Exploring Religious Life from a Distance
The journey back to Wyoming and school was in one way going back to square one and in another it was moving forward. All of the options in life were in front of me again but my awareness had changed. The idea of pursuing religious life was tapping on my shoulder, but I delayed and bargained for more time. I spent the next few years finishing one degree in Wyoming, and beginning another with a well-respected program at the University of Utah. I was doing well in school, but my interests and desire turned towards prayer.
Desire often gets a bad name, but it can be the anchor of God’s will for us. No matter what I tried, I found myself wondering what it would be like to live dedicated to God. Instruction manuals do not exist for navigating interests and passion and I certainly had no idea what to do with my desires. Spiritual direction was completely foreign to me, so I tried to figure it out on my own until I met the Dominicans in Utah. The Dominicans, through their friendship and advice, began to drop me hints and suggested that I needed to find a Spiritual Director. This reminds of one of my favorite passages. The apostle Philip has an encounter in Acts 8:30-32, in which he discovers the Ethiopian reading scripture with questions. Philip sits with him and begins to open the word to him and accompanies him into new life. This is the gift of spiritual direction.
Eventually, I found a director who asked me the right questions and helped me to reflect on the things that I needed to. Really, I finally found the courage and humility to ask one of the friars to serve me in that particular role. He kept bringing me back to what I was trying to avoid and encouraging me to face my fears. The largest mistake I’ve made was waiting so long to talk to other people about what I was experiencing internally. The wisdom and insights that were shared with me were a blessing and helped me feel more confidence.
At first, I consulted a website and filled out a questionnaire about my interests and experience that was so extensive that the site should have been called VocationsHarmony.com. I submitted my answers to find out what magical Order would be the perfect fit, but the results were not very helpful with several suggestions. My mailbox began to flood with vocation materials from every group that was a possibility. There were so many brochures and websites, but so little time.
My consideration was very superficial in the beginning, and only two criteria were considered at first: could I see myself in their religious habit and the kind of work they did. Groups like the Alexian Brothers were eliminated because I didn’t think I would do well working in the medical industry, and others like the Carmelites didn’t make the first cut because their apostolic work didn’t seem very clear to me and, to be brutally honest, brown is my least favorite color.
There was a hook in Carmel though. Carmel was like a seductive lover who didn’t lay out all the cards right away, keeping the best for last. The other groups said, “This is what we do.” Carmel said, “We are men of fraternity, service, and ministry. Most importantly, we are men of prayer.” Despite my reservations, Carmel resisted my efforts to put it in a nice little box, and the more I tried the more it resisted.
Discernment can be a lot like dating, a lot of awkward blind dates and a couple good connections. I began to imagine what it would be like to wear a habit and pray in a chapel every day. My reading and contacts narrowed my focus to the Trappists and the Dominicans. The Trappists appealed to my desire for solitude and a life of prayer and the Dominicans appealed to my love of the Word and desire to preach. But even with these two options in front of me, no doors were opening for me.
My spiritual director encouraged me to be patient and assured me that something would give, and it did. After a long day of cleaning, I sat down for a moment of rest and my eyes wandered over my shelves. I noticed that most of the books on my shelf were Carmelite. It had been there all along but I wasn’t able to see that my vocation was on my shelf already staring me in the face. Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross knew of my struggles and their writings resonated with my experience. Just then, I had the thought, “I can have both as a Carmelite!” The saints of Carmel were welcoming me home.