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.

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