A Heart on Fire:
Bryan Paulsen, SJ
Had I wasted the last ten years?
I wondered, having spent the last decade of my life earning a bachelor’s degree and doctorate in engineering. Maybe “waste” was a strong word, but as I applied to enter the Jesuit novitiate, I had to come to terms with the fact that I could very well be giving up science and engineering for good. But if I took St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Suscipe—“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, All I have and call my own”—seriously, then entering the Jesuits would mean giving those years to God without expecting anything back in return.
I did not meet the Jesuits through traditional means. I had not attended a Jesuit high school or university, nor had I spent a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I was not even raised Catholic. The first Jesuits I met were fictional. They were characters in the works of Voltaire, Italo Calvino, and Thomas Mann. There was something that piqued my interest. Who were these Jesuits? So, I googled them. It started a chain reaction that led to community organizing through a local Jesuit parish, entering the Catholic Church, and volunteering at Cristo Rey Twin Cities.
What drove me down that path were simple questions such as: When am I closest to God? When do I feel most alive? When am I most authentically myself? Over time it became clear that the answers to these questions all pointed toward the Society of Jesus. So, I entered the novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota, walking away from a decade of studies, trusting the words of the prayer, “Everything is yours [God]; do with it what you will.”
The novitiate was a grace-filled experience that confirmed my vocation. After taking first vows, I was missioned for three years of philosophy studies in Chicago. It is typical for Jesuits in formation to be missioned to regency next. While my fellow vow classmates were missioned to serve at Jesuit high schools, the Indian Reservations, and even the refugee camps of South Sudan, I was sent back to the engineering laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University.
Returning to science and engineering was full of God’s grace. First, it was a miracle I even found a position, given the five-year hole in my resume. Second, I found the passion I had for research had only grown during Jesuit formation. But most importantly, I saw that there is a great need for cura personalis in the laboratory. It is a competitive, high-pressure environment with so much emphasis on attaining academic degrees, grant funding, journal articles, tenure, and so forth. Thus, it was a privilege to accompany my coworkers and the students I mentored, showing care and concern for them for no other reason than the fact they are loved children of God. With the onset of the pandemic, cura personalis became even more important.
But now regency has ended, and I find myself studying theology as I continue the path to ordination. After ordination I hope to return to science and engineering research as a priest-professor, but that will be up to God. I know wherever God calls me, I will be met with his grace, and there I will find his people who he loves.
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