Saturday, April 22, 2017

THE EDUCATOR'S ROLE IS TO LEAD THE STUDENT, NOT TO HIMSELF, BUT TO CHRIST, THE "INTERNAL TEACHER." - St. Augustine (Part Three of the Series "Fundari Amicitiam")

"Instruction is completed by love."
- Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae [1]
 
Authentic friendship which seeks the good, not of oneself, but of the other, is a vital tool in education and seminary formation because it can foster an environment of trust, not only in the capacity of the teacher and formator, but in his concern for those he teaches and forms.
 
I can still remember a colleague at Providence College where I used to teach telling me: "Students can sense if a teacher is genuinely interested in them or not. If he's interested in them, they'll be interested in what he has to teach".
 
As a seminarian at the American College in Louvain, I remember asking my spiritual director, Fr. Richard Friedrichs (a priest from Providence, Rhode Island), a question that must have caught him off guard: "Are you really interested in me, or are you simply doing your job?"

"What do you mean?" he asked with a big smile on his face.

"Well, are you really interested in the lives of your students, or is this just work?" We had become good friends by then, and so I didn't feel like I was being disrespectful or inappropriate. Besides, we weren't in spiritual direction, but were simply chatting after dinner, and I wanted to gain a better understanding of his idea of ministry.

"It's a little bit of both really", he replied.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, it is my ministry; it's what I do. I won't deny that. I'm a spiritual director. It's also my assignment, my work, as you put it. But it's not simply a job. And it's certainly much more than just work. I love what I do. And I love the students God sends me to guide and direct. I'm not just your director and you're not just my directee. God is the one who ultimately directs us both. I'm just here to walk with you".

Fr. Friedrichs may or may not have read St. Augustine's De Magistro, but his thoughts certainly echoed Augustine who made a distinction between the magister exterior (the "external teacher") and the magister interior (the "internal teacher").

While we can serve as the external teacher, Augustine argued, Christ alone is the internal teacher and therefore, true educator, the one "who is said to dwell within the inner man, Christ, the unchangeable power of God and everlasting wisdom... the teacher whom every rational being consults".[2] And thus the role of the external teacher is to lead the student, not to himself, but to Christ, the teacher dwelling within.

I think I learned substantially more about the meaning of ministry from that simple exchange than from most of the lectures on pastoral ministry I attended as a student in Louvain. It was a clear instance of authentic friendship at work in formation; and it continues to bear fruit in my own ministry today.

At the same time, while authentic friendships between teachers and students, foster openness, trust and exceptional growth and maturity, inauthentic friendships create the exact opposite.

Here we must consider two issues that usually arise in relation to friendships in educational settings: the concern for fairness and the danger of favoritism.

Before I began my first official assignment as a priest, my very first spiritual director in seminary, John Zwaenepoel, a Belgian missisonary, wrote me a rather lengthy letter, a part of which I'd like to quote in full:

"As you begin your teaching ministry, be on guard against the ever-present danger of having favorites among your students. It's not only bad for you, it will be even worse for them.

Those who perceive themselves to be your "favored ones" - because they will feel themselves "shielded" and even "entitled" - will not see the need to challenge themselves to become better persons. Instead, they will turn into self-satisfied and arrogant men or, worse, self-satisfied and arrogant priests.

On the other hand, those who see themselves outside your "favored circle" - because they will grow in resentment, even bitterness - your words of challenge to them, no matter how loving and well-intentioned, will be seen only through the lenses of unfairness and injustice.

Do not favor the bright ones, nor the cheerful ones, nor the good-looking ones, nor the outgoing ones, nor the promising ones. But be fair to everyone.

Do not make the same mistake Samuel made when he looked at each of the sons of Jesse and was immediately drawn to the attractive older sons; then the Lord told him to look elsewhere.

Favor no one in particular, but love everyone of your students. Remember, you belong to no one, and to everyone, and God makes his sun shine on all, and his rain to fall on each one."

Favoritism in the classroom is a manifestation of an inauthentic kind of friendship, one that, instead of genuinely seeking the good of the other, really seeks what is good, desirable and pleasant for oneself.

In seminary, as in any other setting, it's also a great morale-killer since students who believe their teacher shows favoritism tend to become less engaged. They are also likely to speak about their observations to their peers, thereby creating a negative atmosphere that can inhibit growth, maturity and creativity.

When it manifests itself in an educational or formation setting, favoritism can severely damage the mutual trust that should exist between teacher and student.

This gives rise to feelings of resentment not only towards the teacher, but sadly, among the students themselves. Those who may not see themselves as part of the "favored group" can expend a lot of energy in trying to land a "spot" on the "favored list" - energy that should otherwise be used for endeavors aimed at personal growth.

But favoritism doesn't only harm and hurt to those who didn't make it to the "favored list", it also causes serious damage to those who are themselves on it, often creating a distorted sense of self-worth and entitlement. Why? Because educators who play favorites have a tendency, often exhibited unconsciously, to shield those they favor from the challenges and critiques that are necessary if genuine growth is to take place.

As Cicero warns in his treatise on friendship, "truth-telling, though it may sometimes give offense, is an essential duty from friend to friend", and "fondness should never interfere, as it does too often, with important services friendship can render".[3]

Resentment and bitterness on the part of those feeling themselves unfavored, entitlement, superiority and arrogance on the part of the favored ones, jadedness, disillusionment and cynicism in both, and the slow death of the fire of academic interest or vocation - these are the poisoned fruits of inauthentic friendship in the classroom or in formation.

Favoritism is thus a manifestation of that kind of friendship that is ultimately oriented at the good of the self, the good of the teacher, the good of the formator, not the student, not the formandi, whether favored or not. As such, this kind of friendship not only hampers the process of education and formation, it is actually destructive and harmful to these.

But what is the antidote to the poison of favortism? The simple answer is fairness. Just as God makes his rain fall on everyone,[4] so must a teacher act fairly and justly towards all his students.

The "friends" Jesus refers to in the Farewell Discourse, after all, are not a select or elite group of persons within the larger community of Jesus' followers.[5] They are, instead, all of his followers, with no exceptions.

But fairness does not involve a simple "leveling" of persons either.

It does not mean treating everyone with a kind of uniform impartiality, as if everyone were the same and should therefore be treated as such. Rather, it is recognizing in each student, in each formandi, a uniqueness that is his alone, that makes him exceptionally himself, and to gently guide him towards being able to see and embrace it as a gift. The key here is for the teacher or formator to see to it that this is done for all, with no exceptions.

There's a saying usually attributed to St. Augustine that goes: "God loves us as if there were only one of us to love". The actual line from the Confessions actually reads: "God cares for each of us as though we were the only one in his care".[6]

The point, of course, is that God loves each one of us in our uniqueness, and Jesus didn't die for a vague and amorphous "humanity". The "friends" whom he loved and for whom he gave his life, isn't a collective; it's each one of us, in our own distinct and singular personhood.

As such, the students whom a teacher must treat with fairness, whom a formator must regard with the same Christ-like love and friendship, do not belong to a faceless, homogeneous mass either. Rather, each student, each seminarian, is an unrepeatable uniqueness who must be treated as such and must be taught that there has never been, nor will there ever be anyone like himself.

Fairness, therefore, does not rule out the rise of exceptional individuals; in fact, it encourages and powers it. Nor does it mean simply giving every student the same thing. No two of them, after all, are alike, and thus the educator's job is not to either insist that they should all be the same, or to simply choose one over the other.

Instead, his task is to recognize the uniqueness of each and to strive to bring his affection and concern up to the same level for both, his ultimate goal being to convince each student that he is loved and cared for, in his very own uniqueness.

The educator must find something unique and special in every student and concentrate on it, keeping in mind that, as St. Augustine says in the Confessions, God's "gold" is to be found everywhere.[7] But this isn't easily accomplished. "The heart", says the Jeremiah, "is deceitful above all things",[8] and the reality is, "most teachers consider themselves above favoritism, but few are."[9]

Every teacher, every formator, being himself a unique personality, is likely to connect better with certain students than others. There will also always be some especially nice, pleasant, or intelligent student or seminarian who will be instantly likeable.

Human nature, being what it is, we cannot pick and choose those with whom we sometimes find an "instant connection". It's important to recognize that there isn't necessarily anything wrong with this, that is, until it begins manifesting undue preferences towards some of those with whom we more easily connect.

But then if the friendship that orients and directs our teaching or ministry is the authentic kind, the kind that is self-sacrificial in its pursuit of the good of the other, it will be defined by authentic self-critique and genuine humility.

And these are the very qualities that will allow us to carefully observe and examine ourselves, if and when we  feel we are favoring certain students over others, or when we spend a significant amount of time and energy on some while others get the short end of the stick.

It is our willingness to acknowledge that we could potentially be playing favorites and neglecting others that will serve as the first and important step towards being able to keep ourselves from engaging in behaviors that can negatively affect those placed under our care.  


- End of Part Three.

- Final Section: Holding our students close to our hearts.




[1] Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, "On the Practices of the Catholic Church", 56.
 
[2] Augustine, De Magistro, "The Teacher", 38.
 
[3] Cicero, De Amicitia, 20.
 
[4] Matthew 5:45.
 
[5] Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 683.
 
[6] St. Augustine, Confessions, III, 11. Translated by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 50.
 
[7] St. Augustine, Confessions, VII, 9.
 
[8] Jeremiah 17:9.
 
[9] Eric Butterman, "Playing Favorites?" Instructor, vol. 116 (2007): 39.

Friday, April 21, 2017

FUNDARI AMICITIAM; Friendship, Fairness, and the Dangers of Favoritism in Education and Seminary Formation (PART TWO OF A SERIES)

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends... I no longer call you servants, I call you friends." (John 15:13,15)

The kind of friendship Jesus offered his disciples and enjoined them to have for one another, is a friendship that loves another, that seeks the good of the other, for the other's sake, never for one's own.

Thomas Aquinas emphasizes this point in the Summa by distinguishing between what he called benevolentia (that is, a love that seeks the other's good) and concupiscentia (a love that seeks the other for one's own sake).[1]

And he adds that while not all love can in fact have the character of friendship, the kind of friendship Jesus speaks about in John 15:13-15 is one that has the character of "benevolence".

Now "benevolence" isn't only "willing the good of another", it is doing it, not for one's own sake, but for the sake, precisely of the other.

In fact, earlier on in the work, Thomas already made clear that the kind of love which is true friendship is far higher than love which is simply "desire," since desire relates to something we want while the love found in authentic friendship is a matter of willing the good of the other person.[2]

Seen from this light, it becomes understandable why St. Thomas identifies the link between love and friendship reflected in the words of Jesus to his disciples in the Farewell Discourse.

The friendship Christ offered was inseparable from the meaning he attached to it, a meaning he was to incarnate by laying down his life for them. It was, simply put, a love that held and kept nothing back, not even itself.

It was a love that sought the good of the other, solely for the other's sake.

From a purely philosophical, rational and logical level, this kind of endeavor seems hard to understand. For how indeed can we love another without looking for something, anything, in return?

In fact, even as we Christians are sometimes wont to say, the love of self seems inextricably linked with the love of the other, often leading to that idea - drawn more from psychology than Scripture - that one cannot love another person without loving oneself first, and that loving the other is a means towards ultimately loving oneself.[3]

It was certainly a tough thing for Jesus to enjoin upon his followers, which is perhaps why he showed them the way.

And so before telling them that he no longer spoke of them as "servants", but "friends", he tells them that there could be no greater love than for one to lay down his life for those he considers friends. (John 15:13)

As a Catholic philosopher, I've always taught my students that our faith tradition, perhaps more than any other, has always maintained a great respect, even reverence, for the philosophical quest. Philosophy is the ancilla theologiae - the humble servant without which the discipline of theology suffers great impoverishment.

Still, when it comes to some very profoundly important human experiences - in this case, friendship, reason and philosophy can only take us so far.

Consider, for instance, Aristotle's view on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says that there are basically three kinds of friendship: (i) a first kind based on utility, (ii) a second based on pleasure, and (iii) a third based on the goodness of individuals.

Friendships founded on usefulness involve persons who somehow derive some benefit from the relationship.

Friendships based on pleasure exist among persons who are drawn to each other because of good looks, intelligence, popularity, or other pleasant intellectual or physical attributes.

Finally, friendships based on goodness - the highest and noblest form for Aristotle - are found among those who admire one another's goodness and support and sustain each other in the pursuit of virtue.[4] 

Up to this point, everything in Aristotle's view of friendship appears somewhat compatible with the uniquely Christian view in John 15:13-15. In fact, like a lot of philosophical ideas, it can serve as an excellent point of entry into the scriptural understanding.

However, Aristotle also argues that an important ingredient in friendship is "reciprocity", a quality that thereby renders the relationship between friends essentially symmetrical.

And while he recognizes that certain relationships are not in fact reciprocal, such as those of father and son, the overall notion he has of friendship remains one where both parties stand in a relationship of basic "equality". [5]

And it is precisely on this point that the friendship of which Jesus speaks in his Farewell Discourse - which he commanded his disciples to embody and which, I believe, is the kind of friendship vital to effective teaching - parts ways with the philosophical understanding.

Sublime as Aristotle's notion of the highest form of friendship might be, it still falls short of Jesus' understanding which, at its core, is profoundly and surprisingly asymmetrical.[6]

It is in fact, a relationship, not of equals, but of one party willingly offering himself up for the sake of the other - the friend, the beloved - and wanting nothing in return except the other's well-being.

There is good reason, as Pope Benedict XVI points out in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that the preferred term for "friendship" of the Christian scriptures is agape, and that while the term philia appears in the Gospel of John, it is used to express the depth of the agapeic relationship between Jesus and the disciples.[7]

The identification of friendship with self-sacrificing love in the "Farewell Discourse" sets the asymmetrical Christian notion of friendship apart, even from the highest Aristotelian type.

And it makes Thomas Aquinas' notion of the kind of love at the heart of true friendship, i.e. "benevolence" as a "willing of the good of the other", perfectly consistent with what Jesus taught his disciples.

The pattern of Christian friendship, therefore, isn't any of the Aristotelian types, not even the most noble one.

The ultimate model of Christian friendship, and the kind that must play a role in teaching and seminary formation, is the sacrificial and self-emptying friendship Jesus offered his disciples. It is a friendship that seeks the good of the other, and nothing else.

This, I believe, is an element that must never be left out in any consideration of the role friendship plays in the work of an educator.

Benevolence, if it is to be genuinely Christian, is genuinely kenotic ("self-emptying") and altruistic ("other-oriented"). It seeks the good of the other for the other's sake; and it must learn to recognize, critique and then gently set aside the desires of the self.

Friendship, if it is to play a positive role in education and formation, must also be cognizant of the essential asymmetry that exists between teacher and student, formator and formandi. Only then can it serve as a guide to a genuine, fruitful and truly formative relationship, and a safeguard against the inauthentic, unhealthy and even destructive kind.

And so we must distinguish between that kind of friendship that seeks the good of the other person, for the other person's sake, and that type which is ultimately self-interested.

The first is benevolent, altruistic and selfless, even self-sacrificing; the second egocentric and self-seeking. Let us simply call the first kind, "authentic" friendship and the second, an "inauthentic" one. Both can manifest themselves in education and formation ministry.

Authentic friendship is a vital tool in education and seminary formation because it can foster an environment of trust, not only in the capacity of the teacher and formator, but in his concern for those he teaches and forms.

- End of Part Two.

- Part Three. The concern for fairness and the danger of favoritism: Confronting two issues that usually arise in relation to friendships in educational settings.





[1] ST, II-II, q. 23, a. 1: "If, however, we do not wish good to what we love, but wish its good for ourselves ... it is love not of friendship, but of a kind of concupiscence."

2] ST, I-II, q. 26, a.4: "Love of concupiscence is distinct from love of friendship... that which is loved with the love of friendship is loved simply and for itself; whereas that which is loved with the love of concupiscence, is loved, not simply and for itself, but for something else."

[3] The Process philosopher, Charles Hartshorne, blasts this idea as a manifestation of egoism in his work "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest". Cf. Charles Hartshorne, "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest: The Illusions of Egoism", Process Philosophy: Basic Writings, eds., J.R. Sibley and P.A.Y. Gunter (New York, University Press of America, 1978) 393-417.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, 7.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, 7: "But there is another kind of friendship, viz. that which involves an inequality between the parties, e.g. that of father to son and in general of elder to younger, that of man to wife and in general that of ruler to subject." Still, generally speaking, friendship for Aristotle involves symmetry and reciprocity.

[6] Interestingly enough, this notion has a parallel in the Scriptural understanding of divine justice and righteousness which involves, not a relationship between strict equals, but between a powerful yet just and merciful God and a weak and sinful humanity - a relationship that Israel was enjoined to mirror in its own relationships.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI. Deus caritas est, 3.

[8] Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, "On the Practices of the Catholic Church", 56.

[9] Augustine, De Magistro, "The Teacher", 38.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

FUNDARI AMICITIAM: Friendship, Fairness, and the Dangers of Favoritism in Education and Seminary Formation (PART ONE OF A SERIES)

"Teaching is imposed on us by the necessity of love."  - Saint Augustine of Hippo
 
What role does friendship play in the work of education or, in the case of persons engaged in seminary ministry, formation? What spirit should guide it?

What does it mean to say that effectiveness in education and formation involves the realization that one cannot merely form students in the manner of one "pouring" something into an empty receptacle, but by way of a fellow-learner, a fellow-seeker, a fellow-traveler and co-discerner on the road towards knowledge, wisdom, maturity and growth?

Can an educator truly be a friend to those he or she teaches without losing sight of the importance and necessity of fairness, and without ending up playing favorites among those being taught?

These are some of the questions I would like to consider in this series of reflections on education and seminary formation.
 
In his dialogue De Magistro ("On the Teacher"), St. Augustine argues that teaching and learning belong to a single process in which teacher and student are mutually involved in educating each other and learning from one another.

Teaching, Augustine says, is not the mere transmission of knowledge from one mind to another. Rather a teacher must meet those he or she educates "with a brother's, a father's and a mother's love".[1]

The most effective teachers are those who "journey with" rather than simply "instruct" their students.
 
In the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples: "I no longer call you servants, I call you friends" (John 15:15).

St. Thomas Aquinas begins his treatment of love in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologica by explaining that at the root of this change (from "servants" to "friends") is the love the disciples discovered and experienced during their time with Jesus and which, as he now prepared for his suffering and death, he enjoined each of them to have for one another.

Simply put, the love Christ offers his disciples, St. Thomas says, is friendship.[2] And he defines such love as "benevolence", i.e. willing the good of the other - something that an educator must obviously have towards his or her students.

Without such love - a "brotherly friendship" - as Augustine calls it, the desire to learn simply cannot be kindled by a teacher in those he teaches.[3]
 
But can an educator really be a friend to his students? What does it mean for a formator to be a friend to those he forms?

A good friend who's been in seminary ministry all his life once told me: "We can't really consider those we teach our 'friends;' they, after all, aren't our peers. We should be friendly towards our students, compassionate and always kind to them. But friendship? I don't see much wisdom in it. The teacher-student relationship is an essentially asymmetrical one. Besides, future priests, especially after the problems the church has had over the last couple of decades, need to be taught the real value and importance of recognizing and respecting professional boundaries. Teachers and seminary formators should be the first to model that".

This is certainly a valid school of thought and, clearly, a very wise and important one. 
 
And yet there's that other view that says the most effective teachers meet their students "where they're at", who enter into their lives, respecting boundaries, yet seeking to understand them in a way that doesn't limit them to a name requiring an evaluation at term's end.

"Remember, you were once a student yourself", another good friend told me before I began teaching. He had been himself in formation ministry for many years, and holds that the Incarnation should be regarded as the ultimate paradigm of education and formation: God entered into the life of humanity in order to raise it up.

"The best teachers are those who walk with their students and, in the process, grow with them. True and meaningful education only happens in the spirit of friendship. Even Jesus regarded his disciples as friends."
 
Clearly, there is truth and wisdom in both perspectives. They aren't mutually exclusive, though admittedly, there is also risk involved in both.

Is it possible then to arrive at a unifying middle ground between these equally valid positions? What would such a middle ground look like, and how can it serve as a practical guide for those of us in the ministry of education and seminary formation?

Before attempting to answer these questions though, allow me to share the context that gave rise to them; and by that I mean, my own particular situation.

I was born into a family of educators, and so perhaps it came as no surprise that when, as a young seminarian, my vice rector asked me what I thought I'd like my ministry to be as a priest, I said without even giving it much thought, "I think I'd like to teach".

And for nineteen years now, that's what I've been doing - teaching and forming future priests. Academically, my area of specialization has been philosophy. Pastorally, though, my heart has always felt tethered to the ministry of educating the church's future ministers, though parish life, limited as it may be to weekends helping out at nearby parishes, continues to hold a very strong attraction.

My situation is a rather unusual one, some priest-friends even say "anomalous". I am a diocesan priest who has spent practically all nineteen years of his priesthood in both the internal and external forums of seminary formation (as vocations director, dean of men, spiritual director, pastoral and human formation director and director of college seminarians) and in teaching at both Catholic and secular universities.
 
In fact, even before ordination, I was already teaching in seminary, having been asked by my superiors to spend my summer vacations teaching philosophy to collegians.

Back at the now-shuttered American College in Louvain, I was the only student doing his theological studies and completing a doctorate in philosophy while being fully immersed in seminary formation, all at the same time. Post-ordination, I did explore the possibility of joining one of the teaching orders, the Jesuits or the Dominicans perhaps. I also seriously considered joining the Sulpicians.

But when none of these felt like the right fit, I asked my ordinary to be allowed to concentrate fully on teaching and formation. Fortunately, my bishop who was once a seminary formator himself, freed me to pursue and further explore this calling.

It is, from within such family and ministerial background that I have, throughout the past nineteen years as a priest and the previous thirteen as a seminarian, found myself continuously reflecting on the important role friendship plays in education and formation. I grew up seeing my parents not only respected but loved by those they taught.

Also, the most important and enduring learning experiences I've had as a student were with teachers and formators, both priests and laypersons, with whom I felt a connection that transcended, yet at the same time maintained and respected, the teacher-student dynamic.

Finally, as a university professor and seminary formator myself, the colleagues whom I've observed to have the most significantly positive impact on the lives of students are those who - in the words of a very wise laywoman who has taught in various colleges and seminaries for years - "hold their students close to their hearts with one hand while keeping them at a necessary distance with the other".

The first time I heard these words, I admit, I was quite puzzled. I was newly ordained and had just been assigned as a full-time seminary professor and was asking for advice from friends and colleagues.

"Wouldn't that confuse the students?" I asked her. "Not if you keep in mind that they're not really our own", came the even more perplexing reply.

It was to take a number of years in seminary ministry before her meaning became clearer to me.


- End of Part One.

- Part Two: Authentic friendship allows us to transcend that self-seeking love that endangers fairness and gives rise to favoritism. 





[1] St. Augustine, De Catechizandis Rudibus, "The Instruction of the Uninstructed", 17.  
[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 23, a.1.
[3] St. Augustine, De Catechizandis Rudibus, 17-19.

"BELIEVE WHAT YOU READ, TEACH WHAT YOU BELIEVE, PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH." (On the Importance of Study and Avoiding a Dangerous Anti-intellectualism in Seminary Formatuion as we Work to Keep Christ's Flock Nourished)

“Study hard. Learn to integrate what you study. That’s the only way you can be sure that what you’ll be preaching to  God's people as a priest will have substance and won’t simply be fluff”.

These were words with which my first spiritual director in seminary—God rest his soul—used to constantly encourage and challenge me when I would get lazy and neglect my studies.

You see, I wasn’t always the diligent student, and I didn’t always like philosophy or theology. I did alright with minimum effort, and I brought that attitude to my formation in seminary. And so it became my spiritual director’s job to remind me of the value of study—not for its own sake, but as he never tired of repeating, “so that what you teach as a priest will have substance, and won’t just be fluff”.

At every diaconate ordination, the bishop says to those about to receive the Sacrament of Orders: “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach”.

Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.

It’s a beautiful reminder of what every deacon, and priest should be doing. We are to “believe, teach, and practice”.

Notice though, that there are four verbs in the admonition, not three. “Believe”, “teach”, and “practice”, are the most prominent. But there’s a fourth, which must not be overlooked, though it sometimes is, because it is in fact the foundation of all three: “Read”.

Translation: “Study and learn!”

In today’s gospel reading (Luke 24:35-48), the disciples are terrified at the sight of the risen Christ. They initially think he’s a ghost. And so Jesus reassures them. But he does this by doing two things. First he tells them to see and touch his hands and feet. A ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones. But he does something more. He asks them if they have any food. And he ate it in front of them. A mere spirit couldn’t eat. 

This wasn’t a mere specter. It was Jesus himself, body and soul; or to borrow a term Thomas Aquinas, Jesus in the fullness of his “substance”, standing in front of them. And then he tells them that they are to be his witnesses to this fullness.

We too, are to be witnesses to this fullness. But the only way we can be sure that it is the fullness of Jesus that we teach (“substance” and not “fluff” as my spiritual director would say) is if we learn as much as we can about Jesus, about the church, about our faith, and integrate everything we learn into the story of our life and our vocation.

Every chance I get, I remind those I teach in seminary that we study not for the sake of studying, that our academic life is not an end in itself. And that is true. But this is never meant to downplay the value of study, or give it secondary status in our life in seminary.

Be always on guard against a kind of anti-intellectualism that sometimes worms its way into the hearts of the pious and devout, or that type that pits intellectual labor against pastoral ministry or the spiritual life. 

Intellectual rigor, as St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John Paul II, as well as many of the giants of our faith, have so powerfully shown us, is the ally of true piety and devotion, not its adversary.

Without serious intellectual work, the three other “pillars” of our life in formation will not have much substance, and we end up building on sand.

The constant reminder that even our study in seminary is oriented towards our future task as shepherds, is meant to encourage us to realize that the only way for us to truly feed and satisfy God’s flock that will one day be entrusted to our care as priests, is to study and learn as much as we can while still seminarians.

Only in that way can we be more or less sure that what we shall teach has substance, or in the words of the gospel, “flesh and bones”.

Otherwise, we will end up witnessing to ourselves, not Christ. We will be teaching our ideas and opinions, not the church’s. We will be proclaiming another gospel, not the true one. Then we will be preaching, not substance, but “fluff”. And God’s flock will starve.

“Believe what you read; teach what you believe; practice what you teach”. “Believe, teach, practice”.

These just won’t happen if we do not “study and read”.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

EASTER FREEDOM: IN CHRIST WHO HAS CONQUERED DEATH, I CAN CONQUER LIFE AND EMBRACE IT, ALL OF IT!

The story is told (apocryphal most likely) of a young Harry Houdini who, during one of his routines, failed to open the door to the prison cell in which he had been locked despite the door not even really being bolted. He had apparently become so convinced that it was in fact locked that none of the tiny picks he had designed and kept in the fold of his clothes seemed to work. Exhausted after having tried every trick he knew, the great escape artist simply collapsed against the cell door, at which point it simply swung open. It hadn’t been locked in the first place; though it was in his mind.

Haven’t we all, from time to time, found ourselves in a similar situation, trapped in prison cells whose doors aren’t really bolted, yet appear to be so (or at least we’ve become so convinced that they are) in our hearts and minds?

Perhaps it’s because of something we’ve kept hidden deep inside us, something wrought by some sorrow or heartbreak in our past that has stifled our souls and chained us to bitterness, anger, or fear. Or it may be a deficiency in ourselves, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, that has rendered us unable to believe enough in ourselves in order to experience life to the full. 

The 20th century psychologist, Abraham Maslow once said that when it comes to being able to embrace and celebrate all that life can offer, both the pleasant and the difficult, one must be able to bridge the distance between merely desiring to eliminate deficiencies in his life, to actually being motivated by an open-ended desire to experience life to the full. In Maslow’s view, we really cannot achieve the latter goal (which he considers the ideal), without first being able to adequately address the former.

Those of us who are weighed down by enormous “baggage”, whatever form this might take, will find ourselves hindered from opening our hearts to the great possibilities of life without fear, worry and anxiety which are the greatest enemies of a full human life.

Easter is, of course, not the mere celebration of earthly life, no matter how glorious and full we conceive such life to be. The life the Risen Jesus offers is infinitely larger than earthly existence. For what he now offers, what we tonight celebrate, is the fullness of life itself, everlasting joy, endless peace, total even overflowing abundance. Jesus’ conquest of death has forever opened the gates of eternal life; this is what we celebrate.

And yet accepting that offer Christ makes, deciding to take the path that leads to eternal life, and choosing to enter the gates that have now been opened to us, requires a will that has been freed from its chains and liberated from whatever prison in which it may still find itself.

The fullness of earthly life is not disconnected from the life offered by the Risen Christ, no matter how limited the former may be. Nor are the eternal joys made possible by his conquest of death completely different, detached, and separated from the joys of our earthly journey. The fact is God wants us to be happy, in the here and now, just as he wants us to be happy with him for all eternity.

As Pope Francis never seems to tire of reminding us, misery is not the lot of a follower of Christ, not later on in heaven, but certainly not on earth either. Life is never going to be perfect, but our lot as disciples remains that of joy, Easter joy!

And so allow me to share with you the stories (not apocryphal this time) of two individuals who, with Jesus and because of him, have experienced what it means to be freed from the chains that have bound them to grief, worry, anxiety, fear, and the inability to embrace and celebrate life in its fullness, two persons who, in the words of one of them, “have come to know what Easter means” – that it is a “foretaste of eternity in the here and now”: a mother who had been trapped in a prison created by her abusive character, and a priest who had been trapped in a prison created by someone who had abused him in his youth.

A few years ago, I had the chance to journey with a young woman whose first marriage had collapsed. She married a very good young man, and they were very much in love. At some point though, things began to change. She became very jealous, controlling, disparaging, and at times, even violent towards him. They had a child, but after six years of marriage, ended up separating and getting a church annulment.

A few years later, she married her second husband, another good man who loved her very much and was happy to be the stepdad of her young child from her previous marriage. They had three more children together.

After a number of years though, her jealousy and controlling behavior resurfaced; and the constant putdowns her husband had to go through began to cause tremendous strain on their marriage, not to mention the fact that she once again became rather violent.

This time, however, she began to notice the pattern. And because she now had four kids and did in fact love her husband, she decided to seek advice as well as spiritual and emotional guidance. She came to me saying: “Father, I love my family. I don’t want to fail again. But I don’t know what to do. I simply don’t understand what’s going on. Please help me”. 

I contacted a friend who’s a family counselor and sent her to him, meanwhile, she would come and talk to me about her family, her faith, her struggles, and the progress of her counseling sessions.

At one point, she disclosed that as a child, her mother had been physically and verbally abusive to her, and for some reason, she found it very hard not only to forgive her mother, but to also move on. She didn’t know how.

Several summers ago, she had the chance to visit her grandmother’s sister who was still alive but quite ill. She decided she wanted to know more about her mother’s family. It was then that she learned that her grandmother too suffered the same fate with her great-grandmother, and the abuse she experienced from her mom was the same abuse her mom in turn suffered from her grandmother.

“It was a vicious cycle, Father”, she said to me. “For the first time, I understood where my mom was coming from. I still have to work on being able to forgive her and move on. But I now have some light. I know why it happened to her, and I know why it happened to me. And you know what, Father. I have decided. It won’t happen again, not to my daughters, not to my family. The pain stops with me.”

“The pain stops with me”.

Often, in our meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus, our minds focus on God’s immense love for us; and that is good. But we must not forget that the image of Christ on the cross is also telling us something more. The suffering and death of Jesus isn’t only a reminder of God’s love, it also represents a profound appeal to us: “Do not let this happen again. Do what you can to put an end to each other’s suffering, say ‘no more’ to the cycle of pain; ease one another’s burdens”.

“The pain stops with me”.

With that resolution, this wounded and broken woman, this abused daughter, this wife and mother seeking healing and wholeness, who had for so long been imprisoned by the wounds of her past, finally had her own Easter; like Jesus she escaped from her tomb.

The day she resolved that her pain would not be visited upon her children, was her own Resurrection Sunday, the day when she finally burst forth from the prison that had kept her locked up, frozen, suffering, and sadly, inflicting the same pain and suffering on others. Today, she is a happily married wife and mother.

I spent a couple hours with her family a few years ago. I’ve never seen a happier couple. To her daughters, she was the kindest mom. As I sat there watching her interaction with her children, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “If only these kids knew the pain their mother had to go through; and how lucky they are.”

At about the same time, I was journeying with this mother whom Christ had freed from her chains, I became acquainted with a priest who was a dynamic, caring, generous and loving shepherd to his flock. At one point during his ministry though, he fell into a deep and dark period of depression which, as he said, he simply couldn’t shake off no matter how hard he tried or how deeply immersed he was in his work and in the lives of the people he served.

Aside from that, he said he felt a growing sense of anger and bitterness bubbling inside him – emotions whose origin and root cause he couldn’t seem to put his finger on, very strong emotions which now threatened to overpower him and wreak havoc in his life and vocation.

Feeling unable to continue effectively in his ministry and wanting to regain the sense of balance he felt he had so suddenly lost, he decided to ask his bishop for some time off in order to go into counseling and find some healing for the pain and turmoil he was experiencing.

It was during this time that he managed to retrieve some very painful memories that he had repressed from his youth, memories of abuse at the hands of another priest.

“The pain was enormous,"  I remember him telling me.  "All I felt inside was hate, for my abuser, for what had happened to me, for God who had allowed it to happen, and surprisingly, even for myself, for my inability to fight back as well as for burying the memory all these years.”

It was, for him, a very painful time – his “Good Friday” as he called it. He was away from active ministry for several years, trying to find healing, trying to find freedom, trying to get to his Easter.

I still very clearly remember once, on a Holy Saturday night, after coming home from the Easter Vigil, I called him up. Our conversation was long, but at the end, I said to him: “Happy Easter, my friend. What are you up to tomorrow?”

After a rather long silence, he replied: “I haven’t had a real Easter in a while, you know. This year isn’t going to be any different. I know one day I will. I hope and pray for it everyday. I know I’ll celebrate Easter again. But not this year. Not yet”.

I cried after that phone call. I cried for my friend, I cried for this good and loving priest. But I also cried because I love the church; I love the priesthood, and I feel the pain of those like him. But I think I cried for myself as well. Because I realized how tremendous is the task of being a priest, and how painful the wounds a priest can inflict on others.

We all have our tombs and prisons that lock us in. Perhaps it’s a prison of anger or resentment, addiction, abuse or depression, failure or disappointment or a physical weakness we bear.  Perhaps it’s a tomb of powerlessness because someone we love is ill and we sense their life slipping away.  Or our tomb could be grief over the loss of someone we love, and the pain feels like it would never go away.  Possibly our prison, our tomb, is a loneliness that’s like a thirst that can’t seem to be quenched.

On this night, when Jesus burst forth from that tomb that had kept him for three days and three nights, we find the fulfillment of our hope that we too can leave behind the many tombs and prisons that have kept us locked in. In Christ who is Risen, no tomb can contain us. In him who is Risen, we can escape anything, even the deepest, darkest, and most painful prisons life has imposed on us.

On this night, Jesus has forever broken the chains of death, despair and entrapment. Freed from his own tomb he now commands us to come forth and leave our own tombs. He has risen to set us free, and he wants us to know that his power is greater than our weakness and despair, his love greater than any frustration, his light greater than our darkness, his promise greater than our pain, and the life he offers us, is greater than death itself. And because of that, we are able to embrace the fullness of the life he offers – in the here and now, and with him and all the blessed later in our heavenly home.

This Easter, Jesus who is Risen, invites each one of us to consider what tombs, what prisons still hold us back from living our life to the full. And he calls on each one of us to trust that he can set us free—if we but let him, for his Resurrection is our Resurrection, his victory is our victory, his Easter is our Easter.

With Saint Paul, we can say with all confidence: “With Christ, I can do anything”. And with the Risen Christ himself we can proclaim: “I have conquered the world”.

A few years ago, as I was preparing to do my Night Prayer on Easter Monday, my phone rang, it was my friend, the priest who had taken some time off from ministry in order to find healing for himself, forgiveness for the one who had wronged him, and restore his faith and trust in the God who had called him to serve those who, like himself, have been wounded by life.

“How are you doing?” I asked, not sure if I should greet him a “Happy Easter”, still remembering how painful the last Easter conversation was that I had with him.

"I’m doing very well,” he said. “Happy Easter!”




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