In Laudem Gloriae Eius

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The ascent is long and arduous, but the summit is bathed in sunlight.”

It’s hard to believe, in a way, that nearly two months have passed already since I flew home from San Jose; that in just one more month’s time, I will have been home as long as I was in Carmel. Funny, now, to think my postulancy and novitiate there will continue receding further and further into the distance as the months and years wear on, until one day those tumultuous months in the monastery are indistinguishable from the whole broad horizon of my past.

I came back to Mt. Angel today for a personal day of recollection (which happened to coincide with the first day of the archdiocesan Priests’ Retreat), and woke up to the sunrise bursting over the mountains through my window, sudden and dazzling. That quote from Fr. Anastasius of the Most Holy Rosary (and “can there be any cooler name?” as Fr. Robert said once) came to my mind as the sunlight gently suffused the room. “The ascent is long and arduous, but the summit bathed in sunlight.”

How TRUE that is!—And what cause for hope and for joy, even in the midst of trials. I took a walk today with one of my brothers in Carmel, and I was telling him, among other things, about how happy I had felt, and zealous, when I left San Jose to return to Portland. I had such a sense of certainty in my vocation and mission, and it seemed to me then that the dark night was ending: I was coming home, transformed, and ready to set about the next stage of the journey! Of course, in every stage, we must be prepared to undergo the formation, deformation, and transformation that brings us from grace unto grace, and glory unto glory. To reach the dawn, one must wait patiently through the long hours of the night—and once the dawn arrives, the night is sure to follow again, until we reach that eternal day in which “we need neither light from lamps, nor the sun, for the Lord God shall be our light.”

Yet for a moment, I told my brother, when the time came to leave Carmel, I stood near the summit, and all was clear and radiant before me, bathed in the glory of God. That day I wrote, “My whole life is ‘in laudem gloriae Dei,‘ in praise of His glory. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, king of endless GLORY! You do not abandon your beloved sons; you may try us for a little while, but the suffering is nothing compared to the glory; and I can truly say the same words which fell from Your sacred lips: ‘The One who sent me is with me!’ Yes, my God, you are with me, and my cries to you in distress and confusion do not, have not, gone unanswered. How lovingly, Abba, you look your son! With what brotherly affection, Lord Jesus, your radiant glance falls on me and enlightens even the deepest darkness with the splendor of Love!”

Now I am back in the valley, if you like: in obscurity, in amongst the branches and thorns and under thick leaves and branches. I can see, but not so clearly; today it is bright, but often lately it has all been in shadow. Yet, Bro. John pointed out, I can lean now on that certainty I had not so long ago, just as I leaned on the certainty of my prior discernment during the uncertainty and desolation of my postulancy. Our God is a good Father, the very best, and He gives us just what we need—in such abundance. If we feel uncertain on our journey, in whatever stage we may find ourselves, it is because we do not need any more certainty—perhaps it would not be any good for us to have it! In my case, the certainty He gave me then, which impelled me to leave Carmel, is sufficient for me now—and the darkness into which I have lately returned is His gift, as all darkness is, for it is an opportunity to keep building up my faith (that “He leads me along right paths for His name’s sake”) and hope (of “the glory that is yet to be revealed in us”).

For a few days, and today most of all, I have been walking as on a rocky ridge, in and out of the trees—here in sunlight, there in shade—and the sun is very bright and warm, and the shade not so dark at all. Tomorrow, who knows? The shepherd leads where He wills. It reminds me of this morning when, after saying goodbye to the brothers, I hopped over the gate down behind the House of Studies and walked way back on the abbey grounds, where there are gnarled trees and old barns and pastures for the sheep. I was following what started out as a wide dirt road, but gradually narrowed and faded to a rough trail which disappeared, as often as not, amongst the long grass and heather and flowering weeds, only to surface yards away and in a completely unexpected direction. It took me through meadows and thick, dark copses of trees, and down hillsides, and up them again, and along the very narrow ridge of a steep gravel bank, along which I could only progress in long, leaping steps like a deer.

So it is in the spiritual life! What starts out clear quickly becomes lost amid the weeds; the trail resurfaces here and there, just enough to point the way somewhere you never would have expected; it meanders up and down, over all terrain, according to the purpose (quite unknown to you) of Someone else who came before, and “who made the earth and all that it contains / even grandmother-trees and wild hares and / all the more unknowable deep down things.” But oh!—what an adventure: to trust, and to follow.

I suppose I have not been making much sense, and truth be told, I hardly know what I’m writing. Yes, I have been in desolation for much of this last month at my summer parish assignment, but, as my brother pointed out, in some ways, that is the best sign that I am doing God’s will! Our Lord never promised this would be easy. On the contrary: “Si quis vult post me sequere, abneget semetipsum, et tollet crucem suum, et sequatur me.” “If anyone wants to follow after me,” He said, “let him abnegate himself, and take his cross, and follow me.” (“And the heavier your cross is,” one old priest put it once, “the more you know you’re following Jesus Christ.”)

It is a good sign, for “He chastises those whom he loves,” and the sufferings and the trials we endure are nothing compared to the glory which they are bringing about in us. In my case, the darkness reveals so clearly that the good work He was doing in me in Carmel is still very much in progress. He builds up faith in us by means of darkness, humility (how else?) by humiliations.

I have been striving hard to keep up my two hours of mental prayer, but my pastoral supervisor recently cautioned me to pray less!—”What a compliment!” Bro. Matthias laughed when I told him, and pointed out that the Lord is more pleased with the mother of five who spends half an hour in prayer with a generous spirit than with the Carmelite who routinely spends two without, perhaps, the same disposition. It is the generosity that counts: the value of the gift, as always, is in the love of the giver.

For the time being, I am going to start making half an hour of mental prayer a day, as the Secular Carmelites do, instead of two. And this is no compromise—perhaps in the particulars, but not in the essence of the charism. How often it seems that even when I make myself sit still in silence for two hours, I’m lucky to get half an hour of decent prayer out of it anyway! We need to keep an eye on what is essential and hold everything else with an open hand, for the Lord to give or take away as He chooses, all in laudem gloriae eius—all for His glory!

Thanks be to God for our trials, for our sufferings, our purifications and purgations which bring us on to glory. In my own case, how else could I have learned so well as I am having to learn now how to live out my Carmelite charism in the midst of parish life? This assignment is testing my resolve—”how determined is your determination?” as St. Teresa might say with a twinkle in her eye. Thanks be to God, again, for the uncompromising demands of the parish. The little wounds I suffer will strengthen me and make me a better pastor of souls, as the little wounds we all suffer day to day strengthen us, if we let them, to love God, love our families, love our neighbors and love one another better, more purely, more perfectly, more completely.

I have had such good conversations today with the brothers, and in each of them I have spoken with the Lord. That is the vocation!—To be so utterly simplified and suffused with, submerged in, subsumed by God that the dazzling radiance of His glory shines out clearly in your every word and action, like the golden dawn this morning bursting over the mountains. As our beautiful Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity loved to say: to live in laudem gloriae eius!

So now let us pray together, for ourselves and one another: “Lord, renew our spirits in the light of your love, and by that light illuminate again the trail which is mine alone to walk—let me not forget, let me not lose it or wander too far astray!—but simply stick close to you, and follow where you lead, my only peace, my sweet refuge, my strength, my Beloved One.”

Vox Pastoris | The Voice of the Shepherd

It was important for me that the Church is one with herself interiorly, with her own past: that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now. The rite must develop; in that sense, reform is appropriate. But the continuity must not be ruptured.”

Friends, I was deeply impressed and moved by this testimony of our shepherd, His Grace, Alexander Sample, at this year’s International Liturgical Conference in Cologne. How blessed we are to have him here in the Archdiocese of Portland! May he remain here for many years to come. Please take the time to listen to this successor to the apostles speaking on our Catholic liturgical heritage and the ‘reform of the reform’.

BONUS: Do YOU have a calling to the priesthood or consecrated life? A word from Archbishop Sample.

Exitus & Redditus

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The purest suffering produces the purest understanding.”
—St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love

Once, alone late at night with the Blessed Presence in the chapel, I wrote these lines: “How often I waste so much energy trying to seize hold of the gifts you are giving me, Father. As if a man could hold the ocean in his hands. They say you give and you take away … I think, God, you always give. Your very nature is pure gift. But you give like the ocean gives to the shore. The ocean lives and forms the shore because it is in motion! If it were still it would not be the sea. It would be a lake, a pool, a pond. But it is in the nature of the ocean to crash against the rocks: to go in and out, in and out, reaching almost to the treeline, then receding again past the edge of the sand.

The ocean always gives itself. It withdraws, but returns—and reaches even farther than when it came before. Exitus! Redditus! And with each return it further smoothes the rock, it carries the debris which has gathered on the sand back out into its fathomless depths, it bears new life! You take away nothing from us but that which never was us to begin with. Let me be more who I am and cease to be who I am not, O my Jesus—even if it hurts. Even when it means loosening my grip on what I most dearly want to hold onto. I lay myself and every desire of my heart down on your altar … Take me and make me all Yours!”

That prayer speaks as powerfully to my heart today as the hour I wrote it. It is also a prayer which the Lord answered, radically, in bringing me to Carmel. I have written before about how the whole movement of my discernment and decision to enter the Carmelites was one of growing detachment: first realizing the tangled web of attachments which bound my heart and prevented me from walking in freedom to follow God’s will, and then trusting God enough to put into his hands all those things I most dearly wanted to cling to.

“Does it make any difference whether a bird be held by a slender thread or by a rope,” writes our holy father St. John of the Cross, “while the bird is bound and cannot fly till the cord that holds it is broken?” In the same way, it made no difference that the things to which I discovered I was desperately attached were good things which God had given me—my family, my diocese, my seminarian brothers, my archbishop, and my dreams of future priestly ministry, to name a few. (Of course, there were plenty of other, lesser attachments to other, lesser goods. I confess I was pretty attached to my car, my iPhone, and my Facebook account!) But as long as I had even the slenderest thread of an attachment, I was bound: I could not fly.

In the weeks after I left Mt. Angel in December and before I went to Mt. St. Joseph in January, I felt ready to go, zealous to finally give everything to follow God’s will. In those months of discernment, He had revealed to me the extent of my attachments; now, in a very real way, I was laying everything down on His altar, as I had so long desired to do. What could I take with me? Not my car, not my laptop, not my cell phone, not my espresso machine. Not even most of my books or clothes! Even more importantly than all of that, I left behind my identity as a seminarian when I hung up my cassock in my closet at home, and with it, everything I had known and loved these past 3 years: Mt. Angel, the Archdiocese of Portland, Archbishop Sample, my many brothers in the seminary, the priests and people of this local church, my dreams of a future here. “All for you, Jesus.”

Yet I could not have imagined the extent to which God would continue stripping my heart in the weeks and months to come. The work He had in mind for me was not done in a moment, when Fr. Robert and the other four postulants showed up at my door that bright morning in January and whisked me away to San Jose. Very soon after the beginning of my postulancy, I was plunged deep in what Fr. Ian Matthews so rightly calls “healing darkness,” that total desolation of spirit in which God is united to the soul at a level deeper than one can sense. As a result, the soul experiences His very closeness as darkness, dryness, aridity, desolation, disconsolation, doubt, abandonment.

I experienced all of that in my two months as a postulant. Although I was certain that God had not abandoned me—indeed, He gave me just enough glimmerings of consolation here and there to assure me of His presence and keep me going—it was clear that He was stripping everything away from my soul to get at the deepest core of me, and it was a hard, painful slog day after day. In my journal I wrote: “He wants to get to the foundation of me & work on the wounds in my foundation, which I’ve ignored, built over and buried. I know, I trust, He’s only stripping away what needs to be stripped in order to get to the wounds, like any good surgeon, who first strips his patient of clothing, then cuts through layers of skin and so on until he arrives at the core of them, where his work is done. And I’ve asked Him to do as much—I ‘opted in’ to this, after all! But…I would be lying if I said I was enjoying it.”

Stripping away the clothing: now that was the easy part, leaving behind the externals, the distractions of the world, when I stepped out of the diocese and into Carmel. In the postulancy, He was cutting through skin and muscle. I often felt like God was continually humiliating me, the youngest postulant and the “lowest of the low” in the monastic community (one night I came to him in the tabernacle and said, a little indignantly, “Will you just give me a break?!”)—but slowly I began to accept the mortifications to my pride. I had none of the familiar supports I was accustomed to in the seminary, no close friends to talk to, no freedom to get in my car and leave for an afternoon when things were tough, no busy work to distance me from the real work taking place within, not even the material comforts which used to distract me: nothing to lean on but sheer faith that His will was being accomplished in me.

And without a doubt, it was. I often remembered a phrase which one of my Carmelite brothers in the seminary had mentioned to me during my discernment: “Sometimes God takes us by another way for a while so that we can gain something we never could have gained otherwise, or lose something we never could have lost.” So much interior healing took place in me, in such a relatively short span of time, that just could not have happened so quickly or so directly any other way. The stripping away revealed deep wounds in me which I had forgotten, or ignored, or never seen so clearly  as I did then. I realized how many sins and imperfections had their roots in those wounds, like foul weeds which had taken root in damp, dingy holes in the earth. And as I grew in this kind of self-knowledge, all by the mysterious interior illumination of the Holy Spirit, I felt—not despair—but a new hope and a deeper certainty of being beloved by the Father than ever before. For so long I had tried to build over those wounds in the core of me, so as not to face the reality of my brokenness, and to build my identity on something other than my true foundation. In order to free me, God had to remove everything I could try to use as a false foundation. Then, faced with the truth of my being, I had nothing left to rely on but Him.

I decided to make a general confession, a whole life’s worth of sins and imperfections and wounds and broken humanity, which I wrote down on 10 pages in a notebook and then read shakily to my spiritual director over the course of an hour on a secluded porch in sunny Cupertino, who at last absolved me of my sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen, thanks be to God! And as I drove back to the monastery after our meeting, I felt such a sense of victory, of a deeper interior freedom than I had ever felt before.

Detachment, stripping, healing, freedom: those were the watchwords of my postulancy. I did not feel at peace, exactly, but beyond a doubt I could feel I was growing. Furthermore, the sufferings and the trials seemed like the surest proof that it was God’s will, because of the good fruit they were bearing in me already. My postulant master advised me to “get comfortable on the cross,” to lean into the sufferings and find a position where I could hang there and endure, so that was the attitude I adopted: trusting endurance, loving perseverance.

At the end of those two months, we had a week-long silent retreat to prepare for entry into the novitiate, and that retreat was my greatest consolation. I fasted strictly all week, stayed up late each night keeping vigil with the Lord in the darkened chapel, and drank deeply from the well of St. John of the Cross, reading book one of the Dark Night of the Soul. Through the lens of his wisdom, I could understand so exactly what God was doing in my soul as he brought me through the “dark night of the senses,” and I felt a renewed vigor and hope of the glory to which He would bring me once the purifications were over. “I know the dark night is going to come back soon in the novitiate,” I prayed, “and I am ready to continue. Just give me the grace, Lord. Just give me Yourself.”

Sure enough, after the initial excitement of being clothed in the habit and receiving my religious title, Bro. Matthew of the Incarnation, the dark night set in again. At first, it was similar to what I had experienced in the postulancy. But after a couple weeks in the novitiate, I experienced the most intense darkness I ever have. It seemed to me as if it was of a different character than the healing darkness I had experienced before: I felt completely abandoned, confused and disoriented, as if God’s grace were suddenly and absolutely absent from my soul, and I was doing everything by my own strength (and doing it badly!) Even little things like making conversation at meals, going to recreation, or sitting down to do my spiritual reading were suddenly exhausting, and I could hardly muster a few words to the brothers or settle down and focus for a couple of minutes at a time. I dreaded doing anything. I couldn’t even fall asleep at night… Nothing gave me any pleasure or peace.

Though at first I remained determined to persevere, after just a couple of days of this all-encompassing darkness, I was absolutely convinced that I could not continue unless God gave me a lot more grace! The intensity of the desolation revealed to me my absolute weakness, my utter inability to do anything without Him. But I was determined to keep going and, above all, not to make any rash decisions in such a time of desolation, as St. Ignatius of Loyola wisely counsels.

My novice master gave me two days to myself, in order to listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit and wait for this interior storm to pass. During those days, my continual prayer was nothing more nor less than, “Lord, your will be done.” In the postulancy, I had faced temptations to leave, to give up and go home, but they had been little more than flights of fancy. Now I was facing a serious temptation which would not leave me—in fact, I wasn’t at all sure whether it was a temptation at all, or the prompting of the Holy Spirit. “I always felt my vocation here might have an ‘expiration date’,” I wrote in my journal, thinking of Br. Joseph Mary’s words about going by another way for a little while to gain something, or to lose something else, and what Archbishop Sample had said once about the Lord calling me back to Portland— “but 3 months? I always knew—to be honest, even hoped—He might call me to Carmel just for a season, and not forever … Well, technically it has been one season: the season of winter. Now it is spring. But how can I be sure His work in me here is done? I don’t want to ‘pull the plug’ if God’s holy purpose in bringing me here is incomplete, if the work He is doing in me still presupposes or requires that I be in the Carmelite novitiate.”

In the end, the “storm” did begin to clear. I began to get the tiniest taste of peace again—just enough to carry me through the day. I put back on the habit, which I had felt such an overwhelming aversion to during this desolation that I had hardly worn it for 3 days. I started to think, “OK, I guess I can continue…technically, I can keep doing this…” for as long as God keeps giving me the strength.

But in that thought of remaining in Carmel, there was such dread and disappointment, such a feeling of resignation, disquiet, unhappiness which accompanied it. I realized I no longer had any desire to live this life: there was no more water in that well. And even as I prayed again for God’s holy will to be done, abandoning myself once more to His providence, I had to acknowledge how much I wanted to leave, how any desire to stay in the monastery had completely left me—praying with a sincere heart “Your will be done,” yes, but honestly admitting, too, that the thought of staying any longer felt like an unbearable imprisonment!

I spoke with one of my brother novices, a very insightful young Carmelite who will make a great spiritual director one day. We had both been diocesan seminarians at Mt. Angel together, both discerned Carmel together, both applied and entered at the very same time, so he has known me from the beginning of our journey. Well, that afternoon, we walked through it all again. He pointed out the consistency of God’s calling me from my first conversion, my desire for truth and for love which eventually led me to the Church, and which continued developing in me and leading me up to the seminary. He could see it in our time in the seminary together, even just the one year he knew me there: going from grace to grace, as the Lord transformed me, bringing me into positions of leadership and authority, to a mature “pillar of the community,” as he put it. And he could see that in my discernment of Carmel: consistency, building upon everything that had gone before.

He mentioned how struck he had been, getting to know me at Mt. Angel, by how I had my heart set 100% on my vocation to diocesan priesthood: how I was “all in”! As we discerned Carmel together, he could see that same determination and fervor: my heart was all in it, set on Carmel. And he’s right! It was.  I fell so completely in love with the life of contemplative prayer, both the practice of mental prayer and the living of a life so suffused by prayer, with the goodness of the friars and the desire to be like those fine men; Bro. Dustin was right: my “heart was set” on Carmel. Once I encountered the Carmelite life, there was no way I could not aspire to live it, to give myself radically and fully to it! And there was no way I could continue in my former desire and zeal, as a diocesan seminarian, once I had given my heart so unreservedly to Carmel.

But since coming to Mt. St. Joseph, my heart had not been in it. That was obvious to my brother, even if it had not been so clear to me. I told him that, throughout all the darkness of the postulancy and the novitiate, I was leaning on the firm pillar of my initial discernment: “at least I knew God’s will then was for me to be here!” I said. He only laughed at me. “When you’re sailing a ship,” he told me, “you don’t just plot a course and let her go. You have to keep an eye on the navigator, constantly make little course corrections and adjustments … And if the navigator goes out, you fall back on more basic methods. Maps. The stars. Because things are constantly changing: the waves, the wind … You can’t just rely on the fact that you were on course 15 nautical miles back!”

He was right. And once I admitted that, I began to recognize why my heart hadn’t been “in it,” as he said. Back when I discerned with the Dominicans, the young student brothers there had told me they found “their people” at St. Albert’s Priory. Well, I didn’t find my people there, but I began to think I had found them in the Carmelites. My time at Mt. St. Joseph revealed to me the truth: as much as I loved them, they were not my people, either. The persistent longing I felt in San Jose for Portlandfor Mt. Angel, for home, was not just attachment which had to be broken in order to do God’s will. There was attachment there, no doubt, and God was purifying that through the dark night of the spirit—but what remained was the quiet, persistent indicator of God’s will: “That is your place. They are your people. Not these; not here; not anywhere else.”

It was that new and incipient sense of mission, a pure gift of grace, which really convinced my heart. And when I realized and accepted that it was time for me to leave Carmel—not fleeing from desolation or trial, not saying no to the purifications or to my share in the Cross, but rather, saying YES to this new interior illumination of God’s will—there was such a deep and immediate inner shift in me: from the condition of slavery, of one struggling to survive (yet alone thrive!) in the monastery, to the condition of freedom.

As I said to my brother that afternoon, there is really no other way this could have gone: not with me being who I am, and God being who He is. So do I count my months in the monastery a loss, or my leaving a failure? No, and no! I thank God for what I take with me from my time at Mt. St. Joseph: a renewed zeal for my vocation in the Archdiocese of Portland; a deeper sense of that vocation and what it means (to live the spirituality of Carmel in a diocesan context); a real sense of mission (to teach the people of Portland, by word and example, the wisdom of Carmel, which is really nothing more nor less than the authentic spirituality of the Church: the way of prayer—the way of love!) By giving up everything I could to follow God’s will, in the honesty and simplicity of my heart, now I am able to take those things back up with an open hand, using the gifts He gives me without setting my heart on them. (I remember another scrap of a phrase someone told me once: “Sometimes God asks for everything, but He doesn’t take it all.”) Those months in the darkness of the postulancy allowed me to recognize, too, so many interior weakness and imperfections and wounds, to grow so much in faith and humility, and to experience such immense graces of interior healing and illumination. So I sing “glory be to God!” for my time in Carmel—and now, having read the wind and the waves and the stars overhead, it is time to correct my course.

Two weeks ago, I left San Jose to return to the Archdiocese of Portland. In another week, I will be starting a summer assignment at St. Stephen’s parish in Northeast Portland, easing back into diocesan life. This fall, I will be returning to Mt. Angel for my fourth and (pray God!) final year of college seminary. I am beginning to attend the meetings of the Secular Carmelites in Portland, to explore what it will mean for me going forward to live as a Carmelite in a diocesan context.

It’s really exciting to be back. Above all, I am struck by how each and every one of our vocations is custom-made, hand-tailored as it were, designed by God from all eternity for you and me specifically and personally in His plan of salvation. There are no generic or cookie-cutter vocations! Rather, God has a role only you can fill and a role only I can fill, in a place only you will fit and I will fit. Discernment is simply the ongoing exploration and illumination of what and where that is. And it is exciting! Because at the heart of discernment is a love story: the love of the Father saying to his beloved son or daughter, “You’ll never guess what I’ve prepared for you. Just let me show you…”

So it is I can say again, in those marvelous words of St. Junipero Serra, “¡Siempre adelante; nunca atrás!” I humbly ask your prayers for me as I continue in my formation and discernment. In particular, please pray for many more vocations to the California-Arizona Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars, as well as our own Archdiocese of Portland, and for all the novices and seminarians who are currently in formation. May the Lord raise up many faithful laborers in His vineyard—wherever and however they will best serve Him! And may we be zealous to discover His will for our lives, listen intently to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and never hesitate to follow where He leads.


This is part 6 of QUO VADIS? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood.

Go here to view all posts in the series.

Header photo credit: Fr. James Geoghan, O.C.D.

Pontifical High Mass

On the Third Sunday of Lent, the newly clothed Carmelite novices were blessed to assist in choro at Pontifical High Mass at the Faldstool, celebrated by His Eminence, Raymond Cardinal Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, at St. Margaret Mary’s, Oakland. In attendance as well were priests and seminarians of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Diocese of Oakland, the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, and friars of the Order of Preachers and Conventual Order of Friars Minor. Deo gratias!

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After Mass, the Whitefriars, Greyfriars, and Blackfriars united for a photo op!

Clothing

On March 18, the Vigil of St. Joseph, I was clothed as a novice in the Order of Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel! Pictured above, first row (L-R): the new novices, Bro. Colin of Jesus and Mary, Bro. Matthew of the Incarnation, Bro. Frank of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Bro. Dustin of the Eucharist. Back row: Father Robert Elias of Divine Mercy, our postulant master, and Father Mark Kissner, our novice master.

Make sure to follow the Carmelites on Facebook to see pictures and updates from the novices. Please keep me in prayer and be assured of my prayers for you! Laudetur Iesus Christus!

Reflections on Postulancy

            Morning sun transforms drooping leaves of palm-trees into dazzling green-gold fringes on the noble vestment of the sky.

            Black coffee in the bottom of a plain white cup,
            Pure white cotton draping over rough brown wool.
            In the corner, the Paschal candle on a golden lamp-stand casts a dim blue shadow, proclaims “alpha” and “omega” are even closer than “you” and “I”.
            Light reveals: cracks in the oil-painting, a smudge on the window, dust on the dark-wood tabletop. Imperfections, and beauty.
            Snatches of poetry drift on the silence like distant voices: “to bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.” “How shall the breath of God batter my soul?” “Take me to Ephraim, Master, let me stay with you there…”
            Bell tolls once, singly, startling birds.


Wes just left for his home visit,—waving to me where I sat on the stone steps writing as he and Fr. Robert drove to the airport—and now it is just the four of us postulants here who will very soon be novices: me, Dustin, Colin, and Frank, and the silence and the stillness and the cool morning sun. I have reflected before, on retreats at Mt. Angel, how silence transforms everything. It is amazing how quickly, how subtly yet unmistakably, this transformation comes about. The silence expands to fill every place and every moment: “here is sacred space,” it proclaims in the kitchen as I wash the coffee-cups; “here is sacred time,” as the sunlight bursts through the window. Sacred silence! It draws out, reveals the sacredness in everything, makes all things new: even this monastery, already cheapened by 2 months’ familiarity.

Yesterday we took our new habits back to our cells; cut our cinctures, smelling of fresh leather, down to the right length; punched holes in them for the belt-buckle, tied our cord rosaries and sacred medals. We tried on the habits a month ago, of course, to be sure they would fit, but it is different now with them hanging in our closets and the day of our clothing so near. They are silent witnesses of the transformation about to take place in each of us: or, better, that has already been taking place, that will continue to take place, but that on Saturday will suddenly be made visible in the down-draping of brown and white cloth.

“A vocation is a harmony between being and life,” writes Blessed Marie-Eugene. Then a habit must be a kind of harmony between being and appearance: the external sign revealing the interior reality. The being of the religious demands the habit; but the habit demands that the religious be a certain way. It is a promise to the world and an obligation to the wearer: that this person is an ἀπόστολος, an apostle, an ambassador of Heaven, a new incarnation of the God-Man, Jesus Christ! in flawed and fallible humanity. It is a glory and a terror beyond telling.

“Put on the new man,” I hear the echo of Abbot Jeremy in my mind. “You have been called. You have been chosen.”—“Me? With all my weakness?”—“Yes. You.

Under the cross I knew your providence

Six years, my God, almost to the day
since you pulled me from the world and to yourself.
Two and a half since that hot afternoon
I first drove my pastoral sedan—
firstborn-brother, first of many, wincing
at my every sudden stop and wobbly turn—
one hundred fifty miles from our birth-town
to the Tabor that seemed to me paradise!,
though not at first. But I could not confess then
to you and those who came to see me off
how, after the good-byes and introductions
and desultory day gave way to lonely night,
I sat again in silence at the helm
of my own car (thanked God that I had brought it)
and drove, until I got my bearings back.

That moonless night I knew not where I was going,
nor hardly where I was, in the dim squint
of headlights and the litany of names
that were then strangers, now old friends:
Marquam, Monitor, Silverton Road, and all the rest.
And in the silent downpour which obscured
even more my sight, the windshield-wipers
were no help at all—but in the end
I found my way back to a little store
where I bought hot chocolate and detergent,
and went home by the Way of the Cross.
How many times, those first months, I returned
to the driver’s seat!—to drive, or to sit
at the crossroads of my will and of thine.
No wonder, then, as I stood folding sheets
in the cold and utter solitude
of a little monastic linen-room
and saw the palm-trees of my Babylon
shudder beyond the window in the wind,
I gazed a long time down the winding hill-road—
so unlike another I once knew—
and my heart stirred for a car of my own
to drive me an infinity of miles
back to the damp green homeland of my heart!

“Do you know what time is?” scoffed my brother
in a way that couldn’t help but make me laugh.
Maybe six years sometimes feels like sixty
because everyone else thinks a decade
is what I think a year is—or a month,
a moment.
Have I been here a month now?
It might as easily be years or days
since I descended for the first time
the mountain where I knew you, O my God:
Engelberg’s daughter, and equally
Mount Tabor and Calvary to me!
White shirt and black suit stuck to me with sweat
that first day I arrived. I did not care.
It was what a seminarian wore,
and so I wore, with pride—til a brother
told me I needn’t wear it all the time.
When, January, monastery-bound,
I came to San Jose, I wore a sweatshirt,
not a sweaty suit and tie. And so it goes.
The life of grace is light that clarifies,
the flame of love a fire that refines.

How many brothers have I gained, O Lord,
and lost since then?—How many loves like sparks
flashed bright before my eyes and disappeared?
(Or burned too close, did they?—so that I blinked
and they were gone.) How many, many times
have I flung, not to the heart of the Host,
my heart, but down to another garden:
to bury my beating in the safer-
seeming soil of a familiar land.
Every “yes” came with a “but” or an “if,”
although I knew it not—I thought I gave
myself unreservedly, all at once,
when under the cross I knew your providence,
or if not then, when before your glory
I begged to love as freely as you love:
a prayer which you’ve been granting ever since.
It is no exile now nor accident
that you transplant me from my shallow soil
I loved as if it were th’ Elysian fields
to the vineyard you chose for me alone!
No wonder—it must hurt as tender roots,
plucked from one place, begin to root again.

I know myself only by reflection.
In one I recognize me as I was:
new convert, overzealous, touched by Love,
but still too full of self to love in truth.
Only six years—what miracle of grace!
Six years yet, and how far I have to go.
Once in impetuous youth, I denied
I was the same at twelve as I had been
at two: same-named, but a different person.
So I claimed.
Now I will have a new name,
“put on the new man,” yet I am the same:
the son beloved, the broken heart reclaimed,
the little one embraced and lifted high
from valley to mountain and open sky,
who loved you in the night when he was lost,
who searched for you in every heart he knew,
and found you more and more—now to find you
in spirit and in truth have you brought me
to be crucified, and to die and rise.

Colloquy on a Hawk

A hawk has—I am told—six feet of wings.
From tip to tip they span the length of me,
this emperor of the air, surveying from his tower
(made by men of steel and iron)
glittering temples, ziggurats of commerce,
busy insignificance!
A lone figure among saplings,
solitary tree on a bare hilltop—
blacktop, black dog, four men walking—
A rooster. A monastery.
What is it to see and not to know?
Your wings with wind’s-rush rustle
like silk, no effort, only ease,
circling on currents you know not whither:
and neither do you know their Maker,
do you, brother of the skies?
Let me tell you. I know him
like I know “I”—darkly, in a mirror.
As I know I, so I know Him: in you, in all of this,
O brother in this holy family
called Being—or better yet, called Good!

Everything is Grace

Praised be Jesus Christ! As of last night, I have arrived at Mt. St. Joseph Monastery, and tonight at Vespers I will be formally received, along with my brother Dustin Vu, as postulants in the Order of the Discalced Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The sky is a blank, featureless grey as far as the eye can see, and there has been a gentle, constant drizzle all day, so I feel quite at home. (“San Jose is trying to outdo Oregon!” I told Fr. Robert, the postulant master, this morning, and it is! I went out for a run, but it was short-lived, what with the wind lashing rain in my face and branches blowing off the trees. There were these huge rolls of thunder, too, the awesome drum-beat announcing the coming of the sun, but when it came it was only visible for a brief moment before it was veiled again in the fog.)

Our drive down was not quite what I expected. Yet in one sense—an oddly comforting sense—it was exactly what I expected. Doesn’t ben-Sirach say, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials”?

And objectively, the trials of our “journey home” were not so great. On Wednesday afternoon, my long-expected day of departure, my grandmother and great-grandmother both came over for tea until Fr. Robert and the other postulants showed up a little after 2:00 p.m. (some 4 hours later than we’d initially been planning due to some unexpected engine trouble with the van). I’d been feeling ready to go for a while, and though I was feeling the sting of leaving that morning and the night before in adoration, as soon as Fr. Robert and my new brothers Wesley, Colin, and Frank arrived, so too did my excitement and resolve return! We were all a flurry of introductions and then tearful goodbyes as the brothers loaded up my suitcase, 4 little boxes, 2 backpacks and an assorted jumble of books and boots—the sum total of my possessions—into the van. Fr. Robert led us all in a prayer as we held hands around the kitchen table. And then we were off, waving to my mom as she stood smiling through her tears on the front porch.

dscn1006The drive down was at first all chocolate, praise music and excited conversation. We stopped in Ashland to put on snow chains and found one was a little loose, but it was determined there was nothing to be done about it just then, so on we went over Mt. Ashland, going slow and taking in the wonder of our picturesque surroundings, all mantled in white. Once we were descending the mountain again, we pulled over and removed the chains. But soon after, something went wrong. Br. Colin’s theory is that the loose chain must have punctured the tire and kept it pressurized as long as the chain was on, but let air out as soon as the chains were off. In any case, just a few minutes later, the van started shaking violently, we pulled over, and found the front passenger tire was shredded.

Cue all the postulants and Father getting out of the van on the shoulder of I-5, in the dark and the snow, taking everything out of the back to get to the spare tire, jacking up the van, then having to lower it again to move it from the gravel onto the asphalt, jacking it back up, removing the shredded tire (with a brief debate over which way to turn the lug-nuts), putting on the spare… Between Frank and Colin, it was like we had AAA right there in the van with us! We were going to leave the ruined tire behind because the van was full, but Colin saved us by observing that we would need the rim from that one when we got the replacement.

Soon enough, we were back on the road with our spare tire rolling, no harm done, just a little wet and cold. I was even thinking of how I could write a blog post about this—maybe relating it to our holy mother, St. Teresa, that time their carriages got carried away downstream on their pontoons in a Spanish storm, and she cried out, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”—or something about the blessings of being part of a group, how we immediately fell into an easy rhythm, working together, anticipating one another’s needs, to get the job done. I was thinking about how I would not have been able to do all that if I had been on my own and was grateful for the Lord’s gift of calling me to this family of Carmel—even if I was also a little painfully self-conscious of how little I had done besides unload the boxes and hold the flashlight!

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But as we continued south and Colin started looking for tire shops on Fr. Robert’s phone, it started to become clear that we weren’t “home and dry” just yet. There were no open tire shops anywhere nearby; most had closed at 6:00, and the nearest one open late (until 8:30) was at a Costco in Redding, another 100 miles down the freeway on our (already a little flat) spare tire! “And by the time we get there,” Father pointed out, toodling along at 40 mph, “they’ll probably be closed, too.”

In the end, we stopped at Yreka to check out an AutoZone (no luck), at which point Fr. Robert made the call that we would get dinner and rooms at a motel (“What’s that, you know, motel—something 6?” “…Motel 6?” “That’s the one.”) and have the tire replaced at Les Schwab in the morning.

And everything was grace. That we had been going so slow already when the tire blew that we hardly even felt it, and could pull over right away; that we had guys in the car who could change it; that where we ended up in Yreka we had dinner and a place to stay right next to one another, and a tire shop right across the street. We all had rooms to ourselves (although I couldn’t help remembering my grandmother’s prescient words once upon a time: “my idea of camping is the Motel 6!”) and, since the Les Schwab didn’t open until 9:00 and Fr. Robert told us to say our prayers in private, we had a chance at a full 8 hours. I even got to call my mom and tell her the whole story on Fr. Robert’s phone as soon as we checked in.

But something was nagging at me as I settled (gingerly) into my room. For one thing, I was tired and had been feeling myself starting to wear thin as the night drew on, but more importantly, as I recognized in my examination of conscience before bed, the Lord was teaching my heart how not to be control. That things do not have to be as I have expected them to be. It’s an ongoing class He’s teaching me, but I’m taking the next level now, “Advanced Not-Being-In-Control”. And as I wrote that night, “I ‘opted in’ to this lesson; in fact I am even more ‘in’ than some of the other postulants (the other three still have their cell phones, and money!)” whereas I had brought neither. But even though I freely enrolled in the class, it’s a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t have my own car anymore, so I didn’t get to decide whether to stay or go, and I couldn’t go back to get a pen from my backpack, which I’d left in the van, without waking Fr. Robert (so instead I borrowed one from the motel lobby). I don’t have a phone anymore, so I couldn’t call (or text, or Facebook) anyone I wanted. Without a phone, and my clock packed away in one of my boxes, I couldn’t even set an alarm to wake me up in the morning—my room, devoid even of pens, was emphatically lacking a clock (so instead I called the front desk and asked for a 7:30 a.m. wake-up call). To my knowledge, I hadn’t even brought any shampoo or body wash, since I knew that would all be provided for at Mt. St. Joseph—I was resigned to washing up with the little bar of soap in the shower when I found, in an obscure fold of an outer pocket in my suitcase, a little travel-sized bottle of face and body wash.

And in a delightful way, that little bottle completely changed my mood. I was feeling like quite the martyr, having to endure such sufferings as walking down to borrow a pen from the lobby of this motel (at which I had never planned or wanted to stay in the first place!) I was thinking for the first time about how the sacrifices I was making would really impact my day to day life in so many ways, large and small. But finding that little bottle reminded me that, just as I wasn’t alone when the tire blew out on the van—all I had to do was my little (yet not insignificant!) part, and the team of us got the tire changed—so I am not alone, not in the least alone, in the little sacrifices I am making for the Lord.

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Brother-Postulant Wesley outside Mt. St. Joseph

“Grace builds on nature,” Fr. Robert exclaimed that night at dinner, in an attempt to explain the effects of his horchata-flavored energy drink. (“It’s really a grace/horchata synergy!”) In the same way, grace builds on our sacrifices—so all I have to do is make the little, yet significant sacrifices I am called to make, and the Lord meets me right there with all that I need, “good measure, shaken out and spilling over.”

It’s not, in other words, about just making life harder for myself and getting to be all “woe is me” (and, let’s face it, also more than a little self-congratulatory) for taking the more difficult road and having to be flexible when I run into unexpected trials. It’s about being faithful to what the Lord is asking of me, whether that’s to hold a flashlight in the snow, or walk downstairs to borrow a pen, or to humbly nod and accept it when The Plan changes (because The Plan is really a hollow fiction of ours, isn’t it? “Man proposes, God disposes,” as Fr. Robert said on another occasion, casually blowing my mind.) And as long as I am faithful to Him, He is unfailingly faithful to me—whether in the form of this awesome band of brothers, or a hot meal and a room to myself, free of charge, just when I needed a little time “alone with the Alone,” or even, with His divine sense of humor, in a providential little bottle of face and body wash.

dscn1040The rest of the drive down passed without incident. The tire shop was open an hour earlier than we’d expected (another grace), so by 9:00 yesterday morning we were ready to go. I-5 was closed just south of Yreka, but Fr. Robert had learned about it in advance and we took an alternate route, on backroads where the snow was chest-deep on either side. In the morning sun, amongst the snow-capped trees, under the shadow of Mt. Shasta, it was like driving through a Christmas card. We arrived at San Jose just after 5:00 last night, and after a social and dinner with the community, Fr. Robert celebrated Mass for the five of us postulants at Our Lady’s altar.

After Mass, he made a few remarks to us, beginning with something a Legionary of Christ priest said to him once: “You know what your problem is, Robert?” he said. “It’s not that you don’t believe in God—you believe in Him all right. You just don’t believe in yourself.” He urged us not to underestimate our own capacity for self-growth. And while our time here in formation will entail purification and suffering, He said to look to Our Lord as our model: He spent 3 hours on the cross, 3 days in the tomb, but after His resurrection He walked the earth in His glorified body for 50 days. The purifications are nothing compared to the glory. Everything is grace: the call, the ability to hear the call, our openness and ability to respond, and everything that response entails.

dsc_1264And finally, he said, if we are tempted to think we could have done more good at home with our family: “Jesus is going to fill that empty chair at the dinner table where you used to sit. And He’s going to do a better job there than you.”

Already in these last 48 hours since leaving home, I am getting a little sense of the broad themes the Lord is going to be teaching me through my brothers during my time here. Surrendering control. (“Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting,” as the plaque on the wall above this computer says.) Doing small things with great love. Learning to believe in myself and trust that God knows what He is doing with me, his poor instrument! I have a lot to learn. But I also have a lot of time. And God is very faithful to us, “unto ages of ages,” as the Orthodox say beautifully.

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Glory be to God for His mercy to us!