By Paul M. Lewis
Fifty years ago this month, I had just left the monastery where I’d lived as a monk for the previous seven years. I was twenty-one years old, struggling to find myself in a world that was as totally unfamiliar to me as the inside of a silent monastery is to most people who have never lived there. This “outside world,” as we called it and as I even then thought of it, was loud and overbearing, seemingly both uncontrolled and uncontrollable. If I had landed on an alien moon, or a planet somewhere on the far off edges of the galaxy, I am not sure I would have found it all that much less strange or intimidating. To me, this new world was exotic, incomprehensible, and in conflict with everything I had come to think of and rely on as familiar and stabilizing.
It had been my choice to leave. I knew I could no longer remain locked behind monastic gates, not with the kind of desires I had. As a young gay man, my hormones were roiling and boiling, but as a monk, I had kept my vows, reined in those sometimes almost overwhelming impulses into a kind of control (the “white-knuckle” kind, as people in AA say) and had refrained from all carnal contact with other monks. Much later, I learned that many other young monastics had not, but I took the vows I had pronounced as sacred promises and followed them to the letter. My plan, as bizarre as it may seem to anyone now, was to leave, begin dating girls, which would magically cure me of otherwise unwanted desires, and then eventually rejoin the monastery once more after I had become “normal” again. There is hardly any need to say that this did not happen, could not have happened, and for that I am now more grateful than I can probably ever express.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that during this first year on the outside, that first summer in particular, I was in a kind of constant state of trauma. I flew home—for the first time on my own—from Washington, DC, where the monastery was located, to upstate New York, where my mother and brother lived. But I stayed there for only a few weeks, as I had applied for and been accepted into an NDEA (National Defense Education Act) scholarship, as a future teacher of French. The eight-week immersion course (all day, everyday, only French was to be spoken) was located at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Twenty-five people from all over the United States had been accepted and formed our group. The fact that probably two-thirds were women, while not exactly a surprise, nonetheless still came as a kind of existential shock to me. Up until that point, I had never in my life spent so much time with young women my own age, and I found it both terrifying and enlightening. It was the beginning of a long learning curve for me, during which I slowly came to realize, and to enormously appreciate, the fact that the female sensibility was different from that of men, and that women have marvelous, even almost magical insights to offer.
Even so, dating women—as I had promised myself I would do—was not easy. I had no notion of what to expect, nor what they might expect from me, or how to respond if, in fact, they wanted something I could not provide. I dated Martha first, and found myself liking her very much, though only as a friend, even going so far as to visit her in her family home on Cape Cod. Later on, I dated Bea, perhaps because she looked kind of boyish, but I found her unsettlingly aggressive, to the point almost of making me want to flee. And when it became clear that I was supposed to be kissing her, but did not, even now all these years later I cringe to remember her saying to me: “What? Do I have spinach in my teeth, or something?” As much as it is a useless and futile exercise to regret anything in life, I have to say that I am nevertheless extremely sorry for what I put them through. I know I did my best, but they were both fine women, good human beings, and they deserved better than I was able to give. No doubt, they have gone on to have happy and fulfilled lives; or so it is my hope anyway.
At the same time, I was struggling at least as much with my faith. More and more, I began to realize that I could no longer believe in a rigid, overly doctrinaire, and uncompassionate Church, one that had once been the mainstay of not just my spiritual life, but of my psychological and emotional life as well. This bedrock of what I had felt to be my identity was rapidly beginning to shatter. Everything I knew or was familiar with had begun to flow away, until soon it became a river in flood stage, a torrent that carried with it whatever had previously seemed solid and stable. I was drifting with nothing to cling to. I did not want to confide in my mother, as she had troubles enough of her own, mourning the passing of her husband, my father. And my brother was a young straight man, who spent his time in the local bars with his factory working buddies. I felt I hardly knew him.
But as difficult as all this was, and as lost as I felt, I also realized at some level that it was the beginning of a new and exciting life, something I had never before envisioned for myself. The particular Catholic religious order I had been a member of was made up of teaching brothers. As such, while a monk, I’d also been a student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Upon leaving, I had one year left to go before getting my bachelor’s degree in French Literature, and I did so at the State University of New York at Albany.
I could not rely on my mother for money, as she had none, and so while finishing my last year at university, I also worked every night, and all day Saturday. The job I got was in a local reform school for teenage boys, working in the recreation department. Obviously, institutional settings somehow attracted me, as much as this one represented what might be thought of as the darker version of a monastic environment. But regimens, schedules, and organized, bureaucratic settings, even institutional food and set and stable mealtimes clearly represented my comfort level. And somehow, I instinctively knew how to empathize and interact with boys who felt bereft and alone, even if they did put on a tough and sometimes off-putting front.
That first year on the outside is one I will never forget. It taught me that I could face what had once seemed frightening and even unbearable to me with a degree of courage and resilience. That said, it was still a long time before I began to feel even minimally adequate, the beginnings of an ability to take care of myself in a world that often felt alien, hostile, and simply inexplicable. Sometimes the smallest task would throw me, a thing that I knew I should know how to do, but did not. The first time I had to make a doctor’s appointment, for example, I remember thinking: “How exactly do you do that?” Until I made myself take this on, I had no clue that it was as simple as calling and scheduling one at a convenient time. That was the degree of my inexperience in the world. Virtually every day was an occasion to learn something new, to be frightened and utterly perplexed, and then slowly to come to see how I was supposed to conduct myself. I didn’t always like what I saw, or even understand it, but ultimately I decided that this was how to make my way toward a hoped-for adulthood, a sense of maturity, from the Latin maturus—as I knew—meaning “ripe.”
The curious thing is that I feel as though I am still learning, all these years later. When does one reach maturity? When are we fully ready to adequately face the unknown, the continuing, ever-changing challenges of life? Perhaps only when we leave this world. As the ripened fruit falls, so ends our struggle to grapple with life. Everything that I have faced and found, the summonses, the dares, the provocations, as well as the prizes, the great rewards that come to fill our hearts and minds, all have been worth the effort. This is the comfort that comes with seeing things from an older perspective.
So, I have learned something in these fifty years. And if it is not as much as I could or should have, at least I do know this: Nothing in life goes to waste. Everything we experience contributes to who we are, to our understanding of our rightful and fitting place in a sometimes wild and unpredictable, but always—ironically—a perfect, and beautifully ordered world.