I just had, bar none, the best weekend of my life, for my future is now clear. My path lies open before me, and I shall go down it like a thunderbolt. Since never before have I felt such joyous happiness, writing a few (or more!) apologetic lines seems justified.
On Thursday afternoon I boarded a train bound for Lamy, New Mexico. From thence I shuttled to the Carmelite monastery for a three-day retreat whose purpose was to help discern a vocation to the priesthood. I arrived and met, for the first time in my life, thirteen other like-minded men - truly a startling phenomenon. We were met by two priests, a current seminarian, and the Archbishop of Santa Fe. The retreat was a series of conferences about the character of the priesthood, ways to properly discern one's vocation, and practical concerns on how to respond to God's call. But for my experience on Friday night to be the most intelligible, a biographical recapitulation is warranted, which unfortunately is of the most interest only to the author. Nevertheless:
In August of 2006 I was part of a volunteer team of high schoolers at a summer camp in northern Wisconsin called HoneyRock. During the previous five or six weeks, I had been feeling a fair bit of pressure concerning my future. I wanted very much to enlist in the Army as an infantryman, and I was very much worried that God had different plans for me. But the Hound could not be dissuaded, and sooner or later I responded by kneeling on the floor and vowing to live my life solely for God, seeking always to fulfill his will, regardless of mine own. Instantly I felt a great relief, a reassuring peace, and an excited joy flood me - I had become a Christian in the strictest sense of the word.
That coming semester was my senior year in high school and I embarked on a course of study on Church history, from Apostolic times through the Protestant Reformation. Seldom has a curriculum produced more unexpected results: Reformed Evangelicals were its authors, so the student was always reminded of Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and eventually Lutheran/Calvinist theology. This bothered me not at all, for I was squarely in their camp. But I began to notice in Eusebius and Bede an odd and soon disconcerting thing: The church I saw in these authors and others like them (Augustine, Dante, etc) was quite different from the Evangelical orthodoxy I had received. Communion and baptism in particular were explicitly treated as far more than symbols of remembrance, and the way Mary was spoken of unnerved me. In short, I had met the Roman Catholic Church, and I was greatly alarmed, for I had previously thought her to be a insidious source of heresy: salvation by works, worship of creatures, etc. But since Eusebius and Augustine wrote hundreds of years after Christ, I decided to go earlier and find the apostolic Church, who then must have held the Truth - that is, my own orthodoxy. So I turned to Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian.
The results proved disastrous, and I was in a dreadful strait. That such doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, the Real Presence in the sacraments, purgatory, communion of saints, were all so explicitly taught so early in Christendom meant that either such teachings were what the Apostles and their immediate successors taught, or that the Church had abandoned Christ almost immediately after his ascension. Worse yet, I was finding the Roman Church more attractive every day. I began to scour the New Testament, searching for Sola Scriptura, and finding exhortations to tradition instead. I considered: since (as I held) the Bible is authoritative absolutely, from whence did it come? The best answer my orthodoxy gave me was that it was a 'fallible collection of infallible books' - which I immediately rejected, for its implications were unbearable. The only other option is that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in her decision, which the Old Churches (Catholic and Orthodox) have always maintained. I considered again: I had always held that all doctrine must be explicitly derived from Scripture. But that very doctrine was simply not to be found anywhere; thus the doctrine refutes itself and must be rejected as incoherent. At this point I realized I was no longer Protestant; but though I was increasingly inclined to the Roman Catholic Church, some of her doctrines made me uncomfortable. In this I was helped by an unexpected source: an intrepid young scholar, himself a revert to the Church, remarked on a comment I made on a forum, in which I said I was "almost Catholic". He inquired as to what questions prevented my full union with the Holy Mother and that is how I met Ben Tansey, a man whom I have never met in the flesh. He argued, rather persuasively, that the doctrines which troubled me were neither internally inconsistent nor at odds with more fundamental doctrines. This did not solve all my troubles, but it did help. I began seeking guidance from God, asking if it were truly his will that I become Roman Catholic. I wanted an angelic apparition or a miracle, but instead I got a persisting urge telling me to say yes, and ever-increasing agitation the longer I hesitated. I could bear it no longer. During my visit to St. John's College in November of 2006, I went to St. Francis Cathedral Basilica and told Christ yes, I would join his Church. Seventeen months later I was baptized, confirmed, and made First Communion.
Immediately after I climbed out of the Tiber on the far shore, I began feeling another urge, this time telling me to be a Roman Catholic priest. "Ridiculous", said I, and for good reason, for I was not even close to Confirmation. Besides, St. John's had fired my soul and I could not wait to enroll. So I decided I would put that question aside till I graduated. Four years later, I met with the Vocation Director, and our interview was profitable, but he was quite cool, and advised further reflection. The longer I did so, the more insistent the urge became; but I pushed it aside again, for I wanted to devote my career to liberal education, beginning with Great Hearts Academies, then graduate school at the University of Dallas, and finally teaching at a liberal arts college (maybe even my alma mater). I met with Great Hearts faculty and administration and realized I would absolutely excel at this job. They turned me down flat - a crushing defeat. Either they were dishonest in their appraisal of my performance, or refused my application because my appearance did not match their ideal teacher, or my competitor was a god - I do not know. But this threw me into another agony of questioning, and not a day went by when I did not experience the agitation of uncertainty and indecision. How could I commit without being sure?
Finally I emailed Father DePalma again, saying I thought I should take the next step, and he replied that I had missed the 2011 deadline and that I would have to wait a year. I was in a sorry state: I could not find ANY work at all - not at home, not in California, not in Chicago. None would hire me. So I lapsed into the most shameful period of my life, where I distracted myself with frivolous entertainments in despair. This persisted until November, when Father DePalma told me about a vocation retreat to take place in February of 2012, and urged me to attend. I eventually agreed, and arrived at the Carmelite Monestery in Santa Fe nervous, unsure of what I would tell the Archbishop, and not positive I truly had a vocation. On Friday we finished evening prayers and I stayed behind in the chapel, pouring out my heart on my knees. I repeated the prayer I had prayed for five years: "God, if it be thy will that I be a priest, show me, please!" And again, no angelic or saintly apparition to confirm it, no booming voice from the heavens. Instead, I felt a new urge: "Say yes or no". I realized I was being like Gideon, constantly seeking absolute knowing, and I realized God had told me all he was going to; I had to make an act of faith. And yet I could not yet say yes, for I was not sure. But in anger I told myself that I would not budge from the chapel until I had said either yes or no.
I stayed in the chapel a long time.
All of a sudden, the word 'yes' popped out of my mouth, aloud and unbidden. I could not exactly retract it, so I told Jesus, "I am committed. I believe you are calling me to be a priest. Thy will be done." For the third time, I felt a profound, reassuring peace, like I had back in 2006 when I became a Christian, and again when I swam the Tiber. All was well. But then something new happened - I don't know quite how to describe it; the best I can do is to say I fell in love with Jesus the way a man falls in love with a woman. I know now that heavenly love is as real and substantial as earthly love, and when I exited the chapel, I was afire with the love of God. I raced to my room, threw on different clothes, tore off my shoes and socks, and went running barefoot out into the snow, dancing, laughing, and making snow angels. I made a right fool of myself. I could not sleep that night, for I was in love with my Savior. My calling and vocation was secure. Saturday afternoon I interviewed with the Archbishop and it went swimmingly; he did not say unequivocally that I was called, but that he, I, and Fr. DePalma would discuss it. I was thrilled.
The Enemy was not long in attacking me. I was distracted and upset already, for I had heard my sister had been in a nasty accident, and my thoughts were scattered. After Saturday evening prayers, after some of the euphoria had worn off, I began to be plagued by fears that the priests and Archbishop would deny my vocation, that I had made a mistake, that it was the foolish impulse of a moment, that I would damn countless souls through my incompetence. "How do you know", said the spirit of fear, "that God truly has your good in mind? That he does not wish to raise you up and smash you for his own amusement"? and so on. I was simply paralyzed with fear. I knew that these fears did not come from Christ, for he never frightens us into anything, and would never tempt me into questioning himself, his goodness, or his chosen ministers of the Church. Never before have I come close to the thoughts that were racing through my head, and this frightened me, for I knew that these fears did not wholly have their source in me. In horror I realized that I was under demonic oppression, and fell flat on my face before the sanctuary, where I must have said the Ave Maria hundreds of times. It seemed to take hours, but at last the fear began to fade. I returned to my room and collapsed.
Sunday morning Father DePalma and I had the following short dialogue:
Me: Father, can you think of a reason I should not enter seminary this fall?
Him: No. Can you?
The rest of the retreat was a happy blur. The fear vanished, driven out by perfect love. I now have the path before me, and for the first time in years - ! I know where I am to go. I have God's work to accomplish and it matters not who or what opposes it.
What more can I say of the weekend? Granted, discerning God's will for me was a plus, but I also overcame my fear of spiders. My friend Naomi purchased a Chilean tarantula, which filled me with the willies, and I was horribly nervous about meeting Book. But when he did not immediately jump to attack my face, the 4.5 inch arachnid started to grow on me and I could honestly admire his magnificence. Seeing him perched on Naomi's shoulder made me even calmer, though the Irish Car Bomb I'd had earlier (I watched the Super Bowl and a friend of mine was in an ecstatic victory mood after the Giants' victory) and the beer I was currently drinking probably helped. At last I couldn't help myself and asked Naomi to put him on my leg. He just sat there! Tremendous. Next, the arm. He didn't like that so much, and crawled up on my chest and looked at me with his bulbous eyes. I fought down the panic (the worst thing in the world would have been to hurt him) and eventually did what earlier I though impossible: I held a gigantic spider in the palm of my hand and enjoyed it immensely. A better evening I have seldom had than at her house that Sunday night.
Then it was onto the train, and back home. What a weekend! I am a new man, completely transformed by the grace of God, fully committed to his will, and best of all - I know what his will is!! Blessed art Thou, Master of the Universe!