A while back, a father asked me to write a note of encouragement to his son as he prepared to enter a diocesan seminary program. Remembering back to when I was preparing to head off to join the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order and begin my seminary formation, I was imagining the feelings new seminarians are probably experiencing that might seem simultaneously daunting and thrilling.
Reflecting on what to say, I started recalling the advice I was given when I was heading off to the seminary — as well, what I picked up during my initial years of formation. I leafed through the Bible that I prayed with early on, noting the things I wrote down on some blank pages. Hopefully, the following seeds of wisdom will fortify you during times of questioning and lead you further along the journey of seeking wisdom and understanding in your discernment process.
Engage God’s Word
So, let’s begin with the first seed of wisdom. Before entering the seminary, I began reading Scripture, but was more haphazard in my direction. This time I decided to read God’s word in its entirety. I thought if I was going to be preaching, it might be good to be familiar with the Bible. Plus, it would be cool to say that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover. (I’ve done it twice now.)
In preparation for reading the Bible, I would recite a brief prayer that helped me focus my thoughts and open my heart in order to help me better listen to God’s word. Later on, I found out I was praying a variation of the prayer known as the Prayer Before the San Damiano Crucifix. This is a prayer of expectation, expecting God to respond to you. I’ve found that God oftentimes does meet us in our expectations, though seldom in our wistful wishes.
My plan to read the Bible consisted of reading one chapter from an Old Testament book before morning prayer, then one chapter before evening prayer from a New Testament book. I recommend you begin with your favorite books to get started. Leave Judges, Chronicles, Lamentations and Revelations until the end, just so you can say, yes, I have read the Bible cover to cover.
You need only 20 minutes to prayerfully read the text — the introduction page for each book I considered like a chapter. Underline and highlight passages that catch your attention. With remaining time, “sit under” what you just read and let it speak to you in silence. Here you might want to have a prayer journal — those black-and-white composition notebooks work best — where you can put the date and the verse number, and where you can compile all of the thoughts you later want to recall.
It took me about a year and a half to read the Bible cover to cover with this method. And the second time through God’s word, I heard so many different things than I had the first time. The word is always new, and God will speak when we learn to be still and listen. Sound advice comes from the Book of Job: “Listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom” (33:33).
‘Prepare Yourself for Trials’
There is a verse from the Book of Sirach that was a God-sent anchor through many stormy times during those years of initial formation. So this passage is my second seed of wisdom to pass along to you:
“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of adversity. Cling to him, do not leave him, that you may prosper in your last days. Accept whatever happens to you; in periods of humiliation be patient. For in fire gold is tested, and the chosen, in the crucible of humiliation. Trust in God, and he will help you; make your ways straight and hope in him. You that fear the Lord, wait for his mercy, do not stray lest you fall. You that fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not be lost. You that fear the Lord, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy” (2:1-9).
I started referring to this verse as “The Prayer for Novices” and passed it along to many others over the years. Find it in your Bible and bookmark it with a Post-it note. I’m sure you will turn to it often for comfort and strength during your own times of “troubled waters.”
The third seed of wisdom to share is this: Organize your thoughts whenever you read. Write down quotations, stories or whatever you come across that you might want to save and recall, for use later in a homily or retreat.
One of the friars suggested this to me early on in formation. He said, “Your memory just isn’t that good, and you will forget what it was or from where you read it.” I did start writing down those quotations and stories that deeply spoke to me. I have 63 volumes so far.
One of the early quotes, from Volume 1 of my journals, is known as “The Merton Prayer” by the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
This fourth seed of wisdom will see you through many confusing times when you will seem to be lost and not sure which is the path to follow.
One day, I was speaking with my spiritual director, and he handed me an index card that he discovered on his desk that morning. He had no idea how it got there, but he was sure that it was meant for me. It is on Page 2 of my first journal, written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
“I want to beg you as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient to all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. ... Do not now seek answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. … Take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your innermost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.”
I have used this so many times over the years, passing it along to students who are teeming with so many questions; however, they just may not be ready for the answers — “Be patient ... live the questions now!”
What Is Possible
The fifth seed of wisdom is one of my favorites and helps guide me along life’s journey. It is from the esteemed Pope St. John XXIII.
“Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustrations but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in but with what it is possible for you to do.”
So often it is our fears, frustrations and failures that hold us back; they are our unfulfilled potential. Instead, look to your hopes and dreams and, always, what is possible for you to do.
St. Paul’s Words of Wisdom
The sixth seed of wisdom is my personal power verse that God planted in my heart more than 35 years ago that continues to provide the vision that fills me with a sense of meaning and purpose. It is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
“Encourage one another and build one another up. ... Be at peace among yourselves. … Always seek what is good both for each other and for all. ... Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances, give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (5:11, 13, 15-18).
So, as you prepare for your great adventure, I pray that God inspires you with your own power verse, one that will instill a vision to fill you with a sense of meaning and purpose.
In closing, I leave you with this blessing:
“May God guide you and guard you, protect you in safety and peace. May God enlighten you with wisdom and understanding, and may God empower you with every grace and blessing you will need to face the challenges of this day. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Peace and blessings!
FATHER BRIAN CAVANAUGH, TOR, ministers at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He publishes “Apple Seeds” (appleseeds.org), a monthly quote-letter of motivation and inspiration.