Exactly where he should be
“I thought that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard of,” Clark remembers saying. “I wanted to go to medical school and get married,” then maybe practice medicine in St. Louis, where he was in college, or back in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Today, some 15 years later, Clark lives at a Coventual Franciscan friary in San Antonio, Texas, a place that was never on his radar but where he is now content, living with three other men in a simple two-story building with a balcony where he sits outside to pray. He works as an emergency room nurse—a job that puts him face-to-face with families in crisis. And he says God led him to exactly the right kind of life: to a career in medicine, where he has long felt called to work, and with the time he needs to be centered in daily prayer, worship, and community.
“Everything I was looking for in life I’ve found with the friars,” Clark says, with as much certainty now as when he thought the idea was dumb. “I was looking for an intellectually challenging and stimulating career; I was looking for a deep and rich sense of God and of Christ. I was looking for what it really meant to be human. The friars [members of Franciscan men’s communities call themselves friars] helped me shave away a lot of appreciation of commercialism and materialism, which helped me find what it is to be human. I find that most clearly in the relationship I have with Christ and the relationships I have with close friends.”
But Paul Clark also appreciates that the path he took to the friary wasn’t direct: a religious vocation wasn’t something he’d ever considered, and even when the idea first started nagging at him, the friars gave him support, but also plenty of space and time in which to think.
At 37, he’s one of the younger friars—and he also works in Texas as an associate formation director for his community, helping others to discern whether religious life is right for them. Clark “had some twists and turns at times in his path,” says Jim Kent, a vocation director for the order. “He was open to allowing himself to go where he was called . . . . We tell people formation has all sorts of phases and shapes. It allows people to discern, ‘Is this my call? Should I go on to the next step?’ ”
Falling into place
Clark grew up in Louisville, the oldest of three brothers. He attended St. Pius X school and went to Mass every Sunday—he considered it a joy, not an obligation.
At St. Pius, Clark played baseball and basketball, and took up football in eighth grade. “I was always leader of the second half of the team”—the B team leader, he says, laughing. He attended Catholic high school, dreaming of medical school in the future. And through all those years, Clark was active with the Boy Scouts, eventually earning Eagle Scout rank, Scouting’s highest honor.
He also never gave up on Mass. “I didn’t feel like ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to go.’ I wanted to go to Sunday Mass,” Clark says. He especially liked a Sunday evening service at a parish about six miles from home. He’d ride his bike over and feel a sense of welcome as he came in to a Mass that “wasn’t the traditional Sunday morning, singing the same old thing” but a celebration of praise and thanksgiving with a sense of connectedness, “a community social event that had God at the center of it.” It was, in some ways, a little of the kind of community he’s found with the friars now. He’d worship, feel immersed in the presence of God, then get back on his bike and ride home.
After graduating from high school, Clark turned down a full scholarship to the University of Louisville in order to take a smaller scholarship at the Jesuit-run St. Louis University. It was a chance to see where life might lead in a brand-new place.
Clark found St. Louis both awesome and, academically, the “biggest butt-whupping I’d ever taken.” One of the first people he met at school was Mario Ross, a Franciscan friar who was then the campus minister of his dorm and who got Clark involved with retreats and with Tuesday night Mass at the dorm.
During the winter of his junior year, Ross made Clark an offer. The friars needed some students to stay at the friary in the summer, when many of them would be gone. It was a big building in a not-so-great neighborhood, and they wanted some guys to mow the lawn and keep an eye on things. At first, Clark thought it would be impossible—he needed to make money for school, and he had a summer job lined up back in Louisville already where he could borrow his parents’ car.
But then things started falling into place—and Clark now sees God’s hand at work in what happened. He found an inexpensive car, a little red Volkswagen Rabbit. And he landed a good-paying job at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis, working in the emergency room, drawing blood, meeting the helicopter ambulance when it landed. St. John’s was a level one trauma center, so “there was a lot of action” and “we saw lots of unbelievable trauma,” Clark says.
And during those hot summer nights, he got to know the friars. He had imagined the friary being simply a rent-free place to live, albeit sedate, but “they were a blast. They laughed a lot; they were intelligent, educated people. They were interested in things. They read . . . spiritual stuff, they read Newsweek, they read the local paper, they talked about current events. They were good pray-ers . . . . They did liturgy very well,” and “no one acted as if they had to be there. That made a big impression.”
The summer after he graduated with a degree in biology, Clark lived at the friary again. One night, he sat on the porch with some of the other men, drinking Hurricanes (a rum and fruit-punch drink), talking about the world. He remembers thinking, “I can’t believe these guys are so cool. They aren’t curmudgeonly, stuck in the mud” but fully engaged with life and their faith. He thought to himself: “I would love to grow old like that.”
Not long after, however, Clark moved back to Louisville, still intrigued with medical school. He immersed himself in science classes to get the grades and prerequisites he needed. He made straight As. He also spent a lot of time that year alone, studying and praying, reading his way straight through the New Testament, trying to figure out what God wanted him to do.
A life of opportunity
One August day a friar who hated the heat drove all the way in a van without air conditioning to bring Clark some things he’d left in St. Louis. And when Clark went to pick up his things, the friar invited Clark to stay for lunch with the order’s vocation director in the area, David Lenz. “I thought, great, this was a setup,” Clark recalls. But Lenz was low-key, just saying when he left, “It’s really nice to meet you, take care”—not even a whisper of a hard-sell.
That got Clark’s attention, and over the next few months he went several times to talk with Lenz. “I expressed to him about 50 times I was very interested in going to medical school and getting married,” Clark says. But Lenz, in an interview, says he told Clark he didn’t have to choose between the friars and medical school: “You could do both.” Lenz says he presented the Franciscans, who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as offering “a life of opportunity . . . a way to let go of many of the things that hold us down. The vowed life gives us a lot of freedom.”
After more thought, Clark decided to become a candidate: to give the friars a try. At first, his parents were surprised and not too happy. They wanted him to have a family and become a doctor; they worried that being a priest could be a difficult life. But Clark told them that “everybody goes through some tough times,” whether married or in a religious vocation. Since then, his family has been very supportive, and Clark says his life as a brother has been rich with connections and not lonely at all, although occasionally he misses the idea of having a life partner.
“There are lonely moments, but it’s not a lonely life,” Clark says. “My married friends say marriage gets lonely sometimes. I don’t think I have a corner on the market. And in those moments of loneliness, I actually feel closer to God. For me it’s not easy to feel lonely, but the payoff is it seems to strengthen my relationship to God.”
As he struggled with the decision of whether to go to medical school or choose a religious vocation, Clark also wrestled with whether to become a priest. He took the necessary theological training, but remembers with painful specificity floundering in a class called Sacraments of Initiation, studying baptism and confirmation. He couldn’t connect with the material.
Finally, in trying to decide whether to make solemn vows, Clark raised the issue of whether he had to become ordained—whether he had to be a priest. One of the friars told him, “Discern whether you want to be a friar and spend your life with us.” That once he knew that, he could decide whether to be a priest or brother. When the idea of permanently joining was put that way, Clark says, “I couldn’t think of a single reason not to. It seemed like a very challenging and joyous way of living.”
Grounded in prayer
He decided to become a brother, not a priest, and a nurse rather than a doctor. He knew of a friar who was a physician, from a different order, “and he was so heavily involved as a doctor he didn’t have a chance to pray,” Clark says. “For me, one of the blessings of Franciscan life is the prayer we do. It nails me into the earth to have morning prayer and evening prayer,” to run several miles before work in the mornings, to gather for meals with the brothers each day. Clark says he didn’t want a career so demanding that “I didn’t know if I’d have time for the family.”
Scott McConnaha, a writer and editor in St. Louis, also was a candidate to become a friar and became Clark’s friend, but he left the order, married, and now has four children. McConnaha thinks, however, that Clark made what is for him the right choice, where he can pursue both his calling to a career in medicine and his love for the Franciscan tradition.
“You can’t deny what you’ve always longed to be,” McConnaha says. In his work as a nurse, continues McConnaha, Clark knows that “he’s doing good for others, he’s serving people.” In the franticness of the emergency room, Clark brings compassion and an ability, grounded in prayer, to be attentive and present. And after an exhausting, 12-hour shift at work, “he knows in the back of his mind that he’s got the friary to go back to, he’s got the silence of the chapel, a kind of a refuge,” McConnaha says.
One day recently, after a particularly hectic day of work and errands, Clark says he came home feeling that “I needed to go back to where it’s just God and me.” He sat on a chair in the sun on the balcony, praying over and over: “God, I need you.” He prayed for an hour, and a friend from work said later that he’d been trying to reach Clark that afternoon, asking, “Where were you?” The friend was amazed to hear that someone could actually spend an hour in prayer. “A whole hour?” he asked incredulously. But Clark explained that he finds focused, daily prayer to be humbling and necessary, clearing his head bringing him back to the center.
When he works in the emergency room, Clark doesn’t introduce himself as “Brother Paul” or wear a cross. But there are times, he says, when his theological training, his faith, and his groundedness in prayer can be a help to families in crisis. Not long ago, a woman was brought in near death after suffering cardiac arrest, and her Catholic family was struggling with their imminent loss; only the machines were keeping her alive. Clark, whose shift was nearly over, got permission from his supervisor to tell them he was a friar. He sat with the family, prayed with them, and helped them come to peace with the idea of letting her go.
Clark says he told the family that “God values life, but there are times when you allow someone to have a natural death, if the body’s no longer holding itself up. It’s not a sinful thing, it’s a blessing to be able to say good-bye and let someone go.”
The family took a few days to reach a decision, and it wasn’t easy, Clark says. But the physician told him later that the family found peace, and, “I think you really helped.”
Hearing that made Clark even more sure he’s where God wants him to be: working in medicine, grounded in his faith, with the theological training to talk to people about God when they need it most. He didn’t expect to be a friar in Texas, but he wasn’t afraid to listen when he felt God calling his name. “None of this,” he says, “would be happening without God.” He’s still listening, still delighted by his life with the friars, still open to whatever might happen next.
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