A few weeks ago I was finishing a three-year program for spiritual direction at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. Since this was a course focused on spirituality much of our time was spent in the chapel seeking to attune the ear of heart to the still, small voice of God. One of the people who was serving as a spiritual advisor for us was in the process of training a service dog, a beautiful Newfoundland black lab mix named Rosie. Every day during holy hour the trainer would bring Rosie into the chapel with her and the dog would just lay down at her feet and rest. I thought to myself, “What a beautiful example of just being silent and still in the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament.” I was talking about this later with her trainer who remarked quizzically, “Well, Father, she’s a Catholic dog after all.”
I mention this humorous interaction to highlight one of the most important aspects of prayer, namely, just being silent in the presence of God. It is tempting sometimes to fill our spiritual life with religious “to do” lists. As Catholics we are blest to have such a rich patrimony of formal prayers that our time with the Lord can be filled with the recitation of novenas or litanies. While this certainly is not something negative, we can miss out on what the Lord may desire to say to us if we spend no time listening to Him.
Putting ourselves in a meditative or contemplative posture of prayer can be a great challenge, even for those advanced in the spiritual life. We are a society and culture that is opposed to silence. Our days are filled with sound and fury and so we have very little experience of just being still and recollected. When we attempt to be quiet in prayer, we can become disconcerted or think that this is just a waste of time. Surely, we may think, I can be doing something better or more productive than just sitting still in the presence of the tabernacle. Yet this is a temptation that must be resisted. It is in these moments of quiet prayer that the Lord is speaking most powerfully to our hearts in a way imperceptible to our senses. It is worth remembering the profound words of the great Carmelite spiritual master St. John of the Cross, who said, “God’s first language is silence.”
As important as this growth in the spiritual life is for any disciple, it is even more important for those who are considering a vocation to the priesthood. A man who believes the Lord is calling him must already have a strong spiritual life that has allowed him over the course of the years to struggle with the reality of the call from Christ to “Come, follow me.” Pursuing a vocation to the priesthood is never something undertaken in an arbitrary manner. It is even not essentially rooted in a man’s desire to be a priest. What must instead be felt is an abiding sense in prayer that Jesus is drawing him to lay down his life for the Church. In the final analysis, he must let go of his own desires and wants and begin to view things through the lens of what God is calling him to do.
Growth in the spiritual life is not easy, yet it is essential. Without a desire to go deeper with the Lord in prayer, our relationship with Jesus reaches a plateau and no further growth is possible. God desires a deep and abiding intimacy with every one of those who have been claimed by Him in Baptism. An even deeper friendship is sought with those who will follow him radically as priests, brothers or sisters. It is in those moments of quiet in a chapel before the flickering of the sanctuary lamp that the Lord speaks to the heart and calls those who will carry out His saving work in the world.