Sam Smith took the world by storm in 2014 with his stunning voice and passionate autobiographical songwriting in his first album “In the Lonely Hour” featuring his Grammy winning track “Stay with Me.” He made even larger waves when he came out as gay prior to this album’s release, and has since brought the public conversation about LGBT individuals into even greater light. Now three years later, he has released another brilliant and even more personal album titled “The Thrill of it All” (which I have listened to at least a hundred times already).
His new album is musically outstanding, but what really caught my attention were several songs with explicitly religious themes related to his sexuality. As I listened to the album more closely a picture emerged of a person whose relationship with God has caused him suffering, confusion, and frustration.
Smith attended Catholic school in his small town as the only openly gay student. He came out when he was quite young, was lovingly accepted by his family, and it seems that he was able to get along in school fairly well. That being said, he was still made fun of for his sexuality, and was even more self-conscious about his weight. He did not meet another gay man until he moved to London when he was 18. Despite support from others, he was in many ways alone in his experience as a gay person growing up in a Catholic school.
Speaking of his Catholic influenced upbringing and his sexuality, Smith commented
“From what I can remember, they [Catholics] believe that you can be homosexual, but you just can’t practice it, which is ridiculous…I would just say, ‘I am proof that it’s genetic. It has to be, because it wasn’t a choice.’ And that’s it. That’s my only argument, you know? You love who you love, and I can’t help that I like guys.”
What strikes me most about this comment is that after growing up in a Catholic environment for most of his childhood, the message from the Church that stuck with him as a gay person was not one of love, care, dialogue, or support. He mentions nothing about coming to know a God who loves him, or about experiencing a personal encounter with Christ. Instead, to him Catholicism represented a conglomeration of “no’s” with little of value to offer him.
Smith provides an even deeper look into his faith in his new album particularly addressing the relationship of his gay identity to God. In “HIM”, a song which is a play on two narrative themes of prayer and coming out to one’s family, he sings:
“Holy Father, we need to talk
I have a secret that I can’t keep
I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted
please don’t get angry
have faith in me”
“I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted,” he utters, with a note of twisted apology about not meeting expectations mixed with a chosen acceptance of his own identity as a gay man.
In “Pray” Smith pleads with God:
“I have never believed in You, no
But I’m gonna pray
…I am still your disciple.
I’m begging You, please.
I’m broken, alone and afraid.
“I’m not a saint
I’m more of a sinner
“Maybe I’ll pray
Pray for a glimmer of hope.”
Who is God to Sam Smith? God is one who looks down in judgement on his romantically loving other men. God is a God that does not understand, and must be told what Sam’s experience is. God is one who places burdens. God is not one who is the source of life, fulfillment, and love in his life. God is not patient, kind, slow to anger, a place to rest.
But what is perhaps most remarkable, and tragic is that Smith still calls out for God. Despite all of his struggles, he does not cast God aside. He prays that God will understand, that he can find a “glimmer of hope” in whatever he is going through. He feels alone and afraid, and is literally begging God to be with him. Yet, God feels distant, and Sam’s faith is filled with tension and ambivalence because he feels that God is judging him, especially because of how he is living out his sexuality.
In short, Sam Smith did not encounter a God in the Catholic Church that he felt truly loved by. He may have heard that God loves him, but did not experience it. He did not meet the person of Jesus who called tax collectors, poor people, and sinners. He did not meet a Jesus who called his disciples knowing they would abandon him. He did not meet a Jesus who met people where they were, loved them, and then led them on a path of following him, which did indeed demand conversion and sacrifice, but sacrifice with him, out of love, patiently, with grace and in community.
Perhaps Sam Smith’s story can invite us to suspend judgement for a moment and put ourselves in his shoes or in the shoes of innumerable other LGBT Catholics who struggle with many of the same things, and often worse. What might happen if we imagine what it would be like to feel this kind of anxiety in one’s faith? Or if we imagine those young people who – unlike Smith – are not even accepted by their families? How can we as a Church be a place of welcome and refuge for them, and what kind of vision of life and love can we offer? And even more, how is Christ present in them, in their expressions of love, in their suffering, and in their gifts?
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Kmeron of the Flickr Creative Commons.