There were swaying palm trees, clear pools of tranquil waters, lush greenery. It was a gift from God to me: a sanctuary, an oasis in the desert for me to enjoy. This was the subject of one of my imaginative meditations on the passage from Isaiah 41:17-20. Two choices thus presented themselves: to stay in this oasis with the woman of my dreams, to raise a family and to enjoy life there; or to be a caretaker of this oasis, to work with other caretakers to invite others into the oasis to experience its beauty.
To me, the oasis represented the love of God and the role of the caretaker found its fulfillment in the priesthood. Despite the inherent attractiveness of the first image, I was deeply drawn to the second – it was a desire to love expansively, beyond the confines of an exclusive relationship and a single family.
All this all occurred during a silent retreat I made a few months after I ended a slightly more than 2 year relationship with my only girlfriend. How did I end up here? Let’s start from the beginning.
I guess you could call me the traditional ‘good’ Catholic boy. As a cradle Catholic, I was brought up in a loving family, excelled in school and exams, was a leader in my co-curricular activities, and served in church after confirmation. I checked all the right boxes. Nonetheless, the very real question of what God’s will was for my life never came to mind. I just went with the flow, doing what I deemed was good and desirable at every stage.
All this changed when I encountered the Lord in a very personal and intimate way during a 6 week stay-in formation program called the School of Witness organised by the then Catholic Archdiocesan Youth Centre (now called the Office for Young People) in 2010. Put simply, I now knew that I was loved by God. This experience of God’s deeply personal love for me changed my life – it was as if I had taken off my old glasses and put on new glasses which made me look at the world in a radically different way. I now actively desired to surrender my life to God and to do his will. The question now was, what was it exactly?
Of course, I met a girl soon after. Being the now not-so-traditional ‘good’ Catholic boy, I did tell her that I was still open to the priesthood. Nonetheless, she assured me that she understood and so we entered into a committed relationship. Externally, everything was great – we had our fair share of ups and downs, but that wasn’t something to be surprised at; we were growing in learning how to love each other. Internally, I was in turmoil. It started quite innocently at first, I just paid more attention to the priest during mass, and imagined myself doing what he was doing. Over time, this fascination grew and deepened into an appreciation and attraction to the radical giving of self in the priesthood. It was as if something in my heart had awakened, and a desire for more was being stirred.
The passage of time revealed much; the longer I was in this loving relationship, the greater the desire for the coherence of a life spent in the service of Christ and His Church. There was a deep resonance with who I was and who I wanted to be when I thought about the priesthood. Of course, all this is only clear to me in hindsight. What had seized me during these budding moments of discernment was fear and trepidation at the thought that God was calling me to something more. Nonetheless, there was something inside of me, a hidden grace, that kept me from running away and abandoning the many questions I faced.
Eventually, a decision had to be made amidst all this tension. While it was painful and brought about much uncertainty, I knew that I could not lie to myself or to my girlfriend any longer. There was a real desire and call to respond more authentically to the vocation of the diocesan priesthood. The path of love was ultimately chosen by the both of us to end the relationship.
The journey since then has been more amazing and grace-filled than I could have ever imagined. I experienced a great freedom and joy in the following years – attending vocation retreats/recollections, sharing my journey with family, community members and friends, reading and watching videos about the priesthood, finding companions in priest saints and fellow aspirants. It was a movement from fear to freedom, a beautiful journey of self-discovery and deepening in love for Christ and His Church.
In all honesty, the dull ache of loneliness and the desire for exclusive emotional and physical intimacy comes and goes from time to time, but there is always an invitation to something greater and bigger than myself. I will always remember this video of a priest describing a typical day for himself, and he innocently described him “spending” his time in a certain way. This phrase means so much more for me. A priest literally spends his life in service of Jesus Christ and His Church; he holds nothing in reserve for himself, but lays down his life in sacrifice just as Christ did.
If vocation is the unique way in which I am able to love God best, the best response I can give at this point in my life is to undergo formation and further discernment as a seminarian. This of course, is a decision made in complete freedom. With freedom, there is peace. With peace, there is joy.
All praise, blessing and glory be to the loving God who is ever faithful!
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3: 12-14 (NRSV)