There are four old sugar maple trees gracing our driveway at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. Our family used to tap a few trees on our Albany farm, and I thought it would be fun to tap a few trees here and boil a little syrup for the seminary to enjoy.

All of us at Blessed John XXIII are studying for the priesthood as a second vocation. Many are from the south, and the whole process seemed novel and mysterious to them. Few had ever even tasted real maple syrup.

About a dozen of us "old guys" agreed to get together to tap trees, hang buckets and sit around at night watching 40 gallons of sap boil down to a single gallon of syrup.

Making maple syrup requires freezing nights followed by warm, sunny days. When the weather is right, huge volumes of sap flow up to the treetop to bring energy to new leaf buds. From looking at the old dry bark, you have no clue that a hidden stream of life-giving sap is racing skyward.

Come fall, cold nights stress the trees. The leaves turn brilliant colors as they spill their sugars down under the bark to be stored in the tree roots all winter. Then following spring, when it is an acceptable time, it starts all over again.

So much of the process happens independently of any of our efforts. God has all that under control. The actual harvesting and production, however, requires time and patience. There is a lot of peaceful time to think and pray and discover the beauty which God has placed within and around us.

There is a certain parable-like quality in all of this. Like these particular trees, we men here at Blessed John XXIII Seminary are mostly a little older. We are more rugged and gray than graceful and green.

Many of us have raised families. We survived the stress of losing our wives, leaving our homes and giving up our careers. I suppose that, in a real way, we, too, are living in the winter of our lives. Still, God has deemed that this is an acceptable time for us to answer His call.

You don't make much maple syrup in fair weather. You don't make any without some stress being put on the trees. It is precisely because of the rough conditions that the trees produce such sweetness from hidden sources.

Living teaches us something about life, death, joy, sorrow, pain and suffering. The happy events reflect the glory and splendor of God. In the sadder ones, we come to understand that God is always at our side. We come to see that He is gracious and merciful, slower to anger than we might have thought, and richer in kindness than we could have ever imagined.

My life experiences and those of my fellow seminarians will suit us well as we minister to God's people, who also experience smooth and rough patches in life. I suspect that I will be a different, better kind of a priest because of my life experiences than I would have been had I entered the seminary as a younger man. I am, frankly, a little in awe of the younger guys who seem to be so much better equipped than I would have been at their age.

Walking through the woods, we probably miss what is going on in the trees. It is sort of a mystery, this sap and maple syrup stuff. But, like God's grace working in us, wonderful things go on all the time without our knowing it.

Now is the appropriate time to boil maple syrup. Now is always the acceptable time to cooperate with God's grace. He plans to change sap to syrup in all of His children, young and old. We just have to let Him.

(Rick Lesser is a widowed father of three and a former equine veterinarian, now studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary near Boston.)