personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals
It was a very hot Saturday afternoon in the middle of August in 1940. I was walking down New York City’s Ninth Avenue, on the east side of the avenue, trying to become accustomed to an avenue now denuded of the elevated railway, the “el,” which had been a staple for me since I was a child. It all seemed so strange in a strange world. And rumor had it that the iron was sold as scrap to the Empire of Japan, which was making ominous rumblings in the Far East.
I was 19, a college student with no money and no job. I had recently broken up with my girlfriend, Dolly, the best-looking girl in the parish. She was an extremely smooth ballroom dancer, which fed into my adolescent fantasy that we made a great team on the dance floor. But our dates over cherry cokes had become blah as we talked endlessly of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. It wasn’t working!
I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I would do with my life. Engineering? Medicine, to please my father? Teaching? Nothing seemed to grab me. I had some ROTC training at the City College of New York. Should I go into the military? Theater, like my parents? I felt no pull toward anything. The worst thing was that I didn’t know if I wanted anything. Nothing seemed to matter. It was dull. Drab. Deadly. I was sleeping excessively and wasting time, day after day.
I had had great academic success in my educational experience — honor student all the way, awards and recognition. But it didn’t matter. I was hanging out at Broker’s, the soda fountain watering hole on Columbus and 59th, but my friends were disappearing for one reason or another. Loneliness, boredom and, alienation were my affective companions. Meaninglessness, a disease, was taking over me.
Even the most poorly prepared modern mental-health professional would instantly recognize the symptoms of what we call today depression.
But something happened to me that day in 1940. I had stopped to look in the window of the huge Castle’s Pawn shop just opposite the Paulist church. I turned around, looked across the avenue, and saw a priest in full soutane or cassock, wearing a biretta (priest’s head covering) and taking a break from his onerous job hearing confessions on a Saturday afternoon in a stifling box with no air conditioning (and was heavily curtained to preserve the anonymity of the penitent). He was leaning over the great gray-stone parapet — which is still there to this day — lazily watching the passing parade on the avenue.
I cannot explain or understand what happened to me in such a flash. He seemed so peaceful, so content, so sure he had something important to give. He seemed not to have to explain himself to anyone — even to himself. Priesthood! That was it!! How come it never struck me? It took me two more years to make the move, but I became a Paulist and never looked back. The years of excitement, meaning, friendship, and God have been all-consuming.
I learned later that this priest was Scottish, a convert to the faith and an ex-British naval officer from World War I. Who he was personally doesn’t really matter, I suppose, but what does matter is that God writes his messages through whatever messenger he wishes.
It doesn’t have to add up logically. I believe with Albert Einstein who said: “I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” Whatever hidden cerebral and emotional pathways may have been at work are basically uninteresting to me. It is where I landed that gives me cause for gratitude and personal joy. A bolt out of the blue, an “aha!” moment.
Ultimately, it means that my God spoke to me.
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