Have you ever wondered what a seminarian does over the summer? Well, what you’re about to see is an ordinary Thursday in my life (specifically the tenth ordinary Thursday of the year). Disclaimer: This certainly doesn’t represent the life of every seminarian, nor even—by a long shot— every day in my own life! We have good and bad days like anybody else. Yet by the grace of God, the day I set out to document was a very good day. And so, usque ad finem, ad Dei sit gloriam! To God be the glory!
5:36 am: Morning comes early here. My summer assignment is at St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. (That’s my room in the rectory pictured above.) While I’m assigned here, most of my day to day work is at the pastoral center, but one of my duties here at the cathedral is to be sacristan and acolyte for the weekday morning Masses—meaning I unlock the church, set up the sacred vessels, serve Mass, clean up, and lock up again before I head out to work. Mass is at 7:30, but the doors have to be unlocked by 6:50, so I try to wake up at 5 most days in order to give myself plenty of time to get ready.
Morning discipline is not my strong suit, mainly because evening discipline is not my strong suit, either, but Archbishop Sample has always urged us to offer the Lord the first fruits of our day. It is, I think he would say, a matter of offering God what he is due. I know, too, that spending more time resting in bed doesn’t actually correlate with a more restful day later on. If anything, it makes for a more hectic morning: sleeping in, rushing to get ready, no time for recollection.
In my haste, it can be so easy to lose sight of the meaning behind what I’m doing. I find myself rushing to get to the next item on my to-do list, and the next, and the next. It’s amazing how this mindset afflicts us even when our to-do list consists of extraordinary things: “It’s 6:45 and I’ve got to get vested, and unlock the doors, and dress the chalice, and light the candles, and…!”
Intentionally spending those first moments of the day on the Lord does make for a more peaceful day. In those earliest moments, as the sun is brightening through the window-blinds, I meet Jesus face to face and remember, again, who it is I’m doing all this for. But that argument on its own is not always compelling when I’m under the warm blankets, and in no way equipped to consider anything as long-term as the rest of the day. So what motivates me to get out of bed more often than not is giving God what he is due—not in the negative sense we might sometimes think of it, like paying the tax-man what he is due—but in the sense that our love is due to our beloved. It is hers by right! And it is no tiresome or trying obligation to give it to her. On the contrary, we long to give her every drop.
Well, our love is God’s by right. So is all our time, all our energy, all our work! Venerable Fulton Sheen has a great quote that often comes to mind (although I ignore it almost as often as it comes): “Give, give, give! As we pour out ourselves, God gives us strength! Spend yourself!”—And so I get up and pray the rosary.
6:01 am: I find myself lingering over the fourth luminous mystery, the Transfiguration, as the sunbeams lengthen. The Lord took Peter, James, and John with him up to the mountaintop to pray, and they saw him there in his glory: clothed in dazzling white, his face burning like the sun, speaking with the prophets! I wish I were more like Peter, so pure and childlike of heart, whose first reaction is to build three tents: one for the Lord, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, to stay on the mountaintop forever! “He knew not what he said” (Luke 9:33), but he went right ahead and said it. That’s Peter for you, who, when he sees the Lord out on the water, jumps out of the boat at once to get to him, who walks on the water without knowing what he is doing! Peter, who never stops and thinks, who never lets himself get bogged down in indecision or fear of looking like a fool, whose eyes are always fixed on the Lord and no one else: who is not afraid of anything.
The familiar prayers pass between my lips and the familiar beads between my fingers. I am more like John, I think. Or: I am more like John; I think.
A little later, I rifle through the pages of my missal to the Mass readings for the day. We are in year II of the weekday lectionary cycle, but something in today’s reading for year I, from Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, catches my eye: “Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
Our beloved Abbot Jeremy Driscoll at Mt. Angel loves to call this the “liturgical providence of God.” So often this is how He speaks! We may not see a cloud come and overshadow us, like the apostles with Jesus on the mountaintop, or hear the voice of God coming out of the cloud, but something catches our attention: a familiar prayer, a reading. A new facet reveals itself in the light. A new resonance delights the ear in a familiar refrain. God speaks with a “still, small voice,” as much to us as to Elijah.
6:37 am: After the rosary and lectio divina, divine reading, it’s time to get ready for the day. I put on a rabat over my work clothes—it’s the plain black vest with the high black collar, the whole purpose of which is to prevent your white shirtfront from showing under your cassock.
The cassock (long, black robe) is fastened around the waist with another long, fringed strip of black fabric called the fascia. Apart from its practical purpose of holding the cassock together, it also has a symbolic purpose: that of guarding purity. When you put on the fascia, you pray, “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.”
Then there is one last vestment to put on: the surplice, a white, waist-length garment which is worn over the cassock. Unlike the cassock, which is clerical “street dress,” the surplice is only worn for divine worship, so I wait to put it on until I get to the sacristy.
7:02 am: Everything is already set up for Mass by the time I get there! I forgot Thursdays are the one day a week when Suzanne, a Cathedral parishioner and sure candidate for canonization one day, comes in to serve as morning sacristan. Praise God! Praise Suzanne! Now I have time to pray the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer before the start of Mass.
Those two prayers are two of the seven “hours” of the Divine Office, which, together with Holy Mass, makes up the daily liturgical prayer of the Church. Priests, seminarians, and consecrated religious, along with some members of the laity, pray these prayers every single day. What does this mean? That the Church is constantly at prayer—”from the rising of the sun to its setting,” as Eucharistic Prayer III has it. Right now, a priest in Italy is finishing evening prayer, at the very same moment as I whisper “Lord, open my lips” and begin morning prayer. We are one body in Christ, constantly interceding before the Father for the sanctification of the world.
Today is the memorial of St. Ephrem, a second century deacon and doctor of the Church, and so the Office of Readings has a selection from one of his sermons. This is another incredible aspect of the Church! We are not just one body made up of all those who happen to be alive on June 8, 2016, but of all those of us who have ever lived and professed the name of Christian—and so Deacon Ephrem, “born of a Christian family at Nisibis around the year 306,” as the breviary helpfully notes, continues to preach to us and pray right alongside us in Portland, Oregon, 1643 years after his death!
His sermon begins with a prayer: “Lord, shed upon our darkened souls the brilliant light of your wisdom so that we may be enlightened and serve you with renewed purity. Sunrise marks the hour for men to begin their toil, but in our souls, Lord, prepare a dwelling for the day that will never end. Grant that we may come to know the risen life and that nothing may distract us from the delights you offer. Through our unremitting zeal for you, Lord, set upon us the sign of your day that is not measured by the sun.”
Amen! (Part of me wants to say: “OO-RAH!”) And now for the third time this morning the Transfiguration is coming to light … pun intended. God longs for us not just to see his light but to reflect it, to soak in it and be enlightened by it, to be transformed into Him! (Another part of me wants to say: “Okay, Lord, I get it!” But I know how easily I get distracted. He can’t remind me enough.)
Ephrem goes on, addressing the Lord directly: “In your sacrament we daily embrace you and receive you into our bodies; make us worthy to experience the resurrection for which we hope. We have had your treasure hidden within us ever since we received baptismal grace; it grows ever richer at your sacramental table. Teach us to find our joy in your favor! Lord, we have within us your memorial, received at your spiritual table; let us possess it in its full reality when all things shall be made now. We glimpse the beauty that is laid up for us when we gaze upon the spiritual beauty your immortal will now creates within our mortal selves.”
After all this prayer on the Transfiguration, now the time has come for Mass, to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, the sacrament which effects what it signifies: that sacrament by which we are transformed, little by little, into Himself!
8:24 am: After Mass, I head upstairs to my room to divest myself of the garments of divine service, the cassock and surplice, and vest myself instead in the garments proper to worldly work: the tie and the key card belt clip.
In the first reading for Mass, “Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go back, eat and drink; for I hear the sound of rain.'” It looks like it’s going to rain in Portland, too, so I take Elijah’s advice and stop for a cup of coffee.
After Elijah, having sent Ahab away, had spent some time in prayer on Mount Carmel, he told his servant, “Go and say to Ahab, ‘Harness the chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'” So I harness my Honda Accord and go down over the river to the pastoral center of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon.
9:06 am: I arrive at the office to find my fellow seminarian and coworker in the vineyard of the Lord, Thien, is already hard at work.
After waking him up, we set at once about our ongoing project: contacting all the parishes in the Archdiocese of Portland to get up-to-date contact information for a new internal database. Okay, so maybe it’s not the stuff great saint movies are made of, but hey—if little Thérèse became a saint doing “small things with great love,” we’ve still got a shot!
As you can see, we have a highly scientific system of sticky notes keeping track of which parishes we’ve contacted and which we are still waiting to hear back from. The further away it is on the wall, the more hopeless we’ve become of ever hearing from them. (Does St. John’s in Reedsport even exist?)
10:27 am: Our sanctifying monotony of leaving and responding to voicemails is interrupted by a quick meeting with Kelsey, director pro tempore of the Office for People with Disabilities. Pope Francis is celebrating a jubilee Mass for the sick and disabled in Rome this weekend, and we’ll be celebrating a jubilee Mass of our own in union with the Holy Father here in the Archdiocese of Portland. Kelsey is organizing everything, God bless her. Thien and I are going to show up in our cassocks like liturgical shock troops and make sure everything goes as planned.
12:21 pm: Before going on my lunch break, I nip into the chapel to pray the Angelus and the midday hour of the Divine Office. (How cool is it that the places where I live and work are both places where Jesus also lives? And I can pop in and visit him on my lunch break? It blows my mind!)
The rest of the afternoon continues in the same way: phone calls, emails, little meetings, the administrative lifeblood of the Church. (The real lifeblood of the Church, of course, is in every golden tabernacle where the Sacred Heart of Jesus beats.)
4:56 pm: Another day’s work completed, I head back on my now-familiar drive across the river to the cathedral—but not for long! I have just enough time to make myself a little something to eat and catch my breath before I hop back in the car and drive back to the east side (SE Taylor and 41st, to be exact) for a young adult night at St. Stephen’s parish.
Although my home parish is St. Joseph in Roseburg, and my assignment this summer is at St. Mary’s Cathedral, my “home away from home” is without a doubt St. Stephen’s, a beautiful parish which has seen a miraculous resurrection over these past two years under the leadership of Fathers John Boyle and Eric Anderson. Celebrating the sacraments with reverence according to the age-old traditions of our Church, they have a growing young adult group, 15+ young men and boys serving at the altar every Sunday, many young families… Tradition is for the young!
8:14 pm: Every Thursday night, St. Stephen’s celebrates a holy hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with priests available to hear confessions throughout, followed by sung Vespers (the evening hour of the Divine Office—men and women sing each verse of the psalms back and forth from opposite sides of the choir), benediction, and then a young adult social in the parish hall to close out the evening. Tonight, we had a great, lively conversation covering everything from Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ to St. Thérèse’s little way and Cardinal de Val’s Litany of Humility. A young man from Indianapolis dropped in who just happened to have gotten an Airbnb across the street, and decided to join us. Praise God for his providence!
We ended the night back in the church with sung Compline, the last hour of the daily Office, by general consensus. What more beautiful way to end another day in the Lord’s service than with voices joined, raising the ancient Latin prayers of the Church to heaven?
When we finally go our separate ways, I make the journey once more from east to west, from one house of the Lord to another. The streets of Portland are a little calmer by 10 pm, and maybe it’s my inner small-town country kid, but the city always seems especially beautiful at night, all lit up against the sky. The last antiphon of Compline every night echoes in my mind: “Salva nos, Domine, vigilantes, et custodi nos dormientes,” we sang, “ut vigilemus cum Christo, et requiescamus in pace.” (Save us, O Lord, while we keep vigil, and protect us while we sleep, that we may keep watch with Christ, and rest in peace.)
It is by moments like these that the Lord transfigures us—not just once, but a constant series of innumerable moments, one after another, in which we say “yes” to His love! I love that Benedictine motto, instilled in me by my time at Mount Angel: ora et labora, prayer and work, both ways we encounter God and continue to be transformed into His likeness. Whatever we are doing, sitting in prayer, talking and laughing with friends, or going about our daily business, our life as Christians should be marked above all by that constant awareness that God is with us! He is Immanuel, after all, “closer to us than we are to ourselves,” as St. Augustine beautifully put it. As long as we keep saying “yes,” every day we draw closer to Him and offer ourselves up as a beautiful offering in His sight.
send peaceful sleep
to refresh our tired bodies.
May your help always renew us
and keep us strong in your service.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”