12 December 2012

My Vocation Story



I'm re-posting my vocation story (2008) b/c I've been getting questions about it lately. . .and today is a great day for re-posting it.  Our Lady of Guadalupe is my vocational patroness!

I was born a poor white child. . .in rural Mississippi. Sorry, couldn't resist. Nonetheless, it's true.

Both sides of my family are Mississippi delta cotton farmers. Though no one farms now, both of my grandfathers planted cotton. My mother and all of her sisters "chopped cotton." My dad drove a tractor. All of them went to church. My mother's family went to the Baptist Church and my dad's family went to the Methodist Church.

My first memory of church goes back to the sixth grade when my mom and dad sent me and my little brother to Vacation Bible School. Mostly I remember being the only kid that week who had not "accepted Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and savior." Come Friday, feeling the pressure, I walked the aisle, said the necessary things, and walked back to my pew complete with Jesus. It didn't take.

For the most part my family back then was not a church-going bunch. We went occasionally, but mostly we spent Sundays working in the gardens, the yards, doing necessary work around the house and farm. Sometime my sophomore year, mom and dad decided to start going to church again. They chose a United Methodist Church in the largest town near us. It was the local "bankers' and doctors'" church. Lots of old money. Lots of nice cars. Lots of snooty glances at the rubes from the woods. I hated it. We stopped going after about six months.

That next year I went to Mexico with my junior Spanish class. We cut and sold firewood from my family's property to pay for the trip. Our teacher, a Catholic woman, helped us with the hard labor and with our Spanish. Up until we got to the National Cathedral and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the trip had been a bust for me. My roommates were jerks. I didn't have much money. And my Spanish was rotten. When we arrived at the plaza in front of the cathedral, one of a hundred tour buses packed full of tourists, I stood up and started to the front of the bus like a robot. One more stop, one more site, snap a pic, get back on the cool bus. Little did I know. . .

The second I stepped off the bus, even before my foot hit the pavement, I notices crowds of older women in black on their knees slowly making their way to the shrine. They were praying with these necklaces in their hands. I turned to my teacher and asked what was going on. While she formulated an answer I was horrified to see that these women had bloodied their knees crawling on the gravel and pavement. What kind of religion was this?! My teacher said something about devotion and praying for sons in the drug world and some other things about Mary. I didn't really hear it all.

When we got inside the cathedral, I was overwhelmed with a sense of familiarity and comfort. Just this energetic boost of being home and welcomed. There was a Mass going on. I pestered my teacher for details. She explained what she could. She showed me how to make the sign of cross using holy water. How to kneel. She told me the names of all the fantastical objects in the church--the crucifix, the statues of Mary and the saints, the fonts and confessionals and altars. I was overwhelmed. It was like someone was reminding me of things I had known all my life.

As I look back on that day what I know now is that God trapped me with the sacramental imagination. He was showing me His presence in all the things of this sacred place. I "recognized" them as holy, as set-aside, because without having the words to articulate the feeling, I felt holy as well, loved, wanted. With this feeling still rattling around inside, we walked over to the newly opened Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I knew nothing about this. Nothing at all. The story, once I heard it, didn't impress me all that much. Sounded kinda far-fetched to me. The new basilica was ugly. Stark, angular, modern, cold. Nothing like the near primitive wonder of the cathedral. We saw the relic. Big deal. Move on.

With the vision of the bloody old ladies still in my head and the incense still in my nose. And maybe even a bead or two of holy water still clinging to my forehead, I got back on the bus and started in on my teacher. I pestered her some more about why she was Catholic and where I could get more information and could I come to Mass at her Church and did her Church have classes for people who wanted to be Catholics and on and on and on. . .she good-naturedly answered my questions.

We drove over the mountains to a village called Taxco. A silver mining town for tourists. Our hotel perched on the side of the mountain and my room had a balcony looking out over the valley. At midnight the local set off a stream of fireworks. I went to the balcony. It was very breezy and cold for a Mexican March night. Just standing there alone watching the fireworks I had this sudden sense that everything around me was rushing toward me, almost as if I were falling standing straight up. For just a few seconds I didn't hear anything. Going back to bed, I prayed--something I never did!--and simply asked God to tell me what to do.

I woke up the next morning convinced I should be a priest. After that I started having dreams.

I was vested in red and saying Mass in my high school auditorium.
I was teaching a class and a man called me out of the classroom to say Mass.
I was standing in a sacristy and couldn't find the right vestments.
I was in the middle of saying Mass and the sacramentary was all wrong, misprinted. . .

Eventually, I told my grandmother. She gave me a cigar box full of Catholic paraphernalia: a rosary, prayer cards, a small crucifix, and a "question and answer" catechism, which never left my side. I took it to school and embarrassed myself arguing with the Baptists. Even my teachers got in on the arguments! The stuff in that box became a tangible link for me to the Church.

When my parents found out that I wanted to be a priest, they were a little upset. They put up some resistance at first but eventually gave way. By this time I had gone off to college and joined the Episcopal Church. Why the Episcopal Church and not the Catholic? The E.C. in my college town was an old-fashioned brick building built in the 1830's. Stained glass. Brass fixtures. Beautiful hangings. The priests there wore their clerics. The music was thundering, beautifully sung. The services were "churchy." The Catholic Church in town was easily confused with a dentist office. Built in the late 70's, it was a box with those 7-11 glass doors and the whole "stripped bare" vibe. No statues. No tabernacle. No stained glass. No nothing that identified this building as a Catholic Church. The services were informal to the point of being just slightly more organized than a Baptist picnic. The music was folksy guitar, hand-clapping, tambourine banging. The priest wore ugly, ugly, ugly vestments. There was absolutely nothing solemn, nothing transcendent, nothing attractive about any of it. The choice to become Episcopalian was too easy.

I was baptized in the E.C. in 1982 and confirmed later that year. I immediately went to the rector and told him that I wanted to be an Episcopalian priest. I was 18. He told me to finish my undergrad studies, think about getting a masters, and come back when I was around 24 to discuss the whole thing again. 24?! That was middle-aged!! Anyway, I became very active in my parish. After a few years and well into grad school, I had a falling out with the rector. Being a good Protestant, I stopped going to church in protest. In the meantime, all sorts of ideologies, practices, philosophies, and personalities were drawing my attention.

Since the E.C. offered almost nothing in the way of solid teaching on moral deliberation or anything in the way of substantial intellectual formation, I fell prey to one dubious theology after another. Finally, in my last year of PhD studies, I was convinced that God did not exist. Despite this, I was convinced by a British prof teaching in my department that I should move to the U.K. and become a "red priest," that is, an Anglican priest who rejects theism but works in the church for "social justice" using Marxist/socialist categories as guides.

I decided to take a year out and teach English in China. That was a disaster. However, I came back to the States rededicated to my vocation to become an Episcopal priest. I started the formal discernment process in my diocese--a two year procedural grind that worked to discourage many people by its sheer complexity and futility. I served as the guinea pig postulant for my parish "discernment committee." The whole thing was a farce. At the time, I submitted to it out of a sense of wanting to collaborate and a sense that the Spirit would work through the committee to help me discern my vocation.

The details of the process would be book-length so I'll have to summarize: I spent two years meeting nearly weekly with nine lay people from the parish who asked the same questions over and over again. . .eventually they sent a positive recommendation to the vestry of the parish who then met with me to ask me the same questions over and over again. On the night of the vestry vote on whether or not to send my application to the bishop, every single member of the vestry looked me in the eye and told me that I had his/her support and vote. I went home confirmed in my vocation and ready to start seminary. At around 11.30pm, the rector called to tell me that the vestry had rejected my application. The reason: I had the stuff for making a good priest but just not yet mature enough. I was 28 at the time. The rector could not tell me why those voting against my application had lied to me earlier.

This rejection sent me into an anti-religious tailspin. It was during this time that I pursued my interests in the occult and became more and more enamored with Marxism. I spent two years finishing up doctoral coursework and preparing for comprehensive exams. After passing my orals, the prospectus defense, and suffering through several personal traumas, I left the academic world for a job in the psychiatric world. Once in place in my new home, I began to pursue the priesthood again. This time in another diocese with another parish. At the urging of my parish priest, a woman from Mississippi, I took on a Catholic spiritual director, a Paulist priest in a local parish. Over a year with him I found my Catholic vocation again.

On the national scene, the E.C. was committing suicide with one disastrous lurch away from the historic faith after another. Finally, in 1995, I had had enough and left the E.C. to become a Catholic. I joined the RCC as a liberal High Church Episcopalian, meaning I was formally a Catholic but my theology and church politics were modernist and my liturgical tastes were medieval. I still didn't care for the informal, hippie-dippie Catholic liturgy, but the friendliness and community that the RCC had compared very favorably the chill I felt in the cliquey country club world of the EC.

Once confirmed, I immediately started the process for joining the Paulists. I spent two years in discernment with these guys. On the advice of the vocations director, I quit my excellent job at the hospital and moved home to spend the summer before entering seminary with my parents. I got a job in a local psych hospital and basically spent my free time getting "caught up" on all things Catholic and Paulist. In June of 1998, I came home from work and my mom told me that the Fr. John, the Paulist vocations director, has called and wanted me to call him back. I did. He told me that the president of the Paulists had rejected my application for admission. Fr. John would not tell me why. He said, "They're afraid you will sue us." Apparently, Fr. John should not have encouraged me to quit my job before the final decision about my application was made!

I was devastated. My mom wanted me to drop the whole idea of priesthood. I agreed. I walked around the house that day, saying over and over again, "What am I going to do?" My mom kept crying and telling me to just forget the priesthood, get a job, get an apartment, and be happy doing that. In the meantime, I was injured at work and got a staph infection in the injured site (first lumbar disc). I spent the next seven months in agony--both physical and mental, trying to deal with doctors, hospitals, insurance people. It was during that period of pain, dependence, helplessness, and rebellion that I finally found my niche. Accidentally.

I was browsing an internet site that had an alphabetic listing of links to the websites of men's religious orders. Most of them I had never heard of. I spotted one that intrigued me "Discalced Carmelites." As I went to click on the link, I accidentally clicked on the link for "Dominicans." I was taken to the order's main webpage and it took me all of three minutes to find the US provinces and the southern province. I contacted the vocation director via email and the next day he called to chat with me for two hours. About a week later he came from New Orleans to my parents' house in Mississippi to interview me. We spent six hours together. He offered me an application at the end of the meeting.

What was special about this discernment? Over the years I've complicated the whole affair into something it isn't. For me, the simple truth is this: the Dominicans wanted me. The Episcopalians didn't want me. The Paulist rejected me. The Dominicans wanted me, and they promised to make use of my gifts. I was accepted into the 1999-2000 novitiate class. My acceptance was contingent on my finishing the PhD before July 1999. I wrote furiously from Feb to July, finishing a first draft by the time my plane left. I graduated with the PhD in May of 2000. I was simply professed in 2000; solemnly professed in 2003; ordained deacon in 2004 and priest in 2005.

Smooth sailing the whole way, you ask. Ohhhhh, no. The novitiate was very hard. My studium years were extremely difficult. I made the move from being an ideological Marixist with religious pretensions to being an orthodox Catholic. The move has not been applauded by all of my brothers and sisters in the Order. Sometimes, I get the impression that there is some "buyer's remorse" about accepting my application! However, I have found many brothers and sisters in the Order (from the whole theological spectrum) who share St Dominic's zeal for preaching the gospel and witnessing to the power of God's mercy.

Plans? The phrase "Dominican plans" is an oxymoron. Of course, we plan. But I've rarely seen these plans actually pan out. If I could simply chose my path I would continue teaching undergraduate philosophy, theology, and literature. I am developing a course that brings all three fields together. The University of Dallas is developing a creative writing program that I would probably be willing to hurt someone to join. The Angelicum has a Templeton Foundation grant for a project called "Science, Theology, and the Ontological Quest." The grant brings in scientists, philosophers, and theologians to teach and research on the intersections of science and faith. I'd love to be a part of this. I am also dedicated to adult lay formation at the level of teaching basic theological/philosophical methods. However, preaching, as always, remains primary and any and all of this stuff I've mentioned here is directed solely to the improvement of the preaching. Without that, there is no reason at all for me to be here.

Fr. Philip, OP

P.S. I almost completely forgot to mention what happened with my high school Spanish teacher, Mrs. Mary Eddy! I went home to visit my parents right after I got back from Oxford in 2004. I had been ordained a deacon at Blackfriars and was preparing to move to Houston, TX for my internship. I went to Mass at the local parish, which had moved to a newer building. I went in clerics to the 9am Mass. When I got there I asked around for Mrs. Eddy. It didn't take long before she came running up to me to say hello! She was very surprised to see me and more surprised to me in clerics. She told everyone that she was responsible for bringing me into the Church. Yup, I'd say she was. Goes to show you what just a little encouragement for a young man with a vocation can do. . .right?

P.P.S. Here's a pic of me at the train station in Nov 1990. As you can see, I'm going from Changsha to Shanghai.  
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11 comments:

  1. Beautiful story, Father. thanks for sharing it. Any idea why you grandmother had that box of Catholic materials?

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    1. Fr Levi, yes. . .however, that story is part of my private family history. Really can't share it w/o convening a family meeting!

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  2. Ha ha! Fair enough ... and the intrigue leaves room for all kinds of speculation!

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    1. Indeed...I for one wonder whether it is somehow related to the Fatima miracle on the New York Times front page...

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    2. It's not that intriguing. It involves explaining part of my family's history that's not mine alone to share.

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  3. That was fun to read! "The Dominicans wanted me, and they promised to make use of my gifts." There's a lot in that simple statement, isn't there?

    Of course, this caused me to go upstairs to iron (no one bothers me when I'm ironing!) and think back over my own life :-). Hmmm...I too felt "this energetic boost of being home and welcomed" -- funny sometimes how life turns out - and how often things seem much more clear in retrospect (not that they always are, but they certainly seem that way).

    Thanks for sharing you story!

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    1. "how often things seem much more clear in retrospect. . ."

      Heh. It wasn't until after I entered religious life that I understood why God sent me to work in a psych hospital. Nuff said.

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    2. Anonymous6:02 PM

      I was in the Order for a while years ago and I went with an older friar (now gone to his reward) to see The Name of the Rose. At one point the scene was a pan shot of all the monks in this, shall we say, troubled monastery chanting the Office in choir. He leaned over to me and whispered,"There they are...every troll we've ever lived with!" I still laugh when I think about it.

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  4. Gregg the Obscure6:08 PM

    A beautiful and hopeful story. It really illustrates all things working together for good - and the difficulty of seeing that at the moment some of those things happen. I'm glad it worked out as it did my young friend.

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  5. Anonymous8:08 PM

    How God writes straight with crooked lines! Yours is a wonderful story--- full of wonder of God's mercy and deft care. Thank you for sharing with us.

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    1. Merciful, yes. . .I think He just got tired of whacking me in the head with that 2X4.

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