Editor’s note: A week ago TJP regular Paul Lickteig published an essay on the Huffington Post titled “How I Became a Jesuit Priest.” But he wanted to share another, perhaps more personal version of the story here on The Jesuit Post. We’re very happy to present Paul’s poem “How Vocations Happen (It Could Happen to You)”.
I was just ordained a Jesuit Priest.
The process took (about) eleven years.
Discerning a vocation, though… that is something else.
It’s what I have been doing all along.
We all have stories that describe who we are.
For me… becoming a priest was not the tale I wanted to tell.
Of course, we often don’t understand vocations
until they are already upon us.
So, sometimes I tell the story like I am revealing the life of a minor prophet:
I was just a humble lifter of furniture in the city of Minneapolis
stumble-bumming through a fantastic early-twenties existence
with my car and my motorcycle… yeah.
It was the early mid-nineties and I was listening to Revolution Radio and spoken word,
drinking coffee and spouting fantastic poems into the night sky.
I could be found in smoke-lit warehouses speaking “my truth,” under a pseudonym,
or appearing on a stage called “Balls,” at midnight, in the seven corners.
My friends were ex-junkies, street kids, skate-punks, wanna-bes and future felons.
We used to sneak into old buildings to throw up… art.
Genius dreams from spray cans spread out
on walls that no one would ever see.
And then it happened…
It’s almost 14 years since I heard “the call.”
I can only tell you where I was because it was so completely unexpected,
and I was not all that inclined to listen.
But I did.
After spending years skipping mass I had finally returned to church.
I felt like I needed to re-examine it…
I wanted to dig my fingers into the questions of existence,
to peel the rind off those slices of belief from my youth
and taste something real,
something that named what I felt in my core.
The being of God…
I knew there must be something more,
something so big that every word we pinned on it was just an entrée
into another way of seeing its presence.
So there I was on a “priest-drive” Sunday
listening to a gaunt, bespectacled face in the pulpit talk vocations.
“Have you or anyone you know ever thought of being a priest?
Well, call the number on this bulletin and we’ll put you in touch with our trained staff…”
One minute everything was fine.
I was sitting in the back of church next to my older (much cooler) brother,
thinking about whether or not I was hungry.
The next thing I knew I was crying.
I could feel his eyes from the pulpit,
a guy in a collar I neither liked nor disliked (man or collar) asking me a question.
I put my head down and rubbed the outside of my eye, hiding my face,
trying not to sniffle in a way that my brother would notice.
That was the beginning…
A thunderbolt… of the softest kind.
You duped me, and I let myself be duped.”
Despite my best attempts,
I had become a believer.
And ever since
my vocation has been one long response.
Thirteen years gone since I met her,
a proverbial “Brick House”
(according to the prophets “Commodore” in the book of Motown).
I realized only after some months
while I could not imagine wanting more
in my relationship with her
I could not ignore the feeling that something else was calling me.
Twelve years since I sat waiting in prayer
at some stupid retreat I could not even believe I was going on,
only to hear the words “Oh shit, I think I am going to be a Jesuit.”
emerge so crisply and distinctly that my stomach turned in excitement and fear.
Eleven years since I walked up the gray Novitiate steps
with a backpack and two large Tupperware tubs,
my entire life packed into twelve square feet,
and left my family and friends for reasons I could never quite name.
Ten years since I cried during Eucharist
in front of people that I loved,
for the second time,
and realized for the first time that the blood is real.
It is the blood of Christ mingled with every person,
man or woman,
who has ever tried to live for something more
than their own ends and desires.
Nine years since I lay in my bed at a Jesuit house in the Bronx
thinking of everything that I left behind
and I heard myself say
“I have made the biggest mistake of my life.”
Eight years since I told my provincial that I was on the verge of leaving
and he said, “It sounds like you need to imagine
how your life needs to look for you to live it.”
As one friend said, “If you are not free to go, you are not free to stay.”
Seven years since I realized that my deepest desire was something I had known all along.
I wanted to be a preacher and confessor:
speaking words that few people would listen to,
ministering a sacrament most do not think they need.
Six years since I stood as a first year teacher
in my poorly decorated classroom
filled with twenty 15-year-olds
realizing that they would teach me forgiveness and generosity.
Five years since I learned
how my greatest failures in keeping the vows
were not physical, but relational.
Vows not lived with patience and compassion are vows not lived at all.
Four years since I accepted
that my desire to live as a celibate
would require me to let go of my desire
to live with a woman.
Three years since I listened
to the critique of the most critical people I knew
and heard them tell me
“We want you to be our priest.”
Two years since I began again
to find life in places that I had thought were taboo:
laughing with renegade seekers,
those who had denied faith in anything at all.
One year since I felt agape:
a friendship so profound that I found myself
rearranging what I believed
a relationship based on vows could be.
One month since the oil bathed my palms,
and three hundred Jesuits placed their hands on my head.
I stood to a thunderous embrace,
as people who had loved me for years erupted in spontaneous applause.
It was an affirmation of the Church:
the people of God,
living out their faith in a time of pain, division and uncertainty
but filled with hope.
I could hear them say
“We Love You!” (sigh)
“So don’t screw this up.” (sigh)
Which Jesus knows is part of why I avoided taking this role for years.
I never thought I would be vowed,
or learn to navigate the distance between liberals and conservatives,
but looking back, it could not have happened any other way.
See, the story was being told whether I was ready or not.
Our vocations are found in stories telling themselves all around us
in the voices of millions of seekers
naming the Truth that will define our lives.
The Truth we name is the Christ, the suffering redeemer.
I now listen to the narrative in millions of voices around me
and know that I am bound through an ancient faith
to a communal hope that transcends my personal narrative.
The story of vocation was never my own.
It mercifully unfolds and meshes with the stories of countless others
somehow naming a mystery
we will come to believe…