In the cathedral in Winona, Minn., Austin Kleman, 24, a tall and lanky cross-country runner and psychology major, sat in adoration. With his reliable journal in hand, he began to write: What do you want me to do with my life, Lord? The answer that came to him was: Jesuits. Austin laughed out loud. He wrote in reply: You’re funny, but I don’t know anything about them!
And then there was silence.
Austin grew up with a strong Catholic identity and served Mass since the third grade. He also witnessed his dad’s conversion from the Lutheran faith to Catholicism. As a teenager, Austin taught faith formation. After high school, Austin faced the dilemma every person does at that age—what do I want to do with my life? Austin considered becoming a psychologist or a teacher, but he explained that entering the diocesan seminary felt like the next step. “It seemed like an easy option because [my Faith] was so prevalent in my life, and people said I’d be good at it.
Following that initial desire, Austin attended seminary in Winona, Minn. and found happiness and joy as he found friends and began psychology and philosophy studies. It was at Winona that Austin had his first of many exposures to a religious order and the Christian Brothers. Shifting course, Austin soon chose to leave the seminary while still maintaining a prayer life and Sunday Mass. During this time of reflection, Austin was introduced to St. Teresa of Avila, developing a strong connection to the Carmelite’s spirituality and prayer life and reading all her books with vigor. He focused more on psychology and interned with the De La Salle Christian Brothers in Australia to practice counseling. He lived and worked with the brothers, experiencing meals, prayer, Mass and community life together. “This was where I felt a reawakening to wanting to do something in the Church again,” said Austin. So, he completed his internship in Australia and his senior year in the United States.
With his reliable journal in hand, he began to write: “What do you want me to do with my life, Lord?”
Again, he turned his thoughts to what his future might hold. “Every time I thought of the Carmelites, I heard this little voice saying, ‘I have something different for you,’ but I didn’t know much about other orders,” said Austin. He turned to his spiritual director and asked, “Should I return to a job in counseling and live and work in Australia? Should I attend grad school to earn a master’s degree in counseling? Should I return to seminary?” His director suggested he take those questions to the Lord in adoration, but Austin was convinced that it wouldn’t work, “It was too simplistic,” he said. His director answered, “What have you got to lose?” Immediately after this direction, Austin went to the cathedral and sat down before the Blessed Sacrament. With his reliable journal in hand, he began to write: What do you want me to do with my life, Lord?
The answer came. “Jesuits.”
“Within three days,” said Austin, “the Jesuits came up in conversation at least 15 times! Jesuits were mentioned in a homily; a friend gave me a book about the Jesuits because he knew I was discerning, but he didn’t know about my experience. Then my friends, sister and I attended the SEEK conference in Indianapolis.” At the conference, Austin noticed a table advertising the Jesuits, but he steered clear, convinced that he would be a Carmelite if he was called to the religious life. “I love Teresa of Avila; I want to be a Carmelite!” he repeated to himself. He ran to the Carmelite table and, once there, said, “Here’s my email. Get me on the list.” Even then, Austin kept hearing a voice say, “I’ve got something different for you.’” Shortly after leaving the Carmelite table, a friend grabbed Austin by the shirt and forcibly walked him to the Jesuits’ table. “I was so embarrassed, I mentally blacked out,” Austin shared sheepishly. “I don’t remember any interaction with [the Jesuits].” But somehow, the Jesuits had Austin’s email address and he began receiving emails from them.
Ss. Teresa and Ignatius
Still resisting the Jesuits and that path, Austin finished his college career and took a job at Dunkin. An entire year had passed, and again, Austin sat in a church in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, asking, “Lord, what should I do with my life?”
“I heard a voice that said, ‘Well, you still haven’t emailed the Jesuits back yet,” said Austin. After avoiding their emails for over 11 months, Austin thought contacting them at that point was hopeless. But again, a voice said, ‘What have you got to lose?’ Remembering his spiritual director’s similar words, Austin responded, “Touché.” So, he took out his phone and sent a short email explaining his desire to meet with someone from the Jesuit community to learn more. He received an email the same day that said Austin’s timing was providential because the next discernment event was the last one for the year. Austin met his first Jesuit Order member at the local Denny’s. “It turns out,” shared Austin with a smile, “my parents had their first date at a Denny’s.”
He was invited to attend a silent retreat in St. Paul to learn more and he eagerly attended. He recalls sitting in adoration on the last night and still contemplating if this was what God wanted him to do. “I had this internal dialogue with Teresa of Avila. She sat beside me, looked at me and said, ‘I want to introduce you to someone.’ And this weird guy comes and sits down next to me. I looked at him and asked, ‘Who are you?’ He just nodded and continued to stare up at the Eucharist. Then Avila said, ‘Well, we’ve had a great time together, but you’re in his house. You should meet him. I want to introduce you to Ignatius of Loyola.’”
In adoration with his journal, Austin’s habit is to shorten names. His affinity for his favorite saint is to refer to her as simply “Avila.” Continuing in this manner, he wrote: Avila just introduced me to Loyola. But Austin immediately heard a gruff voice say, ‘I don’t like that name.’
“So, I said ‘OK,’ and crossed it out in my journal. I rewrote: Ignatius,” Austin explains. “I went to my director the next morning, a Jesuit, and I told him about this thing that happened with the names. He started laughing and said, ‘Ignatius hated Loyola. He would never have wanted to be called Loyola!’” Believing that this was the answer to his prayers, Austin submitted his application to the Jesuit order.
Soon upon entering the order, every Jesuit must complete 30 days of the “Spiritual Exercises,” an Ignatian silent retreat. Austin brought along St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography on his retreat. He learned in the book that the Jesuits inspired her and that her spiritual director was a Jesuit. “After finishing the book, Avila looked at me and said, ‘This was what I had in store for you.’ And that,” said Austin, “was how I finished my exercises. That was the moment I knew this was the life I wanted.”
Austin lives and studies in the Bronx, N.Y., with a Jesuit pilot program for the Society of Jesus. “Ignatius’ principle is everything for the greater Glory of God,” Austin explains. “If you’re going to study, it should be for a purpose.” Austin now spends his time studying, working at a parish, practicing preaching, helping with summer camp and conducting home visits.
In religious life, the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity can deter young people from considering the vocation. Regarding obedience, Austin shared that he is involved in the decision-making process. “They don’t want you to be miserable, because everyone you serve will be miserable when you’re miserable.” And even though he doesn’t own anything, he is given spending money and a budget which, he pointed out, is similar to family life, where income and a budget also have limitations and must be maintained. And physical needs? “Physical intimacy is only one part of your relationship with your spouse,” Austin observed. “I still sometimes want a family or that physical intimacy, but just because I want it doesn’t mean I need it. I don’t need sugar, a Coke or a drink every time I want them. I accept this; it’s a blessing from the Lord to have these desires, these needs. I may be giving up physical intimacy with one person, but I’m receiving all this emotional intimacy with hundreds of people.
“People are focused on finding the perfect person, the perfect job, or the perfect group. You won’t find the perfect thing,” Austin reflected, “but have hope that if you keep trying, you’re going to find the stuff that does bring you hope and joy.”
To learn more about the Jesuits, visit www.jesuits.org.
Story by Marcy Stenstrom
Published in the September/October 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine