We Jesuits move around. A lot. Here in California, I am still adjusting to life in a new place with new neighbors amid new circumstances. Recently, I made an appointment with a local doctor for a regular checkup. When I arrived I encountered a sterile waiting room, a lovely receptionist and a team of capable nurses, all new to me. All this newness can be exhausting for an introvert.
When I reached the receptionist’s window I went through the usual routine for these check-in processes: Name? Insert jokey comment about my difficult last name. Sign these forms, please. Insert jokey comment about my handwriting. Emergency contact info. Copay policies. HIPAA release. Address and cell phone verification. No jokes here; just the facts. That last part seemed to trip her up: “516 area code? Where is that?”
“New York,” I replied sleepily, having sworn off caffeine for the morning so as not to influence my blood pressure reading. (Any little bit helps!)
“So far!,” she exclaimed as I nodded agreeingly, if passively. Smiling up at me she added, “So good?”
I chuckled to myself as I took a seat across the room from her sliding window. As I sat, first in that sterile waiting room, and then for what seemed like hours in a smaller exam area, I considered her clever play on the familiar phrase, “So far, so good.” It was a fair question. I have indeed come so far, but has it been ‘so good’?
I am in my last stage of Jesuit formation, a long and winding road that has taken up the better part of the last decade of my life. Throughout it all, I have always known what the arc of these years would be, but never the specifics: I’d learn how to pray, do some service work, study philosophy, do full-time ministry for a few years, then go back to school to study theology. Theology study was always held out as the final, culminating stage, and it is. But in some ways, I also understood this long process – and each successive step – as a series of inevitabilities: assumed, obvious, and unquestioned.
And so my arrival and beginning of theology studies has been colored by this understanding of inevitability. This is where it’s all been leading: I have been working and studying and journeying to be a Jesuit priest for and with the Church. But that receptionist’s clever joke reminded me of an important distinction: that there’s a difference between inevitability and choice.
My life as a Jesuit has not been without difficulties or struggles, but overall it has been a good one, rich in relationships, opportunities, growth, depth and learning that I could never have conceived of when I first was applying. None of it was inevitable. Much was grace. But some was choice, too. At each stage in this life I have been presented with options: to apply or not; to stay or to go; to take vows or to leave. A Jesuit must request to be advanced to each next stage and so writing a letter of petition is a repeated process, a concretization of choice made over and over, in my own hand for my own future.
‘Nothing is certain in this life except death and taxes,’ the old saying goes. That’s mostly true. Life is a series of choices, thousands of them: about how we spend our money, with whom we spend our time, to what we devote our energy. And in these choices, we get an opportunity to discern the status quo, to penetrate what might feel like centripetal or gravitational forces in our lives by simply asking: do I want this? Responsibilities and obligations notwithstanding, we are promised to nothing in this world.
I once heard a story of an older Jesuit who picked up a ringing telephone back in the days when there was a single phone in the hallway of the community. (Gasp!) “Is Jimmy there, by chance?”, the caller asked. Without missing a beat, Father replied, “My dear, no one is here by chance,” and stoically hung up the receiver.
He was right. Little of life is inevitable. Instead, we have the gift and obligation of choosing, for good or for ill. As for me, I choose to keep walking this path I’m on because, well, so far, so good.