An (unexpected) change in course…

5 12 2008

After three and a half years of discerning my vocation to the priesthood, I have decided that this semester will be my last. This is not exactly the decision that I had thought I was going to make when I first entered the seminary. Upon entering (and for at least the first two years after that), I was pretty definite that after the 6 years of formation, I was going to be a Roman Catholic priest. But, that is not how things have ended up happening.

It has been an interesting road to travel down. I have learned many things, not only about myself, but also about God and philosophy and theology and other people. I have had the opportunity to make some good friends and to see a part of the Church that I had never known to exist before I entered. I can say, without a doubt, that I am excited about the future of our Church because of the quality of men whom I’ve had the privilege to meet in my time here. I am honored to have spent the past three and a half years with these guys and in this environment. God has really blessed me and revealed to me in a very awe-inspiring way the abundance of His intimate love and concern for me. He has always heard my prayers, and always answers them, even if I have no clue about how He is working in me. As I said, I thought I was going to be a priest – but God brought me here and taught me about His greatness and His complete mastery over creation; no matter the bigness of my problems, nor the problems that occur in the world – God is joyfully present and completely in control, even if we cannot see it. It’s both amazing and humbling to see how He works through our cooperation with Him – it stretches the heights of my imagination, and does not cease to inspire true fear (reverence) in me.

So, now, onto the reasons. Like I’ve already said a few times, if you’d asked me at least through my first two years whether I was going to be a priest, the answer would’ve been a “yes” without hesitation. But, there has often been a sense of not “fitting in,” even if I didn’t realize why this was so; and still I journeyed on to ordination in 2011. Before 2008, though, this began to be a continuing presence, to the point that I was often just not at peace with myself, others, nor God – but I still couldn’t put my finger on it. Some of it certainly stemmed from problems other than just discernment, but that has also been a part of my own growth here at the seminary (I, nor others, who are in seminary are perfect upon entrance, arrival, nor exit).

In January of 2008, while in Washington D.C., for the March for Life, one of my best friends at seminary disclosed that he was considering leaving the seminary at the end of the semester. I was completely shocked. He, of any person that I knew in the seminary, would have made a great priest (in my estimation). (As a side note, this same person was a great blessing in my growth in the seminary in many ways: very human, a clear thinker, well-balanced and -rounded, and apparently secure in who he was.) But, as he revealed his reasonings why he was considering leaving, I was simultaneously taken aback because I had been experiencing the same things, and even revealed that it may have been my last semester as well (simply just to take some time off). This put the bug in my ear: maybe you’re not called to be a priest. First time that that thought had really ever come into my mind. (If there’s anything I’d like to offer to those who are in discernment, it would be this: don’t close your ears, God may still be talking.)

And then discernment really began. I considered the possibility, brought it to my spiritual director, and just sort of let it stay in the background of my mind: “maybe you’re not.” As the semester came to a close, I began to feel as if I were called to the married life and the tension of “not fitting” began to ease; pieces were starting to come together. At the last Mass of the semester, after receiving the Eucharist, I was (a bit out of nowhere) at peace with the thought of that being my last semester, my last Mass at Notre Dame. But, not wanting to act rashly, and certainly not having talked to my spiritual director, I kept the path and went to Mexico for the summer as had been planned. I wanted to just put the whole “seminarian thing” out of my mind for the summer, and just be. Making this decision brought me to a peace which is hard to explain in words, but has been consistent in my conversations with people who I’ve talked to about it (and is the reason I have now decided to leave): life just flows … it fits me.

But the discernment didn’t stop there. Even though I intended to put it off for the summer, it got extremely intense, especially towards the end of the summer. I’d keep going back and forth with all of the questions; I’d answer questions that were pertinent to my discernment at the time, and then more would come. “What if?” and “I wonder what this meant?” and “I wonder what this means?” and “What is God trying to tell me?” “Am I the cause of this movement, or is God?” It was a very difficult situation to find myself in, especially when I was for so long sure that I was going to be a priest. It was because of this, I think, that guilt hit hard. “Maybe I’ve been slack, not trying hard enough, and that’s why things are going this way. Maybe you’re just focusing too much on what you want and not what God wants.” This is, I think, a bit of a dichotomy which I created (which I will deal with at the end of this post).

As the summer came to a close, I became more certain that my vocation was to the married life, but I kept going back and forth with my questioning: one part of the day I would have convinced myself about marriage, the next part I had convinced myself about priesthood. Back and forth and back and forth. It’s an extremely difficult place to find oneself in…you are constantly torn between a fundamental decision about who you are, and it just makes daily life that much more difficult when you don’t know which way to go. I’m 100% certain that Satan and his minions were having a good-old time helping me into this situation and doing their best to keep me in it, as well as try to convince me that it was just me involved in the confusion (i.e., that they had no hand in it, that they didn’t/don’t exist). But, from the beginning of my more intense questioning God was telling me to trust in Him through my difficulties, which lead me to the point in which I tried to stay for the whole of the fall semester: I have to get this off of my mind, and just live with God as His child, trusting that I will know eventually. Doing this (rather unsuccessfully many times), allowed me to come to a point of freedom and peace about the decision which was before me.

I think that it’s important to mention at this point (especially for those in discernment) that I think that it’s necessary to reevaluate the importance which we can be tempted to place on ourselves (especially in light of the culture in which we live and the shortage of priests). I do not say this simply as a projection, but in unison with observations in my years in seminary, as well as conversations which I have had over those years. I mean, it is definitely an important vocation, and the need for good and holy priests is certainly there, but I think that the temptation can sometimes be to a sort of implicit messiah-complex, where the seminarian or priest is the savior, and not Christ, Who is the Messiah and does the saving. I think that the role of the seminarian/priest can be taken out of its proper place and God is implicitly lost. It’s an issue of seeing one’s insignificance in relation to God, that He does not need us, that He chooses us and chooses to work through us. I do not at all think that it is the intention of any seminarian to replace God, but if he doesn’t keep himself in check then this could very well be the fruit. Now, I say all of that because of something which a professor told me last week: “It’s all too common that a person thinks that the decision to enter or leave the seminary is an irrevocable one,” which says a lot more than rests on the surface. The aspect of it which I want to emphasize is that it is necessary to see, as best and often as is possible, our littleness in the big scheme of things because of the vastness of God and His complete mastery over creation. In addition to this, I think it can also help us to reform our concept and living of “time,” which in this case (and especially in our culture), strives for efficiency, rather than a “wasting of time” with God. (For an excellent reflection of our littleness, I recommend Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome – you will see what I mean when you get to the end.)

I went on this quasi-tangent because realizing my place before God was an important factor in my discernment, one which, when I began to incorporate it into my life, helped me to come to peace with my place and God’s ability to “get on without me,” if you will. From this realization (which I will always be in need of realizing) and the place of freedom and peace to which God has brought me, I have decided the way in which I have. The vocation to the priesthood is beautiful and is definitely worthy of aspiration – but, in my lived experience of my time in seminary (which is not limited solely to the seminary itself), I have come to discern that the vocation does not fit who I am, who God created me to be. And this is important. God wants me (quoting a priest who holds the highest of my admiration) to “be who I be,” for that’s why He created me – to “be who I be” and to allow Him to manifest Himself through “who I be,” for we all manifest a different aspect of God’s infinite-ness. (Realizing this helped me to deal with the “dichotomy” which I mentioned earlier.) In addition to this, something else popped into my head a few days ago (when I finally decided to stand by my decision), and that is something which I learned in philosophy which is crucial to Catholic thought. Grace builds on nature. In “being who I be” and not trying to “be who I don’t be,” God is most effectively able to work through me, because His grace builds on who He created me to be (for you more philosophical/theological folks: not that His grace wouldn’t be available if I were to become a priest, but that, normally, His grace builds up and brings to perfection what He intended through His creating it).

Being able to come to this position has been a long and arduous one (probably more so because of my own anxieties), but the results have been worth the struggle. I was able to grow closer to God and more aware of myself because of this increasing closeness. It is indeed a great gift to be able to “waste time” with God in discernment. Entering the seminary has been, thus far, one of the best (though not easiest) decisions of my life. Leaving it will be tough as well, but I believe it to be the right decision (despite my own fears and preoccupations). I am and will remain thankful for the rest of my life for this opportunity; like I said earlier, God does not forget a prayer, even if it doesn’t come about like you would want or imagine. He has taught me a lot in my time here (imagine the possibilities if I weren’t so hard-headed ;), and I now go back from whence I came to continue to “waste time” with God, and to see what lies in store for me in the future. In gratitude to Him, I will go about “being who I be” as His child, striving to live my life to its fullest in (and because of) Him Who loves me.

May we keep our focus on that Love which embraces us at all times as we strive to enter into that Kingdom which has no end.

Please pray for me during my transition, especially that I may be protected from the “snares of the devil.” If you would like to talk to me about any of this or would like me to pray for you, simply ask. I will pray for all of you.

God bless.