**Spoiler Alert** For some time I had thought about putting experiences from life and ministry into book form. It’s taken me some time to even begin to have the courage to begin it and will take me much longer to do so, but it is finally in process. For the first time, though, I share what the “Introduction” of that book would sound like which begins to spell out the “classroom of life”. Until then, I’ll keep on writing and compiling!
It was October 2003. It was a pivotal time in my life as I began my final year of priestly formation in preparation for Ordination in June 2004. After seven years of formation, a switch in diocese, many adjustments, fallbacks, and growing in leaps and bounds, the day of anticipation was near and I can finally begin to feel it and accept that this is where God wanted me to be and who God wanted me to be and do with my life. I had found some semblance of peace.
Then it happened. Over Fall break, a group of us guys loaded up the cars for Western Pennsylvania to do some late Fall white water rafting. Following Hurricane Isabel earlier in September and plenty of rain the following weeks, led to rather swollen rivers along the East Coast, including the Youghiogheny River. I remember it as a cold, damp, and dreary October day with trees already beyond peak of the colorful season. In some ways, that image can still describe the events that unfolded for me as we ventured down the river that morning.
This was not my first time rafting. I had done it before and loved every minute of it, even, on occasion, falling out into the water, gasping for air as the water rushed through the rapids. This day in October, though, was different. As we approached the first rapid, I knew what to do if anything should happen. Go with the flow of the water. Don’t try to step on the bottom for fear of getting your feet stuck in the rocks, risking broken bones or drowning. I knew it all, except one thing. What do I do if I become trapped under the raft?
I had no answer to it, but as we made our way into that first rapid, it’s quickly where I had found myself. One of the guys in front of me had knocked me out with his paddle and there wasn’t much to do. It took a moment to realize where I was and what had happened. No one ever mentioned what to do in this case. I realized I was trapped. I had also realized, no matter how hard I pushed, I was not going to get the raft from on top of me, considering there were several full-grown men above me. This is all happening so quickly now. What do I do? I remember things flashing before my eyes as I moved along with the raft above me. My ability to hold my breath was beginning to wane. In a flash, I thought my life was coming to an end. That experience where everything and everyone flashes before your eyes was happening. It was no longer someone else’s experience; it was my life. This pivotal point in my life, the peace I had worked towards and God was leading me to, ordination on the horizon, and my life was about to end.
Needless to say, more than ten years have passed and I sit here writing, so I have made it to the other side and miracles have happened, but not before moving into some of the darkest moments of my life and the hardest questions that I ever had faced and a “me” I was finally, well, after years of fighting God, had to confront of who I really am, or better yet, let go of who I had seen me to be. In many ways, my life was quickly coming to an end and I didn’t even know it. The life I wanted and dreamed of, gone. The life I thought I should have and expected, forgotten. In a moment when I least expected, my life was coming to an end. What was and is and ever shall be, plunged into the depths of the waters of the Youghiogheny, bound into a life that feared living. A boy and his raft and only after years will a man begin to emerge.
I feared everything. I feared going to bed. I feared getting out of bed. I feared, most especially, putting a pen to paper in my journal not knowing what would come out, or worse, who would come out. An experience of a raft on rough waters, a cloudy, damp day, drowning in a life and world I had created and over time, would be no more. Drowning, trapped, and suffocating had and have now become universal markers for life’s experiences that still at times scare me to put to paper. Not because of what I would face and write, but more so who would read them, how they would be interpreted, and how they might be misunderstood. What I feared most was that in no way was I worthy to write these words of these experiences and in no way would it ever meet the expectation of perfection in the eyes I had viewed life. A fear of what others may actually think of life from the lens of a man who has carried a raft with him his entire life, using it as a place to hide and protect from the many dark moments that have been lived, and yet, not understanding at that moment how that raft would become the whiteboard on where I would begin to learn the meaning of life.
On the pages that follow is that man’s story, my story. It is a story that only I can tell but one relative to many lives. It is a story of hope. It is a story as seen through the lens of a sensitive man who was often afraid to admit that about himself. It is a story about a man who loves God and leading others on that journey in finding God. It is a story of a man who will create conflict in faith in order for others to find faith, for “when I am weak is when I am strong.” On these pages is a story of a man who sees everything as a classroom, including the river and that raft. Everything has something to teach and lead if we are open to and listening to everything; the same is true of us. If we are awake in the moment, the consciousness of the world will speak and we will hear, maybe for the first time or in a new way. One of the hardest things is finding and paying attention to that voice, trusting it, and speaking it from the place of worthiness within when so much has pointed you towards unworthiness throughout life, or so I thought. This is a story of a young boy who has died and has come back to life as the man God is ever-creating him to be.