In my limited experience of priestly life these past five months, I would say priestly life is like being handed the keys to a 1953 Chevy pickup truck with manual transmission and no power steering and being told by God the Father, “You’re driving. Let’s go!” God sits shotgun and places an indescribable amount of confidence and trust in me, his beloved son, the driver, as I strive not to kill the truck amidst the fear that I will do just that. Ultimately, what is revealed to me is that God the Father’s confidence in me is justified, I just can’t see it in myself because of my fear of failing. God is guiding me each step of the way, not by driving for me, but by teaching me how to drive.
I have to admit, I feel a bit foolish for thinking that after my priestly ordination, I would have everything figured out, so to speak. I thought I was supposed to already know how to drive (wasn’t that why I spent 6 years in seminary?). I have come to realize that I, in fact, don’t have everything figured out…and that’s okay! I actually am not expected to have everything figured out. I am meant to be in a place of learning (there’s a reason why I’m the associate pastor and not the pastor here at St. Stephens). Seminary formation, as much as it does for a new priest by giving him a solid spiritual foundation in the identity of Beloved Sonship, can’t actually teach what priestly ministry looks like on the ground, this kind of knowledge only happens by actually living the vocation of priesthood, not just talking about it. Needless to say these first few months of priesthood have been full of challenges, full of learning, full of discovery and rediscovery, and full of God’s grace in everything.
This week I have been on retreat and have had some time to sit with and process these past few months. In my own spiritual blindness, God has graced me with several external experiences, which blatantly gave me insight into my own spiritual life and the growing and healing that is still happening within me! I, again, naively thought that my growth and healing had already been completed in seminary (go ahead and laugh! I did too once I realized how foolish my thoughts were). I thought I knew who I was and that my own healing from my past wounds was finished. God clearly knew better.
The first of such grace-filled experiences happened a few weeks ago when I was really struggling with feeling lost and inadequate (and feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be feeling this way, I’m a priest after all, I’m the one who’s “supposed” to have it together). Ron, who runs the St. Stephens Foundation, was going out to feed the buffalo on the grounds at the Mission and the first thing I noticed was a weird longing to help him. It was also a longing for my home on the family ranch, where I had helped feed the cattle growing up. I was oddly, homesick. This longing for home pointed out something very crucial to me that I had been ignoring for years, my Wyoming identity. I realized that I had never truly been fair to the cowboy in me growing up because I grew up hating ranch work and hating the fact that I was technically a “cowboy.” In fact, I denied it for decades, and yet here I was with an odd longing to help feed the buffalo because it reminded me of home and the cowboy within me. I was not able to help feed the buffalo that day because I was to celebrate Mass for the parish and couldn’t get away.
The next day, St. Stephens Mission had a number of horses that went missing and, thankfully, were found a couple days later in a neighboring pasture. Deacon Bryce ran into the rectory where I was and asked me if I wanted to help round the horses up. I immediately said yes, in response to that desire to kindle the spark of the cowboy I had rediscovered in me. Providentially leaving my cell phone back at the house, I went out with Ron and Deacon Bryce in the jeep up to the bluffs overlooking the Little Wind River where the horses were found. I had no idea what I was doing, yet was excited to be out there with them. We got out and Ron and Deacon Bryce put halters on two of the horses. I told them to tell me what to do since I didn’t know what to do. Ron told Deacon Bryce and myself to lead two of the horses across the pasture to the gate, which would lead onto Mission land, and from there we would be in a position on the bluffs overlooking the river and would need to figure out a way to cross the river. Deacon Bryce and I led two of the horses. I led Mac and we became friends that day.
After we got through the gate and were above the river, Ron and Deacon Bryce needed to scout down the river to find a place to cross, I was tasked with staying with the horses. I wish I could have recorded the conversation I had with Mac that day. It was, in its own way, a prayer…a crying out to God in the midst of my struggle. I told Mac things like “What am I even doing out here?”, “I feel lost.”, and “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Yes, I was talking to a horse and it was actually helpful because God was the one listening to me. As I was conversing with Mac, I looked for Ron and Deacon Bryce, but they were beyond sight. As I turned back to the other horses I saw, to my horror, that they were gone. They had started to go down the bluffs to the river. In that moment I panicked, what did I know after all? I had one job, and I had failed and I couldn’t even call for help because my cell phone wasn’t with me. I figured I had two options. Option 1: stay put with Mac and wait for Ron and Deacon Bryce to come back and fix the situation or option 2: stay with the horses. Reason dictated that I stay with the horses and not succomb to panic by freezing. So, I led Mac down the small ravine to follow after the horses. As I got down there the horses all knew what to do, they had led me to the place where they had originally crossed the river, so they started to cross back over. By this point Ron and Deacon Bryce had shown up on the bluffs and called down to me and told me to release the lead rope on Mac. I did and Mac followed the other horses and they all got back to the pasture they should have been in. I climbed the bluffs to Ron and Deacon Bryce in a stupor…I had been the one to get the horses back where they belonged without even intending to! Ron and Deacon Bryce gave me tons of compliments and I rode back to the Mission feeling remarkably accomplished.
This experience showed me something crucial to the spiritual life. It was as if God was giving me a snapshot of my spiritual life. I felt lost, I felt inadequate, I felt confused, I felt that I had no idea what I was doing. Yet, amidst all of my feelings of inadequacty, all I needed to do was trust God and follow Him, and the rest all falls into place according to His design. God was the one leading the way, I just needed to trust and follow Him.
This newfound truth has continued to shape my life and God has continued to give me graces within my deepening identity of Beloved Son, Spiritual Father, Divine Physician, and, most recently, Wyoming cowboy. He has also been doing other healing work within me, which was also unexpected. I would call this grace, the “redemption of experiences.” The next weekend I had the privalege to go to the high school football game of Quinn Hunt. It was a huge rival game between Cheyenne East (go Thunderbirds!) and Cheyenne Central. Quinn had invited me to come to one of his games and that weekend I was able to go. A couple other World Youth Day youth had given me a Thunderbirds t-shirt that I wore over my clerics and went to the game. I remarked to the youth ministers whom I was with that the football game was the first game I had gone to since I was in high school. I noticed that it was vastly different than my experience in high school. I never really enjoyed going to the high school football games because I wasn’t close to my classmates and, in general, never felt truly welcome at the games (not that I was rejected, but I felt basically invisible). That experience stood in stark contrast to this game. I walked in with a Thunderbird t-shirt on and as we walked in front of the student section in the bleachers, the youth who knew me from World Youth Day began to scream and cheer at me. I felt so loved in that moment and welcomed. I was friends with the cool kids, something that I never felt when I was in high school. Cheyenne East won and all the youth stormed the field and I got to wander out there too and get a few pictures with my youth friends and adults. God was redeeming my experience of high school by giving me this experience. I loved every moment of it!
That weekend Cameron Smith and I took four high school senior boys from Holy Trinity parish in Cheyenne (including Quinn) to Benedictine College and Conception Seminary College to visit both places. These are the same four young men that I got close to during World Youth Day. I hadn’t been back to Conception Seminary since I graduated there four years ago and it was great to see the monastery, the monks, and I even go to catch up with Padre Enrique!
After getting back home to St. Stephens, God gave me even more opportunities to experience his grace and continue healing and growing in my identity. I got to feed the buffalo (and I continue to help out when I can) and Deacon Bryce is teaching me how to ride horses and I have gotten to ride Mac, which was great! For a while I was unsure how to balance these sorts of activities with priestly life (to be fair, I’m still learning). For years I had always put priestly ministry in a box as if priestly ministry is limited to only sacramental ministry and office work (things I saw other priests doing), and anything beyond that was “extracurricular” and not priestly ministry. What I have come to realize is that this is a limited way to look at priestly life. Every single thing I do from celebrating the sacrifice of the Holy Mass to learning to ride horses to marriage prep to burying a stillborn child is part of my priestly life and shapes who I am. Even if it isn’t sacramental ministry, but a leisure type of activity, it continues to form me as a person, it continues to mold me into the priest God has called me to be. Deacon Bryce has been instrumental in helping me to see this (talk about God’s providence!). He has been revealing to me God the Father’s confidence in me by his own confidence in me, something I have never quite experienced before (Deacon Bryce is the one who gave me the wheel of his 1953 pickup and told me to drive and he showed me how to from the passenger seat). God the Father has complete confidence in me and my priestly life, even when I can’t see it in myself, and He wants me to take the wheel and drive.
As Tim McGraw once said in one of his songs, “We ride and never worry about the fall. I guess that’s just the cowboy in us all.”