There is a famous story told about St. Dominic—maybe you’ve heard it. It happened when he was accompanying his bishop on a journey from Osma, the Spanish city where Dominic lived in his cloistered religious community, to the south of France. On their first day after crossing the Pyrenees, weary and footsore, they stopped to stay the night at an inn.
Now the keeper of that inn happened to be an Albigensian: that is, someone who had embraced the new Albigensian heresy, which was all the rage in 13th century France. To quote the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great’s Life of St. Dominic, this heresy “was based on the very ancient idea that matter was evil and spirit was good. It has been around for a long time and is still with us in the form of theosophy, Christian Science and those who go in for Buddhism and other Eastern religions. It appeals to people who have vague and hazy minds and do not want to do any serious thinking. Albigenianism had the additional twist in that it did develop a logical and clear theological system. Marriage was evil, sex was sinful, flesh meat was forbidden, austerities were the in thing, and suicide was the preferred way of death.”
Of course, that set of beliefs wouldn’t appeal to many people on its own, but Albigensianism did appeal to the lords and landowners, because since it required that its adherents renounce their Catholic faith and the sacraments, it followed that if they, the lords, adopted this heresy for themselves and their subjects, they would then be free to seize the land held by the Church in their provinces. Albigensianism also expected that only a few, the perfect, would be able and obliged to live this extreme form of life. The rest were free to live as normal human beings (insofar as anyone can with such a paucity of grace). So a win-win all around for the reigning powers of the day.
But to return to the story, again quoting the Central Province’s Life: “Dominic was appalled that anyone could fall for this nonsense. He and the innkeeper got into an argument that lasted the whole night, but in the morning the innkeeper fell on his knees and asked to be reconciled to the Church.”
This was a pivotal moment for St. Dominic, who would go on to found the Order of Preachers, which utterly decimated the Albigensian heresy through prayer (particularly the rosary), austerity of life, and skillful and relentless arguing, a tradition they continue to this day with just as much skill and just as little relenting.
Why am I telling you this story?
Because today is the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order of Preachers, which, by the way, is awesome—but mostly because a few days ago I had a little Dominic experience of my own.
This past Wednesday, we had a day of recollection here at the seminary. These days, which we have from time to time, are spent in complete silence, in both the exterior sense—we have no classes, no conversation at meals, no idle chatter—and the interior sense. We are meant to cultivate silence in our hearts and use this time to listen to the voice of God. So there is also no homework, no use of technology, none of the noise which normally fills out waking hours to distract us from the work of prayer.
Of course, we still have our community prayer hours together throughout the day, as well as Mass in the morning, and we also had four short conferences, two each in the morning and afternoon, on the topic of prayer. These were meant to give us food for thought in our reflections during the rest of the day.
It happened—and I don’t know why I say “happened,” as if these things are ever random—to be the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, the patron saint of seminarians, and the proper reading for Mass that day was from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
The first sentence hit me hard in my lectio divina, my reflection on the readings of the day, as I read through them on Wednesday with my morning espresso. “Not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think.” A monk here at Mt. Angel exhorted us recently in a homily to read every word of sacred scripture as if it were addressed to us personally, in this particular moment in time and in this particular place. God was warning me of one of the enemy’s most dangerous temptations, and one I stumble into more often than I’d like to admit: the temptation to think you are better than anyone else. “That person never prays,” I’ll think to myself, “they never study,” or “they never think of God,” or “they make no effort to practice what they preach.” (All different ways of saying, with the Pharisee, “Thank you, God, for not making me like them.”)
The next few verses explain why. We are all one body, Paul reminds us. The excellence of one does not take away from another, and the failures of one do not make anyone else shine brighter. Everyone has their own gifts for the good of the whole body of Christ. If one is shining brightly, the whole body is better for it, and if one is flagging, the whole body suffers. We rejoice in each other’s gifts and assist each other in our failings—that is what the Christian life means.
A few verses down, another warning: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection.” Another verse addressed right to my heart. I have been struggling these weeks with a particular sin, bringing it to confession over and over again, stumbling right back into it. St. Paul was making it clear to me what I need to do to overcome it. It’s simple, but hard to put into practice. Love goodness more than evil! Hold fast to what is good! (The very advice my confessor gives me day after day.) And never love with anything less than the fullness of your heart, he admonishes us. Sin, after all, springs from a lack of love.
These verses were setting the stage for my experiences over the rest of the day. I was feeling particularly discouraged because of my repeated sins, and St. Teresa of Ávila was not helping me feel any better as I read a bit further in her Interior Castle that morning:
“When the soul falls into mortal sin … no thicker darkness exists, and there is nothing dark and black that is not much less so than this. You need know only one thing about it—that, although the Sun Himself, Who has given it all its splendor and beauty, is still there in the center of the soul, it is as if He were not there for any participation that the soul has in Him.”
“Just as all the streamlets that flow from a clear spring are as clear as the spring itself, so the works of a soul in grace are pleasing in the eyes of both God and men, since they proceed from this spring of life … When the soul, on the other hand, through its own fault, leaves this spring and becomes rooted in a pool of pitch-black, evil-smelling water, it produces nothing but misery and filth.”
“If a thick black cloth be placed over a crystal in the sunshine … although the sun may be shining upon it, its brightness will have no effect upon the crystal.”
“O Jesus! How sad it is to see a soul deprived of [light]! What a state the poor rooms of the castle are in! How distracted are the senses that inhabit them! And the faculties, that are their governors and butlers and stewards—how blind they are and how ill-controlled! And yet, after all, what kind of fruit can one expect to be borne by a tree rooted in the devil?”
Similarly, I went to walk the Stations of the Cross, and came upon the following meditation in my Manual of Prayers, on Veronica wiping Jesus’ face as he drags His cross up to Calvary:
“My beloved Jesus, your face was beautiful before; yet, on this journey it no longer appears beautiful but disfigured with wounds and blood. Alas! My soul also was once beautiful, when it received your grace in baptism, but I have since then disfigured it with my sins.”
Not exactly cheery stuff. But then, our faith is not all sunlight and rainbows. Our faith lies on the wood of that Cross.
In one of the afternoon conferences, the speaker reminded us that we are called to be a light to the world, as Paul was, “like lights shining in the darkness in those satellite photos of Earth.” And then he said this, a quote from Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”
Nemo dat quod non habet, as the old saying goes. Nobody gives what he does not have. We are called to be salt and light, but we have to receive that salt to season our words, we have to be filled up with that light if we are going to shine brightly. And all it requires is openness, throwing off that “thick black cloth” of sin, throwing oneself into the Lord’s arms, giving Him another chance. (Confession, after all, is not about begging God to give us another chance. It is about us giving Him another chance. We don’t tell Him we’re sorry so that He’ll forgive us. He has forgiven us everything before we ever ask! Confession is the sacrament of His mercy. It is the way we return to His love—the way we let Him love us and let Him show us his mercy.)
Our speaker also talked about the many identites we build up for ourselves over time. How there are people in all of our lives from whom we seek approval, but we’re afraid that who we are is not good enough to merit their approval or their love, so we build up false identities for ourselves, fictions, which we build over our real selves—and over time, we invest so much into these masks, these fantasies, that we only reinforce our own belief that who we are underneath is not good enough, not loveable. It becomes harder and harder to break with the masks. But a major movement of the spiritual life, he told us, is breaking down this superstructure of identities we build up over who we really are. Letting ourselves be loved in and of ourselves. Embracing our identity, as Henri Nouwen put it, as the Beloved: as God’s beloved sons and daughters, the only identity that has true meaning and value.
Later in the day, I read a bit further with St. Teresa, and came upon this (emphasis mine):
“Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility … As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God … anything white looks very much whiter against something black, just as the black looks blacker against the white … if we turn from self toward God, our understanding will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above the slough of our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice … We shall always be glancing around and saying: ‘Are people looking at me or not?’ ‘If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?’ ‘Dare I begin such and such a task?’ ‘Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?’ … We get a distorted idea of our own nature, and, if we never stop thinking about ourselves, I am not surprised if we experience these fears and others that are still worse. It is for this reason, daughters, that I say we must set our eyes upon Christ, our Good, from whom we shall learn true humility.”
And it is all connected: humility, and love—love of God, and the love of others which flows from it—and goodness, which is the fruit of love—sin, which disconnects us from love—mercy, which heals us of sin and brings us back into His love—the Cross, where He died of love for us—the demolishment of our false identities and embracing of our identity as His beloved, which makes us humble, which makes us truly love in return—and all of it only possible because we keep our eyes fixed firmly on Him, who is our beloved and the source and the summit of all our love.
“Often it is the Lord’s will that we should be persecuted and afflicted by evil thoughts, which we cannot cast out, and also by aridities; and sometimes He even allows these reptiles [temptations] to bite us, so that we may learn better how to be on our guard in the future and see if we are really grieved at offending Him. If, then, you sometimes fail, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good, just as a man selling an antidote will drink poison before he takes it in order to prove its power.” St. Teresa once again.
This is all leading up to something, I promise.
The next day, I went to an event called a “mercy night” hosted by a local parish (which happens to be named after St. Paul, I say, as if these things are ever random). A few of my seminarian brothers came as well, and two of my good friends were there leading us in praise music and playing guitar and drums. It was a night of adoration. One of our deacons from Mt. Angel processed around the church with the monstrance, blessing each person individually with the Blessed Sacrament.
And I had an intense experience of unitive prayer, kneeling there before Jesus Christ, my Lord and the love of my life. It was not totally unlike other experiences I’ve had in prayer before, but in the intensity and the physicality of it, it was unique. I felt—drawn to Him, almost magnetically attracted to Him in the Holy Eucharist, felt a stirring deep down inside of me, in ‘viscerae meae’, my innermost parts. I couldn’t break my eyes off of the tiny white host in that great golden monstrance. I felt like I was staring into His own eyes and He was looking back, and I felt this tingling sensation all throughout my face, around the corners of my eyes and mouth, not uncomfortable, but—like nothing I can describe.
It was a moment that passed quickly, but lingered. I felt such a deep and abiding peace, such a profound experience of loving and being loved, such contentment and total satisfaction in His presence that I felt sure I would never sin again, never again would I willfully do anything to divide me from that love. I would be content to rest against his breast, like St. John at the Last Supper, and never move from there until He saw fit to take me from this world to Himself.
After it was all over, four of us seminarians went out to eat together. It was a toss-up between Round Table Pizza, which was 20 minutes away, or a pub down the block called the Gallon House. The pub won out, because it was late and cold and we were starving. When we got there, it was empty except for a couple guys at the bar and one other table with two older women.
We all sat down, ordered burgers and drinks, chatted about this and that, unwinding from the experiences of the night. We had been there for maybe ten minutes when one of my friends stepped outside to take a phone call.
And one of the women from the other table came and sat down in his place. She was obviously drunk, not falling down or anything, but she had clearly had a few. She wanted to know if we had heard this term—not one I’m going to repeat, but one she said her friend had never heard before, that she wanted to know if the ‘general public’ (we, the table of seminarians!) knew about, if we thought it was offensive. Only one of us had heard it before. She explained, for the benefit of the rest. We agreed, yes, it was probably offensive, and not really respectful of human dignity, either.
She looked at us like we were from another planet (and then actually asked, “are you guys, like, from another planet?”) and then went back to join her friend.
We started to resume our conversation.
Then her friend came over. She was, if anything, slightly more drunk than the other woman. Apologized if her friend had been bothering us. But then proceeded to ask us about this same term, complete with graphic descriptions and vulgar language.
We didn’t make a big deal of it, but told her the same thing we had told her friend. It didn’t faze her. She wanted to know who we were, what our deal was, why we were all there together. (To her credit, we were a strange group, three guys varying in age from 19 to 30.) None of us wanted to be the first to say, “we’re seminarians, and we’re studying together to be Catholic priests!”
And then Emilio walked back in. “Oh, you guys made a friend!” He was all gracious, all smiles. “Pull up a chair!” he invited the other woman. “What’s your name? I’m Emilio. Who are we? We’re seminarians,” he wasted no time telling her, and explaining what that meant.
That changed the tone of the conversation, as it tends to do. The woman started laughing and apologizing about 8,000 times (although she didn’t actually change the way she was talking at all). “I’m going to burn in hell,” she said over and over again, confident above our protests to the contrary. “Who walks up to a table full of priests and asks them something like this?” she asked her friend. “Probably only us,” they both agreed.
The revelation of our identites changed the tone, but by no means ended the conversation. When people find out you’re a seminarian, things tends to move quickly to the profound—even from the vulgar. And so we found out that these women work together at a rehabilitation house for adults who had been victims of child sexual abuse, typically went on to become serial abusers themselves, went in and out of various institutions, and ended up in their care. They run this out of an actual house, not an institutional setting: very structured, tightly controlled, but a home. Of course, they were telling us all these horrific stories of the abuses these guys endured and inflicted on others, the things they had seen themselves… but I was struck by what one of them said.
“We have to meet them where they are. A lot of people in the world today think these guys should just be shot,” she said. “Like they’re just a waste of space. And sometimes I think that myself, but you know… they’re human beings deep down inside. Just like I am. Yeah, they’re broken, but so am I. You wouldn’t let these guys out in a neighborhood where kids are playing, but you wouldn’t want to let me walk through a mall with a credit card, either, you know what I mean? They’re broken, but so am I. We have to meet them where they are.”
The woman who said that had ‘no religious anything,’ as she put it. Wasn’t brought up in the faith, never went to church, nothing. The other one had been brought up Catholic, but hadn’t been to church since she was a kid.
“That’s beautiful,” I told her. “Meeting them where they are. That’s exactly how God meets us. Because we are all broken, but he doesn’t expect us to be perfect, to rise up to meet him. He comes down to meet us right where we are.”
She digested that for a minute.
“You guys are really going to be priests?” she wanted to know. Yes, we all agreed.
“And priests can’t get married?” (Everyone’s first question.) No, we all agreed.
“So you mean you guys can never even have sex except with yourselves?” Not even that, we all laughed.
She was incredulous. “How can you make that kind of commitment?” she asked. “That’s not natural!”
“No,” I agreed, “it isn’t. It’s supernatural. It’s a special gift God gives us to do this work.”
She latched onto me after that. “You look like you’re about 16 years old. What made you want to be a priest?”
“God asked me to,” I told her. (Keep it simple.)
“What, and—how did you know?”
I smiled. “Because I gave it a try, and I felt such peace, and such joy, I knew I was doing the right thing.”
“You must have come from a super religious family.”
“Actually,” I told her, “none of my family is Catholic.”
“So how do your parents feel that—you’re going to be a priest and never get married—and they’ll never have grandkids—and—?”
The rest of the sentence was implied. And never have sex. And never be happy. And never live up to your full potential.
“They see how happy I am,” I told her, addressing her real question. “They see how much joy there is in this life. So they support me 100%.” I looked her in the eyes. “You know, there is no joy, no satisfaction greater than doing God’s will.”
She didn’t have a rejoinder for that one.
We spent the next hour answering questions—she had more than enough to go around—and sharing our own stories, talking about her life, her patients, her kids. We talked about suffering, human dignity, the theology of the body. We talked a lot about sex and celibacy. Meanwhile, Emilio and the other woman, the one who had been Catholic, were carrying on a separate conversation next to me. I caught snatches of their conversation from time to time. “So what would you do if you met a girl and you just knew she was the one?” she asked him. And he answered, slowly, sincerely, “you know, I would take that to Jesus Christ—” “And ask him what to do,” she finished the sentence for him, but she was sincere too, not at all dismissive. “That’s beautiful,” she said, with a big smile. It was.
And to make a long story short, by the end of the night they had agreed that they would come to Mass at the Abbey on Sunday. The one woman, who had never been religious, was asking us to pray for her—”pray for me a lot!” she kept saying. “I’m going to burn in hell!”—and to pray for her son, who she said (in different words) was struggling with purity. We all promised we would and asked her to pray for us, too, which she did, right there at the table! The other woman, who had been raised Catholic, was joking about being a nun. “I could see myself as a sista!” she said. “Sista Mary Clarence, like in Sister Act. Could I still wear make-up?”
We ended the night with hugs all around. And the one woman, the one who had never been religious, who even began this sentence by saying “I’m not religious, but…”, said that she felt sure they were supposed to meet us that night. To bring them back down to earth, she said.
After we had parted ways, the four of us were standing outside, huge grins on all of our faces. “I’m surrounded by good men,” my brother Nathan proclaimed, something I had never been more sure of myself than I was that night. We put our fists together and shouted “Ave Maria!”
And Emilio said, “Just think, guys. We could have gone to Round Table.”
It’s mind-boggling to consider just how much God loves us—how, when we open ourselves up completely, He gives us exactly what we need. As I was reflecting on it afterwards, I thought how crazy it was, not just that He had put us in that restaurant at exactly the right time and brought those women over to talk to us, but that every aspect of that night was orchestrated by His hand. That woman was obsessed with sex and how we could possibly live our lives without it, how lonely we would be, how unfulfilled. And yet, just an hour before, God had given me such a profound, intimate, and fulfilling experience of union with Him in prayer. He gave me exactly the graces I needed to be a witness and an instrument of His love for her. To meet her right where she was.
We fall into sin, sometimes the same sin over and over again, and I know how hopeless it can seem—but we should never be discouraged. The very next day after that profound unitive prayer, after that experience of evangelization, I was back in the confessional again. I was so frustrated with myself. But I dragged myself to the Blessed Sacrament, prayed a holy hour, made my confession, prayed some more. And so we go on, fortified by the love of God, renewed by his mercy, never giving up.
God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He wants us to be perfected.
And there’s a time and a place for making arguments, but we don’t always need to argue all night long. Sometimes the best argument is just the witness of our lives. All we need to do to be witnesses to the love of God is to let ourselves be filled up with His love ourselves, and be open to going where He leads us. “Don’t quench the spirit, man,” as my best friend loves to say.
Incidentally, this is also the friend who, when I told him “I met a girl in a bar last night,” replied immediately, “When does she start RCIA?”