This is the twelfth installment of A Deacon’s Diary. In the eleventh installment, Steve’s hopes for a purgative Lent flew by in a whirl of activities.
Ordination to the priesthood is almost exactly a month away. It seems like yesterday that it was three or six months away. Time has dwindled. I’m eager and trepidatious. I’m tired and desperate to cross so many finish lines. I’m consoled and looking forward to what’s next.
Friends, students, brother Jesuits, parishioners, co-workers all seem to be asking the same question:
Are you excited for your ordination?
My reply is always something like: Not yet. But I will be.
It’s about other people’s excitement for me, about their curiosity. Both of those I value. And I carry them along with me, waiting for my own excitement to be sparked.
It’s awkward, but I’m the sort of person who can only deal with one major thing at a time. A few weeks ago, that meant finishing preparing to give a retreat in Convent, Louisiana. (I wrote about visiting there in February. In late April, I preached a retreat there for about a hundred men.) These days, it means finishing a thesis for the licentiate degree (which is a sort of research Masters degree in Theology), all while eyeing the boxes that are piling up around me in preparation for moving. It all weighs me down these days.
I reckon I could have both the shortest and most complicated move in Jesuit history. Books: to my faculty office. Any other personal property (winter coats, mementos, some antiquarian books, and a statue of Mary that my mother gave me): to a closet in one of our communities here in Boston. Myself and a suitcase or two (an alb, my breviary, summer and formal clothing, unread and half-started novels, such as a copy of James’ The Portrait of a Lady): in a car bound for Milwaukee.
I’ll be working at Gesu Parish in Milwaukee all summer until I return to Boston to teach.
So many things stand between me and ordination. I’m not not excited, I tell myself. But there’s just so much to get through first. So much to carry for a few days more, so much to put down.
I often consider what a wise confessor said to me on the near-eve of diaconate ordination:
When you lay down on the floor and get up again on Saturday, you’ll carry all the same people, all the same things as you approach the altar. The question is: “how do you carry them?”
I’ll prostrate myself on the floor again in a few weeks, on the terrazzo floor of Gesu Church, Milwaukee. It’ll be the third time I do this year. I don’t know what that will be like. But I know that I carry a lot of burdens and weight today that need to be left along the road to Milwaukee. I hope to be as light as the white vestments that my brothers, John and Brett, will put on me. Perhaps light in both senses of the word—their fabric isn’t heavy and they are radiant, especially on a bright morning that I imagine ordination to be.
But how to carry things when I could really do with an extra hand and I’m going it alone? No one has taught me this yet. That’s my imagined retort to my confessor’s advice.
Still, the question sticks: Are you excited about your ordination? I think I’ve lost count how many friends have asked. And honestly, I’m not sure how to answer, although I’ve said much of the above. Also, I’m not sure I know what kind of answer people expect.
Jesuit formation is such a long marathon: it’s been ten years since I entered novitiate. Sometimes priesthood has felt close in the work I’ve been doing; sometimes it’s felt farther away, but never absent. All of the different stages, experiences, assignments, and time in school have all been preparing me for this, shaping me, forming me. The vows themselves do that, too: they conform me to Christ, in this case, Christ the priest.
By now, “priest” is who I should be. “Jesuit” too. But that’s not exactly how it works. I mean, is life ever so straightforward? I’ve pondered what it will be like to be a new priest in mid-June and all of the things I will need to learn, despite all of the school, all of the experiences, all of the time as a jail or hospital chaplain, the time teaching, and the time spent working with God’s people in so many different ways.
I’ve wondered, too, if this is how people feel as they’ve been engaged and about to get married. So ready and yet only almost there. And then there are the years to grow into the imagined foreverness of both marriage and priesthood.
When does something become us? And when do we become something?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions – whether good or bad ones.
Just this past Sunday, as I was standing outside of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, greeting my congregation as they left to begin their week, a few hangers-on stood around to chat. The trees were in full bloom, with white and pink flowers, slowly drifting to the ground, attempting their own version of hanging-on. I avoided picking them up.
A few students asked: When are you being ordained again?
In thirty-four days, I said.
Are you excited? Each of them said.
I will be, I said. And prayed for the strength, grace, and persistence to stumble over everything that stood in the way and make it to mid-June in Milwaukee in one piece. I prayed not to trip over my own feet. Excited, I would be. I just wasn’t yet.