The Pearl of Great Price
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” – Matthew 13:44
It was another snowy, slushy, cold March day as I made a two-hour drive from home to Good News Retreat Center in Utica, NY. The occasion was our annual Regnum Christi young men’s silent retreat. Regnum Christi, Latin for ‘Kingdom of Christ’, is a Catholic movement my family had been involved with since I was a young boy. We had welcomed many Legion of Christ priests and brothers into our home for meals as I was growing up. As a result I went to Regnum Christi summer camps, missions, and retreats for most of my life. Now a junior in high school a lot of questions were running through my mind as I put the cruise control in my Honda Civic. What was I going to do with my life? What did God want from me? Where was I going to go to college? These were questions I was hoping to find answers to during the three days of prayer on this retreat.
On the second day of the retreat I was sitting in the back of the chapel alone with Jesus. Everyone else had gone to their rooms, but I wanted more time with God. I began to run through my questions again: Do you want me to be a doctor, or do you want me to go into my Dad’s remanufacturing business, or…? “Whatever you want Lord,” I said, “As long as you tell me clearly, I will do it.” Then it happened. Very subtlety the thought of becoming a priest slipped into my mind. I was shocked. Never before had I taken seriously the idea of becoming a priest. It hit me like a ton of bricks! I was effectively knocked out of my comfort zone. Deep down I couldn’t believe I was thinking of becoming a priest; no way. But, hadn’t I just said I would do whatever God asked of me? Standing up in that dim chapel I hurried out as I needed to speak right away with the Legionary priest who was overseeing the retreat. When I explained what had happened, he calmed me down, and told me not to worry. “If it comes back,” he said, “and you keep thinking about it then we will talk, but for now don’t worry.” Relieved, the next day I headed back home reflecting on that unlikely thought that had slipped into my mind during the retreat. I believed it would slip away as imperceptibly as it had slipped in.
Before my Senior year the legionary priest I had spoken to about my possible vocation was moved to another city. A new priest had taken his place. I didn’t even want to mention it to the new priest, but the first time we talked in spiritual direction it came up. Father invited me to pray about it more, and to reflect on some passages from the Bible. He encouraged me to consider going to visit the Legion of Christ Seminary in Cheshire, Conneticuit sometime during the year as well. Not wanting to share my fears and reservations I put on a an attitude of openness. I agreed and in March I made the 5 hour drive down to Cheshire. Upon arrival, I remember walking into the chapel for the first time that dark Friday evening. Witnessing over a hundred guys my age praying in the dimly lit chapel was powerful! Over the weekend I had a good experience, but I was not ready to give up my dreams of going to college with my Regnum Christi buddies that following August. I told the priests I would probably finish college before I decided to join a seminary. On the way out I grabbed the application for the summer discernment program. I tossed it in the back seat of my car, and sped home.
Over the months leading up to my high school graduation, in May of 2007, life was hectic. I kept busy trying to forget about being a priest. However, the Lord was persistent in His pursuit of me. In Senior religion class one day we were given a talk by a visiting Christian brother on vocations. He told the class, “If there is anyone you know that you think could be called to be a priest, brother, or sister make sure that you tell them. You might be the reason they make the decision.” The guy next to me immediately picked up my graphing calculator that was perched on the corner of my desk, flipped it over to where the label read “Nate Wayne make it rain” (a chant the students at the basketball games said for me when I made a three pointer) and quickly wrote “Fr.” in front of “Nate” and handed it back to me. Then he nudged me with his elbow and said “Dude, you’re going to make a great priest.”
Across the corn field behind our home is a wooded bluff that overlooks a wide open field. Jumping on the four wheeler it was a quick ride to get to the overgrown path that broke into this quiet part of the forest. As a teenager I frequented this spot a lot. I’d sit on a fallen tree that made for a nice bench and look out over the valley through the hardwood trees. I remember moments there on that little rock outcrop when I would share my dreams and worries, a few smiles and maybe even a tear with the Lord as I thought about my life’s present, past, and future. It was on that wooded hill that I loved to pray under the rustling leaves in the Fall or the cold silence of winter. God became a real person that whispered to me in the tranquility of my heart there. For me that was where it all began; where following Him became my driving force. During my last months of high school my visits became more frequent as I looked desperately for answers.
Walking up the bleachers I heard a familiar voice shout “Hey Nate.” I looked up towards the top of the bleachers where the CBA students were clumped together ready to cheer for our lacrosse team that was about to play in the NY State semifinals. I recognized the voice. It was a classmate of mine. He continued “Yo man, you’d make a real good brotha’ yo.” I laughed and brushed it off thinking “No way, how can someone that barely knows me be thinking that I have a vocation too.”
On another occasion after school one day, I went to play street hockey down the road from school with some friends of mine. Once we had sufficiently tired ourselves out we went over to one of the guys’ houses and trudged down to the basement to watch some TV. While we sat chatting, my friend’s Dad walked into the room to say hello. He turned to me and asked, “Nate, what college are you going to next year?” I said I had committed to go to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. He chuckled and said “What do you want to be a priest or something?” I laughed nervously, unsure how to react.
Meanwhile I had been vague with my spiritual director about what was going on. I was reluctant to share my apprehensions. In fact, I did exactly the opposite. I told him I had taken the application and was thinking of going to do the summer candidacy. We moved forward with the interview process.
After I graduated from Christian Brothers Academy in May I started working at my Dad’s business for the summer. My spiritual director tried to get in touch with me, but I wouldn’t answer his calls. I was afraid of even mentioning becoming a priest. What would people think? What about all the fun going to college with my buddies? In June, my family decided to go on a family vacation to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I had gone to a Legionary summer camp there a few years before with my Dad and my brother. We loved it and Dad wanted to take the whole family. It happened to coincide with the beginning of the discernment program in Cheshire so I would miss that for sure.
That time in Jackson Hole was one of the hardest moments of my life. I felt like Jonah. It was horrible. The time with the family was great and we saw and did some incredible things. I love those mountains and the views, but the fact that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there made it too much to bear. One night after the family had gone to bed my phone began to ring. It was my spiritual director. I flipped the phone closed, opened the fridge and pulled out a drink, sat on the couch, and pouted. “I don’t want to go!” But at the same time I sensed deep down that I needed to go. At one point my older sister asked me “Nate, are you going to that seminary thing in the end?” “No” I said, “I don’t think it’s for me.”
After the vacation I returned to work still trying to hide from the nagging voice inside me. During this time we had our parish priest over for lunch. He asked me what I wanted to study. I told him I wanted to be a doctor not expecting his response, “You should be a doctor of souls.” Those words echoed in my mind.
After I had punched out at work I headed up to the house for lunch. While taking off my boots the house phone started ringing. My Mom was cooking in the kitchen so she asked me to answer it.
The caller ID said the call was from Canada. I picked up. “How are you Nate?” It was my spiritual director. After a little uncomfortable small chat, I took a seat on the step outside the front door so I wouldn’t be overheard. Father told me he thought it would be good for me to go to visit Cheshire just to check it out. I knew he was right. I wouldn’t be happy either way knowing that I didn’t give God that chance. I agreed and said I would go down for a week just after a friend’s graduation party. After hanging up I stormed into the house visibly upset. “What’s wrong?” My Mom asked. I explained and she said “Nathan, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” I knew that, but something inside of me wouldn’t let me say no. I had to go no matter how repulsive it seemed.
The next week went by quickly. The drive down that Sunday afternoon was intense. I put on rock music as loud as it would go and put the windows down trying to block out any thought of what I was doing. It was dark by the time arrived at the seminary. I walked into the reception area with my hoodie, cargo shorts, shaggy hair, and flip flops. A brother at the front desk seemed to have been expecting me and showed me to my room. We entered a classroom where the other guys who were doing the summer course were. I slouched into a chair in the back trying to go unnoticed. Everyone was listening to a legionary priest talk about the spiritual life which they were clearly enjoying because they kept laughing. Over the next few days my heart slowly started to open up to the point where I could laugh along with everyone else. The environment was contagious. I’d never been around so many guys that wanted to live their faith and yet were normal at the same time. I vividly remember talking to a priest one or two days after arriving. I explained my story and half hoped he would stop me and say that this wasn’t for me. He never said anything. He just listened, nodded his head in an understanding way and that was it. All my frustration just seemed to melt away after that. What was I mad about anyway?
The first week in Cheshire flew by and before I knew it I had been in Cheshire three weeks. At that point I wanted to join the program officially so I got my hair cut LC style and put on the black and whites. By August reality started to sink in. I was going to have to choose. On August 21st I was supposed to be heading to Ohio for college orientation. I delayed that decision until August 15thjust one week before.
The night of the 14th of August I decided I need to talk to the priest in charge of the candidacy program. The weeks in Cheshire had opened my eyes to a lot of things and one of the things I hated the most – my past sins. After night prayers I asked Father if I could talk with him. After explaining my worries about my past I felt such a relief. I asked Father if he thought I had a vocation. He smiled, looked at me, but didn’t say anything more than ‘maybe.’ I went out into the court yard of the seminary where I sat on a step looking towards the illuminated statue of Mary in the center. Then I began to cry uncontrollably. Deep down inside of me the struggle was becoming clear through my tears. I did want to be a priest and knew God was calling me to it. The reason I had been running was because I was angry at myself and my failures; my sins. That night God touched my soul and gave me eyes to see again and ears to hear. I was crying out of relief and joy at this newfound freedom.
That night I didn’t sleep at all. I kept walking from my bed to the chapel. More than once I lay prostrate in front of the tabernacle. “I’m all yours Lord” I prayed. The next morning, we celebrated the feast of the Assumption of Mary with a beautiful Mass. I announced to the other candidates that I had decided to stay and then took off to call my parents. After a few rings my Mom picked up and I told her I had something to tell her and Dad
The day I left, July 1st, to visit the vocational discernment program in Cheshire my parents had returned from a wedding in the Adirondack area. During their Sunday Mass a visiting priest was giving the homily at the parish they went to. He was there to talk about vocations to the priesthood. At some point he gave a list of characteristics that a young man called to the priesthood would have. My mother whispered to my Dad, “Nathan has all of them!” My Dad began to cry. When my Mom asked why he was crying, he said “Because Nathan isn’t coming back.” My parents had not told anyone where I was going. Now they did.
I waited for Dad to get to the phone and then I broke the news that I had decided to stay and that I thought God was calling me to be a Legionary priest. They were both very supportive and I was actually surprised that they didn’t get emotional. Little did I know they had been expecting it all along. Mom told me later she did cry when she called the college to say I would not be coming.
God had been speaking to me in so many ways, through so many people, and situations during my life. He still does and always will. Remembering how Christ called me is a constant reminder to be attentive to his subtle whispers in the noisiness of life. May I always be grateful for His whispers.
This is only the beginning of a long story of ups and downs along life’s journey towards the priesthood for me. As I approach this next step in the journey, I am very conscious that the priesthood isn’t the final goal. The challenge of life is getting to heaven. God has gifted me with the choice of the priesthood as my vehicle to get there and be with Him. It is a blessing I will be forever grateful for.