On Vocations

 

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When you’ve attended Catholic schooling your entire life as I have, there are things that are engrained in you from an early age that non-Catholics or public school Catholics might not fully grasp in the same manner. Along with terminology—monstrance, vespers, narthex, sacristy, adoration and scapular, just to name a few at random—we learn the meaning and the concept of “vocation” quite early on. As an altar boy who took his job seriously, the idea of the priesthood was something that was always at the forefront of my mind. I was well known for my willingness to serve multiple Masses on a Sunday morning—including the 10:00am Italian Mass which was one of my personal favorites. I loved being in Church. I loved the incense, the music, the fact that as an altar boy I could enter the sacristy while “regular” parishioners couldn’t. I felt important.

Shortly after college, I began strongly discerning the possibility of entering the priesthood. My uncle had been a priest at the Cistercian, aka Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, St. Joseph’s Abbey for over 50 years and I had been a frequent retreatant there for many years. There was something otherworldly about the silence, the prayers, the inner peace that I experienced when I was on retreat there. It was the brilliant writer and monk, Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis) who brought the Trappist order into the American mainstream back in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. I was fortunate enough to have been granted permission to spend a weekend in the remote hermitage on the grounds there during a particularly intense period of my discernment. In many ways, it was my “dark night.” That experience will stay with me for the rest of my life, as I went through the entire gamut of emotional and spiritual struggles over the course of three full days. It is something that I cherish and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that it solidified the foundations of my faith.

In the end, the Lord led me to the vocation of marriage, rather than Holy Orders. Much like the military, the monastic life is not for all men (or women). But the men and women who are in fact cut out for that life are a varied lot, eclectic and as different as snowflakes, but possessing a clarity and an understanding of oneself that few people in the outside world can fully comprehend. Upon moving to Northern California, one of the first things my wife and I did was to visit our local Trappist monastery, the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA. It came as no surprise that the feelings I got when I arrived there were reminiscent of the feelings I would always receive at St. Joseph’s. The monks who call it home possessed a very similar joie de vivre to the monks at Spencer and the peace and tranquility of the monastery grounds is equally inspiring.

Monasteries are inherently self-sustaining, or at least they attempt to be so by having a specific trade in which to support themselves by. While Spencer produces acclaimed jams, jellies and preserves as well as world renowned altar vestments, Vina’s niche is their wines which, as a chef, I must say are exquisite. They are currently in the process of reconstructing an 800-year old monastery Chapter House from Ovila, Spain; the stones were brought to the United States by William Randolf Hearst in 1930 and eventually found their way into the hands of the Trappist order. It is this very appreciation of the rich spiritual and artistic history of our Church that has always endeared me to the Trappists.

So what exactly is a vocation, some might ask? To put it quite simply, it is the pursuit of one’s purpose for living, as intended by God Himself. All of us have been created by our God with a purpose. We have all been given talents and skills that God has instilled in us for the sake of making the world a better place. Though it is a small part of the whole, it goes beyond simply what we do for a living. Vocation is the full picture of who we are and what we do. For some of us, it is getting married and having a family while supporting that family by using our God given talents in our daily labor. For others it is a life of active service in one capacity or another. But in most cases, when we hear petitions for an increase in vocations at Mass every Sunday, the vocation we have in mind is to the priesthood or religious life. It is no secret that these vocations are dwindling compared to a few decades ago. Why this is the case is the topic for another discussion, as entire books have been written about it. What I will say, however is that for men who are in fact considering a vocation to the religious life, the Trappist life is something truly worth looking into.

It is a life that is immensely different than life in the outside world. For starters, the day begins at 3:30am and ends around 7:30pm. While the day is in fact centered around prayer, make no mistake, work is an equally important aspect of life. St. Benedict, the patron of the order, preached the equal importance of Ora et Labora, prayer and work. It is a humble life to be certain. But as I have seen in my personal experiences, as well as through my uncle, it is an infinitely rewarding life. And what so few people seem to understand is that it is a vocation whose importance goes far beyond the individual who lives it; it is we, the laity and the world at large who need the prayers of those living the monastic life. Their prayers are our direct line to heaven. In a world that has grown so fast and so disconnected from God due to our collective preoccupation with ourselves, we’ve reached a point where the continued prayer and work of the global monastic communities is needed more than ever. I would implore any man who is even remotely considering a vocation to the religious life to take a retreat to the Abbey of New Clairvaux and see for themselves the beauty and the importance of this particular vocation.

If you live on the West Coast and you would like to take a retreat for the purpose of vocational discernment, please contact Brother Christopher, Vocation Director at the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux at godseeking@newclairvaux.org  or (530) 839-2161.

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What Choice Is Ours?

 

 

During the celebration of holy mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Monastery 6 members of the OCDS community made promises to the Order.  Dr. Jason Bourgeois and Judy Hawkins professed their temporary vows for 2 years and David Travers, Suzie Megown, Kath

If there is anything that we, as Catholics, can learn—assuming we didn’t already know this—from the abhorrent state of our nation’s political affairs, it is that we should never put our faith in men (or women). Despite my relatively young age, the study of history has taught me enough about the presidencies of men the likes of Eisenhower and Kennedy to know that we are painfully bereft of true statesmen in the 21st century. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that it was hard to admit that one is a sinner. In other words, human beings are prone to pride and boastfulness and we have a difficult time admitting to our own inherent stubbornness. This is not a new concept. But it seems that we are increasingly living in a world that is devoid of humility.

In looking at our two choices for the presidency in 2016, what we’re seeing is a great deal of pride and boasting and a severe lack of humility. If it is true that our elected officials are merely mirror images of their electorate, I must say that I’m deeply concerned. Broken clocks are indeed right twice a day and so it goes without saying that if I tried really hard, I could find positive aspects of the platforms of Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump. That being said, I find both individuals to be deeply flawed as politicians and as a role models and I genuinely believe that both of them will lead our country down two very different, though equally dangerous paths.

Let’s get controversial for a moment, shall we? Secretary Clinton is not the monster that many on the political right paint her as. There, I said it. But now that I’ve said it, I will also say that I find her to be wholly uninspiring, a pathological liar and a political opportunist whose policies are borderline schizophrenic. She changes her mind far too frequently according to the changing winds of popular opinion and she comes off as being palpably disingenuous. Should she be elected to the presidency, her administration would only further dilute the waters of American exceptionalism and reinforce the trending millennial hypersensitivities and prevailing tide of secularism, both of which are dismantling the once-great American fabric a little at a time.

As for Mr. Trump, I am not blind to the reasons why he is enormously popular—and equally unpopular. His rhetoric strikes a chord with people who, for one reason or another, are fearful of things and people who are unlike themselves. Taken to extremes, this mindset leads to xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As Catholics, we never have the right to resort to such thinking. However, just this week Pope Francis expressed his dream for Europe, calling for a greater spirit of integration. I found his choice of the word integration to be alarming, as I have long shared the popular belief that the more appropriate concept would be that of assimilation—namely that people who seek refuge or a new life in Westernized countries should adopt and embrace Western values.  Integration is the notion that cultures should blend—oftentimes via government intervention, the result of which has almost always led to societal tensions and infighting.

In the case of Europe, the integration the Holy Father is calling for is not only cultural but religious. This creates a very tumultuous situation in an already fragile region—a region that was once the center of Christendom. Some would view this call for integration as serving to further erode the longstanding, though dwindling Christian values that have made Western Europe—and the United States—what they are today, which in turn plays right into the hands of those who subscribe to the rhetoric propagated by Mr. Trump. Samuel P. Huntington was a Harvard political scientist, a national security advisor for President Jimmy Carter and by all means, a liberal. Yet even he saw the dangers of promoting Western integration with non-Western cultures, particularly Islamic cultures. “The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

It is easy in our modern, PC world to promote a starry-eyed form of utopian humanism and likewise, to dismiss and lambaste the Church of the Middle Ages as being too zealous and hungry for political power, but doing so would be ignoring the very real historic facts of human nature and cultural differences. The Church is comprised of human beings, therefore, like human beings, it is flawed. Now that we’ve acknowledged the obvious, we must acknowledge that no other institution in the history of the world has offered more global opportunity for human progress via scientific endeavors, higher education and familial and societal framework than the Roman Catholic Church. To even attempt to dispute this would be an exercise in futility. The Church is the world’s leading charitable organization, it runs more universities than any other religious organization and the Society of Jesus alone has produced a staggering number of leading mathematicians and scientists for the better part of five centuries.

So why is it that so many people in our world—and more specifically, in our nation—have embraced the cultures of hedonism, relativism and overall self-destruction? Why is it that we can no longer find leaders who exemplify the best qualities of human nature, rather than the worst? I’m sorry to say that I do not have the answers to these questions. Or perhaps, to be more specific, I have answers, but most people won’t want to hear them. To ask people to turn back towards God, to embrace His ways and to live in a spirit of humility and selflessness, i.e. the true American spirit, will sadly fall on the deaf ears of a society increasingly obsessed with worshipping new forms of golden calves. As Catholics, we can only look on at the sad spectacle, live out the example set for us by Christ and take refuge and shelter in He who offers the only true happiness and—most importantly—Eternal Life.

Quid Est Veritas?

 

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St. Augustine once alluded to the idea that if you think you can comprehend God, then it isn’t God that you comprehend. God is the Creator; we are his creation. As such, it is not possible for us to fully comprehend our Creator in His entirety. Despite this incontrovertible fact, we need not look far to find people who are thoroughly convinced that they know everything there is to know about God, and they are almost always all too ready to proselytize to you. I’ve had the misfortune of running into quite a few folks who fit this bill and sadly, I encountered another one this morning at Mass.

Let me start by saying that I am not a terribly political individual and what I mean by that is that while I care about social issues, I abhor the politicization of my Catholic faith by those who seek division, rather than unity and fellowship. When I come across fellow Catholics, both at home and in my frequent travels, I am filled with a spirit of camaraderie and I look to engage in positive dialogue, regardless of that person’s background or arbitrary characteristics. I make it a point to always visit a local parish or basilica when I travel, as I view those places as my many homes away from home. Needless to say, it perturbs me to have someone blindside me in one of these supposedly safe places—my local parish no less—with their misdirected hostility.

I walked into church about 15 minutes before the 8:30 weekday Mass to check out what was new in our parish library—an impressive library for a small, local parish, I might add. There was only one other person in the room—an older gentleman wearing dark, fit over UV glasses.  Every few minutes, I’d glance over in my periphery and notice that he was looking in my direction. After the third or fourth time, I looked right at him and said “good morning.” He grunted something inaudible and I returned to the shelf that I was perusing. The bells began to ring and I walked into the nave for Mass.

When Mass ended, I began walking towards the exit. As I was passing the library, the gentleman from earlier came out the door and stood right in front of me. “Good morning,” I said once again. With no reciprocation of politeness or salutation, he glared down at my sweatshirt, and said “Fordham, huh? Did you go to Fordham?” Those who know me know that I am deeply proud and appreciative of my Jesuit education. “Yes, I’m currently a graduate student at Fordham,” I replied. “I hate you Jesuits,” he said, with no trace of sarcasm in his tone. “You know, it was Ignatius and his followers who destroyed our Church. Georgetown is more interested in worshipping Obama than Christ. Martin Luther was a good, holy, Augustinian Catholic priest and he understood that faith alone was all you needed to go to Heaven. Works are meaningless. It was people like Loyola who forced him out and ruined our Church. Now we have this Marxist, Peronist for a Pope.”

It was quite a lot for me to take in all at once. Where would I begin? For one thing, Peronism and Marxism were vastly different political ideologies. Francis would need to master the art of bilocation in order to be both at the same time. Sancto Subito if he pulls that off. I hadn’t heard that Georgetown removed Christ from the cross and replaced the Corpus with the “Body of Barry,” though the blasphemous visual sure made me want to chuckle. But the Luther comments were what stood out and confused me the most. “Have you studied the Reformation?” I asked. “Have you?” he angrily replied. “Well, yes I have,” I told him. “Sure, from a Catholic Jesuit—the word dripped from his tongue with disdain—perspective. You’ve been brainwashed by the Church,” he said. “Actually,” I said, “I went through a period during my early 20’s when I attended a Lutheran church so I’ve studied the Reformation from both perspectives and while Martin Luther was indeed a bright individual, I found his theology to be somewhat schizophrenic. Reform was necessary, but if you want reformist philosophy with actual substance from a holy, Catholic priest, perhaps Erasmus would be a better person to study.” He waved his hand as if to brush me off—I have to wonder if he knew who Erasmus was—and dismissed me by saying, “You’re from the new generation; what do you know?” I smiled and said, “I suppose I don’t know much in the grand scheme of things. I’m just doing the best I can with what I do know.” At that point, he cracked a smile and asked me what I was studying. I told him that I had studied theology and was now studying pastoral counseling. He attempted to offer me some advice, saying, “Then you have an obligation to guide people to the truth.” “I hope that I succeed in doing so always,” I replied. He reached out his hand, we shook and he said goodbye.

Quid est veritas? I thought to myself. The man’s rantings were utterly incoherent. In the past, I might have reacted with a sense of anger towards his ignorance. I might have felt a sense of righteous superiority. But I felt neither. Instead, I felt a sense of sadness. Sad that he really felt that God’s will was so narrow-minded; sad that he was blind to the fact that his political anger was clouding and suppressing his ability to live out the Gospel message. I wished that I had employed a more pastoral response. I hoped that the words I did use did not come across as condescending. And I hoped that in some odd twist, maybe some of my words had reached him and led him to the Truth—fully aware of our mutual inability to fully comprehend that Truth. Despite his vitriol, he is no more or less a child of God than I.

Jesus commands us to love unconditionally. Love is not a feeling; it is an action. With that, I will always keep in mind the words of Flannery O’Connor when encountering those who inexplicably seek division and conflict: “I love a lot of people, understand none of them.”