At our last Vocation Discernment Recollection, one of the first-time participants commented during our group sharing that our seminary was a "freaky" place. He shared with us that from the time he stepped in, there was a sort of "freakiness" about the place that wanted to make him pack and leave immediately. You would have known from his expression that this “freakiness” that he spoke of was not something evil but nonetheless, scary. However, he shared towards the end of the recollection that he had indeed had a beautiful and grace-filled time with us in the seminary.
The words of this participant got me thinking and made me recall my own days as an aspirant and the many times I have felt this awkwardness when I stepped into the seminary. The first time I stepped into the seminary was because I had an appointment to meet the first Seminary Father who journeyed with me some 9 years ago, Rev Fr Alfred Chan. I stood at Our Lady’s grotto at the entrance of the seminary with much fear and trembling. I vividly remember standing at the grotto for quite a while praying and asking for the intercession of our Blessed Mother to help me overcome the fear that was welling up in my heart. I also fondly remember the many times I had to come back to this seminary as an aspirant in my rather lengthy journey prior to my entry. I think I never really fully became comfortable with my stays in the seminary and there was always this uneasiness in my heart whenever I was here.
Thankfully, the seminary has become very much a home to me now and all that awkwardness has faded away. Why is this so? My reflection is that indeed, the seminary is a “freaky” place because it is sacred ground and more than anything, it stands for something that can be very overwhelming for most of us. When I first stepped in here as an aspirant and the many stay-ins that followed, there was an uneasiness and tension in my heart. A part of me wanted to be here and a part of me did not. This tension is so real in the life of each of us who is faced with the call of our Lord. There is a letting go, a dying, that all of us would rather avoid. Stepping into the seminary makes the call very real in our lives and it is certainly frightening. Seeing men like myself who have responded to this sublime call and seeing them having left everything behind to live on this sacred ground can make what God is asking of me something very real and possible. There is a common phenomenon amongst many men who walk into our seminary – when they are out there in the “world”, the call to the priesthood seems distant and unreal; but whenever they step into the seminary, the priestly call can become something extremely real and close to their hearts. In fact, it can be so clear and penetrating that it is truly "freaky" because there is something stirring in the sacred place of one’s heart where only God resides. Seeing others who have walked in the same path also makes the call so real and certainly what we may call, "freaky".
Another aspect of why the seminary is “freaky” is because it is indeed sacred ground. It is commonly held that the seminary is the heart of the Diocese because it is from this “heart” that priests who are analogous to blood are pumped to the rest of the body (the Diocese) so as to nourish and give life to the other parts of the body. Indeed, the seminary is “freaky” because this place is sanctified by the commitment and conviction of many men who have walked before us in laying down their lives upon the altar of God and have surrundered their lives into his hands to be his instruments to His people. Indeed, the walls of the seminary are marked with the handprints of men whose hands would eventually bless children, close the eyes of the dying, welcome home the repentent and most importantly, hold the sacred Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The soil of the seminary is moistened by the tears and perspiration of generations of seminarians who have wrestled with their vocations and the many struggles of life they have endured as they discerned their vocations during their many years here. With so much that is blessed and consecrated here on this sacred soil, indeed, it is holy ground and indeed it must be a “freaky” place. I am reminded of how the Israelites would not even dare approach the mountain of God because it was so sacred; I think if they were to use our lingo today, they would have also probably called it, a “freaky” place.
I would like to end my reflection with two events that happened during my time here in seminary that I hold close to my heart and illustrate that this is truly, a “freaky” place.
Last year, some Methodist pastors were on retreat here in our seminary. As I was walking back from class, I bumped into two of their lady pastors and I decided to be friendly and started a conversation with them. As we spoke, one of the pastors remarked, “I love this place. You can really sense God’s awesome presence here. His hand is certainly resting upon this place.” I was really surprised by that pastor's comment and to think that it was coming from a Methodist pastor really got me thinking of how sacred a place I was living in.
This week, we had another beautiful encounter. It was on Monday morning and we were all at morning meditation in the Chapel. A car drove in and some of us noticed it. Then, a couple got out and they walked towards the Chapel. After our meditation, a brother approached them to find out why they were here. It turned out that they were Protestants and were driving around Punggol and noticed the cross on our tower and they drove to the seminary. They were looking for a place to pray and were convinced that the Holy Spirit had led them to our humble seminary. They even added that they would like to drop by more often just to spend time in prayer and do their quiet time.
The amazing thing about both these stories is that they were of people who were not even Catholic. We may have been able to pass the stories off as piety or devotion if it had come from reverential Catholics but I think it is so much more striking because it came from our separated brethren. Indeed, God must be dwelling in this place and many are able to recognise it. For those of us who actually find this place “freaky”, maybe it is indeed a good sign. It could well be a holy fear and reaction towards our own encounter with God’s mighty presence in this “freaky” place. Maybe, it is a very similar reaction as that of St. Peter, “Be gone from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8) - Take off your sandals and come in, for this is holy ground!