We have just accepted our fifth cohort of Living School students to begin the program in 2017. Each time we have to turn away at least three for every one we can accept. This is so hard and so sad. Time and space and staff only allow us to accept approximately 165 applicants each year, and it seems so wrong to turn away what are surely some extraordinary and good people. Many of them are humble enough to apply a second time! Thank God, I am not on the committee that makes the choices and the cuts.
Of course, it is also exciting and affirming that so many people are seeking something—usually at considerable cost to themselves—that might seem esoteric, optional, or dangerous to some. As so many theology schools, seminaries, and retreat houses have been closing in the last decades, we are often asking ourselves “Why?” Why do they want to come here? Why would they trust us?
As the form of religious life that I grew up with when I joined the Franciscans in 1961 seems to dwindle and even die, a new form of serious spiritual seekers is clearly emerging. To be honest, some of them put us friars, monks, priests, and nuns to shame by their dedication and integrity. We “religious” attained immediate status and security, whereas lay people often have to give up status.
There is certainly a sacrifice in attending the Living School. The cost of tuition and traveling and staying in Albuquerque surely bites into their security system, especially for those on limited incomes or who come long distances from other countries.
Before being considered, applicants have to laboriously fill out ten-pages of questions, with more essays than boxes to tick! When I see the stacks of applications each year, and all the beautiful, vulnerable, and searching statements inside, I am in awe at the sheer goodness and deep humanity that is out there in our world. There are so many who feel “like sheep without a shepherd,” as Jesus put it (Mark 6:34), and many others who can’t seem to get enough of God, wisdom, and holiness—and their True Selves.
So again, we ask “Why?” Among the many common reasons students give me when I meet them is one that sounds not at all esoteric, optional, or dangerous. They often use words like “necessary.” “I had to do this to retain my sanity,” “I could not continue as a Christian (or a believer) without it,” or “I do not know how to survive in the USA anymore.” The urgency, dedication, and passion that we see in so many of our students is deeply humbling to all of us at the CAC. To be honest, it is a daily goad and inspiration to the faculty, the Living School staff, and the entire CAC Board and staff, some of whom then want to become students themselves. You are rubbing off! Which is the way goodness always works.
Why do we bother? Well, believe me, with this much eagerness flying around, it is anything but a bother. I am energized each time I sit in front of a new cohort with their pens in hand, laptops charged, eyes and ears wide open, with the fervor and humility that we used to associate with young novices. Many students are mature adults with academic degrees and experiences that often surpass mine.
The question that haunts us is “Why do you bother?” The only answer we can come up with is that people go where the Spirit chases them! You did not choose us, we did not imagine you; we have both been chased into one another’s arms. It is anything but a bother.