The purest suffering produces the purest understanding.”
—St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love
Once, alone late at night with the Blessed Presence in the chapel, I wrote these lines: “How often I waste so much energy trying to seize hold of the gifts you are giving me, Father. As if a man could hold the ocean in his hands. They say you give and you take away … I think, God, you always give. Your very nature is pure gift. But you give like the ocean gives to the shore. The ocean lives and forms the shore because it is in motion! If it were still it would not be the sea. It would be a lake, a pool, a pond. But it is in the nature of the ocean to crash against the rocks: to go in and out, in and out, reaching almost to the treeline, then receding again past the edge of the sand.
The ocean always gives itself. It withdraws, but returns—and reaches even farther than when it came before. Exitus! Redditus! And with each return it further smoothes the rock, it carries the debris which has gathered on the sand back out into its fathomless depths, it bears new life! You take away nothing from us but that which never was us to begin with. Let me be more who I am and cease to be who I am not, O my Jesus—even if it hurts. Even when it means loosening my grip on what I most dearly want to hold onto. I lay myself and every desire of my heart down on your altar … Take me and make me all Yours!”
That prayer speaks as powerfully to my heart today as the hour I wrote it. It is also a prayer which the Lord answered, radically, in bringing me to Carmel. I have written before about how the whole movement of my discernment and decision to enter the Carmelites was one of growing detachment: first realizing the tangled web of attachments which bound my heart and prevented me from walking in freedom to follow God’s will, and then trusting God enough to put into his hands all those things I most dearly wanted to cling to.
“Does it make any difference whether a bird be held by a slender thread or by a rope,” writes our holy father St. John of the Cross, “while the bird is bound and cannot fly till the cord that holds it is broken?” In the same way, it made no difference that the things to which I discovered I was desperately attached were good things which God had given me—my family, my diocese, my seminarian brothers, my archbishop, and my dreams of future priestly ministry, to name a few. (Of course, there were plenty of other, lesser attachments to other, lesser goods. I confess I was pretty attached to my car, my iPhone, and my Facebook account!) But as long as I had even the slenderest thread of an attachment, I was bound: I could not fly.
In the weeks after I left Mt. Angel in December and before I went to Mt. St. Joseph in January, I felt ready to go, zealous to finally give everything to follow God’s will. In those months of discernment, He had revealed to me the extent of my attachments; now, in a very real way, I was laying everything down on His altar, as I had so long desired to do. What could I take with me? Not my car, not my laptop, not my cell phone, not my espresso machine. Not even most of my books or clothes! Even more importantly than all of that, I left behind my identity as a seminarian when I hung up my cassock in my closet at home, and with it, everything I had known and loved these past 3 years: Mt. Angel, the Archdiocese of Portland, Archbishop Sample, my many brothers in the seminary, the priests and people of this local church, my dreams of a future here. “All for you, Jesus.”
Yet I could not have imagined the extent to which God would continue stripping my heart in the weeks and months to come. The work He had in mind for me was not done in a moment, when Fr. Robert and the other four postulants showed up at my door that bright morning in January and whisked me away to San Jose. Very soon after the beginning of my postulancy, I was plunged deep in what Fr. Ian Matthews so rightly calls “healing darkness,” that total desolation of spirit in which God is united to the soul at a level deeper than one can sense. As a result, the soul experiences His very closeness as darkness, dryness, aridity, desolation, disconsolation, doubt, abandonment.
I experienced all of that in my two months as a postulant. Although I was certain that God had not abandoned me—indeed, He gave me just enough glimmerings of consolation here and there to assure me of His presence and keep me going—it was clear that He was stripping everything away from my soul to get at the deepest core of me, and it was a hard, painful slog day after day. In my journal I wrote: “He wants to get to the foundation of me & work on the wounds in my foundation, which I’ve ignored, built over and buried. I know, I trust, He’s only stripping away what needs to be stripped in order to get to the wounds, like any good surgeon, who first strips his patient of clothing, then cuts through layers of skin and so on until he arrives at the core of them, where his work is done. And I’ve asked Him to do as much—I ‘opted in’ to this, after all! But…I would be lying if I said I was enjoying it.”
Stripping away the clothing: now that was the easy part, leaving behind the externals, the distractions of the world, when I stepped out of the diocese and into Carmel. In the postulancy, He was cutting through skin and muscle. I often felt like God was continually humiliating me, the youngest postulant and the “lowest of the low” in the monastic community (one night I came to him in the tabernacle and said, a little indignantly, “Will you just give me a break?!”)—but slowly I began to accept the mortifications to my pride. I had none of the familiar supports I was accustomed to in the seminary, no close friends to talk to, no freedom to get in my car and leave for an afternoon when things were tough, no busy work to distance me from the real work taking place within, not even the material comforts which used to distract me: nothing to lean on but sheer faith that His will was being accomplished in me.
And without a doubt, it was. I often remembered a phrase which one of my Carmelite brothers in the seminary had mentioned to me during my discernment: “Sometimes God takes us by another way for a while so that we can gain something we never could have gained otherwise, or lose something we never could have lost.” So much interior healing took place in me, in such a relatively short span of time, that just could not have happened so quickly or so directly any other way. The stripping away revealed deep wounds in me which I had forgotten, or ignored, or never seen so clearly as I did then. I realized how many sins and imperfections had their roots in those wounds, like foul weeds which had taken root in damp, dingy holes in the earth. And as I grew in this kind of self-knowledge, all by the mysterious interior illumination of the Holy Spirit, I felt—not despair—but a new hope and a deeper certainty of being beloved by the Father than ever before. For so long I had tried to build over those wounds in the core of me, so as not to face the reality of my brokenness, and to build my identity on something other than my true foundation. In order to free me, God had to remove everything I could try to use as a false foundation. Then, faced with the truth of my being, I had nothing left to rely on but Him.
I decided to make a general confession, a whole life’s worth of sins and imperfections and wounds and broken humanity, which I wrote down on 10 pages in a notebook and then read shakily to my spiritual director over the course of an hour on a secluded porch in sunny Cupertino, who at last absolved me of my sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen, thanks be to God! And as I drove back to the monastery after our meeting, I felt such a sense of victory, of a deeper interior freedom than I had ever felt before.
Detachment, stripping, healing, freedom: those were the watchwords of my postulancy. I did not feel at peace, exactly, but beyond a doubt I could feel I was growing. Furthermore, the sufferings and the trials seemed like the surest proof that it was God’s will, because of the good fruit they were bearing in me already. My postulant master advised me to “get comfortable on the cross,” to lean into the sufferings and find a position where I could hang there and endure, so that was the attitude I adopted: trusting endurance, loving perseverance.
At the end of those two months, we had a week-long silent retreat to prepare for entry into the novitiate, and that retreat was my greatest consolation. I fasted strictly all week, stayed up late each night keeping vigil with the Lord in the darkened chapel, and drank deeply from the well of St. John of the Cross, reading book one of the Dark Night of the Soul. Through the lens of his wisdom, I could understand so exactly what God was doing in my soul as he brought me through the “dark night of the senses,” and I felt a renewed vigor and hope of the glory to which He would bring me once the purifications were over. “I know the dark night is going to come back soon in the novitiate,” I prayed, “and I am ready to continue. Just give me the grace, Lord. Just give me Yourself.”
Sure enough, after the initial excitement of being clothed in the habit and receiving my religious title, Bro. Matthew of the Incarnation, the dark night set in again. At first, it was similar to what I had experienced in the postulancy. But after a couple weeks in the novitiate, I experienced the most intense darkness I ever have. It seemed to me as if it was of a different character than the healing darkness I had experienced before: I felt completely abandoned, confused and disoriented, as if God’s grace were suddenly and absolutely absent from my soul, and I was doing everything by my own strength (and doing it badly!) Even little things like making conversation at meals, going to recreation, or sitting down to do my spiritual reading were suddenly exhausting, and I could hardly muster a few words to the brothers or settle down and focus for a couple of minutes at a time. I dreaded doing anything. I couldn’t even fall asleep at night… Nothing gave me any pleasure or peace.
Though at first I remained determined to persevere, after just a couple of days of this all-encompassing darkness, I was absolutely convinced that I could not continue unless God gave me a lot more grace! The intensity of the desolation revealed to me my absolute weakness, my utter inability to do anything without Him. But I was determined to keep going and, above all, not to make any rash decisions in such a time of desolation, as St. Ignatius of Loyola wisely counsels.
My novice master gave me two days to myself, in order to listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit and wait for this interior storm to pass. During those days, my continual prayer was nothing more nor less than, “Lord, your will be done.” In the postulancy, I had faced temptations to leave, to give up and go home, but they had been little more than flights of fancy. Now I was facing a serious temptation which would not leave me—in fact, I wasn’t at all sure whether it was a temptation at all, or the prompting of the Holy Spirit. “I always felt my vocation here might have an ‘expiration date’,” I wrote in my journal, thinking of Br. Joseph Mary’s words about going by another way for a little while to gain something, or to lose something else, and what Archbishop Sample had said once about the Lord calling me back to Portland— “but 3 months? I always knew—to be honest, even hoped—He might call me to Carmel just for a season, and not forever … Well, technically it has been one season: the season of winter. Now it is spring. But how can I be sure His work in me here is done? I don’t want to ‘pull the plug’ if God’s holy purpose in bringing me here is incomplete, if the work He is doing in me still presupposes or requires that I be in the Carmelite novitiate.”
In the end, the “storm” did begin to clear. I began to get the tiniest taste of peace again—just enough to carry me through the day. I put back on the habit, which I had felt such an overwhelming aversion to during this desolation that I had hardly worn it for 3 days. I started to think, “OK, I guess I can continue…technically, I can keep doing this…” for as long as God keeps giving me the strength.
But in that thought of remaining in Carmel, there was such dread and disappointment, such a feeling of resignation, disquiet, unhappiness which accompanied it. I realized I no longer had any desire to live this life: there was no more water in that well. And even as I prayed again for God’s holy will to be done, abandoning myself once more to His providence, I had to acknowledge how much I wanted to leave, how any desire to stay in the monastery had completely left me—praying with a sincere heart “Your will be done,” yes, but honestly admitting, too, that the thought of staying any longer felt like an unbearable imprisonment!
I spoke with one of my brother novices, a very insightful young Carmelite who will make a great spiritual director one day. We had both been diocesan seminarians at Mt. Angel together, both discerned Carmel together, both applied and entered at the very same time, so he has known me from the beginning of our journey. Well, that afternoon, we walked through it all again. He pointed out the consistency of God’s calling me from my first conversion, my desire for truth and for love which eventually led me to the Church, and which continued developing in me and leading me up to the seminary. He could see it in our time in the seminary together, even just the one year he knew me there: going from grace to grace, as the Lord transformed me, bringing me into positions of leadership and authority, to a mature “pillar of the community,” as he put it. And he could see that in my discernment of Carmel: consistency, building upon everything that had gone before.
He mentioned how struck he had been, getting to know me at Mt. Angel, by how I had my heart set 100% on my vocation to diocesan priesthood: how I was “all in”! As we discerned Carmel together, he could see that same determination and fervor: my heart was all in it, set on Carmel. And he’s right! It was. I fell so completely in love with the life of contemplative prayer, both the practice of mental prayer and the living of a life so suffused by prayer, with the goodness of the friars and the desire to be like those fine men; Bro. Dustin was right: my “heart was set” on Carmel. Once I encountered the Carmelite life, there was no way I could not aspire to live it, to give myself radically and fully to it! And there was no way I could continue in my former desire and zeal, as a diocesan seminarian, once I had given my heart so unreservedly to Carmel.
But since coming to Mt. St. Joseph, my heart had not been in it. That was obvious to my brother, even if it had not been so clear to me. I told him that, throughout all the darkness of the postulancy and the novitiate, I was leaning on the firm pillar of my initial discernment: “at least I knew God’s will then was for me to be here!” I said. He only laughed at me. “When you’re sailing a ship,” he told me, “you don’t just plot a course and let her go. You have to keep an eye on the navigator, constantly make little course corrections and adjustments … And if the navigator goes out, you fall back on more basic methods. Maps. The stars. Because things are constantly changing: the waves, the wind … You can’t just rely on the fact that you were on course 15 nautical miles back!”
He was right. And once I admitted that, I began to recognize why my heart hadn’t been “in it,” as he said. Back when I discerned with the Dominicans, the young student brothers there had told me they found “their people” at St. Albert’s Priory. Well, I didn’t find my people there, but I began to think I had found them in the Carmelites. My time at Mt. St. Joseph revealed to me the truth: as much as I loved them, they were not my people, either. The persistent longing I felt in San Jose for Portland, for Mt. Angel, for home, was not just attachment which had to be broken in order to do God’s will. There was attachment there, no doubt, and God was purifying that through the dark night of the spirit—but what remained was the quiet, persistent indicator of God’s will: “That is your place. They are your people. Not these; not here; not anywhere else.”
It was that new and incipient sense of mission, a pure gift of grace, which really convinced my heart. And when I realized and accepted that it was time for me to leave Carmel—not fleeing from desolation or trial, not saying no to the purifications or to my share in the Cross, but rather, saying YES to this new interior illumination of God’s will—there was such a deep and immediate inner shift in me: from the condition of slavery, of one struggling to survive (yet alone thrive!) in the monastery, to the condition of freedom.
As I said to my brother that afternoon, there is really no other way this could have gone: not with me being who I am, and God being who He is. So do I count my months in the monastery a loss, or my leaving a failure? No, and no! I thank God for what I take with me from my time at Mt. St. Joseph: a renewed zeal for my vocation in the Archdiocese of Portland; a deeper sense of that vocation and what it means (to live the spirituality of Carmel in a diocesan context); a real sense of mission (to teach the people of Portland, by word and example, the wisdom of Carmel, which is really nothing more nor less than the authentic spirituality of the Church: the way of prayer—the way of love!) By giving up everything I could to follow God’s will, in the honesty and simplicity of my heart, now I am able to take those things back up with an open hand, using the gifts He gives me without setting my heart on them. (I remember another scrap of a phrase someone told me once: “Sometimes God asks for everything, but He doesn’t take it all.”) Those months in the darkness of the postulancy allowed me to recognize, too, so many interior weakness and imperfections and wounds, to grow so much in faith and humility, and to experience such immense graces of interior healing and illumination. So I sing “glory be to God!” for my time in Carmel—and now, having read the wind and the waves and the stars overhead, it is time to correct my course.
Two weeks ago, I left San Jose to return to the Archdiocese of Portland. In another week, I will be starting a summer assignment at St. Stephen’s parish in Northeast Portland, easing back into diocesan life. This fall, I will be returning to Mt. Angel for my fourth and (pray God!) final year of college seminary. I am beginning to attend the meetings of the Secular Carmelites in Portland, to explore what it will mean for me going forward to live as a Carmelite in a diocesan context.
It’s really exciting to be back. Above all, I am struck by how each and every one of our vocations is custom-made, hand-tailored as it were, designed by God from all eternity for you and me specifically and personally in His plan of salvation. There are no generic or cookie-cutter vocations! Rather, God has a role only you can fill and a role only I can fill, in a place only you will fit and I will fit. Discernment is simply the ongoing exploration and illumination of what and where that is. And it is exciting! Because at the heart of discernment is a love story: the love of the Father saying to his beloved son or daughter, “You’ll never guess what I’ve prepared for you. Just let me show you…”
So it is I can say again, in those marvelous words of St. Junipero Serra, “¡Siempre adelante; nunca atrás!” I humbly ask your prayers for me as I continue in my formation and discernment. In particular, please pray for many more vocations to the California-Arizona Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars, as well as our own Archdiocese of Portland, and for all the novices and seminarians who are currently in formation. May the Lord raise up many faithful laborers in His vineyard—wherever and however they will best serve Him! And may we be zealous to discover His will for our lives, listen intently to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and never hesitate to follow where He leads.
This is part 6 of QUO VADIS? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood.
Header photo credit: Fr. James Geoghan, O.C.D.