I was completing my fourth year of seminary, only a year away from the diaconate, with ordination to the priesthood to follow shortly thereafter. On the outside, everything seemed fine. I was a “model” seminarian, and by all accounts I was right on track for ordination.
On the inside, however, I was in turmoil. Something seemed very wrong. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and the “busyness” of my life as a seminarian didn’t allow me to take stock of the big picture.
Deep down, I didn’t believe the Lord was calling me to the priesthood, so I really couldn’t stay in the seminary. On the other hand, how would I face the many people who had been praying for my vocation, who had grown accustomed to the idea that I would become a parish priest? Was I letting them down? Even more importantly, was I letting God down? Maybe I was called to the priesthood after all, but was rebelling.
I explained this dilemma to my spiritual advisor, who arranged for me to go to a quiet monastery for as long as I needed. At the monastery was a holy priest I had met the previous year who would be available to provide me spiritual counsel. The seminary provided me a car and I was off.
I arrived at the monastery about two or three hours later and was given a room. Now what? I had a change of clothes, a few toiletries, a Bible, and my breviary. And a notebook. How long was I going to stay here? How was I to go about resolving this inner conflict? I made a simple prayer for help. Here’s how it was answered.
First, I knew that I had to be absolutely honest–to God and to myself. Not just generally honest, but rather every motive, each desire, all intentions had to be laid bare before the Lord. I wasn’t interested in making a decision and then rationalizing it later. I wanted to know the truth.
Second, recall how the Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus on the lawfulness of divorce in Matthew 19. The Pharisees’ question seemed to put Jesus in a no-win situation–kind of like how I felt. What was Jesus’ response? He cut through the question by returning to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis. By recalling God’s plan for marriage “from the beginning,” He had the right framework for addressing the Pharisees’ question.
Similarly, I sensed the imperative to go back to the beginning, to understand my present situation in light of how God’s plan for me had been unfolding through the successes and failures of my life. I trusted that if I could just tap into that plan, then I’d know what to do.
The notebook! I had wondered why I even bothered to bring it with me. Now I knew. Even though I had never been inclined to keep a journal, I was compelled to write my spiritual autobiography–truthfully and from the beginning. Indeed, aside from Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, meals, and sleep, I did little else the ensuing week. At the end of each day I met with the priest and discussed the day’s entries with him. He challenged and probed my statements, and he helped me to see how the Lord had truly been drawing me to Himself from my youth (cf. Catechism, no. 27).
As my autobiography moved through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, the answers became increasingly clear. Every human life is a vocation. Even more specifically, I discovered in a newer, deeper way my personal vocation to be a disciple of Christ in this life. But the way I was going about it was all wrong.
I never fell into the clericalist trap, that is, the mindset that those with “vocations” embrace the priesthood or religious life, while everyone else gets married. Gratefully, I was well enough formed in Church teaching–especially the documents of Vatican II–to know that all members of the Church are called to holiness and mission, and that lay people in particular have a special vocation to be leaven in the world (cf. Catechism, nos. 861, 898-90).
The idea that only priests and religious have valuable roles to play in the Church can have damaging consequences. One regrettable effect is that some people think that only priests and religious are called to holiness–to become saints–and therefore the laity itself doesn’t need to be concerned about personal sanctity.
Another damaging effect of more recent origin is the “clericalization of the laity,” which means that lay people desire roles normally reserved to priests in order to feel as though they’re an important part of the Church. An extreme manifestation is the persistent demand for women’s ordination.
While I didn’t intellectually buy into clericalism, I did recognize the objective desirability of the consecrated life and Holy Orders. My thought was that as a young, single man on fire for the faith, I should consider, at the first instance, whether the Lord was calling me to what we often call a “vocation” in the strictest sense–to consecrated life and/or priesthood.
This approach was appropriate as far as it went. However, after awhile I stopped listening for the Lord’s call to me, and instead became intent on forcing myself into a particular box. I saw my choices from which to choose as a number of boxes presented to me, and I simply needed to find one and make it “fit.” Come hell or high water, I was going to become a priest. I had developed tunnel vision. Once again, I needed the Lord to show me the big picture in order to enjoy His peace.
I saw that I was called to know, love, and serve God. Even more, I saw that the Lord had never been absent from my life, despite some awful choices I had made. He wanted my happiness and was calling me to communion with Him. I didn’t need to earn His love by becoming a priest or by performing any other particular feat of heroism or piety. He already loved me infinitely and dealt with me as a unique person, with my own gifts, limitations, and sins. I didn’t need to force myself into a pre-cast mold–to become something or someone I wasn’t. Rather, I only had to cooperate with the grace He gave me to serve Him each day. That way, He could shape me into whatever He wanted me to become.
This renewed understanding may appear as merely a subtle change in perspective, but it made all the difference in my life. Once all this became clear to me, I was liberated as never before. I had the courage to go back to my superiors and inform them that I was going to leave the seminary. There was no guilt or indecision. I was doing the right thing, even though I didn’t know what I’d do with my life once I left. I had no fear. Perhaps in a couple years I would return to the seminary, but it would be on the Lord’s terms, not mine.
As it turned out, the Lord marvelously and unmistakably revealed His will to me, both in terms of bringing me to my wife Maureen, as well as using my gifts in service to my family, my community, and the Church in ways that have far exceeded my wildest imagination.
Now as Lent begins, the challenge to me–and to all of us–is to continue to be available to the Lord as He desires to do something new in our lives right now. Are we ready?