Early Discernment

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

—St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Conversion

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Catholicism does not consider the priesthood a career but a vocation, a calling or invitation from God to ‘put on Jesus Christ’ in a singular way. A priestly vocation is thus a complex work of the Holy Spirit whose inner dynamics cannot be reduced to psychological categories … [It is] an evolutionary process of gradual clarification or ‘interior illumination.'”

—George Weigel, Witness to Hope

Yes, a vocation is a calling: a calling from the Lord from the very beginning of time. Sometimes He speaks so directly, like a question from a Dominican friar that leaves you speechless, but more often He speaks in a quiet whisper like the roar of the sea, which gently and over the course of years wears away at the rock, or over the course of hours proceeds imperceptibly up the shore. That, at least, was the movement of my conversion and my vocation: moments in which the Lord spoke to me very clearly, yes, but those moments arising out of His constant quiet motion in my heart, ploughing the soil in me, preparing the ground.

As a kid, I had a typical Methodist upbringing, going to church and Sunday school once a week (a necessary chore before Sunday brunch). I would pray with my parents before meals and whenever there was something I wanted: “I’ll memorize the whole Lord’s Prayer,” I would tell Him, with all the magnanimity of childhood, “if You just give me this one thing…” But I had all the graces of baptism, and a children’s Bible, and toys of Noah’s Ark. 

Some eight years before I was born, my mom had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. It was her sixteenth birthday, and she spent the next eight weeks in a coma, unsure if she was going to live. Praised be Jesus Christ, she did! She had to relearn how to walk, talk, and feed herself, but in the end, she made almost a full recovery. Twenty years later, however, when I was in middle school, my stepdad woke me up one morning telling me that mom had had a seizure (something which had never happened before) and we had to go to the hospital right away. I remember praying there in the waiting room at the E.R., not knowing what had happened or whether I would ever see her alive again.

For the second time, praised be Jesus Christ!, her life was spared, but that seizure was the beginning of a turbulent few years for our family. Her doctors switched between this and that medication, looking for the right balance. There was a lot of tension between all of us and a lot of uncertainty in those days. There were many things we used to do—family vacations, camping trips, or even just going hiking on a Saturday—which we just couldn’t do anymore. One of the first things to go, though, was church on Sunday mornings.

I didn’t miss it in the slightest, but I did set out on what I have often described since as a “search for the truth,” although I wouldn’t have characterized it that way at the time. I was very intellectually curious and had always been good at studying and learning new things on my own, if I was interested in the topic. My stepdad had a long time interest in Eastern or “alternative” spirituality and had a number of books on self-help, meditation, and the New Age, which I began to devour one by one.

I think, in retrospect, I was looking for a solid “ground of meaning” in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. Regardless, what I found and adopted as my own was a philosophical cocktail of relativism, subjectivism, and determinism, a cynical skepticism that there was any meaning or order to the world at all, and a vague belief in a kind of Stoic or Taoistic detachment, “going with the flow” of the world so as to minimize (my own) suffering—coupled with an equally vague New Age belief in the power of “positive thinking,” “intentioning,” or the “Law of Attraction” to alter that “flow,” so to speak, for my own personal benefit. For a little while, I called myself a Buddhist, then a Taoist. I quickly finished my stepdad’s books and graduated to websites and online discussion groups, which brought me into contact with all corners of the New Age community.

I continued in this way for a few years until, in my sophomore year of high school, my insatiable curiosity and endless reading brought me into contact for the first time with Catholicism. I’m sure I must have heard the word “Catholic” growing up, but if I had, it was only in the same sentence as Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian—just another Christian denomination. This meant I had inherited very little anti-Catholic bias, but in my indiscriminate ingestion of New Age spirituality, I had picked up a more general anti-Christian bias (made stronger by the fact that I had been raised in, and then left, the Christian faith, so I was sure it had nothing further to offer me).

Still, although I don’t remember the contents of that first article or blog post I read about Catholicism, I know it caught my attention. As I began to read more and more, I was fascinated and even, though I may not have realized it, attracted by the solidity and the consistency of the faith. Coming from a New Age background, in which nothing was solid and everything was up for grabs, all truth was relative, and in fact reality itself was determined by your own thoughts and “intentions,” I was shocked to now stumble upon arguments—convincing arguments—that there was objective truth, that reality operated according both to consistent physical and metaphysical laws, and perhaps most importantly, that there was both a reason for and a meaning to suffering!

I remember saying as I read about the doctrine of original sin, for example, that it was “not how I would have designed the world”;  I would never want it to be true, yet it provided answers that were both intellectually satisfying and consistent both internally and with my experience of the world. I couldn’t reject it out of hand. (The New Age teachings I knew, by contrast, could only really be believed out of a kind of cognitive dissonance, a decision to believe because “it would be nice if this were true—even if it contradicts these other things I believe, and stands in contrast to these other things I know about the world.”)

It was this curiosity and, to some degree, a sense of “intellectual honesty”—that if the Catholic faith seemed so reasonable, internally consistent, and satisfying so far, I had a certain duty to investigate it further—which led me deeper into the faith. I found the prayer “Anima Christi” online, and thought it was so strange, so beautiful, and so unlike anything I had ever encountered in either my Methodist or New Age background that I copied it out into a notebook, where I would read it every time I went to write something down. (Little did I realize I was praying for the first time in years! The Holy Spirit “tricked me” by way of beauty into letting my guard down, and grace flowed into my heart.)

I also read St. Augustine’s Confessions on the recommendation of a stranger from Catholic Answers’ online forum, which was a turning point in my conversion. For the first time, I started feeling a deep urge to go to Mass, which I resisted for some time out of fear of what people might think, but finally, that bright Sunday morning in February, I gave in. And that feeling I described, knowing I had to keep going to Mass based on what I experienced that day—I knew it in the same way I knew that I had to keep investigating the faith based on what I had read so far. Call it being “spiritually honest.”

My parents, having seen me call myself a Buddhist, a Taoist, and God only knows what else over the years, were unconcerned about this latest fad. My stepdad even introduced me to a woman from his workplace who he knew to be a Catholic. What he didn’t know was that she was the parish youth minister! She was quick to get me involved in the youth group, sacramental prep and confirmation classes, and as I grew in knowledge of the faith, love of the Church, zeal for Christ and community in the parish, I was received into full communion the following year on April 27, 2012.


This is part 2 of Quo Vadis? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly. Read part 3 here.

Part 1 can be found here.

Beginnings

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

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No.
I wanted a Cairo of silence,
a Kyoto.
In every hanging garden
mosses and waters.”

—Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty


I have spent a very long time thinking of how to tell this story. I began to write it at the height of summer, on my first pastoral assignment in Portland, sitting in my apartment or my office or the little chapel in the basement of the cathedral and struggling mightily to organize my thoughts—rejecting sentences as soon as I could write them. That was one beginning. Another beginning is in Roseburg, and another is in San Francisco, and another is further back still and much less definite in time or place. And now we are over the threshold of autumn. Mornings are darker shrouded; the light comes later every day, and the rain lingers longer and longer.

The trees of Mt. Angel conspired together to change color overnight, all in one night, Monday, the feast of San Antonio Maria Claret y Clarà. In 1849, at the very height of a Spanish summer, that saint established a missionary order of priests at Barcelona on the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. And on the very same day, July 16, in the year 2011, I was visiting San Francisco with my grandmother—so I will start my story there.

We were on summer vacation. That was our tradition, to take a trip together every summer, since I had been in middle school or even younger. This time, the summer after my sophomore year of high school, we took the train down from Eugene, then a cab to a quirky hotel in Japantown where we would stay, going around the city of St. Francis gabbing in Australian accents (hers real, mine fake) and trying as many exotic kinds of food as we could find. It was the furthest we had ever gone from home together, and we wanted to make the most of it.

One bright Sunday morning in February, only a few months earlier, I had gone to the very first Mass of my life. I looked up directions to our local parish online, surprised to find there even was a Catholic church in Roseburg, OR, and I found out the Mass times, and then I woke up early and walked across town, without telling my parents where I was going. I was fascinated by the holy water, by the people kneeling, by the priest’s Nigerian accent, which made it impossible to understand more than one word out of every ten or so. But as I tried to follow along and take it all in, kneeling along with everyone else, filled with wonder, then all of a sudden Fr. Cletus elevated the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, God of the Universe and Prince of Peace, up above the altar, under the form of bread. And I had a profound experience of consolation, a feeling of such peace and joy as I could never remember having felt before!, which abided with me for hours afterward. The Holy Spirit, who had been moving in me so slowly, gradually, so as not to spook me, I suppose, throughout my conversion, dwelt in me that day. I knew I had to keep going to Mass based on the experience I had of Him there—that there was something here worth pursuing.

So I began going to Mass every Sunday, and then almost every day, as that long winter gave way to summertime. My grandmother—once an Anglican, then a Methodist, and in those days, as now, an Episcopalian—was overjoyed by and endlessly supportive of my new return to the Christian faith, notwithstanding in the least that it was to the Catholic Church. So that summer she went with me to Mass in the city every day at my request, and on our first day we went to St. Dominic’s parish, which happened to be the closest to that Japantown hotel.

Two very important things happened at that simple daily Mass. The celebrant, Fr. Garry Cappleman, O.P., preached a great homily on the miracles that have been wrought through the ages by praying the rosary, and so the next day my grandmother bought one for me. Another Dominican priest at the parish blessed it for me, and I was perpetually enrolled in the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 2011.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, on that first day in the city, Fr. Garry followed my grandmother and I out on the steps of the church after that Mass, and despite never having met me before, the first words out of his mouth were: “Have you ever considered if you might have a vocation to the priesthood?”


This is part 1 of Quo Vadis? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly. Read part 2 here.

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

A Record of the Mercy of the Lord

Feast of St. Martha, 2016
July 29, St. Mark’s Church, Kraków

Today I was hoping above all to be able to meet up with some of my friends from home who are here also in Poland. Lo and behold, before we even got to the Mercy Centre for our morning catechesis, I heard someone calling my name—turned around and saw Ian getting off a bus! I ran and gave him a big hug. Later, taking a few brief moments in the adoration chapel, I got up to leave and felt a tap on my shoulder—Hernan! Gave him a big hug, too. In the arena, I saw Ian again—clasped hands briefly as he walked by, both grinning hugely—and then Fr. Leon, coming from confession.

After catechesis and Mass, I decided to go my own way, apart from the group—hoping to meet up with some more seminarians from home and have lunch. As usual, trying to organize something at the last minute (by text message, in a foreign country) didn’t quite work out. David and Alex were at lunch in the Jewish Quarter with their diocese; Matt Lontz was at the sanctuary of Divine Mercy; Ian and Hernan don’t have cell service here, so I have to rely on God’s merciful providence if I’m going to see them again. I asked Fr. Leon to let them know, but he didn’t answer my text. I was starting to wonder why I stayed behind at all when I found, in the arena restaurant, Leah Libresco delivering a talk along with a Dominican father! I lingered in the back—every seat in the restaurant was packed—listening to them answer questions on how to share the faith. In the end, I got to go up and meet her for just a moment—a minute, no more than that. She was genuinely happy to meet me, remembered my emails, asked how World Youth Day had been so far—”great,” I said, “exhausting. Exciting!”—she agreed, quoting Fr. Dominic, who said “that World Youth Day ever happens at all is a miracle!” We took a picture together and I told her I’d be in touch. She asked me to pray for her nephew, who just this year is entering the college seminary at Notre Dame, and she thanked me for the gift of my life and of my vocation. I closed my eyes and whispered: “Praise God.” I was deeply moved by her gratitude, her asking for my prayers (as, she said, someone “further along”). I think I may have come to take for granted that people are thankful, trust me with their prayers, give me their respect—so much so that I can become irritated when I don’t get it! But from her, it was humbling: a beautiful grace.

I left after that, trying to get directions on my phone to Old Town, but when nothing seemed to be working I quickly decided to just go and surrender myself to divine providence. A young woman at a bus stop gave me directions as to which tram I should take—I got on and was surrounded by a group from El Paso, TX, who accepted me immediately as one of their own. Later, a Benedictine from St. Meinrad’s got on the tram and I told him I was from Mt. Angel—we chatted a little about Oregon, which he said he loves, having just stayed there at the Abbey for 2 weeks!

The Texas group got off at one stop to walk to Błonia Park, so I knew we were near Old Town, but I stayed until the next one. Just as I got off, there was a torrential downpour. I started walking briskly in the direction of the city center—thinking maybe I would get a coffee, or else go pray in the basilica for a while, hoping somebody would return my messages—when I saw a sign: “RELICS OF ST. THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX.” Immediately I crossed the street and ducked into this little archway, where I ran right into a French Carmelite friar whom I had met two days before at Czerna. We greeted one another, and then I continued into the church, where I am sitting now, marveling at the beauty of His providential love. My plans are nothing. They are like a man scribbling blindly on a page trying to compose a letter. But when I allow Him to put his hand on mine and guide each stroke!—ah! How beautiful is the result.

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Sister Thérèse as a novice, age 16

My father knows what I need, and so it is that he brought me here to this beautiful church
—full of pilgrims coming to venerate the relics, yet miraculously silent, with a deep and reverent spirit—this church of which I do not even know the name, but where I can sit in loving quiet with my sister, Thérèse, of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. It is yet another instance when I wanted something
small—to spend an afternoon with some of my brothers, laughing, getting a bite to eat—and he gave me something big I did not even know I wanted: to spend an afternoon with one of my sisters (in the faith and, pray God, in the Order), not laughing out in the crowds, but smiling together in joyful adoration under the gaze of the Father. “Chosen … holy and beloved,” those are the words of the reading at midday prayer to describe us, His children. My God, what have I done to deserve this? (“Nothing,” comes the immediate reply, but it is said with a smile. “You are mine.”)

I am filled with wonder, speechless even, face to face with such love. I told Br. Matthias the other day that I am no longer surprised by God’s providence. That is true—because I have come to rely on it! I still so often cling to my own plans, stubbornly scribbling away and saying nothing—or perhaps stubbornly walking by the same way time after time, even though I know it leads nowhere, rather than ask for directions!—but I am learning. Br. Matthias is a good example. And so, for that matter, is Thérèse. Sweet sister! Pray for me that I may have your precious humility of heart! You always chose the least for yourself, wanting no recognition, no importance, no honors, but only to do His will with a simple heart. I want a heart as simple as yours!

Here your relics are placed right in front of the altar where the most Blessed Sacrament is exposed. You and the Lord, gazing unblinkingly into one another’s eyes, wrapped up in an embrace of perfect communion. It was all you ever wanted: “a surge of the heart—a simple look of love!” Beautiful sister—how my heart longs to share in your communion!

Last night, on a crowded bus, I met a Carmelite sister from Nazareth. She told me she lives with only four other sisters in a monastery on Mt. Carmel itself! And when I told her “che sono un candidato vocazionale con i fratelli,” her face lit up and she promised they would pray for me—would lay my name at the feet of the statue of Our Lady, there on the holy mountain! And two nights ago I met Fr. Saverio Cannistrá, the father general of the Order, a friar entirely in the Carmelite spirit: grounded, unassuming, possessed of a quiet and humble dignity. He gave me his blessing and prayed for his Lord and mine to guide me in the way of His holy will.

Lord, what words can serve to thank you? To praise you? I can only beg you to dwell in my heart, remain with me, make me all yours, conform me more to you each and every day, lead me and guide me—not just as one man leads another, at a distance, but in every action and every moment, be as close to me as if it were your hand laid on mine, writing every word I now write. Grant me more and more holy courage! Make me more and more an instrument of your mercy! Let the brilliant sunbeams of your love shine out from me NOW and ALWAYS! And let me not be ‘incurvatus in me’—but always turned out, pouring myself out in love, dying, a little at a time, in love for all those You love. I love You, Lord; you are my strength. Fiat voluntas tua in me!

Matthew Dominic of the Incarnation to Thérèse of the Infant Jesus and the Holy Face, this feast of St. Martha, 29 July, year of Our Lord 2016.

+JMJ+

This little act of surrender

“A fire prepares his path; it burns up his foes on every side.” You can tell where a fire once burned because of the lush new growth in its place, where the decades of old growth, dead branches and weeds choking out any new fruition, have been cleared away.—Well, what are the Lord’s foes if not our sins, our worldly attachments and desires, the brokennesses we bear, the wounds inflicted on us by the world? He desires to make our heart his home, but first, a fire must clear the way…

“I remember the devotion of your youth,” says the Lord through his prophet Jeremiah: “How you loved me as a bride, following me in the desert, in a land unknown. What fault did your fathers find in me that they withdrew from me, went after empty idols, and became empty themselves?”

Most of the time I think, “I am not so bad.” Most of the time I cannot call myself, with Paul, the “foremost of sinners”—not in the honesty of my heart. I compare myself with those who are much worse than me and judge myself well by comparison—not against those who are so much better than me, which reveals how very far I have to go.

I mentioned the other day how I was feeling like God was “too good to me.” Well, I felt it then almost in a … smug way, a secure way, like I knew his goodness was too exorbitant, but somehow I really did deserve it—I must! Otherwise how could so many blessings have come to me? How could He shower so much goodness on me if I wasn’t—in some mysterious way, at least—worthy of it?

Now I feel it with a heavier heart, and yet—although I do not feel the same easy happiness I felt before at knowing myself to be loved, and loved unconditionally, I think I feel it more deeply … Not now on the level of emotion, but in the bones I know He loves me, and that love has nothing to do with my conduct, with anything I could do for Him (or, conversely, with what I might do against Him)—I am not in this to please Him so as to somehow merit His love or His blessings or salvationno! I look at myself now and I can say, with an honest and critical eye: “I suck”—and yet, “He loves me” and “I am His.” And that is an unconditional state, not subject to good behavior or dependent on any “thought, word, or deed” of my own! Do I need to strive to please Him and do His will?—Yes, but not to impress Him or win His attention or His favor! Just because I love Him and love entails a certain submission to the beloved, a death to self (by which—sweet mystery—we become more our self than ever.)


In my prayer tonight I was restless. I kept moving from one position to another: sitting up straight, then hunching over; stretching out my legs, then sinking to my knees. My mind was awhirl, as usual, with questions and the worries of the day. And the Lord said, “Be still. Why are you in motion even now? Rest here with the one who loves you.”

And when I tried and still could not quiet my mind or my body he said, “Stop striving to reach me. Don’t you know I am here with you? Let me reach you.

Inwardly I said then, with a deep sigh, “All right, Lord … I know you’re right, and I trust you, even if I don’t see how I am blocking your way by trying to run after you.” As I said it, I saw myself as if from behind, standing in the entrance to a beautiful mansion. I stepped to the side and said to Him, “Once again I make this little act of surrender. Come in!”

And almost before I had said so there was a great light shining in through the open doors, and for a long time I rested with Him in peace.

Then before the end of my holy hour, the Lord showed me the beautiful marble floor covered over with the ugliest shag carpet you can imagine—and as if it weren’t ugly enough to begin with, it was all stained and covered in cigarette burns, and there were chunks of it ripped up and torn. And He said, “When in your vanity you imagine yourself to be good enough by your own efforts and merits, and not by my grace, it is like someone who lays down carpet over marble and congratulates themselves on the hard work they have done to improve the space … And it is marred further by your sins of vanity and pride, stains on what little beauty there was even in the carpet, which itself obscures the true beauty have put in your heart.”

A Day in the Life

Have you ever wondered what a seminarian does over the summer? Well, what you’re about to see is an ordinary Thursday in my life (specifically the tenth ordinary Thursday of the year). Disclaimer: This certainly doesn’t represent the life of every seminarian, nor even—by a long shot— every day in my own life! We have good and bad days like anybody else. Yet by the grace of God, the day I set out to document was a very good day. And so, usque ad finem, ad Dei sit gloriam! To God be the glory!

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5:36 am: Morning comes early here. My summer assignment is at St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. (That’s my room in the rectory pictured above.) While I’m assigned here, most of my day to day work is at the pastoral center, but one of my duties here at the cathedral is to be sacristan and acolyte for the weekday morning Masses—meaning I unlock the church, set up the sacred vessels, serve Mass, clean up, and lock up again before I head out to work. Mass is at 7:30, but the doors have to be unlocked by 6:50, so I try to wake up at 5 most days in order to give myself plenty of time to get ready.

Morning discipline is not my strong suit, mainly because evening discipline is not my strong suit, either, but Archbishop Sample has always urged us to offer the Lord the first fruits of our day. It is, I think he would say, a matter of offering God what he is due. I know, too, that spending more time resting in bed doesn’t actually correlate with a more restful day later on. If anything, it makes for a more hectic morning: sleeping in, rushing to get ready, no time for recollection.

In my haste, it can be so easy to lose sight of the meaning behind what I’m doing. I find myself rushing to get to the next item on my to-do list, and the next, and the next. It’s amazing how this mindset afflicts us even when our to-do list consists of extraordinary things: “It’s 6:45 and I’ve got to get vested, and unlock the doors, and dress the chalice, and light the candles, and…!”

Intentionally spending those first moments of the day on the Lord does make for a more peaceful day. In those earliest moments, as the sun is brightening through the window-blinds, I meet Jesus face to face and remember, again, who it is I’m doing all this for. But that argument on its own is not always compelling when I’m under the warm blankets, and in no way equipped to consider anything as long-term as the rest of the day. So what motivates me to get out of bed more often than not is giving God what he is due—not in the negative sense we might sometimes think of it, like paying the tax-man what he is due—but in the sense that our love is due to our beloved. It is hers by right! And it is no tiresome or trying obligation to give it to her. On the contrary, we long to give her every drop.

Well, our love is God’s by right. So is all our time, all our energy, all our work! Venerable Fulton Sheen has a great quote that often comes to mind (although I ignore it almost as often as it comes): “Give, give, give! As we pour out ourselves, God gives us strength! Spend yourself!”—And so I get up and pray the rosary.

IMG_27166:01 am:  I find myself lingering over the fourth luminous mystery, the Transfiguration, as the sunbeams lengthen. The Lord took Peter, James, and John with him up to the mountaintop to pray, and they saw him there in his glory: clothed in dazzling white, his face burning like the sun, speaking with the prophets! I wish I were more like Peter, so pure and childlike of heart, whose first reaction is to build three tents: one for the Lord, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, to stay on the mountaintop forever! “He knew not what he said” (Luke 9:33), but he went right ahead and said it. That’s Peter for you, who, when he sees the Lord out on the water, jumps out of the boat at once to get to him, who walks on the water without knowing what he is doing! Peter, who never stops and thinks, who never lets himself get bogged down in indecision or fear of looking like a fool, whose eyes are always fixed on the Lord and no one else: who is not afraid of anything.

The familiar prayers pass between my lips and the familiar beads between my fingers. I am more like John, I think. Or: I am more like John; I think. 

A little later, I rifle through the pages of my missal to the Mass readings for the day. We are in year II of the weekday lectionary cycle, but something in today’s reading for year I, from Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, catches my eye: “Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

Our beloved Abbot Jeremy Driscoll at Mt. Angel loves to call this the “liturgical providence of God.” So often this is how He speaks! We may not see a cloud come and overshadow us, like the apostles with Jesus on the mountaintop, or hear the voice of God coming out of the cloud, but something catches our attention: a familiar prayer, a reading. A new facet reveals itself in the light. A new resonance delights the ear in a familiar refrain. God speaks with a “still, small voice,” as much to us as to Elijah.

6:37 am: After the rosary and lectio divina, divine reading, it’s time to get ready for the day. I put on a rabat over my work clothes—it’s the plain black vest with the high black collar, the whole purpose of which is to prevent your white shirtfront from showing under your cassock.

The cassock (long, black robe) is fastened around the waist with another long, fringed strip of black fabric called the fascia. Apart from its practical purpose of holding the cassock together, it also has a symbolic purpose: that of guarding purity. When you put on the fascia, you pray, “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.”

Then there is one last vestment to put on: the surplice, a white, waist-length garment which is worn over the cassock. Unlike the cassock, which is clerical “street dress,” the surplice is only worn for divine worship, so I wait to put it on until I get to the sacristy.

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7:02 am: Everything is already set up for Mass by the time I get there! I forgot Thursdays are the one day a week when Suzanne, a Cathedral parishioner and sure candidate for canonization one day, comes in to serve as morning sacristan. Praise God! Praise Suzanne! Now I have time to pray the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer before the start of Mass.

FullSizeRender 13Those two prayers are two of the seven “hours” of the Divine Office, which, together with Holy Mass, makes up the daily liturgical prayer of the Church. Priests, seminarians, and consecrated religious, along with some members of the laity, pray these prayers every single day. What does this mean? That the Church is constantly at prayer—”from the rising of the sun to its setting,” as Eucharistic Prayer III has it. Right now, a priest in Italy is finishing evening prayer, at the very same moment as I whisper “Lord, open my lips” and begin morning prayer. We are one body in Christ, constantly interceding before the Father for the sanctification of the world.

Today is the memorial of St. Ephrem, a second century deacon and doctor of the Church, and so the Office of Readings has a selection from one of his sermons. This is another incredible aspect of the Church! We are not just one body made up of all those who happen to be alive on June 8, 2016, but of all those of us who have ever lived and professed the name of Christian—and so Deacon Ephrem, “born of a Christian family at Nisibis around the year 306,” as the breviary helpfully notes, continues to preach to us and pray right alongside us in Portland, Oregon, 1643 years after his death!

His sermon begins with a prayer: “Lord, shed upon our darkened souls the brilliant light of your wisdom so that we may be enlightened and serve you with renewed purity. Sunrise marks the hour for men to begin their toil, but in our souls, Lord, prepare a dwelling for the day that will never end. Grant that we may come to know the risen life and that nothing may distract us from the delights you offer. Through our unremitting zeal for you, Lord, set upon us the sign of your day that is not measured by the sun.”

Amen! (Part of me wants to say: “OO-RAH!”) And now for the third time this morning the Transfiguration is coming to light … pun intended. God longs for us not just to see his light but to reflect it, to soak in it and be enlightened by it, to be transformed into Him! (Another part of me wants to say: “Okay, Lord, I get it!” But I know how easily I get distracted. He can’t remind me enough.)

FullSizeRender 10Ephrem goes on, addressing the Lord directly: “In your sacrament we daily embrace you and receive you into our bodies; make us worthy to experience the resurrection for which we hope. We have had your treasure hidden within us ever since we received baptismal grace; it grows ever richer at your sacramental table. Teach us to find our joy in your favor! Lord, we have within us your memorial, received at your spiritual table; let us possess it in its full reality when all things shall be made now. We glimpse the beauty that is laid up for us when we gaze upon the spiritual beauty your immortal will now creates within our mortal selves.”

After all this prayer on the Transfiguration, now the time has come for Mass, to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, the sacrament which effects what it signifies: that sacrament by which we are transformed, little by little, into Himself!

8:24 am: After Mass, I head upstairs to my room to divest myself of the garments of divine service, the cassock and surplice, and vest myself instead in the garments proper to worldly work: the tie and the key card belt clip.

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FullSizeRender 4In the first reading for Mass, “Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go back, eat and drink; for I hear the sound of rain.'” It looks like it’s going to rain in Portland, too, so I take Elijah’s advice and stop for a cup of coffee.

After Elijah, having sent Ahab away, had spent some time in prayer on Mount Carmel, he told his servant, “Go and say to Ahab, ‘Harness the chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'” So I harness my Honda Accord and go down over the river to the pastoral center of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon.

FullSizeRender 69:06 am: I arrive at the office to find my fellow seminarian and coworker in the vineyard of the Lord, Thien, is already hard at work.

After waking him up, we set at once about our ongoing project: contacting all the parishes in the Archdiocese of Portland to get up-to-date contact information for a new internal database. Okay, so maybe it’s not the stuff great saint movies are made of, but hey—if little Thérèse became a saint doing “small things with great love,” we’ve still got a shot!

As you can see, we have a highly scientific system of sticky notes keeping track of which parishes we’ve contacted and which we are still waiting to hear back from. The further away it is on the wall, the more hopeless we’ve become of ever hearing from them. (Does St. John’s in Reedsport even exist?)

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Pictured above: liturgical shock trooper Thien and his trusty sidekick.

10:27 am: Our sanctifying monotony of leaving and responding to voicemails is interrupted by a quick meeting with Kelsey, director pro tempore of the Office for People with Disabilities. Pope Francis is celebrating a jubilee Mass for the sick and disabled in Rome this weekend, and we’ll be celebrating a jubilee Mass of our own in union with the Holy Father here in the Archdiocese of Portland. Kelsey is organizing everything, God bless her. Thien and I are going to show up in our cassocks like liturgical shock troops and make sure everything goes as planned.

12:21 pm: Before going on my lunch break, I nip into the chapel to pray the Angelus and the midday hour of the Divine Office. (How cool is it that the places where I live and work are both places where Jesus also lives? And I can pop in and visit him on my lunch break? It blows my mind!)

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The rest of the afternoon continues in the same way: phone calls, emails, little meetings, the administrative lifeblood of the Church. (The real lifeblood of the Church, of course, is in every golden tabernacle where the Sacred Heart of Jesus beats.)

4:56 pm: Another day’s work completed, I head back on my now-familiar drive across the river to the cathedral—but not for long! I have just enough time to make myself a little something to eat and catch my breath before I hop back in the car and drive back to the east side (SE Taylor and 41st, to be exact) for a young adult night at St. Stephen’s parish.

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I wonder how much time I spend every day looking at this view…

Although my home parish is St. Joseph in Roseburg, and my assignment this summer is at St. Mary’s Cathedral, my “home away from home” is without a doubt St. Stephen’s, a beautiful parish which has seen a miraculous resurrection over these past two years under the leadership of Fathers John Boyle and Eric Anderson. Celebrating the sacraments with reverence according to the age-old traditions of our Church, they have a growing young adult group, 15+ young men and boys serving at the altar every Sunday, many young families… Tradition is for the young!

8:14 pm: Every Thursday night, St. Stephen’s celebrates a holy hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with priests available to hear confessions throughout, followed by sung Vespers (the evening hour of the Divine Office—men and women sing each verse of the psalms back and forth from opposite sides of the choir), benediction, and then a young adult social in the parish hall to close out the evening. Tonight, we had a great, lively conversation covering everything from Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ to St. Thérèse’s little way and Cardinal de Val’s Litany of Humility. A young man from Indianapolis dropped in who just happened to have gotten an Airbnb across the street, and decided to join us. Praise God for his providence!

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Pictured (left to right): seminarian brother Ethan Alano, myself, Andy from Indianapolis, Diana, Lisa, Eric, Andrew, Sara, Fr. Eric, and another visitor whose name I didn’t catch. (Not pictured: Nick, behind the camera!)

We ended the night back in the church with sung Compline, the last hour of the daily Office, by general consensus. What more beautiful way to end another day in the Lord’s service than with voices joined, raising the ancient Latin prayers of the Church to heaven?

When we finally go our separate ways, I make the journey once more from east to west, from one house of the Lord to another. The streets of Portland are a little calmer by 10 pm, and maybe it’s my inner small-town country kid, but the city always seems especially beautiful at night, all lit up against the sky. The last antiphon of Compline every night echoes in my mind: “Salva nos, Domine, vigilantes, et custodi nos dormientes,” we sang, “ut vigilemus cum Christo, et requiescamus in pace.” (Save us, O Lord, while we keep vigil, and protect us while we sleep, that we may keep watch with Christ, and rest in peace.)

It is by moments like these that the Lord transfigures us—not just once, but a constant series of innumerable moments, one after another, in which we say “yes” to His love! I love that Benedictine motto, instilled in me by my time at Mount Angel: ora et labora, prayer and work, both ways we encounter God and continue to be transformed into His likeness. Whatever we are doing, sitting in prayer, talking and laughing with friends, or going about our daily business, our life as Christians should be marked above all by that constant awareness that God is with us! He is Immanuel, after all, “closer to us than we are to ourselves,” as St. Augustine beautifully put it. As long as we keep saying “yes,” every day we draw closer to Him and offer ourselves up as a beautiful offering in His sight.

“Lord God,
send peaceful sleep
to refresh our tired bodies.
May your help always renew us
and keep us strong in your service.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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God’s Happy Will

“What have I to fear but my fear?—
And even that no more a scandal
than a rock to a mighty current
which by numberless moments is smoothed
so the water does not break on its jagged edge,
on its journey from source to source.”


The complicated part is aligning my will with His—or—discerning the boundary line between my desires and His. (I write “complicated” and hear in my mind W. quoting Conchita: “¡simplifícate!”)

And really—what is so complicated? Lately God has been speaking to me quite clearly, especially through scripture and the liturgy. Not long before break it was John 6:1-11: the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. His message was clear. Jesus already knew what he was going to accomplish. The disciples just had to trust him and do what he said, even not knowing what would happen (although they thought they knew!) The people just had to recline on the grass—and they were fed.

The same with the verse he gave me in prayer at the Carmelite house. “I know the plans I have for you…plans for good, and not for evil.” So why worry?

Yesterday at evening prayer: “from the womb before the dawn I begot you.” He knew me and the plans he had for me since before the creation of the world! Reminds me of J.: “God was calling you before you were born. Before any of this existed.” So why worry?

“The Lord has sworn an oath he will not change: you are a priest forever…” My vocation is written on the heart of Christ. Nothing I do can or will change that.

“Jesus said: do not be afraid.

Ahh—therein lies the rub.


What words can express your will, O Lord? Or what insight express your providence? “It was good for me to be afflicted / to learn your will.” Everything in my life you have ordained because it is good for me. You know my nature perfectly, Lord; you even know that I will sin, and when, and how. Yet even THIS you ordain for your glory and my perfection!

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. But do you? Only from our perspective… 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 to 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 smooths 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 but our flaws, Lord. You remove 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: the good and the ugly, the beautiful and the selfish, the base and the divine. Take me and make me all yours!


Love makes you do crazy things, which is why I’m here with you at some mysterious hour after 2 am, before the sunrise.

“I want all of you.” (Said matter-of-factly, but with a great tenderness.)

And I of you, Jesus…

“My love is like a strong river that flows where it wills, through many tributaries and channels. Do not grow attached to any one in particular. Imagine! how ridiculous it would have been to grow attached to E. But you don’t find it ridiculous that your heart grew attached to S… My love comes to you through many, many people. Love me, love them, wildly, unconditionally. But do not become attached to one channel of my love. Otherwise you may be sitting forlornly by a dry creekbed while the river rages elsewhere.—As always, the only way is surrender: to be swept up in the current.”

(With his hands on my back, in a strong embrace.) “I love you so much, and you don’t even know it… I am your father. And I am so proud of you.”

Suddenly, Jesus

“On the evening of the first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors; suddenly, Jesus stood among them and said: Peace be with you, alleluia!”

Tonight’s Magnificat antiphon comes from John 20:19. Praying this antiphon at Vespers, I was struck by that word ‘suddenly’. How lonely and afraid the apostles of Jesus must have been on that dark night after he was crucified! They locked themselves away, for fear that they would be sought out and executed like the Master. All the courage had gone out of them. “The light that was coming into the world” had gone out of it—suddenly, all at once. For a while, everything must have seemed so certain, but that certainty melted away like a morning haze in the face of such inexpressible suffering and death. What did it mean for the one they called משׁיח, the anointed one, and בנ–אלהים, the very Son of God, to have died? It was impossible! Truly “the earth quaked, rocks were split!” Imagine the silence that must have lain heavy over that room. Death had triumphed—the Christ had died!

And at that moment of deepest despair, of most hopeless longing, of greatest fear, the beloved disciple tells us: “suddenly, Jesus stood among them.” How often Our Lord moves ‘suddenly’! The event of the Resurrection itself was sudden: not announced by trumpets, not heralded by angels, not a spectacle for all to see, but quiet, hidden, brief. And when he had risen, he was “seen, not by all,” as this morning’s reading at Lauds reminds us, “but only by such witnesses as had been chosen beforehand by God—by us who ate and drank with him” (Acts 10:41).

Our Lord loves silence. He loves intimacy. He loves surprises! He loves for the weak and the lowly and the suffering and the humiliated and the seemingly beyond all hope to triumph over the strong and the mighty and the violent and the powerful and the apparently victorious. He does the greatest deeds of all time, not lit by Klieg lights and broadcast to the world, but shrouded in humility and mystery, attended by only a few: his coming as a man born to a poor girl in a Bethlehem barn, attended by strangers; his rising from the dead, alone in the tomb, unseen by any but his Father.

His ways are not our ways. But that is because his ways are far better! After all, how much would the apostles have loved for him to appear in all his majesty and put to shame those who had put him to death? But the Lord did not appear to the ones who had killed him. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). No—first in his death he went to the ones who had not known him, and then in his resurrection, he came to the ones who loved him. Even among his disciples, he did not make a grand entrance, like a king returning victorious, but passed invisibly through the locked doors to appear ‘suddenly’ in their midst: a friend surprising his friends.

And what beautiful words did he speak to them in that first moment of their reunion, in that first moment when they would dare permit themselves to hope again, to look into the face of their beloved who they had seen tortured and crucified and realize that, no, indeed, death was no more?—”Peace be with you. Alleluia.”

Friends, what more can any of us say than that?

In these holy days, when the world seems so dark with suffering, let us remember who we are following and why. The world threatens us with violence, with the martyrdom of the sword, or the slow death of sin. We are tempted, like the apostles, to lock ourselves away. But let us remember that no matter how dark is the night, “the world and its enticement are passing away” (1 John 2:17). The worst thing it can threaten us with is death. Yet ours is a god who has already conquered death—and not conquered it in with the weapons of the world, but, as Pope Francis said beautifully this morning, “with weapons of love!”

How often we, like the apostles, gather behind locked doors. We bar them against the evils of the world, against the inconvenience of loving our brothers and sisters, even against the demanding and terrifying love of Our Lord himself. Yet in the haunting words of the Holy Saturday Exsultet: “This is the night that sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and the gloom of sin!” Those words applied to the apostles on the evening of the Sabbath in 33 A.D. and they apply to us on this first night of Easter in 2016. “Be not afraid!” Our Lord is risen from the dead! Let us be brave and assert, yes, LIFE has triumphed over death, LOVE over hatred, JOY over fear, PEACE over violence! We must not close our eyes and pretend evil does not exist. It most certainly does. But evil has already lost. Brothers and sisters, we are the evidence.

A blessed Easter to all of you and each of you. May our God slip through the locked doors of our hearts and his peace dispel our fears, so that he may dwell within us, in this season and always.

The Catholic Thing

Yesterday night, we celebrated the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the great celebration of Candlemas, “when,” as the Blessing of Candles in the Roman Ritual has it, “Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph. Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law, but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people.”

February 2nd marks forty days since the celebration of Christmas, and so it is the traditional end of the Christmas season (which to many of us already seems like a distant memory!) And here at Mt. Angel Abbey, it was celebrated in fine traditional fashion: gathering outside the abbey church in the dead of night, receiving the blessed candles, then the light, passed from brother to brother through the crowd, and finally processing into the darkened church for Mass, each of us contributing what little light we had until the whole church was awash in a mystical glow.

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Photo credit: Ace Tui, Diocese of Honolulu

As I sat in choir, I marvelled at what a beautiful Church this is. Not just this particular church, though it certainly is so, but this Church as a whole, the mystical body of Christ. I think I have ruminated before on this blog about what led me to convert to Catholicism. For a time, I characterized my conversion as a search for truth. More recently, I  might have said that in the Church I stumbled upon beauty and fell enraptured into her arms. In the candlelight, I say it is both.

In philosophy, we speak often of the transcendentals: the Good, the True, the Beautiful. It would be an injustice to try to sum up in a few words a subject on which so much ink has been spilled, but the idea is that they transcend (trans-scandere, “to climb beyond,” ascend, surpass) the world as we know it—for the world is limited, and the things of this world, our money and our laptops and our fancy coffee drinks and even Adele’s new single, are already passing away. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are imbued in the very fabric of this world, permeating it like the smell of baking cookies fills a home, but they go far beyond it too, because their source lies beyond its limits. We know because we can never get enough truth to satify; we are never glutted on too much beauty; we never have so much goodness that we cry out “no more! I couldn’t stand another good thing!” Cookies easily fill us up for a time and leave us wanting, but our hunger for the transcendentals is never satiated: we always long for more. We sense innately that there is more, far more than the straining bulging limits of this world could contain.

I think it was von Balthazar who said that we can know a true thing by its goodness and a good thing by its beauty. They intersect in beauty; one might even say they culminate, reach their highest pitch in beauty. So to say that I was searching for truth or hungering after beauty are to say almost the same thing, expressing different aspects of the very same desire, a deep thirst in the heart of every human being (though in a great many it languishes unrealized) for what is beyond this world, that which will not pass away.

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Photo credit: Matthew Lontz, Archdiocese of Seattle

And I found it, of course, in what Msgr. Kevin J. Irwin at a theological symposium last spring memorably called “the Catholic thing,” which is very viscerally the sacramental thing: earth, air, fire, water, bread, wine, candles, ashes. Catholicism takes the world seriously, not just because God created it, but because He came into it and walked in it; she takes our bodies seriously because He became incarnate, enfleshed in our flesh!

I think many people see our beautiful faith from the outside and walk away bewildered because they fail to understand one or all of these things: that the world is good, or that it doesn’t last forever, or that something does. If we believe the world is not good, but still believe in the transcendental goods, we find ourselves mired in iconoclasm, Puritanism, Pharisaism, legalism. If we believe the world is good, but trick ourselves into believing that it’s all there is, then we wander into materialism, scientism. And if the world is not good, and we know it won’t last, but yet we fail to recognize the transcendental goods that will, we slip into nihilism and #YOLO.

But the world and the things of the world are good, and endowed with such dignity, in fact, that we use them to worship—and they, in turn, lead us into eternity, because in the beautiful and the true and good things of this world we taste the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness that are eternal.

So beautiful churches and Gregorian chant are not just nice to have. Candles in the darkness are not just pretty. The bread and wine we carry to the altar are not just a symbol. (“If it’s a symbol,” as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “then to hell with it.”) No—in these we taste eternity right now! In these, we remember who we are, and for we who have the joy of being baptized into the body of Christ, whose we are, and why. For Catholics, heaven is not a distant daydream. Heaven is perfect communion; heaven is the eternal present; we taste it every day in the breaking of the bread, we glimpse it in the candlelight and the faces of our icons, we hear echoes of it in our songs and the ringing of our bells, we feel the first hints of it in the warmth of our embraces.

Heaven is not something other, some abstract “x” we cannot know until we get there. Heaven consists in the things we already know in this world, beauty, truth, goodness, and most of all love—but the fullness of those things. When C.S. Lewis talks about Heaven in the Great Divorce, he talks not of something ephemeral, where saints and angels float about on wispy clouds, but of something realer, more solid than the earth! Those people who talk about being bored by eternal life, then, show a very grave lack of imagination. Eternity is by definition the eternal satisfaction of all those desires which cannot in this life be satisfied, but our taste for them only whetted.

It was with all of this percolating in my mind that I came upon the following meme on Facebook last night:

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To which someone very dear to me quite sensibly responded, in part: “There has always been something about that saying that doesn’t quite sit right with me … I believe that in a life long search for a better/deeper relationship with God, a better understanding of truth can be attained, as opposed to the theory [that] if I do what I’m ‘supposed’ to do, I get the prize at the end of the game. Granted, that prize is pretty big, right? But to me it is in the questioning, the searching, the effort to find God that the real prize is attained during this lifetime, in a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God, and those around us with whom we share this miracle called life.”

I’m sympathetic to that. It’s a gross mischaracterization of Christianity to say that we simply have to do what we’re “supposed to do” and voila, we get the “prize” of eternal life—as if the universe were one of those arcade machines with the mechanical claw, in which all you have to do to grab eternity is put in enough quarters and not screw up the controls, or (a darker picture) as if God were a perpetually demanding parent, dangling eternity over our heads as a reward just out of reach, but attainable, as long as we can live up to his high standards. Then again, this is the Christianity most people encounter in popular culture and, yes, Facebook memes.

His comment goes on: “That promise of eternal life seems so ‘out of reach’ and so vast as to be unimaginable, and unattainable … The promise does not inspire me to continue my search for understanding, love, and truth in God. I don’t want to believe in God because if I don’t I might go to hell.” (The infamous stick to Christianity’s carrot.)

The fact of the matter is, though he might be surprised to hear it, what this non-Catholic friend of mine is saying is far closer to “the Catholic thing” than is the view of Christianity he sketches out. The idea that “it is in the questioning, the searching, the effort to find God that the real prize is attained” is a Catholic idea down to the marrow, and a beautifully expressed one at that. It reminds me of nothing so much as St. Augustine when, in the opening lines of his Confessions, he describes his own years of questioning and searching for God, and the moment he accidentally found Him:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Of course, it is another common misconception of Catholicism seen from without that it is all a bit mechanistic: agree to these articles of faith, sign on the dotted line, say your Hail Marys, do good works, and reap your reward. That the Catholic Church is primarily about keeping your head down and doing what you’re told. On the contrary, say I: we are talking about the Church that produced scholastic philosophy and the scientific method, the mystics and Mozart! I have spoken already of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—how can we know Truth if we don’t seek her passionately, Beauty if we don’t pursue her ardently, Goodness if we don’t strive after her constantly?

The Catholic faith is a quest, it is a journey; it is a Church in pursuit, on pilgrimage. It’s not about following the rules to get a prize. It is about loving what is eternal because that is our destiny, as adopted sons and daughters of Love Himself, and setting aside what is passing away. And the Catholic vision of eternity is by no means unimaginable, unattainable, or “out of reach.” We see glimpses of it every day, because this world is God’s creation and He utterly fills it up, because “in Him all things live and move and have their being.” The Catholic thing is “loving the things that are above”—not, again, in the sense of things that are lofty, beyond our reach, but that penetrate the world and rise above it.

At the same time, the Catholic thing is not simply “searching for understanding, love, and truth in God,” nor simply trying to attain “a better understanding of truth,” nor even “a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God and those around us”—though all those things are caught up in the Catholic thing—because for Catholics, Love and Truth and Beauty and Goodness are all, in fact, synonymous with God. He is Love. He is Truth. He is Beauty. He is Goodness. Outside of Him there is no such thing! When we pursue these things in the world, then, when we long for them and seek after them all our days, what we are seeking after is God, always God, ever God.

The Catholic thing is love: loving God—that is to say, loving Love—that is to say, loving Truth, loving Goodness, loving Beauty—and as it must follow, loving one another.

As Our Lord answered the Pharisee in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Or as St. Augustine said in a famous sermon: “Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within; of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

24 scraps from a notebook filled cover to cover with grace.

I am writing at 3:00 on Good Friday, the hour Jesus died, in the little chapel upstairs in the parish center, sitting here with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and a statue of the Holy Family and a ghastly greenish-brown carpet and, for an unknown and potentially unknowable reason, several small ornamental cacti.

Today very much just has a desolate feeling to it. It’s not that I personally feel that way, either, it’s just this sense of … emptiness, and shared loss, like a family bereavement, or when you’re with a friend who’s in pain, and though you are not, personally, in pain, you can feel theirs. The narrow strip of sky I can see over the hilltop is utterly grey, the very definition of a bleak horizon.


II.

The most important event in the whole created universe is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and his raising from the dead. Everything in the created order is changed by the fact of the Resurrection. Everything is played in a new key, joys and sufferings, transformed into a song that will sound forever in the presence of God.

The power of Hell is undone by the death and the Resurrection. The hour of Jesus’ death is an hour that will not pass away.

The Father fills with his breath the corpse of His son. The son breathes on his disciples—passing on what He was given, immediately.

The resurrection of Jesus is inseparable from the birth of the Church—the outpouring of the same gift that raised Jesus from the dead upon us.

We are the evidence.


III.

The most intimate moment is a paradox.

It must be time for church.
A line of men from two buildings
converges on a third.
Straggling like sheep

They walk like sheep
straggly line with the whole meadow wide open before them
or like a four year old’s line
gone crooked despite her screwed-up eyes’ effort
the tightness of her little fist on the pencil.
They walk alone in twos and threes
some from one building
others, another
all converging on a third.

Two hands lift up a heavy golden chalice.

Sheep-eyes, feet wander, hearts go astray.


IV.

I desire to desire what You desire
because you desire it
for as long as you desire it
in the way that you desire it,
not to desire more than you desire,
not to desire anything other than you desire,
but that Your desire may be my desire,
for I desire you, Lord.
My heart burns for you.
All other desires are as dust and tasteless food compared with you.
But in you all my lesser desires meet and come to fulfillment.
Grant, then, I beg you,
that I may long only for your sweetness,
so that one day my longing may be satisfied.
+Amen.


V.

In the way that lovers know their lover’s mind

Like an acorn knows the warm earth
like a window knows the sky
like a votive candle knows
the vastness and the breadth
of its smoke
and where it goes
so I know you.

Like a lover knows his beloved’s mind
a father, his son’s
a brother, his brother’s

Like a glance between brothers bears volumes of meaning knowing
whether you are paying attention
and whether you slept well
the night before

Like a lonely heart knows moonlight
Like St. Francis knows the sunrise
Like a starving man knows…

Like an iceberg knows the cold unchilding unfathering depths

Like a question not asked
and not answered
which just hangs there
sucking all the air out of the room

Like


VI.

The love of the Father is our home. Mercy creates for us a home in our hearts. The cycle of mercy consists of healing, restoration, and elevation—to a place higher than we were had we not fallen.

In mercy we experience being found, coming home.

“Mercy may be called love’s second name.”

The love of God is the guarantee of man’s happiness!

The mercy of God washes over a soul like a rotting corpse and returns it to life, washed white as snow in the blood of the Lamb.


VII.

“Do not suppose the interior of a soul is empty! Oh, if only we would remember what a guest we have within us … I would not have let his dwelling place get so dirty.” —St. Teresa


VIII.

The role of a caregiver for a person with Alzheimer’s is similar to the role of the Christian in the world. Even when others forget who (and whose) they are, the Christian does not forget. Acts toward them w/solicitude but keeps in mind who they are.

God: the one who does not forget.


IX.

When you hear “fishers of men,” you can’t think of it like a lazy Sunday afternoon. You have to think Moby Dick.


X.

The Church is the body of Christ, but not a sleek, trim body—it is the broken body, the bleeding body, the body on the Cross.


XI.

He found me in a first floor hallway reading a series of framed articles on the nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic, and asked where I was from. “Come to check us out, eh?” he wheezed. “I hope you like what you see.”

He then directed me to a photo on his door. “That’s me,” he said, pointing to a friar at least 25 years younger, holding a dog, and named the other two men in the picture as well. “He’s dead now,” he added, pointing to the third. “And the last time I saw that dog, he had arthritis. And for that,” he finished triumphantly, “you pray to St. Arthur!”

He went off chuckling, arthuritically, and left me bemused.


XII.

I feel a little more alive now that I am outside and defining my thoughts and sensations in ink on paper. Wandering these empty halls, I felt a sense approaching desperation, reminding me of when I would be home alone as a kid with nothing to do in an empty house as silent as the grave, and try to fill my time with the internet and video games, all the while aware of a crushing ennui, the meaninglessness of my activity. Perhaps the silence and the stillness is my invitation to contemplation. Perhaps prayer is just what is needed to fill it. Very well—I will pray.


XIII.

Michael likened my discernment to a relationship and pointed out that everyone learns new things about themselves over the course of a relationship. I certainly am. I also drew the point from his comment that Love tends toward Truth, because both are transcendental goods, so being in Love, giving and receiving and participating in the inner life of Love, “living Love,” so to speak, tends to lead to Truth. What this tells me is what I already know. I need to perfectly surrender my will here. I need to open my heart more fully, more than ever before, to the love of God so that I can encounter the truth of his vocation to me.

I’m also thinking about how I’ve been reflecting on and retelling the story of my own conversion lately. I’ve long characterized it as a search for truth, and while it was that, that wasn’t enough. It was coming to Mass that converted me, changed my heart, “marked my life forever,” to use Fr. Gerardo’s phrase. It was the liturgy. It was beauty. Beauty and Truth and Love are all ordered to one another, but they’re not interchangeable. They all brought me into the Church—they all played into my conversion—but I think I can say Beauty was the crux of the thing, the turning point, the “clincher” … The fact that it was Beauty for me says something about my personality, who I am and how God made me.

I guess all I can say as of yet is “I don’t know.” But I’m trying to be at peace with that, because God knows, and that’s what matters. I’m not trying to make a decision here by carefully comparing several equally good alternatives. My job is just to listen to Him speak in still, small ways and go wherever He is leading me. And in that there is true peace.


XIV.

Tonight, praying my rosary in this silent chapel surrounded by shadows and white habits, I felt myself transported—engaged in the dislocation which is operative in the intentional act of recollection—back to the chapel of the little parish near where I stayed in Mexico City, where Nana and I went for a holy hour. I felt the Holy Spirit there and I felt Him here tonight, too. His peace is as unmistakeable as His joy.


XV.

I need to be careful to remember that “I am not called to be a seminarian,” and the life I am currently living at Mt. Angel is not forever. Diocesan life is quite different from diocesan seminarian life. But I don’t feel I should settle for a future which is a pale imitation of my present. That is not seeking God’s will; that is trying to hold on to something which is transitory and missing out on something greater He wishes to give me.


XVI.

Woke up for Matins at 6:30, breakfast with the brethren, a nice run Br. Thomas recommended (though he could not join me due to Finals), got pleasantly lost along the way—prayed the rosary in the darkened chapel with five or six brothers, leaning back and closing my eyes and hearing their prayers wash over me like the sea lapping at the shore, and feeling, as if in a dream, the choir stalls tilting backwards and seeing them teetering over a vast and fiery abyss, so that the solid wood at my back was all that was keeping me from plunging to Gehenna—midday prayer, a lively lunch, a day trip to Benicia, visiting all the dead at the provincial cemetry, coffee with Fr. Stephen Maria and Br. Gregory Liu—Vespers, evening Mass, a fraternal embrace at the sign of peace, a rowdy game of Scrabble played by “fourth floor rules,” a relaxed dinner, Compline, adoration by candlelight, ran into Br. Thomas wearing a headlamp in the hallway. This place no longer seems dull. It just took a little while for its character to reveal itself, as anything worth knowing does.


XVII.

On this feast day of St. John of the Cross, I’m also reminded of Pat Tresselle, who said to me years ago, “I think you would make a really good Carmelite, you’re so quiet and pious!” and pressed the brochure of their California-Arizona Province into my bemused hands.


XVIII.

What do I know? Nothing, but that God loves and me and I love him (although He loves me perfectly and my heart oft goes astray). I trust you, Lord. En ti confío. I give you thanks and praise for my blessed time here so far, and I will praise you wherever you call me to live out my days on earth. I need to keep my eye on the long game, which is Heaven.

“God withholds himself from no one who perseveres,” says a stern-faced icon of St. Teresa of Ávila on the wall above me. Grant that my spirit may never falter, Lord, but that I may always long after you et esse tecum.


XIX.

I spent the last couple of hours baking cupcakes with Br. Andrew Dominic, which is truthfully not something I ever expected to be doing on this retreat, but I guess that is what happens when you surrender to the Holy Spirit—surprises, I mean. Not specifically cupcakes.


XX.

First day of our winter silent retreat here at Mt. Angel. It is extremely, even unnaturally cold and icy—last night when I arrived I had to abandon my car at the base of the hill and trek up in the frozen dark, lugging my suitcase, messenger bag, and pillow, because Abbey Drive had frozen into a solid sheet of ice. I joked later that I had started my retreat off with the Stations of the Cross. Msgr. Betschart this morning asked me drily “how was the walk?” and I told him “purgative.” But it really was!


XXI.

There are a few lessons God wants me to learn, and I am trying to be patient with myself and not be unduly frustrated, despite how long it seems to be taking me to learn them.

We are constantly facing the choice: my will or yours? Sometimes the two are aligned. More often not. But we know where one path leads: the path of God’s will leads to our perfection, to our good, our joy, our fulfillment, our ultimate end: eternity. There may be suffering along the path, but it is bearable, even sweet suffering in light of the destination of which we are assured. If we choose the path of our own will, we have no such assurance. Our will is disordered and confused, clouded by worldly desires, corrupted by sinful self-indulgence and a thousand temptations.

Surrender is becoming more and more like second nature to me because when I surrender to His will, things just seem to work out. When I do not, the road tends to get rough.

But I am not learning my other lessons so well. “Oh, humility, humility!” St. Teresa bemoans in her Interior Castle. She writes of people who, despite leading virtuous lives, become stuck in their spiritual development because they are too concerned with what other people think of them, and I find myself nodding along. And charity. In the same chapter, she writes of the very same people who tend to look too much to the faults of others while ignoring their own inadequacies which keep them from progressing further in the spiritual life, and I wonder, how much time have I spent fretting these past weeks over others’ failures, and what advice to give them, and how to get through to them and bring them back to God, while the rooms of my own interior castle are in disarray because of my own failures to put my love of God above sinful and passing pleasures?

Humility, charity, and chastity, those are the 3 big areas of growth for me right now. (By which I mean the 3 areas in which I most need to grow, not in which I seem to be growing very quickly.)


XXII.

In silence, everything seems sanctified. My brothers tramping up the stairs from the chapel and down to the dining room is no longer just movement; it is a procession.  Mealtimes become times of reflection and contemplation, as profound as a holy hour. Cleaning my room even is pregnant with the presence of God.

Praying the rosary tonight before Compline, I had a strange experience of what might be called “disembodiment”—I know I was seated, looking down, but felt like I had almost a second body, and it was standing and looking up, and I could feel my head tilting up and almost see a great light like the sun. I was conscious of both at once, but in a strange way, almost conscious of neither—like my consciousness was suspended dreamlike between the two. And I heard Dr. House’s voice in my head saying “homo incurvatus in se,” Augustine’s great definition of sin. Pride is man turned in on himself, hunched over. Humility, true beautiful blessed humility, is man standing up straight, head tilted back, gazing at God. That is the key, I’m sure. Keeping my gaze fixed firmly on him. I need to be ever more conscious of Him, daily, hourly, minute to minute.


XXIII.

A sacrament is a sign that effects what it signifies. I’ve been pondering that in my heart today in terms of my vocation. The priest is not just a symbol of Christ—where he is, there Christ is. (“I’m a walking sacrament!” as Fr. Manuel jubilantly declaimed to me and Katie Chandler after Christmas midnight Mass.)

I pray to God that I might be a sacrament of love. So often I am afraid, I am concerned with how I look or what others think of me rather than with the Other him- or herself. Bishop Burns said of fear this morning that “it makes the throat close up and the apostle cease to bear witness.” Yes! Fear is the anti-sacrament, the opposite of love: love’s antimatter.


XXIV.

I committed a sin this morning, around 8:30 am. I had thought I was going to resist the temptation until the moment when, suddenly, I didn’t.

After I sinned, I cried out inwardly to God in shame, and he told me: “I have let you stumble so you remember your weakness, but do not be afraid—am your strength.”

After I sinned, I also noticed I was impatient and frustrated and cursed aloud when I knocked some things over, and inwardly passed judgment on a brother when I walked by his room, and all in all felt as if a dark cloud had descended over my eyes and heart. And He told me: “What did you expect? Sin begets sin,” like a cancer replicates itself again and again until the body is consumed.

And after I sinned, I tried to live out my day normally and even found joy in it, and love, and peace, but I carried my sin around with me like a weighted chain around my waist until finally, after Compline, I sidled into the confessional and spoke all my miserable failures of the last two weeks to the walking sacrament behind the curtain. “For your penance,” he told me, pronouncing each word slowly, deliberately, “pray the fifth sorrowful mystery … the crucifixion of Our Lord. And I absolve you of your sins…”

I wonder if fear is not the root of all our sins, or at least of mine. I am afraid of people judging me. I am afraid of rejection, of loneliness, of failure. I am afraid of not being good enough, maybe never being good enough. I’m afraid even now of vulnerability, as much as I long for surrender. (It is the things we desire most deeply of which we are most afraid.)

But there is no fear in love, because perfect love casts out fear. My love is achingly, terribly imperfect and yet I pray it might be made perfect in the crucible of your Sacred Heart. Lord, make me a sacrament of love in the fire of Your love and may that fire consume all my fears and insecurities, leave me confident and unafraid, free to love them as You love them, amen.