Don't we all know what we really want, and that this deep desire is God's Spirit groaning within us?I believe that I do. However, caution ever remains at my side. Ten years ago, in tears, I wrote that I wanted to be a priest. On retreats to the seminary, before I signed up for the program, I experienced intense emotion as I wrote spiritual journals. Yes, my Lord and my God--I wrote--I will be your servant. I place myself entirely in your hands. Do with me whatever you wish. This is where I belong--I wrote, referring to the seminary--this is a path to happiness that you have laid out for me.
Was I naive? There was some immaturity there perhaps. Emotions are a powerful thing to a sheltered teenager. But I do believe that there was something authentic in that wide-eyed surrender that I felt. I was not aware of the realities of the Catholic parish as I wrote those words. That is the missing piece. My vocation was not born out of a connection to any parish church as a community. I disliked youth groups. I was not part of any volunteer programs apart from teaching Catechism. I was attending daily Mass for a time, but I never felt the slightest urge to serve at the altar.
I have sometimes said that my main attraction to the priesthood was intellectual--I believed that I could study the mysteries of God to my heart's content. Yet this, too, is inaccurate. What I loved about "church" and "Catholicism"--what drove me to tears--was not just the depth of the tradition. The studies gave me assurance that my feelings were grounded in a firm bedrock. But it was something else, it was the sense of the church as a refuge. I loved the church--and here I speak of the building--as I loved my mother. I loved the empty church as a place where I could be alone with my God who intimately knew me and who I could trust with my life.
[I should have seen the signs when more than one priest in the diocese poured scorn on this sort of religious experience, calling it "protestant".]
I loved the warmth of the morning daily Mass in the small chapel with its perfunctory homilies and room full of people two generations my senior. I loved going to Confession and hearing a deep, old, tender voice in a small, dark room, assuring me that God is the author of history and that untold beauty awaits us all whether we can see it now or not.
In these experiences, threaded together, I discovered a God that wanted nothing more than to embrace his beloved children, each individually and all together, and relieve them from spiritual suffering even while they endured the pain of living in a broken world.
I found a sort of personal salvation, and so I believed that the priesthood was the logical conclusion. What better position was there to share this intimate joy in God with as many people as possible?
The greatest mistake the Diocese made in taking me on--a mistake that I encouraged--was in not recognizing how out of touch I was with the true meaning and function of the parish, at least as it is today. I have zero interest in the parish as a public, ordered society. Parish councils, education programs, plant management, social functions, clubs, fundraisers--public, public, public. I have an allergy to the public.
And so I am, prima facie, disqualified to be a parish priest. The parish priest is not only, or primarily, the custodian of the God's intimate embrace of the discouraged soul. The priest is a community organizer. The priest must drift from function to function, through all sacharine falsehoods of public decorum, without any relief and without any human being with whom he can be himself.
The liturgy is a different thing altogether. The sacramental presence of Jesus Christ makes all the difference. The liturgy is both public and private, both intimate and ultimate. My vision of liturgy is determined by my vision of a God that reaches out to embrace each of us individually and together at once; a God that meets us in the inner room of the soul even while he calls us together to love one-another.
The Church does not exist prior to the initiative of God; and when it does exist it does not thereby obliterate the individual in favor of a "parish" with a "culture"; but rather it fulfills and brightens the individuality of the members, makes them glow with a pre-ordained, but delightfully different beauty given by God. Thus the liturgy is precisely the only public function which is neither sentimentally individualistic nor politely, superficially public.
But I am as unfit for diocesan priesthood as an amputee for tennis. It does not matter if he can run fast, he has no arms (maybe he is better suited to another sport). My experience of faith has always been lopsidedly personal and intimate, having no respect for the gatherings of near-strangers for purposes of mutual distraction or collective esteem-building. I am not, like Barack Obama, a community organizer. Community be damned. Who are you, what is your story, where do you hurt?
It feels funny writing that my experience of faith is "personal". I am usually the one saying I lack a personal relationship with God. But what I mean by a "personal" experience of faith is not that I feel like God is my invisible buddy, with whom I often chat about the frustrations of Tetris. Rather, my faith is personal because it thrives on persons, flesh and blood, each one a sacrament of God. Profound encounters with the human soul--something that never happens during "social functions"--are my impetus to pray. Some people need chant. Some people need statues. Some people need colorful windows. I need talk. Hold the weather and sports, please.
Thus, it is no surprise that I was happy in the seminary. There were problems, problems that I struggle with even now as a lay Catholic, and which will follow me wherever I am called. But living and studying within a community of men, men with a singular purpose, men who were each individually themselves as well as soldiers of Christ, I found the fulfillment of what I hoped for as a teenager. The seminary is, in a certain way, deceptive. It is a community of intimate friendships that prepares men for a life without any. This is hyperbole, yes, but there is truth in it.
To return again to the question,
Don't we all know what we really want, and that this deep desire is God's Spirit groaning within us?Perhaps I do know.