Spiritual Resources for the Coronavirus

Dear friends,

Praised be Jesus Christ!

I know our lives have all been turned upside down by this growing pandemic. For my part, the seminary was shut down last week and all of us students sent home to our various dioceses. Public Masses have been cancelled nearly everywhere. In my archdiocese, they are suspended all the way through Holy Week. Our familiar routines have been put on hold; friends and family are separated as we shelter in our different places; freedoms long taken for granted are curtailed, and even our lives of faith can be shaken by the absence of the sacraments and the closing of churches.

It is a time of great uncertainty and fear for many. But for that reason, it is also a time of great spiritual opportunity. It is no coincidence that this is all taking place during Lent!

And make no mistake, friends. God is very near us!—more so than ever in this time of suffering and distress. The mercy of His heart reaches to the depths of the abyss of our misery to raise us to the heights of divine love.

The bishops and priests of the Church are doing great work throughout the world to remain spiritually close to the faithful: live-streaming Masses, hosting parish groups online, hearing confessions in parking lots or on porches behind glass. In addition to uniting myself to their prayers and remaining faithful to my own prayer, especially of the Divine Office and the rosary for the salvation of the world, I feel called during this time to make a little offering of my own for the spiritual benefit of those who are cut off from Mass and the sacraments.

Therefore, in addition to my usual weekly podcast, I will be offering daily reflections on the Gospel read at the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite for as long as Masses are suspended here in the Archdiocese of Portland. These will be short spiritual reflections of 5-10 minutes each, intended as food for your own meditation and life of prayer, and as inspiration to live extraordinary lives of love in the midst of suffering and hardship! The reflections will be published as part of the normal In Your Embrace podcast. If you are already subscribed, they will show up in your podcast player as usual, beginning today. If not, please subscribe to get the latest updates.

I will also be hosting a weekly contemplative Bible study called Song of Ascents online through Zoom, a video-conferencing platform. We will be reading the Mass readings assigned for the coming Sunday in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite on Saturday nights at 7pm. It is “contemplative” study in that we are listening together for the movements of the Holy Spirit and for the Word which God is speaking to us in our particular circumstances through the treasury of readings selected by the Church. These readings are layered atop one another as a kind of “compound lens” through which we can read anew the mystery of His love. All are invited to join, and you don’t need any special equipment or software: just a computer, phone or tablet with a camera. Click here to join the video chat.

Let us keep one another very close in prayer and draw near to the heart of the Trinity, the fount of divine love.

Yours in Christ crucified and risen,

Matthew

Lector Installation

Praised be Jesus Christ! I was blessed to be installed as a lector last week, along with eight of my classmates here at St. Patrick’s, by Bishop Robert Christian of San Francisco. Please pray for me and my brothers, that we may proclaim the Word of God with dignity, attention, and devotion in the liturgy and in our lives.

See the official story from St Patrick’s Seminary website here!

To Proclaim the Word of God

Praised be Jesus! Today, my patronal feast day, I took one more step along the path to ordination as a priest. I wrote and sent to my Archbishop my formal petition to be installed as a Lector. If His Excellency accepts my petition, then I will be “installed” at a Mass with my classmates on November 15th—the commemoration of All Carmelite Souls.

In a way, installation as a Lector is the first official recognition on the part of the Church of a candidate for Holy Orders. In the olden days, before Vatican II, there were 7 minor orders which a man would receive successively each year throughout his formation:

orders

When a candidate was accepted into the seminary, he would receive “tonsure” (clipping of a lock of his hair), which marked his entrance into the clerical state. However, Pope Paul VI eliminated first tonsure and the minor orders of porter and exorcist, as well as the subdiaconate, with his apostolic letter Ministeria quaedam in 1972. The remaining minor orders of lector and acolyte were renamed “ministries,” in part to better express the fact that, with the elimination of the rite of tonsure, those who receive these ministries remain laymen. (Entrance into the clerical state now takes place with ordination to the diaconate.)

Thus there are now 4 “steps,” with associated liturgical rites, on this staircase: institution first as a lector, then an acolyte, and ordination first as a deacon, then a priest!

Please pray for me, that I “may be faithful to the work entrusted to [me], proclaim Christ to the world, and so give glory to our Father in heaven” (De institutione lectoris, 4).

My petition:

21 September 2018
Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle & Evangelist

Your Excellency,

In accordance with Canon 1035, §1, of the Code of Canon Law, which requires those seeking Holy Orders to have received the Ministry of Lector and to have exercised that ministry for a suitable period of time, I do hereby petition to be installed in the Ministry of Lector.

I am aware of the responsibilities of the ministry I am requesting, namely, to proclaim the Word of God with reverence, attention, and devotion in the Sacred Liturgy. I therefore promise to meditate daily on Sacred Scripture, “that Christ, by faith, may dwell in my heart” (Oratio ante S. Scripturae Lectionis).

Furthermore, I resolve to make every effort and employ all suitable means to acquire that living love and knowledge of Scripture which will make me a more perfect disciple of the Lord. I firmly intend to exercise this ministry in faithful service to God and the Church, for the glory of the Blessed Trinity and the salvation of sinners, of whom I am the first.

I make this request for installation in the Ministry of Lector freely and in my own hand.

With all filial devotion, I am

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Matthew Knight

Past All, Grasp God

During my summer assignment this year at St. Monica’s parish in Coos Bay, Oregon, I was blessed to be able to lead a three-week faith formation class on poetry in the Catholic tradition. If you know me at all, you will not be surprised to learn that I spent all three weeks talking about my “old friend,” Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ—specifically his great masterpiece, the Wreck of the Deutschland.

wreck
Wreck of the Deutschland as it appeared on the morning of Thursday week

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th-century Englishman, the son of a wealthy insurance broker, who—like most of the respectable and well-to-do in that particular time and place—was raised Anglican, but “fell in with the wrong sort” at Oxford and converted to Catholicism. In fact, not only did he join the Romish Church, but he soon applied to join the Jesuits—then one of the strictest religious orders around!

Nothing could deter Hopkins from his Jesuit vocation: not his family, who disowned him, nor his “secondary” vocation of poetry, which Hopkins felt to be incompatible with the ascetic life of a priest and religious. He did his best to suppress the yearnings of his nature to write, practicing strict custody of the eyes (so as not to be enthralled by the beauty of nature and perhaps spark some “fancy”) and burning all of his poetry after his entrance into the Society of Jesus, an event which he recorded somberly in his diary as the “slaughter of the innocents.”

That resolution changed, however, with the shipwreck of the S.S. Deutschland off the coast of Kent in 1875. Bound for America from Germany, she struck a sandbar in a midnight storm and foundered far enough off the coast that no-body could come to her aid until late the following day. During the night, more than a quarter of the ship’s passengers perished. Among them were five Franciscan nuns.

GerardManleyHopkinsHearing of this tragedy soon after in the newspapers, Hopkins’ Jesuit superior remarked to the community at large that somebody ought to write an elegy for these holy souls. Hopkins, for his part, took that comment as a direct order from his superior, and the Wreck of the Deutschland was the result: some 35 stanzas into which he poured all those years of pent-up creative energy and passion. It is an intense, at times lyrical, often quite difficult, but deeply arresting meditation on suffering, vocation, providence, and the presence or even pressure of God in the world. (“Past all,” Hopkins urges his reader, “grasp God, throned behind!”)

Why am I telling you all this? If any of the above has piqued your interest, the second and third classes are available below for your listening pleasure! (The first class was not recorded, but it is not necessary in order to understand the second, since we begin with a brief recap.)

Click here to listen to the second class (02:02:02).

Click here to listen to the third class (02:06:17).

Note: You may also right-click these links to download them to your computer or mobile device for later listening.

Further Links of Interest:

You can read along with the poem by clicking here.

You can also listen to the entire poem read brilliantly by British stage actor Paul Scofield here (just ignore the computer-generated animation which goes along with it!)

Last summer, I spoke on a similar topic at one of my parish’s monthly Philosophy Nights. Rather than a close reading of a poem, that talk was focused more broadly on the intersection of poetry and philosophy, reading an essay by Martin Heidegger and some selections from St. Thomas Aquinas. But you know we also read the Wreck, because—it’s me! The full talk was recorded by a parishioner and made available here.

During the Philosophy Night talk (which I gave before writing my philosophy thesis) as well as these classes (post-thesis), I reference said thesis quite a few times. If you are really interested in poetry and philosophy,  especially Hopkins and Aquinas, you can download a copy of my thesis here.

Finally, you can listen to musical settings of many of Hopkins’ poems (including the Wreck) by Sean O’Leary here. Thanks to a parishioner of St. Monica’s for this recommendation.

When I Was Little

IMG_0789At Matins, the first hour of the Divine Office this morning, we had one of my favorite verses as a responsory: “Cum essem parvula, placui Altissimo.” ‘When I was little, I pleased the Most High!’ It reminded me at once of this holy card I have posted on my door at the seminary, which shows St. Thérèse in Heaven kneeling at the feet of Our Lady and the child Jesus she loved so much. Mary has a bouquet of roses in her lap, and Thérèse is taking them one by one and dropping them down to earth, fulfilling her promise to spend her Heaven throwing down a shower of roses. If you look closely at the horizon, you will see the dome of St. Peter’s and the spires of the city of Rome: Thérèse, the “Little Flower,” is throwing her flowers of love down over the whole Church!

“When I was little, I pleased the Most High.” It seems to me that those few words are a concise summary of everything St. Thérèse taught in her simple, hidden life. To live a life pleasing to God does not require one to do great things. Maybe that’s the way to live a life pleasing the crowd, striving for greater and greater accomplishments to win people’s admiration or respect, but it is not the way to the heart of the Most High.

To please God does not require one to be the best, the brightest, the greatest looking, the most (fill in the blank). God does not need my eloquence to be pleased with me. God does not need my works or my many words to be pleased with me.

“When I was little, I pleased the Most High.”

Not: “When I stayed up all night keeping vigil (or working on that paper until 3:00 in the morning), I pleased the Most High.”

Not: “When I M.C.’d that Mass, I pleased the Most High.”

Not: “When I gave a talk or led a prayer night at my youth ministry placement, I pleased the Most High.”

Not: “When I got all A’s, I pleased the Most High.” (Good thing, too, because I definitely didn’t last semester!)

Yes, all those things may please Him, but it is not because they are great things in themselves. It’s not as if our works please God in proportion to how important they are in the sight of the world or how perfectly we do them. They give joy to the Father’s heart only in the proportion that they are done with love.

“The value of the gift is in the love of the giver,” they say. The great things we do so that others will see them, or to live up to our own Pharisaical standards for ourselves, count for nothing in the light of eternity. They weigh no more than rust on the scales, a drop in the bucket. But the little things we do, which no one will ever know about except you and God, done purely out of love for Him and because you know they will please Him—those are truly great in His sight.

And love increases as selfishness decreases. I have to be empty of self-interest, of pride, of vanity, of concupiscence, of greed, and of all the other little teeming grasping lesser loves if I am to be filled with the one Love which really satisfies. I have to be “nada” if I am to be filled with God’s “todo.” To truly love is to be truly little.

When I was little, I pleased the Most High.”

And so, all God desires of me is … my littleness. My lowliness. My ordinary, sleeping-in-late, distracted-at-prayer-ness. My sinfulness! My weakness! God desires it. Not any of it for its own sake, but all of it for my sake. He desires me as I am, here and now, on April 9th, 2018 A.D.

Speaking of which, today is a pretty special day to me for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s my 22nd birthday,
  2. It’s the day St. Thérèse, my awesome Sister-Saint, entered the Carmel of Lisieux in 1888 (130 years ago today!),
  3. It’s the feast of the Annunciation—normally celebrated on March 25th (nine months before Christmas), but as Palm Sunday fell on that day this year, the feast was “translated” to the first available date after the Easter Octave—which happened to be today.
  4. The exact same thing happened in 1888, so Monday, April 9th of that year, on which St. Thérèse first received the Carmelite habit as a postulant, was also the feast of the Annunciation. (So cool!)
  5. As you may remember, my religious title as a Carmelite was Bro. Matthew of the Incarnation, so today is not only my birthday, but would have been my feast day in the Order! (I’m still celebrating it as my own 😉 )
  6. Today also marks a year and a day since I returned from Carmel to the Archdiocese of Portland. My two brother novices who “ran the course with joy” have both now professed their first vows as Carmelite friars. I was blessed to be able to attend Bro. Dustin’s first profession last month back in San Jose and Bro. Frank’s two days ago in Vancouver, B.C. Our Holy Mother Teresa is smiling in Heaven to have received these new sons!

IMG_0748

I have had a year since I left to think, to pray, to keep discerning how God is calling me to live out my vocation. To enter deeply into the mysteries of all He has been doing in my life and in my heart. I do not have all the answers yet; I can’t say everything is clear. But I can say that the further I persevere in darkness and obscurity, “without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart,” the simpler and littler things seem to become.

For example, my heart is not wrestling with big questions or anxious about future possibilities. My discernment is no longer about which state in life God is calling me to—diocesan priest? Carmelite friar? husband and father? I am content to leave all of that in my Father’s hands. He has brought me to this place and state, and my heart resounds with a deep loving confidence that He will perfect the work He has begun. My discernment now is about what will please Him today, this hour, this minute: how I can be open to His love in this class, in praying this hour of the breviary, in this conversation: how I can be receptive to that love, and how I can be more open to reveal and share it with those around me.

“While I was yet a little one, I pleased the Most High.” And the littler I am, the more I please him! The abyss of my misery calls out to the abyss of God’s mercy, crying: Which is greater? The deeper my nothingness, the more deeply I can be filled with His All. “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” (Romans 11:32).

God desires you, too, as you are at this time, wherever you are, however you are feeling, whatever you may have done or failed to do. Not at some unspecified future date. Not if you meet some preconceived list of conditions or achieve some hoped-for success or fame. Here. Now. In this place. As you are. “The Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come.'” (Revelations 22:17).

Our Holy Father Francis gave me a great birthday gift: his new apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.” In it he writes:

15. Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness. Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation. Do not be dismayed, for the power of the Holy Spirit enables you to do this, and holiness, in the end, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life (cf. Gal 5:22-23). When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better’.

And again a little later on:

34. Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, ‘the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint’.

AMEN! Let us listen to the Holy Spirit whispering to us through the words of Our Holy Father. “Do not be dismayed … Do not be afraid … Let everything be open to God … Allow yourself to be loved and liberated.” 

How?

Let yourself be little. Let yourself remain little. “‘Remaining little’,” writes Thérèse, “means that we recognize our own nothingness, that we await everything from the goodness of God, as a little child expects everything from its father, that we are not solicitous about anything, and that we do not think about amassing spiritual riches.”

“That is why I have remained little; my only care has been to gather flowers of love and sacrifice and to offer them to God for His good pleasure.”

“When I was little, I pleased the Most High.”

 

 

Reflections on Summer Assignment

cropped-20229456_1571650642906492_7034013344088352665_o.jpg

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."

IMG_0001

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.

In Laudem Gloriae Eius

IMG_0111

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

IMG_17424992_10154235872156906_4873131816062668869_n


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!

dscn0977

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.

dsc_1318
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.

dsc_1320

Glory be to God for His mercy to us!