At Eucharist this morning, as the candles were being lit and blessed at the beginning of the liturgy, for some strange reason, I found myself—for just a brief couple of seconds that nevertheless seemed to span an eternity—not inside the chapel of St. John Vianney Seminary, but under that huge tree that stood in the courtyard of the seminary back home, in Manila, many years ago. It was the second of February, Candlemas, or as it has come to be known after the Council, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. I wasn’t a concelebrant at mass but a young seminarian, new to the kinds of liturgical celebrations that were to become an integral part of the new life I had entered
I was there, with other seminarians, standing around the priest (who it was exactly I couldn’t remember) as he said the prayer of blessing, arms outstretched, a seminarian standing on his right him holding the bucket of holy water. Three others stood on his left, one holding the processional cross, the two others carrying processional torches. We were under this huge tree, its canopy covering a good portion of the area where the first part of the ritual was to take place. It was very early in the morning, and while there was an undeniable humidity in the air, there was a cool and gentle breeze that constantly threatened to put out the flames of the candles we were each holding.
I closed my eyes this morning, and I was there, thrown back to a time when this life was new, when I had yet much to learn about seminary life, the priesthood, philosophy, theology, or the church. The morning air was fresh, and so was this new adventure, and in many ways, so was I. As the music began playing this morning though, my very brief flashback came to an end, and I was back at the chapel of St. John’s, eleven years ordained, and concelebrating mass. As I stood there behind father-rector who presided, I glanced at the faces of these young men, seminarians, all 68 of them. I was one of them once, like Jesus in the day’s gospel. Well, not quite, because he was an infant when his parents brought him to the Temple. Still, he was young, his story had just begun. Just like these young men in front of us. Just as I was at that Candlemas many years ago.
This morning though, I felt more like the old man Simeon. The gospel says he was constantly in the Temple, awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise that he wouldn’t die without first seeing the promised Savior. And Candlemas celebrates the fulfillment of that promise, just as it celebrates Jesus’ presentation by his parents at the Temple. Taking the infant in his arms, Simeon prayed, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all your people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel”. I don’t think I’m not quite ready to pray the Nunc Dimittis yet. I’m not as old as Simeon, and I’m still hoping I can see a few more of good things in the priesthood before I ask to be dismissed. I’d still like to be of service to more people, after all.
But in a way, I can identify with Simeon’s patient waiting. When I first entered seminary many years ago, my spiritual director (God rest his soul), encouraged me to begin what he called a “journey of self-betterment”. It was not just for my own good, he said. It was what God would want, and what would be good for the church, by which he meant of course, the people I was going to be ministering to one day as a priest. And so I did. As the father of philosophy used to say, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, I decided to try and live a life “worth living” by patiently examining which areas of myself I needed to improve, change, or maintain. For someone new to seminary formation, that was an exciting prospect.
Soon, however, I realized it wasn’t as easy as I thought. There were a ton of setbacks, detours, and seeming dead ends. Several times, I complained to my spiritual director; at one point, in fact, I was quite despondent, feeling that no matter how hard I tried, I always seem to end up in square one. Was there ever going to be a time when I would finally achieve what I had set out to achieve? Was I ever going to wake up one day and finally say, “I did it!”? “Maybe”, was my spiritual director’s answer. “Maybe not”.
“You have to leave the fulfillment of these things in God’s hands”, he said. “In his time. In his time. Be patient. Learn to wait, learn to hope, learn to trust. Do your best to transform and direct yourself towards what is good, noble, and holy. But leave the fulfillment in his hands. Let God decide. Be patient. Wait”.
I’ve always felt that I understood, even back then, what my spiritual director meant. This morning, as I heard Simeon’s prayer in the gospel being read, I felt just a tad more certain that I did in fact understand my spiritual director’s words; but I also felt that this was still not the full and complete understanding I had been waiting for all these years; not yet. And so like Simeon, I guess I will have to be patient. Eleven years a priest (who knows how many more I’ll end up having), but I still must be patient. I will wait. Because in God’s own time, I too will see his promises fulfilled. Perhaps when I do become the priest God has always wanted me to be, I can, just like Simeon, speak with all my heart and with full understanding, the words of his immortal prayer.
“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all your people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel”.