Monday, September 15, 2008

TRUST AND OPENNESS IN FORMATION

For two and a half years, I was a spiritual director in the seminary. There was probably no job I enjoyed more. I was assigned to it as soon as I came home from studies abroad. I was just a deacon when I arrived in 1998 and was immediately given the task of taking care of the spiritual direction of our youngest college students—the fresh graduates from the high school seminary as well as non-seminary high schools. As things would have it though, I got moved to being dean of men two and a half years later. It wasn’t exactly the kind of job I envisioned myself having. For some reason, they’re are always the ‘bad guys’ in seminary, having to enforce the rules and seeing to it that everyone was ‘behaving himself’. I wasn’t worried about being unpopular of course. It was just a job after all. But being on the ‘external forum’ did present its difficulties.

I immediately felt that some students who used to chat quite a bit with me about their studies, struggles in prayer, girlfriend problems, etc., began avoid me. That was to be expected of course. Not only did the internal forum-external forum setup demand that I no longer ask too much about matters that belonged to the internal forum, it’s also an arrangement that almost guarantees that seminary students would naturally relate with deans with a certain degree of caution. The spiritual director is ‘safe’, he ‘can’t talk’ during evaluations anyway. And as I would always tell people, it’s the nature of the situation. It has worked for ages and I would be the last one to question it or wish to dismantle it.

Still, during the time I was dean, I did my best to remind students that while there is much wisdom to maintaining the clear dividing line between the internal and external forum—a clear demarcation that assures objectivity, charity, and fairness to all parties in formation, seminarian and priest alike, come evaluation time—the intended good of the setup degenerates into pharisaic legalism and even hypocrisy, when we sacrifice transparency and openness towards those who are meant to guide and assist us, for the sake of keeping up appearances.

I felt rather sad to have heard from not a few students that it was ‘ok’ to disclose oneself to one’s spiritual director—“because he couldn’t say anything during evaluations anyway”, but that one ought to be very cautious in sharing himself with priests who were on the ‘external forum’ because they could very well send one out of the seminary if they “knew too much”. This mindset completely misunderstands the meaning, value, and purpose of the ‘external-internal forum’ setup. It’s also not very honest. But not only that, it also endangers the student himself who, on account of choosing not to open himself up to the possibility of being better formed by those tasked to guide him, could find himself in very difficult, if not problematic situations later on as a priest.

Trust and openness towards those who form us, fearful as that can be at times, is a risk that a seminarian must take if he is to secure for himself a degree of certainty that he is being ‘well-formed’ according to the mind of Christ and the church. Not to do so brings with it dire consequences for the student when he becomes a priest, and consequently, for the church as well. We are wounded and broken creatures, and while these scars can become sources of strength not only for ourselves but for others later on, if left untreated and unhealed while in seminary, they can become our downfall as priests and a cause of great scandal to the people of God.

Challenges brought about by a difficult upbringing perhaps, or a dysfunctional family life and troubled past that may have caused big or small psychological damage to a person, the level of one’s emotional and sexual maturity, one’s capacity for healthy relationships with the same or the opposite sex—these are things that one should never ‘sweep under the rug’ while in seminary. They should be shared, processed and discussed with one’s spiritual director and/or counselor, brought into prayer, and finally integrated into the overall narrative of one’s life and growth in his vocation.

Our life in the seminary should be a gradual but continuous opening to the grace of God that transforms sadness into joy, weakness into strength, our personal darkness into a light that can assist others in their struggles. We should never allow it to deteriorate into a game of hide-and-seek with those forming us. Neither must we allow our response to formation to be defined solely in terms of ‘not breaking any rule’. Sure, we are meant to live and uphold the directives and guidelines that assure the smooth functioning of the community and the proper implementation of the programs meant to form us into good priests. But “living by the book” is one thing; making that the primary point of our life in seminary is another. How often did Jesus castigate the Scribes and Pharisees for failing to see beyond the “letter of the Law”, but not after saying that he “did not come to abolish the Law but bring it to fulfillment”.

When I was new to the seminary, I remember one of the priests telling us that it was “really easy to become a priest”. All we needed to do, he said, was observe the rules, follow the schedule, obey the superiors, do nothing foolish—or if we did, to avoid getting caught—and in a decade or so we would be ordained. As I moved from one year to the next in seminary, and as the initial fire of enthusiasm gave way to boredom and fatigue on certain days, I gradually realized his words were true. If I’d just “go with the flow”, I’d still be alright. I’d be a priest one day. Was that not the goal anyway, to get ordained?

But I also realized how awful that kind of life in seminary could be, how untrue to one’s vocation that kind of existence was, and how unfaithful to the goal of becoming molded “in persona Christi capitis” (in the person of Christ, the head) the resulting priesthood would be. There could be no question that merely going through the motions would in fact bring one to the day of his ordination, just as merely allowing oneself to be “carried by the flow of things” would also be a kind of life. But it would be a ‘half-life’, not a real life at all. It would be superficial formation that will never touch the “core” of one’s being, which is precisely that which needs to be configured to the person of Christ.

What concretely does this mean? It means allowing oneself to genuinely grow, learn, and mature as a future minister of the church should. And that entails a tremendous amount of openness to the process of formation, trust in those tasked to form one, and finally—I’ve seen students smile whenever they’d hear me say it—the firm conviction that “it’s alright to make mistakes”. That’s what we’re in seminary for; to be formed, to be improved, made better, developed. We’re not in the seminary to be perfect, to be supermen, or to be made free once and for all from what is perhaps that which makes human beings human, namely, the capacity to make mistakes, to learn from these, and to start anew afterwards.

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