Catholic

Adventures in Discernment: The Story of a Call…Outside of the Priesthood and Religious Life

My favorite spot for prayer...

One of my favorite spots for prayer in adoration at St. Clement’s Chapel in Boston

In the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 I awoke shortly after 3 AM and I simply could not get back to sleep. I was filled with a deep urge to go into our adoration chapel at Our Lady of Grace Seminary in Boston to pray. Finally, after rustling around in bed for ten minutes, I got up and I made my way to the chapel.

I stayed there until about 5:15 AM. That deep pang-like desire to pray manifested into the questions “What do you desire for my life O’Lord? What are you calling me to?” I simply sat with this question after sharing it with our Lord, receiving no major revelations or alleluia moments during my time knelt before Him in the Holy Eucharist. I had been discerning with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary as a postulant for one and a half years by this point, but I had never been inspired to ask these questions with such urgency.

Upon returning to my room, with plenty of time before morning prayer and not at all interested in digging into one of my text books, I decided to start writing down some thoughts for a blog that I had been dreaming up. However, shortly after doing so I was hit with a lightning bolt of inspiration.  I immediately picked up my journal and I wrote something else.

I poured out some of my frustrations of living in community life, various other personal observations and then I wrote a plan for moving back to Los Angeles where I had spent the preceding five years before entering the seminary. The experience was surreal. It was as if someone else was holding the pen and writing the words for me. The lack of sleep didn’t matter. I was totally awake. I felt very much…alive.

I was filled with a deep peace, a distinct quietness of mind and a very clear sense of being uniquely loved by God in a way I had never experienced before. I wrote down these words, which felt both authentically me but arriving from somewhere else:

I don’t think I have a vocation to the priesthood.

(pause)

Moment of clarity.

(pause)

Yes

Whoa. Did that just happen?

I think it did….I think it really did.

My old room at St. Clement's

My room at St. Clement’s during my second year as a postulant

I entered with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in late August of 2011. I didn’t know if I had the call by God to the priesthood. It was the continual mantra of my spiritual director that real discernment begins when you enter the seminary. At the time right before entering I was routinely being nourished by the sacraments (daily mass, weekly confession, etc.) and an active and passionate life of prayer. However, God turned up the volume, frequency and intensity of our conversations significantly during my time spent in religious life. My spiritual director was right on target. Anything outside of the seminary was simply discerning discernment. That is not to say that people can’t recognize and say yes to their calling outside of that unique environment. It just seems that discerning outside of the seminary makes the process more difficult.

Prior to coming to the seminary, I had worked as an actor and a casting assistant in Hollywood. Before moving to Los Angeles I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t in the actors union, I didn’t have a lot of credits but deep down I had an intuitive sense that was where I needed to be. It was a big risk with many unanswered questions.  So, I reasoned, if I took that big of a risk for an earthly reward, wouldn’t God be worth an even bigger leap of faith if I were to be honest and authentic about my belief in Him. I didn’t want to be yet another Catholic who acted in a way not in step with what they said they believed. God deserves our best…all the time, not only when it’s convenient.

I sold my car, my furniture, most of my “stuff” and I left the city where I had happily lived and worked for five years. Despite the bad reputation I had grown enormously in my faith during that time. It really was the City of Angels for me.

Hitting the books in the library

Hitting the books in the library

The biggest adjustment in the seminary was the strenuous academic life. I absolutely love learning but I’m not much of a fan of going to “class”. I can identify with Winston Churchill who supposedly once said “Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” The moment they took me away from the building blocks in nursery school, plopped me in front of a desk and forced me to try finger painting, formal education became a perpetual means of sadness. So with a total of six years of academic studies ahead of me, four of which at the graduate level completing a masters in theology, I was a bit apprehensive. But, I trusted that God would grant me the grace if the priesthood was truly my calling.

As expected my first two years of philosophy and languages (Latin and Spanish) was pretty grueling. However, throughout it all I had a deep peace that I was where I was suppose to be. Hence, I determined early on that academics was not an acceptable reason for leaving. It was painful and most of the time made no sense but I could endure it. You can say such things when you’re actively involved in a real relationship with the Creator of the universe. On an earthly level “gutting it out” makes absolutely no sense.

However, my experience on Feb. 14th, one and a half years into discernment, was the first time where I really felt like God was calling me on a different path. It was followed by three other similar moments during that spring.

  • March 22nd  Following the Stations of the Cross on this Lenten Friday, in which I assisted as a reader/lector, I spent about twenty minutes in joyful adoration on the altar. I came back to my room with a deep sense that I was called to a life outside of the priesthood.
  • April 6th  During a day of recollection led by our provincial (essentially president of the Oblates here in the US and the Philippines) I was presented with a very exciting vision for the future of our order. “Maybe I should be coming back for novitiate year!” I thought to myself. However, upon bringing this excitement to prayer before the Eucharist I was filled with a swell of deep peace and clarity that I did not have a call to the priesthood.
  • April 14th While working on a presentation for my Spanish class about one of my spiritual heroes, St. Josemaria Ecriva, and reflecting upon the “lightening bolt” moment in which he was called by God to found Opus Dei, I had another one myself. Again I had this profound sense that I didn’t have a call to this vocation.

All of these experiences occurred shortly after time spent in adoration of the Holy Eucharist, were accompanied by a very deep peace, contained an ”out of nowhere” sort of quality and a profound sense that God loved me very much.

I brought these experiences to my spiritual director who suggested that I spend equal time in prayer contemplating both life as a priest with the Oblates and life back in LA outside of religious life. The third year with the Oblates is referred to as the Novitiate year and you are required to submit what is called a Domanda letter requesting to be accepted for that year. At that point I couldn’t honestly say that I could commit to that year. My spiritual director suggested that I ask for more time and the prefect of spirit (essentially the rector of our seminary), after sharing with him my experiences, was understanding and told me to take all the time I needed. He also added that God seemed to be pulling me to a deep place of discernment. I certainly could feel that.

Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality

The primary (although not the only) charism of the Oblates is the spreading of and giving of the Ignatian Exercises. St. Ignatius developed a number of rules and exercises that essentially aid one’s ability to discern God’s voice and to grow in deep love of Him. I hadn’t learned anything about Ignatian spirituality until I visited the Oblates in the spring of 2011 but I remember it immediately capturing my attention because Ignatian contemplation was very similar to the acting preparation technique I was studying in LA at the time.

IMG_1230

You can never get enough of Ignatian Spirituality in Fr. Gallagher’s books!

In the end of January 2013, the month before my powerful Valentine’s Day moment of prayer, Oblate priest and Ignatian expert Fr. Timothy Gallagher gave a seminar on the Examen prayer which Ignatius devised as a daily review of the spiritual movements of your day. As Fr. Tim would tell me afterwards, the Examen prayer is suppose to assist in awareness of what you need to bring to the attention of your spiritual director. Upon finishing the seminar, something told me that I needed to make it a part of my prayer life and I began to consistently do the Examen. I usually struggled to find topics to discuss with my spiritual director but only two weeks after beginning this practice I was overwhelmed with my Valentine’s Day experience.  I certainly had something to discuss now.  “Wow, this stuff really works!” I remember thinking to myself.

Ignatius’ rules for discernment help one differentiate the movements of the good spirit or God from those of the enemy or Satan. They were first officially endorsed by the church by Pope Paul III on July 31st, 1548 in his apostolic Letter, Pastoralis Officii:

…We approve, praise, and favor with the present writing the aforesaid instructions and Exercises and all and everything contained in them, and We earnestly exhort all and each of the faithful of both sexes, everywhere to employ instructions and Exercises so pious and to be instructed by them.

Four centuries later Pope Pius XI affirmed them once again in his encyclical Mens Nostra:

In this manner, Venerable Brethren, may these Spiritual Exercises be extended everywhere through all the orders of Christian society and if they are diligently performed, a spiritual regeneration will follow. Piety will be enkindled, the forces of religious will be nourished, the apostolic office will unfold its fruit bearing branches, and peace will reign in society and in the hearts of all. (Section 17)

Fr. Gallagher, in his book The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living cites a quote by spiritual direction expert Fr. Thomas Green SJ who says,“Even today these rules, written 450 years ago, are the church’s canonical locus on discernment. What St. Augustine has done for the problem of evil, or St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for the phenomenology of prayer, St. Ignatius, by the grace of God, has done for the art of discernment.” (p.3)  These rules and principles are a powerful and canonically approved means by which we can hear God’s voice and ignore the whispers of Satan.

Utilizing these rules I was able to identify these four spiritual experiences of that spring as movements of spiritual consolation. Ignatius describes it as such:

I call it spiritual consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.

During these moments I certainly felt an “increase of faith, hope, and love” towards God and I was filled with a “peace and quiet” in my “Creator and Lord”. I had a distinct feeling of being loved and chosen by God. The only other time I had experienced something similar was during my final days as an altar server and lector at my parish of St. Victor’s in West Hollywood, CA. The visiting priest who celebrated mass paid me a compliment on my lectoring. As I was sitting in the pews, reflecting upon what he said, I became distinctly aware of how much God had blessed and protected me.   I cried tears of joy as I relished God’s love for me. It felt like it was His way of saying “Thank you!” for entering the seminary. I was swimming in God’s love.

However, even though I felt these four experiences during my spring semester were authentic moments of consolation, I was cautious to make the final decision to leave the Oblates. My desire for sanctity had increased significantly and the life of a religious priest makes so much sense in terms of fulfilling that desire.   “If it is of God and He wants me to leave now, He will confirm it. If it is not, He will show me that as well.” I recall thinking.

So, I continued to sit with my decision by living the daily life at the seminary and spending much time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. By late April though, I was still leaning towards the belief that God was calling me away from the priesthood and religious life. It was then that I had a grace filled conversation with my Dominican friend Br. Brad. After sharing with him my experiences and the dilemma I was facing, he reminded me that, “God isn’t going to make the decision for you, Josh. He wants you to make it on your own. He respects your freedom.” We also talked about how God doesn’t “need” anyone to become a priest and that the bigger question I should be thinking about was “How do I choose to express my love for God with my life?”

That same weekend, the Oblate seminarians were speaking at the end of the Mass to raise awareness about our fundraising dinner in May. Following Mass I had a conversation with a woman who mentioned that “We need good priests.” I couldn’t get that out of my head. As the day went on, the desire to say “yes” to the priesthood as my way of expressing my love for God made more and more sense.  I simply couldn’t justify doing anything else. By the time I went to bed my Domanda letter, asking to be accepted to the Novitiate, was signed and on the desk of the rector of the seminary. God had granted me the clarity and the strength I needed to take this step forward.

Summer Discernment

The Oblates allow their seminarians to return home during their first two summers. Exhausted by the process I was determined to forget about discernment. However, in my first week back home, as I was reading Fr. Michael Gaitley’s book Consoling the Heart of Jesus, a number of quotes from the section “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (for Little Souls)” jumped off the page for me:

  • p. 211 “Contrary to the popular lie, God’s will is not bent on causing His creatures the most misery possible. No, he has a marvelous plan for each one of us, the following of which is our greatest happiness.” 
  • p. 211 “While it’s possible for him to speak to us at such times in audible words, that seems rare. More often, he speaks with inaudible, interior words (or ideas, called “lights”)…”
  • p. 217 “God is pleased and rejoices when a soul distrusts Him for His own sake; because it loves Him, it is prudent and itself asks and searches for help to make certain that it is really God who is acting within it.”
  • p. 218″…if God wants us to hear something important, and yet we’re not sure it was him, he’ll often repeat it during times of consolation.”

Reading these words gave me a confidence and a peace of mind that if God had plans for me outside the priesthood He would let me know during the Novitiate year. By taking this step forward I couldn’t go wrong. One way or the other I would grow closer to our Lord and He would lead me to where I should be.  At this point I turned off “discernment mode” and enjoyed the rest of my summer mostly visiting friends and family. By the time Novitiate started on August 12th, I was well rested but a little apprehensive about coming back. However, upon arriving in the driveway of our house in Boston I felt a deep peace and consolation that this was where God needed me to be for now. It was a great way to start the year.

Awareness of a Persistent Passion

At this point, it is important to share that as God increased my desire for sanctity, He simultaneously increased my interest and my curiosity about diet and proper stewardship of our bodies. I have always been a bit of a foodie and fitness buff but it was during my application process to the seminary that I met a fellow Catholic in LA who opened up my eyes to whole new world of nutrition. Essentially, I adopted a diet free of refined sugars and wheat products replacing them with nutrients dense fruits, vegetables, meats and raw unpasteurized dairy products. I immediately recognized a difference in my mood and energy levels. I found myself with more patience and an enhanced ability to focus in prayer. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Grace builds upon nature.” and I was finding this to be particularly true.

I have always enjoyed baking and during the first two years of postulancy, one of my favorite things to do to relax was to go into the kitchen and experiment with various desserts. In particular, I had refined a tasty almond flour cookie recipe which doesn’t require eggs. When I thought about what I would do should I not be asked back by the Oblates, it was always starting a cookie company.

However, I was cautious about thinking about this too much. I was determined to give myself to God right now as a seminarian and do everything I could to hear His voice. Part of the Novitiate schedule is a daily one-hour meditation/contemplation. I gave myself to these meditations with a vengeance.

Yet, the idea of starting a cookie company would come up in my prayer life quite often and on the morning of September 26th after finishing my prayer time something else happened which nudged me more in this direction of entrepreneurship. Upon heading back to my room I noticed a book on the loaner library shelf that I had never seen before. Amidst this large bookshelf of many titles that I passed by nearly everyday, the book The Sanctification of Work by Jose Luis Illanes caught my attention. It was the only book on the shelf that I could see.   I grabbed it and brought it back to my room marveling at how it captured my attention.

Three days later on a day of recollection at the Jesuit run Campion Center in Weston, MA, I found a quote in the “Ignatian Spirituality” pamphlet in my bedroom written by Charles J. Jackson, S.J.:

God was similarly at work in the lives of all people provided the grounding for what became his spirituality. This insight became the premise underlying his Spiritual Exercises and found expression in the fifteenth of it’s preliminary notes: ‘it is the nature of the Creator to deal directly with the creature, embracing it with love and praise, and disposing it for how it might serve him.’

Reading this quote again gave me confidence that God would in fact speak to me and grant me clarity about my vocation. I continued to embrace and give myself to prayer as often as I could.

Italy was full of great photo opportunities

Italy was full of great photo opportunities

Off to Italy

In late October I left with the novices for an amazing pilgrimage to Italy and Southern France to visit the sites of our founder and our community houses there. Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and the many other religious sites of Rome inspired me with an even more intense desire for sanctity.   Our Universal Church becomes very real when you visit the eternal city!

In the midst of all this inspiring beauty, one moment of prayer stood out. It was during our visit to the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva where the body of St. Catherine of Siena is buried. She is one of my favorite saints and I pray to her quite often. Before entering the church I was quite tired and looking forward to getting back to our house so I could take a nap. However, the moment I stepped into the sanctuary my heart was awakened, my mind went very quiet and I thought to myself, “St. Catherine is buried here. I must go pray to her.”

The tomb of St. Catherine

The tomb of St. Catherine at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome

I immediately made my way up to the tomb. I don’t remember seeing anything else as I walked to it. I spoke to her for a couple minutes asking her intercession for the strength and the grace to become a saint. Then I asked for her help with my own vocation. “Pray that I might have the grace and the strength to fulfill the dream God has for my life.” I implored to her.

At this moment I heard these words deep, deep in my heart. “You will be a…(prefer to keep that private) but you will not be a priest.” I heard this sentence twice. It was not an audible voice but my mind was very quiet and the words just…came to me. I knelt by her tomb for another ten minutes in peaceful silence.

I mentioned the experience to my Novice master and made sure to journal about it but I remember thinking “Well that was pretty cool and interesting but I’m not going to leave the seminary because of that.” I did begin to pray more fervently to St. Catherine and made sure to bring a number of her biographies to my thirty-day Ignatian retreat a couple months later.

Back in Boston

After returning to Boston at the end of December we began our preparation for the thirty-day retreat, which started on January 28th. During our Novitiate year it is highly recommended to us that we turn down the volume of the world so as to better hear the voice of God. Hence, the use of the Internet and personal phone calls is generally restricted to Sundays. (Listening to music is avoided entirely.) It was such a blessing to quiet things down for such an extended period of time.

On the particular Sunday of Jan. 5th I happened to call again my Dominican friend Brother Brad to share with him about my experience in Europe. During our conversation we chatted about the challenges and frustrations of living religious life. I mentioned to him certain things on a natural level that made me feel like I wasn’t a fit for this community. In particular, my passion for food and the stewardship of our bodies as an important part of one’s sanctification. At times I felt a little lonely because of these interests and passions. Although, I was very appreciative that I was able to connect with other members of the community in other areas of our faith, I was not able to do so on this level.

Brad empathized with me as I talked with him but then he shared with me that if we search our hearts on a natural level for an attraction to live religious life we are not going to find it. There must be supernatural grace involved. This made sense to me.  He also shared with me this blog about vocational discernment. The author, Brother Justin Hannegan emphasized religious life as the most effective means to sanctification the church has today. He summed up his argument this way in a follow-up blog:

I argued that the decimation of American religious orders is partly self-inflicted.  Vocations directors, counselors, and authors make two mistakes: 1) they treat life in the world and the religious life as if they were equally effective means to growth in holiness, contemplation, and love, and 2) they tell young Catholics to find their vocations by searching their desires. Because religious life includes some tough renunciations, and because young Catholics have been told that life in the world offers equivalent spiritual goods, young Catholics see no reason to desire religious life. Understandably, they desire the option with fewer gratuitous costs. So, guided by the yearning of their hearts, they choose a vocation in the world.  Meanwhile, religious orders shrink and die.

I read over that piece each night for the next week. I wasn’t sure if the author was correct but I was convinced that the Holy Spirit was at work within it. (BTW…Brother James Rooney presents a very interesting response here). At the same time, I was having some doubts that the Oblates may bring me back for the following year to begin theology studies. I was questioning more and more whether or not I was the right fit for this particular community. I would be soon making a life long commitment and I continued to take advantage of every moment of this year to best know God’s will.

Vegas Baby, Vegas!

Again, at this time thoughts of starting a cookie company and what I would do outside of religious life and the priesthood came back to me in a noticeable way. When my mind would ponder how such a business would unfold, I contemplated about where I would start such a business. At first I thought about launching it from my parents garage in Massachusetts. However, when I outgrew the garage I would be left with high real estate prices, a state income tax and an altogether not-so-friendly business environment there. I still had friends and a sister in CA but the taxes there were just as bad and the real estate prices even worse. Then it came to me – Nevada, more specifically Las Vegas.

There are three very practical reasons why running a business in Las Vegas would make sense for me. #1 No state income tax, #2 cheaper real estate prices (particularly important for an Internet driven and non-storefront based business) and #3 a fairly active film industry that would allow me to work as a union actor (and hence qualify for health insurance) while getting the business off the ground. However, that was only if I wasn’t called to the priesthood and up to this point I hadn’t experienced anything which would lead me to definitively believe that was the case. The business idea was attractive and exciting and I found myself daydreaming about it often….a little bit too often. Again, I was extremely cautious. This could all be a means to distract me from what God may be really calling me to, the priesthood. Nothing could be more important than that should I have the call.

So, after debating and rolling these ideas around in my head I came to a conclusion. On January 15th I wrote this down in my journal:

I think I must say yes to religious life. The stakes are too big. No discomfort is too much. No hurdle too high to attempt. Christ is there with me. He will help me if it is truly His will.

I wrote this down at some point in the afternoon. Then at night after pulling the covers over myself, I was moved by a voice deep inside me that was saying, “Get up and pray!” So I got out of bed, knelt on my knees in fervent prayer. In my journal I described the experience quite simply:

Last words before going to bed, “I desire to be a saint O’Lord. Make me a saint.

The following morning of January 16th, I woke up still thinking about the idea of moving to Las Vegas as I got dressed. At this point I was getting agitated. It’s starting to look like a temptation away from the priesthood. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” I think to myself.

The view from the front pew where I asked for Mom's help

The view from the front pew where I asked for Mom’s help

Mom, Help!

These thoughts linger even as mass is beginning that morning. “I didn’t even like Las Vegas when I worked there during my time in CA! Why am I still thinking about this?”  I thought. So, I do what I always do when I feel like I’m in spiritual trouble, I ask Mom for help. I turned to the statue of our blessed Mother on the left side of the altar and I implored her for help. “O’ Blessed Mother, I give you all my thoughts and all my actions during this mass. Help me not to be distracted and help me to see what is really going on right now!”

My mind quieted down and I was able to pay attention to the mass. The priest’s homily that day was on the first reading from Samuel 4:1-11. The story is about how the Israelites are fighting the Philistines. They lose a battle, so they assume that this is because they did not bring the Ark of the Covenant with them. So, they go back, get the Ark of the Covenant and proceed to get their butts whooped again even worse than the first time. The priest Fr. Mark used the analogy of someone who wants a certain job or desires to marry a certain person and they ask God for these things to happen. Instead, what they should be asking in the first place is something akin to what I would describe as Ignatian indifference (essentially placing primacy on the glory of God above all other things). They should be asking “God what do You want me to do?”  We should be more concerned about what brings the greatest glory to God than to one’s self-interest because ultimately God is the true source of all happiness.

So, this gets me thinking, “Maybe the idea of running a business in Las Vegas, is my idea and not God’s idea.” Or…“Maybe the idea of becoming a priest is my idea and not God’s idea.” I’m not leaning either way but these thoughts are awakened in my head.

Moment of Confirmation

However, later during the mass upon receiving communion and returning to my pew, I was overwhelmed with a thought that came from out of nowhere.

“Josh, what if I need you to go to Las Vegas for the salvation of one particular random soul whom you’ve never met before?”

This thought pierces my heart and I begin to experience classic spiritual consolation. My heart wells up with joy, I get choked up, my eyes start to tear and I am filled with a profound awareness of the love of God who seems to be choosing me for something unique and special. I very much feel loved and understood by God.

The song God used to touch my heart

Thomas Aquinas’ beautiful song that deeply touched my heart

Yet, that was only the left hook of what would be a powerful one-two combo of consolation that left me spiritually knocked out. The right cross was delivered via the song “Humbly We Adore Thee” being played by Fr. Tom as the communion hymn. Written by one of my favorite saints, Thomas Aquinas, it includes the words “Make us one in loving thee, one in mind and heart.” It’s a bit hard to explain but the theme of unity is a big one for me in regards to my faith.  When I read and sang this line I was crushed by consolation. I was unable to sing and watery eyes started to turn into tears. At that moment I just knew. I thought, “God knows me and He loves me very much. I am not called to the priesthood or religious life. I am going to Las Vegas.”

"Make us one in loving thee,  One in mind and heart...

“Make us one in loving thee, One in mind and heart…

Down goes Kingdon. Winner by TKO and retaining his super, super, super heavyweight title – God.

I stayed there until noontime. I couldn’t move. I cried tears of joy, I wrote in my journal, and I sorted out my feelings, all of which led me to this conviction that I was not called to the priesthood. I knew in my heart with as much certainty as I’ve ever experienced that God was calling me away to start this business in Nevada. God was going to use me for the salvation of souls in another more unusual way. I had no doubt.

Two days later I decided I needed to let my spiritual director know as he was also going to be my thirty day retreat director, which was quickly approaching (January 28th). I felt I needed to let him know that I was sure that I wouldn’t be coming back next year before entering into the retreat. Upon sharing my experience he suggested that I go on the retreat as confirmation of this choice. I was quite happy to hear that as I very much wanted to go on the “thirty day” as we call it. Opportunities to spend thirty days straight in silent prayer and contemplation don’t come up very often. I planned on taking full advantage of this time.

Experiencing the “Thirty Day”

The “thirty-day”, as advertised was a very powerful experience. The daily schedule consists of four to five one hour meditations and/or contemplations primarily focused on the Gospels. You also meet with your retreat director once a day which is your only opportunity to break the silence of the retreat. By about day seventeen I had a number of confirming moments leading me to pray “God, I still believe you are calling me away from the priesthood and religious life. Please let me know otherwise.” I was getting into a routine of spending some quiet time in adoration each evening before the exposed Eucharist where I would ask God, “I’m ready to give my life to you no matter what the cost. Am I hearing you correctly that you don’t want me to become a priest?”

These questions would often be the fruits of reading Imitation of Christ by Thomas A. Kempis. It’s a beautiful book that focuses much on the urgency and primacy of cleansing and purifying oneself of earthly desires so as to be better disposed to salvation and sanctification. It’s a bare bones, pull no punches instruction book on how to become a saint and I couldn’t help but wonder about the path of running my own business. Religious life seemed like a surer bet.

As I would bring up these questions to God in prayer inevitably I would experience moments which spoke to me in a reassuring way about following this unusual call away from the Oblates and to the path of entrepreneurship. For example, on February 11th I did a contemplation on the baptism of our Lord. The sentence that stuck out and spoke to my heart was “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” I could hear Christ saying to me, “Yes, Josh, this is unusual.   Allow it for now. Trust me. Stay close to me and I will never let you stray.”

Earlier in the retreat I had another confirming moment on February 3rd when the priest gave a homily about Mark 5:1-20, the story of the Gerasene demoniac whom Jesus heals. After being healed the man desires to follow Christ. However, Jesus doesn’t allow him to, saying “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.” The man then proceeds to go off to the city of Decapolis, which the priest described as the pagan of all pagan cities. “It’s kind of like the biblical version of Las Vegas!” I remember thinking. That was a confirming moment for me because in many ways I feel like I’m the man whom Jesus healed. I want to follow him like the disciples but He is sending me elsewhere. This man, as scripture states “went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.” I hope and pray that is my story as well.

Presenting the Decision to God

By day twenty of the retreat after mentioning to my spiritual director that I had been consistently confirming these sentiments of a call outside of the priesthood, he asked me if I was ready to make the decision and formally present it to God for his confirmation. I looked him straight in the eye and told him that “Yes, I believe I am ready. I don’t believe I can look at these experiences in any other way.” I planned on presenting the decision to God that evening right before my last meditation at 9 pm. However, something didn’t feel right as I was being plagued by these discouraging thoughts all afternoon. “Josh, you can’t stick with anything. Josh, there is something wrong with you as a person that you can’t live religious life. Get real. Las Vegas? Are you kidding me? How are you going to survive in Sin City? This is all a selfish plan on your part.”  “Should I even make this request? This could all be the master plan of the Devil.” I wondered. So, I decided to do my meditation. Upon finishing, I was still plagued by these negative and discouraging feelings. As I look back now it was clear to me that it was spiritual desolation, which Ignatius describes in this way:

I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to a lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.

Rule #5!

Then it hit me. Rule number five!  Within the first set of Rules for Discernment St. Ignatius states in his fifth rule “…in time of desolation never make a change, but be firm and constant in the proposals and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation, or in the determination in which one was in the preceding consolation.” I had told my director that I would present the decision to God and I felt confident about it at the time.  I needed to be “firm and constant in the proposals and determination in which (I) was…preceding such desolation”. Besides this wasn’t my final decision, I was simply presenting the decision to God and asking for His confirmation. If I was being deceived, I trusted that He would let me know.

I presented the decision in the adoration chapel and because I was the only one there, I knelt right next to the tabernacle to read aloud the prayer I had written moments before. I read it twice because I wanted to add a line. Essentially I said to God that I believed He was calling me to a life of sanctity outside of the priesthood and religious life by building and running a business in Nevada based on my prayer experience on January 16th and twenty days of confirmation on my thirty day retreat. If I was being deceived I asked the Lord to please let me know. Otherwise I requested that He confirm my decision and grant me the grace to live a life of great holiness in doing so.

Upon finishing this prayer I sat down in the front pew and I immediately noticed a difference. All those negative and discouraging thoughts went away and my mind went quiet. I was filled with a profound peace. At the time I wasn’t sure if it was confirmation but when I shared the story with my spiritual director the following day he told me, “Josh, outside of an angel knocking on your door and telling you that you don’t have a vocation, I don’t think you’re going to do any better than that. I would take it as confirmation.”

Having said that he encouraged me to continue to sit with the decision and to be aware of further signs of confirmation or something that would indicate to me that it wasn’t God’s will.   I sat with it for the remaining ten days of the retreat and for about two weeks following. I certainly didn’t experience anything that would lead me to believe otherwise but a meeting with my parents on a Sunday afternoon where I explained all that had happened would finally give me the confidence to meet with my Novice Master and tell him of my final decision. In particular I gained a specific sense from that talk with Mom and Dad that there were spiritual fruits coming forth from this decision.

In the following weeks I shared my experience with the rest of the community. I prayed about it and I felt God moving my heart to speak to each of the professed members individually. I really believe that decision was an authentic movement of the Holy Spirit as with each person I met I gained more of a sense of confidence and confirmation that this was really of God. Even one of the seminarians mentioned that the sharing of my experience touched him in such a way that strengthened his conviction that he does have a genuine call to the priesthood. The fruits of this decision thus far lead me to believe even more that it is “of God” and not simply “of Josh.”

Five Concluding Thoughts

As I look back upon these years of discernment five major things stand out:

  1. The moments where I had a sense of deep peace about not having a call were not isolated to one specific time but spread out over the space of more than a year. All of those moments were right after spending time in Eucharistic adoration.
  2. The most powerful moment leading me to believe that I don’t have a vocation occurred immediately following receiving the Eucharist. I had not yet even digested Jesus. I just can’t imagine God allowing me to be deceived in that moment.
  3. I was given the blessing of the thirty day retreat only twelve days after this experience to reflect and test thoroughly this movement of the spirit.
  4. As I shared the experience with others I became more and more confirmed in my belief that this was of God based on the fruits of sharing my story.
  5. Ignatian Spirituality is something that I grew to love and drew me to the seminary. It would’ve been the biggest attraction for me (outside of simply the opportunity to serve God) for becoming a priest. However, based on Ignatian spirituality I see no other way to interpret my experience but that I am not called to the priesthood.

When I first began the process of visiting with the Oblates I took the advice of one of their priests who suggested that I offer up my vocation to our Blessed Mother. Mom has taken quite amazing care of me as I feel quite blessed to have had the opportunity to discern with the Oblates. The Oblates opened their doors and their hearts to me over these last few years and for that I will forever be grateful. The fact that I was blessed with this moment in prayer which gave me a clear sense of the direction God was calling me and then to have the amazing opportunity to confirm that experience within a thirty day retreat makes me feel quite fortunate.

I came to the Oblates more than two and a half years ago determined to give myself fully to this process of discernment, to discover in the most complete way I could, God’s call for my life. God didn’t let me down. He never does. I’m not exactly sure what He has in store for the rest of my life but these years here have provided an invaluable foundation to continue to grow closer to Our Lord and in doing so bring others closer to Him. No matter what our vocation is, drawing close to Christ and trusting more fully in Him is the most important calling that each one of us have.  That precious intimacy will always leave us fulfilled and it is an intimacy that is very real indeed.

Could Mitch Rapp Be a Good Catholic?

The lead character in a series of best selling novels written by Vince Flynn is a covert assassin working for the CIA named Mitch Rapp. The story lines occur under the circumstances of the present day war on terrorism. Real life individuals like Rapp exist and many citizens believe that these individuals do in fact make a difference in protecting the well-being and safety of our country. However, what about the moral well-being of these paid killers? Could Mitch Rapp, working as a government assassin, at the same time be a Catholic in good standing with the church? Passages from the Summa Theologiae, Gaudium Et Spes and the Catechism suggest that if he were acting on behalf of a sovereign nation who is in the midst of a “just war” and not performing the act of killing in a state of illicit anger he could avoid jeopardizing his faith.

Must Be Fighting in a Just War

First of all, Rapp would have to be working for a sovereign nation fighting a “just war”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the very specific requirements for what they term the “legitimate defense by military force.”[1] The following qualities must all be present in order for a war to be just:

-the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain

-all other means of putting and end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

-there must be prospects of success;

-the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.  The power of modern means of destruction weighs heavily in evaluating this condition.[2]

One could make a case that the label of a “just war” be applied to the war on terror as the damage “inflicted” on September 11th, 2001 could certainly be characterized as “lasting, grave and certain”. There is good reason to believe that similar attacks will continue to be attempted in the future. The second principle applies in the sense that there is no governing body of terrorists of which to negotiate. Hence, any means outside of retaliatory violence could be argued to be “impractical or ineffective”. The third quality requiring “a prospect for success” fits in the US’ war on terror in that based on the advanced technology and overall size of our intelligence agencies, we have reason to believe that we can effectively hunt down and stop many of those who wish to do us harm.  The fact that there have been no attacks in the United States since 9/11/01 is evidence to support the belief that this is a winnable war (winnable being defined as both the defeat and disabling of terrorists along with the preservation of the safety of citizens living here in the US).

Regarding the final criteria, although drones and smart bombs have caused significant collateral damage on a number of occasions, the technical capability is still there to fight the enemy without destroying cities or killing large numbers of innocent citizens and hence causing “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” One could argue that an assassin, using only his bare hands or a firearm, provides the best chance for avoiding collateral damage. As Gaudium Et Spes states, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”[3] Assassins could minimize the damage incurred by smart bombs by eliminating targets with greater specificity.

There is room for debate about whether or not the war on terrorism is being waged in a just manner by our government.  After all, there have been significantly more deaths following the attack on 9/11/01 than on that day itself.  There is no guarantee that terrorists would have been successful on a large scale again if we had not aggressively taken the war to them. However, we do have a right to defend ourselves.  Catholic author and commentator George Weigel seems to agree that the war on terror is a “Just War”.  Shortly after the attacks in October 2001 he said:

 Thinking in the categories of the just­war tradition should help us see that dealing with what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington cannot be properly understood by analogy to the criminal justice system. The perpetrators of these acts of mass murder understood themselves to be involved in a war ­ against the United States and, more broadly, the West. Had that fourth plane destroyed the White House or the U.S. Capitol, it would have been unmistakably clear that these attacks were aimed at the destruction of the United States government ­ just as the previous attacks on the Khobar Barracks in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole, and the U.S. embassies in East Africa were attacks on the United States, every bit as much as the attack on Pearl Harbor.[4]

 He further addresses the question of assassinations:

I am quite convinced that pre­emptive military action against terrorists is morally legitimate under the principles of the just­war tradition. It makes no sense to say, as some moral theologians have suggested, that a “just cause” is only established when an attack is under way.

In a world of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, I don’t think it makes much moral sense to argue that we have to wait until the nuclear­tipped missile or the biological or chemical weapon is launched until we can do something about it. Indeed, the nature of certain regimes makes their mere possession of weapons of mass destruction (or their attempt to acquire such weapons and the means to launch them) an imminent danger toward which a military response is not only possible but morally imperative, for the protection of innocents and the defense of world order. Here, too, is another example of an area in which the just­war tradition needs to be stretched or developed to meet new realities.

The question of “assassinations” is perhaps a bit confused by the terminology. If terrorists are conducting what both they and we recognize as a war ­ i.e., the deliberate use of mass violence to achieve political ends ­ then they are not civilians in the classic sense of the term, they are combatants. The moral analysis follows accordingly.[5]

Weigel seems to justify the pre-emptive nature of terrorist assassinations. Ten years later when Bin Laden was finally killed, Weigel’s stance did not seem to change.  When addressing the question of whether or not Bin Laden should’ve been prosecuted as a criminal and not dealt with as a war combatant he states:

This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. As I told one reporter, attempts to portray what happened to bin Laden in Pakistan as the equivalent of the Chicago police department breaking into a Milwaukee crack house and gunning down a crack-cocaine dealer are preposterous; they completely misconstrue the nature of the conflict between bin Laden and the United States since the mid-1990s. To say it yet again: in dealing with the bin Ladens of this world, we are engaging in war, not police work; and the relevant moral standards are those derived from the just war tradition, not from the U.S. Criminal Code as interpreted by the Warren Court.

As usual, Rutgers University’s James Turner Johnson got it exactly right: bin Laden’s death was “an execution of justice, plain and simple, carried out under the authority of the one who can properly use bellum (war) in the service of good.” And why is it important to grasp this? Because if soft-minded and ill-informed religious leaders and intellectuals succeed in gutting the just war tradition and loosening our public culture’s grasp on it, the only alternative will be a raw pragmatism that justifies any end and any means.[6]

Weigel clearly sees the terrorists as active combatants in a war.  Seeing them in any other way would be detrimental to the safety of our country.

Must be Working on Behalf of A Sovereign Nation

Once it has been established that an assassin is participating in a “just war”, he must also be working on behalf of a sovereign nation and not as an individual. This is because the “evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”[7] The assassin places his trust concerning the justness of a particular action with those who are responsible for the well-being and safety of the citizens. He may not have all the information available to him, but as long as he sees no evidence of an unjust war being waged he must trust that those who direct him are doing so with good moral intentions. For according to St. Augustine, “A man who, without exercising public authority, kills an evildoer, shall be judged guilty of murder, and all the more, since he has dared to usurp a power which God has not given him.”[8]  St. Thomas Aquinas, while speaking on the subject of murder, expands upon this notion:

…it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community’s welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when it has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death.[9]

St. Thomas Aquinas goes even further to say that the person who orders an assassination is primarily responsible for that killing when he states:

The person by whose authority a thing is done really does the thing….Hence according to Augustine (De Civ. Dei i. 21), He slays not who owes his service to one who commands him, even as a sword is merely the instrument to him that wields it. Wherefore those who, at the Lord’s command, slew their neighbors and friends, would seem not to have done this themselves, but rather He by whose authority they acted thus: just as a soldier slays the foe by the authority of his sovereign, and the executioner slays the robber by the authority of the judge.[10]

He seems to indicate that the assassin, acting as an instrument of the government, is not morally culpable for the act (if he is not aware of any circumstances which make that act immoral). Instead the responsibility primarily lies in the hands of those in authority. Hence assassins could perform their killings in a morally justifiable manner during a “just war”. The catechism also places moral culpability on those in authority when it states:

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.[11]

The assassin works in support of that authority, to preserve the safety of the community to whom they are entrusted to protect. However, the moral responsibility lies with those government leaders making tactical decisions.

Assassins Never Cease to be a Morally Responsible Agents

Again, this does not mean that the assassin is removed from all moral responsibility.  He still needs to be vigilant in looking for signs that his actions are in fact part of a “just war”.  He is not simply allowed to just follow orders irregardless of what he observes or what he learns is actually occurring.  He doesn’t have a free pass.  Germain Grisez, a Catholic moral theologian states:

As with any other legal requirement, if the law requires citizens to fight in a war, they should presume that they ought to comply.  However, blind compliance is excluded and investigation is morally required whenever there is a definite reason to think complying would be morally wrong….Therefore, if called on to fight, a person should judge whether the war is just, and if engaged in military action, he or she should remain alert for evidence that it no longer is just.[12]

As long as the assassin is not aware of any circumstances which prevent the war he/she is fighting in from being a just war, they can proceed forward thinking they are morally justified.

Thomas on “Ignorance”

To further clarify the correct mindset of the assassin, the following quote by Aquinas addresses the aspect of ignorance in respect to a particular action. It speaks to the moral culpability of an assassin working on behalf of a government acting in an immoral manner but with there being is no evidence available to the assassin to be aware of this circumstance.

If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil. For instance, if erring reason tell a man that he should go to another man’s wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to knowBut if a man’s reason, errs in mistaking another for his wife, and if he wish to give her her right when she asks for it, his will is excused from being evil: because this error arises from ignorance of a circumstance, which ignorance excuses, and causes the act to be involuntary.[13]

Again, this reinforces the idea that if the assassin is ignorant of a certain circumstance that makes the action of the government illicit, then he is not morally culpable for those actions even though he or she is the one who carries those actions out.

 Aquinas on Ambushes

Aquinas provides further support of the manner in which assassins perform their killings when he speaks on the justness of ambushes during war. His words are pertinent as ambushes are similar to the covert and deceptive work of an assassin. He recalls the words of St. Augustine who said, “Provided the war be just, it is no concern of justice whether it be carried on openly or by ambushes: and he proves this by the authority of the Lord, Who commanded Joshua to lay ambushes for the city of Hai.”[14] Aquinas then concludes by saying a soldier must be able to use “the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy’s knowledge…. Such like concealment is what is meant by an ambush, which may be lawfully employed in a just war.”[15] Aquinas seems to have no problem with the use of an ambush in the “just war” setting. This adds to the moral justification of the sober duties of an assassin.

Emotions Must Be Rightly Ordered

Someone can’t become an assassin because they derive pleasure from killing people and seek to find a legally permissible way to do so.  Their intentions have to be motivated towards the common good. They can’t be in an emotional state whereby they enjoy killing for the act in and of itself.  Mitch Rapp would have to be motivated by the greater overall goal of peace and the preservation of life.   So even if the assassin is following his instructions exactly as ordered and in a “just war”, he must carry out those actions with rightly ordered emotions (which I translate to be taking satisfaction that one is helping to preserve lives and the greater common good). He solely can’t take joy in the killing of bad men.  There must be some sense of regret and sadness that we live in such a world of fallen-ness that these actions are necessary for the greater good.

(From my reading of the Flynn novels I believe that Rapp does primarily act in such a way.  After all, he was recruited by the CIA following the death of his longtime girlfriend in a terrorist attack and didn’t grow up wanting to kill people for a living. I believe that Rapp has a very strong moral sense and the powerful ending to Consent to Kill is one of those moments where his strong sense of righteousness is apparent. I think on some level he regrets the actions he is required to take. He believes them to be justified and necessary and probably takes great satisfaction in carrying them out but he does not take joy in the fact that he is called by his country to do so. I think of the character Dexter who suffers from such profound emotional demons that he takes great joy in the killing of other human beings.  Rapp is not like that. )

More specifically the assassin must not act in unrighteous anger. Aquinas again quotes Augustine, “The Passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”[16] The Catechism speaks out even more against the danger of illicit anger when it states:

Anger is a desire for revenge. “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit,” but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice.” If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin.[17]

There must be some level of charity if the assassin is to remain morally justified in his actions. Aquinas makes this even more specific when discussing soldiers in battle saying, “even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.”[18] The government assassin must maintain some degree of charity and approach their target with a sense of duty for the betterment of the common good and not with vengeful hatred.

War is always to be regarded as a failure on the part of humanity. However, within the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself in a “just war” the possibility exists for assassins to operate in support of that defense. Yes, Mitch Rapp could be a good Catholic while working as an assassin for the CIA. The stipulation that he also perform his actions in such a way that his emotions not manifest into an intentional desire to do evil to someone, with the double effect of “correct(ing) vices and maintain(ing) justice”[19] makes the scenario all the more specific and unique.  He must have the larger goal of overall peace as an aim as he performs his truly unfortunate duty for his country.

 


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 2309.

[2] Ibid

[3] GS 80

[5] Ibid.

[7] Catechism 2309.

[8] Summa II-II, 64, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Catechism 2265.

[12] Grisez, Germain. The Way of the Lord Jesus: Living a Christian Life, Franciscan Press, 1993, p. 906.

[13] Summa I-II, 19, 6.

[14] Summa II-II, 40, 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Summa II-II, 40,1.

[17] Catechism 2302.

[18] Summa II-II, 64, 7.

[19] Catechism 2302.