Around the middle of last February, just as the Lenten spirit of penitence was starting to kick in, an unexpected guest turned up at evening Mass. Tall and lean, graying and bearded, wearing a Dominican habit and an air of stern benevolence, he looked like central casting’s idea of a Grand Inquisitor.
It turned out that wasn’t too far from the mark. He was, in fact, novice master for our province of the Order of Preachers. After the Gospel reading, he took the pulpit and delivered what amounted to a recruiting pitch for the order. To my own surprise, I found myself straining to take in every word. Becoming a Dominican sounded like a capital idea. Between the travel and the scholarship, it reminded me of grad school with a guaranteed income.
Suddenly, all my humiliating career reverses had meaning. My misadventures in the field of home finance didn’t make me a loser; on the contrary, they were signs I had been earmarked for a higher purpose. Who needs a career when you’ve got a calling?
After Mass ended, I raced out of the church and introduced myself to the novice master, who received my inquiries warmly. He told me that I wouldn’t be eligible to begin my novitiate until I’d been in the Church two years, which gave me a year to wait. Still, he said, I should write to the province vocational director. “That way, when you do become eligible, you’ll have a regular contact person.”
I delayed writing. If experience had taught me anything, there’s a catch to everything, and I wasn’t at all eager to find out where this one might be. The daydreams I’d started spinning were too tasty to throw aside. Entering the priesthood would mean inheriting a literary venue. Publishers who would shrug at a submission from Max Lindenman might fight for the rights to the work of a Fr. Thomas Mary, O.P.
Warmed at the thought, I began outlining my autobiography. It would be just like The Seven Storey Mountain, only with better one-liners.
Priestly — un-priestly
I did pause to comb my own personality for priestly and un-priestly traits. At length, I came up with the following list:
- Good with foreign languages
- Can read theological treatises without falling asleep
- Fond of public speaking — in plain English, a ham
- Good at hearing confessions — being the son of a Freudian psychoanalyst helps
- Generally compassionate
- Member of tribe of Levi
- Sulky when criticized
- Chronic pusher of envelopes
- Holder of grudges
- Gleeful tormentor of bores and geeks
Okay, I admitted, I wasn’t Bing Crosby in Going My Way or Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces. But, still, I figured there was enough to work with. Real-life priests weren’t perfect; the sulks of one I knew well came off in waves strong enough to cook a burrito. Yet they all managed to get the job done.
My friends were less enthusiastic. When I shared my new sense of vocation with them, they smiled thinly and looked away. I knew that look well — it was the kind of look you give someone who’s showing off the foreign-born trophy wife who you know will drop him the minute her green card comes through. “Playa-hatas, the lot of you,” I thought. “You’ll see. Nine years from now, you’ll be begging to come to my ordination.”
Finally, I drafted a letter to the vocational director. After selling myself, I ended on a plaintive note, asking, “How can I know I’m worthy to reflect the light of Christ?” Exactly when that concern took hold, I couldn’t say, but there it was. And expressing it seemed like excellent form.
I expected a blunt, reassuring, fatherly reply — something along the lines of “Buck up, boyo! We’re all sinners together!” It never came. In fact, nothing came. Either my letter had vanished into cyberspace, or I was being royally snubbed. Desperate to find out which, I made an appointment to speak with the associate director of my parish. He had entered the seminary at the age of 41 — four years older than I was. Surely he would sympathize.
Our interview was one of the strangest conversations I can recall having. For nearly an hour, we talked in wide circles, covering everything from the black cappae worn by Dominicans to the works of Flannery O’Connor, never testing the quality of my vocation. Knowing of the abject need for new priests, I began to suspect he was telling me, in the kindest way he knew how: “Nice audition, kid. But don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Nothing puts the spurs to me like rejection. With the spite of a jilted lover on a pub crawl, I told myself that the high-and-mighty Dominicans could take their charisms and shove ’em. I’d take my business elsewhere.
“Elsewhere” turned out to be the Friars Minor. Though they lacked something of the Dominicans’ intellectual swagger, the Franciscan friars I met impressed me as the most charming and gracious people on the planet. Try to have a short conversation with a Franciscan. It’s impossible. Whether in person or on the phone, they’ll keep you shooting the breeze until nicotine withdrawal has you clawing at your own flesh. The ones I met, at least, were so mellow that I expected them to pass around a joint.
To my dismay, I discovered that this unhurried quality — “Pax et bonum” must be Latin for “Hakuna matata” — extends to their HR policy. When I inquired in June, I learned that my province was rotating vocational directors. The incumbent had all but relinquished his duties, but his successor wouldn’t assume them until August. In the meantime, I was, like the virtuous pagans in Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Limbo.
Actually, that’s not quite true. No one gains insight in Limbo. Those two months I spent cooling my heels brought me to a long overdue reality check. Grudgingly, I began to realize that the polite skepticism I saw in my friends’ faces came not from an unjustly low estimation of my abilities, or even of my character, but from a sober appraisal of my motives. They knew me well enough to understand I was in it for the job security, the prestige of postnomials and the thrill of wearing a uniform. The chance to serve God and fellow man was more of an afterthought — if not quite a necessary evil, then certainly a means to an end.
I also had to admit that the enormous sacrifices demanded of priests weren’t, in my case, sacrifices at all. Tying the knot with Lady Poverty doesn’t mean much if your jagged career path has already made her into your common-law wife. God may move in mysterious ways, but I can’t believe He calls people to the priesthood by making sure they have nothing better to do.
It was an Episcopalian priest, of all people, who finally put things in perspective for me. “Ask yourself,” he advised, “whether you’re running away from anything you should be facing.” “You mean besides the demands of the world?” I joked, taking his point.
So here I am, once again facing bills, car trouble, the caprice of the literary market and my personal limitations. It may not sound as noble as a life in Holy Orders, but it’s definitely as hard. If God has called me to it, I should, I suppose, be grateful for His confidence. I should be doubly grateful that I discerned this calling now, rather than later. As occupational titles go, “freelance writer” may lack éclat, but it’s a darn sight less creepy than “ex-priest.”