Christopher West, renowned author and speaker of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, came and spoke to our seminary during my first year of study. He gave a several-hour presentation that renewed my interest in a teaching I had drifted out of since first being exposed to it in college. He also gave a pitch for the Theology of the Body Institute (http://www.tobinstitute.org/), which offered opportunities for greater study and immersion into John Paul II’s teaching. I had no idea that this was also setting into motion a chain of events that would lead me to meeting my future spouse.
I was 25 when I entered seminary. Several of my friends were entering into marriage at that time and a few more were getting pregnant with their first kids. For the first time in my life, I began to feel these strong “paternal” aches. I had always imagined being married and having my own kids; however, I understood the supernatural concept that in serving the Church as a priest I would still be a “father” and would be given more spiritual children than I could count.
But I still ached. It was like some kind of pit that seemed to be welling up from the depths of my being. There were times of loneliness as well, loneliness that we all experience whether we are in a relationship or not. Being formed in this time of priestly discernment—a unique time of singlehood, you could say—I was already longing to give myself to another, to get out into the world and start “doing” something, to be fruitful in some way. It was that same restless energy that I often identify with in the writings of St. Augustine. Perhaps this struggle was less about living a joyful priesthood and more because I had yet to settle in my right vocation—a square peg in a round hole, you could say.
During a question-and-answer session, I asked Christopher West how—as a seminarian—I could channel these longings for fatherhood and these desires to be fruitful. I’ll never forget his answer…mostly because I didn’t like it:
“You have to stay in that ache. You have to bring those desires to the Lord and rest in that longing.”
What the heck did that mean?
See, I love to fill up prayer with reading books, flying through a rosary, or daydreaming about Batman. The scariest prayer time is when I stop doing, when I simply sit in silence and enter into solitude before God, and allow Him to speak. If seminary taught me nothing else, I learned the profound practice of authentic prayer, prayer that simply sits before the Father and willingly opens up my fears and hurts, short-comings and imperfections, AND my deepest desires.
I longed to be a spouse and I longed to be a father. I had to enter into that “stretching” of the heart and give it to Christ, allowing Him to transform my life and trust that His plan (and His time table) would pan out for my greatest peace and joy. It was tough. It was definitely frustrating. But now, as I look forward to my wedding day, I can say with confidence that I would endure those years of purgation and trial all over again.
A dear seminarian friend told me that “loneliness is just God asking you to spend time with Him.” Pope Benedict (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote that, “The Fathers of the Church say that prayer, properly understood, is nothing other than becoming a longing for God.” St. Teresa of Avila also wrote that God hears us “not with the noise of words…but with longing.”
If you’re waiting on the Lord for your vocation to be unveiled, waiting for an answer, waiting for Godot, or waiting for your rocket to come, have patience. Enter into that solitude, that stillness, that stretch. Allow God to transform your ache. Don’t run from it—own it.
Become a longing.