In its nearly 50 years, St. Michael's Abbey in south Orange County has welcomed scores of men who believe they were called to the priesthood. Most often they are young men who've prepared for this much of their academic lives. Occasionally, they are professionals who've chosen St. Michael's path that leads away from the world -- what adherents call "the hidden life" -- over the pleasure and glamour of their own lives.
"There have been lawyers and academics," said St. Michael's Father Ambrose Criste. "We've had a licensed cheesemaker; from Wisconsin, of course."
And yet, it's certain St. Michael's -- run by the Norbertine Order -- has never had what it will get this summer when Grant Desme arrives: a man whose life could have been very glamorous and pleasure-filled indeed and who threw all that away before the disbelieving eye of the 24-hour news cycle.
When Desme, 23, a top prospect in the Oakland Athletics' organization, informed General Manager Billy Beane that he was retiring from baseball to pursue the priesthood, he figured the local media in his hometown of Bakersfield would show some interest. They did. So did countless newspapers, websites, news and sportscasts. A documentary film crew from the Netherlands requested to follow him. When the Huffington Post ran its story, it did so with an accompanying readers' poll that offered the choices: "Yes, he is doing what he thinks is right," or "No, he is abandoning his team and a lucrative career."
(Desme will be heartened to know that 86.1% of people with too much time on their hands believe he made the right choice.)
Interview requests were taken and conference calls arranged. It was during the latter that the question of why -- how? -- a young man would give up all that came with being a professional athlete was immediately raised. Understand that Grant Desme was not just some guy holding down a spot, he's an exceptional young player coming off an exceptional 2009 season in which he was the only minor leaguer to hit 30 home runs (31) and steal 40 bases. He's also soft-spoken and modest, so when someone reminded him that he'd hit a home run in what stood to be his last professional game, he reminded them that he also struck out twice.
"Baseball is a good thing," Desme said. "But that felt selfish of me, when I felt that God was calling me more. It took a while to trust that and open up to it. . . . I love the game, but I'm going to aspire to higher things."
No lightning bolt
That someone from such a devoutly Catholic family as the Desme's -- the family endeavors to perform the rosary daily -- would enter the priesthood, choosing the rigorous life of a Norbertine, which demands not only prayer and contemplation, but obedience and labor, may not have seemed surprising.
But Desme was also devoted to baseball and the fact that he usually played with a few prayer cards in his back pocket or a Bible verse on his wristband didn't really distinguish him from a lot of other players. What did was a work ethic that his father, Greg, said made him the "kind of player who always got better." A high school shortstop with little power, he remade himself into a power-hitting outfielder who, as a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was named All-American. Soon after, he was drafted in the second round by the A's.
That's when everything changed.
In the spring of 1115, Norbert of Xanten was knocked from his horse by a bolt of lightning. While recovering from his injuries, the young man, who had a prestigious job and enjoyed the pleasures of the world, had time to consider his easy life and renounced it in favor of starting the religious order that bears his name.
St. Norbert had his lightning bolt; Grant Desme had his wrist.
"I had a wrist injury that was supposed to last six weeks but it dragged out to over a year," he said. "It showed me how things can change, how I viewed baseball as my life. Looking back, the injuries were some of the greatest blessings God ever gave me. It shook me up and forced me to do some soul searching."
The search led him to consult priests and other spiritual advisors. He visited four seminaries and had a pilgrimage to Rome.
"It's not like he fell out of a chair and said, 'I think I want to be a priest,' " Greg said. "There was no lightning bolt."
He found little things in life that kept leading him down the path; found himself repeatedly drawn to the story in Mark about the wealthy young man who asks Jesus what he must do to follow him only to be told he first must sell everything he owns.
"He can't do it and it crushes him," Desme said. "That's how I felt. God was calling me to a deeper life, but I wasn't able to follow. The thing about the story is that Jesus still loves the man, even if he keeps his money. But if he really believes and loves God, he should be able to do it."
On the fast track