During the spring semester of 1979, I took my first set of comprehensive exams. There was a huge screw-up. My advisor had failed to do her job – this happened with all three sets of comps – and when I arrived to take the four-hour exam, she had left no questions for me. The other two examiners had left questions for me, but none had been run through the system for approval. The administrative assistant – another doctoral student – went through the roof. She got on the telephone to the advisor, the chairman and the dean. They told me to start with the questions that were there and to wait for the advisor to show up with her questions later.
All this worked to my advantage in a way. When you took comps, you could fail one set and take them again. The chairman assured me that if I did not pass, they would not count it at all and it would not appear on my record. As it turned out, I did not do as well as I would have hoped, but I passed the written exam and the oral handily.
At the same time, I began drinking more heavily. I did not drink hard liquor outside of community recreation time, but my drinks began to be larger and stronger. One Sunday evening I wound up drinking such a large martini that I simply went to bed instead of going down to dinner. I also began to have wine with the evening meal, and when most of us gathered around ten in the kitchen for a final snack before bed, I joined those who had a glass of wine. It helped me relax, I told myself. This was another step on a dangerous road.
About this time, one of the students came out of the closet. He was already a priest, ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, when he entered the Carmelites. He was also coming up on his solemn profession and was spending his final year in simple vows in the Washington house. He already had his degrees, so he spent his time working outside the community on helpouts and taking a program in counseling.
That winter the local PBS stationed aired the documentary, Word is Out, which consisted of interviews with 26 gay men and women about their lives. Most of the community watched it. A few days later, this priest-student took the opportunity in the student meeting to tell us that, with the knowledge and permission of the superiors, he was working with Dignity, a Catholic group founded in 1972 to support and encourage LGBT Catholics. After we had digested this information, he went on to tell us that he was gay himself. The discussion was open and friendly, and although it had been a bit of a shocker, I don’t think anyone was too agitated about it.
But it opened the door to further self-examination on my part.
He later got in a little trouble when a photograph of him celebrating Mass for the Dignity group showed up in the national press. Since he was still a priest of the Archdiocese, he was called in and told he had to stop his public association with Dignity. This was before Dignity had been completely denounced by the hierarchy, but things were in the wind. There had been a brief moment of openness in the American Catholic Church, highlighted by the formation of Dignity, New Ways Ministry and a few other initiatives like them. When Rome got wind of it and realized that these groups were not simply going to toe the party line but were actually in favor of working for equality for LGBT people in society at large and – horror of horrors! – in the church, the red Prada shoes came stamping down.
With all this drama in the background, including passing another set of comps that my director screwed up, I was moving rapidly towards my own ordination to the priesthood. Although [my best friend in the community] Steve and I had entered Carmel the same year, he had taken a couple of years out to work on his philosophy doctorate, so I got ordained first.
At about this time, too, I was approached about becoming a member of the Institute of Carmelite Studies, a group in the Washington Province dedicated to scholarly study of the tradition. I was very interested in the work they did, and since Steve was a member, it would be another thing we did together. It also meant I would get to see him in Washington at meetings twice a year after I returned to my own province.
This was quite an honor, because the policies of the Institute at that time only opened membership to friars of the Washington Province. They were happy to change the policy so that I could join, but all that had to go through a process of approval by higher ups. I did become a member, but I do not recall if that took place before or shortly after my ordination. My membership in ICS would become a big factor later in this story.
Finally ordination day came, May 30, 1979. [Thirty-seven years ago today.] There were any number of minor dramas associated with it, but the event itself went smoothly. I was ordained at Mount Carmel Center and celebrated my first Mass there on May 31. Steve and two priests from Washington had come for the occasion. Following ordination, I made a tour of the monasteries of nuns and friars in the province, celebrating Mass and being made much of. Steve went along to help with the driving, which made the long trip even more enjoyable. [The photo at the top was taken at my first Mass at the Discalced Carmelite nuns' monastery near Houston a few days after my ordination.]
We had a great time and I returned to Dallas to take up my new assignment at Mount Carmel Center. I was no longer a student – although my doctoral work was on-going – but now I was a member of the staff.
A day or two after I got back, Anthony called me to his office to talk. There were now four priests in the community, and he thought that we should drop the formality of calling one another “Father” all the time. We would just go by our first names when talking with one another. I agreed, but I must confess to a little resentment. For years I had been looking forward to being “Father Michael.” For most of those years, I had been “Brother Michael.” Now, I was going to be just “Michael” again. It seemed a bit unfair. See how petty I can be?