I wanted, I thought, only a little,
two teaspoons of silence—
one for sugar,
one for stirring the wetness.
I wanted a Cairo of silence,
In every hanging garden
mosses and waters.”
—Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty
I have spent a very long time thinking of how to tell this story. I began to write it at the height of summer, on my first pastoral assignment in Portland, sitting in my apartment or my office or the little chapel in the basement of the cathedral and struggling mightily to organize my thoughts—rejecting sentences as soon as I could write them. That was one beginning. Another beginning is in Roseburg, and another is in San Francisco, and another is further back still and much less definite in time or place. And now we are over the threshold of autumn. Mornings are darker shrouded; the light comes later every day, and the rain lingers longer and longer.
The trees of Mt. Angel conspired together to change color overnight, all in one night, Monday, the feast of San Antonio Maria Claret y Clarà. In 1849, at the very height of a Spanish summer, that saint established a missionary order of priests at Barcelona on the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. And on the very same day, July 16, in the year 2011, I was visiting San Francisco with my grandmother—so I will start my story there.
We were on summer vacation. That was our tradition, to take a trip together every summer, since I had been in middle school or even younger. This time, the summer after my sophomore year of high school, we took the train down from Eugene, then a cab to a quirky hotel in Japantown where we would stay, going around the city of St. Francis gabbing in Australian accents (hers real, mine fake) and trying as many exotic kinds of food as we could find. It was the furthest we had ever gone from home together, and we wanted to make the most of it.
One bright Sunday morning in February, only a few months earlier, I had gone to the very first Mass of my life. I looked up directions to our local parish online, surprised to find there even was a Catholic church in Roseburg, OR, and I found out the Mass times, and then I woke up early and walked across town, without telling my parents where I was going. I was fascinated by the holy water, by the people kneeling, by the priest’s Nigerian accent, which made it impossible to understand more than one word out of every ten or so. But as I tried to follow along and take it all in, kneeling along with everyone else, filled with wonder, then all of a sudden Fr. Cletus elevated the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, God of the Universe and Prince of Peace, up above the altar, under the form of bread. And I had a profound experience of consolation, a feeling of such peace and joy as I could never remember having felt before!, which abided with me for hours afterward. The Holy Spirit, who had been moving in me so slowly, gradually, so as not to spook me, I suppose, throughout my conversion, dwelt in me that day. I knew I had to keep going to Mass based on the experience I had of Him there—that there was something here worth pursuing.
So I began going to Mass every Sunday, and then almost every day, as that long winter gave way to summertime. My grandmother—once an Anglican, then a Methodist, and in those days, as now, an Episcopalian—was overjoyed by and endlessly supportive of my new return to the Christian faith, notwithstanding in the least that it was to the Catholic Church. So that summer she went with me to Mass in the city every day at my request, and on our first day we went to St. Dominic’s parish, which happened to be the closest to that Japantown hotel.
Two very important things happened at that simple daily Mass. The celebrant, Fr. Garry Cappleman, O.P., preached a great homily on the miracles that have been wrought through the ages by praying the rosary, and so the next day my grandmother bought one for me. Another Dominican priest at the parish blessed it for me, and I was perpetually enrolled in the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 2011.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, on that first day in the city, Fr. Garry followed my grandmother and I out on the steps of the church after that Mass, and despite never having met me before, the first words out of his mouth were: “Have you ever considered if you might have a vocation to the priesthood?”
This is part 1 of Quo Vadis? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly.
Header photo credit: Mr. Dominic Sternhagen, Diocese of Salt Lake City.