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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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.”

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.

Reflections on Postulancy

            Morning sun transforms drooping leaves of palm-trees into dazzling green-gold fringes on the noble vestment of the sky.

            Black coffee in the bottom of a plain white cup,
            Pure white cotton draping over rough brown wool.
            In the corner, the Paschal candle on a golden lamp-stand casts a dim blue shadow, proclaims “alpha” and “omega” are even closer than “you” and “I”.
            Light reveals: cracks in the oil-painting, a smudge on the window, dust on the dark-wood tabletop. Imperfections, and beauty.
            Snatches of poetry drift on the silence like distant voices: “to bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.” “How shall the breath of God batter my soul?” “Take me to Ephraim, Master, let me stay with you there…”
            Bell tolls once, singly, startling birds.


Wes just left for his home visit,—waving to me where I sat on the stone steps writing as he and Fr. Robert drove to the airport—and now it is just the four of us postulants here who will very soon be novices: me, Dustin, Colin, and Frank, and the silence and the stillness and the cool morning sun. I have reflected before, on retreats at Mt. Angel, how silence transforms everything. It is amazing how quickly, how subtly yet unmistakably, this transformation comes about. The silence expands to fill every place and every moment: “here is sacred space,” it proclaims in the kitchen as I wash the coffee-cups; “here is sacred time,” as the sunlight bursts through the window. Sacred silence! It draws out, reveals the sacredness in everything, makes all things new: even this monastery, already cheapened by 2 months’ familiarity.

Yesterday we took our new habits back to our cells; cut our cinctures, smelling of fresh leather, down to the right length; punched holes in them for the belt-buckle, tied our cord rosaries and sacred medals. We tried on the habits a month ago, of course, to be sure they would fit, but it is different now with them hanging in our closets and the day of our clothing so near. They are silent witnesses of the transformation about to take place in each of us: or, better, that has already been taking place, that will continue to take place, but that on Saturday will suddenly be made visible in the down-draping of brown and white cloth.

“A vocation is a harmony between being and life,” writes Blessed Marie-Eugene. Then a habit must be a kind of harmony between being and appearance: the external sign revealing the interior reality. The being of the religious demands the habit; but the habit demands that the religious be a certain way. It is a promise to the world and an obligation to the wearer: that this person is an ἀπόστολος, an apostle, an ambassador of Heaven, a new incarnation of the God-Man, Jesus Christ! in flawed and fallible humanity. It is a glory and a terror beyond telling.

“Put on the new man,” I hear the echo of Abbot Jeremy in my mind. “You have been called. You have been chosen.”—“Me? With all my weakness?”—“Yes. You.

Everything is Grace

Praised be Jesus Christ! As of last night, I have arrived at Mt. St. Joseph Monastery, and tonight at Vespers I will be formally received, along with my brother Dustin Vu, as postulants in the Order of the Discalced Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The sky is a blank, featureless grey as far as the eye can see, and there has been a gentle, constant drizzle all day, so I feel quite at home. (“San Jose is trying to outdo Oregon!” I told Fr. Robert, the postulant master, this morning, and it is! I went out for a run, but it was short-lived, what with the wind lashing rain in my face and branches blowing off the trees. There were these huge rolls of thunder, too, the awesome drum-beat announcing the coming of the sun, but when it came it was only visible for a brief moment before it was veiled again in the fog.)

Our drive down was not quite what I expected. Yet in one sense—an oddly comforting sense—it was exactly what I expected. Doesn’t ben-Sirach say, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials”?

And objectively, the trials of our “journey home” were not so great. On Wednesday afternoon, my long-expected day of departure, my grandmother and great-grandmother both came over for tea until Fr. Robert and the other postulants showed up a little after 2:00 p.m. (some 4 hours later than we’d initially been planning due to some unexpected engine trouble with the van). I’d been feeling ready to go for a while, and though I was feeling the sting of leaving that morning and the night before in adoration, as soon as Fr. Robert and my new brothers Wesley, Colin, and Frank arrived, so too did my excitement and resolve return! We were all a flurry of introductions and then tearful goodbyes as the brothers loaded up my suitcase, 4 little boxes, 2 backpacks and an assorted jumble of books and boots—the sum total of my possessions—into the van. Fr. Robert led us all in a prayer as we held hands around the kitchen table. And then we were off, waving to my mom as she stood smiling through her tears on the front porch.

dscn1006The drive down was at first all chocolate, praise music and excited conversation. We stopped in Ashland to put on snow chains and found one was a little loose, but it was determined there was nothing to be done about it just then, so on we went over Mt. Ashland, going slow and taking in the wonder of our picturesque surroundings, all mantled in white. Once we were descending the mountain again, we pulled over and removed the chains. But soon after, something went wrong. Br. Colin’s theory is that the loose chain must have punctured the tire and kept it pressurized as long as the chain was on, but let air out as soon as the chains were off. In any case, just a few minutes later, the van started shaking violently, we pulled over, and found the front passenger tire was shredded.

Cue all the postulants and Father getting out of the van on the shoulder of I-5, in the dark and the snow, taking everything out of the back to get to the spare tire, jacking up the van, then having to lower it again to move it from the gravel onto the asphalt, jacking it back up, removing the shredded tire (with a brief debate over which way to turn the lug-nuts), putting on the spare… Between Frank and Colin, it was like we had AAA right there in the van with us! We were going to leave the ruined tire behind because the van was full, but Colin saved us by observing that we would need the rim from that one when we got the replacement.

Soon enough, we were back on the road with our spare tire rolling, no harm done, just a little wet and cold. I was even thinking of how I could write a blog post about this—maybe relating it to our holy mother, St. Teresa, that time their carriages got carried away downstream on their pontoons in a Spanish storm, and she cried out, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”—or something about the blessings of being part of a group, how we immediately fell into an easy rhythm, working together, anticipating one another’s needs, to get the job done. I was thinking about how I would not have been able to do all that if I had been on my own and was grateful for the Lord’s gift of calling me to this family of Carmel—even if I was also a little painfully self-conscious of how little I had done besides unload the boxes and hold the flashlight!

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But as we continued south and Colin started looking for tire shops on Fr. Robert’s phone, it started to become clear that we weren’t “home and dry” just yet. There were no open tire shops anywhere nearby; most had closed at 6:00, and the nearest one open late (until 8:30) was at a Costco in Redding, another 100 miles down the freeway on our (already a little flat) spare tire! “And by the time we get there,” Father pointed out, toodling along at 40 mph, “they’ll probably be closed, too.”

In the end, we stopped at Yreka to check out an AutoZone (no luck), at which point Fr. Robert made the call that we would get dinner and rooms at a motel (“What’s that, you know, motel—something 6?” “…Motel 6?” “That’s the one.”) and have the tire replaced at Les Schwab in the morning.

And everything was grace. That we had been going so slow already when the tire blew that we hardly even felt it, and could pull over right away; that we had guys in the car who could change it; that where we ended up in Yreka we had dinner and a place to stay right next to one another, and a tire shop right across the street. We all had rooms to ourselves (although I couldn’t help remembering my grandmother’s prescient words once upon a time: “my idea of camping is the Motel 6!”) and, since the Les Schwab didn’t open until 9:00 and Fr. Robert told us to say our prayers in private, we had a chance at a full 8 hours. I even got to call my mom and tell her the whole story on Fr. Robert’s phone as soon as we checked in.

But something was nagging at me as I settled (gingerly) into my room. For one thing, I was tired and had been feeling myself starting to wear thin as the night drew on, but more importantly, as I recognized in my examination of conscience before bed, the Lord was teaching my heart how not to be control. That things do not have to be as I have expected them to be. It’s an ongoing class He’s teaching me, but I’m taking the next level now, “Advanced Not-Being-In-Control”. And as I wrote that night, “I ‘opted in’ to this lesson; in fact I am even more ‘in’ than some of the other postulants (the other three still have their cell phones, and money!)” whereas I had brought neither. But even though I freely enrolled in the class, it’s a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t have my own car anymore, so I didn’t get to decide whether to stay or go, and I couldn’t go back to get a pen from my backpack, which I’d left in the van, without waking Fr. Robert (so instead I borrowed one from the motel lobby). I don’t have a phone anymore, so I couldn’t call (or text, or Facebook) anyone I wanted. Without a phone, and my clock packed away in one of my boxes, I couldn’t even set an alarm to wake me up in the morning—my room, devoid even of pens, was emphatically lacking a clock (so instead I called the front desk and asked for a 7:30 a.m. wake-up call). To my knowledge, I hadn’t even brought any shampoo or body wash, since I knew that would all be provided for at Mt. St. Joseph—I was resigned to washing up with the little bar of soap in the shower when I found, in an obscure fold of an outer pocket in my suitcase, a little travel-sized bottle of face and body wash.

And in a delightful way, that little bottle completely changed my mood. I was feeling like quite the martyr, having to endure such sufferings as walking down to borrow a pen from the lobby of this motel (at which I had never planned or wanted to stay in the first place!) I was thinking for the first time about how the sacrifices I was making would really impact my day to day life in so many ways, large and small. But finding that little bottle reminded me that, just as I wasn’t alone when the tire blew out on the van—all I had to do was my little (yet not insignificant!) part, and the team of us got the tire changed—so I am not alone, not in the least alone, in the little sacrifices I am making for the Lord.

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Brother-Postulant Wesley outside Mt. St. Joseph

“Grace builds on nature,” Fr. Robert exclaimed that night at dinner, in an attempt to explain the effects of his horchata-flavored energy drink. (“It’s really a grace/horchata synergy!”) In the same way, grace builds on our sacrifices—so all I have to do is make the little, yet significant sacrifices I am called to make, and the Lord meets me right there with all that I need, “good measure, shaken out and spilling over.”

It’s not, in other words, about just making life harder for myself and getting to be all “woe is me” (and, let’s face it, also more than a little self-congratulatory) for taking the more difficult road and having to be flexible when I run into unexpected trials. It’s about being faithful to what the Lord is asking of me, whether that’s to hold a flashlight in the snow, or walk downstairs to borrow a pen, or to humbly nod and accept it when The Plan changes (because The Plan is really a hollow fiction of ours, isn’t it? “Man proposes, God disposes,” as Fr. Robert said on another occasion, casually blowing my mind.) And as long as I am faithful to Him, He is unfailingly faithful to me—whether in the form of this awesome band of brothers, or a hot meal and a room to myself, free of charge, just when I needed a little time “alone with the Alone,” or even, with His divine sense of humor, in a providential little bottle of face and body wash.

dscn1040The rest of the drive down passed without incident. The tire shop was open an hour earlier than we’d expected (another grace), so by 9:00 yesterday morning we were ready to go. I-5 was closed just south of Yreka, but Fr. Robert had learned about it in advance and we took an alternate route, on backroads where the snow was chest-deep on either side. In the morning sun, amongst the snow-capped trees, under the shadow of Mt. Shasta, it was like driving through a Christmas card. We arrived at San Jose just after 5:00 last night, and after a social and dinner with the community, Fr. Robert celebrated Mass for the five of us postulants at Our Lady’s altar.

After Mass, he made a few remarks to us, beginning with something a Legionary of Christ priest said to him once: “You know what your problem is, Robert?” he said. “It’s not that you don’t believe in God—you believe in Him all right. You just don’t believe in yourself.” He urged us not to underestimate our own capacity for self-growth. And while our time here in formation will entail purification and suffering, He said to look to Our Lord as our model: He spent 3 hours on the cross, 3 days in the tomb, but after His resurrection He walked the earth in His glorified body for 50 days. The purifications are nothing compared to the glory. Everything is grace: the call, the ability to hear the call, our openness and ability to respond, and everything that response entails.

dsc_1264And finally, he said, if we are tempted to think we could have done more good at home with our family: “Jesus is going to fill that empty chair at the dinner table where you used to sit. And He’s going to do a better job there than you.”

Already in these last 48 hours since leaving home, I am getting a little sense of the broad themes the Lord is going to be teaching me through my brothers during my time here. Surrendering control. (“Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting,” as the plaque on the wall above this computer says.) Doing small things with great love. Learning to believe in myself and trust that God knows what He is doing with me, his poor instrument! I have a lot to learn. But I also have a lot of time. And God is very faithful to us, “unto ages of ages,” as the Orthodox say beautifully.

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Glory be to God for His mercy to us!

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!

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.

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.

Dominicans

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

—St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Early Discernment

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

—St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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