13 – Suddenly Crossroads

FIRE TRUCKS roar past the intersection at the corner of which sits this building.

The ground floor apartment in which I write has its only two windows facing the same intersection.

I have taken a break of a couple of hours in this writing, to allow my emotions to settle, to allow my heart to be still.

Listening to the Spirit is vital if this writing is to be truthful but not titillating, void of any suggestion that the events and choices recorded could in any way be excused as other than the wounded reactions of one both sinned against and choosing sin.

 I see this writing as a detailing of how, no matter the actual relentlessness of our capacity for sinful self-destructiveness, God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is infinitely more relentless in His gift of Divine Mercy.

I pray as I write.

I pray that should you be reading this, whatever your state or condition in life, whatever your faith or lack thereof, whatever bondage you have placed yourself, or been placed in, whatever the sin or sorrow – you – reading this, will come to understand that if one person, one soul, as given over to neurosis and sin as I was be saved by His Grace, that is by His very Divine Self, then you- in this moment,  should fearlessly open wide the doors of your being to Him, to Christ Jesus Saviour.

MAN stands at the crossroads between righteousness and sin, and chooses whichever path he wishes. But after that path which he has chosen to follow, and the guides assigned to it, whether angels and saints or demons and sinners, will lead him to the end of it, even if he has no wish to go there. The good guides lead him toward God and the kingdom of heaven, the evil guides toward the devil and ages long punishment. But nothing and no one is to blame for his destruction except his own free will. For God is the God of salvation, bestowing on us, along with being and well-being, the knowledge and strength that we cannot have without the grace of God. Not even the devil can destroy a man, compelling him to choose wrongly, or reducing him to impotence or enforced ignorance or anything else: he can only suggest evil to him. Thus he who acts rightly should ascribe the grace of God to doing so, for along with our being He has given us everything else. But the person who has opted for the path of evil, and actually commits evil, should blame only himself, for no one can force him to commit it, since God created him with free will.

 FALL arrived finally and with it another stage in my journey.Over the years going to the parish school there had been a seemingly constant increase in the number of siblings going with me. Now the six of them would head off without me.I would join my peers and head to the Catholic High School located on the border between the inner city where we lived and the dim beginnings of uptown.Academically this last of my high school years was to be the worst. Emotionally the turmoil was great also.Spiritually, to a greater degree than heretofore in my life, grace would have a modicum, but an important modicum, of victory.Having done rather well in a high school musical by mid-term, with my new companion, I had begun to fantasize we could run away to the west coast dream factory, away from the taunts and fear of exposure and all the rest of it.Yet at the same time part of me did not want to run away with him but to escape even from him.Perhaps nowhere in our culture, or rather at no stage in the life of youth in our culture, is peer pressure, and the non-control of life, more acute than during the high school years.They are mythological in popular culture as the years of endless possibilities, yet in reality they are starkly cruel.I recall the most popular and beautiful girl, someone genuinely kind, became ill with cancer, had a leg amputated, and returned towards the end of second term, showing true courage, but leaving all of us strangely fearful of her as if she might infect us with death; other girls left because they became pregnant: yet no boy was ever dismissed for fathering a child; drugs, which made some people truly weird, rejection of authority, suicide, rejection of organized religion, running arguments about what was happening with, and the implications of, ideas coming out of the coffee-houses, the budding civil rights and other movements: change was cracking the seemingly invincible veneer of the post-war society.Pope Pius XII had died earlier the previous year and the very popular new Pope John XXIII had recently announced the convening of an Ecumenical Council. We had all received the sacrament of Confirmation, the reception of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, as we were told in those days, and had thus become, again as we were told, soldiers for Christ.Spiritual warriors.Bishop Fulton Sheen was a must see regular on the now more popular medium of television and each time I saw his radiant joy I yearned to know such joy and yearned to be a priest.Then other yearnings would stir again and any dream of mine seemed an almost obscene impossibility.I recall during that Lent my priest friend began to speak about choice, I having finally made a truthful confession. It had caused a great sadness in his voice, but he did not berate me, only tried gently to get me to agree things were very wrong in my life and needed to change.Perhaps because he was so fatherly and kind, perhaps because I was just spiritually, emotionally and physically so exhausted, I began to listen seriously and even to remotely consider there might be a slight possibility of actually conceiving of another way of living than that in which I was in such near complete bondage.

WE receive salvation by grace as a divine gift of the Spirit….The Holy Spirit, knowing that the unseen and secret passions are hard to get rid of – for they are as it were rooted in the soul – shows us…how we can purify ourselves from them. [ae]

 Sometimes however we are offered this grace as not the experience per se of some joyful and fire filled illumination of the soul, but rather as the Triune God in a manner withdrawing from the soul, allowing the soul to experience the actual, terrible darkness of sin, which is in truth the soul choosing to turn her face away from Him.That is what He did with me for much of the year and so as the year progressed that inner darkness kept growing within me and along with its growth my now constant state of anxiety intensified.My priest friend was aware of all this and did his best to help, but there was still great resistance within me.I began once again to retreat deep within myself but this time something else began to occur.Undoubtedly it was because of the grace of the sacrament of confession, operative through this compassionate priest.Little by little I was curtailing my sexual activity, even with my companion, and I even stopped shoplifting and all the other things I used to do.As regards my companion this caused some tension and at times the fear of rejection would overtake me so violently I would abandon the changes which were occurring within me.But only for a brief period, for the hunger to be chaste, to be intimate with Christ, for sanity and peace, for rest, was becoming the greatest of all my hungers.That spring we were bussed to the Jesuit University for what was in those days a typical religious career day for a Catholic high school.The huge gymnasium of the university was a kaleidoscopic vision of the pre-Vatican II splendid variety of religious habits of the entire major, and some of the less well known, orders of priests, sisters and monks.I was enthralled.

JUST as the power of evil works by persuasion, not by compulsion, so does divine grace. In this way our liberty and free will are preserved….Grace does not make a man incapable of sin by forcibly and compulsorily laying hold of his will but, though present, allows him freedom of choice….[af]

  I left there with handfuls of pamphlets on the toughest of the monastic orders of the day and began to dream of life in a monastic idyll.During final exams that year I could hardly have cared less about how I would do, indeed I spent more time studying the pamphlets and books borrowed from my priest friend about the Order than studying for exams.Proof being I was informed, as were my parents, that unless I attended summer school I would fail the year.Between the changes within me, summer school, and my companion being sent to camp for much of the early summer, I suddenly found myself less spiritually, emotionally, physically exhausted and actually began to experience something totally new: hope! One morning after serving my priest friend’s Mass I boldly announced I wanted to become a monk and would he help me tell my father.To my surprise after some perfunctory attempts to talk me out of the idea because I was still a teenager, he agreed,One evening he came to the house and spoke at length with my father.The priest left.My father said nothing other than it was high time I was in bed.I didn’t sleep that night.At some point the next day he summoned me and after expressing his basic opposition to the idea nonetheless said he would speak to my mother.Another couple of days went by.I have never been able to find out what motivated them to agree with my choice but finally my father said he had spoken with a navy chaplain who had once been a monk. The chaplain would take me to the monastery for a visit and if the monks agreed to have me then, in the fall when school was to start for the other children, he would allow me to go.Mid-summer the chaplain arrived one morning in his big black Buick and off we went.I had no idea the monastery would actually be so far from the city, nor that it would be, when we eventually after a drive of more than twelve hours got there, so isolated in its valley in a great forest.On the drive the chaplain had alternated between trying to talk me out of my plan, to trying to convince me I should ask to be a priest-monk. But to do that would require I graduate and have strong marks in Latin and the former seemed iffy and the latter was a definite no chance, so I agreed my best bet was to ask to be admitted as a lay-brother.We spent the night in the monastery Guest-house and the next morning we were given the grand tour and then had a meeting with the Abbot.He was an imposing figure, younger and more joyful than I had expected, but amazingly well informed about me, as his questions conveyed.I figured I didn’t stand a chance but at the end of the meeting the Abbot said he’d just accepted another young man of my age and would accept me too.I was both overjoyed and terrified.The trip back to the city seemed to pass in a flash and a blur.My parents were clearly none too happy but stuck to their word and since I had been accepted, they accepted I would soon be leaving home.Within a week my companion was back from camp and suddenly it hit me that going meant leaving him and so I figured if he’d give the slightest hint he wanted me to stay I’d skip the monastic thing and insist we take off for the coast and the celluloid dream factory.I told him by first suggesting we meet in our favourite hang-out, the ruins of an old factory near the waterfront.Once there I rapidly blurted it all out.He stood there silent.He wept a bit.He said he envied me and knew I would be happy.Interiorly I was enraged at him, at me, at God.I tried to convince him it was all a lark as a tidal wave of rejection-emotions pulled me ever downward and I made a move towards him….”NO!”, he shouted, “ DON’T! I can’t touch you anymore. You don’t belong to me anymore. This is wrong. You belong to Him!”With that he shoved me away. I fell backwards and by the time I’d gotten back to my feet he was gone.I stood there in the rubble and momentarily tried to make myself move, to run after him.I didn’t. Instead I stood there, railed against God, life, exhausted myself with emotional confusion and then, suddenly, a deep sense of release enveloped me and I became desirous of monastic life again and headed home.A few days later, my father having shipped out again, my mother with all the little ones to look after, an Uncle and Aunt took me down to the train station, bought my ticket and with my small suitcase put me aboard the train.As the train pulled out of the station and they waved good-bye I felt a sudden sadness, a sort of: Is there no one to ask me to stay?The train rumbled through the old freight-yards were we boys had played chicken, running between the trains and out-running the railroad police; across the edge of the city and the rows of tenements and factories; round the harbour area near the docks, and then out into the hills headed for the village near the monastery.