In the past few weeks we have begun our Lenten practices of prayer, abstinence and almsgiving. But before we embarked upon these preparations for Easter, I had the wonderful opportunity to experience the Carnaval here in Valladolid. Carnaval is a time of partying, dressing up and taking part in parades.
Historically it is also coupled with excessive consumption of alcohol and meat, which are both proscribed during Lent, though that part of it has mainly been left behind in Spain. But nonetheless, it is designed to prepare you for a sombre period of penance, and it was certainly an experience I won't forget in a hurry!
After the noisy celebrations, we engaged in a quite different experience over the first week of Lent – a silent retreat. Prior to this, Father Willis, the spiritual director, had told us we were only allowed to bring two things with us, a Bible and our breviary, as he didn't want us distracted in any way during this time of silence.
The evening before we started, I walked around the city with one of my brother seminarians and we discussed the upcoming retreat in great detail, particularly the question of distractions. I am a keen runner and I mentioned I was going to take my running gear, to which my brother replied that he had decided – after careful consideration – this would be a distraction from prayer.
Then it struck me. I had always approached the Lord – whether it be at meditation, or whenever commencing a retreat – with a question: Lord, are you calling me to be a priest? Now I asked myself, is this actually a distraction too? Perhaps it was the biggest distraction of all. By coming to Our Lord with this question always on my mind, I wasn't actually being open and receptive to His desires. My desire wasn't for Him, but for myself.
Our Archbishop Emeritus, Patrick Kelly, once explained to me that we can only ever approach the Lord with one question: "Rabbi, where do you live?" (John 1: 35–42). That is to say, where is His heart? The will of the Father when we approach Him in prayer is for us to surrender to His unique and specific desire for each of us, and this has to be rooted in a loving obedience.
As Saint Ignatius of Loyola tells us: "The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord."