“What is it like to be a seminarian?” It is difficult to give an adequate answer to people when they ask this question. I wrote this post bit-by-bit over the course of my first semester in the seminary in an attempt to show you glimpses of what this life consists of. It is far more than going to classes and saying some prayers on a routine schedule. It is an immense adventure of seeking God’s will and being formed into the image of Jesus Christ Himself. Faith, struggle, surrender, joy, growth, brotherhood, service, prayer, and intimacy with Christ… These are just a few of the things you’ll read about. This post is far from exhaustive, and I know that there is so much I have left out. These reflections are not comprehensive lists of my daily activities, but rather snapshots of some of the defining moments of my seminary journey so far. It is deeply personal and real. I pray that Our Lord will inspire your heart through the words He gave me here, and that He will continue to guide each of us on our journeys of faith as we seek to follow after Him. +
Seminary is fumbling with your phone at 5:15 a.m. when your alarm goes off, and you’re so tempted to shut it off for more sleep. Some days you do. But… Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel downstairs for your morning time together. And you have the Office of Readings to pray. And you remember St. Josemaría’s “heroic minute”—the time fixed for getting up. And so, as a small act of love for God, you do. Before your feet hit the ground though, your knees do, and you make your morning offering: “Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will…”
Seminary is loading up three guitars, three music stands, a drum set, and ten seminarians into two cars and driving to a family’s house an hour away on a Saturday night. You spend hours gathered together, praising the God who brought you all there in His divine providence—the God who called you to seminary, gently tugging at your heart your whole life long; the God who called this man and this woman to be one flesh in Him, giving life to these children in this family worshipping beside you. Each of you has his and her own unique journey of faith, of struggle, of triumph, guided by the ever-loving, ever-gracious hand of God. And so you lift your own hands in worship. And you lay them on each other, praying and speaking words of love, words of peace, words of grace. Your voices are one, and so also your hearts.
Seminary is standing up in the middle of your Holy Hour in the chapel early one morning and walking out because you yearn to hear His voice speak in the depths of your heart, but you aren’t ready to listen; because you want more than anything in the world to be close to Him, but this close?—close enough to feel His aloneness, His abandonment?; because you come to Him with all your wants and needs, with all your longing to be loved, and He just rests there in the tabernacle, just hangs there on His cross as the One who is more than you could ever imagine, and yet the One more hidden than any other; because you’re tired, and worn, and weary from expending so much effort trying to see yourself through the eyes of other people that there’s not much left to see yourself through His; because your heart is restless and anxious, and all He wants is for you to just sit there, still and silent and docile, as He looks at you with His loving gaze; because, again, you just don’t get it when you think of how unworthy you are to be here (which you are, really), but that’s not the point, really.
Seminary is kneeling at your umpteenth daily Mass when, again, time folds into eternity and eternity folds into time, and you’re there, and He’s there—the night before He had to suffer—and you watch His precious body taken, broken, blessed… and as He is lifted up, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” He looks down from His cross through all eternity and meets your thirsting gaze in that single moment, and He says to you—you!—with an almost unbearable, anguished love, “You are enough for me to die for. Am I not enough for you?” Tears welling, heart falling, you renew again your answer and your resolve, “My Lord and my God, You are enough for me!”
Seminary is walking to class and passing your brothers—some joyous, some worn, some shining, others torn. You say, “Good morning,” and some say it back; others simply smile, some nod, and some just…can’t. It’s okay, you know what’s in their hearts: a battle you all face between your Lord’s ways and your own, between your God and your gods, between angels and demons. You try to smile brightly to each one, hoping to remind them—and yourself—that love conquers all.
Seminary is taking three hours to prepare for a General Confession, peering back through more than twenty-one years of life and recalling every sin you ever committed, great and small, previously confessed and unconfessed. Why? Because as you begin this new chapter of your life as a seminarian, you want to be totally and completely free. You want the light of God’s love and mercy to come and touch every shadow, every stain, every dark corner of your heart. You reach back to the little sins from kindergarten that you laugh about now but which still prick your conscience. You don’t have to search far for the greater sins of your more recent years: the ones you’ve confessed but that still haunt you, the ones most difficult to put into words and write out on your notepad. Three legal pad pages in and you begin to remember and write down the sins of other people that have affected your life: the ones that hurt you and caused you pain, the ones that chipped and broke you, the ones that took your youthful innocence from you and failed to protect you, the ones who turned away, the ones who led you astray. Why? Because they caused wounds that need healing; because they’ve hardened and walled-off parts of your heart that now yearn to be softened and freed; because they’ve made you hold on to anger, guilt, unforgiveness, and pain which keep you from fully giving and receiving love for God and for others; because these people, these sinners are God’s children—broken, weak, and human just like you—and they need His mercy too.
So you bring all these things, these heavy burdens, to the man in black—your spiritual father, your guide, your Jesus-on-Earth—and you confess every sin you’ve placed on your long list. You go through each Commandment and each year of your life, your throat tightening and tears welling as you get to the hardest of sins to confess. This is not about the man sitting before you who is just listening in. You are laying bare your soul to your Savior, Jesus Christ, through His vicar who stands in His place. Like a cancer patient in surgery, you want the doc to get it all, every last bit, so you leave nothing out.
At the end of an hour, you place your final burden at the foot of His Cross. The priest raises his hand—Christ’s hand—over you and prays, “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” With a resounding “Amen!” and a cathartic exhale, you are filled with an immense peace and indescribable joy! You feel like you’ve just run a spiritual marathon and won a great victory. You can almost feel the delight of your Father in Heaven as you picture Him smiling down upon you, proclaiming those precious words, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
The Father’s mercy is our home. It is where we are free and loved. Mercy re-wires the human brain and re-creates the soul. Mercy allows us to be found by the loving Father. In the Confessional, the love of God reaches down to every prodigal son and daughter. Love removes fear. Jesus desires to press the miseries of man into His Sacred Heart. Here, the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy.
Walking out of that Confession, you realize that you are freer in that moment than you have been since the day of your infant baptism. You gave everything to Jesus Christ, and He bound up all of your sins with Him on His Cross. His victory there set you truly free—free to love Him and to be loved by Him. There is not one thing left for the devil to taunt you with, no hidden sin or strain of guilt. Your faults and failings have become your crowns of victory and salvation. Because of them, you came to know the love and mercy of God. He emptied you out, and now this blessed emptiness, this clean hole in your soul makes you long to be filled by His presence in the Eucharist. Oh how splendid that next Mass will be! Alleluia! This is the life of grace. This is the life of the redeemed.
Seminary is meeting with the in-house psychologist on a Thursday afternoon to talk about your struggle with perfectionism—thinking that your worth depends on some ideal performance in every aspect of your life—and about your lack of self-love: the God of the entire universe created you and redeemed you out of love, but you don’t love what He has created and redeemed? Who are you to refuse loving that which He does? And “sometimes good enough is better than perfect, because good enough will let you be a part of humanity in a way that perfection won’t.”
Seminary is bending down to look lovingly into the eyes of an eight-year-old girl. She is one of your students in your third grade faith formation class at a parish you’ve been assigned to near your seminary for Sunday ministry. In this class, she is an outcast, an undesirable. As you peer into her young but worn eyes, you see her pain, disguised as it is by her unruly behavior and protective exterior, like the thorns of a cactus shielding its tender inner fruit. To her, and to all of these children, you are a messenger of God. From you they expect His words, His care, and His love. And so they should. You do your best to be Christ to them, teaching them His ways and showing them His heart. Is it enough? Are you saying the right things and giving the right witness? You know how precious these little ones are to Him. “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Seminary is seeing an Associated Press news alert on your cell phone in the middle of your philosophy class: “Active shooter on Oregon college campus,” and you wonder where, how close to you is it? And then Fox News: “10 confirmed dead in Roseburg, OR shooting.” Your heart skips a beat and you feel your soul hit the ground, because Roseburg. Because that’s the hometown of your friend—no, of your brother. That’s how close. Because his grandma is a teacher at the college there. Because in a town of only 22,000, you know that he knows someone—many ones—affected by this tragedy. Because he is your brother, and you know his heart. And neither Jean-Paul Sartre on the desk in front of you, nor any professor looking right at you keeps you from stopping to pray, to beg, and to plead with your God in Heaven above for mercy and protection for your brother and his beloveds. Please, God. And you swipe away the news alerts to text your brother, to tell him that you know, and that…you know.
Seminary is slapping closed your laptop with all of its ridiculously trivial to-do lists to drive your brother home—home to pray, to grieve, to be. Your heart is full—full of love, and understanding, and sorrow—but your words are few. But it’s okay, because you don’t need words, because your eyes meet his and you both know. Words fail and actions aren’t enough either, but presence, and prayer, and shared pains too—while so quiet, really say it all.
Seminary is having your voice and the voices of 140-some other seminarians melded together into one as you all praise and glorify the Lord with the Psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours. “Holy men of humble heart, bless the Lord.” You all move and breathe and pray as one: stand, sit, bow, strike your breast. It’s like a company of military soldiers marching in unison, conditioning together and preparing for battle. No, it’s not like a group of military soldiers, it is. Soldiers for Christ, for His Church. We prepare to do battle for souls.
Seminary is having people see you as a seminarian and they assume—they believe—that you have a deep connection with Jesus Christ. They assume that you know Him intimately, that you love Him profoundly, that you belong entirely to Him, and that you have His ear because you live so closely with and for Him. You are daily humbled by this reality, one that spurs you on to greater surrender of your whole self to God. It’s humbling because you recognize your own sinfulness, your days of unfaithfulness to prayer, and the distance you often allow to grow between you and Jesus because of your waywardness. This is who you will become, God-willing, at ordination: standing in the place of Jesus Christ on Earth. You must bind yourself to Him. You must bind yourself to His Word. You must take up His identity and daily work to become more like Him, begging God for the grace to do so. You must be constantly detaching yourself from the things of this world: its pleasures, its anxieties, its empty lusts and pursuits. You must be able to say with St. Paul, “Yet I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Through prayer, the Sacraments of the Church, the Holy Scriptures, and acts of mercy and charity, you must “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:20), taking on the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. Because you are His. Because He has called you. Because the world needs Him in you.
Seminary is walking down your dormitory hallway at 9:00 p.m., seeing a brother’s door open, and stopping to talk about the mundane, when seven other brothers join in one by one, and you begin to talk about the Divine. You grab your Missal, some open Bibles, others pull out their phones, and soon you’re reading His words, praying to His heart, and sharing yours with Him and with them. One Sacred Heart of God pierced and broken; nine wounded hearts of men made new, again.
Seminary is spending five days in silence on a retreat with your holy Lord on a holy hilltop. It seems daunting to you at first, but that quickly changes. Your life is filled with so much noise and so many distractions that it’s no wonder you find it hard to hear and connect with God. His Spirit resides in the calm whispers of the winds, not in the loud chaos of the thunder. It’s fascinating that the thing which you most desire—intimacy with God—is also the thing of which you are most afraid. What will it cost, this intimacy? How much of me will it require? What might I miss out on while sitting still in His presence? The answers are that it will cost you everything; it will require giving your entire self—all that you are, have, and want. With Him, you have everything. Without Him, you have nothing. In the silence of your heart He speaks.
After only half a day, you are able to quiet your heart, open your mind, and feel Him all around you. In surrendering your everything to Him, you find Him. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This is the greatest treasure: being touched by God, seeing the face of Christ. In this intimate communion on your knees before your God, your heart and your soul are at rest. No human person can give you this kind of love. You search and you chase after so many others, trying to fill that emptiness within you with their love, affection, approval, favor… But only His can satisfy you. This is the pearl of great price for which you will sell all to have. Nothing in the world can compare with this love of God you have come to know.
Seminary is sometimes springing up out of bed in the morning, and sometimes crawling. It’s having great days, good days, in-between days, and some bad. It’s laughing so hard with friends that you cry, and crying so hard that only God Himself can bring you peace. It’s struggling to persevere in prayer, and sometimes praying so profoundly you can almost hear His divine lungs exhale.
I continue to be increasingly captivated by the depth, and breadth, and height of our God’s love and mercy. I feel so set apart for Him, for His sheep. For much of my life, I was frustrated by the ways that I was made differently, think differently, desire differently… But it all seems to make sense—I make sense—in the light of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. Sometimes it feels as though my heart is enveloped in sorrow, not out of despair but out of a deep longing to be more and more united to Jesus. The story of my life and my vocational discernment centers on discovering God’s call, discovering that which He has destined to make my heart sing with joy, peace, and fulfillment as I lay down my life for Him. I am, in a sense, the Rich Young Man hungry for the high adventure of the spiritual life. I am Matthew, wholly unworthy and laden with worldly attractions, but convicted by the pointing finger of Jesus, who calls me to come after Him. My journey thus far has been long and complex, full of my own shortcomings and stubborn resistance to God’s will, but He has never ceased weaving the thread of His love and mercy through it all, guiding me gently into a life of self-giving love, the fruit of which is an ever-deepening intimacy and walk with Him.
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. (1907–1991)