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Like so many men, Tim Muldoon assumed that life followed a script. More to the point, he assumed that love would follow a script-one determined by his own choices. When the script changed, as it inevitably does, Tim was forced to ask some critical questions: How could he bring his disparate desires into harmony with one another? Could he make the journey to where his true dreams seemed to be leading him? Should he-or could he-venture into the unknown territory of selfless love?
In meditative, heartfelt prose, best-selling author Tim Muldoon shows how authentic love grows through unexpected twists and turns in a relationship, and how by following the deepest desires of his heart, he found the freedom to become his best and most passionate self.
From sex to self-giving love, from the desire to be loved to the desire to serve God in the person of his wife, from resisting adoption to loving his two adopted daughters with unbridled joy, Muldoon shares with us his personal love story, whose altered script he came to embrace. Through Muldoon's journey, each of us is invited to consider how falling in love can become our greatest adventure with God.
An Interactive Feature
This is one couple’s love story, and it bears the uniqueness of their life together. But their journey has been marked by the same stages and challenges faced by most people who fall in love and then try to follow where that love leads.
We think that some of the key moments in the life of Tim and Sue may well have parallels in the lives of many readers. For this reason, we have created Questions for Couples in Love at the end of the book. Not only have we generated engaging questions from the Muldoons’ story, but we have alerted you when a particular aspect of the story has a correlating question in the discussion section.
Throughout the book, when “See Question #” appears in the margin, this means that a question in the discussion section is related to this part of the story. You might choose to turn to that question right then; sometimes it helps to begin with the topic of someone else’s situation before moving into an honest exploration of your own.
Or, you can go to your own discussion at a later time. Please use this feature in the way that’s best for you. We encourage people to approach the questions as individuals and also as couples. May your time with these pages offer food for thought, hope for your life together, and a richer engagement with God, the author of our deepest desires.
Where We Never Thought We’d Be
My mind is beginning to settle down, now a moderate hum echoing the sound of the engines outside our window. The euphoria of anticipating our adoption that accompanied us onto the plane hours ago has brought us to sheer exhaustion, the result of accumulated stress and hope, pain and longing. I am nodding off, then awakening, trying to find a position in the cramped seat that will allow for at least a semblance of sleep.
Sue has never looked more beautiful. Her face is peaceful, resting on a pillow against the window. I imagine that what she’s dreaming is hopeful. The thought of her dreams is a consolation, knowing as I do how often over the past five years her dreams have been fraught with heartache. She was made to be a mother, yet denied the obvious route to her heart’s desire. I want to touch her face, as if this physical contact might grant me passage into her dream world. Many times I have prayed for the ability to take away her pain, to enter her dreams like the angels of the Bible and assure her that God has chosen her for a different kind of happiness, a difficult yet deep and lasting happiness. More than once over our ten years together we have learned the hard wisdom of perseverance.
Eventually, I give up trying to sleep. My mind is crammed with thoughts: fragments of conversations, images of our life together, expectations for the near and distant future. We are on a plane to China. To China! How did this happen? How did I get here? In my semiconscious state I’m looking down at us, a couple who have chosen to cross boundaries of family and culture, who have already traversed a hard road and who have decided to press on toward something altogether new and therefore both exciting and frightening. I am seeing myself from a distance: still in many ways a kid being led by a woman of purpose, trying to keep up. Her certainty about this decision came long before mine, and often since the onset of her alternately forceful and gentle persuasions I have found myself facing this reality like a brick wall. Are we really adopting an orphan from China?
To slip into a comfort zone, I exercise my mind. Meiyou guanxi : “don’t worry,” I’ll say to her, that ten-month-old whose blank stare at the camera has tethered my heart even before our first meeting. “Ta shi nide mama; wo shi nide baba.” Perhaps by using these words in the tongue she’s accustomed to hearing, I can make her understand what is happening when they place her in our arms. “She is your mom; I’m your dad.” The scene becomes controllable when I imagine how to use the Mandarin that my Chinese-born tutor Fran has been teaching me. This language will serve as a handrail on this runaway train. I can focus on how to speak well; I can arrive as the young American professor and engage our hosts in cross-cultural dialogue; I can enjoy the trip as an exercise in social anthropology. This image is, at this moment, the only way I can even begin to wrap my brain around the situation, for in reality I’m trying to be courageous.
We are about to be new parents, which is enough to give panic to most men I know. But our daughter has been born in a different country, and we know very little about what her first months of life have been like. She was abandoned by her birth mother and has since lived in an institution with less-than-optimal attention. Over time, we will deal with race issues (what’s it like to be Asian in America?), adoption issues (“Why didn’t my parents want me?”), medical issues (is she lactose intolerant? malnourished? susceptible to leukemia?), education issues (will she be affected by the change in language?) and God knows what else. I can’t say that I ever really desired to live a normal life, which would likely be pretty boring, but now the finality of having a mixed-race family means that the option to be perceived as normal is, well, long past. Let the stares begin.
My mind wanders back to the lessons. They have nestled in my brain, the result of the many hours I spent on the long commute to work each day, listening intently to my Walkman. “Hen gaoxing jian dao nin ,” slowly, then a pause, “I’m very pleased to meet you,” double pause. “Wo shi meiguo ren,” pause, “I am an American,” and so on. Every week I read the chapter, recorded the lessons, then replayed them during the commute. The long country road to the college, without stoplights or turns, was the perfect setting for these language lessons; even now I associate certain lessons with specific places and weather conditions. I doze off, imagining a rainy day in early autumn: I’m heading east on Route 422 near Penn Run, somewhere in chapter six of the lessons, on ordering food in a restaurant . . .
“What are you thinking about?” asks Sue.
“Huh?” I mutter, as a crick in my neck makes me wince.
“You were saying something in Chinese,” she says, perhaps a little defensively now, realizing that I was talking in my sleep. “Sorry about that.”
I can’t remember what I was dreaming about, but the word yangnu —“adopted daughter”—is on the tip of my tongue. Before we left I’d been thinking about how I would communicate to other people why these random white people would have a Chinese infant in tow. Maybe I thought that the common language would normalize the situation. I’ve been meeting with Fran for three months already and have thrown myself into the lessons. I am good with languages; I’ve studied four already and learn quickly. It’s at least one dimension of this whole life change that I feel any competence in.
“It’s fine. I was just imagining what I might say to people who want to know about what we’re doing there.” My response is one of those small signs of growth that I’ve recognized in recent months—I’ve successfully avoided the guy-speak temptation to say “Oh, nothing.” I’ve learned that this is the answer I reach for when she’s asked something I find hard to talk about. It’s the shut-down-the-conversation-before-it’s-begun answer, the I-find-it-difficult-to-admit-I’m-really-unnerved-by-this-whole-thing answer. I’ve left the door open for her to respond.
“Jenny and Dave talked about the grandmas who would come up to them and try to bundle up the baby,” she says, reminding me of our friends who traveled about a year ahead of us for their adoption. “They were in eighty-degree heat and humidity, and the grandmas would scold them for allowing any of the baby’s skin to show.” She smiles and seems completely at ease. What is she thinking about?
“What are you thinking about?” I say, proud of myself.
She pauses. “The gotcha moment.” Another pause, looking serious. “How I’ll feel when I am able to hold her for the first time.”
She is a counselor. This is both a job description and a character description; she counsels, comforts, embraces, and sustains. She understands people like no one I’ve ever met. To say that she is sensitive is like saying that the pope is a religious man. In the statement she’s just made I hear not only a comment about a passing thought; I hear the tip of an emotional iceberg that she has been probing and analyzing both in dreams and waking moments for probably the past several hours. How will she feel? She will be able to use penetrating adjectives, rich metaphors, and insightful analogies. She has already engaged questions of what the baby has experienced, what we have been through, and how our own emotional fragility has carved out a space that the baby will enter.
She has pondered the journey that she, in her longing to be a mother, has trodden, and the work she’s had to undertake at different stages to bring me, a less agile emotional traveler, along on the journey. She anticipates what we will need to do in order to care for this child and to share with her a vision of a world in which it’s possible to trust, even in spite of once having been abandoned. And she has likely begun to shape mentally the choreography of those first moments after the Chinese ayi places the fragile child into her waiting arms. I have been practicing how to speak Chinese; she has been practicing how to speak to a Chinese baby.
“I can’t wait to see your face.” I say this peacefully, truthfully. It is the moment I have been waiting for these past several years, the moment of sheer happiness for her. I can imagine no greater happiness for me than to be part of that, and the realization is both consoling and startling.
Five years ago, at twenty-five, I couldn’t have imagined this moment. Back then when hope was young, our expectations were fairly straightforward and our anticipation was that our life book would read according to script: college, grad school, marriage, baby. For her, the trajectory was as predictable as death and taxes. I was the careful one: “We have no money!” “Maybe I should be closer to finishing my degree.” “We’re both still young.” Good, rational reasons, but all irrelevant; she taught me that the heart has its own reasons. She, the object of my youthful desire and the muse who stirred in my heart the movements that sometimes trump reason—she began with patience (God bless her!) to work upon me. I, the ordinary guy but also the scholar and sometimes the brooding intellectual, gradually learned to listen to the language of the heart, an insistent and passionate language that over time swayed the jury of my will. She desired motherhood, and she desired my fatherhood. Against my protestations, uttered lovingly yet with some anxiety, she steered me toward images of how life might unfold when our duo became a trio. Imagine the overflowing of love, she urged, when we can share what we have with someone else.
It certainly wasn’t that I was afraid of having children; I was only afraid of having them then . I had nurtured the desire to finish my PhD since my sophomore year of college, when something like an epiphany happened. It was after a winter training session, when I walked back to my dorm after a workout, riding an adrenaline high. I felt in my fast-moving blood a sense of being at home in my collegiate world, and I wanted to make it mine permanently. I just wanted to be a professor and teach at a university. After that day, I simply worked hard at that goal and assumed I would reach it without delay.
And so the thought of dealing with children before I had even completed coursework made me uneasy. Our early married life was, to me, miraculous; I didn’t want to upset the equilibrium. The rhythms of our days, the simple regularity of physical presence—a regularity we had prayed for early in our relationship, when we were separated by an ocean—these were consistent graces, rewards for our earlier periods of patience and hope. It was perhaps the very intimate knowledge we shared of each other’s absence that made physical presence acute; we loved being able to look at each other every day and fall in bed together at night. My heart was already full.
But she was gently insistent. Whereas I enjoyed the garden of our young marriage, she sought the nest of a young family. Over time, the tenor of her suasion was hopeful, idealistic, even theological: God wants us to do this. I eventually found myself giving reticent assent, still ill at ease with the real questions of how we could afford to begin raising a family with a near-total lack of income on my part. The decision to bring children into our world was, then, about being willing to act upon trust, both in her and in the belief that God spoke to me most clearly through her. She was my sacrament. She was teaching me what it meant to love.
Ten years ago, I thought falling in love was about passion. She had walked into my life while we were students at Boston College, and I found myself simply wanting to be around her. There was no thunderbolt; it was more like the sprouting of a seed buried somewhere in the heart that I had otherwise kept quiet, in favor of being driven to succeed as a student and an athlete. I had come to Boston with the idea that it was the perfect setting in which to develop these two dimensions of my personality. To a kid from Chicago, Boston appeared cosmopolitan, elite, a launching pad to a life of intellectual rigor and cultural refinement. It was also a place where I might throw myself into training for one of the competitive rowing crews on the Charles River. My life was about colleg and rowing—until, when falling in love, I discovered that I wanted more.
She was a regular presence, and over time it dawned on me that there was a reason I desired to be near her. Life was moving from prose into poetry, and heart was beginning to assert itself in front of head. By the middle of the year I thought about her constantly; I thought about kissing her, and stayed awake at night, blood boiling, wanting to speak what was erupting inside me. I wanted her desperately, and it was precisely this desperation that moved me—almost at the last minute, on her graduation day—to screw up the courage to tell her the truth of my feelings—in written verse. That there might be another side to the truth, namely hers, wasn’t at that moment any part of my consideration. I was in love, but oblivious.
Four years ago, I thought staying in love was about careful, contemplative listening. By that time we began to realize that our unsuccessful efforts at pregnancy were troubling, but my pathological optimism refused to acknowledge that something might be wrong. Her suggestion at the time that it might be a good idea to pursue both medical analysis and adoption struck me as premature; I wanted to believe that things would unfold in God’s good time. Yet she was again gently insistent, and my decision to embrace this plan was an act of religious obedience. I loved her and sought her happiness and could not in good conscience refuse what she saw as the responsible way to procure it, no matter how much it challenged my sensibilities. Getting some tests done, okay, no problem, but gathering information about such a radical life change as adopting a child? I was anxious, even as outwardly I showed support.
Three years ago, I thought love was about being uneasy and still committed. The tests were making it clear that pregnancy was a pipe dream, though I had not yet given up hope. She wanted to adopt a baby from China and wanted to get started. Was I ready? My answer: no, but I will be. I will pray and I will work to be ready. My feeling was like what I had experienced as a kid at one of the lakes outside Chicago. I was standing atop what felt like a twelve-story diving board, looking down at the water below, facing my fear and others’ derision. I had seen others do this; I knew they had survived, and yet an irrational panic set in that I either had to succumb to in shame or face up to with courage. Down I went.
On this day, on this plane, being in love means that we have locked hands and set our faces toward China. The geography of this pilgrimage is both physical and spiritual, for we have moved from a place that we both know well to a place we don’t know at all. It appears on our map, but we don’t know yet what we’ll find there. We will discover it together. Much of the earlier fear is gone, replaced in large measure by the excitement of anticipation. But what am I really feeling? Unlike her, who can distinguish multiple layers of emotion, I am painting with broad brushstrokes—I am happy or angry, worried or enthusiastic. I am still learning her language, even as I am beginning to wonder what sort of language I will need to learn as a new father.
When We Dared to Call It Love
The overnight train from Rome to Paris rattles along like a metronome, producing a pleasant drowsiness. I have become accustomed to this ritual, now a routine that has emerged out of a mix of choice and necessity. I’ve been riding trains nearly every night for the past three weeks to save money—the Eurail Pass gives me unlimited rides for a month, and sleeping on the train means I don’t need to pay for a hostel. I’m saving my money for when Sue arrives to meet me in London.
She is twenty-two and a graduate student. An adult, a woman of purpose. I am a twenty-year-old junior, part of me still marveling at the fact that she has decided to give this long-distance relationship a try. She lives in Ohio now; I live in England. I am spending the year immersing myself in a life I imagined very differently this time last year, when I was still unattached. It was only last November that I learned I’d been accepted into the Oxford program. It was a dream come true—a chance to study, to explore Europe, and to think about life as an academic.
Now, three months into the experience, this abstract desire to pursue truth has become much more personal, and so, even as I am fulfilling a dream to see the world, I miss her and can’t wait to return to England to see her. I am torn between the person I imagined myself to be last year, and the person I feel myself becoming—because of her. When I arrived in Oxford in October, I was riding the high that had been growing in me over the previous year. Oxford was ritual, tradition, learning, music, and literature, but it was also the ancestral home of collegiate rowing. Nowhere could I imagine being more spiritually at home, and so it was easy to throw myself into that world. I hit the ground running, sometimes literally—around the athletic pitches and college fields to gain ever-more astonishing views of the innumerable spires that lifted my thoughts toward the heavens on a daily basis. The intensity of my mornings at the Bodleian Library was matched only by my afternoons rowing on the Isis, sometimes in a single and sometimes in an eight, training for the races in the spring. I was on fire with delight at just being there.
There was no question that it was the perfect place for me. I had first arrived on the Boston College campus thrilled to be there, and my first two years were, I thought, about as good as any college experience could be. Yet after three months in Oxford, I am aware of the sheer weight of history that settles upon this place like the mist over its towers. I studied Augustine’s theology; I read John Henry Newman; I began learning Greek. But I also trained hard with a great crew at Saint John’s College, learned how to fence, took long bike rides, attended plays and concerts, and mixed with my friends at Manchester College in the Junior Common Room. Everything here is suffused with tradition and the knowledge that others have been doing the same thing here, countless generations before us. I imagined the likes of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien over drinks at the Eagle and Child on St. Giles Street, not to mention the many other dons who dedicated their lives to scholarship and teaching in this place. I considered what life was like for the clerics that studied here centuries ago, even as I interacted with some of them at Blackfriars and St. Benet’s Hall. I wondered what it might be like to choose this kind of life, one of study, writing, and teaching. There’s a part of me that is attracted to this idea.
I spent many days simply drinking in the scenery. I would leave my flat in Holywell Street opposite New College (circa 1400) and walk toward Magdelen College on High Street, just to gaze up at its impressive tower. On good-weather days I would continue toward the botanical gardens or toward the river and Christ Church Meadow for a view of the spires. Often I brought my reading for the day, and of course a journal to insure that these memories would not be lost. Other days, I would bike outside of the city, toward the ruins of Godstow Nunnery and anywhere else that allowed me a glimpse of the pre-modern world. When the weather turned colder, I explored the buildings of the colleges, libraries, museums, and churches—the ubiquitous Gothic structures whose architecture at one time would have been called the latest style. There were chamber music concerts, boys’ choirs, lectures on Shakespeare or quantum physics or linguistics, theatre productions, and liturgical celebrations. I fell in with the Newman Society and dined with visiting bishops. Oxford drew me in and made me one of its own. Often, tourists would wander the streets looking into the gates of the colleges, which often forbade visitors for fear of disturbing lectures or tutorials; it gave me great pleasure to see these places from the inside, often on the way to hear a distinguished scholar, and dream about perhaps becoming one myself.
And yet within a couple of weeks something remarkable happened; I discovered that I felt alone. It was not in some general sense, like homesickness. It was more an understanding that all the drive I had brought originally to Boston and then to Oxford was not enough to satisfy me. Before long, all the euphoria I had experienced left me with a pointed sense of loss at not being able to share it with Sue. I was at once happy to be studying in the Bodleian, then dejected that she couldn’t be there too. I was awed at the beautiful landscape around the city of Oxford, then depressed that I couldn’t bike with her to one of the historic pubs for a meal. With every high came a corresponding low, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my happiness had become very much tied up with thoughts of her.
Last year, I might have considered such thoughts a distraction. My purpose here is to learn, to grow, and to discern what sort of professional goals to set as I look ahead to senior year and graduate school. But as I contemplate where I am now compared to last year, I feel at once restless and grateful to experience regularly such a sweet distraction, these thoughts of the one I love.
With the crush of the first term over, I’ve had time to collect my thoughts. The past three weeks have allowed me to journal, looking backward over the past months in Oxford and the prior months in Boston, back to when Sue and I decided to risk calling it love. My travels through Europe have only confirmed what I realized in Oxford: that any sort of peak experiences, however much anticipated and hoped for, are attenuated by the absence of the one with whom I want to share the experiences.
I had imagined that the chance to explore Europe would be a series of highs, of exciting encounters in places I had read about and seen pictures of. The reality has been much more mixed. This has been an odd existence; I’ve never before been so constantly on the move as I have since I left Oxford. I’ve spent no more than two days in the same place, have traveled through different cities, different languages, different art and architecture, and even (it seems) different periods of history. Never before have I felt so itinerant, so much an outsider, so much an observer of other people’s lives. And with long periods on trains to think and to write, I have become introspective, a kind of monk on the move. I encounter beauty everywhere; in the many museums, cathedrals, and town squares I’ve found after perusing my Let’s Go Europe , but I encounter it alone. I am constantly reminded of the presence of her absence.
When my Eurail Pass arrived in the mail a few days into the break, I couldn’t wait to get moving. Within an hour I had grabbed a change of clothes and some books and was on the bus to London, already beginning to chart my plans. First, I went to Covent Garden to buy tickets to The Nutcracker —this will be my gift to her when she arrives. Then I was off to Victoria Station and the train to Dover, en route to the continent. I wanted to see it all. Images began spilling forth: the Mona Lisa, the cathedral of Chartres, the palace at Versailles, the Coliseum, the canals of Amsterdam, the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, and so on. Years of courses in European history, the history of art, philosophy, theology, literature—this immersion in the humanism of Jesuit schools has nurtured in me a desire to know this world firsthand. My first three months in Oxford, amidst centuries-old Gothic spires and the ghosts of English literati have whetted my appetite even more.
At some point on the evening train to Paris I realized that I had nowhere in particular to go. Interesting that in my desire to see the world I didn’t consider that it was still necessary to sleep somewhere. That, and the fact that I speak very little French, was cause for concern. The dearth of spending money was also on my mind when I began to consider that this whole trip might be a big mistake. The idealism of my inner life was starting to crumble, and I was reaching for something to hold on to. What I found was the recollection of a conversation with one of my classmates—her plane ride, her random conversation with a French student, a new friend in Paris, a promise to come visit. Maybe this friend could help. After arriving in Paris I called Michelle, who gave me Céline’s number.
Céline could not have been more gracious to me; we had never met, but on the basis of the friendship she had struck up with Michelle, she welcomed me to her home. Fortunately, her English was superior to my French, and so when I arrived, she asked if I’d like to go out with some friends of hers. One of them, Jean, was delighted to show off his hometown to an American, and so in the darkness of a winter night I saw Paris for the first time on the back of his motorcycle. “Voilà—la Tour Eiffe. . . . Le Musee du Louvr. . . .l’arc de Triomphe!” He shouted just enough each time we passed a monument so I knew where to look.
The next two days I spent touring the city on foot: the Louvre, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Champs-Élysées. I was initially thrilled to be seeing these sites that previously had been only images on a screen or a page. Baguette in hand, I felt free to go where I wanted and see everything. And for a time, I loved it, and fancied myself some kind of latter-day expatriate, ready to send home travel briefs. But over the course of the day, the lack of companionship began to feel wearying. With whom could I talk about these exciting places? Who would share with me thoughts about the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa? Or about Mass in the crypt of the Cathedral? Who would laugh with me at the sheer absurdity of seeing the members of ZZ Top in a record store on the Champs-Élysées?
I looked forward to meeting up with my friend Anne, who had been studying in Paris that semester. Before the semester had begun, we talked about getting together at some point, and so I was happy to reach her by phone and arrange the meeting the next day. It was at a café near the Latin Quarter, not far from the university. We ordered tea and caught up, talking about school and rowing. I was struck by her facility with the waitstaff—the simple activity of ordering drinks there bespoke an ease with language and custom that was still out-of-reach to me. I found myself wishing at that moment for the simple ability to connect with the people around me. Anne and I constituted a small island of English speakers in a sea of French, and at least she had a boat. When she went back to the university, I would be left alone again, mute.
That night I thanked Céline profusely and told her that I would be leaving very early to catch a train for Chartres. Ever since high school, when we studied Gothic architecture in an art history class, I’ve been fascinated with the cathedral there; I wanted to see it firsthand and simply feel what it was like inside, to meditate for some time in that ancient place and imagine the people who had passed under its stained glass.
I approached the still-medieval town in the early dawn. From a distance, the cathedral was visible, towering above the surrounding buildings; it was like coming upon a handwrought mountain that reached toward God. A new Tower of Babel? The view from a distance was arresting; save for the presence of automobiles and electrical wires, I could easily imagine being smack in the middle of the fourteenth century. On the train, I was a tourist, but as I approached the cathedral, I began imagining myself more as a pilgrim. I wondered what it might have been like to come on foot or on horseback.
What had brought me here? Was it simply a desire to connect a picture in an art history book with a real image I could see firsthand? Or was it a deeper desire to be in a physical space that represented sixty-five years and thousands of man-hours of laborious prayer? What was the attraction of this place for me, this place that stood in marked contrast to the Paris nightlife and tourist scene I’d left the day before?
I was alone when I entered for the first time, having come much earlier than most tourists. The morning mist lent a mysterious air to the place, which was enhanced by the relative silence of the environs. Many people were, no doubt, still enjoying their morning coffee as I made my way toward the impressive façade.
This will sound odd, but I had the urge to pray in Latin. There was something about uttering words shared by those whose liturgy had animated this sacred space centuries before, and I searched my memory for sacred texts. What I landed on—perversely—was the chant of the wandering monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “pie Jesu, domine, dona eis requiem ”—“merciful Lord Jesus, give them rest.” But I stayed with it—it was in fact a text from the Requiem Mass, and it struck me as an apt prayer for those whose hands had constructed this place.
Eventually the familiar words of the Our Father came to mind; I had memorized them as a result of attending Latin mass at St. Aloysius Church in Oxford over the previous term. As I walked up the nave of the cathedral toward the main altar, I imagined praying with those who had come here over the centuries.
Pater noster, qui es in caelis,
Sanctificetur nomen tuum.
“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Some forty years after the completion of this cathedral, Dante would write his Divine Comedy about a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, conversing with many sinners and saints who had gone before him, led by the “love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I imagined the prayer as my own kind of communion with the saints, my way of sharing the language of these people now long dead and seeing God face to face.
Adveniat regnum tuum.
Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.
“Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven”—words I had prayed many times before in English, but which in this new composition of place represented something altogether new. For in conceiving of myself as a pilgrim, I began to imagine this trip less as an expression of my own wanderlust and more as a response to God’s invitation. Had God told Abraham to wander into a new land? Was the father of the Israelites not a wandering Aramean, and the nation itself an itinerant group before settling in the Promised Land? And what about Jesus’ own journeys, or Paul’s meanderings through Asia Minor and Europe as an itinerant preacher? Perhaps my own pilgrimage by train was less a half-baked plan to see some cool sites than it was a more deeply rooted desire to understand something of the world to which God was inviting me, with Sue. I had left Oxford with little idea of what I was doing; I was merely acting upon the desire to see the world. Perhaps in some way God was authoring that desire, even now.
Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie. . . .
“Give us this day our daily bread. . . .” Asking God for daily bread was more than an abstract reliance on him for sustenance. I literally needed bread; my budget was about five dollars a day, and so I found myself really relying on faith to make this trip and not face anything harmful. I had no credit card, only traveler’s checks, and they had to stretch for the next couple of weeks and get me back to Oxford. There was really not much choice; the college had closed the residence halls, and I had nowhere to stay.
et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
sed libera nos a malo. Amen.
“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I thought about the shysters who tried to get unwary college students at the train station into overpriced taxis or hovels for the night. At times I felt more vulnerable than I imagined a twenty-year-old guy ought to feel, but the truth was that everything was new to me. To pray in this way was offering up the obvious.
I submitted myself to the catechesis of the stained glass. There, the mother of wisdom; there, the story of the Passion; there, the story of Saint Lubin. Within these walls, my gaze was no different from that of peasants, nobles, and clerics over the centuries, and I felt small. “What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.” The words of the psalm came naturally. I stayed there in prayer for I don’t know how long; standing in God’s presence was enough. In fact, it was delicious. Was God hinting to me that I might be a monk?
I remembered her, though, and I recalled the feeling of her. And what I recalled, standing there in the dim light of the cathedral, was the taste of her kiss.
On the night last spring when I’d told her that I loved her, we went for a long walk around campus. We talked for hours about each other, our plans for the future, our hopes and our fears. She was heading off to graduate school in Ohio; I was off to spend my junior year abroad. She was beginning a professional life; I was continuing my undergraduate education. She had no money; I had no money. What kind of a relationship might this be? Yet we were drawn to each other. We spoke of faith and of longing for friendship, for sharing with another the deep truth about life, about suffering and pain, about the persistence of grace and the desire for someone to love, really love. Could I be that person for her? Could she be that person for me? There seemed so many obstacles in our way, so little sense to the risk that each of us wanted desperately to take. At one point all of it felt too big and impossible, and we stopped talking. None of this made any sense. And then I kissed her.
Twice before in my life I thought I had loved someone, only to learn later that I was deceiving myself and her. Twice before, kissing someone meant being infatuated with the other, excited by her, thrilled to be invited into such intimate contact. I had delighted in the kiss twice before, but had also carried with me the pain of knowing that I’d hurt her by ending the relationship. “You’re breaking my heart!”—a young beauty named Laura said this plaintively four years ago, when, still in high school, I was learning what it meant to sustain a romantic friendship. But I couldn’t pretend, rescind the words I’d spoken to her, that maybe we weren’t really meant for each other. When she had kissed me for the first time, I thought my heart would burst. The language of her body was forthright, welcoming: “I trust you.” Holding her, when only months earlier the idea of touching a girl’s body was utterly foreign to me, meant crossing a boundary of both age and experience. And kissing her was an act of affirmation, a physical assent to the goodness of being desired by the one I desired.
The kiss was an awakening of a part of me that was both terrifying and fascinating. Before that kiss, sex was just something they did in the movies; now it seemed like a possibility, a choice that sooner or later I would have to make.
The understanding of sex that I’d developed growing up was based on two often competing influences. On one hand, I saw the ever-present magazines and billboards, watched the countless dumb movies, listened to the pop songs, even had a couple of friends with porn magazines. Like many around me, I learned implicitly to see sex as a commodity, one which was bought and sold around every corner of my information-saturated life. From the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to the videos on MTV, I learned the pleasure of an easily accessible hormone rush. In my early adolescence, when the thought of encountering a real girl in a relationship was still mysterious, I imagined that these virtual experiences were like a prelude to real ones, something like smelling good food and anticipating what it will taste like.
On the other hand, I inhaled the influences of my family and parish community, and later my Jesuit high school. Sex was never about just sex; it was a symptom of a much grander and more expansive dimension of what made us human, namely our ability to reach out in love to others. And when we reach out in committed love to another in marriage, ready to give of ourselves fully and ready to receive the other in her integrity—that is when sex can be an experience of mutual self-gift, of mutual appreciation. This was an extremely attractive image to me, encouraging me to imagine what it would be like to really fall in love with someone, rather than simply experience immediate sexual excitement. What if, I wondered, it was possible to really enter a relationship with someone I could love and trust, and who would love the real me in return? Wouldn’t sex with that someone be more lasting than the umpteen lukewarm hormone rushes I could experience in a day?
This early positive imagination about sex in the context of love allowed me to set the boundaries that I did, long before I had the courage to do anything close to acting on my desires. The first emotion I felt toward Laura was awe, along with some desire and fear. I wanted her and was afraid of her; it nearly paralyzed me the first time we went swimming together. Eventually, awe gave way to comfort and happiness. She made me feel wonderful, and let me know that I too made her feel wonderful, loved, and adored. Knowing that I had such an effect on someone was its own form of elation. I wanted not just some random sex with her, but—in whatever way I might have been capable of—to love her, to make love with her.
I wish I could say that I came to some moral high ground, but the truth is that my immaturity and cluelessness about relationships allowed the relationship to simply drift along. Yes, we had experienced emotional rushes together, but over time these yielded to self-doubts and insecurities which, in the end, ended the relationship. When we broke up, I was dejected, pained. I had loved her, or at least I believed that I had loved her.
After that I became careful about how to love. I bided my time, wanting to be sure that if I became involved in a relationship again it wouldn’t end with my hurting someone. When, as a senior, I started seeing someone again, I felt myself drawn in. She was moving quickly, perhaps too quickly for me. The progression of our physical relationship was exciting, but it troubled me. I shared my concerns with a friend—I didn’t want to have sex with her so soon, because I was afraid it would entangle us. This time, I felt, it was important to move slowly.
My concerns were justified. There was chemistry between us, which for me meant that our mutual attraction operated on something more primal than the level of careful forethought. Despite my inexperience I could tell that she desired me. In my more rational moments I could enjoy the simple fact of having a girlfriend, of feeling like a man of experience and insight into the opposite sex. But when we were together, I found myself divided between the competing urges of conscience and hormones, and the latter frequently quieted the former. I wanted to be a good person, a loving person, but I also felt energized by the thrill of physical encounter with her. Where would I draw the line?
It wasn’t that I lacked the desire—it would have been easy to let hormones take their course. But, although I couldn’t have articulated it well at the time, I sensed that there had to be more to a relationship than sex, and if our interactions were merely repeated buildups towards sex, then there was little else upon which to build a relationship. My strong stand on this point left me emotionally exhausted, because it felt as though we were pushing the boundary I’d internalized in many years of religious education. In fact, it was because this boundary became such a constant source of tension that I began to wonder whether we were really right for each other. I couldn’t have explained this to her at the time; I was just a high-school kid. In retrospect, though, I think that what I felt was that she did not understand—and didn’t want to understand—why I thought the boundary was important.
The relationship didn’t last much longer. In the end, I realized that there wasn’t much else between us besides the physical chemistry. So we parted company.
In the wake of that experience, I’d entered college wary and dejected. I had learned that I had the power to hurt someone; I’d also learned that what I hoped for out of a relationship might not be shared by the other. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for a normal married life. I wanted to be a philosopher, to somehow rise above ordinary human experience, to search like a latter-day Plato or Thoreau for what was permanent, what was meaningful, what was beautiful in life—not to stumble clumsily from one infatuation to another, wreaking havoc along the way.
I didn’t want to rush into making stupid choices. I was insecure (“Could one of these beautiful, sophisticated women be interested in me?”) yet cynical (“People hook up here the way they try on different clothes”). I began to think that maybe this was God’s way of persuading me just to give up the hope of meaningful sex. And yet underneath this intellectual exercise I felt the desire to love and to be loved, and it scared me. I thought there could be no one who thought about love the way I did.
Sue and I had seen each other a number of times over the year, but it wasn’t until the following summer that we really met. It was on Cape Cod, where fifteen of us had pooled our money to rent a house for a week at the end of the summer. There was no TV, no work to do—but lots of conversation, games, walks along the beach, and day trips around the area. In the comfort of the large group I could learn who she was and what she thought about. It was not love at first sight, but it was certainly friendship. It was possibility.
Through our mutual friends we kept in touch over the following semester. I came to know her more and more and discovered that I enjoyed being with her. By Christmas I’d shared with a friend that I was thinking about her more often, and began imagining us as a couple. But she was a senior, and I only a sophomore, and I wasn’t sure if I was being realistic. But the friendship developed during the spring, and as the leaves emerged so did my conviction that I was falling in love. I was thinking about her during the day, and I was thinking about her at night. And my anxieties about love began to thaw as I let myself imagine what it might be like to kiss her.
Standing in the cathedral, the memory of her kiss was delicious. I breathed in deeply the sacred air of this space, as if it might fan the coals of the memory and bring it to life. It was the taste that emerged in my memory, the deep fleshy taste of her lips against mine. I have heard it said that prostitutes don’t kiss their clients because it is too personal, too intimate an act, and I believe it. That terrifying and exhilarating kiss stripped me of my defenses, my rationality, the façade of my persona, and all that was left was the barest reality of what was true deep within: I loved her, and she loved me. The calculating, the planning, the careful plotting of a life course that responsible college graduates do—these evaporated in the taste of that kiss.
And now everything was different. Without the kiss, there would have been unrequited longing cloaked under a wet blanket of common sense. She would have carried on in her graduate studies, probably forgetting me over time and marrying a highschool teacher who brought her flowers. I would have gone to Oxford, sought out a prestigious graduate program abroad, and sought out a high-octane university teaching position.
But because of the kiss, there was no hiding what our hearts had been incubating: it was out in the open, and now our challenge was to make it work. We had to direct our thinking toward ways to make regular separation tolerable, for the sake of nurturing this budding relationship.
Over the summer she went home to Connecticut while I remained in Boston, working and training on the Charles River. Our contact was infrequent, though deeply satisfying: I would take the train down to New London to spend the weekend at her parents’ home, and sometimes she would drive up to see me. Our time together was precious precisely because it was always short; we felt the shared need to write the script of our life together with each finite scene. And so there were walks along the beach under sun and moon, with long conversations about how we were thinking about the years of separation ahead. There were trips to scenic places, as if surrounding ourselves in beauty might more effectively paint them upon the canvas of a long, shared life. There were evenings at her home, when we would eat local clams or lobster, then steal away for a stroll around the neighborhood and find excuses not to go back inside. It all felt perfect.
More than once, a goodbye at the train station seemed to call for closing credits scrolling down an imaginary screen, with some audience sobbing at the conclusion. The insistence of each kiss reflected the looming anxiety of separation. I retain a physical memory of her kiss: the first, on the road after our long and fateful talk; those in the park, on the beach, in front of her home; and many others. My body recalls not only the taste of her, but also the warmth of her skin, the contour of her back, the slope of her chin. I smell her face; I relish the feel of her embrace. She awakened in me not only the hope of being lovable, but also the desire to be truthful in the way I sought to love her—to take time, to move slowly, to savor each step without a headlong rush into sex.
Like everyone I knew, I had entered college with the feeling of freedom and opportunity that distance from home provided. In the abstract, I had toyed with the possibility of casual sex, which I imagined everyone having, except me. I felt what any other typical guy felt, and there was a part of me that wanted the thrill of the chase. Theoretically, it seemed perfectly possible to hook up with any number of women, each of whom, to my constant astonishment, seemed more gorgeous than the last. Something in me resisted, though. From my very limited perspective it seemed that others were able to enjoy relatively carefree sex when both people sought only experience, not a relationship. But I rejected the idea that I could simply have sex with someone and then go about my life without any lasting consequence. In other words, casual sex seemed like a good idea in the abstract but an impossibility in the concrete. When I began thinking in the concrete: “What about her? Or her?” I began imagining what it might actually be like to be so close with someone, without caring about what she was really thinking about, or doing the next day, or wanting out of life.
I also had the sense that a random hookup might be like a rush toward a buffet table before all the guests had been seated at a banquet. It felt rude, not only because it implied impatience, but also because it meant neglecting to appreciate the rich pleasures of the moment. A lasting gift from my first relationship is the memory of one evening out at the movies, and the sensation of touching Laura’s hand. I can’t recall who touched whom—though something tells me it was “accidental” on both our parts. In any case, the experience was one of heightened sensation: I was attracted to her, and the rush of simply feeling her fingers on mine felt like a wave crashing on the shore. For most of the movie (God help me if I can even remember what we were watching), her hand grazed lightly over mine, and I in turn explored the contours of palm, wrist, and finger. I delighted in the soft texture of her skin (yes), the gentle feeling of her light and graceful touch (yes), the feeling of affirmation in her yes. It was like that for over an hour: hand in hand, sometimes squeezing, sometimes caressing, sometimes simply touching, and it was glorious. I don’t think we were able to speak about it much after the movie was over, sensing that no words could really approach what we had experienced.
I guarded the memory of that sensuous contemplation and carried it with me into last spring. There were Sue’s eyes, looking at mine, then looking away, at the thought that this idea of a relationship didn’t make sense. Here was my own sense of foreboding, of terror, at having thrown open my heart and awaiting the consequences. There was my reason, calculating robotically. And then, from nowhere, arose a slight wind of courage, and I faced her, and allowed my face to drift into hers. When we kissed, I asked time to move more slowly, to allow me to pay attention and to savor. There is a world in each kiss, and a world in the memory of each kiss.
In the cathedral, thinking of her kiss, she was present to me again, if only for a while, in the silence.
When I left there that afternoon, I felt as if I’d undergone a kind of ordination. Any lingering thoughts of philosophical bachelorhood were long gone, replaced by the certainty that in this woman’s kiss was God’s word, made flesh. Inside the cathedral, my imagination roved through medieval monastic texts and florid romantic poetry. I was a pilgrim, a person of prayer, moving toward an unknown place where I might encounter the mystery of God. The pilgrims of old often heard a call to the monastery or the convent, but in the memory of her kiss and in the restless anticipation of seeing her again, I heard a call toward a domestic church, a holy hearth, a sanctified home where I would go to dwell with my beloved. The cathedral was a holy place, a place of liturgy and of private prayer, of devotion in word and art made sacred over eight centuries of worship, and it was good to be there. And yet when I departed from its dark interior, suffused as it was with brilliant flames of stained-glass filtered light, into the eye-straining brightness of the afternoon sun, I felt newly missioned.
Back in May, when she and I were still talking through what a new relationship might be like, I observed that it was preferable to live with the risk of both real joy and real suffering, rather than to live a safe, comfortable, sanitized, unremarkable life. I think about that statement frequently these days; it has become a kind of mission statement for me, especially now that sometimes highs and lows tumble awkwardly upon one another like young brothers wrestling. One moment I am breathing the fresh air over a stunningly beautiful city scene, imagining life there a hundred or a thousand years ago, and the next moment I am glancing at my watch and running full tilt back toward the train station so I can catch the one train that will provide me rest for the night. This is the itinerary I have prepared for myself; it is mine alone, and even in its stresses I feel alive. The stories I will be able to tell her when we meet in a few days!
The worst of my learning curve was behind me as I rode the train from Heidelberg to Florence, where I met my friends Derek and Tom. Traveling with them for the next several days lent stability to the journey. The pace was slower, but the experiences were rich and the conversations consoling.
The Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Accademia were first, all of us looking forward to seeing the Botticellis and Michelangelo’s David . At the Accademia, we split up; I walked through a hallway and was amazed at the unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, each of which seemed like living beings trapped within marble.
Here there was an arm and a torso straining to lift itself out of the rock, its head locked within a boulder.
There was another, a full figure whose entire rear side was still embedded, all hope lost of being freed to stand on its own. The human condition, I thought to myself.
I became aware of my own mobility, my own musculature able to operate freely, when I entered the overwhelming chamber where there appeared the David . I had to sit down. The contrast was stunning. Whereas the other figures were forever tethered to the raw material, here was a figure that emerged like light from its source. I half thought that he would jump down and run away, but for his determined look, which seemed to carry him to some greater task in some unforeseen future. I stared for several minutes, then got up to walk around him and see him from different angles. “This is rock,” I had to remind myself—rock, earth, clay, soil, the stuff of which mountains are made, transformed, transfigured. In my awe I hoped that the God I worshipped might have a similar power over living clay.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola once suggested that God was like a sculptor and that we are like blocks of wood in his hands. In the gallery, I confronted the question of what kind of sculpture (blockhead?) I am. Unfinished, yes—but would I remain so, or allow God to continue to shape me into something like what exploded before my eyes in this gallery? Am I working at cross-purposes, dodging the painful chiseling for fear that he is not skilled enough to bring forth beauty from the block? Perhaps more to the point, I wondered whether my desire for freedom was like the straining of the unfinished sculptures—futile and premature, like yanking a flower from the ground in order to see it in full bloom at a moment’s notice. Here I was, having run around Europe gorging myself on cities and cultures as if they constituted some kind of smorgasbord, unable to simply stop and rest in any one of the moments that unfolded before me. Here I was at that moment, drinking in the deep draught of one sculpture—just one, after having seen many works of art—which forced me to stop, and pay attention. Perhaps something small, like a hazelnut or a sculpture—or a person—could open up the world to me, could allow me to turn from the willy-nilly desire to see everything to the more discreet desire to understand one thing well.
I know I am restless by nature; I know that I feel the temptation to indulge different experiences. Depth takes time; depth requires energy, attention, slowing down. And I have always felt that slowing down was like succumbing to some weakness, some character flaw. I am about energy, passion, drive; I am kinetic; I am about action, desiring, striving, seeking, never to yield. Now I wonder if I have missed something basic.
I imagine the time that Michelangelo must have spent on this work of art. So many unfinished pieces languished in the hallways outside, like discarded loves. But this one radiated like the sun in this gallery; he must have poured his heart and soul into this work. What would it be like to be passionate about one thing so powerfully? What would it be like to risk one’s energies for days and weeks and months on that one something, mindful that failure was always a possibility? What might it be like to treat one’s beloved in that way, pouring heart and soul and mind and strength into perfecting that one relationship, making it daily into a thing of incredible beauty, a pearl of great price, yet still at such great risk?
Perhaps God sees me this way, I thought. What kind of sculpture am I? Or better, What kind of sculpture are we, the two of us emerging slowly as a single work of art, like Rodin’s lovers? Once upon a time I had thought of myself as a single individual whose life story would unfold amidst the comings and goings of a varied supporting cast. But as this year progressed, it was becoming clearer that mine was only one part of a larger story, one that involved her and who knows who else.
In the poem I had written her last spring, I made reference to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The image of the pursuing lover frozen forever in the picture on the urn, never able to reach his beloved—this was what I feared would be my fate. But today the story is different. I am no character on the urn; I have kissed her and tasted how “beauty is truth, and truth beauty.” Neither am I a David, focused resolutely on a single task, called by God to defeat an enemy with five smooth stones. I am still a pilgrim, and I do not know where God is leading me, or what kind of person he is creating me to be.
The image of the David stays with me, even after what remains in my memory as a lovely day around Florence—the Duomo, the monastery of San Miniato, watching the scullers on the Arno, listening to the organ concert in an out-of-the-way church. Derek, Tom, and I had a great time wandering around, and I really appreciated having friends to talk with along the way. The wandering was still the same, but the companionship made all the difference. I had learned in my previous semester in Latin that the root of the word companion is “breaking bread together,” and the image struck me as incredibly apt under these circumstances. I did the same walking around,, and consumed the same bread and water, but the memory of the experience is much richer.
Over the next couple of days, we traveled from Florence to Venice and ultimately to Rome, where we were looking forward to spending Christmas Eve. I wanted to go to the Midnight Mass at the Vatican, as well as see the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, and other sites of classical antiquity. My first year at Boston College was an immersion in classical literature, and I had read the likes of Virgil and Cicero enough to want to see some of its history firsthand. I came to Rome energized by the previous few days. So it was with lifted spirits that I saw the Eternal City for the first time, and fell in love with it. I just loved being there, even before seeing anything beyond the ordinary streets. I delighted in looking at manhole covers, stamped as they were with the ancient “SPQR”—Senatus Populusque Romanus or “the Roman Senate and People”—which was once emblazoned on the banners of the ancient Republic. I loved hearing myself try to speak Italian (how hard could it be, I thought, if I already know Latin?) using the phrasebook that I’d bought for the occasion. I could live here, I thought, wondering if perhaps it might not be out of the question to return one day as a graduate student in theology.
Our first visit was to the Vatican, knowing that with Christmas coming the next day it would be wise to get there early and see Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Sistine Chapel was already closed for the holiday, as was the Vatican Library. But the basilica was open, at least for the afternoon before preparations for Midnight Mass were in full throttle. Having been in several grand cathedrals already—not only in Chartres, but also London, Paris, Lyon, Cologne, and Vienna—I was not expecting Saint Peter’s to be so surprisingly awe-inspiring. All the earlier cathedrals had been constructed during the High Middle Ages, but Saint Peter’s was a Renaissance structure the size of an airplane hangar. Its color, its scale, its significance struck me the moment I walked in and turned to the right to see Michelangelo’s Pietà , then looked straight ahead and up to see the immense cupola.
I wandered around, drinking in the artwork and symbolism around the basilica. I walked along the perimeter, reading the scriptural texts from the Latin Vulgate Bible: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” and so on. (That night, when I saw a man standing atop the cupola and seeing that the letters were twice his height, I gained a greater appreciation for the size of the structure.) I gazed at Bernini’s columns, which looked so familiar from pictures and videos. I took in the alabaster window of the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove, and the many side chapels. Here were snapshots from Church history, a three-dimensional family album that unfolded over the centuries and the various iterations of the basilica itself.
After returning to the pensione we met up with Anne, who had traveled from Paris for the same purpose of being in Rome for Christmas. The four of us went back to the basilica early that evening, in order to wait in line for the standing-room-only space at Midnight Mass. The time passed quickly; we caught each other up on our respective travels and talked with other pilgrims who had descended on Saint Peter’s Square. Fortunately, we were close enough to the front of the queue that we were able to stand fairly close to the main altar, in the corner of the left transept, with a pretty good view of where Pope John Paul II would be celebrating Mass. Not surprisingly, the space filled quickly. Surprisingly, people were rude, jockeying elbows to find the best position from which to see the altar. Perhaps it’s just me, I thought, but I would have hoped that a little more generosity would prevail under these circumstances than at a Bears-Packers game.
Still, the situation was mesmerizing. Here were thousands of people from hundreds of nations—religious men and women in their respective habits; bishops, cardinals, and the pope; the Swiss Guards in their distinctive uniforms. This was pageantry like few Americans really know; seldom before did I feel so certainly that I was doing something historic. We experienced a Latin Mass; readings in English and Spanish, songs in Polish, Vietnamese, and Kiswahili; prayers in French and German and Italian. I was right in the middle of the world.
It was not a prayerful experience, as I had previously understood them—this was a mad rush of humanity, particularly at the celebration of Communion. There was no quiet, no sense of interiority, no movement of contrition or thankfulness or praise. Still, it was an experience of prayer, of drawing me outside my small world and into one much grander and more challenging. I began to wonder what sort of pilgrimages these others around me had undertaken in order to be here, especially those who had traveled thousands of miles, perhaps with little money. What drew them? Why had they come? And for that matter, why had I come? What exactly were we all after?
There were the obvious answers: a love of history and art, and those great repositories of Western culture. But museums don’t attract people to events like this one. And so there emerged another, perhaps more subtle answer: a shared belief, a shared religion—a sharing that transcended national, ethnic, and economic boundaries. I was here with people from literally every part of the world, and I had never before known such diversity. I wanted to echo Socrates: the world is my home, the world which is described in Socrates’ Greek as katholikos , universal. True, it was not the whole world—I thought of my Jewish and Protestant friends back in Oxford and Boston, and realized that this was still an incomplete community. And in part because of that realization I looked for a yet more subtle answer to my question of why we were here, for it was unsatisfying to imagine that we thought of ourselves as comprising just an imperfect community doing its own thing, like any club or social organization. For myself—I could not speak for these sisters and brothers jammed around me—I observed that I was here out of hope, that my belief in the reality of Christ made me a part of something that could not stop short of hope for the entire human family. And so I found myself taking odd comfort in the waves of elbows and shoulders.
But the truth is that this is my church; this is the community into which I was born and which has given me a language with which I have come to understand the movements of God in history and even in my own life. And nowhere have I felt those movements more strongly than when I am with her; quite simply, when I am with her I want to be holy. I want to be able to love her perfectly, without selfishness and without the kind of limitation that stifled my earlier attempts at love. Because of her, God has a human face, and it is a face that beckons me to become better than I am right now. I don’t need to engage in flights of imagination to know that God loves me: it’s in her voice, her assuring, sonorous voice telling me that she loves me, when I can’t really place my finger on exactly why. I guess I am in this church because it is a place where I can say thank you, ask for help, and even sometimes rage when the strain is too much. This is where I hear the voice of God, where I turn down the static of my rational mind and listen to deeper chords within me resonating with those around me. I love worshipping a God who has become one of us, whose passion for us meant willingness to sacrifice his very self. Maybe some of the people here have come just for the sake of seeing a celebrity, but I suppose that happened to Jesus too.
The Mass ended in the wee hours of the morning, and we all filed out into Saint Peter’s Square. Near the giant crèche we stood in a circle, just soaking in the atmosphere, and someone started singing “Silent Night.” “O Come All Ye Faithful” followed, and soon we were singing just about everything we could remember. We even had a request or two from some other pilgrims, in languages we couldn’t understand. When we finally walked back to our lodging at around 4:00 a.m., we were exhilarated and exhausted. For my part, it was the culmination of my pilgrimage, or at least this phase of it. It’s been three weeks of nonstop travel around Europe, but now I am on my way back to England and, after what once felt like it would be halfway to forever, a reunion with my beloved.
An Interactive Feature 1
1 Where We Never Thought We'd Be 1
2 When We Dared to Call It Love 11
3 What It Means Not to Be Alone 39
4 How Love Opens Up a Life 53
5 When Two Life Struggles Merge into One 63
6 How Love Blooms into Fascination 73
7 When Real Life Is Lived Together 81
8 When We Had to Throw Away the Script 89
9 When We Finally Arrived at the Same Place 97
10 How Far Thirty Is from Twenty 107
11 Why We Journeyed to the Other Side of the World 125
12 How I Fell In Love Three Times 131
Questions for Couples in Love 135
About the Author 147