CHEWING ON AN OCTOPUS’ EYEBALL
I begin this brief history of my vocation with a story from a recent vacation with my brother seminarians. It is more relevant than it seems…
It was a perfect day on the Sorrentine peninsula in southern Italy. The sun beat down through clear azure skies and danced on the crystalline waters of the secluded bay of Ieranto. On the horizon lay the fabled island of Capri in all its rock-hewn majesty. I stopped for a moment to admire the view before donning my swimming trunks and slipping into the luscious water. Harpoon in hand, I followed Brother Matthew, who had promised to show me how to hunt octopus ‘wild man style.’
Floating in the middle of the bay he stopped and pointed down. Far below, the dim glint of white shells scattered outside a murky seabed lair were sure signs of octopus activity. He gulped some air and flippered slowly down, down into the depths, finally clutching onto the rocks around the denizen’s den forty feet beneath the surface. Br Matthew carried no harpoon—such tools are unworthy of a ‘wildman’— and as he reached into the hole, the octopus wrapped around his arm, its suctioning tentacles tinting the water faintly red with his blood. With Herculean effort, he gradually drew the struggling beast out of its cave, and as they slowly ascended, the struggling animal clouded the water with black ink. Two heads broke the surface, one replete with gargantuan eyeballs hanging from a bulbous globe of a head, the other the only slightly less frightful specter of Brother Matthew. “This is how you kill them wild man style.” He seized an eyeball with his teeth and bit down. Death was instantaneous, and he pried the suction caps from his mangled arm as we swam back with our tasty trophy. I had learnt a new technique for the capture of octopuses, one that would quickly become a personal favorite during the remainder of our summer vacation.
I think this little episode is a useful and memorable image of the process that has to go on in the discernment of any vocation. Before I explain, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Br Stephen Howe (I am from Australia, so that is pronounced Houuggghh). I was eighteen when I joined the Legionaries of Christ and I am now on the threshold of ordination at thirty-two. (Yes, it does take a long time to become a Legionary priest, as those of you who are mathematically inclined will have quickly figured out). As you may well imagine, it was no easy task making up my mind to leave my childhood paradise. Most people want to go to Australia—why would anyone want to leave? It was a long and slow process, and one that involved chewing on many an octopus eyeball. Let me explain…
WHO WOULD BE STUPID ENOUGH TO WANT TO BE A PRIEST?
Growing up in Australia was a lot of fun. Survival of the fittest was the rule. Avoiding death-dealing creatures such as venomous snakes, deadly spiders, savage sharks, vicious crocodiles, lethal jellyfish, and toxic toads was part of daily life. In fact, it was a nice relief to come across the odd animal now and then that couldn’t kill you. This meant that I grew up a very tough person and apart from surviving, some of the hobbies my friends and I were into were hunting, shooting, rocket and bomb making, motor-cycle-riding, grass-boarding (there’s no snow round Adelaide), surfing, fishing, beer-brewing and playing Aussie rules football (arguably the worlds most brutal and enjoyable sport). On top of all this, I was also blessed with two great parents, two brothers and two sisters (all younger than me) and a veritable army of forty two cousins, most of them about my own age.
Growing up as a normal kid, having fun was top on the list of priorities. Becoming a priest seemed to me to be the opposite of this and so was dead last on the list of desirable things to do with my life. When as a kid in seventh grade, our teacher told us: “Everyone who’s thought about being a priest, raise your hand.” I literally sat on my hand. “Who would be stupid enough to want to be a priest?” I thought. It seemed like throwing away all the best things in life—having a wife and family, your own house and nice car, and anything else that makes life worth living.
ANGELS AND DEMONS: Preparing the ground
But while the demon on my left shoulder urged me to be selfish and just ‘have fun,’ there was an angel whispering in my right ear, reminding me of what my parents had always taught me and which I knew to be true. As a kid, my dad used to dandle me on his knee—a sight a bit hard to imagine now what with my being a galoot of six and a half feet—as he would read stories of the lives of saints to my brother and I. He was always careful to choose the most dramatic stories of bloody, gory martyrdom. St Isaac Jogues was my favorite: a man who came back to a village where he had recently had all his fingers and toes bitten off by Indians and ended up dying with a hatchet buried in his skull. Of course it sounded terrible (personally I like having fingers on my hands), but at same time I was attracted: “wouldn’t it be great when I lie on my deathbed to know that I had lived as a saint?” My parent’s stories were reinforced by their example. At times I would stumble across them praying together when I woke up in the middle of the night, and they honestly seemed to enjoy reading spiritual books! They managed to bury a great conviction in my soul like a fence-post sunk in cement: the most important thing in life is to do the will of God.
However, I really hoped that the will of God wasn’t going to be for me to be a priest. One day I asked our chubby brown-robed parish priest. “If someone were called to be a priest would they want to be a priest?’ He patted me on the head and said “Yes, my son, I think God would give him that desire.” “Phew,” I thought, “I’m off the hook; I’m definitely not called to be a priest—because it’s the last thing that I want to do.” Little did I think that I would soon have another think coming…I would soon find out that the vocation is all about what God wants us to do and nothing about what we personally would choose, and sometimes, like Christ in Gethsemane, we have to sweat blood before our desires match God’s.
A JAB TO THE JAW: God’s call of love
I was eighteen when I first met the Legionaries of Christ. As usual, it was a sunny day in Australia, and as I looked out of the window, I saw a metallic blue Ford XR8 sports car sliding up to the curb. Out hopped couple of young men in double-breasted black suits and priestly collars. I still remember thinking that they looked like secret agents. They turned out to be Legionaries who were visiting Australia from the USA. (I later found out that the car had been a free loan from a friend just in case you were wondering). For some reason, I kept bumping into them over the few days of their visit, and I found out why when Fr. Peter confronted me at one point. “Have you ever thought about being a priest?” I was taken aback by this sudden jab to the jaw. No one had ever come up and asked me that question at point blank range before. I mumbled eloquently: “I don’t know.” He followed up with the verbal equivalent of a straight right to the jaw: “Do you want to find out about God’s will?” I stammered: “I’m not sure.” He finished things off with a roundhouse: “Will you think about our three month discernment program in Connecticut?” I very decisively said: “I don’t know, maybe…”
The decision was not easy. I had just finished high school and done pretty well, graduating in the top three percent in the state. I had been accepted into the university course in law that I wanted. The only reason I even considered going to the candidacy was that after high school I had taken a year off before starting university, so I could earn some money and get some ‘life experience.’ The only job I had found so far was washing cars in a dealership at slave-labor rates, so I really was not going to be missing much employment-wise by leaving for America!
After a couple of months I made my decision at an Easter Sunday youth mass in a circus tent: “O.K. I will give God one chance. I am so generous. I am going to burn all my slave-labour savings on a plane ticket and give him three months of my life. Surely he couldn’t ask any more?” I said to myself: “if God does want me to be a priest I won’t answer anything less than a real miracle like a deep voice from heaven or a lightning bolt or something.”
PUTTING ON THE WEDDING GARMENT: My reluctant response to God’s invitation
The three months of candidacy were the best of my life. The camaraderie, sports, hikes and various pranks and escapades were fantastic fun. It was also great to be spending some time in prayer and getting to know God better. I was, however, a somewhat rebellious specimen and although the uniform in candidacy was supposed to be a white shirt and black tie, I realized that wearing that stuff would mean taking things way too seriously and might even convey the impression that I was actually thinking about the priesthood. So for two and a half of the next three months, in a sea of over sixty men in black and white, I was a colorful island walking around in Hawaiian shirts. Everyone else was calling each other ‘Brother,’ but I felt I had to draw the line somewhere, so I was the only ‘non-brother’ there.
After a couple of months of this state of me sticking out like a sore toe, I began to feel bad about not taking the possibility of priesthood seriously. One of the priests there told me: “Other guys are hanging back because of you, so even though you probably don’t have a calling, why not at least get the uniform?” I went to Bible and opened it up looking for inspiration. The pages fell open at the passage of the king who invites various guests to his wedding feast. As he greets the guests, the king comes across a certain conspicuous man and asks: “Why are not you wearing your wedding garment?” The man responds: “Uh oh…” and ends up getting thrown out to gnash his teeth in the darkness. Here was my message from God, clear as crystal. That evening, I walked into the dining room in shirt and tie and got a standing ovation from the Brothers.
I was still planning on going home at the end of candidacy, rather than joining the seminary. A fellow candidate, however, convinced me to delay my plane ticket till the day after ‘spiritual exercises.’ The spiritual exercises is an intense eight day silent retreat, involving several hours of ‘meditations’ each day in which a priest helps a group reflect on God and the most important things in life. I said “OK Lord, this is your last chance, if you really want me to be a priest, give me a deep voice or something or I’m off.
IGNORING THE MAN IN THE PINSTRIPE SUIT: my decision to stick around
I had a terrific retreat. God went about softening me up until finally, halfway through the retreat, he delivered the knockout punch. Father was preaching to us and he painted a picture. In the picture I was in the middle of a vast valley. On the one side was a wasteland, burnt and slime-encrusted, over which dark skies lowered. On the other side was a lush green hill, bathed in light. On the first hill was the devil with his minions arrayed in all their ghastly bestial horror. His standard was emblazoned with the world and he spoke: “Come follow me and you will have all the pleasure, money, sex, and power you ever desired.” His troll-like followers tearing each other apart showed the misery that comes from his path.
On the other hill was Christ and his standard was the cross. He was followed by an army of saints, who shone with holiness and joy. He also had an invitation: “Come and follow me. Live your vocation! It will be hard but I will give you immense peace here and in eternity.”
I thought about his invitation. I knew that I wanted to climb that second hill, but I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to take the exact place in that army that he had chosen for me. I suspected he wanted me to be a priest, but it seemed too hard. And besides, he had given me no undeniably clear sign of exactly what was his will. I wouldn’t reject the idea of priesthood offhand but why not just go home and wait a bit longer, ask for an unmistakable sign?
Father read my mind. He said “Be very careful. Maybe a dapper-looking fellow with a goatee, dressed in a pinstripe suit is coming up to you. He speaks in a pleasant baritone: “Don’t do anything radical now. You don’t need to decide to follow your vocation or anything just yet. Just wait here in the valley. Keep doing what you always have for now—don’t do anything you might regret later…” As he turns to walk away, a forked tail slips out from between his coattails. He is not your friend. Do not listen to him.”
BITING THE EYEBALL AGAIN: saying no to the world and yes to God
As I went into the chapel to pray after that meditation I was battling an enormous octopus. This monster of the deep dragged me down, holding me back from breathing in the clean, fresh air of God’s will. I was suffocating, my lungs flooding, my heart pounding. My plans, my dreams, a wife, a family, all these attachments sucked at my soul. I could never leave it all to follow Christ!
Somehow God gave me the strength I didn’t have. I opened my mouth wide and, in one colossal toothy bite, chomped the eyeball of this many-tentacled fiend. Responding to a grace for which I will be forever grateful, I decided to stay. I resolved to join the seminary to discern God’s will, trusting more in His plans for me than my own.
As I looked up at the cross I sensed him saying to me “I want you to be my priest,” and I realized: He knows what is best. The one who has to give his permission before a single hair can fall from my head, who shed every last drop of his blood for me and wants only what will make me happiest will never let me down if I trust in him and try to do his will.
Here I have to confess that my problems were still far from resolved with this one moment of generosity. My road toward priesthood has not been without its fair share of speed bumps and potholes, and in fact, my first several years were characterized by an almost permanent attitude of stinginess. I was constantly wrestling with God, complaining and whining about the sacrifices he was asking of me. My spiritual director told me at the end of my first two years that he had never expected me to make it through the novitiate!
Thirteen years that have passed since that first decision, and I have gradually come to experience the peace and joy that comes from following God’s will like a trusting child. What a joy to be able to know I’m going to heaven and bringing others with me! That my life will be fruitful! My life as a Legionary is still not an easy one, but I can truly say that it is an immensely joyful one.