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.

Until We Rest in You

I didn’t always love to run. In my younger years, even my first couple of years of high school, I abhorred anything within a stone’s throw of sports or P.E. I wasn’t very good at any of them, just didn’t have the hang of things like running or jumping or kicking or throwing or catching, things most of the other kids seemed to be able to do naturally, and I figured: why waste my time on something hard, like sports, when all it would get me was the other kids’ laughing at me? “Practice makes perfect,” I had always heard, but in my mind, it was better to stick to the things I knew I was good at, safe from ridicule, than to practice what I wasn’t and risk drawing attention to the fact that I wasn’t perfect!

It’s one of the earliest concrete manifestations of pride I can point to in my life. It was also one of the first and longest-lasting manifestations of shame, feeling like I wasn’t up to scratch and hiding that part of myself away, locking it up in a dark place of my heart. A pattern which would repeat itself in many areas of my life for years to come.

As I reread my poetry from this time of my life tonight—poetry, I have to admit, even I had dismissed as stereotypical high school angst—the despair I felt then comes back to me, like the shadow of a nightmare in stark contrast to the light at noon. I remember the loneliness, and the sense that everything was really meaningless, that if you peeled off all the layers there was nothing underneath it all; the deep-down-certainty of my own inferiority, the deep and unspoken and terrible sense that every way in which I seemed to differ from other people, I was wrong and broken and everyone else right and whole, that I could never, never be like they were—the hopeless pride I built up on those shifting sands, that if I was not like everyone else, then I surely would not try to be, like Satan spitting his petulant “non serviam” in the face of God.

Indeed, to that last point, I’m surprised to find some of my poetry shows a bitterness toward “religion” acerbic enough to have made Sartre or Voltaire nod in approval:

“Even in the warm light of the day
We are frightened, and we seek deliverance,
Flocking like sheep to religion to pray
But finding only more false idols and images—

And at nightfall, they torment us, these images.
Saviors become nightmares and get in the way
Of life, demanding devotion and homage,
Promising eternity, but ne’er even a day
Of salvation can be found, and we seek deliverance
From religion itself, that greatest evil – and I pray.

Not for salvation, but for our lives I pray.
Ruled by religion, by idols and images,
Haunted by cloaked visions night and day,
At the feet of statues paying homage—
This is how it has always been. This is the way.
So I pray, but not for deliverance,

For salvation and deliverance
Are but traps and mirages; no, I pray
To break free, to cast aside these images,
To forge a new path, shun the old ways,
And to no idols will I offer homage.”

Pretty strong anti-Catholic imagery for a kid who had never set foot in a Catholic church, and whose Methodist church, as far as I recall, didn’t boast a single statue to which we could ‘pay homage’ even if we had wanted to.

I guess you could say I was God-haunted, as a teenager. I have often described my conversion to Catholicism as the climax and the culmination of a search for meaning, a journey which began when we stopped attending the Methodist church of my childhood. This is true, as far as it goes, but I certainly wasn’t conducting some unbiased search for meaning, comparing logical proofs for God against arguments for atheism, or weighing the objective merits of Christianity against Buddhism. I was fleeing the Christianity of my childhood. I was deeply suspicious of its claims (after all, “saviors become nightmares and get in the way … salvation and deliverance / are but traps and mirages,” as I spat along with Richard Dawkins)—and indeed, I was suspicious of any claims to “meaning” or “truth”:

“Printed pages filling my notebook say
I should, I will, I must, but never pay
some slight attention to my question: ‘Why?’

‘Solve these problems,’ they say, but they’re not mine
to solve – or perhaps my favorite, ‘draw this line!’
when clear-cut lines themselves are but a lie.”

I wonder where I got that. I remember my Methodist Sunday school lessons as being heavy on the coloring pages, light on objective philosophy. I certainly didn’t have a rational conception of God as absolute Truth (or Love, or Beauty, for that matter), yet somehow, it seems, I knew. Knowledge of our Creator is ingrained on our hearts. When we flee Him, we flee Him in all his aspects.

Earlier I said this poetry could be dismissed as the product of teenage angst. Maybe it’s important to point out now that the word “Angst” in German means “fear”. I was afraid of God, afraid of Truth, afraid of Love, afraid of Beauty—on a level deeper, I think, than I could even acknowledge. I felt betrayed by Him.

We stopped going to church, after all, once my mom had her first seizure. I remember waking up in the middle of the night; my dad’s tense, level voice as he told me to get dressed, knowing he was barely holding it together himself; the living room full of EMTs; my mom wheeled out of the front door on a stretcher—wondering, as much as I tried to stuff it down and lock it away, whether I would ever see her again.

I remember praying in the waiting room.

I remember, when I was very young, riding in the back of my parents’ car and the way I used to pray, talking to Him like he was sitting right next to me. I didn’t have any fear of Him then. Mostly, I would try to make deals with Him. “God, I’ll memorize the whole Lord’s Prayer if you just…”

And I remember writing this poem, the subject of which I’m not even sure I knew, or admitted to myself, at the time:

“Our one great fear has never been death
But to lose the ones we love, and
So we hide in our warm beds
From the cold and rain above.

Awakening, we glance above
To lightning lighting up the sky,
And we mutter to the ones we love
About how we don’t want to die.

We never think we’re going to die
While the world is lit by dawn’s bright strain,
But when darkness fills the sky—
We see our lives reflected in the rain.”

I was searching, after we left our church, but I forgot who or what I was searching for. It wasn’t anything so grand as meaning or truth. I already felt a horrible certainty that there was no such thing. I think I was looking for comfort, something that would make it all right, even in light of the senselessness of it all. And I drifted into a kind of syncretist New Age Taoism, the main tenet of which, for me, was “go with the flow”—but not out of any conviction that everything had a purpose or would work out in the end. More that life was like a river and it would be a wash in the end, so there was no use fighting the current. I was taken in, too, by neo-pagan ideas of “ancient rites” which would give you power over the universe, online articles about psionics and witchcraft, and worse.

But of course, the further I drifted from God, the less my heart was satisfied. Or as I concluded a fairly cynical poem on the subject of how the poet manipulates his readers’ emotions:

“Indeed, the sole power I cannot command
is closure, for my heart, by my own hand.”

The beautiful thing, looking back, is how God was leading me through all this. Like any good father, he knew his son was angry, and hurting, and scared. And like any good father, he would not force himself into my life. A father knows to give his son space. But His hand was guiding me imperceptibly through all that Angst. I had to pass through the crucible of those years of confusion, of loneliness, hopelessness, senselessness, of pain suppressed because I thought there was no relief nor meaning to it, of cynicism in the face of any claims to truth or beauty or love … I had to know emptiness, I had to know the desert and the night, so that when he first introduced Himself again to me, I would be shocked at the wonder of Him.

Eventually, I fell in love with running, too, but not until after I fell in love with God. I was required to take a personal fitness class at the beginning of my senior year of high school—a year and a half since I first stumbled to Mass, and just a few months after my confirmation—and though I dreaded it, I was in the class with some great friends who I had made during that previous year, and I found for the first time that I wasn’t afraid to make a fool of myself. I found that I really loved pushing myself to my limits. My favorite days were when we would go out into the neighborhood near the high school and run up and down the quiet streets. I would pray to God for strength, running there with my friends in my youth group T-shirt, and I would make the sign of the cross when I felt like my lungs were going to explode, and I remember how exhilarated I felt the first time I made it through the whole morning running without once stopping to walk.

Since then, I have always linked running with the spiritual life. It’s about perseverance. The more you practice, the faster and farther you can go, but what matters most is not in your legs or your lungs. It’s that drive to make it to the end. The spiritual life is like that, too. God’s grace is always there—that’s the strength you need to make it through. The conditions in which we find ourselves might be better or worse from day to day or place to place. But what matters is our response to His grace and His call.

If you think I’m going to tie this mess of retrospection and theological reflection up neatly, you must not know me very well yet.

I’ll just say this—the event which prompted me to write this post at all tonight (though I had no idea how long it would end up being) was that we had a speaker come to the seminary tonight for our Monday night conference, and she told us about her experience of sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a priest.

Her journey back to the love and mercy of God took her entire life, from the age of 7 until her mid-60’s. I was bent over praying through her whole talk. She shared poems she had written which sent chills down my spine, but the worst was when she said, “The hands of a priest are anointed to do God’s work. And yet—my wounds were by those very hands.

Afterwards, I thanked her so much for sharing and gave her a hug. She was radiant, a saint, such a testament to the mercy of God and the power of His grace to heal even the deepest wounds in an open heart. Then I went to pray before the Blessed Sacrament upstairs in the abbey church, vast and dark and quiet. I wanted to praise Him for his goodness, but my heart was in turmoil. For the first time, I was confronted with not just the fact, but the personal reality that a priest, a priest of Jesus Christ, had inflicted such wounds on an innocent girl. It took her almost sixty years to trust God again. A whole lifetime spent apart from His love.

For the first time, I really understood how someone could hate the Church. I felt enraged. I felt a revulsion and a hatred toward that priest which I tried to give over into His hands, but it wouldn’t leave me. I cried. I prayed God to fill me up completely, take everything I had and make me an instrument of His healing in His broken body on earth.

And when I could pray no more I went for a run, because I knew that as much as I tried and tried to give myself over, I was feeling too much. I had to physically spend myself. So I ran down the hill and through the town in the freezing rain, and as I slogged through puddles and clenched and unclenched my hands to maintain feeling in my fingers, I told God this was my offering for everyone who had ever been hurt at the hands of a priest, an alter Christus, a representative of Holy Mother Church, and I wouldn’t stop, I swore through clenched teeth, unless I fell down and could not go on.

After about a mile, I realized with a jolt that I understood this woman’s experience, awful though it was, because my own experience, back in high school, fleeing God, was a microcosm of the same—that sense of betrayal and that fear of Him—the first time I had seen my life in that light.

About two miles in, I was able to let go of that visceral, jaw-clenching hatred that had seeped into my soul for the priests who had done this and offered my sacrifice for them, too, because in sin everyone suffers and everyone needs mercy.

Finally, as I ran back up the hill, I was praying “Jesus—“ on every shallow breath, and each time I breathed out: “—mercy,” “—power,” “—victory,” “—love.”

I came back and stood in the shower, under the hot water, feeling heat prickling back into the parts of my body that had gone numb, and kept praying. “Jesus, all goodness. Jesus, all warmth. Jesus, my strength… Jesus, sunny winter days. Jesus, long drives in the rain. Jesus, friendship. Jesus, desire of the everlasting hills…”

And then something unexpected happened, because I felt—I can’t say heard another voice—but the litany changed.

“Matthew, my beloved. Matthew, my created one. Matthew, my tabernacle. Matthew, light of my face. Matthew, who run the race to the end.”

In God alone is our peace and our hope. Or as St. Augustine put it so hauntingly, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

I have nothing more to say tonight, I think, but a prayer. May God bring the good work he has begun in all of us to fulfillment. May our hearts be open to His grace, that He may heal all our wounds, fill our loneliness, satisfy our longings… and may He find in each of us willing instruments to bear His love and healing to the world.

And together let us say: Amen.

The Best Argument

There is a famous story told about St. Dominic—maybe you’ve heard it. It happened when he was accompanying his bishop on a journey from Osma, the Spanish city where Dominic lived in his cloistered religious community, to the south of France. On their first day after crossing the Pyrenees, weary and footsore, they stopped to stay the night at an inn.

Now the keeper of that inn happened to be an Albigensian: that is, someone who had embraced the new Albigensian heresy, which was all the rage in 13th century France. To quote the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great’s Life of St. Dominic, this heresy “was based on the very ancient idea that matter was evil and spirit was good. It has been around for a long time and is still with us in the form of theosophy, Christian Science and those who go in for Buddhism and other Eastern religions. It appeals to people who have vague and hazy minds and do not want to do any serious thinking. Albigenianism had the additional twist in that it did develop a logical and clear theological system. Marriage was evil, sex was sinful, flesh meat was forbidden, austerities were the in thing, and suicide was the preferred way of death.”

Of course, that set of beliefs wouldn’t appeal to many people on its own, but Albigensianism did appeal to the lords and landowners, because since it required that its adherents renounce their Catholic faith and the sacraments, it followed that if they, the lords, adopted this heresy for themselves and their subjects, they would then be free to seize the land held by the Church in their provinces. Albigensianism also expected that only a few, the perfect, would be able and obliged to live this extreme form of life. The rest were free to live as normal human beings (insofar as anyone can with such a paucity of grace). So a win-win all around for the reigning powers of the day.

But to return to the story, again quoting the Central Province’s Life: “Dominic was appalled that anyone could fall for this nonsense. He and the innkeeper got into an argument that lasted the whole night, but in the morning the innkeeper fell on his knees and asked to be reconciled to the Church.”

This was a pivotal moment for St. Dominic, who would go on to found the Order of Preachers, which utterly decimated the Albigensian heresy through prayer (particularly the rosary), austerity of life, and skillful and relentless arguing, a tradition they continue to this day with just as much skill and just as little relenting.

Why am I telling you this story?

Because today is the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order of Preachers, which, by the way, is awesome—but mostly because a few days ago I had a little Dominic experience of my own.

This past Wednesday, we had a day of recollection here at the seminary. These days, which we have from time to time, are spent in complete silence, in both the exterior sense—we have no classes, no conversation at meals, no idle chatter—and the interior sense. We are meant to cultivate silence in our hearts and use this time to listen to the voice of God. So there is also no homework, no use of technology, none of the noise which normally fills out waking hours to distract us from the work of prayer.

Of course, we still have our community prayer hours together throughout the day, as well as Mass in the morning, and we also had four short conferences, two each in the morning and afternoon, on the topic of prayer. These were meant to give us food for thought in our reflections during the rest of the day.

It happened—and I don’t know why I say “happened,” as if these things are ever random—to be the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, the patron saint of seminarians, and the proper reading for Mass that day was from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

The first sentence hit me hard in my lectio divina, my reflection on the readings of the day, as I read through them on Wednesday with my morning espresso. “Not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think.” A monk here at Mt. Angel exhorted us recently in a homily to read every word of sacred scripture as if it were addressed to us personally, in this particular moment in time and in this particular place. God was warning me of one of the enemy’s most dangerous temptations, and one I stumble into more often than I’d like to admit: the temptation to think you are better than anyone else. “That person never prays,” I’ll think to myself, “they never study,” or “they never think of God,” or “they make no effort to practice what they preach.” (All different ways of saying, with the Pharisee, “Thank you, God, for not making me like them.”)

The next few verses explain why. We are all one body, Paul reminds us. The excellence of one does not take away from another, and the failures of one do not make anyone else shine brighter. Everyone has their own gifts for the good of the whole body of Christ. If one is shining brightly, the whole body is better for it, and if one is flagging, the whole body suffers. We rejoice in each other’s gifts and assist each other in our failings—that is what the Christian life means. 

A few verses down, another warning: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection.” Another verse addressed right to my heart. I have been struggling these weeks with a particular sin, bringing it to confession over and over again, stumbling right back into it. St. Paul was making it clear to me what I need to do to overcome it. It’s simple, but hard to put into practice. Love goodness more than evil! Hold fast to what is good! (The very advice my confessor gives me day after day.) And never love with anything less than the fullness of your heart, he admonishes us. Sin, after all, springs from a lack of love.

These verses were setting the stage for my experiences over the rest of the day. I was feeling particularly discouraged because of my repeated sins, and St. Teresa of Ávila was not helping me feel any better as I read a bit further in her Interior Castle that morning:

“When the soul falls into mortal sin … no thicker darkness exists, and there is nothing dark and black that is not much less so than this. You need know only one thing about it—that, although the Sun Himself, Who has given it all its splendor and beauty, is still there in the center of the soul, it is as if He were not there for any participation that the soul has in Him.”

“Just as all the streamlets that flow from a clear spring are as clear as the spring itself, so the works of a soul in grace are pleasing in the eyes of both God and men, since they proceed from this spring of life … When the soul, on the other hand, through its own fault, leaves this spring and becomes rooted in a pool of pitch-black, evil-smelling water, it produces nothing but misery and filth.”

“If a thick black cloth be placed over a crystal in the sunshine … although the sun may be shining upon it, its brightness will have no effect upon the crystal.”

“O Jesus! How sad it is to see a soul deprived of [light]! What a state the poor rooms of the castle are in! How distracted are the senses that inhabit them! And the faculties, that are their governors and butlers and stewards—how blind they are and how ill-controlled! And yet, after all, what kind of fruit can one expect to be borne by a tree rooted in the devil?”

Similarly, I went to walk the Stations of the Cross, and came upon the following meditation in my Manual of Prayers, on Veronica wiping Jesus’ face as he drags His cross up to Calvary:

“My beloved Jesus, your face was beautiful before; yet, on this journey it no longer appears beautiful but disfigured with wounds and blood. Alas! My soul also was once beautiful, when it received your grace in baptism, but I have since then disfigured it with my sins.”

Not exactly cheery stuff. But then, our faith is not all sunlight and rainbows. Our faith lies on the wood of that Cross.

In one of the afternoon conferences, the speaker reminded us that we are called to be a light to the world, as Paul was, “like lights shining in the darkness in those satellite photos of Earth.” And then he said this, a quote from Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”

Nemo dat quod non habet, as the old saying goes. Nobody gives what he does not have. We are called to be salt and light, but we have to receive that salt to season our words, we have to be filled up with that light if we are going to shine brightly. And all it requires is openness, throwing off that “thick black cloth” of sin, throwing oneself into the Lord’s arms, giving Him another chance. (Confession, after all, is not about begging God to give us another chance. It is about us giving Him another chance. We don’t tell Him we’re sorry so that He’ll forgive us. He has forgiven us everything before we ever ask! Confession is the sacrament of His mercy. It is the way we return to His love—the way we let Him love us and let Him show us his mercy.)

Our speaker also talked about the many identites we build up for ourselves over time. How there are people in all of our lives from whom we seek approval, but we’re afraid that who we are is not good enough to merit their approval or their love, so we build up false identities for ourselves, fictions, which we build over our real selves—and over time, we invest so much into these masks, these fantasies, that we only reinforce our own belief that who we are underneath is not good enough, not loveable. It becomes harder and harder to break with the masks. But a major movement of the spiritual life, he told us, is breaking down this superstructure of identities we build up over who we really are. Letting ourselves be loved in and of ourselves. Embracing our identity, as Henri Nouwen put it, as the Beloved: as God’s beloved sons and daughters, the only identity that has true meaning and value.

Later in the day, I read a bit further with St. Teresa, and came upon this (emphasis mine):

“Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility … As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God … anything white looks very much whiter against something black, just as the black looks blacker against the white … if we turn from self toward God, our understanding will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above the slough of our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice … We shall always be glancing around and saying: ‘Are people looking at me or not?’ ‘If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?’ ‘Dare I begin such and such a task?’ ‘Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?’ … We get a distorted idea of our own nature, and, if we never stop thinking about ourselves, I am not surprised if we experience these fears and others that are still worse. It is for this reason, daughters, that I say we must set our eyes upon Christ, our Good, from whom we shall learn true humility.

And it is all connected: humility, and love—love of God, and the love of others which flows from it—and goodness, which is the fruit of love—sin, which disconnects us from love—mercy, which heals us of sin and brings us back into His love—the Cross, where He died of love for us—the demolishment of our false identities and embracing of our identity as His beloved, which makes us humble, which makes us truly love in return—and all of it only possible because we keep our eyes fixed firmly on Him, who is our beloved and the source and the summit of all our love.

“Often it is the Lord’s will that we should be persecuted and afflicted by evil thoughts, which we cannot cast out, and also by aridities; and sometimes He even allows these reptiles [temptations] to bite us, so that we may learn better how to be on our guard in the future and see if we are really grieved at offending Him. If, then, you sometimes fail, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good, just as a man selling an antidote will drink poison before he takes it in order to prove its power.” St. Teresa once again.

This is all leading up to something, I promise.

The next day, I went to an event called a “mercy night” hosted by a local parish (which happens to be named after St. Paul, I say, as if these things are ever random). A few of my seminarian brothers came as well, and two of my good friends were there leading us in praise music and playing guitar and drums. It was a night of adoration. One of our deacons from Mt. Angel processed around the church with the monstrance, blessing each person individually with the Blessed Sacrament.

And I had an intense experience of unitive prayer, kneeling there before Jesus Christ, my Lord and the love of my life. It was not totally unlike other experiences I’ve had in prayer before, but in the intensity and the physicality of it, it was unique. I felt—drawn to Him, almost magnetically attracted to Him in the Holy Eucharist, felt a stirring deep down inside of me, in ‘viscerae meae’, my innermost parts. I couldn’t break my eyes off of the tiny white host in that great golden monstrance. I felt like I was staring into His own eyes and He was looking back, and I felt this tingling sensation all throughout my face, around the corners of my eyes and mouth, not uncomfortable, but—like nothing I can describe.

It was a moment that passed quickly, but lingered. I felt such a deep and abiding peace, such a profound experience of loving and being loved, such contentment and total satisfaction in His presence that I felt sure I would never sin again, never again would I willfully do anything to divide me from that love. I would be content to rest against his breast, like St. John at the Last Supper, and never move from there until He saw fit to take me from this world to Himself.

After it was all over, four of us seminarians went out to eat together. It was a toss-up between Round Table Pizza, which was 20 minutes away, or a pub down the block called the Gallon House. The pub won out, because it was late and cold and we were starving. When we got there, it was empty except for a couple guys at the bar and one other table with two older women.

We all sat down, ordered burgers and drinks, chatted about this and that, unwinding from the experiences of the night. We had been there for maybe ten minutes when one of my friends stepped outside to take a phone call.

And one of the women from the other table came and sat down in his place. She was obviously drunk, not falling down or anything, but she had clearly had a few. She wanted to know if we had heard this term—not one I’m going to repeat, but one she said her friend had never heard before, that she wanted to know if the ‘general public’ (we, the table of seminarians!) knew about, if we thought it was offensive. Only one of us had heard it before. She explained, for the benefit of the rest. We agreed, yes, it was probably offensive, and not really respectful of human dignity, either.

She looked at us like we were from another planet (and then actually asked, “are you guys, like, from another planet?”) and then went back to join her friend.

We started to resume our conversation.

Then her friend came over. She was, if anything, slightly more drunk than the other woman. Apologized if her friend had been bothering us. But then proceeded to ask us about this same term, complete with graphic descriptions and vulgar language.

We didn’t make a big deal of it, but told her the same thing we had told her friend. It didn’t faze her. She wanted to know who we were, what our deal was, why we were all there together. (To her credit, we were a strange group, three guys varying in age from 19 to 30.) None of us wanted to be the first to say, “we’re seminarians, and we’re studying together to be Catholic priests!”

And then Emilio walked back in. “Oh, you guys made a friend!” He was all gracious, all smiles. “Pull up a chair!” he invited the other woman. “What’s your name? I’m Emilio. Who are we? We’re seminarians,” he wasted no time telling her, and explaining what that meant.

That changed the tone of the conversation, as it tends to do. The woman started laughing and apologizing about 8,000 times (although she didn’t actually change the way she was talking at all). “I’m going to burn in hell,” she said over and over again, confident above our protests to the contrary. “Who walks up to a table full of priests and asks them something like this?” she asked her friend. “Probably only us,” they both agreed.

The revelation of our identites changed the tone, but by no means ended the conversation. When people find out you’re a seminarian, things tends to move quickly to the profound—even from the vulgar. And so we found out that these women work together at a rehabilitation house for adults who had been victims of child sexual abuse, typically went on to become serial abusers themselves, went in and out of various institutions, and ended up in their care. They run this out of an actual house, not an institutional setting: very structured, tightly controlled, but a home. Of course, they were telling us all these horrific stories of the abuses these guys endured and inflicted on others, the things they had seen themselves… but I was struck by what one of them said.

“We have to meet them where they are. A lot of people in the world today think these guys should just be shot,” she said. “Like they’re just a waste of space. And sometimes I think that myself, but you know… they’re human beings deep down inside. Just like I am. Yeah, they’re broken, but so am I. You wouldn’t let these guys out in a neighborhood where kids are playing, but you wouldn’t want to let me walk through a mall with a credit card, either, you know what I mean? They’re broken, but so am I. We have to meet them where they are.”

The woman who said that had ‘no religious anything,’ as she put it. Wasn’t brought up in the faith, never went to church, nothing. The other one had been brought up Catholic, but hadn’t been to church since she was a kid.

“That’s beautiful,” I told her. “Meeting them where they are. That’s exactly how God meets us. Because we are all broken, but he doesn’t expect us to be perfect, to rise up to meet him. He comes down to meet us right where we are.”

She digested that for a minute.

“You guys are really going to be priests?” she wanted to know. Yes, we all agreed.

“And priests can’t get married?” (Everyone’s first question.) No, we all agreed.

“So you mean you guys can never even have sex except with yourselves?” Not even that, we all laughed.

She was incredulous. “How can you make that kind of commitment?” she asked. “That’s not natural!”

“No,” I agreed, “it isn’t. It’s supernatural. It’s a special gift God gives us to do this work.”

She latched onto me after that. “You look like you’re about 16 years old. What made you want to be a priest?”

“God asked me to,” I told her. (Keep it simple.)

“What, and—how did you know?”

I smiled. “Because I gave it a try, and I felt such peace, and such joy, I knew I was doing the right thing.”

“You must have come from a super religious family.”

“Actually,” I told her, “none of my family is Catholic.”

“So how do your parents feel that—you’re going to be a priest and never get married—and they’ll never have grandkids—and—?”

The rest of the sentence was implied. And never have sex. And never be happy. And never live up to your full potential.

“They see how happy I am,” I told her, addressing her real question. “They see how much joy there is in this life. So they support me 100%.” I looked her in the eyes. “You know, there is no joy, no satisfaction greater than doing God’s will.”

She didn’t have a rejoinder for that one.

We spent the next hour answering questions—she had more than enough to go around—and sharing our own stories, talking about her life, her patients, her kids. We talked about suffering, human dignity, the theology of the body. We talked a lot about sex and celibacy. Meanwhile, Emilio and the other woman, the one who had been Catholic, were carrying on a separate conversation next to me. I caught snatches of their conversation from time to time. “So what would you do if you met a girl and you just knew she was the one?” she asked him. And he answered, slowly, sincerely, “you know, I would take that to Jesus Christ—” “And ask him what to do,” she finished the sentence for him, but she was sincere too, not at all dismissive. “That’s beautiful,” she said, with a big smile. It was.

And to make a long story short, by the end of the night they had agreed that they would come to Mass at the Abbey on Sunday. The one woman, who had never been religious, was asking us to pray for her—”pray for me a lot!” she kept saying. “I’m going to burn in hell!”—and to pray for her son, who she said (in different words) was struggling with purity. We all promised we would and asked her to pray for us, too, which she did, right there at the table! The other woman, who had been raised Catholic, was joking about being a nun. “I could see myself as a sista!” she said. “Sista Mary Clarence, like in Sister Act. Could I still wear make-up?”

We ended the night with hugs all around. And the one woman, the one who had never been religious, who even began this sentence by saying “I’m not religious, but…”, said that she felt sure they were supposed to meet us that night. To bring them back down to earth, she said.

After we had parted ways, the four of us were standing outside, huge grins on all of our faces. “I’m surrounded by good men,” my brother Nathan proclaimed, something I had never been more sure of myself than I was that night. We put our fists together and shouted “Ave Maria!”

And Emilio said, “Just think, guys. We could have gone to Round Table.”

It’s mind-boggling to consider just how much God loves us—how, when we open ourselves up completely, He gives us exactly what we need. As I was reflecting on it afterwards, I thought how crazy it was, not just that He had put us in that restaurant at exactly the right time and brought those women over to talk to us, but that every aspect of that night was orchestrated by His hand. That woman was obsessed with sex and how we could possibly live our lives without it, how lonely we would be, how unfulfilled. And yet, just an hour before, God had given me such a profound, intimate, and fulfilling experience of union with Him in prayer. He gave me exactly the graces I needed to be a witness and an instrument of His love for her. To meet her right where she was.

We fall into sin, sometimes the same sin over and over again, and I know how hopeless it can seem—but we should never be discouraged. The very next day after that profound unitive prayer, after that experience of evangelization, I was back in the confessional again. I was so frustrated with myself. But I dragged myself to the Blessed Sacrament, prayed a holy hour, made my confession, prayed some more. And so we go on, fortified by the love of God, renewed by his mercy, never giving up.

God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He wants us to be perfected. 

And there’s a time and a place for making arguments, but we don’t always need to argue all night long. Sometimes the best argument is just the witness of our lives. All we need to do to be witnesses to the love of God is to let ourselves be filled up with His love ourselves, and be open to going where He leads us. “Don’t quench the spirit, man,” as my best friend loves to say.

Incidentally, this is also the friend who, when I told him “I met a girl in a bar last night,” replied immediately, “When does she start RCIA?”

A few miscellaneous thoughts…

…totally unmediated by editing, careful deliberation, or caffeine.

I spoke with Fr. Thomas, my formation director, a few days ago. He is a broad-shouldered Carmelite whose mind works fast and whose sentences often interrupt one another, who is possessed of bright eyes and a keen intellect and who is positively overflowing with wisdom, but who you are just as likely to find on any given night on the court playing basketball in his full habit as in the chapel kneeling quietly in adoration. Most nights, both.

“Are the reasons you are in seminary now different than they were when you first entered?” he asked me (in those or similar words, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal might have it.)

No, I told him—my reason hasn’t changed. Maybe intensified, or maybe I have a deeper understanding of it now, but I am still here for the same reason I came here in the first place, which is to seek the Lord’s will for my life, and to do it with an undivided heart.

“But you could be doing that anywhere,” he challenged me, his eyebrows mischevious. “You could be seeking his will by substitute teaching in Uganda. Why here?”

Ah, I said.

And I told him about the moment when my vocational discernment really started. It was the summer after I was received into full communion with the Church. I had been going to daily Mass regularly, if not quite daily, and I liked to sit in the church after everyone else had gone. There was something special about the silence and the stillness in that wide open, sacred space. The little old ladies who locked up the church would always come up to me and put one hand sweetly on my shoulder and stage-whisper, “You can stay as long as you like, just go out the side door when you’re done,” and then toodle off and pray fifteen decades of the rosary for the holy souls in purgatory, probably.

At that time, I might not have called what I was doing ‘praying’, exactly. Sometimes I might pray the rosary myself in those precious minutes after Mass, but more often I just sat and allowed my thoughts to wander, enjoying the feeling of being wrapped in silence, knowing the holy sacrifice had been celebrated here just minutes before, that God had been incarnate here, that he was still present here!, and the spirit of him hung in the very air I was breathing.

And that particular day, as I was sitting, and thinking, and silent, and still, God brought me to a sudden realization. I could see all my plans for my life, neatly laid out and built one upon the other: graduate high school, move to the city, then college, design school, B.F.A., M.A. maybe… a hip urban flat in Portland or Seattle, a freelance graphic designer, a life with a cool indie soundtrack. (The details got a little fuzzy around there, but the soundtrack was dope.)

And in that moment, for the first time, I could see the foundation those plans were built on, too. And it struck me in one great blow that that foundation, on which I had built my whole life, was gone. Not just shaken, not just painted over, but totally, irrevocably gone, stolen away as if by a thief in the night, and instead I had…

This. This Church, in all its silence and its stillness and its wonder and awesomeness and majesty. I had built a whole structure of plans and goals on shifting sands, without even realizing it, and the tide had come and washed them all away. And here I was, acting as if the structure was still standing. But it wasn’t. And I wasn’t standing on sand anymore. The tides had swept away what little I had painstakingly constructucted of sticks and reeds, and the very sand I had built it on, but it had left me standing on solid rock.

And I thought, okay.

I didn’t feel any despair. Not even a pang of sadness. Because I was reflecting back on the past two years of my life, how very much had changed already. I would never have predicted, two years before, where I would be sitting and what I would be thinking in that moment. I also would never have been able to imagine what joy, what peace, what deep satisfaction, what fulfilment!, but also what excitement, what passion, what longing, desire, would be awakened in my heart—what healing would take place from wounds I wouldn’t even have known I had yet—in short, what an incredible love story I was being swept up in. I was struck, literally struck, almost struck out of my pew 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.

And I prayed, “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 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.”

And in the days and weeks after that, as if by clockwork, everyone, and I mean everyone, from the little old ladies of the parish to an old ex-Catholic at an Episcopalian picnic, started asking me if I had considered that I might have a vocation to the priesthood.

And I thought, okay.

When I told him that story, 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.

He handed me the Gospel of St. John, chapter one, pointed to the section beginning with verse 35.

The next day again John stood, and two of his disciples. And beholding Jesus walking, he saith: Behold the Lamb of God. And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turning, and seeing them following him, saith to them: What seek you? Who said to him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? He saith to them: Come and see. They came, and saw where he abode, and they stayed with him that day: now it was about the tenth hour.

“But in the Greek,” he said, “it’s all the same word. ‘Dwell,’ ‘abode,’ ‘stay’—it’s all μένω. It means something like…resting. Just being in a place, you know… Hanging out.”

Which is why I love the Thomas Koller translation of sacred scripture.

“And,” he went on, “these guys, the disciples and John, they followed Jesus, and they hung out with him, and it was such a powerful experience that St. John even remembers the exact time of day it happened, ‘the tenth hour,’ which was about 4:00 in the afternoon.”

It was a kind of proto-holy hour, I told him, that time in the church after Mass. I wasn’t really conscious of my relationship with Jesus yet, wouldn’t have characterized it as “spending time with him” or, God forbid, “hanging out with him”—that kind of thing smacked of evangelical Protestantism for me, even the whole notion of a ‘personal relationship with God’, and I wanted to distance myself from that tradition as much as I could. But God was doing what God always does, reaching out to us where we are, and drawing us gently onward, deeper into the mystery of his love, which is to say, of Him. In that quiet time in the Church, whether I knew it or not, I was “hanging out” with Him: I was staying with Him, dwelling, aboding with Him, or as the Greek dictionary helpfully adds, I was “μένων, lodging, tarrying, loitering, was idle, remaining, abiding, waiting” with Him. And His grace was working on a deeper level in my heart than I was even conscious of, until I was prepared to receive that revelation of the new foundation of my life, and the love which had brought me to it, and for me to offer him my whole life in return.

That idea, of grace working imperceptibly, reminds me of a great deal of reading I’ve been doing recently on the sacred liturgy. Many people, in our Puritan-rooted, Protestant-woven, deeply left-brain dominant society, protest that they “feel nothing” when they go to church. Or that they “get nothing out of it.” Even though they go week after week, it has no bearing on the rest of their lives. They don’t see the point. It’s irrelevant. My faith is about me and God. Why bother with church? they may ask. I can worship God at home or in the forest better.

Contra that mindset, I would like to respond first with a quote from Fr. Jeremy Driscoll OSB, a very holy monk of my very own Mount Angel Abbey, who I am altogether too privileged to know, in his book What Happens at Mass?:

“In the Eucharist, God is acting! He acts to save us. It is a huge event. In fact there is nothing bigger. God has concentrated the entirety of His saving love for the world into the ritual actions and the words of the Eucharistic liturgy.”

And then a longer quote from the inimitable Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, in the introduction of his very aptly titled companion volume, Why Go to Church?:

“But mostly it does not feel like a ‘huge event’. At a confirmation, a boy, asked by the bishop if he would go to church every Sunday, replied, ‘Would you go and watch the same movie every week?’

[…]

The ‘huge event’ of the Eucharist works in our lives in ways that are profound but often barely noticeable and hardly register as experiences at all. It is marvellous if the celebration of the Eucharist is a beautiful, emotional and aesthetic experience. It should be so, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The liturgy works in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily think that nothing is happening at all. The Eucharist is an emotional experience, but usually a discreet one. Romano Guardini wrote that ’emotion flows in its [the liturgy’s] depth … like the fiery heart of the volcano. The liturgy is emotion, but it is emotion under the strictest control.’

Herbert McCabe OP compared the fruit of prayer to the subtle effects of living in a beautiful room. It does not have the immediate breathtaking effect of a glass of Irish whiskey, but it works at a deeper level. There are people, he says, ‘who do not really feel they have celebrated a Eucharist unless they get some kind of immediate experience of personal warmth and enhanced sensitivity … I agree with those who say they find the Missa Normativa (the modern post-Vatican Catholic Eucharist) a little dull, except that I do not think it is altogether a criticism. A room furnished in good taste is a little dull compared to one covered in psychedelic posters saying ‘God is Love’ and ‘Mary, the ripest tomato of them all.’

Our transformation by God’s grace is a slow business. A generation used to the immediacy of cyber communication might find it hard to believe in. A new version of Monopoly has been invented that does not take more than twenty minutes, otherwise people will lose interest and begin texting their friends. In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy says, ‘I was praying for patience but I stopped … I was afraid I might get it.’ The Eucharist is indeed ‘a huge event’, but it happens, often, at a level of our being of which we may be scarcely aware, as imperceptible as the growing of a tree. This is what John Henry Newman called ‘God’s noiseless work’. We may be like Harry Potter’s uncle and aunt and fat cousin, living boring lives, unaware that battles are being fought in the sky above them between wizards and griffins, only in our case the unobserved drama is at the core of our humanity.”

It took me a long time to understand this. Just tonight, I was talking with a friend who mentioned one of his greatest struggles in prayer is always looking for the outcomes. If he doesn’t feel different afterwards or see a change in his behavior, he confessed, he wonders if he’s been doing it right.

We can all fall into this trap. It’s part culture, part habit, part human nature. But our prayer is not about us. Our prayer is not about the effects it will have or what we may gain from it. Our prayer is about God. Our prayer is about love, like a conversation with your beloved is about love and about them and not about you—like the silent surging of your heart toward your beloved, like the deep connection, or indeed, communion, that cannot be expressed in words.

And along those same lines, I had the great privilege today of attending several lectures on the sacred liturgy, as part of my own Archdiocese of Portland’s Sacred Liturgy Conference. Here are a few selections from my notes.

First, from a talk by Dr. Francisco Romero Carrasquillo on the natural law and its impliactions for divine worship:

“Our nature demands that we personally offer and witness and unite ourselves to a sacrifice. This is lacking in, for example, Islamic and Protestant worship. Christian worship, therefore, should be seen as the perfection of the demands of our nature to offer sacrifice to God (for grace perfects nature.) And this can help us reflect on how we should worship.

We can run into a similar problem as with Islamic and Protestant worship in our own Mass when we miss the aspect of sacrifice, thinking of it primarily in terms of, e.g. a community meal or gathering, instead of what it essentially is. We need to bring that aspect of sacrifice out in the liturgy and be conscious of it. Our worship, for it to be in accordance with the natural law, must be focused on God (because that’s the whole point: giving to God out of justice what he is due). Not to say that other aspects of our worship are bad, but it must be theocentric, God-oriented: other aspects come second. Otherwise we are not really perfecting our natural inclination to worship and ‘doing what is just to give God his due.’

Next, from a talk by His Grace, Archbishop Alexander Sample, on the bishop’s role as guarantor of the sacred liturgy:

“Because far too many do not know the inner meaning of the sacred liturgy, they are tempted to impose other meanings on it, resulting in poor liturgical practice—trying to make the liturgy do something it was never meant to do. Because we don’t know what the Mass is, we try to make it relevant, to use it to communicate this or that point. No! The Mass has an inner meaning. Everything we do in the Mass must bring out the inner meaning and let it shine forth. If we know what we’re doing, that will tell us how to do it.”

Thirdly, from a talk by Fr. Pius X. Harding, OSB, on the nature of the sacred liturgy as gift and revelation:

“The relativism and subjectivism of our modern culture is a product of this modernist thought, seeing it [religion] as pious silliness or an absurd construct … One is free to choose religion, like one chooses fast food restaurants (‘give me what I want, as much as I want, when I want it, and don’t tell me no!’), subject to disputes of personal taste. If something is meaningful to me, and to my subjective pursuit of the divine, ‘why not?’

But the sacred liturgy is not subject to sentiment. Our celebration of the sacred liturgy is the response, the fiat, to the revelation of God, which in fact is an invitation to communion with him. God alway shows us how he is to be worshipped.”

There is a theme running through all of these talks. The liturgy is both gift and response. It is in itself a gift from God and it is our response to God for the immeasurable gifts he has given us. It is both the sacrifice of God on the cross and our sacrifice to God in our worship of Him. We do not decide what the Mass means; we do not innovate on it or seek to improve it; we do not impose our own meanings upon it. We do not presume to be better than the Mass or than its maker.

The Mass is what the Mass is. It is the representation of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. It works imperceptibly in us, moving us from grace unto grace, perfecting our human nature and drawing us deeper into the mystery of His love.

And one final quote (this one quite short), from a talk by Dr. Lynne Bisonette-Pitre:

The liturgy transforms our embodied nature. We are healed when we are holy. To be holy is to be healed.

Can’t say it any better than that.

On Love

I have a friend from way back who recently met nine of my seminarian brothers at one time, which might be a harrowing experience for anybody, I’m sure. Afterwards, I asked her what she had thought of them, and she exclaimed with a huge grin, “You’re all such nerds!”

“Spiritual nerds,” another friend was quick to clarify, as if to soften the blow. They both laughed and agreed.

That phrase stuck with me over the next couple of days, bubbling up again and again in my mind. “Spiritual nerds.” It wasn’t meant to have any negative implications, of course—in high school, all three of us had been nerds, and if anything, this was their way of saying “these guys are like us!”: the joyful discovery that seminarians are not plaster saints, hands folded at a forty-five degree angle, right thumb over left, from the womb, but actual flesh and blood men with personalities and quirks and diverse histories and (ahem) singing abilities.

Still, it wasn’t the phrase I would have chosen to describe the group of guys who had come with me that night, which included, to pick a couple at random, a former inmate, a high school football player, and a guy whose vocation story includes words like “rodeo”. There are seminarians I could see being called ‘nerds’: the liturgy geeks among us, for example, who debate minutiae like whether we ought to say “my mouth shall” or “will proclaim your praise” at the invitatory, or whether the Dominican arc or Roman ninety-degree turn is the more ancient custom; the ones, maybe, who study the Second Vatican Council documents or read German philosophers for fun, or engage in logical analysis of Facebook memes—all of which are definitely things I have done.

But the difference seemed obvious, as I reflected on it further, between the men who were spiritual and the spiritual nerds. Nerds are people who take an academic interest in their passions. Call us the St. Thomas Aquinases. We’re likely to be converts or reverts because we undertook a serious study of the faith and were astonished to find that it was true, that it had logical integrity and historical continuity. We’re excited about how it all works, history, theology, philosophy, the lot. Study becomes a form of prayer for us.

But there are also St. John of the Cross types, who spend hours in the chapel in quiet contemplation of our Lord. There are St. Sebastians, not so interested in theory, maybe, but ready to step up and go the long haul, whatever needs to be done, no matter what pain or hardship they face. There are St. Francises, eager to get through classes so they can get back to ministry, and Blessed Fra Angelicos, always ready to go back to their rooms to draw or paint or write down some idea, express some particular beauty revealed to them in God’s creation.

There is a huge diveristy among the men God calls out of the world to discern on this holy mountain. Not all of us are nerds. None of us are easily categorized. I can see aspects of myself and my brothers in all these saints and many more besides. But one thing we have in common is that we are spiritual, which of course means that we are filled up with the breath of the Holy Spirit, who expresses Himself in a beautiful panoply of gifts and talents and graces.

A holy monk, priest and professor of Mt. Angel passed away two weeks ago, at the end of a long battle with cancer. I was so struck by these simple words he said, these heart-rending words, which Abbot Gregory related to us at his funeral homily:

“I love you so much, Jesus Christ!”

It would be easy to skim over that. It would be easy to smile knowingly and dismiss those words, we products of a post-Christian culture, who have grown up seeing the name “Jesus” and that word “love” plastered on every highway billboard, felt banner, Evangelical church poster and late-night televangelist ad. It would be easy to explain them away as sentiment or simple piety.

It would be easy to categorize the kind of men who devote their lives to the Word of God, the sacred liturgy, ecclesiology, and all the rest, as “spiritual nerds”—as if “spirituality” were just another interest or area of study, like anthropology, or linguistics, or French hats.

But Fr. Thien was just such a man, and his life is not so reducible. Others may devote their lives to a study of this or that discipline; you will not find them on their deathbeds exclaiming “O linguistics, how I love you! O anthroplogy, I love you so much!”

The essential fact about the men God calls to his holy priesthood or to the monastic life is not that they are nerds. Some are! Many aren’t. The essential thing is that we are deeply, passionately, profoundly in love with Jesus Christ. We come to the Church as who we are, academics or athletes or poets or politicans or engineers. We retain our individuality because God glories in the plurality of creation, and “Christ plays in ten thousand places / to the Father through the features of men’s faces!” But despite our different passions, personalities, abiltiies and approaches to life, we are all here because God called us out of the world into deeper intimacy with Him, and we responded. The Catholic faith is not a discipline or an abstraction or a theory. It is for us, to quote G.K. Chesterton, a love affair. Not a ‘what’ in which we’re interested, but a ‘who’, whom we love, with everything we are.

Let us pray, then, that we all might live a life like Fr. Thien’s of total self-giving love to the One who gave Himself for us, so that when our time comes to be born into eternal life, we may give our last breath just as he did. “Jesus, I love you so much.”

Affirmations

I.

Two weeks ago, on a Friday night after a long day of classes, I drove an hour from the seminary into the city to meet up with an old friend, a friend from my own hometown, who I had gone to high school with, gone through confirmation with, shared countless meals and ideas and memories and sunsets and painful hours with, sat on hillsides in the middle of the night and looked at the stars with: that kind of friend. She came into my life unexpectedly and stayed in it because we understood each other, and she has a bulldog’s resolve and the tenacity of a dancer, which is not a virtue dancers are always given credit for, even though they should.

We spent the whole night laughing until it was time for me to go home, and we were sitting in my car in a parking lot empty except for a couple of other cars, which were also empty, and dark except for a single light burning on the southeast side, and silent, completely, until she cleared her throat in a hesitating kind of way that made it clear there was something she wanted to say even though she didn’t, quite.

I asked her what it was.

Slowly, because she had to reach deep inside to find the words and force them out into the light, even the dim light of that parking lot, she told me about something she had done, something keeping her from the sacraments, something she felt she couldn’t even confess, until she wrenched it out and confessed it to me—me—who couldn’t even offer her absolution, and I wondered if maybe that was why, because she knew I couldn’t and she didn’t want, didn’t believe anyone could?

So I prayed, first in my heart—“God, use me as your instrument,” said my heart, “you need to speak through my lips, because I don’t have anything to offer her but you, Jesus”—and then aloud, slowly, and quietly at first, and after a while the words didn’t come from me. They were his, and we were his, and that parking lot was Calvary. Through the windshield, we saw him on his cross, we saw the lance-blow pierce his side, and we saw his love in the blood and the water.

Then we talked about wounds. I knew what I needed to say a second before I said it, as if he were whispering right into my heart—as if he were within my heart, no mediate relation, no thought, only “itiel, God-with-me. We talked about suffering and perfection and I told her about my own sins and weaknesses and the wounds I bore in my heart and how long it took me to bring them to Jesus to wash them clean. That it was years, even after my conversion, even after I was confirmed, before I could kneel before him and surrender, give him everything, give him my heart and believe he loved me, know he was a man and love him!, love him in return.

We talked about lots of things, and we played a song, Oceans, and another, Blessings, and she cried, and I sang, because sin and yet, beauty, and love.


II.

Ten days ago, on a regular morning like any other, I rolled out of bed, showered, shaved, got dressed, entered into Christ’s dialogue with the Father through the Liturgy of the Hours, clamored for him to save me, heard his promise of salvation in the Liturgy of the Word, offered him my self along with the bread and wine, meager gifts representing all of creation—saw them transformed into so much more, humble created things exalted into the Body and Blood of Christ himself, more real than the universe—received him, his flesh into my flesh!—then had a cup of coffee and went to class because life is weird that way and the sublime and the mundane are blended in it, and after class I went to the writing center, where I would sit and wait for anyone to bring me a paper in need of an editor’s pen, and it was there, in fact, that I was sitting at 11:10 a.m. on that morning of the 1st of October in the year of Our Lord 2015 when I got a group text message. It was a short one from a friend back home, only two words and a link. The first word was “Guys”. The second word was “Prayers”.

The link said, “BREAKING NEWS”.

The news said that at that moment the police in my own hometown of Roseburg were responding to an active shooter at my own Umpqua Community College, UCC, the institution listed on my transcript for my Spanish and English literature credits, where my grandmother teaches ethics, where my friends went after high school to finish their A.A. degrees and where some of them still are—UCC! where I had taken classes and gone to plays and sat with friends by the fountains, where I had come with my dad as a kid to look at the stars through a larger than life telescope, it was impossible, it was inconceivable that it could be my UCC they were talking about on CNN.

I read everything Google could turn up and then I turned to face the crucifix on the wall and fell to my knees there, in the writing center, and counted rosary beads between fingers that were suddenly shaking and uncertain and prayed, and didn’t know what for, exactly, because nothing I could ask for would ever be enough but that His will be done, and I saw His will before me suspended there by thumbtacks on a brown bulletin board, and His will was the cross.

And when I had finished the rosary and my hour in the writing center, thankfully uninterrupted, was up, I went downstairs, because I am blessed enough to live in a building in which Jesus dwells in the fullness of his body, blood, soul and divinity in our very own basement, and I threw myself on the floor in front of his tabernacle and sobbed, and when I ran out of tears I asked “why,” and then when I ran out of asking “why” I just breathed, which was hard, but I’m blessed enough that I haven’t run out of breathing, yet.

I stayed there for hours, resting and restless: sitting, kneeling, lying down, checking my phone for updates, and throwing myself back into the ocean of His mercy, which I knew was pouring into me and filling every dark corner and nook and cranny of me even though right then I couldn’t feel it. My heart was numb and wailing. Friends were texting me constantly. I replied to some. Many of them were praying for my town and I knew they were there in the chapel with me even though they weren’t, precisely, because He was there, and the Body of Christ transcends all time and space, and in prayer we come closer together than joint and marrow, which is why we are never alone, really. But our hearts too often are shaking and uncertain, and we can still feel like we are.


III.

One friend offered to drive me home: a new friend, a friend made for talking about Jesus over pumpkin space lattes or for quiet nights in the chapel singing in harmony of hearts or for walking the stations of the cross in the dark with, not an old friend, but he might as well be because he knows my heart just the same, because his heart and my heart are undergoing the same trials in pursuit of the same prize and because, as a certain priest once said in that tongue-in-cheek way which slips insight in by the backdoor of a joke, ‘we have the same best friend’: that kind of friend, though also the kind of friend who would prefer I call him “‘brother,’ because brotherhood is better than friendship.”

In the end I agree, and we drive south two and a half hours to Roseburg, the little town which is a part of me and I of it, the duck pond, the bike path, the high school, the parish church—the latter of which was our destination. It seemed normal, except for the traffic: the car which passed us on the highway with “Pray for UCC” handwritten on the rear window, and the media in their trucks with satellite dishes, NBC, CNN, two reporters from the Oregonian in a Prius.

Everyone seemed to be in a daze, including myself. I gave and received about a hundred hugs. My mom was there, and my grandma, whose eyes welled with tears. One woman said quietly, “thank God you’re here,” and I did, with all the strength of my heart, which didn’t feel like much.

We celebrated the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the second time that day, which reminds me of this beautiful reality: every Mass is the same because Calvary is always the same: one priest, one victim, one sacrifice, all of them Jesus Christ. But every Mass is different because we are different, we stained and spotted restless mumbling bumbling beautiful human beings, and even when we come to the altar once in the morning and again twelve hours later, we come different than we were, to a Mass that is different, too.

I knelt behind that altar I have knelt behind a thousand times, probably, at my pastor’s right hand, gazing up at that spotless Host raised up above the altar of sacrifice, singing “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world—have mercy on us,” and then I received His body again, taken down off the cross with the utmost gentleness, that blessed body beaten, battered, bruised, broken, pierced, crushed, spat upon, shot through and abandoned at the place of the skull, that body more real than the universe, that body which endured everything the world could throw upon it with the patience of a father enduring his beloved child’s anger, that body which rose up from the dust spotless in spite of its bruises and unbroken in spite of the brokenness we inflicted on it, that body which conquered death by death and rose, victorious, and then—and then!—and now rested upon my tongue. His sacred heart beat within me then, his blood in my veins. I came grieving with a heavy heart and came away electrified. Still grieving, but transposed: grief in a new key, grief boiling to enervating steam.


IV.

The next three days were a blessed blur.

On Friday night, I met up with a friend: not just an old friend but one of my very oldest, in fact the first friend worthy of the name, the first to know the shape and the contours and the shadows of my heart, the first to stay up with me at night and listen to me and remain with me in all my insecurities and my weaknesses, and even when he didn’t understand, to love me with a pure and a steadfast love: that kind of friend.

We walked together in the dark down familiar streets and talked about the façade of normalcy, how everything seemed fine on the outside, but scratch the surface and you find hearts shattered, people broken and just holding together. I wondered if this wasn’t how things were all the time, but we were only just now aware of it.

We sat and talked for hours about God: me, the seminarian, and he, the maybe-a-Christian, unbaptized and still uncertain, and I found myself for the second time in two weeks telling someone who I had known for years about my conversion, what it was like from the inside, what it was like to be first drawn into this Church, to feel a flash of God’s presence and to keep coming back again and again searching, desiring, longing, to fall in love with the Mass, with the Holy Eucharist, with the priesthood, then with Jesus himself; to kneel down before Him on the crucifix and surrender my whole life, knowing that my plans were as nothing, as dust and ashes, compared with the plans he had already set in motion in my life and had for my future. We talked about suffering, and surrender, and freedom, and love.

On Saturday morning, I went to my parish chapel, because at home I do not have a tabernacle in my basement, but have to drive ten minutes to sit with Jesus, and when I got there I sat in the dark and listened to his heart beat, or my heart beat, and watched light move across the floor in the same patterns they always have, filtered through stained glass and the branches of an ancient tree outside waving in the wind. Then I prayed my Office in the blessed silence of an empty church, dressed in my cassock, and went to meet my pastor at the cemetery, where we buried a woman who had not been shot, but who had passed away peacefully in the twilight of her life.

I remembered the last time I had stood at my pastor’s side before an open grave, how unworthy I had felt to be there. This time, it felt as though I were exactly where I was supposed to be, like a puzzle piece slotting right into place, as though my feet and his were planted precisely at the center of the turning world. I read the intercessions from the Rite of Committal. “You wept at the grave of Lazarus, your friend; comfort us in our sorrow.” A grandson buried his face in his grandmother’s shirt, crying. “You raised the dead to life; give to our sister eternal life.” Everyone was crying. “You promised paradise to the repentant thief; bring her to the joys of heaven.”

I offered the prayers not just for that woman, but for the others, the nine souls whose lives had been taken the day before, the tenth, who had snuffed out their lives and taken his own, the nine more who were wounded in their hands or legs or sides and the countless, the inestimable thousands who were wounded in their hearts and their souls, waiting to hear if a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a beloved friend would come home again, or knowing they would not.

After the burial, I went to the hospital and met with the mother and grandmother and sister of a young woman who had been shot and wounded, but survived. They asked if I knew what room she was in. I said I didn’t, but pointed them toward the visitor’s desk and offered my condolences. I wanted to tell them I had lost friends, too, to offer them my prayers, to say something, anything, to ease their pain, but I couldn’t—I gave the grandmother a hug and they went on their way. I went into the hospital chapel and knelt down before the body of Christ and gripped my rosary like my own mother’s hand and slipped bead after bead again through my fingers and lifted prayer after prayer up to heaven as tears slipped out of my eyelashes and onto the floor, and I know I cried more that weekend than I have in a year, probably.

That night, at our parish vigil Mass, we celebrated a convalidation of a marriage, and I stood again at my pastor’s side, this time looking down not into an open grave but on a beaming couple as they slipped rings onto each other’s fingers in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen, and promised to love one another in sickness and in health and—“I want you to listen carefully to this part!” Father said, in that tone of mock sternness which drives home the seriousness of what is about to happen while also drawing a laugh—for better or for worse, until death do they part. And we celebrated the holy sacrifice again, ever ancient, ever new, and side by side we bore the sacred body and blood from the altar, first to the bride and the groom, then to the whole body of Christ present there in St. Joseph’s Church.

I made sure that the names of all the victims were read at the general intercessions, “Lucero Alcaraz…Lucas Eibel…Quinn Cooper…” and after each blessed name in my heart I added, “pray for us.”

After Mass was a flurry of hugs and congratulations, and Father slipped away to go be with Lucero’s family, and eventually I went home to be with my own, where we sat around the table and played a fiendishly complicated game of progressive rummy, all twelve rounds of it, and even though we kept threatening to quit, nobody ever did.


V.

On Sunday I returned to the seminary, feeling like I had been through the longest and the fastest 72 hours of my life, more grateful than ever to be one of those whom the Lord calls out of the world to come away and be with him on the mountaintop for a little while, feeling empty, exhausted, but not burned out—that blessed emptiness, rather, that you feel from having given everything of yourself, every last drop you had.

I stayed up too late talking to my brother, I overslept the next morning, I overate, and indulged in every kind of intemperance trying to fill myself up again before I realized, belatedly, I had not been back to prayer. I was glutting myself on food that could not satisfy. I went back to the chapel in the basement and made, again, an offering of myself—of everything I had done, every word I had said, everything I had felt, thought, prayed, every moment of hope, and of despair, every hug, every handshake, every blessed communion.

I met with my spiritual director, who told me that, yes, this is the vocation. To come away with God and to go out into the world. To go out and come back. To be with people and bear their sorrows and share in their joys, all at once. And it felt all right, all of it right, even in my own grief, not a moment of it wrong.

On Thursday my very, very best friend, who due to circumstance is 2,238 miles away from me but thanks to the blessed Eucharist is closer to me than my joints to my marrow, received his cassock, in a formal ceremony which he later described to me as “all right, not a moment of it wrong,” and so on Wednesday night at midnight I knocked on our mutual friend David’s door, and we went to the gym and spent an hour laughing and shooting hoops, recording a video to congratule him which I hoped would make him smile.

And so, life goes on.


VI.

Yesterday, I and nine of my brothers and two old friends from home and a mother and father who I love like my own parents and three kids who are like my own siblings and two dogs who I love even though they make me sneeze gathered on a suburban porch by the side of a pool to give praise to our God.

It was a miracle because we had been planning it for two months when my friend, the singer, the guitarist, the man who has “praise and worship” inscribed on his soul, who I was relying on the most, said two days ago that he couldn’t go, and so I had to scramble to find replacements: another guitarist, another singer, another one to lead us in prayer.

It was a miracle because the family didn’t have quite enough chairs, so my brother and I went walking around campus looking in every nook and cranny and found only two measly folding chairs when we needed six until the very last room we could have checked, and there were four more, along with cymbals.

It was a miracle because a tree blew over at the family’s house but nobody was hurt and no windows were broken, even though the branch was within a finger’s breadth of the window…

It was a miracle because there were so many ways things could have gone wrong and everything went exactly right. It was a miracle because I had been exerting myself in every direction to make sure this night would be great, but on the drive down I finally opened my heart and surrendered it all to Him, and the clouds literally parted and sun shone under them like in the movies, like fingers reaching through, so eager to drive the clouds away and let that searing blessed light bathe this whole tired world.

We sang and drew close together and shared our stories of God’s love, and then we each knelt down and let the others pray over us, and my brother looked right into my soul when he offered his prayer over me: “You see him when he tries to please you,” he said, “when he thinks about you throughout the day, every time he goes into the chapel all alone just to be with you, every time he does something just for you that no one ever knows about, you see it all, Lord, and it pleases you because you love him, you want him even more than he wants you…”

And for the second time, or the third or the fourth or the millionth time in two weeks, we cried, and we sang, because sin and yet, beauty, and love.