My parents are from Cleveland, Ohio. That is where I was born in 1979, in Marymount Hospital, on a feast dedicated to Mary and a mountain: July 16. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. As if the date and the hospital’s name were not signs enough, God sent another. As my mother looked at my raisin face for the first time—both of us were wearing matching blue patient wrist bands—she wondered why God had sent her a third son, when he knew so well that she would have liked a girl. Suddenly she heard an answer within. It was a man’s voice: “Your child will become something only a man can be!” She paused and listened more attentively to the rhythmic beeping of the machines monitoring our vital signs.
“The president, maybe?”
“No, the president could be a woman,” replied the voice.
She thought, “A priest?”
The voice said, “Yes.”
And yet, she knew we were not even Catholic; so she did the only thing she could do: she treasured all these things in her heart.
Mom never told anyone: not even dad, not even me. After a while the world could not help but figure out—when we drove by in our blue Honda Civic—that I was special. Well hey, I was the third oldest of 14 kids! Of course, in the beginning, I was the youngest of three sitting in my little car seat, but over time, I became just one of the three older children on the bottom of multiple layers, with several kids (hiding) in the hatch as well. Think about it: 11 younger siblings. I could stop this story here, and you would already have a fairly good picture of who I am.
After getting married in 1975, my parents moved to Springfield, Missouri. My father, Rand, studied theology to become a protestant pastor; and my mother, Margaret, studied nursing. She had been raised Catholic, but left the faith before marrying my dad. My father, after studying, decided against a clerical vocation; when they returned to live in Akron, Ohio, he got a job as a hospital clerk.
My first contact with a religious vocation came from my father’s evening stories, which I listened to wide-eyed while sitting on our red couch with my brothers. He told us about the Old Testament patriarchs, prophets, kings, and yes, about the temple priests too. “I want to do the same.” I thought. “I want to teach others about God.” Thanks to these family gatherings, much of my father’s spirituality rubbed off on me at an early age.
I was homeschooled until 10th grade. Mom taught in the mornings and dad lectured in the evenings. Schooling was always mixed with daily family life: cooking, cleaning, playing, and (my favorite) babysitting were just part and parcel of the learning experience.
When I was 6, my parents converted to the Catholic Faith. I still remember the first time we entered St. Vincent’s. I was deeply impressed by the silence and reverence which surrounded the congregation’s unspoken faith in the Eucharist. Communion rails, genuflections and priestly garb were all new to me, but seemed to fit perfectly into my already existing understanding of God’s plan—begun in the Old Testament—to bring his love to the world.
The Vocation Grows
Amazingly enough, although we were now Catholic, mom still kept her secret.
She watched in wonder, however, as the Eucharist became the center of my life. When I was 8 years old, I received First Communion; at 10 I first donned a white altar-boy robe; at 12 I rode my red bike to daily Mass whenever I could. My desire to share the Bible with others was joined by the urge to bring others the gift of the Eucharist too. These desires pointed me early on towards the priesthood.
It was with this growing zeal that I sent letters to several seminaries, among them the Legionaries of Christ, expressing my interest in the priesthood. Soon afterwards, Fr Owen Kearns, LC, visited my family in Akron and invited me to visit the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School. (At that time, the upper grades were located in Cheshire, Connecticut.) I got to know the school on a weekend trip and was pleased with the beautiful liturgies, and the great family spirit I experienced. However I did not feel called to leave my family just yet.
We grew up poor. I remember saving up every penny I earned. I only had two large yearly expenses: Christmas and Birthdays. I especially loved buying and wrapping personal gifts for my brothers and sisters. On the other hand, my biggest fear was that my parents would have to spend money on me. By the time I was 13, I was already earning enough to pay for most of my own personal things: shoes, deodorant, and (most importantly) fishing gear.
A Canceled Trip
In the summer of 1993, I had the opportunity to go on a camp run by the Legionaries of Christ in Connecticut. At first, I jumped at the opportunity, but afterwards I began to feel horrible inside—strangely enough—precisely because I knew it was going to be fun. “Since when,” I asked myself, “did I deserve to have fun at my parents’ expense?”
This was my reasoning: I knew, deep down inside, on the one hand, that I would not join the minor seminary yet, and on the other, that I really did not need more time to discern which congregation I would join in the future. It was already clear to me that God wanted me to become a Legionary. Since the summer camp would not concern either of these, I thought it would just be about having fun. After thinking it over I went to my mom, and—without a long explanation—I blurted out simply, “Mom, I don’t want to go to summer camp with the Legionaries.”
With the wisdom, love and strength known only to mothers, not even then did she break her secret. Rather, she handed me the phone and allowed me to dial. With tears in my eyes, I hung up the receiver. I found it hard to explain my fears, and so I used the excuse that we were about to move from Ohio to Wisconsin—from the city to the country. I felt strongly called to be like these men-in-black; but not yet, and I did not want to have fun at my parents expense.
Vocation on the Back-Burner
Not long afterwards, I turned 14, and the long-standing dream of my parents to move to a farm became a reality. The sign at the entrance to Ruby, Wisconsin read “Population: 12.” We instantly more than doubled it.
For the next two years, I put the vocation on the back burner, and gave my heart to farming and family. At the same time, however, I grew—prayerfully and quietly—in the understanding that God wanted me to become a priest. The call grew, and yet the desire to follow my own adventure was also growing. Speaking with the Blessed Virgin before going to sleep at night became a petition that her Son would not call me to be his priest, and yet the more I prayed, the more certain I became that it was God’s will and that this calling was also his free gift to me, which I could accept with the same attitude that Mary did; that is, with a simple fiat: “let it be.”
Although my vocation rested on the back burner, I knew that someday I would leave. With this in mind I worked all I could and earned about $5000 to help cover my future scholarship. Milking cows, carpentry, riding tractors, and “picking rock” were among the most common jobs. I remember driving a bouncy tractor, sweating under a beating sun, unable to hear anything but the roar of the engine while I raked miles of dry grass into rows for bailing. To pass the hours of labor, I often sang aloud my favorite church hymn “Here I am, Lord” which reminded me that he was calling, and that one day he would send me into his vineyard.
A Big Step
Soon after my 16th birthday, I packed my things, gave any remaining belongings—including my fishing tackle—to my siblings, handed my mother my bank account, and headed out the door. She gave me a kiss and a sandwich and wished me well. She still kept her secret and would not reveal it for years to come. So ended the first half of my life; the second was about to begin.
The 40 hour trip in train and bus from Wisconsin to Connecticut was bringing me away from my family, and towards what was about to become my second family. I was joining the minor seminary of the Legionaries of Christ.
The Second Half of my Life
These last 16 years have flown by so fast. I have lived and studied in 5 different countries, not counting the other 7 countries I have also worked in or traveled to. Since I left my family I have learned to speak and write Spanish, German, and Italian and to read Latin and Greek. I have learned how to play trumpet, Japanese-drums, and guitar. I have received 2 degrees in philosophy, and 1 in theology. I have learned how to drive a car. (I already knew how to drive a tractor). I have learned how to preach Spiritual Exercises (without anyone falling asleep) and how to provide mentoring to children and spiritual direction to adults. I have picked up numerous card tricks and can even put on a magic show for kids.
As a religious, I have learned to spend a daily hour in prayer (without getting bored); how to live totally detached from material things; how to sing and direct Gregorian chant; how to live in community with everything in common; how to obey a human being as a representative of God’s will; how to love souls with a deep and pure love, without seeking self-interests; and how to trust entirely in God’s providence, never knowing what adventures or trials tomorrow will hold.
It was only a few months ago that I was on the phone with my mother:
“Good news, mom. The date for my ordination is set! December 12, 2011.”
“Congratulations, Nathan! You know, there’s something I never told you before. I think it’s time to share a story with you: It all started on the day you were born. As I held you in my arms for the first time—we were both wearing matching blue patient wrist bands—I wondered….”
FR NATHAN ANDREW MILLER was born in Ohio on July 16, 1979, he is the third in a family of 14 children. He was homeschooled until 10th grade, when in 1995 he continued high school at Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Cheshire, Connecticut. In 1997, he entered novitiate. He made his first profession at the novitiate in Bad Münstereifel, Germany, in 1999, and his perpetual profession in 2008. He did youth work and family ministry for six years in Texas and Austria. He holds a licentiate in philosophy and a bachelor’s degree in theology from the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome. He is currently studying for a licentiate in spiritual theology, with a specialization in family life.