Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. I promise you that I am not here to argue theology but please bear this point in mind as I share a couple of stories with you because it may become pertinent. Now let me be the first to admit that I am no angel. In fact there are at least a few people out there who probably suspect the opposite about me.
From as far back as I can remember, I have always been a spiritual sort but despite this, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of conformity to the practices — and presumed good graces — of organized religion, specifically Roman Catholicism. I am writing this largely for the benefit of my children and any of their subsequent offspring that may follow, but the rest of you may be amused as well. Let’s talk.
I think I was about fourteen years old when I began to have feelings for this girl from Indiana whose mom was a work associate and good friend of an aunt of mine. By way of the ongoing friendship between those adults, “Agnes” (not her name) and I would meet from time to time and, being close in age, would get paired together. I saw my first major rock concert with her at a stadium in Bloomington, Indiana. We even went on a few trips together. We were too young to know much about love but at that age, the hormones were doing their thing and, well, suffice it to say that we liked each other and never hesitated to express our affections when we were without adult supervision.
One autumn day, I was tagging along with my aunt to run errands in her 1975 Caprice Classic station wagon. As is often the case with young teens, my mind was on that girl. At some point, my aunt commented, “You really like Agnes, don’t you.”
I responded without even thinking, “Sure!” I will never forget what my aunt said next.
“Well, just make sure you keep it friends because her family would never allow you to become more than that.”
I had no clue what she what talking about, so I asked why. The wind had already been taken from my sails and the conversation that ensued twisted my gut into knots. My aunt explained that the girl’s family was Serbian and they belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church. I hadn’t even known what a Serb was up until then, but I’d had Greek friends since childhood and therefore assumed that the Serbian Orthodox Church must be similar to their Greek Orthodox Church. Okay, fair enough, but that didn’t explain why Agnes couldn’t be my girlfriend. She couldn’t be my girlfriend because of her religion? Why not? I’d had a non-Catholic girlfriend before (my interest in girls started very early) with no issues.
Well let me tell you, the answers to my first questions may have unsettled me, but my aunt’s answers to that last one positively enraged me. Like the Greek, Serb culture is intertwined with their church and to keep that, they tend to marry within their own nationality and religion. I had naively assumed that religion was supposed to bring people together. You know, love thy neighbor and all that good stuff. But here it was, dividing people, just as it has done through the ages. The very idea that I could be declared off limits to a young lady because I was Italian and Catholic floored me.
And from that point, my opinions on religion — not just my own but religion in general — was forever changed. I began to question everything and the more I questioned, the farther I distanced myself. By the time I was halfway through college, I had become a professed agnostic. Not the most welcome thing to be at a Jesuit university, but there I was. And while I was still very spiritual at that point, by choice I was not practicing any religion.
During my last year of undergraduate study, something unusual happened. I became involved with a young lady named Karen, whom I’d known since the start of my freshman year. We had never dated each other nor shown the least inclination to do so. But the circles in which we ran intersected from time to time and on one magic night, something happened that would change the course of history for both of us: I kissed her.
I couldn’t tell you why I did it. I’m not sure I know now. We were sitting in a neighborhood bar frequented by students who lived nearby. We were there with a group of friends, not as a couple, but found ourselves sitting together after everyone else had left the table to play pool, load the jukebox, talk to other patrons, etc. I have no idea what we’d been talking about. I know there was a pause in the conversation and during that pause, I leaned forward and kissed her. Something I cannot define moved me to act in that moment. That’s all I know.
I froze, realizing what I’d just done and not knowing what to expect in response. Karen looked at me and without batting an eye, said, “Oh, come on, you can do better than that.”
I felt like I had slipped in to a dream sequence but not being one to ignore such a challenge, I did indeed try to do better. Apparently I did alright that second time because we continued on from there. By the end of that evening, I went home with my mind swimming in a whole new sea of possibilities. There was only one problem: That young lady was already engaged to another and everybody knew it, including me.
What the hell had I been thinking! We barely knew each other! She was scheduled to be married to another guy! Anybody else in his right mind would have run like hell, had he been foolhardy enough to do what I’d done. But no. I saw her again. And again. And again. The very idea scared the living crap out of her at first. She literally ran away from me the day after that first kiss, as soon as I gave credence to doing anything more than forgetting that kiss had even happened. But I ran out after her and a few blocks later, as soon as I realized she could run faster and farther than me, I begged her to stop running and come back.
Had she kept going, that would have been the end of it then and there. Remember, we still didn’t know much about each other at that point, so going our separate ways shouldn’t have been a very difficult thing to do. But that’s not what happened. She stopped running. She walked back to me. Why? I can only suggest that we both saw something in each other from which we could not run, no matter how utterly wrong moving forward may have seemed to anyone else.
We continued talking. We started going places together. Hanging out together. Spending more and more time together in an effort to discover everything we possibly could about each other. Our relationship grew in all directions, at an astounding pace. At some point, she broke her engagement off with the other guy. That’s right, this lady walked away from a sure thing to take a chance on nothing but the strength of a possibility that we might have a future together.
Most people don’t know this part of my story. There was surely no reason to brag about it. I don’t even think I told my parents about this. Not all of it, anyway. And believe me, I was hated for this. Not by everybody, not even by all that you would have expected to hate me. But by some. Her fiancée, for sure, although he and I never saw each other after what happened. My regular friends seemed to take it all in stride. Karen’s parents and grandparents seemed relieved that her engagement was off, and they were friendly to me from the first time we met, but I’m not certain they saw me as having been the catalyst for that broken engagement.
You want to know who really hated me? Karen’s roommate, who was also engaged at the time. As I came to understand it, my very existence threatened everything that was supposed to be a certainty in her life. She thought Karen was off her rocker and likely told her so. Me, I held no grudge against the roommate. I even attended her wedding. But I don’t know whether her opinion of me ever changed.
To Karen’s fiancée, her roommate, and others like them, I was absolutely the bad guy. What I did was wrong, against the rules, from the very beginning! Why would I even think about doing such a thing? Maybe because I saw past what was apparent on the surface. Maybe we had both been driven by the force of love before either of us had even realized it.
In the end, despite Karen not being Catholic, we did get married, almost three years after that kiss from nowhere. Whatever it was that drew us toward each other with so much force was in fact real and had driven us forward. The greatest possibility came to fruition and we are still married more than thirty-five years later. We produced and raised two children, who are now adults themselves. They would not exist today had I not done the wrong thing so many years ago. I know ours was not exactly a storybook marriage by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been beautiful nonetheless.
But please know this: What we have today was never a sure thing at face value. It was only a sure thing in the realm of possibilities. It is also the product of some wrongdoing. But despite all this, had we not done what we did, there would be no story to tell, no thirty-five-year marriage, and no two grownup kids.
Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. All I can say in this regard is that not everything is as it appears to be. Am I the bad guy? According to some, yes. Would I do it again? Yes. Everything that happened was supposed to happen. This I believe to be true.
Sometimes when the spirit moves us with such force, we’ve just got to go with it.
As always, thanks for hanging with me.