The greatest change for me in coming to seminary has been the rhythm of life here. Life moves fast, but everything is grounded in the liturgy: morning prayer, Mass, adoration, evening prayer, benediction, night prayer. There’s a monastic sacredness to the everyday. There’s a security in the sense that, no matter what happens in between, it all centers back on God soon enough. There’s a stillness, a tranquility, a sense of waiting in readiness and openness and trust, like the servant in the Gospel of Luke who waits for his master’s return through the night.
I’m working on a less contemplative post for you guys in the near future, but for now, on this feast day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I would just like to share a little of that peace.
“We just stepped inside a big, Gothic cathedral. The lights are all out, except for one that brightly shines on the main altar. There, in the center of the altar, sending splintering rays in a thousand directions, stands a brilliantly golden monstrance with Jesus in the Eucharist enthroned at its center. Behold him there as he waits for his friends to come to him.
Now look. See that people do come and go. Many ask for something, ‘Jesus, give me this, help that person, remove this cross…’ and then they leave. The Lord Jesus, who is so kind and good, readily gives to them.
Now look. Saint Thérèse has just arrived. Observe her prayer as she looks deeply into the Heart of Jesus, truly present there in the Blessed Sacrament. What’s her attitude toward him? Interesting. Her face is full of compassion. It’s as if she sees that this good Lord who gives and gives is tired, sorrowful, and himself in need of help and consolation.
Now listen to what she says. Did you catch that? She’s not asking Jesus to give to her, rather, she’s asking what she can give to him.”
May the Lord God bless us, protect us from all evil, and lead us to everlasting life.
“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.
It’s a cool Friday evening, and I’m sitting on a bench, reading a book by Cardinal Dolan. I’ve been fasting—though I am drinking coffee, because I’m a Portland seminarian, and it’s generally accepted that if you pierced one of our sides, blood and coffee would flow out. The bell tolls for night prayer, so I gather myself and walk up to the abbey church. It’s empty, apart from the monks in their choir stalls, and one guy in the front row.
Naturally, I go up and sit next to him. Turns out it’s my buddy Emilio. After we commend our spirits into the hands of our Lord, we step out together into the darkness beyond the church doors. It’s still cool, not cold yet. He says, “Do you want to go to McDonald’s?” My stomach says yes, but I stand firm. I tell him, “I’ve been fasting. I’ll go with you—I don’t think I want to eat anything, though.”
So we drive to McDonald’s. He turns up The Head and the Heart and sings like he’s on stage, pounding the steering wheel, conducting with one hand. I know there’s California, Oklahoma, and / all of the places I ain’t ever been to, but / down in the valley, with / whiskey rivers / these are the places you will find me hidin’. You feel like you can almost see music by watching him sing. I don’t even know the words and I can’t help but sing along at the top of my lungs.
A couple of Filet o’Fish sandwiches later, we’re heading back to the car, and we hear cheering, and a marching band. It’s coming from beyond the bushes behind the McDonald’s. “Dude,” Emilio looks right at me. “That sounds like high school football!”
Beyond the bushes are some railroad tracks, and beyond that, a fence, and beyond that, a high school, where, yes, a football game is in progress. Half-time. Homecoming night. Silverton vs. Lebanon, and the home team is doing well. It’s 28-0 by the time we join the crowd, from our vantage point in the bushes, across the railroad tracks. “Man, I miss high school,” Emilio tells me approximately one hundred times, while we watch the band play, and homies throw a football back and forth on the school track until a teacher takes it away from them. He announced a football game once, he says. He was the guy who ran up and down in front of the stands with the school flag.
We are not alone in the bushes behind the McDonald’s. There is a woman there, middle-aged, whose name is literally Latonya, watching the game with her grandson, Everett, probably 6-8 years old, who introduces himself by telling us that he plays football too, and “we have to win this game!” he exclaims, bouncing up and down with the force of his conviction. He wears his own Silverton Foxes jersey as proudly as anyone has probably worn anything, ever, in the history of the human race.
So we watch Silverton’s homecoming game, something I never even did at my own high school, Latonya and Everett and Emilio and I. She asks if we go to school there. We laugh. “Alumni?” she guesses. “No,” we tell her. “We’re seminarians, from Mount Angel.”
Oh, she knows all about Mt. Angel. She used to be a police officer in the town at the bottom of the hill. She remembers patrolling in the dead of night, up and down the winding road past the Stations of the Cross to the abbey. “Where are you from?” she asks us, and we tell her, Bakersfield, and Roseburg. “What’s your goal?” she wants to know. “Just priesthood, or…?” She trails off, unsure how to phrase her question, which is: “What are you two doing with your lives?”
We help her out, tell her our vocation stories, explain how the seminary works and where we’ll go after we’re finished. Invite her up to the abbey anytime. She says she wants to bring the little guy up there to see the museum. We all cheer when Silverton scores a touchdown. It’s a rout. Latonya says she’s never liked it when the loser doesn’t even stand a chance.
Finally, my stomach gets the better of me. “The liturgical day ends at sunset, right?” I ask, meaning “the time for fasting is over and I need some food,” only Emilio knows what I mean already without my having to explain, so we say our good-byes and exit the bush.
And who should we see in the drive through but two of our fellow seminarians? Picture, if you will: Emilio and I, disheveled, picking our way out of the bushes behind the McDonald’s, in the dark—followed by a middle-aged woman—followed by a kid. “Ooh, I’m gonna tell formation!” Ivan cackles, as they pull up to the window. “I’m gonna tell your bishop!”
We drive past them on our way out. Emilio turns up the stereo—it’s mariachi now—and sings along at the top of his lungs. I still don’t know the words. Still can’t help but sing too.
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness. He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you. He is the beauty to which you are so attracted. It is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
I was recently reminded of the value of thinking publicly. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one I haven’t ever practiced regularly, and not at all recently. I found myself nodding along vigorously with Clive Thompson when he says he feels like he’s losing his ability to think:
“I’ve increasingly begun to feel intellectually claustrophic. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like a cabin fever of the mind. The symptoms: I’ll get obsessed with a particular line of research, chewing away at it for days or weeks, only to realize it’s a) kind of half-baked or b) super interesting but not at all useful to my work. Or I’ll read a fascinating white paper, write a bunch of notes on it, but never crystallize a solid analysis.”
You can read the whole thing over at Collision Detection, but “intellectually claustrophobic” basically encapsulates my mental state whenever I’ve sat down to write in recent memory. The problem, I think, is twofold. I’m stuck writing stories I don’t want to tell, and I can’t quite capture the stories I do. In the past, I overcame this by jumping from project to project—if floundering around in prose, I’d sketch out a poem; if stuck on a verse, I’d blast out a stream of consciousness, and there were always journal entries and essays to pad out the gaps. (Ah, education. These days, my writing is less literary and a lot more, well…)
I needed a space in which my trains of thought could freely go off the tracks, in which I could expound on philosophy or pound out a half-baked poem or the middle chapter of a story I had no intent to finish, and in which I could also talk about my life and my faith (to contextualize the art, to frame the discussions, but more importantly to blow off steam). And I became convinced it needed to be public—or at least have other people reading it who might bother me if I stopped. After all, the journal I was able to keep up the longest was the one my senior English teacher was collecting every couple weeks, to keep me accountable. Bienvenue, friends, and thanks for accepting the invitation to be my support system’s support system.
Today’s title quote is, of course, my man JP2. He’s a saint now. You may have heard of him.
Mea culpa, Papa. This morning, I abandoned myself to despair. Circumstances confluenced, of course, as they tend to do—if that’s even possible as a transitive verb. Too little sleep, cloudy grey morning, grouchy Matt right after waking up, guilt over grouchiness only increasing the net grouch factor. Losing voice, a little bit. Taking calls anyway.
(I tend to identify with the world in terms of color. Most of the time, it’s painted in bright pastels—even if the background is dark, there are splashes of color standing out in counter-relief. Other days, it’s chalk and graphite all the way down. Today was the latter, heavy on the greys.)
A lady called in to say her mother passed away, and insisted we were still charging her credit card every month. We weren’t, incidentally, but she screamed and cursed until I had to hang up on her. I pride myself on almost never having a call I can’t deescalate, but this lady, this morning, made me want to walk out of the center and never come back. She shook me up. I took my lunch an hour early and went and sat in the rain, by the river, quietly despairing.
My problem, of course, was not with this random woman who took out her frustrations on a dazed voice at the other end of a phone line, nor with the company I have to defend for charging her elderly mother’s credit card in the first place, nor even with being caught in between them, uncomfortable though it was. The problem was that I hadn’t been to Mass all week.
I know the symptoms, and it’s not just that all the color leaks out of the world. All the energy leaks out of me, too. All the hope, all the joy, all the good humour. A slow, spiritual starvation, slow because I never notice it at first. On Monday, I’m still satiated from the Sunday feast. Tragedy may strike, but I bounce back. On Tuesday, I have enough energy left to debate the Mormon missionaries in the street. By Wednesday, I’m lethargic, but I soldier on. I try other ways to generate energy—I go up into the hills, I go for a run, I meet up with this friend, that friend. I try to fill myself up with food that does not satisfy. On Thursday, I drink too much coffee and just try to make it through the day, try to ignore the cynicism in my thoughts, the familiar blunt edge on my tongue, the dullness creeping back into my heart. Then Friday strikes, and it’s all I can do to hold back tears in the rain.
“We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”
I got an email from the Archdiocese vocations office, during this rainstorm of moodiness. “Father John would like you now to go ahead and apply to Mt. Angel Seminary.” Just that. But the timing was impeccable, and I got up and went to Mass.
The difference afterwards would, of course, be incredible if it were not so obvious. One day last week, I woke up and went for a five-mile run without having eaten or drank anything in about 16 hours. “I wonder why I’m so dizzy and seeing black spots everywhere?” I thought, shortly before I passed out.
I wonder if it’s something about my personality, that I keep pushing and pushing, without even noticing that I’m running on empty, right up until my blood sugar is so low that I no longer have any choice but to lie down and sleep, right up until my soul is so battered and exhausted that I have to drag myself to Jesus’ feet.
“A Christianwithout joy is either not a Christian or he is sick.” Papa Francesco hit it on the head in his homily today, as per usual. “The Christian vocation is this: to remain in the love of God, that is, to breathe, to live of that oxygen, to live of that air.“
How much easier to believe,
at a warm Thursday Mass on the first day of spring,
when a stranger takes your hand between his own
and whispers (in a voice that threatens tears)
“the peace and love of Jesus Christ be with you now, my brother”
that Our Lord dwells in the hearts of men.
How much harder to see Him
in the weathered face of the homeless man
who, walking toward you on the sidewalk,
his processional a litany of curses
concluding with “and what are you, twelve?”,
swerves only an inch to avoid knocking you into the street.
How much harder to hear Him
in the anonymity of the call
which turns abusive,
or in the rough voice of the teenager
sitting sentinel on someone else’s fence
who calls “sup, bro!”, who you ignore.
How blinding is the sin of pride!
(“If only they knew who you were.”)
How difficult to see with eyes turned down to a glowing screen,
or inward, ever inward! or to hear,
through a Bluetooth headset,
a voice, in the wilderness, crying out.
All vice is virtue twisted, laughs the serpent.
(“They will have more respect when you wear a Roman collar.”)
So wide the gulf between us, brothers all!
We brothers, tearing at each other’s throats,
or hearts, with words,
or souls, with poison thoughts.
To be Christ to a stranger takes two hands
to reach out and take hold of their own,
two eyes, to meet them where they are,
two lips to call them brother, and to say:
“peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;
not as the world gives do I give to you.”
To be Christ to a stranger takes one’s presence,
full presence, undivided
by invisible multitudes inside our phones,
real presence, unhidden
by our shields of artificial loneliness
in any company—
to be Christ to another takes Real Presence,
to be bread to the one who calls after you in hunger,
to be light to the one who stumbles toward you in darkness;
and to give peace is to give of one’s own blood, and
to wear the collar, to be a willing servant, and
the crucifix, to commend your spirit on the cross.