This continues a series of entries that describes the time when I first entered seminary in the Fall of 2006.
It’s probably appropriate that when I crawled downstairs during the early morning hours of Good Friday in April 2006, Jerry MacGuire was on. I’ve never known how quite to describe preceding two hours; some people might call it “metanoia” (a word I had never even heard before until recently), others just a straight conversion experience. For me, the only language I have been able to come up with to describe what was going on within me is taking the decision of Tom Cruise’s character to write a mission statement, Kevin Costner’s hearing of a voice in the cornfield, and then pressing the “puree.” Except at the end of this movie, I realized that the time had come to finally join the priesthood. This was opposed to shacking up with Renee Zellweger or building a baseball field, two options that actually would have ranked higher on my list.
As with all things in life, this particular evening did not happen in a vacuum; I had been experiencing taps on the shoulder about religious life for roughly ten years before my sleepless night, but effective guideposts for discernment during those previous ten years had been few and far between for me. Most stories I encountered fell into one of two categories. The first involved people who always wanted to be a priest and grew up playing with “Lives of the Saints” action figures. The second category usually featured somebody waking up one morning laying face down in a pool of his own vomit next to “Circus Circus” on the Las Vegas strip, suddenly realizing he needed Jesus. I fell into neither category. On the one hand, my action figures growing up usually featured light sabers, not rosary beads. On the other hand, I never lost my soul in Las Vegas… only $500.
It’s not as if popular culture understands the process of discernment either. Dr. Phil doesn’t devote a lot of programming to people hearing THE VOICE OF GOD, and when he does aluminum foil hats are usually involved. I would often find myself wishing that I had a gambling problem, or I’d be envious of the mother who needed a DNA test to know whether the father of her child was her first cousin OR her 14-year-old math student; at least then Oprah Winfrey or Maury Povitch would be able to give me guidance.
Ironically, the one TV talk show host who gave me the best analogy for my vocation discernment was Ellen Degeneres. I started discerning a call to the priesthood in the 90s around the time she had her own sitcom; I was fighting my call with every once of my body. I wanted a wife, children, maybe even a mistress in Argentina… there’s a scene in the western movie Tombstone where Val Kilmer asks Kurt Russell what he wants, and Russell responds that he “just wants a normal life;” I could identify.
But it wasn’t until I saw Ellen’s “coming out” episode that I felt like somebody else was having an emotional experience similar to my own. Like Ellen’s experience of having to admit to herself who she really was inside, my struggle to own a personal call to the priesthood meant having to acknowledge that my life was going to be taking a 90 degree turn in a direction most people were not going to understand… and many might not support. As a natural doubter myself (after all, my name is Thomas), I couldn’t really claim to understand all of the dynamics involved either. That’s when I would remind myself of Val Kilmer’s response to Kurt Russell: “There’s no such thing as a normal life… there’s just life.”
Fortunately there was another analogy to describe what was going on inside of me, one that communicated in simpler terms. A salesman once said that whenever you have a big decision to make in life, your head gets one vote, your heart gets one vote… and your gut gets three. Consequently, the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in life have been when my gut’s majority vote squashed the minority voices of my head and my heart. Yes they had been outvoted, but my cranium and my aortic muscle were not going quietly into the good, dark night; the Intel processors above my shoulders were running at maximum warp trying to figure out just what in the hell I had gotten myself into… while my heart was sitting in the corner mourning lost loves. And although those two entities where more than a little mad at my gut, they were still hoping that it was connected to something greater as we all began left New York City to begin our three-week road trip to visit Paulist foundations. I had not yet turned thirty-five and I had no idea if I was starting my life, although I strongly suspected that my life was driving over a dividing line that would dramatically separate all that came before and all that would follow.
Parts of this post were originally posted in an article for Vision Magazine, a periodical for Catholic vocations.