Catholicism does not consider the priesthood a career but a vocation, a calling or invitation from God to ‘put on Jesus Christ’ in a singular way. A priestly vocation is thus a complex work of the Holy Spirit whose inner dynamics cannot be reduced to psychological categories … [It is] an evolutionary process of gradual clarification or ‘interior illumination.'”
—George Weigel, Witness to Hope
Yes, a vocation is a calling: a calling from the Lord from the very beginning of time. Sometimes He speaks so directly, like a question from a Dominican friar that leaves you speechless, but more often He speaks in a quiet whisper like the roar of the sea, which gently and over the course of years wears away at the rock, or over the course of hours proceeds imperceptibly up the shore. That, at least, was the movement of my conversion and my vocation: moments in which the Lord spoke to me very clearly, yes, but those moments arising out of His constant quiet motion in my heart, ploughing the soil in me, preparing the ground.
As a kid, I had a typical Methodist upbringing, going to church and Sunday school once a week (a necessary chore before Sunday brunch). I would pray with my parents before meals and whenever there was something I wanted: “I’ll memorize the whole Lord’s Prayer,” I would tell Him, with all the magnanimity of childhood, “if You just give me this one thing…” But I had all the graces of baptism, and a children’s Bible, and toys of Noah’s Ark.
Some eight years before I was born, my mom had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. It was her sixteenth birthday, and she spent the next eight weeks in a coma, unsure if she was going to live. Praised be Jesus Christ, she did! She had to relearn how to walk, talk, and feed herself, but in the end, she made almost a full recovery. Twenty years later, however, when I was in middle school, my stepdad woke me up one morning telling me that mom had had a seizure (something which had never happened before) and we had to go to the hospital right away. I remember praying there in the waiting room at the E.R., not knowing what had happened or whether I would ever see her alive again.
For the second time, praised be Jesus Christ!, her life was spared, but that seizure was the beginning of a turbulent few years for our family. Her doctors switched between this and that medication, looking for the right balance. There was a lot of tension between all of us and a lot of uncertainty in those days. There were many things we used to do—family vacations, camping trips, or even just going hiking on a Saturday—which we just couldn’t do anymore. One of the first things to go, though, was church on Sunday mornings.
I didn’t miss it in the slightest, but I did set out on what I have often described since as a “search for the truth,” although I wouldn’t have characterized it that way at the time. I was very intellectually curious and had always been good at studying and learning new things on my own, if I was interested in the topic. My stepdad had a long time interest in Eastern or “alternative” spirituality and had a number of books on self-help, meditation, and the New Age, which I began to devour one by one.
I think, in retrospect, I was looking for a solid “ground of meaning” in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. Regardless, what I found and adopted as my own was a philosophical cocktail of relativism, subjectivism, and determinism, a cynical skepticism that there was any meaning or order to the world at all, and a vague belief in a kind of Stoic or Taoistic detachment, “going with the flow” of the world so as to minimize (my own) suffering—coupled with an equally vague New Age belief in the power of “positive thinking,” “intentioning,” or the “Law of Attraction” to alter that “flow,” so to speak, for my own personal benefit. For a little while, I called myself a Buddhist, then a Taoist. I quickly finished my stepdad’s books and graduated to websites and online discussion groups, which brought me into contact with all corners of the New Age community.
I continued in this way for a few years until, in my sophomore year of high school, my insatiable curiosity and endless reading brought me into contact for the first time with Catholicism. I’m sure I must have heard the word “Catholic” growing up, but if I had, it was only in the same sentence as Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian—just another Christian denomination. This meant I had inherited very little anti-Catholic bias, but in my indiscriminate ingestion of New Age spirituality, I had picked up a more general anti-Christian bias (made stronger by the fact that I had been raised in, and then left, the Christian faith, so I was sure it had nothing further to offer me).
Still, although I don’t remember the contents of that first article or blog post I read about Catholicism, I know it caught my attention. As I began to read more and more, I was fascinated and even, though I may not have realized it, attracted by the solidity and the consistency of the faith. Coming from a New Age background, in which nothing was solid and everything was up for grabs, all truth was relative, and in fact reality itself was determined by your own thoughts and “intentions,” I was shocked to now stumble upon arguments—convincing arguments—that there was objective truth, that reality operated according both to consistent physical and metaphysical laws, and perhaps most importantly, that there was both a reason for and a meaning to suffering!
I remember saying as I read about the doctrine of original sin, for example, that it was “not how I would have designed the world”; I would never want it to be true, yet it provided answers that were both intellectually satisfying and consistent both internally and with my experience of the world. I couldn’t reject it out of hand. (The New Age teachings I knew, by contrast, could only really be believed out of a kind of cognitive dissonance, a decision to believe because “it would be nice if this were true—even if it contradicts these other things I believe, and stands in contrast to these other things I know about the world.”)
It was this curiosity and, to some degree, a sense of “intellectual honesty”—that if the Catholic faith seemed so reasonable, internally consistent, and satisfying so far, I had a certain duty to investigate it further—which led me deeper into the faith. I found the prayer “Anima Christi” online, and thought it was so strange, so beautiful, and so unlike anything I had ever encountered in either my Methodist or New Age background that I copied it out into a notebook, where I would read it every time I went to write something down. (Little did I realize I was praying for the first time in years! The Holy Spirit “tricked me” by way of beauty into letting my guard down, and grace flowed into my heart.)
I also read St. Augustine’s Confessions on the recommendation of a stranger from Catholic Answers’ online forum, which was a turning point in my conversion. For the first time, I started feeling a deep urge to go to Mass, which I resisted for some time out of fear of what people might think, but finally, that bright Sunday morning in February, I gave in. And that feeling I described, knowing I had to keep going to Mass based on what I experienced that day—I knew it in the same way I knew that I had to keep investigating the faith based on what I had read so far. Call it being “spiritually honest.”
My parents, having seen me call myself a Buddhist, a Taoist, and God only knows what else over the years, were unconcerned about this latest fad. My stepdad even introduced me to a woman from his workplace who he knew to be a Catholic. What he didn’t know was that she was the parish youth minister! She was quick to get me involved in the youth group, sacramental prep and confirmation classes, and as I grew in knowledge of the faith, love of the Church, zeal for Christ and community in the parish, I was received into full communion the following year on April 27, 2012.
This is part 2 of Quo Vadis? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly.
Part 1 can be found here.