Googling my way to Carmel

April 24, 2012 |

Mark Sexton (right) along with fellow pre-novices Jarrett Steffen (left) and Emanuel Franco Gomez (center)

by Mark Sexton

For 15 years I lived in a cyber world of sorts. As a software engineer in the banking industry, I had done quite well and fulfilled the goals I had set for myself while in college in terms of success. I also felt like I had scratched the itch I’d had about working in the world of technology but I was still left with the nagging question: ‘Is this it?’ I was hungering for something deeper, something more personal. The question of whether I was called to religious life had been a persistent one for me since college. It was something I prayed over, discussed with others and did voluminous reading on for years. A religious vocation was a radical break from the world I’d inhabited for so long and I welcomed that change. That is why it was ironic to me that it was an instantaneous Google search that led me to my current Carmelite home.

I’d had a lot of ideas about what I was looking for in religious life but it was a suggestion from a priest friend that focused my search. He told me I should look into contemplative religious communities. I’m slightly embarrassed now to admit that I didn’t know what a contemplative community was but I immediately searched the term on Google and clicked through to the first site that turned up, which was a Carmelite site. As I read about their life I was astonished at how their charism matched my own desires completely. The Carmelites were a long-standing, international community with a Marian devotion who focused on prayer but balanced their lives with work in the world outside the church. It felt as though the community I’d hoped to find had suddenly appeared on my vocational radar screen.

As if to confirm this initial impression, it seemed like every spiritual book that I read and loved during this discernment process was by a Carmelite. I decided I needed to get a taste of Carmelite life for myself and applied to the order. As I write this, I’m currently a pre-novice living in a Carmelite community in Chicago.

I think of the pre-novitiate as “the try before you buy year.” It is a no-pressure way to experience my calling on a whole new level. The Carmelites are a society of individuals, which—believe it or not—I found very surprising. I guess I had the impression that the formation process was going to be like going into a gigantic cookie cutting press. I expected that who I am would be thrown into a blender… mashed up… and then squeezed out into one identical cookie after another. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I told a friend about what our average day looks like and he joked that I “must have a high capacity for boredom!” When my head hits the pillow exhausted every night I sometimes think about how wrong his impression of this life was.
My experience of the Carmelite formation process so far has been more of a young seedling being allowed to live in a spiritual greenhouse of sorts. Who I am is respected, nurtured and loved. Those living in community with me simply are making sure that I am getting the best conditions possible for spiritual growth. Daily we spend time alone and in communion with the master pruner, the Lord Jesus Christ, present in the Eucharist of daily mass, chapel devotion of the liturgy of the hours, and in the living examples of my brothers living here and in other communities in the Chicago area.

Make no mistake, the pre-novitiate is challenging. When I told a friend about what our average day looks like, he joked that I “must have a high capacity for boredom!” When my head hits the pillow exhausted every night I sometimes think about how wrong his impression of this life was. Through all this work we are expected to grow and deepen both intellectually and spiritually. Our superiors provide their own pruning here and there by gentle reminders, helpful advice, and examples of the application of faith present in the living members of the community or those members in the community of faith who have passed, such as Theresa of Lisieux, John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila.

Like a seed has to crack its shell in order to send a runner up into to sky to receive sunshine… I have experienced a cracking in my established models of perception… some of which has resulted in new understandings and some of which have resulted in deeper levels of meanings to what I already knew. It can be a painful experience at times, especially for someone like me who had some pretty well established ways of thinking and was under the impression that I knew what the body of Christ in the church actually looked like.

I’m hopeful though that Jesus called me here for a reason and the Lord knows what he is doing even when he doesn’t lay out the entire game plan. I try to be aware of the companionship of the Holy Spirit in my life, allow myself to be silent and hear the whisper in the wind of the desert or mountain cave. Most importantly, I’m joyous and thankful when after weeks of struggle a new leaf appears where before there was only barren wood.

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