Saturday, September 20, 2008

THE PRIEST AS A "MAN FOR OTHERS"

There are many good and wonderful things that one learns in the years he spends in seminary. There is much growth, development, and personal improvement that one experiences through the many programs, activities, assessments and tasks that the seminary provides. In many ways, a seminary ‘pulls’ and ‘stretches’ a student in all sorts of directions in order to see how much of his potential can be realized—all for his personal good as well as the good of the church.

Good seminary programs are structured in a way that would allow those passing through them to become well-rounded, mature, and intelligent young men who will one day become effective ministers of the church. Do not wonder then if at times you would feel yourselves seemingly ‘swamped’ with a thousand-and-one things to do or attend to in seminary. And avoid as much as possible, the temptation to complain too much that you can no longer seem “to find time” for yourselves. Believe me, it’s early training, and good too. For when you do get ordained, one of the things you’ll discover you have to live with and accept, and later on appreciate perhaps, is the fact that there will really be very little time for yourself. Your day will be largely filled with activities, some of which you yourself arrange, but many still will be arranged for you by others.

Naturally, you will be expected to learn to keep everything ‘balanced’ as you go through it all. This means that as a seminarian now and later on as a priest, it is the expectation that while you will know how to set aside time for yourself: for prayer, rest and relaxation, reading and study, for a hobby here and there, the greater portion of your time will still be spent “laboring in the vineyard”, where there is indeed much to be done. While we must never neglect our personal needs—otherwise we risk frustration and burnout—the fact remains that as priests, God’s people come first. However good, effective, and efficient we might be as priests, our first and utmost priority must always be the service we render people, whatever shape or form that might take in our day-to-day living out of our ministry.

People come first. They always come first, within reasonable limits of course. But this statement, more than simply telling us that we should do as much good as we can for others, is actually an invitation to consider why in fact a priest (and a student preparing to become one) does the service that he does. And the answer is really very simple: that’s what a priest is. He’s “a man for others”. Take away all the trappings and peripherals that often hide who we are and what we do, strip away the layers of degrees and honors and positions that “come with the territory” and you will get to what is really the heart and core of what a priest is meant to be.

Living for others is a priest’s calling. In fact that’s what (hopefully) attracted him to the priesthood to begin with. And living for others was most probably one of the initial reasons we chose to be in seminary in the first place. It was for us, the first articulation of the reason behind what to other people may have been an incomprehensible decision: to want to become a priest. It may have been no more than a vague “feeling” or “desire” on our part, but that’s what was most definitely there at the initial stage of our journey in formation. And seminaries are meant to be environments where that initial, and often vague and uncertain “feeling” of wanting to “live for others” is nurtured, directed, and concretized through the different programs that take care of your intellectual, spiritual, communal, personal, social, and pastoral formation.

So as you can see, “living for others” is the raison-d’etre of everything we do in seminary from the very first thing you do when we get up in the morning, to the last prayer we say before retiring at night. The “other” is the ever-present glue that holds together our entire life as a seminarian and as a priest. The desire to “live for others” is also the ever-present spirit that should direct all our efforts, activities, and goals in seminary formation. Seminary students are young men who are being formed to be “other-centered” persons. As priests, this orientation towards others is absolutely indispensable in living our calling as ministers of the gospel and servants of Christ’s flock. There is simply no alternative.

In our concrete day-to-day life in seminary, however, it is sometimes difficult to fully understand or even be reminded of this. How in fact does living in seminary make one a “man-for-others”? Do not imagine this to be an easily answered question, for we know only too well that while the seminary tries to train us in generosity, hospitality, and service-orientedness, there is also much in seminary that can make us turn too much towards ourselves. How many seminarians become, over the years, seemingly too involved, preoccupied, and concerned with themselves?

The ever-present admonition in seminary to “be mindful of oneself”—meaning to understand oneself, one’s strengths, weaknesses, sins, etc.—is meant for our good. The constant reminder to us to look into our hearts and souls is meant, we are told, to “purify one’s intentions” and rid us slowly of things in us that do not befit a future minister of the church. But like any good thing in this world, there is also a ‘downside’ to this admonition, and that is it could degenerate into unnecessary ‘navel-gazing’ and an introspection that loses touch with its original goal—to rid oneself of the ‘self’ in order to live for others.

This exercise in the seminary contains a tremendous paradox—going into oneself in order to lose that very self so that one can live no longer for himself but for others. And it is precisely because of this paradox that we can get waylaid at times and forget that “going into oneself” is meant to allow us to “lose that very self” eventually. But it doesn’t happen for everybody, and despite outward appearances and talk about “living for others” and “serving others”, they remain mired in concern for the self. Be careful then, and be awake to the dangers inherent in analyzing yourself, however well-intended such activity might be, for you may lose yourself in the labyrinth of selfhood and never get out.

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates thousands of years ago. While agreeing with the father of western philosophy, however, we must also add: “The overly-examined life is not worth living either”. For the basic nature of the human being—actually of all created things—is to live “outside oneself”. Remember those worn-out truisms about us being “social animals”, and that “no-man-is-an-island”? Well, they’re more than just truisms. They’re an articulation of a basic fact of all life. We only find our true self by losing it, and although losing it initially requires us to immerse ourselves in an understanding of it, we must never forget that this initial immersion is no more than a means to a ‘selfless’ end. It’s never the final point of the exercise. Kenosis, the Greek word for the “self-emptying” activity whereby God incarnated himself as one of us, must always remain the pattern of a seminarian’s life, now and later on as a priest.

These ideas do sound high and abstract: kenosis, self-emptying, other-orientation. Too lofty, they seem most difficult to reach, which is probably why most either give up somewhere along the way, or simply reject it as too naïve and idealistic a goal. It really isn’t though. In fact it’s quite readily achievable, but it does take constant practice, and it requires consistency. How? Through what we can call “the art of being thoughtful”. You see, thoughtfulness is a virtue so simple, and yet so rare, especially in our society and world today where people seem too preoccupied with personal needs, wants, worries and concerns.

Thoughtfulness is the key to steering a middle-ground between being consistently mindful of our selves and the need to be constantly on guard against the danger inherent to it. Thoughtfulness is what can enable us to live the “examined life” and the “other-oriented life” at the same time. And it is an art, which means it isn’t something we naturally become. While even the human (and some natural sciences) today tell us that our very nature as individuals is “socially-oriented”, that’s just a seed. Nurturing it requires a lot of effort on our part, a daily, even hourly effort. Concretely, this means “thinking of the other person” first, putting the other person first, caring for and loving the other person first, with the firm realization that only in this way do we then manage to genuinely know and love ourselves. I do remember one of my professors in seminary saying that to us. “Live for the other”, he said, “it’s the only true way of living for your self”.

When you get up in the morning, put yourself into that mode of thinking by telling yourself “I will do good to and for someone today. I will actively seek out persons to help and support. I won’t wait for people to come to me seeking my assistance. I won’t be nosy, but I will look for good deeds to do”. And throughout the rest of the day, do not only seek out good things to do for others, be mindful as well of how your actions, decisions, and choices affect them. This doesn’t mean that others will determine what you will decide, choose, or do, but it does mean that others—and your “thoughtfulness” of them—will become a genuine ingredient in what you do, eventually leading to a situation whereby “thoughtfulness of the other” becomes a genuine ingredient in who and what you are.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)