|Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation
CHAPTER 9: LISTENING TO THEM AND ASKING THEM QUESTIONS
They found him in the temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them and asking them questions. (Lk 2:47)
In numerous passages in the Council documents on the Ministry and Life of Priests, their teaching function is mentioned: priests are to be teachers (III.13); educators, defenders of the truth (II,9); called upon to teach not their own wisdom but God’s word (II,4); admonished to be mature in knowledge and to make their doctrine a “spiritual medicine for God’s people” (III,19). “In virtue of the sacrament of orders, priests of the New Testament exercise the most excellent and necessary office of father and teacher among the People of God and for them” (II,9). The Lord Jesus said he was the Truth as well as the Way and Life. The priest shares in this prophetic ministry of Christ to preach and teach the truth to God’s people.
The “tools” needed to be a good teacher are many: a right understanding of the teaching of the Church; a desire and ability to communicate; a fair amount of intellectual competence; an on-going feeding of the mind all throughout one’s priesthood.
On a deeper level, prayer and a holy life must make knowledge come alive so it can be communicated in a living and personal way. Our spiritual formation program is predominantly concerned with these latter attitudes of the heart which will make one open and docile to true Gospel knowledge, and help integrate intellectual knowledge into the total personality.
We are to become like Christ. I chose the title for this Chapter from an incident in the Lord’s life where he himself is still in a time of his human formation – “he grew in wisdom.” This period of his life approximates more closely the Nazareth, preparatory nature of our program. While they were “amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Lk 2:47), the text does not predominantly present him as teaching the doctors of the law: he is listening to them and asking them questions. He is present here as a student, learning, in his humanity, how human beings are interpreting, and speaking about, his Father’s plan of salvation.
We see the same attitude in the passage about his going down to Nazareth and being obedient to his parents. Before the Lord himself became a teacher, he taught us how to be a disciple, a student. All theologians agree that in his humanity he “grew in wisdom and stature before God nd men” (Lk2:52). Before he taught, he received. Part of his identification with us was entering into our condition of being a learner, a disciple, a student.
As mentioned earlier, we do have some courses here as part of our program, but they are very much directed to the deepening of your spiritual life: how to live the liturgy; how to make Jesus and Mary part of your life with God; how to receive your directions from the Church as Mother and Teacher; how to pray the scriptures and not merely study them.
We do not attempt at all to present the strong intellectual tools that we hope you will receive in the seminary, and that are absolutely necessary. What we focus on are the proper attitudes of the heart and growth in virtue that will help you be receptive to God’s Word, and to the truths that come to us through revelation and the tradition of the Church.
Here, too, Jesus is our Teacher. He who was God humbled himself and – Divine Wisdom though he was – taught us how to listen and learn. The Child Jesus in the temple with the doctors, however, was not learning the truths that he was to teach to the human race. He was taught these truths directly by his Father: “I speak only what my Father gives me to speak” (Jn 12:49050). What he was learning, in his humanity, was how to express these truths in the language of his people, and how these words from his Father related to the revelation of the prophets and sacred writers who had formed the tradition of Israel.
Perhaps a good way to begin would be to characterize, in a general way, some of the “states of mind” of men coming to our program, in their relationship to Catholic truth. Then I will try to indicate how we seek to re-direct, affirm, correct, or expand these attitudes. Finally, I will present a meditation of Christ as The Theologian.
In our experience, the men who come to our program have a basic faith in the teachings of the Church, and a desire to grow in their knowledge of the truth. Very few have had any formal courses in theology, although some have. Most have had basic instruction in primary and secondary schools, some at college level. In any case, it could be generally said that their knowledge of the faith is in its early stages: there is much to learn – and some to unlearn.
The seminary will fill the gap as far as quantity is concerned. There will be a multitude of course in philosophy, theology, church history, scripture, and so on. Our humble task is to deepen, as much as we can, your faith in the sources whence this knowledge must flow, and the attitudes of heart necessary to be a true disciple.
Madonna House is known as a community very dedicated to the teachings of the Church. We believe the present Pope, John Paul II, is one of the greatest popes of all time; some day he may be called “Pope John Paul the Great.” People are attracted to schools and communities with which they can identify. The writings of Madonna House, and certainly all that happens here in our way of life, would communicate to people that we are seeking to be in the heart of the Church, and in perfect fidelity to the Holy Father. If anyone was on a different wave length, he probably wouldn’t be thinking of attending our program. But then again, he might want to be on the right wave length!
In many of our mini-courses we use the documents of the Church and/or of the Pope. You will be ordained (if such be the Lord’s will) to teach the truths of the Church, the truths of revelation, and not your own ideas. Our life, as mentioned above, is to help develop in you the heart of a disciple, and to help you hear the Word of God, which is different from your own.
The truths you will be called upon to teach are revealed truths, words that have come from God to his people. The Church is the guardian of these truths. We try and foster an attitude of deep faith in the teaching of the Church, and to impress upon you that it is to Her you must go to learn the faith. Just as the Lord was sitting at the feet of the doctors, listening to them and asking them questions, so you too must learn to sit at the feet of the Church who is both your Mother and Teacher.
Three attitudes, especially, are necessary for receiving the truth of the Church: a belief that religious truth exists, and is not totally relative or arbitrary; 2) that the Catholic Church is the guardian of this truth; 3) the humility to learn.
A widespread attitude in our culture, and consequently in the minds of most university students today, is that truth is relative, that absolute truths do not exist; and especially is this the case in the area of religion. Religion courses are a smorgasbord of views, a survey of world religions. No one can really pronounce on any definite religious truths. Take your pick.
It is at the heart of our Catholic vision of reality – philosophically and theologically – that truth does exist, that it is discoverable, and that the Church is the guardian and teacher of truth. “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” ( 1Tim 3:14-15).
It is a common presupposition in our culture that people who believe in definite truths have closed minds, and not open. We should be open to new ideas, but that doesn’t mean that the mind cannot arrive at truths that put an end to searching. Chesterton says the mind closes on truth like a dog on a piece of meat. There is a finality about it. The mind was made for truth, and to rest in the truth. . (As I mentioned, the goal of the mind is contemplation. We cannot contemplate doubts.)
Most people have heard the ancient Greek saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Most men coming to our program have only a little knowledge. (And I would say that those who disbelieve that truth is possible have only a little knowledge.) Many people have never heard the rest of that Greek saying: “drink deeply, or taste not the Pierian spring. There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, but drinking deeply sobers us again.”
To refer to another Greek saying: we attempt to lead you – the horse - to the water, the spring, and to encourage you - if not to drink deeply as yet - to taste of the fresh waters of the Church’s living truth. If once you get a delicious taste of these fresh waters, you will then want more; and you will recognize fresh water from polluted.
Now, one of the dangers of all knowledge is that it remains mere knowledge, existing only in the mind without any engagement with the heart and life. One of the goals of our Madonna House way of life is the integration of head and heart. Knowledge does not necessarily lead to a better life; and knowledge of the faith does not necessarily lead to holiness. (Nor – and this is equally important to remember – does it necessarily lead away from the heart.)
St. Thomas gave one profound reason why knowledge can disengage from the heart. (And he should know.) “Things understood are in the mind in the mind’s own fashion, whereas desire goes out to things as they are in themselves.” That is, it is of the nature of knowledge to be in the mind, abstract, as knowledge; and that’s a great good. But there is no necessary connection between what is in the mind and what is in the heart, in the will. There should be, but other aspects of the person must come into play for this living connection to be made.
“Desire goes out to things as they are in themselves.” Perhaps the greatest obstacle for this integration to take place is a lack of love, of movement, of desire outward toward reality. The person must actually engage in things themselves. Love is concrete, not abstract. An intellectual has been described as someone who just can’t get into the life he understands so perfectly! He can’t “get into life” because he isn’t concerned enough, doesn’t love enough, hasn’t the courage or the compassion, to meet life and people in themselves. He lacks desire, which touches reality itself.
There are many other factors which separate the mind from the heart. We try to address them. One such obstacle, which is almost invariably connected with academia, is too much knowledge. We read and study so much that we don’t have time to process it all. And this accumulation of ideas actually renders us immobile or undecided; it certainly builds up a mountain of abstractions that can get in the way of life. (You will recall that the Congregation for Catholic Education spoke about the overabundance of concepts as something to be remedied by a spiritual formation program.)
Well, our program seeks to present a solid foundation for integrating your knowledge by not giving you too much of it. There is not a great deal of time for reading and study. This is by design. Our hope is that by presenting a good intellectual taste of the mysteries of God, there will grow the desire to integrate that knowledge into daily life. We de-emphasize study so as to emphasize living. The reality of living is more fulfilling than the reality of knowing.
Vladimir Soloviev, considered by many to be the greatest of all Russians thinkers, said that Christians of today (end of 19th century) have finally accomplished the impossible: they have made the greatest truth that has ever entered our world – Jesus Christ – dull and boring! How is it possible to believe that God became a man and died for us, and be so unenthusiastic about it in our life and speaking?
This is an especial danger for priests who are called upon daily to feed God’s people with the truth. Priests, of all people, have to work extra hard not to have the beautiful ideas in their heads about God block out their living experience of God. Millions of Christians, who have very little theological knowledge, have a deeper living experience of God than many priests.
At a certain point in his career the great (and now Venerable) Cardinal Newman saw that he was beginning to prefer intellectual knowledge to moral excellence. When we are more preoccupied with knowledge than with virtue, we are in trouble. Our emphasis in Madonna House on actual loving is meant to proclaim that love is greater than knowledge – is the real goal of knowledge. Knowledge is a great good, but knowledge is for loving.
Isn’t it truly amazing that, though Jesus was God, he had the disposition of the heart of a learner, a pupil. From our vantage point of being sinners, we call this “humility.” But only sinners can be humbled. As sinners, we think he humbled himself. I don’t think the Lord saw his identification with us – whether as a student, a carpenter, or washing our feet - as humbling himself. For him it was all love, only love. He loved to be like us. It wasn’t a penance or a humiliation at all.
Recently, in a hostage situation, a priest chose to remain with the hostages so he could minister to them. I don’t think he considered this as “humbling himself.” It was an act of love, and he was glad, in some deep part of his being, that he was allowed to so identify with the hostages. So too, when Jesus identified with us who were enslaved to sin, he was not humbling himself, he was loving us.
So, too, with Jesus entering into our learning situation. Human beings have to learn. Jesus wanted to identify with us. So he also became a learner. To be human is to learn. Being open to learning is necessary for human growth. So he learned.
While every priest is certainly not called to be a theologian in the academic sense of the word, he certainly is called to know the truths of the faith well enough to communicate them to others in a faithful and life-giving way. In this sense, I want to turn your spiritual eyes to the attitudes Jesus had as the Theologian par excellence.
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of Christ as a theologian. For guidelines about the essence of a theologian we could go to Church documents, the lives of other theologians, the writings of the saints. But where do we get our basic ideas about what a theologian is? I would say it is from the Church meditating on Christ’s own consciousness.
If we take as a simple definition of theologian someone who knows God personally and teaches about God – and in the Christian context “God” means the Trinity and the Trinity’s plan for the human race – then Christ himself is the Great Theologian, for no one has seen the Father except him; and he is the one who has revealed the Father and taught us the mysteries of the Kingdom.
One of the astounding characteristics of Christ is his transparency, his always pointing to the Father. John the Baptist said of himself that he was “only a voice.” The same could be said of Christ: what he reveals and teaches is only what he has heard from his Father. One would think that as the Second Person of the Trinity Jesus could speak in his own name, and give us his own word. But that is not what he says of his mission: “I have called you my friends, for everything that have learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn.15:15). “For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them” (Jn.17:14). “But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world” (Jn.8: 26). “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know who I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (Jn.8:28).
And, by the way, neither does the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, have a word of his own, but only speaks what he has received: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears. The Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (Jn.16-13,15).
I think this is quite remarkable. Christ, who is one with the Father, who knows the Father directly, even he does not speak his own word: Christ the Theologian only speaks the word he receives from the Father. Yes, he is the Word. But in a mysterious way he is the Word of the Father, the Word the Father wishes to speak to us.
These ultimate mysteries can only be expressed in what is, to us, paradoxical language. Thus, while the Lord clearly says he can only give us what he has received from the Father, he also says ,“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And St. John says that Christ is the Word. Only in Christ do these two realities come together as one. It is precisely because Christ is the Word that he is aware that he is totally begotten by the Father, and that his whole being is received from the Father.
So, this is the first lesson for a theologian: all the basic truths he teaches are received from God, beyond his own creative thought. This is the reality of revelation. When Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Lord said, “blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven" Matt 15:15).
In Christ, the truths come directly from the Father, for he is totally one with the Father. The Church mediates these truths to us. If this is so, the most basic attitudes of a theologian are faith in the revelation, and fidelity to it. The deepest virtue of a theologian is not creativity but fidelity in all its forms.
The mysteries of the faith, then, are received. This is the fundamental truth for any teacher in the Church. If one is really in communion with God, the overwhelming realization is that one receives the essential truths and does not create them.
Yes, part of the task of the theologian is to put the received word into language the people of his or her time can understand. I believe this is one of the meanings of the Lord’s long hidden life: he was learning how to speak our human language so he could put his Father’s truth into words we could understand. When the Lord speaks about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air; about the treasure in a field and seed falling on various soil – this is language from the earth, not of heaven. Though we are of the earth, our task is to integrate the language we know so well with the Word of God.
Fidelity. If you go to the best theologians in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, isn’t there an overwhelming care to pass on the revelation they have received? The first sentence in the document from the Holy Office, May 24, 1990, entitled, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the theologian, reads: “The truth which sets us free is a gift of Jesus Christ” (Jn. 8:32). A gift is something we receive from another.
A theologian is someone who has seen God with his spiritual eyes of faith, and heard his voice with spiritual ears. These are the “spiritual senses” I spoke about. The growth of these senses cannot happen without prayer, without a living conversation with God as a Person. Jesus was a man of prayer. If you do not pray, you cannot be a teacher in Israel” (as Jesus described Nicodemus) in any deep sense of that word.
It is primarily in the act of prayer that the attitudes of a theologian are engendered: faith in God; humbly receiving light from beyond the self; love, that is, to put knowledge into practice. In the Eastern Christian tradition, theology was synonymous with “one who prays,” “one who knows God,” “one who has a vision of God.” This did not mean a mystical vision of God but an inner vision, born of union in love.
Christ the Theologian was the perfect harmony of mind and heart, between his knowledge and his doing of the Father’s will. A theologian must strive for this same harmony and unity.
Christ was sinless. Our moral life conditions our thinking. Holiness of life is essential for a theologian. There’s a classic Latin saying, “quidquid recipitur, per modum recipientis recipitur: whatever is received is received according to the condition of the one receiving.” If your heart is distorted, it will distort your theology in some way. The scriptural witness is that true knowledge of God and obeying his will go together.
“We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, `I know him,’ but does not do what he commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn.2:3,4). “Whoever hears my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him, and show myself to him” (Jn.14:21). A connatural knowledge of God is equated with loving God. Contrary to much superficial thinking about love, in the mind of Christ, love means obeying God: “If you love me, keep my commandments, just as I love the Father and keep his commandments” (Jn 14:15). If we are not obeying God’s commandments, if we are not doing God’s will, we do not know God in any living way. And we cannot be a theologian in any real sense of that word. Our theological knowledge will be abstract and distorted.
To give one of many examples. If we are not obeying God, we are proud. This pride will permeate our minds in that we will not be totally submissive to receiving the revelation and the tradition. Our pride will also affect how our minds work: they will be more self-centred, more inclined to curiosity, independence, and so on.
If we are sinning, our love for God as a Person will be deficient. Not knowing God as our Beloved will give a cold and merely intellectual tone to our theology. We will be teaching about an abstraction instead of our Beloved.
Our Madonna House way of life, which is the heart of our formation program, seeks to deepen the Christ-like attitudes of the heart so that the true knowledge of the faith can be received, contemplated, and integrated into the total person.
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