This is a continuation of a story that was started in a previous post. For the full context, refer to My Conversion to Christ, part 1 of 4, September 23, 2013
I think that when every boy hits 12 years old, his life completely changes. Mine was no different. Of course, you are still surrounded by the signs of your young childhood. But slowly, those items get replaced by puberty and adolescence. Girls look at you differently, and you look at girls differently. This is totally new, and somehow completely unexpected. Much awkwardness follows! Having been at St. Andrew’s with most of the girls in my 30-person classroom, I think that, generally speaking, we treated each other respectfully. After all, most of our parents knew each other (some of them had grown up in our neighborhood with each other). It had the feel of an extended family, as Catholic schools often times do. It wasn’t a bad place to be introduced into the world of relationships with the opposite sex (and this is in some ways an advertisement for the value of Catholic schools!).
Me at the birth of my brother Dan, with my sister, Marie, July 14, 1994 –
But that wasn’t the only change at 12, 13, 14 years old. The way that your parents look at you changes. The way that your teachers and coaches look at you changes. It isn’t as if only your body changes. It seems as if all of your relationships change too. It becomes hard to figure out what is the right thing to do, as you are slowly introduced to the world. My world expanded as I graduated from St. Andrew School (after spending practically my whole life there) in 1995. I said goodbye to co-ed education and hello to the all-male environment of Cathedral Preparatory School. What a change! It was a welcome change.
Cathedral Preparatory School as viewed from 9th and Sassafras Streets, Erie, PA
I found Prep to be a brotherhood of sorts, like an extended fraternity for teenage boys. This had its positive and negative aspects. Whatever we did together was strong, whether for good or for bad. It is a successful school: successful athletically and academically. For those so interested (unfortunately too few of the kids) it was successful spiritually as well. It is hard to explain the bond that an all-boys school produces in its student body. There is just a closeness and respect that develops over the years amongst the young men of Cathedral Prep.
When I was in high school, my priorities became less conditioned by family and religion, and more conditioned by the world. It was the 90’s, and lots of new things were happening. Diversity was expanding, as closed communities were opening to each other. There was a new thing called the Internet. But in order to get onto it, you had to dial up and block your parents’ phone line, which they were only willing to tolerate for so long! People were making a lot of money. War seemed over, with the collapse of Communism. Things seemed really positive. So, being smart and full of pride, I thought that I would be able to basically do whatever I wanted to do. I could write my own story, and so I did. I tossed myself fully into my own work, my own relationships, my own pleasures, MY OWN LIFE. I was totally self-consumed. I hardly thought of anyone else but myself. This was fun for a while, but I got tired of it quickly.
Icon of the spirit of the 90’s, President Bill Clinton
The world that I was getting to understand was very different from the world from which I came. In my childhood, I had family, traditions, and roots. Quickly, I came to realize that no one else really cared or honored any of that. I was an individual being prepared to enter a big world full of other individuals. How would I compete in such a world? I was disheartened by a lot of what I saw around me. A lot of the people who I went to school with were making really bad decisions (sex, drugs, alcohol). Some of my decisions weren’t the best either. Social circles seemed really closed and really rude. There was almost an assumption that people were only out for themselves, and that you had to keep your guard up. It became hard to know who was really a friend. A lot of the goodness of younger years was replaced by coldness and danger. Such were my thoughts as I journeyed on through my teenage years.
Where did religion fit into this whole picture? In a lot of ways, it didn’t fit in at all. It seemed tied into one of those traditions from younger years that was losing its relevance. My friends were working out important questions without referring to the Church’s teachings on morality. Most of my friends didn’t seem the least bit curious about being active in the Church, as they found meaning in sports, extra-curricular activities, or their circle of friends. It is probably true that at this time, many people left the Church behind, and still journey away from it to this day. Still, I faithfully went to Church every Sunday (EVERY SUNDAY!). I said my prayers. I tried to follow the rules – and I could never seem to keep them all. I liked Church a lot. I found comfort and belonging there. But it seemed irrelevant to what was going on outside of it. And for those who were there, it seemed like a ritual of sorts, kind of shallow and external. From what little I knew about Christian discipleship, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between those who were at Church, and those that weren’t. As I prepared to get Confirmed as a Junior, the question forming in my heart was, “Why do Church when it seems irrelevant to the world, and the people who are here seem no different than anyone else?”
Throughout this whole challenging teenage experience, I had a point of reference to guide me through. My paternal grandmother, Betty Barron, was a woman of great faith. Hers was a different kind of faith from the typical Catholic religious practice. She was identified with a type of Catholicism called “Charismatic”. Grandma Barron belonged to all of these prayer groups all over the City of Erie. These people were marked by miraculous happenings. They could speak of healing of deep emotional and physical wounds. They ministered to people who were really down and out: alcoholics, convicts, drug addicts, women in abusive relationships, and so on (here I think especially of the ministry of the late Monsignor James Peterson). There were people with mental and physical challenges involved as well.
My Grandmother and I in Harrisburg, PA in 1995. Notice the contradictory Penn State and Cleveland Browns apparel.
Prayer meetings were marked by worship of God, (in ways that I found challenging), such as speaking in tongues, lifting open hands, and singing (Catholics singing imagine that!). The Bible figured prominently in these meetings as well. Most of all, and this was the thing that still gets me about my Grandmother’s community of friends, they really, actually, loved each other. And their time together was marked by true, moving towards pure, joy. Real joy, undeniable joy. This was so different than what I experienced in my teenage social circles. It was even different than what I experienced at Church, as much I as loved my parish, the Priesthood, the liturgy, Mary, and the Eucharist (even Confession if you could believe it!).
And so, here I was, a 17 year old boy already at some sort of crossroads in life. I had fragments of experiences floating around in my life. There was the solid, loving childhood I enjoyed in a safe environment, with the structured environment of Catholic schooling and religion. There was my own persuits, which were increasingly selfish and detached from greater meaning. There were my peers, who seemed similarly selfish, or in danger of doing something really hurtful to themselves. There were also challenges in family life, too, that threatened its continued stability. There was religion, but it seemed to be put off in a corner of irrelevancy to the rest of life. Finally, there was my grandmother and her faith life, which seemed to be the only different, shining thing floating through my life. It seemed a little weird to me, even a bit scary. But was it any stranger than the other dramas playing out in teenager world? Very shortly, and upexpectedly, at 17 years of age, an unforeseen answer would come…
An “akward stage” picture from Junior year, Fall of 1997 – braces and all!
To be continued….