Magister adest et vocat te (“The Master is here and he is calling you”) is the simple quotation in gold letters about the threshold of the seminary chapel. Because the feast day of its patron, St John the Beloved Disciple, falls within its Christmas holidays, the seminary at Wonersh, near Guildford, keeps the feast at the end of January with a pontifical Mass and a festal lunch. The guests of honour are alumni who are celebrating 25, 40 or 50 years since ordination. I am fortunate enough to be invited as I do some spiritual direction in the seminary.

It seems an obvious quotation for a seminary, until one reflects on its original context in his Gospel. These are the words of Martha to Mary when Jesus arrives too late to prevent the death of Lazarus. It’s Martha, the one we associate with the temptation to activism, who goes to meet Jesus in the face of this bereavement.

“Mary remained sitting in the house”: this is testimony to Mary’s state of mind and may imply several things. First, a deep level of grief – for grief can paralyse – but also a kind of crisis of faith in the one who sat at Jesus’s feet. Is she scandalised because he has not come sooner? Or it may be that she is trying to hold herself together in the face of her grief and knows that in meeting Jesus’s loving gaze she will also have to surrender to the reality of her grief.

There is much in this which relates to the formation of diocesan priests. There is, of course, a Martha and a Mary aspect to our calling. One must actually have a taste for the activism of pastoral priesthood, and most seminarians have been inspired to consider their vocation by seeing a priest doing certain priestly things. But these are outwards signs of an inward reality which is harder to discover: catching for oneself what motivates one to want a life involving a radical commitment and the forgoing of marriage or the sexual intimacy which the culture regards as essential to thriving. A man experiencing this call realises it is not just to holy activity – setting the table before others, as it were – but that he is called also to sit at Jesus’s feet.

Neither may be neglected. There is always, perhaps, a temptation to err on the side of activism, because this is easier than sitting at the feet of the Lord. It is more of a temptation in an age where fewer priests are expected to do more and more, in an age which encourages a frenetic pace through technologies which start by ‘‘freeing’’ us but quickly dictate our use of time and the expectation of how soon things should be processed. But more fundamentally than any of these things, there is a point in seminary formation which equates to Mary’s sense of grief and disappointment.

To sit at the feet of the Lord, to come close to him, may initially be easy and desirable. The more “successful” the seminarian is in this task, the more he will come to an experience like Mary’s of loss, of disappointment.

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