If awkward conversations were a sport, I could be in medal contention. Unless, of course, the IOC also has a rule against trace amounts of espresso beans in the bloodstream.
“I’m sure you did think about all this, right?”
I have gotten that question specifically. A couple times. Also the heavily pregnant, “So…what’s up with you?” And the completely normal, “Do you think you might be possessed?”
All water—or hellfire—under the bridge, I say.
No matter the awkward starts and pauses, the kindness I’ve received has been Olympic-sized, too.
I didn’t know all this as I sat on the Lake Pontchartrain levee, preparing for my big reveal to my parents. It’s one thing to be personally at peace with a decision; it’s another to dynamite the peace of others. Sweating from the moment more than the midday sun, I noticed the levee designers had been awaiting my arrival. “Caution,” a partly submerged sign read. “Deep water beyond this point.”
My dad, though, kept me stuck on the shore. He was out running an errand or walking a little old lady across the street or covering some church thing. Have I mentioned he’s the editor of our Catholic newspaper? Having moved our family down from Long Island, NY in the early 1990s to take the job, he has received every commendation the Catholic press has ever created. Surely, my decision wouldn’t affect his day-to-day, right?
And then there was my mom. Comedian Jim Gaffigan likes to explain the fervency of his wife’s faith as “Shiite Catholic.” If that’s the case, my mom is the one who sows the burqas. “My son is a priest!”—her staccato delivery emphasizing “my” and “son” and “priest”—becomes: “My son and his minifridge are hoping to live in our guestroom.” Surely, my decision wouldn’t affect her spirit, right?
I have three siblings, each bringing their own set of questions to my announcement, each receiving their own individualized conversation. A back-in-August-2019, hey-I-need-to-talk-to-someone chat for my Brooklyn-based sister. An Ash Wednesday evening meet-up on the church pews at the Maple Leaf with my Nashville-residing brother. An undercard encounter with my one locally living, then-parishioner sister—just before the parental main event.
The timer was clanging the ringside bell to begin.
The Catholic spiritual tradition has some history with guiding big decisions. Indifference is the goal, according to St. Ignatius of Loyola. By that, he doesn’t mean possessing a lack of conviction or sliding along with the flow. He means being grounded in an attitude freed from fear and predetermined judgments. How can I best be of service? How can I best be my truest self? How can I best let the primary stuff be primary, and the other stuff fade into the background?
This is easier said than done. As I would reach different benchmarks in the discernment, I noticed different temptations against indifference. Before fear, comes failure.
A year after entering seminary, I was elected student-body president. How does that reconcile with the nerve-wracked picture I painted last week? Let’s just say my prayer-room-doorstopper routine opened me to accusations of illegal electioneering. From the official Seminary Election Review Act of MMV, Canon CCXXXIV decrees: “Excessive humility shalt not exceed the bounds established by Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Any such excess is subject to prayer confined to your inner room.” (It flows a little better in the original Latin, spelling in acrostic form “locus ad suffragium,”or “polling place,” which could also be loosely translated as “Suffragette City.” David Bowie clearly was quite cultured in the dark arts of seminary politics.)
As an act to galvanize my executive board, I purchased fire-engine red wristbands that declared in white lettering: “Failure Is Not an Option.” This was early summer 2005. I’m proud to say my administration responded to all post-Katrina prayerbook needs—we had a very particular constituency.
Failing to fail is deeper than any questionable act of rubber bracelet motivation. I might not currently have a certain skillset, but get back with me in a week. I can change a lawnmower carburetor and conjugate an Italian verb. I’ve written a dissertation and restriped a parking lot. I once rode in Thoth and made it back out to St. Charles and Marengo for the start of Bacchus. I don’t fail.
But what is leaving the priesthood other than a failure, a permanent blot on my professional resumé and immortal soul? How could anyone see it differently?
And, if it’s not an out-and-out failure, it’s gotta be some fit of selfishness, right? You did 16 years in there; it’s time for you to live a little. I understand this sentiment, but only to a great extent™. Priesthood was never prison, and in fact, this movement seemed less about some delayed “me time” and more about living out authentically who I am. It was about something, gulp, sanctifying even.
But silencing those external noises in a quiet chapel is one thing. Doing so outside is quite another. As noted-theologian Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a prayer plan until they get punched in the face. Or something like that.
As I ascended my parents’s staircase—one of those modern pieces of New Orleans architecture: a Gentilly single-family high-rise, built to look down on the seasonal Sewerage and Waterboard streams below—I tried to catch my breath. Carefully discerned. Hard decision. The fruit of prayer. Ding. Round 1.
It was over faster than an MMA pay-per-view.
My dad was suddenly the one with the shortness of breath, the heavy inhale and exhale of his deep listening. But at least he was breathing. My mother, it seems, had turned to stone.
As I quieted my voice to let the boom sink in, I fidgeted for my keys, readying to turn them in until some parole period had been completed.
My mom blinked first. Moving beside me, she put her arm over my shoulders and said, “You’re our son. We love you, and nothing’s going to change that.” The best knock-out punch I’ve ever received.
Seminaries like to talk about “being pastoral,” to the point that it’s murky and meaningless. Basically, try not to be a jerk to people—the way I’d put it in polite company. You might disagree, you might not understand, you might have some points of distinction or correction. But you first treat the person before you with kindness, with tenderness, with real respect.
With an attitude like my mom’s. A pastoral punch that, no, I hadn’t really thought about.
Speaking of knockouts, who doesn’t want to spend the next 42 minutes watching Mike Tyson’s right uppercut and left hook? Only click after locating the Tylenol.