Kurisumala made it clear I couldn't walk away

A view of Kurisumala ashram (Wikimedia Commons/Vanischenu)

Ten years ago, I traveled high into the Sahya Mountains in South India to pay a visit to the Trappist monastery of Kurisumala. Here, on the Mountain of the Cross, the visitor can experience the rich Syro-Malankara rite, based in Aramaic, the language very close to that which Christ would have spoken.

Upon my return, the monks invited me to tell them at satsang -- their nightly time of reflection and sharing of experiences -- what had transpired in those years, as they knew that India had captured me.

We gathered in the small, book-lined bedroom and office of the abbot, Fr. Ishananda Machiyanickal, a self-effacing, gentle man who that morning had taken me to see the community's huge herd of prize Holstein cows and walked me around the premises as if he had nothing else to do. Ah, Trappist hospitality.

The community then numbered 17 and they sat barefooted and cross-legged on the floor as this Westerner, whose joints are not so amenable, sat on a small stool.

I titled my half-hour talk: "Finding a vocation ... within a vocation ... within a vocation" and assured them that Kurisumala had indeed played a pivotal role.

I began: As a Catholic schoolboy in the 1950s, "vocation" was a major issue and subject of both concern and youthful anxiety. What was mine? Was God calling me to religious life (top of the list)? Or to the married state, a third choice after a life of holy celibacy in the world? I might have been a white-knuckled Catholic, but I knew that second choice wasn't going to happen. And, if not religious life, what would I meritoriously do to earn my daily bread?

I thought I had found my vocation at the age of 15 on that airless, steamy afternoon in the Cathedral Latin gym in Cleveland when the Maryknoll priest stood before us. Gaunt, his cheeks sunken, skin sallow, his cassock hanging like someone's else's garment on his emaciated body, he told of his life as a missionary in China. Captured by the communists, imprisoned, beaten, starved, he had contracted malaria, dengue fever and diseases I had never heard of.

Yes! I would take his place in China and save those pagans. I had found my vocation, I told the Kurisumala monks.

But then the sweet scent of teenage perfume wafting from the necks and shoulders of those lovely young girls I nuzzled at our St. Benedict's weekly canteen dance flooded my brain and made light work of my best intentions to save China.

When I was 17, a solicitous Marianist brother at Cathedral Latin High thrust Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain into my hand and said, "This guy was a bum -- like you -- at your age. He turned out all right; maybe there's some hope for you."

Off to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, to tell Merton -- personally, of course -- that I had found my calling and it was to be a Trappist monk like him. To eat stale bread and drink watered-down tea, to suffer for Jesus and indeed save my wretched soul.

The choice of perfumes aged nicely and so did the college girls at Marquette -- I found I'd rather be walking down windy Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, hand in hand, than waking up at 3 a.m. to chant Vigils.

Into the Navy I went, still in search of my vocation.

About to be discharged, I realized I had to be about that daily bread business and equally realized I wasn't trained to do much of anything besides conning a destroyer in fair seas or foul and decrypting coded messages.

College? I'd majored in journalism. Undistinguished, with a 2.24 average out of 4. Perhaps no employer would find out how poorly qualified and underprepared I was.

Thus began my writing life, in newspapers, magazines, books and television documentaries. More by default than design, I guess that was my life's work. But I never much thought of it as more than that. I am inherently nosy and like to find out why things are as they are and, unlike my usual impatient non-reporter self, am a reasonably good listener. And when someone is willing to listen, people love to talk.

But vocation? Hardly. I still had not heard the call and answered: Here I am, Lord, use me.

Reasonably successful writer, expense account lunches, writing for The New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, book tours, still the hollow ring inside.

On another steamy afternoon -- I was now in my mid-30s and restless -- it was a parish hall in Brooklyn, N.Y., and one of those folk Masses spawned by the Second Vatican Council. The council's mandate was to look afresh at our lives, put aside stale concepts and rituals, and encounter God. With a baguette of Italian bread in one hand and a cup of Chianti in the other, the priest intoned, "This is my body. This is my blood."

In a dazzling instant, I realized what this really meant.

It was the warm, fertile soil onto which was sown the seeds of the Gospel message for the day. The rich young man. Yes, yes, I keep all the commandments, he replied, only to hear: But I want to ask everything of you. Give all you have to the poor and follow me.

So, I did.

A Park Slope brownstone in Brooklyn, car, furniture, suits, all gone.

Now, finally, I had found my vocation. I would be a lily of the field, live with the poor, love the poor. On Friday nights at the Catholic Worker, I found kindred spirits and, eventually, with another worker, took in three mentally disturbed men.

Daily Mass. Lectio Divina. How holy I was, how wonderful. This, my vocation; finally I had found it.

And I also found I was miserable, every day.

I not only didn't love the homeless men I lived with, I almost hated them for their jabbering and horrible hygiene. I tried so hard and I failed so miserably.

Vocation had still eluded me when I met Tracy, ebullient, fiery, loving Tracy. She was ready. I was not. I'll never forget that lunch; she wore a black sweater, already looking like a widow.

I think I have monastic vocation, I said, my reading of everyone from Merton to de Foucauld surely backing me up. To which she replied, "I was thinking of another M-word, marriage. Look buddy, I've had it with you. Monk? God wants what you want; can't you get that straight? Stop trying so hard."

A year as a hermit outside the walls with the Trappists at Spencer, Mass., only served to show me once again that my mighty efforts to be this very special, very holy guy were so much confetti in the wind. But to be an ordinary married man, with burp on my shoulder and a minivan? It seemed more a sentence than a calling.

Thirty-three years and many lines in print later, I told the monks, I realized that I had indeed found my vocation -- a husband and father -- and within that vocation, another, as a writer.

When I came to Kurisumala 10 years before, I had just left a Salesian orphanage in Kochi, some three hours down the mountain from the monastery. There, a little girl named Reena, whose eye had been gouged out to make her "a better beggar" had returned my look of horror with the most beatific, trusting smile I had ever seen in my life.

Had I not had the days at Kurisumala, I probably would have been satisfied with stuffing some bills into Sr. Sophy's hand at Kochi, climbing back into my air-conditioned touring car and going back to my air-conditioned life.

But, no, while at Kurisumala it became so clear that I couldn't just walk away. "Have a nice day, honey." Reena wasn't going to have a nice day; she and her friends were sleeping on the concrete floor of the school assembly hall, food was limited, medical help marginal, education out of reach.

I looked out over these men and thanked them. Because they had created this place apart on the mountain, I had the opportunity to let that experience sink in. Ten years later, not only that orphanage building has been built, but four others and two more were in the planning stages.

Homes of Hope India, my vocation ... within a vocation ... within a vocation. I was not to be a Maryknoll missionary, not a monk, just a layman-writer with a Vatican II invitation to somehow, in some small way, go into the world and make it a better place.

[Paul Wilkes is founder and executive director of Homes of Hope India, which builds orphanages and provides for needs of orphaned, abandoned and neglected girls in South and Northeast India. His book, The Second to Last Chapter: Fulfill Your Search for Meaning, was published November 2015.*]

*This story has been updated to correct the publication date for Wilkes' book

This story appeared in the May 20-June 2, 2016 print issue under the headline: My vocation ... within a vocation ... .

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