Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.
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New Year’s Eve 2006… or “Ribbon In The Sky”
The following is a continued account of my first year in seminary with the Paulist Fathers.
Holy Thursday 2006 was spent in a bar. The screen writing class I had been taking finished its six week run and we all decided to go out for a beer. After the evening was through, the instructor of the class (Jim) and I were walking to our cars. He had graduated film school a few years ago and was working during the day for a wine store while working on some projects, one of which he was in the midst of finishing for a producer in Hollywood. As it happened, I was heading down to DC to visit American University Film Program in the morning, and I wanted to pick his brain about graduate school possibilities.
The conversation started at “career” advice but got around to where he’s at in his life—specifically whether he should continue pursuing film or start settling down. Jim was seeing somebody pretty seriously and he realized that he was soon going to have to make some decisions. I’m a few years older than him and I told him of some of my experiences of trying to live out dreams within the context of living a “normal” life and suggested that there might be ways to do both.
I went home after that and hopped on the computer before going to bed. A friend of mine sent me an e-mail… and ex-girlfriend no less… about a new television show that was going to be on that weekend: God or the Girl. The show is a four part series about four young men going through the discernment process for the priesthood, and at the end of the series they would each come to a decision. Gerry, knowing that discerning had been a big part of my life a few years ago sent me a link to the web site with the subject line, “Are you going to watch?”
Discerning religious life had been a big part of my life for over ten years, but two years before I had finally come to the conclusion that it was not for me; the idea of not having a family was too hard for me, emotionally or intellectually, to comprehend. So when I looked at the web site for the show and read about the stories of the four guys on the show I thought, “Yeah, I remember when I was thinking about that… Man that really sucked.” I turned off my computer and headed upstairs for bed.
Except that I couldn’t get to sleep… all night. Thoughts about the priesthood kept rolling around my head, emotions I thought I had put aside two years ago started coming back, and realizations about my life suddenly pushed through my conscious. Half way through the night, despite whatever things I wanted to do in life, despite the fact that I was still in love with Marie, despite very real reservations I have about the current state of the Church, and despite the fact that this would be totally up-ending my life, God was telling me that the time had finally come for me to enter seminary. As I spent the rest of the night crying, I knew that the decision had been made.
Mom asks me before Christmas dinner, “Do you want to go to my old boss’s wedding with me on New Year’s Eve next week? It’ll be fun!”
I replied that she had an unusual definition of the word “fun.”
She replied, “You mean you don’t want to go with your mother so she doesn’t have to be alone?” I would have thought me entering religious life would have spared me from Catholic guilt from my mother; I was wrong.
“Look, it’s early in the evening and we wouldn’t be going to the reception – I’m still going to the neighbors’ party later that night and you’ll have more than enough time to go to your friend’s. I just don’t want to go by myself” she finally offers.
“Well, if you put it that way… Okay.”
At some point I’ll need to come to terms with this knee-jerk attitude I have about weddings. Since I’ll probably never have one of my own, I’m sure jealousy has something to do with it. I think something else at play too… something more practical. When I receive a wedding invitation, the first phrase to pop out of my mouth is “Why is it that when two people fall in love it costs ME five-hundred dollars?!?!” I know, not exactly the intended spirit. But at least in the past, I was usually comforted with the thought that when I get married, I will be able to re-collect on my socially mandated generosity.
I don’t know how ordinations work, and it’s not at the top of my list of apprehensions about going through with all of this. But the possibility of not “re-collecting” on some of these weddings is becoming a concern for me. So… if I do end up going all the way with this… and you’re asking if you would need to buy me a present to an Ordination… and if I’ve been to your wedding and bought you a present… the answer to that question is… “Yes. Very much so.” And don’t think you can get away with buying me a Bible, or a book on the saints, a gold cross, or some stuff like that. I’ll be registered at either Best Buy, Target, and the Apple Store; celibacy has it’s privileges.
But I digress… Mom and I go to the New Year’s Eve wedding. She had a close relationship with her old boss and really wanted to be there. It was going to be a Lutheran service, so I was feeling optimistic; Catholic weddings are usually full Masses, so they usually last at least ninety minutes. I had only been to one Protestant wedding in the past and it was Methodist; it lasted fifteen minutes. Seriously. On television I would always see these weddings being enacted that was over before the commercial break and always wondered what kind of service it was… the only explanation I can think of for this is that all weddings on TV are Methodist. I started to believe that Methodist weddings must be the best weddings ever… but then reality smacked me in the face when I arrived at the reception: no booze.
Anyway, off to the Lutheran wedding. I have to say, I do complain a lot in the run up to weddings, but once I’m there I usually find them to be nice. So I am finishing the year I started on the road of Catholic priesthood by going to a Lutheran wedding. The groom is African-America, so the service has a gospel feel, which I’ve always liked. The groom’s sister is even going to school to become a singer and performs two songs during the service. The pastor is a woman—wait a minute, what’s a GIRL doing up there on the altar?—and she gives a nice homily. After the homily, the pastor invites everyone to communion.
I don’t say “Crap” out loud of course, but it’s the first thought to cross my mind… and not just because the service is going to go over twenty minutes. Because I now have a decision to make.
I’m sure Theology classes will answer some of this more for me, but I have a hard time believing in a God that says, “OK, that’s a Catholic priest down there, so I’m going to let THIS bread become the body of Christ, but this here woman (besides the fact that she’s a chick, of course) is not sanctioned by the guys in Rome, so nothing miraculous there.” The word “Communion” pushes itself to the front of my brain; this sacrament is supposed to bring people together as a community, and it impresses me the openness that they chose to share God. But, as a Catholic (much less one that’s studying to be a priest), I am not supposed to partake in this ritual because it’s not the real… stuff. I’ve been told that we don’t believe it’s the same stuff anyway. I know I have a lot more to learn about the theology of all of this, so (reluctantly) my religious populism gives way to obligation.
But Communion turned out not to be the most memorable part of the evening. When I walked into this Lutheran church in Northern New Jersey, sitting in the next to last row was the teacher of the screen writing class I took this past spring in Baltimore: Jim… otherwise known as the last person to talk to me before God did that fateful night. He was with the girlfriend he was seeing eight months back, the one with whom he was wondering if he needed to settle down. My Mom and I sat behind them. We greeted each other… it turns out that Jim works at the same wine store with the bride… but I didn’t want get into a long conversation. A full explanation of my last eight months was more than I wanted to get into at that particular moment. That also meant that I didn’t ask to see what happened with his script, but the wedding got started soon after we arrived anyway.
I wish I could say that seeing Jim was an interesting but random occurrence… but I have had too many “random occurrences” this year to simply throw it into the “coincidence” bin. There was absolutely no Earthly reason that I should have bumped into Jim from Baltimore in Northern New Jersey.
At the end of the story of Noah’s Ark, God creates a rainbow to signify the covenant he had established with Noah and all humanity that he would never again destroy humanity. And as the groom’s sister sang the lyric “we can’t lose with God on our side” from Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky,” I reflected on all that happened to me this past year, a year in which I was truly a passive participant. I reflected on all of the questions about God, about Jesus, about the Catholic Church, about Holy Communion, and about wedding presents I’ll probably never receive. I still couldn’t help but feel the urgency to have more answers about God, Jesus, the Catholic Church, Holy Communion, and wedding presents than I did at that moment.
But with all of these things coming together at that particular moment, it was hard to miss that there was something bigger than myself at work. At the very least, the encounter served as a sign that I would not be destroyed in the process, that the promise extended to Noah also applied to me. Which was a comforting thought at the beginning of a new year.