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Religious Life

Called to a deeper faith

Special Report Writer

Tennessee is not crowded with priests and nuns so Robert Bathe did not grow up in their company. Bathe was already 20 and a student at the University of Knoxville when the Smokey Mountain Deanery became the Knoxville diocese in 1988.

As a junior at Sacred Heart High School in Knoxville, he was invited on a “Search” retreat, an event that he likened to the Cursillo movement. “Search” provides “fertile soil for the Lord to connect with young people,” he said.

The retreat director invited Bathe to be part of the retreat ministry team in his senior year. At the university he got involved in the Newman Club run by the Paulists at the John XXIII Catholic Center. At the 5:15 p.m. daily Mass, “I met a lot of people who’d been to Medjugorje and for whom the rosary was an important part of their spirituality.” Of the 10 or 11 in the group, four have entered religious life.

But Bathe preferred fishing and agronomy. He took a job as a county soil analyst in North Carolina. One day he arrived to evaluate a site for a potential homebuilder “30 miles from nowhere” in the Black Mountains around Ashville at an altitude of 3,000 feet. When the would-be builder, Robert Warren, saw Bathe’s truck he rolled down his window and beckoned him to come quickly. Warren asked Bathe if he would pray with him and then, clutching his hand, Warren suffered a massive heart attack.

Bathe could not recall praying in more than a year, but recited one Our Father after another as Warren died in his arms. “I had my phone with me. I dialed 911. At the same time I knew God was calling me to something,” he told NCR.

As Bathe bent over Warren, “I felt my heart break open in prayer. I sensed life entering into me. I felt incredible energy and trust,” he said. “I believe God moves gently in most people’s lives. With me he needed a hammer.”

Bathe descended the mountain to tell Warren’s wife and three children that Warren’s last words were words of love for them. He then decided to dedicate his vocation to Robert Warren, an Episcopalian, even though his vocation had yet to be revealed to him.

For years whenever he’d thought about religious life for himself, he puzzled: “Poverty? No girls?” He had dated in Knoxville and Ashville. He feared the priesthood “was just a bunch of homosexuals having sex,” he told participants at the National Religious Vocation Conference meeting.

Nevertheless, he began to write to monastic orders from Conyers, Ga., to Collegeville, Minn. Like Jesus choosing 12 to be apostles, Bathe selected a dozen houses and hermitages of Benedictines, Carmelites, Franciscans and Trappists.

Eleven orders responded with packets of information. The Carmelites sent their vocations director to his apartment and invited him to a retreat. “I thought that was so cool, someone wanting to see me where I lived.” Upon arriving at the retreat house in Williamstown, Mass., he told God: “If you want me to be a Carmelite, show me a deer.” Into the woods quickly strode God’s four-footed response.

Last year Bathe took final vows as a Carmelite brother. Now in his third year of study at the Washington Theological Union, he will be ordained a deacon next Jan. 6 and hopes to become a priest in 2003. He is among nine men living on the third floor of the Carmelite White Friars Hall in Washington. All but one is in his 30s. Below him live some of the order’s great scholars like Frs. Roland Murphy and Jack Welsh.

Bathe finds the academic environment hard at times and feels that everything is being scrutinized. In addition to his professors, Bathe meets with his spiritual director every three weeks, his formation director each month, with the supervisor of his ministry weekly and twice monthly with a group psychologist. “I’m always talking about me,” he laughed.

“I’m still up on a high. I love my vocation. Theology has called me into a deeper faith. It’s turned me upside down” -- especially scripture scholarship, he said. Bathe was dumbfounded to learn there were 20 virginal conception stories in Mesopotamia and two creation stories.

The mystified notion he once had of religious life has been replaced by the reality that “these are regular guys living in community. We’re all struggling, we’re making the effort to be the best we can be, we’re walking on this ground.”

In choosing the Carmelites, Bathe “went with the wisdom of 800 years” even though he had considered newer, more conservative congregations that appealed to his “Southern evangelical bent.” The “incarnational spirituality” of the Carmelites who try to see the face of God in all those they serve attracted Bathe, who wants to work in street ministry.

Currently he is part of the interfaith Exodus ministries working in the Langston Terrace projects of Northeast Washington. He loves to wear his habit on the street, in parks or public places. When asked: “Hey dude, what’s that?” about his brown Carmelite robes, he responds: “Me, I work for the Lord.”

The neighborhood -- whose most visible citizens are drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes -- has a strong sense of community. “But what unites them also divides them,” he said. Bathe credits his love for being on the street to his stepfather who “made me deliver food to the poor when I was in sixth grade.”

In January a woman pushing her mother in a wheelchair outside the National Shrine in Washington approached Bathe to ask what the engraving on the shrine meant that reads: “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.” The women were Romanian, and the mother had no English, but tears welled in her eyes when Bathe prayed over her.

“People don’t ask me for money. They ask me for prayer. I’m loved a lot on the street. It’s a call from God,” said Bathe, who believes that God is calling many his age and younger, “but many have not answered yet.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001