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!