“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love [God].” (Romans 8:28a)
Since September of 2008, I have been blessed with the privilege of assisting students, both lay and religious, with their academic work in theology. These remarkable people, who inspire me every day, intend to use the knowledge and formation they acquire in graduate school and/or seminary to bless the world, to help heal and restore.
I understand and encourage their mission for I once walked in their shoes.
Admitting I am a sinner is far easier than disclosing the specifics of even one sin. Likewise, claiming I have learned from my failures is far more comfortable than detailing a single instance when I unquestionably failed. Yet, such is my intention here.
In retrospect, I do not regret what I plan to describe. In fact, if this makes sense, I now see its necessity, though I use that word cautiously. Yes, I have learned from my failure(s).
My tale begins in a dark place.
Soon, I would need to vacate the newly renovated office in the basement of the rectory. In the scant time I had left on the job, I labored on, trying to resurrect the genuine passion that had brought me to that place ten months earlier. It wasn’t working. How could I compose a lesson plan about God’s faithful love while consumed with worry about my wife and our two small children – and, truth be told, while doubting if God’s faithful love extended to me? I was tired, demoralized, and wrestling with a fearsome goblin named self-doubt.
Footsteps on the stairs were the first thing I noticed. Then, several faint voices grew steadily stronger as the visitors approached. I quit typing and sat motionless while shadows of feet became visible beneath the door.
The basement room was windowless. I had always preferred a small desk lamp to the stark fluorescent overhead light; so, from outside, the room must have appeared dark and unoccupied. Someone tried the doorknob but found it locked.
“This is my new office,” a man said. (I later learned it was the parish deacon.) “Unfortunately, I can’t show it to you yet because I don’t have the key.”
A woman’s voice queried, “Is someone else using it now?”
“Some guy who’s been running an evangelization program,” the deacon replied, “but that’s ending, and he’ll be gone soon.”
It wasn’t breaking news. I had learned my fate a couple of days earlier. Still, there was something icily final about his words.
Another topic soon captured the group’s attention, and I was vaguely aware of a shared burst of laughter as the oblivious assassins exited the scene.
“Some guy… and he’ll be gone soon.”
At one time in my life, I fashioned myself a writer. As an undergraduate, I took every writing course my school had to offer – advanced writing, creative writing, technical writing, journalism. Then, in the final semester of my senior year, I had a dream opportunity to serve as an intern reporter for the local daily newspaper.
It was a bitter cold winter that year, and my schedule was taxing. I had to report to the newsroom, with the newspaper’s daily mail in tow, by 6:30 every weekday morning. That placed me at the nearby Post Office at least fifteen minutes earlier.
I would remain in the newsroom, working on any assignment(s) given me by the News Editor, until deadline at 10:30 a.m. Then, I would rush to campus for my classes before returning to the newsroom to cover evening assignments. I was sometimes there quite late writing, and it was a grind; but, there was also a palpable energy in the newsroom that fueled my desire. This, it seemed clear, was the life I wanted.
My internship ended with the close of the academic year. On my last day, the News Editor invited me into his office for an exit interview. He thanked me for my efforts and told me that my work showed real promise. Though he had no position to offer at the time, he encouraged me to pursue writing professionally.
Graduation and reality awaited.
Landing a writing job just out of college proved a pipe dream. To pay my bills, I tried my hand at selling insurance (a disaster), installing mini-computers (a mini-disaster), and working the ticket counter for a regional airline. I had some interesting experiences, but I kept watching for the right opportunity.
The advertisements appeared in the newspaper only a few days apart – two entry-level reporter positions, one at the very newspaper at which I had served my internship. I had the phone in my hand almost immediately.
In the interim between my graduation and the posting of the jobs (a little more than two years), there had been an important personnel change in the newsroom. The News Editor had moved on, and a reporter I had worked with once or twice had been promoted to fill the vacancy. He took my call, listened patiently while I rambled on about my strong interest in the position, and advised me to send a resume directly to him.
The other posted job was a Junior Staff Writer position at a soon-to-be-publishing computer weekly with strong financial backing out of New York and enormous promise. I applied almost as an afterthought. I imagined the competition would be intense but vaguely hoped I would secure an interview that would help to sharpen my interviewing skills for the job I really wanted. To my genuine surprise, I got a call.
In my experience, that interview was unlike any before or since. With my heart set firmly on the other position (i.e., at the daily newspaper), I felt completely at ease, even when I had to demonstrate my writing skills on the spot under strict deadline pressure. It went well, which gave a much-needed boost to my confidence.
To my great relief, the daily newspaper also called me for an interview; and, though I was nervous throughout, I left that encounter in a very positive frame of mind. The News Editor told me he remembered my work and thought I had done quite well as an intern. He made no promises but said he had confidence in my ability to do the job.
I’ve never prayed with greater fervor for a personal intention. The job seemed like a perfect fit, and I let God know that day and night.
I waited anxiously. When the News Editor finally contacted me, he didn’t deliver the exact message I had ached to hear. He did, however, offer real hope. He told me he had decided I was the right person for the job, but there was a snag. The Editor-in-Chief was having second thoughts about filling the position due to cost considerations. He told me a firm decision should be rendered soon and asked me to call him just after deadline exactly one week later.
There wasn’t time for a novena; but, over those intervening seven days, I visited the parish church of my childhood several times on my way home from work. Perhaps God would hear me more clearly from there, I reasoned, where I had offered so many prayers in the past.
“I’m really sorry, Stephen,” he said. “We’ve decided not to fill the position at this time.”
There had been such certainty in my mind. The news violently deflated my spirit.
That evening, while grieving with my wife, our phone rang. It was a representative from the computer publication. He offered his congratulations and asked me when I could start.
In everything, God works for good.
From day one, the job and I were a mismatch. At first, I thought my discomfort was due to continuing grief from a lost opportunity; however, I soon realized it was the nature of the work that unsettled me. As an intern at the newspaper, I had written about interesting people and circumstances, and I found doing so exhilarating. On this job, my writing assignments were all about machines and software. Try as I might, I couldn’t force compatibility.
While wrestling with my fit at the new job, important changes were also happening in my personal life. I was in the midst of what I would call a spiritual reawakening, an experience I wrote about in a previous essay titled “The Red Sweater.” In addition, though I didn’t yet realize the significance, major changes were taking place in a ministry organization run by two dear friends.
The Word of God Ministry was a pioneering venture in Catholic circles. Established by lay evangelist Nina Lauzon, the ministry brought regularly scheduled adult Bible study courses to Catholic parishes on the North Shore of Massachusetts. In addition, Nina and her co-worker, John Clabeaux, ran retreats and parish missions that touched many lives. I count myself, in fact, among those richly blessed by their efforts.
As I was writing, grudgingly, about hard drives and CPUs, John Clabeaux was completing work on his doctorate at Harvard Divinity School. Once finished, he intended to accept a full-time appointment teaching at St. John’s Seminary (SJS), which meant there would soon be an opening at the Word of God Ministry.
I first shared my story of “The Red Sweater” at a meeting of our parish prayer community in Salem, MA. After hearing me speak, Nina asked if I would be willing to tell the story again as part of a retreat called “2 by 2 Before Him” that she and John would soon be offering in a couple of Catholic parishes nearby. I was honored to do so and found the experience uniquely stirring. Honestly, it was as though something had been unlocked in my soul.
Perhaps a future essay will tell the more complete story. For now, I will simply say that I began a process of discernment about my future. It was then that two important firsts entered my life – spiritual direction and the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Both have since proven indispensable on the journey.
My wise director, Sr. Lucille Cormier, offered to guide me through the Exercises after I spoke with her about my desire for vocational discernment. Again, much is missing here; but, by the end of the process, she and I both sensed that a call to some type of lay ministry could be authentic.
I believe Nina was the first to suggest the possibility that I might join her in the Word of God Ministry after John’s departure. For that to happen though, I would need the appropriate credentials.
I see clearly now that the seeds of failure first appeared while I was in graduate school.
A complicated variety of factors were in play, including: general low self-esteem; self-doubt about my ability to do master’s level work; a perceived need to justify the major changes I was imposing on my young family; a drive to prove that the Word of God Ministry had not made a mistake in holding the teaching position for me while I studied; and, a deep interior need to demonstrate to the generous members of our prayer community, who pledged to help us pay our living expenses while I was in school, that they were making a good investment. Whatever the motivation(s), grades became excessively important to me to the detriment of true learning.
Held hostage by perfectionism, I pushed myself to extremes to “get the A.” By the end of my program, I had indeed achieved a 4.0 cumulative average and had passed my comprehensive exams with distinction. I was also very run-down and sick with mononucleosis. Was it worth it?
Interestingly enough, in the 30+ years since my graduation, not a single person has ever asked me about my grades.
Perspective, even when it comes after a considerable passage of time, is a valuable thing.
I taught for two years full-time in the Word of God Ministry, and perfectionism dogged me throughout. Every lecture preparation was an ordeal; and, though I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom experience and the wonderful people among whom I ministered, I was growing increasingly weary. When Nina suggested a new model of service, I was intrigued.
While the prior work of the ministry had reached those individuals who chose to come to classes or retreats, there was no intentional corporate outcome. What Nina now proposed was a parish-centered evangelization program wherein a self-selecting group of parishioners would be trained over the course of an academic year to serve as hosts/facilitators for home-church meetings, which would commence after a Lenten parish mission. It was an exciting vision.
Two Catholic pastors embraced the concept and hired us to run the program in their respective parishes. We intended to do the lesson planning over the summer and begin co-teaching on an academic calendar in the fall. Then, an obstacle arose. A personal issue prohibited Nina’s involvement, at least for the foreseeable future. The plan moved forward, but with just me at the helm – and, at the podium.
In the captivating novel Watership Down, author Richard Adams employs a fictional language, Lapine, which is spoken only by the rabbit characters in his story. One Lapine word, “tharn,” has remained a part of my vocabulary ever since I read the book decades ago. It refers to a paralyzing level of fear a rabbit might experience, e.g., while looking into the headlights of an oncoming car.
I did not hear the visitors’ footsteps as they climbed back up the stairs. Although alone in the room, I felt suddenly exposed, confused, humiliated, vulnerable, scared. If writing had once been my strongest aspiration, ministry now had supplanted that notion entirely. And, the ministry door seemed to be slamming shut.
In that bleak moment, my future was an approaching set of headlights; and, laboring to breathe in the deacon’s new office, his key resting uneasily in my pocket, I was tharn, utterly tharn.
Saying good-bye to the parishioners who had participated in the evangelization program was very difficult. For all of my (apparently not so) private struggles, the classroom experience had been consistently uplifting; and, I had formed strong bonds with these remarkable people. I was guarded in what I disclosed, mostly from embarrassment. Still, I was sure word would spread.
I cannot fault the pastors for witnessing the toll lesson prep was taking on me and choosing to adopt a tough-love stance. In retrospect, I see that they did me a favor. I can, however, mention a real injustice that my family was forced to endure.
Working for the Church often involves sacrifice, especially regarding wages. When the job abruptly ended, my wife Marianne and I had virtually no savings. With two small children, imagine our surprise when I applied for unemployment compensation and was told that the Church does not participate in the program. So, I had no salary and no unemployment protection. We were in a genuine state of panic.
I won’t belabor the point here, but the Church must be/do better than this.
In everything, God works for the good.
In that desperate moment, an unexpected phone call offered us a life-line. The call was from a priest we barely knew at the time, but he had heard of our circumstances.
“No one who has worked for the Church should ever find himself in your position,” he said, “especially someone with small children.”
That very good man of God promised to pay our family’s living expenses until I could find a job. He proved faithful to his word.
After a two-month search, I found a job teaching religion/theology in a Catholic high school. Though it proved to be just a stop-gap position lasting only a few months, something beautiful and quite unexpected happened there.
Until then, the vast majority of my teaching experience had been with an adult audience. High school students were so very different; and, they called forth from me a response I wasn’t initially sure I could make. They had no tolerance for painstakingly planned lectures. Instead, they demanded spontaneity. With their (unknowing) help, I broke free from enslavement to preparation. And that freedom has endured. I have since taught many adult faith-formation classes, and my prep time is nothing at all like it once was.
I left the Catholic high school without completing the academic year because a position was offered to me that promised great benefit to my family. A local public library was looking for an Assistant Director/Reference Librarian. The pay wasn’t great, but it was more than I was earning at the high school. That wasn’t the determining factor, however. The job came with the promise that, should I choose to pursue a master’s degree in Library Science, the library would cover the cost. I accepted, and I found myself once again needing to say good-bye to some very special people.
Often we fail to appreciate the impact we have on one another. My students didn’t realize how instrumental they had been in healing a broken part of me. Likewise, I don’t think I fully appreciated the bond we had forged.
Years later, my daughter Rachel attended that same high school at which I’d briefly served. While she was walking down the hallway one day early in her freshman year, a young teacher called out to her.
“Are you Rachel Dalton?” she asked. “And, is your Dad Steve Dalton?”
When my daughter replied in the affirmative, the teacher introduced herself as one of the religion/theology teachers at the school. She then said: “I was one of your Dad’s students. And, he’s the reason I became a religion teacher.”
I honestly had no idea. Wow!
A library colleague once shared her impression with me that libraries can sometimes serve as rehab centers for derailed careers. I’m sure she didn’t realize how true that is in my case. I smiled internally.
I served at the public library for almost five years, and during that time I did indeed acquire my master’s degree in Library Science. When the degree was finished, I took a second job working the reference desk in a community college library. There, my love of working with students was rekindled, and I set a long-term goal of ultimately making academic librarianship my primary job.
Before that could happen, I took a marvelous detour by joining the staff of a major paper conservation lab. There, for nearly twelve years, I engaged in many fascinating preservation-related projects and met some truly inspiring people, many of whom remain close friends today.
Finally, I found my way to Boston College (BC), where I have now served for almost thirteen years. My first position at BC was that of Preservation Manager for the BC Libraries. Three years into my tenure in that position, BC was poised to open its newest library, the Theology and Ministry Library (TML), to serve the newly-formed School of Theology and Ministry (STM) and St. John’s Seminary (SJS). One position at TML had yet to be filled before the opening, that of Collection Development/Reference Librarian.
Knowing my background, a colleague took me aside one day and said: “That position is made for you. You should really apply.” I did, and it was the best career decision I have ever made.
I was fifty years old when I finally landed my dream job. I have since spent the better part of ten years doing ministry again, and I cannot imagine experiencing a greater degree of job satisfaction.
The door I thought had permanently closed at that profoundly trying moment of failure is now wide open, perhaps (realistically) for the first time.
Only recently, I successfully applied for the Head Librarian position at the TML. I began serving in that position earlier this month, and I’ve yet to appreciate the full dimensions of the job. Knowing my past, however, and my history of benefiting even from hardship, I have a hunch God will be working for good.
It’s sobering to consider that, if my oh-so-urgent prayers had been answered affirmatively, if I had been given the newspaper job I coveted so long ago, my life would be entirely different today.