Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Reflection - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 5, 2008)

In keeping with my formation goals for the year, here is a reflection on the readings for mass this coming weekend: (Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 4:6-9, Matthew 21:33-43)

I can see it now – my little chubby hands reaching for the flower seeds. I was about four years old, and for all intents and purposes as big around as I was tall. We were going to grow flowers in the small beds on either side of the front porch… and I was so excited!!

Those of you who know me might have a hard time imagining that I virtually grabbed the bag of seed from my mother’s hands, and – anxious to do it, do it well, and do it BIG – began broadcasting seed all over the bed. Tons of seed. And then, after the excitement of seeding and watering ran out, I was done. Finished. Well, to tell the truth – bored and ready to move on to the next thing.

My mother, of course, was ready to help me learn a thing or two about how things grow…and I suppose perhaps hope I learned something about life… as she more purposefully first tilled up the soil, neatly plowed little rows with her trowel, gently laid the seeds in (by this time I was totally finished and in the back yard playing with Bumper the puppy), carefully covering the seeds back over, and watering with just enough, and not too much. Indeed, she cared for that garden nearly as much as Isaiah’s friend.

Which flower bed produced the most fruit? Well, surely I wouldn’t have this completely innocent grin on my face today if my little haphazardly thrown together, sometimes-watered, never-weeded, little plot of land hadn’t produced it glorious and colorful and sweet bounty, compared to the sparse yield of a few blooms on the other side of the porch.

Was it the seed? Was it the method? Was it the soil? Was it luck? I don’t know. What I do know is that as this true legend is re-told over and over in our family’s lore, my mother’s supposed and interpreted response is very much like Isaiah’s friend, when my field produced and hers didn’t. This story, first told by Isaiah and retold to a crowd likely familiar with it by Christ himself, creates some strange questions.

- Why didn’t the field, so carefully planned, planted, and cared for, produce fruit?

- What’s to blame when our fields don’t prosper? The seed? The sewer? The field?

- What’s our response when our fields don’t prosper?

What fields have you planted? Are you nurturing a marriage? Raising children? Working in ministries in the Church? Investing in your occupation? Tending a hoped-for harvest in community organizations, charities, educational pursuits? What fields have you planted – and how are they producing?

And perhaps even more importantly… what is our response when the crop doesn’t turn out the way we want. After all, Isaiah’s field didn’t fail to produce… it just failed to produce the right kind of grape. It failed to produce what was hoped for when it was planted. So what do we do when our marriage, our children, our ministries, our pursuits aren’t turning out the way we’d hoped they would? Do we just knock down the walls and let it be run over by weeds, grazed by whatever would come in to destroy it?

Well, sometimes we’re tempted to say, that’s what the story SAYS. That’s what GOD did. That’s what we should do, too. And – sure enough – that is what we read in the two accounts of this parable. But, there’s one flawed piece of logic there. God is God, and we are not.

There is something to be said for the matching of these two readings with the second reading for today I think. Something to be said for understanding both what God does to tend His vineyard, and what we’re called to do to tend ours. We are called to “have no anxiety” – we’re called to pray and petition – we’re called to make our requests – but to do all of that, and no matter what happens, blend it all together with our thanksgivings. That’s how we make sure the little gardens we plant in the Lord’s vineyard don’t become the sour grapes that spoiled the whole crop. That’s how we find the ‘peace that passes all understanding’. That’s how we welcome the ‘God of peace’ into our midst, into our vineyards, into our work and our lives.
What are your vineyards?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Studying, Serving, Practicing, Playing, Praying, Sleeping...

...all but exercising, which I've got to make sure I work into the schedule somehow. Yep - I'm doing all those things; and more or less loving it. I can't say that the transition back to seminary this year has been as easy as I thought - but then again, that is probably my inexperience at transitioning back to seminary at play more than anything else. (After all, this is my first time transitioning back to seminary ever!)

Studying
Yeah - there's that going on of course. I really like my courses this semester. Intro to Biblical Studies, where we explore the Psalms and prayer forms. Modern Philosophy, guys like Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant, Hobbes. Epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge...wrestling with philosophic questions and problems many attribute to Descartes' philosophy. Word & Interpretation, where we read classic literature (The Odyssey, The Inferno, Heart of Darkness, Grapes of Wrath, etc) and learn what it means to interpret texts... because after all, the primary job of a priest is to interpret the text of our lives and the lives of those we're called to serve and lead against the text of the life of Christ, the text of our call to holiness. Yeah - I'm studying... and for the most part really enjoying it.

Serving
It is truly Providence at work that I was asked to serve the community as the Banquet Coordinator this year. I discovered very early on what a real center of my peace, a real energy-giving activity, a real source of pleasure I receive from opportunities to serve the community - I learned that through trying to be welcoming and hospitable to the community in the very practical and pedestrian act of spreading food on a table for them.

I'm also blessed with many other opportunities to serve the community - and hope it continues to transform me into being a good and faithful servant. (I really DO try to reflect on and approach all these 'menial' jobs as an opportunity for conversion and 'pastoral formation' so to speak for the ministry I may be blessed to offer others.) I work in the library a couple hours two days a week, and I'm SO EXCITED to have a shift at the soon to open coffee shop here on campus. (YES!!! Can you believe it? After all this time being sans Starbucks, we're opening a real, quality coffee shop on the Hill!) Joke's on them, though... we get free coffee drinks while we're working. My mom said, when she learned this, something like: 'Do they KNOW how much you love coffee?' I also agreed to take care of the computer labs we have for students here on the Hill. (Time management skills - finding them, using them, improving on them - will be in the works as well.) My Gammaw (that's a grandmother, only a particularly special on) was right on the money in an email she sent me the other day: "Sounds like you're busy... but you always seem to do better when you're busy." Yep, Gammaw, you're right.

My challenge is to not get "over-busy"; and certainly NOT to get so wrapped up in DOING that I forget about BEING. So much activity that I don't pray. Again, its good practice I think. If I can try (and fail, and get better, and try again) to strike that balance as part of my formation, hopefully I'll be better prepared to strike that balance when the seminary days are over.

Practicing
I'm practicing all kinds of things - and doing better at some than at others. I suppose that's to be expected. I'm practicing Benedictine obedience. (Practicing, folks...I'm a long way from getting it right.) I've been struck over and over again by the deep and significant difference between what I most often think of as the definition of obedience (i.e., doing what you're told) and the way St. Benedict talks about obedience in The Rule. Obedience is, he says, the "strong and noble weapon...to do battle for the true King". Obedience as a weapon for the Gospel? That in and of itself has been a deep source of reflection. But St. Benedict goes on (and on... and on...) about obedience. "Unhesitating obedience" he says "comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all". (Chapter 5) As I look at my 'strictly-speaking-obeying' I see that I've a long way to go between that and "unhesitating obedience". Do you really want to know the passage I struggle with and pray with (and hope to be growing with)? (WARNING: This may be uncomfortable... it may challenge you in all kinds of ways... at least its challenging me:)

"This very obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or slugging or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness."

KA-BAM!! There it is, folks. By that score, its a good thing I'm practicing obedience (and a good thing I have opportunity to practice - 'cause I got a long way to go.)

Want to know the funny thing? I could just outright disregard this whole 'deeper' conception of obedience all together. I'm not a Benedictine. I'm not entering a Benedictine community. I could just say, "UM... no thanks to that." Problem is, those words ring so true somewhere inside. The more I read and meditate on the Rule, the more I feel as if it is calling me forward into continuing to become the person I can be. So, I can't just disregard what St. Benedict says. (Part of the reason I'm continuing my prayer about making a final commitment as an Oblate of St. Meinrad.)

I'm practicing some fun things, too. Sr. Bernadone Rock, FSE is our new director of liturgical music here at Meinrad, and she offers voice and piano lessons, and for right now I'm taking both. (I may have to give up the voice lessons to free up some time, we'll see.) So, for about 20 minutes each day, I'm tinkering away on a piano, and frightening those who might hear with my scary singing. *grin* But I'm finding I really enjoy both - and though its more 'time allotted' in my daily calendar, its time that feels like 'play'...and that seems important and healthy.

Playing
No - I haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I'm still finding time to play. Those who know me, and have heard my standard "What's it like at seminary" can rest assured that I still head over to Jasper about once a weekend for 'the trip' (dinner, WalMart, movie). Though this year I've branched out a bit - I don't always head to the WalMart (or if I go, I don't always find I need to buy something.) And sometimes, I've headed to one of the other little places around for dinner instead of Jasper. Don't want to get in a rut, you know.

Praying
I've been very thankful for the rhythm of prayer here at Meinrad these first weeks of school. They help me remember that prayer is the foundation and core of the life I'm being formed for. Coming together as a community for Morning Prayer (in the AM), Mass (at mid-day usually), and Evening Prayer (in the PM) helps me have concrete reminders throughout the day that its all about prayer. I'm continuing my practice of reading and practicing a loose form of Lectio Diving with upcoming Sunday Mass readings - and occasionally I write a homily-type reflection to go with that. My daily reading and prayer with the The Rule of Benedict continues. And, I still find that as I'm walking around campus, heading from one place to the next, or just catching a quiet moment somewhere, I continue to have that 'dialogue with God' going on. I'm so grateful for that.

...as you can see, God's grace is all around me!!! What a privilege it is to be called to the seminary, to have the opportunity to be formed into a person of community and ministry. In those moments when I can connect most with that profound reality, with that miracle, with the privilege of formation... in those moments I'm most at peace.

Oh yeah... I forgot Sleeping... I'm off to do that now. Peace to you.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ending the Summer... Beginning the Semester

A lot has happened since I last had a chance to blog. It's a shame that in my busiest times, with the MOST to share, I often don't have the opportunity to share it with others here. But perhaps it is good to take a moment to recap - even for myself.

Ending My Summer Assignment
The weekend after SEARCH was over was my last weekend in Pikeville where I spent my summer. It was a whirlwind - saying goodbye to the folks who had welcomed me so warmly into their community at the four weekend masses throughout Pike County. I remain very touched by the people and places of Pike County, and pray that one day I might be the kind of priest who can serve healthily and happily in the mountain areas of our diocese.

Vacation With Family
Sunday afternoon after ending the summer assignment I drove to Gatlinburg, TN for four days with my parents and grandmother. That time was well spent. Not only was it good to spend time with them, but it was also good to have a bit of a rest there in Gatlinburg. For those of you familiar with Pigeon Forge entertainment, I was treated to being a part of one of the skits at the "Comedy Barn". That was a real treat - I enjoyed it, I think my family enjoyed it too. (The qualifications they were seeking were (a)over 18, (b) good sense of humor, and (c) don't mind being the center of attention... I guess I was a shoe it.)

Rock the Collar
Each year our diocesan seminarians make a 10 day road trip around the diocese meeting the pastors who serve our Church, getting to know the people and ministries of our diocese, and getting to know one another. 1,100 miles across southern and eastern Kentucky in 10 days is a setting for some real faternal bonding. Everywhere we went, people were so very kind and encouraging. And our two new seminarians who joined us on the trip are incredible young men. I'm honored to be their brother in formation.

Back to School
Two days after returning from Rock the Collar it was time to return to the "Holy Hill" at St. Meinrad. After driving to St. Louis to pick up a man studying here as well, I returned to the Hill last Friday (I guess that makes it a week ago today). I was honored to be a part of the Orientation staff who welcomed almost 40 new men to the seminary community this year. As part of Orientation, I organized two receptions and a formal banquet as part of my service to the community as Banquet Coordinator this year. It's a real pleasure to server the broader community this way, and though it is sometimes extremely physically taxing, it genuinely is a pleasure.

Classes Starting
Today was our first day of classes for this semester. It's nice to be back with "the guys" I shared the first year of formation with. It's nice to be back in class. It's nice to be back on the Hill - even with so many changes. I was remarking to someone today that my aversion to change is itself what's typically at issue in my discomfort or lack of excitement about whatever the change itself is. Often, in fact, I like what has been changed, and just have to grow into seeing that through the discomfort of change itself.

Through it all, there are important things I realize more and more I must remember:

* It's not about me. Nope. Narcissism, self-centeredness, believing that I have all the right answers or some keen insight into how things could "best" be done is not only foolhardy, but more importantly it is contradictory to the image of a servant priest. Christ came to serve, not the be served. And if I am to be formed to live and serve in persona Christe I must pray to have every little bit of that inward focus transformed into something else.

* Things aren't always right, just, fair... or what they seem. And mine isn't always to be judging or evaluating those conditions. Bishop Gainer respects the formation offered at St. Meinrad. I love and respect the men entrusted with forming us here - and I love and respect the priests I know who have been formed here. Implicitly, then, my posture toward the entirety of seminary experience ought to be a posture of open-mindedness and trust.

* God is in control. Fr. Wil often said to me this summer, "Alan, don't forget the Holy Spirit is at work in it all." Whether we were talking about liturgy, theology, administration of the Church, or how to make an impossible situation workable for the good of the Church. And I must remember, and rest peacefully in the truth, that God through His Spirit is at the helm of my life, my journey, my formation, and my vocation. I continue to pray that my time here makes me more docile to that reality.

* It's about preaching Christ, and Him crucified. It's about sharing the good news that Christ came to give us life, and that more abundantly. It's about the salvation of souls (mine included). It's about falling in love with the martyr Messiah who laid down His life to rein triumphantly over death for all eternity. It's about so much more than what clutters and fills my mind and gets me all wound up on a daily basis sometimes. All the rest is nothingness.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Order my life to Your will. Nail me to that cross in whatever ways are important so that I may offer my life in service of Your Gospel. Though it burns as in a furnace sometimes, and though I tremble with fear or loathing or discomfort over the silliest of things sometimes... You love me enough to melt away the impurities ever revealing more and more of the precious metal within. Lord, if it be Your will, transform me to Your image, and make me Your priest.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

SEARCH... WOW!

A week ago today, I was at Cliffview (a retreat center in our diocese) helping out with SEARCH 6 - a retreat for 16-20 year olds in our diocese designed to help them transform their faith journey. In January when I agreed to help out with the retreat, I thought I was doing a favor for one of my brother seminarians. Little did I know what a favor he was doing for me to include me in this special weekend. I left much more touched by God than any help I offered. (As I'm learning in so many experiences along the way, when I am open to serving others - I ALWAYS seem to receive so much more than I give. It's very cool.)

I was a gopher on the Palanca team - a group of young people who've done the SEARCH retreat before and want to give of themselves to make the experience possible for others. Palance is the Spanish word for lever (I learned) - and these young people do all the "behind the scenes" stuff for the retreat. Planning and delivering skits with important messages, serving and cleaning up after meals, getting supplies gathered and organized for the weekend. Perhaps most important, the Palance folks pray for the retreat. Starting about two months before the retreat, they begin to pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer asking God to bless the retreatants. During each and every one of the presentations given (by young people) over the course of the weekend, one of the Palanca young people go into the Blessed Sacrament chapel and pray during the talk - they pray for the presenter and the retreatants - that God's message would get across, that the Spirit would plant seed that one day will flower. There's something amazing about seeing an 18 year old speak about the power of the Eucharist, while a 17 year old is praying before the Eucharist for that speaker. Cool, cool stuff.

(Some photos of the Palanca Team members...)


I was also the "token" seminarian for the retreat, which includes presentations from many different vocations as a way to help the retreatants begin to think seriously about where God is calling them. So, there is a token priest, a token single person, a token married couple, and a token priest. (I wonder if at some retreats they also have a token religious brother or sister...)

Here, below, is the basic sharing I gave about the vocation of a seminarian:

My name is Alan carter, and I'm a seminarian for the diocese. I've finished the first of six years at St. Meinrad where I'm searching for God's will in my life. That's what a seminarian really is - a professional SEARCHER for a time. Searching for God's call in our lives - for some of us, that will lead to priesthood, for others it will lead to marriage or single life or a religious vocation. But for all seminarians, searching and ebing formed into better people is what being a seminarian is all about.

Before seminaary, I walked a path very similar ot the one most of you are on. I graduated high school and then went off to college at Washington & Lee University. I've worked in DC for Senator McConnell, in the northeast at a large pharmaceutical company, and after returning to Lexington more than 10 years ago I worked as a web software developer.

My SEARCH began before I was born - I truly beleive that. God tells us in the Bible that He knit us together Himself in our mother's womb - but that He knew us even before that. I blieve all of our lives are spent coming to know the "US" that God knew before we were born. I wasn't raised Catholic, but definitely Christian. I was baptized one hot summer evening at a church camp where I knoew - I really knew that God was calling me toward Him. Through my High School years I remained active in different forms of ministry like some of you have - I spent a summer as a missionary in the Phillippines and began to think God might be calling me to full-time ministry then, but I wasn't ready. At college, I studied hard, enjoyed lots of good times with my friends, and continued to try to live my fiath - imperfectly though sometimes, I still tried. And that was important, I think, because it taught me that we don't have to be perfect to follow Christ - we just have to keep trying. I met and fell in love with a wonderful woman, and was certain we would be married - it just didn't work out the way I thought. (She is, by the way, an amazing woman who married and recently had her first child. I got a letter from her a couple of weeks ago saying how proud she was of me and how happy she was that I seemed to have found the path I was meant to be on. God is so good!)

My "Great Adventure" as I refer to the part of the journey I'm on right now, really started again about 4 years ago. I was driving down the road, on the way home from work, listening to the radio. I was happy in my career, dating another wonderful woman, helping to raise two teenagers. I had a house and a car - my family was close. Even in the midst of some struggles in my life, I was reasonably happy. And so, it was quite out of nowhere that I said out loud while stopped at a light, "I could go be a monk like Thomas Merton." That thought should have sounded crazy - but it didn't... and the fact that it didn't sound crazy was... well...CRAZY! I didn't tell anybody about it for six months, thinking the thought would just go away. But it didn't.

See I was afraid, I guess. Afraid that telling someone would commit me. I was afraid I'd say to someone, "Hey, I'm thinking about being a monk or a priest..." and before I knew it I'd be packed up and shipped off, and have no choices left. I think I was also afraid of whether or not I was Holy enough to be a priest. And - since we're being really honest here - the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if priests - without having a wife or children - ... well, I was scared that maybe the life of a priest was a lonely life.

I spent quite some time wrestling with these fears. I got some great advice though - go talk to a priest about it. And I did. You see, that's when I first learned that being a seminarian isn't what I thought it was - being a seminarian isn't being committed to the priesthood. There's no way to make that commitment without spending time as a seminarian really SEARCHING for God's will for my life. Being a seminarians - the commitment we make it to be OPEN to FINDING what God's will for our life is. We commit ourselves to prayer, to learning what it means to be a priest, and most of all to searching with all that we've got for whether or not that is God's will for us. And along the way, those old fears are slowly removed day by day. I see that real people are both priests and seminarians - real people who are fallible and imperfect - real people who just keep trying, and praying, and staying open. I see that priests and seminarians are far from lonely if they're paying attention. The bond and connection that we have with one another is important - and life giving. I don't know that I've felt really lonely even once since I started down this path.

I think the vocation to being a seminarian is a vocation to prayer, being formable clay in God's hands, and most of all to SEARCHing. The vocation of a seminarian is absolutely not the same thing as a vocation to the priesthood - one can lead to the other, but you don't have to become a priest to be a successful seminarian. But in some ways, the vocation of a seminarian is very much like what we ALL are called to as Christians: letting God be Lord of our life, surrendering to Him, accepting that He is the supreme lover of our lives and our souls, and accepting that what He has in store for us is best for us. And then, one day at a time putting what we've learned about all of that into practice.

So many times along my "Great Adventure" there have been voices that try to detract me from God. You know those voices. "But this other way is more FUN!" or "Can I live any kind of life at ALL if I'm all wrapped up in this God thing?" I can only tell you what I've found - take it or leave it. Those voices are a load of crap I'm having more fun than I've had in 15 years. Every day is an adventure. Even on the not so good days, I have a peace within that just makes it all OK. I wish I could communicate the power of that feeling in my life... When you find the path that God truly has in store for you, I believe you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

There are other voices sometimes, voices of doubt - can I do this, am I good enough for this, am I holy enough for this? There are voices of accusation - but look at what you just did, remember that other thing, you're not cut out for this - there are voices of temptation - but look how much more fun that is, think about how good that could be - you know voices like that probably. But, you know that song "The Voice of Truth"? That song gets me right back on track. It's what being a seminarian - actually, its what being a Christian of any vocation - is all about. Searching, trying, letting God love oyu the way only He can...setting all those other voices aside, and listening as best you can to the Voice of Truth that says, "Do not be afraid."


Thank you, SEARCH, for an AWESOME weekend!

Ain't Nobody Loves Me Better...

Some may say I'm wierd - and that's OK. (I guess I am sorta'.) Anyway - a "blast from the past" - I guess I'm old enough to call this song an "oldie" - has been running through my mind so much since I heard it on the radio the other day. Can anyone guess why? I'll leave that up to you...

(If you've never heard this song, check it out! It's an 80's hit I think, from Chaka Kahn.)

Ain't Nobody...
Captured effortlessly
That's the way it was
Happened so naturally
I did not know it was love
The next thing I felt was
You holding me close
What was I gonna do?
I let myself go

And now were flyin through the stars
I hope this night will last forever...

I've been waitin for you
It's been so long
I knew just what I would do
When I heard your song
Filled my heart with your bliss
Gave me freedom
You knew I could not resist
I needed someone

And now were flyin through the stars
I hope this night will last forever
Oh oh oh oh

Chorus:
Ain't nobody
Loves me better
Makes me happy
Makes me feel this way
Ain't nobody
Loves me better than you

I wait for night time to come
And bring you to me
Cant believe Im the one
I was so lonely
I feel like no one could feel
I must be dreamin
I want this dream to be real
I need this feelin

I make my wish upon a star
And hope this night will last forever

Ain't nobody
Loves me better
Makes me happy
Makes me feel this way
Ain't nobody
Loves me better than you


And first you put your arms around me
Then you put your charms around me
I can't resist this sweet surrender
Oh my nights are warm and tender
We stare into each others eyes
And what we see is no surprise
Got a feeling most with treasure
And a love so deep we cannot measure

Ain't nobody
Loves me better
Makes me happy
Makes me feel this way
Ain't nobody
Loves me better than you

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Little Less Than Two Weeks to Go...

...in my summer assignment here in Pikeville, and I realized I hadn't taken time to post to my blog for a couple of weeks. Here toward the end of the summer, I've been a bit busier as it began to get closer to two events that will cap off my summer 'vacation'.

First, I've been privileged to be a part of the group preparing to host a diocesan wide retreat for young adults (late teens to early twenties) called "SEARCH". SEARCH is a retreat designed to help young adults make an important transition in their faith journey to living an adult faith journey that is authentically their own in some respects. I'm gathering this from what I've learned at the preparation meetings - I've never been on SEARCH before. It is somewhat unique in that the retreat is led by other young adults who have previously made a SEARCH retreat themselves. I got invited in a dual role as the designated 'gopher' for the staff, as well as the 'token seminarian' - each SEARCH has a token married couple, a token single person, a token priest, and a token seminarian; each participates on the staff of the retreat in some form as well as speaking at a session of the retreat about the particular vocation they are living. SEARCH is this coming weekend - pray for the staff and all who will participate. (Check out our SEARCH website, www.searchky.org).

Second, some long time blog readers will remember the ROCK THE COLLAR road trip I took last year with my brother seminarians around the diocese. We're doing the trip again this year - jumping in a Dodge Durango and travelling around the diocese - one parish each day for nearly two weeks - getting to know the priests and people we may one day be blessed to serve. With some changes in our group of seminarians, I'm honored to take a stronger leadership role in this year's trip - and it has taken some time to prepare for that.

So what else have I been up to? Let's see... I've been working with the parish administrative assistant on creating a new parish photo directory - we've got that pretty much in shape and will be ready to publish it just before my assignment ends. (Who needs professional photographers and all that expense when we've got digital cameras, Microsoft Publisher, and color laser printers?) I've also been setting up the necessary arrangements for the community to do non-profit fundraising on eBay. You wouldn't BELIEVE the different hoops to jump through to get that set up - but the good news is, now the parish can sell all KINDS of things on eBay as a way to raise money for the school and missions.

I've spent some time in the Pike County missions as well (thought not as much I would have liked). A couple of weekends ago while I was off to a SEARCH meeting, there was a small flood at the Phelps mission, so one day last week I went up there with Fr. Wil to do a small amount of cleanup. This week there was a group of folks from a religious community at the Elkhorn City mission doing some home repair for families in the area and some work at the thrift store - so this evening Fr. Wil and I went over there to celebrate mass and share a (FABULOUS) meal with them. I met and spent some time talking with an amazing young woman from Kenya who is discerning God's call in her life, and trying to pray and listen to where that calling may lead. Pray with me for her - she has an amazing love for those in this world who society all to easily pushes out of sight and out of mind (and, as much as I hate to say that, I include even our Catholic society in that indictment). May God bless her in His calling for her life and ministry.

I've also been helping coordinate some small repairs and risk management items here at the parish that need to be attended to. And of course, doing quite a bit of reading. LOL.

When its all said and done, the assignment has been nothing that I expected. In fact, in many ways, its been everything but what I expected. I could go so far as to say its been anything other than what I needed...but that would be premature. Who am I to judge what I do or don't need right now on this journey? What I do know is that where ever we are, whatever we are doing, if we're listening for God to speak and looking for Him to work in our lives - well, He's right there! :-) And, I've certainly found that to be true this summer as well.

I have learned that the mission areas of our diocese - if they're like the parish and missions of Pike County - are beautiful places, with beautiful and loving people, and it would be an honor to serve them. As different as ministry looks on the surface here in Pike County, from what I've seen there are important and fundamental similarities: making Christ present in the community; loving the people around you - within the Church or not; bringing good news - The Good News - to the world...much more by what you do (and especially, perhaps, what you do and how you do it when you're falling far short of the mark) than by anything you say.

I'm far from perfect. I'm far from having all the answers. I'm just another sinner - goofing, making mistakes, tripping over the same shoelaces day in and day out sometimes. But I'm excited by knowing that how I live THAT life has the power to help others see a loving Savior reaching out to them as well. ;-)

Anyway... that's what I've been up to.

Here are some pictures of the people and places of the community that has welcomed me these past weeks:

Jesus of the Mountains in Phelps, KY:

The Jesus of the Mountains Catholic Church

The living room of this house is converted into our worship space for the Phelps community. Here you see the altar where Fr. Wil presides at the Mass, while the assembly sits in the orange chairs which you see.

The Tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved is directly across from the altar behind two or three rows of chairs where the assembly gather for Mass. In the right of the picture you see the kitchen of the converted house, which doubles as a sacristy.

The Catholic community at Phelps just after the Saturday evening Mass.

St. Joseph the Worker in Elkhorn City, KY:

St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church.

Just inside the Church building, you see first the Easter Candle and Baptismal Font, beyond which is setup several chairs where the assembly gathers for mass, and just beyond those the altar where Fr. Wil presides at Mass.

Some of the Catholic community at Elkhorn City with Alan following a Sunday morning mass.

Sunday morning might be the only day you'd find the Thrift Store empty. Here's a picture of part of the store, which is run in the basement of the Elkhorn City church.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Another Honest Prayer...

One of my favorite prayers for more than 10 years now is Thomas Merton's "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me..... It captures where I have been and where I am so many days - honestly. There have been many experiences, many guides, many angels along the way that have taught me to real value in 'authentic prayer' - praying what I REALLY feel - letting God see and talk to me face to face, apart from the masks of who I should be or how I should be feeling.... My relationship with God grows when I offer Him who I am, where I am, just as I am. (To read the rest of the Merton prayer, click here.

This morning during a brief meditation, I re-read a prayer sent to me by a good friend from the Archdiocese of Louisville in a booklet about Henri J. M. Nouwen. And - yep - there are days (although for me not necessarily today) - but there are days when THIS prayer captures where I am.

Dear Lord,
I will remain restless, tense, and dissatisfied until I can be totally at peace in your house. But I am still on the road, still journeying, still tired and weary...


Sometimes the journey seems to be so long. The challenges seem to be so great. The load seems to be so heavy. Sometimes I don't think I even know which road I'm on any more, and the ability to put one foot in front of the other seems like a robotic, automatic action - and there's barely enough strength to take that next step, no less consider where I'm headed...

I keep asking your angel, whom I meet on the road, "Does the road go uphill then all the way?" And the answer is, "Yes - to the very end." And I ask again, "And will the journey take all day long?" And the answer is: "From morning till night, my friend."

Oh gosh, my friends - that's often not the answer I want to hear. Sometimes, as I pray, and ask - and hear the answer repeated, sometimes I'm not ashamed to admit, I feel as if that news is more burden than I can carry. You mean I just gotta' keep doing this? Wow.

But if I let myself be washed over by those feelings of being overwhelmed - if I surrender to them just a moment, I ALWAYS find that right when it seems most hopeless, there's a light of hope burning strong inside. God present in me, I guess. A light of hope and encouragement that begins to say, "It's not all bad. It's worth it. I CAN do this. I WANT to do this. And - GOSH - LOOK, just LOOK where I'm headed!!! I can keep going. I can... I really can...

The trick is in the momentary surrender to what is real - that momentary 'realness' with myself and with God where the overwhelming wave of it all washes over me. I think that's the key for me because, where that wave wants to take me is just not where I am. The waves gather sand from the shore - but not the rock. I think when I surrender to that overwhelming wave of helplessness and neverending journey, and I let that wave wash over me - ready to let me take it where it will - then I come face-to-face with an important reality in my life: I'm living a life that's not built on or of sand. And even I can't fail to see that the rock hold firm, even if I didn't expect it to. When I surrender, I see a reality - instead of being washed completely away, I reamin anchored... and then that fire of hope and excitement and adventure is revealed in all its brightness...

So I go on, Lord, tired, often frustrated, irritated, but always hopeful to reach one day the eternal city far away...

There is no certainty that my life will be any easier in the years ahead... But there IS the certainty that You are waiting for me and will welcome me home...

O Lord, give me courage, hope, and confidence. Amen.


Pray honest. Let God (and you) come face to face with what IS - and just watch, my friends, just watch your anchor hold.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Ministry Comes in Many Shapes & Forms...

One of the things I've always known - and that I'm learning even more deeply this summer - is that 'ministry' is not always confined to the ways and times and places we would initially use to define it.

Where does ministry happen?
At church. Well... yes - of course. But not only at church. If we limit ourselves to thinking that our ministry (as priests, seminarians, moms & dads, Sunday school teachers, good parishoners & catechists, etc) if we think of our ministry as only taking place at church, we're leaving a lot on the table... and chances are, our ministry won't be effective. Ministry happens wherever we are - as long as we're going where the people of God are.

When does ministry happen?
At mass. In the confessional. In formal counseling or spiritual direction sessions. Well... yes - of course. But not only in these 'formal ministry settings'. Ministry happens through relationships. We make Christ present in our lives and in the lives of others in day to day happenings. We 'minister' to others around the dinner table, in the car on a trip, on the phone talking with a friend, at the movie theater... Wherever we are.

What is ministry?
Well - sometimes ministry is just relationship. We minister to others by loving them. By having an honest, integral, building-up relationship. We minister to others when we talk about God - and sometimes most effectively when we're not 'formally' talking about God, but just living our God-centered lives in community with others. There's 'formal' ministry - which is ever so important, and often gets a great deal of our attention (in formation as a seminarian, for example). And there's 'informal ministry' - and often I'm afraid we don't pay enough attention to this.

Ask any your minister you know... any youth minister who's young people are experiencing a real relationship with God... and they'll tell you - the 'informal ministry' is as important as the 'formal ministry'. In fact, often the informal ministry is the only key that opens the door to real formal ministry.

And I don't think that's any less true for the rest of the Church - this isn't a principle that's only in play with the yunggins.

Gee - that was way off course from where I thought I was at when I started writing this. What I planned to share - and will now - is one of the interesting ways I've been involved in 'ministry' this summer in Pikeville. Are you ready??? This may surprise you... OK - here goes:

Building a Greenhouse for the Parish School

taaa daaa!!! Ministry.

Yep - there was a great opportunity in building this little greenhouse for me to BOTH participate in ministering to others in the parish AND (... wait for it... here it comes... ) allow myself to be ministered to. SHOCK! I find, if I remain open, and am genuinely trying to make Christ present in the most mundane kinds of ministry (like building a greenhouse), I ALWAYS come away knowing that I, too, have been in the presence of Christ. I ALWAYS come away knowing that God has blessed me as much in the work and effort as He may have blessed others through my effort.

Don't get me wrong - I think its dangerous to do ministry for this kind of 'payback' blessing. That approach could get us so focused on our 'good feeling' and 'the return' that, whever it goes missing so would our ministry. And that's dangerous and one sided. For me, however, (at least so far) I find that if I walk away without having that feeling of 'being ministered to' - there's probably something about my approach I need to check. (And the BEST news of all is this: even if there IS something within that I need to check, if I'm doing my best, it seems I've still been able to 'minsiter to others'.)

Anyway... enough of my rambling... here are pictures of the "Great Greenhouse Build of 2008" - an opportunity of ministry I was blessed to participate in. I got a chance to meet, work with, and get to know some great folks... and create a space for the students at St. Francis School to learn more about caring for our earth.







Thursday, July 3, 2008

I Doubt It...

“I doubt it.” How many times a day do you think it? We doubt the superficial and irrelevant all the time I suppose. It’s going to rain this afternoon. I doubt it. Or maybe My NASCAR driver is going to win, and the new UK coach will win the championship this year. I doubt it. Sometimes we doubt ourselves – and that’s a little more important, a little less superficial. I’m going to exercise this week. I doubt it. Or maybe I’m going to spend quality time with the kids. I doubt it. Maybe it’s ever deeper. I’m doing a good job as a mother or father. I doubt it. Maybe somewhere inside there’s even sometimes a more fundamental question: I’m a good person – lovable and loved. I doubt it. Yes, doubting it can be quite a lot more than superficial and irrelevant. And it seems sometimes our doubting doesn’t just stay confined to one area of our life. If we’re doubters (and, we can probably admit it, right… we’re all doubters sometimes, aren’t we??) If we’re doubters – we’re doubters even about the most important things at times: The hairs on your head have been counted… I knew you before you were in the womb… You are a child of God… God made you specifically, exactly the way you are… God loves you… You have been forgiven… You are special because of who and how you are in God’s eyes… Hmmmm…. Do we ever ‘doubt it’?
Prove it! That’s what we say. Prove it! We say it about the superficial and irrelevant doubts. We say it to ourselves. ‘Talk is cheap… the proof is in the pudding… show me what you’re made of… I don’t believe it.’ We’re proof-oriented people. Sometimes our doubt is so strong, we don’t even acknowledge our desire for proof. Sometimes, we know we’re not supposed to doubt, and we can’t even acknowledge it to ourselves – not to mention someone else; or God – that we doubt. It’s part of the mask we sometimes wear to feel better and safer and more secure in ourselves and our lives and our faith… because sometimes this illusion of security and steadfastness is – we think – all that can make the genuine doubt or fear or loss of anchor or anxiety livable.
Consciously or not, we think ignoring, burying, or hiding our doubts is the best solution to overcoming them. And perhaps this is a result of the most fundamental doubt of all that sometimes plagues us. The doubt that if we doubt we’re somehow less human, less acceptable, and less lovable by God. So we get on that bandwagon that has lashed St. Thomas all these years… ‘Don’t be a doubting Thomas,’ we say. ‘He’s such a doubting Thomas,’ someone says and we nod our heads. And we hear a homily rebuking the sin of doubt (and it is, after all, rebukable) – and we nod our heads, and bury our doubt even further within… doubting that our fragile faith would survive the fear and ridicule that surely would be ours for being ‘a Thomas’; perhaps even more afraid of how God would view our doubts… if we were to ever bring that idea any closer to mind than the extreme boundary of our consciousness where even now we probably try to push the possibility aside.
You may doubt that you doubt – but I know I do. God save me, I doubt. Sometimes about big things in big ways. Other times about little things in big ways. But sometimes doubt follows me about like a shadow. And when I try to dress it up, or make it disappear, or ignore it, all I do is add layers and layers of makeup masking myself from my brothers and sisters… and more disastrously, masking myself from God. When I cover up my doubt because “Good Christians” or “Good Catholics” or “Good Seminarians” or “Good Priests” don’t doubt – well then, all I’m doing is hiding my face from the God who loves me; just like Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness from God in the garden. Oh… but what my heart longs for is to stand face to face with Him, to reveal myself completely to Him in the light of truth… and chase away the doubt with knowledge and experience of being known and loved… without the makeup covering the doubt. Yes, what my heart truly desires is elimination of doubt… but you see, we can’t do that unless we acknowledge it, look at it in the light of day ourselves, forget our pretensions about whether or not we ‘should’ doubt… and get to the truth of it. And then, oh friends… then we’ll see that we can hand our doubt to God… and put our hands in the nail marks of our Lord’s hands… and believe.
Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. An apostle whose words we all seek to make our own: “My Lord and my God.” Thomas’ doubt flowered into faith – a faith that is available to us all. Doubt isn’t disastrous to our faith – unless we keep it hidden, unless we hide it from even ourselves. No, my brothers and sisters, doubt that is offered to God in the light of truth, it flowers into faith. Because our Lord is always there to invite us to believe – if we invite Him into our doubt. Don’t be afraid of your doubt.
What do you doubt today? Can you say it clearly in your mind? Can you accept and own whatever doubts you really have? Do you doubt you have the strength to carry you another step down a difficult path? Do you doubt that God can bless and strengthen your marriage? Do you doubt you have been or are a good parent or spouse? Do you doubt God can love all of you – sin and all, imperfections and all, doubt and all? Do you doubt that God has called – is calling – you to a vocation that is specifically yours; a vocation to marriage, or a vocation to priesthood or religious life, a vocation to single life? Do you doubt you have what it takes to acknowledge that call – to follow that call? Do you doubt you can overcome some sin – some addiction, some pattern of living that seems to hold you prisoner? Do you doubt…? Today, don’t hide from it. Today, learn from Thomas. Today, remove the mask… stand face to face with our Lord and say, “My Jesus, I’m sorry… but I DOUBT.” And listen as our Lord, softly and tenderly – without rebuke, without disappointment – but rather with love, and compassion, and joy at the trust in Him you’ve shown to share your doubt with Him – listen as our Lord gently takes your hand, shows you the Truth that you are most loved by Him… experience today the relief of letting go of that doubt as it fades into the knowledge and experience of a risen God who calls you for His own.
The only doubt that destroys is hidden doubt. When you share your doubt with God, it will be transformed into faith. Thomas only doubted until he gave the doubt to the Lord. Taste and see, beloved, that the Lord is good.

My Lord Jesus – I doubt. Right now in my mind, I face my doubt. Right now in my mind I give it to You. Right now… right now I give You my doubt. I won’t hide it any longer. Turn my doubt to faith. My Lord and my God. Amen.
St. Thomas, pray for us, that we may too receive faith from our doubt.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

On the Stove Again...

...I Just Can't Wait to Get On The Stove Again...

OK - that's not how Willie Nelson sang it - but when I moved here to the rectory for my summer in Pikeville, one of the things I was most excited about was the chance to cook again. Don't get me wrong, I'm so VERY grateful for the dining room situation at seminary. When I'm struggling with papers, or reading, or even just 'tons of stuff to do' at seminary, its nice to not have to think about what to eat. Just showing up at mealtime is very nice. But I do love to cook, and I miss it some.

Anyway, I've been cooking for Fr. Wil and myself and really enjoying it; and I didn't let up while he's been gone. Earlier in the week I was talking with Mom on the phone; she's often sharing new recipes she's discovered with me. Two of them she shared were very interesting, and I thought I'd give one a try.

Now... I should be honest - sharing a recipe most often includes having it read to us, but not necessarily writing it down. I've always sorta' thought of recipes as 'guidelines' rather than rules. (You know, like Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean...) So I always modify and tinker, maybe replace something with what might sound better to me. So, the recipe is just getting the general idea of what the creator was after, and then in the cooking, I sorta' make it my own. *shrug* It's more fun this way.

Anyway, mom - this entry is for you! Check out what I had for dinner last night!!!

Sacramental Oils

Each year, bishops in the Catholic church bless oils that will be used by every parish in their diocese throughout the year for the various sacraments. There is the Oil of the Catechumen, Oil of the Sick, and Sacred Chrism. These oils are used in many of the Church's sacraments, including baptism & confirmation, annointing of the sick, and calling to Holy Orders. (If you're interested in reading more about the Chrism Mass and/or the oils, check out these two links: Chrism Mass Bulletin Insert; Chrism Wikipedia Article.) Though different Christian denominations may not practice blessing or use of oils in the same way, scriptural references to "annointing" should not be foreign - and it is easy to understand (even for those who don't practice it) a Christian community reflecting practices of annointing due to its prominent place in the Old and New Testaments.

But - I digress. (Who? Me? Digress? NO WAY!!!)

Because the Chrism Mass is celebrated each year, a replenished supply of sacramental oils is provided by the ministry of the Church through the Bishop each year, and unused oils from previous years are to be consumed - typically by fire. I don't know the theology of it - but somewhere inside it seems to resonate with the idea of trusting God today for what we need today. We are not a people that need to hoard - God will provide. (But - as I said, I don't know that for a fact....)

Anyway, while Fr. Wil has been away on vacation, he asked me to consume the previous year's holy oils. Looking for guidance online, I discovered ways to burn the oil - but it didn't seem right to me to just light the fire, like I was burning trash. *shrug* Just me, I guess. Anyway, I wrote the following prayer that I said each time as I lit the fire to consume the oils - it felt more appropriate to me to offer some sort of prayer, and the exercise in considering what might be included in this prayer deepened my appreciation for what God is doing in the sacramental life of the Church and the person when the oils are used. (That may be a lesson for the future - if I need to deepen my experience of something, I could try to write an appropriate prayer related to it... hrm....)

Anyway - here's the prayer I wrote:

Father, for love of Your people, You give the Church sacraments to strengthen us in our journey toward You. Through the ministry of Your bishops, you transform everyday oils into Holy matter through which Your priests welcome us, Your children, into Your Church, confirm Your calling in our lives, strengthen us through illness, and guide us always to You. We praise and thank You for such provident care.

Each year, You provide for our family of faith a renewed store of these Holy oils as our local Church celebrates Your continuing care for us, and seeks the blessing of the Holy Spirit on the ministry offered through these sacramental oils. Today, we celebrate this continual care for us as we consume oils from previous years with fire – confident that we will never be lacking in what we need for our journeys.

Accept this as an offering of praise for this care. As we return these oils to You by fire, we ask the same Holy Spirit that once came in fire to anoint your Church at Pentecost to strengthen all those who have been blessed through the imposition of these oils in times past. Bring them all, and us, into the light of Your presence.

We pray this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reins with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Friday, June 27, 2008

It's Stupid and Petty, I Know... But...

...I LOVE my jeans. One of the things I loved most about the job I held for 12 years before going to seminary was the freedom to work in a professional context where bluejeans were acceptable. And crocs. And - OH MY GOSH - can you believe it? Even the occasional untucked shirt.

Today, we received an email from the new administration at St. Meinrad outlawing jeans. ARGH!!! What? You mean its possible to look professional, be taken seriously, be considered by others to be 'dressed appropriately' in bluejeans and an untucked shirt? Uh - YEAH! Welcome to the year 2008 (about ten years late...)!

But, you are being formed for the priesthood...the standards are different. Yes, I agree 100%. The standards ARE different. But WHICH standards. Could it be we spend so much time focusing on the externals that the internals are slipping? Could is POSSIBLY be that a life steeped in prayer, genuine love for the people of God, prayerful preparation for liturgy, a genuine availability to the flock he tends - could it possibly be that these things are more important to a man's ministry as a priest than whether or not he is DRESSED APPROPRIATELY?!?!?!!

Not to mention that from personal experience, the most effective ministry I've received from the priests in my life has most often come when they WEREN'T in 'chapel dress'. Eye to eye, person to person, priest (who is a 'real person' called to the vocation of priesthood, but a real person who - GASP - wears bluejeans) to parishoner...

Case in point: Fr. Wil (my supervising pastor for the summer assignment here in Pikeville) wears a clerical shirt for masses. Period. The rest of the time he dresses casual - and the people appreciate it. And so do I.

OK - I'm done ranting. Truth is, I love St. Meinrad - and I hate change. I'm intensely insecure about the complete transformation of the administration there. Not only is there a new Rector - but almost all of the administration and formation staff have changed in one broad reaching swoop. And that makes me nervous, because I wonder if the St. Meinrad I've come to love will be there when I return from the summer. And (did I mention it??) I hate change.

So...even something 'simple' like "No more jeans" freaks me out a little.

Hrm....

...THIS must be why I need five more years (at least) of formation before I could even consider seeking ordination. ARG!! Pray for me folks.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Square Ministry

Ministry in the mountains is, as I said in a previous post, a bit different than I imagined. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its surprises. Last Thursday after morning mass was over and I'd settled down with a good book for the morning...

Random thought that has nothing to do with this post here...
I'm enjoying some of my extra free time over the sumer reading the Kay Scarpetta novels written by Patricia Cornwell that have come out in the last several years. I LOVE this series - Cornwell writes books that - in my opinion - catch you from the moment you begin. A former girlfriend of mine in college got me started on reading Cornwell, and I've remained a big fan. I got a little frustrated when 'The Last Precinct' came out, and then Cornwell wrote several other novels without the Scarpetta character who is - by far - my favorite contemporary fiction heroine. Anyway...I discovered when visiting the Pikeville library that there are several Scarpetta novels out since I last read Cornwell. I've read one already (plus two Grisham books that were good, too), and I'm into my second - and have another checked out ready to go.

...and now we return you to the regularly scheduled blog...
...already in progress...

when Fr. Wil comes outside and says, "Today, you're going to learn one of the most important skills in Mountain ministry. We're going to call SQUARE DANCING for a group of kids having camp in Campton."

As you could image, I almost dropped my teeth (except that, thank God, I don't have dentures that I could have dropped.) Though the drive up to Campton was long, the kids there had a great time (and Fr. Wil had as much - if not more - fun than they did).


Fr. Wil having (more?) fun warming up himself before we get started.


And as I remembered during the Smoky Camping trip (I think I'd learned it long before - but it just isn't always present to mind), if the kids are having fun, it's all worth it. So - I've been initiated into one of the 'most important skills for mountain ministry':


Fr. Wil calls the Virginia Reel while Sr. Amy looks on.



Father warms 'em up with a line dance.



The Virginia Reel is always a big hit.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Home for the Summer...

Things in Pikeville have been much, much quieter and slower than I had anticipated. 'Great expectations' are to blame, I think. I had imagined so much (more? that's probably not the right word... I think I imagined so much different work being done), because Fr. Will is the only priest in the whole county, covering the Pikeville parish as well as two missions. As it turns out, most days seem very slow to me, with just one or two things to accomplish for the whole day.

I'm strugging a bit with this - and praying with it. What lesson does God have for me in this? I suppose, as so often before, there are the common lessons I can always use reminding of: God is more concerned with who we are, how we are, and our relationship with Him than what we DO. BEing is so much more important than DOing. I suppose also there's a real message in dropping our expectations and preconceived notions about how we'll serve Him - and instead remaining open to what (and where, and how) he puts whatever ministry in front of us that will serve Him. After all, this kind of surrender, this kind of letting go and getting out of the way, is important to making sure that we're following God's agenda for ministry, and not our own. Pray with me about this, my friends. One of my biggest shortcomings is an inability to effectively cope well with nothing to do.

Still, I have to say, the people and places of Pike County are amazing. The parish family here have welcomed me very warmly. And I've been invited into many homes. I enjoy so much those times I'm able to visit folks who are recouperating in the hospital or unable to get out much - either bringing communion to them, or just spending some time with them offering some encouragement and prayer. I also enjoy the quiet moments of prayer here at the rectory with a good view of the eastern Kentucky mountains. I pray Morning and Evening Prayer most days with this view in sight.



Here are also some pictures of the parish church in downtown Pikeville... including one showing Fr. Wil preparing for mass.





Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Survived Camping Trip

Some of you have been wondering whether or not I survived the camping trip. Well I did - and I had a good time, too. Even got into the water, believe it or not. There were about 50 or so kids, but plenty of adults on hand to make it run very smoothly. Jeff Estacio (another seminarian from my diocese) was also there. All in all, I survived it - and have another experience to talk about. :-)

We arrived there Monday of last week right after lunch, and left Thursday just before lunch. During the days, we took the kids hiking in Deep Creek park (on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountain National Park) - and also took them tubing down Deep Creek which runs through the camp ground. I went tubing only one day - it was enjoyable for the most part, but shallow parts on some of the runs meant by oversize rear end got stuck quite a bit - and I didn't really enjoy walking down the river carrying the innertube. LOL. Then there were the creepy crawly friends along the river. I'm not scare of many critters except those without legs that crawl (and SWIM!!!) on their bellies. So, I only tubed the first day.

The highlight of the week for me was "camp mass" that Fr. Will and Fr. John celebrated for us right there in the campground. A more beautiful cathedral would be hard to find - and the kids really seemed to enjoy it as well. In some ways, it reminded me of my own very, VERY fond memories of Church camp when I was much younger.

Here are some pictures... more later this week on how I'm passing my time here in Pikeville.


Fr. Will making his world famous pancakes on Tuesday morning.


Alan with some campers playing "Speed" - a great card game - or a new one that the kids taught Alan called "Egyptian Rat Slap"! GREAT FUN! You can see one of the campers from here in Pikeville - Thomas - making MOOSE EARS behind my head in this photo.


Fr. Will and Fr. John celebrate mass at our campsite.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

God Wants Our LOVE More Than Our Sacrifice

As part of my formation goal for the coming year, I'm trying to develop a sustainable priestly spirituality. Based on the recommendation early last year of Fr. Ron Knott, a member of our formation staff on loan from the Archdiocese of Louisville, my goal includes beignning a prayerful reflection each Monday on the coming Sunday's readings. My goal is to reflect on the readings each and every week as the week unfolds. In addition to that, twice a month or so I will practice writing a homily-like reflection. My hope is that this practice deepens my spiritual journey of discernment and formation by helping me listen more closely as God speaks to me and the community (communities??) I'm a part of... and also that I practice trying to be an instrument of God speaking to others through that process.

*shrug* I'll share at least some of these reflections here for those who may be interested. More to come soon on my recent trip with Fr. Will and about 60 2nd - 4th graders for four days of camping and tubing in the Smoky Mountains. Peace.

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Hos 6:3-6
Rom 4:18-25
Mt 9:9-13


I’ve always been a person of good beginnings. I get excited at the front end of a project. I get excited and make plans and commitments. I have grand images of how things will be with this new chapter in life. And I love God – I do. And so my images are often those of piety. Coming to Pikeville for the summer, for example. As the end of the school year approached and I learned of my assignment for the summer, I began to get excited.

I saw myself covering the miles and miles of mountains being a beacon of hope for the Church there. I saw myself rising early in the morning to pray. I’d pray the whole Office, stopping five times faithfully each day to offer a sacrifice of praise. I’d get back to a regular practice of lectio divina and have long talks with God. I’d meet and serve the poor, the forgotten, the underserved. I’d spend a Holy Hour every day at the parish church. My struggles with day to day living would vanish in a cloud of love and service to God’s people. After all, God was calling, and I am willing!

And then, soon, two things happened. Sure as anything, after a couple of days that voice of doubt and past experience began to creep in. “Come on, Alan – we’ve been here before. You never live up to those images of piety. You never seem to pray as much as you think you should. You never do as much as you like. What do you know about the mountains? What do you know about much of anything – after all, you’re just a seminarian… and a new one at that!” Yeah – that old voice I’d heard before – and the scary thing about it is: it’s true. I never seem to get as far, as well, and surely not as Holy as I’d hoped. And with that realization, sometimes I’m tempted to give in to what has been – surrender to what I’ve always been, how far short of the mark I’ve often been. All that light and excitement and energy that comes with the good beginning threatens to get clouded over.

The second thing that happens is, I actually begin that beginning. I move to Pikeville. I begin to start routines. I try to set the bar high and work through all the plans and images and imaginings I’d had floating around in my head. I set out to do what it is I thought I would. And wouldn’t you know it…not even two days into it and it turns out that voice has a lot of truth. I didn’t pray that Evening Prayer as devoutly as I’d wanted. I didn’t get up and exercise one morning like I thought I should. Instead of spending my evening writing letters to those I know who need encouragement, or praying with the scriptures as I thought I would, I watched a movie. (Oh – it was a good movie all right – but as soon as it was over, there was that voice – back again, louder than before – and with ample evidence at hand to prove its point.)

It’s a familiar story – and perhaps it’s familiar with you, too? Ever have great dreams of how you’ll honor or serve God that just don’t seem to come out the way you thought they would? Ever decide to start some – even simple – prayer or devotional practice as a way to boost your relationship with God only to find a few days into it it’s gone by the wayside? Ever decide you were going to participate in some ministry here in the parish, only to realize months down the road that you never made that first call? Do you ever hear that voice that says, “Here you go again, my friend. Bet you’re gonna’ miss the mark. See? You already are!”

Good thing that’s not the whole story, isn’t it?

There’s GOOD NEWS for us today – GOOD NEWS to be had here where Christ has come to be present with us in Word and Sacrament. Yes – GOOD NEWS in the very WORD of God. And that GOOD NEWS is that God KNOWS us – KNOWS us well enough to express His LOVE for us in a way that allows us to LOVE him back. And the best news of all is… that its our LOVE he wants most from us. When we genuinely and truly love Him, all the rest falls into place just as it should.

We heard in our first reading that God knows our ‘piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away’. I’ve been struck by the beauty of the mist over the mountains on these early mornings here and Pikeville – and by how quickly the sun burns it away. Yep – just like my good intentions sometimes. Here for a bit, and then quickly burned off when the ‘day-to-day’ routines kick in. And if this were all there were to the story, we’d all be in trouble – wouldn’t we? But God tells us in this first reading that its not perfection in all our good intentions He’s after – it is our LOVE that God desires – God wants us to LOVE Him and to know Him.

We don’t just listen to that voice that accuses us, that voice that reminds us of our shortcomings. We don’t do that any more than Abraham did when God told him he’d be the father of many nations. Abraham probably heard that same voice that we sometimes do – he was almost a hundred years old and married to a barren woman. He could have heard that same voice saying, ‘There’s no way, old man. No WAY for you to father nations. Just LOOK. Look at your limitations. Look at your shortcomings.” But, instead, we read in Romans that Abraham never doubted God’s promise – never doubted that God would do through him what God said He would do. And it was credited to him as righteousness.

Today we’re here to worship a God who loves us – and knows us. A God who knows our limitations, but calls us forward anyway. A God who calls even those of us who fall short of the mark sometimes. And what He asks of us more than anything is to love Him. Christ came not for the perfect, not for those who perfectly live what they set out to live. Because God knows our inability to reach perfection better than anyone – after all, He created us. No, those who are well don’t need a physician, but the sick do… those with shortcomings do… those whose fervor burns off like the morning dew need Christ. And how is it that we respond? With love, by our efforts to know God, by our actions that grow from that love and knowledge.

The sacrifices, the holocausts, the devotion and service to God that are true – that last – that will be sustained long after the morning sun has burned the mists of our own plans and designs away… they grow naturally out of that genuine love for God – a love planted in us by God, a gift from Him that constantly draws us back to him…, that love the flowers as beautiful as the wildflowers in a spring meadow.

As we worship Christ in Word and sacrament, let us remember that what God wants most from us is our love. As we eat His body and drink His blood, let it nurture us in that love that brought Him to us in the first place. And, with a true love and devotion of men and women healed of an eternally terminal illness, let us go forth from this place to share this GOOD NEWS with those we meet. For, when our love grows strong, nourished by Christ Himself, the piety, the devotions, the sacrifice, the life we live will be stronger, more beautiful, and more pleasing to God than anything we could come up with on our own. That love will help us know how God intends us to honor and serve Him, and give us the strength to follow His intentions – and that love will sustain us, even in our shortcomings, so that our efforts won’t burn off like mist in the first ray of sunlight.

Together, strengthened by this Eucharist, let us ‘Go and learn the meaning of the words: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ Amen.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

News Flash: Alan NOT Missing :-)

Three months - oh my goodness - three months since I last posted anything on my blog. My apologies. I could come up with a long list of excuses - and some of them might even be close to good - but that wouldn't serve any good purpose. This morning I realized as I was checking my email that the only thing keeping me away from posting to my blog today was a sense that it had been so long since I'd written anything, I wouldn't know where to begin. What a pathetic reason not to post something, huh?

I realize its like that sometimes in life for me. Great things I want to do... then I miss a day or a week without doing them, and THAT becomes the reason for not doing it next time I think about it. Quite stupid, if you ask me. It's a lot like the readings for this coming weekend's mass. (Check them out here if you like...http://www.usccb.org/nab/readings/060808.shtml.)

Anyway - one of my goals for the summer was to get back to at least a somewhat regular blog posting. So, to "clear away" that stupid excuse for not knowing where to begin, here's a quick 'news brief' on what's taken place over the last couple of months.

  • I finished up my first year in seminary at St. Meinrad - and brought in straight A's again in my coursework. More important than the grades themselves, though, I believe I finished the year with a good balance of study, prayer, relaxing, entertainment, social interaction, etc. In short, I feel like I reached a good balance in all the important things to keep myself spiritually, intellectually, mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy. That is an accomplishment I thank God for more than the good grades.
  • I completed my term as president of my class - and decided not to run again. I'm very pleased with this decision, though it was a hard one for me to make - I genuinely enjoyed and was energized by that role in caring for and building community with my class brothers at seminary.
  • I was asked (and accepted) by the formation staff to serve as the seminary community's banquet coordinator for the coming year. I'm pleased to be able to serve the community in this way, planning menus, coordinating other men as they serve the community at table, and hosting the community and its guests to our most important events and times in the life of the community. Graduation banquet before the end of the year was my first 'trial by fire' - and it was awesome... we welcomed 325+ people for dinner and celebrated our graduates. It was incredible.
  • I have also been given the opportunity to learn about - and put my action where my mouth is - the social teachings of the church by serving the community next year as the Justice and Peace Chairman. I don't know a lot about the Church's official teachings in these areas, and though they're often dear to my heart, I'm shamefully lacking in doing anything in this area. I'm praying that serving the community this way will help eliminate both of those problems.
  • I completed my annual evaluation with the formation staff, and received their endorsement to proceed to the next year of formation. This evaluation is a critical look at all four areas of formation for priesthood (intellectual, spiritual, human, and pastoral) and how a man is progressing in these areas. As part of my ongoing discernment, the annual evaluation is an important way the Church participates in understanding God's will for my life.
  • After returning home for the summer for about a week, we had our annual seminarian convocation with Bishop Gainer. It's wonderful to live in a diocese , and be blessed by the spiritual leadership of a Bishop who knows the seminarians he may one day call to the priesthood. Bishop Gainer spends time with us - not just at convocation - and I'm certain he prays for and with us by name. More importantly, he genuinely gets to know us - our journeys, our strengths and weaknesses. Heck - he even visited our seminaries this year and spent time with the formation staff. For our convocation this year, in celebration of the anniversaries of the second oldest dioceses in the U.S. (of which Bardstown - which became Louisville - and from which Lexington traces its roots), we 'road-tripped' to the proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, as well as the first seminary west of the east coast, and also the oldest church located and operating in the diocese of Lexington. It was great to meet new seminarians from our diocese (welcome Rob and James!!!!) - and difficult to say goodbye to Holy men who've discerned that continued formation is not for them (Tim, you'll remain in our prayers - we love you brother!!!).
  • Finally, I've settled into my summer assignment at St. Francis of Assisi parish and missions in Pike County, Kentucky with Fr. Will Fraenzel - a priest of 40 years whose spent most of his ministry in the moutains of eastern Kentucky. I'm still learning my way around and figuring out what I'll be doing, but I'm excited about the opportunity to learn about "mountain ministry". Next week, Fr. Will is taking me camping with a hoarde of second graders in the Great Smokey Mountains - pray for me. :-)
I can't think of any more 'news updates'. At least this gets me past feeling I wouldn't know where to start. Now, hopefully, I'll get off my excuses and update here with some frequency. Pray for me - and know that all you who read this blog and especially those who are so encouraging with comments, emails, letters, and gifts - you all remain in my prayer as well.
Peace.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Darkness...

Total darkness. Bit by bit the candles are extinguished. The prophet cries out in lamentation to God's people, "Return to Him." Through the words of the psalms, we see our Lord's progression to the day, the time... that day... that time...

When all of creation trembled. When darkness as had never been experienced before settled onto the Earth. When all was dark - at least for a moment. When it seemed to those who didn't know that it would be so forever. And even to those who knew, who'd been told for generations what was to come, but couldn't recognize it. And even to those who'd been told just seeming moments before...

...and yet, the darkness settled because the light would dawn again. The perfect light. The perfect darkness, as it were, was not defeat, but rather a opening into which perfect light would again break forth on the scene, return to the altar, and burn there - forever bright - for all of mankind.

+++++++++++++++

Tonight our seminary community celebrated an early Tenebrae service. If you've never taken the opportunity to attend a Tenebrae service in your area, consider doing so this year. For a moment, perhaps, feel just a bit of the soul's true lament - and the awakening (and peace, and calm) that always follows the dark. And the light - Oh the Light! - that breaks into the darkness. For a few moments, I am reminded of the stark reality of "what this is all about" - this life, this love, this journey that we are all on. Yes - joy comes in the morning. All we have to do is knock. Seek.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Congratulations!

This evening St. Meinrad celebrated the installation of the 1st Theology men to the Ministry of Lector and the 2nd Theology men to the Ministry of Acolyte. Lectors are designated by the church to be ministers of scripture in liturgy, Acolytes are designated by the church to be ministers of Eucharist and to serve Deacons and Priests at the altar. This isn't a precise theological definition, but its close.

Anyway, congratulations to them all. And especially to Jeff Estacio, my diocesan brother studying here at St. Meinrad with me who was installed as a Lector. As we pray together with and for Jeff, we continue to thank God for the gift of vocation, and ask Him to bless Jeff with guidance, strength, and the wisdom of discernment.

I took a couple of photographs during this evenings Eucharist when the Bishop of Lafayette (IN) installed Jeff and the other men, but the pictures were wobbly and shaky. (I'm learning that happens sometimes when you're not using a flash.) But I did get this good picture of Jeff (far right) along with Fr. Noel Zamorra, a priest of our diocese and Jeff's cousin, and Deacon Saviour Nundwe at a banquet we shared as a community following the installation.

And - can you believe it - we DID get our snow day after all! One of our professors was not in my second class this morning, and due to bad road conditions, the seminary has cancelled our ministry assignments for tomorrow. Imagine that - 34 years old, and praying for a "snow day" still works. (Mrs. Holbrook, if you're out there somewhere reading this, I learned all about praying for Snow Days from you!)

Monday, February 11, 2008

OK - We're Not In High School, But...

There's something about the magic of snow (and the fond rememberance of "snow days"???) that gets even seminarians a little goofy when the white magic begins to fall. It started earlier today, and sifted all around - and was quite beautiful. Here's a shot of the "Holly Tree Courtyard" (not the same courtyard as the photos a couple weeks ago) with the snowcover.
And it was REALLY coming down hard. Compare this view out of the front window my room with the one I posted a couple of weeks ago. The treeline just beyond that small parking lot in the center of the photo (clearly visible in the earlier photo) is nearly obscured by the snowfall in this picture.
So - of course - what was "the talk" at dinner? Among other things, whether there would be a "snow day" tomorrow, and the fun we'd have sledding down the back hill from the monastery. The senior men here tell stories about how you can get from the monastery on the crest of the hill all the way down and across the state road that runs along that edge of the property and WELL into the cleared field beyond. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Although - the chances of an official class day cancellation is next to nothing. Most of the faculty and administration reside in the monastery, and those that don't live very closeby. But we can remember how fun it is to "hope" for a snow day, can't we?

After dinner, it REALLY began to fall. And I couldn't resist a couple other pictures showing how beautiful the snowfall is around here. This picture is taken in the same Holly Tree Courtyard as above, from nearly the same spot. Look at the SIZE of those snowflakes!
The lights illuminating the front of the Archabbey Church (just through an archway from this courtyard) also really show off the beauty of the snow as it falls:
So, knowing of course that we wouldn't get to tune into some radio or TV station tomorrow morning and hear those magic words from our youth, "No school today in YOURTOWN County" we took a few minutes to go outside and enjoy the white wonder. Here's a picture of Chris Hess, a 1st Theology man (who's room just happens to be right beneath mine - both our rooms are located just above the porch where this picture is taken).
My pet even got in on the excitement of it all. (SHHHH - don't tell the rector or the formation staff - technically, we're not supposed to have pets. It'll just be our secret, OK?) This is "Lindsay the Ladybug" enjoying the snow. See - she had to get over to the window to keep an eye on it too.
Enough of my crazy rambling! Honest, I had something "deep" to blog about today - and I may still write about it sometime soon. (The significant difference between "individual" and "personal".) But, here's a deep thought for today that I think we all overlook way too much: Sometimes the "depth" of life exists in the joy we can take in the frivolities. We are living for a world to come - but we are also living in this life, and can, and should, and MUST enjoy it from time to time.