I would never have vocalized it at the time, but I thought I was perfect. There was Jesus, Mary, Joseph then me. The intensity of desire I had to be perfect for God, in my opinion, was unmatched. I didn’t consciously think this way, but it was a deeply rooted motivation I had for living out the faith. While this came from a genuine desire to give God my whole heart, my joy and peace were subsequently contingent on making the right decisions. So, six years after encountering the love of Jesus, I found myself scared, isolated, and alone, struggling with depression, anxiety, OCD, and suicidal ideation. It was in this place where I found myself ready to leave the faith behind to stay alive.
This is a humbling thing to admit after having experienced such a profound reconversion back to my faith and encounter with Jesus after I had graduated from college in 2012. I went from a cradle catholic to a college student who didn’t go to mass or think about God once during undergrad; living a life of pleasure seeking to having a St. Paul conversion experience and returning back to the Father like the prodigal son. After college, I moved back home to Maine. I had gotten into Graduate School for counseling, became a FOCUS missionary from 2015-2017 at Temple University in Philadelphia, and then I felt a call to the priesthood and entered into religious formation with the Capuchin Franciscans. It was in this second year of formation, in the fall of 2018, where I found myself trapped and barely hanging on by a thread.
During this stage of my life, my whole conception of doing God’s will was that God just tells you what to do and you do it. It doesn’t matter how you feel or what your desires are. God just says go to point A to B to C to D then you die and go to heaven, it’s that simple: my heart didn’t matter and I couldn’t trust my heart. Does God ask us to do things at times we don’t necessarily desire to do? Absolutely. But I was so paralyzed in fear of making the wrong decision because I was afraid of doing the wrong thing that I didn’t realize my whole view of God was that of a slave master, and I was the slave. I was the older son in the story of the prodigal son during this time in my life. My whole relationship with God was based on strictly serving God and nothing else, and I had no joy. I would pray and reflect how we are called to live an abundant life and how the Christian life isn’t supposed to be one big chore, but rather one of freedom, adventure, excitement, obedience, joy, peace, etc. and I found myself not experiencing any of these fruits to a greater and greater degree. But God would show soon me that He wants to be my Father and that He desires my freedom.
I speak from my own experience, but I think for a lot of practicing Catholics and Christians there is a deep desire to know that you are God’s special one, that you are chosen – we all want to be chosen. We desire to feel and to know within our hearts that we are the closest to God’s own heart. We read the lives of the Saints and are inspired to follow their lead and want to give everything to God. While this is obviously a beautiful desire, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that the more we do for God the closer we become to Him – that it’s dependent on us. “If I just follow God’s will perfectly, pray my prayers, go to Mass, do more and more for God then I will become closer and closer to God and by becoming closer and closer to God I will become a Saint.” This performance-based identity was my foundation during my breaking point. My relationship with God was dependent on making the right decisions and doing things for Him.
It was in this place where I found myself slowly deteriorating. I began to sleep less and less and experience more and more depression and anxiety. But I couldn’t leave the novitiate because it was God’s will for me to be there, or so I thought. My thought at the time was, “I am so sick and miserable I feel like I am going to die so I feel like I should leave and go home with my family (which brought peace and excitement). But if I leave, I will be operating outside of God’s will and if I am operating outside of God’s will I won’t be special and God will turn His back on me and I will be left alone.” I felt completely stuck. But, through prayer, discernment, and good formators, I realized that my freedom mattered in all of this and that the freest decision I could make was to leave novitiate and go home. The fact I felt no freedom to leave meant I didn’t have any freedom anymore to remain in formation, so I left.
The next few years of my life were the hardest but most healing I had ever experienced. I felt that I had abandoned Him because I wasn’t doing anything for Him. But He continued to show me that He was present and loved me. This forced me to confront my views of who I thought God was. I was forced to confront the lies and fears I believed and allow Him to show me that He is good and who He truly is. Since leaving, I have learned through suffering, trial, and error, that God, just like He tells us in Scripture, will never forsake us or abandon us. He is with us wherever we go. If God calls us to do something, if our hearts remain with Him but we perchance discern incorrectly, then His will will still come to fruition because of His goodness, not because we have to be perfect for Him. We have a loving Father who never leaves our side for one moment and wants to continuously give us more and more of Himself. Does this mean we will always ‘feel’ good? Absolutely not. God promised us that we will suffer. But the more and more we are able to trust in our hearts that we have a God who protects us, despite how we feel, and will never forsake us and desires our freedom, the more and more free we become to live as true sons and daughters of the Father.
If reading this has made you start to think that there may be lies you believe about who God is, I encourage you to spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the lies and fears you believe about who the Father and to show you the truth in place of those lies. The more and more God frees us from our fear-based views of who we think He is, the more and more free we become to be united to His heart and enter into the promised land He has in store for each one of us. “There is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out all fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Trust that God has you in the palm of His hand and that He is with you until the end of time.