Thursday, May 9, 2013

Life's never-ending hello's and goodbye's (Prayerful thoughts as one bids goodbye to yet another group of students)

“Oh, only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other,
because we take form
in your act of drawing us.
And we take life in your painting us,
and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other.”

[From an Ancient Aztec Indian Prayer]

Another school year has come to an end. This evening’s graduation mass and ceremony here at the seminary were simply beautiful. Afterwards, I saw my graduating students leave for home, one by one they left, and the pre-theology house in which I’ve lived with some of them this past school year began to once again quiet down. I saw them pack, yesterday and earlier today, managed to congratulate them and wish them the best before the mass began.  Goodbye’s have never come easy to me, the stoic facade notwithstanding.
I am very proud of these young men. And I am grateful, not only for having been blessed with the opportunity to be part of their life's journey, but also for the knowledge that there are still those who seek to live this life, this joyful, challenging, yet supremely beautiful life in the priestly ministry. It is good, and tremendously encouraging, to know that one has company. We priests come and go; but the work of ministry goes on, and will go on, in the lives of these young men. That is more than enough consolation.
Still, for a couple of days, recollections of the past two semesters will linger: conversations in the living room, or in the kitchen and dining area, classes and seminars, Friday masses at St. Vincent’s chapel, fun with Bella (our English bulldog); they were her “uncles”, and she had a couple favorites among them. Yes, students come and go; such is seminary ministry. They sink roots for a while, listen to you in class for a time, and then they move on.
I still find saying ‘goodbye’ challenging,  despite having to do it at the end of every year. Nor does it get easier with every year that passes. One builds relationships, makes friends, and then one has to let them go, trusting only that the next step on their journey will be good, because they are in good hands, in God's hands, and he'll always have their back.
Earlier tonight, as I came home from the grocery store, the first thing I noticed was the absence of cars in the driveway, then the darkness of the house when I came in, then the silence. And when I turned on the lights, I saw the open doors to rooms which until earlier today, had my students living in them. I walked around the house, with Bella (she’s gotten used to hanging out with the guys; she’ll be missing them for sure), “It’ll be this way for a while”, I thought to myself, “until the next group of students come in the Fall; then it’ll start all over again”. I went back to my room and picked up a book I’ve always returned to, again and again, Joyce Rupp’s “Praying our Goodbyes”. I needed a reassuring voice.
Goodbyes, especially the more intense ones, cause us to face certain ultimate questions in life: “Where am I headed? What are my most cherished values?” Goodbyes create a space within us where we allow ourselves room to look at life in perspective and gradually discover answers to some of those questions about life. We also learn a lot about the significant others in our lives; we learn who is willing to walk the long road with us, whose heart welcomes us no matter what, who loves us enough to stand with us in good times and in bad, who is willing to love us enough to speak the truth for us or to us.
Goodbyes, when reflected upon in faith, can draw us to a greater reliance upon the God of love, our most significant other. With God we can learn to live in hope, with greater meaning, and deeper joy. All this only comes with time and with great care of self.
No one can avoid the ache of autumn. We all hurt in our own way, but hurt we do. The blessedness in the ache within us is that when we grieve over the farewells, we both give ourselves and find ourselves. We become one with whoever and whatever has met us on our journey. We choose to invest ourselves deeply even though we know that the investment might cost us the price of goodbyes and letting-go. We believe that the investment in our love is worth it, for we have entered into the mystery of life where the hello’s that follows our goodbye’s are guideposts to our eternal home.
We all need to learn how to say goodbye, to acknowledge the pain that is there for us so that we can eventually move on to another hello. When we learn how to say goodbye we truly learn how to say to ourselves and to others: “Go, God be with you. I entrust you to God. The God of strength, courage, comfort, hope, and love, is with you. The God who promises to wipe away all tears will hold you close and will fill your emptiness. Let go and be free to move on. Do not keep yourself from another step in your journey. May the blessing of the God of autumn be with you”.
Priesthood, I've come to discover more and more, involves a lot of 'hellos' and 'goodbyes', in an endless cycle—because those we meet, those we care for, those we serve, those we love, are never really ours to keep. They merely pass through our hands, through our lives, and then we let go. And that's alright. Because in the end, that's what a priest is; not the destination, only a path, a bridge, a road, one that ends not in himself, but in God alone whose work he does.
Another school year has ended, another group of young men have moved on. I will miss these guys; just as I still miss the many students whom I’ve taught over the years. The ache of autumn is part of a priest’s life; it’s a part of everyone’s life.
The night of graduation has always been a little tough for me, ever since I began teaching; because the tender sting of letting-go is felt rather acutely at that point, and because I know that the day after, the journey begins all over gain. Saint Thomas says that to love someone is “to wish him well”. To the young men who today have begun another chapter in their lives, all I can really say is that “I wish you guys well”.
When someone we love so carefully grows,
with courage and struggle to let love be their home,
we sing, yes, we dance and share our delight
to witness such beauty and a strength so right.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his hands.

The joy that you’ve found is a gift for us all.
It glows like the velvet of a crystal moonlight.
Over the years, the choices you’ve made,
have clothed you with freedom to nurture and heal.

And as we move on to other horizons of light,
we hope for each other, we drink deeply of life,
to know and to love, to choose and to share,
this garden where we know, happiness dwells.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his hands.

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