Hoofprints of the Stag

Hoofprints of the Stag

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Dear [Very Beautiful Girl]: A Theological Reflection on a Very Beautiful Girl

I hadn't originally intended to publish this post around Valentine's Day; in fact, I hadn't really intended to publish it at all.  But I was musing and reflecting the other day (as I so often do), and I thought this brief treatise on beauty might make some sense of the [perceived] bizarreness of entering the seminary and thus entering a life estranged from the companionship of marriage (which is a topic I get asked about fairly often when discussing my vocation).

This reflection is in the form of a letter.  I wrote this letter several months before entering seminary because I had a late night spur of insomnia induced creativity where I was just thinking and writing nonstop.  When I wrote this letter, I had a particular 'very beautiful girl' in mind that I was writing to, but I realized that the sentiments could apply to really any beautiful girl.  Of course, I never intended to give the letter to the person in question; I was merely writing to give creative expression to my thoughts.  I have therefore edited the letter a little bit to make it generic and more applicable to the idea of women in general.

There is little else to add to my commentary at this point.  Below is the text of the letter in full.  Consider it my Valentine card to the Church.  Happy Valentine's Day!

Dear [Very Beautiful Girl]-

            Ever since I met you, I have wanted to tell you that I think you are one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen.  And I mean that, too.  Of all the girls I’ve seen, you stand out certainly as one of the most absolutely beautiful of them.  And when I did actually meet you, your beauty was enhanced by your kindness, your warmth, and your ever present smile.
            This is all very important for several reasons.  When a man beholds a woman he thinks is truly beautiful, he finds himself captivated and somehow filled with a particular fervor and ardor that suddenly makes him capable of great things he had not previously thought himself capable of, and this even despite the fact that such a woman may be unattainable.  He will make sacrifices he might never have made and will do so cheerfully.
            As it stands now, I am entering the seminary to study for the priesthood.  I’ve been discerning this call for quite some time now.  Oftentimes, a man discerning a vocation to the priesthood will see a beautiful girl and think sadly to himself of what he is leaving behind.  But instead, a man may look to the Church, the bride of Christ, and know that the beauty he sees in a particular woman is a reflection of the beauty of the Church, and his fervor only a shadow of the fondness Christ has for his bride.  This is the attitude I will carry with me.  After all, all earthly beauty is a reflection of God’s divine beauty, and when I see you, I see a reflection of the majesty and glory of God.
            And so in the end, I guess I just wanted to tell you that you are beautiful.  I’m sure people tell you that all the time, so it may seem like a broken record to you at this point, but I just feel compelled to tell you.  It’s like when I see a crooked picture hanging on the wall.  It has to be made right; I can’t not set it right.  In the same way, I feel like I can’t not tell you, like it’s something that has to be said, just so you know it, and not for any other reason.
            As I pursue the priesthood, your beauty will remind me of the beauty of the Church.  And I will be captivated by the beauty of the bride of Christ, and I will be filled with a fervor and ardor that will make me capable of great things I had not previously found myself capable of, and I will make sacrifices I might not otherwise have made, and I will do so cheerfully.  This is what your beauty means to me, strange as it may seem.


                                                                                    Luke Stager

Monday, January 25, 2016

On Beaming

When I was a youth, I remember reading books where the author used the word 'beam' as a verb, as in, "So-and-so was beaming," or "So-and-so beamed at so-and-so."  As I write this, I am almost sure that somewhere in the Harry Potter series it says, "Hagrid beamed at Harry," or "Hagrid was beaming," but I can't be sure (cue furious searches by HP nerds).  When I first encountered this phrase, I had no idea what it meant, but of course the context led me to understand that it meant that the person was proud in some way or very happy and appeared to be showing it.  I always thought it was sort of a strange phrase because the concept itself seemed quite foreign to me.  I concluded that this was because I had never experienced this feeling, though at the same time I wondered if I had indeed experienced it but without realizing it. The dictionary defines it as 'to smile radiantly,' which made sense on some level, I guess, but I always got the feeling there was more to it than that and that perhaps I just couldn't understand what it was.

As I've mentioned in a previous blog post (found here: Back to the Future: Reflecting on Personal Change), I used to characterize myself as somewhat emotionally crippled (though no longer), and so it was always interesting to me to feel emotions more strongly or to experience new ones. Many years ago, I was in the bridal party for my older brother's wedding. I remember that during the ceremony I couldn't help but smile really big and I felt very proud of my brother in that moment. Literally, as I was smiling, I realized and thought to myself, "Hey, I'm beaming right now! This is what beaming is!" That sounds really stupid to me as I write it out, but that is pretty much literally what I was thinking. I understood better the definition, "smile radiantly." It was like I was radiating light through my smile, like beams of light were shooting out of my countenance, like I was indeed beaming light from my very being.

I have found in more recent years that the thing that makes me radiantly beam with joy is to sing, especially to sing epic music in an epic choir. If you know me, then you know I love the choir of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City and the Madeleine Choir School. I sang some very wonderful epic music with them for four years before having to leave them behind to go to seminary. I suppose people might not understand why the choir is so important to me, and perhaps to some degree I don't understand completely either. I think it is because it converges on three important factors: 1) I love to sing, 2) I am actually good at it, and 3) we sing for God. When you are good at something you love, it can't help but be important to you. I think this is why I get so excited when I sing with the choir school or with any choir, really. It makes me feel truly alive, like I'm doing what I was made to do. And of course, there's that quote by St. Irenaeus which says, "The glory of God is man fully alive." I do indeed feel fully alive when I sing, and I hope that by it I can radiate the glory of God to those around me. 

As I write this, there is still one more service and one more concert for the choir. And you can bet that I will be "smiling radiantly" throughout. I will be fully alive, beaming the glory of God. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My friendships are made of LEGOs

It is 1:25 AM on a Monday night as I begin to write this post.  Perhaps this is due to the cup of coffee I had after dinner, but I didn't think it was that strong.  No, most likely my insomnia is due to my incessant pondering over all things nostalgic.  As I've established in other posts, I am constantly thinking of old memories.  I guess this is because I glean so many ideas and draw so many conclusions from my memories.

Tonight, I was thinking of old relationships, not so much romantic ones as just simple friendships.  As a seminarian, I have much more motivation and time for reflection, and I often find myself considering important people at various stages of my life and how those relationships have grown or faded over time.

On a few occasions recently, my mind has been drawn to a few relationships/friendships in particular, and in these cases, I have virtually no contact with the person anymore.  In fact, in one case, the person even defriended me, as I discovered today when I was searching for something they'd written on my wall a long while back. (this is probably what caused me to ponder so heavily on the topic in the first place).  I don't know why this shook me up so much, maybe because I've never defriended anyone before.  This person and I used to have such lengthy facebook message conversations.  How does it happen that you can share so much with a person and then never see or talk to them again?  I mean, I know this is a part of life, so I guess it makes sense.  After all, people come and go in and out of your life all the time right?  It just seems strange to pour so much of yourself into a relationship and then never return to it.  In another case, I had a friend I used to talk on the phone with all the time but who I hadn't talked to in a long while, and I called a couple of times over the course of a couple of weeks to catch up and left voicemails and received no response whatsoever.  I mean, I guess we weren't super close, but I still couldn't help but feel this was a large blow.  Maybe it's a fluke, maybe they have a new number, but it still doesn't feel particularly pleasant.

Now, I know that relationships and friendships do indeed come and go, and I also know that in a lot of cases it might not even be wise to remain friends with someone if you believe they are being inauthentic or are influencing you in a negative way or whatever the case may be, and I know that most relationships do fade over time.  I mean, look at childhood friendships.  I have quite a few childhood friends I could point to who I haven't really talked to since middle school or high school, and I guess by some people's reckoning, those relationships would be over now.

I've often heard the simile that friendships are like plants: that you have to water them and take care of them or else they will die.  Okay, I guess that's a pretty valid simile that appears to be true in real life.  And it can even have a positive aspect to it because the plant returns to the soil and gives life to a new plant maybe or that the experiences of the previous friendship become the nutrients in the soil from which the new friendship derives its strength.  But in my rumination tonight, I realized that I actually think of relationships completely differently from that, which may point to why it seems so much harder to think of friendships that fade away.

I've decided after my reflection tonight that I see friendships as being more like they are made out of LEGOs (MegaBlocks if the friendship is really superficial and flimsy, ha ha).  A friendship is a LEGO set that you are building together.  You lay out the baseboard or the floor of the hull of your ship, you start building a foundation and walls, and then you decide together what kind of world you want to build and who it is your minifigures will be.  In this respect, I have a lot of cool 'LEGO set friendships.'  Now that I think of it this way, it's kind of fun to imagine what each of my LEGO sets would look like with each different friend of mine.  In some cases, even a whole friend group might be working on a particular LEGO theme together.

The key difference between seeing friendships as plants and as LEGO sets is that a plant will die after you don't water it for a while, but with a LEGO set, it will remain the way it was left permanently (though perhaps with a little dust in places).  It's the kind of friendships about which you would say, "We haven't seen each other for months, but we picked up right where we left off."

I guess this is why it's hard for me when friendships 'fade away,' because in my mind they really haven't faded away at all.  I see the LEGO set still sitting there, waiting to be built up, waiting to have an active imagination give it a story to make it come to life again.  For some sets this will indeed happen.  There are friends I don't see for months, sometimes for years, but when we see each other again, we 'pick up where we left off' and add even more to the LEGO set.  But there are some, as described above, where it appears the friendship has pretty clearly ended.  And it hurts to know that those sets will never be completed, that those sets will collect dust like so many others.  I suppose I could dismantle it all and put the pieces away, but why would I want to dismantle something so great I'd begun to build with someone else?

And now, concluding the composition of this post at 2:45 AM, this whole LEGO friend reflection seems pretty interesting to me, but I'm not really sure what conclusion to draw from these scattered ideas.  I guess it just makes me grateful for all the friendships I have and have ever had, regardless of how much of the 'set' ever got completed.  But the conclusion that you, the reader, need to draw from this is that if we have ever been friends, even childhood friends, then I still consider us so.  Your LEGO set is still here, and as such the memory of our friendship has never faded from my mind even if we never talk.  And should circumstances allow and should you ever wish to revisit what we had begun to create, I'd be happy to continue to keep building it with you.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Back to the Future: Reflecting on Personal Change (featuring a Treatise on Crying)

So last week, we hit the date to which Marty and Doc traveled in Back to the Future Part II.  As part of the 'festivities,' I decided to have a Back to the Future marathon over the course of two days, squeezing in parts of the movies between classes, prayer, and meals.  But of course, I cannot often do anything without thinking deeply about it and over-analyzing it, and watching Back to the Future was no different.  While watching Part I, I had a strange experience which led me to a period of reflection and musing.

I started writing this post last week and put it aside before I finished it, partly because I ran out of time, and partly because I wasn't sure quite what I wanted to say (and to some degree I still don't), but I was inspired by a similar blog post by a fellow Catholic blogger over at Journey of a Catholic Nerd Writer, and so I decided to write it out after all.  Even though it's over a week late, just go back in time in your mind to last week, and it'll be fine.  After all, this is time travel.

The fact that the date featured in Back to the Future II recently happened (October 21, 2015) has given many media outlets cause to reflect upon how the imagined 2015 compares to the real 2015 we are currently experiencing.  When you actually watch those videos and read those articles, it is truly amazing what we do actually have that the movie 'predicted' (but alas that the Cubs did not win the World Series though).

In a similar manner, my own recent re-viewing of the trilogy has instigated my own reflection on how I personally have changed over the years, particularly how I was in high school/college vs. how I am now.  Incidentally, I was born in 1985, so it seems to me to be quite fitting to make parallel my own reflection with similar reflections on the movies themselves.  But it wasn't mere thought that brought this reflection to my mind.

While watching Back to the Future Part I yesterday, I had what I can only describe as an unusual emotional experience.  I say unusual in the sense that it was unusual for me and not necessarily in a general sense. And I'm not really sure how to describe it.

Basically, I was watching the first movie, and when it got to the part where George McFly has his confrontation with Biff and he has his arm twisted behind him and then delivers his epic punch, for some reason, I started crying.  Well, maybe that's an exaggeration.  There were no actual flowing tears, but my eyes got really watery and my throat was tight.  It was like between being "all choked up" and actual crying.  Nevertheless, it was a strange emotional surge that lasted for several minutes (quite a while for me) that had no obvious explanation.  When it was over, I started chuckling a little bit because it seemed so funny that I would be crying at Back to the Future, but the emotion continued on, even up past the part where George McFly finally kisses Lorraine and saves the timeline.

What was causing this surge of emotion?  Nostalgia, perhaps?  Memories of my early days watching the movies at my grandma's house with my cousins flooded in.  I even had a memory of my older brother and I reenacting the scene with Biff and George McFly where my brother would twist my arm behind my back (not too gently) and then I would make a tight fist and pretend to punch him.  But was it the memories?  Maybe, but perhaps it was my identification with George McFly.  I have always seemed to have been the nerdy, sometimes awkward and unconfident type, and perhaps it was this epic moment of George's triumph over his own cowardice in the face of a bully that set me off.  Maybe it was the fact that I'd sung Earth Angel in the men's chorus in high school and thought of a particular girl I liked while singing it in a concert.  Who knows?  It seems impossible to analyze such things.

I had to pause the movie there, for it was time to head to the chapel for Evening Prayer, and I even had to compose myself before leaving the my room and make sure my eyes weren't red or something.  As I sat in my chair in the chapel, waiting for the prayer to begin, I wondered what in the world had just happened.  Why had I cried at Back to the Future?  This is where my reflection on the past began.

Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius
When I was in middle school and high school, I was a fairly emotionless person.  In fact, I was even partial to the notion that emotions needed to be controlled and every decision needed to be made rationally without any input from emotion.  In this respect, I was very influenced by Planet of the Apes, where Dr. Zaius says, "I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself."  I did not want my emotions to rule my brain.  From my own experience, I saw that when people let their emotions (usually anger) influence their decisions, then the outcome was negative.

Though I did not often experience many intense feelings (other than happiness, I guess), I was always very cautions when I did feel something and generally sought  to keep it inside where no one could see it if not outright suppress it.  But again, these instances of emotion were rare.

Toward the end of high school, and especially during college, I noticed that I often had a lot of trouble knowing how to sympathize with people.  I never knew what to say or what to do (which I suppose happens to a lot of people), but more importantly, I never could feel the same way as the person.  If someone was super angry about something, I didn't know how to share the anger (i.e. I couldn't get angry over something that had nothing to do with me).  If someone was sad, I felt literally unable to feel sad with them.  What horrified me most about myself is that I rarely felt sad at funerals.  I mean, I knew that I was sad, but I didn't feel sad.  It was kind of weird.  There were several points in my life like this where I'd feel like I ought to cry, but I didn't feel like crying.

Now, given what I said before about keeping control over your emotions, I suppose one would expect me to be the kind of person who would see crying as a kind of weakness.  People say that this is a prevalent attitude among boys, and perhaps that is true, but from a relatively early age (like late grade school), I knew that it was okay to cry, even if you were a boy.  I never had trouble understanding this.  Of course, I still didn't want to cry, but I never saw it as a sign of weakness.  I know that I thought this way because of an episode of this old PBS show called Ghostwriter (remember Ghostwriter? What an awesome show!).

In the episode (the time travel episode, if you remember), Frank, an orphan boy, and Catherine, his foster sister, are trying to solve the mystery and they think they've failed.  Frank is sitting on the sidewalk crying over their failure when Catherine sits beside him.  "Sorry I cried," he says.  "It's okay," she responds.  "Everybody's gotta cry sometime."  "Not where I come from," Frank replies.  "When you live on the streets, you have to be tough all the time, or else you won't survive."  Then Catherine says, "Just because you cry doesn't mean you're not tough.  A tough guy is somebody who keeps trying, no matter how bad things look."  Here's a link to that part of the episode if you're interested in some epic 90s nostalgia: Ghostwriter: Just in Time, Part 3

"Sorry I cried."
That small, seemingly unimportant (to the plot at least) conversation stayed with me for many years.  Granted, I often remember obscure lines from shows I watched as a kid, but this one always stuck with me.  If I ever cried (which was rare, as I've said), I would think of that line, "Sorry I cried," and then remember that I didn't need to be sorry at all and that it was okay to cry.  So yeah, I never saw crying as any sort of weakness.

So we come back to my unempathetic, unemotional self from college.  I began to wish that I could empathize, that I could be sad or angry, or something.  I remember my junior year taking a conducting class for my music minor.  I can't remember the piece, but I was conducting our class orchestra in something, and our teacher said to conduct with more emotion, saying, "You have no soul."  I suppose I ought to have felt bad, but I didn't really.  I guess that's the case when you have no soul, ha ha.  My friend CJ, who took the class with me, would often joke with me that I had no soul and we would try to figure out ways to find my soul.

But joking aside, I actually did feel like I had something missing, like I was defective in some way.  I would look around at all these people who were emotional, people who cried, and I saw them as people functioning as they were meant to and myself as somehow defective.  And the thing that frustrated me the most is that while I cared about this idea, I didn't feel like I cared.  I wanted to cry about how I couldn't cry, and I couldn't do it.  What a strange thing.  What's funny to me is that people see crying as a sign of brokenness.  Perhaps someone's heart has been broken, perhaps something has happened in their life has made them feel broken and thus moved to tears.  But when I saw people crying over something that I knew I should be sad about, I was the one who felt broken, like I wasn't working right and they were, that something they had was missing or defective in me.  Broken, like a remote control car might be broken.

So one day (I don't remember when, but I do definitively remember doing this), I actually prayed to God that he would give me emotions.  I was sort of afraid to ask because I knew it meant having less control in my life, and I still believed that decisions shouldn't be made based on emotion, but ultimately I thought of myself as being cut off in some way from everybody else and that having deep feelings would fix that.  Perhaps that prayer was the turning point, though I certainly didn't see the results then.

So when I look back over the last fifteen years or so, I have definitely seen a change, and perhaps that prayer was what spurred the change.  Or perhaps it's just the weight of experience which wears down the walls that I never thought existed but in fact did.

The luckiest man on the face of the earth
I can point to several times in the last four years now when I have cried, probably more instances in them than in the twelve years before that.  And where I can't think of what I cried about in those early days, I know very specifically what I cried about more recently.  There was one girl I cried over; I never expected that to happen.  I cried once while watching a video of Lou Gehrig's farewell speech.  I've also had several instances of crying over music.  It happened once with the fourth movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, several times with various parts from the opera Turandot (for which I sang in the chorus in the Utah Opera).  Have you ever seen the movie Equilibrium?  It's just like what happens to Christian Bale's character when he hears Beethoven's 9th Symphony (see the clip here: Equilibrium: Preston cries at Beethoven).

But these crying catalysts don't always work.  How can something that makes you cry one time not make you cry every time?  I've had people tell me that they have certain things they can watch which will automatically make them start crying.  This always seemed strange to me.  But then I discovered that I had one.

There is a part during the fourth to last episode of Season 9 of The Office (Paper Airplanes).  I won't share it specifically, because spoilers, but let's just say it has to do with Pam and Jim.  There is a part at the end of the episode (if you've seen this episode, you might know the part I'm talking about), and the very first time I watched it, I cried (and actually cried).  I watched it over again, and I cried again.  A few months later I was going through Season 9 again, and it happened again.  Like clockwork.  I couldn't believe it.

And now, here in the present (a week ago), I was for some reason crying over Back to the Future.  What has happened to me?  I don't know, but I am so happy to feel something.  This moment of emotion over a nerd in a movie rising up over a bully set off a chain reaction in my mind that brought me back to so many moments in my life that all made me feel.

This was a really long and rambling post, so congratulations and thank you if you've tracked my Hoofprints this far.  Of course, if you didn't read this far, I'm not going to cry about it (see what I did there?).  I hope you have enjoyed it, and perhaps, that it made you feel.

To close, I will share one final reference to illustrate how I've changed over the years.  In one final throwback to the 90s, there is one episode of the TV cartoon Recess where Mikey, who normally daydreams and writes poems, becomes organized and very rigid with his demeanor, basically ridding him of all emotional expression.  Of course, his friends save the day and he goes back to the wonderful, empathetic poetry-writing prodigy that he is.  The first clip linked below is his unemotional poem, and the second link is the clip of the emotionally laden poem he comes up with later on: The Organized Poem, The Good Poem.

The line that sticks with me (just as the "Sorry I cried" line once did) is the following, which can now be said for so many things in my life (though not terrible, as indicated in the line):

"Such a terrible deal, it makes me feel . . .
it makes me feel . . .
Indeed.  It makes me feel."

. . .

It does make me feel.  Things in my life over the years have indeed broken me, and I can now share in the seeming brokenness that had so long eluded me.  That something missing has been replaced, that defect has been corrected.

It was in being broken that I was fixed.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Don't Look Back

Four weeks have gone by (five, if you count orientation) since my life began here at Mt. Angel as a seminarian. My mind has been floating around to different ideas, but there is one idea that I would set apart and classify as a theme, something I've been reflecting on that has defined the beginnings of this journey and may come to define much more of it. To sum it up in a catchy phrase, the theme would be: "Don't Look Back."

As I've gotten to know myself over the last several years, I've learned that I tend to be nostalgic, and I mean very nostalgic.  There are few among those who know me who haven't heard me tell some story out of the past.  When I taught at St. Joseph's in Ogden, I was constantly talking about Portland and my time as an engineer.  When I taught at Judge Memorial in SLC, I was constantly talking about my time at St. Joe's.  And now, here in the seminary, I am constantly making references to my time at Judge as well as my time in the cathedral choir in Salt Lake (and still telling stories of St. Joe's and Portland as well).  I seem to always be thinking of some memory of the past or looking at old pictures, notes, or letters.  In every place I've lived, my yearbooks are usually given a prominent space on my bookshelves, and I actually open them up and look through them from time to time.

It would be accurate (though also metaphorical) to say that I am almost always drowned in a sea of memory.  My memory has always been something that is important to me, as I have a lot of obscure memories that are triggered by seemingly random things, and I think part of the reason I'm so nostalgic is because I am afraid of forgetting, of having to let go of those memories.

I think the reason I am so attached to my memories is the fact that I know that I can never 'go back' to the way things once were, and so the memories are all that I have left, the only things I have that allow me to go back, and if I lose the memory, it seems like I lose the experience along with it.  Before making any major life change, I always have the subtle fear: "What if I forget?"  The scariest thing for me is that you can never know that you've forgotten it.  What are the things I have forgotten?  I can't remember.  Alas.

When I was considering my first career change from engineer to teacher, there was a bible story that stuck out for me.  It was the story of the rich young man in Mark 10: 17-22.  During my days in engineering, let's just say I was in a financially good place, and though I felt my faith was strong, I could also perceive that perhaps God had something more in store for me.  There were many factors that led to me switching careers to teaching (and perhaps thereby avoiding the seminary for a few more years), but this verse was ever at the forefront as a sort of quasi-motto (since I don't think a whole passage can be a motto).  I never wanted my possessions to get in the way of doing God's will for my life, so I made the switch despite being a little nervous about leaving the security of a decent income behind.  Incidentally, when I worked at Judge, they had a print of the "Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hoffman in the Campus Ministry Center.  I took it and put it in my classroom as a reminder of what I had left behind.

"The Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hoffman

Now we fast forward to going to the seminary.  During my final summer in Salt Lake City, I had a really hard time knowing that I would have to leave behind so many things.  But it wasn't material possessions I was leaving behind, it was people and places and experiences and memories and the potential of adventures never to be realized that I was leaving behind.  I was very afraid of leaving all those people and experiences behind because I knew that I would probably not come back (at least not permanently), or that even if I did come back, things would never be the same.

Nostalgia is a bittersweet thing.  I love it because it helps me appreciate the things that have passed, and it also enables me to help other people remember and appreciate those things as well.  The problem with it is that it can make me ignore the present and possibly even fear the future.  I've had trouble leaving things behind in the past, and nostalgia doesn't make it any easier to do so.

I think the devil often uses our fears against us to keep us from doing God's will in our lives, but we must also be aware that he uses good things to keep us from God's will as well.  Turning our perfectly good desires and strengths against us is much more subtle and can be an even more effective strategy against us than using our fears.  And certainly, I've tried to be wary of letting my memories and my desire to not leave anything behind overcome my desire to do God's will.

As a result of this line of thought, my mind was drawn to another bible passage, which, again, I have adopted as a sort of motto.  If you'd like to read the full story, read it here: Luke 9: 57-62.  In the story, there are three would-be followers of Jesus.  I identify most with the third one.  Like him, I was (and am) afraid to leave things behind; I want to say farewell, so to speak.  But that last verse is so very important: "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."  Scary admonition, no? especially for someone like me who looks back all the time.

At the same time, I have to remember that my nostalgia is something that I consider to be a strength of mine and that I should not let the devil use against me.  I discovered during the past couple of weeks here that my longing for the 'olden days' has actually shaped my spiritual life in a very positive way.  As usual, my mind has been wandering back to Utah, back to my old schools, and back to old friendships.  In the past, when I did that, I would just feel a little sad.  Now when I do it, I feel compelled to pray, and my prayer is invigorated!  I'll remember someone, and I'll think, "I must pray for that person."  And I do.  My memory is not something I need to shut down for fear of having it lead me away from God; it is something that I should embrace and temper (in the positive sense of the word) so that I may grow closer to God and to my neighbor.

Just yesterday, one of the higher-up theology students gave a reflection in which he quoted Thomas Merton, a great Catholic spiritual writer.  Actually, the quote was from his abbot to Thomas when he entered the abbey.  The abbot said, “There will come a time when you’ll want to leave, but when you feel this desire, take the time to remember all of the souls whom you brought with you here.”  This quote was the linchpin to what I'd been recently discovering about myself.  Even though I have left certain people, places, and experiences behind, I bring all those people and memories with me to the seminary, and I would make the argument that in many cases my relationships to those people are sanctified because now I pray for them much more extensively and specifically, and, really, while I offer myself up for the Church, I am aware that I am also offering myself up on their behalf: that I am becoming who God made me to be (ideally) precisely for their sake, not for my own.

In Portland, a few days before I was going to repack my car and head down to Mt. Angel, I was talking with a priest friend who was instrumental in my vocational discernment.  He was encouraging me about going to the seminary, and as we finished our conversation, he said, "Don't look back."  I was amazed at this since I had only chosen that special verse from Luke 9:62 a few days before.  I took his idea upon myself as a theme of reflection, but now I have added to it.  Yes, I will not look back; I will look forward, but not forgetting what was left behind: rather, keeping 'the souls I brought with me here' ever in the forefront of my vision as I make my way to what God has in store.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Seed Planted Finally Begins to Grow

As I wrap up my week of orientation here at Mt. Angel Seminary, many thoughts are running around through my head, but one sticks out.  Having worked through the application process for the last several months and after discerning for many years, I have been really thinking about my journey of discernment, and my mind rests upon those moments which one might characterize as 'turning points.'  This story is of one such turning point.  In fact, it is the very first 'turning point' in the journey that led to all the others.

Recently, an old priest acquaintance of mine passed away.  Though I hadn't seen him for years, he had been at the forefront of my mind the past several months.  This priest was Msgr. Francis Campbell of the Archdiocese of Portland, and I was privileged enough to altar serve for his funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.  When my vocation director emailed us asking for volunteers to serve the Mass, I jumped at the chance because it was Msgr. Campbell was the very first priest (and first person in general) to put the idea into my head that I may actually be called by God to be a priest.

Msgr. Campbell
It was my sophomore year of high school at Valley Catholic in Beaverton, OR, and Msgr. Campbell was presiding at one of our all school Masses.  I recognized him because, though he was retired, he helped at my home parish of St. Cecilia's occasionally since it was such a large parish.  Msgr. Campbell was always talking about the 'priest shortage,' and on this particular day, when we got to the Prayers of the Faithful, he added one on to the end.  He said, "And we pray that one young man in here," (and he kind of looked around at all of us), "may one day become a priest," or something to that effect.  I looked around and thought, "Uh-oh, what if it's me?  What if I am the answer to that prayer?"

Then at Sunday Mass at St. Cecilia's that very weekend, Msgr. Campbell happened to be saying Mass and he did the same exact prayer again! "That one young man in here will one day become a priest."  "Uh-oh," I thought, "It seems more likely now that it would be me, because if I go, then I can fulfill both prayers in one shot."  I even remember going to confession with him one time on a retreat.  After the confession, he asked me up front if I would consider the priesthood.  The idea that I might be called to the priesthood stayed with me ever after.

Of course, it sure took me a long time to discern this call and finally enter, but here I am.  What was really interesting, though, as I prepared to serve Msgr. Campbell's funeral Mass just one week before I was to enter Mt. Angel, is that I remembered one thing he used to say all the time to me when I'd see him at school or at church.  He would 'badger' me about the priesthood, and he would say something to the effect of, "Somebody's got to replace me when I'm gone."  And here I was, a new seminarian for the Archdiocese of Portland, serving at the funeral Mass of this great priest.  It seemed to me like God's providence was at work, not just some mere coincidence.  It reaffirmed the confidence and hope I had in my vocation.

Just before the Mass, as we waited in the sacristy, I told my Archbishop this story (albeit much more briefly).  He was so taken with it apparently, that he proceeded to tell my story to the whole congregation at the end of Mass.  I am sure that I blushed, and I even got a little bit choked up (which surprised me).  "I guess there's no backing out now," I chuckled to myself.

I am very thankful for Msgr. Campbell for planting the original seed of my vocation in my mind.  I am sure that he is now praying for me in the Communion of Saints.  Obviously, there were many other moments along the way that helped me discern God's will for my life, but it was this priest from the days of my youth that tilled the soil to allow God's grace to help the seed of my vocation grow into what it is.

Please pray for me and for all seminarians, and know that you are all in my prayers as well.

Mt. Angel Abbey

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Leaving Utah and Looking Back: A Series of Reflections

This blog post wound up taking the form of four separate reflections on my time. There are no pictures in the post, so let memories be your photographs.

Reflection #1: Here I am at the 12th street Denny's in Ogden. My car is packed to the gills, I have turned in my keys, and I have begun the journey home to Portland. It seems funny to use the term 'home' for Portland since Utah has slowly become my home over the last six years. Can a person have two homes? Yes, I would say, and more.

When I taught at St. Joseph's in Ogden, I was involved in the theatre program there. On closing night, after the show was over, the cast and crew would strike the entire set within a couple of hours, and usually by midnight, the black box theatre gave no sign that a magnificent and intricate set had ever been there. It was the kind of thing that made one question whether there had actually been a play there or if one had simply imagined its existence. But the show lives on in the memory of those who performed it and those who experienced it. Once the set was struck (stricken?), the cast and crew and some parents would all go to Denny's to celebrate. Imagine the look on the waiter's face when 50 energetic kids (some still in their theatre makeup) walk in and get assigned to his section at one in the morning. The post-strike Denny's run was a tradition, and I partook of several of them during my time at St. Joe's.

And now, here I sit in the very same 12th street establishment. Tonight is my closing night, ending a six year run in Utah. I have struck my set; both my classroom and my house are devoid of any sign that I had ever been there. Did Luke Stager actually live and work in Utah, or did we just imagine it? Just like the play, though Utah may not give any sign that I was ever here, the realness of the experience will live on in my memory and in the memories of those with whom I came into contact.

My teacher friend Adam arrives at the restaurant and finds me immersed in thought, and we reminisce about Ogden, Salt Lake, and our schools, sharing tales and memories, and looking with hope toward the future.

Reflection #2: As I prepare to leave Utah, a flurry of thoughts passes through my mind. This has been one of my best summers, and I wish I could extend my time here a little longer. I wasn't able to accomplish everything on my Utah bucket list, but that's okay for a few reasons. 1) My Utah bucket list did exactly what it was supposed to do. It motivated me to use my time wisely and to avoid spending a lot of unnecessary time indoors. 2) Having too many items on a bucket list is much better than having too few. I think anytime a person leaves a place they have lived for a while, there will always invariably be a sense of incompleteness. I would never want to leave Utah feeling like I had seen everything there is to see and done everything there is to do. That sense of restlessness and longing for this place is something I would like to preserve. It will help me remember this place even more fondly. 3) An incomplete bucket list should never be taken as a sign of failure. People who have bucket lists often have a tendency to measure their value by how much of their bucket list they have completed. This is a dangerous philosophy to have. This is especially important when we evaluate the travels and experiences of others. I think we often measure others' experiences by our own possibly very different set of expectations. An example: "You mean you lived in Utah for six years and you've never been to Temple Square?" Yes, that is true. But to measure those six years based on one stereotypical thing I didn't do seems outrageous. I played my viola on the top of Grandeur Peak. Who has done that? I was privileged to sing Bach's St. John's Passion and Mendelssohn's St. Paul with one of the best choirs I've ever sung in. I watched my students learn and grow up and do great things. Those sorts of very unique experiences are what will define my time here. We should never quantify another's experiences based on what we ourselves expect. Who knows what special and unique memories they have created and stored away?

Another theme that has been playing in my mind is the idea that nothing ever stays the same. As soon as I leave Utah, I will never come back to the same Utah. Sure, some things will remain, but I will once again be an outsider to the goings on. Things will proceed without me, as has been happening in Portland since I left six years ago. But even though it's a little sad to miss out on everything, I think it is important that things do change. That is what makes life in any place a joy and an adventure. It's just hard to know that things will change regardless of your involvement or attention to it.

Reflection #3: I am all at once delighted that I have met so many wonderful people during my time here and but also frightened by the fact that I may never see some of these people ever again this side of heaven. I may find similar people in Portland or even similar students if I teach again some day, but no person could ever replace by any means the people I have had the pleasure of meeting and knowing over the last six years. I remember the summer between my last year at St. Joseph's and my first year at Judge Memorial. My teacher friend Andrew and I were talking about various students we'd had and the amusing stories associated with them. I was telling him about a particular student I'd had named Maria Palmetto (code named, of course). There were many hilarious 'Maria Palmetto' stories, and I was lamenting the fact that at Judge, there would be no Maria Palmetto. "Do you think there could be another Maria Palmetto at Judge? Or someone like her?" I asked somewhat facetiously. I knew my friend's answer and agreed with it before he even spoke. He said, "No, I don't think so." He paused as I nodded in agreement. "And I hope you would be disappointed if you did." His comment struck me. "Yes, I suppose I would be." I said almost automatically. And it was true. Every person I have met in Utah is unique and special, and I am sure I will never find anyone anywhere else who could ever replace them. Yes, the people I've gotten to know are irreplaceable, and I know I'd be more than just a little disappointed if they weren't.

So thank you, good people of Utah, for making my experience what it was. Though I leave and enter a new phase of my life, these last six years will remain in my memory, and nothing in my future years will ever be able to replace it.  I might lament that I won't find another 'you' in Portland, but because you are uniquely awesome, I now know I would be disappointed if I did.

Reflection #4: As soon as I learned that my first PACE reaching assignment would be in Ogden, UT, I immediately knew exactly where I wanted to visit when I got there. I had learned about the famed Golden Spike, which joined the original transcontinental railroad, during my first week at my firsts real engineering job at the freight rail company Gunderson in Portland. They had made me and this other new guy watch a documentary about the history of rail transport in the United States, and it featured the Golden Spike heavily. It really captured my imagination, but when I actually got to Utah, I never went. In fact, I never went at all during my six year sojourn in Utah. Never went, that is, until last week, right before leaving.

Admittedly, the exhibit is not super exciting, and none of the original ceremonial spikes are even there; they are all sitting in museums somewhere collecting dust. But I thought of all the people who labored and died to make transport across this continent a reality. Needless to say, I was immersed in thought for quite some time.

My final reflective point is this, with respect to the Golden Spike: just as a golden rail spike forged a connection between two oceans worlds apart, so my memories and experiences will be the Golden Spike that links my two worlds of Portland and Utah. But my Golden Spike will not be sitting in a museum collecting dust.