Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The journey of seminary formation, being true to oneself, and taking the risk of trusting those tasked to form us

Seminary life is a journey towards being conformed to the image of Christ, according to the mind of the Church, the two thousand-year old community of believers to which we belong. Now when Jesus sent his disciples out, one of the things he commanded them to do was to “take nothing with them for the journey” except that which was an absolute need.

While, a seminary student is not yet being “sent out” to do ministry, the words of Jesus to the disciples have an echo in his life. When we enter seminary, the only thing we take with us is really ourselves. The thing is, this ‘self’ we take with us can sometimes be the greatest and heaviest baggage we bring along.

Our ‘self’ is what we bring to Christ and present to God when we enter seminary. It’s the starting point of our journey. It’s the material that will be used. Without it, there can be no finished product. The question is, what exactly is this ‘self’ we’re bringing with us?

The 'self' is the coming together of many things: our family background, our education, our upbringing, our strengths, our weaknesses, our quirks, our problems, wounds, and scars. The self is a very strange mix of all sorts of things: the good and the not-so-good. “We are darkness and light”. But it is this “strange mix”, this “impure mix” that is the most basic ingredient or material that God will use. There isn’t any other.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger says that “the inauthentic is the ground out of which the authentic arises”. Who and what we are in our totality—the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant—the fact that in us dwell the twin realities of sin and grace—this is the ground out of which God will form the priest he wants us to be. For as Thomas Aquinas says, “grace does not destroy nature. It builds upon nature and brings it to perfection”.

When we enter seminary, and all throughout our years in formation, the invitation is always: “come as you are”—because it is our encounter with Christ in formation that will transform us. We do not do it ourselves.

Who and what we are, our humanity–the core of ourselves–this is what needs to be formed and transformed by our life in formation; not the externals or the accidentals of our character or personality.

This, however, involves a tremendous risk, requires a tremendous amount of confidence and trust, because it can be daunting, even scary. And fear is the greatest enemy of formation, discernment, vocation, faith, and of life itself.

There’s a tremendous amount of risk involved in seminary, especially if one does enter fully into the process of formation. There’s a lot of “what if’s” involved. What if I’m just wasting my time here? Are all these things going to produce the result they say they will? Is my ‘investment’ of time, self, energy, effort, etc., worth it? There’s a lot I’m really giving up. (Every so often I still think of the ‘life’ I’ve ‘missed’ because of entering seminary too early. On some days I feel bad when I think of the ‘what-if’s’. But as Adrian Van Kaam, spiritual author of books on formation says, growth in maturity is realizing that in life, some doors really need to be closed, not all paths can be taken. And becoming the person God wants us to be involves accepting the fact that we can’t be everything we would like to be, but only the best that we have chosen to be.)

There’s also a great amount of risk involved in entrusting ourselves to those in charge—the priests and professors who are part of the formation staff.

We have our own ideas, our own visions, our own dreams, hopes, ways of doing things, of seeing things, etc. Sometimes they will agree with what formators thinks, sometimes they won’t, at other times, they’ll probably go against them. But this is part of the package, not only of seminary life, but of being part of the church as well.

Being a good priest (and a good seminary student) involves recognizing, accepting, and living within the tension of being a faithful and obedient son of the church, and being “one’s own man”. Part of our calling as seminarians, and later on as priests, is to learn to be at peace as we live an “in-between” kind of existence.

Theologians for instance, can encounter teachings of the church or ways of presenting the church’s teachings that are challenging. And here there are always two dangers involved: either complacency or rebelliousness. One can simply ‘go with the flow’. It’s one thing to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church, it’s another thing to use that as an excuse for not wanting to struggle with the demands of these teachings. Fidelity must never be made an excuse for laziness and complacency. Thomas Aquinas was misunderstood when he first articulated his philosophical and theological positions; some of his books were even ordered burned in Paris; but no one could ever accuse him of complacency and unfaithfulness.

Similarly, it’s one thing to struggle with the more difficult and challenging teachings of the church, perhaps even find oneself perplexed about them, it’s another thing to use this as an excuse for destructive critique and dissent. Perspicacity and a critical mind must never be made excuses for adolescent rebelliousness and a deep-seated need to always be proven right by proving everyone else wrong.

But these dangers do exist in formation: Laziness and complacency on the one hand, arrogance and rebelliousness on the other. Living within the healthy tension of being a ‘faithful son of the church’ and being ‘one’s own man’—is the only honest way to go, the via media where virtue stands. But this is risky, tricky, and oftentimes, tiring, as it is always far easier to acquiesce to the extremes.

But that’s where the challenge lies. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few”. (Mt 7:13-14) The ‘middle way’ where virtue lies is the ‘narrow gate’, the difficult and challenging path—which is why few choose it. [Here, as a footnote though, we must add that even in formation, just as in doing theology, the ‘key’ is to always give our faith community’s accumulated wisdom of two thousand years the heavier weight.]

But trusting those who form us is also risky because every community has its share of unfortunate stories of trust betrayed, of disappointment and disillusionment. Many years ago, when I was sent by my bishop to study abroad after college, one of the persons on staff whom I trusted and thought was my friend and was supporting me turned out to be one of those who were trying to make the whole thing fail. It was only years later that I learned of it. All’s forgiven and forgotten of course; but the case proves the point why some students find it difficult to open themselves up to those guiding them. Perhaps they’ve heard of ‘stories’—and not very encouraging ones.

But that’s the nature of the situation, and while saying that doesn’t mean simply accepting it and doing nothing to somehow change it if and when we can, it also doesn’t mean that we can transform it overnight. The possibility of trust betrayed is real; and yet just as real is the possibility of trust deepened—something I experienced with the spiritual directors I was blessed to have as a student in seminary, not to mention the really great priests on formation staff I was privileged to meet, and under whose care and guidance I experienced tremendous growth in my life as a person, my vocation as a seminarian, and my faith as a Christian.

Trusting those the church has tasked to form us involves a real risk on our part, and yet it’s a risk we must take and is one worth taking.

It is said that there are three types of persons: those who run, those who sit on the sidelines and watch, and those who take the risk and commit.

The first two types are those who fear getting hurt. And so they either run away from risk or prefer to watch while others play. They will most likely never get hurt; but neither will they ever know the joy and triumph of succeeding. Those who risk and commit, on the other hand—they are the ones who will most likely experience hurt, who could in fact suffer loss; and yet they are also the only ones who open themselves fully to the possibility of winning.

The courage to take risks and to commit to things, even if things can be fearful and intimidating, is born out of a deep trust and confidence, in oneself, in others, and especially in God.

This is not just a superficial kind of confidence, but one that comes from the heart; and it can be nerve-wracking and even disappointing at times. Think of Abraham, for instance. God called him out of the comfort of his home, inviting him to follow into the unknown, with only a promise that he shall be made the father of many nations. Years later, we find Abraham pouring his heart out to God; he had no sons, he had no nation. Yet we know how Abraham’s story ends: God kept his promise.

This same trust in God lies at the foundation of a seminarian’s ability to trust in his formators, in the process of formation itself, and in the wisdom of the Church in whose care he commits himself when he enters seminary. “We stand taller when we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us”, one of my professors in Louvain used to constantly remind his students. To trust in the wisdom of the formation process is to stand on the shoulders of the giants of our faith, whose wisdom represents the accumulated treasure of two thousand years.

Only a genuine and profound trust and confidence in God will allow a priest to effectively minister to people in both a prophetic and pastoral way, challenging and encouraging them at the same time.

In this, fear is the seminarian’s greatest adversary. But this isn’t the kind of fear that is the “beginning of wisdom”. This kind of fear is the result of an earnestness to do what is good, right, and just before God. This is ‘holy fear’.

The type of fear we speak of, which is the enemy of trust, is fear born out of an insincere heart. It is the result of a desire to see to it that everything is right because one is aiming at something, or aiming to get something. It is fear that results from a purpose or goal that is ultimately incompatible with the call one has received from God. This fear is the most dangerous kind, for (i) it makes one hold his cards too close to his chest, (ii) it makes one always want to say ‘the right thing’, (iii) it makes one always ‘guarded’ in his words and actions, never ‘letting his guard down’, (iv) it makes one put on a façade which he believes is acceptable and will win him favor, (v) it makes one suppress what is heart and conscience may tell him, and finally (vi) it makes him put on a false ‘persona’ or a ‘mask’.

This is what happens when instead of opening up and taking the risk of being formed, one chooses instead to 'hide' from those forming him if only to achieve what he mistakenly perceives the priesthood to be - a 'goal' that must be achieved at any cost, yes even the loss of his true selfhood. One who allows himself to fall into this trap turns formation into a game: showing to those forming him what he believes they want to see, all the while hiding his true self. In doing so, however, he fails and misses the very goal of the formation process itself, which is none other than the transformation of himself into an image, not of his own making, but of Christ. The seminary is not a place for those who wish to hide, but for those who have the courage to stand before God in the stark nakedness of self.

One who succumbs to fear and plays this game will unfortunately be left without knowing anymore who or what he really is. He eventually learns to live a lie. The very ground which God should be working on and transforming through the formation program, gradually disappears. The externals of one’s personality then become the source of one’s identity—trappings, trinkets, titles, honors, degrees, wealth, power, fame, etc. Soon he identifies with these externals, like the Pharisees of Scripture who “lengthen their tassels and widen their phylacteries”, he mistakes style for substance, mistakes the fancy robes he wears for genuine religion, the accessories he burdens himself with for authentic faith, and a mountain of mumbled meaningless words for true spirituality. What difference is there between such priest and the whitewashed tombs Jesus railed against? When the person beneath disappears and is replaced by a shell, what else is God to work on? None.

This is where the true danger lies, because eventually, the shell cracks, and the walls come crashing down. The scandals that currently rock the church are testaments to this truth. We have to pay attention to what is happening and learn our lesson. It simply cannot be ‘business as usual’, lest the Church simply move from one crisis to the next. “We piped you a tune but you didn’t dance. We sang you a dirge but you didn’t wail. You have missed your day of visitation”. We who have been given this sacred trust of forming future priests have to learn our lesson well.


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