Saturday, June 12, 2010

True Conversions No. 5: Me

June, 1980. I had just turned 30. My father had died suddenly the previous summer, and I was still coming to terms with his death. I felt confused, despondent, and overwhelmed. I was going through a difficult time with work and with some personal relationships. Spiritually, I was drifting. I was a mess.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I received a grant from the Swedish government to study and write about traditional handicrafts in Scandinavia. It was an unexpected opportunity; I had already done some freelance writing on the subject and was excited to have the opportunity to spread my wings as a budding freelance journalist. So off to Stockholm I went, with the intention of visiting for just a couple of months. I ended up staying in Sweden, off and on, for almost three full years. I went to Sweden expecting to become a journalist, and I left wanting to become a Catholic priest. No one was more surprised than I was myself.

Although I was a cradle Catholic, educated in parochial schools, and brought up in an especially devout family, I hadn’t been much of a churchgoer since I left home for college. I still believed in God and prayed on a regular basis, but I was ticked off at the church and stayed away from active participation and involvement, as did many people of my generation. But here I was in Stockholm, Sweden, of all places, and, after a few initially euphoric months, I began to feel like my life was coming apart again and that I was sinking. I was stranded-- isolated both physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Cut off from family, friends, work, culture, language, even food-- almost everything and everybody that I thought defined me as a person and supported my identity. I was lost and didn’t know how to get found. As all of these other supports dissolved, I realized that what kept me going was my faith.

I discovered a small Catholic church in the neighborhood where I was staying. Temporarily housed in a converted movie theater, St. Eugenia’s was open during the week, so I started to drop in for an occasional visit. I would just sit in the sanctuary and ask God for help and guidance; anything that would give me some grounding and direction in my life.

I began to feel more and more at home in church-- not just in the physical space, but also in the liturgy and prayer life of the parish. Cautiously, I started to attend Mass again, but I was careful to sit in the very last pew so I could escape out the back door right after the final blessing so I wouldn’t have to speak with anyone.
St. Eugenia’s served a broad international community and was staffed by German Jesuits. These good men made a lasting impression on me: they were intelligent, calm, prayerful men. I liked their style; they were welcoming and approachable, but at the same time discrete and a bit reserved. I screwed up my courage and approached one of the younger priests to ask for an appointment to talk about my life and spiritual search. Over the course of several ensuing months, that initial conversation developed into a more formal process of reconciliation and spiritual direction. I was now coming home in a more conscious and conscientious manner.

My prayer life was flourishing. And at the same time I was getting more clarity about what God was asking of me in terms of a vocational commitment. I was thrilled and scared at the same time. I realized that once I reconciled fully with the Church, I would have to put myself completely at God’s disposal-- to place my self and all of my gifts upon the altar. And I would have to have to come to terms with a growing desire for priesthood—a ‘secret’ I had kept from everyone, including myself for a very long time.

Eventually, all of my deepest fears were realized and I’m glad they were. I did become reconciled to the Church. I did ‘place my gifts on the altar’, and I did finally admit that I was being called to be a priest. But it’s not as if all the pieces fell into to place quickly or easily. The process initiated in Stockholm in 1980, took more than a decade to come to fruition. I moved back to the United States, found a job and apartment in the Bay Area, got connected with a parish community, sought regular spiritual direction, and began to do some volunteer work. Ultimately, in 1993, I was accepted into the postulancy program of the Franciscans in California. A lot happened in between, but my Swedish experience was the initial catalyst for my spiritual conversion, growth and development.

Over the past three decades, I have kept up my Swedish connection and contact with friends and former colleagues. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to spend time in this extraordinary place in the world. In and out of church, I have been nourished on so many levels by the hospitality, friendship, love, and acceptance I have received from people here. As I was leaving for this trip to Stockholm, one of my Franciscan brothers joked with me about returning to my ‘adopted’ country. But, actually, Sweden adopted me. Sweden gave me a home and it helped to bring me home. Amen.

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