Friday, December 3, 2010

To strike the rock twice (Reflections on the Gospel of Friday, the 1st Week of Advent , Mt. 9:27-31)

Seminary evaluations for the fall semester finally ended this past Wednesday. It’s always a joy to see the grace of God at work in the lives of young men who allow themselves to enter fully in the process of formation and transformation. Again and again, we witness individuals who enter seminary, each one carrying his own baggage of wounds, scars, pains, biases, prejudices, preconceived notions about life, God, faith, the church—molded and formed according to the mind of Christ and the church. As these young men prepare to leave, all we can say is, “He’s no longer the same guy he was when he came in. You can tell he’s changed; he’s grown”.

At the same time, it is quite painful and a cause of genuine concern to witness others who go through two, three, or four years of seminary formation with seemingly nothing except the externals of themselves being changed, the core remaining untouched. The shell may be perfect, but the inner reality was never really allowed to be touched by the grace of formation, because it was kept hidden. These young men are those who leave being very much the same person they were when they came in, and all we can say is, “Let’s hope it’s for real”.

A friend who studied with me in seminary very recently left active ministry. He was the perfect candidate for the priesthood—everything on the surface was fine. He was a good guy, hardworking, efficient, caring, orthodox in every way, even prayerful. Name the good quality desired for a priest, he had it. Recently, however, his bishop asked him to go on leave while a case of inappropriate behavior towards an adult parishioner is being investigated.

When we were students, he did everything right, said all the right things, meticulously obeyed all the rules and regulations, lived every single pillar of formation to the best he could—at least that’s what everyone thought. Underneath it all though, there was something that grace had apparently not touched—his humanity, his personal emotional needs, his sexuality, his inadequacies, which he kept hidden because of fear.

“Do you believe that I can do this?” Jesus asks the two blind men in the gospel.

It was a very odd question. Jesus wasn’t asking if they believed in him. Instead he asked if they had confidence in his ability to help them. It wasn’t a question of belief; it was a question of trust.

When during their journey in the desert, Moses came to God to ask him to give water to the thirsty and complaining Israelites, God instructed Moses to strike the rock once. Perhaps out of fear that one strike would not be enough, Moses chose to strike the rock twice. Even Moses experienced first hand what fear does. He didn’t fear his own inability to deliver; he feared God’s.

The mightiest enemy and the single greatest source of the downfall of one who seeks to follow Christ is fear—not of being oneself inadequate or unworthy, but that God is himself inadequate to the task of transforming him.

For some of you, only a semester remains of your stay here at St. John’s, though you have a number of years more in formation; for the rest, you have a couple years more to go. Do not be in a hurry; give your formation the time it needs. And give yourself fully, totally, completely, and wholeheartedly to the process of transformation which is what your time in seminary is about. Trust in the wisdom of the Church. The worst thing that someone wanting to be a priest can do is to give in to fear and hold back—especially in opening his heart and soul to the process.

Time and again, the Church, God’s People, has witnessed the pain caused by those who went through six, seven, eight, or more years of formation, and yet have remained virtually unchanged, untouched by the transforming and purifying fire of God’s grace. The sad thing is that when they fall, they hurt not only others, but themselves. But what’s even sadder is that this could have been avoided had they opened themselves completely as seminarians to the grace that is there in the process of formation itself.

The greatest service you can do for the Church and for yourselves—as seminarians, is to reply as the two blind men did in today’s gospel: “Yes, Lord. We believe”, and let go of your fears.

Today, Jesus asks each one of us here: “Do you believe I can do this? Do you believe I can transform you? Or will you also be striking the rock twice?”

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