Br. Paul’s Vocation Story
During my first year of college, I had so much drifted away from the church, for various reasons, that I soon stopped considering myself Catholic. However, early into my sophomore year, while studying abroad, I had a sort of spiritual crisis. Having lost my moorings in Catholicism, I no longer had a stable metaphysical ground on which to stand. I wondered what it would mean if God didn’t exist and how I could go on living if there were no ultimate foundation of meaning and value.
These questions initiated a search which led me to discover, first, meditation of a non-discursive Zen type, and secondly, mysticism. From the little reading I’d done on mysticism, I derived the hope that it might offer a path towards the experiential knowledge of Ultimate Reality, the Absolute. It was Zen Buddhism that most appealed to me, for it seemed to make available to its practitioners an awareness of life as a wondrous unity. However, Jesus still remained in my mind and heart, if not as God, at least as my model of goodness and love. Also, the more I discovered of Christian mysticism, the more it attracted me in a way that Buddhism did not, that is, on the level of the heart and of the desire for love-union with a personal God.
Before I graduated, I was able to discern that my heart belonged to Jesus, and I subsequently understood that if I did not adore him as God, I would be giving him less than his due. By degrees, I made my way back to full identification with my Catholic heritage as well. Before, I had half-seriously considered joining a Zen monastery to pursue enlightenment. Now, as a Christian, I was drawn to a life of radical devotion to the Lord, maybe in a Christian monastery. A priest friend, who was a mentor to me, saw me as a contemplative spirit and recommended that I spend time at a Benedictine abbey of his acquaintance. So, after graduation from college, one of the first things I did was to spend two weeks at this abbey, getting to know the community and the place. It was a good place for prayer, and I met some very good people there, but I was ill at ease with the atmosphere of affluence I encountered as well as with the apostolate of parish and boys prep school that they maintain. I left there both attracted to what I had experienced of the monastic life and at the same repelled.
Afterwards, I spent a couple of years living in lay Christian communities and doing service work with poor and marginalized people, in the course of which I continued to explore active and contemplative vocations. At one point, a friend of mine came back from a vacation to Oregon and brought me a pamphlet. His father had been a novice at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey back in the fifties, so he decided to check out his dad’s old haunt. It was from there that he had picked up this pamphlet advertising the Monastic Life Retreat, a month-long retreat during which one lives with the monks and follows their way of life. I was intrigued! I knew a little about the Trappists from my reading of Merton, and although I didn’t really think I was called to such a cloistered life, I was attracted to the idea of spending a month there to deepen my relationship with God in prayer.
Hence, in November 1995, I did the Monastic Life Retreat at Guadalupe. Even before I got to the place, I found myself quivering with an unexpected excitement of anticipation. Though that month in the rains of Western Oregon was hardly ecstatic and had plenty of ups and downs, it made a deep impression on me. It also made it impossible to move forward with the plan I had made to enter the aforementioned Benedictine house—what I’d discovered at Guadalupe seemed more authentic to me by comparison.
Nevertheless, I still didn’t believe I had a Trappist vocation and I really didn’t know what to do with myself. After several depressing months of doing a little work where I could find it, looking at other religious communities, and generally feeling very stuck, I decided my best option was to return to Guadalupe for the three-month Observership and see how that would go. Again, it was a good interval during which I became more enamored of the brothers and the place, but I was still not ready. There were too many options out there for me to be able to reduce them now to just one, and I could plunge in where I felt so uncertain.
At length, I was engaged in a very promising discernment with the Dominicans. I was attracted both to the charism of teaching and preaching and to the quality of most of the friars I had met. At the end of a vocation retreat, the friars passed out forms of application for candidacy, and I was about ready to sign up. But then, I said to myself: “If I do this, I will spend the rest of my life talking about God. But if I went to Guadalupe, I would spend the rest of my life listening to God.” And I realized, smiling inside, that the latter option was more truly “me,” corresponding to my heart’s desire. Although it would have been easy to do so, I didn’t sign up with the Friars Preachers.
Yet I wanted a little more confirmation of this intuition before I tried to commit to Guadalupe’s strictly contemplative monastic life. I went on a four day retreat at a Trappistine monastery near the place where I was living at that time. Those were four days of the most intense silence I’d ever known, almost too much for me. Towards the end, I came back from a walk to the guest lodgings where a couple of dogs started barking at me. The sister who was cleaning the guest rooms—the same one who had checked me in—came out to shoosh them, and we chatted a bit. After asking a number of questions about her monastic life, I told her about the time I’d spent at Guadalupe and that I was thinking of going back there. Then she said something like: “Oh, that’s funny. ‘Cause, you know, I’m not God or anything, but when I first saw you at the desk, something in my mind said ‘monk.’ ” (What made this remark all the more striking was the fact that, what with my shaggy curly hair, goatee, shorts, and well-worn T-shirt, I really didn’t look like any monk I’d seen.)
Well, that was all the confirmation I needed. I wrote to Abbot Peter asking him if I could begin postulancy, the first year of initial formation. He responded affirmatively. I entered in August 1997, and Guadalupe is my home now and, God willing, until the day I die.