I will just mention in passing that I had become more liberal while at the university. I was exposed to diverse populations, people who had not grown up in the small circle of Huntsville, Texas, people who had never in their lives believed that God created fossils to try the faith of weak believers, people whose parents belonged to labor unions, people who slept with one another without apparent qualms before or guilt after. People who drank and doped, people who protested the war and were for women’s liberation and gay rights and so on and so on. For all its braggadocio about being so big, it turned out that Texas was pretty small indeed.
In May 1970, while I was in the middle of becoming a fervent Catholic, four students were gunned down by National Guardsmen at Kent State in Ohio. One of them, Jeff Miller, had been a student at Michigan State the year before I entered, and because I had a roommate with the same name, we had occasionally received mail meant for him.
The student strike broke out and I was among those who jumped in. We boycotted classes, carried signs, had endless deadly serious political discussions that went on all night in the dorm lounges, filled with smoke and anger. Not too much came of it all, I suppose. But it solidified my political leanings away from the southern conservatism of my youth toward a (moderate?) liberalism that remains a legacy to this day. I claim to be an independent, because I refuse to register with any political party. And I often vote a split ticket, mostly because in our local elections only Republicans are on the ballot. But my opinions certainly tend progressive, and what little time and money I give to political or social causes goes that way.
On the religion front, I had gone on a weekend retreat in October of my junior year. [I had entered the Catholic Church at the end of my sophomore year.] It was called a Weekend in Christian Living, and from what I later learned about the Cursillo Movement, it seemed to follow the Cursillo model fairly closely. It was a lot of fun, held at a large Methodist campsite out in the woods somewhere. We had lectures, small group discussions, time for private reflection, excellent liturgies and so on. I made a number of friends, including one young woman a year older than I was, and we dated for a few months.
I came back so enthused from this weekend that my Polish roommate John decided to go on one. When he came back from his winter term weekend, he was ready to be the total Catholic. At that time and place, that meant he was drawn into the fairly new Catholic charismatic (Pentecostal) movement. I listened patiently but did not find it appealing. John, on the other hand, plunged in and found the woman he would eventually marry and with whom he raised a large, very Catholic family. One daughter is a Poor Clare nun, the other kids are doing all they can to populate the earth with progeny carrying John's DNA.
I was clear that I wanted to become a priest, and I felt attracted to some form of community life. A guy down the hall, with whom I roomed for a while senior year, was planning to enter the diocesan priesthood in Lansing and he tried to get me into that. But I figured being a priest was going to be challenge enough. I did not want to run the risks inherent in a lonely rectory life. So I wrote around and found out about a variety of religious orders. Because I expected to do two years of alternative service after graduating, I figured there was no rush on anything. Besides, the general rule was that you could not enter an order until you had been Catholic three years, and when I graduated, I would have only been a member of the church for two.
I wrote to the Jesuits, who did not appeal to me for some reason. This despite the fact that there were a few young Jesuits who were getting degrees on campus and who often celebrated daily Mass at the small chapel on campus. I did find the Jesuit Volunteer Corps appealing however, as a possible route for my alternative service to the military. I was looking into that seriously at the time I flunked my army physical and the question became moot.
I wrote and visited the Franciscans, the OFM branch that helped staff the student parish at MSU. I really liked them, as who doesn’t like St. Francis? And they were the stereotypical friars with the brown robes and the rope belt and all. When I visited them, though, I discovered that they were extremely busy teaching, running parishes and so on. This was admirable, but I had discovered an attraction to the more contemplative life. I did things in the parish, helped run errands and clean yards for the elderly, things like that. But what I liked to do mostly was just to visit the chapel, sit in front of the reserved Sacrament and think… pray… sit? The Franciscan lifestyle, picturesque though it was, did not seem to leave a lot of time for that.
In those days, an American young man thinking about the contemplative life thought of Thomas Merton, inevitably thought of Trappists. I read a number of Merton’s books, but from what I could gather of the Trappist lifestyle, it was too much the other way. I don’t think I was afraid of the austerity. Oddly enough, I found that appealing although I knew it would be a challenge. I liked to sit alone in chapel for a long time, but I also liked the interact with people. I wanted some sort of mixture.
I wrote the Capuchin Franciscans, who were said to be more contemplative than their OFM brethren. But they seemed as busy too me, and they were moving into their committed and vocal participation in the movement for social justice. Very admirable, but not a good fit for me.
Because they had an ad in the MSU daily newspaper once a week, I wrote the Paulists, an organization that specialized in social communications – books, other publications, audio-visual stuff. They had been founded in the United States in the nineteenth century and had a very American style. I had nothing in common with them that I could see. Ironically, during my years with the Carmelites I was actively involved with the publications ministry of that community.
Having read and loved Rumer Goden’s novel, This House of Brede, about a cloistered English Benedictine community of nuns, I thought maybe I should check out the monks. I wrote to St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. It is famous for its liturgy but it came across as primarily a teaching order. It looked like prayer time would be spent singing, not sitting in silence. I kept looking.
I suppose there were other groups I wrote, but those are the ones I remember. I also answered an ad from a community I had never heard of, the Discalced Carmelites. The ad told you nothing about them, consisting solely of a dreamy line drawing and a quote from the artist remarking on a visit he had made to a monastery in Texas.
Texas! Well, that was the first place I had seen that might put me closer to home, so I wrote. A few weeks later I got a packet of very outdated and uninspiring literature. I glanced at it and put it away with the rest of the stuff, promptly forgetting about it.
After I graduated in June and was living in the apartment with three other guys, I got a letter from out of the blue from the vocation director of the Discalced Carmelites. I had not bothered to write even a thank-you note for the stuff he sent me, so I felt a bit guilty. The letter said they were cleaning up the mailing list and wanted to know if I were still interested. If I was, he enclosed an application form for me to return.
This was shortly before I had the army physical and I expected to have to go off for two years before pursuing a vocation in any form. But I dug out the file and looked over the material he had sent again.
Most of it still left me cold, but there was one pamphlet that caught my eye. It was a story about Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century nun who had founded the Discalced Carmelites.
The legend goes that the young Teresa, convinced by the stories her mother read about the martyrs, decided at the ripe old age of seven to run off with one of her brothers to find the Muslims, declare their faith in Jesus and be put to death. That seemed the sure and fast way to heaven, and she was ready.
An uncle caught up with them outside of town and dragged them home to their worried parents. When asked to explain themselves, her brother manfully pointed to his younger sister and said, “She made me do it!”
Teresa stood up for herself though, explaining calmly, “I want to see God. And to see God, you must die.”
That hit home. If I could express my own spiritual quest in a sentence at that time, that was it: I want to see God.
So despite my misgivings and the obstacles of time and so on that I saw ahead, I wrote a cover letter to the vocation director. I told him that I liked the story and identified with it. I explained my situation with the draft and that I was a recent convert. I filled out the application form and sent it along, explaining in the cover letter that I was not applying. It just seemed like a good way to give him a lot of information in an orderly manner. I asked to be kept on the mailing list.