When we were children, and that was on the Eastern side of the iron curtain in the 1980s, every now and then we would get a bag of pistachios, which was a very rare delicacy. You know how children are, especially with things they feel to be more precious than stuff that is easy to come by, they want to savour every last bit. Then again, anyone who has ever had pistachios knows that there are always ones in the bag that do not open, therefore are not possible to eat, which frustrates children wanting to finish it all. In comes the nutcracker, not sized for pistachios, rather for hazelnuts or walnuts, but it will do the job. Hit it, smash it until the green thing becomes available for consumption.
Our socialized feeling of being worthless makes it difficult to see or admit that our shells, which were also probably mostly grown by the way we are socialized, and partly by being forced to feel worthless, are worth cracking up. And, of course being all used to the shells, when the crack comes, either self-inflicted or otherwise, the unpleasantness of the surprise easily distracts us from the point, to enjoy our own savory core.
It was early August 1994. I could probably look the exact day up in my journal I was writing at the time, as that evening I clearly remember I wrote an entry, but it doesn’t matter. It was early August just as it is now, and I was sitting in my cell in the monastery by the window. The cells were small, yet comfortable, not as one would imagine monasteries at all. It was a modern attic built on top of the neo-baroque original in the middle of Budapest, seven or eight identical rooms next to each other. My room was almost next to the church’s spire, I could see right up to the cross on the top. I could immerse myself in the bells ringing, when they did. And as cheesy as it sounds, I was looking up at the cross, thinking that my time as a candidate is going to end soon, we’ll all move to the country, to a much more secluded monastery for our time of the novitiate, which would begin by getting our habits, being dressed in and given our new names. Even though I was preparing and waiting for that moment for about two years (and in 1994 I was hardly eighteen yet), that August day turned out to be one of the biggest milestones in my life. I would never have admitted this, but that day was getting me closer to the big flashing EXIT sign in my head, an exit from the life of having to face reality. Or an ENTRY sign to a quick fix to all the troubles in my head, which then seemed to be the ultimate fix.
The monastery we were put up in during the time of our candidacy was primarily the home of priests and friars of very old age, most of whom had experienced four horrible decades of life, as any person in the country that disagreed with the system and did not emigrate, experienced. And come the nineteen nineties, they were allowed to move back to their orders where they were mostly exiled from in the fifties, in the hope to find what they thought was peace and justification. And for some of them it was. For others it was converting their accumulated frustration into hatred and bitterness, and each of them found an outlet for this, either in politics, homophobia, or conspiracy theories, or just simply being mean to others. But who are we to judge? It is very unlikely anyone from my generation is going to have to go through half a lifetime of such circumstances.
It was an odd, but somehow harmonious pairing, the youngest and the oldest, the generation of the new era, and the generation of persecution. We helped them. They told stories of unimaginable times. And truth be told, knowing we were going to be transferred to the novitiate soon made this quite easy, as anything known to be temporary usually is. We, the young ones, stuck together, got along quite well, driven by our age and enthusiasm. Occasionally we would sneak down to the cellar late into the summer evening and drink a couple of glasses of mass wine, get merry, then go to bed. Mass wines were fine ones, too. Occasionally we would sneak out to the McDonald’s close by, and in 1994 McDonald’s was still a relatively new thing in Budapest. It still had romanticism to it. The ice cream tasted better, the burgers were fancier, the fries were crispier – probably all in our heads. I could not make myself eat there now. Back then, however, it meant almost what being able to become a monk did, the fresh freedom of the West, and – sadly – freedom’s smell was fat, and grilled meat of questionable origin. Most of the time though, we were there in the monastery, dedicated, in body and mind, with all our youthful honesty, with our intentions which we believed to be true. It was a kind of bucolic idyll, which I probably have not experienced since.
And the idyll is perfect. Also perfect to strengthen your protecting shell further. So perfect as to make you believe that the plan you mapped out is the single right one.
Most mothers, when their sons tell them they are gay say “I could have known, I mean there were signs…” and God, do I feel like the mother of a gay son looking back. It could have very well been on the very same evening I am recalling now, we had a gathering with the other candidates and the leader of the church province. He was reading the part from one of the gospels where Jesus gets into a boat with his disciples and they look at the crowd waving and cheering from the shore. Once he was done reading, we went in a circle and each of us told what he made of it. Every single guy was going on about how he feels privileged to be in the boat with Jesus and be his disciple, but me, wanting to be different by whoever knows what instinct, said how happy I feel to be waving from the shore and seeing Jesus, knowing he is there. And yes. I was on the shore. Nowhere near the fucking boat. And ironically, I am a notoriously crap swimmer, too.
Funnily, the little swimming I actually do know, I learnt from the friars. No symbolism there. When I was nine, I nearly drowned in a swimming pool and up to the time I joined the monastery I was petrified to go into deep water. That’s till when I went with a couple of the friars to a pool. They were standing next to me till I got through the first few lengths.
So the monastery, which smelt of used bed sheets, had this alluring make-believe peace. It framed our lives with its early morning masses, five prayers a day, chores to be done regularly, everything laid out for you, no need to think. Opportunities to be kind and helpful with those in need were put in front of you, as well as your whole life scheduled nearly down to the year. There will be no existential questions. There will be no sexuality. There will be peace and order. And no need to plan. Except for what your name in the order would be, and if you wanted to go on to be a priest or a friar, wanted to teach or not. My name would have been Samuel. I picked the name after the prophet, who was conceived after his mother prayed for a child (which was my case too). Samuel was called by God at night several times, and always believed it was his master, Eli, who sent him back to sleep. (I love sleeping, but this is probably not related. However, I do wish someone would send me back to sleep when I ever so often wake up in the middle of the night.)
This life, let’s be honest , is very appealing, especially to a neurotic boy in his late teens. I was swimming (note the irony) in this world, swimming towards what I believed to be the call of my life, comforting myself in what I thought to be a sacrifice, and building up to the catharsis of starting with a carte blanche after the traumas of my childhood, as a pure, dedicated child of God. And this is how I was sitting in my cell on that early August night, looking at the spire and the cross, thinking it could be any day now we are getting our letters detailing the move for all nine of us.
And yes, the next day we were gathered in the room of the chief of the province, who handed over letters to each of us. We were all glowing and grinning, opening it one by one. What an amazing rush of adrenaline. What an amazing rush till I got to the words,
“…we believe you are not yet mature enough to continue in our order, therefore we recommend you go to university and after obtaining your degree come back and join us, if you still feel this is your calling.”
A few years before this happened my father had a nervous breakdown, quite an intense one. For anyone that never went through it, for me as well, it seemed like an act, a nuisance and a burden. Now there I went. This change in plans, no, destroying and burning up of my plans without anyone even making the slightest attempt to prepare you, broke me to pieces. The first few days they had to administer me tranquilizers (maybe confirmation of them making the right decision about me), and even when I eventually went off the pills, I was walking as a zombie, helpless, unable to communicate, unable to face the world, as my loudly announced life-plan was called off by others. Auto pilot being switched on, the friars enrolled me to the faculty of arts to study English and literature, out of pity, or heaven knows why, and I accepted unthinkingly.
The fact that they allowed me back in the monastery once the other candidates were gone in October, for me “to help with the elderly fathers” was more like trying to make conversation after an awkward one night stand. It was equally short, too. From the two of us held back, I lasted till February when I moved back home, the other guy, who I eventually became friends with, lasted a bit longer, about September the next year. Then they found him hanging in his cell. Of which the window was looking out onto the church spire.