By Father Thom Hennen
This weekend (Sept. 7-9) I will be in the alumni production of “You Can’t Take it With You” at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Other than a small part in a play in seminary it will be my first time back on stage since I graduated from St. Ambrose in 2000. The play is a comedy by Moss Hart and George Kaufman about the Sycamore family, a family who (for all their eccentricity) seem to have a better handle than most on what is truly important in life. While this play was written in 1936, there are definitely themes in it that speak to our own time. Also, it’s very funny. So, I encourage you to see it if you can.
Because it is an alumni production and there are Ambrosians coming from far and near who, like me, have “regular jobs,” the rehearsal time was compressed to just a little over two weeks (mostly evenings and a few long weekends). That meant that already on day two of rehearsal we were running through the whole second half of the show with blocking (movement) and mostly off book (without scripts in hand) by the end of it. It was in the process of running the same scenes over and over again until we got them down that something occurred to me.
At the beginning of that second day of rehearsal, everybody was still clutching their scripts pretty tightly (myself included) and you could tell that all of us were still trying to get a feel for our characters. But as the day went on, slowly you started to see scripts set aside. The lines came more fluidly and we seemed to lock in to our characters. We became, over the course of the day, more and more the parts that we were playing. It struck me that in some ways this is not unlike the spiritual life or vocational discernment.
For example, there are some days I really have to force myself to pray, and at first it feels like I’m only pretending to pray, sort of “play acting” with God. Maybe I start off with script in hand (i.e. my Bible, my breviary or other spiritual reading). But after some time, low and behold, I really begin to pray. The words on the page become my own and I begin to converse openly and freely with God. In a sense, I become the “part” I started out playing. And so, I find it is often the case in the spiritual life that you have to “fake it until you make it.”
In the same way, someone discerning a vocation to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life may have to do some things that feel very routine, maybe even tedious at times (going to Mass, daily prayer, rosary, etc.) before they “break through” and reach that point of authentic conversation with God and true discernment. The routine of prayer and the sacramental life of the Church, like the routine of rehearsing the same scene over and over again for a play, does not ultimately bind one, but in fact frees one to really enter into one’s part, one’s vocation.
Of course, all analogies limp. In the spiritual life or in discerning a vocation no one should just be “play acting.” The spiritual life is very real. But at the same time I think there is a way in which we can see ourselves as “rehearsing” for the life to come.
I’m very much looking forward to the play, if a little nervous, but that too is not unlike the spiritual life. I pray that it all goes well, but most importantly I pray that in life I may more and more grow into the “part” for which I have tried out and been cast.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)