19 February 2009

Some navel-gazing. . .

BE WARNED: this is a fairly rambling piece of somewhat self-indulgent navel-gazing. . .

Normally, I am all-too aware of "where I am" spiritually--usually, somewhere around Not Quite Mortally Wounded Enough to Give Up Entirely but never Flying High Near the Throne. Like most struggling Catholics, I do as well as I can and throw my lot in with God's promise of mercy. This is as it should be. We struggle; we hope; and we get on with our day. Lately, something has changed, and I can't figure out what exactly is different.

Though I value the intellectual life, my basic instinct is intuitive; that is, most of my decisions/evaluations are deeply rooted in empathetic urgings, or fits and starts--maybe even leaps--of insight that push me onward and outward. I hate to admit it, but many of my choices in the past have been gambles rather than reasoned choices. For the most part, these bets against logic have worked out to my benefit. I vaguely remember someone once saying something about only children and fools rely on Providence. . .

Anyway, during my recent visit to the U.S., I was in touch with a strange sense of Something Isn't Right. There's nothing I can point to concretely as an example. Just a really bizarre, almost physical, twinging that I am in the wrong place spiritually. This isn't about being in Rome or about studying philosophy. . .it's more about my relationship to God and His Church, something more fundamental than what I am doing intellectually or vocationally and more about who I am as a priest.

During my three years as a campus minister at U.D. I was in a position to work as a priest on a daily basis. I celebrated Mass as many as five times a week. I was spiritual director to several students, a few staff members, some folks from the community. I heard confessions daily. There were even a few weddings and some baptisms. There's not much of that here in Rome. Two Masses a month. One spiritual directee. No confessions, baptisms, or weddings. Who is a priest without his people? Hmmmmm. . .

Though I taught literature and theology at U.D. the entire time I was there, these were academic exercises rather than strictly priestly ones. Teaching thrills me almost as much as preaching. . .I've learn more in front of a classroom than I ever have sitting in a desk. It's the give and take of a good discussion rooted in a text that stretches me intellectually not the solitary life of a scholar sitting in his room reading. The teaching I did stretched my spiritual muscles as well as my brain. But nothing strains against my naturally spiritual laziness like having to prepare five homilies a week. Of having to read, study, pray over, and preach about the scriptural readings for the ecclesial occasion. Add to that a poet's pride in needing to be original (i.e., not simply reaching into the file and pulling out a homily from three years ago) and you have a recipe for growth. I recently reviewed some of my earlier homilies and compared them to the few I've preached since October 2008. Though my more recent homilies are better focused and more clearly communicated, there's not as much energy there, not as much verve in the text or the delivery. Is that a bad thing? Maybe this is an indication that I am maturing, or maybe I'm feeling spiritually constipated. Stunted. Or held back. Who knows?

In many ways--despite my years in the academy--I was not prepared to be a student again. Sitting in a desk, taking notes, being examined. There's a different kind of discipline in being a teacher. Come to think of it. . .I've rarely been a student without also being a teacher. The typical model of university teaching is Master/Apprentice. Accomplished scholar imparts his/her mastery to those who want to attain competence in a field on the way to achieving expertise. From the beginning of my professional training as a reader/teacher of literature, I have been steeped in a different model: Coach/Athlete. Though I rebelled early on against the Marxism used to fuel this model (the so-called "pedagogy of the oppressed"), it best fits my personality. It is more dynamic, more intuitive, less authoritarian than authoritative, and it gives the teacher lots of room to grow. There's content to impart, of course, but the power of this model is the demonstration of a skill and the constant need to hone that skill.

Maybe my current spiritual discomfort has something to do with my academic discomfort? For Dominicans, study is a form of prayer. But I don't study well alone, or rather, I study best when studying is a communal activity, something done with others who need to sharpen their intellectual skills. What's a coach without his/her athletes?

So, I'm a priest without his people and a coach without his athletes. That goes a long way toward explaining my current malaise. Don't get me wrong here! I'm not unhappy or depressed or anything like that. Just. . .blah. Just tepid in all things spiritual and academic. The intellectual work I have ahead of me is daunting, even overwhelming. But that's not new. What's new, I guess, is that I feel little or no urgency to engage it or complete it. Why? I dunno. I'm reading. I'm thinking. I'm praying. Doing what I can to progress. But my heart isn't in it right now. I wish I could say that I'm being unduly distracted by more urgent problems. Nope. Or that I am being oppressed or burdened with third party problems. Nope. Yet, the sense of being stalled, of wading through molasses remains. Even my creative project--the prayer book--isn't moving my spirit to bigger and better things.

Who knows? It could be this Roman winter--cold, dark, damp. Could be that I am focusing on my health right now. Losing weight. Getting my HBP meds atraightened out. Or that I am too much concerned about where I will be this summer. It's easier to live in the future, isn't it?

What I need is a Coach standing over me yelling, "One more page, you wimp! Come on, you lazy bum! One more book! One more homily!" Ha! Yea, that's the ticket.


  1. I need that coach too. :)

    And personally, Father, I'm interested in the navel-gazing, so I hope you'll keep doing it and I hope the Holy Spirit will guide you in whatever it is He wants of you!

  2. Well I would be happy to come over periodically and yell at you from this side of the priory. Or I could simply call you and tell you "GET THE LEAD OUT!" :)

  3. Anonymous6:28 AM

    Dear Father,

    I sympathize with you. And I will do my best to remember you in my prayers.

    You had mentioned the intuitive aspect of your decision-making over the reasoning. Did you also use this as your basis when you decided on your vocation?

    I ask because I'm discerning myself right now and "feel" the call. Some of the most rational options, such as the Dominicans, seem to suit me very well, but I don't "feel" called to them. There is something that seems to be pulling me towards the monastic life, I think, though this makes little sense to me as I want to reach out to people in the way a Dominican does.

    Just curious for your thoughts.

    God bless you

  4. The title of your post reminded me of something a friend was told by a priest friend, "Get your head out of your belly button." While that may be a necessity to keep ourselves from drowning in self pity- sometimes I think our heads or at least our eyes need to be there to gain some insight and maybe perspective. So keep gazing Father and I will keep you in my prayers.
    PS- Love the new artwork.

  5. Sometimes for us Dominicans, the wood of the desk IS the wood of the cross.

  6. I'll have to think about this for awhile and get back to you....

  7. I think you nailed one thing right on the head: the priest who is not serving the people is missing something. That service of love and compassion for the sinner and the saint draws one out of oneself in order to forget the petty selfishness that can constantly harrass the intellect of the one who is called to serve totally. Thus the navel-gazing.

    Giving to others allows us to forget our own "problems". And what better thing to give than all that Jesus Christ has to offer. Everything else pales in comparison.

    Peace and Prayers Fr. Phil.

  8. How long have you been in Rome & was this your first time living there?

    I know you've lived in China, so mentioning "culture shock" might be reflexively dismissed. But China and Italy are two differnt kettles of fish.

    While stationed in Italy I found it close enough to the USA culture to be constantly jarring. We were warned of this on our arrival and told acclimation could take up to two years, that was the case with myself.

    So, could it be culture shock?

    Either way, you're in my prayers.

  9. Anonymous12:42 PM

    I've heard many parish priests to complain of loniless even in the midst of constant activity. Just hang in there, padre. We all get a little BLAH now and then. Try to enjoy the quiet and solitude while you can, I'm sure soon enough you'll be bombarded with English-speaking people who want/need/demand your time and attention.

  10. Father, what about doubling your holy hour and the help of holy souls in purgatory? :-)

  11. Maybe it is that you are more detached from the works you are doing and interiorly you feel lack of consolation & the satisfaction you had before doing the same things? Maybe it just feels like the blahs because it doesn't have as much feeling to it?

  12. Sally :-)6:10 PM

    Dear Father, First I love reading your blog...refreshingly honest.
    Just a thought about where you are at the moment... seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. Some self reflection is appropriate but too much means we stop concentrating on Jesus. A wise old friend of mine said after I had finished whining about how nothing was right about my life, where I was etc etc, said quietly.." and how is your prayer life?" Hmmm. That put me in my place!
    With Love and prayers Sally :-)

  13. Thank you all for your encouragement and prayers!

    Just to be clear: I'm not in crisis or anything like that...my prayer could be better...I could be paying more and better attention to my schoolwork...I would be happier with a congregation to tend...however, all of these are comparative better not absolutes...I'm doing OK, just a little off-balance right now. This is one of the dangers of being too intuitive, too "mystical," I guess.

    Patrick, I would direct you to my vocation story linked in the sidebar. My journey to the priesthood and the Dominicans has been a somewhat bizarre trip. Sometimes God has to "trick" me into doing the right thing b/c I'm very, very hard-headed. Just ask my mom!

    God bless you all...Fr. Philip

  14. the plateau, the tide is out, the urgency has abated, stuck in a rut, undefined malaise, something's missing, needing to be needed, mild depression.

    all amounts to the same thing.

    what is it? I dunno.
    how to fix it? I dunno.

    I DO know I've been there. And I know it's currently past tense...therefore at some point I LEFT there.

    I also know this: nothing changes if nothing changes. So, what are ya gonna change??

    I've asked you this before but I'll say it again because you refer to yourself as a Priest without a flock.

    Seeing as how I (and others?) listen, read and study your homilies...ask you questions continually (so much that I've quit because I figured I was taking too much of your time)...seek your council and guidance. Does that make me one of your flock? Even though we've never met face to face??

    How does a Priest define his flock?

    you're always in my prayers.

  15. This is nothing more than the work of the devil trying to discourage you from doing the will of God. Fight the good fight and do not give into the snares of the devil! God always brings great good out of our suffering, so persevere in your apostolate and God will bring much fruit from it.

  16. Preach Christ to sinners, preach Jesus to the poor, and the rest will take care of itself.

  17. Dear Father, i appreciate your navel-gazing spiritual insights. it feels less lonely to read this! fwiw, i am desperately seeking spiritual direction (not the feel-good new-age brand available to me locally)...

  18. I don't think you are/were in crisis, just a state of muck and indulgence as you yourself said. Nothing that the relief and a little discipline won't take care of once you get to the other side of the muck. The other shore?

    Intuitively disposed and occasionally disabled by it? For perspective and balance, visit with someone you respect who's not that way.

    In fun, this came to me by way of a faithful, authentically-Catholic, irreverent, poster-Irishman, trucker, ex-drinker, and one of manymanymany siblings, and to you by way of me: "If at first you don't succeed, do it like your mother said." I keep in mind that there are my TWO mothers to deal with here. :) !