As the fireworks crackled and exploded on January 1st, 2016, I felt afraid. I stood there, surrounded by family and friends, champagne in hand, knowing that the most significant part of my life to that point was officially over. I had left behind a work and mission that until this day I love with all my heart, and had nothing quite so special to look forward to. That day an emotion swept over me – it had been looming long before and would not leave me for almost five months – which was best summarized in a song I had recently penned:
Now I’m living in a ship out on the ocean | Stuck somewhere between where I’m going and where I’m from | God, if you can hear me, send me wind to fill these empty sails | Don’t let me fail
I don’t sleep a lot, but when I do I dream of | Being right where I’m supposed to be | And all the time I spend awake I’m trying to find that steady shore | I need that shore
[What I’m Gonna Hold Onto, by Alika Andrade, December 2015]
Echos of what now and what were you thinking harassed me constantly. I never shut those questions out because they were good questions.
I had good plans to start up a non-profit with some dear friends of mine, but busy schedules and a lack of immediate funds proved difficult barriers to overcome at the time. I needed work yesterday.
The best laid plans, yes?
Later in January of 2016, I begrudgingly attended a conference where I quite successfully avoided any meaningful interaction, according to my frustrated attitude. I resolved to do as little as possible, to listen as little as possible, and to sleep as much as possible. Again, I accomplished this task quite easily by hiding as often as I could. It was absolutely shameful.
Despite my expertly executed self-exclusion, I heard one thing that added a new question to the reverberating duo that was constantly on my mind, and perhaps it was the most important one of all. The Catholic priest who was speaking told his own vocation story. In summary, he spent his life wanting to be a parish priest, and later discovered his calling was to a monastic life after realizing that he decided so hard on what he wanted to do that he was missing God’s personal call for his life.
What if I’ve missed the call of God for my life because I’ve been too busy making plans?
I attempted to shake the question off because the implications it made were too uncomfortable for me to consider. Of course, try as I might, the thought wouldn’t go away.
Shortly thereafter, I had a dream wherein, after moving into a glass room, I found myself in a large church preparing to make a commitment of my life alongside others. What if…no. Not a week later, a family friend approached me and said that she had a clear vision of me, clothed in a white robe with scattered glass windows sewn into it, looking into a mirror. She went on, “I think God is asking you: Are you doing what you’re supposed to do with your life?”
That was it. Something was going on. I had to investigate. That night, I spent upwards of six hours on my knees in the Eucharistic Chapel at my home parish. In the early hours of that next morning, I said the words as if out loud, “Lord, I don’t know what you’re calling me to, and I’m afraid of what it might be. But I love you, Lord, and I’ll go wherever you call me. Undo me as I am, and be glorified in my undoing…And Lord, I don’t know if you’re calling me to be a priest, but I promise that I’ll go to seminary to find out.” That prayer was as alien to my thought process as the words are to this story. Where did that come from?!
I left the chapel at five something in the morning and sent a text message to a dear priest friend of mine. I told him I wanted to meet. Less than an hour later, he responded, inviting me to his office later that day. There in his office, I told him everything. EVERYTHING. He looked at me like a father looks at his child and asked, “Would you go to seminary…this year?”
Whoa. That was just a few months away. How was I going to pull that off? I hadn’t even told a single soul yet. A million worries and hesitations ran through my head. I went to voice them, but only one word came out of my mouth: “Yes.” Everything moved quickly after that.
Now, quickly doesn’t mean easily. I had to go through professional psychological examinations, two applications, two interviews, I had to compile an unheard of amount of paperwork. Even after I made it through all of that without too many hiccups, my acceptance to the seminary was challenged by an old friend and mentor. After all of this momentum, everything came to a screeching halt. I was blindsided. I was hurt. And suddenly, I had no clue what was going on. What does all this mean? What will happen if my acceptance is revoked? What will people say about me? No matter, countless friends came to my assistance with great haste by the grace of God.
Allow me to interject into my own narrative for a moment. Some of these people who supported me so lovingly are reading this now. I want to speak briefly to them: From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I can never repay you for your kindness, your trust, your belief in me, your courage. Know that your efforts were not in vain. I am a new man because of how you’ve loved me. Thank you. Now, back to the story.
Needless to say, I was able to attend seminary. I forgave quickly and I went on with a completely new mindset. All of this – my hopes and dreams, my vocation, my life itself – doesn’t belong to me. I belong to everyone. Everything I do with my life is meant to be for others. I intended to offer up my time at seminary and whatever came afterward for my community. I said many hard goodbyes and shipped off to Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon to begin my formation.
Perhaps another time, I will go into depth about my time at seminary. I have much to tell. But for the purpose of this story, I’ll focus on discernment.
From the beginning, I tried to be careful with my language, although I’m sure I wasn’t perfect. For the sake of the people who love me and especially for my own sake, I intended to be very clear that I was not sure of a call to the priesthood, but that my goal was to listen and learn. My job was to be open and not determined. After all, the question that sent me across the Pacific in the first place was, “What if I’ve missed the call of God for my life because I’ve been too busy making plans?”
Through very intense and sometimes painful praying and thinking, along with the help of a dear friend and an amazing spiritual director, I was coming to realize that I was brought to the seminary for a different purpose. Finally, I decided (not without careful input and guidance of my spiritual director) to put my conclusion to a series of tests. These tests hurt more than almost anything I’ve ever gone through. I forced myself to say goodbye to every hope and every dream and every desire I’ve ever had for my life. I wrote a letter to each of these wants, expressing to them how much I have always loved them. Each letter concluded acknowledging that, even were they to come to me, they ultimately belong to God if I am truly His. I sent them off: a loving union with a wife, the pride and joy that are sons, the sweetness of daughters, a life over which I have control. I said goodbye to everything. I wept as I wrote these letters. There are still tear stains on my letter to a daughter.
After letting these go, I began to feel like I didn’t need them for my own happiness anymore. Now, I was happy because my portion and cup were the Lord Himself, and anything else that might be given to me was to be my gift to my God at the end of my life. I was at peace.
It was in this peace that I was truly open to whatever my vocation might be. My favorite passage of scripture was my mission, now:
“Be still and know that I am God! | I am exalted among the nations, |exalted on the earth.” | The LORD of hosts is with us; | our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Here, in the stillness, the advice I used to give to my students came back to me: “God’s power is in His Word, and His call for your life was spoken into you when He made you. If you want to know what God is calling you to do, ask what the you that He made would do. To find God’s will for your life, it’s not so much about going out and finding His call for you – though you may have to wander to find it. It’s about digging into who you are beneath all the accumulated stuff. There is His call.”
Suddenly, it all made sense. I was not called to be a priest. That was not my vocation. It’s not who I am. I thought I knew that before I went to find out, but now I know it by the grace of God. Such happy news! I have discovered more of who I am!
So why did I need to go to seminary? I never would have known if I didn’t go. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could’ve just figured out. There on that holy mount, I was called to die to myself, to offer everything I am to the Lord, to lay down my plans, to let go of who I think I am and to become who I was always meant to be.
I’m not suddenly a saint. I have a long way to go. Much more digging is ahead. There is more death of the self that is imminent. More pain. More questioning. Echoes of what now and what were you thinking. I won’t shut them out – they’re good questions.
Surely, I live in a metaphorical glass house where my community watches my every move, holding me accountable along the way. Just as surely, I stand in the Church, prepared to make a commitment of my very life alongside every one of you before our God and King. And I am asking myself often if I am doing what I am called to do. Those beautiful revelations were far more prophetic than I ever knew.
I don’t know what God is calling me to…but I now have a better idea of where to look! What marvelous news! That gives me direction! It gives me hope! I’m coming home!
Here and now, with a long road ahead of me, the final lyrics of that song I wrote before all of this began are truer than ever:
All I know is that I’ve got somewhere to go | And I just can’t wait until I’m finally home | All I know is that an Old Man said He’d show me something new | It’s all I’ve got to go on, so it’s what I’m gonna go on | Yes, it’s what I’m gonna hold onto
[What I’m Gonna Hold Onto, Alika Andrade, December 2015]
Peace be with you!