31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 2: “Adoro Te Devote” by Kristyn Dunnion

From Stoop City

Stoop City by Kristyn Dunnion

Kristyn Dunnion’s story “Adoro Te Devote” takes its title from a hymn written by the 13th-century Roman Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. Its first stanza, in its most famous English translation – by the 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins – reads:

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

The Eucharistic hymn is a song of thanksgiving, the first stanza praising a God the speaker adores and professes service to. The speaker’s heart is “low” and “lost in wonder,” while the Godhead to whom the hymn is addressed is “in hiding,” concealed by ”bare shadows.” The stanza praises an elusive God whom the fallen and lowly speaker trusts implicitly; in the second stanza, the speaker refers to the crucified Christ by professing, “Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.” Christ is here personified as Truth with a capital “T”; the hymn’s speaker, unlike the apostle Thomas, cannot see the proof of the Saviour’s wounds firsthand, yet will nonetheless “plainly call call thee Lord and God.”

Dunnion’s secular version of this hymn adopts a more worldly, sensual mien: “I crave his body, the electric current we make. Without it, I wither. I am nothing. Oh sodomy!”

The speaker in this instance is Paul, a gay teenager in small-town Southwestern Ontario, and the comments are addressed not to God, but to the object of Paul’s adoration – a local tough named Greggor Neilson, “who owns every inch of my flesh, the boy who knows my Soul.” The conflation of flesh and soul at the outset of Dunnion’s story highlights the tension that runs through Paul’s character: a Churchgoer with a devoutly Catholic mother, the adolescent is nevertheless prone to desires of the flesh and by age sixteen is willing to accept that he is a homosexual.

Paul’s mother is less sanguine about her son’s identity: when he accompanies her to the grocery store, she is made uncomfortable by his public performances of Barbra Streisand songs and a “lip-puckering, hand-to-hip strutting” impersonation of Jane Fonda in Klute. Instead of laughing, Paul’s mother chastises her son by saying, “People will think you’re odd.”

“Odd” is a euphemism for the kind of small-town prejudice a gay teenager can expect to encounter among intolerant peers and neighbours, something Greggor struggles with. The first time Paul encounters him, Greggor is masturbating over a copy of Hustler magazine. “Most teenaged boys would be horrified, caught in the solitary act,” Paul thinks, “but Greggor smoked his Du Maurier to the filter before stubbing it out on his jeans and flicking it.” Greggor’s outward poise is one of tough-guy machismo; in his sexual relationship with Paul, Greggor is the dominant one, possessed of a “gentle-rough way of handling” his partner. But as far as the town is concerned, he is straight, and to prove it, he maintains a public relationship with a local bad girl named Stephanie Belanger, the cousin of the mayor’s daughter.

Greggor represents for Paul a secular version of Hopkins’s “Godhead here in hiding.” Afraid of the town’s reaction should his homosexual dalliances be discovered, Greggor remains in the closet, willing to delude both the townspeople and himself about his true nature. Conflating the town’s homophobia and religious devotion, he refers to Paul as “Fag God,” rendering their fellow teens’ offensive epithet into a subversive term of affection: “Fag God, he whispers. We kiss. Ambrosia.”

Throughout “Adoro Te Devote,” Dunnion underscores the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. As a young altar boy, Paul romanticizes the pomp and circumstances of Catholic ritual, “swinging the thurible, wafting incense, the other boys bearing lighted candles or carrying the cross.” He imagines he wants to be a priest when he grows up, because it would obviate the expectation for him to marry, but more importantly, because “questions of sin – mortal versus venial, the works of the flesh versus the fruit of the Spirit – preoccupied my young mind.” Those youthful concerns about “the works of the flesh” are literalized in Paul’s relationship with Greggor, which serves as a substitute for his worshipful apprenticeship to the local priest, Father Casey.

Both the priest and Greggor are masculine surrogates for Paul’s Da, an unrefined drinker prone to “brood[ing] in the house like a caged bear.” Da is also a homophobe: when Paul‘s mother bakes an apple pie for Father Casey, Da responds by saying, “What do I have to do to get a slice of that … Cut me dick off and wear a dress?” Father Casey and Greggor, by contrast, represent the different poles on the spectrum of spirit and flesh that Paul is forced to navigate. And in the adolescent’s mind, one of the poles possesses infinitely more attraction: “The Church is my only refuge now, but I’m in no mood for Father Casey’s tedious blather. A defiant power, an appetite, grows in me, and Father Casey and the Church are no match.”

If Aquinas’s hymn is a song of thanksgiving, Dunnion is more interested in charting betrayal: though Paul puts his faith in the church and Greggor, both turn their backs on him, the former when Father Casey kicks him out of the altar boys’ ranks (“Perhaps it’s time for a change”), the latter after being caught in flagrante delicto by a group of teens, including Stephanie Belanger. What once seemed like a matter of paralysis that could be alleviated by an escape to the big city becomes, for Paul, an apparently insurmountable obstacle with only one way out: “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity and extinguish in my heart the fire of concupiscence,” he prays before taking steps to kill himself.

The story’s finale offers a moment of unexpected hope and reconciliation – and from an unexpected source – but the balance of the narrative is more about the conflict between various kinds of faith: in institutions, in family, in other people, in oneself. By the conclusion, the story’s title has taken on an ironic aspect; Paul’s bifurcated devotion – to the church and to Greggor – has been rebuffed. What recourse do we have, the story asks, when we put our faith in something – or someone – that refuses to reward that faith in turn?

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 2: “Adoro Te Devote” by Kristyn Dunnion