Early on a Saturday morning near the end of May, I piled into a car with three other seminarians to begin a drive down to Omaha, Nebraska. Our destination was Creighton University where we would begin the Institute for Priestly Formation’s (IPF) nine-week summer program with over a hundred seminarians from all over the country.
Like most people, my first thought for the summer probably wouldn’t be to spend it at a university taking classes; but the goal of the next two months wasn’t just to learn spiritual content, it was to grow in spiritual habits. And I give thanks to God that He gave me such an opportunity this summer.
In our opening meeting, Fr. Timothy Gallagher O.M.V. shared with us a line from St. Augustine’s Confessions that struck me with new force. Remembering how he spent his youth chasing all types of pleasures, Augustine writes about God’s presence in his life, “You were within me, but I was outside.” Having read the Confessions before and even studying Augustine as a seminarian, I was familiar with this line, but it suddenly took on new weight. Anyone who goes out to work during the day can say, “I’ve accomplished this and that.” But if I do not come back home after going out to work, who will I share my joy or sorrow with? Who or what will I go to when exhausted? If I am not “within” and with God, then it seems I am without Him.
Now I don’t mean to make it seem as if I or any of my brother seminarians are bereft of God’s presence and living in constant desolation; that’s just not true. But it can be easy to start to think of the school year and the summer — or of time at Mass and then the rest of the day — as “on and off the clock,” as going out to work for God and then coming home to ourselves, instead of being “within” where God is always with us. My time in Omaha was a wonderful opportunity to help strengthen such a habit in myself and all the seminarians who attended.
My great friend in all this was, and continues to be, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She always easily shares with Jesus whatever is on her mind, and she is constantly wanting to do everything with him as well. She also speaks with the same great clarity as St. Augustine when she says, “I resolved never to let my soul wander from the gaze of Jesus.”
The heart of the IPF and their end goal is to make sure seminarians and priests never let their eyes wander from the gaze of Jesus. This is a habit that is required for the whole Christian life, but particularly in priestly life where the priest is no longer himself but in persona Christi.
More than just understanding, St. Thérèse has helped me with many practical things as well such as staying focused in prayer. In her Story of a Soul, she writes about a time she paused to look at a painting of Jesus on the cross and thought about the blood dripping from his wounds. She goes on to say, “I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the cross and to receive its dew.” As someone who can easily be distracted in prayer, this became a great help when my thoughts could be all over the place. I simply imagined myself at the foot of the cross with Mary, St. John, and whoever else may have passed by in those three hours Jesus was there. This quickly silences any distractions that may have been taking up my attention, and I am able to look at Jesus and let him look at me.
This habit, like all others, is nurtured over time and with care. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the struggle of making fledgling resolutions into daily habits — at least I hope it’s not just me! This is why I am so thankful for my time in seminary formation and with the IPF this summer. The IPF gave me the time to sow and nurture these habits that will be required for priestly life and ministry later on. I’m blessed to have had such a great opportunity this summer with the IPF program and to be supported by all the priests and laity that make such a program possible. I’m also blessed to have this time now in seminary formation to deepen my relationship with God, keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus one moment at a time.