It has been a while. We had the International Dachau Youth Meeting (IJB) in early August, at which approximately 90 young people from 24 different nations came to confront the history of National Socialism. With so many nations come just as many national myths and remembrance cultures, and yet the event passed smoothly. On the last evening of the IJB I also marked a rather significant, if soon to be inconsequential, milestone: one month until I am due to arrive at Aylesford Priory in Kent for the Carmelite Novitiate.
The days tick by now as I await what should be a joyful and glorious event. Indeed, plenty of people have told me how I will make a wonderful friar and I do not doubt that. Being a friar per se is not terribly difficult if you have good people skills and can shut up long enough to let someone speak. Yet the novitiate becomes more daunting and more foreboding as time passes and it comes ever nearer. That evening I got drunk, played a few songs on the guitar and tried to enjoy the heady feeling of being drunk and alive with young people. It is one I have only really begun to appreciate this year in Dachau.
It's ironic that I have only truly appreicated vitality and youth, or indeed the fact that I am young, while in a place that robbed that from so many people. My volunteer cohort with ASF has been a young bunch, including a number who undertook voluntary service in their late twenties in the hope they may divine some kind of way forward. I wonder if stability and job security are alien concepts for Europeans in their early to mid twenties. After all, a German who goes to University can expect to spend 5 years on an MA course, and that is after finishing school at 18/19 and spending a gap year somewhere. Other countries are different, though I know one volunteer in my situation (i.e recent graduate) at the age of 27, and others who are in their early 30s. Of course all this talk of possibility and uncertainity makes me rather jealous, as I prepare to take a small room, techinically called a cell, at a Priory.
At the end of the day, this is my main problem. I have spent the past six months defending my decision to so many different people, trying to convince them that I am not crazy or am going to disappear. This is made doubly difficult with Germans because of the following (illustrated below):
The first photo is of Pfarrer Braun from the eponymous TV show loosely based on G.K Chesterton's fictional detective priest, and the second is from the Bavarian housewive's favourite soap Dahoam is Dahoam. Now it is not the fact that these two examples of the priestly vocation are rather large in stature - though being someone with weight issues myself that does rather rub salt in the wound - but the rather twee, conservative small town existences they lead. Indeed, the very...Bavarian lives they have. The Catholic Church in this part of the world is in decline, as everyone by now knows. We can point to 1.5 million screaming young people in Madrid last week and say there's still life in the Church yet, but I can't help but think gathering all engaged young Catholics into one spot to get high on crowd mentality is a rather desperate measure to give them self assurance. In Bavaria (and in Germany as well) the perception of the Church is not strong among young people. They respect those who choose the path of religious life, knowing that perhaps at some point they may rely on a rite of passage that inevitably involves the old institution, but it does appear extremely escapist, as if you are rejecting mainstream culture
When I first officially applied for the Novitiate last September it was out of a desire to find a family and make a difference in the world. The kind of Catholicism the Carmelites and much of the progressive wing of the Church emphasizes, i.e that God lives inside every human being and thus it is our duty to make sure they are loved and that they feel loved, is actually quite a radical one. I still respect it today and I pray I will live up to this ideal. However it's far easier to be cynical. I remember being in Aylesford in May and hearing a prominent Carmelite talking on the topic of 'Contemplative Prayer and hearing the cy of the poor'. I was speaking to another friar about it later and he jokingly pointed out this particualr friar could probably deliver the same talk in his sleep. This apathy is beautifully summed up in the images above of the jovial parish priest sipping his Weißbier and popping up in parishioners' lives every so often when they need some advice.
Every so often there are glimpses of opportunity, and the potential this vocation has is huge. I have spent time in Walworth, a South London parish maintained by the Carmelites where despite all the poverty and trouble there is real hope and joy. In Lourdes I have sat with people who have every reason not to carry on, yet do because they feel the love of God inside them. Simply speaking with them and making them feel loved is a noble vocation in itself. Yet am I prepared to give up everything to live with a bunch of middle aged gentlemen in middle England?
I wish I were less cynical, and there are other reasons why I am cynical that I will not say here, but it is a very disconcerting feeling to have when a lot of my friends are off to enjoy life and I will be in a priory discerning if I should stay or go. For them it also seems an easy option, an escape from "real" problems like where the rent money will come from, ho I will get a job, how will I stay in the country. I will literally have everything on a plate - Aylesford as a pilgrimage site has its own catering. All I need to do is think and pray, which is not as easy or enticing as it sounds.
Either way, I shall begin in 16 days time, and time will tell if I have made the right decision or not. There are second chances, that is clear.