As we slide quickly past October into November, I see ahead of me another visit to St. Meinrad Archabbey--another year, another week with the monks and with other discerners, and another look at where I have been, and where I am going.
In December of 2006, I made my first "Monastic Observance" retreat at St. Meinrad. I was a clinically depressed diocesan seminarian in the middle of a dreary internship, engulfed by the triple-isolation of "Made in China" sentimentality of the American Catholic parish, of being a conservative celibate Christian freak in a secular individualized society, and of layers upon layers of insecurity, inversion, bitterness and escapism--not to mention intellectual pride and emotional immaturity.
St. Meinrad glowed like heaven itself. I can scarcely say more, except that I was at least mature enough to know that it would be foolish to make that reckless switch.
In December of 2007, I returned to St. Meinrad surrounded by a different world. In the span of a year, I had quit the seminary; had a three-month relationship with a single mother; been hired as a high school theology teacher; moved to the city; acquired my first ever apartment, credit card, and cat; and even though I was working unhealthy hours and felt more alone than ever, I had an indomitable optimism.
St. Meinrad then seemed more distant. Though still, as always, a place of welcome and peace, the sacrifices demanded by the monastic call seemed steeper than before. I had only just begun to live life. Even on a teacher's wage, the basic secular comforts loomed large in my mind, not least of which because they were the only comforts I had.
Now I stand in a new position. I am teaching again this year and I have pushed hard to make myself a valuable member of this community. The process that began last year continues to unfold, and I am mostly accomodated to the identity of a college-educated lay Catholic professional rather than a liminal clergyman. As my footholds become steadier, I am slowly reaching out and building an identity around my faith--which, incidentally, is not easy in a large, secularized city. I owe the lion's share of my maturing to Katlin, who I met in April and who has been my strongest link to reality ever since. As I once again learn to be comfortable in my own skin in a new world (as happened in Illinois, and as happened in Belgium, and as happened in California, and as happened in high school), I am able to start looking at where I am relative to where I ultimately want to be, without as much fear that I am being strung along by fears.
I never ultimately wanted to be a high school teacher, and frankly I still do not. In this work I get wrapped up in caring about my students--all of them. I love them. I want them to be successful and happy. But I've known the happiness that only faith can offer, and so I struggle to drag these students beyond the "spirit of the age", which is powerfully dragging them into a cynical, amoral adulthood where everything is gray. There is a stark difference between the peers I knew as a high schooler and the students in my care. The passion for renewing society and creating a just social order--what I was formed in--is now so cold and damp, replaced by a tepid individualism. The rebellion itself is so passive that it doesn't even provide the fuel for sustained striving that often leads to a profound conversion. The Holy Spirit shows through the glowing embers, but the landscape seems already burnt out at the age of 17. The spectre of discouragement hovers.
But I am not discouraged, and the long view tells me that there are good things happening here, and that good things are happening in my own life. I will be 27 in two months, no longer at the very beginning of life, and perhaps on the cusp of finally answering God's call, once I can discover what it is.
The problem is that I remain deadlocked between marriage and monastery. I have already eliminated two possible vocations definitively--the diocesan priesthood and lay single life. It is not good for me to be alone. This means that I choose to relinquish the vast license I now have to spend my time as I wish. So be it--I am not a good steward of time. But who do I give my time to?
Whenever I mention the monastery to Katlin, she tells me to be careful--yes, I know that I would probably be happy in the monastery, but it is a known happiness. I do not yet know the happiness that married love may bring. It is unknown. And I should not choose one happiness over the other, simply because it is familiar. That would be to shrink from the challenge of maturing that I have pursued since leaving seminary. I have been a serial dater since then as well, the fruit of which has been disappointment. Even if I fell in love, how well-suited am I to be a leader, a caretaker of a family?
The answer is prayer, that bugbear of mine. I have always trusted that God will not lead me astray, and so far he has not. But though I feel a divine hand protecting me in a long period of discernment, that hand does not beckon with clarity. The things I love and need most, and the gifts that I offer, seem equally present down either path--loving companionship, permanence and stability, growth in God, a chance to transform the world (beginning at home).