Thursday, September 27, 2007

What I'll Trade for an "A"

Perhaps every first time seminarian runs into this problem at least once. My sense is that I will probably notice it more than once time before I "get it right". In fact, chances are this will continue to be something for me to work on forever that falls into the category of "ongoing conversion". What am I talking about? What it is that I'm willing to trade for an "A"...

Well into our first semester as seminarians, we're all wanting to do well. I mean, we're here, we've found our way to the chapel and the dining hall - and figure that as seminarians we at least know where to pray and eat - so surely now's the time we being to be evaluated. And we want to perform. I don't think I've met a man here who doesn't want to do well - do well at discerning, do well at developing spirutally, do well at becoming even more whole and mature men, do well at being formed into priests. Only problem is - in this very broad context of formation, only one area is sitting right in front of us every day with a very clear things to do list, a large amount of our day planned for us to prioritize this effort, and continual feedback and evaluation all the time. Academic studies. And so, for me at least, that naturally means it becomes the focus.

Now, don't get me wrong. Of COURSE it should be part of our focus. After all, we must learn to be priests. And we have a whole heck of a lot more to learn than just how to read the sacramentary and the Liturgy of the Hours book. But since academics are such an objective focus, I discovered over the past week and a half or so, it had become my WHOLE focus.
I can say it even more plainly, though it pains me to admit it. I realized on Monday that the last week had been almost completely dedicated to striving for an "A" on the first major academic assignment on our calendar. I worked a couple hourse every day - on it for two weeks; a couple hours that before this time had been spent on prayer and spiritual reflection. In short, I traded a couple hours each day in academic pursuits for time growing in my relationship with God.

But - a couple hours isn't a huge deal. After all, God has called me to be here in the seminary for now, and being here in the seminary means going to class, learning the material, and performing adequately. What WAS the problem was, as the due date got closer, I traded more than a couple hourse. At mass, my mind would get distracted by the assignment. At morning prayer, my mind would get distracted by the assignment. When I woke in the morning, my first thought was the assignment. When I went to bed at night it was the last thing I thought about. In my conversations with my seminarian brothers, it was what I talked about. I wasn't trying to learn the material and adequately perform, I was trying to get an "A". Trying to be outstanding.

Trying to live beyond my means academically...

...and I was willing to trade my prayer life to obtain that.

THAT's the problem. Although, I'm not beating myself up for it. What I am doing is thanking God a TON for that realization. Because, I believe, we don't get those realizations from our own minds alone. They are grace. EVERYTHING is grace. Grace to see how I can better balance. GRACE to see I'd got a bit out of balance. GRACE to accept my shortcoming, to see and accept that there were some issues of pride involved in it. GRACE to accept it as ask for more GRACE to address the issue.

Today, as I continue to work with this realization, I realize I no longer want to trade my prayer life, my time falling in love here at the seminary, with intellectual pursuits. You know - funny thing is - I "made this trade" - and have no idea whether I'll get an "A" or not. The even funnier thing? I realized it doesn't matter. Because, even if it earns me an A, it wouldn't have been worth it.

Does this mean I'm ditching any focus on my academics? Uh... if ever a cliche was called for it is here. No - I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (I love that cliche, and almost never get a chance to use it.) What I really realized I need to do is work constantly, daily, in a self-aware way, on striving for balance. Some days, I may need to trade an hour or two of my prayer time for extra studies. Other days, I may have an hour or two extra that I can trade from free-time to prayer. Some days may genuinely lend themselves to a proper sharing of priorty and time. But - overall - I don't think it makes sense to get out of balance.

The US Bishops say that becoming a well formed priest happens relying on four pillars. They don't emphasize one over another. To become a well formed priest, we must grow spiritually, mentally, as mature well-adjusted men, and academically. If I went to the gym every day for six months and only exercised my right arm, I'd end up looking a little funny...and I might even end up handicapping myself in some way. Balance...appropriate balance...growing and being formed across the board.

Not only do I not want to do it... I think I'm being asked to try my best not to trade my spiritual life and formation for an "A".

Pray for balance for my brother seminarians and I.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Living Sacrifice on an Altar...

It's been a crazy week. I wrote in an email to my mom that I'd not been able to keep up with which end was up. Yes mom - its because its been a hectic week. Nothing deeper to it than that... at least I don't think. The people walking the face of this planet today that I care about the most are my immediate family (grammaw, mom, dad), my friends (two in particular), and the twins. Of the six, I've spoken to one on the phone this week, and two others only once by email. That's what I mean by a crazy week.

And then, tonight, I saw a living sacrifice offered on the altar here at St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel. No - there wasn't any blood shed. We did not slaughter anything... well, not literally anyway. But - it was still no less meaningful, no less dramatic - at least for me. What I saw, there before my eyes, on the same altar on which I see the holy and living sacrifice of the mass celebrated each day, from which I receive again the fruits of the perfect sacrifice offered once for all so many lifetimes ago...

...there on that altar I saw nine men literally lay down their lives. It was a lot less bloody than what probably came to your mind from the title of this entry. It was a lot less violent that the scene painted in the Gospels of Christ's sacrifice. But it was no less significant than those in this respect - I watched these men lay their lives on the holy altar - in the presence of, on behalf of, for the ministry and nurturing of, the Church...

Tonight, eight men of our 4th Theology class made their deacon promises. One by one, three times, they read aloud promises that handed over their lives to the service of God, and God's people. One by one, they processed to the altar, placed their hands on the Holy Gospels, and pleaded for God's grace and assistance in being faithful to these promises. One by one, they arrived at the altar, placed a sheet of paper upon which they had writted in their own hand the promises they were making, and there - on the altar upon which we participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, they signed their names.

Greater love have no man than this - that he lay down his life for his friends. And his enemies. And those he's never met. And a world of lost and lonely people in the shadow of our steeples. What a witness. What a gift.

Pray with me for my brother seminarians: Brother Jeremiah, Aaron, Matt, Joseph, James, Dennis, Jose, and Jeremy. Pray for the grace to remain faithful to their promises. Pray thanksgiving for the gift of vocation in their lives that has enabled them to travel this journey, and step to the altar to freely offer their lives.

Tonight, I saw eight lives offered to God... and I was moved.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I Have Some of the Strangest Prayers Sometimes...

Call me a sentimentalist... swayed by emotion... Yeah - I'll buy that indictment. I just don't buy that its always bad. Apart from anything to ground it, it can be dangerous. But, when it leads me closer to Christ, I'll take it.

What am I talking about? Some of the lyrics to songs that are patently not about God - many that are what you might call "love songs" - that can very easily take on a resemblance to prayer for me. Try this one on for size that was on the radio as I was struggling against the temptation to hang up the towel and call it a night before finishing my work for the day:

You're my peace of mind in this crazy world.
You're everything I've tried to find,
your love is a pearl.

You're my Mona Lisa,
you're my rainbow skies,
and my only prayer is that you realize
you'll always be beautiful in my eyes.

The world will turn and the seasons will change,
and all the lessons we will learn will be beautiful and strange.
We'll have our fill of tears, our share of sighs.
My only prayer is that you realize
you'll always be beautiful in my eyes.

You will always be beautiful in my eyes.
And the passing years will show
that you will always grow
ever more beautiful in my eyes.

When there are lines upon my face
from a lifetime of smiles, and
when the time comes to embrace
for one long last while,
we can laugh about how time really flies.
We won't say goodbye 'cause true love never dies.
You'll always be beautiful in my eyes.

OK - I know - there are some theological problems with applying these lyrics out of hand to Jesus. First of all, thank God, when it comes time to say goodbye to this world, it won't be for "one long last while". But - isn't that because True Love never dies? And, after all, if there's a definition of the grace that we've been given by God, isn't it His True Love?

Well - OK - maybe its too much of a stretch. I don't know. But I do know this much is true. I can look at God squarely, and with all truth, honesty, humility, and gratidue... and say, "And my only prayer is that you realize You will always be beautiful in my eyes."

Monday, September 10, 2007

What Value a Soul...

The chapel was darker than normal...and the Easter candle was present and lit. Quietly, from our places of study, or rest, or exercise, or fellowship, our community made its way like a medieval cadre toward the light of the candle. A momentary pause to remind ourselves of grace by touching water to our forehead, core, and right then left breast. Another momentary pause to set ourselves aside for this office we're about to undertake...set ourselves aside by honoring the altar instead of ourselves. And then to our seats... and comfortable, wrapped in the warmth and glow of the Easter candle and all it represents. So very unlike those souls I saw perishing before me on the screen as the decision to tumble from the doomed building was carried out. So very unlike the souls tonight who sleep in fear of terror, whether in New York or London, or the sandy ways of the Middle East, or the heartland of America. Whether their trembles come from fear of the unimagined next iteration of "plane as bomb", or the unwavering attack of another military action, or the need to carry out another military action in response to one's duty to country, or fear of a loved one's safety who is half way around the world carrying a weapon. So many souls... so much fear... so much need for peace...

...and we sing Where hate and fear divide us and bitter threats are hurled, in love and mercy guide us and heal our strive torn world... and cry out in chanted meter, "When I call, answer me, O God of justice." Yes... in the recesses of our heart we scream ANSWER ME! ANSWER ME, will you? I don't understand, I cannot see... where is justice, where is love, where is peace?

...and again we sing deliver EVERY nation, Eternal God we pray... and somewhere within our heart finds the temptation to say, "Yes... deliver every nation, find some way, won't you, to restore peace? To bring family and friends home, to restore families and lives destroyed in thousands of ways...on all sides of the conflict. Deliver us all, Eternal God we pray"

When hope and courage falter, Your still small voice be heard; with faith that none can alter, uphold us by Your word.

And I gaze upon the Easter candle, and bend my voice into the prayer my brothers and I pray... and realize that through the ages, men have prayed in this way... wondering... waiting... watching...

Two thousand nine hundred and eighty five. Right? The number of souls that perished on that day? And how many since? And how many lives destroyed, and families ripped apart? What value a soul? What price can we put on that life? Just one of them... that first one I saw tumble to the hard, cold pavement? What price?

My prayer seems insufficient. The lighted Easter candle seems dim in comparison. My bow, my untrained mode at chant. What value that soul - I don't know, but certainly more than I can pay. "Yes", I hear from my Friend. "More than you can repay. So, does that mean you get off the hook with a few words, a bow, a song?"

No, my Friend. But, all I have to offer is a prayer. Clinging like a baby to a promise for the peace that will one day come, I say, "Peace be with you". And I say it to all, as representative of my intention, and my Friend's. And I shut my mouth, and make my bow, and walk silently away into the world in which I can pray in a different way... and if I've understood my Friend rightly, the prayer of my words will become the prayer of my actions.

What value a soul? Just one... just one who died on that day?

Keep bright in us the vision
Of days when wars shall cease,
When hatred and division
Give way to love and peace.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Is EVERYTHING Holy and Uptight at the Seminary?

Someone very dear to me asked this question in a casual phone conversation earlier today. I about died laughing. I suppose you would have had to hear the tone of voice the question was asked with to understand why I was laughing. They'd just said, "Are you going crazy yet?" and the tone of voice implied, 'Um...I KNOW you - and you're a good guy and all, but not stuff and uptight and not what I would think of as holy all the time." I laughed because, my friend is right. I don't think of myself as stuffy and uptight, I don't think of myself as the caricature we have in society of holy. Walking around all day with my hands folded in prayer, my head bowed, not cracking a grin or ever venturing an enjoyment of any kind. Always thinking on the "lofty" and "holy" - never enjoying the experience - any experience.

A modern day Pharisee.

No - that's not me. And, indeed, if that were the life of a seminarian (or of a priest), I'd be somewhat concerned. Not only because I don't know if I could be turned into that person - but also because I don't know that becoming that kind of person is good or healthy for a priest. Not healthy for the priest, nor for those he may join one day in a parish.

No... everything is not that kind Holy and Uptight here at seminary. We have a good time. We occasionally do just like you - sit around, have a beer, watch some TV, listen to music --- yes, there IS music at the seminary apart from chant, we even play the frivolous game every now and again. Yes - we DO have fun, enjoy ourselves, enjoy the community within which we live.

Let me give you an example. Last night was an all-school picnic. It was held at the UnStable - yes, that's what its called, UnStable. It used to be a stable I think - now its a campus hang out, and as such being very much no longer a stable, its the UnStable. There's a cover band of seminarians here (called Abbey Mode - its hilarious... Abbey Mode... its very descriptive of the sharp and quick wit among the community here - if you don't get it, post a comment and I'll explain it)... anyway, Abbey Mode played for a couple hours last night. And as a cover band, they're amazing. They could play a classic Lynard Skynnard song ("Sweet Home Alabama") right before playing a GREAT cover of "Play the Funky Music White Boy". And - hold your breath now - while they were playing some of the guys were... are you ready???... shooting pool!!! Wait... hang on... we're not through yet. Yes, that's right, I even drank TWO BEERS while that was going on. Scary, huh?

No - in fact, for me, its not scary at all. It's honest. It's authentic. It's healthy. And... its holy.

"What? Now I KNOW you Catholics have flipped your lids... having a beer and shooting pool as Holy? What's next?" Well, I don't know what's next - maybe watching a movie at the local theater. Oh, wait... we did that last weekend... and it was holy too.

Before you think I've gone crazy, let me explain. It's holy because we were there, together in one place, all here for a common reason. We're all here to follow what we believe the call of God Himself to enter into the full time and full-life service of His church. We're here to be formed into healthy, stable, loving, caring men of God, men who can live in and strive in a community of others. We're here to be formed into good priests, and to try to listen very closely - in fact, as close as we can - to the Voice that is the only Voice that can truly call us.

So, when we exist authenticly as real people, enjoying one another's presence, building one another up, sharing community, and recreation, and good music, and good fun - it IS holy. We're practicing what it means to be happy, healthy people. We're acknowledging that we're people, living in the world - and even though not OF the world, we strive in healthy community. Holy because, as we live and breathe and enjoy life in the company of one another, we open our lives and experiences to the presence of God among us. We see and experience Christ in our friends, and our formators (yes... Father Rector was there, yes... my formation dean was there..., yes, the monks even on occasion walk around on this planet sans habit)... and we're given the opportunity to discover what it means to be Christ to others, to genuinely love and care for and experience life.

Is everything Holy at seminary? Yes - I think it is. Even in our weakness, our shortcomings, the places we fail, the ways in which we fall short of the goal - there's holiness in that as it becomes manifest and as we open ourselves to the work of the Spirit in forming us.

OK - don't get me in trouble with the Bishop. Please don't take from what I said that its OK to do whatever you want to do and milk life for all the vice its worth and call it Holy. :-) That's not what I said at all. What I did say was that living an authentic life can mean not being stuff shirted all the time, it can mean enjoying time with others, it can mean letting one's hair down and just spending time with one's friends. And, I am saying that doing that can be holy.

Uptight? Inappropriately pious? Somber all the time? No. That would make for crazy unadjusted men. Men who couldn't navigate the waters of life, no less shepherd a community and stand before the altar for others.

It's been nearly two weeks now - and every day I become more grateful for being in this place. May I learn ever more deeply all the things it means to be holy, and be formed into the man God wants me to be. At the UnStable, at the Holy sacrafice of the mass, in the presence of my fellowman.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Humbled, Amazed, and So Very Grateful...

In the nearly two weeks since I've been here at the seminary, I have been so amazingly humbled and amazed by the sincere outpouring of support and encouragement I've received - literally from all corners of the world - and all corners of my diocese. The mail room said, when I went down to get my box assignment, they were glad I was finally here... they wanted to meet this guy who had packages arriving for him before he arrived himself.

I assured them it was not of my merit. And, while I know that sounds cliche, and merely polite, it is genuine and authentic for me. Many of you who have done and said things to encourage me, and support this journey for me, are not of the same religious tradition as I. Some of you may share the practice of Roman Catholicism. And I say this hoping it doesn't offend any: Your generousity, love, concern, encouragement and support make Christ present to me in these days. In many ways. I find comfort and consolation for the difficulties in your thoughts, prayers, words and actions. I find nourishment for my journey - spiritual, physical, and emotional. I find acceptance of who I am, and loving hope for who I can become. I find friends. I find love. These things make Christ present in my life.

I'm so very grateful for this experience at the start of my journey. It makes me keenly aware that, for me, community - community that includes peoples across space, and I believe across time - cannot be separated from our pursuit of God, God's will for our lives, and the grace required to seek out and carry out that will. I don't know that I believe God requires community in order to manifest Himself to us - but I do believe, and have experienced, that community is often where and how we find Him in the most real ways.

I used to say, almost as idiom, "I'm humbled" by something. I suppose I was conditioned to say that from great orators, and readings, and modeling behavior of people I admire and wished to imulate. I don't think until today, when praying and reflecting on this part of my experience, I don't think I ever really understood it before now. Today, I truly am humbled. I'm humbled because what has been so freely offered to me by others, some strangers, some gifts completely unexpected...I'm humbled because I know there was nothing I could do to merit the gift. And I know there is neither anything I can do to "repay" the kindness... nor was any repayment expected, anticipated, or possible.

And for the first time in my life, I think I understand a different motivation to pray for others. Not in the strict of petitioning on their behalf. But rather, to pray for them the same may I might go to work for them so they could take a day off. (Ok - bad analogy - my praying for you doesn't change what prayer can do in your life, or "get you off the hook" for finding your own journey of prayer...but hopefully the analogy helps.) Not only is praying for you - in my prayer time, but also in my studies, and my spiritual formation, and in how I live and love and build up the community that is present to me - not only is praying for you in these ways the ONLY thing I can do...the prayers, support, and encouragement move me to pray on your behalf in these ways. I want to pray for you in these ways. I'm driven to that response much like I'm often moved to tears when coming face to face in the presence of God. It's not from a should, or a sense of repayment... but a natural, spontaneous upswelling of what I would call right response that, I further believe, comes from a place within wherein God dwells.

So, to you all, who've sent cards, and books, and prayers, and good wishes, and ALL the ways you've reached out to touch me, I want to say thank you. I'm humbled - really. And moved to pray for you in all that I do. In that way, I hope to unite you to what I hope to do here. And in that way, I pray, we will all come to know and serve the God of our understanding.

And that's what I say, today, "Peace be with you."

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Where Does It Come From?

The desire to be a priest, that is. Or perhaps, I think what I'm really asking is where does one's desire to follow what they believe to be their vocational calling come from? Is it a product of "our will" - or is it a product of "God's will"? Is it born of our actions, our reactions, our experiences - that is, is it a product of "us"... or, on the other hand, is it a product of God's work and will and love in our life, which would make it grace?

Try as I might, I can't reconstruct how this question is what I was left with after our beginning of a Day of Prayer for the seminary community just moments ago. Father Sub-Prior Denis from the archabbey is directing our day of prayer - and his point of departure was, it seems to me now as I reflect on it, a very different concept: What is seminarian piety.

But there was a moment during Fr. Denis' reflection when he said, "And here is the ultimate model of piety: When in the garden, Jesus said, 'If You are willing, let this cup pass from me. But not my will, Thy will be done.'" The model of piety - complete surrender. A complete turning over of one's will. A complete turning over of His will. Beyond what He wanted or didn't want.

So often, in my mind, the discernment journey returns to the need to discover whether this burning desire to serve God as priest comes from within or from God. For, there is no longer - at least there hasn't been for a long time, and there is not today - any shadow or doubt about whether or not I desire to serve God as priest. But in what is that desire rooted?

Did Christ want to be Christ? Did Jesus - fully God and fully man - want to be the first, highest, model priest? Or was it God's will manifest in Him? Must these be either or? No - I think not. Surely it is possible for my desire to be in concert with God's - but it certainly possible for my desire to be contrary to God's desire.

So - the question for me is - is my desire to be His priest... is it of me, or of Him. Is a desire to be priest ever completely of one's own design only? Or is it that, at least at its kernel, its core, its most basic, is that desire always born of God Himself.

Thank God we can pray...for more than in classwork, or in formation conferences, or conversations with others... more than anything else, prayer can lead me where this question is leading me.

Stop, Look, & Listen

The most profound nuggest I've picked up so far in my week here at the seminary didn't come from attending the "first class" in the four subjects I'll be studying this semester. It didn't come from any of the many orientation meetings, or the Rector's convocation address. It wasn't imparted during the daily Eucharistic celebrations, or in discussions with returning students. It wasn't even handed on in a conversation with the Benedictines who are on staff here at the seminary and who are very much a part of the seminary community, or even my first meeting with a new spiritual director.

Don't get me wrong - these have been important, beautiful, amazing, exciting experiences - all of them. There HAVE been profound nuggets already available to me through them. I can already sense that this truly is a place of formation, of a "machinery" if you will where the process and the people in the process are truly tools of God Himself in forming men for the priesthood. And I'm humbled to be here. But, the most profound wisdom I've encountered so far came from a small book that was given to each of the new seminarians during orientation - it's called "Prayer for Beginners".

When I was first handed the book, my ego jumped and screamed: "Are you KIDDING me? I'm not a beginner! I've been at this thing for a while now. Maybe you should give this book to someone else." I crack myself up sometimes. It happened to be given to me just two days after writing here about my difficulty praying here. Pride can play some amazing tricks. So, after I got over myself, I realized that perhaps there could be something to this book. And surely if the formation staff felt it valuable enough to pass on to all the new students, coupled with my difficulty with prayer recently, maybe I should give this a read.


The most profound thing I've learned since getting settled in to the seminary is that prayer - for beginners and perhaps even the most seasoned - can be as simple as "Stop - Look - Listen". I've been getting the order messed up, or skipping some of them - no WONDER I've been having a challenge in prayer.

My first times in the chapel, I was listening hard... wanting desperately to find my center in prayer where I meet God. And I was looking - looking at who was doing what, what page I should be on in the Breviary. Yada yada yada. Noise. Nothing "happening". Oh, don't get me wrong - I believe my attempts at prayer must please God, even when its not "working". I do believe the discipline of praying is pleasing to God - and comes from God. Or at least, that deep desire within that leads to the discipline of prayer comes from God. After all, my attempts to pray are motivated from a desire to be close to Him - and that, I believe, can only come from a seed of desire given us by God - its grace, not a result of works.

But... my problem was I was forgetting the fundamental starting point for prayer - at least according to this book. Stop. I hadn't stopped to see God in where I was, what I was doing. I hadn't stopped to see the amazing things happening in my life as a result of God's calling and drawing me forward. I hadn't stopped to see the roses around me, no less smell them.

This morning, in just a few moments, I'm off to Sunday morning prayer, and shortly thereafter the Sunday mass. This morning, I'm going to try to rememer to STOP before I attempt to look and listen. Ever been in love? When you walked into the room with the object of your affection, wasn't there always a moment - even if just an instant - when you just stopped, in your heart and mind, and looked. And then you listened - to words, to actions, to experience, to the unspoken as much as the spoken.

One of the formation staff said it best earlier this week. Yes, we're here to learn and practice. But most of all, seminary is about falling in love. Falling deeper and deeper in love with God. This morning, I want to fall in love.