Thursday, April 20, 2017

"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”.

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