Dark Nights and Carmelites
During my college years in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I used to take night walks whenever I could, no matter what the season. The walks let me get out for a few hours, see the town in monochrome and street lights, and pray. On most of the walks, I would head out of my neighborhood, called the Eighth Ward, take a right at Murphy’s Bar and head up the hill toward Westmont, the well-to-do neighborhood at the top of the hill where a century before the steel bosses had built their homes overlooking the mill houses and billowing stacks in the valley. On each trip, I would stop at the observation deck of the Incline Plane, a tram up the side of the mountain built to ferry the bosses to their homes, look at the town below for a while and then start back. Usually the trip was uneventful, but on occasion something would happen to wake me up.
One night I made the walk and decided to cut through a small wooded area that provided a shortcut from the street above Murphys’ to my house. I had used the short cut a hundred times during the day but never at night. I figured I knew the path and it was a short distance that would save me thirty minutes of walking. As soon as I entered the woods, I was struck by how dark it was. Without street lights and with the canopy covering the moon, the path and surrounding trees were nothing but a mottled soup of gray and shadow. As only a 20 year old can, I told myself I would get the hang of it eventually and kept going. As I stumbled through the dark, each step was an act of faith: sometimes my steps would disappear into a drop off in the path, sending me lurching forward to my knees, other times my steps would stomp short as the path rose sharply against me.
I could hear things running through the brush in the dark, either scared or intrigued by my Frankenstein lumbering into ditches, stumps, and brambles. With chilling clarity, my mind immediately recalled all the sightings of bears, bobcats, cougars, and wild dogs that had been spotted in the area over the years. I remembered that earlier that summer I had come across an old coal mine shaft not far from the path I was now walking that had been spray painted in pentagrams, burnt stumps of red candles still seated in the ground at the entrance. In the end, the “short cut” seemed to take an eternity and the short distance doubled itself in my mind as I fought to extricate myself from each mis-step in the gray darkness.
I never forgot that short cut in the dark night. Not only did I feel stupid and disoriented; I felt vulnerable. I couldn’t see. I could barely walk. I had no sense of direction. I couldn’t judge distance, or speed, or size. If anything I had imagined was lurking in those woods had come at me, I could only wait until they/it hit me before I could respond.
In the last month, my spirituality has felt the same way that short cut did. Just about every aspect of my life has unraveled and it feels like every step I take, at home, at work, in my discernment, sends me reeling into a pit I didn’t see coming or crashing head first into a reality that wasn’t there before. And, like that night, I am feeling stupid, disoriented, and vulnerable.
Two months ago, my biggest concern was how to stay patient enough to keep my commitment to my older brother and his wife to help them with the kids for the next year before I entered the Carmelite pre-novitiate. Now, I am wondering if I will ever see my twin brother alive again, and if I will ever have an opportunity to become a priest at all, in or out of religious life. The landscape of my spiritual life has taken on an entirely different color in the dark. What was familiar and safe has become a terrifying unknown of unrecognizable shapes and shadows. All I can do is continue to walk, stumble, or crawl to the next crater left by another bomb that has dropped in my path. My plans and timelines for entering Carmel, my supposed insights into discernment, seem laughable and naive to me now, like the advertisements for the Titanic almost a century ago, claiming the ship was unsinkable.
Today, I am learning to let the current of my life determine the direction of my life. In all these changes, I have to believe that God is forging a new future for me according to His will that just could not be possible if the status quo structures of my life as it was remain intact. It may well end up that these changes propel me toward the Carmelites sooner than I had planned or it may turn out that I am swept away past them, past religious life altogether, past the priesthood, toward some other life I can’t see. Just as a series of life changes re-directed me back toward the Church and into vocational discernment a decade ago, another set of life changes now seem to be at work in my spiritual journey again. My instinct is to detach and listen and keep discerning, this time not what I want or what I arrogantly presume God wants but rather where I am needed most and where God is ultimately leading me in this intense dismantling of my life.