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Welcome to this episode of Praying with Priests. I am Father Michael Denk of The Prodigal Father and I am very blessed to be here with Father Jacob Bearer.

Fr. Jacob Bearer is on the leadership team of Peter’s Shadow, which is a non-profit ministry that provides healing, deliverance, and evangelization. Their hope is to bring people both health and healing through the proclamation of the Gospel, signs and wonders, and miraculous healing. Learn more about their work here.

Father Michael: 

Father Jacob, as we begin, would you mind leading us in prayer?

Father Jacob:  

I would love that.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Heavenly Father, bless this time together and all those listening. Allow us to be drawn more deeply into the reality of your mercy and love that is present in our life. Grant us deeper faith in your Son, Jesus, and open our hearts to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father. We ask this through Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Father Michael:

Father Jacob, it is great to have you here. I have known you since you were in the seminary and you have always been one of those people that I feel gets it in terms of the spiritual life. I have always felt that I could talk to you on a deep and profound level, so I am really excited to have you here. What we are going to do today is have you share your story of how you came to know God and encounter God, especially in the spiritual life and the life of prayer. What I would like to start with is what is your first memory of God or of praying?

Father Jacob:

 My mind goes to three things. Two that were more typical would be my Dad and Mom teaching me the “Bless Us O Lord and These Thy Gifts” prayer and then the ever-present “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Father Michael:

 So beautiful and profound as a child.

Father Jacob:  

Then we would list the people we wanted to pray for– teachers and then our pets. We always ended with our pets whether they were dogs or hamsters. Pope Francis is not saying anything that I was not praying for. First stage of prayer was that.

Father Michael:

Before you go on, tell me about the affective. When you think about that, what was that experience like for you? Was it peaceful? Was it unnoticeable? What was it like?

Father Jacob:

The Bless Us O Lord was more we are supposed to do this and so we are going to do this. It was more like this is what you do before you eat. The night prayer was a cool time because it was a very intimate time with my sisters and my dad. We even knelt down at the bed so it was like a cool end of the day family moment. It did not last long and I think I did not experience God but I experienced a family in a very cool moment. It did build my confidence because I believed God heard me. I did believe that God was listening so it was not nothing. It was just a child’s faith. Yes, I am praying for these people and this is what you do. I think part of the reality of my faith was my parents divorcing when I was four years old. My dad’s side is the “Catholic side.” My mom’s side is really non-practicing, but they grew up Protestant and when my parents divorced my Dad took us to Catholic Church, Saint Mary’s in Painesville, on Sundays and we sat with my grandparents. My Mom would take us to her Dad’s church which was Painesville Baptist Church.

So, I had kind of a back and forth experience of prayer and of church that really has been very fruitful now in priesthood. It has led to a lot of fruit and openness to a lot of things that I do not think I would have otherwise been open to, and that then leads to the first time where I experienced God at Painesville Baptist Church. They had a traveling evangelist in for a weeknight service. I was there with my Mom. I do not remember my sisters being there, but I was there with my Mom. I have always been interested in religion. I was the young kid that listened to the sermon. I was not not paying attention. It has always been there. So, as I was listening to this evangelist (I was probably six years old or around that time, maybe a little before or a little after because it was after the divorce that we were going to Painesville Baptist Church), he was concluding the speech and all I can say is, I began to feel God’s love for me. I was kneeling down in prayer. He invited us to kneel and say a prayer. I am tearing up a little bit as I am talking about it now because it was so beautiful. It was like God is here and He is looking at me and He loves me. I remember crying. I was just bawling my eyes out crying and my Mom was crying. Other people were crying behind us and then he did the altar call. I did not know what that was at the time because I was too young. He said, “If you are feeling God right now, I want you to come up and I want to pray for you.” So, I was. . . I do not know how to describe it other than imagine you are in something of a magnetic field and your hair goes up on end. So, it is like something is here. Someone is here, but it was just love. It was just love is here and being overwhelmed by it.

When that time ended, I was hugging everybody in the church. People would come up to me and say, “It was really good to see.” There were a lot of people from West Virginia, part of my family roots. In my mind I go back to West Virginia when I think of Baptists or Methodists. I remember just hugging this guy and just tears, snot on the front of his belly. There is this little kid crying still. The love was so overwhelming that I could not help to just hug people. That really marked my journey because I cannot forget that experience, even through the ups and downs in my life. I think God broke into my life at that moment, at six years old. I share that with a little reservation because it is not “typical,” maybe. I do not want to sound like I think I am special, but it is what it is. If I am going to answer honestly, that is what it was. It was my first experience of God.

Father Michael:

Wow, that is beautiful, experiencing that overwhelming love in that community of people praying. How did you carry on after that?

Father Jacob:

That is the amazing thing. I look back and when you talk about Jesus saying you have to be childlike to enter the kingdom, I get that because I began to pray to God for everything. I was very childlike. I remember I liked shooting guns. I still do. My uncle owns property in Leroy. I would go out there now and then and we had just gotten done shooting guns and I was in the back trailer (there was a blanket over the guns). I am sitting in the trailer as he is driving the four-wheeler and I bowed my head and just began thanking God for that time of shooting guns. Instantly it was really intense. “Thank you, God. This is so beautiful. What an awesome day. I got to shoot the 44 Magnum.” Then, the engine began puttering. It was like a putt, putt, putt instead of a rrrrrrrr and I opened my eyes and looked up and my uncle was standing up, idling the engine, staring at me with a look of “what in the world are you doing? Are you praying right now? Really, this is what is happening?” I thought I did something wrong, like oh yeah, I am being weird. Even as a young kid, thinking I guess this is not the time to pray now. You should not be praying right now. My uncle is looking at me like I am doing something wrong, but I think it flowed out of that. I had my kid’s Bible and prayer was . . . I was more convinced that God was listening to me. It was just a part of my life.

Father Michael:

That is wonderful. I think a lot of people struggle with that question. Is God listening? Does He hear my prayer?

Father Jacob:

 I do not have a story of where I prayed for something and I got it. There was just being very confident knowing of His love. Even a childlike confidence of sensing that love. That was beautiful. I am kind of glad that I do not have a story of I prayed for a bike and got a bike because it was not about that. I mean, it was and it was not. As a kid you pray when Fluffy dies. You are sad and you pray to God. It is beautiful.

Father Michael:

That is what I like helping people do, to realize. I use this image of The Prodigal Father to help others realize that prayer is an experience of God loving you. Just being with Him. I almost think of the man with the big belly and you hugging him. God the Father just wanting to embrace you and showing you His love. That is as a younger child. How did your prayer develop after that?

 Father Jacob:

Where do we want to go from here? We ended up leaving the Painesville Baptist Church and going to First Church in Painesville which was more a Disciples of Christ denomination. After First Holy Communion, my Dad stopped forcing us because that is what it became. We were forced to go. We would go kicking and screaming every Sunday and yet oddly I liked (this is a Catholic priest talking) going to the Protestant Bible study. I felt like I learned something. I was interested in the Bible stories and we had Bible study before the services. And, the sermon there would be a good sermon.

Father Michael:

What did you experience at the Catholic Mass?

Father Jacob:

I experienced wanting to blow out the votive candles that people lit because I thought it was like a birthday cake. One of my earliest experiences was my Dad would be covering my mouth and my sister’s mouth. I have a twin sister and he would be covering both of our mouths with both of his hands as we walked by. There was nothing in it that captured my heart when I was there, the music did not really seem to be uplifting, and I did not know what was going on. I had no clue what the stuff in the sanctuary was or what was going on. Then, they told me that I was eating Jesus and in my mind–you are a young kid in the second grade, you are very literalistic. So, when they said you are eating Jesus, I thought they had a coffin in the basement and His body was down there and you are going to a butcher shop and you are taking a shaving piece of Him. It freaked me out, but that is where my second grade mind went. As I grew up, my prayer was there but it did not grow up. I really did not move on from the childlikeness. No one taught me how to go deeper than that.

When I was a teenager, this was about eighth grade, I went on a vacation and I was in the car with somebody who was an atheist at the time. (Now they believe in God. I do not think they would consider themselves Christian, but they believe in God now, which is interesting. You know how time changes us.) They began to question me about what I believed in as a teenager. Don’t you know about this other historical reality surrounding the scriptures? Really began to unravel my nuanced understanding of Biblical inspiration. A lot of that involved science and evolution and also evil. I had not experienced in my life any dramatic evil, so to bring up the question of evil. . .and then in the face of other things from the Old Testament that are there. Yes I guess that is there. Why is that there is this thing that seems very evil going on? It shattered my faith pretty good from about eighth grade until about sophomore year. Those three years of high school I was not a sincere atheist but it was also a very hard time for me; and, I felt like God was distant. I was more mad at God because I was going through that dark time of not knowing where I fit in. Wondering which friend, which group am I a part of. My family dynamics that were there and present–a divorced family.

So, all of these things are simmering and I dealt with it in very unhealthy ways. I had the good group of friends and then the group of friends that partied and drank. I was dealing with it in very unhealthy ways in high school. God was there, but it was more I believed that there was the preternatural, which means ghosts and angels, weird occurrences. I thought there was something to the New Age kind of stuff and became interested. It is interesting what happens as Jesus becomes less a part of my life. What ends up filling that void for me are other things that tap into that desire for the transcendent. There is something about my heart that is something of a romantic so that was part of the romance of the mystery of life. In the midst of what I was experiencing as doubts and fears and depression and sin, in the midst of that, there was still this sense of mystery and praying to God saying, “If you are there, you need to do “blank”. Why are you doing this? Why are you not showing up?” So, my prayer was more solemn. My only friend is darkness. That was a real prayer for me in the middle eighth, ninth, and tenth grade and I did not let anybody into that. That was another reality. It was a very lonely period of my life.

Now, as a priest, my heart always goes out to teenagers when I am hearing confessions. Some people pooh-pooh young adult problems. I do not because they are very real and they are very destructive if you do not have somebody there that is listening. It can be very bad. My prayer life was more that. It is in the Psalms, I guess. God, what are you doing? Moses saying, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, I might as well not be here.” In the wilderness, “If this is what you are going to do, Lord.” That is my Mel Brooks impersonation for any listeners out there. That was my prayer. Then something . . . there was a shift that took place. There was a series of events that happened in about the tenth grade. It is hard to piece it all together because it was such a desolate time of my life. The sequence is out of order. It is hard for me to say that this happened first, then this happened. It is all kind of jumbled. This is a series of events that happened. One was I was at a buddy’s place and we were partying and I was just feeling down in the dumps and I ended up leaving the party and going up to the room that was my area. I was by myself and I remember praying to God, “God you really do need to help me because if you don’t, I don’t know where I am going to be. I don’t know if I am going to live with what I am going through.” I was crying and it was just a very heartfelt, sincere prayer. Around that time, one of the Christian high school students invited me to their youth group thing. It was at Trinity Baptist Church in Mentor, Ohio. He went to Trinity Baptist, another Baptist church. So, shout out to Baptists or former Baptists that might be listening. I was desperate enough, I think, and prideful enough in a way to say I am going to go to this thing and be unaffected, but I knew deep inside that I needed to go. He invited me and he was a great guy. One of the most humble, prayerful high school men that I have ever met in my life. His name was Zach and he invited me for whatever reason to come to this youth group. We got along fine. We argued about religion. I challenged him every time I could but he invited me anyway. I can’t remember what happened at the end of that night, but during the praise and worship it was like what happened when I was six years old. Now instead of God loves me, it was Jesus loves me. It was one of the top three most powerful experiences of my life in terms of God in my life. I wish I could go back and remember what happened, but there was something so deep. It is like it happened and I remember the music going and the guy talking about Jesus and then driving in my car, rolling down the windows and screaming at the top of my lungs, “I love you Jesus” on the drive back. Maybe that was junior year. I wish I could remember what it was like, but again, it was Jesus is real. He is loving me right now and that is it.

What ended up happening was I became a hermit in high school. My friends became very nervous because I was being anti-social basically, but not in a depressed way. What happened was, Jesus was real. I knew it and He showed me great love and favor and I could not pretend that I did not experience that. Because of that, I began to read the Bible. I was reading the Bible. I started at Genesis and you make it through Exodus and then Numbers and then you start loosing steam. When you get to the chronologies and the list of laws, then you think, “OK, I am good.” That is where I went. I went back to the scriptures and I was praying again. I talked with my grandparents on my Mom’s side. They were still going to Painesville Baptist so I went back to Painesville Baptist. Again, my timeline is all messed up. I wish I could remember it better. It is all jumbled. I am reading the scriptures. I am praying and it is heartfelt. The scriptures are coming alive for me. I remember being at the Baptist Church at the bible study and asking questions about Mary. They gave a reply about Mary that did not make sense to me because about this time I had talked with my Catholic grandmother. One of the people that taught me to pray was my Catholic grandmother and she taught me how to pray the Rosary. This was going on while I was going to the Baptist Church and they were very much against praying to Mary. It is very difficult from the frame of mind that they are coming from. I disagree, obviously, but I can understand where they are coming from. You only need Jesus. You do not need to talk to anybody else. Mary is dead. So you are kind of talking to the dead kind of thing. That is, in their mind, what you are doing. I was praying the Rosary, an imaginative prayer. For me, that is when I began to go deeper in my prayer. My grandmother explained the Rosary. My first time saying the Rosary I did not know the Our Father. I did not know the Hail Mary and did not know the Glory Be. All she said was, “you pray an Our Father on the big beads, ten Hail Mary’s and then a Glory Be. My first Hail Mary went like this Our Father, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Glory Be. My first Rosary, that is all I did.

Father Michael:

 Wow, a quick Rosary, but exactly what she said.

Father Jacob:  

The beautiful thing about that was God honored it. That is where I was at. I really did not know the Hail Mary. I really did not remember the Our Father and I had no clue what the Glory Be was. I did not know what the mysteries of the Rosary were, but I prayed it. There is a beauty in that litany, you might call it, of like I am doing something. This is new. I am learning something. I went back the next week and she said, “How did it go?” Of course, she is excited for the prodigal son who is praying the Rosary. The poor guy. She has been praying Rosaries every day and now he is asking me how to pray. I explained it and she started to laugh and then she gave me a pamphlet. I went, “Aw crap, this is going to take forever.” Then she said, “Pray one before you go to bed every night.” I think we get nervous about telling people what to do because we do not want to seem like we are telling people what to do, but when you are young and learning, you need to be told how to do this. We need to be given structure and I needed that. I needed my grandmother to say, “Here is a pamphlet, pray it every day.” That is what I needed. I needed to learn the prayer. The first thing was learning the prayers. Next thing was learning the mysteries and then, as this evolved, she said, “What I do is I picture myself in the scene.” Once I learned the Hail Mary she said, “Do not worry about the Hail Mary’s. Imagine yourself in the scenes and let the Hail Mary’s be spacers.” She was teaching me imaginative prayer which is more than some people when they pray the Rosary . . . it is like a chainsaw going off and it breaks my heart. You hear people praying the Rosary in church and they say it so fast. Mary is sitting on the edge of her seat going, “I am going to get there. Hold on.” So, I was reflectively praying, entering into it, and my fantasy life was so vivid that finally I could use it for good. Finally, my ability to imagine things was now moving from everything you can imagine that is not good to now holy things. I was able to enter into these mysteries and it did not matter how long it took anymore because I could not believe how powerful that experience was. It was so vivid. So real. I loved the Luminous Mysteries. They were my favorite and they were my grandmother’s least favorite because, “The pope cannot make up mysteries. Mary revealed the three.” I loved them because I got to see Jesus in a very profound way. I loved the Wedding Feast at Cana and sitting there and in my imagination watching the servers draw water and thinking this guy is out of his mind. I was also learning the scriptures. I was reading the scriptures but I was interiorizing them. It was not just memorizing verses. I love the Baptists because they taught me to revere sacred scripture. What I loved about the Catholic Church and the Rosary was it taught me to revere the scriptures but not treat it like a text book. Which is what I was getting more or less from the Painesville Baptist Church. This is text book for life and these are lessons you are going to draw out of this.

I was hungry for an encounter in the Word and the rosary brought me into that encounter. I was encountering these mysteries. I loved the Sorrowful Mysteries too because you are entering into something that is so profound, where in your imagination things are happening. It is like watching a movie but you are in it. It just drew my heart. I did not realize at the time that this is the Holy Spirit at work in your mind because things would happen that were obviously not a part of the scriptures, but still true and good and wholly consoling. It was God using that to speak to my heart. So, Jesus is carrying His cross and then He looks at me, He looks at me with great love and my heart melts. I did not realize that this is the Holy Spirit helping me in this moment where I needed Jesus to look at me as I was, carrying my high school cross feeling alone and broken.

About this time, I also . . . this is an amazing thing how God works . . . I have this experience of Jesus which was feeling totally, mercifully, loved by Him. Loving Him in return but wanting to change. I think this is what we miss often when we evangelize. If I can get on a soap box for a quick second, I think we preach mercy without repentance and we forget that repentance feels good when you need it. I needed to repent. I do not want this in my life. When Jesus’ love entered my life and mercy was there, it was like I needed someone to tell me I do not need to sin anymore. I needed that so deeply and Jesus did that for me. I was kicking things out of my life, even good things, but I needed that. I needed to be emptied. I loved country music. I was not listening to country music. I was listening to Christian music and Gregorian chant. It was what I needed. I needed to just kick everything out that was not Jesus. I needed that and it scared people because I was, as you can probably tell from this, I have deep feelings and passions and here I am, these things that I loved to do I was not doing them. I loved playing Texas Hold’em in high school. I lost so much lunch money playing Texas Hold’em. It was ridiculous. Literally playing Texas Hold’em with my lunch money. Choosing not to eat. A gambler in high school, I might have some issues. I loved Johnny Cash. I loved his story. He is this edgy guy who is in darkness and he found light. I was emptying myself. I was not hanging out with friends because I was not interested in anything other than Jesus. That might shock people to hear that as a high schooler and it shocked other people. My family did not know how to take it because here is Jacob who is this outgoing guy in a lot of darkness. I think on some level they knew that there were things going on but I still had social groups and hanging out with people. Going out on weekends doing what high school students should be doing or people think they should be doing. Now there is this flip that happened and kicking things out.

So there is this purifying in my life. I was going to the Baptist Church and they had a communion service. This is an important moment where they had grape juice and Wonder bread that was sliced up into squares. They recounted Luke’s Gospel where Jesus goes through what the Catholics would call The Institution of the Eucharist. They read it, we ate communion and I remember eating the piece of bread and drinking the grape juice and going, “There is something missing here.” Then my mind goes back to Saint Mary’s and First Communion and I wanted to go to Communion. It was just BOOM, and with that came the realization if I was going to receive Communion, I needed to go to Confession. This is the amazing reality, we pooh-pooh memorization, rules and all that kind of stuff because we are against that. But when you are a kid, you need to know these things and learn these things. Then what happens is when you are away from Jesus, you need the discipline of these rules. It is not a bad thing to know that before Communion, I need to go to confession. That was a good thing. I am glad that my PSR teacher taught me that. If you are a PSR teacher out there please teach your students that if you are in a state of mortal sin, you need to go to Confession. They are probably too young to understand but later on when they are in high school and they want to go deeper into their faith, they are going to remember that. Maybe.

Father Michael:

Yes, a light bulb goes off. All of a sudden it makes sense.

Father Jacob:

The amazing thing was I wanted it. Like I said, as soon as the thought came to my mind to go to confession (I had told God that I was sorry and I was kicking sins out of my life on some level) there was something about Confession that felt very real. More real and more tangible. I would not have called it the sacramental theology, but that is what it is. It is the sacramental sense of it. I had to look up the times for confessions so I looked online. It was a Saturday and I remember that I did not tell my Dad where I was going because it felt very strange to go even though I needed to go. So I said, “OK I am going to head out. I will be back.” I went to church and I think there was only one priest in at this time or if there was another, I chose one of the sides and went in there. There was nobody in line. There was one other person in confession. I thought, “This is crazy. I am just going to go. I am just walking in.” I saw that it was face to face and I went, “Heck no!” I went behind the screen and it was Father Mike Stalla. He is pastor currently at SS. Cosmos and Damian. I did not know who he was at the time, but it was Father Mike Stalla. This was the second confession of my life. This was probably beginning of junior year of high school. It was about that time because I was able to drive. I was sixteen or seventeen and I knelt down behind the screen and it has been however many years it has been. I said, “It has been a while, I do not even know what to do.” He said, “Well, let’s start with the sign of the cross.” No, strike that. The first words he said to me were, “Welcome home.” Waterworks. “Welcome home.” Crying because there is only love in that phrase. Now I realize as a priest that it is probably what he says to each person that has been away for longer than five years. “Welcome home,” but I am glad that he did it. That routine is there for a reason. It is the father bringing the child home and welcoming you back into the household. When he said, “Welcome home,” there was so much love that I cried as I recounted things that I had not shared with anybody else as I lifted open areas in my life that had been so shameful and embarrassing and I am pouring them out. I do not know how long it took. I do not know what the penance was. I am not entirely sure, but I remember leaving there feeling free. When he absolved me, I was back and this was home.

I think I maybe went to the Baptist Church one more time and I went with my grandparents to brunch afterwards. I told my maternal grandparents that I cannot go anymore, I am going to go to Saint Mary’s. Which for Baptists is not good, but this is the amazing thing my grandfather said: “Jacob, if that is what you need to do, you have to do it. That is where Jesus is moving you.” Which was amazing. No condemnation and very freeing. Then I talked to my Dad and said, “Dad I want to start going back to church.” And he said, “OK.” Like what in the world is this? Here I am, my grandmother is like what is happening? What is this? Then I said I wanted to get Confirmation so I started to read the Catechism. I needed this. I devoured the Catechism. I devoured it. I loved every moment of it. I was soaking it up and I wanted more and more and more. I was that annoying kid who you get sick and tired of but is so hungry and so excited by what he is learning that it does not matter how he is learning it. I was reading things by Thomas Aquinas, not understanding a word of what I was reading but just excited that I was learning new Catholic words. Transubstantiation . . . oh, my God. Substance. Trans is change. Substance is . . . Oh this is amazing. Reading the Old Testament and then seeing the altar and the sacrificing going . . . I was making this connection between saying the sacrifice here is like the Old Testament sacrifice there transformed through Jesus. I was making that connection in my mind because of the Word and because of the Catechism and I thought, “Oh my God, this is exactly right.” Then praying the Rosary all the while and going to confession.

The next priest that I started going to confession to was Father Bill Brown. Father Bill Brown was also really good because as I began coming out of my hermit hole and going back out into the world I needed someone to keep me honest. I would go to him to confession and he would be like that is a sin. You cannot do that. And then he gave me great penance. I remember one penance he said, “I want you to read the letter to James.” I said, “Was it really that bad what I did? You want me to read a whole book?” What it was is that I needed it and I needed more than three Hail Marys. I needed to enter more deeply. I needed someone to challenge me because if I had someone say, “Ah, you are good. You are fine. It is okay. Oh no, everybody your age is doing that. It is okay, you are fine.” If I had that I definitely would have accepted that, would have been totally cool with that, been able to justify it, build all these strongholds around it, and believe that I am a good Catholic, but he would not do that. He held me to the Word and I am so glad that he did because he showed me the love of a father that wants to protect me, and he challenged me to love people that I would not have loved otherwise. When I was not being kind to people in my life, he told me to be kind to them. It was very much a honeymoon period in my life where I was taking RCIA classes at St. John Vianney in Mentor to get confirmed with the eighth grade class and I am in high school. My experience of Confirmation was Bishop Amos and that was another profound experience of the Holy Spirit. When he said, “He is sealed with the Holy Spirit,” it was not as powerful as the previous two powerful experiences that I had. It was more like a peace that you cannot explain. Very peaceful. If I would have known what I know now, I could have rested in the Spirit. I had this grin that was like new wine. It was like if you had just a little too much wine, you are not in a bad place but you are right on the cusp where you could be. It was like the new wine of experience and just grinning. Smiling like an idiot, feeling this immense peace and so happy to be Catholic. So proud to be Catholic and it is about that time that I began to think maybe I am called to be a priest.

Fr. Mike Stalla was talking about vocations and trying to get people to join the priesthood. He did help me think about it, but it was more Adoration. I was going to Adoration. Fr. Mike Stalla at Masses would challenge us about what God is calling us to do, which is wonderful. I was praying the Rosary. I worked out my high school schedule so I could go to Mass in the morning because we had a 6:45 a.m. Mass. I was a high schooler going to a 6:45 a.m. daily Mass. Then I had school at Lakeland Community College. I would go to Mass in the morning 6:45 a.m. (I would not even do this now as a priest). I would be so tired, but I was just so inspired. I just loved it. Then pray a Rosary with people after that, go to the Convenient store and get a cup of coffee, put on a James Taylor CD and then drive to Lakeland Community College for class. Get out of that class and go to Riverside High School in Painesville. That was my morning routine for part of high school. It was awesome because as people found out I was going to church, it was like weird. Jake, what are you doing? My Mom or somebody would drive by our house and would say, “Your car is not there but it is not really time for you to be gone.” “Where were you”? I am at church. “Is everything okay?” Mass was prayerful and I needed Communion and the Rosary. When people prayed the Rosary, it was not let us get to the end of the Rosary, we really prayed the Rosary together and they let me lead one of the decades. Probably because they were so shocked that there was this high school kid. Through all of that, it was deeply healing. It was deeply peaceful. It was a very peaceful time in my life.

There was turmoil in the midst of needing to let go of friends. There were groups of friends that were good guys, but I knew that if I was going to follow Jesus, I could not be friends with them anymore. That led to some tough conversations and some conversations that I now wish I would have had and been more honest. But when you are in high school you don’t think let us just talk and say this is really going to be hard to say this, but I cannot be friends with you. Because you do not have the sense of self that can withstand the crushing blow of somebody looking at you and being upset at you, so I just fled. I ignored people and I cut people out of my life that I should not have. That is one of the reasons I have. You end up doing things that you look back on and say, “I needed to let them go but I needed to do it in a better way.” You know that in retrospect. High school rolls around. And my prayer life. . . I am now doing at least a holy hour every day and sometimes more than that. It was so real. I would go to the chapel for adoration sometimes. I sometimes cannot sleep well. What was awesome was, when I knew I was going to have a night where I was not able to sleep (that just happens every now and then for me), I was going to the Adoration chapel. So, here I am at 2:00 am/3:00 a.m.in the Eucharistic Adoration chapel. I snuck out of my house, got in my car, drove in the middle of the night, go to church, and nobody is there. It is just me and Jesus there. Pouring my heart out to Him, arguing with Him, crying, and singing . . . it was awesome. It was great in the stillness of the night. It was everything that I needed at the time and I had the freedom to do it.

At the end of high school, I wanted to be a priest so bad that I did not apply to anywhere else. I was so convinced that God was calling me to be a priest. I am not one of those vocation stories where you enter seminary to say let’s give this a try. That was not me. Mine was Jesus has done all this in my life. I know how dark high school can be. I know how dark life can be. There might be some people saying, “You are just a high schooler,” but life was pretty dark for me. I know where I was and I know what Jesus pulled me out of, so I wanted to bring that to everybody. The way I knew how to do that, what gave me life, was Mass, confession and prayer and I thought, “Jesus is calling me to bring this to others.” I spoke with my pastor, Fr. Steve Vellenga, and what was funny was he joked with Fr. Mike Stalla because Fr. Mike Stalla is talking about vocations all the time and yet I talked to Fr. Steve Vellenga. So, they are sitting at dinner . . . Fr. Mike Stalla planted the seed and Fr. Vellenga watered it. It worked out wonderful because I went to him after a morning Mass for a scheduled appointment and he said, “I wondered when you were going to talk to me.” Which is really like weird and cool. I think I said to him, “Yeah, I guess I am the only high school boy here.” I ended talking to him during the week and he said, “I am going to the seminary on Friday. I am going to call the seminary and get you a room. Why don’t you meet me at Hardy’s (that is on the way) and you can follow me to the seminary. I will introduce you to who you need to be introduced to and you can spend the night there and see what you think.”

Now this is a weird point because I need to tell my family because I cannot just say that I am going to be gone for the weekend. This was very strange because I was very private about all of this. I was not sharing with my family anything that I just shared now and I do not even know if I shared any of this with them because it was so personal. It was something so private that I needed to protect it from judgment or even perceived judgment. I sat my family down. I sat my Mom and my Dad down and they probably thought I was going to come out of the closet or something. It was that kind of conversation. You are going to sit down and say Mom and Dad I need to tell you something and they are thinking, “He is either gay or someone is pregnant.” Which is kind of a weird dichotomy.

 Father Michael:

That is usually the reaction, though. Teenage or high school student says, “Mom and Dad, we need to talk.”

Father Jacob:

So I said, “I want to become a priest and I am planning to go to the seminary this weekend.” Something along those lines. Really fumbling through it and I am crying because . . . I guess I just cry a lot in this story but I am crying because it is so important. My Mom starts crying. My Dad is confused. I mean they are both confused because for the longest time I was telling them I wanted to join the military and I really did. Up until probably senior year of high school I was thinking after my senior year I might go to a college but what I really want is to join the military. I want to join the Marines. There was something so attractive to me in that. I think it was like duty and protecting and serving. There was something so noble about that, I was drawn to it. So when I told them priesthood, my Mom starts crying, my Dad is confused. My Dad looks at me and says, “Two weeks ago you were telling me that you are going to join the Marines and become a sniper. Now you want to pray for people. Do you get what is going on in my head right now? This does not seem to add up.” I went, “No, no, no . . .” I just had to justify it and I was not hearing anybody else as to what they were experiencing.

We are getting off prayer, but I ended up going there and having a very good weekend. High school ended with me telling my friends that I was going to enter the seminary. At this time I had so transformed myself in so many ways that some were positive and some that were pretty self-righteous. Looking back, it was not a surprise for them. It was more like that makes sense because you have become a preacher so this seems to make sense. I mean, I was praying the Rosary nonstop for a time. If we had a youth group, which we kind of did, but I was not really part of it. . . I was the kid that was the weird Catholic kid that was all about everything Catholic.

 Father Michael:

High school years were probably the most difficult years of my life. Hearing you speak about yours now, it almost seems like God was allowing that to create this place of solitude in you where He is able to reach into you at such a deep level that maybe otherwise would not have been there.

Father Jacob:

I needed that solitude. Do you mean the solitude during the darkness or the solitude when I came back to Jesus?

Father Michael:

I am thinking the painful experience during the darkness was almost a preparation for you to then be able to experience solitude. Maybe isolation is a better word. You experienced some isolation from others and even of God and now all of a sudden God is filling you in that isolation and that solitude.

Father Jacob:

You dug that out well. Yes, I think so. There is a part of it where I look back over all of the dark experiences I felt and you could see how not alone you were. You can also see how typical your experiences are in some ways but you do not know that when you are in it. In a certain sense, if you did know it, you would not be in it. There is no way around it but through it. God used it all. He really did and yes, if I had not gone to the depth of that darkness then I would not have been able to experience the depth of His love going through the depths of that darkness. All of this when I entered seminary created a situation in the seminary where I was already doing meditative prayer and I think I was having a prayer of silence. There would be times where I would go into the chapel and all I needed to do was know He was there and I could sit in that and it was awesome. It was just so beautiful to feel that transition happen. You want to have the meditative prayer happen. I was praying four Rosaries a day. Guys thought that I was off my rocker. They still do, but for different reasons. It was so necessary for me to have that. I needed that so much and I love Mary so much and she was loving me so much in getting me to do this. In meditative prayer I was reading the scripture and I did not see many other guys in the seminary doing that, but for me, I needed it and wanted it.

When we had retreats, I was the guy who was not joining in the conversation. I might be trying to make guys laugh. I did not lose the sense of wanting to be a class clown. The personality was still there. At the silent retreat we would have at the college, during the meal time, I was the guy with the water pitcher making it sound like it was somebody peeing and really dragging it on to break the silence for every single person. If I cannot stand it, you are not going to have any silence. If they laughed, that was it. I would do it for every single guy whose glass I would pour water for as long as I was getting a laugh.

The prayer was deepening. What the seminary introduced me to that I did not know I was doing was self-knowledge. I was gaining in self-knowledge in my sins. I knew my sins, but what I did not know was my self-knowledge, which I think is different. There is one thing to know your sins but there is another thing to know why you sin. Even though you do not know why you sin, there are reasons why you sin. I head great confessors at the seminary. One of them was Fr. Bob McCreary who was a Capuchin Franciscan. I spoke to him in confession and a few conversations. He was not my spiritual director, but I really looked up to him. He was a very peaceful priest and a good confessor. He taught me to take the meditative prayer I was doing but now ask Jesus questions. It was not simply going to the gospels, now it is going to the gospel stories and asking Jesus, “Okay, Jesus, this is in my life. What do you have to say about this?” Trusting that the Holy Spirit is going to work through my imaginative prayer, which is a leap for some people. Some people get very nervous when you start doing this because is it just me saying it? I think I had already built up enough history with God at this time where this was less of a concern for me. I had a history with God and Him surprising me with things that really moved my heart so it came naturally. Oh, I never thought of that before. Of course I can ask Jesus these questions.

So, He began healing the pain of my parents’ divorce and all the different lies that you end up believing when you are a small kid. One of them being that it is your fault somehow. I think that was a very deep lie in my life. All the pain, everything became all my fault. Every experience of darkness I had was all my fault, all my fault. That was a big lie in my life. In that meditative prayer I became aware of the lie and then allowed Jesus to speak into that time of meditation. Really healing. Deeply healing. Healing on a very emotional level. Still an immature college male. I think I was immature in a lot of ways. I think some of my habits that I brought from high school into college were a part of that. I think my habit of being too private was a part of that immaturity because you are honed when you are in conversation about things that are personal with other people. You need that. Having a spiritual director was so key for me because I was able to share with another the deeply interior things that I was reflecting on that I was not sharing with anybody else. I needed somebody to tell me “Jacob, that is not true. Jacob, listen to me. That is not your fault.” I even said something to the point, “Are you Good Will Hunting me?” “ Stop it, man, it is not your fault.”

Father Michael:

One of the questions people often ask me about prayer is, “When you enter into this deeper prayer, meditative prayer, prayer with your imagination, how do I really know it is Jesus speaking and not me speaking?” I get a sense from you that you were having these experiences going into your meditative prayer. Going into this prayer with fantasy and imagination with a question. How did He answer?

Father Jacob:

I am trying to remember experiences that I had. Sometimes I would begin in a mystery and would begin with a question, “What is going on with this sin?” or “What do you want to show me right now about this because I am feeling really down right now?” I might begin with a gospel passage. I remember this one prayer experience I had where a water pitcher would come to mind. I was trying to pray with a gospel passage but just this image of this watering can, this green plastic watering thing for flowers, with a white shower head at the tip was in my mind. If someone had that experience they might say well, that is a distraction; which I think I might have done. Like this is weird, and you try to kick it out but zoom, it is right there. So, I thought okay, I am going to follow this. I am going to see if there is a tale to this. I am going to follow this image. So then you say, “Okay, what do You want to show me with this?” I did not know what I was doing. Nobody taught me this. I just did it. What are You showing me? What is going on? That image of a watering can took me back to the time immediately after the divorce of my parents to my grandmother’s house. I was outside and my grandmother was watering the plants on the front of the house because we lived at my grandma’s house after my parents’ divorce. I was thinking about all these different sins in my life and what is the root of this? I mentioned “my fault” and that is when the realization came too. That watering can was the same one my grandmother used and when I saw it in her hands all of the pain of the divorce flooded into my imagination. I realized how painful and confusing it was and I remember weeping. It was deeply consoling because it was like this pain that was there from this kid that was confused was able to open up and shower out. It is like part of this watering can and crying almost, and going through the mourning and the grief that I was not able to go through when you are young and you do not understand what is going on. So, this grieving took place. That is one of the ways, maybe a more extraordinary way,that can happen. Where it is just a very random thing that kind of happens.

The other time would be Jesus washing my feet. That was a very powerful image for me. Peter not wanting Jesus to wash his feet, because that was so where I was. I did not want to be loved by anybody because I did not believe that I was lovable. I remember going to that meditation and feeling like I need to be here. I know I need to be here as uncomfortable as this is. Then when you, in your imagination, let Jesus wash your feet you are aware of how deeply you needed that. It is touching on revealing your worthiness. Self-knowledge came reflecting on that prayer. Sometimes it would happen in prayer like the watering can image or it would happen reflecting on my experience in prayer during journaling or in conversation with my spiritual director.

Oh, this an amazing image that came to my mind one time. I was on a surgery table. Gosh, I can see it right now and this is also when you know it is from the Holy Spirit because it is so vivid and real and the fruit that is there. I was on the surgery table because I was having heart surgery and I was cut open and Jesus reaches in and pulls out this black heart. It was like a chunk of coal and He says, “Why do you want to hold onto this?” Where is that in scripture? Nowhere! Who knows, I may have been praying on it– I will give you a new heart– but that was the image. I remember telling my spiritual director that and he said, “Well, sit with that.” It was the best advice. He did not try to explain it. He said, “Sit with that.” So, I sat with it and it was very freeing to know that I do not need to hold onto my old sense of my heart. It is my old heart. I am allowed to know that Jesus has given me a new heart and to accept that, and embrace that, and know who I am in Him. Those are the types of things. When they would bring fruit into my life and they would not lead to isolation.

A counter example of what is not of Jesus would be when it became all about psychoanalyzing myself. When I became psychoanalytical and I became my own Sigmund Freud, the only fruit that came out of that was turmoil. I thought the turmoil was because I was hiding something, so I wanted to go deeper. I do not know what that is in me, but when there is a problem I want to fix it so I would go deeper and then there would be even more turmoil and then you think, “Oh man, this is a huge issue.”

Father Michael:

That is a good clarification I want to make for people who might be listening and wanting to know what is the voice of God. I always teach that there are two voices . . . God’s voice and the enemy’s voice. If it is God’s voice there is going to be grace and fruitfulness and a freedom. An increase in faith, hope and love as you were describing. If it is the enemy’s voice, it is going to be the opposite. There is going to be a decrease of faith, hope and love . . . an agitation, a rumination, self-condemnation. It is more of you looking at yourself than you looking at yourself with the Holy Spirit. You are in the seminary now. Tell us about the progression of your prayer there or do you want to talk next about ordination?

Father Jacob:

There were a couple of things that happened. One of the most powerful experiences that I had of the Holy Spirit was my junior year of seminary and it was in the spring. There was a group of guys that would go up to this third floor area where there was a small chapel. There was no Eucharist there, but they would go there every now and do praise and worship. They were more charismatic. I was not charismatic at all, or at least people would say, “He certainly sounds charismatic. You sound pretty intense.” I was not persuing that. I made fun of people that prayed in tongues and all that stuff but they kept inviting me to pray with them. So, I broke down one time and I said, “Okay, I will pray with you all.” There were three or four guys there and they were the Capuchin students in the college program. We began to pray and I went to appease them to get them off my back. As we began to enter into praise and worship . . . this is the second time I have told people publicly about this and I am also reflecting on this as I am sharing this out loud as I am also aware that for some people what I am about to say is going to be very intense. I want to preface this with the reason I want to share this is because I think I want two things to happen: I want people to be hungry for the Holy Spirit and I want people to be aware that the Holy Spirit is very real. So, leading up to this time of prayer, my prayer was that I needed to know that God loved me. I needed to know it and I was praying to the Father, “Father, I need to hear you say you love me. I need to hear you say it. I do not want to read it. I do not want to just convince myself of it. I want to hear you say that you love me.” That was my prayer for months. So here I am in the upper room and they start doing praise and worship. It felt similar to the time of Confirmation, which was a peaceful thing. Maybe it begins that way, but it intensifies dramatically, quickly, to the point where I was shaking. I was kneeling down crying. I felt like my chest was ripped open and there was lava coursing through my torso. I was sweating from the heat, my body was shaking and I began to pray in tongues. It was the baptism of the Holy Spirit is what it was. I did not know what it was and I also did not know that other people experience things like this.

I realize as I am saying this that there are people that will say, “This is crazy,” and this is not going to be attractive to some people because it is too out there. I get that. I understand. I have become somebody who is aware of that anyway and I do not want to judge anybody that is having that reaction and saying, “This is freaking me out.” I want to share it though because it happened. It was real and it was very intense. At the height of that experience, the two guys to my right were kneeling and praying to God in tongues and singing. One guy was standing over to my left and he said, “Jacob, I believe God the Father wants to tell you this: ‘you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.’” Then there was what felt like this literal fire, it was jarring. It was not pleasant. It was not a pleasant experience and it was at the same time. I do not know how else to describe it. It was a surprisingly pleasant and unpleasant experience. They said the Holy Spirit is a gentleman . . . well, not all the time. For whatever reason that is what I needed. Then that Word was spoken to me. I believe it was a prophetic Word where God told this man who I know has a very close relationship with Jesus, “Tell Jacob this.” It was the words that Jesus heard at His baptism from God the Father. It was exactly what I was praying to hear and I had not told anybody this, that this was what I was praying to hear. I was praying to hear the Father say this. The Father told me that and it was a baptism. Of course it is not the sacramental baptism but it was a filling, a refilling of the fire of the Holy Spirit in my life.

I woke up the next day and had no clue what happened. It felt like a dream. It was so surreal that it almost felt like it did not happen. I did not have a Holy Spirit hangover the next day. It was more like, “Wow, that was nuts,” and then I was back to normal. I even went to the guys afterward . One guy was from the Caribbean area, one guy was from Central America; they were from different countries of Central America. (I do not want to sound racist, but I do not want to get any of it wrong–they were from different countries in Central America and one guy was from the Dominican Republic) and I said, “Wow, I thought that that was just a cultural thing.” My home parish is half Latino where half speak Spanish and half speak English. That is my home parish. So when you go to the Spanish speaking liturgies, which I would, it was more bubbly. It was more out there. They are praying with one another. It is not a weird thing. In the English speaking, it is more reserved. If you see something going on and say “Let us pray,” they will go, “Ah, do not touch me.” If you are in the Spanish speaking community and you say, “I am going through a tough time” they will say, “Hey, everyone, let us all lay hands on this person and pray for them right here and right now” and it is not a weird thing. So I thought that that was just a cultural thing to them and then they started laughing and they said, “You are ridiculous, you just had this amazing experience!”

What I drew out of this amazing experience was that it is not just a cultural thing that was the extent of the depth of that thing. A couple of things that transformed me were I could not ignore the Charisms now and I could not ignore praying in tongues because I began to pray in tongues. I wanted more, and my prayer life became much more attuned to the fact that God wants to speak to me. I think that was a thing. So like I was telling you, there was the meditation kind of thing but now it shifts to not only does God want to tell me about myself and about Him, but God wants to talk to me, to direct me, to help me help other people. We are talking discernment. It deepened my discernment and confidence in the fact that God wants to have a real relationship with me. We say we believe that, but when you start telling people, “God told me to do this”. . . again, this is the thing that happens in Catholic . . . I am not even going to say just Catholic . . . just in Christian circles. We get into this game where we say “We have to discern God’s will” and then when you say, “God told me to do this,” people say, “You are out of your mind.” We talk out of both sides of our mouth because we are so uncomfortable with the supernatural because it so out of our control. If you are not used to it, it does sound even New Age or prideful. God spoke to you? I have been praying all these years! So, all of these things are in the back of your mind and it is part of the reason we do not talk about spiritual experiences. Which is why I think these things are so necessary to do, to have podcasts like this, and why I wanted to share these things that I have. We need to be more comfortable sharing the extraordinary because it is the only way we are going to get used to moving in the supernatural, which is where Jesus moved. Jesus lived and breathed in the supernatural. It was natural for Him. He said “I only do what I see the Father doing. I only say what I hear the Father saying. That is what I do.” So, if Jesus reveals what it means to be a human being, then Jesus is revealing that the supernatural way of life is really our inheritance as those of us who believe in Jesus Christ.

All of these experiences kind of forced me into a place where I needed to decide am I actually going to live by what I say I believe or am I just going to say that I believe it. This was the journey then to ordination, the struggle between not wanting to be weird or to follow Jesus as He has revealed Himself to me in my prayer, and the Holy Spirit and the Father. So, this is the tension and I still experience this. No one wants to be an outcast and nobody wants to be that guy because there are, unfortunately, emotionally unhinged people that talk about things the way I have talked about them and they are very convinced that who they hear is the Holy Spirit when really it is not. They do things that are not helpful. They do not have friends. They do not have a balanced life. I think what I have seen over the course of my prayer life is a growing maturation. A greater balance in my life. I am 31 years old. I am not as fully matured as I would like to be. I meet guys in the seminary that are in the college program that are more mature than I am, but at the same time I do know that God has matured me. Is there still room for healing? Of course. As Saint Paul said, “I am not speaking as though I have attained the goal of maturity but I speak as one who chases after that goal.” Philippians. That is how I am speaking. Have I reached that maturity? No. Am I speaking as one who hopes in it? I definitely do because I have seen the fruit of this on the emotional side and it has not all been prayerful.

I have gone to counseling to work through some of the things that I brought up here. I have gone to good counseling. I have good friends. I have good spiritual directors and all of that is part of it. It is not one thing only. You cannot pray all of these things through. You need good friends. You need someone that you can go deep with. If you need someone to walk you through the deeper emotional hurts, you need to do that or find someone that can help you do that. You cannot do that alone. When I was trying to do that alone, it was part of the problem because you end up trying to heal it in other ways. I have made mistakes. I have done things I should not have, but I have seen God work through it all to bring about a maturity. So, this struggle happened all through seminary into ordination where I needed to choose and I still feel like I am in this balance of what am I going to do here? Am I going to live what I preach or am I just going to preach it? Am I going to have cool experiences and say “That was amazing” or am I going to take it to heart and live differently as a result of it? Am I going to take my prayer seriously or am I just going to be awed by the fact I have had these things happen? It is conversion. It is about letting go. There is an obedience aspect to this that is going on right now in my heart where I am learning more and more there needs to be a humble obedience because God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. In the midst of all of this, you just have to listen and obey with the proper structures in place.

Father Michael:

That is what a spiritual director or a good solid spiritual friend will help us do, to really clarify is this voice of God? Is this really what God is asking of you? Then living out that reality.

Father Jacob:

When I was ordained to the priesthood in 2017, the prayer shifted. A cool thing that begins to happen in seminary is you discern you. In some ways seminary is very self-centered because it is really you making the decision about you, which is part of the structure. You have to know if this is God’s will. You have to be confident in that on some level and you need to deal with your junk.

Father Michael:

You are almost hyper-focused on self and self-care.

Father Jacob:

In looking back, I can bemoan that I wish somebody maybe told me that I look at Jesus more, but I would not have believed them. I would not have done it because I would have thought but then I am not dealing with my problems. What I needed to hear I do not know, because I would not have listened if they told me to look at Jesus. I would have just kept on doing what I was doing. The grace of that time was that a lot of people do not have that luxury of time. What ends up happening for a lot of people is they graduate from high school. They go to college. They meet somebody and get married and start having kids. Talk about rapid life changes in succession. You are starting a career, you have a family, you have kids. You are trying to pay the bills, figure out what marriage means and what it means to be a father or a mother. Totally radical changes. If you think about yourself longer than two seconds, you are going to miss what you need to do for the other people’s lives. There are needs that are more urgent than you. That is part of the beauty of motherhood and fatherhood. You have to be selfless or else you are going to be a bad parent. I say that not being a parent, but I have been thinking about how selfless parents can be and how my own parents are. My mom and my dad are two of the most selfless people I know and it is really amazing. I realize now I did not really see it when I was growing up. You see it later on and think how did they do it? How did they manage to do it? I do not know. How did they deal with me? How did they deal with this kid that was not talking and they did not know how to help? But they did and that is really beautiful. Then your kids grow up and now they are kind of on their own and you get to a place kind of later in life where you are thinking what am I doing with my life? I am not necessarily talking about a mid-life crisis, but I am in some ways.

Really, seminary kind of forces you to an early mid-life crisis and that is why it can be so difficult for guys because you have to either have an interior life or you have to shut it down. The guys who shut down became priests who, and I want to say this with respect, became very efficient at what they do but have a hard time relating it to the depths of their priesthood. Your identity is placed in your ministry. If your ministry is not going well, that depth of the interior life has not been established enough to resist the pull of other voices that are saying your work goes deeper than what you produce. If in the seminary, though, you pass through the threshold and you go into the interior life, you are in a different place where now you have a whole other set of problems. The other one has plenty of problems. You have plenty of problems in that other place that you can deal with and have fun doing. The interior life at the seminary is a whole set of other things because now you have to go into your emotional life. You have to go deep in your past and your history. You have got to go deep into what you really believe is true and I entered into that journey. Then you are ordained a priest and you are thrust into other people’s lives. There is very little time after you are ordained. You have those three or four weeks after you are ordained where it is all about you. Then you get to the parish and it is all about you for a day. Welcome, father. Boom, first problem hits you. One of the first few days of my parish priesthood there was somebody knocking on the door in the evening who was obviously, I found out later (SIC) because I ended up calling the police. This is a very unwise thing to do, but they said that they needed help.

Father Michael:

You were very Saint Francis like. Brought him in, offered him some food.

Father Jacob:

Exactly. I brought this guy in. I was alone in the rectory and he came in riding a bicycle which was lying on the front lawn. He said things that were not making sense. I looked at him and said, “You look tired and hungry.” He said, “I am.” I made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and called a priest mentor who said, “What did he say to you?” I related it to him and he said, “That is just what he said to you. You only know his side of the story.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “No, Jacob, you only know his side of the story. You do not know who this guy is. You do not know what he is going to do.” I found out that he was coming down a high off of drugs.

Father Michael:

I was thinking of my first year. You experience the whole gamut from day two of ordination and, yes, it just comes upon you in everything. Every life experience there is within your first year as a priest, you experience.

Father Jacob:

Deaths of children. Deaths of adults. Baptisms. Baptisms where people do not really seem to understand what is going on and then baptisms of Catholics who love what they are doing and are so proud to be Catholic. Marriages of people that are the super-duper Catholics that want five priests at their wedding and marriages where it is like eh, this is what you do. You really get all of it plus people’s problems. It is a weird thing to have people coming to me as a 30 year old with problems that they have in their life and I have no clue. I did not even want to pretend that I had a clue, which I think was to my credit, so I would say to people, “I have no idea how to help you.” Now I would word it differently because two years into the priesthood you want to leave people with hope. I want to help you but I am not the best person to go to. You have to learn “priestese.” You need to learn how to say things, but honestly. I was able to say to people I am not the one that can help you with this problem, but still it is on your heart. Then the shift begins to happen and in prayer now you are discerning where God is calling you to help other people. You realize the inner resources that you do not have. In the seminary you build up resources to deal with your own problems. Now there is a whole new set of insecurities that begins to happen where you have to build up resources to deal with people’s problems and that is a balancing act because you are still working on you. Now, in order to help others, you have got to make sure that you are balanced and that is the tension now. How do I help others while still having an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ? I know that if I lose this intimate relationship with Jesus and the Spirit, I am not going to be able to help people as a priest. I will become a counselor at best. At worst, I will become a self-righteous, selfish bachelor that lives for himself. That is the worst. In order to avoid that, I need to keep praying and keep praying. I need to keep praying and guard it.

Father Michael:

What is that like for you now as a priest ordained two years, going into your third?

Father Jacob:

Prayer goes through different times of intensity. I really make sure that I get at least one holy hour every day. I have missed that on a number of occasions but that is because there are like fifteen hour days and your feet hit the floor running and literally you do not have time to pray. But I know if I do not have a holy hour . . . have the luxury of a holy hour. . .

Father Michael:

Yeah, is that not great.

Father Jacob:

This is another thing I realized. I was going for a walk praying the Rosary and I saw people working on lawns, people playing with their kids in the yard. Somebody walking a dog because the dog needed to poop. People cleaning the boat, cleaning the house. All these things were going on and I thought, “I have the luxury to pray the Rosary right now.” So, I realize this is a luxury, but part of it is that if I do not do it, I am not going to be a good priest for people. People do not come to me wanting 31-year-old Jacob Bearer’s advice. Honestly, if they were, I would be worried for them because I am 31 years old and what do I know?

Father Michael:

What they are seeking in you is the eternal priesthood.

Father Jacob:

Exactly. So if I lose that . . . I can see how there is this battle in priesthood that happens where you want to be busy, and you want to be busy because you love people and you want to do things to help them. It is a genuine, wonderful sentiment. If I am doing things, I am helping people. That is very attractive. If I am praying, I am literally doing nothing and that means in this scenario I am not doing anything. There can be this tension then of saying I did not do anything today because I took this day to more intensely pray. To be honest, there are certain days where I know I need more than a holy hour. It does not happen all the time but it does happen and there can be a sense of guilt at the end of the day. Because you see how busy everybody is, even other priests. Like, I had all this– what did you do today? Well, I prayed. You can almost be ashamed of what you did, but man, is that the spirit of the world.

Father Michael:

I encourage people by saying a good definition of prayer is wasting time with God. You seem to the world to be wasting time, but who better to waste time with than being in the presence of God.

Father Jacob:

The more I spend that time, the more loving I am.

Father Michael:

For sure.

Father Jacob:

Because when I get busy I start treating people like they are on my “to do” list. It is so easy.

Father Michael:

Instead of truly just being present.

Father Jacob:

What’s your problem? This, this, this. Next. So, what is wrong with you? My prayer has been learning to pray for others and learning to enter into silence when I need to, so that I am filled up, so that I can pray for others.

Father Michael:

I often think of Jesus frequently doing that. Going off to be with the Father. He would do these amazing things. Miracles. There would be a whole city that needed Him but He still had to go away and be with the Father. I think it is important that we do that as priests.

Any last thoughts on praying as a priest? I think the people listening to this do not have the luxury that we necessarily have had—our six years of formation. I get to do an annual eight-day retreat every year. A holy hour every day. We are paid to pray. We get to celebrate Mass. How would you encourage people that have not had these experiences and want to grow in prayer and just do not know how to do it? That yearning desire. They are listening now. What would you say to encourage them?

Father Jacob:

 The first place I will start with, and maybe this is my Baptist upbringing, but I think you have got to begin from a place of faith. Faith in Jesus Christ. The reason I say that is because if we do not begin with the reality that Jesus Christ loves you, that He is real and He wants you to pray, and He wants to be with you in prayer, then you are going to turn prayer into a habit and then it is going to be Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey. You are going to approach prayer from that point. If you feel that your prayer is not effective, you are going to feel like you failed or you are going to feel that your prayer is not good. We have to begin from a place of faith that puts our faith in Jesus Christ who loves me. He wants to talk to me. His Word, the scriptures, are God speaking to me. The Holy Spirit is real and already active in my life and it is just a matter of me seeing it. So, if we begin with faith, I think we are going to immediately begin to cut off those other temptations that can begin to have us judge our prayer as it is budding and growing. Looking for results instead of relationships. You do not end a great time with somebody you love and say “What did I get out of that?”

Father Michael:

 How was this?

Father Jacob:

On a scale of one to ten, what was this on your favorite day list? You have to go for the relationship rather than the result. You have got to put in time and be willing to “waste” time. And, you have to cut things out of your life. I think this is the thing that people do not share when they talk about starting to pray, but I think it was so important for me. Part of my experience was that I needed to indicate that this is more important than other things for me to do it. We usually want to fit prayer into our day and when that happens, like I said, it becomes one more thing in your day. Then, if your day is built around being effective, prayer is going to drop off when you have a lot of things to do. You have to cut that off and you have to cut things out. Prayer has to be more important than other things. Prayer has to be more important than friends at times. Prayer has to be more important than your favorite TV show. Prayer has to be more important and reading God’s Word has to be more important than catching up on news and catching up on what celebrities are doing. Prayer and your relationship with Jesus Christ is going to have to make other things relative.

Father Michael:

We as priests have a privileged experience of doing that. It is part of what we do. The reality for all baptized Catholics can be that is what we do. Everyone is supposed to and can have this wonderful relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that is real. If you are desiring that God to speak to you, if you really want to hear His voice, I love what you said before: He wants to speak to you. He wants to reveal Himself to you and speak to you.

Father Jacob:

It becomes about translating how He is speaking to you. You are going to learn it but you have got to learn by being willing to stumble. It is learning to walk. It is learning any new skill, any new relationship skill. You are talking to an invisible being. The God of mystery. So, you are going to feel awkward, like it is learning to dance. It is an eighth grade dance, like learning a new language.

Father Michael:

Learning a new language, how difficult that is.

Father Jacob:

I remember being in Italy for a study abroad period and I knew one phrase. It was “It is a beautiful day.” Buongiorno. That is all I knew in Italian. I said to this old lady, “Hey, Buongiorno” and then she began speaking to me–a paragraph of Italian–and I went . . . “English.”

Father Michael:

You can do that with God sometimes. “English, please”.

Father Jacob:

You are going to learn things and you are going to get excited. Then you are going to feel like you do not know what you are doing and then you are going to say “What is the point?” You are going to go through all of it. It is a relationship. Even what is the point of this relationship? I think people get worried. When it is new, they worry they are doing something wrong; but, if you are doing it, you are in the right. Be willing to look up resources to help you. I went online when I was a teenager and looked up “How to pray Lectio Divina”. I printed it out and I was in my room with my Bible on one knee and the printout on the other one. Step one, read. Okay, I am going to read the passage now. Step two, meditate. Okay, I am going to meditate. It was awkward. It did not flow at all. It was choppy and silly but that is the only way you learn. Now I can do Lectio Divina and it is not awkward. In fact, if I read it, sometimes I skip to being in God’s presence. I do not have to do anything more. Or, I meditate and just meditate. Or, you pray and it is just prayer. It is like playing jazz. You learn the rules of music and then you can learn to play but you have to learn the rules first. Learn the rules, learn new things. I love Philip Neri’s line, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Do not be John of the Cross in three days, and if you think you are . . . look out.

Father Michael:

I always tell people the most important thing is to make the time and go to prayer. God will really help you. The Holy Spirit will teach you how to pray. If you are listening to this you probably know about The Prodigal Father. Our mission is to provide the resources to teach people to pray. I would encourage you to browse the website. I especially encourage you to look at the program we have called Pray40Days where you will learn, as Fr. Jacob was saying, Lectio Divina, praying with your imagination. Dialoguing with God. Contemplative prayer. Meditative prayer. It will give you an experience of really having the fruits I have learned as a priest at retreats and from some of the wise spiritual people in my life. At least, try it out. I would encourage you to try that.

Father Jacob, it has been wonderful to have you here and hear part of your story. I have a feeling that there is going to be more. Thank you so much. Would you mind giving us all your final blessing?

Father Jacob:

Heavenly Father, for everyone who is listening to this, I ask that You touch their minds and their hearts so they hunger for You and hunger for more of Your Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit, I thank You and bless You for Your ministry to us as Your church. I ask that You send forth the fire of Your Holy Spirit to be in our minds and in our hearts to long for more of You, to ache for You and to be able to sense Your presence. May Almighty God bless you and your loved ones in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Father Michael:

Amen. Go in peace.

Father Jacob:

 Thank you.

 

 

 

About the Author, Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into the priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer.

 

 

Recorded at Walsh University’s “The Saint Maximilian Kolbe Recording Studio.”

3 Comments

  • Delores says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. It even made me cry. I am a grandmother, and great grandmother. I’m pray daily for my children, grandchildren, & great grandchild. Some are still practicing Catholic, some are not. I pray they find their way back “home”. God bless you. 😘🙏

  • Carol Goodson says:

    Thank you. It would take too long to try to explain why this helped me–mainly because you validated the way I pray, I guess–but I am very grateful. thanks for sharing your story so openly and in so much detail. I pray that those who need to hear it will find it also. I am a Novice in formation to join a religious Order, but my Novice Mistress tries to force her spirituality on me and make me a cookie-cutter copy of her–you have given me the confidence I needed to believe in what I KNOW.

  • Nancy Covelli says:

    Father Mike & Father Jacob, thank you putting this talk together.I’ve known both of you berfore you became Priests. Awesome experience to watch God work his Word into your Lives. So Blessed to encounter God through the both of you. St John Vianney Parish was Blessed to have you and help us as a community grow to Love God More. I always enjoyed the Sermons knowing God is present through the both of you. I miss those times I really heard God . Thank you again enjoyed listening to my Favorite Priests.