"I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul" Therese of Lisieux.
Some weeks ago a friend drew my attention to this story about a former priest, who (brace yourself) "left the Catholic clergy in 1971 to marry Jackie, a former nun."
My thoughts went immediately to two men of my own acquaintance …
The first of them left seminary in the 70s, halfway through, and married a dear friend of mine. This couple have since been actively involved in parish work, leading group after group of "lost lambs" (myself included) into the fold of the Good Shepherd and His Church. They are eager to see a time when the Church does away with the "celibacy requirement" for her priests. However, whenever they voice this opinion (it tends to crop up when I'm around), my mind immediately returns to an encounter with the second man — a certain Jesuit priest I know.
I met this man for the first time as he was about to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination. He had spent much of that time as a seminary professor, raising spiritual sons who would follow after him. During the interview, I asked him if he had always wanted to be a priest.
"No, not at first," he replied softly. "There was a young woman, you see, who I loved very much…" His eyes grew soft, remembering.
Fiona was a very good girl. But I was resigned to be a priest, and I never doubted that this was God's will for me. Before Fiona entered the convent, I wanted to marry her. I knew this wasn't what God wanted for me. Still, I bargained with God, "Now let me marry Fiona, we can have ten children who can be nuns and priests." But He didn't take me up on it, and I understood what God wanted me to do. I would be a priest.
God said to me, "Do you love this girl, you want to be with her? You love her, and always want to be with her? I want you to give her back to me, and I will be your love. I am infinitely more loving, I love you more than she could ever love you, I know you through and through. If you will accept me as your love, I will give myself — all that I am — to you."
What I had for Fiona was a selfish love, a self-indulgent kind of love. I enjoyed being with her because it made me feel good. But it would not be that way for me. There would be no emotional, no physical consolation. "You will serve me — I will teach you to serve me — with a true love, without those sensible pleasures." And so I said yes, and I received such grace. I was accepting in the dark, a life without any particular joy — that was how it was going to be. When God let me know I was going to be a priest, I immediately wrote to Fiona and to my parish priest, telling them — I burned all my bridges, there was no opportunity to back out.
Fiona entered the convent the following September. Later, I had an opportunity to talk with her older sister, who told me about this Carmelite nun, Teresa of the Child Jesus, and urged me to read her biography. When I went to the library, I couldn't find Teresa (of Avila) but I did find Therese (of Lisieux). I opened up "A Story of a Soul" and I began to read.
A shower, an indescribable shower of love and tenderness rained down upon me. I was just overwhelmed with feelings of tenderness and love. I had never felt this love of God in my heart before. In the book Therese said she felt a shower of graces coming down, and I knew that this is what I was experiencing.
When Father finished, we both had tears in our eyes. I did not doubt that he had suffered greatly — there is no pain greater, I think, than inflicting pain on someone who loves you. But oh, what a prize he had won!
I think about Father L. often, when I hear of this one or that one who has retraced his or her steps along a pathway of intention. Sometimes it involves a broken promise, other times a broken heart … a shattered dream, or weak resolve. We human beings are frail creatures, and there are times when the moment comes and (God help us) like Peter we falter.
And then the cock crows.
In His mercy, God often redeems even the poorest of our choices in unexpected ways. He blesses us far beyond anything we have reason to expect. That's just His way.
And part of that mercy includes never knowing the many blessings that might have been ours, that could have been others', had we simply stayed the course.
Jesus once said to a would-be disciple, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). Just as a plow horse wears blinders (only God, the Great Sower, sees infinitely ahead), we must orient ourselves always toward the present. What is God asking of you now?
In this moment, there is grace enough for the next step. But if you break your focus, if you set your sights either backward or too far forward, disordered longings can grip you and keep you from embracing all God wants you to have and do, right now.
Have you ever experienced this? I have. I remember a time about three years ago, when it looked as though our foster children (who had been with us over two years) were going to be returned to their birth family. I spent three days in bed, unable to cope with the prospect of losing them. I let myself get too far ahead … and it paralyzed me. For those three days I stopped plowing, straining vainly to see (and yet fearful of what I might find).
We do it all the time, don't we?
"If only I could be with _________, then I would be truly happy."
"If only I could have ________ (a child, a spouse, a better job, a healing), I'll never ask God for anything else."
"If only I didn't have (or had) __________, I could serve God freely."
Enough. We must place these longings into the hands of our Heavenly Father, that we might be free for the work at hand. One day, one step, one furrow at a time, trusting that when the time is right, each of these longings will be fulfilled in infinitely better ways than ever we could have imagined.
Jesus, I trust in You.