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New York Times / Life - Entertain

Love Calls, and So Does the Priesthood

On a subway platform, she shared a New Year’s Eve kiss with a man planning to be a priest. Could it go any further?


Brian Rea

I met the priest, or rather the man hoping to become one, in a stationery shop in SoHo where I worked. After a few flirtatious interactions over pencils, he gave me a handwritten letter asking if I would like to go for a walk.

My co-worker acknowledged his handsomeness, joking that the only possible obstacle would be if he were religious.

On my stroll with him along the High Line a few days later, I brought up my co-worker’s comment, believing this to be an opportunity to flash my charm while calming my nerves regarding the impossibility of him just being a nice guy.

He laughed and told me he planned to become a priest but hadn’t yet taken vows. It would be a few years. These things take time.

When I asked why someone committing to a life of celibacy would take me out on a date, he said he wanted a companion.

I told him to get a dog. I told him that I need to touch my lovers, to push on them. I’ve read “The Scarlet Letter.” I know how these things go.

These days I don’t know exactly what I am in terms of my soul, but I know for sure I am no Catholic. When I was 9, I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. My second grade teacher at the Protestant school I attended informed me that my salvation story would be called my testimony. I should share it often.

My salvation came during a regular Wednesday chapel service at school. The pastor had prepared a sermon on Samson, the biblical hero gifted with immense strength for combat, a power made possible by his long locks of hair. But Samson wasn’t without weaknesses; his primary one was loose women.

Delilah, who was sent to defeat Samson through her powers of seduction, found her way into his bedroom. In a moment of vulnerability after sex, he divulged to her the secret of his strength. While he slept, she ordered a servant to shave off his hair.

I continued to talk to the would-be priest. I enjoyed his strangeness. He sat like an old man though he was in his 20s. He talked like a Buddha. He had broad shoulders and a smile that really knocked me out.

Part of me was grateful for the opportunity to list my complaints about the church over brunch, to name the ways I believed religion had failed me, hoping he would take notes and offer up my concerns to his brethren.

“Look,” I said. “I’m not afraid to say what I think. And I’ve been divorced, which is a big-time sin if I recall. I like sex and I don’t want some man telling me what to do. I’m not some frail woman who needs a man to fit some gaping hole in my life.”

The priest (because, in my eyes, he already was one) smiled and said: “Have you ever considered that’s why I like you.”

I felt drawn to him then and hated thinking that was wrong. We ended our walk at a diner, where I ordered the French onion soup and he ordered one hot chocolate followed by a second because he is the sort of guy who would do that.

“I think this is pointless,” I said between slurps.

The priest didn’t flinch. “I have never met someone more in love with life than you,” he said.

“Are you talking about me?” He couldn’t have been talking about me.

“My favorite thing about you is your joy.” He smiled.

I once had a friend who got drunk after a breakup. “‘There are just some people who plug you into your own life,’” she said, slurring her words. “‘There’s just some people who can do that.’”

At the time, I had shut out love. I had shut out the idea that I was a good person, the kind who could hold things. The girl who once had longed to live with God had grown into a woman disillusioned.

“Man, why do you want to be a priest?” I said. I figured this all had something to do with his childhood. I figured it was something he could be talked out of.

“A few years ago,” he said, “I stumbled into a church and saw a group of monks lining a hallway. At the time I was studying to be a musician. But that day, I stopped to listen. These monks started chanting, and the way it echoed in the church and inside of me, I don’t know, I just felt God calling me to become one of them.”

I was itching to touch him, to have his hands on me. I wanted to be more desirable than God.

Months passed, and we continued to talk. We argued over homosexuality and abortion and marriage. We went to the Metrograph to watch “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.” We debated Trump. We made out in a park near Mercer Street. We argued over women’s suppression in the church. We broke up three times.

He showed up outside of a Patti Smith reading so we could get some frozen yogurt. I told him he wasn’t good for me, told him there would never be an “us” because of him. We ate ravioli from Rafetto’s on a blanket on the floor of my room with tulips I’d gotten from the bodega as a centerpiece. We became best friends.

“I love you,” he said.

So I said it and then I felt like throwing up, which is how I knew I meant it. I laughed. I laughed more than I did anything else.

On New Year’s Eve we stood on the West 4th Street platform. When the F train arrived, he suggested we wait for the next one. It was our goodbye. We would not be spending the next year together.

I started a countdown.

“Five!” I spread my arms out wide.

“Four!” He put his hands on my waist.

“Three!” Tears filled his eyes.

“Two!” I leaned against him.

“One!” He kissed me while a few strangers around us shouted “Happy New Year,” applauding.

God left Samson after Delilah took his hair. The Philistines captured him and gouged his eyes out, leaving him blind. He was sentenced to a life pushing the millstone. Samson was nothing without God.

I was left with ghosts. The streets in the West Village. The coffee shop next to my house. The right side of my bed. The gloves he had given me when my hands were cold. I took the Zoot Sims album we listened to most nights off the record player and replaced it with nothing. I focused on my work.

I called my father and told him what happened. “Well, honey,” he said. “It sounds like he’ll be a good priest. I’m glad you felt love. That’s not nothing.”

In time, Samson’s hair grew long again. He spent his days blindly turning the millstone. One afternoon, the Philistines brought him to the temple to celebrate his captivity and their victory, to mock him. Samson pleaded with God to grant him strength to destroy his captors. God heard him, and Samson pushed the pillars of the temple with such force that the entire building collapsed with everyone inside of it, including Samson.

The priest came back after almost two months. We ate dinner at his favorite place. Afterward, he fell asleep in my arms, his head resting against my chest. My heart swelled at the possibility that I could hold onto something, that I could keep him.

I’ve read that some people believe it’s simply tradition that forces priests to remain unmarried, not Catholic dogma. The pope, some marriage proponents argue, could say the word tomorrow and it would all change, but for the sake of tradition. They do it for the sake of tradition.

The next day, I went with him to a cathedral. I couldn’t say why. I just wanted to see with my own eyes if it was real. I sat next to him while he prayed. I offered my own version of forgiving myself. I felt calm. I felt like maybe this whole thing had nothing to do with him.

He gave me a tour of the church. I walked behind him as he described what the depictions on the stained glass meant. I asked if there might be a way to change the rules, some kind of loophole, if he would want to find one.

“Of course,” he said. He walked around the church and I imagined him dressed as a priest, preparing a sermon. “Of course, I wish this was possible.”

I wanted to believe him, to believe something. In the end, he left me for his God. I have still yet to find mine.

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