Monday, May 9, 2011

Wisdom and Seminary Formation (Choosing the Road Less Travelled, Acts 6:8-15; John 6:22-29)

Stephen spoke with such wisdom that his adversaries couldn’t refute him; they grudgingly admired him, wondering where his wisdom was from.

Yesterday, with the final computation of grades for the exams completed, I officially ended my 34th semester of teaching; that’s 17 years of lecturing, correcting exams, and grading. I must admit, I am getting a little tired, and so being away from seminary for a while might do me a lot of good. Still, as I stared at the corrected papers last night, all-bloodied with red ink, I found myself asking a question I’ve asked even as a seminarian: “What’s the point of all this?”

Think about it, I’m quite certain that beginning last Friday afternoon, with the last exam completed, our brains, like hard drives, have slowly begun their process of being wiped clean and reformatted, ready to take a break during the summer months. In a few months, Husserl, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, the nouns of the second declension in Latin, the distentio animae of Augustine and the titles of Anselm’s three books—all these will be vague memories.

So, why go through all the pain and hassle of all that, if in the end, we’ll forget most of what we’ve stuffed into our brains anyway? Many years ago, frustrated with having to study modal logic, I remember asking my spiritual director: “What has any of this got to do with the priesthood?” His answer was simple: nothing and everything.

Nothing—because none of these, in themselves, will matter when we’re ordained. None of the things you’ve studied and memorized these past couple of weeks, in themselves, will have a direct bearing on your life as a priest. You will forgot most of them.

But, whether or not you diligently, patiently, and generously gave yourself to going through the pain of the last few weeks—that is going to mean everything to your formation, now as a seminarian, and your ministry later on as a priest. For it isn’t the things we do in seminary that form us; rather it is our attitude and disposition towards them, and our willingness to generously give ourselves to them that do.

The things we learn, study, and memorize—they’re nothing but raw data. Learning them involves the simple acquisition of knowledge. Call it a growth in us of ratio. What we’ve gained as we went through the process of learning, however: diligence, patience, perseverance, attention to the little things—that’s not just ratio, that’s called sapientia, “wisdom”. And it is growth in wisdom, not just knowledge and understanding, that represents the true purpose of seminary formation. Knowledge is information; wisdom is formation. The former involves a collection of facts; the latter, their meaning and significance. Wisdom is the ability to see and discern the profound interconnectedness of things, of the myriad pieces of information we’ve acquired. It is, as St. Thomas says, “the father of all virtues”.

Stephen spoke with such wisdom that his adversaries couldn’t refute him, they grudgingly admired him, wondering where his wisdom was from. The reading of course tells us that it is from the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, Jesus tells those who have returned to listen to him that they should seek not the bread that perishes but that which lasts to eternal life.

The interesting thing about wisdom though, is that no one is born with it; nor is it something one gains from reading books, or learns by hanging around wise people, nor is it something one picks up like a skill in art or music. Wisdom, sapientia is closely linked to the verb sapere, which in Latin means “to taste”. One only becomes wise by “tasting” life, by living it to the full. One only gains wisdom by willingly tasting life’s sweetness as well as its bitterness, by willingly experiencing its joys as well as its challenges and difficulties.

There is thus no path to wisdom except through the wounds and scars of life.

This is why we must bear in mind that nothing we do in formation is ever done for its own sake: not our studies, not our spiritual life, not our apostolic work, not even the formation of our humanity. Everything we do in seminary is for the sake of something that transcends seminary formation itself. And hence it’s never right to say, “I just have to go through this and get it over with”. Because when we do so, we miss the point, which is that everything in seminary, every challenge, every hurdle, every difficulty, every effort, is meant to lead us to that which should be a priest’s greatest human treasure: wisdom. It’s the gateway to a life that is complete, authentic, and whole. Another name for it is “holiness”.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to teach you guys again. I do know that when we all part ways this Wednesday, we will never—all of us—ever sit in the same chapel in the same context again. So, let me share one last lesson—and you don’t even have to take an exam on it.

Do not run away from “tasting” the challenges, difficulties, hurdles, and even pains of seminary life, especially those things about yourselves which your formators tell you you need to seriously consider and work on.

Embrace everything you encounter in seminary, the easy and the difficult—and see all of them as gifts from God that are meant to stretch and strain you, not to break you, but to make you wise. Look at every single step in your journey as a step in the direction of wisdom, and a step towards holiness of life. (That after all, is why we’ve considered the priesthood in the first place.)

In your years in seminary and the priesthood, you will, again and again find before you, a choice between two paths: one will be the easy road, the low road, and the path many choose to travel.

The other will be the hard and difficult road, the tough and high road rarely taken; and yet is the road Jesus, Stephen, and others like them chose to take.

The first road will cost you nothing; the second road will cost you everything, including your life. But it’s the only road to wisdom, the only path to authenticity, and true holiness of life.

I pray that you may always choose the high road, the road towards wisdom, the path Jesus invites each of us to take.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)