An Egg Manifesto, Part 3: Prospection

I have made a great many promis­es over the course of the nine-year his­to­ry of the Egg; I have kept very, very few of them. I hope the fol­low­ing will be short on promis­es but longer on state­ments of where I want to see things go, and some thoughts on how I want to take myself (as the writer), the Egg (as the pub­li­ca­tion), and you (as the read­er) on the jour­ney for­ward to our mutu­al goal.

I am writ­ing again, as I have pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned, and as you have prob­a­bly noticed for your­self by this point. I dai­ly find myself less ret­i­cent about giv­ing voice to my long-smol­der­ing per­son­al and spir­i­tu­al malaise, which now is final­ly poised to burst into the full flame of hope-filled fury. I feel less con­cerned about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of offend­ing some­one by some­thing I write and more and more con­cerned about offend­ing my God and my self by fail­ing to tell my truth and share the pain and pas­sion which have lain buried too long in the hid­den depths of my soul. I will pub­lish with­out fear the words I need to put into the world. I will speak with as strong a voice as I can muster, tinged at times with the pas­sion of out­rage, but not dis­tort­ed by it; borne up by abid­ing hope, but nev­er blind­ed by it.

As a for­mer sem­i­nar­i­an, I feel a deep, and deeply-per­son­al, love for the Catholic Church in all its splen­dor. The sem­i­nary pro­gram itself is of vital inter­est to me, not because I want to go back, but because I want it to be bet­ter than what I know it to be. I want a healthy Church served by healthy priests, and I find grave fault with some aspects of how that goal is cur­rent­ly pur­sued, espe­cial­ly in light of recent lam­en­ta­ble events. I have a pas­sion­ate love of the Roman litur­gy, as I have already touched on in the past year. More ink will be spilled before I exhaust what I have to say on that hot-but­ton top­ic. And as I spent much of my youth more or less expect­ing to spend my adult life as a priest, I spent com­par­a­tive­ly lit­tle time reflect­ing on how to be a Catholic who was not a mem­ber of the ordained élite. Even now that I have final­ly begun to emerge from my post-sem­i­nary spir­i­tu­al tor­por, I still strug­gle with reclaim­ing my pas­sion for the Church as a mem­ber of the laity. As I search for my prop­er rôle, I expect to have a lot to say about that as well.

I had ini­tial­ly been hes­i­tant to put forth any­thing that might be ‘con­tro­ver­sial’ in the sphere of Church top­ics. After all, I want to work for the Church as an insti­tu­tion some­day soon, and I was afraid that if any­thing I pub­lished — even here — failed the scruti­ny of the New Inqui­si­tion, I might find all doors closed to me in my quest to labor again in the Vine­yard of the Lord. But now I say this: I will say my say, and if I am denied a job serv­ing God’s Holy Church because of some­thing I sin­cere­ly put forth on this site, well, at least I will know that some­one read it. I will nev­er be con­tro­ver­sial for its own sake, but I will speak my truth with increas­ing bold­ness, striv­ing always to bal­ance faith­ful ortho­doxy with pas­sion­ate integri­ty.

Does all this mean that Egg Yolks is now a Catholic pub­li­ca­tion? Yes and no. Yes, in that its author is deeply and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly Catholic, with very strong feel­ings on a num­ber of ‘issues’ cur­rent in the Church today. You can look for essays with dis­tinct­ly Catholic focus with increas­ing fre­quen­cy (and fer­vor) in the months ahead. And as I go on, I expect that even ‘non-Church’ top­ics will dis­play a Catholic fla­vor, which I am hope­ful read­ers will not ulti­mate­ly find dis­taste­ful. But no, things eccle­sial shall not be my sole top­ic. Look for the ongo­ing reflec­tions of an aspir­ing writer, wry obser­va­tions on life as I see it, and prob­a­bly even an occa­sion­al smat­ter­ing of the self-serv­ing sass that once endeared The Float­ing Egg to dozens of read­ers across the Upper Mid­west. Nor do I intend to become an insuf­fer­able polemi­cist or a reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ist of any sort. I am in a search­ing and prob­ing mode, in life and in faith; instead of thump­ing Bibles and spout­ing syl­lo­gisms, I am more inclined to rat­tle win­dows and look behind closed doors into dark­ened rooms. If that is too vague an image, well, stay tuned.

Sleeper, Awake!

Today I was treat­ed to a tru­ly excel­lent homi­ly, one that spoke direct­ly to me in a way that made me sit up and take notice (at least as best I could with a sleep­ing baby in my arms and my low­er back seiz­ing up). It felt like a wake-up call to me, a small clar­i­on exhort­ing me to sleep no longer, but awake, and be about the Lord’s work.

The scrip­tur­al read­ings were note­wor­thy on their own, and my heart was begin­ning to stir with­in me even before the cel­e­brant strolled down to stand in the nave, the Book of the Gospels clasped under his arm, to deliv­er his remarks. The thrust of all three read­ings was that the life of a prophet, the life of a dis­ci­ple, the life of a Chris­t­ian, is not an easy one. No news flash there. But the three read­ings — from Jere­mi­ah, the Let­ter to the Romans, and the Gospel accord­ing to Matthew — came togeth­er so cogent­ly for me that I could not but feel that I was tru­ly being spo­ken to, spo­ken to in a way that was famil­iar and strange and fright­en­ing and reas­sur­ing and unde­ni­able. It was good.

And I did­n’t real­ly need to wait for him to “break open the Word” for me, either; the words pret­ty much broke them­selves wide open on their own. “Do not mod­el your­selves on the behav­iour of the world around you,” Paul admon­ish­es in today’s sec­ond read­ing, “but let your behav­iour change, mod­elled by your new mind. This is the only way to dis­cov­er the will of God…” (Rom 12:2). In the first read­ing, the prophet Jere­mi­ah launch­es an intem­per­ate j’ac­cuse at the God who “duped” him into broad­cast­ing an unfail­ing­ly-unpop­u­lar mes­sage. “The word of the Lord has brought me deri­sion and reproach all the day,” he com­plains. He has obeyed the call he received, and it has brought him a world of hurt. And in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus begins to pre­pare his apos­tles for the truth that even He must suf­fer as an inte­gral part of His mis­sion.

In many regards the homi­ly was a pret­ty stan­dard response to this type of scrip­ture read­ing. The priest made some com­ments about how the life of a prophet entailed “speak­ing truth to pow­er” (a sort of stan­dard def­i­n­i­tion of prophe­cy in many eccle­si­as­ti­cal cir­cles). He spoke of the Chris­t­ian life being one of inher­ent suf­fer­ing, a suf­fer­ing we should not mere­ly resign our­selves to, but instead seek out, “take up our cross” and active­ly labour for the king­dom of God. It was all good stuff, but noth­ing I had­n’t heard before in some venue or anoth­er over the years. But today it res­onat­ed with­in me, and I won­dered, not just idly but in earnest: why am I not speak­ing truth, not even to those in pow­er, but to any­one? I have a new mind, I have put on Christ, I know that I am a child of God. So what am I doing hid­ing my light under a bushel?

I imme­di­ate­ly recalled sit­ting in a plush seat in Orches­tra Hall on a blus­tery Octo­ber evening back in 1997. Next to me was a friend from high school that I had not seen in over a year. She and I had shared a music stand in the high school orches­tra, and we had shared many won­der­ful con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing our musi­cal part­ner­ship. That I had a bit of a crush on her had gone unno­ticed, or at least unre­marked. And now here we were, two young adults, catch­ing up on each oth­er’s life before a con­cert. I, of course, was now a sem­i­nar­i­an, which she was under­stand­ably very curi­ous about. She asked me how I knew I want­ed to be a priest. My reply remains one of my most vivid mem­o­ries of that era of my life. “It’s not about what I want,” I told her; “it’s about what God wants.”

I recall that she was bemused by this out­look — she agreed with my caveat that “Maybe it’s a Catholic thing” — but she seemed to under­stand that I tru­ly believed what I was say­ing. And I did tru­ly believe what I was say­ing — even if I was still pret­ty much in the dark about what pre­cise­ly God did want of me — and, look­ing back sev­en years alter, I still believe it. Voca­tion is real, and the path of dis­cern­ment is tricky, but it is also grace-filled, and ulti­mate­ly, if fol­lowed faith­ful­ly and sin­cere­ly, it leads to inner peace and true hap­pi­ness.

But am I liv­ing that belief? No. Just now I had to scrape — not blow, scrape — the dust off my bibles to look up the vers­es from today’s litur­gy so I could quote them here. Near­ly six years ago I deter­mined that I was not being called by God to serve as an ordained min­is­ter in the Catholic Church. Two years ago this May I mar­ried, and I believe with all my soul that this mar­ried state is part of my voca­tion. But one’s state in life — mar­ried, sin­gle, ordained — is only part of the voca­tion­al expe­ri­ence as I under­stand it. The oth­er part is what you do with that state; what you do for good, and for God. And I have been noth­ing but spir­i­tu­al­ly indo­lent for far too long now.

What on earth are you doing for Heav­en’s sake?” was a catchy lit­tle tagline that enjoyed a fair bit of pop­u­lar­i­ty when I was in sem­i­nary. I came across it print­ed on a prayer card just the oth­er day. But behind the trite­ness lies a pret­ty pithy con­cept: Christ expects His fol­low­ers to change the world, to make it a bet­ter place, every day in every way, until the clock runs down on this show we call life and as many souls as pos­si­ble make it through to live thereal hap­pi­ly ever after. It’s real­ly not a bad touch­stone for the Chris­t­ian life. It can lead to a whole lit­tle cat­e­chism for me, like the one I ran myself through sud­den­ly this morn­ing: how am I effect­ing pos­i­tive change in this world? how is the world a bet­ter place for my liv­ing in it? how am I show­ing myself a fol­low­er of Christ? The answers I came up with were pret­ty weak, if I do say so myself.

In my ongo­ing intro­spec­tion on the sub­ject, I am struck by the fact that at no point in my spir­i­tu­al malaise that fol­lowed my exit from sem­i­nary did I ever lose my faith, as the say­ing goes. I nev­er felt like maybe all this reli­gious stuff was just bun­combe, that maybe God was just a social con­struct to make us feel bet­ter about our­selves, and all the oth­er angsty whiny exis­ten­tial­ism that seems to come eas­i­ly to peo­ple when they abrupt­ly drop off a high­ly reli­gious track and realise they are all alone with no one to lean on but, well, God. Even as frus­trat­ed and bit­ter and lost as I felt in those lone­ly days and weeks and months after I left my pro­ject­ed path to the priest­hood behind, it just did­n’t occur to me to doubt the verac­i­ty of every mys­tery I had held to be true. They were still true — I just was­n’t ter­ri­bly con­cerned about them at the moment.

I lived like this for two years or so (although it felt like a lot longer), until I met my wife and began the slow crawl back to some­thing resem­bling a life of faith. I still have a long, long way to go, and today’s homi­ly was a mighty jolt to my spir­it­less com­pla­cen­cy. It is not enough, the priest declared, to accept suf­fer­ing, to put up with the hard stretch­es in our lives. In my soul I know that it is not enough any­more to believe casu­al­ly and qui­et­ly. As a Chris­t­ian, I need to look for, to find the hard road that I am called to walk down, and when I find my nar­row path I need to take up my cross, to active­ly embrace it as an act of will, and walk with it as far as I can, even to my own Cal­vary.

Now to find my road, and take up my cross.

Ordination Day

Today I received an invi­ta­tion to my ordi­na­tion.

Not real­ly, of course. I just cel­e­brat­ed my sec­ond wed­ding anniver­sary, my wife and I are hap­pi­ly rais­ing our four-month-old son, and I would­n’t change any of that. But the fact that I spent almost four years in a Catholic sem­i­nary, trav­el­ing near­ly halfway to the priest­hood, is some­thing that is always in the back of my mind. And this year the mem­o­ries are espe­cial­ly poignant: had I stayed the course, I would be receiv­ing the sacra­ment of Holy Orders this sum­mer. In a par­al­lel life, where I dis­cerned a dif­fer­ent voca­tion, I would be a priest in six weeks.

I have two class­mates get­ting ordained in July. I have not seen either of them in almost five years. We have not kept in touch. They have been study­ing at a sem­i­nary in Rome, far away in a dif­fer­ent world, a world I once lived in, too. I trust they are hap­py. I am excit­ed at the thought of the priests they will be; they are good young men, and they will serve God and the Church well for many years to come. I am look­ing for­ward to being there in the cathe­dral when the bish­op lays his hands on their heads and the pow­er of the Holy Spir­it comes upon them, mak­ing them priests for­ev­er.

But it will be a sad day for me, too; anoth­er bit­ter­sweet reminder of how I used to be on the inside, and am now for­ev­er on the out­side look­ing in. This is dif­fi­cult to write about, because I find myself danc­ing a razor-thin line: on the one hand, I do not wish to give the erro­neous impres­sion that I regret my deci­sion to leave priest­ly for­ma­tion (I do not), and on the oth­er hand I do not want to come across as a bit­ter young man whin­ing about his fail­ure. I am a hap­pi­ly-mar­ried young Catholic man with a deep attach­ment to the (extreme­ly for­ma­tive) time I spent in prepa­ra­tion for a life­time in ser­vice to my God and to my Church. The real­i­ty is that I dis­cerned — through much prayer and heart­break — that my heart was not being called to the ordained min­is­te­r­i­al priest­hood. But the real­i­ty is also that, ulti­mate­ly, I remain no less called to serve the Peo­ple of God; I am just still find­ing the pre­cise how.

So I am look­ing for­ward to being there in some back pew as two young men take the final step and devote them­selves, body and soul, to the ser­vice of God’s Peo­ple. I will prob­a­bly cry, clutch­ing my young son as my wife puts her con­sol­ing arm around me. I will hold them close, my fam­i­ly, my voca­tion, and I will pray for my two friends as they fol­low their divine call­ing. And I will pray that all of us, togeth­er, can build the City of God with peace and love.

A new pope, a (re)new(ed) self

Habe­mus papam!

How excit­ed I was to hear those words! I held my infant son in my arms, stand­ing excit­ed­ly before the tele­vi­sion, watch­ing that upper win­dow with the rest of the world to see who would emerge as the Suc­ces­sor of the Prince of the Apos­tles. I caught myself on the verge of sob­bing sev­er­al times, so intense was the antic­i­pa­tion. And when Bene­dict XVI final­ly emerged into view I dropped to my knees in my liv­ing room, trem­bling with reli­gious excite­ment.

And the news was no real sur­prise. It was not, per­haps, what I might have hoped, but even I am unsure what it was I might have hoped for. I feel so dis­tant from the hub­bub of eccle­si­as­ti­cal pol­i­tick­ing com­pared to my con­stant per­co­la­tion in it of my sem­i­nary days, and when I have tried to take an inter­est in it again I have felt like a man lost in a very famil­iar but still vague­ly dis­tant dream. Cer­tain­ly Joseph Ratzinger has fea­tured promi­nent­ly in the pan­theon of my Catholic heroes for many years, and dur­ing my time in the sem­i­nary his name was a lit­mus test for who was friend or foe in the sim­mer­ing intra­mur­al com­bat of Church pol­i­tics.

I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber a rather fright­en­ing evening in a lake cab­in, short­ly before my first semes­ter of sem­i­nary. It was a reg­u­lar end of sum­mer rit­u­al for the sem­i­nar­i­ans of the dio­cese to gath­er with a few of the younger priests for an infor­mal get-togeth­er at the lake. As the new­bie, I was meet­ing most of these men for the first time. I was on my best behav­iour, but I had been well-coached by my pas­tor not to reveal my true (con­ser­v­a­tive-tra­di­tion­al) views light­ly, and I sus­pect­ed that I was not entire­ly among friends.

Over a game of cards, the voca­tion direc­tor made a com­ment that if we need­ed any­thing, we had only to ask. One of the sem­i­nar­i­ans unhesi­tat­ing­ly quipped that he would love to have James Bond’s new BMW, with the machine guns and rock­et launch­ers built in. “Oh, sure,” was the response. “You know, the bish­op has one of those. It says ‘Eat this, Ratzinger’ on the front.” Gen­er­al laugh­ter fol­lowed.

I was inward­ly appalled. I had nev­er before bro­ken bread with “lib­er­al” Catholics, let alone sat up late into the night drink­ing and play­ing cards with them. And to hear a priest speak flip­pant­ly about the man I saw as one of the cham­pi­ons for the preser­va­tion of the Church, well, it was very dif­fi­cult to make my laugh­ter seem heart­felt.

But that was many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away. I some­times don’t rec­og­nize that skin­ny young me, sit­ting at that table laugh­ing ner­vous­ly. So much has hap­pened in the inter­im, and the world looks so very, very dif­fer­ent. But now I have seen my first con­clave, how­ev­er brief. A new pope holds my fer­vent alle­giance. A baby son looks to me to show him how to be a per­son of faith. I am a Catholic as I have nev­er been before, and every day finds me tak­ing that Catholic iden­ti­ty more and more seri­ous­ly. At this rate, I could be a bright young Catholic intel­lec­tu­al before I know it. That is the goal now, and I can hard­ly wait.

On the eve of the conclave

The pope is dead.

Nev­er before in my life have I heard those words pro­claimed, and for the past two weeks I have been repeat­ing them to myself, over and over again, as if the news were too much to take in all at once, but must soak in grad­u­al­ly like the first spring rain. Cer­tain­ly it is a strange time to be alive, and to be a Catholic. My emo­tions are strong, and mixed. There is sad­ness, grief that a great man is dead, that a holy life is end­ed, that a con­stant in my life is sud­den­ly gone. And there is excite­ment and curios­i­ty about what will hap­pen now, who will emerge from the com­ing con­clave to fill the Chair of Peter, and what aspects of the Church will come to the fore dur­ing the 265th papa­cy.

But should­n’t I be wor­ried? Should­n’t I be a afraid? The man who emerges lat­er this week upon the bal­cony clad in white to bless the city and the world will be in a posi­tion to influ­ence the course of his­to­ry through­out the world, and the actions he will take (or not take) will rever­ber­ate in the lives of bil­lions of souls. I take some com­fort in my belief that the Holy Spir­it will indeed be at work as the car­di­nals make their choice from among them­selves of the next leader of the Catholic Church. But they are all human, too, and there have been good popes, and many less good, through­out the long his­to­ry of Chris­ten­dom. Who knows which kind we shall see next? I hope and pray that it will be just the man that God knows we need.