SILVERADO, Calif. – On the morning Grant Desme ceased to exist, he was at peace. He spent years searching for serenity, convinced it was coming soon, next, now. It never did. Life was a blaring stereo, and he had become numb to its noise. The sound finally abated when he arrived here. He believed God muted it.
So on Christmas Eve two years ago he and seven other men marched into the church at St. Michael's Abbey and readied for a transition the church considered spiritual death. Grant Desme would go by another name. His plainclothes would become a head-to-toe white habit. For the next two years, he would commit to the dual life of a priest-in-training and a monk in the Norbertine Order. The naming ceremony bound him to the virtues of chastity, poverty and obedience.
To determine his new name, Desme submitted three choices from which St. Michael's abbot and spiritual leader, the Rt. Rev. Eugene J. Hayes, would choose. Desme liked Paul, Louis and Moses. None sounded right. Neither did Desme's second round of choices. On his vestition day, he knelt before the Father Abbot Eugene, who handed him a copy of the rule of St. Augustine.
"And in our order," he said, "you will be called Matthew."
Sometime after the ceremony, Frater Matthew Desme approached Father Abbot Eugene. For the rest of his life, people would call him Matthew. He wanted to know why.
"He said it struck him because [Saint Matthew] was a rich tax collector," Frater Matthew says, "and I was a rich baseball player."
On the afternoon Grant Desme retired from baseball, he was at peace. The world in which he had immersed himself was shocked and dumbfounded, of course, that a strapping 23-year-old center fielder with power, speed, smarts and just about everything baseball teams want in a player would quit. Sports is a place of great myopia, insular thinking and exaggerated accomplishment that conflates excellence and holiness. In baseball, God is the home run. And Desme knew that God well.
He hit 31 of them during the minor league season and another 11 in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, where he won the Most Valuable Player award in November 2009. He emerged as the talk of the league, and the team that drafted him in the second round and signed him for $430,000, the Oakland Athletics, started dreaming on Desme's future.
"He was going to be a major leaguer, absolutely," A's general manager Billy Beane says. "He looked like he'd gotten over that hump. And he could've been a lot more. A great talent."
People in the game scrambled to understand why Desme would give up the riches and the platform baseball affords to spread the word of God. The decision wasn't met with derision as much as wonderment. Athletes leave when their talents or bodies or something tangible betrays them. Desme left ascendant.
"I had everything I wanted," he says, "and it wasn't enough."
He had tried to convince himself it was. He spent his whole life idealizing and idolizing baseball. And now he was willing to leave it. The cell phone, the laptop, the car – the material things, he figured, would be easy. The trouble in the coming years – two as a novice, eight more until his ordination and the rest of his life as a priest – would concern what he gave up and whether he made the right choice.
He first told his parents, Greg and Janis. They knew Grant had spent time meeting priests, with whom he discussed fulfillment and peace, those symbiotic virtues, and how he felt neither. Greg and Janis figured his burgeoning career would overwhelm any calling. They were wrong. And proud. Though they thought it fair to ask why. Why now?
"Grant's personality has a tendency to jump first and think about things later," Greg says. "You don't want to look back and say, 'What if I would've stayed?' You don't want those questions. And when I said that, he got mad."
Nobody knew that Grant Desme had spent two years' worth of nights trying to resolve those what-if questions. And that no matter how much he tried, there was one he still couldn't answer.
About 25 miles southeast of Angels Stadium, where the Oakland A's are in Anaheim taking on the Los Angeles Angels, sits St. Michael's Abbey, a gorgeous, verdant midcentury time capsule set on the edge of Limestone Canyon Regional Park. This is where Frater Matthew lives. This is where he plans on spending the rest of his life.
He wakes up every day at 5 a.m. to prepare for Matins and Lauds, the first of 10 daily scheduled prayers. In between those and Mass at 7 a.m., he and the rest of the priests and seminarians observe magnum silencium – the Great Silence. It is a staple of monastic life and continues during breakfast and lunch.
The marriage of seminary and monastery is a tradition espoused by Saint Norbert, who believed the rigors of priesthood demand the sort of monastic life in which brothers – or fraters, in Latin – support brothers. Desme sought this sort of structure. He had spent his adult life in the baseball brotherhood. It was familiar and comfortable.
The Norbertines of St. Michael's are a group with an especially rich history. Seven monks escaped arrest July 11, 1950, by communist officials in Csorna, Hungary, intent on shutting down their abbey. They avoided land mines and crossed a river to seek refuge in Austria before moving to the United States, where they worked for almost a decade before saving up enough money to buy the 34-acre parcel of land in a then-uninhabited section of Orange County.
St. Michael's celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, with Father Gerlac Andrew Horvath, 91, the lone remaining founding father. He has helped oversee great growth, with 52 priests and 24 seminarians, a renowned Catholic high school and two acclaimed albums of Gregorian chant. Frater Matthew spent the last two years trying to learn how to sing during morning choir practice. Suffice to say, he will not appear on any new album.
Between prayers in the afternoon, Frater Matthew and the novitiate work for three hours – cleaning, dusting, digging trenches, mopping, mowing lawns. The optional recreation from 6:30 to 7 p.m. usually consists of listening to others play piano and sing. He heads to bed around 9 p.m. in the cloister of cells he and the other fraters share. Each lives in a small room with a twin-sized bed, desk, chair, closet, dresser, nightstand and sink. None has personal effects. The novices change rooms every four months.
The closest Frater Matthew comes to leisure as he knew it outside St. Michael's is the occasional movie. One night this year he walked into the room and experienced a flashback. The movie of the night was "Moneyball."
Even those who knew him best never thought Grant Desme would give up baseball. At 4 years old, he declared he was going to be a ballplayer. Soon, that boast evolved into a Hall of Famer. And when Greg tried to temper expectations, Grant, with the conviction of a first-born, would say: "Dad, don't worry about it. It's going to work out."
He was right. Desme's grandfather, Vince Gallagy, was a former minor leaguer who passed along the genetics as well as the baseball bug. Nothing could break Desme's monotheism: He worshipped baseball, taking a break only Sunday morning when he joined his family at Mass. School in Bakersfield, Calif., never really mattered. He was going to play ball.
When Desme hit for the cycle in front of Tony Gwynn, San Diego State recruited him as an infielder. The fit wasn't right – Desme was a sweet soul and missed his girlfriend – so he moved back north to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, switched to outfield and by his junior season was featured on the school's pocket schedule. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, his right-handed power came easily, his speed naturally and his potential abundantly. Desme was a rarity: a raw college player. He struck out way too much and then hit home runs so long scouts forgot about the strikeouts.
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In 2007, he led the Big West conference in batting average and home runs, his apex coming May 12, when he went 5-for-5 with two walks, three doubles and a game-winning home run in the 12th inning. The next day a fastball from UC-Davis pitcher Bryan Evans clipped Desme's left wrist and broke a bone. It was supposed to sideline him for a month, six weeks tops. The A's took Desme with the 74th overall pick anyway.
The wrist injury lingered and limited Desme to 12 games his first minor league season. After separating his shoulder, he mustered three at-bats during his second season. At the beginning of the 2009 season, Desme would be 23 and have fewer than 50 professional at-bats to his name. The rehab frustrated him. The unfairness flummoxed him. He would confide his frustration in priests and began to understand his emptiness dated back to long before his injuries. He started reading more scripture. All those years, he played baseball, nurturing only a cursory interest in other things. Now, something out of his control stole baseball from him, and instead of wondering why, Desme began to question baseball itself.
"I started thinking, 'What's this all about?' " he says. "I put so much into it. That was the big wake-up call. I was angry. I put everything I possibly could into this game, and it could be taken away from me in a moment without any fault of my own."
Before the 2009 season, Desme started visiting orders around Southern California, looking for a proper fit. One priest suggested St. Michael's. It felt right. Just not yet.
To make sure, Desme needed to play baseball again. He gave himself a year. If it improved – if the fulfillment arrived – perhaps the priesthood could wait. He was healthy finally, after all, and teammates noticed. They marveled at his strict diet, his stringent workout habits, his attentiveness to detail and his power. Desme had a brutal hitch in his swing, a hip slide that threw off his mechanics and forced him to tap his foot twice to stay balanced. When he didn't, he swung and missed at everything. When he did, balls went 500 feet.
"People throw the five-tool-player label around," says Sean Doolittle, the A's reliever and a onetime roommate of Desme's. "He had a legitimate chance to develop into a guy who could flash all five. And he was still a little bit raw. But his willingness to work, and his attitude about getting better, he was going to continue to get better. It would've been only a matter of time."
The home runs flew, and so did Desme on the basepaths: Between stops with Low-A Kane County and High-A Stockton, he added 40 stolen bases to his 31 homers and became one of the only minor leaguers in history to reach the 30-homer, 40-steal benchmark in the same season. His defense, maligned in college by his best friend, Logan Schafer, improved to the point scouts believed he could stick in center field.
There was one problem: Nothing changed inside. All the success he craved left him numb. Desme would sit on the bench and talk with his teammates about God. He and Steve Kleen, a non-denominational Christian, engaged in deep philosophical debates long into the night. Desme wouldn't proselytize, either; he was just there to talk, a father as much as a Father. And the more he thought about it, the more something occurred to him:
"I'm getting more enjoyment out of this than hitting the home run I did the other inning."
The 34 parishioners at St. Michael's arrive early on a Thursday morning – businesspeople on their way to work, widowers still mourning, mothers with young children, many of them regulars. Every morning at 7, they wind up the hill and peel through the abbey's one-lane road, usually too bleary-eyed to notice the foliage tended to by the Rev. Ambrose Criste: the purples and pinks and whites and reds and yellows and oranges of the flowers, the splendor of Italian cypresses trying to tickle the sky, the ivy on the walls of old buildings, the babbling brook hard by palm trees. Off in the distance, out on a bluff, is a single tree, as if to remind them they are always surrounded by one.
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The doors to the Mass open early and welcome all. The church is sparse but for the stained glass that adorns it, tall, impossibly bright planks with faces and shields and words. One shield says: Succissa virescit – "Cut down it will live again." Another: "Looking ahead from the vantage point of tradition." An organ plays. People drop to their knees. The men of St. Michael's chant.
The Rev. Gabriel Stack leads the Mass in Latin, though he delivers his homily in English. He talks about Michael Phelps and a man named Brad Snyder. Phelps overcame injuries and adversities, he says, and became the most decorated American Olympian. Snyder was a bomb specialist in Afghanistan blinded by an IED who, less than a year later, won gold swimming in the London Paralympics. "Athletics," Father Gabriel says, "are a powerful metaphor for the many areas of life in which God has arranged challenges for us."
Off to the side of the altar, as his brothers stare at Father Gabriel, Frater Matthew bows his head.
Before the 2009 Arizona Fall League began, Grant Desme invited his parents to Phoenix to watch him play. Greg, a mortgage broker, was struggling amid the collapse of the Central California housing market. He and Janis weren't sure how long they would visit until Desme told them this may be the last time they see him play for a while. They came for a week.
He was playing against the best of the best in the minor leagues. Stephen Strasburg was his teammate with the Phoenix Desert Dogs. Desme faced Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Starlin Castro, Freddie Freeman, Matt Harrison, Craig Kimbrel, all future stars. For two weeks, none was as good as Grant Desme. Nobody on the planet was.
Desme went on a run still legendary among baseball personnel. The AFL is a hitters' league, certainly, but Desme's 10 home runs in 10 games burned scouts' thesauruses. They couldn't come up with a word for what he was doing.
"In the morning we'd look at our instructional league kids, and normally you want to go home and take it easy for a few hours," says Keith Lieppman, the A's longtime farm director. "But once he got going, we'd pull double duty to watch him play. Nobody wanted to miss it.
"I wouldn't say it was going to be like Mike Trout, but you saw speed, you saw power and you saw the ability to play defense. He opened a whole lot of eyes."
Much of the skepticism about Desme subsided. The A's were always higher on him than most. He was their center fielder of the future. Some wondered why. The age, the injuries, the strikeouts – not the best combination. And yet here he was, surrounded by more than 75 future major leaguers, playing like some immortal.
"This game is not that easy," he says. "It was nuts. It was 10 games of just – I couldn't do anything wrong. I remember that at-bat where it stopped. I stepped in the box at Mesa. First at-bat. I knew it was gone. It's just a feeling. That's why, in hindsight, I know it was God working.
"That was a special grace. That's what I had yearned for. There's nothing better I could've done that season. That was a big sign for me. OK. What's going on here? I should be happy about this. But I wasn't. There was something more. God was just tugging at my heart. That's what religious life is. God calls us."
When Desme returned to Bakersfield with his MVP award, he called St. Michael's. He wanted to live like a monk for a week, to see if he felt what baseball no longer provided.
He believed in the Catholic Church, in its virtues and its mission. He couldn't explain away the child-molestation scandals that devastated the church's reputation, and that of the Norbertines, who for decades declined to report serial abuser Brendan Smyth, the most notorious pedophile in Ireland. He recognized that as the country's opinion on homosexuality and gay marriage evolved, the church would be prone to criticism about an unwillingness to adapt. He would need to own religion when so much of the world snarked at it. The Catholic Church in which Grant Desme believes stands for good. God needs priests to resurrect the church's standing and lead people to heaven, to counsel the troubled and bring peace to the sick, to understand the supernatural for those who can't.
It was easy to look at Grant Desme and think he was crazy, for leaving behind the sport, the riches, the lifestyle, the family, the wife, the kids, the spoils of the bubble in which athletes live, giving that up for the same day, every day, forever. He needed to trust. God hadn't spoken to him, not one-on-one. He doesn't call like that. It's more an emptiness that only something bigger can fulfill, even if that something still has questions.
Baseball wasn't big enough. St. Michael's was.
The first phone call went to Billy Beane. It was less than a month before Grant Desme needed to report to spring training, and he was about to call one of the most powerful men in the game to which he dedicated his life – the person Brad Pitt would portray in the "Moneyball" movie – and tell him he was quitting to spend the next decade becoming a priest.
And it was then he knew this was the right choice.
Because he wasn't nervous. No jitters, no anxiety. Just 10 digits to freedom. Desme felt a little on the defensive when explaining it to his parents. When he got a call from his friend Logan Schafer, now a rookie outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers, Desme danced around the subject, fearful of the reaction from someone inside the baseball world. Top 100 prospects don't leave the game. Arizona Fall League MVPs go to cathedrals like Yankee Stadium, not St. Michael's Abbey.
"At first, I didn't really know what to say," Schafer says. "Then I realized it's a simple answer. It's how he explained it to me. He knew he had a career in baseball. But his love for God took over his love for baseball. He loved baseball so much, but he realized there was something greater in life that he had to do. This calling wasn't a one-time thing.
"For those of us who haven't had that call or that overwhelming need to do something, we can't understand. He's turning into the most selfless human I know. It's humbling to see. He made a decision as a human being, not a baseball player."
Beane, too, was thrilled for him. Taken aback, certainly. "I grew up in a Catholic family, so what he was pursuing wasn't completely foreign to me," Beane says. "I spent half the conversation congratulating him."
The closest thing he'd seen to this was when John Frank, the former 49ers tight end, retired after five seasons to pursue a medical degree. Or perhaps Pat Tillman leaving the NFL to join the U.S. Army. The players who called Beane were usually minor leaguers tired of the bus trips and worn down by the reality that so few do make the majors, that once ballplayers reach a certain age they're typecast as minor league lifers. Players with Desme's talent and future don't quit. They just don't.
"As I've told people, it's not something you try to talk him out of," Beane says. "At that point, it would be for your own selfish purposes."
Beane didn't tell him that he would have come to major league camp for the first time and start the season in Double-A, maybe Triple-A with a big spring, that he was going to be a major leaguer at some point or another in 2010 and beyond. He said, very simply, "I look forward to hearing your first homily." And that was the last they spoke.
Desme hung around Bakersfield for most of the next seven months. He took some Latin classes and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for 10 days. He met some old Stockton teammates at the ballpark in Bakersfield. He packed in everything he could. Outside of hand-written letters, novices at St. Michael's have next to no contact with the outside world for two years. So he tried his best to say goodbye to his family and friends, knowing full well some of those relationships would die with the man who was Grant Desme.
Two years here have scrubbed the last vestiges of elite athlete from Frater Matthew. He has lost weight, 20 pounds, maybe more. He swapped his contact lenses for rectangular glasses because contacts dry out during prayer. His protein comes from instant eggs donated by local grocery stores, not the shakes he guzzled to sustain muscle. He pretty much looks like a priest: a little bit of nerd and a lot of wisdom, quick with a kind word and even quicker to glorify God.
Everything in his life filters though that lens. Grant Desme never had a job. He was busy playing baseball. Frater Matthew learned the frustration of dusting and the monotony of cutting grass. He does it anyway because work at the abbey glorifies God. He sits silent during meals because it is powerful and peaceful, an act of denial that God rewards.
This is not rationalization. This is his choice, his belief. This sustains him.
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"There's a lot of times where I'd like to make a phone call or go out and get some pizza or go hang out with some friends or something," Frater Matthew says. "That sort of stuff is all the time. And that's where you have to choose to be here rather than go through the motions. It's easy in this life to live in your imagination. You can run from things in many different ways. Where those opportunities come up, that's really where living this life to the fullest comes."
This is part of Frater Matthew's discernment – that which he must know is true because God says it is, and because the entire foundation of the order, of religion, really, is based on this deepest of faith. It's the sort of faith that forces him to answer his alarm clock at 5 a.m. every day, to pray in the church 10 times daily and spend most of his downtime buried in scripture, trying to learn how to live for God, something as confusing as it can be edifying.
"There's times when you don't want to go pray," Frater Matthew says. "We're all messed up inside. Things that we should do and are good for us we don't want to do, and things that are bad for us we like doing. I eat way too many sweets. I have a sweet tooth. I know it's not good for me, but I like them. It's not rational. Prayer is the best thing for our souls, but oftentimes I don't feel like praying. Just like a father loves his child, but when he gets up in the middle of the night, he doesn't feel like helping him. Only he does because it's the right thing to do. That's love. Love's not a feeling. It's a choice."
This is a test. This whole life is a test. Look at what he gave up, the cynics say. To which Frater Matthew says, but look at what I received.
"It's a miracle in a way," he says. "It's so abnormal to give something up that you've been working for your whole life, that millions of kids growing up around the country would want. To walk away from it, it's like, 'What's going on?' It's the working of God's grace and love. That's the only way it happens. I thought about it afterward. There are tons of minor league players, big leaguers, who get hurt. None of them reacted this way. For whatever reason, God chose me."
After home games in Stockton, Grant Desme and Steve Kleen would leave Banner Island Ballpark, zip about 10 minutes up Pacific Avenue and park at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse, which offered pizzas half off after 10 p.m. More than once, the manager had to interrupt their conversation and kick them out at 2 a.m. because the place was closing.
Kleen never met a ballplayer quite like Desme, someone so open with his beliefs and willing to accept others'. Kleen was 26 years old, a four-year player at Pepperdine coming off a missed 2008 with a torn labrum in his shoulder, holding onto the same thing every other 26-year-old at Low-A does: faith. He made the Midwest League All-Star team as a first baseman. He and Desme were promoted to Stockton at the same time. They roomed together on the road and shared dreams and hopes and frustrations.
One of Kleen's was the fear that he wouldn't make it, that he was stuck because of circumstances or politics or maybe talent – that if he got the chance, the sort that a higher-round draft pick or someone younger might get, he would get to Oakland. In Grant Desme, he saw a friend with the talent and the pedigree and the reputation to soar. That was how baseball worked.
And through that prism it's obvious that not everyone was like Billy Beane or Logan Schafer, not like Tyson Ross or Jemile Weeks, former teammates whose memories of Desme grew fonder with his choice. They all made it. They all wore major league uniforms. They savored what they were given.
The A's promoted Steve Kleen to Double-A the next season. He hit .197 in 132 at-bats. They released him midseason. He now sells homes in Santa Barbara.
"I do have mixed feelings," Kleen says. "I know who Grant is. I know he's going to do amazing things for God. God is going to use him powerfully. That has eternal value. I can understand – to him that's more important than any accolade on the field. At the same time, when you're so close, and so gifted, with a God-given gift, that has to play a factor into the process. That's why they're mixed.
"He threw away what so many of us wish we had."
To better understand why Grant Desme threw away his baseball career, perhaps it's best to step away from the diamond and into academia, where a man named Gregory Criste wanted nothing more than to become a Rhodes Scholar. He distinguished himself in essays, played classical piano, worked lead roles in theater productions, step-danced, studied abroad, mastered foreign languages and aspired to teach. And when in 1998 he won the Rhodes Scholarship to study patristics – some of the earliest Christian writings – he went to Oxford expecting a satisfaction that never came.
"It's sort of like the terrible curse of success," says Criste, now known as Father Ambrose and the novice master for Frater Matthew and the other seminarians at St. Michael's. "I thought, 'Well, OK, I've got what I'm dreaming about. I'm still miserable. My heart is restless. So what does that mean?' That restless heart – I had to tend to it in a way that before was about attaining something like the Rhodes Scholarship. When there's still a restless heart, that requires a much more supernatural explanation.
"That's how God speaks to young men and women in our culture: when the world and what it has to offer will never be enough. Young people want to be heroic. They want to do great things. Not just what the world tells them will be great."
The world relishes its Rhodes Scholars and deifies its athletes. And it's Father Ambrose's duty, no matter the confreres' background, to help them understand that they do what really is great, what really can help the world, even if it's a cynical place that can't fathom how. There is power and peace in their lifestyle greater than what any of the brothers understood outside it.
"The human heart yearns for the infinite," Frater Matthew says. "It's why things are not always fulfilling. We always need more. Every experience is good, and then when we get used to it, it's not good enough. We want something more intense, more fulfilling."
Every day, in tiny fragments, he sees that as his truth. Every day he prays the question he couldn't answer becomes a little clearer.
Once a month, Greg and Janis Desme leave Bakersfield a little before 8 a.m. to make the 11 o'clock Mass at St. Michael's. When the service finishes around 1 p.m., Frater Matthew is allowed to accompany his parents into town for lunch. He must return by 4:45 p.m. There is only so much they glean from those precious hours and the hand-written letters he sends. The Desmes wouldn't experience the real Frater Matthew until last month.
A look at 10 notable position players Grant Desme played with – and outshined – in the 2009 Arizona Fall League:
|Buster Posey, Giants|
|Jason Heyward, Braves|
|Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins|
|Freddie Freeman, Braves|
|Starlin Castro, Cubs|
|Jose Tabata, Pirates|
|Ike Davis, Mets|
|Danny Espinosa, Nats|
|Domonic Brown, Phillies|
|Mike Moustakas, Royals|
Having completed his novice training, he was allowed to go home for two weeks in late August. Frater Matthew didn't entirely abandon his lifestyle. He went to Mass daily. He said his prayers at the appropriate times. He studied scripture. He did allow himself the occasional vice. He watched Schafer slap his first hit of the season. He also surfed the Internet – some of his forsaken possessions are still at his parents' house – looking for old churches in San Francisco, where they were going for a short vacation.
Greg is a huge Giants fan, and he wondered if Frater Matthew wanted to go to a game. Of course, his son said. They arrived Friday and headed to AT&T Park for Tim Lincecum vs. Josh Beckett. Frater Matthew wore his habit.
"Lincecum didn't look like he had his stuff," Frater Matthew says, one of the few pieces of baseball wisdom he picked up during his time at home. The A's were good again, and there was a second wild card, and the Brewers were hot, and that's about all he bothered to learn. He was too occupied meeting people.
Back in Bakersfield, he went to a new homeless shelter, introduced himself to the men and asked for their stories. One man talked about how he spent 15 years in and out of prisons and needed Jesus. Frater Matthew listened and said he would pray for the man, who thanked him.
When he returned to St. Michael's, Frater Matthew wrote a letter thanking his parents for their love and hospitality. Even though they went to San Francisco hopeful it would start a tradition – that a fun trip would accompany each of his future home visits – he couldn't stop thinking of the homeless men. They were real people with real struggles, in need of help and counsel, and he wanted to be their conduit to God's healing.
"It still makes me so proud," Greg says, "that he would give it all up."
He stops. His voice cracks.
"But in turn," his dad says, "he'll get everything. It's amazing. He wasn't concerned with anything aside from baseball. When he came home, we were standing around in our front yard. There's a rose bush. He must not have noticed it, because he looks at me and says, 'Look at this rose bush.' "
And right then, Greg Desme's son leaned over to literally stop and smell the roses.
"The question for me wasn't giving up baseball," Frater Matthew says. "It never was that."
He leans forward and starts to tell a story about a girl.
"She was pretty much everything I ever thought I wanted," he says. "I had to make a choice. That was the person I had imagined myself marrying."
He met her during his discernment, when he struggled to understand why God called him now. He wanted a sign. She was it.
"I really wanted to be married," he says. "To come to terms with living a celibate life was where it really was like, 'OK, do I want to do this?' And I needed to realize it's not a repression of these natural desires that are good. We have to learn to sublimate them into God on a supernatural level. We give them to God."
This is his battle. Marriage is a gift he desires and cannot allow himself. Parenthood is a privilege he relishes and cannot consider. He must be a father in spirit only – to people who need to understand their own faith, like Steve Kleen, and to men in need of guidance, like the ones in Bakersfield, and to his fraters, his brothers, to whom he is bound, and to the many he has not yet seen but will as he grows in soul and sanctity. This must be enough.
"Something like that never goes away," Father Ambrose says. "But that's true for all of us. A good priest is a man who can see himself as a father of a family and in some ways still wants that."
On the night Grant Desme broke up with the perfect girl, he wasn't at peace. And he may never be.
On Aug. 27, Frater Matthew once again professed his vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. His parents, younger brother Jake, younger sister Katie, and his 86-year-old grandmother, Louise Callagy, attended the ceremony that bound him to St. Michael's Abbey, the Norbertine Order, his five fraters who remained from the original group of eight and God.
About 30 percent of seminarians at St. Michael's are ordained as priests. The ultimate life tests and challenges and confounds and whittles away the majority of those who try to lead it. Toward the end of June, the seminarians needed to express their intent to progress from novice to junior professed – to take the philosophy and theology classes, to learn Latin and Greek, to move closer to God and further from temptation.
"Frater Matthew was still a little ambivalent," Father Ambrose says. "They have to be willing to profess a vow and able to keep it. It's very analogous to marriage. When you profess your marriage vows, you're doing the best you can. And that's going to take a couple decades to deepen."
Father Ambrose suggested he spend extra time in his cell praying. The loneliness of baseball – one man standing inside a rectangular box, his mind racing, his adrenal glands churning, him and another man 60 feet, 6 inches away, nothing but muscle memory to save him from embarrassment – prepared him for these moments of solitude. He found himself there all those late nights after ballgames, just thinking about life without the one thing to which he dedicated his life. He didn't have a degree, didn't get good grades, didn't do anything to distinguish himself off the baseball field. This was his life. It had to be.
"It's up to God," Frater Matthew says. "If God doesn't want me to be a priest, I don't want to be a priest. We have to live it one day at a time."
Even 2 ½ years after he left baseball, he still can't rid himself of the platitudes.
"It is a cliché, but the more I live this life, it's the crux of it all," he says. "Living in the present moment. The future isn't ours. The past is done. It's all right now. Every day you have to get up and choose to be here."
So at 5 a.m. today and tomorrow and every day until God tells him otherwise, Frater Matthew Desme will open his eyes and prepare for Matins and Lauds. And once he steps into the church with his brothers, he'll close them once more and pray that the God for whom he gave up everything helps him find the answers his other life couldn't.
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