“Happy name day to me!” I exclaimed jubilantly to an empty chapel early this morning, when I turned to September 21st in the proper of saints, and saw the solemnity of the day. It must be the Benedictine influence—when a novice makes his solemn vows, he takes on a new name, as a sign of his new life in Christ, and from then on, he celebrates his name day rather than his birthday. I’ve never celebrated mine before, but of course, we Catholics are a “both/and” people, and we take the best from all traditions…
It’s not just that I haven’t celebrated this day before, though. I’ve never spent time in communion with St. Matthew at all. He isn’t my patron (St. Dominic holds that honor), nor even, technically, my namesake (although my mother says she chose the name because she read that it means “Gift of God” in Hebrew, so I have a sneaking suspicion the Evangelist was interceding even then).
Frankly, of the four gospels, I might even say Matthew’s is my least favorite! I love the Gospel of John best—his focus on Mary, his discourse on the Bread of Life, the web he weaves of patterns and themes, symbols and signs, the way he lingers on Jesus’ miracles, pointing to Jesus as the Son of God—the subtlety of his writing!—the way he leads the reader to ask, from the very beginning, “who is this man?”—and the finesse with which he brings the story to its conclusion, designed to bring you to your knees in wonder, and love, and praise.
John shows us Jesus, the Son of God; Luke shows us the Son of Man, a model of compassion and prayer; Mark shows Him as a revolutionary, his gospel “like a hastily printed revolutionary tract,” as Tom Wright puts it, “stuffed into a back pocket, and frequently pulled out, read by torchlight, and whispered to one’s co-conspirators”—but what of the Gospel of Matthew? To me, it has always seemed like the driest gospel, having neither John’s subtlety, inviting you to dwell in mystery, nor Mark’s breathlessness, beckoning you to take up your Cross and follow Him, nor even Luke’s abiding kindness!—
The Office of Readings had for us today a homily written by Saint Bede the Venerable, back in the year 700 or so.
Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men … Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps … Notice also the happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation. He took up his appointed duties while still taking his first steps in the faith, and from that hour he fulfilled his obligation and thus grew in merit.
I couldn’t help but draw the parallels. “Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words.” Why, yes he did. My conversion began by reading the words of the Church fathers and the saints, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas (that old ox, still winning converts 750 years after his death). I remember reading the Anima Christi for the first time, or St. Patrick’s Breastplate, copying them down by hand into my notebook so I could carry them with me physically, turning their strange and beautiful words over and over in my head, little knowing that like a salve they were penetrating in and through me, right into the blood, deep into my heart.
“By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace.” I came to my first Mass because I felt an unshakeable urging, impossible to ignore, beating in the back of my head like my own pulse. When I got there, when Jesus became present in the Holy Eucharist, when the people of God fell to their knees, I fell with them, and I fell in love.
“He instructed him to walk in his footsteps.” I knew my life was changed forever. I was alone in the church one day after Mass, that summer of my falling-in-love, kneeling before the crucifix, staring at my Lord, with barely the slightest inkling of how deeply I would one day love Him, and yet I knew my life was no longer my own, to plan and direct and do with as I would. I prayed, quietly, weeping, ‘Lord, I give my life to you. Lead me, and I will follow.” Little did I know I was always His. Little did I know, as the psalmist says, “you wove me in my mother’s womb,” or as my friend Jeff Wheaton told me one day, when I mentioned I had been officially accepted as a seminarian, “It’s not just now official, you know. It’s been official since before you were born. You’re part of a story that was written before the world began.”
“The happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations…” The times I would mouth the words of the Eucharist prayer to myself and picture myself, one day, at the altar of the Lord, a thought impossible and magnificent enough to bring me almost to tears. I was in love with the idea of the priesthood long before I believed it could be a real possibility for my life. Jesus planted the seeds of my vocation early: I thought about ways I could have improved my parish’s confirmation and RCIA program while I was going through it. While I worked in the call center, I built a working prototype phone tree for an imaginary parish, just to see how it was done. I was looking forward to a priestly life in all its aspects, the mystery and the mundane, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
“No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation.” Here, at least, the parallel falters. Matthew drew a whole crowd! I’ve drawn a few a little ways, but when they falter, when they stumble, or when they stand still, looking nervously at the narrow way, the rocky path bounded by thorns up to the mountaintop—have I been there to pull them by the hand? Have I urged them onward? “Look, I know it’s hard, but the choice not to go is not worth considering, not when you consider what lies at the end of the journey”—I’ve never said. “I know you’re afraid; let me introduce you to the man who conquered fear. I can see you’re suffering; let me help you hand that over to the man who conquered death”—I’ve never done, or at least I feel I’ve never done enough.
Today marks the beginning of my fifth week at Mt. Angel Seminary. I know that might seem abrupt, since my last post mentioned I had just been accepted to apply, but I don’t believe in a lot of recapping, so let me show you this video recap of our orientation week and go from there.
Life here is incredible, which I do mean in the slavishly literal sense, “unbelievable”. We have Mass every morning, we pray the major hours of the Divine Office together every day, we have adoration and benediction before Vespers in the abbey church every afternoon, we pray the rosary together after evening prayer every night. We have a chapel in the basement of the building where I live, with a tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed. I can walk downstairs any hour of the day or night and be with Jesus, in the flesh. The classes so far are great. The feeling of brotherhood might be the greatest blessing of all. The sheer fraternity, the sense of being together on a journey, has been here almost since day one, and now, five weeks in, some of these guys have become some of my closest friends. It seems at once like the most natural thing in the world, because it fulfills the deepest longings of the human heart, and the most impossible thing in the world, that this place should exist, and I should be a part of it. I think of my life a couple of years ago, how utterly unable to imagine any of this I would have been, and I feel like dropping to my knees in wonder and praise.
I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s perfect here. The seminary is 200-odd imperfect, very consciously imperfect men, striving toward holiness. We can be uncharitable, get mad, fight, make mistakes, break rules, waste time, drive each other crazy, just like anybody else. Classes can be boring. Prayer can be dry. Days can drag on and on. But the point is, we’re striving. We’re surrounded by our brothers who are striving just as hard. Even when we’re at our worst, we’re surrounded by other guys we love and trust who will lift us up and spur us on unceasingly toward Heaven.
Boy, do I have stories to share, but I’m going to break them up into separate posts over multiple days. Let me conclude, as we should conclude all things, with a prayer—and a song:
God of mercy,
you chose a tax collector, Saint Matthew,
to share the dignity of the apostles.
By his example and prayers
help us to follow Christ
and remain faithful in your service.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.