by Alessandra Luedeking
On October 14 in Fulton 511, UGBC hosted its first event in the “Spirit in Speech Series” featuring Fr. Michael Denk and Suzanne Carter. They presented their spiritual journeys as faithful Catholics to a widely receptive audience of undergraduate students. The focus of their presentation was to prompt the audience to “tap” into their own lives and discern where they stood in relation to God and faith through the relation of their own spiritual lives. The talk was organized into three parts: vocation, spiritual friendships, and prayer.
To begin, Fr. Denk and Mrs. Carter each relayed their personal stories and how they had come to accept their vocations. Blessed John Paul II defined vocation as “that which God uses to direct each and every one of us to his task in life. Each one of us is handpicked and called by God.”
Since the age of 16, Mrs. Carter had contemplated a calling to religious life. She felt she had never quite “fit in” with her group of friends who partied, yet also came to feel estranged from the quiet contemplative nuns. So, she abandoned her thoughts on religious life and instead pursued a vigorous and successful career in marketing and sales. But throughout her life and career, she was consistently reminded of a piece of advice her swimming coach had given her in college, “Keep your eyes on the cross.”
Working at Robert Half International and entrenched in an unhappy marriage, Mrs. Carter’s moment of conversion struck in Las Vegas at a corporate party in a fancy hotel where a gambling man had lost $10,000 ten times within the span of ten minutes, totaling $100,000 in losses. She was struck by the superficiality of the corporate world and found herself turning to God. She divorced her husband, and with God’s guidance, found her true soul mate and accepted her vocation to the married life while keeping her “eyes fixated on the cross.”
Similarly, Fr. Denk had also considered a religious vocation from a young age, but the switch from a Catholic elementary school to a public high school had, with the change in environment, radically shifted his mindset. However, much as with Mrs. Carter, Fr. Denk was constantly haunted by the words of his godmother, spoken on the day of his First Holy Communion: “Michael, you look like you’d be a great priest one day.”
Fr. Denk had been troubled by this and even prayed that God not call him to the priesthood. He continued living his life the way he wanted to, but “God calls us through people,” Fr. Denk said. He experienced his conversion at a bar when he realized he was drinking too much. He walked out and stopped by a chapel on his way home. He prayed to the Blessed Sacrament in adoration and came to feel truly at peace. He followed his older brother to a retreat in the seminary where he confirmed his vocation to the priesthood.
In sharing their vocational stories, Fr. Denk and Mrs. Carter encouraged the audience to understand that God puts people in their lives to help them along their paths to holiness. “When God calls us to do something, we need only ‘put our hands to the plow and never look back,’” Fr. Denk added (Lk 9:62).
The second part of their talk dealt with spiritual friendships--friends who help us fulfill our true vocations. Mrs. Carter prompted the audience to think with the question, “Do your friends elevate you and bring you to holiness? Or are they a deterrent for you?” She counseled that sometimes “we need to prune those branches that are not healthy for us.” Fr. Denk went on to assert that “a good friendship is reciprocal” in that one must also be the faithful and supportive friend that one wishes to have.
Finally, the talk turned to prayer. St. John Chrysostom defined prayer as the “place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness.” God’s voice is heard in the silence. He wants us to be “hardcore” with Him and entrust our true emotions to him, whether that entails anger towards Him, sadness, joy, or contentment. Fr. Denk made the distinction that “private prayer should be an enjoyable experience, and if it isn’t, you need to find another way to pray.”
Fr. Denk and Mrs. Carter concluded by answering a few questions: How do you find out what your vocation is? “Ask God.” Who are your spiritual friends? “Those who bring you to holiness.” Do you find prayer enjoyable? “Try praying to the Blessed Sacrament.”