Nothing in my youth remains as clear in my mind and as formative of my soul as is the summer when I was fourteen years old. For any boy, that’s an awkward age, even at the best of times. For me, that summer was not the best of times.
It began ordinarily enough. The most important things in my young life then were sports and looking good. I was obsessed with trying to make the high school fastball team and the parish junior baseball team. To make those teams would be to look good, to be able to strut a bit, to have some confidence with the opposite sex, and to have a better place among my friends, to have, as it were, a bit of immortality, as fourteen year-olds define it. But that summer dealt me a different kind of immortality, not the kind a fourteen year-old wants to deal with.
I came to breakfast one morning at the beginning of May and was told that one of our neighbour’s sons, a young man in his twenties, had, the previous night, committed suicide by hanging himself in a barn. No event, no death, no tragedy, no loss of love, not anything, has ever rocked the foundations of my soul as did that suicide. It’s not that I fell to pieces and was unable to control my tears. The opposite, I went numb and never cried for years. But that was not the story, dealing with death was.
At fourteen, you have no understanding of death, especially of that kind, suicide. Years later, I would begin to understand that sometimes a man or woman can have so sensitive a soul that, at a point, something snaps and, not unlike a heart attack or stroke, it takes that person unwillingly out of this life. But on that day in May all those years ago, and through all that summer, I didn’t have that understanding, nor the peace that comes of it, and so my young thoughts and feelings churned in every direction but found no restful place to stop: When all you’ve experienced is life and all you can dream of is life, what sense can be made of death, especially the suicide of a young, healthy person whose athletically-endowed body I envied?
It was the fact of suicide (that black hole inside of human understanding and formerly even inside of our Christian faith) that so jolted, but it was more. It was the brute inevitability of death itself, especially of my own some day, that ate away inside of me. I had seen dead people before, though not many, but they were all already old, had lived long enough, to my young reasoning. This person hadn’t lived long at all and the seeming unnecessary character of his death was like an atom bomb to my young soul. What is the purpose of making a baseball team, of popularity, of all of my young dreams and plans, if this, after all, can happen?
I agonized and fretted, silently though. Curiously too my reaction was not, it seemed, a religious one. On the contrary, I wanted to think of nothing religious at all. Distraction, reading magazines about Hollywood stars and athlete’s exploits, seemed the route to go; after all, to a fourteen year-old, they, the rich, the glamorous, with their beautiful bodies and exciting, graced lives, offer an exemption from death and all its terrors.
And so went my summer – compounded further by two other young deaths in our district and school; first, the death of another young man in his twenties, killed in an industrial mishap and then the death, in a horseback riding accident, of one of my classmates. I remember spending more than one evening staring at a dark sky and wondering: “Where are they? Are they still alive somewhere? What really is behind those clouds? God? Another life? Terror and hell? Love and an ecstasy that I can’t imagine?” Such are the metaphysics of a fourteen year-old.
Slowly, as happens with these things, a calm returned. Life, with all its promises, demands, and numbing distractions, eventually brings you back to the ordinary with its health, aches, and pleasures. I stopped staring at the dark sky and asking those metaphysical questions. But, underneath, something had shifted. I had been through my first dark night of the soul and I’d learned something.
I knew now, in a way I never imagined before, that life is fragile, that everyone dies, that I too will die someday. I knew too that life is not just about life here, but about something bigger, infinitely bigger. I am a priest because of that – because of that summer of discontent, when my fourteen year-old soul was forced to do some metaphysics and my internal furniture was forever re-arranged. God, it seems, writes straight with crooked lines. I did make that team at school and we even won a game or two, but things had changed for good.