Who knows where or when?
After Iraq, and giving up on the idea of returning to religious life, I found myself dating women. I dated women who expressed that they liked the “Soldier Boy” in me. I inspired them to find that ’60s calming Shirelles song in my new being.
I was that soldier boy ready to protect them, win their hearts and secure the victory in them. They saw me as “Soldier Boy” and I saw them as battle buddies.
But wait! They’d never experienced war! And how could I protect them on my own without a military ‘team’? I could barely protect myself in the FEBA (Forward Edge of Battle Area) called ‘home.’
This soldier boy didn’t have much competition in the dating world. Who was the competition? The Wall Street guys with cookie-cutter suits, the middle-aged hipster dudes with skinny jeans and others.
There were many male land sharks in New York City in the heyday of my post-Iraq War dating life. No judgment! I knew art, especially Futurism, and felt at ease at the Cafe Carlyle. I could wear Harris Tweed like Gary Cooper.
The truth? It wasn’t my competition that troubled me, it was that I couldn’t figure out the movements of the soul. I was challenged in understanding others and myself. After the war, I lost my sense of discernment.
Ironic. I needed to have “spiritual discernment” after the war. This was a weapon ready for guarding my heart, or whatever was left of my heart. And yet, I did not have it with me after Iraq. In a way, I was like Luke Skywalker without a light-sabre. I knew that I had a soul, but I was closer to the River Styx than to my soul.
Human beings choose things
Before the war, I had several mentors in my life to help me understand the expansiveness of the soul. My spiritual director was the master of discernment Pierre Wolff, the revered former Jesuit from France.
What did Wolff teach? Discernment—the pursuit of having a deep understanding of the act of ‘choosing’. Human beings choose things, people, events, situations, problems, joys and such throughout their existence. Pierre Wolff taught me how to choose wisely, moment to moment. Yes, even in love, we must choose.
He taught me to understand the inner flow of consolation and desolation. This spiritual exercise originated in Spain from a soldier recovering from war wounds. This soldier was St. Ignatius. These days, followers of New Age spirituality call it ‘raising your vibration’. The discernment of spirits is the art and science of consolation (of the divine, peaceful and lasting) from desolation (of the world, temporal, transient).
This spiritual exercise, which occupied much of my meditation and contemplation time, led me to smoothly navigate the joys and the harsh times of my life. I was able to experience many moments of consolation and desolation. These moments would drift in and out like clouds in the sky. A detached passion truly let all these moments fill my life—the good, bad and ugly.
Imagination and the gift of discernment
My Dominican friend and mentor—the late, great Friar Father Val McInnes—summed up the long Jesuit process in two words: “Relaxed distance.” Ha! No wonder the Dominican Friars educated the Jesuits. I was a Dominican Friar before deploying to Iraq.
What is the goal of all of this? An authentic freedom that can be found in human existence.
Imagination is the true gift of being human. Imagination is uniquely human, and is the tool used for understanding the power of discernment a la St. Ignatius. Imagination empowers us to connect to a greater freedom in our daily lives.
Using The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius is a great way to understand the power of discernment. For some reason, after the war, I couldn’t reach my soul in order to properly discern the optimal unfoldings of love, joy, romance and self-care.
How did I operationalize discernment? At Yale, I met a Forestry student with placid eyes that were as calming as the incense rising in a chapel. She had long, blonde stringy hair and a Mae West attitude. I was just starting my journey of the “The Robe” as a future friar. I remember spending many long nights with her. She was engaged and about to graduate and marry some law student.
I took Pierre Wolff’s lessons to heart, as well as the night moves I experienced with the one with the placid eyes. In this broken Graham Greene novel situation, I returned to my religious ambition. I let the placid eyes go. A few years later there would be another woman who would be the flame of my loins.
At graduation, I saw her on the old campus, but I avoided her so that she could live out her destiny and I could make the choice to live out a deep ambition in my soul. My discernment had been refined and there was no pain in the process.
Even in hints of love, we can find an efficacious discernment.
Where was this discernment after Iraq?
After Iraq, I didn’t have the spiritual care of my Yoda from the monastery, the great Benedict Ashley. Benedict taught me about the philosophy of love. After Iraq, I couldn’t do as I’d been taught by my family, my mentors and the religious order.
The friars had taught me the ancient Dominican monastic teaching, ‘assume the good,’ but I couldn’t make use of this truly abundant approach to living. The war had created a bitterness in my life. ‘Assuming the good’ had left me, and scarcity filled my heart.
What was in my soul to give? My bitterness and resentment from a war that I hadn’t needed to fight in?
‘Assuming the good’ was minimal in my search for love during my post-war dating life. Women gave themselves to me. I questioned what I could give these women. What was in my soul to give? My bitterness and resentment from a war that I hadn’t needed to fight in?
I wasn’t aware of their pleasures, as I was lost not knowing my own pleasures as a man readjusting from war. It’s sexy to look at the warrior. Yet, to accept the war in the warrior’s heart is anything but sexy.
I tried so hard to be “Soldier Boy” to the women I went out with in the Gotham-like target-rich environment of New York City. I could physically protect the women I dated. Once, I was on a date with a woman I truly liked. I shared things about my days as a kid in Florida, and that I’d returned from Iraq to make a new life for myself.
There was a Danny Trejo-looking, old-school Hell’s Kitchen ruffian with bad intentions on his mind. He said a few despicable words to a female tourist, and I countered with a strong “HEY, HEY, HEY!”
He rushed at me in this Cajun restaurant on 48th Street and 9th Avenue. I never hit him! But I was able to grab him by the waist, crawl up to his neck and plant him against the wall. It wasn’t as pretty as Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. It was my third date with this woman from a top publishing company, and I didn’t end the night by feeling her lovely blonde curls.
Upon returning to my flat down the street, across from the new yuppie Kiehl’s store in the neighbourhood, I sat on my bed and stared at a bottle of Rebel Yell bourbon sitting on top of a ragged Gideons Bible. Gideons Bibles are always found in those ghastly motels along I-95, close to the South of the Border fireworks rest stop in the Carolinas.
I didn’t meditate or pray the Rosary. I did contemplate, but without a religious robe or hood. I wasn’t in a state of Grace with the good Lord. I wasn’t even in the quiet of a monastery chapel. Sleep possessed me without a swig of Kentucky liquid spirit in me, and there I rested in my Manhattan apartment.
All of this nocturnal grief because I couldn’t complete the mission of having a peaceful date!