Giving Up Nick

I decided to give up Nick for Lent.

Who, pray tell, is Nick? Nick is a man I met a few weeks ago when dining with family.

I haven’t enjoyed a meal so much since  I went out with Jeff for the first time, before I learned he was gay. The dinner Jeff and i shared was leisurely, with good food and even better conversation. At the time, I was a single parent, struggling financially with a low-paying job and attempting to realize my dream of becoming a practicing artist. Still, that dinner filled me with an unexpected longing — not the kind of longing which can be satisfied by an intimate romp, but rather a longing to know and be known. I wanted to see him again and again until we knew one another as well as we knew ourselves.

My understanding of relationship has always been somewhat skewed, in part because my mother provided incredibly poor guidance in this area. When I was 12, I was sexually molested as I walked home from a school event one night. I’d taken the path between the grain bins dozens of times, and wasn’t afraid of the shadowed darkness. I wasn’t afraid of the young man who stepped out of the darkness, either. I lived in a small town. I knew the name of every student in my school, including his. However, I was upset when he began to kiss and touch me; I twisted and tried to pull away, but didn’t succeed. 

I did not like the young man; I did not want him to touch me. Increasing my anxiety was my faith; I had learned in religious education that we were not to allow ourselves to be touched, and so I knew what was happening was sinful. When I got home, I went immediately to tell Mom. She was sitting at her sewing  machine. She lifted a cigarette from the ashtray as she turned to me, and took a deep drag as words burst from my mouth, as my experience of being violated spilled from my lips. She  was smiling by the time she exhaled. “That’s how boys show they like you,” she said, and brushed aside my  concerns about sin. I hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t need to worry about confessing it.

I learned nothing about the beauty of human sexuality from that experience or her lesson. It took me years, and work with a therapist, to truly understand that healthy relationships don’t begin with sex, that no man has the right to touch me unless I want him to touch me, and that my religious scruples are not to be discounted. For years, in a misguided attempt to find a man with whom I could build a life, I allowed boys and then men to touch me, and in doing so, came to loathe myself. I discovered firsthand the wide chasm between genuine relationship and all of the self-gratifying ways men and women come together.

I didn’t know how to bridge the chasm between what I’d lived and what I wanted, so I chose to be celibate. By the time Jeff came along five or six years later, I’d stopped looking for love. I was focused on raising my girls to be healthy, well-adjusted young women, and I had discovered a passion for art which was consuming me. Then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, with that dinner, the desire for relationship was resurrected. I began to fantasize about ways to merge our lives, and began to make decisions which would lay a foundation for this. By the time I learned my dream could never become a reality, our friendship had taught me a great deal about relationship, about trust and faithfulness, about comfort and kindness, about love.

But it also made me vulnerable. Having so much only made me want more; I wanted it all — the kind of friendship I enjoyed with Jeff, physical intimacy and commitment. I began to date again in a misguided attempt to have it all. It didn’t work. I was battered and bruised — emotionally, not physically — when I again chose celibacy. That was 15 years ago — 15 years during which my precious daughters grew into women; 15 years during which my passion for art waxed and waned, only to wax again like the moon in the night sky; 15 years during which I’ve moved six times in an effort to find a place where I can put down roots, a place I can call home.  

St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” I’ve come to see the restlessness as my calling and my life as a pilgrimage, as a journey of faith which teaches me so I can be a sensitive companion to others in need. I reflect on my life in prayer and in journals, and then when I sense another could benefit from what I’ve learned, I share relevant experiences. My love for Jeff still lies so close to my heart that I rarely share those stories; they are too precious.

Why now and what does any of this have to do with Nick? Dinner with him evoked the same longing I experienced more than 20 years ago when I dined with Jeff, the longing to know and be known, the longing to see him again. I laughed at myself at the time. “I’m too old for this,” I thought. But I discovered longing acts a bit like a red sock in a washer load of whites. Agitator action pulls it down, out of sight, and then it resurfaces unexpectedly only to be pulled down again.

Although my friendship with Jeff is a gift and grace in my life, I have decided to act this time on the “He’s Just Not That Into You” principle — “if a guy wants to be with a girl, he will make it happen.” When the red sock surfaces, I say, “Oh! There’s the red sock again,” and I turn my mind to other things. It’s an odd Lenten fast, I know, but since it is leading me to act differently than I have acted in the past, it feels like the right one.

Only God knows why.

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The Awakening

“When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”  John 19:30

The suffering was over.

The long day on the cross — Mark’s gospel says it was 9 a.m. when they crucified Jesus (15:25) and it was sometime after 3 p.m. according to all accounts when he died. The long night preceding — a night of prayer and betrayal, abandonment and beating, a night during which he stood alone before those in power, condemned by those who should have allied themselves with him. The days and weeks leading up to that clandestine flurry of activity — days and weeks when fear grew among those who sought to be faithful to the covenant and did not understand the way in which Jesus was re-envisioning the Law for them. It was finished.

He could do no more. Not then. Not through the Incarnation, his fully human, fully divine presence among the people of Israel. And yet, in that moment, in letting go, he did not abandon his ministry or those he loved, although no one understood it at the time. They could not because in Jesus, God was working in a new way, one which led to Resurrection and the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world today.

Often these days I attempt to enter into the stories, attempt to be present through my imagination in a way which enables me to experience the living presence of Jesus. This one, though, I do not need imagination to experience because like so many other people, I’ve experienced painful endings, times when the life I had worked to build was torn from me. In recent months, I’ve come to see how God was shaping me with those circumstances, drawing me into a more intimate relationship with him, working to ensure my heart was not hardened by goals and values which would have prevented me from serving Him with a heart pliant with love. I’ve come to see those endings as transformational new beginnings.

I am grateful for this understanding, grateful to be standing on this threshold — and yet I feel somewhat disoriented. For years, I’ve engaged in regrets about my past and imagined the life I might have lived had I made different choices. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I gone to a Catholic college instead of a state university after graduating from high school. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I gone to work instead of college and avoided the burden of student loan debts. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I managed to complete the degrees necessary to teach at a university, which was my dream at one time.

But, in coming to see my life as a pilgrimage, as a journey of faith, I find I must let go of these regrets. They must be, for me, finished, if I am to embrace the wisdom of God’s hand at work in my life, and if I am to be open to the new life which follows endings in God’s natural order of things. Setting aside habits of thought is no easy task, though. I am guileless as Mary in this. “How can this be?” she asked the angel who visited her (Luke 1:34). She had not been with a man, and could not imagine conceiving a child in any other way. “How can this be?” I ask. I have lived so long with the inner barrenness of regrets, I cannot imagine living with hope and the assurance of a fruitful life.

Fortunately, I am not alone in seeking answers to this question. Others have gone before me and have marked the way. Among them is Sister Joan Chittister, who wrote an especially relevant book called FOLLOWING THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY. I have been reading if off and on for several months, mulling over passages that seemed to have been written especially for me, and have finished it tonight. In the final chapter, she writes, “determining what we are meant to do with our lives will necessarily unfold slowly and tentatively. Just was we grow slowly and tentatively, so will our understanding and awareness of what we are meant to do.”

She then provides guidance for discerning what we are meant to do. Chittister says we’ll have a natural aptitude for the work and a passion for it. In addition, we’ll see it as meaningful. “God did not finish creation,” she wrote, “God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood.” She said we must trust that God is leading us to find our calling, and must ourselves be both patient and committed.

I think I can do that.  I’ve already seen God at work in my life with 20/20 hindsight. Now, I just need to turn around and look to the future, the future of hope he promised long ago.