Change today? One man's journey into priesthood

By Father Edward L. Beck, C.P. A homeless person’s call for change hit me not as a request for money, but as a command for altering my life. I had to change, or my destructive and selfish ways would surely consume me.

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AFTER GRADUATING FROM HIGH SCHOOL, I proceeded with my plan to study theater arts at Brooklyn College and to work on Wall Street full-time in a brokerage firm. It was not a good beginning. Externally, my life seemed to be racing on the fast track toward success and fulfillment of my dreams. Internally, I felt empty.

After a full morning of classes, I would take the subway train to Manhattan. While walking to the plush offices of Bear Stearns on Water Street, I often passed homeless people sitting on the subway gratings to keep warm.

“Change today?" one would say. “Change today?"

I usually hurried to the deadening monochrome of the office building, attempting to drown out the pleas with soundproofed windows that looked out upon a city that appeared more forgiving from 52 floors up. Once inside the money-producing monolith, I busied myself with my job of clearing the option trades that had been made on the exchange that day, but I remained curiously detached from the rising and falling numbers I systematically charted. Frequently, my mind drifted back to the streets, back to the subway gratings, and to the calls for “change."

In February of my first year of college, I was walking to work as a snowstorm was beginning to descend with fury on a gray and already desolate Manhattan. When I rounded the corner where Delmonicos Restaurant loomed as the bastion of noontime power lunches, there sat Smiley, one of the homeless men I passed periodically on my daily treks to and from the subway. I had stopped to talk to him a few times, learning he still had family in Alabama he hoped to see again one day. He spoke of a daughter he hadn’t seen since she was five days old and of a brother he had slashed with a knife for stealing money from him while Smiley slept in the barn they shared as a bedroom.

“Edward, how you doin’?" he said. “Change today?"

I stopped with the snow swirling around me in a blinding whirlwind. His words hit me like an avalanche. For the first time, I heard them, not as a request for money, but as a command for altering my life. Change today. I had to change, or this world of greed-inducing numbers and the trading of stocks, wives, and worst of all, dreams, would surely consume me.

I rummaged in my pocket for whatever money I had, gave it to Smiley, shook his hand, and said, “Thanks, Smiley. Thanks a whole bunch. You better get out of this cold, though, before this snow buries you. Why don’t you go to the Port Authority or something?"

"Edward, if I go to the Port Authority, all I think about is going somewhere else but here. So, until I’m ready to get on one of those buses myself, I ain’t going there. But don’t you worry none. I’ll be fine."

That was the last time I ever saw him. I like to imagine that he took my advice and went to the Port Authority and got on a bus to somewhere else. But even if he didn’t leave, I knew that I had to.

Never been gone
Later in that week I called St. Gabriel’s Retreat House, eight months after a memorable high school retreat.

“Hello, St. Gabriel's."

It was a familiar male voice, sounding vaguely like one of the priests I had met on the weekend retreat.

"Hi, um, my name is Edward Beck and I made a retreat there last year with my high school and it was a really great experience and I was just wondering if there was any way of reconnecting with the place because I was so impressed with it."

“You mean you’d like to make another retreat?"

"Well, no, not exactly. I guess I was just wondering if maybe you have some kind of follow-up programs or something for people who may want to continue the experience, or just come back again and maybe. . . ."

"Why don't you come out this weekend?"

"You mean like in two days from now?"

"Yes . . . isn’t that why you’re calling?"

"Well, yes, but you see I have this Duster for a car and it’s been not running well recently, and I just don’t know if it would make it all the way out there and back, so it might . . . ."

"Didn’t you ever hear of the Long Island Rail Road? It’s a great ride and they take you right to the ferry. We’ll see you this weekend. What was your name again?"

"Edward . . . Edward Beck . . . But I don’t know if . . . ."

"See you then, Edward."

And before I could say anything else, he hung up the phone.

What could I do? After all, I had called him. I convinced myself it might not be too bad. I could just blend in with whatever group was on retreat and have a quiet weekend for myself in a beautiful spot. It would also give me the opportunity to sort out what I wanted to do with my life.

Friday afternoon found me in Pennsylvania Station boarding a Long Island Rail Road train to Greenport. When I arrived at the same ferry that I had ridden on eight months before with my classmates, I felt a connection I couldn’t quite articulate. Strangely, it felt as though I was going home.

I stood on the ferry, with an icy wind lashing against my cheeks and spray from the water coating my eyebrows and eyelashes with frost. A Carly Simon song, "Never Been Gone," played in my head: "Seagulls cry and the hills are green. And my friends are waiting for me. Miles from nowhere, so small at last, in between the sky and the sea. I'm bound for the island. The tide is with me . . . I'm going home. And it feels like I've never been gone."

When the ferry arrived at Shelter Island, the priest who had played a gag on my class during my first retreat was waiting in a green station wagon to pick me up and drive me to the retreat house.

As we drove along Route 114 on this tiny island, he turned to me when we passed George’s IGA Supermarket not far from the retreat house and said, "Did I mention to you on the phone that there’s no retreat on this weekend?"

"No retreat? No, um . . . I wasn’t even sure it was you on the phone."

"Oh, well, it's just that it’s a free weekend for us, so it will just be you and the Passionists who live here for the weekend. You'll have us all to yourself."

My stomach bubbled like a watercooler. What had I gotten myself into? What was I going to do with four priests and a brother on an island for a whole weekend?

"Well, that’s great. It will be nice to get to know you guys a little better. I'm not sure, by the way, if I can stay till Sunday. I may have to leave tomorrow afternoon, because my aunt needs help moving. But I’ll know after I call home in the morning. My parents are working on getting someone else to help." It was the quickest safety net excuse I could fabricate, just in case I had to hightail it out of there.

"I'm sure it will work out," he said. "It's a long trip for just one day. And I think you’re supposed to be here." Why?

No hurry
The weekend was ordinary, unremarkable, yet perhaps the most significant of my life. For a few days, I simply shared the life of these men. I ate with them, prayed with them, helped them to clean the kitchen, played cards, watched TV, and—I watched them. I observed them intently, every move, every nuance. In some ways, the veil of mystery was lifted. Out of their black robes, they seemed like ordinary guys who sometimes used foul language and seemed to have the same inconsistencies as the rest of us.

But there was another veil less opaque, yet still discernible. Something was different about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. They carried peace around with them like a mother who comfortably straddles an infant on her hip. Content with the familiar rhythms of their lives, they weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. It was OK to simply be where they were, so unlike the people on Wall Street and the theater people I knew, who lived rushing to get to someplace else as if it might hold more promise or fulfillment. Not impressed with the striving peripatetic existences that surrounded me, I longed for what these priests and brothers had instead. But I didn’t know how to get it.

Of course, I stayed the whole weekend. Sunday afternoon found me sitting alone in the same lounge of the retreat house that I had sat in months before with my classmates. As the sun set over Coecles Harbor, I sat facing water that was calm as a skating rink. A crucifix hung on the wall between the windows, and I found myself staring at it as the room turned tawny gold. My eyes filled with tears, to which I cannot attach simply one emotion. I felt so full. I looked at the crucifix and audibly said, “OK, yes, OK," without fully knowing at the time what my words meant or how my life would be transformed.

As the priest drove me back to the ferry on Sunday evening for my trip home, he said, “So have you ever thought about doing something like this with your life?"

“Something like what?" I said.

“Like this, like what we do. Make a difference in the lives of people, serve God."

“No, no, I haven’t. I’m pretty set with what I’m going to do. But thanks for asking."

“Oh," he said. And that was all he said: “Oh."

Fullness of life
I left the island and went back to my world of numbers, school, and auditions, but his words reverberated like a haunting mantra: “So did you ever think about doing this with your life, did you ever think about doing this with your life . . . ?" They were like the resounding words, “Lowenstein, Lowenstein," that Tom Wingo hears in the Pat Conroy novel Prince of Tides when he leaves behind his life in New York and is driving home over the bridge in South Carolina, ready to start a new life with his family. “And I said it like a prayer," he says.

By April of that year, I was calling the priest at St. Gabriel’s again, this time to ask what would be entailed if maybe, someday in the future, I were to possibly think about doing “something like this with my life." By the following September, I was transferring colleges and moving to a state I had never visited, to live in a house I had never seen, with guys whom I had never met, to discern if maybe I was being called to be a Passionist and to do “something like this with my life."

I used to think that if I hadn’t joined religious life and hadn’t become a priest, God would have been mad, or at the very least, disappointed. I don’t think that anymore. I think I could have chosen to be a truck driver and God would have been just fine with it (my mother, I’m not so sure about). Don’t get me wrong; I think God is happy that I’ve chosen to do this with my life, but something else may have been just as tickling. The requisite is my happiness and my ability to contribute to the happiness of others. I think that’s what gets God to do back flips. How that happens is relatively immaterial to God.

Of course, this questions the notion of vocational call and discernment, as we understand it. We consistently employ language that betrays an understanding that God calls certain people specifically to a religious vocation. “When did you receive your calling?" is a question I am often asked. I like to respond, “I’m still receiving it." The calling is to fullness of life and to facilitating fullness of life to flourish. For me, that happens to be as a religious and priest. I know that from my experience of doing it. But it’s not the only way I could have done it—though I’m certain that Wall Street wouldn’t have been a way. For me to have stayed there would have made God sad, to say nothing of how I may have felt.

My call by the water

The call by the lake that Simon and Andrew received from Jesus was a call to discipleship and a call to be “fishers of men and women." All of us receive the same call today, no matter how we choose to live it.

Truck drivers and mailpersons unite. Like Simon and Andrew, I got my call by the water, too. The nets I left behind to pursue that call were ones that had entangled my life in destructive and selfish ways. Leaving them behind freed me to follow in a way not possible while tethered in their web. But “Come follow me" weren’t words I heard once, and then the path was set. I keep hearing them. And now there are other nets from which I must cut myself loose.

From God Underneath: Spiritual Memoirs of a Catholic Priest, by Edward L. Beck, copyright © 2001 by Edward L. Beck. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Father Edward L. Beck, C.P. is a member of the Passionist religious community. He has worked as a parish priest, director of seminarians, and as a campus minister. He lives in New York City and travels throughout the United States preaching and organizing retreats and workshops.

2005 © TrueQuest Communications

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