Folks here at Nashotah House have been picking up the same vibes as everyone else in the Midwest: it’s been a strange winter—unusually gray and unseasonably warm. Early March in Wisconsin is usually knee-high in snowdrifts. But today it’s raining, and across our wooded campus the ground is warm and smelling of spring. Seminarians in black cassocks hold black umbrellas over their yet-to-be consecrated heads. The more ascetical types let the deluge soak through them, probably reciting Lenten psalms or Greek declensions as they scamper from Saint Mary’s Chapel to the old stone library.
Sound just a little geeky? Perhaps. But only because every novice can come across as a little eager (and a little too green). Any apprentice learning his or her trade can look a little amateurish, a little strange. It’s because they’re learning the ropes. They’re trying their hand at something new.
For the late Catholic poet W.H. Auden, the whole twentieth century was a strange winter, unseasonably warm and unusually gray. He called it the “age of anxiety,” and believed the poet’s vocation was to invite people to remember that there is truth and hope in the midst of so much malaise. This is why Auden disliked the contemporary notion that a poet must be inspired or “in the mood” to produce a line of verse. For Auden, the poet’s calling was like that of a craftsman, a carpenter, say, who can frame a house or fashion a chair on demand—regardless of how he or she “feels.” Poets should approach their call with the same professionalism and care as any tradesman. Meter, word, and stanza are just a few of the tools in the poet’s toolbox. And a competent poet should be able to use the tools of his or her trade proficiently and on demand—not only when he or she is “inspired.”
This is the idea behind Nashotah House’s near-Benedictine rule. Like Auden’s idea of a poet’s vocation, Nashotah House takes the call to the priesthood seriously. In the truest sense of the word, the priesthood is a profession, not a hobby. One can’t be a priest only when one is inspired or “in the mood.” Like Auden’s poet, a priest must be adept and deft to bless and to serve on demand, as a craft, as a serious enterprise. It’s not enough to learn Church History or Ancient Hebrew. One must not only know how to read the blueprints and make the measurements. Like a seasoned carpenter, a priest must get the trade into his bones. And this is what the Benedictine Rule can do: it can help make the priestly ministry become second nature. It can prepare soon-to-be priests for holy orders—not because it will be their livelihood, but because the Gospel of Jesus Christ has become their whole life, their only reason for waking up in the morning.
The liturgical regimen here at Nashotah House might be demanding. We might all look a little strange holding thick theology books and wearing black cassocks. But maybe Auden was right. Maybe we live in a strange winter, and the world is unusually gray. Perhaps now, as urgently as ever, the world is hungry for priests to remind us that there is truth and hope in the midst of so much malaise.