IN 1981, People Magazine reviewed The Cardinal Sins by Father Andrew Greeley, the novelist and Roman Catholic cleric who died last May. It began with this quote:
His preliminary caresses were tender and sensitive. He prepared her slowly and leisurely, awaking every cell in her body, delaying their union until she was witless with desire. Now his strength served to heal and cherish her, and his demands were more for her satisfaction than for his.
"Thank you so much, Pat," she breathed, covering herself with her slip in the surge of modesty that so often followed their lovemaking.
“Glistening loins, unfettered breasts and rapes were so abundant in his fiction that the National Catholic Register said the author had ‘the dirtiest mind ever ordained,’” read Greeley’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times. But Greeley’s nonfiction is no less racy; in Sexual Intimacy: Love and Play (1988), he urged women to greet their husbands “wearing only panties and a martini pitcher — or maybe only the martini pitcher.”
It is in Father Greeley — priest, teacher, and writer — that David Schickler, author of the memoir The Dark Path, finds his spirit animal — or would, if such a guide were not pagan. (But perhaps this distinction no longer matters in the Christian writer’s wayfaring journey.)
Schickler helped create Banshee, Cinemax’s Amish-action television series, and holds an O. Henry Award for “The Smoker,” a short story that appeared in The New Yorker’s first Debut Fiction issue in 2000. His writing career had started like any other “debt-ridden MFA grad,” wrote Andy Greenwald for Grantland — living in his parent’s basement as a thirtysomething:
Within a week of the magazine hitting newsstands, Schickler's life went from failure to fairy tale and he packed up the basement with both book and movie deals in hand. (Owen Wilson and Natalie Portman were attached with Richard Linklater directing, because that's the sort of thing that would happen in 2000.)
The next few years followed the literary golden-boy script to a tee: a move to New York City; a debut novel, Kissing in Manhattan, constructed, in true turn-of-the-century MFA fashion, as a collection of loosely linked stories.
The story behind these stories, along with the basement living and New York City move, comprise Schickler’s latest work. As charming and entertaining as he makes these oft-told writers’ rites of passage, the rock on which he would build The Dark Path is the tale of his other vocation — even if marketing taglines and contemporaries’ blurbs reduce the book to a story about his vacillation between life as a being that enjoys the pleasures (in every sense) of the opposite sex, and life as a Catholic priest. And if the author himself pitches his memoir using these two provocative paths exclusive of the other, he’s not to blame — it’ll move books off shelves.
The word “vocation,” though, needn’t be read strictly in the secular sense of having a career, nor as the frequently misaligned Christian definition — a job to which one may be called. “Vocation has to do with recognizing life as a gift and honoring the gift in living,” lay theologian William Stringfellow wrote. “[V]ocation means being a human being, now, and being neither more nor less than a human being now.” This is the story Schickler tells, and to defrock his memoir of its richer narratives about familial strength in the struggle to embrace life’s mysteries, displacement from a home that began in the divinely dark, and what fellow Catholic writer Walker Percy called “how to live from one minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon,” would be sacrilege.
From the age of 10, Schickler lives many of those minutes by asking God if various girls around his neighborhood in Rochester, New York, would be his wife. He enjoys telepathically sending some of the chosen ladies haikus from his perch as an altar boy while he waits for God to appear to him during Mass on Sunday mornings, “a sign that He wants me to be a priest.”
Caitlin! The best girl.
I love how your blond hair shines.
Go to a movie.
I need to fix that last line. It should be “Let’s go to a movie,” but that would be six syllables instead of five, which is breaking haiku rules. Still, I watch Caitlin in case what I just broadcast to her rocked her world.
Schickler is funny in a way that causes real, rare laughs. He knows it, and he charmingly uses his humor, which evolves appropriately for his aging throughout the book, to portray the fracas among his mind, heart, and private parts. After arriving for his first year at Georgetown University, he beings to attend church on Sunday evenings:
The whispers I hear when I pray at nightly Mass make me impatient to move even closer to God, to hear of Him. I twist my soul on some days to wring the Priesthood Ache out of it. (Priests never fuck! I warn myself. They rarely floss! Their breath stinks!). But I can’t shake it.
The language is spicy for a book about a faith journey, and it gets spicier. But Schickler never uses carnal thoughts and acts to earn a cheap chuckle or to indulge a pleasure. He seamlessly weaves his unhindered thoughts, regardless of their sexiness, with dialogue and narration to reveal the truth of his anxieties. Who hasn’t played the “If this happens, it’s a sign I should do this” game? (Or the easier post-facto version: “If this doesn’t happen, it was okay I did that.”) Many of us instigate such games — often, and regardless of whether we believe. Schickler, though, actually tells us about the games he plays with God. By converting the silent demons in his head to words and placing them in the times and spaces where they occur, Schickler consistently lets us know we’re not alone:
Dad, you’re so […] decent. Look at all that you do. You take care of your kids, you give to charities, you counsel prisoners, you never get drunk […] you take Mom to Anne Murray concerts, you pray with her in bed each night.
And what do I do, Dad? I get plastered […] [a]nd I love wine and blow jobs and […]I have to have these things and —
After reading about these struggles, I think perhaps Schickler is my spirit animal.
Commenting on Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke” for Volume 1 Brooklyn, deputy editor Jen Vafidis wrote,
The best stories don’t end up doing what you set out to accomplish with them, and the best poems or books or movies end up saying different things to you as you age and as your desires change […]Meaning doesn’t have a chance of standing on firm footing.
It seems these words apply to Schickler’s experience writing his own book, his living the book, and his readers reading the book; his anxieties can really start to rub off.
Schickler returns, for example, to that lust caused by what Dorothy Sayers named in her essay “The Seven Deadly Sins”: “Sheer boredom and discontent, trying to find in it some stimulus which is not provided by the drab discomfort of [his] mental and physical surroundings.” The feeling of this stimulation might also be the reason he initially records his encounters with women and himself. Schickler’s motive for writing evolves, however, from a mere stimulus into a way to work out the world. “David,” a friend tells him, “stop writing bullshit. You’re not an Anne of Green Gables guy. Write the raw truth.” His previous chapters are far from cow slurry, but from this point on, his story is less “crying at songs” and more “fears of men who feel trapped and unsure of their way in intimate relationships” — with women, with family, and with God; or rather, with Schickler’s “Lack-of-God,” to whom he prays more fervently.
The meaning of darkness changes for Schickler as he ages. Whereas he previously found God only in the shadows of his path and was “afraid that if I go talking about how God is in the darkness, He will leave it and I’ll be alone,” he later comes to find God, though he doesn’t expressly write it, in all things. “Somehow her warmth and kisses are making me need God not only to be real but to be eternal and willing to share His eternity with the two of us,” he says about a new, unique kind of love both human and divine.
In a recent essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson for Humanities, Danny Heitman writes:
[W]hen Emerson urges his readers to have courage, one sometimes senses that he is trying to talk himself through self-doubt. Writer Scott Russell Sanders, a contemporary nature essayist in the best Emersonian tradition, suggests that in a close reading of Emerson, “we can see that the greatest of his essays were those he wrote not to proclaim certainties but to overcome uncertainties.”
“I’m not afraid,” is the sole conviction Schickler ultimately makes toward the end of his memoir. Because he writes all along of his doubts in light of this fearlessness, we can find comfort knowing we’re not alone in our common search for one ideal: “to change now, to be other than empty.”