I’m in the thick of my first summer as a Jesuit scholastic and when you look at the itineraries of a Jesuit in formation you realize that we never stay put for long. While we’re men on the road, ready to move when called upon, there’s still a certain shock value in leaving the stability of the school year behind. All of a sudden, I’m no longer living a daily routine and the stable beauty of community life is, moment by moment, put on hold. Now I’m seeking that life-giving beauty in all kinds of other places and, at times, this quest can be jarring to a young man living the vowed life.
Airports are a good example of what I’m getting at. The allure of a $12.95 shrink-wrapped avocado club with organic sea-salt kettle chips, a $4.95 bottle of SmartWater, and the week’s “Economist” can be a challenge to my vow of poverty. The departures board mocks my obedience, because for the time being, I must ask for permission to fly, train, or bus anywhere outside of Chicago. More than anything, though, it’s the people that challenge me. One viewing of the opening montage of “Love Actually” and you’ll know why airports have the effect on me that they do. I generally travel alone–just me and my chastity. I tend to feel a bit lonely in airports.
I was recently one of the last to board a flight from Denver to Chicago. As I slogged to the back of the plane searching for a place to put my carry-on, I found an aisle seat next to a few women close to my age. We exchanged the requisite brief, slightly awkward pleasantries, and I fell silent to their conversation with each other. They were traveling together–both wore engagement rings.
As we hit 10,000 feet, I settled into some Sara Bareilles on my iPod. The pair next to me shared a set of earbuds and took advantage of the onboard WiFi, watching an episode of “24.” Because of the fiery explosions and sprays of gunfire, my eyes were frequently drawn to their tablet screen. I eventually noticed that they were holding hands. They were a couple, and they were unabashedly in love. And, because I shared a coach row in a Boeing 737 with them, I was right in the mix of it. I couldn’t ignore it if I tried.
I wasn’t expecting it, but I was enthralled–a head gently resting on a shoulder, a slight lean toward the other, legs crossed so that feet and knees touched. It was a beautiful love to witness, tender and consoling, but a love that also reminded me of my vowed bachelorhood. I wanted to possess something of their beauty for myself–an ear-buddy to share fiery explosions with, a foot to footsie with, a hand to hold. Here they seemed to be yet another stark reminder of the beauty I sometimes think my life lacks.
And then, in my own earbuds, a lyric sunk in: “Sometimes a shadow wins. But I wonder what would happen if you let the words fall out and say what you want to say…honestly, I want to see you be brave.” Suddenly their love struck me simply and profoundly as an exemplar of everyday bravery. I began to will their goodness forth, to celebrate the beauty of what they shared. For a moment I stopped pitying myself, started really seeing them, and, just like that, God (or was it Sara Bareilles?) said the same thing to me: “I just want to see you be brave.”
Suddenly, I wanted only to live my vows beautifully and to share that beauty with others. The experience of my vowed life did it again–calling me back into being who I am. The moment drew me out of myself to see beauty and goodness while affirming my vocation and calling me to courage, to the bravery of celebrating love.
As I write this, another couple sits down for a blind date at a coffee shop in Green Bay. She ambles around the place, and finally, considers the man sitting alone across from me a few tables away. She awkwardly asks if he is who she thinks he is, sits down, and it begins. Now they laugh, eyes shining, and I become an accidental witness to humankind’s next great love story. What bravery it takes to begin the act of love, the act of making the world more beautiful.
As for me, I take it all in and seek to make that bravery a deeper part of my own experience of loving the world, of living with greater love than fear, and of learning to celebrate the beauty of my vowed life. The point is not to run from the challenge, but to rest within it. To live with a broken heart and, in it, to fall in love over and over again.
The cover image, from Flickr user Gioia De Antoniis, can be found here.