You’re really nice. I don’t know anyone that is that nice. You must be some kind of saint or something.” At my work we have started a new product line that requires my department to inspect and clean plastic lens covers that go over the little TV screens that are installed into the back of the seats of passenger airliners. We ship 1,400 a week, every week. And every one has to be perfect, picked from a mountain of rejects like a needle in a haystack, and then cleaned and packaged by hand. Usually, we have about four or five people cleaning at a time and inevitably a sewing-circle type discussion begins that meanders from topic to topic in a sort of group stream of consciousness.
This time the discussion fell on me: how I decided not to go be a monk-thingy so I could help take care of my brother’s twins, which then resulted in my co-worker’s statement semi-accusing me of being some kind of saint or something. How could my co-worker know that her statement almost mocks me twice: once because it so nonchalantly unveils the goal of everything I am and strive to become and twice because it rings so hollow and dissonant from what really I am that it reminds me of how far I have to go. At the time, I think I responded quickly that I was not even close to being a saint, but that I was blessed to be the right person at the right time and place to help someone in real need. The topic passed on without slowing down, leaving me behind, still trying to unravel why, despite its charitable appearances, my decision does not feel nice or saintly at all.
I think a vocation to anything is ultimately a call to conversion. If the call is not compelling enough to change and form one’s heart to be closer to God in a radical new way, then I believe it is an interest more than a vocation. My vocation to religious priesthood has always had that quality of conversion: it draws me out of my old patterns of perception and behavior toward a new way of responding to the world. At first, I can remember consciously thinking in terms of the popular phrase “WWJD: What Would Jesus Do”. My actions were an imitation of what I thought a Christian should do if he was discerning a religious vocation. Looking back, I think that for me this was a valid first step into living the faith and conforming myself to Christ as I understood Him, at least externally. For me, there was a sort of “fake it until you make it” process that went on in which my “nice” actions helped me to internalize the faith from the outside in.As I began to learn more about the Carmelites, my heart began to grow up. Paradoxically, my relationship with Christ began to increase as I decreased, to paraphrase John the Baptist, and this self-effacing process has continued throughout my discernment. Even now, my decision to help raise my brother’s twins, while de-railing my own goals to become a Carmelite friar, doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with being “nice” or “Christian” or “saintly”. My response is possible not because I am trying to “be” something but because I think I have finally started to make some progress in detaching myself from being anything. As I empty myself of what I want to be or want to happen in my life, I become free to “be” whatever is needed. If Christ lives in those who suffer as we are taughtand if He truly suffers with them, then I best conform myself to Christ when I conform myself to the service of those who suffer. I am learning that my vocation is not necessarily to a specific state of life or religious community but rather it is to a way of life, the Carmelite way of being, or rather not-being, that allows me to be all things in response to the suffering Christ that appears before me in my family, in my friends, in the Church, in the world.
Early on in my discernment, I prayed to God to put me on the front lines of human need, to use my vocation to allow me to stand with those who suffer and show them the love of Christ. I believe He answered my prayer. The front lines were closer than I had ever imagined, but no less desperate. I am no saint, but I stand by my response: I am blessed to be the right person at the right time and place to help people in real need.