Life has a purpose, right?
I have admittedly grown a bit cynical in third decade of my life, but I still believe the affirmative answer to this question is true. Whether there is one set meaning for all life, or if each individual life holds its own unique and wonderful purpose: this is not so clear to me. But there is some point to it all, of that I am convinced. So, assuming the individuated answer is at least not untrue, then the principal question becomes “What is the purpose of my life?” It is not just a question to ponder in moments of soused philosophising; it is the Question. My life is the story of that Question, and of my pursuit of the ever-elusive (and ever-changing) answer. Will there be a final answer: I won’t really know until my time is up, will I?
So, what is my life for? I keep changing my thoughts on that point, as well as my ideas of what the format of the answer should be. Is this a mere problem of selecting the right job? Or is there something more significant involved? As a boy, it seemed sufficient to contemplate the career aspect of it, and I cycled through the usual answers: cowboy, fireman, pilot, soldier. As I grew in my individuality, my answers became more my own: paleontologist, chicken rancher, Air Force officer, orchestral conductor, musicologist.
And then I was eighteen, and someone told me I should be a priest. I suppose that almost every little Catholic boy thinks at one time or another about the priesthood. For most the thought is brief, easily dismissed, quickly driven out by other, more socially-encouraged dreams. But for some it continues to hold a certain fascination. I fell quite comfortably into this latter category. So when it was rather persuasively suggested that my future should lie with the Church, I was willing to give it a try.
Which is not to say I was entirely convinced that this was the end of my long list of answers to the Question. It was just a really big possibility, and it was also the first one I had really committed myself to grapple with. I realised that it would involve the abandonment of certain other answers: husband, father, lover. This particular abdication never seemed to me a terribly good denouement to my life, but I repeatedly decided that I must give this answer a fair try, must see it through. Perhaps, after all, this was God’s Will for me, and who was I to thwart the Will of God?
A noble ideal; but as my college years fled by, I began to doubt that my human happiness could endure this demanding answer. Some of those other answers would not leave my mind, would not be ignored. I wanted to love a beautiful woman, to nurture a family. It was not good for man to be alone. I did not question then — nor do I now — the ideal of priestly celibacy; I just know that it is an ideal that men other than me are called to fulfill.
Leaving the seminary is still one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I agonised over it with all the existential angst of a man who believes that the wrong choice will consign his immortal soul to the flames. The long lonely walks, the endless packs of gourmet cigarettes, the nightly quaffing of various vicious spirits, the anguished hours kneeling before my God—they all blur together now into one long tortured memory of an uncertainty which I was sure would crush me to the ground. I felt helpless to make the right decision, having no sure way of discerning what this ‘right decision’ might be. I could not afford to err, for error in discerning the Will of God meant damnation in my mind, and this — I hope understandably — weighed very heavily upon my mind and soul.
And just when I thought insanity was imminent, when I felt despair welling up to claim me, events conspired to force my hand, and in the head-spinning pressure of the moment I made the right decision. An ultimatum by the rector; an anxious day which threatened to spiral out of my control; a smoke-clouded meeting with my vocation director — and it was suddenly all clear.
I have said it was a tremendously difficult decision. Yet it was also of all the decisions I have made in my life the one that has most brought me real peace of soul. I knew that I was about to enter a very different world, full to the brim with very difficult decisions; I knew that my life was about to become infinitely more complicated. But I also knew that this was okay: I knew that I was going to be okay, because I knew that, for once, I was making the right decision.
But that earth-shattering decision was merely to decide that one particular answer was not right for me. I was still left with the Question, the answer to which still needed to be found. I was starting over, it seemed from scratch. It has often been difficult in the years since to even remember what the Question is. A decade of placeholder jobs — five years selling books, another four years in the mortgage industry — gave me the stability to find love and start a beautiful family. Yet the Question has lingered, and finally I have mustered the courage and strength to make a new attempt to live a sincere answer to it. It has been a brutally difficult first year on this new stage of my journey. But, with faith, hope, and love, I struggle on.