Soon after turning eighteen I got my driver’s license, started a job, and bought a car—a supercool little Mini (definitely not the status symbol it is today). One weekend not long after, a few friends and I headed out of town to a campground north of Sydney called Wiseman’s Ferry. I’m not making that name up. The lead-up to the trip was full of excitement. We’d be exercising the “freedoms” that come to you at eighteen in Australia, not just getting a license to drive but also getting to drink legally. So we spent that weekend doing a lot of the things people do at that age, and maybe a few things you shouldn’t do at any age.
I distinctly recall the drive home. To get in and out of the campground you had to ford a shallow river crossing that Australians call a causeway. As the car came up out of the water on the homeward side, I had the clear thought: “There has to be more to life than this.” I remember it so well because it was a moment that changed the direction of my life. Soon afterward I got involved in the local parish youth group. I found the experience very meaningful. I read a lot. I started going to Mass daily. It all led to the seminary and eventually ordination.
Two of the friends from that weekend at the campground did not make it much beyond their twenty-first birthdays. One died of an overdose in India. The other, my childhood best friend, ended his life on the kitchen table in a lonely apartment in a run-down part of Sydney. I can still clearly see his face, his long black hair, his lanky frame scrunched up beside me in that little Mini as we crossed the causeway.
I thought of this time in my life when I read the Gospel for last Sunday (Mk 1:1–8), in which we learn about John the Baptist. Not only because in the 1970s many of us looked like John the Baptist, but also because it made me ask what was going on in John’s heart and mind. What led him to abandon his previous life for a life in the desert? Eating wild honey and locusts, wearing camel skins—that must have been unusual even in his day. What led him to change direction? What moved him? What was “the more” he was looking for?
Perhaps it’s hyperbole, but the Gospel says, “The whole of the Judean countryside and all [emphasis mine] the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him.” What did they see in him? What were they looking for? What deep yearning was stirring in their hearts to change directions?
When over the years I’ve looked back on that moment crossing the causeway, it now seems obvious that the thought should come to me just as I emerged from the river. In theology, psychology, architecture, and in all manner of disciplines, causeways represent liminal phases, moments when we pass from one reality to another. They are thresholds that signal and facilitate a significant transition. Think of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, or indeed of the River Jordan and baptism itself.