Truth and Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reading from Sirach goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Heights

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

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

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


I.

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

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

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

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

That seemed to just about sum it up.

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

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

There was a pregnant pause.

“Is it true?” Matt asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmelites

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They [religious] live more purely, they fall more rarely, they rise more speedily, they are aided more powerfully, they live more peacefully, they die more securely, and they are rewarded more abundantly.”  

—St. Bernard of Clairvaux

It would be fair—if a little ironic—to say that my discernment of my vocation with the Carmelites really began on that retreat with the Dominicans. The quote I had seen on the icon of St. Teresa, “God denies himself to no one who perseveres,” was encouraging to me as I drew to the end of my time with them, growing more certain by the minute that God was not calling me to his Order of Preachers! So many of the young Dominican brothers told me that they came to St. Albert’s and were sure they had just found “their people.” I was equally sure that I had not!

Nevertheless, I found myself beginning to think, “maybe the Carmelites are ‘my people’.” I remembered the great fraternity and personal holiness I saw among my young Carmelite brothers at Mt. Angel and, of course, the great example of Fr. Thomas Koller. (“I’ve never met a Carmelite I didn’t like,” I remember telling someone around that time.)

Carmel loomed large in my prayer through the remainder of my second year at Mt. Angel. After spending Holy Week at my home parish in Roseburg, I went on a personal discernment retreat for several days at the Carmelite House of Studies. “I do not want to be too hasty about drawing conclusions,” I wrote in my journal on the very first day of that retreat, “but I will just say this: what I so conspicuously did not feel with the Dominicans, I do feel here.” Almost immediately, I felt a strong sense of being at home with the Carmelites, of brotherhood, mutual support, peace, joy, warmth, good humor, and comfortable silence, like “the whole house is suffused with the quiet of the chapel after prayer” (as I wrote in the same entry).

Over the rest of the semester, I spent a lot of time in conversation with Fr. Thomas, as well as those Carmelite brothers who were studying with me in the seminary, about the Order and my ongoing discernment. One piece of advice Fr. Thomas gave me which I particularly took to heart was an exhortation to “holy boldness”—that we can never lose by pursuing God’s will in the honesty and simplicity of our heart, whereas there are a thousand ways to go wrong by holding back out of a sense of fear, or duty, or any other motivation at all.

Fear and duty were my own primary reasons for holding back at that point: fear of being too hasty, or jumping in, only to find it was not my vocation and have “wasted my time,” or of not being good enough or strong enough to handle the consecrated life; duty to my diocese, my archbishop, and my family, all of which were extremely hard to imagine “turning my back on.” My initial zeal, which grew very quickly to an almost overpowering desire for Carmel (I wrote during that first retreat at the House of Studies that “I want to be a Carmelite so badly that my heart aches a little to think of it!”), was diminished and tempered by my fears and doubts in the months to come.

As I committed myself to prayer and discernment, I grew apace in awareness of the many attachments I had which were keeping me from pursuing God in true simplicity of heart, and out of that awareness, I began to experience again the graces of growing detachment, as I had in the months leading up to my entering the seminary. I had been treating it like a choice between two good things, Carmelite or diocesan, rather than listening humbly in silence for God’s holy will, which, after all, is the only good thing! As God began to sever the attachments of my heart, so too did many of my fears about going into Carmel diminish.

Over the summer, I spent a lot of time at the House of Studies, and made a few more discernment visits to other Carmelite foundations on the West Coast. I also had the great privilege of going to Poland for World Youth Day as part of our archdiocesan pilgrimage, and ended up rooming with, of all people, a Carmelite brother who I knew well from the seminary—we had our mental prayer together every morning in the silence and solitude of the hotel courtyard, and visited a Carmelite monastery together, where we met the Superior General of the Order!

Finally, toward the end of that summer, I made a week-long discernment visit to Mt. St. Joseph Monastery in San Jose. Sitting in the library there, armed with a pen and highlighter, I read over every little thing I had written since beginning my discernment with the Carmelites in earnest: 70+ pages of journal entries, poems, prayers, scribbled excerpts from the psalms and the scriptures. I was trying to trace the overarching movement of the Spirit throughout my whole process of discernment. What were my motivations? Were they pure? How had God really been leading me? Had I mistaken his signs—misread them through the distorting lens of my own desires, or been overly hasty to do what I wanted instead of “listening to what the Lord asks, and then doing it,” as St. John of the Cross so wisely counsels?

“I don’t know what I hope to gain from it, exactly,” I wrote in regard to this high-stakes spiritual research project. “Greater certainty? Reassurance that I’ve done my ‘due diligence,’ tested the spirits adequately and found them good? One thing I was surprised to (re)discover were the many parallels between my discernment now and my discernment 8 months ago at St. Albert’s. Much of what I am feeling now—an emotional cocktail of attraction, desire, hesitation, uncertainty, doubt, fear, longing, and guilt for feeling anything but an unbridled and uninhibited desire that His will be done!—I also felt then. Much of what I am afraid of now—’losing time’ or somehow wasting time by entering religious life; giving up freedoms and familiar comforts; losing friends; being less available or out of touch with my mom and my family—I also was afraid of then. And much of what attracts me now—beautiful liturgy, brotherhood, common life, community prayer, greater flexibility and freedom in opportunities and places to minister, knowing I will be taken care of when I am old—also attracted me then, even if I didn’t see it lived out in the most attractive way in the Dominican life. Yet I left the Dominican retreat knowing intuitively (though I didn’t ‘decide’ out loud til later) that I was not called there—but 2 days into this retreat and I ‘know’, again, intuitively, that I’m going to be a Carmelite.”

That was the core of it: an intuition, fed by so many hours drinking deeply from the living waters of prayer (the real work of discernment), and confirmed by many consolations, both ordinary and extraordinary, that this was God’s will. Finally, at the end of this last discernment retreat, I turned to the Lord and said, “Well, Jesus, you certainly seem to be calling—calling without ceasing! I trust that you have led me so far. I know I have done good discernment; I have tested the spirits, and in all of this you have never stopped leading me onward and have given me no sign to turn back. My only reasons for holding back now are my own lingering doubts and fears, anxieties, attachments, and ambitions … But I love you, Lord; you are my strength! I am going to continue along this way unless you show me otherwise, and may your holy will be done.”

The day after I came back to Portland, I went nervously to the chancery, where I had been working just a few weeks before as part of my summer assignment, to meet with Archbishop Sample. I had set up the meeting before leaving on retreat, with the intention of discussing my ongoing discernment. I knew even before I had left for San Jose that my time there would have to be decisive: by the end of the retreat, I would either be taking the next step in my discernment with the Carmelites—beginning my application to join the Order—or I would be closing that chapter of my discernment definitively to continue in formation with the Archdiocese of Portland.

At the forefront of my mind (and, I suspect, the archbishop’s too) was a story about St. John Paul II which I heard for the first time while we were traveling in Poland together that summer. Young Karol Wojtyła also wanted to join the Carmelites while he was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kraków, but when he went to his archbishop and told him about his discernment, he received a curt reply: “First you must finish what you have started!”

Archbishop Sample, a secular Carmelite himself, confessed that, although in one sense this was the worst news a bishop could hear, it was, on the other hand, the best news anyone could hear. God continues to call us all to Himself, he said; he would never want to do anything to stand in the way of my following God’s will for my life. So although he was sad to see me go, and indeed hoped the Lord would one day call me back to the Archdiocese of Portland, he trusted in my discernment and gave me his blessing, wishing me “nothing but the greatest joy” in continuing to discover and live God’s vocation for me to the fullest.

I returned to Mt. Angel that fall feeling reinvigorated, excited to return to the familiar rhythm of classes and community life, but even more excited to start taking concrete steps along this new path and see how far the Lord would take me. By the end of September, I had submitted my written application and letters of recommendation, and at the end of October, I flew down to Los Angeles for two days to do (another!) psychological evaluation. Finally, on December 1, I got the phone call I had been waiting for: “We are very blessed and very grateful to accept you as a postulant in the Teresian Carmel.”


This is part 5 of QUO VADIS? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly. Read part 6 here.

Go here to view all posts in the series.

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

Dominicans

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

—St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way

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

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

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

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

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

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


This is part 4 of QUO VADIS? – a series on my own discernment of the Lord’s call to priesthood. New updates will be posted weekly. Read part 5 here.

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

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

Early Discernment

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

—St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

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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