Wednesday, November 25th, 2009, I arrived at my parents’ house the night before Thanksgiving. My mom had recently called to tell me that she finally framed a picture from my college graduation, and I found it sitting on the bookshelf in our living room. As I picked up the picture, I could only laugh when I saw the books behind it. The biographies of two saints, Thomas Aquinas and Dominic, were sitting directly behind me on the shelf. I had never seen those books before at our house, nor do my parents remember even buying them. That night I intended to announce my plans of applying to enter the Order of Preachers, and yet again God provided every ounce of support I needed.
That night was, of course, not the beginning of my vocation. To be perfectly honest, my life has been the story of my discernment. In beautiful hindsight, I can categorize my years as either
A.) Approaching God with an open heart,
B.) running away from the will of God, or
C.) hiding under the stairs waiting for Him to drag me out.
God wrote His name upon my heart from such an early age that I literally cannot remember a time when the priesthood was not up for debate. In kindergarten I had every intention of growing up to be a priest. This may have been swayed by the fact that my siblings and I enjoyed playing Mass and as I was at the time the only boy I was chosen to be the priest. I thank God that He chose to use the folly of children to mark my heart for Him, and that we were orthodox enough as kids not to let my sisters steal the show!
It would be a lie to say that this calling has never wavered. God has never wavered, and I have never for a moment doubted that He had plans for me alone, but I have certainly played the part of a drunk monkey on the balance beam along the way. In truth, I intended to be a priest until I entered middle school. It was then that some horrible advice radically changed my life. It was merely a stray comment from a teacher but words can, in fact, have great effect.
I was always a top student in school so it is not surprising that one day a teacher said that I “could be anything I wanted to be.” Until that point, I had never even begun to ask what I wanted to do with my life. In the back of my mind, I still had the firm notion that God was calling me to the priesthood. This had nothing to do with my desires and never had. If anything, it was almost fact of where my life was headed rather than a choice to be made. This horrendous suggestion led me to start creating my own ambitions. Until then, I really had no great” goal” per say (other than Heaven and I do believe I was set on getting the stigmata). This fact surprises many people as I was incredibly successful in high school and beyond but can assure you that I never set out to accomplish any of it. I simply wanted to follow God and give my all.
In reality, I do believe it was this stray comment that led me the furthest from my vocation of any life event. It is thrown about in schools all the time, and it is both detrimental and completely false. A great number of limitations do exist in this world and I cannot possibly be anything I could ever desire. I cannot sing well enough to make it on Broadway and no amount of training would get me to the NFL. I certainly could never become a Nun. It is a silly notion to tell children their dreams have no limits. You may disagree, but you will certainly agree, brothers and sisters in Christ, that it is a great crime to tell this to a child simply because it create a false idol out of their own desires and directs life away from the Cross.
As those words began to fester in my soul, I started thinking, “Well I could be an engineer, or possibly teach…” and so on. How self centered my thinking was! What was I going to do with my life? Me, me, me. Wherever did the question go, “God, what do you ask of me? Nothing less will ever make me happy.”
In the end, I wound up studying chemical engineering for one year at Rose-Hulman before discovering that not only was God not calling me there, no one was. Many people told me they were counting the days until I left engineering because it was an awful fit. God did use that year to plant great words in my heart, and through some different discussion groups I began learning how to truly listen for the voice of God which I had forgotten so long ago. It was through studying the spirituality of Saint Ignatius, taught to me by the Conventual Franciscans that led me to a Dominican Parish and (God willing) a life within the Order of Preachers.
Once transferred to Purdue University, I fell into a home at Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. I did not immediately fall in love with the Dominicans, however. I had been blessed with truly devout and energetic Franciscans at Rose-Hulman and had several off putting interactions to begin my time with the Dominicans. While the details are completely irrelevant, it is a great comfort to me that the Order of Preachers and I experienced no great love at first sight. There were no musical numbers and other worldly sunshine when we met, but rather carefully placed distance and caution. Clearly, this has changed as I learned to differentiate between the sins of a man and the beautiful vocation he is blessed with. What great courage it has provided me as I know that I am indeed a highly qualified sinner who will find a wonderful home with other men who are not perfect. Of course, those negative experiences were only the beginning and I do have a deep love and respect for all the Dominicans I have met (no exceptions) as I have seen beautiful, joyful things come of all these men. Their joy is such a magnet that sucked me in. Now, I first met them five years ago, so it was not a quick pull, but strong nonetheless.
During my time at Purdue so many different events led me deeper into the heart of Christ. I dated my closest friend and a woman who will no doubt be a blessed Saint one day. Ending that relationship was indeed painful, but also simple as I came to know that God brought us together for a reason, but He did not intend for it to last. This was not my vocation. That truth makes any pain manageable. I suffered through many physical hardships and even took several semesters off school when my body simply said, “no,” which forced me to recognize my utter dependence on God and to love that reality. Ultimately, I graduated a year ago with a degree in Mathematics Education and a good job at a good school teaching fantastic children with the absolute certainty that it was not where I belonged.
When I accepted the job to teach at Northridge Middle School, it was with a heavy heart. What kept running through my mind was, “God, I know this is not your calling for me. I also know that I am not ready for whatever it is. I know you are trying to tell me, but I am not listening. I know I will be so happy with whatever it is. I know you will lead me. I have no doubts of that. I know I need to set aside my desires and embrace your call. I long for your will, whatever it is. Let me love you in this year and show me your will.” Not longer after, God responded with these words, “Joe, why have you written off the priesthood?” I had no answer. I simply knew what I had always known. God never left or changed His plans. I ran to so many different places, but the truth was simply staring me in the face. Looking back, the truth had been flashing neon signs, giant arrows, and probably a plane spelling out the message in the clouds. When I told my friends I had big news, one simply answered with “What order are you joining?” Most people said, “yeah we knew a long time ago you would be a priest. What took you so long?” Simple answer? Sins. Self reliance. The silly notion that I had to choose my own path as if I could have done a better job than my beloved Creator.
In many ways, this is a bit of an over simplification. One other major factor I know was that I have never felt called to the diocesan life. It holds literally no appeal to me. I am one of seven kids, I crave community. I want to be free to go wherever I am told. I desire a vow of obedience more than the stubborn child I still am could have ever imagined. My home town of Fort Wayne, however, had no religious orders of priests when I was growing up. I did not really meet a non-diocesan priest until college and had essentially eliminated that possibility because whenever I felt called to the priesthood I simply saw a life that did not fit the person I knew God created me to be. It was completely incongruous with my identity in Christ. How could that be God’s will for my life?
In the end my discernment was both a lifetime and a moment. While my life has been driven in this direction, it was God’s simple question that was all I needed. Since then I have been blessed with COUNTLESS signs that this is where God wants me to go. Some of them have been outright absurd as if God is just begging for the opportunity to show me His love (hmm… maybe He is…I’ll pray on this). These signs, however, did not make my vocation. It was the knowledge of who God made me to be, the desires He wrote on my heart and the truth sitting in front of me. I had prayed for such a long time that God would lead me to His will, that when I finally opened my eyes, where else would God have taken me? My transfer to Purdue had been so miraculous that I believed God led me to Purdue, until I found Him shouting, “No! I led you to what you asked of me! I led you to your vocation! Here are the Dominicans!”
I still took my time before finally taking a leap and applying. It was actually Brother Nick Monco, OP that finally encouraged (forced) me to go on the Come and See weekend which cemented everything I already knew. I began meeting with Father Wisdom and said the one thing you should never tell him unless you absolutely mean it: I have no doubts. This is what God is asking me to do. Let’s do it. His response? Well, I had a little over a month to complete all the paperwork and appointments before going in front of the boards. By the grace of God, it only took 20 days to complete. Anyone who has ever tried to schedule a physical, dental check, psychological evaluation, and so on, all in cities they do not live in can attest that without the grace of God this would not have happened.
After my acceptance, one of the most beautiful times of my life began. I have referred to it as my own personal advent, as I am waiting to head off to begin what God has called me to, even if it just for a year or merely a day. I continued to teach 7th and 8th grade math and absolutely loved it. Once I told everyone that I was going to enter the seminary, the job became even better. The ways that I have been able to witness to my faith and simply love the children of God (young and old) have been incredible. If you think God is dead in public schools, you are sadly mistaken. The staff and students gave me more support and affirmation of my call then a great many Catholics. Many students began to share their faith with me and had no shame in asking about my own. Leaving them was certainly heartbreaking, though I can have nothing but confidence that God will send them someone far greater than I in my place.
So where does all this take me? To answer that, let me tell you about one morning in adoration. In a Lenten sacrifice that stuck longer than I intended, I was at adoration before Mass before school in the morning, when a gentleman came up to me and asked, “So you are a seminarian?” At first, I was touched that he saw something in me without even knowing me that showed my love of God. That may be true. What I began noticing that day, however, was that the only young men I ever run into at daily mass and adoration (outside of Purdue where young, devout Catholics are everywhere) were discerning the seminary. This is certainly significant. If you have any intention of discerning a vocation to the priesthood, you must run to Christ. It was in adoration and the Mass that God spoke so plainly to me. But why should this be reserved for the religious? No, EVERYONE discerning the will of God is called to come and know Him. This is the call of humanity: to know, love and serve God. We must spend time with Him to know Him. Run to Mass. Run to Adoration. Run to God. No matter where God leads you in life, you will never regret deepening your bond with Him in the tiniest of sacrifices by just going to daily Mass. Just the other day I was so excited to see another young man in adoration with, I can only hope, his girlfriend. Strong men living intimately with Christ are needed everywhere. Give Him your heart with absolute abandon, and He will never disappoint.
(Joseph Trout is currently a postulant of the Province of St. Albert the Great, USA.)