Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

This is the first in a series of entries that describes the time when I first entered seminary in September of 2006.

“Now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City…”

Central_ParkI find myself standing in front of the Carousel in Central Park in part because of a sleepless night six months ago; it was a sleepless night in which I heard THE VOICE OF GOD telling me that it was (finally) time to enter seminary. I know, I know; some of you might be asking how I knew that it really was THE VOICE OF GOD telling me that it was time to quit my job as a web developer, sell my house, and eventually have a very complicated conversation with Marie. Even if the fact that this night happened on Holy Thursday is merely a coincidence, I just ask you to assume right now that THE VOICE OF GOD was indeed speaking to me… and in return I promise not to suggest that unless one million dollars is raised for my university, I will be “called home.” Because what is more important than any personal need for head ware made out of Reynolds Wrap is the fact that I am stunned to be back at the Carousel in Central Park starting my first year in a religious community… and not going ring-shopping.

“Seminary” is actually in Washington, DC, but we are now on the first stop of a three-week road trip to visit other parishes of my new community, the Paulist Fathers. First stop: St. Paul the Apostle, the Paulist mother house located two blocks form Columbus Circle in mid-town Manhattan. The second largest Catholic Church in New York City, it is a gorgeous building dating back to the 1870s. It’s where the founder of the Paulists, former New England Transcendentalist Isaac Hecker, is buried. But it’s really known for being the place where Regis Philbin was baptized.

However I have not yet adjusted to spending every waking moment in a building with a crucifix in every room. It makes me wonder if the interior decorators felt beads of sweat roll down their foreheads any time they walked into a room without a crucifix on the wall. Did the decorators wonder if the faith of the inhabitants of the rectory would be smashed into a million pieces if they walked into a room without a physical reminder of the ultimate sacrifice? This was probably not a chance worth taking.

So after two weeks of all Jesus, all of the time, I am starting to close down.  I need some air, some of that non-religious air I had been breathing so much of just a few weeks before. Because it’s not that I hate the culture of Christendom, but the Vatican is not feeling like a fair trade for Marie right now. As a matter of fact, there are more than a few questions exploding in my brain about becoming a public representative of this particular large, multi-national corporation. The biggest question is if I am on my way towards becoming St. Francis of Assisi… or professional spokesman Nick Nailor from the movie Thank You For Smoking. Neither seems like an appealing option right now, so it’s time for a walk in Central Park.

It has been eight months since I was last at this spot. I was spending a romantic weekend with Marie as we and another couple ate our way through a series of exotic restaurants across the isle of Manhattan. I have always been a man of simple tastes, only feeling the need to check off “thin-crust pizza” and “Sabrett street-cart hot dog” on my list of places to feast when visiting my absolutely favorite city on Earth. But one of our other companions was a modern day Dom Deluise who saw the weekend as a Cannonball Run-like race to sample every major eatery between Harlem and Greenwich Village. But in between the Tums defying marathon Marie and I went to see Sweeney Todd on 44th Street. We walked the long way through Central Park hand in hand, taking in the winter scenery. And we rode the Carousel. I’ll just say then when I used to think of New York I mostly thought of the Yankees and Famous Ray’s Pizza. That’s not really the case anymore.

“I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you”

A lot of the retired Paulists live in New York. When I walked back inside to go to my next meeting, one of the retirees asks me how everything is going in passing. All I remember of my response is, “I don’t know.”

“Good answer,” he responds. With the amount of questions buzzing through my head for the past two weeks, it’s exactly what I needed to hear. It’s not what I wanted to hear.  I WANT to be depressed… but it is what I needed to hear, so I’m left simultaneously grateful and mad. I start to grind my teeth.

That night we visit the sisters who live on the third floor of the rectory. The Oblates of Jesus the Priest is an order of sisters from Mexico who pray for and serve priests. I can imagine them being walking nightmares of 70s feminism; they cook all of the meals and do all of the laundry for the Paulists in the house while saying daily prayers for all priests… one could think of them as groupies for religious life. But as I got to know them more I began to see how that would miss the mark; the “Hermanas” have quickly become my favorite people since walking through these doors for reasons going way beyond good Chimichangas and ironed shirts.

During dinner, the Mother Superior asks me how much Spanish I know. After I respond in some broken Spanglish, she winks and says that I probably just know the dirty words… two extra points go into my book for Mother Superior. She then asks us how many people are in our immediate families. When I respond that I have two sisters, she then smiles and tells me that I now have six more.

At the end of the dinner, each of the six sisters tells their story and the Mother Superior goes first. She starts by saying that she simply wanted to spend her life praising God and serving Jesus… and that on this earth, we at the table are Jesus for her. As she says this, she’s looking right at me and smiling. I’m not grinding my teeth anymore. And I have the feeling that I will be leaning on that one moment for a long time to come.

Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.