Because my interest in priesthood began in junior high, I attended the strangest and most wonderful of high schools, a boarding school run by Capuchin Franciscan friars in Hays, Kansas, Thomas More Prep. What was strange? Two years before I arrived it had been two separate schools, both run by the friars, a minor seminary and a military academy. Besides being all male, the only other attribute such schools would share was a thoroughly relentless horarium, a daily schedule. I suppose that’s true of any boarding school. Behind every Hogwarts there’s a onerous horarium.
A bell rang every morning at seven. By seven-fifteen, we were downstairs in chapel for morning prayer. Breakfast was over and Mass begun by eight. The friars didn’t make us go to daily Mass. After all, the vast majority of the student body had come from the ranks of the military academy, not the seminary. You could substitute a morning study hall.
Bells rang the rest of the day, moving day and residents students through their classes, each separated by only five minutes, on threat of what was called a penalty period. Really, in many ways, we had only shed uniforms for blazers. In the two hours after classes ended, before dinner, there were sports, and — again according to a rigidly fixed schedule — permissions to go into town. Evening study hall began every night at eight-thirty. It was followed by night prayer at ten, and, fifteen minutes later, all lights were out.
Weekends? Of course there were weekends. After an extra half-hour of sleep, Saturday mornings were spent cleaning the barracks (sorry, dorms), and then “policing the grounds.” Saturday afternoon and evenings one went into town to do laundry and meet girls. First laundry, then girls. Or one blew off the laundry and just drove around town with girls.
Of course there were free moments when we lined up at the pay phones to call home, or, more likely, to call girls. And we did what all students do. We listened to music, though the only way to do that in your ear was if your stereo (nestled into your locker) had headphones. The Sony Walkman hadn’t even been invented.
I don’t rehash all of this to point out how hard it was. Somehow we thrived on it. Indeed, for me, the hard part came Sunday afternoon, when everything ceased. Sunday mornings there was a full extra hour of sleep. Morning prayer and breakfast were followed by a smaller study hall, during which we were encouraged to write our parents. Then came Mass, and then fried chicken, and then it all ceased. For about five hours, we were on our own. That would have been a moment for hobbies. My friend Squirrel — that’s what we called him — shot rockets. People listened to their music. Even the friars would disappear. Most were local boys themselves. I suspect they went to see their families.
For me, Sunday afternoons were the dreariest, most dangerous hours of the long week. Dreary because the relentless rushing had ceased, dangerous because I was turned back upon myself. For the first time in my life — though certainly not for the last — I felt a bit like Job:
Is not man's life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings?...So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me. If in bed I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again (7:1, 3-4, 6-7).
Sunday afternoons have never changed for me. They’re still the time when I find myself alone, restless, afraid. One week of work has finally ended with a flurry of Masses, and I can’t bring myself to start another. I’m listless, like a boat without wind.
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly diagnoses Job and me as suffering from what she calls, “the mean reds.” They aren’t the blues. “No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.”
Of course, the mean reds aren’t as strictly scheduled as I seem to suggest. They can happen in a crowded airport, when your flight is cancelled and you’re alone. They can come upon you during a long, solitary drive. The world doesn’t need to fall silent for long, before the soul begins to seethe.
My Sunday afternoon “mean reds” would introduce me to a woman who changed my life, because she had suffered the same. And she would teach me that those are the moments in which God calls us to prayer. Not petitionary prayer, because we need something. No, meditative and contemplative prayer, because the soul is awake and looking for its lover.
Sometimes on Sunday afternoons, I would sneak into what was called “the Bishop’s Suite.” No bishop ever stayed there in my memory. I had been sent there once, on a Saturday morning, to clean out a closet, which contained a large box of paperbacks. One of them, the one I chose to read surreptitiously on many a Sunday afternoon, was Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I’m sure there was a copy of the book in the library, but, at the time, this was my own secret scoop. No one had ever told me anything about Thérèse. I felt as though I had discovered her, on my own, there in the closet. She was my Narnia.
Here’s the passage in which Thérèse describes finding her own Narnia, the solace and sustenance that meditative and contemplative prayer give. She wrote of her childhood self in Story of a Soul:
I should have liked at this time to practice mental prayer, but Marie, finding me sufficiently devout, only let me say my vocal prayers. A mistress at the Abbey asked me once what I did on holidays, when I stayed at home. I answered timidly: “I often hide myself in a corner of my room where I can shut myself in with the bed curtains, and then I think.” “But what do you think about? said the good nun, laughing. I think about the Good God, about the shortness of life, and about eternity: in a word, I think.” My mistress did not forget this, and later on she used to remind me of the time when I thought, asking me if I still thought...Now, I know that I was really praying when my Divine Master gently instructed me (25-26).
What is meditative prayer? It’s raising the mind to God so as to move the heart. It’s bringing into our minds something like scripture, the writings of a saint, or the events of our day. It’s letting God touch our emotions with such thoughts.
What is contemplative prayer? It’s when the world is silent, and our thoughts fall silent, and we simply long for God. But here, you have a perfect picture of it in St. Mark’s Gospel. “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mk 1: 35)
Rev. Terrance W. Klein