Monday, October 27, 2008

Continuing discernment

My thanks to Brother Thomas for his prayerful and insightful comment on my last discernment entry. At the end, he wrote,

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.


Br. Thomas said...

It started to click for me, too, when during my pastoral year I visited a seminary. Another seminarian and I drove down so he could visit his spiritual director, and I got to see some sights in DC. What I really wanted to do was spend more time in the seminary. In the parish I felt like I was suffocating; in the seminary I could breathe.

In the hall I heard one seminarian say to another, "If you're happier in the seminary than in the parish, then maybe you're not called to parish life." That was me, feeling more alive in a seminary surrounded by strangers than in a parish where I had spent six months.

So I thought about the Sulpicians, since they got to be priests and work in seminaries, too.

Matt of CG said...

Every time I step out the front door into the world, I'm precipitously engaged in one, giant, "social function" by default.

When I was working as a cashier at a convenience store many months ago, a woman named Erin walked in who I met in high school and maybe happened upon about three times in the last ten years.

"Hey, the last time I saw you was at the five points Chevron while I gassing up the Nova." I said. "Wow, that was four years ago already. How could you remember that?" she replied facetiously. "You're unforgettable..." she smirks, "...especially with all those 'Cholo Dudes'." I said.

With a closed smile she blushed, flicked her gaze at me, waved and went away.

"Ha, I got you. Now it's time to give her the ole' what for.", I thought to myself.

A few days had passed and Erin showed up again to buy cigarettes. "Yah know, back in life skills class I remember how unabashedly scandalous you were when you spoke and it thrilled me. I thought, 'Wow she's got a mouth on her like an adult.' Needless to say, I was smitten." I said with warm eyes, a sharp smile and a coy tone.

She was thoroughly taken aback and she blushed as she feigned being facetious, "Smitten, huh?" she said as I kept my smile and my gaze on her as she walked out the door. She gave me one of those, coy, over-the-shoulder looks.

It had been some months since I quit the convenience store when I saw Erin at the movie theatre with some dude. She said hello to me in passing with that same coy look in her eyes.


She's into meth and has never found a sense validation in anything for as many times as she has changed her cultural appearance over the years. I took a chance and gave her a bit of the sweetest sincerity I could muster in the most unlikely place. I hope she knows now that she is remembered, of consequence, and worthwhile.

It was my desire to give a little water her seed, her soul, so that she may one day overtake the brambles that now surround her.

Matt of CG said...

"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."

Why not?

That's how I approached Him in Sylmar and to this day. To give Jesus Christ the title of "best friend" doesn't diminish Him in any way. Don't be afraid to approach Him like a child would.

You can take stock in the fact that, no matter what you may gain or lose in human beings over the years, one constant still remains. That is, Jesus loves you as though you were the only one left alive on earth.

Matt of CG said...

Luke 10:38-42. In our lives we need to find a balance between being Martha and Mary. Action without prayer depletes the will. Prayer without action becomes selfish. It's okay to want to lead a more insular existence in relation to God. The introspective nature of the prayers and labors of contemplative life carry with them a great responsibility. I believe that as a monk, you are charged with the responsibility of gaining for our labor and our prayer more substantive progress under Heaven through your own prayers and labors.

Whereas a diocesan priest can do the same thing, but maybe not with the same consistency and frequency outside of the Eucharist, due to the demands on his time.

Ultimately, this is why I think nuns and monks exist. For the perpetual invigoration of the souls of the men in the diocesan priesthood.

Matt of CG said...

I can't forget how much they do for the least of the least in works of unfettered charity.

Matt of CG said...

Br. Thomas' question pierced me too.

Jeff said...

Hi Matt,

I enjoyed your comments. Thank you for keeping them clean. However, seriously, man, you need your own blog. They're free.

Matt of CG said...

Ha ha. But being reactionary is so much easier than taking initiative. ;) That's why I've referred to you before as being, " greater brother."

I know my own 'two cents worth' turned out to be more like a buck seventy three, but take it anyway! You've earned it. Just keep earning it for me, for you, for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Jeff. I don't know if it is polite to leer into blogs of strangers, but the way you coninue your discernment with more and more deep insight - moves me. The line about seminary as "a community of intimate friendships that prepares men for a life without any" is so true...

Matt of CG said...

"a community of intimate friendships that prepares men for a life without any" is so true...

Outside the context of the Eucharist sure, but within Him I fail to see any lack of intimacy.

How many friends do you know that are willing to become part of every fiber of your being? I only know of one. Jesus Christ.