I am a Catholic

I am a Catholic.

As a Catholic in the 21st cen­tu­ry I feel an extra­or­di­nary pres­sure to have a well-defined iden­ti­ty, an iden­ti­ty that is easy to label so I can tell my fel­low Catholics exact­ly what sort of Catholic I am. I feel the bur­den of need­ing to know exact­ly where I stand on absolute­ly every issue before I go any­where near a debate.

I also feel the need to explain who I am, to chart my jour­ney to where I am today, and try to piece togeth­er why I am how I am. I feel the need to uncov­er my Catholic iden­ti­ty, to claim it as my unique per­son­al expe­ri­ence of Catholi­cism, to own it. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, this is the pur­pose of almost all the writ­ing I have done over the past decade.

On a bleak, blus­tery day in mid-Novem­ber, 1999, I sat in the rector’s office at Saint John Vian­ney Sem­i­nary and told him that I would not be return­ing for the final semes­ter of my senior year. It was a momen­tous deci­sion for me, and it end­ed one phase of my young life and sent me tum­bling into years of self-doubt and uncer­tain­ty; uncer­tain­ty not just about my voca­tion, but about every­thing I had thought was cer­tain in my life, from my rela­tion­ship with my fam­i­ly to my rela­tion­ship with God and the Church.

Three years lat­er, in the ear­ly months of our rela­tion­ship, my wife was fre­quent­ly frus­trat­ed by my unwill­ing­ness to talk about my sem­i­nary expe­ri­ence with peo­ple we would meet social­ly. She thought it was one of the most inter­est­ing things about me, and she want­ed every­one to see how inter­est­ing I was. I, how­ev­er, felt it like a painful wound that was not to be brought up in polite com­pa­ny. It was very dif­fi­cult for me to explain this to her, how­ev­er. How can I be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ashamed, proud, wound­ed, and edi­fied by the same expe­ri­ence? This tan­gled con­tra­dic­tion was what I ran up against every time she tried to delve into it with me, how­ev­er, and I did not know how to explain it to her, since I was not yet sure how to explain it even to myself. On the out­side I was an enter­tain­ing and excit­ing indi­vid­ual full of amus­ing sto­ries, while inside I was secret­ly bro­ken — con­fused and shat­tered by the tem­pest of the past few years.

The jour­ney for­ward from that has been a long, yet I have not — could not — have walked it alone. I was remind­ed of this yet again yes­ter­day speak­ing with young man who is almost exact­ly the same place I was more than a decade ago: fresh “dis­cerned out” of sem­i­nary, unsure where in the world his God will lead him next. It was good for me to be able to assure him that yes, I felt lost and con­fused as well at that stage. I could tell him it had been a long process, was still a long process for me, but it was not with­out hope. I pray that he, and I, and the many “sem­i­nary refugees” all around us, will all find our way to hap­py, healthy ful­fill­ment in the Church we both love.

Vocation

Life has a pur­pose, right?

I have admit­ted­ly grown a bit cyn­i­cal in third decade of my life, but I still believe the affir­ma­tive answer to this ques­tion is true. Whether there is one set mean­ing for all life, or if each indi­vid­ual life holds its own unique and won­der­ful pur­pose: this is not so clear to me. But there is some point to it all, of that I am con­vinced. So, assum­ing the indi­vid­u­at­ed answer is at least not untrue, then the prin­ci­pal ques­tion becomes “What is the pur­pose of my life?” It is not just a ques­tion to pon­der in moments of soused philosophis­ing; it is the Ques­tion. My life is the sto­ry of that Ques­tion, and of my pur­suit of the ever-elu­sive (and ever-chang­ing) answer. Will there be a final answer: I won’t real­ly know until my time is up, will I?

So, what is my life for? I keep chang­ing my thoughts on that point, as well as my ideas of what the for­mat of the answer should be. Is this a mere prob­lem of select­ing the right job? Or is there some­thing more sig­nif­i­cant involved? As a boy, it seemed suf­fi­cient to con­tem­plate the career aspect of it, and I cycled through the usu­al answers: cow­boy, fire­man, pilot, sol­dier. As I grew in my indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, my answers became more my own: pale­on­tol­o­gist, chick­en ranch­er, Air Force offi­cer, orches­tral con­duc­tor, musi­col­o­gist.

And then I was eigh­teen, and some­one told me I should be a priest. I sup­pose that almost every lit­tle Catholic boy thinks at one time or anoth­er about the priest­hood. For most the thought is brief, eas­i­ly dis­missed, quick­ly dri­ven out by oth­er, more social­ly-encour­aged dreams. But for some it con­tin­ues to hold a cer­tain fas­ci­na­tion. I fell quite com­fort­ably into this lat­ter cat­e­go­ry. So when it was rather per­sua­sive­ly sug­gest­ed that my future should lie with the Church, I was will­ing to give it a try.

Which is not to say I was entire­ly con­vinced that this was the end of my long list of answers to the Ques­tion. It was just a real­ly big pos­si­bil­i­ty, and it was also the first one I had real­ly com­mit­ted myself to grap­ple with. I realised that it would involve the aban­don­ment of cer­tain oth­er answers: hus­band, father, lover. This par­tic­u­lar abdi­ca­tion nev­er seemed to me a ter­ri­bly good denoue­ment to my life, but I repeat­ed­ly decid­ed that I must give this answer a fair try, must see it through. Per­haps, after all, this was God’s Will for me, and who was I to thwart the Will of God?

A noble ide­al; but as my col­lege years fled by, I began to doubt that my human hap­pi­ness could endure this demand­ing answer. Some of those oth­er answers would not leave my mind, would not be ignored. I want­ed to love a beau­ti­ful woman, to nur­ture a fam­i­ly. It was not good for man to be alone. I did not ques­tion then — nor do I now — the ide­al of priest­ly celiba­cy; I just know that it is an ide­al that men oth­er than me are called to ful­fill.

Leav­ing the sem­i­nary is still one of the hard­est things I have ever had to do. I ago­nised over it with all the exis­ten­tial angst of a man who believes that the wrong choice will con­sign his immor­tal soul to the flames. The long lone­ly walks, the end­less packs of gourmet cig­a­rettes, the night­ly quaffing of var­i­ous vicious spir­its, the anguished hours kneel­ing before my God—they all blur togeth­er now into one long tor­tured mem­o­ry of an uncer­tain­ty which I was sure would crush me to the ground. I felt help­less to make the right deci­sion, hav­ing no sure way of dis­cern­ing what this ‘right deci­sion’ might be. I could not afford to err, for error in dis­cern­ing the Will of God meant damna­tion in my mind, and this — I hope under­stand­ably — weighed very heav­i­ly upon my mind and soul.

And just when I thought insan­i­ty was immi­nent, when I felt despair welling up to claim me, events con­spired to force my hand, and in the head-spin­ning pres­sure of the moment I made the right deci­sion. An ulti­ma­tum by the rec­tor; an anx­ious day which threat­ened to spi­ral out of my con­trol; a smoke-cloud­ed meet­ing with my voca­tion direc­tor — and it was sud­den­ly all clear.

I have said it was a tremen­dous­ly dif­fi­cult deci­sion. Yet it was also of all the deci­sions I have made in my life the one that has most brought me real peace of soul. I knew that I was about to enter a very dif­fer­ent world, full to the brim with very dif­fi­cult deci­sions; I knew that my life was about to become infi­nite­ly more com­pli­cat­ed. But I also knew that this was okay: I knew that I was going to be okay, because I knew that, for once, I was mak­ing the right deci­sion.

But that earth-shat­ter­ing deci­sion was mere­ly to decide that one par­tic­u­lar answer was not right for me. I was still left with the Ques­tion, the answer to which still need­ed to be found. I was start­ing over, it seemed from scratch. It has often been dif­fi­cult in the years since to even remem­ber what the Ques­tion is. A decade of place­hold­er jobs — five years sell­ing books, anoth­er four years in the mort­gage indus­try — gave me the sta­bil­i­ty to find love and start a beau­ti­ful fam­i­ly. Yet the Ques­tion has lin­gered, and final­ly I have mus­tered the courage and strength to make a new attempt to live a sin­cere answer to it. It has been a bru­tal­ly dif­fi­cult first year on this new stage of my jour­ney. But, with faith, hope, and love, I strug­gle on.

Hello? Is this thing looping?

This just in from our Depart­ment of the Sur­re­al:

Eight years and three weeks after I walked out of the sem­i­nary with the last box of my stuff into the cold world out­side the green­house walls, my lit­tle broth­er has entered the exact same sem­i­nary. The mind of this writer is still work­ing its way around this devel­op­ment, and the going is slow.

We will report on this more ful­ly as soon as our brain stops gib­ber­ing…

Amateur holiness

It has now been sev­en years since I packed my world­ly pos­ses­sions and left the sem­i­nary, walk­ing through the doors into a world that I was ill-pre­pared to live in. In some ways I am still leav­ing, still strug­gling through a painful and dis­ori­ent­ing process that I keep think­ing should be over by now, but which I often feel may nev­er be final­ly com­plete.

But progress has cer­tain­ly been made. The last three years have been espe­cial­ly growth-filled, and there is much more to come. I am more con­vinced than ever that I have found my true voca­tion every time I hold my son. But being a hus­band and father is not the whole sto­ry of my life; there are still oth­er aspects of my voca­tion that I have yet to dis­cern.

I am already cer­tain of this much: God does not want me to live my life as a cor­po­rate cube-dweller, at least not in the long term. That has been the eas­i­est piece of dis­cern­ment I have ever done. I think the many lunch breaks spent hud­dled on the cold side­walk out­side my work­place sob­bing have made the fate of my soul in such an envi­ron­ment very easy to divine.

So my neg­a­tive dis­cern­ment is going very well; I know what I don’t want to do with my life. But as help­ful as that is, it still leaves unan­swered the ques­tion of what I do want to do, and I want to know this answer very soon.

Of course, impa­tience is not a wel­come trait when engaged in any­thing like a spir­i­tu­al search, or so I keep remind­ing myself. But if I must pos­sess myself in patience, I must by the same token push myself for­ward and not allow myself to sim­ply wait for God to hand me a future all pre-pack­aged and ready-to-live. I need to prayer­ful­ly and active­ly make my life hap­pen.

One of the biggest stum­bling blocks for me is my rela­tion­ship to the Church. After years of oper­at­ing under the assump­tion that I would be liv­ing out my life as a pro­fes­sion­al holy man, the prospect of ama­teur holi­ness has proved impos­si­bly dif­fi­cult for me to engage. I seem to have been unable to trans­late my youth­ful piety and earnest sacra­men­tal devo­tion into a spir­i­tu­al prac­tice that fits my adult soul. And of course I strug­gle with this: am I wrong to expect my faith expe­ri­ence to ‘grow up’? Should I not rather be striv­ing to become “as a lit­tle child” in my spir­i­tu­al life? I don’t know, and so I have for all too long sim­ply let the ques­tion lie. And life cir­cum­stances have made it very easy for me to avoid any involve­ment in our parish that might make me feel like I was actu­al­ly a part of some­thing.

This needs to change. I am increas­ing­ly cer­tain that I want to lead a life that is deeply involved in and con­nect­ed with the Catholic Church, and it is time I began to dis­cov­er for myself what that means, rather than wait­ing idly to find out. This does­n’t have to mean any dras­tic steps, although by this point any step for­ward feels dras­tic. It could be as sim­ple as tak­ing on a litur­gi­cal rôle — I have long missed lec­tor­ing at Mass. Would there not be a lot of emo­tion­al bag­gage involved in set­ting foot in the sanc­tu­ary after sev­en years of exile? With­out a doubt, but it is time for me to real­ly start to move on in a tan­gi­ble way, and the most impor­tant way for me to do so is to redis­cov­er that I can be an active mem­ber of the Church with­out wear­ing a plas­tic col­lar around my neck. Once I do that, then maybe I can explore fur­ther what my Catholic­i­ty will mean for me in a larg­er way in the years ahead.

Recursion

I am in the back seat of the mini­van, approach­ing the Twin Cities. Return­ing to the Cities and to cam­pus at the end of sum­mer, I am ready to begin my Senior year. It is unclear to me whether I am a sem­i­nar­i­an or a lay stu­dent; I clear­ly remem­ber leav­ing sem­i­nary for­ma­tion pre­vi­ous­ly, but options for both were dis­cussed, and for a while it seemed I was en route to the new (in 1999) “apart­ment-style” res­i­dence for Juniors and Seniors that looms just behind the sem­i­nary build­ing on the north edge of the cam­pus. We actu­al­ly move my belong­ings into one of these apart­ments, and I have some sort of con­ver­sa­tion with one of my new room­mates over the refrig­er­a­tor door in our shared kitch­enette.

But, inevitably, I find myself, duf­fel in hand, walk­ing around the cor­ner and up to the famil­iar entrance, com­plete with the weath­ered Smith & Hawken park bench. New sem­i­nar­i­ans are fil­ing in — I am once again amazed at how young they are — and the rec­tor is stand­ing there, wel­com­ing them and grin­ning like an mid­dle-aged accoun­tant on speed. He seems pleased, per­haps even a lit­tle smug to see me com­ing back. I also sense a whiff of sus­pi­cion, as if he can tell some­how that I am not entire­ly sin­cere in my stat­ed pur­pose, and he will be watch­ing me.

I head upstairs, where I dis­cov­er that the res­i­dence floors have been trans­formed. All the rooms have been gut­ted out, and the space on either side of the long hall is now divid­ed into fair­ly tiny cells; there is room for a small wood­en writ­ing desk and a low bed on the floor next to it, the bed itself so small as to neces­si­tate sleep­ing in the fœtal posi­tion. There are no walls or doors to these cubi­cles; the cells are sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er by light screens, and sheer flim­sy cur­tains cov­er the open­ings onto the hall. See­ing these new­ly-monas­tic liv­ing con­di­tions, I think bet­ter of this ven­ture, and slip off down the fire stairs and walk back to the life of a lay stu­dent.

I am famil­iar with the con­cept of the recur­ring dream; it is a use­ful and often-engag­ing lit­er­ary device, and occa­sion­al­ly makes a mean­ing­ful fea­ture in the biog­ra­phy of real per­sons (Tolkien, for instance, had a recur­ring dream image of a land destroyed by a mon­strous wave that found its way deep into his cre­at­ed mythol­o­gy). But I do not asso­ciate them with real peo­ple that I know. I cer­tain­ly don’t have them myself.

Except that I do. It was only upon awak­ing from the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of this noc­tur­nal odyssey that I made the con­nec­tion to pre­vi­ous dreams, and became aware that there have been quite a few of them over the past few years. In these dreams, with vary­ing minor details, I attempt to return to the sem­i­nary I left near­ly sev­en years ago.

Why do I con­tin­u­al­ly dream of return­ing to sem­i­nary? Not just to the life in gen­er­al, but to that par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tion? I will start by opin­ing that I do not believe this is an uncon­scious man­i­fes­ta­tion of a lin­ger­ing belief that I made the wrong deci­sion in leav­ing the path to the priest­hood. Hap­pi­ly mar­ried, I remain in peace­ful cer­tain­ty regard­ing at least that aspect of my voca­tion­al jour­ney. But it does seem that I have some unfin­ished busi­ness there.

A very inter­est­ing aspect to me is that in these dreams it is not my younger self try­ing to pick up where I left off, try­ing out an alter­na­tive his­to­ry of me in which I car­ry on. Rather, it is my cur­rent self that is seek­ing to gain re-entry into the insti­tu­tion under more or less false pre­tences. Usu­al­ly I am mar­ried, a fact I keep to myself. It is not that I want to be a priest in these dreams; I sim­ply want to be a sem­i­nar­i­an again for a while.

Also, I think I am intrigued, even fas­ci­nat­ed, by how dra­mat­i­cal­ly this par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tion changed almost overnight under new lead­er­ship, a change that was just begin­ning to man­i­fest when I polite­ly showed myself to the door. From the dis­tant glimpses I get of what life is like there now, I do not recog­nise any resem­blance to the place I called my home, my com­mu­ni­ty, my world for near­ly four years, and this is true in the dreams I have as well. In the dreams, how­ev­er, I am try­ing to infil­trate this new place, to exam­ine it from the inside, an impos­si­bil­i­ty in real life, even did I desire to attempt it.

In the years I was a sem­i­nar­i­an, my ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion swung in one direc­tion while the cli­mate of the sem­i­nary insti­tu­tion swung even faster in the oppo­site. After I left, our respec­tive ide­o­log­i­cal momen­tum has con­tin­ued to car­ry me and the sem­i­nary milieu even fur­ther apart. I sup­pose that I can under­stand­ably enter­tain some latent desire to recon­nect with the insti­tu­tion that did so much for me (and to me) and try to under­stand how it got from where I left it to where it is now, and per­haps in the process also shed some light on how this poor soul got from where he was when he walked into that build­ing to the man he was when he walked out into the cold world again, and so on to the man he is still becom­ing today.