Discerning out: What happens when a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life?

Joe Heschmeyer was once so sure of his vocation to the priesthood that he forgot he was supposed to be discerning it.

Everyone around him thought he should be a priest. His mother, he discovered later, had offered him to the Lord as an infant the way Hannah did in the Old Testament. Mr. Heschmeyer wrote about his vocation frequently on his blog Shameless Popery, speaking of his ordination as if it were inevitable. Things were going so well, he lost track of the idea that he was in seminary to test and explore his vocation.

“Pretty soon after I entered [in 2011], I stopped asking God if this was what he wanted. I felt like the question had already been answered. My grades were good; I was well esteemed; everything internal to the seminary felt successful. That felt like enough validation. I forgot to ask, ‘Are we still on the same page?’” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

It was not until friends and family had already bought airplane tickets and reserved hotel rooms for his ordination to the diaconate that he began to feel some doubt. He tried to assign his misgivings to “last-minute jitters,” but a black cloud of unease hung over his head.

He described riding on a bus on the way back from a retreat.

“The archbishop has an open seat next to him. A sort of rotating spot, where you can share whatever’s on your heart. It’s usually pretty short, out of respect—a 10-minute thing. I was there for half an hour, pouring out all these difficulties,” he said. The archbishop immediately reassured him that if he had any doubts, he should take more time before making a final commitment.

“It was a tremendous load that had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an illuminating and painful experience. I realized I was happy I wasn’t getting ordained. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, or expected to feel,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

He decided to take time off and then consider rejoining—a plan which, according to the Rev. Matt Mason, the vocations director for the diocese of Manchester, N.H., is not uncommon. But nine days into a 10-day retreat, Heschmeyer knew for sure he was not meant to be a priest after all.

Leaving the seminary or religious life can feel like freedom followed by disorientation, or like rejection followed by clarity. For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. This article is also in the July print edition. 

Passing through the moor

This impulse, this drive to name, categorize, and find meaning in every experience, is the hallmark of a rational creature. We do not want to be like witless crickets, singing and leaping our way through the world, taking seasons as they come and then one day mindlessly coming to an end ourselves. We are made in the image of God, and that means we know there is meaning; and so we want to know why things happen. We want to know what our lives mean.

But sometimes, we can’t. Sometimes we are passing through the moor, on our way to a strange and new life we would never have chosen for ourselves. We cannot name what we see in that great expanse of dark. And it is normal to, like Mary, simply decide we do not like it.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Photo by Dan Cook via Flickr (Creative Commons)