Ah, when to the heart of man
was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
to yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
of a love or a season?”
—Robert Frost, Reluctance
I memorized that stanza from Frost back in high school. It has been coming to my mind again a lot over these last days, as I prepare to take my leave of Mt. Angel: not for the final time, it’s true—but this is the last time I will go away from this holy mountain as I am now. When I come back again, I will be a different person, and not just in the Heraclitean sense; no, I will have a different name, Brother So-and-So of the Such-and-Such; I will be wearing a habit as a sign of my particular consecration to the Lord; most of all, I will not be living with these men I have come to love and admire even though (and because) they all drive me crazy, but with a different community of men at the bottom of the hill—who, of course, I am sure I will love in equal measure and by whom I am sure I will be driven crazy in entirely new ways. But still. You know?
This is the closing of a chapter. Maybe I’m just sentimental—actually, I take that back; there’s no ‘maybe‘ about it—but I have savored every moment here since last Thursday. That was the day most of my friends left the hilltop, scattering to the four winds as soon as their last exams ended. It was also the day it really hit me that we were going different ways, our paths diverging; I really would not be coming back in 3 weeks with these guys. I told my closest friend that the “muchness” of leaving this place really hit me after he left, and it did, with all the unyielding suddenness of the snow which had begun to fall the day before and completely vested the hilltop in white.
That night the snow began to fall, I remarked to my brother Ian that it was like a little going-away present from the Lord, showing me this place I love in a new light. Now, the following afternoon, I trudged around in it aimlessly, struggling with myself. My spiritual director at the seminary this year has told me more than once that I need to be more open to my own emotions—something which came as a bit of a surprise to me, but I think I know what he meant. Usually my response to my emotions is to try and overcome them, so I can get back to business as usual. That was what I was trying to do as I said goodbye to one after another of my brothers on Thursday, and when the last one had left, I started to go back to my room and pack, but I realized I couldn’t, and so I walked, and struggled. I knelt down on the icy ground at Our Lady’s grotto and wordlessly begged her to hold me as a mother holds her son, and finally I ended up in the little chapel in the basement of the guest house (my favorite, since no one ever comes in and interrupts you there) where I laid prostrate for a long, long time before the blessed Presence.
“How often have I asked you for the grace of detachment?” I said to Him then in my heart. “And this is how I respond when you start to give it to me?”
Detachment presupposes attachment and entails removal. At a beautiful 3 a.m. holy hour at my home parish back in May, I wrote, a little wryly, “Attachment always seems to lead to God (gently) taking the object of my attachment away. Well, I do pray over and over to desire nothing but Him alone.” Somewhere else, during my early discernment with the Carmelites, I remember writing that I felt like I was wanting, longing, to move ahead, but my clothes were stuck to a thorn-bush, and strive as I might, I couldn’t get free. I was attached, in other words, “behind my back,” in ways I didn’t even know yet—I just knew the fact of them.
John of the Cross says it doesn’t matter if a bird is tied down by a rope or a thread; it still can’t fly.
I called on a wise young monk that Thursday afternoon, a man a little older than me, who had graduated the college seminary my first year, who I have had the privilege of watching enter religious life and profess first vows—who came to me once this year in a dream bearing a gift for me, which turned out to be a Carmelite habit. Well, he wasn’t free just then, but he suggested we meet up the following morning after Mass, and we ended up spending the entire morning talking until noon prayer.
I told him: I know the Lord is calling me, and I’m ready to go. I’m at peace with my discernment. I have no doubt this is the way He’s asking me to follow Him, at least for this moment. But my heart is heavy with the weight of leaving. This place has formed me so deeply, I told him. I’ve grown so much, learned so much about myself, made such progress in the spiritual life since I first came; I’ve formed such deep friendships, given and received so much love in the three years I’ve been here (and can it really have been so few?) I even said if I had my own way, I might have chosen to be a monk here, because a part of me really never wants to leave Mt. Angel! A part of me will always be home here.
By way of reply, Brother told me a story about how he was driving the former abbot of Mount Angel home after a doctor’s appointment, an appointment at which he, Abbot Gregory, had learned he was diagnosed with cancer. That holy monk had cried on the drive home, and after he cried, he said to my friend: “Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m not ready to die; I am. I know I have been faithful to the Lord, as far as I am able, and I have no doubt he will be faithful to me.—It’s just that I’ve grown to love this world. I’ve never known anything else. I can’t leave it so easily.”
His story resonated deep in me. I felt I could say to the Lord at that moment, echoing our holy abbot, “It’s not that I’m not ready to go. I am. It’s just that I’ve grown to love this place, and I can’t leave it so easily!”
My spiritual director—the very same who counseled me to be more open to my emotions—told me once that every time the Lord has called me deeper in my relationship with Him, He has done so by way of the Cross. And he was right. My conversion to the faith came about by way of the cross of my mom’s seizures and my family’s suffering; my discernment to enter the seminary entailed the cross of abandoning a few very close friendships back home, friendships which could never be the same as they once had been because I had decided to give God all of me, and so I could no longer give all-of-me to anyone else. “Don’t be surprised,” Father Juan Antonio warned me, “if the Lord is calling you to Carmel, that the Cross will be present in this discernment too.”
Detachment is the cross of this moment. And how easily we can misinterpret that word! There is no virtue in remaining aloof, never allowing yourself to put down roots. No, the virtue of detachment is in having loved deeply—certain people, a certain place—becoming attached!—and yet, when the Lord calls, hard though it may be, to “leave your nets and follow Him.”
A few nights before he left, and I left, my brother and I sat in St. Joseph Chapel from midnight until nearly 3 a.m., talking and praying in candlelight before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, all clothed in roses for her feast. It’s one of so many memories I will treasure forever, not so much in any particular detail as in the sheer muchness, if I may use that wonderful word again, of being there, ensconced in so much love. But if one thing stands out in my memory, it was our conversation about martyrdom: my brother saying he thought he was made to suffer for the Lord. I agreed, that I felt that longing to pour myself out to the last drop, to give radically of myself, to hold nothing back. (But to suffer? I hesitated at that, as if asking the Lord: is that really part of the bargain?)
I remember that verse from Mark’s Gospel which was so important for me in my initial discernment to enter the seminary: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Another wise friend of mine (and how blessed I am to have so many wise friends!) reminded me just last night, “Remember that following the Lord is not just about saying no to bad things but also having the courage to say no to good things for the ultimate good, which is the will of God.” And she added this beautiful prayer: “May God continue to guide you towards death to yourself so that it is no longer you who live but God within you. Do nothing out of duty but out of love for your beloved. When you are truly in love, everything ceases to be a sacrifice. Even the biggest struggle becomes sweet at the thought of doing such a thing for the one you Love.”
Yes, that’s it. Discernment is a continual adventure because it is, at the heart of it, a love affair! And detachment is a virtue because it means putting your beloved first. Its opposing vice, after all, is idolatry: putting any created thing or any self-serving motive ahead of Him. So I offer up all the beauty and all the goodness of my life here back to God as a sacrifice, in thanksgiving that He ever called me to Mt. Angel, and in humble faith that He is calling me now to something greater. In the knowledge, too, that the Cross will still be with me as long as I persevere in following the Lord. (“The heavier your cross is,” a certain priest said once, “that’s how you know you’re following Jesus Christ.”)
And so I say with St. Junipero Serra, “¡Siempre adelante! Nunca atrás!”—As the Office of Readings said about our Blessed Mother a few days ago, “filled with God, where would she hasten but to the heights?” Lord, I long to go to the heights! Take me, Lord, and make me all Your own!