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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

14 thoughts on “The Path – I:

  1. Many of us have survived rotten beginnings far better than, from a human perspective, we should have–survived, thrived, and even, by some miracle, learned to give and to receive the love we craved so deeply.

    Your writing, in my limited experience, is always very good, at least, and often truly excellent, but never better than in your self-disclosure. IMO, anyway. I look forward to the next installment, and pray for you to be further healed and blessed in the sharing.

  2. Ferrol Sams is a physician who has also produced several very good books. Run With the Horseman, Whisper of the River and a couple more seem to have topped his collection, but they are very entertaining. He is does not have your level of intensity or erudition, but his stories evoke a wonderful sense of days gone by that let the reader know his characters, the main one of whom is clearly autobiographical.

    He lives just South of Atlanta. I don’t know if he is still writing, but he’s scheduled for readings at a few local venues this month. His opus is small and local, but his style is as irresistable as a homemade biscuit. Very funny guy. Wise, too, in many ways.

    You and he have little in common other than your day jobs. I was just curious. If you ever have a need to escape for a few hours, you might enjoy a Ferrol Sams book. Light, easy reading. Good story-telling. Plus, the kid in the stories grew up to be a doctor. Emory, I think.

  3. Ferrol Sams is an author – a wonderful one, who has written a series of books that I loved. Unfortunately, I borrowed all of them, and cannot remember the titles.

    I would like to echo Vicki Small – I cannot wait for another post!! My husband grew up Catholic, was taught by brothers and then went to a Jesuit run university. We will both enjoy your story, I am sure.

  4. Dr. Bob – I’m a “lurker”, but I have commented a few times. You have unwittingly just described my life – the similarities are amazing. I, too, look forward to the next installments. God bless.

  5. I am a few years older and took a Berry plan deferment for residency training. Then the VietNam doctor draft hit my fellow interns and residents.
    My choice of medicine didn’t come just the same as yours because of this. I was also the oldest son of the doctor-father who was away from the house often and a bit forbidding when home. I had a lot of small town societal pressure, rather than wartime pressures.
    Nonetheless it was undoubtedly a good vocation for both of us.
    I recently recalled reading A.J.Cronin at 16-18 several years after my father had died. The physician figures of Cronin helped ground me. A.J.Cronin also introduced me to Catholic priests, which was a foreign subject in my little Oklahoma town with no RC church.
    Medicine should be a vocation, in the RC meaning of the word. Albeit different from the priesthood or abbey, there are many similarities when done right.
    I can echo the good comments on Ferrol Sams, I haven’t read his stories in a few years, but the docs are the same people that A.J.Cronin penned–not saints, but a cut above the usual business man or attorney down the street.

Comments are closed.