I was going to hell. They were people who went into religious life because they really cared about people, and I felt very loved and supported.
I know that I'm very lucky, because I've heard from people whose minister told them they are going to hell and they need to change their ways. And so many young people grow up in churches where that's the case, and that either prevents or delays them from coming out, or it turns them off of anything having to with being spiritual.
Yeah, my family are basically cafeteria Catholics, but I think my issue is that I take it too seriously. I can't sign on to things but not pay attention to certain parts. Even now, I was just home, so I went to Christmas Mass, and when they read of "For this, this, and this," and you have to reply "Lord, hear our prayer," and I think of that as an oral contract. So, I'll be like, 'No, I'm skipping that one... OK, that's not bad, "Lord hear our prayer."' I used to be the head altar boy at my church and I even served a mass with O'Connor before he was the Cardinal in New York. It was some special mass, and he traveled with his entourage of servers, so I was the only local altar boy that got to sit in on the mass, and I think a one point one of his hats, or some sort of beanie... anyway, something had to come off his head, so I had to go near him and they handed it off to me.
(laughs) Yeah, about taking it seriously, I think the core of what the church was about very seriously, but I thought the hierarchy were taking away from what the basis of what religion was, which is that we're all to love one another and we're all sinners, so we all need to support one another on this journey. Then all the dogma and the rules came in, and were making people feel excluded, and the whole notion of a church is inclusion for everyone. For me, I thought, 'Well, if I join the church, I can work toward inclusion.'
And maybe it was very naïve, and maybe that's what you do when you're 20 years old, but I thought I could leave the church, like all of my friends did, or I could work to change it, because if all of us who feel excluded leave then the thing never changes. That was really one of my main reasons for joining.
I thought if all the young people entering are like me, we can bring the church into the next century. And if we all leave the church, the church never changes. And I was really lucky, when I entered the novitiate for the brothers, there were six of us and, of the six of us, four were openly gay and we really had the same philosophy. And then, one by one, we all left.