The Path – II:

A journal of one fool’s journey, and the faith which found him.

It happened by accident.


Just off the lot, spanking new, a canary yellow convertible Beetle with black canvas top: her first car. She never saw the woman as she backed out of the parking stall. Fender-bender, to be sure–but deeply distressing, as only the first wound on new wheels can be. “Why?!” her muttered prayer, angry yet submissive by will, seeking to understand what could have no meaning beyond divine capriciousness. Her unintended target, an older women, gracious and composed, proved more merciful than mad–and by twists quite serpentine, two women met by accident that day, mangled fenders forging new friendship. The older woman’s daughter–a remarkable young lady who lost her sight in early adulthood–soon became Cynthia’s good friend as well. And before long she was introduced by this new friendship to another woman–who was a medical student.

Linda was funny, smart, sassy, and tough as nails. One of only ten women in a medical school class of 200, she could throw a punch as well as take one–a highly useful skill in the days before robust friendships between men and women were castrated by PC speech codes and university thought police. She excelled in the dark, sarcastic humor of the urban Northeast–a skill I too had learned in home and high school, a drop-forged survival shield guarding wounded spirit with sarcastic put-down humor.
Continue reading “The Path – II:

The Path – I:

A journal of one fool’s journey, and the faith which found him.

It was, at the outset, about direction.

Direction demands trust.

At the outset, I had neither.

Faith came easily when young, with a naturalness almost peculiar in retrospect. Ours was a religious home, Roman Catholic, not by any means an oppressive one or coercive as are some, but one in which faith was real, taken seriously, practiced more than preached, rather a quiet but ever-present fact of life. I took to it easily, a shy, timid kid, more at home with books and fantasy than with games and friends. The inner life was lord–for the outer life was, if not utterly chaotic, surely neither healthy nor sane. My mother ruled the roost: daughter of an alcoholic father who abandoned his family when she was young, and an immigrant mother from Poland whose rage at her own abandonment (sent by ship alone to America at age 14, married at 16, abandoned by her drunken spouse after 3 daughters a few years later) was never resolved in any meaningful way. Grandma’s bitterness was never far from the surface, poisoning my parents’ lives in a host of ways–and she passed this dark inheritance to her daughter. Grandmother had moved in with them shortly after their marriage, and lived with us throughout their married life, outliving my father–to my mom’s deep and oft-expressed resentment. My dad was quiet, gentle, rather a passive man, a physician adored by his patients and loved by his staff, but rarely seen by his family–in part due to devotion to his profession, in part, I suspect, to spend as little time with his mother-in-law as possible. My mom, left to husband a mother she at once loved and detested, concocted thereby a semi-toxic brew of smothering love and unpredictable rage which made engagement with her either emasculating, or terrifying–or both. To hide was the safest path–and hide I did. I learned to live alone while living among others.

Our home was but a few blocks from our parish church–a magical walk, with aged oaks hung low, cool and verdant in the moist heat of summer, stark and graceful in winter snows. I found the church a place of refuge–not during Mass, when far too crowded–but in those quiet times when pews were empty, lights were low, soft echoes of footsteps on marble, shadows of votive lights darting on darkened walls and sainted statues. The flickering candles whispered of a quiet presence: a comfort, a peace I rarely if ever found elsewhere. I loved it there: God was close. It was the only place where I knew no fear.

But children grow, and become teenagers. The Jesuit prep school I attended–men only, a tedious commuter train trek from home (my love of the rails its only saving grace)–fed me robust education and rotten theology. It introduced to me an angry God, constantly seeking to catch you in your faults, punishing you for every misdemeanor, trivial and trite. For a timid, wounded kid, it was hell: a lonely, graceless, fearful place with few friends and no happiness. It was a glorious day when I left those dark halls, their lockers like cell blocks in juvenescent jail. Abandoned in tatters was a simple faith of earlier years, replaced with cynical disgust for the hypocrisy of self-righteous religion.

College was liberation–a liberation, like most, more enslaving than ennobling. Whiskey, weed, and women were the new watchwords–success forthcoming in but two of three, as my social ineptitude and painful interpersonal impotency made relations with the opposite sex futile at best, moot most often. But booze and bogies trumped babes in spades–tequila demands no small talk, rejection revels in rotgut wine. These chemical friends restored a measure of serenity, divine ecstasy in empty bottles, cannabis incense, and solemn hymns of Hendrix and the Dead. There were, by grace, sufficient periods of sanity and enough non-toxic neurons to survive with good academic achievements. Miracles do happen, indeed.

There is in life always a guiding theology–though you be atheist or agnostic, religious or indifferent–as was I. Mine in this period was remarkably feeble: a passing acknowledgment of some vast Being able to create a billion unique snowflakes, yet caring not one wit about some solo slob stumbling through life. So, I figured, I was on my own–and on my own wasn’t going well: my chosen major, chemistry, a crushing bore, and a career therein unimaginably awful; an aching loneliness for relationships never fulfilled; the dreaded demand to settle on a lifelong career with no inkling whatsoever of a course which might bring happiness or satisfaction. My draft lottery number–31–assured a rapidly evaporating school deferment would soon sweep me to new and untold adventures in the steamy jungles of ‘Nam. Panic is not too strong a term to describe my state of mind.

The decision was easy–if profoundly superficial: with my father a physician, and a brother headed as well down this path, medicine was the default choice–and offered an extended student deferment, and the faint hope of the approval of a remote father–a hope never to be realized.

Was there ever a more noble calling to the healing profession?

But the simple fact was that I had not one clue: no way of knowing if the choice was the right one; no means to judge my own suitability for such an undertaking; no tools, skills, or craft for assessing such a weighty decision; no sense of calling or direction. I was a blind pig praying acorns weren’t afflictions, stumbling forward with blind faith in pure dumb luck.

And thus, as if guided by some mighty unseen hand, I chose a course of life which would by turns transform that very life, in ways I could neither anticipate, nor plan, nor hope for, nor even dream possible. That journey, and the faith thus engendered, I hope to share in some yet unwritten and undiscovered entries in this path’s journal.

Collision of Worlds

cosmosAs wrecks go, it was not all that spectacular: some broken glass on the roadway, a few police cars, their rooftop strobes painting the night walls of nearby buildings with surreal dancing figures of light, red and blue. The SUV sat on a flatbed, with little apparent damage; the less fortunate compact, compacted on the passenger side. No apparent injuries, no ambulance, no stretchers.

The intersection–a T-bone emptying a side street into an urban arterial, controlled by a stoplight–was one I traveled often, almost daily. It was the insider’s way home–the city street longcut which circumvents the crush of rush-hour traffic, bypassing the freeway which costs time even on the best of days. Stopped at the light, I rubbernecked the scene, half-distracted by the mindless verbal patter of talk radio or some burned .mp3 I had heard too many times before. The mind wanders in such places, darting from thought to image, with no strong focus or overarching life crisis to rivet its attention. So the thought was odd, atypical, crisp in its clarity:

Sometimes other accidents happen at accident scenes.

The light turned green–my usual clue to pin the pedal and shorten my day by milliseconds while squandering a few extra ounces of too-costly petrol. But I paused: atypical. Was it the thought? Some other distraction? The fatigue of a day too long, the distracted weariness of a profession which sometimes bleeds your lifeblood like red pools on pavement? Who knows–how do you ever know?

My foot off the brake, not yet on the pedal, my car eased lightly into the now-allowed right-of-way. Retinal rods sensed motion without detail on the right–a car stopping at its just-red signal–or so it seemed at first.

He blew through the intersection–40, 45 my best guess–passing within inches of my front bumper. Never slowed, never braked, never aware that my car even existed. No surge of red from the tail lights, as they quickly faded down the dark arterial, undiminished and unaware.

The obligatory expletives rolled off my tongue, with far less fury than fear–it’s incongruous the bodily functions we sometimes call “holy.” The adrenaline leaves you shaken, and shaking, as the reality of what if sinks in.

Sometimes other accidents happen at accident scenes.

What is the nature of such intuition–a random thought presaging some disaster, a warning arising from–where? The depths of subconscious? Some long-forgotten experience, or story overheard? Perhaps a higher function of the brain, poorly developed and unrecognized, or some cosmic power, called “E.S.P.” or “paranormal” or “premonition” by those nearer to being charlatans than sages.

It may of course be any of these things, or several, or none: a random thought on a random corner, on a random night, near a random driver motoring recklessly. My sense, however–my conviction, even–is that it was something rather more–a collision, if you will, of two universes.

Such thoughts seem out of place–quaint even–in a technologically sophisticated culture where all that is known is that which is measured, where wisdom is weighed and parsed and packaged, and knowledge grows vaster about things ever more trivial. This vastness of knowledge has left us smaller people, living in a tightly constricted world, where joy and wonder have become the fodder of fools, displaced by cold cynicism and soulless skepticism. Ours is the triumph of gnosticism, the age of salvation through knowledge, fact trumping truth and science slaying the spirit. For in our great knowledge we have lost sight of that which is far vaster still, a universe unseen yet still experienced by many, a cosmos which impacts our lives moment by moment in ways both tiny and tectonic.

Ever since man looked upward at an incomprehensible sky, he has perceived the need for transcendence, to provide not only knowledge of the wonders beheld, but their meaning–to integrate that which is far larger, far deeper than himself into some sort of meaningful whole. Thus the history of man is the history of religion–a history with endless variations simple or sophisticated, from cave glyphs to gothic cathedrals, all pointing to something beyond man himself, whose very nature demands an explanation his nature alone cannot provide.

The fusion of these two worlds–material and spiritual–has had profound effects on human history in ways both great and small: from the lofty musical masterpieces of Bach and Handel, to the soaring architecture of the great cathedrals, to the preservation of ancient literature and culture by the monasteries, to the very roots of Western civilization, with its elevation of the individual and ideas of freedom and human rights, derived from Judeo-Christian insights on the nature of man and his relationship to God. And beyond these large and tangible mileposts lie countless lives transformed through the touch of spirit on hardened hearts, rippling through ages and cultures in ways almost imperceptible yet profound.

Yet Western civilization, so richly endowed with the gifts and benefits of its infusion of spiritual life and principles, has in an ironic twist taken one of these very gifts–the value of reason and logic and curiosity about the workings of a divinely-ordered creation, which gave rise to science–and used it as a wedge between the material and the spiritual. Western culture has bankrupted the very treasure from which its greatness arose, leaving an increasingly fragile shell of process without principles, institutions without inspiration, governance without grace. Steeped in knowledge yet long in shortcomings, our culture increasingly dismisses the spiritual and transcendent as but mere ignorance or malign superstition, and thus strangles its own lifeblood in its frantic rush to solve problems of the soul with the prescriptions of science and sociology. Our sickness is deep, and pervasive, and ultimately deadly–and made even more dangerous by our peculiar denial that there exists any sickness at all. Such malady takes many forms: from evangelistic secularism, seeking to purge all thought or mention of religion from our collective consciousness; to the intellectual miasma of postmodernism, where the only absolute truth is the denial of absolute truth; to the grand charade, where lust for power or corrupt materialism masquerade in the mantle of religious devotion or a gospel of social justice–which is neither just nor good for society; to the spirituality of the self, which seeks to find God within having denied Him without, and ends up worshiping only ego, in all its hideous manifestations.

There are, it is said, many roads to God–a cozy notion for the intellectually lazy and spiritually slothful, a passing nod to a past glory still spoken of but no longer believed. It is a bromide fast dissolving in a world where religious zealots praise Allah while slaughtering women and children; where men sing of Jesus while drinking poison Kool-Aid; where televised con-men fleece the faithful while preaching love and generosity; where men of the cloth speak of killing the elderly and suctioning the young with soothing words of “mercy” and “freedom” and “choice.” We are tossed like ships in a storm because we have lost both rudder and mast: the principles which have steered us, and the power which gives us purpose and direction, have been swept away in the rolling swells of material prosperity and the saturating rains of empty information and worthless knowledge.

It is time to do the hard work, the painful and unsettling job of foregoing easy assumptions and comfortable conclusions, to shine the harsh light of honesty and self-examination on our sated and sleepy souls. The easy road only leads downward, and we have followed it far too long. If all roads lead to God, then no road gets you there: you will spend an eternity seeking that which you do not wish to find.

I am a Christian; this is the road I have discovered, which has led me to God, which has allowed me to glimpse that universe which I understand little and conform to less. I make no apologies for my convictions, for I have found, by grace, a solid path which, while mysterious and tortuous and unpredictable, has proven real, and trustworthy, and tangible ways which only the intangible can be. As G.K. Chesterton said of his own journey into faith, the case for Christianity is rational–but it is not simple; it is an accumulation of countless facts all pointing in one direction. In the coming months, I hope to share something of my own journey into and through this faith. I do so, of course, in the hope that you too may also discover–or rediscover–its depth, and power, and integrity. But short of even this, may we begin to examine truth, and restore the principles, which alone may shine light on our ever-darkening age.