Jorge Rodriguez

My vocation story starts with my two birthdays: my birth date and my baptismal date. Respectively, they were February 29, 2000, and February 25, 2001. I was baptized in St. Francis of Assisi parish in San Juan, PR. I grew up in Puerto Rico until I was 9, in a bilingual setting and a culturally Catholic environment and family. 

Both were growing more “cultural” and less “Catholic” as I, myself, grew. The Father, however, was at work taking good care of me and protecting his new adopted son in this environment, working through the decisions of my parents. My family of four consisted of my mom, dad, and one little brother. Most of my extended family is still in Puerto Rico or lives in Florida. My parents’ only effort at encouraging my relationship with God was to put me through (put me through) Confirmation and First Communion formation because that’s just what every family did. Family meals and prayer were rare, and going to Mass together has never existed to this day. As I grew up, the only personal contact I had with God was thanks to my grandma, who taught me the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the Guardian Angel prayer. But my dad did make two crucial life-changing decisions for the family that God did end up working through. The first was moving out of Puerto Rico. He decided to move us to the States when I was 9 because of the criminality and the poor job market for real estate appraisers in 2008, for he was an appraiser. We moved to Orlando for 9 months. Then he found an even better job in North Carolina in 2009 and a more conducive place to raise a family: Cary, North Carolina. This is the town right next to the state’s capital, Raleigh, and where I grew up the rest of my life.

It was at a neighboring parish here, St. Michael the Archangel’s, where I received my other two sacraments of initiation. Meanwhile, I was going to secular public schools, so I was being raised away from my parents and away from a Catholic environment. At this age, I fostered a love for basketball, exercise, and the outdoors thanks to being a part of Boy Scouts and my school basketball teams. I want to mention in passing because they were eventually seeds in my attraction to the choice of a religious institute of strict observance and healthy manual labor. More importantly, however, thanks to my parents putting me in religious ed, my conscience was still being formed somewhere. The Father even gifted me with making my first Confession in these early teen years, which was an even greater source of divine life and protection for my soul than just the religious ed. At this age, I began to grow a moral conviction from a simple faith, still not nourished by the intellect, which led me to see my faith and God as important. If I followed how He commanded me to live, I remembered that it helped people, and if I didn’t, I saw that sin hurt others and myself. So I tried to follow what He said.

Then my dad made the second decision: he compelled me to go to a Catholic high school in Raleigh, away from all my current friends and the environment I had always known. He did so because he did not approve of the moral or educational environment of public high schools in the area. It took me time to adjust, but I ended up loving the school—to the point I can say it is the decision my dad has made for my life for which I am most grateful (aside from my existence of course). At this high school I learned and was confronted with the deepest truth about my life, and a choice lay before me: do I believe in the Resurrection of the person of Jesus, and therefore, all that it entails about the destiny of each human soul? In heaven and hell? Here, I tangibly saw the fruit of the Resurrection for the first time, in the virtue and love of my male teachers. I like to say I “tasted” the fruit for the first time. Here, I saw, to borrow a phrase of JPII speaking of Jan Tyranowski, “the beauty of souls opened up by grace.” Here my vocation to religious life began to grow because I simply wanted to imitate the men I was surrounded by. My first step in mature belief in Jesus, and the reality of heaven and hell, was seeing the lives of virtue he was creating. Here the intellect began to nourish my simple faith. I wanted what they had and I knew it came from a relationship with Jesus. After my four years, then, I knew that my Catholicism was going to be a nonnegotiable, integral, important part of my life. I wanted a relationship with Jesus.

It was not until I went to college, however, that I learned that this relationship ultimately meant many deaths and that it could not just be an important part of my life—it must be the center; God demands all in all. This conviction came during my first year of college thanks to encountering the FOCUS ministry in college and befriending a campus missionary. He taught me how to pray, prioritize the Lord over created things, and live a life of virtue amid a decadent college culture. He is still my best friend to this day. The Father was still taking good care of me and watching over me. By the end of my freshman year of college, my desires shifted again: I had told Him that all I wanted of my earthly life now was simply to be a saint. Now the dispositions to receive the gift of religious life were surfacing and becoming well-defined.

That summer I went on a mission trip to Belize with FOCUS, and my friend suggested I read a book called Time for God by Fr. Jacques Phillipe. The effect the book had on me was profound—the book taught me how to pray, using mostly the teaching of the Carmelite saints, to which I was exposed for the first time. I was inspired by them and wanted to be like them, and they left a lasting impression on me coming into my sophomore year of college. Moreover, during sophomore year, I broke up with my girlfriend of then three years. This was instrumental because it created the space for God to rearrange and work on my heart for a prolonged period. Before that break-up, I had always been in and out of relationships constantly for four years in high school, so I really wanted to take an emotional break. In sum, it was a year of making as much space for him as I could. Following that inclination, I decided to participate in another FOCUS program that summer. This one was called FOCUS Summer Projects, in which college students get a full-time job with a secular business for the summer and come together outside of work hours for spiritual formation with priests, missionaries, speakers, and each other. It was simply learning “Catholic adulting”.

During this summer I had a couple of experiences that made me resolve to begin discerning religious life for the first time, after taking it to spiritual direction. The first I had was a relationship with a coworker. He came from a fundamentalist Christian family, which insisted Catholics automatically go to hell. He was not a part of FOCUS, but a secular coworker just there for the summer. We struck up a friendship, and upon God’s prompting, I decided to pray and fast for his conversion to the Catholic faith for the entire summer, in hopes that he would desire it by the end of the summer. To cut a long story short, God granted my prayers! That experience did much for me to see the efficaciousness of prayer and sacrifice in just a short time. It made such an impression on me that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life! Upon taking this experience and desire to spiritual direction over the summer, I realized this experience itself expressed the charism of the Carmelites that had entered into my life just the year prior! From that, I simply resolved to begin discerning with the Carmelites. God had discernibly worked through them in my life and I wanted to participate in the same work they did for the world. Thus began a four-year search in which I never seriously considered another order.

At this point, I would have said I just felt a call out of a desire to “give God everything out of love”, “be a saint”, and “be like the Carmelites”, whose main work in the Church was contemplative, fasting and praying for the salvation of souls. The call seemed very subjective, tinged with the language of personal attraction, but I had little clarity about what religious life is and what it is for. I note this ignorance because over four years, especially this last year, my understanding has very much “objectivized”—more on that soon. But over the second half of my college years, I visited and discerned with 3 different Carmelite communities. I started out with communities that were more active than contemplative, but I kept being dissatisfied with them and moved on to the next because I wanted a more contemplative Carmelite life. My discernment process this entire time was–quite bluntly just to listen to my desires and where the fruit of peace was manifesting itself. It was very introspective. It was not until this January, three and a half years just into my search for the community to apply to, that everything changed.

I reached out to the fourth Carmelite community (spoiler: this was the one I ended up applying and getting accepted to). They had me read a very influential book for discernment: Religious Life, An Unnecessary Mystery by Fr. Richard Butler O.P. I want to quickly summarize some of the points Fr. Butler makes. His chief argument is that the vocation to religious life (as distinct from a priestly vocation) has been imbued with much unnecessary mystery in the past 100 years (he wrote the book in the 60s). This mystery should not be necessary. The mystery comes from a widespread assumption amongst Catholics of all vocations inside the Church that the chief element in a religious vocation is a strong desire, feeling, or attraction in a person. In other words, that chief element is subjective. To remedy this, he simply reminds readers what the Church has objectively taught for 2000 years concerning religious life. It is simply the commitment by a person to live under a state of three vows in a community approved by the Church: poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows are also called counsels because they constitute Jesus’ best advice to those in the Gospels (think the rich young man) who want to make sure they reach heaven—not just squeeze by. They are the “above and beyond” to the precepts or commandments, which are the bare minimum for reaching heaven. They are called vows because one makes a promise to God not to live otherwise for the rest of one’s earthly life. Through the vows, one makes an offering of his or her entire personhood because you don’t just promise to live in some way, but also renounce your ability not to do so. How beautiful! It was my desire to “give myself totally to God” expressed in concrete, objective form!

Upon being faced with this truth, and my already long, strong desire to give my life to my Lord, my decision was simple and urgent. The Church, being a good Mother, had revealed clearly the way to fulfill my heart’s desire, as if in answer to the need of her child. After having clearly understood religious life and what it was for, I knew this was the vocational commitment I wanted to make for the rest of my earthly life (as opposed to marriage). IwanttomakesurethatIamasaintandmakesurethatIreach heaven. Why hesitate to reach that goal and use the best means the Church provides?

The decision of a particular community approved by the Church was then secondary to this, in which I indeed listened to my desires over a long time and paid attention to the gifts and talents the Lord granted me for his service: I decided upon this Carmelite contemplative community with a scarce active element as opposed to completely contemplative life like Carthusians, and as opposed to very active lives of diocesan priests, because of this personal fit. Now begins the work of the community and I continuing to discern together, while the Father continues to nourish the growth of this baptismal grace that was planted long ago.

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