It becomes very clear that when we say “no” to things that threaten our vocations—sometimes even good things—we imitate Christ in saying “yes” to the will of the Father.
I entered the seminary right out of high school. And believe it or not, I never even visited the seminary until I began the application process. Up to that point, my plan was to study theology and play baseball at a small Catholic college about an hour from home. I was, however, very close with my high school chaplain, a priest. I also knew some seminarians, because a few of the men that graduated ahead of me were studying at our diocesan seminary. I also trusted that what they told me about the seminary was true, that it was a good place, and that it would be a good fit for me. It was late July of 1994. I would be the final applicant for the new academic year.
As an 18-year-old, I was a bit naïve about what to expect from seminary formation, in particular, and seminary culture, in general. I knew that we would be praying a lot, with the Eucharist at the heart of each day. I was thrilled that the Blessed Sacrament would be a three-minute walk from my dorm room. I was aware that we would have to study philosophy, which, ironically, did not excite me in the least. But I did look forward to being a member of the Borromeo Seminary basketball team, because I heard stories about how the team played other seminaries from the Midwest in annual tournaments, which sounded to me like a lot of fun.
Two other things struck me, as well. First, I noticed that an inordinate amount of seminarians were musically inclined. Half of the house played the guitar, and the rest seemed to have some sort of musical ability, whether it was on the piano, trumpet, flute, a drum set, or all three. It was a beautiful thing when the guys would play together, whether at Mass, or in an impromptu jam session. I wanted to be part of it. But, there was a problem. Even though I came from a musical family—my mom taught music, and my dad loved to sing—I had always been too stubborn and undisciplined to ever learn to read music, or play an instrument.
Second, as I looked around at my brother seminarians, and thought about all the priests I knew as I was growing up, it occurred to me that a majority of them smoked. It was the mid-nineties. While there were warnings on packs of cigarettes, and the anti-smoking movement was gaining momentum, a pack of smokes only cost $1.30, and smoking seemed like the cool thing to do. So, about two weeks into my freshman year, I drove home, got my mom’s old guitar out of the attic, bought a carton of Marlboro Reds at the gas station, and decided that I would start smoking and playing the guitar the next day. And that’s exactly what I did.
I know, I know! This is a pathetic story, but it’s true. That’s why I am telling it. So, keep reading, because it gets better.
I was a heavy smoker for one year—my freshman year of college. I smoked about a pack a day. I stopped smoking for about six months during my sophomore year. I then eventually turned into what they call a “social” or “light” smoker, meanig that I smoked a lot less than folks who smoked a lot. I was down to about a pack a week. I kept this up through ordination, becoming a “closet smoker” as a parish priest, because I didn’t want to be a bad example for young people. When my bishop sent me away for graduate studies, I started to smoke in public again, but I mostly avoided smoking while wearing my roman collar. According to the Catechism, moderate smoking is not a sin, but something about it just didn’t seem right to me, especially as a priest.
In high school, I played football and baseball, sports that include an element of running, for sure, but never running for its own sake. I was fine with running up and down a field to score touchdowns, or to prevent touchdowns from being scored. I loved running around the bases in order to score runs, or running to chase down a fly ball. However, I never understood why anyone would simply run to run. But that was about to change.
Spending most of my days in grad school, reading and writing philosophy, was tough. Smoke breaks, although enjoyable, weren’t cutting it. So, I worked-out at the university fitness center for about an hour a day. The fitness center was a ten-minute walk from my living quarters in a friary on the edge of campus. After the Thanksgiving break, the weather got to be too much. Walking home in the cold when you are drenched with sweat is neither smart nor fun, so I figured it would be best to simply workout in the attic with the friars.
At the fitness center, I would ride the elliptical machine for 30 minutes, followed by push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and some stretching. In the attic of the friary, there were no elliptical machines, just an old treadmill. I hated running. However, Brother Jim told me that if I watched an action movie while running on the treadmill, it wouldn’t be so bad. He was right.
Before long, I was running five or six miles a day, watching every action movie in the friary library. I ran to all the Jason Bourne movies, to Braveheart, The Italian Job, A Knight’s Tale, and Oceans Eleven and Twelve. After a few months, I had exhausted the action genre, moving now into comedy, and then drama. (I even ran to Ordinary People, which I would not recommend as an inspirational running film. Talk about a downer!) But I liked running, and was getting pretty good at it—so much so, that others were noticing. Brother Jim, and a friend back home, encouraged me to enter a road race.
Although I had trained entirely on a treadmill, I ran my first road race on February 14, 2008, a 10k in Washington, D.C. To my surprise, I finished third in my age bracket. To celebrate, I went out to dinner, and afterward, I smoked two victory cigarettes. I took pride in that fact that I could run and smoke. That night I signed up online for another race, this time in a half-marathon.
I kept the same routine for the next two months, running on the treadmill almost every day; then, I would smoke about a pack of cigarettes a week. By the time the next race rolled around, I was ready, and my finishing time was good. But I wanted my time to be better. I wanted to be a better runner. I wanted to flourish as a runner. I didn’t want to be average or mediocre, I wanted to be good. I was willing to do whatever it took to improve my time for the next race. I knew that I could run faster and longer if I could make one significant change. I had a decision to make: I had to choose between smoking and running.
Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Vocation implies limitation.” In other words, if you want to be good at something, there are other things that you have to give up. You can’t have it all, unless you want to be average or mediocre at everything you do. O’Connor wanted to be a great writer, so after morning Mass and breakfast, she spent the next three hours of every day, writing, with no interruptions. She said “no” to appointments, to visits, and even to reading before lunchtime, so that she could devote her entire self to writing, in order to become a great writer. It worked.
The same principle holds true in marriage. If a man wants to be a good husband and father, he will have to say “no” to many things that he may find pleasurable but that are not good for his marriage and family—things like spending too much time away from home, flirting with his secretary, drinking too much, and isolating himself in his man-cave on Sundays while watching football. He says “no” to these things so that he can say “yes” to his wife and children, to be the man he is supposed to be, the husband and father his family needs him to be. His wife will have to say “no” to putting her pilates class, and her personal fitness, ahead of her children’s need for quality time spent with mom. She will say “no” to rekindling old high school flames on Facebook, even when she is frustrated with her husband. She says “no” to these things so that she can say “yes” to being a good wife and mother.
A good runner can’t be a smoker. A good writer can’t set herself up for distraction. A good husband can’t spend more time in his man-cave than with his wife and family. A good wife can’t be searching for lost loves on Facebook when she gets lonely. A good Christian can’t put his own will before the will of God.
Here is the truth: the thing that brought me to the seminary in the first place was that I fell madly in love with the person of Jesus Christ when I was in high school. I fell in love with the Son of God who said “no” to the devil in the desert, who said “no” to using his power to dominate others, who said “no” to ignoring the weak and marginalized, who said “no” to one of his closest friends who wanted to keep him from emptying himself on the cross of Calvary—all of these in order that he might say “yes” to you and to me.
Here is the mystery of it all: to most folks, quitting smoking, and Jesus’ death and resurrection, have absolutely nothing in common. However, if we look more closely, it becomes very clear that when we say “no” to things that threaten our vocations—sometimes even good things—we imitate Christ in saying “yes” to the will of the Father.
I had my last cigarette on May 30, 2009. Two months later, I ran a half-marathon in Seattle—seven minutes faster than before. Yet, even though I successfully quit smoking and became a better runner, I am still not half the priest I want to be, or should be. But here’s the funny thing, a couple of the best priests I know—the priests I look up to and consider holy—still smoke. Go figure.