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My First Year as Carmelite Pre-Novice

By Von Erik Sandoval

In the famous hymn “Here I am Lord”, it asks one important question, “Whom shall I send?” Personally, this echoes the same call to live out a “radical” way of life. A life of brotherhood, prayer, and service to the Church and to one another. This is the framework and foundation of the Carmelite life. This is the life in which I had the experience of living the past year.

My first encounter with the Carmelites of St. Elias Province was during the vocation retreat in the fall of 2014. Before I arrived, I invoked the Holy Spirit to send two “signs” of discernment that would contribute to my decision in the end. The first time I stepped foot in St. Eliseus Priory, there was a “homey” feeling that came about. I felt as if the Holy Spirit was in me leading me “home”. At that moment, I wasn’t sure whether it was the atmosphere, or the brothers whom I quickly met but something deep down was telling me that it wasn’t the last time I would come back. That was the first of two « • >} signs.

That same spirit was kept alive all weekend. At the All Souls Mass at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Middletown, NY, the entrance hymn “Here I am Lord”, echoed off the walls of the Shrine while the Friars processed in. The homily reflected the lives of the Carmelite Friars, and the procession to the Carmelite Cemetery for the blessing made me feel part of something traditional and historical. That traditional and historical aspect was the second of the two “signs”. I took these two signs into account in my discernment, and finally realized that this is where God is calling me to be. There was no doubt in my mind that I was being called to join this order of brotherhood. A year later that realization became a reality as I moved into St. Eliseus Priory as a pre-novice.

My experiences after the first year of formation in the Carmelite Order has been extraordinary. The past year was a year of transition filled with anticipation, some anxiety, and awesome adventures! It was a year of transition from living in the Midwest to moving here to the East Coast. While transitioning, this feeling of anticipation arose. Anticipating my journey to becoming a religious, the new adventures that were to come, and meeting the men who are in formation guided by our formators. It was filled with anxiety as I did not know what to expect, but to give it my all and be myself.

My expectations of the pre-novitiate were that it would be a life revolved around prayer and service especially as a contemplative. I imagined that the life would be similar to that of a monastery which follows a strict horarium and a “strict silence” was observed.

I imagined that once I entered, my freedom would be “limited”. I also imagined adapting to a lifestyle with a diverse community, which did not disappoint. The Vietnamese brothers along with Fr. Sunny Mathew, O.Carm. (Indian province), have been very welcoming and hospitable from the first day I arrived. We are now and even more mixed community with brothers from Trinidad and from Puerto Rico.

Much to my surprise, my first year of formation was similar to what I expected it to be: a life around prayer. The day begins with Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, meditation and Mass. Afterwards, we attend Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University for our philosophy and pre-theology courses. For some of the other brothers this also includes taking English proficiency classes. While at Seton Hall, not only do I take classes in the seminary, but also in other departments that are of interest. Doing this allows me to discern more by interacting and developing friendships with students in other majors and by engaging in a wide variety of activities.

In the evening we have Evening Prayers and Meditation. This 30- 45 minute time of prayer and silence allows me to reflect upon my day and hear God through Lectio Divina and other prayers. This is followed by recreation, which consists of playing cards, games, or catching up with one another. After recreation is dinner, and then clean up. On most evenings, following dinner is our “free time”. This is the time to do homework, study work, or personal spiritual reading. On Saturdays after ministry, we are assigned house chores where each brother is assigned a specific place to clean. Afterwards, we are free to explore and travel in the area. Being only half an hour away from New York City, my Saturday evening s consist of spending time at the library, Bryant Park, and a visit to St. Patricks Cathedral.

For our ministries, Father Joseph Nguyen Do, O.Carm., the Pre-Novice Director, sends the pre-novices to the soup kitchen run by the Missionaries of Charity. Every Saturday, for an hour and half, we would work by serving food and cleaning up afterwards. Also, we attend to and help the Sisters by, for example, helping them move things or working on the garden (if as needed). On Sundays, we are sent to one of our parishes, St. Simon Stock at the Bronx, to teach CCD. During my first year, I was fortunate to have the 7th & 8th grade and prepare them for First Holy Communion. At first I was a bit scared because I didn’t know how mentality and attitude of the students would be in New York compared to those in Indiana where I previously taught. Nevertheless, the first year was a success and I look forward to it again this upcoming year!

During the summer, the student s ministry consists of going to St. Patricks Nursing Home in the Bronx, while living at St. Simon

Stock Priory. The ministries included serving for daily Mass, bringing the residents down for Mass, giving communion to those who can’t attend Mass, escorting them to physical therapy rooms, and socializing with the residents. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to experience this ministry because I was sent to Annunciation Hermitage in Minnesota for the summer. That too was an amazing experience for it allowed me to discern more properly in the Carmelite Order, and how it practices the charism of silence at the eremitic level.

Discerning comes in many forms and ways. It also requires one to take risks and engage in the denial of the self-will. The denial of the self-will allows one to let the Holy Spirit work in him or her. Along with prayer and asking, these three things are some of the basics one might consider when discerning a vocation to the religious life. When praying, listen to the voice of God speaking in your heart. While praying the rosary and having devotions are good, there are other ways of hearing the voice of God. One of these other ways is through Lectio Divina or spiritual reading. Reading about the lives of the saints or reflecting upon scripture passages are other ways to hear the voice of God speaking to you.

The second is asking questions and interacting with different religious communities. This is a two-fold process which consists of asking oneself whether you “fit” into this type of lifestyle or community. Asking questions with the vocation director is also helpful in discernment and can help answer some of the deep questions. By also having a spiritual director, you can be guided through this process.

Finally, the last thing to do is be willing to take risks. Life is all about taking risks. Whether it is applying to graduate school, buying your first house, or switching careers, joining the religious life is also part of taking risks. Without taking risks, especially joining the religious life, you will never know whether or not this is the will of God for you. These three aspects of discerning have helped me get to where I am now.

As I reflect upon my first year of formation, I can say that I have become a more independent and mature person. Independent in the way that I am able to care for myself, adjust to living in a diverse community of men, and accept whatever orders are given to me. Similarly, mature in the way that I am able to approach people with more respect and deal with situations that come my way. Entering the Order at such a young age (compared to the others in formation), I have learned to adapt to the religious life “earlier” and thus use this benefit to mature more in the Order in future years to come. Every time the song “Here I am Lord” asks “Whom shall I send?” I realize that I have answered, “Yes, here I am Lord. I come to do your will!”

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."