For my seventh birthday, I asked my parents for a lectionary. At age nine I donned black and a white collar for “Career Day.” As a kid, I saw priests as helpers and healers, working to ease the suffering of others in a special way. It’s what I wanted to do. So, there was no doubt that come my eighteenth birthday, I was joining the seminary. That didn’t happen. Why?
Other interests eclipsed the childhood dream. I got older. I grew in understanding of my sexuality and started dating. I wondered if this God-business was an elaborate, cosmic joke.
The stretch of my life after childhood is what I call the twenty-year approach/avoidance conflict concerning my vocation.
I was at once both drawn and resistant to religious life. Though I always found ways to lounge, dip, and skip around the edge of the priesthood pool, I was never quite able to take the plunge.
At eighteen, I studied theology and philosophy at the University of San Diego. After graduation I still wasn’t ready. So, I bounced over to Boston and earned a Master of Divinity. It’s there I first met the Society of Jesus. Even so, I was still hesitant to take the dive. So, I skipped back to San Diego and began a two-year stint as a hospital chaplain. My primary unit was oncology where I could journey with patients for extended periods of time.
I remember one patient, John. I was with him when he was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and throughout his hospital stay as he fought it, nobly. I was also with him eight weeks later when he finally slipped, in a more definitive way, into the hands of God.
John’s family asked if I would preside at his celebration of life service. They weren’t particularly religious, so the ceremony was held at La Jolla Shores – a large public park with movie-like vistas. As expected, the moment was filled with tears and laughter, music and stories. When it was time to leave, each guest was given a small baggie – a token of gratitude – which I opened on my way back to the car. It contained a memorial card and a few other mementos. At the bottom of the bag were three brown balls, each about the size of a half-dollar, attractively wrapped in cellophane packaging.
Chocolate truffles! I thought.
A brief sidebar: For most of my life I’ve struggled with compulsive overeating, weight, and body image issues. For years, my 5’8’’ frame groaned under 260 pounds. Though I had lost a significant amount by Johns’ funeral; food is still a complicated trigger for me.
So, I’m walking back to my car, contemplating my most recent recommitment to a healthy diet and exercise, and with each step, I’m summoning the willpower to resist. I tried distracting myself with the pretty sights and sounds of the shore until finally I snapped “Aww, to hell with it!”
I tore open the cellophane packaging and popped a truffle into my mouth. Something was wrong. I stopped chewing and released a giant glob onto the sidewalk. These were not truffles.
I looked back at the tattered cellophane, and an attached note I had overlooked. It read:
Dearest Guest. Thank you for being here to celebrate John’s life.
Enjoy these organic manure fertilizer compost balls…
Throw them in your garden and watch the flowers bloom.
What a hilarious lesson I applied to spiritual life: if you’re going to demand signs from God (like I had done about my vocation over the years), then you had better learn to slow down and read them!
Months later, I was again at the beach, knowing my time in San Diego was coming to an end. I was once more torn-up inside about next steps. Suddenly, a Mary Oliver poem popped into my head. Oliver writes:
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
I was approaching thirty years old, two decades since that initial passionate surge toward priesthood, and I was miserable, emotionally frustrated, spiritually fatigued. Then it struck me how self-centered my discernment had become. I had long agonized figuring out my vocation, what I should do, fixating on my uncertainties born of unceasing questioning that I forgot it was never about me in the first place.
On that beach, it was as if I heard Jesus say, “Christopher, you’ve wanted to be a priest your entire life. You’re as miserable as a sea refusing its tides. Take the leap. We have work to do.”
I don’t regret the time it took to get to the Jesuits. It’s ok to be patient as we discern our vocation. I just realized that to delay further would have been indulgent.
The world’s sufferings I wanted to ease as a child remain. The pains and divisions in our church, world, nation, and families are legion. Each of us has a part to play. Read the signs, don’t get bogged down, keep moving. For Jesus calls to us all, and says in his lovely voice, “we have work to do.”