Let me continue from my reflections on the story of Jacob’s encounter with the angel. Here is a thread on which I would like to draw to guide what I want to say this morning.
Fr. Cau drew my attention to the opening verses of the story.
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the river Jabbock. After he had sent them across the river, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
The mysterious stranger, the angel, only comes to wrestle with Jacob when he alone – not when his family is around him and when he has left his possessions behind. He moves away from all that is familiar and gives him support and connection.
Seminary life is a balanced discipline of community and individual, of being together and being alone. Overall, however, community life is strong – we pray together, share meals together, got CTC together – as the Italians call them – our tempi forti – or strong moments are communal, reinforced by a timetable and expectations that we will be present, together, for them.
However by Sunday afternoon, we will no longer be living within the framework of the seminary timetable, and there will no longer be the expectations of the seminary staff to inform or guide your decision making. You will leave your possessions behind and like Jacob, you will be alone.
Being alone means stepping into a kind of freedom – and indeed that is what it will feel like. That is part of what makes holidays anticipated and desired and an important part of the rythym of life – not something conceded to us begrudgingly.
The holidays are a marvellous opportunity to relax and refresh and we must do things to enable that to happen. But how we use our freedom is at the heart of our holidays – as it is of the way we live our entire life – what we do with our freedom reveals the values we hold most dear and the quality therefore of the decisions we make that flow from those values.
Our holidays are therefore, i would say, are part of our seminary programme because they continue to be about formation which is about how we use our freedom – especially how we direct our freedom in solitude – just as jacob was alone – and only then he encounters the angel who wants to wrestle with him.
Let’s think then of our holidays in terms of how we use our solitude and therefore our freedom. So it’s a moment, this morning, on the threshold of our holidays, to ponder how we have grown in our interiority – our capacity for self-reflection and the “guarding of our hearts”, as the desert fathers would say. It’s from here that good decisions can be made and the call to live in the lord’s service, his voice, can be heard better and put into practice better. What we have hopefully grown into this year we take with us into the holidays.
This is going to call for some personal determination – even creativity – so as not to drift thought the holidays or indeed be shipwrecked.
Have you thought about how might it be possible to attend mass during the week? For some this will be easy, other less so.
What to do about participating in the Eucharist – this is a good question to start with and carry with you.
More challenging is working with the structure of our holidays and the places where we are staying – to find time for personal prayer, stillness, our meditation. But have we developed a taste for and an ease with silence and stillness and being instead of doing – a taste for moments of solitude?
It was Karl Barth the great protestant theologian from the last century who said that preaching was about having the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That is we need to keep the connection of faith to life and life to faith – to be of real service to the kingdom – not living in just one world or the other.
So this includes the pursuing your own good interest by reading wisely, create an opportunity for spiritual reading. You should have a favourite author by now – or try someone new – the holidays are a good time for this. What am I reading this summer?
The places where we are staying during the holidays – our family home, a presbytery or as guests with friends – have their own rhythms and shape; again a challenge to make decisions about times for prayer and finding space for stillness.
Be mindful of being helpful where ever you are staying – I came not to be served, but to serve…and of being a positive influence among those you stay with. A grumpy, lazy, and negative seminarian is not a pretty thing. Families and wise friends can be very good for keeping our feet on the ground.
Many of you will be in contact with the parish priest near where you are staying or indeed with your own parish priest is staying with your family. It is a good custom to greet the parish priest as soon as you can, and if he offer to have a chat about how things are going in the seminary. You could tell him, “We are all wrestling with our angels!” It’s also good to be wisely loyal to the seminary.
If you are working – as I hope that as many of you will be – relating to others in that particular space is especially full of moments of possibility. For some you can be a curiosity – “studying for what?!” – a sign of contradiction, some kind of “honey pot” for certain others – arousing interest in different ways. People may observe you and pass comments – sometimes accurately. Just soak them up and rinse them out with family or friends.
However, never underestimate the influence you can have. There could be some pastoral wisdom gathered in certain situations in which you find yourselves – meeting new people, conversations and discussions. If things get serious – think about referring them on to their own parish priest or someone else you know who may be able to help them.
Be a bringer of good news, and a little hope and light.
Travelling – Encountering Others
Together with those moving out on their mission experience, many of you will be travelling – this is a different space from home, work or parish. In travelling we meet an ever expanding group of people – of different languages, cultures, religions and so the corresponding need to be even more open and listening and patient; every blessing for those travelling for your safety and openness to others that can enrich us.
A special joy awaits those who are travelling to see their family.
Travelling however – being on the move – can present challenges for praying or getting to mass. So don’t leave home without your breviary and as I have said, a good book to read.
In one way I find this, my first – what shall I call it? – holiday speech – rather unusual. Am i just telling you things you already know or things you have heard before? You know about the importance of prayer and the Eucharist, work, relaxation - a balanced life, of engaging wisely with others, sharing your witness as students for the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and being bearers of gospel joy.
However i simply take a moment to share these thoughts with you, to remind and invite and establish them a little more firmly in heart and mind and action.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. Solitude, “guarding of our hearts”, freedom and making wise decisions.
Bearing all these things in mind, I wish you a most enjoyable and blessed holiday break.