Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Never-ending Hellos and Goodbyes of Priestly Life. (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 prayer)

Today is graduation day; another school year comes to an end, another group of students will move on, some to continue their seminary studies, others to respond to God's call leading them towards another direction in their lives, equally good, equally beautiful, equally blessed.

Tonight's graduation mass and ceremony will be another amazing event for sure, an important point and marker along the road these young men have been traveling for the past several years. I've seen them grow, from boys to men. And it was a privilege, a grace, and a blessing to not only watch them grow, but to journey with them as they did. Earlier tonight, as I thought about their journeys, and as I said a prayer for each one of them, I could not help but think of the journey that has been, and continues to be my own.

This will be my eighteenth year in seminary ministry. I've known no other, being assigned to seminary work even before I was ordained to the priesthood. They have been magnificent, grace-filled, and truly wonderful years. And tomorrow, I shall once more see a group of students whom I've had the privilege of knowing, teaching, journeying and, in some instances, crying with, move on. This is, truly, a challenging and, on many occasions, arduous journey.

Tonight they shall graduate, then celebrate a little with their family, their teachers and friends. Then they'll finish packing, if they haven't done that already, and then they'll leave. One by one, they'll leave. And as I was sharing with some of them earlier today, by tomorrow night, most of  them will be gone. By Thursday, the rest of the seminary community will head home, as the entire place takes its much needed break for the summer.

By Thursday night, the silence which has been my companion each time those I've ministered to, one by one, take their leave... that silence will again be jarring.

Goodbye's, even temporary ones, have never been easy for me. Despite the stoic façade and the occasional joke from colleagues of me being the "friendliest anti-social person" they know, the fact is, I like people, and I love hanging out with them and "wasting time", if that's even really possible. (I've never thought that time spent with anyone was time "wasted"; after all, the effects of the connections we make, no matter how seemingly trivial, spread out, like ripples caused by pebbles thrown into a pond, endlessly into an eternity hidden from our sight.) Would that my academic work gave more time to "waste"; but duty often calls, and it must always come first.

I am very proud of these young men I've taught, these seminarians who tomorrow will be moving on. 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 a consolation; it is a gift. It is nothing but grace.

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 always has a couple of 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, hard in fact,  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 drove into campus, I saw some of them, packing their cars in earnest, getting ready for the drive home, either tonight or Thursday. Soon, what I'll be noticing will be the absence of cars in the driveway, the silence of the hallways, then the darkness of the house when I come home late at night and, yes, that silence.

And when I turn on the lights, when I get back home from spending a few hours in the gym, this Thursday night, I will see the open doors to rooms which my students had occupied for the year. I will walk 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 will say to myself, “until the next group of students come in the Fall; then we'll start all over again”. I'll then head back to my room and pick up a book I’ve always returned to, again and again at this time of year: Joyce Rupp’s “Praying our Goodbyes”. On Thursday night, I know, I will need a reassuring voice.

The solitude of the life of a priest who has promised to be celibate for the rest of his life - in service, love and commitment to God's People, beautiful as that may be - still stings me the most on such nights. My brothers in parish ministry tell me that for them, its Sunday nights, when the crowds leave, and the quiet of the rectory becomes, once again, their companion for the night.

God's gifts are surely beautiful; and celibacy is one of them. But some of God's choicest gifts, are painful ones. On Thursday night, when all this school year's goodbye's have been said, I shall again partake of the joy and pain of this gift; and I shall once again be thankful for it.

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 hellos that follow our goodbyes 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 is moving 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 part of everyone’s life. It's part of mine.

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. I shall always wish you 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 han

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