September 19, 2014 12 Comments
Praised be Jesus Christ! It is my great pleasure to announce that on November 1, 2014, I will enter the postulancy with the Discalced Carmelite Friars and begin religious life with the intent of working towards eventual ordination to the priesthood. This is a direction towards which I have been moving and working for close to a year and a half, and I am beyond thrilled to have finally arrived at this juncture in my life. Appropriately, my first year as a Carmelite with coincide with both the 500th centenary of the birth of our foundress, St. Teresa of Avila, and with the Catholic Church’s Year for Consecrated Life.
For those interested, you will find below a brief history of the Carmelites, followed by my own vocation story. First, however, I will outline my road ahead as I undergo further discernment and formation with the Friars. The first stage is the postulancy, which will last for five months and take place at our monastery attached to St. Florian’s Catholic Church in downtown Milwaukee, WI. During this time I will be able to immerse myself in the Carmelite life, receive formal instruction on the history and spirituality of the order, and more clearly discern if this is the life God is calling me to lead. The second stage is the novitiate, which lasts for one year and will take place about thirty minutes outside Milwaukee at Holy Hill, the site of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady, Help of Christians. At the beginning of the novitiate, I will receive the Holy Habit of Carmel and my new name in religion. At the end of my novitiate year, if I persevere and I am approved by the Order, I will make my First Profession of Vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows will be temporary and will be renewed once a year until, God willing, I profess lifelong Solemn Vows. Once I am in vows, I hope to begin seminary studies for the priesthood. As things currently stand, these studies would take place in Washington, DC, where our student house is located at present. Assuming that everything proceeds as expected and according to the normal schedule, I would profess Solemn Vows in about six and a half years time and receive ordination to the priesthood in ten years. I humbly ask for your prayers that I persevere in my vocation. Please be assured that I will be praying for you as well. May God reward you.
God willing, this will be me in six months
During my postulancy, I will not have access to the Internet or social media. If you wish to keep in touch with me by letter, please contact me on an individual basis and I will give you my new mailing address. At some point, I will regain access to things like email, Facebook, and Twitter, but I cannot at this time say whether that will take place during my novitiate or after I take vows.
History of the Carmelites
The Carmelite Order was born in the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades, among hermits who, inspired by the life and example of the Prophet Elijah, had taken to living on Mt. Carmel. In the early 1200s they were formed into a religious order and given a Rule of Life by St. Albert of Jerusalem. In the face of the Saracen re-conquest of Palestine, the Carmelites relocated to Europe and became a mendicant order of friars. It was at this time that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock, the General of the Order, and bestowed upon him and the Carmelites the Brown Scapular, which is still a defining feature of the Carmelite habit and a sacramental worn faithfully by millions of Catholics around the world.
In the mid 1500s, St. Teresa of Jesus, a Carmelite nun living in the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain, embarked upon a reform of her order, so as to restore it to its original, contemplative charism and discipline of life. What began simply as a reform within her own monastery took fire, and soon St. Teresa was establishing new Carmels around Spain. In this task, she was greatly aided by her close friend St. John of the Cross, a young friar of the order who similarly set out to reform his Carmelite brothers. They became known as the discalced (“shoeless”), because of the poverty and simplicity in which they lived, right down to not owning shoes, but instead wearing only sandals, the footwear of the poor. However, the reformers were not universally popular, and they faced great resistance from within the Order. At one point, St. John of the Cross was kidnapped by friars from another monastery and imprisoned in a closet for nine months, until he was able to affect a daring escape out of a window by means of an improvised rope. The reformed and unreformed Carmels operated alongside one another with increasing autonomy, until the order finally split in two, the unreformed becoming known as the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (O.Carm), and the reformers as the Discalced Carmelite Order (O.C.D.). It is the latter branch that I will be entering.
Since the time of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, the Discalced Carmelites have thrived and produced a number of illustrious saints and blesseds: the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus; the mystic, philosopher, and martyr at Auschwitz St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein); the first saint of Chile, St. Teresa of the Andes; the French mystic and near-contemporary of St. Thérèse, Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity; the Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne; and others.
St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. You may have heard of her.
The Discalced Carmelites today consist of friars, nuns, and the Secular Order. The nuns live a cloistered life, devoting their days to prayer and sacrifice for the well-being and intentions of priests and seminarians. The friars share in the contemplative vocation of their sisters, particularly in spending, as the nuns do, two hours a day in mental prayer. However, per St. Teresa’s desire, they also carry out apostolic work in the world, through the celebration of the Sacraments, by offering retreats and spiritual direction, and attending to the spiritual needs of the nuns and the members of the Secular Order, those lay men and women, as well as secular priests, who desire to be joined to the Carmelite Order and live its contemplative life and spirituality as best they are able within their own vocations.
If you desire to learn more about the Discalced Carmelites and their spirituality, I highly recommend starting with these two books: The Story of a Soul, by St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, and The Impact of God: Soundings From St. John of the Cross by Fr. Ian Matthews, O.C.D.. Read in conjunction, both will give the reader an excellent foundation in the lives and thoughts of John and Thérèse.
My Vocation Story
The following is adapted largely from my Personal Statement, which formed a portion of my Application for Admission
My road to Carmel can be said to have begun in earnest in the fall of 2012. At that time, I was 25 years old, working in private security while taking some career development courses at my local community college, and was suffering from a lingering sense of unease brought about by my lack of knowledge as to where God might be calling me in life. While I had taken adult ownership of my faith about four years prior, after leaving the University of Virginia due to academic difficulties, it was only in the fall of 2011 that I truly began to live a full life of grace, specifically by going to daily Mass, receiving the Sacrament of Penance on a regular and frequent basis for the first time in my life, and disciplining myself into a routine habit of prayer centered around the Rosary and the Divine Office. One year after all this began to fall into place, I was enjoying the peace and joy that comes from God’s presence in the soul, but I still had no sense of the direction in which He intended to draw me, and this was the cause of some distress.
At that point, I considered seeking out a spiritual director, and shared what I was going through with a fellow Catholic, Billy Newton. He recommended that I do so, and he also recommended that I talk about it in greater detail with a young woman who lived in Pennsylvania, who was a mutual acquaintance of ours through our shared online Catholic social media circles. Though I never was able to locate a spiritual director in my area, I followed this latter piece of advice, and the friendship that developed out of it between myself and Channing Dale (now Sister Mary Magdalene of the Divine Heart, OCD) was to redirect the entire course of my life.
Me and Channing on her Entrance Day into the Elysburg Carmel
At the onset of our initial deeper conversations, away from the public forum of Twitter, Channing confided in me that she had been accepted into the Carmel of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Elysburg, PA and would be entering the cloister in the summer of 2013. This was my first direct encounter with the Carmelites. I had previously read a brief account of the life of St. Teresa of Jesus, knew in a vague way who St. Therese was, and had heard about the “dark night of the soul”, though principally in connection with Bl. Teresa of Calcutta. But here was someone who got me thinking about who the Carmelites were and whose personal holiness, joy, and burning love of Jesus caused me to want to discover more about this order and their spirituality.
Over the course of the next few months, my casual friendship with Channing grew into a close one, and then blossomed into one of the closest, most fulfilling relationships of my life. We went from trading tweets and emails online, to talking via text, GChat, and phone on a daily basis, and even went on a number of day pilgrimages together to various sites and shrines. The closer I drew to her, and the more my fondness for her increased, the more in awe of stood of her tremendous, passionate love for Jesus. It brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion to contemplate just how much she was in love with Our Lord and how beautiful it was that He was drawing her to Himself, to live with Him and be His bride. I had not yet begun to explore Carmelite spirituality in any deeper sense, but this was the first, nascent impression of the Order that was imprinted on my soul.
In January 2013, Channing and I attended the March For Life together, and there she had the opportunity to tell me a good deal more about the Discalced Carmelites and the life that she would be leading. We spent a fantastic (albeit snowy and bitterly cold) day in DC together, before closing with the Pontifical High Requiem Mass. This was my first exposure to the Extraordinary Form, and while I was there I had a tremendous spiritual experience. During the Dies Irae, I felt my heart rip open and all the negative thoughts and fears that I had been burying over the past few months came gushing to the surface. I broke down sobbing and started apologizing to God for being so utterly worthless, such a complete and total failure, and for not being capable of following through on any kind of vocation whatsoever, whether it be to the priesthood, married life, or consecrated singlehood. It shocked me a little that I continued to harbor such negative sentiments, but there they were. Then I looked at the amazing, beautiful, holy young woman beside me whom I so admired and who was destined to be a Bride of Christ, and realized that as much as God loves her, He loves me just as much! This thought was of tremendous comfort and reassurance, and as I walked towards the sanctuary to receive Holy Communion, I knew that however God was calling me to serve Him, He would bestow on me the grace and capability to do it, and that when He called me to something more particular than holiness of life and developing a personal relationship with Him, He would do so.
After all this, my Lent that year passed with relative serenity. It was not lost on me that the times when I felt most at peace, and experienced the greatest sense of “Now this is the true purpose of my existence” were those moments I spent bowed before the Blessed Sacrament in my parish’s Adoration Chapel. There was still no inkling in my soul as to how God might eventually call me to serve and to love Him, but I knew that I thirsted to do so totally and completely, in whatever manner He desired. The image that continually returned to me was that of Christ the High Priest shaping me into a chalice, filled with grace and offered up to the Father. Additionally, I discovered the first volume of the collected works of Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity at my local used bookstore, and then later came across her letters in my parish’s Perpetual Adoration Chapel. I instantly fell in love with her voice and her way of speaking about God, and felt a powerful, tangible connection, along with an uncanny sense that if I had known her in this life, we would have quickly become fast friends. Later that summer I was to ready Story Of A Soul and God, The Joy of My Life, and thus forge strong devotions as well to both St. Thérèse and St. Teresa of the Andes.
Before that, though, I received the call for which I had been hoping, and much sooner than expected. During the homily at Holy Thursday Mass, my pastor looked out at the faithful and announced with certitude that there were men present in the church, besides those standing at the altar, who were called to the priesthood. In that moment, it was as if a gigantic spotlight, or the eyes of the Holy Spirit, had snapped on and focused on me. As impossibly daunting as the priesthood (or more specifically, the required eight years of seminary studies) had seemed to me before, I knew without a degree of doubt that this was something God was asking me to do, and by this point, I could not, and did not want to, say No to Him.
The certainty I felt on Holy Thursday was compounded over the course of the next weeks and months by an almost ridiculous number of little confirming incidences: Scripture passages that seemed tailor made to encourage me towards the priesthood, verses in the Psalms that I had prayed over and over but that now took on an entirely new meaning, a priest friend who less than a week later asked me, completely out of the blue, “So, when are you heading off to seminary?” The list goes on, and as time passed, I grew more certain and more confident that this was a vocation I was capable of answering. The crowning moment in which God laid to rest my doubts as to whether I would really be able to manage the academic rigors of seminary was several months later, hearing St. Luke’s account of the Call of Peter. Laboring through the night, with nothing to show for it, was exactly how I had felt about the last six years of my life, and here was Jesus, asking me to trust Him, to put out into deep water, and to lower my nets.
Meanwhile, about a month and a half into all this initial discernment period, Channing and I paid a visit to the Elysburg Carmel, so that I could get an idea of where she would be cloistered and what her new life would be like. It was a grace-filled visit, but the most powerful part of the entire experience was the hour and a half visit we were able to make with the prioress, Mother Stella-Marie of Jesus, and the Novice Mistress, Sister Therese of Merciful Love. I walked away deeply impressed by the joy and holiness that radiated off of these two women, especially Sister Therese. It was just a normal Saturday of the year, but one would have thought by her demeanor that it was her wedding day! That was nothing naïve or superficial about the happiness that suffused the entire place; quite simply, it was the joy of Christ which penetrates down to the very marrow and comes from living, as it were, halfway between Heaven and Earth. I was home for barely a half hour before I was wistfully longing for another opportunity to visit the place to which I still refer in my head as “Heaven’s front porch”. The entire experience made explicit in my mind something that I had previously only intuited: these Carmelites lived in a special closeness to God. There was something in their life and spirituality that demanded closer consideration.
After this, I plunged into reading Thérèse, Teresa of the Andes, and Elizabeth of the Trinity. As I stated above, I quickly fell in love with all three of these beautiful flowers of Carmel. Moreover, I was tantalized by the snippets of St. John of the Cross that I came across in the writing of both Thérèse and Elizabeth. I found myself definitively bitten by the Carmelite bug.
Therefore it only made sense that when I finally started to send out inquiries to various vocations directors that summer, I should reach out as well to the closest group of Discalced Carmelite Friars, the Washington Province of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. At this point, I knew next to nothing about what the friars were actually like, and I didn’t have my heart set on them by any means.
However, my interest and excitement was definitely piqued by the vocation director Fr. Michael Berry’s response. His was by far the most enthusiastic and encouraging that I received, and our subsequent communications re-enforced that, to the degree that, though I had previously ruled out any vocations-related travel farther than a day’s drive, I decided to follow his advice and book a plane ticket to Wisconsin.
By the time I headed to the airport this past December, I was bubbling with excitement, but I was determined to go in with an open mind and heart and not to let this building anticipation color my judgment. The previous month I had made an eight-day vocations visit with the Benedictine community at St. Vincent Archabbey and had come away impressed. While I had not come away with a definite feeling of having found my place, and that further discernment was needed, not all my eggs were in one basket. I had options. It was simply a question of persevering and trusting that in God, no matter where that might lead.
Visiting Holy Hill took things to an entirely different level. It is difficult to put into words the connection that I felt there without trivializing it or missing the mark in some way. When pressed afterwards, the closest analogy I could make was to those occasions when one is socializing with a potential romantic interest, and the two of you just click. By the end of my first day in Hubertus, I had some trouble keeping my jaw off the floor, as it seemed that Christ had individually tailored a community just to fit all of my particular preferences: a gorgeous Marian shrine, a monastery steeped in the spirit and images of my favorite saints, a perfect balance between contemplative prayer and sacramental ministry, and a vibrant lay community, which meant that I would have the opportunity to minister directly to the people for whom I longed to lay down my life. If I had asked beforehand in prayer that God lead me to such a place, I would have felt rather impertinent, and yet here it was, established and humming along under the care of tight-knit band of holy, kind, reverent, and hilarious men of God.
While at Holy Hill I also had the opportunity to become directly exposed to St. John of the Cross, which was in itself another revelation. Through reading a biography of Holy Father, I came away with the strong sense of, “Yes, every single thing that he is saying about God and Divine Love makes perfect, intuitive sense, and I want to mold my spirituality after his.” This was confirmed after I returned home and plunged into his Collected Works, especially his poetry, which just pierces me to the core.
Once back at home, I learned that according to what was then the timetable for admissions to the Province, the soonest I might be able to enter would be September of 2015. The prospect of waiting well over a year was disheartened, but I resolved to take this in stride, and began to pray for patience (especially to St. Thérèse, since she had to wait a year longer than she desired before entering the Lisieux Carmel) and to plan my next visit to Holy Hill.
Unexpectedly, and by the grace of God, my patience was not tested for too long! In June, I was informed that the newly elected leadership of the province had decided to alter the admissions timeline to accommodate several potential applicants who otherwise would have forced to wait. I received a formal invitation to apply for admission, and so over the next two months I quickly assembled all the requisite pieces of the application. On September 17, my prayers of the past two years were answered when I received the phone call telling me that, by a unanimous vote of the Admissions Council, I had been accepted into the postulancy.
At this time, I am filled with such a serene sense of joy and peace, and I am overawed by God’s generosity to me. Out of all the souls, capable, hard-working, intelligent, diligent, holy men whom He could have chosen to carry out His work, of being His close friend and living as “love at the heart of the Church”, he has deigned to look upon me, to call lost, directionless, distractible, quick-tempered, lustful, sinful, ill-qualifed me to what has to be the most beautiful order and most beautiful way of life in His entire Church, and to ask me to even possibly be a priest, to offer His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity at the altar, to absolve sins, to welcome souls into the new life of grace through Baptism, to ease the passage of souls entering into the new life of eternity, and to serve as a shepherd and director of some of the holiest souls I have ever had the good-fortune to meet. It is an incomparable honor, a totally unmerited gift, and an infinite joy.
My God, my Jesus, I love You! I desire nothing so much as to give myself entirely to You and to be entirely conformed to You so that You might fill me with Your Infinite Love, which is the sole thing I can hope to offer back to you in fitting thanksgiving for Your Goodness and Majesty. I prostrate myself before my Eucharistic Lord and lay down everything I possess before Him Who laid down everything for me upon the wood of the Cross. Amen!