Detail from Peter Paul Rubens’s St Sebastian via Wikimedia Commons

The white, burnished body of St. Sebastian, bound to a tree and riddled with arrows. He was startling to look at: sinewy, tightly coiled, naked save for a loincloth knotted loosely about his waist. His head was thrown back in agony, or his head was thrown back in pleasure; it seemed the ambiguity was the point. In my world he was what passed for a hero in a storybook, a glossy entry in my first book of saints. This was in the early aughts, in Catholic school in the south of Manila. Religion, whether or not one subscribed to it, was the most durable thread in the social fabric. I spent my days professing God’s love but believing in his wrath. I was seven.

Difference, deviation, felt inborn. In the Philippines, where Catholics make up 80 percent of the population, my Protestant family was an anomaly. Protestant — the very word broadcast rebellion. “It’s idolatry to pray to Mary, to pray to the saints,” my father said. “The Bible tells us to pray only to God.” Still, because most schools were Catholic, he permitted a degree of assimilation. I learned about idols and how to worship them, learned canon law and how to pray the rosary. My school was run by the Lasallian Brothers, an order of men who weren’t quite priests but took vows of celibacy and wore habits. We heard Mass every first Friday. Each noon the Angelus would spill out from the campus speakers, and for a minute we all stopped what we were doing, fell silent.

Later in the day, I came home to a tradition most of my classmates had never even heard of. Catholicism was too entrenched in the culture, the scar of three hundred years of Spanish rule. Ours was a newer faith, a legacy of American colonialism introduced to the islands at the end of the nineteenth century. Though my mother was born into a Catholic family, she joined my father’s evangelical church after marrying him. At home, ritual and tangible implements of worship were not so enshrined as the content of scripture. As a corrective to the compromise he made on my education, my father enforced his religion as though it were besieged on all sides. We never missed Sunday service. Every night, my parents, my brother, and I had a Bible study session. Good praxis seemed to entail aesthetic abstinence: my family’s church, where my father was a founding member, had no paintings, no statues, no images. There was only an aluminum cross at the altar, no Christ hanging from it.

And so I craved a rupture in the banality of my world, or as the faithful call it, an apparition from heaven. I wanted to measure the dimensions of the divine, trace its shape, know its color. The book of saints brought me closer. It was a requirement for class — a paperback volume, compact and sturdy, with glossy pages that caught the light when I turned them. Inside was a litany of lives the Catholic Church had deemed holy, a procession of long-dead believers who, through selfless devotion, had distinguished themselves from the rest of the flock. Each saint was accompanied by a full-color image, usually a painting by one of the old masters. They were classed according to how they lived: bishop, virgin, confessor. But it was the martyrs, the saints who were tortured and killed for their Christianity, who captivated me most.

After class the girls played Chinese garter, and the boys played rough, but I was a boy who did not like to play rough. Instead I’d sit alone in a corner of the school gym with my book. Impelled by a macabre curiosity, I’d scan each profile for causes of death: St. Bartholomew, apostle of Christ, flayed. St. Agnes, ancient Roman celibate, beheaded. And taking up a whole page, the Roman soldier St. Sebastian, pure and firm and penetrated.

It was too much, the sight of them, too much for a child to make sense of. In the paintings, most saints were shown in the throes of torture — the hot coals about to melt flesh, the sword about to pierce bone. Yet bloodshed was rendered with restraint, as if in testament to each subject’s impending immortality. A mouth might be screaming in pain, or limbs twisted in recoil, but a martyr would be haloed in light, attended to by angels, flung grandly into the astonishing drama of their own mutilation. There I was, deprived all my life of beauty and then suddenly confronted by its most fearsome iterations. For that was what they were, the martyrs. Beautiful, even at the height of their pain.

I do not mean beauty in the way faces and landscapes are sometimes called beautiful. I am talking about the beauty that overwhelms and devastates, that leaves one haunted. In Greek myth, the mortal Semele bursts into flames upon seeing Zeus in divine form. In the Torah and the Bible, Moses asks to see the face of God but is told that he wouldn’t survive the sight. Looking at the paintings of the martyrs, I felt like I was skirting the edge of some terrible sublime. It was the heady admixture of Thanatos and Eros, the primal urge to steal a glance at the festering wound. To look away would be to abandon my search for the eternal.

St. Sebastian’s ravaged body: still alive, still beautiful. The image in my book was an oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens, completed circa 1618. On the opposite page was a summary of Sebastian’s legend. He was a secret Christian in third-century Rome, when refusal to worship the pagan gods was considered treason. He was a favorite of Emperor Diocletian, who ordered him executed by archers when the truth came out. Rubens imagines him in a convulsion, or in a trance. Whereas other male saints in the book were dressed in religious habits, Sebastian was a nude Greek statue. It was the first time I looked at something and knew I had to look furtively. From then on, looking became something to do on high alert. If you looked at the wrong thing, it could look back, petrify you.

This was before I discovered my desire for men, before the panic and the shame and the intoxicating peril of looking at a body whose beauty rang out like a condemnation. Later I would look at the paintings and see clearly how they constellated my childhood neuroses, gave neat expression to an unarticulated problem. But that came after. Then, there was only a boy with a vague guilt taking root inside him, the dawning conviction of sin, the presentiment of hell.

* * *

One had to suffer in the correct way. This was what was left in the end, after one distilled all those school lessons to a caustic reduction. Like a photonegative to the perfect suffering of the martyrs, the book’s inside cover had a sprawling painting of sinners in torment, their faces creased in remorse, their bodies impaled by spikes erupting from the rocky red ground. In this image my formative terrors were born, and I understood what adults meant when they spoke of the fear of the Lord.

“My name is Lorenzo, like Saint Lorenzo Ruiz.” The uniform for boys: a white short-sleeved button-down and trousers the color of gravy. My hair was short and combed flat, cut an inch above the ears. Our full names were stitched to our breast pockets. I shared my name with the first Filipino saint, a missionary who’d traveled to Japan and was executed in 1637 by a shogunate wary of Catholic imperialism. Our teachers liked to tell the story. Saint Lorenzo Ruiz was forced to gulp down water and then had his stomach trampled on by soldiers. He had needles inserted beneath his fingernails. He was hung upside down until his head yielded to the pressure. I imagined this to be a bleak, wet scene. There was no grandiose European painting of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz; the book had only a small colored-pencil sketch of his face. My parents didn’t name me after him, but I thought that making the association clear could mitigate my religious difference.

Except nobody called me Lorenzo. It was my last name spat out like an epithet, or it was bakla, Tagalog for homosexual. I did not think I was, but everyone had decided so. My father called my voice “malambot” — soft, frail, feminine. I drew women in big, diaphanous dresses; it embarrassed him. At school, my classmates made fun of my mannerisms, ganged up on me and jeered, sometimes hit me. Most of my friends were girls. There was one boy I befriended — people said we were the same, but the two of us never talked about it. He wanted to be a priest when he grew up. I was a Protestant and could not share that dream with him.

I didn’t tell my parents about the bullying; my father would only blame my behavior. I endured everything silently, never fought back. Turn the other cheek — that is what Jesus and the martyrs did. Their persecution formed an idiom for otherness I could take refuge in. The alternative was to probe the mystery of my difference, look closer, surrender to the grave thought that my ostracism was biblically warranted.

“Lorenzo.” My pastor’s clean, rubbery face was backlit by white. The microphone in his hand was tilted toward me. “Who is your favorite character in the Bible?” I was a finalist in our church’s Sunday school quiz bee. It was between me and his daughter, and we were being interviewed before the last round. “Job,” I said, “because he had great faith in God.” I saw the congregation nodding all around me, my parents beaming. I’d been fascinated by that narrative ever since I’d first heard it. Satan approaches God with a proposition: he will test the world’s most righteous man and see if his virtue is steadfast. God agrees, and Satan strikes down Job’s children, kills his livestock, and infects him with painful boils. Job laments his misfortune but never curses God, who in the end restores him. It was a book that offered no apologies.

* * *

My mother told me about the Rapture. She was reading the Left Behind books, a series of Christian apocalypse novels, and I became convinced I wouldn’t be among the elect. During this time I’d imagine spots of dirt appearing on my hands and arms, marks of the devil out to get me, and in my mind’s eye I’d superimpose on the spots the face of Christ, will the curse away, purge myself. I anticipated the day I would wake up in an empty home. I imagined the kinds of torture I’d endure eternally, once Judgment Day came and passed and death ceased to be the terminus of pain.

This guilt was strange because its root was so obscured. My homosexuality was barely nascent, a present but formless punctuation mark in a life predating language. I did not comprehend it and therefore couldn’t name it as sin. Yet I carried its weight around my neck, was reminded of it in solitude or in conversation. Later in life I would read Simone Weil and understand what she meant when she spoke of malheur. The word is translated as affliction, though this is an imperfect analogue. Malheur is much graver than affliction; it “makes God appear to be absent for a time. . . . A kind of horror submerges the whole soul.” She describes it as “an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain.”

The fear of pain, according to Weil, can be so psychologically rending as to plummet one into this frame of mind. For what truly defines malheur isn’t corporal sensation but a sense of doom. A consciousness keyed to this pitch is corrosive. It makes a wreck of a saint. “Evil dwells in the heart of the criminal without being felt there,” Weil writes. “It is felt in the heart of the man who is afflicted and innocent.” Yet she doesn’t consider the martyrs to have been afflicted. They understood why they were being sent to the executioner; they saw clearly the cause of their pain. Malheur, instead, is what was felt by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane or Job at the nadir of his suffering: a disturbed, confounded helplessness, the soul of an innocent suddenly and inexplicably invested with the world’s malignance.

Weil’s own identity was a contradiction — a Catholic Jew. Her Jewishness, her ancestry, stood at odds with her chosen faith, though she distanced herself from the Catholic establishment and refused to be baptized. She was a thinker well attuned to her particular strangeness. Her sentences pulse with a rebellious devotion. One imagines her in the men’s clothes she often wore, a queered prophet. She felt the pain of others like a tremor: as a child she fasted in solidarity with oppressed workers; later she would starve herself to death in solidarity with citizens of Nazi-occupied France. Suffering was her form of worship, the purest way of attaining knowledge. I recognized her obsession with self-flagellation. She did not need to explain further.

In those days as a boy with my book of saints, the dirty feeling did not seem entirely unconventional. Around me penance was a national obsession. People filled confessionals, inched their way up the beads of rosaries like these were ropes back to heaven. In Pangasinan, a province north of Manila, fanatics flogged and crucified themselves during the Holy Week, a practice the Vatican discouraged. I recall watching on the news one of these rituals, transfixed. “They don’t know they’re already saved,” my father said behind me. We did not believe in confession. We confessed straight to God, named each of our sins in prayer, and got forgiveness in exchange. That was supposed to be the clean beauty of it. My fatal flaw was that I lacked the temperament for moral diplomacy. I wanted the animal laid out on the table for slaughter.

I looked at Saint Agatha in the book of saints, a third-century Sicilian who pledged her virginity to Christ and, when she rejected the hand of a Roman prefect, was sentenced to have her breasts removed with pincers. I was astounded by her power, by the notion of a woman disowning her cultural role. Her refusal to marry, I imagined, belied an irremediable distaste for men. The painting in the book was by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. A handmaiden covers her chest with a bloodied garment. An attendant carries her breasts on a platter. And Saint Agatha looks upward with trembling lips to a halo encircling her head — she is blessed, she is beatified. “The false God changes suffering into violence,” Weil claims. “The true God changes violence into suffering.” In my world, pain was carved up into these two dominions, and you wanted to be a sufferer worthy of grace.

Worthy meaning beautiful. Painted as they were in such an ornate style, the martyrs were wonders of physicality, fluent speakers of the same wordless dialect. All billows of cloth and precious poise, poise I found familiar. Like Saint Sebastian’s mouth, which was always open, delicate, an oyster slick with the sea. His neck turned softly to the side, the limpness in his clavicle like limpness in a wrist. I had never known a man to glory in submission. Dimly I apprehended in him the queerness in my carriage. He drove a wedge into my received worldview; to look at him was to court epistemic collapse.

It surprises many that Sebastian did not, in fact, die by the arrows. According to the legend, he was found, nursed back to health, and then returned to confront Diocletian, who finally had him clubbed to death. The image of his first torture has eclipsed this ending, and Sebastian’s unlikely survival of it made him a popular saint to invoke against the plague in the Middle Ages. In the succeeding centuries, however, his effect has often been more seductive than curative. There is another painting of the martyr, finished in 1525 by the Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi. Here the arrows tear through Sebastian’s neck, thigh, and side, jagged disruptions to the graceful arc his body makes. A palpable eroticism pervades the painting — his loincloth is translucent, the smooth sheen of his face crowns a toned soldier’s body. It’s an eroticism aware of itself, confident in its brazenness. Bazzi was widely known as Il Sodoma, a nod to his reputation as a sodomite. The biographer Giorgio Vasari writes that he embraced the epithet: “In this name, far from taking umbrage or offense, he used to glory, writing about it songs and verses in terza rima.”

More than three hundred years later, the English poet John Addington Symonds saw this painting on a trip to Florence. “This is a truly demonic picture in the fascination it exercises and the memory it leaves upon the mind,” he wrote of the artwork’s transgressive force, a piece of pornography smuggled onto the altar. Symonds would have known that arousal is involuntary; Victorian constraints did not keep him from having sex with men. Desire is dictatorial, locking the imagination in a stranglehold. The entire eye is consumed by its ghost image. It does not leave.

A corollary: there are encounters that determine the course of a life. Three years after Symonds published this piece of writing, a young Oscar Wilde took a trip to Genoa and was enchanted by a different Sebastian. It was the one finished circa 1615 by Guido Reni, another homosexual, and shows a more muscular version of the saint with his hands tied above his head. Pain here appears merely as a shadow. Reni barely bothers to depict blood: desultory streaks of red, almost invisible, can be seen on the arrows, which look more like playthings. Later, Wilde would describe a cape worn by Dorian Gray as an “ecclesiastical vestment” that is “starred with medallions of many saints and martyrs, among whom was St. Sebastian.” After Wilde served a sentence in England for sodomy, coded then as “gross indecency,” he moved to Paris and became obsessed with reentering the Catholic Church. Often, when signing his name, he would identify himself by the alias Sebastian Melmoth. He died three years later, destitute and depressed.

Time changes, images flatten, a sensibility persists. The same Reni painting Wilde loved becomes a focal point in Yukio Mishima’s 1949 autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Mask, wherein the male narrator masturbates to an art book reproduction. Tennessee Williams’s 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer features a tragic hero named Sebastian Venable, a homosexual damned to a morbid death. And in the early aughts, in the south of Manila, I see Sebastian in my book of saints and am sealed into a tacit genealogy. A figure created and recreated by queer men, malleable enough to serve a series of assorted functions: allegory, idol, avatar. But always that nebulous fatalism, the desire branded by the memory of punishment. There were times in those days when I wondered if it would always be there, that dark cloud, and if I’d ever be absolved of it.

* * *

When I was fourteen, I found that men became difficult to look at, their bodies more real and more forbidden than any saint in heaven. Homosexuality in our church was spoken of as a perversion, a social cancer. One of my classmates joked that anyone who touched me would turn gay. There was a religion teacher I liked; one time in class she went off on a tangent and said she didn’t think gay people were sinners. When she disappeared, there were whispers that the school had fired her for being involved with another woman in the faculty.

By this time, the book of saints was no longer required for class. My mother put it in a box in the attic, and I never saw it again. Still, the images flickered in my mind. I tried to want women, to no avail. My sexuality felt like some arbitrary curse, a bargain struck between God and the devil. Each time I masturbated, I told myself I was letting the sin out — there would be nothing left. Alone in bed, I’d pray for the feeling to pass. My body terrified me. I watched it from the outside like a castaway.

We get the word passion from the Latin pati, to endure. In the late Middle Ages, it became shorthand for Christ’s protracted torture and crucifixion, as in the passion of Christ. During the Renaissance, the word was extended to the martyrs, cementing the notion of a moral ideal predicated on suffering. In today’s vernacular, it’s been largely stripped of its religious connotations, cheapened by offhand use. Yet the truth remains that every transgressive pleasure, illicit and shame-laden, contains an echo of that original pang. The word that changed faces in the night — I felt myself at the nexus of its every resonance.

In 2009, I attended for the first time my church’s youth camp, a summer retreat where all the teenagers went up into the mountains south of Manila. Most of the boys were older than me, headed off to college or already in it, and in our dormitory, they’d discard the formalities of city life and lounge around with their shirts off, unaware of the power in their taut arms, their firm chests. The boy I liked best was tall and sculpted. When he smiled, the skin under his eyes puffed. He treated me like a child, which frustrated me, but he was also amused, I think, by how little I knew of the world. His parents had given him a Hebrew name that meant God has seen.

I did not know what to do with myself, did not know how to stymie the sweet twist in my stomach every time I snuck a glimpse of him. Up in the mountains the air was cooler, the terrain mysterious, our families far away. For breakfast we’d have tocino and tuyo with rice and fried eggs, maybe some Milo in Styrofoam cups. We would sing and pray; we would hike through the tamed wilderness of the camp and balance ourselves on bamboo bridges. One afternoon I was swaying in a hammock, and slowly I realized he was there behind me, rocking it gently. Our conversations were stilted; in my head I salvaged every line. When he injured a foot while running, it was my turn to care for him. He leaned on me until it got better. No boy I liked had ever displayed such warmth. He existed in those few short days as the distortion that gives the lie to the mirage, leads the way out of it. My shepherd boy. I would follow him at a remove if it meant I could see his back.

The mountains in scripture are a liminal space, a tier of creation in which the boundary between God and animal becomes porous. In this rarified air, the clamor of the world is pared to a pin drop. The truth is made simple and plain; one penetrates into the fiber of it. Seven years after the beginning of the fever, I stood in solace with my friend, and beauty did not seem so threatening. He gestured for me to approach, and each survival mechanism went flat; I approached. In that moment the body ceased to be a guarantor of damnation. It did not matter that he meant more to me than I ever would to him. It was enough to be two creatures in congress, the world’s activity frozen as in a still life.

In the Book of Genesis, Abraham’s wayward grandson Jacob is visited by a stranger at his campsite. The man wrestles him until daybreak, and when he touches his hip, his thigh becomes dislocated. As Jacob lies defeated, the man gets up to depart, and Jacob asks for his blessing. The stranger concedes and gives Jacob a new name: Israel. “I have seen God face to face,” Israel says as he limps into the morning, “and my life is preserved.”

I remember how the camp at the end was just as silent as it had been when we’d arrived, how things appeared as though they’d never been disturbed. As the bus descended, our faces became sticky with sweat. The odors of the city were reintroduced to us. And somehow I knew it was here — the end of friendship. To carry on in Manila would have been like repeating a question that had already been asked: its timbre had been altered, so it could not be earnest anymore. In church we would lock eyes from time to time; he would smile, his eyes puffing, and I would nod back, then sweep across the faces in the congregation, halting at the aluminum cross from which a body had absented itself. I did not love him — I loved what he had made of me.

* * *

I stopped praying for transformation. I came out to friends, began to leave shame behind. But as a cut asks to be sutured, I felt a yearning for familiar palliatives. The book of saints was gone; I sought a cult of images to replace it. Often, idols are not demolished so much as they are subsumed into new bodies. I looked for figures of beauty that appealed to my taste for the tragic, allowed me to identify with their spectacular plight. Since I lived in a country once purchased for $20 million by the United States, those figures came to me through American media, which was ubiquitous in the islands. Power ballads became my Canticles. My favorite actress could cry just like the Virgin. Nothing touched me like pain apotheosized.

This aesthetic creed colored my coming of age. Alongside it came a curiosity for the history of those like me. Yet when I attempted to delve into the archives of queerness, I found that the internet could tell me far more about Americans than Filipinos. As I exhumed these stories, I saw the martyrs’ frescoed anguish repeated in flesh and blood. People who committed suicide or withered away in institutions. The lethal weight of a secret, one that induced a deep depression. The port-wine stain leprosy of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Punishment, it appeared, was the recurring motif. I was a teenager in front of a computer, scrolling through the profiles of long-dead victims, victims of what were called hate crimes.

Yet there was one name that produced more search results than the rest, provoked wider discussion, arrested the collective fascination more powerfully. It was a name attached to a face, of course, and the face was described as “fragile” and “childlike,” as having “a look of pale purity, the translucent beauty favored in religious art.” Finally and most crucially, the face was said to be the face of a martyr.

Matthew Shepard, twenty-one years old, gay, was tortured by two men in Laramie, Wyoming, one October night in 1998, when I was two years old. Though the particulars seem to change with each retelling, the basic arc retains the force of original myth: Shepard encountered Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at a bar, got into a car with them, and was then brutally beaten and abandoned in a field. He died in intensive care five days later. In early reports, the cyclist who discovered Matthew’s body tied to a fence said he’d initially mistaken him for a scarecrow, and by the time this image percolated into the national consciousness, it had acquired a more religious valence. “We weep because a life full of hope and promise was so cruelly ended,” eulogized the Episcopalian bishop Frederick Borsch. “His body burned and beaten, and left here, in the United States, in 30-degree weather tied to a fence, his arms extended, all too reminiscent of a crucifixion.”

Memorial websites commenced the canonization. “They killed him the same way they killed Jesus Christ,” read one post. “You are God’s special child Matt. A true martyr lighting the way for a generation lost in the growing darkness,” read another. A church in Florida held a “Mass for a Gay Martyr.” Soon, the secular sphere caught on. Vanity Fair ran a piece called “The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard.” In The Nation, “Matthew’s Passion,” an essay by Tony Kushner, cast his murder as a death tendered for social progress: “We need to see the gay man literally crucified on a fence.”

Shepard’s hands had been bound behind him, and his head rested on the ground — not much of a literal crucifixion. Yet the apocryphal allure of a biblically stylized death was impossible for me to resist. I remember feeling upon discovering him a visceral sense of recognition. I looked at his black-and-white portrait on Wikipedia, the one in which his head tilts ever so slightly to one side, the light from a window dappling his face in a soft chiaroscuro. There was a delicacy in his mien, a faraway glint in his eyes. It was a face that signaled itself, betrayed its wearer’s aberrance in the world of men. I looked at that picture and at the minute distance between his birth and death and decided that this was my patron saint, he who reified the danger of queerness more perfectly than even Sebastian.

Retroactively mourning him was an act of transference: it allowed me to mourn my own place in the world. Yet as I continued to pore over the media coverage, I realized that transcending the canvas meant I had now entered a scene of grotesque realism. Here, allegory came at a cost. For by organizing the lore of Shepard’s death around the locus of his sexuality, the public morphed queerness itself into a broad analogue for torment. JoAnn Wypijewski, writing for Harper’s, offered the most clear-eyed critique at the time: “It’s said that hate-crime laws symbolize a society’s values. If that is true, it means gay people are recognized only in suffering.” That our pain was predestined seemed an instinctive point of consensus. For the members of Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed Shepard’s funeral with signs declaring “God Hates Fags,” that conviction was rooted in fundamentalism. But it soon became clear to me that nobody valued his murder more than liberal groups, whose fixation on his identity was symptomatic of a transformative politics dependent on death, especially the death of a saint.

Of course, the sacrifice had to be without blemish. Gay activists made him into a golden child, angelic and unsexed. Unflattering recollections were skimmed over; his depression and HIV status were skirted around. The idol we were left with lacked the fullness of humanity. It was like a reenactment, performed on a grand scale, of that guilt-ridden gay impulse toward perfection, a ritual purging of homosexuality’s moral stain. “He wasn’t a saint,” said his mother, Judy, in an interview for the article that would nonetheless be titled “The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard.” “He was just a young man in search of himself. You must understand, it’s like putting him on a pedestal that just won’t work. I’m concerned that if people find out that it’s not true, they’ll be disappointed or angry or hate him.” When her son was found, he was unrecognizable. His brain stem was crushed, his skull fractured in four places, his face ravaged.

​​I can remember the sensation of it, leaning away from my screen and yielding to a psychic undoing, the crumbling of a last stronghold. I had departed the province of ideas; in this imperfect life, pain could be meaningless — it could be ugly. No higher power worth worshipping would demand it. When I was seven, with my book of saints, I wished to be broken like a spotless thing, to be granted God for it. But I was not a child of divine revelation; the era of prophets had long ago passed. My mania was attained through osmosis, learned from a world that made a sport of pain, that inflicted or exalted it according to the ambitions of its people. I stared at that black-and-white portrait, its subject damned forever to the tyranny of its viewer’s gaze. Looking had always been my means of veneration. But I had outgrown the passion of the centuries. I no longer wanted a part in its procession. I looked away.

* * *

In the temple of my mind, they dwell. Derelict, neglected, warping like wet plaster. Their beauty has proven hollow; it has not survived the years. I come to them as a sojourner surveying the wreckage of the past. I do not stay long. There is nothing here but decay, and I have grown too fond of life to tarry in death’s domain before my set appointment.

In this light, the bodies appear smaller, stranger, poorly animated imitations of being. I find in them no trace of resemblance to myself. I am only reminded of old scourges, weathered in the belief I deserved them. But I have learned that there is no enterprise in suffering if all it asks is to multiply itself, to make itself into a god. After I renounced that death, I found I could look at last into the face of the sublime; its fire consumed me, and my flesh emerged fortified, anointed. Today the bodies that flood my vision are full of praise, exultant in their humanity and in their desire for one another. I fasten my gaze upon them. And when I lose the thread of my renewal, I remember that the psalmist asked, “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?” And I remember that Sebastian survived the arrows.

Enzo Escober

Enzo Escober is a writer, journalist, and editorial assistant for Guernica. He was born and raised in Manila, the Philippines, and graduated from NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in 2022. He lives in Brooklyn.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.