This week I'm running a series, For the Love of the Church, written by my friend Jacob Boddicker, SJ.
Jacob is a Jesuit scholastic originally from Iowa, and is currently studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in preparation for ordination. He has an academic background in archaeology, history, and philosophy, and his interests include music, science fiction/fantasy, and writing.
Make sure to check out:
I entered the Jesuit novitiate completely trusting that somehow God was going to clear everything up. My heart was still mending from giving up on the young woman I was very much in love with; my hopes for a wife and children had not simply gone away. All I had was the unshakable certainty that the novitiate is precisely where God wanted me to be at that point in my life, and I had promised Him it was a road I would walk until He told me to turn away from it.
Meanwhile the Church, yet again, followed me, and this time she wasn't subtle at all. In my college years she would move down the street from me, or on the other side of campus; in the novitiate, she had a ROOM IN MY HOUSE. I had never lived somewhere with its own chapel, nor had I access to daily Mass like I did in the novitiate. I didn't quite know what to think, and though I didn't think of her much more often than I already did, she was certainly entering into my daily life much more obviously.
It wasn't until Jesus broke the ice that my relationship with His Bride took a more serious turn. One day in our Sacraments class we were reading about the Eucharist in the Catechism. That was the day when I learned, for the first time, what--rather, WHO--the Eucharist was, and it changed every. Literally. Everything.
I remember standing in the doorway of her room, that chapel where silence was as thick as the air, and the diffused light of day filled the dark brick place with a gray light, and the scent of beeswax candles drifted by. I just stood there, afraid to enter, staring across at the tabernacle, now knowing why there was a lit candle, now realizing that this was someone's room; I wasn't alone here. "What do I do now?" I thought, and the first thing that came to mind was this: I should start treating the Eucharist like a person, rather than a thing. And so I did: every time I entered the chapel I made it a point to make eye contact with Him, to recognize the fact He was there, to mind my way of doing anything in the chapel such that I never acted as though no one else was around. It changed everything for me; I can't begin describing the difference it made in my life to know that at any time of the day or night I could leave my cell, walk down a single flight of stairs, and go kneel before my Lord and talk with Him about whatever I desired. Or just be silent with Him; whatever my heart needed. He was there.
And how did I come by this knowledge, this gift of Jesus' radically Real Presence in the Eucharist? You guessed it: HER. SHE brought Him to me, and by my baptism brought ME to HIM. I began to realize that this woman who has fawned and fussed over me my whole life...to her I owed everything, because it was through her love for me that I came to know His love, to know who He is, to receive Him every single day...how could I ever repay her?
Oh Church, you clever Bride! You knew--you knew!--that one day I would realize the unpayable debt I would owe you! And you KNEW that once you revealed and gave to me your greatest treasure, I would have to give you the only thing you wanted of me: myself. And this is precisely what Jesus began to make clear to me as I continued in my formation: like Peter, He would say time and again, "Jacob, do you love me?" I would say, "Yes, Lord! I love you! You know I love you; have I not followed you here to the novitiate?" "Feed my sheep, and tend my lambs," He would say, which I took to mean, "If you really do love me, be my priest; give my Sacraments to my people, heal and guide them."
He was cornering my heart by assaulting it with love from all sides and, eventually, He had me between a Rock and a Church, yet I could not give up my heart's deepest longing to give myself to a wife and children. It came to a head during the Spiritual Exercises and I turned the whole matter over to Jesus: "The ball is in your court, Jesus; you bring it up later if we need to talk about it." And that was that.
A year and a half later I was on retreat in Missouri, looking ahead to making my First Vows, excited to do so, and I realized I never actually asked God what He thought about me making vows. The grace I sought on that retreat, therefore, was confirmation: "God, do you want me to make vows in the Society? Do you want me to be your priest?" Meanwhile the Church stood off to the side, eyes wide with anticipation, ready for her Lord to unlock the final door in my heart that remained closed to her.
During my retreat, while contemplating the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, I was struck with the realization that Mary--near-bursting with Christ and desiring nothing more than to bring the Messiah into the world--was so much like the Church. Not only did she bear Christ into the world, but the world told her time and again that there was no room. How deep was Mary's anguish! I realized also that the Church is the Bride of Christ; Mary is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, by Whom she came to bear the Son of God. I never realized that parallel before: the Church and Jesus, Mary and the Spirit. Then I thought: what about Joseph?
Joseph, Scripture tells us, was a righteous man (Matthew 1:19), who desired like any good Jewish man to have a wife and a family. To Him God, in essence, said, "Joseph, I love you and I trust you, and I know your desire. I offer you my spouse to be your spouse; you must love her, serve her, provide for her, protect her as though she were totally yours but remember she is not: how you love and serve her is how you love and serve me. And I entrust to you Our Son, to love and provide for and raise as though He were your own but remember He is not: how you love and serve Him is how you will love and serve me."
It hit me that Jesus was saying the same to me, offering me His Bride to be my own, and their many children to be my own, and Jesus reminded me that they will all call me "Father" for a reason. In this Jesus showed me that my desire to be a husband and father and His desire for me to be a priest were not two different things, but rather the same desire with two potential means of fulfillment. Now I could make a true and radically free choice, for I knew my options.
When I weighed them in my heart I found time and again that I could not refuse the offer of being espoused to the Bride of Christ. This is not to say that matrimony is somehow less! Rather the sense of fulfillment I felt in the very depths of my heart was such that I could not say no. I couldn't. It wasn't a lack of freedom, nor the thought that "well, it's what God wants, so what choice do I have?" But it was so good, so very good, so fulfilling to me that I couldn't say no. I knew, more certainly than I knew the existence of gravity, that not only did God desire me to be a priest, but it was what I had always wanted as well; it was just that I had never entrusted my heart's deepest desire to God before, and thus He could never help me to see.
And so, after so many years of giving her the cold shoulder, and a couple of recent years of light dating, I asked the Church if she would marry me, feeling like her Father had already given me permission to ask for her hand. She, of course, said what she'd waited 25 years up to that point to say: YES!
Thus began the longest engagement ever and WOW, what a marriage prep program Jesuit formation really is. But these ten years have been the absolute best of my entire life.
If you missed the first installments, pop over to read: