March 06, 2013

The Contemplative Life

I'm reading an interesting and compelling book by Mary Johnson called, "Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir". I'm only 19% into it (according to my Kindle) and find myself drawn into memories of a life that I had myself had left behind long ago. Not as a nun, but as a prayerful, faith filled person, hopeful at love from god, from family, from adoring worshipers I felt called to serve as their holy man, their priest.

In her memoir Mary speaks so passionately of prayer, meditation, fasting, her desire to be loved by Jesus, her struggle with pride, the want to actually do good work for others, and so many things. I shall not attempt to summarize her wonderful work here, but let it be said it has got me to think, to remember, of a life that I had lived for nearly 28 years, as a faithful member of the Church, as a seminarian, as a deacon, as a priest.

I entered the seminary in 1989 (January, I missed enrolling in September of 1988) and found myself wanting at that time to service mankind, to be a priest, to be a hero. I had always told myself in my formative years that I didn't want a mundane job, 9-5 Monday through Friday. I told myself I wanted a job that would set me apart, make me different, make me a hero. I had contemplated the life of law enforcement, fire prevention, even the military. Yet none of those professions spoke to my other desire in life, which was the mystical adventure that the church seemed to offer. This desire was built upon my formative years in junior high and high school during which I spent many days and nights in prayer retreats with my school mates and fellow parishioners. We were lucky in that my pastor when I was in high school had lived for sometime at a monastery in the mountains in Colorado called Snowmass. It was a Trappist monastery, a group of religious who lived contemplatives lives of prayer, poverty, silence, and hard work. One monk there, Father Theophane (whose name in Greek means, God Appears, or Epiphany Θεοφανώ) an especially interesting character, who truly was, at least to my young mind mystical. He would often join the students in our retreat time to discuss his contemplative life, his journey, his mysticism. He was an odd ball, a character that only the religious life would create. He looked very much like Gandalf, he was loud, he was prayerful, he was funny. He was mystical.

This formation, this exposure to a world of contemplative monks, prayerful men who seemed to be something special, appealed to me. It appealed to me, a little boy who frequently wore a heroes cape, who wanted to be a batman, a superman, a Luke Skywalker. In our modern age, this seemed to be place I could go to find a life that allowed me to be not only different, but to make a difference, to perhaps be a hero. Strangely in my desire to be this different otherworldly hero set upon the dirt of Earth to make a difference in the name of god, I never had a deep or connecting relationship with the god I was raised to worship. My relationship with the faith was also there on a level that was self serving, or on a level less harshly put, that would bring meaning into a world that didn't seem connected or to have mystical meaning otherwise.

Before I enrolled in seminary I decided that I would give life a try in the traditional sense by entering a state school, the University of Northern Colorado. My friend from high school enrolled there with me, Chris Roberts. The school was located in Greeley, Colorado, a small town located in the north eastern plains of Colorado. The flat lands around Greeley served the community primarily as a ranch town, home to a huge company that processed cattle for slaughter. It was also home to a large migrant community, though I doubt if most people who live in Greeley were aware that thousands of people who lived near and around them were there working to pick onions, beets, potatoes and even corn.

I was assigned a roommate by the university, his name was Mike, and he was from a small town in the southern desert of Colorado known mostly for its reputation as a town where people could go for a transgender operation, the town of Trinidad Colorado (ironically for come it means trinity, three persons in one). Now Mike was a unique person, who wanted very much to be my friend, but we found little in common; he loved to work on his Ford GTE, I enjoyed the more nerdy life of Star Trek and learning to play guitar. We never became fast friends, and what sealed my decision to leave UNC and to go to seminary was in the final 1st semester ending in December of 1988, his girl friend moved into our dorm room and they had regular and loud relations. The dorm room was tiny, so every sound, every utterance was heard. I was disgusted, and felt strongly that this was an immoral relationship. Later in life I discovered that I was offended because really it upset me for their lack of respect of my privacy not because it offended god. At the time though, it justified my desire to heroically leave the desires of the flesh behind and embrace celibacy and a simple holy life.

During this time I was making many trips to the Archdiocese's office in Denver where I was undergoing the application process which involved interviews with many priests, nuns, church leaders, psychologists, and scholars. I took several personality and psychological tests, underwent drug screening, medical screening, personality reviews, and several other processes. I seemed to have passed them, and found myself a little affronted by the thoroughness and self revelation I had to undergo. Looking back my aversion seems silly why now with FaceBook, Twitter, Instragram, my life's story is for anyone to share, no secrets here!

I was finally accepted as a seminarian in Denver, Colorado for the Archdiocese of Denver. Strange that during this time I never deeply immersed myself in prayer, contemplation or any sort of theological or spiritual journey. I rather just floated along, building my desire to become a priest upon my family history and the fact that I had just grown up in the church and spent most of my youth involved with the Catholic Church on some level or another.

In Mary's book, "An Unquenchable Thirst" reading about her prayer, her fasting, her desire to have a relationship with god, with Jesus, has awakened in me a contemplative look back on my own faith life. Not in a light that is dismissive, or frugal, but one rather that is stirring in my mind the desire to open, unfold, dust the memories, and attempt to understand my own journey, my own mystical life. More to come.

Below is a poem I composed when I first became a priest, it has much different meaning now as a gay man, but all the same truth of my life's journey.

A thought perhaps but
a deep desire was still there.
I hoped for a child but
found myself instead
the servant of another mystery.
When the echoes of a child's laugh
found purchase in my ears
my heart turned a bit
and I looked back and there
I could hear laced in the laughter
my own voice
"Come here son."
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