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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The Scent of Confidence
Last year for spring break, I headed back to Northern California. I know, Berkeley is not exactly Daytona; there are no houses rented by MTV featuring free shows by Snoop Dogg and the tie-dyed culture seems somehow incompatible with wet T-Shirt contests. But the Cal Newman Center was the location of my Lenten apostolate two years ago and a part of me wanted to head back to the place where this life was newer than it is now, a time when I was still just wading into this pool called religious life… with both hands gripping the railing. And upon arriving in Northern California Peet’s Coffee was the first item on the checklist.
The checklist was an exercise in nostalgia: a list of the things I used to do, food I used to eat, and places I used to visit during that time when my only responsibility in life was to discern a life of priesthood in Northern California over an In N’ Out cheeseburger. But upon waking up on my first jet-lagged morning in Berkeley, it became obvious that I needed certain forgotten toiletries before coffee, so I made my way to the Long’s Pharmacy on Shattuck Ave. Yes, there was a Walgreen’s much closer to the house but… well, they don’t have Long’s on the East Coast and I was trying as local as I could be without flunking any blood tests.
The digits to the left of the decimal point were a lot higher than one would expect for assortment of deodorants offered; who knew that a pharmaceutical chain would take such blatant advantage of basic human needs so close to a college campus? But after getting over my moral outrage, I started looking over the selection; that’s when the label for Old Spice jumped out at me:
“Old Spice: The Official Scent of Confidence.”
Wow, that’s a bold claim… it’s certainly not a claim the people at the chili restaurant down the street could make. And even though it was the most expensive item on the shelf, faster than you can say “medicinal hemp should be legal!” my hand grabbed for that talc of salvation. No cost is too great for confidence… even on a seminarian’s budget.
Just having the Old Spice in my bag gave me a new determination in life, so I headed out the store and began my journey towards caffeinated refreshment at the old coffee shop I used to haunt. Along the way, I passed a familiar second-hand clothing store called “Mars;” the people of Berkeley are often referred to as aliens, so why shouldn’t they shop at a thrift store named “Mars”? But as I rounded the side of the building, I was reminded of the billboard the store features on the side of its wall. Two years ago, it read “I want Pluto to be a planet again.” I anxiously turned the corner to discover what the pearl of wisdom would be this time.
“We may be cheap, but we’re not easy.”
At the Peet’s Coffee on Dwight Avenue there was a cashier wearing horn-rimmed glasses with an earring in her nose and a nose-ring in her lip. Do you know how long it had been since I interacted with somebody who has a nose-ring, a pierced lip, and horn-rimmed glasses? Answer: too long.
The sugar-Free Chocolate Mocha on the menu caught my eye, so I asked the cashier for her impressions of the product. “They use Splenda with the sugar-free chocolate… it’s not good for you. It’s worse for you than real sugar. It’s not… natural.” It made me think of my sister who used to do advertising for the company that made Splenda. Going to her house was like walking into the lair of a Colombian Drug Lord, mounds of white powder everywhere.
In the Northeast “natural” really isn’t on the schedule… but in Northern California it is important to be natural. As a native New Jerseyan I cannot claim to know what being “natural” means, but in the Golden State the more natural you are the better off you’ll be, so I decided to be natural this particular morning. I asked the cashier if it was Okay for me to get the WHITE chocolate mocha. Despite years of the people from Hersey trying to convince everyone otherwise, the cashier did not suggest that white chocolate was unnatural.
Gazing out the window of Peet’s and sipping on my white chocolate mocha, I reflected on this morning’s message from Mars; “Just because we’re cheap, we’re not easy.” It struck me that a relationship with God is cheap… but not easy. There are times when it appears that Jesus has no idea what he is talking about when he says that his “burden is easy and his yoke is light.” Actually a relationship with God is often just the opposite of… Old Spice antiperspirant: easy, but not cheap.
As I reflected over all of the struggles I have had since my last cup of coffee in this place, I counted the number of times I was tempted to throw down the credit card on life and try to purchase “easy.” But then I remembered that I was just beginning a vacation in which my biggest decision for the day was whether or not to drive down the California Coast or to get a mud bath in wine country. At that present moment the world outside the window of Peet’s was going by in all of its tie-dyed glory on a rainy California day and while a thoroughly natural white chocolate mocha was kicking off a full week of no papers, no exams, no workshops. And then I thought that maybe Jesus had a point after all.