In one of his final stories for The New Yorker, “The Long Black Line,” former Jesuit John L’Heureux offers a funny and heart-rending tale of a Jesuit novice who leaves the order. [If you have the time, check out a beautiful reading and commentary on the story by one of his former students, and don’t miss CJ Green’s thoughts on L’Heureux].

Finn, a budding collegiate actor, becomes “dizzied by the idea of sacrifice” at a spiritual retreat and signs on with the ‘long black line’ of Jesuits. But he sticks out. He talks too much. He can’t help but parade his piety to his parents on visiting day. He can’t stop himself from doing impressions of a brother whom Finn thinks resembles a rabbit.

Often, guilt-ridden by all his monastic failures, Finn attempts to atone for his many transgressions by counting his “scroop beads,” becoming “scrupulously” aware of his sins by fingering a “tiny string of beads attached to a safety pin and worn inside the habit.” Finn even finds grace “depressing,” because it cannot be earned or manufactured.

The story is long and rewards your reading (and re-reading), but I was particularly struck by the conclusion. It follows a powerful rendering of Finn’s particular crisis of faith (which I won’t spoil). Finn wakes up one Friday and indulgently consumes three pancakes with extra syrup at breakfast. As he peers around at fellow novices, he says out loud, “I’m free” and leaves the order that afternoon, with Father Superior’s blessing. He shouts his freedom again at the train station: I’m free.  “But with a year’s grace behind him — unearned, undeserved — he recognized that this freedom was only temporary…”

While L’Heureux’s own career as a Jesuit lasted quite a bit longer, he does seem to embed a good bit of his own story into Finn’s. L’Heureux was a vocation-less student at Holy Cross and part-time actor. “I spent most of my time goofing off. Then in my second year I got derailed by Jesus. Who knows how or why? … I remember talking with one of my roommates about being an actor, and out of nowhere he said, ‘Why don’t you become a priest?” … I dismissed what he said as ridiculous, but at the moment he said it, I knew it was going to change my life.” L’Heureux would spend 17 years in the priesthood before being laicized, marrying Joan, and becoming a writer and teacher of fiction, most notably at Stanford.

I want to be clear that my point in recounting all this is not to shame the fictional Finn nor the non-fictional L’Heureux nor anyone else for leaving a clerical vocation. Nor do I assume that L’Heureux’s new vocation was any less holy, helpful, or grace-filled. What does strike me, though, is that anyone makes it as a lifer in vocational ministry.

Note well, reader, that I write this a month prior to my 20th anniversary as senior pastor, and somewhere close to 30 years after my ordination and 40 years after I first “got derailed by Jesus” at a summer youth camp. Way back then, in those early dreams of ministry glory, I felt called to be a youth evangelist (although I frankly lacked the hair or flair for the dramatic that all the good ones easily displayed). There are so, so many things I fancied in 1979 that have totally lost their grip on me in 2019 (I’m looking at you, puka shell necklace).

And in the successive decades, I can’t count the number of times I’ve longed to shout “I’m free” over pancakes to no one in particular and leave the long line of pastors. Like Jonah, I’ve wanted to jump on a ship toward Anywhere but the place where God has pointed me. Like Paul on the Damascus road, I’ve at times felt blindly led by the hand toward an uncertain ministerial destiny. Yet somehow, for forty years (!), against all odds, this calling persists, despite my own theatricality and failures in scrupulosity, despite my manifold failures in thought and word and deed and far too many things left undone.

Still, the words that God once spoke over me endure, a stubborn grace, like a long thin string that keeps me invisibly tethered to this mysterious vocation. And in that improbable tethering there is a sort of freedom, too.

Featured image credit: Jean-François Martin, for The New Yorker.