This past week, I reconnected with a classmate from the seminary who I’ve not spoken to in close to 10 years. He left the seminary after the 2nd year, worked at a parish for a while, went back to university to get a degree in education, and became a teacher. He is now married with two children. Our 2nd year in the seminary was known as the “Spiritual Year.” It was like a year-long retreat that was held at a Spirituality Center about an hour and a half from St. Charles Seminary. We had weekly conferences but no papers or exams. As part of the schedule, there was, besides Mass and morning prayer, a daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament with Benediction, a communal Rosary, recreation in the afternoon for athletics, time to do house jobs like cleaning, and dedicated quite time for personal reading and study. The purpose of the Spiritual Year was to develop good spiritual habits – habits of prayer – and to take the time to discern whether the Lord was calling us to ordination. The Spiritual Year took place before one would advance to the much more academically challenging theology division – the four year program of graduate studies. During the year, it was customary for the Archbishop to visit and to meet with the Philadelphia seminarians. When Cardinal Bevilacqua met with my class, one of my classmates who was a bit of a free spirit decided to voice a complaint to the Cardinal about how structured our schedule was and that we didn’t have much “free” time. The Cardinal asked him about the schedule, listened, and then said, “You mean to tell me that you have a holy hour built into your schedule? You have two hours of recreation every day and another two hours of quiet time dedicated to spiritual reading and study? Am I right?” “Yes, your Eminence.” “Well, let met tell you, you will never have that much “free” time ever in your life from this time forward.” Twenty years later, my friend and I were laughing at how right the Cardinal was.
Whether one is a priest and the pastor of a parish or a father of a family with a full-time job, there is always more to do than what is possible to get done. One’s schedule is always being “interrupted” by all kinds of things. There are constant demands on one’s time. What the Spirituality Year gave us the opportunity to learn and then put into practice going forward was “the practice of the presence of God” i.e., finding God in the ordinary events of life. There is a really big difference between the way Abraham and Martha go about their serving. They are both preparing a meal and serving the Lord, but Abraham does it with enthusiasm, and even as an old man, with great energy. Martha, on the other hand, finds the serving burdensome and is bitter and resentful toward the Lord and her sister when it comes to what she has to do. Martha is anxious and worried about many things. What is Martha missing that leads to her anxious and worried state? Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Jesus implies that both Martha and Mary have a choice in the matter – a choice to recognize who has entered the house. Our peace and certainty flow from recognizing that Jesus has come to visit us. Martha shows us what happens when the relationship with Jesus is reduced to a set of tasks to complete, obligations to fulfill, or rules to follow. The focus turns to what I am doing, and the tasks become burdensome and the work is done with sense of self-righteousness. What must come first – the one thing necessary – is to contemplate the mystery of the Lord’s presence – that he has come to me. This is what Mary is doing, sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak. She is not being lazy or a slacker or trying to get out of work. Rather, it is the relationship with Jesus rooted in prayer that gives meaning and impetus to the work, no matter what we are asked to do or have to do. Contemplating the mystery that God has entered our life frees us from the burden, worry, and anxiety – the restlessness – that comes from the thought that I have to make it happen and that my success depends on me alone. In high school and then in college, I went through a period of great anxiety and found academics burdensome, not because of a lack of intelligence or ability, but because of a fear of failure and that my value as a person was dependent on my performance. A similar thing happened with my first job. I got burned out, not because of a lack of skills or competence, but because I was worried about many things – how one misstep could snowball into a big disaster. All that changed when I discovered my vocation and recognized that God had entered my life and chose me. My destiny was not dependent on my ability but on responding to the Lord’s initiative in my life. Martha has somehow forgotten that initial encounter with Jesus, has taken his presence in her life for granted, or has lost the connection between contemplative prayer and the charitable work that freely flows from it. Trying to do the work or service without keeping one’s eyes open to the presence of God quickly leads to burnout. Spiritual Year taught me how to pray and to recognize Christ and to deepen my certainty that He was with me, always. I don’t think I could have made it through Theology without it. Prayer is also asking for Him even when we don’t see him, when the unexpected and unplanned events occur. This is what Abraham does when the strange visitors appear near the entrance to his tent. There is an eagerness on Abraham’s part to greet the unexpected and to welcome the unexpected. He bows down to the mystery with the certainty that there is something favorable for him in this encounter, and he doesn’t want it to pass by. To “welcome” is to open the door to what presents itself with the certain hope that something good will come – if I wait on or serve the mystery, all will come out well. He runs and hastens to serve because he is eager to see what the Lord will do. This isn’t a burden or an obligation but a path to discovery. When Abraham says, “please do not go on past your servant”, he is asking that the Lord reveal himself. He doesn’t want to miss the Lord. It is this openness of heart and inviting the Lord to be with him – this eagerness to respond to the unexpected visit – that defines Abraham as our “father in faith.” Similarly, the attitude of the disciple, exemplified by Mary, is to listen to or listen for the voice of the Lord in every circumstance, certain that the Lord desires to teach me something here – that I expect to learn something here – there is a good for me here. That is how St. Paul can even rejoice in his sufferings. He is confident God has entrusted him with this ministry and that through it what has been hidden will be manifested to those God has chosen. Think of the newly married couple still overcome by the mystery that has brought their lives together and how that moves them to care for each other with great tenderness and affection. The cleaning and the painting and the cooking – all the household chores – are not perceived as a burden. We see this also in the experience of new parents. The task of caring for a newborn child when thought of in the abstract is something totally overwhelming, but as soon as the mother or father see the face of their child and contemplate the mystery and miracle of life that they can touch and see, the task of serving this new life is embraced with eagerness and an surprising energy. How is it that the new parents can be both totally exhausted yet so filled with joy? The awareness of the presence of the Mystery makes all the difference.
Have you taken the time to pray – to contemplate the mystery that God has entered your life – or is prayer just something you do for about an hour on Sunday that is separated from the rest of the week? Sometimes we can look at prayer as an escape from life no different than some form of “mindfulness” or other recreational activity designed to distract ourselves from “real life.” But when prayer and faith get separated from “life” – when there is a disconnect between life and faith, life becomes a burden. Have you heard this expression that has become more and more common these days, that “life has gotten in the way”? Life doesn’t get in the way but reveals the way if we approach it with the attitude of Abraham, Mary, and Paul and pray that the Lord will not pass us by.