“…my desire for consecrated life grew more and more.”
Br. Jason of the Holy Spirit
Discalced Carmelite Friars
San Jose, California
I grew up in the beautiful city of West Covina, nestled in the middle of the San Gabriel Valley, which is not too far outside of Los Angeles. My household usually consisted of my mother, who was a homicide detective, my half-brother, numerous foster brothers, most of who struggled with some kind of emotional disturbance, and me. While I was young, we attended our parish church, St. Christopher’s.
I had been going to a Lutheran elementary school since pre-school, as had my older brother before me. This school had created a wonderful Christian environment and had great educators, but it was also known, even by other Lutherans, to be notably anti-Catholic. In time, I began to believe all the old prejudices that I learned there. Also, with no developed concept of the gravity of sinful acts, I began to have “faith” without any good works to match, and we remember what James had to say about that (Jas. 2:26, among other places).
It was a religious sister that God worked through to change all this. This “reversion,” so to speak, all began as I was nearing the completion of eighth grade year. My mother decided that I was going to go to a Catholic high school nearby: Bishop Amat Memorial High School. I did not want to go there, but as I said, my mom was a cop, and everyone who’s been pulled over knows that if you’re smart, you just don’t argue too much with a cop. It took about half of a semester in Sr. Therese Auer’s “Catholic Christianity” class to undo my false understanding of the Church and to begin to correct my skewed view of sin. She explained the Faith with such clarity and logic, so very differently than I had heard about it before. Her teaching of the true Church would set me back on track; a track that I never thought I would be on. I still remember a short prayer that I almost said that year when so many “new” ideas of Christ began coming into my mind. “Lord,” I said, “please don’t let me leave . . .” I was about to say “Lutheranism,” but something was telling me that this was not the right word to use. I began again, “Lord, please don’t let me leave the Truth.” Well, the Holy Spirit could work with that, which is why I think it was He Who prompted the proper words (“for we do not know how to pray as we ought” Rom. 8:26).
I am sure that it is no surprise that it was the Eucharist that sustained my new Catholic way of life. I began to attend the Communion service every day at lunch. Of course, in order to receive Him, I needed to enter the Tribunal of Mercy (as St. Faustina calls the sacrament of Confession Sec. 1448). I also then had to be sure that I went back to going to Sunday Mass, whether the rest of my family was going or not. Through the encouragement of other religious sisters on campus, and the retreats of the Fr. Kolbe Missionaries, (a secular institute) I began to realize the importance of service as well as the power of prayer, especially in the presence of Our Eucharistic Lord. The Lord changed me in huge ways during those years.
By the time senior year came around, I already knew that I wanted to study theology. This, I figured, would lead to a teaching career and still leave the door open for a possible religious or ministerial vocation. The next step was to find a school where I can learn solid theology. I began asking around. Many told me of a few very good schools. With prayer, I chose Franciscan University of Steubenville. Before I could go there though, I had to spend two years at a community college. During that time the Lord continued to work with me, preparing me for FUS and all I would learn there.
Soon enough, the time came for me to enter into university. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) among the faculty and students at Steubenville. To see so many people my age so strong in their faith brought even more change to my life. I discovered many weaknesses that I had not realized before. So, with God’s grace and the wisdom imparted by the faculty and priests, I was confronted with the task to again “strengthen [my] drooping hands and weak knees” (Heb. 12:12). A task that I realized is a life-long process.
I was eager to begin this process. In fact, I grew rather anxious about my vocation. Despite all the ways the Lord was bringing more light at this place, my calling remained clouded. I had no feeling for any particular vocation. Perhaps it was a calling to focus on my primary vocation as a student. Still, I remained opened. At one point, I found myself discussing discernment with an Eastern Catholic who said that he had been taught that a man should first discern if he is called to celibacy by living celibate. I then was determined to try to have a “celibate mindset” in my life so that I can properly discern. It did not take long for me to be almost fearful of the possibility that I would never marry and raise a family. My attempt then failed.
Something interesting happened two months later. My friends and I were on a long car ride through Pennsylvania going to Vermont for spring break. Our driver, who was going to her home in New York, began to explain her discernment process and how she discovered that she was called to be a Carmelite sister in Alhambra (also in the beautiful San Gabriel Valley). When she was done, she turned to me and asked, “Jason, are you called to the priesthood?” My response: “yes.” I could not believe that I had said that. Was it not I who had failed at the attempt to live with a celibate mindset; the one who could hardly imagine life outside of marriage? Did I just lie to this woman? Initially when I thought about it, I felt guilty. Yet as time went on, I could not ignore the fact that my desire for this way of life grew stronger within me. This time, it would not be just me who decided to live in a consecrated mindset, rather I would be aided by the grace of God. I began to see that what I had said in the car was not a lie, after all. It seems that it was the deeper desires of my heart which the Holy Spirit finally let free; much like my prayer at Bishop Amat (though it would be later that I would find that I am called to be a brother rather than a priest). I do not think it was any coincidence that this all happened toward the very end of my college career.
Before that fateful spring break, I had already signed up for a traveling ministry, and by April, I had signed up for another one: NET Ministries and Totus Tuus of Denver. These were both different ministries, but they were great places for discernment. A team member had numerous opportunities to speak with great religious and great diocesan priests, as well as with many seminarians and discerners and married couples. Also, each team member is challenged to live simplified evangelical counsels for the term. Room and board were provided, so we were paid little. We were not allowed to date while on the road, and we had to obey our superiors. Through this time my desire for consecrated life grew more and more. I was so excited that I began to grow impatient about not being able to actively discern. Little did I know that I would still have to wait four more years until I was able to enter the order I was called to.
When I completed the time of these ministries, my loan companies were waiting for me and so was a position at Mary, Star of the Sea High School in San Pedro, California. I taught religion there for three years to freshmen and began to work with the youth group at Holy Trinity Parish, where many of my students attended. During this time, I was searching for God’s Will for my life. It was not easy since I took my teaching job seriously, and I had already learned at Steubenville the concept of primary vocation, as mentioned above. Still, I visited a few groups and asked many questions of the religious that came to my school’s vocation day. I spoke to the Columban Fathers, I went to Brazil to visit the male branch of the Father Kolbe Missionaries, I worked in close contact with the Norbertines (the order that my spiritual director is from), and made trips to three different Carmelite groups. I realized that it was the Carmelites that I was called to. Many of the things that Carmelite spirituality focuses on coincided with my own devotions: the focus of prayer which started in me back in high school, the focus on being hidden, the slight Eastern Catholic flare that was absorbed in the Order, even the Order’s roots on Mt. Carmel, which hearken back to some of my favorite stories from Scripture that I learned at my Lutheran school, and which connect to my own Jewish roots from my mother’s side of the family. Most importantly, it is some unexplainable way that the Carmelite way of life just seems to “fit” with me.
After three years of teaching, I thought that I was off to the Carmelites in Hopkins, Minnesota. When talking it over with my spiritual director, we figured that I should wait one more year so that I could relegate more money to paying off my loans. What I did not know while we were discussing this, Mary, Star of the Sea had just filled my position a few hours earlier. So, I went to teach at a school called St. Bernard High School which is right next to LAX airport. Since it was so far and my jeep was so old (its name is Carmelita — it’s brown), I was unable to pay any more than the normal amount toward my debts. I also had to live even more simply than before. This year, though, is when I realized that I was probably more likely called to the Western Province of Carmelites, instead of the group in Minnesota. Yet, my student loans were still holding me back from entering into full participation with the Carmelite way of life. Thank you for helping those that you have already helped and those you will help in the future. I know that the Lord is blessing you abundantly.