“I want to hear God’s Voice irrationally, totally, the way I want sex,” writes David Schickler, speaking as a college freshman in The Dark Path, a darkly funny new memoir.
These seemingly irreconcilable desires originate early, in the hard-backed pews of the Catholic church in Rochester, New York that Schickler attends with his mother, father and three sisters. Young David spends mass mooning over girls, wondering which will be his wife. It is only outside church, behind the family home, where he can commune with God, in the deciduous woods bordering a golf course, amidst cherry, oak and maple trees. “I stand on the path now and stare at the shadows and then I do what I always do alone here and that I so often can’t do in church,” he writes. “I pray.”
Admiration for his supportive and devout father, who’s studying for the deaconry, spurs him toward the Heavenly Father. By college, desire for sexy co-ed Mara reels him away. Will he get the girl or join the Jesuits? Young adulthood is filled with such binary oppositions.
Schickler picks up his first hints that life may be subtler than all or nothing by observing the Jesuit priests at his school. “These are urbane, funny men, very different from Father Anselm, the nifty priest I grew up with,” he writes. “Jesuits travel the world and some say ‘fuck’ a lot and I often see Kelleher and Raminski sitting in the front window table at Georgetown’s finest restaurant, eating rack of lamb on the university’s dime.” Among them are a mystic, a bodybuilder, a cutup—individuals interesting and distinct. But just when it seems that Schickler will join the ranks of this “damned smart bunch,” one performs an inappropriate imposition of hands in a private meeting.
The sinister caress sends Schickler into a deep depression. From Germany to New York City to Vermont, he struggles with the darkness within. “In my life and in particular in this story, when I’m angry at God, I really rail at God and let him have it and sort of let myself have it, too, with raw honesty and candor,” Schickler says. “I’ve sometimes been something of a pugilist in my faith.... Prayer can be as exciting as combat or prayer can be at least as exhilarating and draining as romance.”
Schickler’s anxiety manifests itself in real and terrifying ways before revelation is achieved. What he realizes is that, as a man, he may give himself permission to become a different kind of believer—not buttoned up, white gloved, Sunday best dressed or “bubbly-safe.” “Wearing white gloves and your Sunday best when you approach God, making sure you never swear, making sure you scrub yourself clean: That’s one way of approaching God,” he says. “It is not my way, and it is not a way that resonates for me. If I thought that was the me that God was most interested in, I would not have written this book.”
Now 44 years old and the patriarch of his own young family, Schickler has brokered a peace between pleasure and faith. “I think you can love God and art and sex and women’s bodies—all of these things, you know—with equal honesty, passion and fervor. I don’t know that we’re always told you can do that,” says Schickler. Father, son, husband, believer: The man is many things. Apparent above all in this retelling is the fact that Schickler is a natural writer. Thus The Dark Path is a kind of Künstlerroman: the story of a boy becoming an artist.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.