Returning to where my journey began
It was with the high-octane excitement of the truant pulsing through me, that blend of freedom mixed with the dread that something is bound to go wrong, that I have booked myself in for a 10-day course on spiritual direction at the diocesan seminary.
In nearly 11 years as a priest I have done only the occasional day of formal in-service training, and this being the Year for Priests, and finally having someone to deputise for weekday Masses, I decided to take the plunge. As well as being nourished, rather than having to do the nourishing, as it were, I am looking forward to the chance just to relax into a rhythm of prayer and pray a bit more, supported by the seminary horarium and the atmosphere of prayer.
Seminaries are not monasteries, but they have the same effect, of quickly wrapping you round with a routine. When you’re there as a seminarian, this can be one of the most difficult aspects of it. After the stresses of parish life one begins to view it with a fond nostalgia, and to see the amount of freedom it provides. One also probably does not realise the extent to which years of that routine did condition one, so that slipping back into it happens naturally, like riding a bike; once you’ve learned the secret of its momentum to balance you there’s no forgetting it. So it’s a little like being on retreat, and would be even more so if I didn’t have to nip back to town every so often for a few essential meetings.
The seminary is a fine Victorian building in rust-coloured brick in a beautiful setting. At this time of year the avenues of cherry trees are heavy with blossom, and there are bluebells growing in the woods roundabout. Nevertheless, there is no mistaking its institutional stamp, and just as visiting a maternity hospital inevitably forces you to think about babies rather than health in general, being in a seminary forces you to think about your priesthood, rather than spiritual life in general.
I was destined to be sent to distant Rome to train and so the first thing I have been pondering with little fruitful conclusion as yet is how the experience of being abroad for six years differed from this more familiar, homely experience of a seminary within the English countryside and an hour from home. Poignantly, the last time I came here to the diocesan seminary was when I was a layman who was deciding he wanted to be a priest. I arrived with butterflies in the stomach for the selection conference, the weekend of interviews and assessment which gauges a candidate’s suitability to train for the priesthood. This is a rather intense experience. First, there is the rather difficult process of having to articulate something as inchoate and deeply felt as a vocation in a language that makes sense to others. Second, there is a distinct feeling of being something of a specimen with the knowledge that everything from one’s ecclesiology to one’s table manners are under scrutiny of one kind or another. At the end of the weekend all those who have interviewed you, the seminary staff, lay experts and students with whom you have interacted all give a verdict on what they have heard and observed. There were, I remember, helpful and positive interviews which examined one’s family background, education, motivation for priesthood, one’s prayer life and experience of the Church. There was another in which I felt fairly sure from the questions I was being asked that my CV and personal statement about why I wanted to be a priest had become mixed up with someone else’s. Perhaps the most disconcerting experience of all was the group discussion. I presumed this was presumably to test how we interacted in a group. So there were several candidates and several seminarians and a psychologist observer. We sat round in a circle and someone lobbed a kind of Aunt Sally question in the middle, like “Why shouldn’t women be priests?” and we proceeded to discuss it. The psychologist closed his eyes and reclined in the manner of a sage awaiting enlightenment. This might have been more convincing had he not also proceeded to slide further and further down his chair as the minutes wore on, to the point where if we hadn’t woken him he would have fallen to the floor. We were left wondering exactly what the point of the exercise was and the nagging worry that perhaps it wasn’t the issue of women priests but your pastoral skills of dealing with cataleptic parishioners which were being tested. I still don’t really know, and I am still eternally grateful to the seminarian who, seeing my bemusement, found the time to say an encouraging: “You’ll be fine.” Nowadays I think the psychological testing is a little more, er... thorough.
Seeing myself, as it were, back at the start of the process that led to ordination, the point where this subjective idea that I was being called was exposed to the judgment of the Church, gives much food for thought. It brings peace, knowing that I have come far on a journey of which I knew, in truth, very little back then, except the imperative of setting off. But it is also a powerful reminder of how vocation is also always a work in progress. Back then it seemed a question of gaining the next stage – selection for seminary, and once there the different stages. Now I am ordained I discover that my vocation is something dynamic, in much the same way that marriage begins when the couple celebrate the sacrament by the vows they utter.