Sunday, March 18, 2012

Recognizing the "instruments" of God's love and salvation, judgment and condemnation (Reflections on Seminary Life, 4th Sunday of Lent, Jn. 3:14-21)

Today's gospel reading contains two rather curiously entwined realities: the reality of God's saving love on the one hand, and the reality of judgment and condemnation on the other. Love and condemnation - two realities Jesus juxtaposes in his reply to Nicodemus.

"For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him
might not perish
but might have eternal life.
Whoever believes in him
will not be condemned,

but whoever does not believe
has already been condemned".

"How could a God who truly loves, ever condemn?" one of my university students asked me once in a theology class. "They're diametrically opposed realities. Surely a God of love cannot condemn."

How indeed, could a God who loves, condemn? How could a God who desires nothing but good for his creation, also make room for judgement? These questions never cease to leave me perplexed whenever I read these passages from John. How could love make room for judgement? How could an all-embracing love, make room for condemnation?

There is perhaps no experience more difficult for a teacher than for his or her students to refuse to respond to the thoughts and values he shares. Indifference, not critique and argument, is the real enemy of growth. This, in fact, has been my experience over the last decade and a half that I've been engaged in the teaching ministry as a priest.

But what makes the experience of indifferent students so difficult? Is it that a teacher feels disappointment at what she sometimes sees as the enormity of her task? Is it because he knows that at the end of the term, judgement will have to be rendered? Or is it because she knows that it is the students themselves, because of their lack of interest, who will eventually render judgement upon themselves?

At the heart and root of the difficulty though, I believe, is the fact that a teacher loves his students and does not want to see them fail but to learn, develop, mature and grow into the young man or woman God wishes him or her to become. Indeed, it is possible to offer a person an experience in nothing but love and the promise of salvation and for that experience to turn into a judgement or even a condemnation instead.

The love of God we encounter in the gospel of John is a love that calls and invites creation towards growth; it dreams only the best for the world; it envisions the "more" that human beings can become.

But this offer of love, this promise of salvation, can be transformed into condemnation, not because God himself condemns, but because one has already condemned himself by his reaction to God's initiative. He has already rendered judgement upon himself by his refusal to take part in the great drama of redemption. To refuse to respond is to condemn oneself to stagnation, sterility, and decay. To choose to respond - no matter how difficult and painful this can sometimes be - is to become more fully, the person God wishes one to be.

[The following section of the reflection was given at Mass at the seminary.]

Seminary evaluations begin this Wednesday. And I am looking forward to them! Not because of some not-so-friendly reasons you might now be thinking of, but simply because chef Ramon prepares really great sandwiches for lunch, for the faculty on that day, perhaps to "ease the pain" a bit.

You see, I have a confession to make. I've never really liked evaluations, I've never been fully comfortable with them, whether as a seminarian or as a priest doing formation work.

When I was a seminarian, I felt I got too much of what I then thought was "just a lot of nonsense" from the seminary formation staff, chief of which was the fact that I didn't wear enough sweaters and thick clothes and would keep my room freezing, with the windows open during winter, which caused me - that's what they thought - to get sick often.

But I also never liked evaluations as a seminarian, because I felt none of those forming me knew me as much as I would've wanted them to.

But then, who would have? Do we even really know our very selves that much?

When I became a priest, I still didn't like evaluations; not only because I had to sit through countless hours of talking about other people, but also because I felt I really didn't know about the students as much as I would've wanted to - no matter how hard I tried to get to know them.

But then, who would? Is there even such a thing as a hundred-percent knowledge of another human being?

I still recall a conversation I had with my spiritual director about my discomfort and dislike of the process. And the advice he gave me as a student is something I've kept close to my heart all these years; and it's the same advice I wish to share with you this morning.

"When you leave seminary", Fr. John said, "when you get ordained, you will never have to go through these evaluations again. You will also never have to be in chapel for regular prayers, you will never have to be in the dining room for meals at regular times, you will probably never have to take exams again, unless you go for further studies, and you will never have to live with your superiors in such close quarters again, unless the bishop makes you his secretary".

"When you leave seminary, you will probably thank God that you don't have to go through these things again. But it's also then that you will slowly realize how valuable they were, how important for your growth as a person, how necessary for your guidance and safety as a priest, how vital for the protection of your vocation. But by then, they will be gone".

Think about it, once we leave seminary, all the requirements connected with our life in formation disappear. And then we are free... but then we are on our own; sink or swim, we are on our own.

When we do leave seminary, the voices of feedback and critique, these evaluative voices, the prophetic voices reminding us to keep to the straight and narrow path - they all disappear, and we are left on our own - and the only time we get that critical voice, as a friend of mine who used to be a priest, said to me just this past week - is "when we've already failed; but by then it's often too late".

All our activities in seminary, from our prayers, to our classes, to the evaluations we have to go through, are 'supports', 'scaffolds' that enable the Church to slowly but surely, build and form the priest that Christ desires.

They're not perfect structures; but they've all been designed, evolved, and developed over the course of hundreds of years, to mold us - sometimes painfully - into a a priest according to the mind of Chris. While in seminary, we are meant to internalize these structures, to make them part of our very selves. So that one day, when we leave seminary, and leave the structures behind, the values they were meant to instill in us will remain.

That's why the many things we do in seminary are never ends-in-themselves. And even our entire life in formation is not an end-in-itself.

Think about it. What role will Plato, or Aristotle, or Nietzsche or Husserl play in your priesthood? Nothing. But the sharpness of mind that philosophy gives you, that will remain. What role does coming together in prayer or in other activities have in your priesthood? Not much. Once you leave seminary, you won't be going to communal prayers again. But the value of prayer, the value of relationships, they stay with us for the rest of our lives. But only if we learn to appreciate them now, and learn to internalize their meaning and their significance in our life.

What role will these evaluations have once we get ordained? Not much. My old seminary evaluation files are all stored in a footlocker back home, gathering mold or dust. But the value of self-critique, of honesty to self, of seeking meaningful feedback from people, of seeking brotherly correction that will keep us on the straight and narrow path - those we shall need for the rest of our life. For they will be our guide, our protection, our shield, and our salvation.

The many challenges we encounter in seminary life - yes including the evaluations we have to periodically go through - challenging and sometimes difficult and painful as they might be - are the Church's ways of reminding us that Christ cares for us, that God loves us, and wants us to be the best persons, the holiest priests we can be.

But we have to learn to see them as that - despite the occasional difficulty of doing so. And we have to learn, throughout our six or eight years in seminary, to internalize them, to make them our own. So that when our time in seminary is over, when the supports and scaffolds of seminary life are gone, they will remain there inside us, guiding us, protecting us, shielding us, and leading us through the rough and often thorny path that lies ahead.

God's love is offered to each one of us in all the structures of our life in formation; yes, even those as complex and sometimes tough to take as evaluations. But we must learn to see them as such, and value them. Failure to do so, has led many, not to the salvation Christ speaks of in today's Gospel, but to a condemnation which they too often bring upon their very selves.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned".

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