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Dis-orientation daze

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, August 27, 2008

As an 8th-grader at St. Pius X Elementary, I possessed all the absurd bravado of a member of the oldest class in the school. Bragging – about parents’ occupation, purported wealth, girlfriends – was the currency of the 8th-grade corner of the recess yard. Though, of course, being 8th graders, we weren’t relegated to a corner, we chose to be there. We could go wherever we darn well liked – unless Sr. Clare said otherwise, though we also (quietly) bragged that our elder status made even Sr. Clare tentative to call us out. Like I said, it was an absurd bravado.

Starting around October, the recess-yard smack talk was predictably interjected with one-upsmanship about where we would attend high school. It was cool to be going to Cardinal O’Hara, but totally out to go to Monsignor Bonner. But nowhere was cooler than Malvern Prep – you even had to take a test to get in there. (Why this made it cool is no longer apparent to me). Mid-October, my best friend Terry Redican and I made it widely known at recess that we would not be at school tomorrow, as we would be visiting Malvern.

That morning, I strutted out of my bedroom. I strutted out the front door. I strutted down the driveway to the bus stop. I had the grades, I had the extracurriculars, I had the faith – I was on the high school bus to visit Malvern. I was too darn cool.

Then the bus dropped us off at Malvern. The football team, ranked No.1 in the city, had a before-school practice and the offensive line almost ran me over as they herded by the bus stop. Their cleats on the driveway sounded like the Orcs marching on Gondor, and I almost puked. My stellar performance in the spelling bee, 8th-grade tennis title and everything else I had accomplished went out the window, as these behemoths trampled by. Suddenly, the only autobiographical information I could remember was that I was 5’4″ and 85 pounds, which I suddenly recalled put me squarely in the 17th percentile … This didn’t feel right.

My freshman escort ushered me to a seat in the freshman biology class. Moments after Mr. Riviello had started a lesson on taxonomy – the first word in a couple years I didn’t comprehend (I had won the spelling bee, did I mention that?) – I realized that I really needed to go the bathroom. But no way the 8th-grade visitor was raising his hand to stop a science class that was taking on taxes – this was heady, high-level stuff. I held it. For as long as I could. Finally, nearing emergency status, I ran for the door and made it to the hallway. Looking frantically for the men’s room, I could only find a door marked “Restroom.” Was it guys or girls? I very uncomfortably paced the halls until class let out. I ran to my freshman escort and breathlessly blurted, “Is that a guys’ room or girls’ room?” He looked at me like I was … well, a 5’4″, 85-pound grade-schooler, as he reminded me, “This is an all-guys’ school.”

I made a resolution right then that I would never attend Malvern Prep. This decision had nothing to do with the match between Malvern and my gifts, or whether God was “calling” me there, as Sr. Clare liked to frame it. It had everything to do with the fact that Malvern, that first day, made me feel the opposite of what I felt at my 8th-grade recess yard. And the fact that I couldn’t find the bathrooms.

Many of our poignant (i.e. – humiliating) childhood experiences can be quite instructive. I often recall this memory anytime I am preparing to begin something new, and feel the inevitable butterflies in my stomach. It makes me remember that, when God invites us into something new (in the end, Sr. Clare’s framework of vocation and discernment was utterly accurate), our initial response is often not one of total acceptance and embrace. Rather, it is some confusion at the unfamiliarity, and a resultant hesitancy. Days that many like to call “Orientation” are often, internally for those going through them, days of radical “Dis-orientation.” Less days of “Vocation” than days of “Equi-Vocation.” And one natural reaction to such feelings is: get me back to the 8th-grade recess yard, where I know the terrain, know the people, and know which gender the bathrooms are for.

I like to pray to St. Peter on days of starting something new. He plunged into new opportunities with all the unbridled enthusiasm of a cocky adolescent. “Lord, if that is you, tell me to get out of the boat and walk on the water!” Followed immediately by a sudden realization that he is now doing something in a way and a place unfamiliar to him. And in this moment of Dis-orientation, he fills with fear, panic, and inevitably, begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” Followed by one of the most consoling lines in all of the Gospels: “Jesus immediately stretched out his hand and took hold of him.” Peter would grow, and regain his confidence, but it took some time. And Jesus patiently led him through his fears into a life of freedom and joy, so effectively that Peter – prone to fear and equivocation – is ultimately freed to become a great leader in the faith, and even to give his life away.

Where is Jesus leading us during these days of dis-orientation? If we allow him, as Peter eventually did, surely He is leading us to greater freedom and joy, a life of robust magnification of our gifts, including ones now unknown to us, and a life of more generous service to others. Do we have Peter’s patience and resolve to let Him?

Oh, I graduated from Malvern in ’88, and was off to Notre Dame. I remember I felt so cool …

This week’s article is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Director of Campus Ministry Bible Studies. Campus Ministry’s Faithpoint reflections will appear each Thursday in The Observer.

The views expressed in this Faithpoint are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.