Christmas vacation is just about over and we seminarians have been away from each other for two weeks now and I can say, for myself at the very least, that I miss being around the guys. Well, ok, I’m still enjoying my time off, but once this next week comes and we all gather once again for our annual silent retreat, I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready to get back to work. But one of the challenges of such a relaxing couple of weeks after such a full semester of studying theology, with all its hard work and all its graces, is to remember that even at home, we’re still seminarians. Away from the papers, the meetings, the choir rehearsals, the communal prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, and rolling out of bed and into the chapel for daily Mass, I’m still being prepared, and preparing myself, to become a priest one day. What an exciting challenge!
Sure it’s much easier to make it to daily Mass when it’s a “required” part of our daily schedule, it seems to make more sense to pray the Liturgy of the Hours when the whole Seminary community gathers together, and it certainly makes me feel more like a seminarian when I’m actually living at the Seminary. But I think we really come to know ourselves as seminarians and we really learn what it means to grow closer to God when we’re away from the comforts, the conveniences, and the ordered structure and schedule of the Seminary. After all, do we not all prove ourselves to be Catholic in what we do away from the inside of the church as much as we do during Mass?
But this isn’t to say that the time I’ve spent with my family has been one big challenge to remind myself of who I am, as if they were some great temptation against my vocation by taking me away from the Seminary for a couple of weeks. It’s really quite the opposite, actually! I just got back from a weeklong trip to North Carolina, where I got to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my whole family. This used to happen every year when we were younger, but now, as we grow up and start our own families (or join the seminary!), we’ve got to travel across the country to make this happen.
There’s no mistaking that it was a truly blessed trip, but I definitely had to come to terms with the fact that I was not at the seminary. There was no schedule to keep up with, no one looking over my shoulder to remind me where I should be and when, and no community to say my Liturgy of the Hours with. And most obviously, there was no chapel for me to roll into from right out of my bed.
I was constantly reminded that we are so blessed to have what we have down here at the seminary, to be able to join each other for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours every day, and to let ourselves be formed for the Priesthood in this way. Also, I got the chance to live as a seminarian away from the Seminary, and there is a lot of growth in this experience. For one, when Mass, and all the other Sacraments for that matter, aren’t so readily available, how do we meet God in our day? How do we continue to pray? Would somebody I first meet for the first time during such a trip be surprised to know I’m a seminarian? Would they recognize me as a Catholic?
While being with my family was no challenge for me (and what a blessing that is in itself), I must admit that I had to challenge myself to make present the prayer life that can be so easy while at the Seminary. Of all places, I think this actually did happen when I was simply walking around the airport in Atlanta, during a layover, waiting for my last flight home. If you’re not familiar with the Atlanta airport, it’s the busiest airport in the United States because it’s a major hub of travel throughout not only the U.S. but the world, too. So it gets a little busy there. So there I was, just walking, avoiding people, careful not to be in the way of anyone rushing to make their own flights. I think we can all relate to being around so many people who are trying to avoid each other and stay out of each other’s ways. Doesn’t it strike you as such a strange part of our lives and society that we can be among so many people, yet feel so alone because everyone’s trying to avoid each other? It sometimes comes to my mind (not as often as it could, or should) that this world would surely be different if we did indeed recognize in each one of those people at the airport, and everywhere for that matter, someone who has tremendous meaning in this world, is so loved by God (no less and no more than ourselves), and is so much more than just a face that blurs by with the hustle and bustle of holiday travel.
So I want to share with you an experience that the mystic Thomas Merton had one day as he traveled to town away from his quiet monastery:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race … there is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
I definitely had this on my mind as I walked around that airport. I know all those people had their stories. Their smiles were about real joys and their frowns were about real frustrations. But it’s just easier to ignore that sometimes. For me, it would be easier one day, should I indeed be ordained a priest, to rush right through the crowds, keep my head down, and not see every last one of those people as someone who is “walking around shining like the sun.” But hey, I think that one of the things that makes us Catholic in the first place is that we can recognize each and every one of those people who pass us by as somebody worthy of love, worthy to be listened to, worthy to not be ignored. Could you imagine what that would do for our lives? Any petty arguments or rivalries here at the seminary would dissipate quicker than candle smoke. And for all of us, our friends and family, and indeed all we meet during the day, perhaps we could begin to see them as God sees them. No, we’re not going to get to know all of the random people we come across, but if we just admit that every last one of those people who we pass, at every moment of every day, whether they be class mates, teachers, people we already like, or people we’re not particularly fond of, whether we see it or not, they’re walking around shining like the sun. To see that would make it pretty hard to walk with our heads down and to close our eyes.
– Tim (ST)