By Deacon Derrick Johnson
Permanent Deacon at Assumption Parish in Welby
For many years in my life, I believed that happiness was easily figured out. Growing up in poorer parts of Denver, happiness was defined by a nice house, an abundance of material goods and money, physical security and safety. Society has a way of exponentializing these tendencies, inclinations and desires. I dreamt of a day when I could define and achieve happiness on my own terms.
My childhood was marked with a sense of laying out my goals and achieving them. I had dreams and aspirations, and they were centered on me. My path was one that I defined, one that I controlled. This persisted into my college years and into my early professional life as a firefighter. I falsely believed that this was the road to happiness. I thought that if I could create proverbial “check boxes” and in achieve these goals, I would be happy…I was about to be proven wrong.
In my early adulthood I felt that despite my success, there was something wrong. There was a restlessness in my heart that I tried to fix by going faster in the direction that I believed would help. More career success, more material goods, more wordily aspirations. The more I pushed in this direction the more I felt it. I was unhappy. I was not depressed, per se, but I was unhappy, unsatisfied and had no idea how to fix it. I had everything the world said I should have, so what was wrong with my life?
When my son was a few months old, my wife’s grandmother Edith died. Lindsay felt compelled to return to the Church because this is where she thought she could be close to her grandmother. Edith was a faithful Catholic. She attended daily Mass and had a robust prayer life. Lindsay longed for this too, but it was first expressed in her desire to be united with her grandma. Lindsay found what she was looking for, and slowly she was changing. She was finding herself in the pews, and there was a quiet joy about her. I stayed away from the Church, obstinately. This was not part of the plan I laid out, so why should I try this route?
Months went by and that’s when it hit me. I couldn’t fix this…I couldn’t fix myself. My wife and son were on a new trajectory, but without me. They were changing, shedding the idea of happiness of the world and finding true peace in their relationship with Jesus. I remember the day I hit rock bottom, I was locking my front door as my family was waiting for me in the car and I told God in desperation and frustration, “Fine…I’ll do it…I’ll go all in and do everything the church teaches for a year…but you gotta show me something…if you’re real…you gotta let me know, or I’m gone.” I had bought into the idea that I could create my own happiness if I just did what the world prescribes. The more I tried, the more it failed. God was speaking to me and acting in my life, and while I was deaf to his voice, I was beginning to feel his touch. ⊲
I came back to the Church. I entered the doors of St. John the Evangelist in Loveland a humiliated man and believed I had failed in some way, and in a lot of ways, I had. I had come from a past of material poverty, but as I came back to the church, I was to experience my true poverty. I could not do this journey of life alone. I was trying to create myself and invent my happiness, and I was terrible at it; I was an abject failure at being God.
God is what I needed; he was who I needed. He was the missing link in everything I was doing, but I had no idea. God took me at my word when I asked him to show me something, and this he did. When I consented, he brought amazing people into my life. People who taught me the fullness of the faith, priests who held nothing back in guiding me to the right path in my spiritual, family, and life as a whole. God took everything that I thought I knew, and he destroyed it. It was beautiful, devastating and, at times, violent. I have never felt so alive and so helpless. To gain humility, God humiliated me by turning my entire worldview upside down. In the time after consenting to “go all in” with my faith, I could see that this is what God wanted for me. This was the path he willed for me. There was peace, true happiness, joy and contentment for the first time; and this is how I knew that God was calling me down a different path.
In the years that followed, God was not silent. My family was coming together in a way I never thought possible. We were all facing the same direction, we learned to look at Jesus to guide our lives rather than following our human whims. There was true freedom by being obedient to all the teachings of the Church, and I could finally see that. Life was transformed by grace; I was able to listen to the Father with the ear of my heart, as St. Benedict would say. Our family fell in love as we encountered Jesus in a most profound way, and we have never been the same since offering our consent.
In the years that came after, God asked us to discern my entering formation for the diaconate. I was again shocked at the turn my life was taking, but God made it clear. Through discernment with a dear priest, I learned to listen even more. I found that my heart would only find its peace and joy when it was following a path that God was calling it down. Our family took this leap of faith and said “yes” to where we thought God may be calling and entered formation. God took all the experiences we had gone through and transformed our path yet again. Formation was the most difficult and fruitful time I’ve ever experienced. God had willed that our family take this time and allow ourselves to be courted even deeper into his love. He deigned that we journey down a road that started with reversion and went deeper as we discerned my, and our unique calls from the Father. God called me to be his deacon in June of 2021.
Our story is unique, but it is not exclusive. We are all called to listen with the “ear of our heart” to each of our calls from the Father. The path of the Christian is one marked with many crossroads and times of discovery, both of self and of God. Happiness as the world defines it is a lie at best and damning at worst. The world gives us a thousand separate ways to achieve its relativized version of happiness, but in the final analysis, joy is what the human heart is searching for. Joy is what is promised for the Christian if we live in communion with God, it is the authentic experience of humanity grounded in the gift of supernatural charity that comes from a singular source, the Trinity. Joy is lasting, and it is only possible with God. Our family had corrected our path and was finally orbiting the Godhead rather than attempting to orbit ourselves and the world’s idea of happiness. We all have a personal call from the Father for our lives, for the path that God wills for us to take in fulfilling our vocations in true Christian joy. It is in our poverty that we find the need for God — in the realization that we are dependent creatures that are only truly human, truly ourselves when we are living in communion with God. Our family’s path led us home to full communion and obedience to the Church where we found our divine identities as sons and daughters of the Father. God took this one step further when he called me to Holy Orders. It was in discerning and following his path in our lives and surrendering them back to him that we found true, abundant life.
From before time itself began, the Godhead had a unique plan and mission for you so that in following it, you could carry on and advance the mission of God’s Church on earth; how magnificent this knowledge is! May we all learn to listen to God. May we be docile to hearing his divine voice in our hearts. Think of the effect this would have on our world and of the transformative power that the Father wills to make manifest through your obedience and mine. May we will to listen to this call, and may we cooperate with the grace in laying down our lives to follow it.
To God’s great glory!
Deacon Derrick Johnson is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Denver. He was ordained in June of 2021 and is assigned to Assumption Parish in north Denver. He is married with one son and works as a firefighter.