Restless is the heart:
A Story of Priestly Discernment
A converted Augustine exclaimed, "Restless are our hearts, O Lord, until they rest in you!" Indeed, the truth of this statement has been borne out from generation to generation. Sitting in a dimly lit Benedictine monastery one day during my senior year of college provided me with the necessary quiet to have an Augustinian moment in my own spiritual life, albeit in many respects not as dramatic a one as that great bishop and father of the church. Yet this is not to say that I enjoyed a committed relationship with the Lord. My relationship with God had largely been one of routine: "They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse" (Ps 62:4). I attended Mass every Sunday and on the obligatory holy days; I tried to do good and avoid evil. However imperfectly, I was involved at my home parish. That being said, my heart was not close to the Lord; there was no real personal relationship. In fact, my heart often wandered quite far from him. In present reflection on the past, I now see how frequently the Lord stood there, knocking on the door of my heart, waiting for me to open it and allow him to enter. Yet how many of those same times did I keep the door closed? To be sure, they are too many to count. The combination of my own sinfulness and a world filled with too much noise that inhibits the hearing of God's voice proved to be a roadblock. u
How fortunate we are, then, that the Lord's personal call to each one of us is constant and his initiatives ceaseless: "If we could lift the veil and if we watched with vigilant attention, God would endlessly reveal Himself to us and we should see and rejoice in His active presence in all that befalls us. At every event we should exclaim: 'It is the Lord!'" (Jean Pierre Caussade, quoted in Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide to Everyday Living [New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005], 11).
Having a particularly stressful day that Friday in my senior year, I sought refuge in that local monastery, which my mother had introduced me to early in my teenage years. I knew it to be a quiet, prayerful place, and so I desired to reach out to the Lord there. The events of that day may have served as the immediate cause of my prayer, but there had been stirrings within for quite some time. Deep desires had been awakened and had slowly been growing for a number of years. These were desires for something more than the vain and earthly treasures in which I had allowed my heart to take repose: a desire for the truth, a desire to be good, to be holy, and to have an authentic relationship with God. He used as a conduit the well-known words of St. Teresa of Avila, as found on a prayer card in her breviary: "Let nothing disturb you; let nothing frighten you. All things are passing. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God. God alone suffices." Indeed, God alone suffices. These words filled me with such spiritual consolation and would mark a true watershed in my life, for nothing would ever be the same afterward. Those deep desires would begin to be fulfilled that Friday as the Lord reached down and pierced my heart.
The Lord's invitation, however, was just that; it did not come with binding and shackling enforcement. The choice to follow him more closely was fully within my purview; it was to be an act of my own free will. The affective elation resulting from my visit to the monastery made my initial response to God's call to a deeper relationship with him an easy one. On fire with this new desire for the Lord, I began to pay greater attention to my spiritual life; no longer was my prayer almost solely composed of pleading for help or asking for forgiveness. I purchased a shortened version of the Liturgy of the Hours and began to pray morning and evening prayer. I got into the habit of making a weekly visit to the monastery and spending some time before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament; this practice soon became almost a daily occurrence. Daily Mass and the regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, the "masterpiece of God's goodness" as the venerable Pius XII calls it, also took hold in my spiritual life. The Lord was truly filling that void in my being that had been so poorly attended to in the past. Yet a certain restlessness remained. After finishing an undergraduate degree in history, I entered a graduate program within that same discipline in hopes of working toward a master's degree and eventually a doctorate. However, as I grew in the spiritual life, as I moved deeper into my first and fundamental vocation as a Christian, another desire surfaced: the prospect of the priesthood.
This was not the first time that the thought of becoming a priest had entered my mind. The seed had been planted very early on in my teens. Yet toward the end of high school, the desire had waned considerably, and I consequently formulated other goals for my life. Soon after starting college, I had become a history major and settled on a future career in academia.
So this renewed interest in the priesthood was exciting. Certainly, the idea of being a priest and doing the work of the Lord as an ordained minister was appealing. It was so attractive that I soon took the first steps on the road to seminary formation. I approached one of the priests at my home parish with whom I was friendly and spoke to him. I told him of my recent practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours and my sense that perhaps God was calling me to the priesthood. He received my news quite readily and with much enthusiasm. Despite my wanting to take discernment slowly, halfway through my first year at graduate school, my mind was set on entering the seminary, and the official diocesan application process began. Looking back, the paucity of substantial discernment is striking. After all, was this not a major decision? The Holy Spirit's promptings to take things slowly were largely left unheeded. Many times I wanted to find a spiritual director to have an in-depth discussion about not only a vocation but other matters as well, neophyte as I was to a serious spiritual life. On a number of occasions in prayer, the Lord also seemed to be telling me that he was not calling me to the priesthood at all. In my excitement about a vocation, this idea was too disappointing to entertain at great length. At that stage in my journey, the attachment to self-will was still too great.
Though I had these doubts, the time eventually came for me to begin formation at the major seminary of my archdiocese. The transition to seminary life was a smooth one and brought with it many blessings. Growing up with four sisters, having "brothers" for the first time in my life was a great gift. The other men in my class were roughly the same age as I, and they were prayerful and sincere; the fraternity amongst us was present from the start. Five of us did not have the sufficient amount of philosophical study in our academic backgrounds as did some of the other men with whom we began our seminary careers. To remedy the deficiency, we entered the pre-theologate program. Those first two years were a real graced-filled time. The summer after our first year, the seminary sent two classmates and me to Mexico City to study Spanish. The religious order sponsoring the program took all the students on a mission trip to a little village called Molinalco, situated in the mountains about three hours south of the capital. The area is quite impoverished. As others will attest, one's first real encounter with extreme poverty is life-changing. The dearth of material wealth amongst the inhabitants of Molinalco was made up for only by their strong faith: solo Dios sufficiente indeed. This is a lesson that modern society, drowning in secular materialism, would do well to learn.
Soon our summer in Mexico ended and the following academic year commenced. Life at the seminary now was not new, and the daily routine of life there brought with it a comfortable security. That being said, I was not at peace. This was not a superficial peace that I lacked; it was one at the deepest level. Thoughts of leaving came to mind now and again. However, as with many aspects of life, the difficulty of doing the hard, inconvenient things held me back from giving it serious thought. This indecisiveness continued through that year and the following summer, during which I was assigned to a parish for seven weeks. The slower pace of summer did not bring with it the usual benefits. The vocational doubts continued and only grew as the summer progressed. In August, by the end of our time off, I knew that I could not continue in priestly formation without first resolving the questions that were churning in my head. After speaking with my spiritual director, I finalized the decision to take a leave from active formation. This was not an easy move, but it afforded me the time to do what I had rushed through before entering the seminary two years prior: engage in a meaningful period of discernment and seek God's will for my life.
During this time a friend introduced me to St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, in particular his discernment of spirits. My friend gave me books on that and other Ignatian discernment topics by Timothy Gallagher, who describes Ignatius's means of discernment as a great gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. Quoted in Gallagher's Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2009), Ignatius identifies three "times" or circumstances in which one may find the self:
The first time is when God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that, without doubting or being able to doubt, the devout soul follows what is shown to it, as St. Paul and St. Matthew did in following Christ our Lord; the second time is when sufficient clarity and understanding is received through experience of consolations and desolations, and through experience of different spirits; the third time is one of tranquility, when one considers first for what purpose man is born, that is, to praise God our Lord and save his soul, and, desiring this, chooses as a means to this end some life or state within the bounds of the Church, so that he may be helped in the service of his Lord and the salvation of his soul. I said a tranquil time, that is, when the soul is not agitated by different spirits, and uses its natural powers freely and tranquilly. (141)
To be sure, it would be convenient to find oneself in the first time Ignatius describes. However, many find themselves called to further discernment in the second circumstance, as I did. During my time away from the seminary, through prayerful analysis of various consolations and desolations (the means of which are found in the first and second weeks of the Spiritual Exercises), I came to know God's will for me. After three semesters away from formation, I returned to the seminary and began again the journey to the priesthood.
In retrospect, the time away was painful but also filled with joy, for I see now how active the Lord's hand was in my life, drawing me yet deeper in my relationship with him and purifying further my own stubborn self-will. Ignatius teaches that when seeking the Lord's will, while it is only natural to have an inclination to a particular option, we must fundamentally be at peace and open to whatever God desires. When I had thought about the priesthood during graduate school, my will was largely closed to considering anything but the priesthood. To be so closed to what God wanted was and is not spiritually healthy. Did not Jesus come to do the will of his Father and nothing else: "'Behold, I have come to do your will, O God'" (Heb 10:5). Only in genuinely seeking God's will did he gave me the clarity to see that he truly was calling me to the priesthood; as Paul says, one does not assume the priesthood on his own accord, but only he who is called by God (5:1–4). As complicated as life in our day and age may seem at times, my experience has taught me that what we are to do is really very simple: ask the Lord what he wants of us, and then ask for the grace to carry it out. In the words of Blessed John XXIII: Voluntas tua pax nostra. ML
Thomas Quinn is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and currently a first theologian at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Seton Hall University. He studied history on both the undergraduate and graduate levels before entering priestly formation in 2007. His interests include ecclesiastical history — particularly the interaction between the church and science, spiritual theology, and catechetics.