This is a very unique week in my life. One week before I enter Carmel! The rest of my seminarian brothers at Mount Angel are on their annual silent retreat this week. Even my fellow Carmelite postulants, with whom I am united in spirit and will soon be united in person, are undertaking a silent retreat of their own at the provincial House of Studies. It feels strange not to be among them, this week which would ordinarily mark the beginning of another semester, my sixth, in formation for the priesthood. It feels strange to be here at home instead, now that the holidays are over and things are returning to their normal rhythm: green vestments taken out again to replace the violet of Advent and white of the high feast days, RCIA classes and youth group resuming at the parish, everyone back to work, school, the daily grind.
It’s a struggle for me to slow down and realize, really take to heart, that Christmas is over, even though I’m still at home; that this time in which I’m living now is something different, another kind of octave, the eight days of which will end with the beginning of my postulancy. That when this time comes to an end, I will be setting off on an entirely new journey: not remaining here, nor going back to Mt. Angel, nor Portland, all of which I have come to call home, but on to the new city of San Jose. I know it in my head, but I have this gnawing sense that I don’t know it in my heart, that I’m not doing all I can or treating these Last Days with the solemnity they deserve—even though I’m not quite sure what I should be doing differently. (A silent retreat would have been much appreciated right about now!)
The liturgy has been my anchor in these unusual, yet deceptively mundane days, and my constant consolation is in being united with my brothers in prayer. It made me smile on Monday morning, as I put away my Christmas and Advent breviary and took out volume one of Ordinary Time, to think that every other seminarian and priest back on the holy hilltop—indeed, the whole Church!—was changing his breviary too. That as I sang the invitatory, “Lord, open my lips / and my mouth will proclaim your praise,” I was joining a choir, a spiritual communion of all those brothers and sisters whom I know and a great multitude of others whom I do not, all raising our voices in praise before the Lord of heaven and earth! And that each day, as I receive and am received into the blessed Body of the Lord, I am closer in Him to everyone else I love than if they were right there by my side.
As I tried to sort out my inchoate thoughts and feelings in my holy hour this evening, I realized they coalesce around two major themes. One is truth, and the other is dying.
Small wonder, perhaps, that my brother Dustin, who is preparing to enter Carmel with me next week, posted on his blog just today about the former topic. You can check out the whole story at A Carmelite Tale, but in one place he writes: “One of the things that I’ve come to greatly value is sincerity, authenticity, and genuineness in a person’s character. What you see is what you get; no hood being pulled over eyes, no haughtiness or inflated ego, no manipulation or deceit, but truthfulness, humility, genuine care and love.”
Yes! That resonates with me. In my early discernment with the Carmelites, I remember my dear friend Br. John of the Transfiguration mentioning to me that he came to this province of the Order in part because the guys here were “down to earth.” That resonated with me, too—maybe because I am so often not down to earth!—but like Dustin, like Br. John, I have come to treasure being around people who are. All of my closest friends since entering the seminary have been guys like that. I need them to keep me grounded! (That day I talked to Br. John, I wrote, “I don’t need an order that reinforces the tendencies I already have. I need one that helps make up for what is lacking in me, rounds me out, that will help me grow.”)
The little versicle at the end of midday prayer today said, “Lord, all you ask of me is truth.” How true that is! After all, God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He expects us to be honest before Him, in our successes and in our failures, our weaknesses and our brokenness, so that in His love we can be perfected.
St. Teresa’s great definition of humility is simply to walk in the truth, as Dustin also pointed out in his post earlier today. But what does it mean to walk in the truth? Ah, now that brings us to the question of dying.
It seems to me there are two kinds of dying, “for,” as the Lord says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Notice that in both cases, the guy dies!—But the first is a selfish dying. In his desire to save his life, that is, to save himself up for his own sake rather than pour himself out for another, he loses it. The second is a selfless dying, a death-to-self: in giving everything of himself for the sake of the Lord, the disciple finds his life.
In the great liturgical providence of the Church, today’s first reading at Matins included this line from the Book of Sirach:
A man may become rich through a miser’s life, and this is his allotted reward: when he says: ‘I have found my rest, now I will feast on my possessions,’ he does not know how long it will be till he dies and leaves them to others.”
In one sense, the whole of the Christian life is practice for a Christian death. “Die before you die,” C.S. Lewis said: “there is no chance after.” When I store myself up for my own sake—my time, my talents, my treasure—I am like ben-Sirach’s miser, living a selfish life in preparation for dying a selfish death.
I’m thinking of when I was a kid and had a day home from school or on summer vacation, how I would try to have everything my own way: sleep in as late as I wanted (often into the afternoon), waste whole days on videogames or TV shows. Greedy, greedy! Even on this short break, I’ve found myself falling back into old habits, sleeping late into the morning or wasting hours surfing the net. Do we think it will make us happy? I know it leaves me feeling empty, listless, unfulfilled and undirected, letting my energy fizzle out in these meaningless pursuits. (But that’s the way with all sin, isn’t it? We let ourselves believe, we want to believe it will make us happy, and then the moment we commit it, the veil lifts, and we realize—stupid, stupid!—it was nothing but a mirage in the desert, leaving us alone and empty in the wasteland of our own foolishness!)
The reading from Sirach goes on:
My son, hold fast to your duty, busy yourself with it, grow old while doing your task. Admire not how sinners live, but trust in the Lord and wait for his light; for it is easy with the Lord, suddenly, in an instant, to make a poor man rich.”
This Sunday, the feast of the Holy Family, I served the 9 am Mass at my parish, even though I’d been sick with a nasty cold. The selfish side of my heart, the part of me that wants to save my life, to live miserly, to hoard up my time and my energy, didn’t want to get out of bed—didn’t even want to go to Mass, let alone serve. But the voice of Wisdom said: “Go.” What’s more, it said, “Serve.” That was my duty, and I knew that despite the selfish cravings of my heart, I would never be happy staying home in bed, pampering myself through my marginal sufferings. How could I, when I knew the Lord was suffering on the cross and He was calling me to be there with Him on Calvary?
As I knelt there before the altar, swinging the thurible in wide arcs, I thought to myself: “I was made for this.” And I thanked the Lord with all my heart for calling me to this particular vocation, revealing to me so clearly what He would have me do: the only satisfaction of my hungry heart.
Venerable Fulton Sheen said in a conference which I love: “Give, give, give! As we pour out ourselves, God gives us strength! Spend yourself!” I think about that often, especially when I examine my life and realize how often I have held back from spending myself, how often the miserly voice in me has won out and kept me from walking in the truth of who I am.
Why is it dying to try to save up our lives? Because when we do, we’re not acting in the truth of who we are. We were all of us made by God for love, and “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Laying down your life doesn’t have to mean the heroic martyrdom to which some are called. Choosing to get out of bed and pray early, not to sleep in, is a little martyrdom. Giving the best to others (of one’s time or of one’s treasure) and taking the leftovers for oneself is a little martyrdom. Bit by bit, every time we choose to give and not to hoard, we are “putting to death whatever is earthly in us” (Colossians 3:5) and practicing losing our life for the sake of the Lord.
I think Carmel will be a focusing, a honing of my spirit, in a certain sense. Every vocation is an ars moriendi, an “art of dying”: dying, that is, to our selfishness, and rising in self-givingness. Learning to walk in the truth of who we are and how we were made, to make a gift of ourselves, in spirit and in truth! In Carmel, I will not be pouring my time and my energies out on so many things—some worthy, many distractions—but pouring all of myself into the “school of love” in which the Lord is teaching my heart to “give, and not to count the cost,” as St. Ignatius of Loyola put it once.
I’m excited to go. But in the meantime, let’s remember that becoming a saint is for all of us, not just those of us who happen to be called to religious life, and it begins now, not sometime in the future. In a letter to her sister Marie, St. Thérèse wrote about the month before she entered religious life: “At first, I said to myself: I’ll be a saint when I’m in Carmel; while waiting, I won’t put myself out. But God showed me the value of time; I did just the opposite of what I was thinking. I wanted to prepare myself for my entrance by being very faithful, and it’s one of the most beautiful months of my life. Believe me, don’t wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint.”
That’s what I have been feeling myself lacking in these last days before my own blessed entry into Carmel: a firm purpose to be very faithful now, not just avoiding sin and fulfilling my obligations, but really doing everything I can to pour myself out for the sake of the Lord.
The martyr’s death is dying to our selfishness: death to the body and its desires, we might say, but the triumph of the soul. The miser’s death is the opposite: gratifying every bodily and earthly craving, but by so doing, snuffing out the life of grace in the soul and dying, ultimately, to eternal life.
In these first days of Ordinary Time, my brothers, let us commit ourselves to live and die in the truth of who we are, and pour ourselves out as martyrs for the Lord!