A Traditional Catholic seminarian wrote about his experiences at a Traditional seminary from 2000 - 2006, comparing them to the movie "Platoon". The work was written αnσnymσusly, and he has left out ALL names. He just wants to tell his story. UPDATE 6/9/17: Over the months, I have met several people in person who were somewhat confused about who wrote this account. It was NOT me (Matthew Mc______ of CathInfo). If you knew anything about me, you'd know that I'm not the author of this story. I am not a teacher in any school (nor have I ever been).P.S. One more thing -- you *don't* need to watch the movie Platoon to appreciate or get something from this story. The movie doesn't have a mere sprinkling of rough language -- they use gutter language like sailors or soldiers. Unless you're used to watching movies and/or language like that, I would advise AGAINST watching the movie.http://bravsindex.com/nihilobstat/platoon-memoirs-of-an-ex-seminarian-part-i.html
“Platoon”: Story of a Seminarian - Prologue
I studied for the priesthood for five years in a Roman Catholic Seminary. Sometimes, people ask me about this experience. Often, their question is polite, expecting a quick answer. I try to oblige. But for those who actually want to hear my truth, I tell them that my seminary career was much like the movie “Platoon”. This is generally met with confusion – many people have not seen this movie, and those who have cannot fathom how a Vietnam War movie fits with studying for the Catholic priesthood.
Well. Watch the movie.
If you can see past the obscenities and vulgar language, “Platoon” offers much food for thought. The movie stars a young Charlie Sheen as Chris, an idealistic young soldier. We join him as he arrives in Vietnam to reinforce a combat platoon. Unlike his fellows, many of them conscripts from poor families, Chris comes from a well to-do background; he volunteered to serve under the notion that the war was a worthy effort, one that poor kids alone shouldn’t be railroaded into fighting. As King (Keith David), his friend, astutely remarks later, “You got to to be rich in the first place to think like that.”
Through the course of the movie, Chris’s ideals are brutally stripped away by the reality of war and the incompetence, atrocities and politics among the soldiers and their leaders. The enemy, in fact, is rarely seen. The platoon itself is divided between those who believe in the mission and those who are disillusioned, only going through the motions, but who still fight for the man beside them, and for the hope of finishing their tour and going home. By the end of the movie, Chris has become inured to the horrors of war, going so far as to embrace them, before being torn out of that world by an injury. The movie ends with Chris being evacuated from the war zone, but with the sad question, how will he ever be able to return to civilian life? What is there to go back to?
When I discovered “Platoon” I was doing a year in the field, teaching elementary school as a seminarian. Encountering the movie was odd; I was in line at a drug store and it was staring at me from a rack. The front cover featured Elias (Willem Dafoe) in his death pose, arms raised to heaven in supplication. The tagline read: “The first casualty of war is innocence.” It was something I could relate to at the time. It is difficult to communicate this, how striving to serve God could come to such a pessimistic reflection. Some background information then.
I was a product of the Catholic school system, which meant I knew almost nothing about the Catholic faith. In fact, I had determined that once done high school, I would be done with Catholicism entirely. I had ideals then, most young men do, and I found the Church a shameful, toothless thing, full of sentiment, glee-club antics and priests who were little more than social workers and failed comedians. As ideals went, I figured that the true religion, meant to give glory and honour to the omnipotent Being of Creation, was not here among such crass, self-satisfied tawdriness. As a result, I developed much of my moral compass from the pagan classics: the Aeneid, the Iliad, the deeds of Cu Chu Lain and scores of other ancient epics. Although the heroes of these stories were always keen on their own personal glory, they lived and died to defend and maintain their societies and had such personal integrity that they were ready to die rather than violate an oath or betray their ideals. That resonated with me: I thought such qualities proper to the ideal man. Jesus Christ fit into this mould, and so I was happy to consider myself Catholic, since the religion’s founder exercised such incredible personal integrity and heroic virtue.
The Catholicism (or lack thereof) I witnessed in school and at church on Sundays was frustrating: Jesus Christ was softened, even emasculated. The Gospel was reduced to a fuzzy bedtime story for children. In religion class, in my Catholic school, I was being taught that all religions were meritorious. To me this meant that religion was essentially a lie: if all religions were truth, and all religions contradicted each other, then truth was full of contradiction. That didn’t match up with the Christ I encountered in the Gospel, much less common sense. I actually started investigating religion, to see if any of it had any merit. I ended up Catholic again, but not in the mainstream manifestation of Catholicism, but rather in what is redundantly (if not necessarily) termed “Traditional Catholicism”. When I discovered what the faith was truly about, it was life changing.
I read a lot. I became so horrified and scandalized at the realization of what I was being taught in high school as “Catholic” that I confronted the female chaplain, challenged my teachers and, when faced with the reality that no one actually cared to read anything I had discovered, I dropped out with only one term left before graduation. When I presented a single pamphlet of my findings to the parish priest, he called it an attack on his priesthood (this man is now a bishop). I suppose I must have come across as a know-it-all and a pest.
The seminary would seem a premature consideration, even with my new convert’s zeal, except for an experience that I had buried years previous reawakened with fresh vigor. I received the Sacrament of Confirmation at age 13. I studied quite sincerely for my Confirmation (what they gave us to study beyond the beatitudes I cannot recall – my catechetical instruction was so poor I didn’t even know there was such a thing as mortal or venial sin when I converted years later). I remember acing the test on the sacrament but receiving a poor grade on my “Confirmation binder” which was a scrapbook of handouts with information that would be on the test, but which we were also expected to colour. I kid you not – 13 year old boys, about to become men, had their religion grade reduced to pencil crayon imaginings of doves, rainbows and whatever cloying decals you could think of scribbling. I was so incensed I tore the cover with the mark off the binder. The substance of the binder – the actual faith – was secondary to its appearance. How perfect a metaphor is this for the modern Church.
On the day of Confirmation, I believed in what I was doing, I believed in what I had committed to memory. I prayed hard, even kneeling after communion (they didn’t in that parish). And something terrible happened. After the ceremony, with the party going on in the church basement, I was still in the church on my knees and very upset. In me was an alarmingly powerful desire to be a priest. This desire was alien – it came out of nowhere, it had nothing to do with any of my aspirations or beliefs or ideals. I actually broke down in tears since I saw the priesthood as a dishonorable and ridiculous profession: this feeling was all wrong. I never went down to the party and after wrestling all night with this unwelcome aspiration, I suppressed it.
But it resurfaced years later after I attended my first Latin mass and heard my first real Catholic sermon. It made sense now – I had witnessed something sacred, and beautiful, and uncompromising: the priest was a leader, a warrior, a man of sacrifice and the mass was a true religious ceremony. Everything I had seen in the life of Christ and understood from his preaching was lived here. And so, barely 2 years a proper Catholic, I went to the religious superior in that country for that Order where I was attending mass – and asked to be considered as a candidate for the seminary.
And I was accepted, with some caveats. First, I had to complete my high school degree via homeschooling. As well, due to my poor catechesis, it was judged prudent that I spend a year in a religious house. And third, I had to learn French, since the superior decided I would go to France to study. I didn’t speak French – anyone who has survived high school French knows that it leaves much to be desired – but was later told that candidates who displayed intellectual ability were educated in Europe, at the Order’s mother seminary, as it was hoped they would emerge as good leaders. Things were already political, but the reasoning here is fair enough.
So I was sent to Quebec, to an elementary school the Order ran. In what is a universal reality of this order, there was tons of work and few labourers available to do it, so I was put to work. I never did complete my grade 13. I didn’t even pick up French (everyone wished to practice their English with me, and there were English native speakers enough to keep French at bay at all hours). I wasn’t even really supervised – I had tasks I had to complete, sure, but no one oversaw my studies. Coming out of the secular system, I lacked discipline that I think was assumed. In the end, I learned some catechism and participated in a real Catholic community, but accomplished none of my own goals.
Now don’t get me wrong – it was a fabulous time. Here, I encountered Gregorian chant for the first time. There was a gentleman who sat in the pew before me and had a truly jaw-dropping voice. I prayed to God that I might one day sing like that. Compline was my favourite thing – it is part of the divine office that priests pray daily and is sung in the evening, before bed in religious houses. Compline consists of so many different songs and reflections – it is tremendously powerful. To this say, it is my favourite thing in the world. I used to head up to the church in the middle of the night and pray in the dark with lone red glow of the sanctuary lamp. I loved the silence – I loved to pray during the night. I used to end my vigils singing the Salve Regina, the fantastic solemn tone version, at the top of my lungs in the early a.m. I don’t think anyone knew. Fantastic. During the day, in my free time, I hiked along the rocky bank of the St. Lawrence River, in all weather; I bicycled through the countryside and Old Quebec – all the way to the basilica of St. Anne de Beaupre. And I had adventures with the “Club D’Anglais”, a group of English speakers who were as outrageous as myself – we got up to all sorts of mischief.
Even though I had failed to meet my objectives, I was allowed to proceed to France anyway. This was a disastrous decision: I should in no way have been allowed to enter without a high school diploma. I was too stupid and idealistic to understand the implications of this concession. So, that summer, I went off to Europe as part of a pilgrimage group to Rome for the Jubilee. We toured France and Switzerland and Italy and as the tour ended, I got on a bus of French pilgrims bound for Lyons where I was to spend the rest of the summer learning French.
During the flight over to Europe, I had read St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori’s Dignities and Duties of the Priest so my idealism couldn’t be more raw and uncompromising and, frankly, high-strung, as it was then. These ideals had been fanned with sermons, and books and pious conversations – you’d be amazed how someone who declares that he is going to the seminary is lauded and celebrated, almost sealed in a bubble that people only enter to offer glowing praise and pious encouragement. I was aware of the irreality of this and was never comfortable with it, but my own personal, unyielding standards were far worse, and no doubt made me a horrible thing to deal with. So, at 20 years old, I entered the seminary, a fresh-faced recruit. And this is where the allegory of “Platoon” begins.
“Platoon”: Story of a Seminarian - Part I
“Platoon” begins with “Rejoice O young man in thy youth…” This is a quote taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes. A man’s youth is his prime, when he rejoices in the strength and energy that allows him to go forth and do great things. And yet, in war, his vigor is poured out into witnessing and participating in horrors that can destroy him physically, and scar him mentally and spiritually should he survive. He can feel wasted, used, even betrayed. The joy turns to bitterness. War is a bitter thing.
Being a seminarian is similar to being a soldier in many respects. You give up your life and desires in order to be honed into a trained unit, fluent in the operations and ideas of your superior. You live in a compound, you require permission for everything and you are assigned tasks and responsibilities. You are not so much an individual as an instrument that needs to be broken down and rebuilt in a new image. Instead of physical training, you receive intense intellectual and spiritual exercises. You wear a uniform, identical to your comrades, and you eat, study and exercise in common. The one thing is, if you make boot camp – which is seven years long – you’re going career; you stay a religious for life.
What do you do with an idealist? It’s a delicate question – reality checks can be very destructive. When you have a young man who thinks he’s going to join a cause that can actually save the world, you have something both beautiful and horrible: it’s beautiful seeing that kind of zeal in a young man, but horrible, since the reality of things is seldom up to his elitist standard. A crisis is imminent.
Where I was in Europe, I found the people were either very kind or verycruel; I didn’t encounter much middle ground. I met some extremely generous and warm people. The native seminarians were quite kind to the naïve Canadian in their midst. But the superiors, well, they made it quite apparent that we Anglos were not wanted in their seminary. I don’t blame them for that – as will be evident, I didn’t belong there; North Americans can have difficulty adapting. And the French can have difficulty being gracious about that.
In “Platoon”, Chris arrives in Vietnam thinking he’s doing a noble thing – he volunteered, he wanted to do his part. King (Keith David) sums him up quite succinctly: “What we have here is a crusader!” In going on this crusade, Chris was seeking a deeper purpose, one which he lacked in his white bread, college sweater world. For some people, the world of stuff and privilege is both an empty and cluttered place – it cannot satisfy. Chris wanted to find a reason to take pride in what he was doing with his life. As Chris says:
“…maybe I’ve finally found it, way down here in the mud. Maybe from down here I can start up again,... be something I can be proud of and not have to fake it—be a fake human being. Maybe I can see something I don’t yet see, or learn something I don’t yet know…”
I too was a crusader: I wanted to help save the world. I found nothing to be proud of in the education and pursuits of my life. Life was all about playing games, wearing masks, talking nonsense, politics and meeting arbitrary expectations. I didn’t want to be part of that. I had great aspirations, both to military and medicine, but I realized that as a soldier, I could only save lives by taking others, and as a doctor I could only save the body. But as a priest, I could save souls – a permanent victory stretching into eternity. That was where the true battle lay. To embrace the priesthood I would have to give up substantial things – any chance of a family of my own, possessions, even my own will. This was the pearl of great price. I wanted to serve something pure, something greater than myself, and to be consumed by it. I had prayed and done novenas and consulted with priests; everyone agreed that it was my path to try. I expected that when I arrived at the seminary, I would be surrounded by people that burned with the same zeal and who would help direct my energy.
“Platoon” benefits from Director Oliver Stone’s personal investment in this film: Stone himself is a veteran of the Vietnam War. The movie opens with Chris arriving in Vietnam. His idealism is met immediately with reality: body bags – containing the men he is meant to replace – are being unloaded as he steps onto the tarmac. Those men who have survived their tour (365 days of active duty) are strolling toward the plane. This gaggle of bravado and indiscipline accosts the new recruits with vulgarity and ambivalence. Behind this group trails a lone soldier. He and Chris lock eyes as they pass. Chris is fresh-faced and wide-eyed, glowing with health and inexperience. The soldier’s face is lean and hungry, seamed with creases and raked by the elements. And his eyes look burnt out, as if all the horrors and violence had pooled within them over the months until finally bursting into flame. His whole face looks singed by this fire. It is a remarkable face – the actor who played the part could not have been chosen better. His stare is not condemning or belittling, it simply says, “Take a good look, kid. This is what awaits you.” I had this exact moment, meeting a face like this, but it was later in my seminary career. But at the beginning, I was met with smiles and encouragement. There was no reality check.
The face of innocence
The face of war
So I arrived. I disembarked from the tour bus and followed an older priest into a four story priory ensconced within an ancient city. We couldn’t communicate very well. He showed me a room and then we sat down to supper. It was an awkward supper – he spoke machinegun French and I spoke nothing. Finally, he stopped talking. This was a problem, since it was customary to sit and talk after a meal. So we sat there in silence. Then he leaned in and looked intensely into my face. I had no idea what he wanted. Suddenly, his index finger rose to his face and alighted onto his most dominating protuberance. “Nose!” He blurted. I agreed. He burst into a stream of giggles and grabbed his ears. “Ears!” I burst into laughter. He went through his entire face, naming the parts with the little English he knew, more and more tickled at his every success. Satisfied we’d covered everything, he said grace and the meal concluded. He was all right.
I spent two months in this city and lived with three priests. During the day I attended a sort of college in order to enhance my French. The students were all foreigners like myself, with the majority being Japanese. I was upset that the teachers went out of their way to dismiss the grand churches they asked about as museums. As a result, when we did our oral presentations, instead of talking about my country or hobbies, I presented the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God. I walked across the city and took a different way home every day, the better to get lost exploring. On days where the school schedule did not allow me to attend mass, the older priest made sure that I received communion immediately upon coming home. He took a serious interest that I received the sacraments. I would only encounter this zeal once more in another priest.
When it was time to go to the seminary, I paid the prior for my stay and left for the train station. I would remain overnight in another city, as prearranged. I knew nothing about the city I arrived in, so I bought a map and sat in the square outside the station. I ended up finding my way to the priory. I don’t know if I was expected; I was put in the crying room to sleep. I remember it being a cool night and having to use the blankets strewn about the room. They smelled like all the unhappy things associated with babies.
The next day I gave a donation to the prior for my stay and went back to the station. By the evening, I was at the seminary. It was an old building, having stood 1,300 years. It was part of a medieval village, surrounded on three sides by cliffs. Parts of a fortified wall still stood and the foundations were riddled with dozens of secret passages. Fantastic. There were 13 seminarians entering and 3 postulants to the brotherhood. Besides me, there were two Americans, both older than myself. One was a good-natured gentleman who had left the seminary back during Vatican II, but who after all these decades felt compelled to return. The other was a man of arts and letters. He was refined and spoke French better than the French themselves, and that was to his disadvantage.
The rector seemed a good man, but his piety struck me as affected. The vice rector had a habit of laughing and expecting you to laugh with him, which was hard since he enjoyed laughing at others but never himself. Both were very young men for the positions they held, and they seemed to like an audience. I picked the third priest as my spiritual director. He was very old and kindly. Classes were hard. Anyone who has studied in another language knows the effort required. Most difficult was Latin as it was being taught to me in French while I was still learning French.
As any soldier knows, a life of duty is boring, made up of routine. But it is routine that can save a man’s life, and it is routine that sanctifies a seminarian’s soul. As in “Platoon”, we worked, doing KP, maintenance and clean up. And we studied. Everything was regimented. Individuality was actively and severely discouraged. In the army, recruits are beaten down together, both physically and mentally, in order that the men can be rebuilt as competent individuals within a cohesive unit. In the seminary, our individual traits were sanded off with ridicule, our strengths wasted, our personalities white-washed and our failures to conform were met with disappointment. We were broken down, but not built back up.
The History of Conflict
I had a time of it due to the language barrier. I learned the seminary rule by breaking it and being corrected. It was usually the vice rector who snagged me. I meant well – I remember retrieving my laundry (we weren’t allowed to do it ourselves) during recreation. I figured that was the proper time, outside of classes and independent study time. Turns out it wasn’t. The vice rector reprimanded me. When I asked, in my naïve sincerity, if I should put it back, he turned his back to me and walked away shrugging. A few incidents like these are understandable, but he seemed to always be there when I was in the wrong, and to always turn from me as if I was hopeless. The word “charity” was often used by him, but I couldn’t understand his context. Admittedly, I was recalcitrant in one thing: sometimes, I just wanted to walk alone during recreation, without sound, no listening or talking, to have a moment free of books and studies and duties and French. But being alone was seen as very uncharitable behaviour and it really irritated him. It was death by a thousand cuts.
The culture was different too. We were permitted one shower a week. The effect of this was compounded by a ban on any artificial scents. In the stalls, during prayer, we knelt in each other’s stench. This was especially distressing to me as I was an athlete: exercise meant sweating, which meant showering. So I stopped exercising, save on shower day. I felt gross and disgusting and this depressed me. I lost my robust health, and this depressed me. I couldn’t understand how young men could be fine with only a soccer game or a hike twice a week. When I asked my fellow seminarians about this, they chanted in unison, “Cult of the body! Cult of the body!” It was shocking that basic hygiene and youthful exuberance was dismissed as evil self-indulgence. All this talk of charity – in my mind, charity towards your neighbour starts with a bath.
The Americans were sympathetic. Finally, two of us starting sneaking an extra shower per week. We’d dash for the shower the moment the morning bell rang, rinse ourselves in two minutes and dash back to our rooms so that no one would know it had been us. Like there was any mystery. One week, the room across from me was being renovated and the furniture was in the hall. When I dashed from my room, I rammed into the corner of a wardrobe. Foremost in my thought was not breaking the silence; I didn’t utter a sound, I picked myself up and I went into my room and screamed bloody murder into the pillow. My face wore a scab where my face had split, right down the center, from brow to chin, for two weeks. Taking this as a sign, I returned to one shower a week.
Other difficulties included diet. Raw radishes and butter, yogurt almost as thick as cheese for desert, raw meat, bony fish…indigestion and cramps were common. Thank the Lord they ate bread with every meal or I might have starved. I was often a waiter for the others. Since I couldn’t read French fluently – spiritual reading was done during meals – and the rotation was so quick, I often monitored the head table. It was my job to clear plates and serve the next course. Often, I misread or missed the cue and the rector would give me this look. Sometimes, exhausted, I would zone out and that always got me a light-hearted public humiliation. I really had to bite my tongue – this man expected to be served as if it was owed to him. It was my job yes, but as he was the leader and my example, I needed to see his humility more than my own. I hate assumed privilege – it’s one of the most unflattering and ungracious things someone can demonstrate.
I was allowed no hobbies, no alone time, and I was constantly being told my failures. At the time, I took it like a champ – every hard thing I offered up, every failure I acknowledged. Often I didn’t understand, and I took it. But it wasn’t all bad. Once a week, I would jog across the countryside with some of the others, through vineyards, ancient moss-eaten forests, across stone bridges and ruins. We’d hydroplane down hills coated with cow pies, or spelunk in caves. One day, we were crossing a large field where an excavation was taking place. I saw the word “César” on a sign and inquired. The seminarians took me to a statue. It was of Vercingetorix, the last leader to unite the Gauls against Caesar. We were jogging where the last stand of free Gaul had been fought. That blew my mind. Every road and village was steeped in such history, and it was staggering.
The History of Conflict
At night, you could hear the rats in the walls and ceiling. When it was cold, the stone bled a bone-chilling freeze that ate through clothing. I was mentally exhausted, but physically hyper and there became a real disconnect between my mind and body. One day my mother called. While talking, she told me my brother had drowned. For a solid 10 seconds I couldn’t say anything, but then I was resigned to the will of God. My mother was dumbfounded at my reply. Turns out she was talking about a seminarian in America. I was under so much stress, I somehow misconstrued her.
Exams came. I’ve never tried so hard at anything in my life. After the Latin exam I remember going outside and sitting on the steps, watching the valley down below. It was a tremendous view – you could see why the spot was chosen all those centuries ago; any attacking army would have to come this way, funneling down and exposed. My brain was completely fried. It felt like one minute, but a seminarian was suddenly beside me. An hour had passed and I was missed. I passed that exam by 1%. It was the greatest accomplishment of my life. Christmas vacation was almost here. I planned to go to Great Britain to visit one of my chums from the “Club D’Anglais” who lived there. I really needed to relax and talk to a friend. The rector decided it was better that I stay at the seminary for my vacation in order to practice my French. So I did. During the vacation, there was a retreat at the seminary. The house was in complete silence.
The taking of the cassock happens annually on February 2nd, Candlemas Day. Seminarians shed civilian garb and put on the religious habit as a sign of the path they have chosen. It''s also an acknowledgment that they are welcome to proceed. In preparation, we seminarians went on a 4-day retreat, a period of silence and prayer punctuated by conferences tailored to focus our hearts and minds on what this occasion meant. Forty-eight hours before the day – in the middle of the retreat – the rector called me into his office. It was the first time he had ever done so. He informed me that it had been decided that I wasn’t going to be taking the cassock. His reasons were difficult for me to assemble, due to my poor French and a sudden pervading sadness, but I think his reasons were based on my poor comprehension of the language, my immature grasp of the catechism, and my failure to socialize. His estimation was that I should go back and spend another year in a priory if I was serious. It was bitter news. He was right - I was not up to code, but his timing was poor. I was asked to return to the retreat so that the other seminarians would not be distracted by my sudden absence. My parents were already flying over to see me at the ceremony. This was the hardest thing: they had come with such expectations, and I would have to see them, greet their smiles with my failure. It wasn’t failure – I was unsuitable, and that was that – but it sure felt like failure. Everything I had done had not been good enough, and that stung.
“Platoon”: Story of a Seminarian - Part II
The end of my seminary career was difficult to accept. After digesting the news for a few hours, I went back to the rector and appealed my case, but it was decided. I went to my spiritual director. He congratulated me on the upcoming ceremony. He had not been told. The rector and the vice-rector had decided between themselves, as was proper, but they hadn’t told him. That was the first time I felt real anger – it felt like my vocation had been a snap decision. The next 48 hours passed like an eternity – that was a special kind of agony. I remember at one point wandering outside after nightfall, blinded by tears and gripping a stone wall – my heart was palpitating wildly and I thought I was dying. If I could parallel this with “Platoon”, I would place it at Chris’s first experience on ambush. In the raw emotional turmoil of the situation, I had gotten hit and because of my naivety and incompetence I had made myself a target.
When my parents arrived, the rector left us and I told them. If they had broken, I would have shattered, but they did not break. The rector came back in and talked with my mother, who can speak French. I was so exhausted that I just shut down; I felt like I had fallen off the world and the things happening around me were some sort matte painting rolling in the background. That night I ate alone with my family in a back room while the other seminarians ate in the common room with their families. Eating when sad is a horrible thing – every bite is a bitter lump in one’s throat. I felt burning shame. I hated that my family had to share in it. They had no idea what had happened…they just had to take it.
At the ceremony, I ended up sitting on the bench allotted for my guests (the seminarians from the major seminary had come to run the ceremony and no one had told them I was off the list) and watched my class receive the cassock. My bench was empty, just me and my friend. My parents were somewhere in the back. My friend was a postulate of a religious order; he had come as part of their contingent and stood beside me. He stood the whole time since his knees were badly swollen, so, with our empty bench and his standing, I felt exposed. It was a hard thing. Afterward, everyone went outside for pictures and celebration. The experience was too raw for me: awash with sadness I was too selfish to be able to participate in the joy of the occasion. My friend and I went for a walk, and, like my parents, I will always love him for being there at that moment. I remember remarking to him that despite the conflict in me, I found a singular joy in what had transpired: God had seen it fit that I be given the cross in a different way. I was glad I was at least able to see that then.
I bought food from the village shop and ate in my room. I went to mass; it was no longer my place to sit in the stalls so I sat in the pews near the back. It was very alienating. I remained in limbo for the next day. The secretary intercepted me after mass and smiled and assured me all this would pass and be forgotten. Ironically, this gesture of hers stands out crystal clear in my mind. My family stayed and we visited the surrounding towns and countryside. Together we went to pick up my permanent student visa, which had just come through.
My friend invited me to return to the monastery with him. I figured it would be a good idea – I could depressurize there and think about my next move. I told my parents and they were fine with it. Amazing people. So, just like that, I jumped in a car with three monks and was off. The monks would prove my spiritual medevac.
The monastery had a guest wing. The monks were extremely solicitous, assigning one of their number, himself a Canadian, as a sort of liaison. I had very little in the way of clothing – my collars had been cut and pants shortened for the wearing of the cassock – so I was given clothes their own entrants had discarded. They put me to work making bundles of sticks to feed the oven where they baked their bread. Keeping me busy was essential. They seemed to understand. They asked about my health and when they discovered I had extreme insomnia, they made sure I slept every night. It was amazing how much attention they gave and how an avowed spiritual order had such interest in restoring my physical health and mental state. In the seminary, stress levels were not monitored or managed. These monks were cleaning up someone else’s mess, and they seemed happy to do so.
I saw my friend receive the habit of his order. His name in the world was replaced with one of the order. After the ceremony, I was invited to the refectory to eat with the monks, which was a rare honour. Bit by bit, the monks involved me more and more in their lives. I helped in the laundry, ate with them, walked with them, studied language with the foreigners. Soon I was studying Latin and books again. Sometimes I was asked to do things that were confusing, but astonishingly, the reason was always later explained to me when the situation allowed. That was big for me. The mistrust I had developed in the seminary eroded – it was obvious that they thought through every decision and held themselves accountable. After a couple of weeks of such treatment, I no longer cared for explanations – it was obvious they had my best interests at heart and I trusted them implicitly.
I tried to attend the office at every opportunity – they sung Gregorian chant beautifully, and once a week, on Sundays and feast days, a procession while singing a hymn to Mary. Compline, my favourite prayer, was beautiful here. I was given a book about the vocation of a monk and read it almost three times over in one day, finding it brilliant. It was suggested that I should stay with them.
I was seriously considering it. It was a hard life, and I felt too complex to mesh with their simplicity. But here I didn’t hear the word charity: I saw it in action. I was not up to a full study schedule, but I was already doing many of the studies I had been doing in the seminary in addition to living the religious life. There was no pressure, no tests, no rigid classes. Individual study was emphasized and results were gauged in conversation and the way one lived their life. It was very different – the seminary was an institution, made to strip out individualism and mold a generic style of priest. The monastery gave me the impression that it was designed to receive men who all wanted to live by a certain rule, and everyone was there to aid each other in that versus creating a type.
It looked like I would stay. But then something happened. Sometime before Easter the vice rector of the seminary came through. He said mass. He saw me, but didn’t say anything, not even a look. I know he saw me because the next day the monastery received a fax with a message for me. The fax demanded what I was doing there; apparently I was expected back in Canada. They accused me, quite angrily, of disobedience. This was confusing – over two months had passed; they had given me the thanks for playing, yet here they were giving orders. The monks had a good laugh. I asked them what this meant. They didn’t know. I naively decided to obey the fax – I didn’t want any bad blood. Looking back at that, it was another poor decision – I should not have “obeyed”. This false sense of obedience would plague me for years and cost me greatly. But it was something that had gotten drilled into me in the seminary. Discernment was something not properly taught. Following the will of the superior was. It was his job to discern for you. So I got my plane ticket, hopped on a train, and a plane, and was on my way home.
So my seminary and quasi-monastic career seemed over. The other two English-speaking seminarians back in the seminary were taken care of in short order. They both finished the year. The scholarly one was assigned a summer apostolate in another country. He was given no money to get there, so he hitchhiked and traded his textbooks for passage. He ended up digging ditches in Mediterranean summer heat, hard labour even for a seasoned man. While perhaps good for humility – read, his linguistic prowess and scholastic discipline – it was unsuitable for a man used to decades of study. Afterward, again without funds, he hitchhiked back to the seminary. He arrived to find his room packed up in a truck. He had apparently been judged unfit to continue in absentia. The other English-speaker entered the major seminary. He got very sick and was hospitalized. The amputation of his legs was being considered. But he pulled through. Then he was told he was done.
The great irony of this is that both of these men would enter English speaking seminaries within weeks of being shown the door. I find this a testament of their strength of character and determination – having your vocation ended is world-shattering, especially when its termination is done so crudely. Their stories are bizarre: apparently the reality of a vocation is different depending on which country and under which men you studied. This made vocations seem primarily a political consideration, not a spiritual one.
Those two men helped me greatly while I struggled in the seminary. Both were much older, older than even the rector, and they showed a lot of patience with me. My spiritual director introduced me to many great books and shared with me edifying stories of days long ago. In residence was an English-speaking priest. He was on sabbatical – recovering from malaria which he had contracted in the African missions – and he generously received me on those occasions when I needed to talk. Things could have been a lot harder without these people.
When I arrived in Canada, the superior was on a tour of the country. I remained at home for weeks, trapped in suburbia, completely lost. But finally he came back and I got to see him. He was new, having taken the reins about a month ago. He didn’t know me. I was not expected in Canada. The fax was incorrect. Why exactly the seminary was so interested in getting me out of the monastery, the country and apparently all of Europe, I would never find out. He had a good chuckle about this and then immediately asked if I wanted to go back to the seminary. I asked if that was an option. He said it was. I was flabbergasted. He made a phone call. And, just like that, I was a seminarian again.
This seminary of the Order was in an English speaking country. It was May – the scholastic year concluded in June, but they said to come anyway. Everything that had happened in France – no one seemed to think it was relevant. The slate was wiped clean. So, a bit dazed, I was back on a plane, flying out to meet the unknown. I was excited, but confused. It was hard for me to reconcile the spiritual ideals I still had with the very practical realities of how things were done. The peace I had found among the monks was already ebbing as I mulled over this. It was to be a portent of things to come, things I could not imagine. I had taken a bad hit, but the bandages were off: med leave was over.
“Platoon”: Story of a Seminarian - Part III
I arrived at the English-speaking seminary in May. I remember arriving during dinner. I was assigned a room. Quite oddly, I was given the room previously occupied by a seminarian who had died earlier that year, having drowned. Ironically, it was this seminarian my mother had been speaking of when I had misheard her, thinking she was speaking of my brother. This seminarian and I shared the same first name. It was not the most portentous of beginnings.
I joined what was termed the "Humanities Year", a pre-seminary year as it were, meant to shore up deficiencies in Liberal Arts and ensure that incoming seminarians were mentally fit for the studies ahead. I applied myself with great aplomb and managed to catch up quite easily. After the hell that had been France, studying in English was of immense ease. There were no older priests here. I did not know the best way to go about selecting a spiritual director, and I ended up making a choice that was to cause both him and myself much grief, and ultimately destroy my vocation. I selected the vice-rector. He appealed to me with his intelligence and broad vision; I was blind to the obvious signs of insecurity and control that his eclectic office and manner communicated, and I did not understand the political dangers of selecting the vice-rector as a director. In "Platoon", Chris rejoins the platoon a changed man. King reintroduces him to the men during their marijuana revel: "This here ain''t Taylor, Taylor been shot. This man here is Chris; he been resurrected." Similar to my reintroduction. Without the drugs.
There were around 80 seminarians and 7 professors. The rector was a bishop, which was a rare thing as there were only four in the entire order. This set up was immensely advantageous for the seminarians, but ultimately created a massive problem that apparently no one either foresaw or thought to address. There were around a dozen of us in the humanities year. I was a bit of novelty, joining at such a time, but the seminarians were accepting. My spiritual direction was simple - I went to confession, commented that things were well, and then, in the silence, he would pick up the conversation by expounding a book he was reading or tell of things he had seen during a visit or vacation. My experience in France left me very aloof and mistrusting - I admittedly wasn''t the friendliest chap and often preferred silence and being alone to talking and group activities. At least here I could be alone during recreation if I liked.
The year ended and I was ecstatic. Being in the Humanities year, I wasn''t involved in anything important, so I could concentrate on studies and prayer and happily strive to realize my ideals. I received a fantastic report; the bishop wrote but two words: bene caepisti which means "you have begun well". It was the greatest compliment I had ever received - it meant I had entered in May and proved in just a month that I was welcome to return next year, that all my efforts and zeal belonged. During the summer I helped out at a boys'' camp and visited with my family. Things were well.
In September 2001, I again entered the first year of seminary studies, this time in English. I ended up quite proficient in my classes. The routine of the seminary was simple enough: there was a very stable schedule with the usual duties, studies during the week, longer receations twice a week and prayer throughout the day. The only real difficultly for me was the recreation. Before choosing to pursue the priesthood, I had been quite an athlete, cycling and running miles upon miles every day. France had been torture: little time; constant, forced sociability; and no showers had caused me to abandon everything but the walks seminarians took about the grounds. Active people who are forced into inactivity can become very depressed, and I was no different.
At this seminary, I was permited a shower every day, a true luxury. The problem was that recreation always happened after lunch, which was the biggest meal of the day. So I took to fasting so that I would not cramp up. But two days a week was still not enough for a young man. The seminary did not seem to understand that some young men require physical recreation beyond a daily 15 minute walk. Compounding my problem was that the more I learn and explore, the more physical energy I need to expend. Exercise was how I dealt with stress. In the seminary before, things had gotten so bad that I had lost synch with myself: mentally I was exhausted, but physically I was hyper. So hyper in fact that there were times when I woke up with my muscles in spasm. And that''s when I could sleep: this disconnnect between my brain and my body caused me to develop massive insomnia. I was no stranger to little sleep. As a young teenager I wanted to become a Navy SEAL. To this end I slept only 3 or 4 hours a night and tempered by body like a Tibetan Spartan. Then I found out that only US citizens could be Navy SEALS. So I started thinking about the Olympics. Back then, I was practically nocturnal, and my energy levels were extreme, allowing me to pursue my own intellectual and physical pursuits in tandem, while still attending high school, with hardly any sleep. I did this for years. The discipline of the seminary was good, but it was like decelerating into a wall.
The mental side of me was still stimulated-seminary studies are harder than anything I''ve ever encountered-but things were stilted. Studies were almost the only mental focus. They were all-consuming really. Hobbies and personal interests were not encouraged. Recreational reading was restricted to spiritual books and classical literature. If you played an instrument, mainly the piano or recorder, that was fine. I remember very little art, writing...almost nothing creative. In short, my creative mind was starved, and my physical body was frenetic. My whole being was under massive pressure as I attempted to force myself to adapt to a severely limiting regime. The other seminarians seemed at peace with this way of doing things. Admittedly though, I was a bit of a freak.
But really, things were going well and the months flew by. And then February 2nd approached. February 2nd, Candlemas, is the day seminarians receive their cassocks. Last year, I had been apphensive, feeling unworthy of receiving the cassock. A pious reflection perhaps, but one that was realized with generous assistance from the French. Now, the date was again approaching. This was really the first time I talked to my spiritual director about something personal, in this case, my anxiety. My psychology seemed to fascinate him, for he quizzed me, exploring my idealism, stoicism, pessimism, passion and magpie intelligence. The vice-rector was known to have a favourite in every year, and I was handed the mantle for mine. I didn''t really realize this favouritism until late in year three, when it became an open joke among other seminarians and even a couple of professors.
Despite last year, my parents again came for February 2nd. This time, I received the cassock. But I didn''t forget being humbled: in France, tailors had actually come to the seminary to take our measurements. I had ordered two, and I still had them. But their slick lines and fine fabric now saddened me, and I would only ever wear them on Sundays. Instead, I bought a serving cassock for my daily garb. The ceremony went fine. I forget how many there were of us, maybe 14 or so. Orginally there had been around 20, but a few had discerned the priesthood was not for them and had departed. Things seemed to be right.
I introduced my parents to my spiritual director and he came out with us to celebrate the day. I admired this man - his perception and thoughts were fascinating.
With the cassock came new responsibilities. We were integrated into the various departments that serve in the running of the seminary and its liturgical ceremonies, just like soldiers are given tasks within any military unit. In France, I had been a sacristan (we all had jobs there as there were no upper seminarians). My favourite task was filling the ciborium - I used to get teased that I was so intense when on task that I barely breathed. I loved the privilege of being a sacristan. Here, I was assigned to both the Guest and Master of Ceremonies departments. The Master of Ceremonies is responsible for knowing, teaching and conducting liturgical ceremonies. It is an extreme honour and, quite frankly, a coveted position within such a group; it''s probably the premier position of unspoken leadership and ability. But I had missed the politics: almost all the MCs had the vice-rector as their confessor. The Guest department - responsible for greeting and accomdating all visitors - was also staffed by his spiritual sons. It allowed him to have control over these departments. In fact, I didn''t even realize, until I was second-in-command, that the Liturgy professor was actually to be consulted about ceremonies, not the vice-rector (it would seem obvious, but the praxis had never made it apparent).
In addition to this, the vice-rector''s interest in me began surpassing that of his other charges: he began feeding my passionate idealism and voracious mind, emptying the summation of his library into it. This was the last thing I needed: it was like pouring gasoline onto a wandering flame. In addition to my normal studies, I was devouring books by the shelf, everything from World Literature to Philosophy, and I was starved for experiences. I remember going through the complete works of Dostoyevsky in two months, reading them in 5 and 10 minute snatches when I could. And the more I intellectually ingested, the more hyper I became, and the more my imagination grew. I became antsy and dissatisfied with my extremely limited life experience and realized how incredibly ignorant I was when compared to the immensity of the human experience and thought. On Wednesdays and Sundays, when we had our 3 hours for recreation, I would sprint down the mountain and run half-marathons. This would always destroy my legs, but I just had to burn myself out. I was becoming increasing unstable - I felt like a comet tunneling through a planet, shedding pieces of itself even as it burrowed down to the heated core. And I couldn''t help but tunnel - I always wanted more. The peace and recollection of the First Year, called the Year of Spirituality, was being undermined by the passion of a young man: I was unable to discipline my mind.
First year was a blur. Sometimes, seminarians left. Many times, there was no explanation as to why, and really, they didn''t owe us one. But France was burned into my mind: they had struck me down without warning. In France, I had been the first to leave. Here, I was seeing better men than myself leaving and I couldn''t understand why. Nor why I was still here and they weren''t. A poor parallel would be to combat soldiers who come through a battle while some others don''t and there''s nothing but the mystery of the bullet''s path to answer why. But vocations aren''t mere chance. So I asked my spiritual director how one knew whether someone had a vocation or not. His response was vague: he was waiting. For what, he wouldn''t say. And I became paranoid. It seemed to me just a matter of time until the carpet would be pulled out from under me. For every seminarian that left without a why, I became ever more fearful my turn was coming. The attrition rate for vocations when I was there was around 75% to 90% depending on the class...that''s huge, and when no one can articulate how you become part of the 10% to 25%, you worry. This was a deadly worm in my mind: my trust for authority figures would never fully recover after France. Investing everything you are in something that you believe can explode at any moment is a horrible mental anguish, like hugging a bomb to your chest and running, hoping you''ll finish the race before it goes off. I would live like this for the next four years, my mind raw with worry and expectations of betrayal.
And I dealt with this by writing. This is where Revelatio began. Bravado was my fire, and Vandermere was my hope. They are the same person, and only one could survive. And, when I started writing, I didn''t know which one was going to make it. But I know now, and one day, when the book is done, so will others if they read it.
Thus ended first year with all the pieces in place for the tragedy that was to follow, and I and my fellow seminarians couldn''t see it.
“Platoon”: Story of a Seminarian - Part IV
My vacation time that year was the best time of my life – I assisted at a boys camp in California and met some of the most outrageous people of my experience. It bears a blog post of its own, but that can keep for another time. Truly beyond belief. I’m so thankful I had those crazy experiences.
In my first year, I felt things were off, but I couldn’t articulate why. In second year, things became clearer. Why was I so sad? First was the seminary itself – it suffered from what some of us called “the microcosm”. That is, we received no contact from the outside world other than letters and the odd phone call. Our world was the seminary, and we were the sum total of its population. It was a fish bowl, a soap opera where little insignificant things became big things. What was frustrating was that both the rector and vice-rector talked about experiences and stimulated thought and conversation that we had no way of exploring in any practical way. For some, this may not have been a problem, but it wound me up something fierce. I called this “seeing the world behind glass” and it frustrated me. To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching: do not show the people what they cannot have, or they will be unhappy. It''s the same with soldiers: feeling helpless is a horrible thing. When you are pinned down, under bombardment or laid up, all you want to do is get out there and do something, anything but just wait for it.
The other thing was the mixed messages. Some of the classes were ridiculously difficult. There was pressure, however, to achieve intellectual excellence. But then you were told that’s not what determined your vocation. But then some seminarians left because “they couldn’t handle the studies”. One professor took great delight in padding his already vaguely worded tests with excerpts from his tangents, I guess to make sure we were listening. These were trick questions, such as asking whether he was going to such and such a place the time he was talking to such and such a man during a certain flight. Of course, the destination was fine; the thing was though, he was talking to a woman. Add to this was that for an incorrect answer, you lost a mark. It was theoretically possible to get -100% on such tests. That really got to me…toying with us. It was so disrespectful. There are better ways to foster humility if that’s what it was all about. Then there were oral exams for some subjects, and the professors deliberately stilted your answers, then drawing conclusions that you were not making.
Then there was the speed. In year two we were given just an introduction to Philosophy – for many of us, the first foray into the subject. By the middle of year three, we had to write a paper refuting the life’s work of a modern philosopher. How could we stand as men among men when we dismissed things after such a superficial grasp of their entirety? Simplistic arguments, undeveloped thought, forced refutation…this was not how we were going to win over hearts and minds. I memorized concepts that I couldn’t understand. It felt rushed and cheap. My education felt incomplete and full of holes. Too much material, too fast, with no reflection. It wasn’t education; it was a factory.
The above was aggravated by professors who liked to show off – intellectually – or who shook their heads at us, calling us dumb, because we had had such poor educations. Which was true, but we were not responsible for that. Outside of the bishop, I never received an encouraging remark from a seminary professor. They were either holy to the point of impartial, or critical to the point of oblivion. It never felt like any of them cared what was important to us. The bishop was surely an exception to this though.
Then there was the social aspect. Particular friendships were strictly discouraged. As a result, I formed almost no insights into the individuality of my fellow seminarians. Conversations were polite, edifying and devoid of any real controversy (excluding the tiresome microcosm melodrama). Those with whom I naturally got along with, I understood through the prism of who I was. Everyone else was just a nice guy. Many, I just didn’t understand, and I couldn’t really find a way to get to know them since everyone was so guarded. I don’t think there was anyone I particularly disliked; it was just that I really didn’t know much about any of them and what made them tick. I wanted to know that they were like me, that they had things that they were fighting and had opinions and thoughts of their own. We didn’t trust each other with our weaknesses and as a result, we never knew each other for our strengths.
This problem was compounded by my desire to talk about the above – these “negative” things. I was afraid of mentioning them to any of the professors because I figured they’d level me with a charge of “bad spirit” and my vocation would be done. Because of the randomness and unpredictability of vocations, I feared people with authority – I feared they made decisions based on abstract ideals, not on people. I was an idealist myself, but I recognized when ideals clashed with reality, and I stuck it out and took the brunt upon myself. From our superiors there was no love and no trust. I stopped giving any back. I didn’t begin that way. Lest it be thought I exaggerate: once a year the Assistant to the General Superior of the Order came and interviewed each seminarian for five minutes. He asked us to be open and tell how things were going. I always made vacuous chit chat, and he seemed to enjoy that. One of the other seminarians actually tried articulating things once and was reprimanded. The message he was given was clear: the fault was in him, not the system.
Probably the most agonizing thing for me was the priests’ meeting. Once a year, the priests of several countries come together at the seminary for a conference of sorts lasting roughly a week. While there are spiritual elements to this gathering, it also gives priests a chance to relax and recreate. You got to see priests with their guard down. Some were edifying. Those priests who stayed on point – who took the conferences seriously, who stayed the same when they were among their own, theirs was a great example. Then there were those who didn’t – who talked and acted differently than how I had always known them when among parishioners. The most unedifying thing about the week was the main event: the seminarians versus priests hockey game. In my time, the seminarians had never lost. It was only a matter of time though, as our talent gradually was absorbed into their ranks. It shocked me how the priests trash talked. No big deal in the world, but it was so petty and mean-spirited. They took it so seriously. And they played dirty and desperate, fierce determination bottled up in bodies slowed by driving and sitting and eating. Nothing gracious about it.
I remember before the game, one professor, who always put us down, told us we were going to lose. Just straight out antagonism built on years of snide jabs. But we finally had an outlet to respond: on the scoreboard. I wanted to boycott the match – just take the trophy and plunk it at center ice with a note: “here’s your silver at last, the price for betraying charity.” But the game happened. We won. I stood aloof, 10 meters back so I wouldn’t be in the championship photo. Winning solved nothing. They''d be back next year. If they ever won, well, I had no desire to see them win if this was how they lost. Then, first class after the priest’s meeting, I plunked that bloody trophy on that prof’s desk with a note, “Oh ye of little faith.” It was my first belligerent move, the first manifestation of rêbêllïon. You could see it in the eyes of the seminarians: there were two camps, those who were absolutely incredulous at my temerity, and those who tacitly approved. But I was so angry – I just wanted someone with authority to be better. I didn’t understand what the priesthood was if the status quo was enough. It was just a job then. I couldn’t accept that.
In "Platoon", Sergeant Barnes and Elias represent the two halves of the platoon. This split weakens the team, for each member of the platoon supports either one or the other; there is no middle ground. A crisis is imminent. Barnes represents the inexorable desire to see things through, despite the cost. If the rules get in the way, you break the rules. It''s about surviving and winning. Elias represents order, holding tight to the rules no matter how dark things get. Elias doesn''t believe the war can be won, but he doesn''t want to lose his humanity while trying to outlast it. This dichotomy happened within me. I had Barnes in me: the system was broken. I was suffering. But I wanted the end, so I was going to do what it took to get there. But I also saw things as Elias: I was not willing to compromise my ideals and integrity to achieve my end.
At night I’d stare into the abyss of my ceiling. A black depression was throttling me. The Catholic priesthood was the most noble of things a man could hope to serve. What a beautiful life: a double sacrifice, one of your own life, one of the altar. I understood that the priesthood was made up of men, but how could it be that so few aspired to be more than the sum of their proclivities? I didn’t need to see good men – I just had to see men fighting to be better. A man who fights himself is a tremendously edifying thing. Why was I doing this then? I didn’t sign up to be a sacramental vending machine, I signed up because I truly believed that this was something in which I could be consumed - it was something greater than myself! It was about saving souls.
My spiritual direction had turned into a patient visiting his psychiatrist. My insomnia and fears had me returning to him a couple times a week, sometimes even after Compline (which is not exactly according to the rule) and stretching into the early a.m. Sometimes I just sat there and cried. Sometimes I vented. He kept poking, digging. I don’t what he thought he’d find. I don’t know what he was looking for. But the more he made me feel that something was wrong with me, the more I believed it. Thinking back, all I needed was a reassurance that I was not crazy – that I was on the right path. Or, if I was not, that this was not where I belonged. I needed simplicity. Instead I was given more doubt which made more depression. The guiding of young men is an art…I was twisting in the wind with an incredibly intense personality that I couldn’t marshal.
Things got out of hand. The spiritual director himself was beginning to see he couldn’t contain things – he once flat out finally admitted I was the most intense person he’d ever encountered. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I was out of synch with everything. I went home at Christmas and Easter and my family was appalled at the hollow-eyed wraith that lived by night and slept by day.
And I couldn’t talk to anyone. The mantras of charity, obedience and happiness, the collected facades in the stalls of the church – I was darkness in the midst of light. We didn’t dare complain or admit weakness, fear or anger to each other. We talked about the modern Church only to act aghast at its monstrous novelties or to shake our heads at the naughty world. We just erased negative emotion instead of facing it. No one ever admitted a fault unless it was an imperfection that was more worth a chuckle than an apology. Everyone was such a good man, I began to believe only I had such negative emotions. I felt like there was a horrible darkness inside me, a pollution I had let fester. “The complainers never make it” had been said to me in passing by a priest, and that stuck – too often when I tried to broach subjects with upper years or priests I was given a smile and a simplistic platitude.
For ordinations that year, I was third in the MC department, which meant I would be assisting as 2nd Master of Ceremonies for the ordination ceremony while being head of Guest Department, as the current head was receiving orders. I had over 70 guests to accommodate, while training for a 3 hour ceremony and studying for exams. The night before the ceremony my health broke and I got a severely sore throat. I went to the infirmarian, who, like me, was filling in for the head. He didn’t know what to do. In our naivety, we decided that a shot of brandy would do the trick. An entire shot, on an empty stomach, for someone who didn’t drink at all.
It was my first time being drunk. Thankfully, I didn’t do it on purpose, so at least I had that. But if you’re going to get drunk, you may as well go all out and do it while you’re a religious, right? Right. My mind worked well enough, a bit off, but my body was the real problem. The ground suddenly had all these holes in it. I had to get to the final practice. I showed up in my sick, drunken state, trying very hard not to be. They saw something was wrong with me, but no one tried to find out what. So they just left me behind. Fair enough – it was after all the most important night of the year. So I went to my room, slowly dragging my feet, feigning a headache. I spent the night on the floor. Woke up and did the ceremony as sick as a dog. By pure force of will, I did my duty. Then, when lining up for pictures, I collapsed against the church doors behind everyone. The other MC took me inside. And that’s why there are no MCs in that year’s ordinations photos. I felt pretty awful for that – it is an MC’s greatest honour to serve that ceremony, and took that away from him.
At the conclusion of my second year, the seminary was to go on an East Coast trip, a tour of the United States and its origins. Our tour guide was to be an author, a magnanimous man of humour and dubious allegiance, being that he was Catholic, just not our flavour of Catholic. We became instant friends. I opened up to him instantly, as is my nature when I encounter those few people that I know I can be myself around. My spiritual director was livid. In five minutes I had become a friend to a complete stranger after he had spent years trying to get me to open up to him. I was reprimanded and forced to sit beside my spiritual director on the bus. I wasn’t allowed to walk near the tour guide. I was to avoid talking to him. It was insane. The other seminarians were outright embarrassed. In a telling twist of irony, this author is one of three people I am still friends with after my years in the seminary.
So, for three weeks, across many of the 13 colonies of America, I was all but tethered to my spiritual director. It was the most embarrassing and ridiculous situation up to this point. I was a child, and he was my disapproving father, only I would never accept him as such. But I took it. Out of obedience.
That trip ended and there was news: the bishop was being transferred. In an incredibly unlikely turn of events, the principal I had begun my journey under in Quebec had been appointed the new rector. The reaction among the seminarians was mixed – murmurs finally started to surface from under the facades. The bishop was well liked, and there were rumours the transfer was more political than anything else.
That didn’t matter to me. When year two ended, I was cooked. I had decided to quit. I went home that summer a burned out husk. But I didn’t want to give up. I wasn’t going to break. So I went back, for all the wrong reasons. I still wanted to be a priest, I still had the ideal. But I hated the seminary, I hated the way things were going. It was literally killing me. But I was trying to obey; I was trying to be what they wanted. And I wasn’t going to give up.
The village scene in "Platoon" is all about this struggle, to not lose yourself in the face of horror. Nietzsche said it best: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." Fighting evil tempts you to use the weapons that only evil can wield; how else can you truly give justice unless you are going to become as brutal? How many heroes go down the path of justice, and need to be put down in their turn? In the movie, the platoon loses one of its own and wants revenge. Barnes will be the vehicle of that revenge by executing civilians they believe to be aiding the VC, their enemy. But Elias won''t cross that line, and refuses to let anyone else cross it. This theme is shown in each soldier. Some burn the houses, shoot the animals, destroy food, beat civilians. Others aid the civilians, recover food. Chris fluctuates here, choosing. At first, he loses it, and comes close to going over to the side of blood. But ultimately he recovers his humanity and saves girls from being raped, facing down soldiers of his own "Platoon". In the end, the village is destroyed, taking away its potential to shelter the enemy, but the people are spared - all save two - and thus Barnes and Elias have a compromise, but neither are happy. The juxtaposition of this violence and mercy is perfectly captured in the shot of the soldiers evacuating civilians even while the flames reach up behind them.
I don''t think I crossed that line completely, but I was probably closer than I like to think.
“Platoon”: Story of a Seminarian - Part V
In “Platoon”, after the showdown in the village, there is a scene where Chris and Elias are on watch under the stars. Elias admits that he thinks that they will not win the war. Elias, as the symbol of humanity, is communicating that war cannot be waged humanely and won. And winning a war with brutality is not a victory, since by becoming brutal, the victor loses himself. Elias rationalizes his discouragement with the way the war is going by saying that their time of reckoning has come after decades of dominance. Chris believes in the system and is incredulous that the USA could lose.
This idea of dominance is entrenched in many Catholics. They lament about how bad the world is and how certain its approaching end must be, but you can spin them on a dime when you ask why Catholicism is so great, and suddenly you get litanies of praise about Catholic art, music, culture and progress. But where are those things now? In the past century, what has Catholicism done? Nothing. Catholics now seem content to rest on their laurels while waiting for the end of the world. It must be the end, because we’re not winning anymore – God’s going to come in and just clean everything up for us. This attitude sickens me. It has always sickened me. The world under glass.
Year three. There was a new rector. I thought nothing of it at the time as the shuffling of personnel was normal and the previous rector had had an unusually long run at the seminary. The new rector was not a bishop, and he brought in a new regime and new ideas on priestly formation.
I was now head of the Guest Department, a great privilege as I got to meet and talk with everyone who came through the seminary. However, there was a dark flip side: when a seminarian left, he did it through me. I had to arrange transportation. It was soul-crushing work. Too many times I’d open my door and be met with those eyes, those lost, defeated eyes. There were a few who left voluntarily, but even these rarely expressed or displayed any peace at their decision. Too many were just told abruptly…they had had no warning, no slow build of problems or cautions. You couldn’t prepare it seemed: the axe had just fallen and they didn’t understand why. And I felt it keenly, because I had been exactly where these men were – I was through the looking glass on this one. They deserved better: you have to give a man something to fix, or he’ll just dig into himself.
In that year, only one seminarian left with ease, with true peace. The rest specifically asked that I drive them out when the community was at prayer. They didn’t want to be seen. They didn’t want to say good bye. Some didn’t even tell anyone (but me) they were leaving. Those that did make it public had this aura suddenly around them, like a leper. It was heart-breaking. I began to have little anxiety attacks when someone knocked at my door – who was it this time? Whose eyes was it going to be? Why was leaving the seminary such a drama? If it wasn’t your vocation, there should have been such relief and rejoicing – you could go on with your life – you had put in the time! What friends you had made! You had been willing to make the sacrifice but were meant for something else! But I didn’t see this. Most were in shock. The car rides were silent. When was it going to be me again?
I knew the new rector. I knew that he would take the first year and watch, get the pulse of the place. I saw seminarians cozy up to him and knew they were cooked. He didn’t rebuke them, he let them hang themselves. Miserable. I gave warnings, but no one heeded them. Maybe they had to go. We all did in the end.
The priest meeting came again. Our best player had been ordained last year and transferred overseas. It was known that he was flying over to be at the meeting. Because of the hockey game. The rector personally took me aside to tell me to lose the game. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding, but he said it three times with that inscrutable smile of his. Everything was a smile. Integrity…who had it? Who cared. I couldn’t throw a game on purpose. That’s not charity. But if I played, I knew I’d be playing with anger. So I didn’t sign up for the game. Being one of the better players, my absence was a clarion call and the head deacon came to berate me for my poor example. The seminarians won, but the next year they didn’t, and they’ve struggled ever since. End of an era.
This same deacon then went and excluded the humanities students from playing in the priests vs seminarians basketball game at the priests request. The reason? “They were not seminarians”. They decided this after arriving at the court. Not seminarians. Wow. Do they not live in the seminary? Are they not taught by seminary professors? Do they not pay seminary tuition? Do they not eat, drink, work, suffer and live their lives beside the rest of us? They even gave up their rooms to go sleep on the dank floors of uninhabitable rooms so the priests could sleep and live in decency during their visit. The priests won the basketball game. Then the sub-seminarians were allowed to play.
In normal circumstances, I would brush this off, but it was constant, all these mean, petty instances and indulgences. Death by a thousand cuts. I’ve heard of an oriental torture that involves fixing a man in a chair and letting water fall on his head, drop after ponderous drop. One drop is nothing, but over time, it supposedly drives a man insane. Why was everything so petty? Why? I was seething.
Initially, I thought it was the microcosm that caused this pettiness, but the priests were visiting from the outside. Years later, it came to me: there was a false understanding of charity. This is a pretty heavy accusation to level against a seminary. In the seminary, we wore facades. People didn’t show passion: fear, anger, sadness, joy – these emotions were saved for behind closed doors. If someone got passionate, seminarians acted scandalized, as though one of us had just thrown someone through a stained glass window. There was this intense repression and self-control. Buzz words and phrases were used like mantras: “edifying”, “scandalizing”, “be prudent”. They had a barracks full of young generous men and wanted them to be unemotional, unimaginative, unphysical automatons. It was an insane way to live. My spiritual director used to say I was inhuman, but to me, the level of repression was what was inhuman.
There is an almost forgotten book written by Miles Connolly called Mr. Blue. I personally don’t like the book, and I find the character of Mr. Blue impractically and overly romantic, but Connolly nails the problem with Catholics who identify as ‘Traditionalist’: “And even you preach caution to me! How I detest that word! How it has written its evil over our lives. Why, a man can’t be spontaneously affectionate today without being suspected of weakness! We are advised to watch ourselves. We are counseled to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Silence, caution, reserve, are urged as prime virtues. Our fear of exuberancy, of ecstasy, of any genuine passion, is being stamped on our faces and our lives. We become a thin-lipped, close-eyed people. A thousand fine inheritances are being compressed into a single character – and what a thin weak putty that character is! Once, I am told, men put on their shields and banners such brave words as Love, Audacity, Faith. Today we have written across a million pages and placards, Thrift, Safety first. We have about as much hunger for loveliness as a turtle. And about as much capacity for intense and varied living as a cabbage.”
Connolly continues, “Conservative historians describe any man with a passion for greatness as a megalomaniac. Conservative citizens regard such a man with suspicion. ‘Look at him,’ they say to one another, ‘the idiot! Why doesn’t he settle down and establish himself in the community? Why is he forever restless, forever trying to get something beyond him? That man is crazy.’ These conservatives are partly right. Play life safe, and you’ll keep out of harm. Be careful, be cautious, and you’ll never die on Satin Helena. Your failure is measured by your aspirations. Aspire not, and you cannot fail. Columbus died in chains. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Let us live snugly – and life will soon be little more than a thick gelatinous stream of comfortability and ignorance.”
I was a highly creative, intelligent, imaginative, spiritual and athletic individual. The outlets provided to both develop and finish my character and talents were insufficient. The seminary powers had their ideal seminarian, and we had to fit the mould. I had to repress my talents. I had to repress me. I was told that there was a problem with me. I learned to hate who I was, what I was, and to distrust all my thoughts and inclinations. With the new regime, it became apparent that what was wanted was a different kind of priest. Correction was done by light mockery during spiritual conferences. The seminarians laughed only when the speaker laughed. It reminded me of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”. This was disrespectful. This was not how you treated men who would need to be leaders. Individuality was highly discouraged. Docility was the prime virtue. Those seminarians with leadership qualities were marginalized. They wanted foot soldiers, not dynamic leaders, thinkers or creators. We became unsuitable. But they didn’t tell us to leave, they slowly squeezed us. This way we left of our own accord. A decade later, I have met some of the men who have been ordained from this system. They are good men. Calm men, very pious who know their technique – I’ve never seen a mass celebrated with such exactness. But there are no character men among them, and no leaders. And that will become a problem in the future when they will need those seminarians whose vocations they so ignominiously wasted.
There were bad politics rumbling in the seminary. The previous rector, being a bishop, had to travel often. As a result, he had given many of his administrative duties to the vice-rector. And the new rector wanted them back. But the vice-rector wasn’t yielding; he had created a small empire, placing his favourites in positions of power. And so we became the pawns. And that’s when the purge began.
The next scene in “Platoon” finds the men back on patrol with a crisis imminent between Barnes and Elias. The men are divided between them. The platoon walks into an ambush and is decimated. I look at this scene as a perfect metaphor for what happened in third year. I was divided between the ideal of sticking to the rule, that was destroying me, or to start taking liberties. I think everyone in my year was feeling that pressure. The ambush was the new rector – he started cutting us down; you were a guaranteed fatality unless you got with his program. Some of us got hit. These men we initially lost would probably have been fine if the rector had been there just two years earlier, when they first entered, for then they’d have been in the system. They would have been his men, moulded in his system. But they weren''t. This circumstance reinforced my growing exasperation with how vocations were discerned: the evidence here again pointed to politcs with lip service to "the Will of God". Which was an almost blaphemous cop out - everything is the Will of God, the question no one ever asked was whether it was his Positive or Permissive Will. No one would take responsibility for what was happening. We were in the right place, but at the wrong time. I have this reflection when the friendly fire comes raining down and kills the men. Like them, we had no chance.
Ultimately, the platoon makes a fighting retreat. Elias, hoping to protect the platoon, goes off alone to protect its flank. Barnes later goes after him and finds him alive and victorious. And Barnes shoots him. The crisis is solved: the ideal gone. Now war can rage without conscience. Lest it seem my interpretation of "Platoon" and the character of Elias to be self-indulgent or melodramatic, Director Oliver Stone obviously wanted to invoke Elias as a Christ figure what with his headband (crown of thorns), spread arms (on the cross), abandonment to the enemy (left on the ground in enemy territory) and final appeal to the heavens ("Eli Eli lama sabachthani"). Most telling, if you look at his right hand, you can even see a giant thorn through the palm (nail). It''s a crucifixion scene. Elias, the one who represents humanity, is lost and brutality remains in the figure of Barnes, who now owns the platoon. By the end of the year, my ideal of the priesthood would die too. That last scene, where Elias bursts from the tangles of the jungle, lost, abandoned and injured, that was us. Who was the enemy? The world? The devil? The modern Church? No one was hurting us like our own superiors…no one came close.
I was heading for a nervous breakdown. Sessions with my spiritual director were up to 3 or 4 times a week. I was resisting him now, putting up walls just to keep him out of my head, but he was determined to tackle every wall. We were destroying each other in silent cerebral slug matches of will and intellect. He allowed me to go running in the mornings. Twice a week I would rise at 4 am and run down to the town and run along the river. The whole world was asleep. It was glorious. I would race the sun back up the hill and get back before the rising bell. I loved those moments. He also exempted me from two courses, which was the wrong move – now I felt even more behind. I felt like I’d have to put in an extra year to make up. My depression increased. My panic increased. The axe had to be coming.
My spiritual director had a passive aggressive way of talking with me. One moment, he wanted to be acknowledged as a father figure, the next, he was the disapproving pseudo-psychiatrist. Every time I opened up in friendship, he’d analyze it and make me feel like garbage. But the most horrible thing he ever did was start telling me who was going to get kicked from the seminary. I don’t know why he did that. That was hell. I knew before the seminarian knew. I would leave his room and I’d see that seminarian, laughing and talking and doing his duties. He didn’t know it was over. Once I was told 3 months in advance of the actual culling of someone. There was no reason why. That ex-seminarian, to this day, doesn’t even know why he was asked to leave. He was just “unsuitable”. I knew the knock was coming. Oh, the rage, the helplessness. These were not humanities or first years he was name dropping, these were men who’d already put in 3 or 4 years, men who were committed. How can a vocation not be discerned after 2 years? That is a massive disservice. Sure, there might be exceptions, but this was becoming the norm. Their dreams were dead all over their face. Their efforts destroyed, reasons mysterious, and I felt party to it by my silence. But what was I to do? Tell them? What would that solve? I felt powerless.
Long before things had come to this head, I should have changed spiritual directors. But things had gotten too deep, too fast. I feared for my vocation should I make a move: he was the vice-rector, and if he didn’t like you, he could end your vocation. He’d made that clear. I had entered the seminary a pliant, good-willed, idealistic young man and now…what was I?
My spiritual director finally concluded there was a mental disorder here. By now, I’m sure there was. Without consulting me, he called my mother, panicked her, and inquired about the family history. My mom told him everything she could. He took that and then told me that I must be suffering from schizophrenia, as it had once been in my family history. But this was not so, as I was too old to suddenly have developed it. But I didn’t know that, and I believed him. Panicked and heartbroken, I went to the rector and told him – mental disorders are an impediment to the priesthood. This was devastating news for me. The rector calmed things down wonderfully by telling me I’d have to see a psychiatrist. This based on a panicked outburst from me based on a diagnosis from my spiritual confessor who made it from an ersatz family history that had no relevance.
When Easter came, I was so distraught I made a massive blunder. I was to take the Easter oils back to my parish. I lost them on the way there. I think I put the box on top of a cab while loading my stuff and forgot it there. We drove 15 minutes on the highway before I caught my error but despite backtracking, it was not recovered. It was so out of character for me to do something so careless. I’d completely lost my edge. One of the more sarcastic seminarians consoled me that – as the oils were mostly made with olive oil – some hobo was probably enjoying them on a salad. He didn’t make it either.
When I went home that Easter, I’d determined to not go back. This was actually the fourth time I’d decided that. Each time was like gunning down my fiancé and then opening the front door a week later and finding her on the porch, smiling. This because I always dredged up more will: I always went back, hoping in this vocation. During this break, however, under my spiritual director’s orders and diagnosis, I went to my family doctor and he gave me anti-depression pills. No questions asked. I started taking them and became suicidal. I stopped taking them and lied to my confessor about it. And I felt better. My parents, my poor, poor parents. They had no clue what was going on. I can’t imagine what it must have been like watching their son degenerate over the years while in the pursuit of a vocation. What a martyrdom for a parent.
So, I went back again. The year closed. I was teetering on the edge of sanity. I’d become the second in command in the MC department, which meant I would be responsible for the ordinations that year, as the current head would be receiving orders. This, plus I was head of the Guest Department, which meant I needed to direct all the visiting priests. And, of course, there were exams. But I had enough – this wasn’t about being rebellious, I truly felt my sanity slipping away and I just wanted to survive. During my oral examination, rather than be railroaded, I outright contradicted the priest – who just happened to be my confessor – and challenged him. The assisting priest backed right off. The student after me missed his time. And when I’d explained myself to my satisfaction, I shut up. I was mad as hell and I wasn’t going to take it anymore.
I was angry with my spiritual director. Furious. I had felt subservient to him – he had opened so many doors and experiences that I was grateful for, but I was also horrified of him. His need for affirmation. He had tried to mould me into a protégé, even a son, but I was too intense to be cowed like that. I was resisting. I was too stupid to recognize the politics but I instinctively resisted playing them. He had favoured me, giving me books, taking me on trips, treating me with extra attention and consideration. I didn’t want that special stuff – I react very badly to it, which is the opposite of what every other favourite had apparently done. He couldn’t break me, and he wanted to so badly.
Was it pride that was destroying me? This obsession with integrity that I so coveted in myself? I had an ideal of who I was, who I wanted to be, and I would not violate it. But finally my ideals were broken. The breaking point came with a phone call. It was a small thing, the needle that broke the camel’s back. A young priest, ordained when I first arrived, was coming in from overseas for the ordinations. During the ceremony, the younger priests are given the duty of hearing confessions, which essentially means they will miss the ceremony, which is understandably upsetting since they personally know the men being ordained. This priest told me that he was not to be assigned this task. He said it in a terrible way. And that’s when I stopped wanting to be a priest. All I had wanted was to say mass and hear confessions. That was it really. I didn’t know if that’s what you were supposed to want, because no one would give me a straight answer about what a vocation was and how you detected one. But that’s what I thought it was…serving God, doing those two things. And this priest didn’t want to do it. I was killing myself to have the honour of doing this, and he was just a couple years ordained and talking like this.
I went into the spiritual director’s office. He was with another seminarian. I told him, “the priesthood is supposed to be the most noble of offices, but it’s not.” Then I ran out, tearing into the back woods where there was a statue of Our Lady and cried until my eyes were burnt out with tears.
I served as head MC a few days later. It was the greatest moment of my life. Three thousand people there, there because they believed in the priesthood. I did that ceremony like a machine…perfect, calculated. Empty. Seven priests. I know their names. I see their faces. I knew the name of every priest there in attendance. I was in agony. But deep down, I was so happy to have that privilege. I stood beside the bishop and looked at those people. I had wanted to serve them.
I went home that summer. I told the district superior my resolve. He was the one who had given me my second chance. He asked me to reconsider, to keep the cassock and perhaps teach in a school. And, because I wanted it so bad, I relented once more, and agreed.
It was off to school for me.
“Platoon”: Memoirs of an Ex-seminarian - VI
"Did you ever get caught in a mistake that you just can''t get out of?" Chris asks King this hours before his final battle of the war. At this point in the movie, poltics and incompetence have claimed more lives of the platoon than the enemy, and this sickens Chris. And he knows he can''t do anything about it. No one cares about him. He''s there to obey and to fight. If he dies, they''ll replace him. King responds that they were never anything special in the first place: just worry about surviving the war, and the rest of your life is awesome.
As a Catholic young man, you are told there is nothing more precious than a vocation. You are told about the greatness of the priesthood and those that have gone before. You are told about how in these times, when the Church is in such turmoil, good, holy priests are so badly needed. You are told that they do care about you: "Come to the seminary, young man! Come and try your vocation! We want you to come! You are so badly needed!" I went. And I wanted to learn and grow and serve. But I saw vocations getting wasted. Young men getting wasted, their personalities dimmed and poisoned with doubt and sadness and lashing out. And we didn''t sign up waiting for our tour to expire; we''d signed up for life - we wanted to be in the war! We signed up knowing that it wasn''t glamorous or exciting - it''s a sacrifice. We''d never have homes or families or careers or accomplishments. We gave everything we were and could be, ready to sacrifice it all. And our sacrifice was rejected. There is no greater embarassment than having a gift returned. Especially if the gift is yourself.
An ex-seminarian has the potential to receive a rare and unique grace: when the human side fails him, he must sacrifice his vocation.
Before I went off to take a year in the field, we seminarians underwent the 40 Day Ignatian Retreat. This is a time of reflection, silence and meditation upon the mysteries of the Catholic religion. Forty days of anything can start to wear long, but it wasn’t the silence or regimentation that challenged me, it was the lack of physical outlets; you could walk the grounds, and that was it. I did love that these exercises allowed us to rise at midnight to go to the chapel, a habit I had sorely missed while in the seminary.
The days were long and difficult: I found the meditations very dry – it was very exhausting to stay focused day after day like that, deflecting distractions and praying through desolation. And it was all desolation. There was also the silence, which included mortification of the eyes. You avoided other people, right down to avoiding eye contact. I can understand this was to keep things focused, but it’s the one thing about retreats that has always confused me. The acknowledging of another person’s existence is the practice of charity at its most basic level and this is removed for some abstract spiritual effect, one which I don’t think I ever grasped. This was also done in the seminary. I became so adept at it that to this day I don’t acknowledge people unless I need to interact with them. It’s actually a very bad habit. In general, the retreat was disappointing. In a retreat, it’s not about receiving great meditations or unlocking mysteries of the Faith, it’s about battling to stay in the spirit of the exercises, and I did that. But if charity is the summary of the Faith, then where is the practice? After 40 days, I didn’t notice a change in anyone, much less myself. If anything, these exercises were the prelude to the worst year in the seminary of the past decade.
During the 40 day retreat we were granted one or two days where the exercises and silence was suspended. During one of these days I informed one of the seminarians that his name had been dropped for termination. He ended up lasting another two years before it caught up to him.
So I went and became a school teacher. A high school teacher. And I was ridiculously underqualified since I was, in fact, a high school dropout with no diploma. I was given Religion and Geography to teach, but quickly became the unofficial supply teacher, so I ended up seeing a lot of classes.
There were three priests at the priory where I was stationed. I picked as my spiritual director the one that most reflected the one I had in France – this was my first good move in forever. The other two priests were very jovial. They were all overweight, and I was a jerk to point it out, but these men were real – they didn’t pretend to be anything but whom they were, and that was so refreshing. They were better men than me, and I came to see that. It dawned on me that it was harder for a priest to live in a city full of amenities than in a third world country, for out there, you only had God, whereas here, there were endless distractions and temptations. It was comfortable and it could be made easy. I would live their life and come to see that I was indeed a brutal person who struck down others with ideals. I finally asked the prior, halfway through my term there, why nobody had ever bothered to tell me I was such an @$$hole. He laughed. He was all right.
I was introduced to the parish, during the first Sunday sermon there, as the seminarian that was not to be married. They had had a seminarian the year before, and he had decided to stop. He met a girl and got married. He was a good man, and a friend. It was an embarrassing beginning for everyone. And I’m sure he didn’t appreciate it, seeing as he had joined the parish. I was basically given everything to do that he had done the year before.
I finally had time to exercise. I had time to de-stress. I did well with teaching at the school. The community life in the priory was extremely lax – I don’t think we sat down together even once for a meal and I usually sang Compline alone. But I didn’t mind that at all. In the night, I used to go and kneel at the Communion rail like I had done all those years before and sing to Our Lady. But now I sang in pain. It was bitter sweet. I loved being in the Church, hainvg those long hours to pray before the tabernacle with the whole world quiet for a moment...but there was such agony in me. I knew no peace of soul.
There was a massive disconnect between the seminary and the reality of life in the field. And there was the agony of uncertainty of what my next move was. My vocation had gone so wrong. There was no way to discern the Will of God. When things get that cloudy, the Will of God is supposed to come through your superiors, but the seminary superiors had failed, and the local superiors didn’t know what was going on. Every night I’d go to the chapel and grip the communion rail bars. I was locked out. I felt so abandoned. I was determined to love God even though I was convinced He no longer loved me. It made me feel noble to think this, that there was something in me that still was strong. It was a foolish thing to say, but I felt completely cast off. At least I had the Church. At least I could pray.
I fit into the routine well. I declined a car and used a bicycle, since I only needed to travel to the school. In my extra time, I visited the chapel, took up origami and calligraphy, learned guitar, roller-bladed, cycled, did martial arts, weight-lifted and ran. I over-indulged on the physical level, having missed it for so many years, but I was much healthier in mind, body and spirit – things were balancing. On Fridays I would take myself out for dinner. I received a $20 stipend once a week and I admittedly spent it on myself in the form of origami paper and sushi. The sushi bar proprietors never understood what I was, but they figured from my robes I was some sort of holy man and considered my attendance good luck. After a while, I became friends with the entire staff and they showed me how to make sushi.
Before Christmas, I mailed my spiritual director at the seminary. I was full of energy and self-realizations. His letter back steadied me, brought me back to the realities. It was a pail of cold water. Then he called the priory. Said he wanted to come visit. I told him not to come. I told him I was changing spiritual directors. He told me I had no vocation. And there it was.
So, it was over. I announced to the priests in the priory I wasn’t coming back after Christmas. I went home. But I felt ashamed – vocation or not, it was the middle of the year. I owed it to the children, and the school and the families and the priests. I told myself that it was not a legitimate dismissal anyway. Was I going to give up now? So I went back. A letter from the vice-rector was waiting for me. It was suggested that if I fought his decision, he’d lean on the mental disorder impediment (which had yet to be determined). It read like blackmail. This was the first time my mind did not default to a charitable explanation of a person’s actions. I had lived naively until this point in my life, but this seemed so off, so emotional and poorly done. I wrote him back, giving him the benefit of the doubt, but ultimately communicated I did not share his opinion.
The General Superior came through on a tour and visited the priory. Nine priests gathered and welcomed him, including the district superior of that country. They took him to a resort for a meal. I remember the food was so expensive it made me physically ill to eat it. During dinner, the General Superior attempted to bring up a point of doctrine to discuss. The senior priest responded with, “We don’t want to talk about that – we want to talk about golf!” And the priests all laughed. I was truly scandalized. The bishop took it well, and sat back and let them talk. Years later, this superior general would fall under heavy criticism from some quarters for putting his “yes men” in positions of authority throughout the order. I always remember that moment at the table and imagine what it must have been like for him if every visit as he trudged over the world was like that. “Yes men” or not, he must have seen who was serious and who was not. Out of the 9 priests in attendance at that dinner, none of them were ever given major posts, even to this day.
In February, the priests went to the priest meeting. I stayed back at the priory to teach. When they came back they had news: I was to spend another year at the priory. I was floored. I made phone calls, inquiries. In a starting rework of events, my volunteer year – as determined by me and the district superior of the region – had been reframed at the seminary by authorities unknown as a year of exile. Apparently, I was being disciplined here in the missions. I asked the priests what reason had been given that I stay another year. They didn’t know. In fact, they told me they hadn’t even been contact by the seminary since I’d arrived. I was massively confused. If the vice-rector had wanted me out, I’d be out. If the rector wanted me back, I’d be back. My confessor was baffled. He told me I belonged back in the seminary. If they didn’t take me back, I should just move on with my life. Is that what a vocation is then?
My final months in the mission were an abyss. I don’t remember anything. I was completely lost. I went back to the seminary for ordinations. As the seminary was packed with visitors, I fittingly spent my stay in “Hell” which is the nickname given to the library room in which forbidden books were kept. I found the seminarians in chaos – there was serious turmoil and demoralization; some seminarians were practically in open rêbêllïon. There was a lot of resentment and confusion, much of it directed towards the rector. Men had been dismissed.
I don’t remember what I was doing at the ceremony that year. It’s gone right out of my mind. Shortly after ordinations I went to talk to the rector. It was time to discuss the vice-rector. He received me, very happy due to the events of the day. He began by commenting that I must now see what priests are like. It was a gentle shot at how he knew that perhaps where I was wasn’t the most ideal priory. But I did not share this gentle jab – things weren’t prefect, but those priests weren’t perfect and admitted as much. They had integrity. Not like here in the ivory tower where we could look down on them. When I broached the subject of the vice-rector, he shut it down. It was not to be discussed. I asked him why I was to go back. He wouldn’t clarify. I asked if I could come back. He said I could, but it was his preference that I do another year at the school. And I needed to see a psychiatrist first. Meeting over.
I felt like I was being silenced. In exchange for my silence – if I went to Calgary and didn’t rock the boat – apparently I would be allowed to continue. Maybe the rector was trying to protect me from the vice-rector by sending me out there. And if I went to the psychiatrist and got a clean bill of health, I couldn’t be blackmailed. But if that was the case, why didn’t he just tell me? And if it wasn’t the case, then the vice-rector was free to continue and my year would be ripped apart as the slow-burning political struggle between him and the rector liquidated my year.
The politics sickened me. I needed the rector to show some leadership. I didn’t need to go to a psychiatrist, and the vice-rector was flat out wrong in his behaviour. This was effecting vocations, many vocations. I decided I needed to take a stand. I asked some upper years and even priests their opinion. I was told that they understood what I wanted to do, but I should just take it: once I was ordained, I could say anything I wanted. Hearing that was shocking. Everything in my character was opposed to such a move…it sounded to me like I would have to steal the priesthood, deceiving the superiors by appearing vacuous and docile. To achieve this, I had to swallow my perceived wrongs, but also allow my year to get destroyed. There were other vocations on the line besides my own, but no one else was being given an option that I could uncover.
I was put in a corner. The rector wasn’t going to act. To get the priesthood, I had to play politics. Other priests were telling me to duck and make an end run. My confessor in Calgary was telling me I belonged in the seminary, but if they insisted I do another year, to get on with my life. This is the final battle in “Platoon”. We seminarians knew something was up, something bad, but it was never articulated and they became aggitated. They started self-destructing. We were there together, battling, but so far apart from each other, that we couldn’t help one another. We just died in their foxholes, alone. Ultimately, Command was going to call in napalm, and just wipe the slate.
I couldn’t find a way to live with myself – none of my options seemed right. I had no leverage at all. So I did the only thing I could: I took my vocation hostage. If the seminary truly believed in its mission – which was to foster and bring vocations to fruition – then they should have been doing everything in their power to help the vocations they had.
I wrote a letter to the rector outlying my observations. I told him that the current environment was ruining young men. I told him I found a distinct lack of respect towards the seminarians as men, a lack of leadership in himself and a lack of charity in the seminary. I wrote that I did not want to be a priest in an Order that conducted itself in such a manner. He wrote back, excusing my letter by saying I must have been influenced by those of the bad spirit in the seminary (hence, not treating me with enough respect as to even credit me my own words) and that I was allowed to return once I got through this emotional time. My gambit had failed…I wasn’t even being taken seriously. I felt like a crazy person – I was all worked up about something that apparently didn’t even exist.
I went home. I did a camp for the local priest, because he asked. No one was going to fight for me – they would sympathize behind closed doors, but nothing would go public. If I went public, how much good versus how much evil would come of it. So I did nothing. I took off the cassock. No one called. No one wrote. I had a five year hole in my resume, no high school diploma, no credits from the seminary (since it was unaccredited), no money, no job, no life. Just nothing.
In Politics, the old regime always has to go. It doesn’t matter: guilty? Innocent? Both have to go. They broke us, dismissed us, making us feel like it was we who failed. Within two years, the purge was over. The vice-rector was transferred across an ocean. I had warned him that if they treated us like that, they’d do it to their own. As for the seminarians, only one man was ordained from my year. The next year? No one. Within five years, our old rector got himself in trouble and was ultimately expelled by the Order.
I remember that last plane flight home from the seminary. I remember gazing out the plane window at the night and eventually noticing a face in the glass, a face like metal with a slit for a mouth. My reflection.
In “Platoon” Chris survives the napalm strike. As he stumbles through the scorched forest and human remains, he encounters another survivor: Sergeant Barnes. It was Barnes who in his lust to control the platoon killed Elias, and would have killed Chris had the napalm not fallen. Barnes demands aid, but Chris does nothing. Barnes then recognizes the glint in Chris’s eye. Barnes prompts Chris, and he obliges: Chris shoots Barnes, killing him. This is how Chris restores balance. He crosses the line, avenging Elias by adopting the ways of Barnes.
In the next scene, when Chris is discovered by reinforcements, he is holding a grenade. He is contemplating ѕυιcιdє. He destroyed an evil by returning evil upon it. He violated what Elias stood for. He is surrounded by the dead. He is run down by horrors.
During my time in the seminary, I could not get a handle on the events that were transpiring. It was a nightmare. Why had this happened? Why were men, who had daily mass and ready access to the sacraments, unraveling? Was the fault really in us? In the system? In our superiors? Why was no one admitting there was a problem? Why were we an acceptable loss? Is collateral damage a necessary process of training priests? If so, how much? Why was no one asking these questions? In retrospect, some things stand out:
Naivety. Vocations should not be received right out of high school. A young man should first finish some post-secondary activity, whether that be university, college, an apprenticeship, whatever. He should try to put aside some money in the bank. This way, he experiences real world problems and has something to fall back on should he return to the world
Idealism. The propaganda didn’t match the product. Pumping up young men with unbridled idealism before the seminary sets them up to fail in the seminary
Spirituality. The Order had no real particular spirituality, although the opposite was implicitly stated. Instead was presented an amorphous hodge-podge of borrowed exercises, anecdotes of the founder, teaching methods, cultural preferences and spiritualities. This synthesis was implicitly presented as representative of the “Spirituality of the Church”, which was a massive disservice to the many centuries of legitimate traditions and spiritualities that actuality exist in the Church. The Order needs to clearly communicate its spirituality and present it as its own.
Leadership. A superior is not obliged to communicate his reasoning for decisions to inferiors. Obedience is due to him according to his office. A good leader, however, leads from the front and gives information that is necessary for success to those who need it. He trusts those around him, especially those whom he has placed in subordinate positions. If he cannot trust them, then he needs to find someone else, immediately. When a superior is in the wrong, it is a great example to all for him to acknowledge it and work towards a solution
Vocations. There needs to be a baseline criteria for determining what a particular vocation to this Order involves. The Order presented a confused paradigm, whereby it seemed that all vocations were capable of being realized in itself. Otherwise, there was no vocation.
Wisdom. Personalities can be different without being flawed. In an attempt to mould young men into a type, young men were destroyed. If there is a personality that is not going to work in the Order’s environment, he should be told that – and encouraged to use his potential in another Order or in the world.
The rule. The rule is not public. In that spirit, let it only be said that it needs to be updated and clarified.
Accountability. There was none. Not to the young men, not to the parents, not to the faithful. Superiors are responsible for what happens on their watch. Full stop.
Charity. Facades are not charity. Hiding realities is not charity. Suppressing things is not charity. Dangling a vocation in front of someone who has no vocation is not charity. Allowing someone to thrash themselves apart trying to achieve a vocation is not charity.
The seminary is a difficult place. When the experience of the seminary is communicated, many inside the system shrug their shoulders and quip the enlightened phrase: “human frailty”. Human frailty is not a legitimate justification. Mistakes, injustices, misperceptions, etc., require communication and humility to be resolved. When they are not resolved, when they are not even addressed, things become abusive and psychologically damaging. Seminarians are especially vulnerable because they are actively encouraged to a heroic degree of obedience and self-denial that amounts to even the suppression of their own will. This leaves men wide open. This is all the more reason for superiors to be transparent and quick to admit mistakes, because otherwise, in order to justify the disharmony, the young men will project the blame and absorb the failings in themselves. They will become confused. They won’t be able to correct things. Some will rationalize them or suppress them and make it through the system. The others will fail. Both are damaged, and will bring that damage into their own dealings unless they recognize it in themselves and fix it.
What happens then to a young man who becomes psychologically damaged?
I had a family to go back to. Some did not. I spent the next year barely able to get out of bed. I hated myself. I was suicidal. Mass on Sundays was horrific – it had become a symbol of the past, a trigger point for depression. I had loved the mass, and now I couldn’t even attend one without wanting to kill myself. When it became unbearable, I left mass. Driving home, I asked myself why I even went, why I was doing this to myself? At the sermon, if the priest asked for vocations – sometimes even shamed for vocations – it took all my self-restraint to leave the church instead of marching up and tearing him out of the pulpit and seething in his face, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you even dare!”
Why this? Because I had had a little personal tragedy. The big bad world hadn’t been nice to me. The Church, the source of grace and charity, was full of nasty men who didn’t want me in their game so I had taken my ball and gone home. Boo hoo, they wouldn’t play nice. Pathetic man. Weak man. Foolish, self-indulgent, little man.
No one likes to admit how wonderfully miserable and pathetic one actually is. In me, depression curdled into anger and anger coalesced into rage. I wasn’t going to go gently into that dark night – I would live, if only to spite the world. I then entered a time of self-destruction. Drugs, alcohol, prostitution? No, my oblivion was to gorge on pain itself: frenetic, unfocused, destructive energy released under the guise of sport and exercise. I did not allow myself sleep or time to heal. I just smashed my body over and over. I frayed the edges of my mortal coil until it began to run. This ended in full body paralysis; I couldn’t even turn my head. And so now my body was done too.
What thoughts go through a broken man? Selfish ones. As the weeks passed, I lay in bed and seethed. I hated them. How could they make a man do this – if they believe in the mass, in the sacraments, in their mission…how could they do this? How could they put a man in such a position? I had broken my own heart, scooped it out to the walls and then ripped it out of my chest; I had impaled my own vocation atop my integrity; slit the throat of all my hopes and dreams. They made me do this! They didn’t care! They carved the souls out of us and they didn’t care! These envenomed histrionics battered my mind as I lay, frenetic with fury. I did not cry – the tears would well up and just boil on my eyes until the sockets were rimmed, raw and red.
My parents spoon fed me. When they couldn’t be there, I lapped food off a plate with the side of my mouth. Once a day I took drugs in order to have enough mobility to crawl to the bathroom. It was my daily pilgrimage. Raising my head up from the floor along the curvature of the toilet was my great conquest. I had failed so completely there was nothing left to do but die. I hated the world. My only prayer was “God have mercy.” He was visiting all my sins upon me at once; He was pulverizing me, and it was what I deserved. That line of Job’s wife would cycle in my mind many times: “Bless God, and die.” I lacked Job’s patience…but I was too angry to die.
It was then, in this all-consuming dark, that I remembered a practice I had done as a seminarian. Every night, after Compline, I would go to the back of the church and kneel before the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He was my strength. In my naïve piety, I would ask Him, if it was His will, to take everything of me. I think many of us have said such a thing. But, in this case, Our Lord obliged. He had taken everything: my health, my mind, my will, my drive, my vocation. It was all His now. And I was trapped inside my pride, a prisoner of my body and mind within which my soul tore at me like a caged animal. I had prayed for this, prayed for it for years. And now that Our Lord had given me this most precious of crosses – a perfect suffering of all dimensions that make up a human being – I was upset with Him.
So I began again. The pain was excruciating, but I walked. I was a cripple now, but I was moving. I finished high school and, bereft of true purpose, entered university. I kept punishing myself, exercising to vent my frustration, even though I was in such terrible pain. I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I put on a façade and walked with an almost normal gait around people who knew me – let them keep their stupid pity and concern.
Then came an accident. I spent it in some bizarre ward in the hospital. The man to my left died screaming. The woman to my right was literally throwing nurses off of herself until the last. So this is what it was to die with an inquiet soul. I was discharged from the hospital with a massive gash in my head and my brains scrambled to go with my crippled back and dual sciatica. And I still went back to school the next day. I had no awareness of how mangled I had become. I was a husk propelled by some terrible, idiot will. I was just a complete wreck of a human being. Paralysis returned and I had to drop out of university.
This time, in the long, agonizing hours, my vocation haunted me. It was never resolved. I had left the seminary over politics. The rector himself had said I could come back. Terrible words. A vocation is a responsibility, a call to serve, and I had left. Would I be damned? Had I done wrong? What is supposed to be done now? What am I even doing? I asked God to take the cross away.
And, the terrible thing is, He did. I hadn’t recognized His gift, I had proven myself unworthy of it, and so He took His gift of suffering away. The concussion symptoms subsided. And the doctors finally figured out that my muscles had been locked in spasm since my initial back injury – over the past three years, they had been slowly ripping my spine apart. This was treated. It took me a year to be able to walk upright again. I reentered university and completed it. I began a career. I had rebuilt.
There were no bad guys in the story of my life. Just people. I am…upset and disappointed in how things were handled. I think that all I really needed in the end was the admission from the superiors that the seminary was taking a new direction, and we were formed in such a way that we could not be properly integrated, and that they were sorry, but it was best that we go. And personally, someone could have just told me I was too intense, my character too unruly, to be a priest. Perhaps there were others. I just don’t know. No doubt, we would have been angry, but I don’t think we would be as scarred. If there was anyone to forgive, I have forgiven them. Viscerally and emotionally, I’ll always have a problem with the seminary, but intellectually and in my will, I have forgiven. I haven’t forgiven myself though. The mass is still a trigger point of sadness for me, a fantastic trick of Satan to turn the heart of my religion into the fount of my despair. But it is a cross that is manageable for me, the only shard of suffering He still allows me. In my quest for a vocation, I had missed the true pearl of great price: I had been offered great suffering, and I had rejected it. I had missed something more beautiful than a vocation: a chance to suffer as Christ had suffered. Now I have a job, an education, money, stuff. I have been given the fruits of the world because I spat out the fruits of the spirit. I didn’t know what I had.
The residue that remains? I still suffer bouts of suicidal depression. I avoid people because I can’t participate in what makes good people happy; I am not able to reciprocate their happiness, and that makes me even sadder. Despite knowing many fine, virtuous and intelligent women, I have had to admit that I am severely emotionally damaged; I lack the capacity to make anyone happy. Religion is a massive desolation – everything is intellectual, everything is stark, stripped down to base understanding and the will. I isolate myself from others because I feel like a cancer on society. I avoid people I admire because I don’t want to drag them down.
I realize that depression skews my perceptions, that it poisons humility; it makes it difficult to see what is truth and what is a lie. I am a stranger in my own religion and depression makes me an assassin of my own life. I hate that I have admitted things.
I hate ingratitude. It is the most wretched of sins. I have been ungrateful so consistently and relentlessly in the course of my life. The seminary gave me many things, I met many good people while I was there. There are many things about it that made it the best time of my life. There are many people in my path who did things I didn’t recognize or know about that benefited me. And there are those who did them openly whom I have never thanked. God gave me great graces. People gave me of themselves. Thank you. To anyone who tried a vocation, whether they made it or not, thank you, thank you for willing to make that sacrifice.
Have I made anyone’s life better? A sobering reflection. In my meteoric adult life, did I stop and help anyone? I don’t think I did. I was too busy with myself. I was too busy with my pain. I haven’t even shown charity to myself, something that I will struggle with probably to the last day.
“Platoon” ends with Chris being evacuated in chopper over the war zone. As he relates his final voice over, his face bleaches white in the rising, eastern sun. “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days as I''m sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul. There are times since, I''ve felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what''s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life."
In the end, this story may mean nothing to others: perhaps it was too melodramatic, perhaps too maudlin. Perhaps I was unjust, and my insights wrong. And perhaps my choice of lens will be misunderstood; perhaps it was not mine to use as I have. But it is how I was able to understand. And that’s all it was meant to be. Every vocation has a story. Every life has its struggle. We’re all in this together
Ita caeremonia confecta est.
Special thanks to Oliver Stone for sharing his story with us. And to my parents, for helping me to continue mine.