Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
August 25th, 2009

Back from Vocation

How I decided not to become a priest

 
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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.”

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.

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:

  • Priestly:
    • 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
  • Un-priestly:
    • Chain-smokes
    • 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.

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.

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.

Pub crawl

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.

Reality check

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.

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.”

 
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The Author : Max Lindenman
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2008.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Darrin @ SuccessfulCatholic.com

    I really enjoyed this article. I personally struggle often with how much I should make my faith known in my work. (I’m an entrepreneur and writer of information products.) I think it’s something we all deal with, no matter what vocation we choose.

  • amiehartnett

    lol; sorry Phil. I am a non-hyphenated person, too. You should annoy your friends with self-promotion – if they cannot enjoy it or at least shrug it off, then why would strangers give a whoot? ;)
    I have a persona rule that I do not include ANYONE from my parish as a FB friend. A few joined me on twitter, but there is much less *evidence* of my occasional misbehavior in pithy text messages ;)
    You guys (Max, Phil) are a great blessing to the BH audience. Keep on keepin on, guys.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    No hyphen, Amie; that’s my middle name, don’t wear it out. :-) But what I was going to say is that those are real friends on Facebook. I have only friended a handful of people I don’t know, and it’s because they asked or we had some real connection and it made sense. Twitter and mass email are where I send out notices of new work. (I post on Facebook too, but I try not to overdo it. I don’t want to annoy my friends with self-promotion.)

  • Max Lindenman

    Doggone it, I believe I will. I actually did keep an FB page for a while, but I took it down when I kept on getting friend requests from people I had hoped would remain out of my life for good.

    Maybe I’ll add a boldened warning along the lines of: “If I knew you in high school, GO AWAY NOW.”

    I cover Phoenix’s Catholic beat for Examiner.com. You’re certainly welcome to visit and check out my stuff, if you find yourself with some free time.

  • amiehartnett

    Phil Fox-Rose has like a zillion *friends* on FB; you should start up a page and market your work there. It certainly couldn’t hurt!

  • amiehartnett

    You got that right! I am a former editor/writer; now I just publish for free via volunteer work, in my parish and greater community.

  • Max Lindenman

    I’m not, no. I comment frequently because I figure most writers enjoy getting feedback as much as I do. As we all agree on this very page, no one gets into the gig for the money.

  • amiehartnett

    Max -

    I keep seeing your comments everywhere here on BH. Are you on FB?

  • Gayle

    As a Franciscan, I found your comments regarding us too true. I found your writing tone engaging and funny, so best of luck.

  • Max Lindenman

    Thank you very much, Kaya and Jan. Kaya: You’re right that writing is a calling, and a very hard one to follow. Whoever said, “If you are fit for any other kind of work, do it,” knew what he was talking about it.

    Jan: I’ll definitely pray for charity; I appreciate your help. By the way, I left a comment on your blog, suggesting a story you might pitch.

    Max

  • Jan Baker

    Oh you made me laugh! And you made me think how many times I’ve used writing to discover what I know, what I believe, where I’m wrong. This piece shows you know what it takes to follow Christ in a vocation, in terms of understanding. Now here’s what you must do: pray for virtue, for moral courage, for wisdom, for humility, for charity–charity to love Christ first!!! Be drawn to him!

    I convinced myself to leave the convent for exactly the same reasons you are giving for not going in the first place: for a poor abused girl such as I was, the convent was heaven. Tht didn’t make it the wrong place for me. It could have focused my talents in service of the Church. Instead I’m afraid I focused them quite elsewhere. If you’d like to read about it, visit Please Don’t Ask on http://thewhitelilyblog.wordpress.com

    I cried writing that piece, but people think it is funny and disagree entirely with my conclusion and think my life in the world was useful and wonderful. But I do not agree–and I really think you might give it lots of prayer before you decide you aren’t good enough and that it looks like some kind of copout. BS. I’ll pray for you at mass Sunday. (Thank God, I found my way back to the church!)

    But forget the novus ordo orders; go somewhere traditional and they’ll make you deliver value for the wonderful life you’ll live. then you’ll feel ok about it!

  • Kaya Oakes

    Max, as a fellow impoverished writer, I can understand your being drawn to priesthood as a nice escape from the grind of pitching, editing, and re-pitching. But a very wise priest told me that writing is itself a vocation, something I often forget when I’m caught up in checking my Amazon ranking. Compared to seeing that humbling number, a life as a cloistered sister sounds awfully appealing (of course, as a married person this is not an actual option I can pursue). It’s difficult to remember, but sometimes our writing can be as helpful to others as fathers, sisters, and brothers in holy orders can be to us. And don’t forget that Kathleen Norris wrote a best seller about monasticism without being a monk herself. You never know what stories you’ll end up telling.

  • Max Lindenman

    Thank you ladies very much. JoLynn: Your kind words have touched me deeply. Whether you realize it or not, you just helped me re-spin my decision in a positive direction. It’s so much nicer to think I’ve discerned a calling for the lay ministry, than realized I’m too much a selfish lout for the priesthood.

    Thank you, too, for acknowledging that a certain measure of privilege attaches itself to the consecrated life. Back in the old days, when joining a mendicant order meant hunkering down in the Porziuncola (or tramping barefoot across the Pyrenees, being heckled by Cathars), it was a life that would have terrified even Les Stroud, the original Survivorman. Now? Not so much.

    Amie: I’m glad you found my discernment process as funny as I did. Most of truly honest pieces, I’ve found, follow the basic theme of: “Modern narcissist confronts ancient tradition of charity and self-denial, and finds himself flummoxed.” Glad to know someone can stand to read them.

  • amiehartnett

    I enjoyed your humor and honesty in the article. Ok, that is a bland sentiment; I was actually chuckling pretty heartily at some of the phrasing!

    Would it be in the cards for you to go back to school for an advanced degree to be a teacher/professor? Perhaps in a field related in some way to the priesthood (counseling, theology, Scripture, etc?)

    I just get the feeling from reading your articles that young people would really respond to a teacher with both your insights and sense of humor. That is a gift.

    Best wishes to you!

  • JoLynn Krempecki

    Max,
    I’m in the business of providing formation for lay ecclesial ministers. Discernment is one of the hallmarks of what we do.

    I was impressed when I read your post. Discernment is usually not easy (If it is, then you’re probably doing it wrong!).

    Discernment isn’t finding a way to strong-arm God into saying yes to what we’ve already decided to do.

    Discernment is assessing, addressing, and listening, listening, listening.

    You discerned your way into the Catholic Church. And we are blessed to have you!

    You discerned your way through a choice between two goods: priestly and lay ministry. We will be blessed by your choice! To see something attractive – the privilege of a certain lifestyle and the distinction that comes with affiliation with a well-established group – and to choose “the demands of the world” instead – is courageous.

    You have chosen a difficult road, but the God who called you to initial faith and then to the Catholic community walks with you. May Jesus bless your creative heart.

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