Four years ago, my daily life was significantly different from what it is now. Living in Westchester County, New York, I had a uniquely challenging but rewarding ministry that required me to be out and about with lots of people working in the world of non-profit development. I loved working in and around New York City, and I loved the folks I worked with. Even though I was just a seminarian, I had plenty of room to roam and everything that I needed to do my job: a laptop, a cell phone, a debit card, and a 2001 Chevy Impala.
The Party’s Over
In the summer of 2011, my assignment was changed: it was time to cross the Atlantic to finish my studies for the priesthood. I gave the laptop and cell phone to my replacement, turned over the keys to the Impala, packed my bags, and headed to JFK Airport with a one-way ticket to endless classes and research papers. The party was over.
Living in Rome is awesome, but for a full-time student like myself, it’s not vacation. After three years of life in the Big Apple, working everywhere from the Upper East Side to Wall Street; after regularly socializing with the successful and phenomenally talented individuals with whom New York is full; after forming some wonderful friendships with beautiful people just as excited as me about spreading the Good News; I suddenly found myself enclosed in a tiny room with a pile of philosophy books on my desk, swatting at mosquitoes and wondering why Italians don’t put screens on their windows.
Last week, I posted a reflection on the beauty of monastic life. I did so because at times my own life feels rather monkish, especially in comparison to the more active one that I had before coming back to studies.
In the tradition of religious life, my days are lived according to the ancient monastic motto ora et labora: “pray and work”. Each day starts bright and early at 5:05 am, followed by morning offering with the community in the chapel, personal meditation, and community mass. After breakfast, we have 30 minutes of housework before going to the university for classes. We return at 12:15 for lunch followed by riposo (a 30-minute nap), which in turn is followed by an afternoon of study or work. Dinner is at 7:50 pm, after which we watch news for about 15 minutes before going to night prayers. We are usually in bed by 9:40 pm.
That’s it: simple and stable. I’ll be honest, such a spartan lifestyle can be challenging, especially coming from an exciting job in Manhattan where I regularly interacted with people and spoke in public.
During my first two years in Rome, I was so fully engrossed in the research for my master’s degree in philosophy that I would go weeks without leaving the house. Some afternoons, while praying my rosary on the roof of our four-story dormitory, I would catch myself longingly watching the planes taking off in the distance from Da Vinci Airport, wondering when I would ever be flying back to the Land of the Free.
Living Simply for Something Better
Over the course my three and a half years here in my personal desert of books and research papers, I have come to realize that I can either yearn for the life I had, or I can fully embrace the one that I have now and make the best of it. I am here because I have professed a vow of obedience, and such a vow is a burden only when I make it so. It all depends on how I look at it: it can be seen either as a shackle or as a condition for greater freedom.
Before Christ began his public ministry, he too lived a simple and quiet life in Nazareth. For 30 years, he worked and prayed, silently preparing for the event that would forever change the course of history. Immediately before going public, he withdrew even more from the world, walking into the desert for 40 days of intense fasting and prayer.
This is how I see these last few years of my training for the priesthood: it’s a final intense preparation, withdrawn from the world, for the event that will change my life forever – priestly ordination.
We All Have Our Deserts
Since in a few short years I will be preaching homilies on a regular basis, I like to mine from my personal experiences lessons that can be shared with my future flock. From the one just recounted, I would share the following: embrace your state in life, no matter how much of a desert it may seem to be. The difficulties of your present state, no matter how grinding, are nothing more than a temporary preparation for something bigger and better.
The challenges and difficulties of my life as a student and seminarian pale in comparison to the difficulties that others go through. Some people I know are dealing with difficult marriages that leave them no respite; others face the daily struggle of living in an environment that is hostile to their faith; some are fighting chronic illnesses; others are struggling to find the right spouse or a good job.
I am light-years from being a spiritual master and I still have years before my ordination, but, drawing on the wisdom of the Church, I think that I can safely say that the trick to being happy is simply accepting where you are at in life. This does not mean resigning yourself to a life of suffering, but it means focusing on changing the things you can while leaving the rest up to God.
In other words, live simply. Do not complicate your life by trying to force things that are beyond your control. Just let go, let God be God, and enjoy the amazing blessings that He has in store for you. He brings us through the desert only because on the others side there is a Promised Land that exceeds all of our wildest expectations.