God or the Girl, and Other False Distinctions
During my two years in college seminary, one reality show proved must-see TV.
As Mr. Nielsen would report, “God or the Girl” performed exceptionally well in seminary television rooms. The provocatively titled, five-episode A&E series followed four twenty-somethings in their decisions to enter or forego seminary.
Upon YouTube rewatch—I somehow resisted a sub-$10 eBay series purchase—the discernment talk is pretty true to form: intense and philosophical, with want-to exclamation but can-I-really questioning.
Oh, and there’s the 22 mile, 80-pound-cross Calvary journey one would-be seminarian takes. I do remember that detail, forever thankful I never had a priest encourage me to perform a crazy act of…devotion? That, dear reader, is not typical.
Entrance into seminary isn’t either, which is why there is such mystery about what goes on in those exclusive, all-male halls. A&E plays on that general unfamiliarity, clouding the space between “outside life” and “seminary life” with thick incense and trippy transitions.
I’ve had well-intentioned family members put my own discernment from the priesthood in this either-or light. One email reads: “But I can’t understand how you can give up God for a person.”
God or the girl.
The title elicits an eyeroll in me, not a pierced heart.
Firstly, is Catholic holiness really a two-track system? Spurn the world as a priest or religious in order to get God or, for the rest of you 1.3 billion schmucuks, succumb to your lower pulls and get the girl/the guy/the job? Holiness versus holy-lite.
No matter the Church’s official insistence of not being in the business of selling both spirituality VIP and general admission tickets, it can be hard not to get the impression of a chasm between the pew and the pulpit. For every Vatican II quote on the universal call to holiness, there are two –or 10 – council pronouncements that say something quite different. Here’s the dogmatic Council of Trent on the issue:
“If anyone saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or in celibacy than to be united in matrimony, anathema sit.”
Other than being a perfect dog name, “anathema” should be seen in the context of the day. Trent was responding to the critiques of the Reformation, and doing so through very clear, very systematized language. When the boat is leaking, it’s not time to bid out repair quotes.
But, when the boat is leaking, it’s also not time to slap concrete over the hole.
When the Catholic Church shows a hard edge or impervious structure, do like God: humanize it. God becomes human. That’s the real divine provocation.
God or the girl, straight or gay, Republican or Democratic Christian – these all make for reactive conversations, but they all need to be humanized. Do the lives of the saints – the official ones and the ones who have been so in our lives – show a simple, monolithic movement of grace? A showering for the God group, a trickle for the masses?
Or, rather, is God nudging us all along, in the manner inscribed on our hearts and paths, to be a universal, particular, colorful people? This isn’t some watered-down “I’m ok-you’re ok” theology, but a respectful allowance for God to make that interior journey with each and all. If we really extend that to ourselves and others, there can be nothing more tender and more demanding.
So, no, it’s not “God or the girl.” It’s “God,” and every other part of reality that connects me best to that internal conversation and that leads me out more completely in service to others.
And for me, that comfort and challenge wasn’t found in the ordained priesthood.
Priests aren’t wild-eyed, edge-of-town shamans. At least not most of them. They have chosen a particular way of life that connects and leads them, but they’re humans, too (which would be a wonderful vocations poster theme). They have friendships, enjoy hobbies, and are approximately 70% water.
They have relationships, but not a relationship.
I thought this a strange job quirk, but some people don’t get their own parking spot or business allowance. We all deal with job quirks. It can’t be that big of deal, right? I’m introverted by nature. I have my CJ Gardner Johnson “I don’t like people” reflex. I never even went to a high school dance. (Dress up time AND a meal at a Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro…Yeah, I’ll pass.)
So I was perfect for it. I thought. I prayed. I guessed.
Until I started meeting people. Interesting people. People who were showing me stuff about myself.
I don’t have to retell coming to the discernment that rectory life was not for me. At least a dozen of you – and scores of income-from-home Albanian bots – have been inspired by that already.
I discerned out of the priesthood with the hopes of being a husband and a father.
So I signed up for Grindr.
Just kidding. I decided to be a priest looking for love in a, umm, different place.
Maybe right in front of me?
At my first parish, I struck up a friendship with a teacher. Jen was just a friend – no matter how we’re all now humming along to the late, great Biz Markie. We shared interests and eventually two dogs. There were times we gave each other some space, but like Tommylee Lewis, the friendship always resurfaced.
And unlike Tommylee Lewis, the friendship never contained twitchingly bad memories.
When I was beginning the formal (read: scary) part of my discernment, I knew I needed to keep Jen in the dark. The God-or-the-girl mindset runs so deep there’s a name for the poor woman caught up in the another’s discernment from the priesthood: chalice chipper. It’s always easier to caricature, and a harlot heroine makes for a much better story.
More significantly, Jen needed to be kept a communion-rail length away in order to respect her and myself. You can’t leave for someone. That’s a recipe for a later taste of bitterness. I would, though, have loved an argument concluding, “Fine. Then I’m going back to the monastery!” (Editor’s note: Peter never lived in a monastery. It’s just a funnier word than rectory.)
No, I needed to figure out me, and when I did, only then could we possibly figure out us.
Maybe I couldn’t even make it on the outside. I might not have taken to all the silk and lace trappings, but a boy can get used to rose petals under each step and an honorarium in each envelope.
And, from the other side, a man in uniform is more attractive than 37-year-old student. From what I’ve been told. In movies and whatnot.
So July came, with one big part figured out, and a lot more left.
To hang the moon in the Crescent City meant finding God, perhaps with the girl.
I can’t overstate how bonkers the “God or the Girl” cross scene is. There’s a reason it comes in a YouTube parts 1 and 2. There is a spiritual tradition of penance, usually under the banner of asceticism or mortification. Before going to live as a hermit, donning a hairshirt, or carrying an 80-pound cross 22 miles(!), the intention behind the act has to be carefully explored. We don’t earn God’s love, nor do we force clarity on a topic through P90X prayers.