December 28, 2009

Vocation, Communion, Sacrifice, and Dread

Today I am thinking about one of the most graced days in the whole of my vocation discernment, which was when I went for an interview with my home diocese in January 1999.

It had been three years since leaving my first experience of religious life on Christmas morning of 1995. In the course of a couple of weeks, both the DRE and the nun who coordinated lectors and EMoHC at my parish, as well as an old friend and a permanent deacon I met on retreat, had all mentioned the diocesan priesthood to me. Thinking that this might be a communication from the Holy Spirit, which it certainly was, I acted on it and made an appointment with the vocation director. In any case, whether it was going to be priesthood or religious life or something else, I had come to realize that I was not promotable in the company where I was working, and I knew I had to start thinking about what was going to come next for me.

I went to the seminary early so I could visit the chapel before my interview. It was a steamy, unseasonably warm day. I remember praying that the Spirit would use the interview to enlighten my discernment and guide me on my path. I think I went into the interview with the idea that I was a pretty good candidate, and that the vocation director ought to have been very glad to see me. After all, I was young, (26) had a perfect undergraduate transcript for entering the seminary, and was active in my parish. So I was very surprised when the meeting went very poorly! It was so bad, in fact, that I started to laugh as soon as I got away from the vocation director. He was very unimpressed with my answers and dismissed me with this advice, which I wrote in my journal as soon as I got back to my car: "Search your soul, try to make friends with some priests, and if you want you can call me again in a year."

My career in the secular clergy had ended before it started. What made my interview go so badly? For one thing, Fr. Vocation Director probably found me scandalously loose and informal. To that point, my only real experience of the clergy was through the college chaplaincy and the easy-going life of a Franciscan friary. I'm sure I didn't know how to act in the diocesan world. But on the other hand, in fairness, I didn't have real and discerned answers to his questions. I had not really reflected at all on the idea of priesthood; at that point in my life I had considered my vocation mostly in terms of religious life. (In fact, some years later when it came time--from within religious life--to decide whether or not to declare myself a candidate for ordination, I had to find a different means of discernment entirely.) In fact, my prayer in the chapel was answered in the sense that I arrived home from the seminary that day convinced that my place was in religious life.

I remember part of the response the priest gave me, which I also wrote down: "In all that you have said I have heard nothing about uniting yourself to the sacrifice of Christ or about the Eucharist." Fair enough, I realize now, but at the time I barely understood the critique.

All of this comes back to me now because I remember not really getting it at the time, but how now such language is a part of my interior life on a daily basis. It's like how I can remember being little and looking at text without being able to read, or how--this one really amuses me--I puzzled over the unknown word, 'contrition,' on the SAT, a word that would become a heavy-laden part of my daily reflection and vocabulary just a couple of years later.

I think of my diocesan vocation director's words sometimes when I receive Holy Communion. Of course I am grateful as I make the prayers, Corpus/Sanguis Christi custódiat me in vitam ætérnam, and receive, but often I am filled with a little bit of dread as well. This is the broken and sacrificed Body of Christ before me, and his Blood poured out in ratification of an eternal covenant. This is a God so sublimely humble that He abandons everything it ought to mean to be God (in human terms) and puts himself into the womb and hands of our Blessed Mother as a powerless and vulnerable infant. And so with Mary, as with us, except in reverse; he puts his Vulnerable Self into our hands that he may enter and live within our bodies. This is, in fact, the exitus and reditus of the Incarnation, drawing us into itself through the Eucharist.

Am I prepared for this? Am I ready to receive such a sacrifice and such a humility into my body? You are what you eat, after all. By putting the broken and sacrificed Body and Blood of Christ into my body, do I know what I am getting into? Have I really consented to have my life and flesh united to that Sacrifice?


pennyante said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and beautiful reflection. Whenever I read an article such as this one, I see how shallow my own spirituality is... It can be discouraging at times though I know I have to trust that God will move in me in His own time as long as I can be open to Him...

Brother Charles said...

To feel one's spirituality as shallow is a good sign; it derives from an internal awareness of the infinity of God.

for narnia said...

what a beautiful reflection, Fr. C! your last two paragraphs, especially, are something for all of us (in any state of life, whether it be religious life, the single life, married life, etc...) is a great reflection for us all. sacrifice, abandonment, humility and consentment are all part of living a spiritual life. this is why the Holy Eucharist should be the center of our spiritual life - so that we can be strenghthened and united to God more and more each day. PEACE! ~tara t~

NCSue said...

Brother Charles,

Before receiving Eucharist, I try to remember to say (and mean) a prayer that I believe came to me through the Holy Spirit:

Lord Jesus, Son of God, empty me of all darkness, and fill me with your Life and Light, and Love.

It is my hope that He will transform me more and more into his likeness each time I receive his Body and Blood.

Thank you for this reflection.

Julia said...

"but often I am filled with a little bit of dread as well."

I'm so glad to know it's not just me.

I think about this inclination toward "dread" (a strange but accurate word to use) quite a bit. Too much to write in a combox, though, and probably not worth reading, anyway. :)

Thanks, Father. Merry Christmas.

Qualis Rex said...

Fr Charles thank you for opening up your soul to us in that post. You really are a big man for doing it. I know very few people (on or off the internet) let alone priests who are willing to be so transparent, humble and open in their life stories.

I can say that when I was getting my BS at a Jesuit University (pun intended) I went to a few parties at the residence for postulants, who were also my age/in their early 20's. They partied like typical college kids and said really worrisome things when drunk. One of the vocational ministers overheard one in particular say something to me and saw my reaction of "What the...?" He quickly took me aside and said, "Don't worry. Most of them won't be here by the end of the month."

University was definitely what broke my unquestioning clericalism. And it showed me that too many people "opt" for the priesthood for really REALLY bad reasons. But it also showed me that those who really are called, do eventually get in. And you are of course a case in point. And the church is so much stronger for your presence.

Jeanne said...

I loved your post, mostly because it reminds me that God always answers our prayers - he just might not answer them the way we want them answered! The answer that you received (the vocational director's harsh and/or dismissive words) was really what your heart needed to hear so that you were on the path to the religious life. Sometimes, it's the negative push that gets us going in the positive direction!!

Brother Charles said...

Jeanne: Exactly! In some ways that was the real grace of the trust that the prayer beforehand was answered in whatever had come.