Entering the seminary forty-five years ago this summer, I had definite ideas at the time about what I would be doing. I had notions about how I would be spending my days those first two years of novitiate. I had done my reading of vocation materials, pored over drawings and photographs in brochures and books, talked to some of my high school teachers who had taken the same step ten and twenty years earlier.
I knew I would be sitting in classrooms during part of the time. I knew I would be kneeling in lots of chapels. I knew I would be taking meals in a refectory with thirty, sometimes forty, sometimes even more residents and visitors to the house. I knew I would work alongside other young men from around the country, hearing their stories of growing up and of leaving home in just the way I had.
What I did not know was what the experience would be like living alongside men in their late fifties who were not my father and mother. Of course I knew these men had not married or raised children. I just had not known first-hand how routines uninformed by my parents’ values and histories might end up looking and feeling. What did these men do when they got the flu? What did these men do when they missed something they had really been looking forward to? I knew what my parents would do. What did these men do?
What I did not know entering the seminary at age nineteen was that I was going to have the experience of living alongside men in their sixties and seventies as well. It would be their day-to-day living – their walking down a hallway to breakfast, their carrying their laundry downstairs to the washing machines, their taking a walk to reflect on something important, their putting postage stamps on envelopes for the letters they had written, their using a bookmark to keep their place in volumes borrowed from the community library – that day-to-day living would prove the ready-to-hand model for some of my own living as a single man in my sixties.
And not exclusively apostolic formation, either – it was as much personal formation. Formation of ways of proceeding. Formation of ways of setting expectations.
Whether or not I would continue on to priestly ordination – and I actually did not – I had eventually gotten the look down, the feel down, of what it might be like not to be a family man.
Or is the reality, I ask myself, not as simple as that? Are there lots of ways to be family, lots of ways to be a family man? The summer is a good time to ponder.