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.
The 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!
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.
“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.
The 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.
And 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.
Glory be to God for His mercy to us!