Ex-Baseball Phenom Discusses Life in a Norbertine Abbey
The former second-round draft choice of the Oakland A’s, Brother Matthew Desme strongly recommends repentance and trust in Divine Mercy.
In January of 2010, Grant Desme shocked the baseball world by announcing his retirement from the game. Only 23 at the time, Desme had recently been named the 2009 Arizona Fall League MVP and was on the verge of playing in the majors. Despite his athletic success, the former center fielder knew he was called to something greater.
Desme left behind all his worldly goods — including a sizable baseball contract, shiny SUV and state-of-the-art cellphone — to embrace a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Now, his confreres at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, Calif., know him as Frater (Brother) Matthew Desme.
Despite what may appear to many as an overly austere lifestyle, Frater Matthew sees through appearances to the very heart of Jesus, from which he derives his happiness. Now that the former Big West Conference Player of the Year is in touch with Divine love, everything else has fallen into its rightful place.
In a rare interview, Frater Matthew recently discussed his new life inside St. Michael’s Abbey.
You entered the seminary in the fall of 2010. How many years do you have left before ordination?
After this school year, I’ll have one more year of philosophy, four years of theology and one apostolic year in Rome. It’s a long haul, but I’m not looking too far ahead. I’m really immersed in philosophy right now.
How did you get the name Matthew?
We’re supposed to submit a list of three possible religious names, and the superior chooses which one we’ll use. I ended up having to submit two separate lists of three names each, and Matthew was the sixth possibility overall. Even though it wasn’t my first choice, I already see at least one commonality with my own life: St. Matthew was wealthy before deciding to follow Jesus.
Shortly after I entered the abbey, one of my brothers in religion, Frater Alan, suggested that I be called Frater Moses. I didn’t like the name at the time, but since studying the Old Testament more in depth, I’ve come to appreciate the faith and works of Moses. Now I wouldn’t mind having that name, but I also like the name Matthew. I think its significance will become clearer to me as time goes on.
Do you miss playing baseball?
When I first left baseball, I didn’t miss it one bit. I was very happy to be giving it up for good. However, I have been able to play the game since then, because there are other brothers here who play baseball.
I still don’t miss playing professionally, but I’ve come to enjoy the game of baseball itself more. When I let go of it as my idol, I was enabled to enjoy it for what it’s worth. When you’re projecting your own designs on something and taking it more seriously than it should be, you don’t get what God intended you to get out of it.
When you simply accept things for what they are and don’t expect more than what they can give, you experience the satisfaction you’re supposed to.
How did you first realize that baseball wouldn’t bring you ultimate happiness?
At every stage of my career, I thought happiness was around the corner. No matter how well I played or how far I advanced, I never gained the complete, lasting happiness I was expecting. There were thrills, but none of them lasted. Everything here below is fleeting.
I injured my shoulder while playing for the Vancouver Canadians, a minor-league team for the Oakland A’s, in 2007. During rehab, I sat out with another player, who didn’t speak much English. I was separated from the team and even from the other player who was injured. It was initially disconcerting, but it was really a period of great grace.
I was removed from the superficial chatter and other noise that I had been accustomed to via electronic media. It was through the silence and solitude that I started to think beyond the baseball field and about life in general. I realized that even if I played 20 years in the major leagues and ended up a Hall of Famer, I would still die one day. No matter what I achieved, I would be just as dead as everyone else in the cemetery.
I then thought of my particular judgment and how I would be held accountable for every decision I made in life. Eternal punishment or reward would follow, based on whether or not I was a faithful disciple of Jesus. It became clear that I had to get into a deeper, more prayerful relationship with the Lord.
Former professional soccer player Chase Hilgenbrinck announced in 2008 that he would be leaving soccer to pursue the priesthood. Did his decision influence yours?
I remember reading about Chase’s decision, but it didn’t affect my own. At that point, I hadn’t seriously considered becoming a priest. I was still on the road back to the Lord in a more general way.
Once I started to consider the priesthood seriously, I almost immediately knew it was for me. There was no gut-wrenching discernment; just a simple knowledge that Jesus was calling me to continue his life and ministry. That was the Lord’s loving invitation to me, and I knew living it out would make me truly happy.
I would recommend looking into the priesthood to young men who think they might be called. There’s nothing the world needs more than the mercy of Jesus Christ, which is granted through his priests. It’s a spiritual fatherhood that is even more profound than physical fatherhood. It’s something the saints have written about in almost unbelievable terms. It’s mind-boggling to think of what Jesus wants to give us through spiritual fathers.
What would you say to young men who think they may have a priestly or religious calling but are afraid of giving up worldly things to pursue it?
I was living out every young man’s dream. I was playing well enough to be a Major League Baseball player. I had a big, shiny SUV and even bigger bank account. That’s what most people would think of as being at the pinnacle of manhood. You’ve got all these things that display how strong and capable you are: You become better known, people want to be around you, and everything looks great.
That’s a very superficial form of masculinity, though. It’s based on externals and trying to put yourself before others. I’ve since learned an authentic masculinity based on self-sacrificing love. Being a man is not about stepping on others, but lifting others up. It’s about using the God-given strength you have to protect others and guide them to eternal life.
Some people have the idea — which I shared at one time — that Christianity is kind of a soft religion, not worth giving much attention to. What I’ve come to know, however, is that if you truly attempt to live it out, Christianity is anything but soft. A sincere attempt to be a follower of Jesus requires nothing less than a complete dedication of your entire being.
This has become clearer to me in the abbey, where we are called to live out the Gospel more intensely than in the world. Far from being an idle life, I’ve found that what’s required here calls me to reach to the very depths of my masculinity to become a more complete disciple of Jesus. The challenges of baseball are nothing compared to the challenges of religious life, which is about dying to self in order to live for Jesus.
Living for Jesus sounds attractive, but dying to self in order to do that doesn’t always seem attractive.
Yet we can’t have union with Jesus without first denying ourselves. Our Lord made this very evident in Matthew 16, saying, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
We’re called to let go of our own selfishness, to “lose our lives” for the sake of finding true life in Jesus. While it may appear unattractive, a life of penance for the love of God is actually the only way to be truly happy. It might seem like you’re losing out, but that’s just an illusion. Whatever we give to God, he gives back to us a hundredfold, even in this life. This is made clear at the end of Matthew 19, which also indicates that, in eternity, many of the first will be last and the last first.
Repentance is necessary for following any vocation, but trust is even more so. Turning away from sin is great, but it won’t last very long without confidence in God’s mercy. In order for repentance to endure for our eternal profit, it must be done with trust. Then the initial fear will change into filial devotion. Instead of avoiding sin only because of its consequences, we live out a life of proactive virtue for the love of God.
With trust, we turn our eyes from ourselves to the life of Jesus, which overflows with mercy for us. Our fears are cast aside and replaced with boundless confidence in the unfailing promises of the Lord. St. Faustina spread this message, and it comes to the forefront of the Church’s liturgical calendar on Divine Mercy Sunday, one week after Easter Sunday.
Why did you choose to become a religious priest instead of a diocesan one?
I played on baseball teams all my life, so the team atmosphere became second nature to me. I looked for the same type of setting in the spiritual life: a group of men working together for a common goal. Solitary life hasn’t ever appealed to me, so I didn’t think of diocesan priesthood, which is more of an individual thing in most parishes.
I’ve played on some great baseball teams, but the team here at St. Michael’s is by far the best one I’ve been a part of. Instead of fighting an athletic battle, we’re fighting a spiritual one. We’re united in fraternal charity to overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. Every time we offer the sacrifice of the Mass, take part in a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament or pray the Divine Office, we’re doing things that have an eternal effect not only on ourselves, but on the whole Church.
Even in the events that aren’t part of official public worship — things such as mowing the lawn, forgoing dessert or studying philosophy — you do in community. You’re not an isolated man. You’re truly part of a team of men that have your eternal welfare at heart. That’s an extremely encouraging thing to carry with you through the day.
What is the most difficult part of monastic life?
The most difficult part is dying to self. When you first enter, you make the biggest step of renouncing worldly possessions and pledging to live in community. However, once you’re in religious life, there are still situations in which you can be tempted to follow self-will, however petty they might be.
What you find, though, is that the less you follow your own will, the more content you become. In the world, I tried to follow my own will as much as possible, but it only resulted in restlessness. Monastic life is about striving for freedom from self-will and union with God’s will, which is our sanctification and happiness.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is, of all creatures, the most free from self-will and the most united with the will of God. It’s clear, then, that we can gain so much from her maternal intercession for us. The postulants here make the Marian consecration according to the method of St. Louis de Montfort, which we renew every Saturday.
What is the best part of monastic life?
The best thing is getting to live in God’s house, not in a metaphorical sense, but in a true sense. Jesus, who is God incarnate, dwells here in our tabernacle. The same Jesus who preached the Gospel, healed the sick and dispensed other graces on sinners abundantly, lives among us sacramentally. The appearances are different, but the God-man is the same.
Every grace we have flows through the Blessed Sacrament because the Blessed Sacrament is a Person, not a thing. When you realize that, your life changes profoundly. The isolation, discontent and grasping for things give way to an interior freedom that is beyond compare.
Our life here is the continuation of the life of Jesus Christ, who was poor, celibate and obedient. Being God, and therefore lacking nothing, he deliberately chose to live among us without most of the goods of this world. He knew that following his Father’s will out of love was the only thing that mattered. That’s the only thing that should matter to us, because it’s the only way we’ll be happy.
Most people aren’t called to the priesthood or monastic life, yet everyone can benefit from becoming more “monastic,” in the sense of seeing things for what they really are. A right ordering of priorities is essential if you want to get the most out of life. It’s ironic that, while in the abbey, even despite all the sacrifices, I’m able to enjoy things more than I did in the world.
Those who think of religious life as odd or even miserable would be surprised at how much joy there is in the abbey. Recreation time is especially indicative of this, because of all the laughter. We do take our vows seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.
Do you have any closing words for Christians in general?
Participate in the sacramental life of the Church, which is a life of love. Jesus wants us to experience his healing love infinitely more than we do. If we knew the love he has for us, it would be so overwhelming that we would die, so he hides himself under the appearance of bread and in the ministry of priests.
We’re called to nothing less than a participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. Becoming sons of God in the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, we are heirs to the Kingdom of heaven. This should inspire us to pray every day. Nothing is more necessary than prayer, and nothing could be easier. You don’t have to make a pilgrimage across the world — you just acknowledge the God without whom you could not exist for one second.
St. Teresa of Avila said that if you persevere in prayer, you will certainly be saved, but that if you stop praying, you throw yourself into hell. By trying to “go it alone,” we lose all the graces God wants to give us; but by admitting our weakness and asking for help, we become capable of doing things which once seemed impossible.
All the saints have become saints through prayer, which is the means of obtaining God’s merciful love. My own patrons — St. Matthew, St. Augustine, St. Norbert and St. Faustina — are all messengers of mercy, which they wouldn’t have known about had they not prayed. Prayer is the way to touch the heart of Jesus, which is overflowing with grace for sinners. I witness this every day before the Blessed Sacrament.
The only thing that will last after death is our relationship — or lack thereof — with God. This is something that should motivate everyone to see past the superficial things of life that clamor for our attention and instead invest our lives in God, trusting in his mercy.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.