Exitus & Redditus

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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 Portlandfor 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.

Go here to view all posts in the series.

Header photo credit: Fr. James Geoghan, O.C.D.

Carmelites

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They [religious] live more purely, they fall more rarely, they rise more speedily, they are aided more powerfully, they live more peacefully, they die more securely, and they are rewarded more abundantly.”  

—St. Bernard of Clairvaux

It would be fair—if a little ironic—to say that my discernment of my vocation with the Carmelites really began on that retreat with the Dominicans. The quote I had seen on the icon of St. Teresa, “God denies himself to no one who perseveres,” was encouraging to me as I drew to the end of my time with them, growing more certain by the minute that God was not calling me to his Order of Preachers! So many of the young Dominican brothers told me that they came to St. Albert’s and were sure they had just found “their people.” I was equally sure that I had not!

Nevertheless, I found myself beginning to think, “maybe the Carmelites are ‘my people’.” I remembered the great fraternity and personal holiness I saw among my young Carmelite brothers at Mt. Angel and, of course, the great example of Fr. Thomas Koller. (“I’ve never met a Carmelite I didn’t like,” I remember telling someone around that time.)

Carmel loomed large in my prayer through the remainder of my second year at Mt. Angel. After spending Holy Week at my home parish in Roseburg, I went on a personal discernment retreat for several days at the Carmelite House of Studies. “I do not want to be too hasty about drawing conclusions,” I wrote in my journal on the very first day of that retreat, “but I will just say this: what I so conspicuously did not feel with the Dominicans, I do feel here.” Almost immediately, I felt a strong sense of being at home with the Carmelites, of brotherhood, mutual support, peace, joy, warmth, good humor, and comfortable silence, like “the whole house is suffused with the quiet of the chapel after prayer” (as I wrote in the same entry).

Over the rest of the semester, I spent a lot of time in conversation with Fr. Thomas, as well as those Carmelite brothers who were studying with me in the seminary, about the Order and my ongoing discernment. One piece of advice Fr. Thomas gave me which I particularly took to heart was an exhortation to “holy boldness”—that we can never lose by pursuing God’s will in the honesty and simplicity of our heart, whereas there are a thousand ways to go wrong by holding back out of a sense of fear, or duty, or any other motivation at all.

Fear and duty were my own primary reasons for holding back at that point: fear of being too hasty, or jumping in, only to find it was not my vocation and have “wasted my time,” or of not being good enough or strong enough to handle the consecrated life; duty to my diocese, my archbishop, and my family, all of which were extremely hard to imagine “turning my back on.” My initial zeal, which grew very quickly to an almost overpowering desire for Carmel (I wrote during that first retreat at the House of Studies that “I want to be a Carmelite so badly that my heart aches a little to think of it!”), was diminished and tempered by my fears and doubts in the months to come.

As I committed myself to prayer and discernment, I grew apace in awareness of the many attachments I had which were keeping me from pursuing God in true simplicity of heart, and out of that awareness, I began to experience again the graces of growing detachment, as I had in the months leading up to my entering the seminary. I had been treating it like a choice between two good things, Carmelite or diocesan, rather than listening humbly in silence for God’s holy will, which, after all, is the only good thing! As God began to sever the attachments of my heart, so too did many of my fears about going into Carmel diminish.

Over the summer, I spent a lot of time at the House of Studies, and made a few more discernment visits to other Carmelite foundations on the West Coast. I also had the great privilege of going to Poland for World Youth Day as part of our archdiocesan pilgrimage, and ended up rooming with, of all people, a Carmelite brother who I knew well from the seminary—we had our mental prayer together every morning in the silence and solitude of the hotel courtyard, and visited a Carmelite monastery together, where we met the Superior General of the Order!

Finally, toward the end of that summer, I made a week-long discernment visit to Mt. St. Joseph Monastery in San Jose. Sitting in the library there, armed with a pen and highlighter, I read over every little thing I had written since beginning my discernment with the Carmelites in earnest: 70+ pages of journal entries, poems, prayers, scribbled excerpts from the psalms and the scriptures. I was trying to trace the overarching movement of the Spirit throughout my whole process of discernment. What were my motivations? Were they pure? How had God really been leading me? Had I mistaken his signs—misread them through the distorting lens of my own desires, or been overly hasty to do what I wanted instead of “listening to what the Lord asks, and then doing it,” as St. John of the Cross so wisely counsels?

“I don’t know what I hope to gain from it, exactly,” I wrote in regard to this high-stakes spiritual research project. “Greater certainty? Reassurance that I’ve done my ‘due diligence,’ tested the spirits adequately and found them good? One thing I was surprised to (re)discover were the many parallels between my discernment now and my discernment 8 months ago at St. Albert’s. Much of what I am feeling now—an emotional cocktail of attraction, desire, hesitation, uncertainty, doubt, fear, longing, and guilt for feeling anything but an unbridled and uninhibited desire that His will be done!—I also felt then. Much of what I am afraid of now—’losing time’ or somehow wasting time by entering religious life; giving up freedoms and familiar comforts; losing friends; being less available or out of touch with my mom and my family—I also was afraid of then. And much of what attracts me now—beautiful liturgy, brotherhood, common life, community prayer, greater flexibility and freedom in opportunities and places to minister, knowing I will be taken care of when I am old—also attracted me then, even if I didn’t see it lived out in the most attractive way in the Dominican life. Yet I left the Dominican retreat knowing intuitively (though I didn’t ‘decide’ out loud til later) that I was not called there—but 2 days into this retreat and I ‘know’, again, intuitively, that I’m going to be a Carmelite.”

That was the core of it: an intuition, fed by so many hours drinking deeply from the living waters of prayer (the real work of discernment), and confirmed by many consolations, both ordinary and extraordinary, that this was God’s will. Finally, at the end of this last discernment retreat, I turned to the Lord and said, “Well, Jesus, you certainly seem to be calling—calling without ceasing! I trust that you have led me so far. I know I have done good discernment; I have tested the spirits, and in all of this you have never stopped leading me onward and have given me no sign to turn back. My only reasons for holding back now are my own lingering doubts and fears, anxieties, attachments, and ambitions … But I love you, Lord; you are my strength! I am going to continue along this way unless you show me otherwise, and may your holy will be done.”

The day after I came back to Portland, I went nervously to the chancery, where I had been working just a few weeks before as part of my summer assignment, to meet with Archbishop Sample. I had set up the meeting before leaving on retreat, with the intention of discussing my ongoing discernment. I knew even before I had left for San Jose that my time there would have to be decisive: by the end of the retreat, I would either be taking the next step in my discernment with the Carmelites—beginning my application to join the Order—or I would be closing that chapter of my discernment definitively to continue in formation with the Archdiocese of Portland.

At the forefront of my mind (and, I suspect, the archbishop’s too) was a story about St. John Paul II which I heard for the first time while we were traveling in Poland together that summer. Young Karol Wojtyła also wanted to join the Carmelites while he was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kraków, but when he went to his archbishop and told him about his discernment, he received a curt reply: “First you must finish what you have started!”

Archbishop Sample, a secular Carmelite himself, confessed that, although in one sense this was the worst news a bishop could hear, it was, on the other hand, the best news anyone could hear. God continues to call us all to Himself, he said; he would never want to do anything to stand in the way of my following God’s will for my life. So although he was sad to see me go, and indeed hoped the Lord would one day call me back to the Archdiocese of Portland, he trusted in my discernment and gave me his blessing, wishing me “nothing but the greatest joy” in continuing to discover and live God’s vocation for me to the fullest.

I returned to Mt. Angel that fall feeling reinvigorated, excited to return to the familiar rhythm of classes and community life, but even more excited to start taking concrete steps along this new path and see how far the Lord would take me. By the end of September, I had submitted my written application and letters of recommendation, and at the end of October, I flew down to Los Angeles for two days to do (another!) psychological evaluation. Finally, on December 1, I got the phone call I had been waiting for: “We are very blessed and very grateful to accept you as a postulant in the Teresian Carmel.”


This is part 5 of QUO VADIS? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly. Read part 6 here.

Go here to view all posts in the series.

Header photo credit: Carmelite Monastery at Czerna, Małopolskie, Poland.

Dominicans

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Your holy impatience to serve God does not displease him!—But it is sterile if it does not come accompanied by an effective improvement in your daily conduct.”

—St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way

Coming to Mt. Angel marked an enormous shift in my spiritual life. Where before I had been growing by inches, and often, like the proverbial iceberg, seeming to backslide hugely before making the slightest progress forward, I began to grow by leaps and bounds in all areas: spiritually, intellectually, and simply in human formation as a Christian man. I remember telling my formation director I felt like I was finally “planted in good soil.” I loved the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Mass and adoration with my seminary brothers; I loved the structure of the life, the community living, growing in brotherhood with one another; I loved my classes (though some certainly more than others!), spiritual reading, and all the diocesan events I suddenly found myself involved with, mingling at seminarian benefit dinners, serving Masses at the cathedral.

After my first semester, I tried to impose greater structure on myself, coming up with an horarium of balanced times for prayer, study, classes and recreation, but I quickly became frustrated because I just didn’t have the self-discipline to follow it. When I told my formation director, he laughed and told me, in no uncertain terms, “balance is a fallacy” in the diocesan life! Still, I felt a great need for balance and a certain regularity of life, so I continued to try to impose different horaria on myself over that semester, my summer at home (during which I worked full time at a AAA service center and volunteered daily in my parish, including serving daily Mass), and into the next year, to greater or lesser degrees of success.

As I began my second year at Mt. Angel, a new priest on the hilltop, Fr. Thomas Koller, O.C.D., was assigned as my formation director. His example of great personal holiness, deep prayer, a true contemplative spirit and a joyful life was absolutely inspirational to me. He also proved to be extremely insightful and was able to help me make sense of many spiritual and personal issues I brought to him. (“When I told him that story,” I wrote in a blog post last October, referring to the story of my conversion, “Fr. Thomas immediately made a connection with Scripture which I had never remotely thought of, which is a very Carmelite thing for him to have done.”) 

One of the great graces of that semester was that I began to really love to pray. I started making a daily holy hour, which I had intended to do in theory since the previous year but rarely did in practice, and found that my hour in the chapel was often lengthening into two, then two and a half, then three! I felt drawn to prayer, to silence and stillness before the Lord, like I couldn’t get enough of that blessed time there in the dark before the tabernacle, “alone with the Alone.”

At Christmas break, with the permission of my vocation director, I went on a personal discernment retreat with the Dominicans at St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland. I still felt a strong attraction to the Dominican Order which had been with me since the beginning, and I felt I had to explore it, if only to do my “due diligence,” so to speak, in discernment. In truth, what I really wanted was to visit St. Albert’s and experience loads of confirmations and signal graces, everything short of the heavens opening up and the voice of God booming out, “come, son of St. Dominic, don the white habit!” 

What happened, however, was far short of that. My attraction to the Order diminished when I saw their life up close, particularly the community life. Many of the young student brothers told me that when they had visited St. Albert’s, they felt like they had “found their people” there and never really looked elsewhere; I emphatically did not feel that way, but I was disappointed not to! However, as I was working out my discernment in fear and trembling every night, I was sitting in a small library near my room in the guest wing of the priory, and on the last night I was there, I discovered I had been sitting every night under an icon of St. Teresa of Jesus, which read: “God denies himself to no one who perseveres.”


This is part 4 of QUO VADIS? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly. Read part 5 here.

Catch up on part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Header photo credit: Fr. Stephen Maria Lopez, O.P.

Early Discernment

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Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly forebears laid down how everyone, whatever his station or the kind of religious observance he has chosen, should live a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ—how, pure in heart and steadfast in conscience, he must be unswerving in the service of his Master.” 

—St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem

But let us return to San Francisco, 2011. Fr. Garry Cappleman planted a seed in me that day at St. Dominic’s church in the city of St. Francis, and although it would take years to bear fruit, it began to germinate in me at once. The Rosary Confraternity sent me a certificate of my perpetual enrollment listing the feast day on which I had been enrolled as a member: Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I felt inspired to adopt Our Lady under that title as the personal patroness of my conversion, as well as the patroness of my vocation

“Our Lady of Mount Carmel, glorious Queen of Angels, channel of God’s tenderest mercy to man, refuge and advocate of sinners,” began a prayer which I found in those early days and copied into my notebook, “with confidence I prostrate myself before thee, beseeching thee to obtain for me certainty in my vocation, security in my relationships, trust in God my Father and true friendship with Jesus Christ my Lord…”  

Furthermore, I adopted St. Dominic as my personal patron and took his name at my confirmation. I began praying the rosary almost every day, usually before daily Mass at my parish. One day I remember an older gentleman who also came to daily Mass asking me, “What are you praying the rosary for every day?”, and without even thinking about what I was going to say, the words “I’m discerning a vocation to the priesthood” flew to my lips. (Afterward, I thought incredulously: “I am?”)

It wasn’t long before I spoke with my pastor and then the vocation director of the Archdiocese of Portland about discernment and the possibility of my being called to the priesthood. My first desire was to join the Dominicans, but I saw on their vocations website that they only accepted candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree, so I set my sights a little closer to home. In the winter of my senior year of high school, I went on a diocesan vocations retreat over a weekend in Portland, which was in many ways confirming, but I knew I was young both in years (at that time only 16 years old and just about to graduate high school) and in the faith, having been less than a year in the Church. I was restless and uncertain. 

For years I had planned to study graphic design, or possibly creative writing, at the University of Puget Sound. I started telling people instead that I was going to apply to Mt. Angel Seminary to study to be a priest. Some people were incredulous, but I found almost everyone was supportive; some even said they weren’t surprised! However, I wasn’t sure. I knew I couldn’t ignore this sense I had of being called, chosen for something more, but I didn’t feel ready to take the plunge. I missed the deadline for UPS; I vacillated back and forth between beginning my application with the diocese or staying at home to discern another year and studying at our local community college, UCC.

Finally, one day after daily Mass, I stayed behind in the church and sat looking up at the crucifix, and found myself overwhelmed by this sudden intuition of just how much my life had changed in the few years prior. It was as if I could see all my own plans for my life, all neatly laid out, but the foundation they were built on was just gone, like the proverbial house built on sand. Instead, here I was, sitting in a Catholic church, not only confirmed and received into communion, but discerning a vocation to the priesthood! I never could have imagined it, nor could I have known how much healing would go on in my heart from wounds I wouldn’t even have known I had then, how deeply I would feel at peace and filled with joy and gratitude. 

I was struck by the realization all at once that God had brought me there, and not in an abstract or a theoretical way, but actually, patiently, through my years of wandering, loneliness, confusion and doubt; through slow revelation, through gentle nudges from path onto path, from grace unto grace, by a quiet burning in my heart that grew greater and greater, a longing for that love which no one but Him could ever satisfy. And there I was, in His Church, having just received Him into my very self, and I felt in that moment I could die and be perfectly content. 

Looking up at Our Lord then, I offered a simple prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what you have in store for me, but my life is yours. You can have it all. My plans are nothing compared to the plans you clearly have for me. These past years are proof enough of that. So I surrender it all to you, Lord. Just show me what you want me to do.”

After that, it became abundantly clear that my discernment of priesthood was going in the “right direction”. People from all areas of my life started asking me almost daily, as if by clockwork, whether I had considered becoming a priest, or telling me they thought I would make a good one (including a certain secular Carmelite and parish sacristan who would always let me stay in the church after she locked up, and who one day said, “I think you would make a great Carmelite, you’re so quiet and pious!” before pressing that order’s vocations brochure into my bemused hands).

I decided, however, to take another year at home to grow in discernment and maturity in the faith. Almost immediately after graduating high school, I started working at a cell center in Roseburg as a bilingual Spanish insurance claims intake and customer service rep, where my schedule was flexible enough to allow me to go to daily Mass almost every day. I went on the archdiocesan vocations retreat again the following year, January 2014, just after Archbishop Sample had been appointed to the see of Portland, and after a full year of serious discernment, then hearing his vocations story and reflections on priestly life and ministry, I thought: “I’m ready.” 

In a holy hour at that retreat, I renewed my offering of my life to Jesus Christ and begged him especially to give me a special grace of detachment from my family and friends, especially my best friend from high school—”to love them as they need to be loved,” so I could give myself fully to Him. That prayer was answered in a beautiful and clear way during that very retreat, and I threw myself into the application process with zeal over the next few months. In June 2014, I was accepted as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Portland, and I began my formation at Mt. Angel Seminary in August of that year.


This is part 3 of Quo Vadis? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly. Read part 4 here.

Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here.

Conversion

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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. Read part 3 here.

Part 1 can be found here.

Beginnings

I wanted, I thought, only a little,
two teaspoons of silence—
one for sugar,
one for stirring the wetness.

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No.
I wanted a Cairo of silence,
a Kyoto.
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. Read part 2 here.

Header photo credit: Mr. Dominic Sternhagen, Diocese of Salt Lake City.