Action Item: Support John Paul

John Paul’s family, the Mičeks, are like a “second family” to me. I have known them since I joined the Church in 2011; their eldest daughter was confirmed with me in 2012, and their family has always supported me in everything. Now they need help to afford another autism service dog for their next oldest son, John Paul.

Jennifer (mom) writes, “I know your brothers likely won’t be able to donate, but they are champions at prayer, which is also much appreciated!”

Of your charity, if you are able to support this good family spiritually or materially, please do so!

Donate to ASDA here (please click Donate and include “In Honor of JP and Freddy” under special instructions).

Donate to OSU Small Animal Teaching Hospital by calling (541) 737-4812 (please give Freddy’s ID no. 517864).

PRAYER FOR THE INTERCESSION OF ST. JOHN PAUL II

O Blessed Trinity, we thank you for having graced the Church with Saint John Paul II and for allowing the tenderness of your fatherly care, the glory of the Cross of Christ and the splendor of the Spirit of love to shine through him.

Trusting fully in your infinite mercy and in the maternal intercession of Mary, he has given us a living image of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He has shown us that holiness is the necessary measure of ordinary Christian life and is the way of achieving eternal communion with you.

Grant us, by his intercession, and according to your will, the graces we implore, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pope St. John Paul the Great, ora pro nobis!

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

This weekend, my home parish of St. Joseph’s was blessed to host several of my seminarian brothers at the Saturday night vigil and 9:00 Sunday morning Masses. Mr. Michael Kelly of the Diocese of Yakima served as thurifer, and Isaac Allwin (Tucson) as boat bearer; Abundio Colazo (Tucson) and Ben Condon (Sacramento) were our acolytes; Brent Durschmidt (Portland) was crucifer, and I served as M.C. The evening Mass was celebrated by Fr. Pedro Arteaga, MSpS, of Mt. Angel Seminary, and the morning Mass by Fr. Jose Manuel Campos (Portland), our fearless pastor, who insisted on taking us all out to breakfast afterwards. Thanks be to God for these fine men!

Truth and Dying

This is a very unique week in my life. One week before I enter Carmel! The rest of my seminarian brothers at Mount Angel are on their annual silent retreat this week. Even my fellow Carmelite postulants, with whom I am united in spirit and will soon be united in person, are undertaking a silent retreat of their own at the provincial House of Studies. It feels strange not to be among them, this week which would ordinarily mark the beginning of another semester, my sixth, in formation for the priesthood. It feels strange to be here at home instead, now that the holidays are over and things are returning to their normal rhythm: green vestments taken out again to replace the violet of Advent and white of the high feast days, RCIA classes and youth group resuming at the parish, everyone back to work, school, the daily grind.

It’s a struggle for me to slow down and realize, really take to heart, that Christmas is over, even though I’m still at home; that this time in which I’m living now is something different, another kind of octave, the eight days of which will end with the beginning of my postulancy. That when this time comes to an end, I will be setting off on an entirely new journey: not remaining here, nor going back to Mt. Angel, nor Portland, all of which I have come to call home, but on to the new city of San Jose. I know it in my head, but I have this gnawing sense that I don’t know it in my heart, that I’m not doing all I can or treating these Last Days with the solemnity they deserve—even though I’m not quite sure what I should be doing differently. (A silent retreat would have been much appreciated right about now!)

img_4268The liturgy has been my anchor in these unusual, yet deceptively mundane days, and my constant consolation is in being united with my brothers in prayer. It made me smile on Monday morning, as I put away my Christmas and Advent breviary and took out volume one of Ordinary Time, to think that every other seminarian and priest back on the holy hilltop—indeed, the whole Church!—was changing his breviary too. That as I sang the invitatory, “Lord, open my lips / and my mouth will proclaim your praise,” I was joining a choir, a spiritual communion of all those brothers and sisters whom I know and a great multitude of others whom I do not, all raising our voices in praise before the Lord of heaven and earth! And that each day, as I receive and am received into the blessed Body of the Lord, I am closer in Him to everyone else I love than if they were right there by my side.

As I tried to sort out my inchoate thoughts and feelings in my holy hour this evening, I realized they coalesce around two major themes. One is truth, and the other is dying.

Small wonder, perhaps, that my brother Dustin, who is preparing to enter Carmel with me next week, posted on his blog just today about the former topic. You can check out the whole story at A Carmelite Tale, but in one place he writes: “One of the things that I’ve come to greatly value is sincerity, authenticity, and genuineness in a person’s character. What you see is what you get; no hood being pulled over eyes, no haughtiness or inflated ego, no manipulation or deceit, but truthfulness, humility, genuine care and love.”

Yes! That resonates with me. In my early discernment with the Carmelites, I remember my dear friend Br. John of the Transfiguration mentioning to me that he came to this province of the Order in part because the guys here were “down to earth.” That resonated with me, too—maybe because I am so often not down to earth!—but like Dustin, like Br. John, I have come to treasure being around people who are. All of my closest friends since entering the seminary have been guys like that. I need them to keep me grounded! (That day I talked to Br. John, I wrote, “I don’t need an order that reinforces the tendencies I already have. I need one that helps make up for what is lacking in me, rounds me out, that will help me grow.”)

The little versicle at the end of midday prayer today said, “Lord, all you ask of me is truth.” How true that is! After all, God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He expects us to be honest before Him, in our successes and in our failures, our weaknesses and our brokenness, so that in His love we can be perfected.

St. Teresa’s great definition of humility is simply to walk in the truth, as Dustin also pointed out in his post earlier today. But what does it mean to walk in the truth? Ah, now that brings us to the question of dying.

It seems to me there are two kinds of dying, “for,” as the Lord says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Notice that in both cases, the guy dies!—But the first is a selfish dying. In his desire to save his life, that is, to save himself up for his own sake rather than pour himself out for another, he loses it. The second is a selfless dying, a death-to-self: in giving everything of himself for the sake of the Lord, the disciple finds his life.

In the great liturgical providence of the Church, today’s first reading at Matins included this line from the Book of Sirach:

A man may become rich through a miser’s life, and this is his allotted reward: when he says: ‘I have found my rest, now I will feast on my possessions,’ he does not know how long it will be till he dies and leaves them to others.”

In one sense, the whole of the Christian life is practice for a Christian death. “Die before you die,” C.S. Lewis said: “there is no chance after.” When I store myself up for my own sake—my time, my talents, my treasure—I am like ben-Sirach’s miser, living a selfish life in preparation for dying a selfish death.

I’m thinking of when I was a kid and had a day home from school or on summer vacation, how I would try to have everything my own way: sleep in as late as I wanted (often into the afternoon), waste whole days on videogames or TV shows. Greedy, greedy! Even on this short break, I’ve found myself falling back into old habits, sleeping late into the morning or wasting hours surfing the net. Do we think it will make us happy? I know it leaves me feeling empty, listless, unfulfilled and undirected, letting my energy fizzle out in these meaningless pursuits. (But that’s the way with all sin, isn’t it? We let ourselves believe, we want to believe it will make us happy, and then the moment we commit it, the veil lifts, and we realize—stupid, stupid!—it was nothing but a mirage in the desert, leaving us alone and empty in the wasteland of our own foolishness!)

The reading from Sirach goes on:

My son, hold fast to your duty, busy yourself with it, grow old while doing your task. Admire not how sinners live, but trust in the Lord and wait for his light; for it is easy with the Lord, suddenly, in an instant, to make a poor man rich.”

This Sunday, the feast of the Holy Family, I served the 9 am Mass at my parish, even though I’d been sick with a nasty cold. The selfish side of my heart, the part of me that wants to save my life, to live miserly, to hoard up my time and my energy, didn’t want to get out of bed—didn’t even want to go to Mass, let alone serve. But the voice of Wisdom said: “Go.” What’s more, it said, “Serve.” That was my duty, and I knew that despite the selfish cravings of my heart, I would never be happy staying home in bed, pampering myself through my marginal sufferings. How could I, when I knew the Lord was suffering on the cross and He was calling me to be there with Him on Calvary?

As I knelt there before the altar, swinging the thurible in wide arcs, I thought to myself: “I was made for this.” And I thanked the Lord with all my heart for calling me to this particular vocation, revealing to me so clearly what He would have me do: the only satisfaction of my hungry heart.

Venerable Fulton Sheen said in a conference which I love: “Give, give, give! As we pour out ourselves, God gives us strength! Spend yourself!” I think about that often, especially when I examine my life and realize how often I have held back from spending myself, how often the miserly voice in me has won out and kept me from walking in the truth of who I am.

Why is it dying to try to save up our lives? Because when we do, we’re not acting in the truth of who we are. We were all of us made by God for love, and “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Laying down your life doesn’t have to mean the heroic martyrdom to which some are called. Choosing to get out of bed and pray early, not to sleep in, is a little martyrdom. Giving the best to others (of one’s time or of one’s treasure) and taking the leftovers for oneself is a little martyrdom. Bit by bit, every time we choose to give and not to hoard, we are “putting to death whatever is earthly in us” (Colossians 3:5) and practicing losing our life for the sake of the Lord.

I think Carmel will be a focusing, a honing of my spirit, in a certain sense. Every vocation is an ars moriendi, an “art of dying”: dying, that is, to our selfishness, and rising in self-givingness. Learning to walk in the truth of who we are and how we were made, to make a gift of ourselves, in spirit and in truth! In Carmel, I will not be pouring my time and my energies out on so many things—some worthy, many distractions—but pouring all of myself into the “school of love” in which the Lord is teaching my heart to “give, and not to count the cost,” as St. Ignatius of Loyola put it once.

I’m excited to go. But in the meantime, let’s remember that becoming a saint is for all of us, not just those of us who happen to be called to religious life, and it begins now, not sometime in the future. In a letter to her sister Marie, St. Thérèse wrote about the month before she entered religious life: “At first, I said to myself: I’ll be a saint when I’m in Carmel; while waiting, I won’t put myself out. But God showed me the value of time; I did just the opposite of what I was thinking. I wanted to prepare myself for my entrance by being very faithful, and it’s one of the most beautiful months of my life. Believe me, don’t wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint.”

That’s what I have been feeling myself lacking in these last days before my own blessed entry into Carmel: a firm purpose to be very faithful now, not just avoiding sin and fulfilling my obligations, but really doing everything I can to pour myself out for the sake of the Lord.

The martyr’s death is dying to our selfishness: death to the body and its desires, we might say, but the triumph of the soul. The miser’s death is the opposite: gratifying every bodily and earthly craving, but by so doing, snuffing out the life of grace in the soul and dying, ultimately, to eternal life.

In these first days of Ordinary Time, my brothers, let us commit ourselves to live and die in the truth of who we are, and pour ourselves out as martyrs for the Lord!

Lord, send us.
Whenever you will it,
let us leave the house behind us
that has grown dear to us,
that was our place of prayer, of doubt, of adoration,
that was for us the stone upon which we had settled,
that was the space that knew us,
the place that sheltered us.

Whenever you will it,
let us leave behind the brothers and sisters whom we know,
whom we have loved, angered, blessed,
the saints and sinners and the middling ones
with whom we have believed and prayed,
worked and sweated,
eaten and drunk together under one roof.

Whenever you will it,
we will take leave
of the hands and prayers that bore us,
of the eyes that called us,
of the house we helped to build,
that has now become a part of us.

Whenever you will it,
we will bid farewell.
For you are calling us.
You are sending us.

And wherever we settle, you are there already.
You who have borne us, molded, guided, freed us; you are there already.
You who lead us in new and unimagined ways, you are there already.
We walk with you, encounter you, in ways we could never have believed—
for you are there already.

We set out,
and we are not abandoned—
for you go with us.
Amen.”

To the Heights

My whole life I have gone away
into the hills to pray,
as when I was a boy
and went and sat beneath a trinity of trees
on a mount overlooking my home-town,
by night or by day it did not matter
in the shade of these
three grandmothers,
alone except for the wind,
the deer, little bugs in the tree-bark,
once or twice a wild hare,
always the teeming thousands in the grass,
and unknowable things deep down beyond the wooded hillcrest,
and the trees themselves
with their knowing whispering rustlings to themselves,
“we’ve seen the likes of him before” no doubt,
respectable in their way, comforting even
in their certain superiority, their detached affection, their
hair-ruffling branches and their always-leaf-falling
even in seasons when no leaves should fall.

I was at peace there:
I was at home with my self there,
and perhaps
I heard the voice of God there,
but only if He condescended to whisper.

And I would have stayed there
if not for another mount of communion
and another Trinity
who made the earth and all that it contains,
even grandmother-trees and wild hares and
all the more unknowable
deep down things.


I.

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They came trudging up the face of the hill, their lightsabers held in sweaty grips at their sides. One was breathing harder than the other. He had taken the brunt of the beating in today’s duel, and his shoes, ill-suited to the terrain, slid haphazardly in the loose dirt. The other darted ahead, trying to project an image of surety. “Just here,” he called back over his shoulder. He was speaking in short sentences to disguise his own labored breathing.

They crested the ridge and came upon an unlikely grove. The grass, too green for the season, was long, but not unkempt; if it looked wild, it was not the wildness of a lawn that had gone too long without being cared for, not the wildness of that which had been tamed and was no longer. It was the noble wildness of that which had never known a civilizing hand. The grass swayed languorously toward them in time with the breeze, and the long fingers of the trees shifted almost imperceptibly. Their branches hung so low as to almost brush against the ground.

“Just like Dantooine.” Austin panted a few times, settling against the nearest tree’s incongruously wide trunk.

Matt smiled, in what he inwardly hoped was an enigmatic fashion, and sank down to his haunches, looking out at the city laid out below and beneath and before them, like a set of toys. “Yeah.”

That seemed to just about sum it up.

After a short time passed, he crossed his legs and closed his eyes, savoring the wind on the back of his neck. “Recite the Jedi Code.”

His friend, a year older than he but still eager to play along, cleared his throat. “There is no emotion,” he intoned. “There is peace. There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. There is no passion; there is serenity. There is no chaos; there is harmony.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“Is it true?” Matt asked him.

“Of course.” Austin’s tone was not so much defensive as stating the obvious.

“Maybe it’s something we have to strive for,” Matt acknowledged, not quite correcting him. “But is it true? I mean, look at the world. Is there chaos? Is there ignorance?”

Austin’s silence was guarded. He was waiting to see where this was going.

Matt sighed. “What if I were to say, oh … ‘There is no injustice; there is balance.’ Is that true?”

“Yes,” his friend acknowledged slowly, drawing out the vowel while he thought about it. “I guess…but what is balance?”

This was a valid question. Matt looked for the words to express the concept he was simultaneously trying to teach, and teach himself.

He opened his eyes. “Think about the taijitu,” he tried again. “You have two sides. Black, and white. Both pushing against each other. Only neither one will ever win, right? Here the dark side is pushing back the light, and if you only look at this one part, it seems like the darkness is winning…but if you look down, you see the light is pushing back the darkness just as forcefully. And if you look at the whole picture, neither one is ever winning. One might put more force in here, and push back the other, but only because the other is concentrating somewhere else. It will never all be one color. If it were, it wouldn’t be the taijitu.”

Austin was nodding slowly, but his wide brow was furrowed, as if troubled.

“I think the universe is like that,” Matt said, reflectively. “I think everything is like that, really.”

“But then what’s the point? If no one is ever going to win?” Austin had a look like he was trying to solve an equation. “There has to be some way…”

“Even if there was, it wouldn’t be winning.” Matt looked back out over the city. The sun was beginning to make its long descent behind the hills. “Maybe that’s the point. After all, if there was no white pushing back against the black, that wouldn’t be the taijitu, either. We have to push, for anything to mean anything at all. And the universe…will sort itself out. That’s balance.”

They sat in silence, until the sun was low enough that they were starting to shiver, and by unspoken agreement they began to head home. Matt’s voice drifted back over the hill—a sudden “en guarde!”, a grunt of surprise, the sound of clashing plastic blades, and then laughter, boyish laughter—”I wasn’t ready!” “A Jedi must always be on his guard, young Padawan.”—until they became just two shapes in the distance, one short and thin, one tall and wide, distinct silhouettes that merged and disappeared at the top of the road.


II.

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They emerged from the treeline at the top of the hill, blinking at the sunlight from which they were no longer shielded by layers of leaves and branches. One led the other confidently down the slope, following the curve of the land, here drifting left around an outgrowth of thorns, there right, angling toward a fallen tree that had settled long ago into the earth—long enough ago that grass had grown up all round it, and it seemed a part of the landscape that had been there all along—longer, certainly, than mere human memory of this place could contradict.

No words were needed between them here. The one knew that the other would follow, that if he turned around he would see him matching his progress step for step. The other knew the one would want to stop before he knew it himself, knew he would be led to the fallen tree even before the one knew where he was leading him.

Matt settled into a bend in the tree trunk with a contented sigh. They were low enough again to be covered by trees, and the sunbeams filtered down to them between branches, landing haphazardly on the grass and covering their world in a light spray of gold. Marshal sat beside him, staring pensively into the middle distance.

“Do you ever feel,” Matt began, and stopped. He swung his legs up so he was lying parallel with the tree-trunk. All he could see now was the blue sky and the tops of trees and the back of Marshal’s head, long messy brown hair parted in the middle and swept back behind his ears.

“Do you ever wonder,” he said, and stopped again. Marshal said nothing. His was a patient silence. He knew that, like a rainstorm in the tropics, his best friend’s words would come in great, rolling bursts until all of them were said.

He sought in vain for the words to describe concepts that Marshal would not, could not understand: vocation, and obligation, and sacrifice, and love of someone greater than oneself.

In the end, he settled for asking, “Marshal, do you ever wonder if you’re doing the right thing? I mean, how do you know?”

The silence continued unobtrusively until it became clear the words had, in fact, run out, and a reply was now to be expected. The wind whispered in the leaves, but neither of them was listening.

In the end, Marshal quietly said, “I don’t.”

Matt sat and waited, but his was an uncomfortable silence, because he knew that, like rain in a desert, his best friend’s words were rare, and precious, and the mere fact that a few fell from his lips was not a promise of any more anytime soon.

After some time, Marshal stood, and stretched, and walked a little distance away, indicating that the conversation was over for now, and Matt obligingly rolled off the log into the leaves and dry grass at its base, stretching out his legs and staring at the sky. “Remember Steubenville?” he wanted to say. “Remember kneeling face to face with God?”—but he knew that even if the answer were ‘yes’, it would be a qualified yes—perhaps ‘yes, I remember being in that auditorium, in the dark, with the lights, and the music, and all of us with our arms around each other, and love so thick you could feel all of our hearts beating in time,’ but not ‘yes, I remember meeting Jesus’ eyes and knowing that He became flesh and died for me, and hearing Him whisper He loved me, and feeling my heart burn so strongly with love for Him that I felt like it might consume me’—and anyway, no matter what Marshal’s answer might be, he didn’t know what he would say next.

He listened for the voice of God on the wind, but he never quite knew how to distinguish that from the voice inside his head.

Marshal sat down again beside him, and thought thoughts that were entirely his own.

In the end, they went home when the clouds rolled in, and the water was all gone.


III.

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They ran up the side of the hill—not hand in hand, but the option was there. Behind them and before them and around them, the world was frozen, a photograph, a captured moment. The streets were dark and lazy rivers, little eddies of yellow light pooling beneath their street lamps, and the sky, mostly void, veiled pinpoints of starlight singing softly from another world.

They crested the ridge, and Ellen breathed out, shakily. “I can’t believe this place exists. It’s like a little piece of Middle Earth, right in the middle of the city.”

Matt grinned, spinning beneath the trees. His sneakers crunched over dry leaves and skimmed the dewfall off the grass. “I know.” It was strange how this place could be at the same time a part of it all, and above it, and separate—much like the stars, he was quick to point out—like the only living land in a winterlocked world.

He pointed out the trees, which grew in clusters, three sets of four each—or were they in fact only three trees, all having mysteriously split at the bases of their trunks into four distinct sections, reaching up to heaven separately, but together, each of them one tree in four persons, reaching up to touch the outstretched hand of their triune Maker?

She pointed out the lights on the horizon, between the mountains, how they could form a castle—torches burning on the turrets, the parapets, lamps in the windows—a fairy tale castle, they decided, or a college of sorcery. It belonged to another world, all of it, a world on which they were privileged, for a brief and timeless moment, to intrude.

They skipped up further, following the curve of the hill, until they were above the downsweep of the branches and could see the lights of the city laid out before them in full. Then they laid down on the grass and ignored it completely. He held her in his arms and they gazed at eternity.

Softly, he whispered stories in her ear. The hours he had spent higher in the hills, among the woods. The perpetually startled deer who would dart out from the underbrush at his approach. The times he had walked up the gravel road marked “Private Drive,” ducking around the padlocked gate marked “Keep Out,” running across the open green expanse, over the narrow creek and up into the trees, where the sun was bright and the colors brighter. The times he had come and sat beneath these trees on the hillside as a boy, looking out at the world through the safety of their branches, which held all things at bay.

Hiking all the way to the top of the highest mountains with his dad, to where the woods fell away and the ground was bare and there were radio towers, feeling tall and proud and in some, inexplicable way, as though he had proven something. Playing among these trees with Austin, pushing the boundary between fantasy and reality, in this forest where the boundary was already stretched so thin. The philosophical discussions, blundering at God like blind men grasping, unsure what they were feeling—here a brush with ethics, there with beauty, unable yet to grasp the whole. Long conversations with Marshal about nothing very much, tramping through brush and bramble, stopping in every clearing to marvel at the beauty.

“I can feel it,” she said softly. Her voice had a quality of wonder, like the voices of the stars just at the edge of hearing. “If a place can love somebody,” she told him, “this place loves you.”

He smiled, and held her closer. Somewhere out in the darkness, a car with a faulty muffler split the silence obnoxiously. They giggled about narrative causality and felt the borders shiver between worlds close enough to touch.

They went home when the cold air had got past their skin into their bones, and their noses had so little feeling they might have wandered right off their faces to explore. They were reluctant, but the night air hummed with promises of memories yet to be made—”another day, another day,” the wind insisted, caressing their bare cheeks.

The hills watched them go like doting grandparents, for whom time is at once too short and too, too long, watched them go with tears brimming for love and sorrow and youth, sweet in its length and bitter in its ending, for night and day and stars and eternity—watched them go with a parting brush of a branch, like a weathered hand brushing back a child’s hair to rest lightly on the back of his head, to pull him into one final embrace, to whisper, “no matter how far you wander, this will always be your home.” Watched them go, until they became just two shapes in the distance, one tall and thin, moving at oddly fluid angles, as though perpetually wandering, and the other slender and beautiful, even in the dark, stepping lightly, as if she were especially conscious of her presence in the space around her—watched them go, two distinct silhouettes, until they merged and disappeared at the top of the road.


IV.

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He came around the last bend in the old gravel road, boots crunching over the twin blankets of snow and silence which veiled the whole hilltop in wonder. The sun was huge on the horizon, and it all seemed somehow delightfully warm, even though he could see his breath. He laughed, and his laughter turned into a great whoop of joy as he ran on past the radio towers to the edge of the hillside and threw himself down in the snow, shrugging off both his jackets, reveling in the chill and the brightness and the muchness of the moment.

This bare peak had not always been his favorite place out in the hills. It was the easiest to get to, for one thing. All you had to do was follow the path. There were many other spots more hidden than this: the trinity of trees on the slope overlooking the school, or the little clearing on a hillcrest far back off the path, or the big knotted tree with a hollow in it, so deep into the woods that you could never find it by looking, only by wandering. The little pond which he had glimpsed from the road, all frozen over and glittering.

There was a time not so long ago when he had equated mystery with hiddenness, complexity, difficulty. When it seemed all that was really important were the deep down things, unknowable and inexpressible, but which he nevertheless had to struggle to express.

Before that, there was a time he’d thought there was no great mystery at all. He had been about twelve, he smiled now to remember, and he’d had it all figured out. But even then, he had caught it in glimpses, and it was the glimpses that wakened his longing.

He longed for it still, and more deeply—yet here it was, at the heights, in the great openness and the sunlight and the crisp winter air, and the tops of trees crowned in white, and the sun dipping even now below the horizon. Only this, only love, only Love was enough!—and a greater mystery than all the others which could never slake his thirst.

The silence didn’t seem disturbed by his high spirits, nor the snow by the tracks he left in it. It was all apiece, he thought, not for the first time: the silence, the laughter, the snow, the footprints, the numberless past moments, and this present one on Mount Rose, Mount Angel, Mount Carmel.

After a while, as the sunlight faded gradually to twilight and he began to feel the chill of the snow, he opened his breviary. “How wonderful creation is, the work which you did bless,” he sang, and his hills listened expectantly. “What then must you be like, dear God, eternal loveliness!”

A bird sang with him, or back to him, a little soaring melody as it alit somewhere above and behind him in the trees.

“Most ancient of all mysteries, before your throne we lie.”

There was something else besides the snow and the silence which settled, brooded invisibly over the hilltop and all it contained.

“Have mercy now, most merciful, most holy Trinity!”

And when he had finished his prayer, he set off again down the road, still singing this or that as it came to him. It was not the end, exactly. Everything was grace then, every moment a glimmering of love.

Merciful Mission of Love

“We’re called to heal people’s wounds, and to heal people’s wounds through Jesus Christ: bringing people’s pain into the light of God’s Love. And so for ourselves, we’re called to teach primarily how to pray. Jesus Christ has become the source, the center, and the summit of our lives. He is our All.”

—Fr. Robert Elias Barcelos, O.C.D.

¡Adelante!

Ah, when to the heart of man
was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
to yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
of a love or a season?”

—Robert Frost, Reluctance

I memorized that stanza from Frost back in high school. It has been coming to my mind again a lot over these last days, as I prepare to take my leave of Mt. Angel: not for the final time, it’s true—but this is the last time I will go away from this holy mountain as I am now. When I come back again, I will be a different person, and not just in the Heraclitean sense; no, I will have a different name, Brother So-and-So of the Such-and-Such; I will be wearing a habit as a sign of my particular consecration to the Lord; most of all, I will not be living with these men I have come to love and admire even though (and because) they all drive me crazy, but with a different community of men at the bottom of the hill—who, of course, I am sure I will love in equal measure and by whom I am sure I will be driven crazy in entirely new ways. But still. You know?

This is the closing of a chapter. Maybe I’m just sentimental—actually, I take that back; there’s no ‘maybe‘ about it—but I have savored every moment here since last Thursday. That was the day most of my friends left the hilltop, scattering to the four winds as soon as their last exams ended. It was also the day it really hit me that we were going different ways, our paths diverging; I really would not be coming back in 3 weeks with these guys. I told my closest friend that the “muchness” of leaving this place really hit me after he left, and it did, with all the unyielding suddenness of the snow which had begun to fall the day before and completely vested the hilltop in white.

That night the snow began to fall, I remarked to my brother Ian that it was like a little going-away present from the Lord, showing me this place I love in a new light. Now, the following afternoon, I trudged around in it aimlessly, struggling with myself. My spiritual director at the seminary this year has told me more than once that I need to be more open to my own emotions—something which came as a bit of a surprise to me, but I think I know what he meant. Usually my response to my emotions is to try and overcome them, so I can get back to business as usual. That was what I was trying to do as I said goodbye to one after another of my brothers on Thursday, and when the last one had left, I started to go back to my room and pack, but I realized I couldn’t, and so I walked, and struggled. I knelt down on the icy ground at Our Lady’s grotto and wordlessly begged her to hold me as a mother holds her son, and finally I ended up in the little chapel in the basement of the guest house (my favorite, since no one ever comes in and interrupts you there) where I laid prostrate for a long, long time before the blessed Presence.

“How often have I asked you for the grace of detachment?” I said to Him then in my heart. “And this is how I respond when you start to give it to me?”

Detachment presupposes attachment and entails removal. At a beautiful 3 a.m. holy hour at my home parish back in May, I wrote, a little wryly, “Attachment always seems to lead to God (gently) taking the object of my attachment away. Well, I do pray over and over to desire nothing but Him alone.” Somewhere else, during my early discernment with the Carmelites, I remember writing that I felt like I was wanting, longing, to move ahead, but my clothes were stuck to a thorn-bush, and strive as I might, I couldn’t get free. I was attached, in other words, “behind my back,” in ways I didn’t even know yet—I just knew the fact of them.

John of the Cross says it doesn’t matter if a bird is tied down by a rope or a thread; it still can’t fly.

I called on a wise young monk that Thursday afternoon, a man a little older than me, who had graduated the college seminary my first year, who I have had the privilege of watching enter religious life and profess first vows—who came to me once this year in a dream bearing a gift for me, which turned out to be a Carmelite habit. Well, he wasn’t free just then, but he suggested we meet up the following morning after Mass, and we ended up spending the entire morning talking until noon prayer.

I told him: I know the Lord is calling me, and I’m ready to go. I’m at peace with my discernment. I have no doubt this is the way He’s asking me to follow Him, at least for this moment. But my heart is heavy with the weight of leaving. This place has formed me so deeply, I told him. I’ve grown so much, learned so much about myself, made such progress in the spiritual life since I first came; I’ve formed such deep friendships, given and received so much love in the three years I’ve been here (and can it really have been so few?) I even said if I had my own way, I might have chosen to be a monk here, because a part of me really never wants to leave Mt. Angel! A part of me will always be home here.

By way of reply, Brother told me a story about how he was driving the former abbot of Mount Angel home after a doctor’s appointment, an appointment at which he, Abbot Gregory, had learned he was diagnosed with cancer. That holy monk had cried on the drive home, and after he cried, he said to my friend: “Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m not ready to die; I am. I know I have been faithful to the Lord, as far as I am able, and I have no doubt he will be faithful to me.—It’s just that I’ve grown to love this world. I’ve never known anything else. I can’t leave it so easily.”

His story resonated deep in me. I felt I could say to the Lord at that moment, echoing our holy abbot, “It’s not that I’m not ready to go. I am. It’s just that I’ve grown to love this place, and I can’t leave it so easily!”

My spiritual director—the very same who counseled me to be more open to my emotions—told me once that every time the Lord has called me deeper in my relationship with Him, He has done so by way of the Cross. And he was right. My conversion to the faith came about by way of the cross of my mom’s seizures and my family’s suffering; my discernment to enter the seminary entailed the cross of abandoning a few very close friendships back home, friendships which could never be the same as they once had been because I had decided to give God all of me, and so I could no longer give all-of-me to anyone else. “Don’t be surprised,” Father Juan Antonio warned me, “if the Lord is calling you to Carmel, that the Cross will be present in this discernment too.”

Detachment is the cross of this moment. And how easily we can misinterpret that word! There is no virtue in remaining aloof, never allowing yourself to put down roots. No, the virtue of detachment is in having loved deeply—certain people, a certain place—becoming attached!—and yet, when the Lord calls, hard though it may be, to “leave your nets and follow Him.”

A few nights before he left, and I left, my brother and I sat in St. Joseph Chapel from midnight until nearly 3 a.m., talking and praying in candlelight before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, all clothed in roses for her feast. It’s one of so many memories I will treasure forever, not so much in any particular detail as in the sheer muchness, if I may use that wonderful word again, of being there, ensconced in so much love. But if one thing stands out in my memory, it was our conversation about martyrdom: my brother saying he thought he was made to suffer for the Lord. I agreed, that I felt that longing to pour myself out to the last drop, to give radically of myself, to hold nothing back. (But to suffer? I hesitated at that, as if asking the Lord: is that really part of the bargain?)

I remember that verse from Mark’s Gospel which was so important for me in my initial discernment to enter the seminary: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Another wise friend of mine (and how blessed I am to have so many wise friends!) reminded me just last night, “Remember that following the Lord is not just about saying no to bad things but also having the courage to say no to good things for the ultimate good, which is the will of God.” And she added this beautiful prayer: “May God continue to guide you towards death to yourself so that it is no longer you who live but God within you. Do nothing out of duty but out of love for your beloved. When you are truly in love, everything ceases to be a sacrifice. Even the biggest struggle becomes sweet at the thought of doing such a thing for the one you Love.”

Yes, that’s it. Discernment is a continual adventure because it is, at the heart of it, a love affair! And detachment is a virtue because it means putting your beloved first. Its opposing vice, after all, is idolatry: putting any created thing or any self-serving motive ahead of Him. So I offer up all the beauty and all the goodness of my life here back to God as a sacrifice, in thanksgiving that He ever called me to Mt. Angel, and in humble faith that He is calling me now to something greater. In the knowledge, too, that the Cross will still be with me as long as I persevere in following the Lord. (“The heavier your cross is,” a certain priest said once, “that’s how you know you’re following Jesus Christ.”)

And so I say with St. Junipero Serra, “¡Siempre adelante! Nunca atrás!”—As the Office of Readings said about our Blessed Mother a few days ago, “filled with God, where would she hasten but to the heights?” Lord, I long to go to the heights! Take me, Lord, and make me all Your own!

Mary sets out for the hill country. She does not disbelieve God’s word; she feels no uncertainty over the message or doubt about the sign. She goes eager in purpose, dutiful in conscience, hastening for joy. Filled with God, where would she hasten but to the heights? The Holy Spirit does not proceed by slow, laborious efforts. Quickly, too, the blessings of her coming and the Lord’s presence are made clear: as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting the child leapt in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth says: Blessed are you because you have believed. You also are blessed because you have heard and believed! A soul that believes both conceives and brings forth the Word of God and acknowledges his works.

Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God if only it keeps chaste, remaining pure and free from sin, its modesty undefiled. The soul that succeeds in this proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.

In another place we read: Magnify the Lord with me. The Lord is magnified, not because the human voice can add anything to God but because he is magnified within us. Christ is the image of God, and if the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies that image of God, in whose likeness it was created and, in magnifying the image of God, the soul has a share in its greatness and is exalted.”

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.

Go here to view all posts in the series.

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