The Year of Darkness
These past 6-9 months have been for me, like many, one of darkness and confusion. The progress I was making in my life seemed to have come screeching to a halt and I found myself riding the waves of the emotional rollercoaster being played out dramatically for us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in real time.
It began with media saying that WWIII would be starting soon in North Korea, and then the shutdown of the world economy for an enemy that was invisible to the eye. Then there were lockdowns, masks, and in some places even curfews. For good measure, we then threw in race riots, the shuttering of churches and finally Big Brother censoring at levels that only a year ago remained the neurotic fears of George Orwell’s book, 1984.
For me, the entirety of 2020 has been what I imagine would be the last seconds of life for someone who suddenly finds themselves careening inevitably and uncontrollably out of control at 100 mph. In play-by-play fashion, I began looking back on my life – at the list of supposed accomplishments and failures that marked, and what I thought, defined my existence here on earth.
Reviewing My Balance Sheet
October 28th marks the 6th anniversary of my departure from the Catholic institution that nearly ended my life. Seventeen years ago, believing that I was going to do incredible things for God and man, I stepped onto a bus at the age of 18 and left home and family. Eleven years later, six years ago to this day, I would return home devastated, broken, and completely lost, almost entirely destroyed psychologically by the same Church that was supposed to give me life.
This failure would continue to haunt me wherever I went thereafter. I invested thousands and a year and a half in a real estate business with a partner who was making deals on the side and who then tried to sue me for her losses after she ran out of money. I fell for a smooth-talking marketer who promised to help me launch my business and found myself steeped in $30k in credit card bills. I spent countless hours, thousands of dollars and weeks of my vacation time working on a business that as of yet has yielded results. And to top it off as my highest accomplishment, I have spent the prime of my dating years, from the age of 29 to the age of nearly 36 almost entirely single.
For my successes, the scoresheet seemed to me to be lopsided: I had tirelessly and despite every desire, never given up on myself.
After 11 years as a Catholic seminarian, I did not find help to rebuild myself in the Catholic Church, but in the world of self-help and entrepreneurship. It was there that I began my process of healing, of confronting my past and finding peace with what had happened to me, and what I had done. I read countless self-help books, slogged through dozens of online courses, saw two psychologists, hired three life-coaches and never stopped striving to dig myself out of the hole I thought I had been buried in.
But I had hit a wall, and my progress forward seemed to be impeded by some invisible force.
The Storm of 2020
Perhaps that is a feeling that epitomizes 2020 for many – the feeling of being stuck by an invisible force, much like suddenly finding oneself for an unknown reason on a boat that is sinking despite every frenzied attempt to scoop out the water. I can’t help but to recall a similar story about the disciples of Jesus on a boat. Jesus is sound asleep at the stern.
It is interesting that the disciple Peter is among those who fears for his life. He and a few others on the boat were seasoned fishermen. Surely a windstorm would not fill phase them?
But the sea is an interesting place for the Jews of his time. While land is a place of assurance, of strong footing, the sea’s chartless depths represents a place where darkness and evil reside, where the unknown threatens to control and dominate those who wander far enough off the coastline. Meanwhile, this Jesus who claims to be the Son of God remains fast asleep. Does not one hide or go to sleep when they feel powerless before an enemy bigger and stronger than themselves?
Is it not possible, they must have thought, that even He was powerless before the storm at sea, before the barrage of evil that seemed to overtake them, that seems to overtake us today?
Losing My Bearings
My bearings had been thrown off. For the past 17 years, the very place that I came to for security and peace was the place that abused me, nearly destroyed my faith in God, and continued to take advantage of those I loved. And now, amidst all of the chaos of 2020, they too were silent.
And the silence of Catholic leadership throughout this storm has been deafening. Worldly advice comes from worldly men – where are the saints in this time of crisis?
But that perhaps is precisely the point of this passage. The boat represents the Church, which rocks and is nearly flooded by the waves of the storm but does not succumb despite its own ineptitudes, sinful leadership, and hypocrisy.
The disciples, who represent the Pope and bishops, are just as afraid and confused by the storm. They were the fishermen, the professionals who should know what to do when waves rock the boat, but crises reveal true leadership, or the lack thereof. In the storms of 2020, crises have revealed that the men on the boat are afraid and confused and in no place to lead. Many priests are uneasy and distrustful of their bishop’s lack of decisive direction and leadership.
For the past 100 years or so, Western society has progressively become less and less religious. Even many Christians like myself have found ourselves questioning our faith at times. This is not surprising considering the decades of abuses and coverup, and more recent high-level scandals such as the cases of Cardinal McCarrick and the recent arrest of Cardinal Becciu for paying someone to frame another cardinal (among other things).
I once spent an unexpected 21 minutes watching Mark Rober build the perfect squirrel proof feeder, which later turned into a ninja warrior obstacle course. There’s a point where if the squirrel sits on a particular board for more than three seconds, it gets catapulted into the air and has to start the course all over again. What a frame-by-frame breakdown reveals about squirrels during several launches was fascinating: when they unexpectedly find themselves in flight, they immediately lock their eyes on a particular fixed point where they project they will land and then rotate their bodies towards that object so that they will land on their feet no matter what.
Like the squirrels, we find ourselves mid-flight looking for something solid to land on. In the midst of a storm, it is not surprising that our focus is drawn to land – to the concrete realities of science and facts that we can put our hands on and feel, rather than the spiritual realities that seem unhelpful during real crises. We forgo church and prayer and replace it with religious obedience to our new priests, the scientists, who promise us that if we religiously wear our masks, wash our hands, and give up our freedoms, that we can defy death.
But did we not learn anything from the Church scandals and the passage of the disciples in a storm at sea?
It is a fools errand to make gods of mere men.
Today is what I consider my birthday, or shall I call it my rebirthday? Six years ago I arrived in DC from Rome and began a new life. I had absolutely no idea just how painful my future would become before it started to get better – it was incomprehensible that it could continue to get worse, and that leaving the seminary would require more than just a plane flight to achieve.
But this year I will celebrate in a unique way, because it is not merely a celebration of a departure, but of a true rebirth – and I have the pandemic of 2020 to be grateful for that. If it had not been for this pandemic shoving me further into darkness, my eyes would still have been set on the shore, my hopes for finding peace and inner joy in reading one more self-help book, or taking one more course that would fix that one last problem that is keeping me from finally climbing out of the hole I thought I was in.
But as it turns out, my slow awakening – and the peace and security that comes from it – is found when the disciples awaken Jesus on the boat.
After 17 years of storms and being tossed about at sea, I have finally found the one rock that does not move. And for this I am grateful to 2020.