Reflections on Summer Assignment

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Do you ever think about the hidden life of Jesus? I remember my postulant master, Fr. Robert of Divine Mercy, observing once that the Lord had lived 30 years in obscurity and obedience to Mary and Joseph before the 3 brief years of his public life.  The hidden life of Jesus: hidden, that is, under the veil of the ordinary, the domestic—unrecorded because who, in dusty Galilee long before the days of Instagram, would have thought it was worth writing down?

Lately I have been feeling drawn to these thirty hidden years in the life of the Lord. And I can't help but remember my favorite scene in The Passion of the Christ—maybe you know it—where Jesus is working on a table, and Mary comes to ask if he is hungry. They joke around; he splashes her with water; she laughs in surprise and the inexpressible delight of a mother who loves to be loved by her son. That's all. A quiet day in Nazareth. How many days must the Lord have spent like that: His sacred hands busy with woodwork til sundown, a rhythm of prayer and work, play and work, eating his mother's cooking, practicing his foster-father's trade? Would those days have seemed endless in the Galilean summer? Or did he treasure each one of them, unutterable, unrepeatable wonder, glory of God in time?

At the end of this long winter, on the threshold of spring, I left my "Mount Carmel" in Silicon Valley to return to Portland, and for 14 weeks since, I have been laboring quietly in this mission ground the Lord has called me back to. I say "quietly" because, like Jesus' tables, much of what I have done this summer at St. Stephen's parish will never be known or remembered by anyone but God alone. How much time have I spent in finance council meetings, organizing files, sorting mail and answering phone calls—putting out tables and chairs for this or that event, setting up for hundreds of Masses, weeding flowerbeds, deadheading roses!

These are hidden tasks, menial tasks, and yet we know they can give great glory to God in proportion to the love with which we do them. "The value of the gift is the love of the giver"—and so my dear and beloved little Sister Thérèse Martin could become a saint by carefully folding her sisters' mantles, which they left haphazardly in the sacristy closet at Lisieux Carmel. In fact, our little hidden acts of virtue can give infinitely greater glory to God than the great deeds of the mighty and powerful, or the perpetual activity of busy and distracted disciples! What is important to God is not the grandeur or the multiplication of activities, but the disposition of the heart. (How many vain and lukewarm homilies by preoccupied priests, how many half-hearted, lack-love prayers on the lips, but never reaching the heart, must St. Thérèse's folded mantles have been worth in the eyes of God!)

Yes, the hidden life of Jesus and our great saints "hidden with Christ in God" should be examples for us, teaching us how to consecrate the everyday and the mundane to the eternal glory of the Trinity. But what about when we find ourselves lacking in love? "Love turns work into rest," says St. Teresa of Jesus, and rightly so—but when love is lacking, it seems like even rest turns into work!

The answer, of course, is to humbly begin again. We fall and get up. We fall and get up again. I cannot tell you how many times this summer I have been humbled to recognize my own lack of love, the frustration bubbling over in my heart at having to change all the altar cloths for the third time that day, or the wounded pride flaring up at some minor correction I'd received, or the self-righteous anger at having my prayer interrupted by some minor request that so-and-so really could have done himself faster than coming to ask me, and don't you know I'm trying to become a saint here?!—recognized it, I say, and begun again. "Lord, let me love you with your own love."

That prayer is the heart of it all. The moments that I have felt most "like a priest" in the parish have been those moments, quiet, personal, with just one or two others, when I am faithful to the movements of the Holy Spirit and allow Him to put certain words on my lips, or to move me, unimpeded for once by my pride and stubbornness, to approach somebody, to go out of my way, to touch, to listen. When Immanuel is with His people through me as His instrument. When I spoke some words to a woman in pain, words which I never could have devised or known to say on my own, and she cried and then said, pointing right at my heart, "There's a father in there. I can see it." Those moments, by their very nature, are few, fleeting, hidden. The hiddenness is the beauty of them, the intimacy is the majesty.

A year or two ago I remember writing a poem reflecting on my ministry assignment at that time, which was, principally, washing the floors and stocking the shelves at a food pantry, but on this particular occasion my partner and I were asked to put together some chairs (a task I repeated several times this summer in the rectory!) and break down some old furniture that was beyond repair. "How much of ministry / is knowing when to break / and when to build?" the poem began. "How much is simply saying 'yes'? / How much is nothing more / than being there / when you are broken down by a stray blow?"

And it concludes:

How much of ministry is in the spending
of time, or of energy,
strength, money, freedom, gasoline,
ink on paper, words on a screen,
or any other old thing:
poured out like fragrant oil
from an alabaster jar
on the feet of one you love
and not to count the cost?—or if you do,
as I do,
tally up the hours
but lay them down too
at the feet of the beloved
and let them value naught for you.

I don't claim that poem is very good—certainly it has no great artistic merit—but those last lines echo in my heart as I pray over my time in the parish this summer, reconsecrating everything that I have done here to God and offering it all back to Him in praise and thanksgiving for His goodness to this poor sinner. As seminarians, we live six or eight or ten years in our own Nazareths, a blessed rhythm of prayer and work, play and work, learning our fathers' trade: the care of souls. (How much I have learned from two good and holy priests this summer! Not "book learning"—that could fill a teaspoon, maybe—but the ways they have formed me will shape the rest of my life as a priest and a Christian man.) We live our hidden lives, learn our philosophy and theology, make our little hidden acts of virtue, touch a few hearts here and there (if we let God touch them through us, that is)—and all the while being formed and shaped, as the potter continually molds the clay on the wheel. All the while, though we don't notice it as the moments and days and years slip by, being transformed: "from grace unto grace and glory unto glory."

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Almost as soon as my assignment ended, I left on a road trip to visit friends in California, and the highlight of this trip has been visiting my old monastery (how strange it feels to say that!) for a couple of days. In so many ways, it felt as if I had never left. I came right in the back door as if I had only gone for a walk that afternoon, rather than flown home four months ago. (Bella, the dog, jumped all over me like she thought I was never ever coming back, but then again, she used to do that every time I came outside even if I'd only been gone 5 minutes!) I sat in my old choir stall in the chapel, I helped the brothers set up and clean up for meals, we all rode in the van together to a Melkite Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, and we all watched a movie together until late Sunday night. The singing in the liturgy was still horribly off-key (not helped one bit by my presence!) The brothers were still telling the same jokes they had been in April, I pointed out in mock exasperation. Had I dreamed this whole summer? Would I look down and see I was wearing a brown tunic and scapular again instead of my black cassock?

But even though all the externals were exactly the same, this visit felt deeply different to the months I spent in Carmel as a postulant and novice. On the day I decided to leave back in April, I wrote exuberantly in my journal—the page practically glowing with joy—that I felt like I had gone "from the condition of slavery to the condition of freedom."

What was different in this visit to my old monastery? Me. I am different. No longer the seminarian who visited a year ago, longing to know and love God deeply and to live the spiritual life intensely, ready to plunge into Carmel both feet first! No longer the novice who was determined to persevere in the darkness and the dryness of the interior desert, seeking the Beloved of my soul, even though at every turn I found my heart was pounded more deeply into the dust. Through the many twists and turns of this year—from Mount Angel to Mount St. Joseph to the parish of St. Stephen, now again (if only for a brief visit) to Mount St. Joseph, and soon again to Mount Angel—God has been revealing to me where and how He desires me to live.

I am still figuring it all out, of course. What the Lord has revealed in this year will continue to deepen in me in the years to come. But both externally, and in an invisible, interior way, I am now precisely where God wants me to be, and I can take comfort in that, can put down roots securely and confidently in that, can flourish in that!—can accept the hidden life I am living now, and make my little hidden acts of virtue, because I know that God, who is Love, has called me to this—and what more could I ask for?

What more could any of us ask for than that?


Header photo credit: John Ivezic, St. Stephen Catholic Church, Portland, OR.

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Every day crowds of unknown people come to him, who feel as hard, as cold, as empty as the tomb. They come with the first light, before going to the day's work, and with the grey mind of early morning, hardly able to concentrate at all on the mystery which they themselves are part of: impelled only by the persistent will of love, not by any sweetness of consolation, and it seems to them as if nothing happens at all. But Christ's response to that dogged, devoted will of a multitude of insignificant people is his coming to life in them, his Resurrection in their souls. In the eyes of the world they are without importance, but in fact, because of them and their unemotional Communions, when the world seems to be finished, given up to hatred and pride, secretly, in unimaginable humility, Love comes to life again. There is resurrection everywhere."

There is a divine jealousy for your soul, the jealousy of a Bridegroom. Keep Him in your heart, alone and separated. Let love be your ‘cloister’; carry him with you everywhere, and thus you will find solitude even in the midst of a crowd of people. Love itself is solitude.”

Psalm 103

One day in winter, I left my monastery and braved the highways of San Jose to meet up with my spiritual director in Cupertino and make a general confession of my sins, and as I drove, heart pounding, I heard (on a CD another brother had left in the car) this heart-rending rendition of Psalm 103, sung by the monachói of St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Florence, Arizona. God’s mercy is so great: “from eternity, even unto eternity!” At the very moment I was preparing, with “fear and trembling,” to pour out a lifetime of sins at the feet of the Father, I hear a distant voice chanting, as if carried on the wind over a vast and lonely desert or the Spirit hovering over the waters of my heart: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our iniquities from us.”

Bonus: the most beautiful Kyrie I have ever heard, sung by Serbian Orthodox musician Divna Ljubojevic.

Pray for unity in the Church! The East is such a treasury of beauty for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. How true that “the Church must breathe with both lungs”—East and West, mystical and prophetic.


103

Distressed by exile or sickness, the soul recounts God’s infinite kindness and is calmed by the knowledge that its merciful Father in heaven is loving and forgiving and can effect any redemption or cure.

Bless the LORD, O my soul; blessed art Thou, O LORD! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all that He hath done for thee. Who is gracious unto all thine inquities, Who healeth all thine infirmities. Who redeemeth thy life from corruption, Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassion. Who fulfilleth thy desire with good things; Thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s. The LORD performeth deeds of mercy and executeth judgment for all them that are wronged. He hath made his ways known unto Moses, unto the sons of Israel the things that he hath willed. Compassionate and merciful is the LORD, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy. Not unto the end will He be angered, Neither unto eternity will He be wronged. Not according to our iniquities hath He dealth with us, Neither according to our sins hath He rewarded us. For according to the height of heaven from the earth, the LORD hath made His mercy to prevail over them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our iniquities from us. Like as a father hath compassion upon his sons, so hath the LORD compassion upon them that fear Him. For He knoweth whereof we are made, He hath remembered that we are dust. As for men, his deeds are as the grass—as a flower of the field, so shall he blossom forth. For when the wind hath passed over it, then it shall be gone, and no longer will it know the place thereof. But the mercy of the Lord is from eternity, even unto eternity, upon them that fear Him. And His righteousness is upon sons of sons, upon them that keep His testament and remember His commandments to do them. The LORD in heaven hath prepared His throne, and His kingdom ruleth over all. Bless the Lord, all you His angels, mighty in strength, that perform His word, who hear the voice of His words. Bless the LORD, all ye His hosts, His ministers that do His will. Bless the LORD, all ye His works, in every place of His dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul! Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Blessed art Thou, O Lord!

In Laudem Gloriae Eius

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The ascent is long and arduous, but the summit is bathed in sunlight.”

It’s hard to believe, in a way, that nearly two months have passed already since I flew home from San Jose; that in just one more month’s time, I will have been home as long as I was in Carmel. Funny, now, to think my postulancy and novitiate there will continue receding further and further into the distance as the months and years wear on, until one day those tumultuous months in the monastery are indistinguishable from the whole broad horizon of my past.

I came back to Mt. Angel today for a personal day of recollection (which happened to coincide with the first day of the archdiocesan Priests’ Retreat), and woke up to the sunrise bursting over the mountains through my window, sudden and dazzling. That quote from Fr. Anastasius of the Most Holy Rosary (and “can there be any cooler name?” as Fr. Robert said once) came to my mind as the sunlight gently suffused the room. “The ascent is long and arduous, but the summit bathed in sunlight.”

How TRUE that is!—And what cause for hope and for joy, even in the midst of trials. I took a walk today with one of my brothers in Carmel, and I was telling him, among other things, about how happy I had felt, and zealous, when I left San Jose to return to Portland. I had such a sense of certainty in my vocation and mission, and it seemed to me then that the dark night was ending: I was coming home, transformed, and ready to set about the next stage of the journey! Of course, in every stage, we must be prepared to undergo the formation, deformation, and transformation that brings us from grace unto grace, and glory unto glory. To reach the dawn, one must wait patiently through the long hours of the night—and once the dawn arrives, the night is sure to follow again, until we reach that eternal day in which “we need neither light from lamps, nor the sun, for the Lord God shall be our light.”

Yet for a moment, I told my brother, when the time came to leave Carmel, I stood near the summit, and all was clear and radiant before me, bathed in the glory of God. That day I wrote, “My whole life is ‘in laudem gloriae Dei,‘ in praise of His glory. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, king of endless GLORY! You do not abandon your beloved sons; you may try us for a little while, but the suffering is nothing compared to the glory; and I can truly say the same words which fell from Your sacred lips: ‘The One who sent me is with me!’ Yes, my God, you are with me, and my cries to you in distress and confusion do not, have not, gone unanswered. How lovingly, Abba, you look your son! With what brotherly affection, Lord Jesus, your radiant glance falls on me and enlightens even the deepest darkness with the splendor of Love!”

Now I am back in the valley, if you like: in obscurity, in amongst the branches and thorns and under thick leaves and branches. I can see, but not so clearly; today it is bright, but often lately it has all been in shadow. Yet, Bro. John pointed out, I can lean now on that certainty I had not so long ago, just as I leaned on the certainty of my prior discernment during the uncertainty and desolation of my postulancy. Our God is a good Father, the very best, and He gives us just what we need—in such abundance. If we feel uncertain on our journey, in whatever stage we may find ourselves, it is because we do not need any more certainty—perhaps it would not be any good for us to have it! In my case, the certainty He gave me then, which impelled me to leave Carmel, is sufficient for me now—and the darkness into which I have lately returned is His gift, as all darkness is, for it is an opportunity to keep building up my faith (that “He leads me along right paths for His name’s sake”) and hope (of “the glory that is yet to be revealed in us”).

For a few days, and today most of all, I have been walking as on a rocky ridge, in and out of the trees—here in sunlight, there in shade—and the sun is very bright and warm, and the shade not so dark at all. Tomorrow, who knows? The shepherd leads where He wills. It reminds me of this morning when, after saying goodbye to the brothers, I hopped over the gate down behind the House of Studies and walked way back on the abbey grounds, where there are gnarled trees and old barns and pastures for the sheep. I was following what started out as a wide dirt road, but gradually narrowed and faded to a rough trail which disappeared, as often as not, amongst the long grass and heather and flowering weeds, only to surface yards away and in a completely unexpected direction. It took me through meadows and thick, dark copses of trees, and down hillsides, and up them again, and along the very narrow ridge of a steep gravel bank, along which I could only progress in long, leaping steps like a deer.

So it is in the spiritual life! What starts out clear quickly becomes lost amid the weeds; the trail resurfaces here and there, just enough to point the way somewhere you never would have expected; it meanders up and down, over all terrain, according to the purpose (quite unknown to you) of Someone else who came before, and “who made the earth and all that it contains / even grandmother-trees and wild hares and / all the more unknowable deep down things.” But oh!—what an adventure: to trust, and to follow.

I suppose I have not been making much sense, and truth be told, I hardly know what I’m writing. Yes, I have been in desolation for much of this last month at my summer parish assignment, but, as my brother pointed out, in some ways, that is the best sign that I am doing God’s will! Our Lord never promised this would be easy. On the contrary: “Si quis vult post me sequere, abneget semetipsum, et tollet crucem suum, et sequatur me.” “If anyone wants to follow after me,” He said, “let him abnegate himself, and take his cross, and follow me.” (“And the heavier your cross is,” one old priest put it once, “the more you know you’re following Jesus Christ.”)

It is a good sign, for “He chastises those whom he loves,” and the sufferings and the trials we endure are nothing compared to the glory which they are bringing about in us. In my case, the darkness reveals so clearly that the good work He was doing in me in Carmel is still very much in progress. He builds up faith in us by means of darkness, humility (how else?) by humiliations.

I have been striving hard to keep up my two hours of mental prayer, but my pastoral supervisor recently cautioned me to pray less!—”What a compliment!” Bro. Matthias laughed when I told him, and pointed out that the Lord is more pleased with the mother of five who spends half an hour in prayer with a generous spirit than with the Carmelite who routinely spends two without, perhaps, the same disposition. It is the generosity that counts: the value of the gift, as always, is in the love of the giver.

For the time being, I am going to start making half an hour of mental prayer a day, as the Secular Carmelites do, instead of two. And this is no compromise—perhaps in the particulars, but not in the essence of the charism. How often it seems that even when I make myself sit still in silence for two hours, I’m lucky to get half an hour of decent prayer out of it anyway! We need to keep an eye on what is essential and hold everything else with an open hand, for the Lord to give or take away as He chooses, all in laudem gloriae eius—all for His glory!

Thanks be to God for our trials, for our sufferings, our purifications and purgations which bring us on to glory. In my own case, how else could I have learned so well as I am having to learn now how to live out my Carmelite charism in the midst of parish life? This assignment is testing my resolve—”how determined is your determination?” as St. Teresa might say with a twinkle in her eye. Thanks be to God, again, for the uncompromising demands of the parish. The little wounds I suffer will strengthen me and make me a better pastor of souls, as the little wounds we all suffer day to day strengthen us, if we let them, to love God, love our families, love our neighbors and love one another better, more purely, more perfectly, more completely.

I have had such good conversations today with the brothers, and in each of them I have spoken with the Lord. That is the vocation!—To be so utterly simplified and suffused with, submerged in, subsumed by God that the dazzling radiance of His glory shines out clearly in your every word and action, like the golden dawn this morning bursting over the mountains. As our beautiful Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity loved to say: to live in laudem gloriae eius!

So now let us pray together, for ourselves and one another: “Lord, renew our spirits in the light of your love, and by that light illuminate again the trail which is mine alone to walk—let me not forget, let me not lose it or wander too far astray!—but simply stick close to you, and follow where you lead, my only peace, my sweet refuge, my strength, my Beloved One.”

Vox Pastoris | The Voice of the Shepherd

It was important for me that the Church is one with herself interiorly, with her own past: that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now. The rite must develop; in that sense, reform is appropriate. But the continuity must not be ruptured.”

Friends, I was deeply impressed and moved by this testimony of our shepherd, His Grace, Alexander Sample, at this year’s International Liturgical Conference in Cologne. How blessed we are to have him here in the Archdiocese of Portland! May he remain here for many years to come. Please take the time to listen to this successor to the apostles speaking on our Catholic liturgical heritage and the ‘reform of the reform’.

BONUS: Do YOU have a calling to the priesthood or consecrated life? A word from Archbishop Sample.

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.

Pontifical High Mass

On the Third Sunday of Lent, the newly clothed Carmelite novices were blessed to assist in choro at Pontifical High Mass at the Faldstool, celebrated by His Eminence, Raymond Cardinal Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, at St. Margaret Mary’s, Oakland. In attendance as well were priests and seminarians of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Diocese of Oakland, the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, and friars of the Order of Preachers and Conventual Order of Friars Minor. Deo gratias!

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After Mass, the Whitefriars, Greyfriars, and Blackfriars united for a photo op!