Back in April, I had the privilege of being part of a panel for the NRVC. We were talking about addressing parental concerns for those discerning. You can watch the whole video below.
With the Ordination and First Mass behind us, I’ve been struggling a bit to find my footing in this strange new reality. Despite the fact that I’ve spent the past six years learning more about priestly formation and deepening my own understanding of Catholic theology, the actual reality of Evan’s ordination caught me flat-footed.
On Sunday, May 26, 2019 Evan returned to St. Rose of Lima (our home parish) to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving. Two of his Paulist brothers who had served as pastors of St. Rose in the 80s joined him and concelebrated. Our pastor, Fr. Clarence Sandoval, concelebrated as well. The church was packed with our parish family as well as friends and family of other faiths who came to celebrate with us.
It was a joyful worship, but one which was – at the same time – very, very strange. Seeing Evan at the altar leading the community in prayer, making the familiar gestures of blessing and consecration, and ultimately elevating the host and the cup was beautiful. He seemed so confident; his voice calm and clear as he recited the prayers and he moved through the liturgy as if he’d been doing it for years. It was a moment of fulfilment; the manifestation of something I’ve anticipated for a long time.
It was also deeply unsettling.
On Monday, Memorial Day, Evan celebrated a house Mass for us. So there, in our living room with our cats roaming about, we three enjoyed a quiet Mass before breakfast. In his alb and stole, Evan stood behind a desk which had been pressed into service as an altar. Just before he began, he said, “This is one of the most surreal things I’ve ever done.”
“Surreal.” That was the perfect word to describe what I’ve been feeling since the Ordination in New York.
I knew it was coming, but I don’t think I’d fully anticipated the impact. I hadn’t realized that Evan’s ordination would force me to confront the deepest truths of our faith.
In the language of the church, Ordination changed Evan at an ontological level. That is, through the sacrament, he has been changed and his relationship with the community has changed. The Evan who entered the church as a deacon, left as a priest. Those aren’t simply different titles; they are different states of being. At the same time, he is still very much the child Kit and I raised.
He has been given the authority to “confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi.” Which is a poetic way of expressing that he acts in the person of Christ to consecrate the bread and wine at Mass.
At the same time, he delights in good meals, entertaining movies, and beloved video games. He groans at my bad puns and shares warm hugs with his mother.
His is simultaneously a minister of heaven and a child of this world.
This is the very heart of our incarnational faith. God isn’t some remote figure who sits in a distant heaven judging us. God is the love which forms and sustains the universe. To drive the point home, God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ; simultaneously fully divine and fully human.
This strange co-existence isn’t just something which happens only at ordination. It is the nature of every sacrament to bring us face-to-face with the truth of the incarnation. It’s just that sometimes we get so used to the sacraments that we forget exactly what’s taking place. We overlook the extraordinary truth.
In the language of the church we call this a mystery. It’s a reality we can wrestle with, but never fully comprehend.
Evan’s ordination drew me up short and sharpened my awareness of the sacraments and the mystery they express. It reminded me that I participate in a community which treats the physical and the spiritual as parts of a whole and that the rituals and practices of the church are designed to put us in touch with the Divine. It was an invitation to enter into the mystery of faith in a new and deeper way.
For this, and for the opportunity to walk with Evan on his vocations journey, I can only say, “Thank you, Lord.” (Even if it’s going to still be weird to see him saying Mass!)
The young man said that he had turned down a great job and the woman he loved to go to a monastery. On the one hand he felt a strong call from God, on the other he had some negative emotion around the things he was giving up. He asked Fr. Dave to give him some insight into what he might do and how he might move forward.
If he had asked you, what would you say? Would you answer one way if he was your son and another if he was a friend or the child of a friend? In the moment — when the question is posed unexpectedly — it can be difficult to know what to say.
The USSCB vocations page has a ‘Frequently Asked Questions‘ section which touches on this:
How should I react if my son or daughter talks to me about becoming a priest, nun, or brother?
If this hasn’t happened yet, maybe you ought to ask yourself how you or your spouse might react. Would it be shock? Concern? Skepticism? Would this be a dream come true for you or your worst nightmare? Knowing and understanding your own feelings and your reasons for them is an important step in knowing how to respond to your son or daughter. The vast majority of teens today feel that if they told their parents they were even “just thinking” about priesthood or religious life, their parents would be completely opposed to the idea, laugh at them, or in some other way not take them seriously.
What you say in that moment may have a long-lasting impact on other’s decisions. Yours may be the voice which confirms someone’s belief or increases their doubts. What is important is to recognize that when someone discusses discernment with you, they are sharing something they’ve probably been wrestling with for a while. They are taking a risk by being vulnerable and sharing their struggle. How you react will influence not only their decision, but also the future of the relationship between the two of you.
If your child says they want to pursue religious life, you may have legitimate questions and concerns. You might believe your child isn’t suited for the life or you may simply be overwhelmed with the unknown. The same can be said of just about any major decision your child makes. Perhaps they intend to marry someone you believe to be unsuitable. Or they might want to pursue a career for the money, while you feel that the job will frustrate and demoralize them. On the other hand, they might be turning down what you believe to be a great opportunity.
No matter what decision they make, they will remember how you made them feel. If you were condescending or dismissive, they’ll remember. If you’re open and attentive — even if you disagree with them — they’ll remember that too. No matter what your personal feelings, it’s best to be thoughtful in how you communicate. The rest of your life is a long time and it’s important to think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your child.
Obviously, Fr. Dave didn’t have to worry as much about the future of his relationship with the caller. Odds are, Fr. Dave and that young may will never speak again. However, Fr. Dave does a great job of modeling how to have a conversation around the topic of discernment. If you’re struggling with how to talk to your child about their vocation, take a few minutes and listen to how Fr. Dave handles it.
According to a study released in 2011 a little over half of those who were ordained report being actively discouraged from their vocation by a family member. Beyond that, it is difficult to say how many potential vocations have been lost because someone who was discerning was steered onto a different path. In some ways, it seems like we are our own worst enemy when it comes to recruiting and forming new religious.
There’s a certain amount of speculation about why parents might be so selfish. Some point to cultural changes, or poor liturgies, or unbridled capitalism. I suspect there is truth to these ideas, but I think they tend to paint parents with a broad brush and ignore the very real experience of the parents.
Rachel Watkins writes about her experience of having a daughter enter religious life over at the Sioux City Diocesan Vocations site:
We will experience the same feelings and concerns most parents feel but in a different way. We miss our children deeply and worry about them. This worry is especially true of parents whose children are missionaries abroad. And while their needs are taken care of by their dioceses or orders, we have concern for their well-being and support them financially with as much as our incomes allow. Our lives can seem almost easier with the care they receive from their dioceses or orders but that is not always the case.
In truth, ours can be a difficult lot. This is not to discourage anyone from encouraging their children to listen for God’s call. My daughter does not know about what concerns me. I say it only in an acceptance of the fact that our child’s choice is atypical, making us as their parents also uncommon. Our children have chosen Christ first and foremost for their lives and their loves. We could not be more proud, could we? However, we know that this choice comes at a cost rarely understood. We often find ourselves at a loss. We may stumble when trying to tell others what our children are doing. A teacher, a plumber, an at-home mom, even a tattoo artist, is easily understood but a monk, nun, consecrated or a priest? These often require an explanation that extends longer than the line at the deli will allow…
…We do our best as parents to answer all the questions. However, quite honestly, after a while, it can become distressing. Some of the questions and comments we can receive are so negative. My husband and I joke darkly to each other that we might have had a better reception if we had announced her decision to join a traveling band of jugglers rather than a recognized order in the Church. In the end, all these questions come down to this: Why would anyone choose a priestly or vowed religious life?
In the face of these kinds of objections, it is understandable if parents begin to doubt the validity of their child’s vocation call. They aren’t villains, just parents who are in uncertain territory. It is natural that they’ll want to know how their child’s decision will impact their lives. Vocations – like any other life choice a child makes – will have an effect on the family.
Have you listened to your parents’ reasons? Before you try to explain the mystery of a vocation to them, allow them to tell you what their concerns are. These reasons could range wildly. They may think that you don’t really listen to them or honor them. They may want you to have a “normal” life that would include marriage and their expected grandchildren. They may think that you have abandoned them and won’t see them. They may think that you need to have several years of experience after college before you can make a decision. They may think that a religious community is full of misfits, or that religion is a scam. They may think that you will be happier and be more productive in doing just about anything else than becoming a religious.
From there, it goes on to offer several concrete suggestions for engaging in dialogue with parents. It ends on a very encouraging note:
Parents often feel bonded with the brothers in their son’s formation, and they come to realize that their son has many, many brothers. The brothers themselves look with affection on the parents of one of their own. In a sense, parents don’t lose a son so much as gain many, many sons!
(Kit and I have certainly felt that way about the Paulists. We have enjoyed meeting many of the seminarians and priests and frequently joke about all of our new “sons”.)
Answering the call to religious life raises questions for parents and we – those discerning and the Catholic community at large – owe it to them to take their concerns seriously and do our best to accompany them as they undertake the vocations journey with their child.
— Dad (of Evan)
Recently I was privileged to participate in a week long retreat/seminar at Loyola University on the topic of Parish Health and Wellness. It was an intense time with forty of the most dedicated and special people I have ever met in my life. Each one of these people touched my soul and walked alongside of me as we grew together in our knowledge of not only the topic at hand but our own spirituality and missions as well. I hope to maintain a relationship with each of them through our spiritual journeys. One person, in particular, called me back to the mission of this blog.
While at our first dinner with some of the other participants we started introducing ourselves to each other. I mentioned my son in the seminary and one woman suddenly sat up, looked teary, and said she needed to talk to me after dinner. I was startled but said “sure”.
Later that evening when we got together to talk, she disclosed to me that her son is discerning going into the priesthood and she wanted to talk about the experience with me as a mother who has been there. Over the next four days together, we frequently touched base, she would ask questions, I would offer other questions, and I told her she should look toward our blog after we had to go home. Her emotions and distress at the unknown made me recall my similar emotions shortly after Evan informed us of his decision to join the Paulists. Six years later, I had gotten complacent and comfortable with the situation and didn’t think about the blog much anymore.
This mother’s experience brought me back to my original questions, fears, and hopes during the early days of Evan’s discernment and made me realize that there had to be others out there who are just in the first stages of discovery with their child. This blog is not just for us as we write it, but for others as they search for the answers to their questions about their child’s discernment to religious life. If you are just learning that your child is contemplating religious life, I hope the answers within this blog will help you. If you ever have a question that we don’t address, please contact us and we will do our best to get the information you need. We want to be with you during this exciting time.
My journey last month was made special by the wonderful people who joined me. This blog is for people who want to help each other as we all travel the same path at different times.
My prayers for you and your children as you enter this journey.
–Mom of Evan
Image courtesy of http://pdpics.com/photo/367-garden-pathway/
When you look back, parenting feels like a long series of letting go of your
child. The first day of school is a day of pride and tears for parents. As the years go by, your child starts to take bigger, more serious steps away: getting a driver’s license, starting to date, working a summer job. Leaving for college feels like the last nail in the coffin when you finally say that last good bye, give that last hug and wipe that last tear away.
Even when they come home for vacation, their lives are not at home, but with their friends and activities at college. Every one of these acts of letting go are a normal part of a child’s growth and maturation. These milestones are happy but bittersweet for a parent.
It can take years to realize that your child is not your own, they are given to you for only a short time. It just doesn’t feel like that when you are up to your ears in diapers and Lego’s trying to get through the afternoon.
At birth, you start with being responsible for meeting their every need: physical, emotional, psychological. Between birth and age 5, parenting is exhausting, but you can pretty much direct their lives, their friends and their activities. Once they take those first steps away: going off to school, choosing their own friends, you come to the realization that you can’t control every part of their lives. With every passing year, the stakes only get higher as they take bigger steps away until one day you realize: they are not yours to hold onto forever.
They have been given to you to nurture, love, educate until you send them on their way. This is a difficult realization for any parent and can be much harder for some parents than others. Thankfully, the Father has designed this so that we have to learn to let go little by little over many years. Eventually, you realize, it takes a lot more love to let go than to hold on.
Are you worried that if your son becomes a priest, he”ll miss out on all the joys of being a parent? Below is an exert from a post by a Catholic mom on Ignitum Today who addresses this very question.
Celibates Make Great Parents 6/02/2014
by Lauren Meyers
There are a few things that I do every day. I brush my teeth. I drink a cup, of coffee… and I kiss and pinch the cheeks of my two sons. As most parents would testify, I love my children. I love their laughs, their hugs. I love seeing them learn and watching them grow. I cherish every day with them, and I wonder how I ever lived without them. I want to take them in my arms and never let them go.
It’s times when I think about this joy that I wonder about those priests, religious, and other members of the Church who have taken a vow of celibacy. I don’t mean to make assumptions or to judge, but I wonder if it’s lonely. I wonder if they feel regret. I wonder if they feel that they are missing out by not being parents.
I get my answer when my four-year-old son opens up a new toy from his grandparents. He immediately says, “I need to show Father Kevin!” His first desire is to share the pride and joy of his new dinosaur with our parish priest. I get my answer when we are at the mall. My two-year-old sees a sister in a habit and, without ever having seen her, yells out, “Mary!” He is instantly comfortable and happy in her presence, and smiles as he reaches out his hands to her. I get my answer when another parish priest wags a finger with a smile and reminds my son not to run near the front steps of the rectory. He returns the smile and walks back to the vestibule.
I get my answer: They are parents. That’s not to say that they are parents in the same way that a man or woman who changes diapers in the middle of the night, packs lunch boxes, or spends countless hours driving to practices and recitals is a parent. These men and women, though, love immensely. They nurture, teach, and admonish. They pray for and provide guidance for countless children, youth, and adults. They care for others in any way that is needed. They are called to love in ways that are motherly and fatherly. Just like any parent, their presence is irreplaceable.
Those who are called to celibacy are not exempt from parenthood, and in some ways make the greatest parents. They are, perhaps, best equipped to be parents because they are conscious of a fact that I know I overlook all the time:
My children are not my own. My children do not exist for the sake of my personal fulfillment. Their lives are not meant to serve my own desires. My call as a parent is to protect and nurture a soul which belongs to God, so that soul might remain in the presence of God for all eternity. My vocation is to love immensely and to let go with trust.
Those who are celibate display true love and abandon. They love and are loved by God so dearly, and have abandoned themselves with complete trust in God’s will. Who better to help me return my children to God than those who have given themselves to God in such an intense way? Who better to remind me of my call to love with abandon and to return to the Lord every gift I have been given, including my children? I hope, in my life, to express true gratitude for those celibates who have vowed to love all the sons and daughters of the Church as their mothers and fathers. I hope to learn from them how to be a great parent.
Please know the authors on this blog pray daily for parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding and peace.
When I read blogs of parents encouraging vocations in their children, I can’t help but feel a little inadequate. These blogs have many wonderful ideas I wish we had done when our children were younger. For example, I wish we have said “What do you think God wants you to be?” instead of “What do you want to be?”
As parents, the list of things we did wrong is much longer than the things we did right. So it is easier to share this short list of things that I can see now had a positive impact in the long run.
I know a religious vocation does not come from anything overt that parents did or didn’t do, but from the Holy Spirit. With the youngest in seminary, the other 2 appear to have grown into responsible, compassionate and generous young adults. So, I can’t help but think, “We must have done something right.” Looking back, I have come up with a list of things that in the long run seems to have had a positive impact.
Number one has to be attending catholic schools.
I know many vocations come from those who attended public schools. But, after putting 3 children through 12 years of catholic education I can’t help but reflect on all the positive benefits not available in public schools.
The example of the sisters, priests and lay teachers was a powerful factor as well as the transmission of our values and beliefs. But the other factor is related to the cost and sacrifice related to attending catholic school. Here are a few examples:
They saw our family sacrifice to pay for catholic education. When they would complain about not going on a fancy vacation or getting a new car, we would remind them that we have decided to spend our money differently: sending them to catholic school.
Buying school uniforms every year was always difficult. We utilized the donated uniforms at grade school and high school while donating what they had outgrown. Looking back, I realize the kids never complained. It was just accepted that this was a way to help with the expenses of a catholic education.
We never allowed any disrespect or criticism of priests, religious sisters or any authority figure in their life. If a child made a negative comment in this regard, it was addressed immediately.
Weekly mass This is a no brain-er in our home. Even on vacation, we would plan where we would be able to go to Sunday mass.
Supporting and encouraging participating as altar servers and in youth group.
Actively participating in the life of the parish. I can honestly say we did not do this to specifically “encourage vocations.” At best, we thought it was part of showing them how to be a responsible adult.
Encouraging service to others
They were expected to shovel snow for their grandfather & other elderly neighbors and refuse money. They helped to gather and deliver donations to those less fortunate at Goodwill, donating to homeless shelters and pro-life baby showers.
Using a death in the family as a way to share more deeply in the application of our faith.
Our children lost a beloved grandfather suddenly. We shared our sorrow and grief with them, but communicated that we were happy he was in heaven with God.
Please know that the contributing authors on this blog pray daily for parents of discerning sons and daughters to find peace and understanding.
This week a lovely note landed in the Seminarian Parents inbox. It came from the Mum of a seminarian who…well, since she graciously offered permission to share her letter, I’ll let her tell the story.
Three years ago our 19 year old son entered a Diocesan seminary.
While not shocked – we were initially quite surprised and unsure that this was a good idea for someone so young.
At the time my husband and I tried to encourage him to ‘live’ a little before he entered. Maybe gain a bit more maturity, and life experience. To his credit he was not to be deterred by our initial reticence and lack of enthusiasm : he was sure of his decision. He proceeded initially to ‘pre-seminary’ for a year and then the national seminary.
And of course we supported him, loved him and were proud of him.
As parents we have always tried to support our children (he has an older brother & sister) – and when necessary offer guidance – in their life choices. University, and overseas travel for the others was a more familiar path for us – but the seminary and priesthood was an altogether different scenario – and one I assumed other people’s sons would follow – not ours!
I desperately wanted to talk to someone in my situation who understood what I was going through – another mother of a seminarian. There seemed to be no one around – I assumed that they must all be very holy – too busy praying and going about the Lord’s work – and would have no understanding of my feelings, fears and worries for my son and his future!
I quickly became aware that the role and relationship of parents and their seminarian son is at times different than that of our other children. (Not better or worse – just different)
Because of this unique role, the opportunity for the parents and families of our seminarians to meet and get to know one another (for both support & friendship) is important. Whether the family are heavily involved in ‘church’ – or not at all – the procedures, processes and emotions are usually uncharted territory for everyone. But nothing seemed to exist – at a local level or online.
Towards the end of last year, our son decided to leave the seminary – I didn’t want him to enter – but now I found I didn’t want him to leave! More uncharted waters – and once again, another parent to talk to would have been great.
While he has learnt a lot in these 3 years in the seminary – I know we as parents have as well.
In immersing himself in all things ‘Catholic’ – much has also been absorbed by us too. There have been many conversations as we talked with him before he entered – and in holidays when he was home
(I am a ‘cradle Catholic’ though I think the term ‘cultural Catholic’ would have been a better description. I loved the culture and familiarity of being catholic – the nitty gritty of my faith was largely ignored. )
For me I know my knowledge of catholic ‘stuff’, liturgical matters, seminarian studies and subjects, canon law, has increased – but above all this superfluous information, my Faith has deepened and (I think) matured. For that I will always be thankful and grateful to my son – for testing my understanding of my faith, challenging my assumptions and encouraging me to seek and develop a more personal relationship with God.
This letter was encouraging to all of us. We recognized our own questions, fears and concerns in this mother’s story. Cathy and I chuckled at her assumption that the parents of prospective priest must somehow be above-average on the holiness meter. We certainly aren’t, but we are trying to improve our relationship with God.
One of the concerns she had was her son’s age. Cathy shared that concern and … well … I’ll let her explain:
Worry about Evan being too young was a big concern of mine as well. I spoke to the formation director of his order and he offered me an interesting perspective. He stated that they encourage men to explore the priesthood as early as possible (as soon as they hear the call). If it doesn’t work out there are no hard feelings, on the contrary, they often remain friends of the group for life. If they discern that the ordained life isn’t for them, they are still young enough to enter into the secular life and have a full career. If they wait till their late 30’s, for example, they are in their forty’s when they go back to their careers and it can be difficult.
All of which brings me to a brief point that I’d like to make about the discernment process.
Discernment is a process. Some people think that discernment is sitting around, praying for Divine guidance and getting a lightning bolt from the sky in response. Prayer is definitely important, but prayer needs to be accompanied by action. A great post over at Verso L’alto talks about the danger of “passive discernment.”
People tend to talk about a priestly vocation as if entering seminary is a final decision with ordination as a foregone conclusion. That isn’t the case at all. You might as well start making wedding plans the first time your son takes a girl out on a date. Yes, it could lead to marriage, but it might not. It’s important to live through the process — it’s a journey, not a destination.
When young people perceive a call to religious life, they should explore it. That means investigating seminaries and talking to vocations directors. It probably means entering the seminary. Whatever happens — that time in seminary is part of the journey.
I’d be so bold as to say that active discernment is good practice for all of us. If you think God is calling you to something — a ministry in your parish, some task in your neighborhood or your workplace, or even more prayer and study — don’t sit back and think about it. With openness to the Spirit, jump in and listen to God through your actions.
Just a quick note about this post.
It has always been our hope and prayer that this blog would become a place where those discerning and their parents came for information and encouragement. Pam contacted us on Easter Sunday to let us know she’d found the blog and to inquire about our experience as seminarian parents and bloggers. It was clear from her e-mail messages that she was a great writer and had a different perspective. Our conversation naturally turned to asking her to contribute and we’re thrilled that she accepted.
As she notes, her son is in a college seminary and entered shortly after high school. This is different from our experience, but is an experience shared by many, many parents.
In the coming months, you’ll see posts from all of us as our individual journeys continue.
As always, we want your questions. Feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Dad of Evan
I am very happy to find this blog as a place for parents and other family members to discuss the discernment and formation process.
I have been looking for a place to share what I have learned in the past 2 years. In that time, my son started discerning a vocation to the priesthood (age 17), applied and was accepted to our diocese as a seminarian and started his first year in college seminary (now age 19).
The parents who started this blog have a son who is in formation in a religious community, while my posts will focus on a son discerning diocesan priesthood. By contributing on this blog, I hope readers will have a view of the similarities and differences of the our experience as parents as well as our sons in discernment and formation.
As a cradle catholic, I attended catholic school from kindergarten through high school as well as graduating from a catholic college in the early 80’s. Based on my background, I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on all things catholic. But, I was in for a surprise to realize that what little I did know about seminary, discernment and the priesthood was completely wrong, misinterpreted or based on urban legend.
When my son first told me he thought God was calling him to the priesthood, I had most of the common concerns and objections. You’re too young…. Go to college first… Get some life experience….etc.
Over the next few weeks; it took finding the right resources and a lot of prayer to come to a better understanding of the elements of discernment. By contributing to this blog, I hope to shed some light on these issues and the ongoing discernment process and seminary formation for diocesan priesthood.
I was shocked and saddened to find out that 48% of newly ordained priests reported that they were discouraged from considering the priesthood by one or more persons. This data from CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) has remained at 48% for the 2014 and 2015 reports on newly ordained priests. Remember, these are the ones who actually completed seminary and were ordained! How many others never made it very far without the support of their family? This fact alone has motivated me to find a place for parents to discuss issues and encourage each other during their son’s journey wherever it leads.
I have searched the internet for resources or advice or personal experiences from other mothers/parents of seminarians, but have found almost nothing. Everyone I ask about this tells me it is needed. If we are truly trying to “create a culture of vocations”, then the feelings and experiences of parents and other family members should to be a part of the conversation to open up the exploration of religious vocations in our families.
I welcome your questions and feedback.
Yep. Sure is.
I’ve got to admit, though, that I often have a less-than-charitable (much less) reaction.
Marriage is quite a commitment, too. The Church makes this clear in the Catechism when it notes:
Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.
The phrases “can never be dissolved” and “henceforth irrevocable” don’t leave much room for interpretation. Marriage — properly considered — is a life-long commitment.
I’m not arguing that the religious life is easier than — or even equivalent to — marriage. Both states have their challenges and blessings. God’s grace is all that gets any of us through either of them.
What really bothers me about that comment, though, is the modern notion that commitment is a bad thing and maybe he ought to keep his options open. I don’t think that’s the way God intended things to work and the research backs me up.
I stumbled over this study while preparing a presentation called “Hacking Your Happiness to be more Relaxed, Resilient, and Resourceful.” The premise of the presentation is that there are simple things we can do to “hack” our own emotional states for the better. One of the simplest is making choices.
Behaviorist and research Dan Ariely conducted research on making choices using materials you probably have around the house — undergraduates from MIT and a door simulation program that pays real cash awards. Okay, you probably don’t have those things around your house, so I’ll just give you the lowdown from a New York Times article.
In the M.I.T. experiments, the students should have known better. They played a computer game that paid real cash to look for money behind three doors on the screen. After they opened a door by clicking on it, each subsequent click earned a little money, with the sum varying each time.
As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.
Even after students got the hang of the game by practicing it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.
They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.
Ariely explains the phenomenon this way:
“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious — wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.
“We may work more hours at our jobs,” Dr. Ariely writes in his book, “without realizing that the childhood of our sons and daughters is slipping away. Sometimes these doors close too slowly for us to see them vanishing.”
It’s that sense of loss, I think, that people are expressing when they talk about the commitment inherent in pursuing a vocation. And, there’s truth in that. Choosing a life built on promises does limit your options. But, as Ariely demonstrated in his experiment, we can experience greater rewards by committing to a choice. In the final analysis, making a choice and moving ahead in God’s grace is the path to satisfaction.
A lovely post over at the Happy Catholic blog captures the truth of this better than I did. Read it here.
Watch Dan himself explain his research.
Our oldest son, Ian, works as a Starbucks barista and trained as a Coffee Master.
“Coffee Master?” you ask. “What’s that?”
Coffee Masters are the Starbucks equivalent of the geniuses in the Apple Stores. They’re the ones who know exactly what makes a blonde roast different from a dark roast and why sun dried Sumatra tastes so much better than it’s more mundane cousins. They’re distinguished from other Starbucks partners with a black apron. The Starbucks Melody blog explains it this way:
If you are a customer, and you have a question about coffee, look for the Starbucks baristas in black aprons: They can talk to you about the four fundamentals of great coffee (water, proportion, grind, freshness), or if you want a low acidity coffee, a black apron Starbucks barista might steer you in the direction of Italian Roast, or if you want to try something fun and new as an espresso shot, again the barista can help answer those questions. (The new Yirgacheffe works beautifully as a shot of espresso!).
Earning the apron was no easy task and, along the way, Ian taught me a lot about coffee. I learned (for example) that coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity. (Oil takes the top spot.) I also learned to identify the various component flavors of individual blends and to articulate what I like and dislike about each.
As part of the training, Ian hosted a series of coffee tastings in his store. These involved selecting and pairing different coffees with different foods to explore the ways in which flavors interact and strengthen one another. In one surprising match, Ian paired a blonde roast (which I find a bit bitter) with some smoked gouda. To my delighted, the cheese smoothed out the coffee and improved the flavor of both.
I’ve also learned to sound a bit snobbish when I say (in all sincerity) that the new Ethiopia blend has a smooth flavor that lingers on the back of the the tongue and has a chocolaty aftertaste.
I bring all of this up for three reasons;
1) I’m proud of Ian and how hard he worked to earn this distinction
2) It reminds me that the created world is good and God meant for us to enjoy it
3) There’s a link between this and the importance of catechesis
I’ve been a fan of coffee for since I took up the habit in college more than a quarter century ago. And, for most of that time, I drank whatever was available. I’d occasionally say something like, “That was a good cup of coffee.” Except, I only said that because it tasted good to me.
I had no real understanding of coffee. No appreciation for what it took to go from raw coffee cherries (they’re not really beans, I learned) to the dark liquid in my cup. The language to describe the coffee in any meaningful way — to be able to communicate with others what I was experiencing — was beyond me.
Once I started to learn, though, a whole new universe of appreciation opened up for me. The coffee hadn’t changed, I had.
I think the same is true for catechesis. Cathy and I have been taking a catechist preparation course this year based on the Echoes of Faith series. At the start, I assumed that teaching religious education was more-or-less like teaching any other subject. It was about getting the students to understand the content. They needed to be able to answer the questions appropriately and demonstrate some knowledge of the material.
As the class goes on, I’m rethinking that. Certainly the knowledge is important. Understanding is the basis of appreciation. More importantly, though, my students need to have the experience that comes of out that knowledge. If Ian had simply described different roast profiles to me, I’d still be stuck at the “Gee, that’s good coffee” stage of development. By coupling the knowledge with the experience of tasting and giving me the opportunity to articulate what I was experiencing, Ian helped me to expand my appreciation of coffee.
That’s not to say that the knowledge is unimportant, but it’s too shallow a way to share the Faith. The Catholic church isn’t a series of rules or historical anecdotes. It is a living faith which should be experienced and integrated into daily life. It is a way of being which fundamentally alters the believer. Perhaps we’ve overlooked that in the past.
My “coffee formation” (if I can use that phrase respectfully) has brought me to a place of deeper understanding of and appreciation for coffee. Bad coffee (which is sadly abundant in Utah) has become nearly intolerable and I’m willing to expend time, energy and money to get good coffee. Imagine what would happen if our catechism programs made people turn away from lukewarm faith and made them willing to work hard at what they believe.
This past Wednesday we took Evan to the Salt Lake airport at an early hour. (Did you know there’s a five in the morning now?) As I’ve been talking with my colleagues and telling them that he’s gone to the seminary, one question keeps coming up over and over:
Can you talk to him?
In fact, on Friday he took a few moments out of his day to call and wish my mother a happy birthday. On Saturday, he gave us a call to update us on his first three days at St. Paul’s College.
All along, he’s been swapping texts with his older brother and we’ve been able to send him e-mails.
I think the reason the question keeps coming up is that many of my colleagues are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — Mormons — and they speak out of their experience of sending children off on religious missions. Although it is not required, young Mormons are encouraged to serve a voluntary mission. During the time that these young people are away from home (two years for men, eighteen months for women) they are not permitted to call home except on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Beyond that, Missionaries are encouraged to write a letter home once a week. In recent years, these letters have come in the form of weekly e-mails.
Since many of these missionaries are young and serving in distant lands, parents are understandably concerned and eager to hear that their children are safe and well.
And, perhaps, some of my colleagues are confusing seminary with a cloistered order in which all communications are strictly controlled. To be fair, there are seminaries which are more strict and seminaries which are less so. The Paulists seem to be interested in having their seminarians engaged with the world and so Evan is readily available to communicate with us. When he was away at college, he called us once a week to chat. I expect that will continue so long as he’s available.
While we’re on the topic, let me share a few highlights of Evan’s week.
- He and the other novices got to select their rooms and settle in.
- They learned how to ride the DC Metro System.
- He and fellow Novice Dan Arthur went and prayed a Rosary at the Shrine of our Lady of Poland at the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
- They had pictures taken to be posted on the Paulist website.
- They celebrated a Signing-In Mass on Saturday night at St. Paul’s College.
I asked Evan how he was doing and he admitted that it was a lot to absorb in just three days. He was looking forward to this week’s opening retreat at Lake George.