A Catholic guide to your mid-life calling
The day after I quit my job at The Wall Street Journal to take a midlife sabbatical, I had lunch with a former chief executive of U.S. Steel. Walking home, I slipped on an icy Pittsburgh sidewalk and broke my finger.
Laid up over Christmas at my parents’ house in Brussels, where I grew up, I was unable to pick my banjo, play basketball or ride a bike. That same month, my marriage had been annulled. Into a life without familiar hobbies, work and status came rushing strange vibrations.
Every morning, I woke up with warmth pounding in my chest, a quaking heart filling with bliss and terror. For a few scorching, unbearable weeks, scenes from my past flashed before my eyes, recasting beliefs and assumptions. I had known happiness. I had known sadness. What was this? God?
The numinous pounding lasted into the spring, throwing off my plan to take just a few months off and then get back to work. I turned down two jobs and a fellowship.
I retreated to Pittsburgh and scheduled an appointment with a spiritual director. In March and April, I spent mornings feeding homeless people at a soup kitchen and afternoons reading and napping on my couch. Every few weeks, my spiritual director and I met for prayer and conversation.
For the first time in my life, the famous visitation scenes of Scripture made sense. I had been knocked off my horse.
I found myself ridiculous, beating back a messiah complex and listening to myself entertain notions of throwing all my possessions in the river. Friends whispered and worried. I made sure to shave every day: If you’re wondering if God is speaking to you, it is best to maintain a facade of impeccable sanity.
But something was happening. For the first time in my life, the famous visitation scenes of Scripture made sense. I had been knocked off my horse. The bush was burning.
The intensity of the calling experience, the dissatisfaction with a job I had once loved and the failure of my marriage suggested, I thought, a path in the church.
Around the time I broke my finger—my ring finger, no less—my marriage had been formally annulled by the church. God, I thought, was marching me off to the monastery. In this age of twittering madness, I would join those bearing witness to peace, sanity and truth.
Although I have been a practicing Catholic since my teens and graduated from a Catholic college, I felt unfamiliar with the church. Outside of marriage and attendance at a Catholic college, my closest involvement had been covering the sexual abuse crisis as a journalist. But I could not ignore this strange calling. That would be the only thing worse than the pain and confusion I was feeling.
I picked the brains of anybody I could find—a parish priest in Pittsburgh, a Jesuit in Washington, D.C., a Dominican in Brussels. I spent a week at a Jesuit retreat house outside Cleveland. After one priest I talked to compared my story to that of St. Ignatius, I read his autobiography. I learned about movements of the spirits and discernment. I was accumulating knowledge—but no clarity.
Then a trusted priest friend in Belgium suggested I go on retreat at Notre Dame d’Orval, a monastery on the Belgian-French border.
Monastic communities are like families. Some fight. Some fail. This one, my friend said, is healthy. It commands a global beer business. The monks faithfully follow the rule of St. Benedict. They pray, work and welcome visitors.
I booked a week. On a warm Monday in May, I took trains from Brussels to a tiny farming town called Florenville and trekked five miles on a road that snaked through a pine forest to the monastery.
Orval, which makes a popular dry, citrusy ale, attracts beer tourists from all over the world and has the restaurant and brewery museum to satisfy them.
It also welcomes pilgrims. For $50 a night, you can get a simple room and sustenance, including a Trappist beer, and, if you want, time to talk with an attentive monk.
‘This part of your life is not about being a reporter,’ the abbot said. ’It’s about listening to your heart.’
There are good reasons to get to know Orval besides spiritual searching. History’s battles of ideas are etched into its stones. Founded by Italian Benedictine monks in the 11th century, by the 1700s the monastery had become one of the world’s leading industrial sites, run by monks, with nine forges and state-of-the-art hydraulic technology. It represented the kind of ecclesiastical luxury hated by the freethinkers who seized power in the French Revolution, and in 1793, steeple-toppling Jacobins burned it to the ground.
The site lay in ruins until the 1920s, when a new wave of anti-clericalism in 1926 again threatened French monks, who went shopping for a new home. The Trappist order bought the Orval site from its private owners and started making the beer to pay for construction of a new monastery among the ruins of the old.
A 60-foot statue of the Virgin and child fronting the main chapel looks over a large cloister with a pond, surrounded by the cloister walk, from which doorways lead to the monks’ small, private rooms. Everything is eternally and cheerfully colored in green and white. On the sunny mornings I attended daily prayer. Pilgrims sat with monks, white plastic chairs almost touching, trading secrets for wisdom.
‘You could spend your whole life running around the world interviewing monks and priests, like a journalist, and not get anywhere.’
My confessor was the abbot, Father Lode, a tall, funny, charismatic man in his 60s who reminded me of C.E.O.s I had covered as a journalist. He seemed to know everybody, dropping names of popes, philosophers, even musicians with whom that my dad, a pianist, had played.
On the second day, the abbot said he had something important to tell me. “I don’t think you have a calling, at least not for now,” he said. “I think you need to go back to what you know, get a job, maybe meet a woman. When you’re happy again, your heart will tell you what’s next.”
The only thing God wants us to give up, he continued, is the devil. “If you’re not enjoying things you used to enjoy, that’s your ego or that’s depression. That’s not from God.”
That evening, as I ate in silence with the other pilgrims and savored my beer, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders.
The next day, the abbot resumed his lecture. There are three things you need to orient yourself in times of crisis and change, he said.
One is divine inspiration. The second is the facts of your life. What you’ve done before and what you’re able to do, practically. And the third is a wise witness to certify that you’re living in reality.
“You can’t figure out your calling experience on your own,” Father Lode said. “And when you do understand what it means, it’s going to make you very happy, like you’re in love. But you’re not going to fall in love while you’re going so far from what you know.” Again, he said, “Go back to what you know.”
He offered a note of caution: “You could spend your whole life running around the world interviewing monks and priests, like a journalist, and not get anywhere,” he said. “But this part of your life is not about being a reporter; it’s about listening to your heart.”
“Vocation,” Thomas Merton wrote, “does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be.”
I returned to Pittsburgh and got back to work, as a writer and youth baseball coach. I even met a woman.
Every calling is an invitation to become our truest, happiest selves and not to turn us into somebody we’re not.
The process of understanding my vocation will go on for the rest of my life, but I mark the conversation with Father Lode at Orval as the point when I stopped running away and started running toward something.
It took a wise Belgian abbot to remind me that every calling is an invitation to become our truest, happiest selves and not to turn us into somebody we’re not.
I emailed the abbot to thank him.
“You’re certainly starting a new phase in life, one where you’ll live more deeply,” he replied. “But you’ll get there. And we’re here to help.”