THE FIRST TIME I felt pulled to the priesthood was in high school. I grew up in Tennessee, where there aren't many Catholics, let alone priests, sisters, or brothers. But I attended Knoxville Catholic High School and got invited to be on the retreat team. That kind of surprised me because I wasn't a particularly pious young man; in fact I got into quite a bit of trouble in those days. Yet I found myself at this high school retreat listening to a priest give a talk on his life and vocation. For a brief moment I remember thinking that being a priest seemed interesting.
But the thought didn't last because I had a beautiful girlfriend to distract thoughts of entering a college seminary program. I went on to attend the University of Tennessee and became moderately involved with the Newman Club. This was the 1980s when people were reporting seeing the Virgin Mary in Medjugorie, Yugoslavia. Some friends of mine went to Medjugorie and were moved by the whole experience. They kept pestering me about it and encouraging me to pray the rosary. Well, being a good ol' boy from Tennessee, I was more interested in fishing than praying the rosary all the time, but they kept after me, and I became involved in the Marian movement. I prayed the rosary, began attending Mass every day, and got involved in retreat ministry again.
I found myself thinking once more about the priesthood. My one big worry was celibacy. I thought a lot about having a family and found that it was difficult to imagine a life without a wife and kids. I decided to talk to a priest about it. He pointed out that I was just about to graduate with a degree in agronomy. I should go out into the world and work as a soil scientist. If God were calling me, I would know it, this priest advised.
Following his advice was the best thing I ever did, although you wouldn't know it at first. I ended up working as a soil scientist for the state of North Carolina. I loved the beauty of the mountains and the work I was doing, but I missed my friends in Tennessee and found it difficult to get involved in a church community. I had practically stopped praying. I still thought about being a priest, but it was on the back burner, way back there.
One day, while on the job, I had a life-changing experience. I was up on a mountaintop, sent to meet a man named Robert Warren to evaluate his soil so he could build a house. When I arrived I saw him slumped over in his truck. I went over to him, and he told me he was having a spell. He grabbed my hand and said, "Would you pray with me?"
I hadn't prayed in ages, but I took his hand and my heart just burst open in prayer as we said one Our Father after another. He asked me to pray for him and his family, and as we prayed, I felt the Holy Spirit in a powerful way. Robert Warren died in my arms of a massive heart attack, right there on that mountaintop.
I continue to pray for him to this day, and I offer up my vocation to Robert Warren because he woke me up to something deep in my heart. I believe God moves gently in most people's hearts, but with me he needed a hammer.
After that, my desire for Jesus Christ grew. I got really involved in the church. I found a parish, and I began to attend daily Mass. I became involved in the Marian Movement of Priests, consecrating my heart to the Immaculate Virgin Mary. I signed up for Eucharistic adoration several hours a week, my heart soaring with excitement at waiting for the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Those hours before the Blessed Sacrament settled me down and focused me on my journey toward the priesthood.
I knew I wanted the support of a community if I were to be a priest, so I wrote to a dozen religious communities and began visiting them. The vocation director of the Carmelite Order of priests came all the way to see me in my home in North Carolina, and that impressed me. He invited me to a vocation retreat, an experience that helped me a lot.
I had a lot of fears about religious life. How could I live in poverty, or without women and with other guys who weren't like me at all? But on that retreat, I saw that these were simply men of all types struggling to be the best human beings they could be.
I realized then--and I've been reminded throughout my time with the Carmelites--that we gain our salvation by being human, not by being angels and having our heads in the clouds but by walking on rough ground and being faithful to the way of Jesus.
The vocation director also told me during the Carmelite retreat that just because we walked through the door, we didn't have to stay for life. My first years with the Carmelites--just like with any religious community--would be a time to pray and reflect on whether this was the life for me. Final vows would come later. So I narrowed down my choice to two communities, eventually settling on the Carmelites because they are a Marian order with 800 years of tradition.
My formation (or preparation) years have been extremely active and fulfilling. I've studied for a Master of Divinity degree, worked with street people and in a parish, and learned how to live and pray with a community. The past seven years have certainly challenged me, but I can say with confidence that God is wonderful. Each day God leads me closer and closer to freedom.