There are rumors out there that Sara Bareilles is engaged. Whether they’re true or not, something in me feels lost. That something is the hope that on a random, sunny Chicago afternoon, the sweet-voiced songstress will pop by my Jesuit community, tell me she’s heard of me, and ask if I want to grow old with her. I would say yes. Is that so hard to imagine? So long, Society of Jesus!
She’s not my first celebrity crush. Days before I left for my freshman year of college, Anne Hathaway made her big screen breakthrough with The Princess Diaries, and I saw it three times. On consecutive nights. It’s a mildly entertaining movie rife with classic coming-of-age themes and candy-topped pizza, but I went because I was captivated by her.
While these ‘loves’ have not and will not bear any significant relational or marital fruit, I’ve been in the process of letting the great loves of my life go for some time. Since the moment I entered the Jesuits, really. And, as the wedding invitations and engagement announcements of friends keep finding their way to my mailbox, I’ve slowly let a terrifying idea permeate my oft-obtuse mind: this life that I’ve chosen is permanent.
My flesh is a canvas of permanent things. I am balding, and unless there’s an affordable miracle cure discovered, I’ll have a buzz cut for the rest of my life, another nicely shaped, shiny, sun-kissed head with a horseshoe of fleeting hair. I have a silly tattoo I wish I had never thought of, but it’s not going anywhere. Then there’s that scar on my knee from a failed spread eagle on a ski hill. It will remain.
My mind is a canvas of permanent things, too. There are images of poverty drawn all over it, ramshackled stilt houses and trash-filled streets, dogs wrestling each other for sinewy, rotting meat, the matted hair and calloused hands of an old man on Michigan Ave. There are flashes of violence in there – a fight I saw happening downtown last week, explosions on TV, statistics about rape and other forms of violence against women. And memories of sadness – friendships lost, babies that never came to be, the relentless haunting of ghosts from my past.
But these permanent things don’t always come from darkness or tough times. My brother and sister will always be my brother and sister, and my godchildren will always be my godchildren. I will never forget how beautiful my date was the night of my senior prom. I’ll always wear glasses, pull on size 12 shoes, and have some song or another running through my head. My teachers drilled multiplication tables into my brain, and after many frustrating moments with my mother, I can drive a stick. Permanent things are a big part of what makes me me.
I was at a wedding a few weeks ago. I was wearing my clerical shirt, black with a little white tab across the front as if to shout, “Look at me! I know about God and sleep alone!” But, that little tab helped foster several memorable conversations in the midst of the revelry of the reception.
I savored a moment with my friend’s mother as we spoke about the resilience of good friendships. “You and Andrew and Katie and Mike will be friends forever,” she said. Permanent friends. I reminisced with an old acquaintance about a conversation he had long forgotten, but that I can never forget; it was about my white privilege, something I was oblivious to until that chat 12 years ago. A permanent realization. I listened to a young dad marvel in the faith he sees in his 4-year-old son, and how that faith has inspired him to be closer to the God whom he knows loves him. Permanent love. In all these exchanges, though, one sticks out most.
“Eric, do you ever think about the possibility of falling in love and getting married? Just leaving all this priest business aside?” I paused for a long time.
Some things are permanent, and some aren’t. I give thanks for the things that aren’t – for the gift of an ever-changing, dynamic world filled with impending joy and brilliant mistakes. I do think about it – leaving- and I’m sure others do too. I’m sure my friends and family members sit and wonder about the infinity of other lives they could be leading. Something in all of us feels compelled to pursue them. And some of us probably should.
There will always be Sara B’s and Anne Hathaways to dream about. I carry with me comforting and troubling memories, and I ponder whether something different, something new is still on the horizon. A few years ago, this ever-expanding horizon led me to consider three vows – poverty, chastity, obedience – with trust that they would allow me to be fully alive and complete. And so, I took them, even while a different life could be just as good.
But more than a sense of gratitude for what could be, I am grateful that I have the desire to carry on in what is: a permanent life that leads to ever-greater, everlasting love, a life where my and God’s desires intermingle and become clearer over time.
“Of course I think about leaving it all aside,” I finally said. “And I suppose it could happen. But that’s not what I want.”
I don’t think it’s what God wants, either.