A TIME TO LOOK BACK, A TIME TO LOOK FORWARD

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.

THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY: WHO ARE WE, AFTER ALL?

By Paul M. Lewis

Whom do we identify with? That’s a basic question all of us may want to spend some time thinking about. It might seem at first to be of relatively small importance, too abstract to even mean anything in the real world. But it turns out the answer to it influences a lot about how we live our everyday lives.

Let me start off with an example from my own life. When I was young, I thought of myself as a good Catholic boy. At least, that is what I strove to be, possibly more so even than many of my classmates at St. Patrick’s Grammar School (yes, in those days, they were thought of as schools where grammar was taught, meaning not just how best to construct a sentence, but more widely, how to comport oneself in the world, how to construct a life). At St. Patrick’s, there were good boys and bad boys, the latter (mostly Italian—no one said Italian-Americans in those days) being those who flaunted the rules and wore their hair in a certain style the nuns most definitely disapproved of called a DA, or duck’s ass. They were the rebels, the tough guys, the non-conformists, the group I didn’t belong to (as much as I may have secretly wanted to be one of them).

Instead, I hung out with those who were less outwardly rebellious. But even these boys swore, spent a lot of time talking about sex, and generally didn’t take religion all that seriously. I tried to identify with them, but somehow it never came off very naturally for me. Inwardly, I disapproved of (could it be said that I feared?) their language, their topics of conversation, and their general disinterest in religious teachings. I suppose some might have thought I was a bit of a pill. The one saving grace I probably had was that, even at a young age, I instinctively knew enough about how to get along with people for them to accept me as one of their own. But, unbeknownst to them, I would often sneak off and kneel in prayer in the darkened interior of St. Patrick’s Church, or attend Friday night Benediction (a traditional Catholic devotional service). No wonder then, at age fourteen, I decided to enter a monastery.

Even there, however, I found boys who did not quite live up to my standards, which were very high! Yet people still appeared to like me because I was by nature a peacemaker and someone who tried to see the best in others, while openly criticizing no one. A big part of my not criticizing others stemmed from the awful realization that I knew I was far from the idealized self I imagined I should be. How could I blame others for not being somehow better, when the very faults I recognized in them I also saw all too clearly in myself—in fact, far worse ones? There were things the Church said not to do which I did, and many others which, while I might not have done them, I earnestly wanted to. And if I wanted it so much, wasn’t that tantamount to actually doing it? In short, the standards I believed the Church established for me, and those that I freely embraced on my own, were mountains so high I could never hope to fully scale them. In that sense, I consistently set up my own failure.

And so, my principal focus of identification in those years was with an idealized Church, one that I believed would allow me to lead a life I felt I was supposed to lead. It was a kind of umbilical cord that provided an association, a connection with an entity that I felt to be greater than myself, and which at the same time gave me a kind of scaffolding upon which to construct a life that I otherwise felt to be constantly on the verge of collapsing disastrously out of all control.

It worked, too, at least for a while, even if not completely, because I often felt I failed at the high standards I had created for myself. As such, and in keeping with Catholic teaching, I thought of myself as a sinner. Still, the superstructure did provide me with a consistent foundation upon which I endeavored to build something. Until, of course, it didn’t. The first problem with what might be called the “idealized external” is that it is, by definition, outside of oneself; and the second is that it, too, eventually shows itself to be less than perfect. Even I could see that the luster had begun to tarnish, that the Church was showing a darker, seedier, more squalid side. After all, it was made up of people, and people are far from perfect. Aside from being sometimes good and helpful and even loving, they—we, all of us—are also more than capable of selfishness, cruelty, prejudice, cynicism, arrogance, egotism, deceitfulness, anger, even violence. And the list could, of course, go on.

What I am saying is that any organization, any human group, no matter how good its intentions (in particular, its initial intentions, until time and usage begin to break them down), is so flawed we ought to think long and hard about fully identifying with it. And not just religious organizations; other groups as well could certainly be included, such as political parties, philanthropies, environmental groups, sports teams, cultural associations, as well as organizations affiliated with labor, the military etc.

In fact, the core of the problem comes exactly down to the question of the depth of one’s identification with the external. My childhood relationship with the Catholic Church, and with the particular monastic tradition I belonged to, was so all engulfing as to obscure everything else. I took it to be all there was, and when I eventually began to realize that life was writ far larger than that, more complex, messier, dirtier, more intent, more insistent on its own needs than anything I had previously thought possible, then I saw that this first object of my identification could no longer contain everything that I was.

But what could? That is the very question I have struggled with for many years. It is a question all of us must face. What I have always looked for is a wider, a deeper, more all-inclusive connectivity. Ultimately, I came to believe that this was my own relationship with my self; or, I should say, with my Self, the capitalized “s” indicative of some part of my being (and not just mine, of course, but everyone’s), beyond mere ego identity, that both includes all the things of everyday concern and, at the same time, goes beyond that.

I take great comfort in a particular passage from one of my favorite scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita. If ever there has been a more insightful statement on identification, in the largest sense of that term, essentially on who we are, then I don’t know what it might be. Speaking of union with Brahma (the Creative Principle of the Godhead), Krishna says: “He so vowed, so blended, sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained…Who dwell in all that lives and cleaves to Me in all, if a man sees everywhere—taught by his own similitude—one Life, one Essence, in the evil and the good, hold him a yogi, yea, well perfected!”

Taught be our own similitude—that’s a very interesting phrase. The language may sound a bit obscure, but put more simply, what it means is that we see in others exactly what is already within us, namely both evil and good; actually, more to the point, some messy, chaotic intermingling of the two. That is what human beings look like, at least on the outside. Within, who knows? Perhaps something bigger, more perfect, something that connects with all of life, and at the same time transcends it. Maybe this is what it means to realize who we truly are. And, if so, that’s what I want to identify with.