The Path – II:
Exodus

The Path - Part 2: Exodus

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

Really.

Just off the lot, spanking new, a canary yellow convertible Beetle with black convertible 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 close friend as well. And before long she was introduced by this new friendship to another woman–who was a medical student.

Linda the future physician, 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.

The blind date with a mutual friend–Linda and Bill, Cynthia and I–was a disaster, although I failed to recognize it at the time. Sharp, sarcastic barbs soared through the room like barroom darts: Linda, Bill and I trading mutual put-downs passing for party talk. I barely spoke with Cynthia, my social dis-ease uncomfortable with anything approaching normal verbal intercourse.

But she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met: long auburn hair cascading down her slender back; rich russet eyes behind tortoise-shell rims, penetrating the soul; a quiet, demur presence and graciousness I had never before encountered. Had I known, that night, her reaction to our first encounter, I would never have phoned her: she drove away, politely waving, while thanking what gods there were that she would never have to see that jerk again. A lady-killer I may have been–but surely not in any sense which one might hope.

She does not know to this day why she accepted my invitation, one week later–nor do I comprehend my willingness to face the certain rejection engendered by such a cold call: an act normally associated with abject terror. Our reunion proved vastly different from that horrid night of two weeks prior; she tells me now she knew, after that first date, that we would be married.

Less than a year later, her foresight became fact–two strangers, wounded warriors, boarded a train together on a journey to an uncertain destination. By odds, it might not have worked; by grace, it was destined to.

Hers was a decidedly patriarchal family, where religion was a topical no-man’s-land: Father Episcopal, Mom a Catholic, raising the kids by the rules of Rome–but the brokered deal permitted no broaching of this potentially contentious subject. Religion was something you just did, a family routine without much substance–for her, at least. By college she was “liberated” from its clutches–much as I had been. But for a nettlesome brother, who “got religion” and hammered her with it, she might well have stayed that way. The anvil of God shattered the hammer of hardened self-will, and she finally broke, acknowledging her submission, almost in spite. Then, unexpectedly, her life began to change.

When she first broached the subject of faith with me, a month or so before we were married, I was–true to form–utterly clueless. She asked if I believed in Christ, and I replied that I always had–and promptly poured myself a Scotch, self-satisfied that I had put that awkward topic to bed with style and panache. But at some level something stirred: what did I believe, if anything, about God, and Christ, faith and spirituality? The terror of impending marriage quickly drove such thoughts from mind–but not from the heart, where they would resurface in unexpected ways in the quieter days after our union.

The routines of our early marriage proved propitious: I on short vacation before resuming medical school, she working full time and some evenings, left me with time alone–time to read. I started to engage the New Testament, which was for me very much an open book: I had no preconceived notions of what I might find there, yet an ill-recognized anticipation that answers deeply sought might be discovered therein. It was, I knew, the core text of Christianity–but a core never confronted, something of a secret book glimpsed but dimly through the ritualized litanies of liturgical worship. Expecting in no small part the arid aimlessness of countless homilies haplessly delivered, I was stunned to find something quite disquieting: a stirring of spirit, the soft whisper of words breathing life, a narrow shaft of brilliance from a door barely ajar, cutting the dense darkness like a scalpel slicing deftly to the depth of the soul.

Days passed; I could not desist. The Book drew me in like some enchanting wizard, widening my vision and deepening my distress as I sought some resolution, some culmination lying just beyond my reach. The path broadened and narrowed, its destination uncharted, its wooded boundaries obscuring my view yet drawing me forward in some impassioned journey to a land unknown.

The clearing came suddenly, almost shockingly: a tree, and upon that tree, a man. A man I had known, but dimly, yet long forgotten. A man who knew me–gazing to the very depths of my rawest wounds and raging shame–yet a knowledge not terrifying, as such knowledge might be, but liberating, unshackling, almost whimsical with joy first discovered. It was a new day, a new light–a new life. How little I understood of the tortuous path thus traveled–or of the perilous and unpredictable turns in the journey ahead.

But I had found purpose and direction; little else mattered. I had but to trust–but trust was a stranger to a heart bound by fear. It would take many mistakes and countless wrong turns to unbind its cruel cords.

The Path – I:
Genesis

The Path Part 1: Genesis

A journal of one fool’s journey, and the faith which found him.
Genesis 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, not entirely healthy or sane either.

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.