Where the learning begins… …and where it begins to make sense.
One of the toughest pieces of advice I’ve received since I got here to the seminary has been that sometimes I’ll have to let my grades suffer if I want to keep my prayer life intact. Of course, my teachers haven’t really said it this way, but other seminarians have said that if the difference between a B and an A comes at the expense of my Holy Hour each day, then I’ve got to be OK with the B. Now, that kind of flies in the face of my desire to prove myself academically, which stems out of a kind of competitiveness. If I’m not competing against others grade wise, then I’m definitely competing against myself: how much harder can I work, what can I prove to myself, how smart am I, really? So for someone to tell me that my grades are not as important as I think they are, that’s kind of hard for me to swallow.
But it also has me reflecting. Why are they teaching us this stuff?
Are we here to learn the intricacies of systematic theology, or the depths of spiritual theology, or the letter of the law of liturgy, so that I can show off my grade report and my degree to my future parishioners? Maybe I’m supposed to learn why we say what we say at Mass, and how long we’ve been saying it, or who is supposed to say it and who is not, so that I can have some superiority over those who don’t know. Well, simply put, these are not the reasons why academics are so important here at the seminary.
One of the main reasons we get to study all of this stuff, as stressful as it can be sometimes, is because God wants us to know Who He Is.
Just a few weeks ago we welcomed back some of the priests who were just ordained this year. It’s pretty cool, I must say, to get to know these guys as seminarians, and then see them just a few months later, and they’ve been saying Mass and hearing confessions and counseling married couples and Baptizing babies and Anointing the Sick. You know they’ve got that transformation that comes with Ordination, but you also get to hear it and see it more clearly when they’ve been celebrating Mass for you! So, after dinner with them all, they got a chance to come up to the microphone and say a little something about their first few months in ministry.
There were some amazing stories, some real fire for the love of God’s people. But the one who struck me the most was the one who got up and only spoke for about two minutes. He started getting really emotional, and I could tell he still feels so blessed that anyone could consider calling him to the priesthood. But there he was, telling not only how in love he was with God’s people, but how much love they have shown him. And so he told us very clearly, even though I think he was tearing up a little bit, that the reason we study what we study is not for the sake of knowledge, and not so that we can teach our parishioners every little detail of Transubstantiation, or why it is we say Christ has two natures, but only one Personhood. Rather, we are taught these things to bring us closer to God, to teach us how to speak of the mystery of God, to teach us how to pray.
I firmly believe that if I do not take what I am taught here with me into prayer, I am wasting my time in class. My class, Theology I, just won the annual game of Catechism Jeopardy (yes, we’re that cool here at the seminary!), but probably out of luck and gamesmanship more than anything else. But I found myself thinking beforehand, while I was studying the Catechism in preparation: even if we don’t win, I still get the chance to just let myself soak in the wisdom of our Church. Sure, it was for a game, but if I didn’t take those things I was studying into prayer with me, I was simply playing some memorization game that would do me little good in my relationships with God and with all of you.
And can’t it be that way with everything we study and learn. Think about that for a minute. It may be a stretch, but when you get right down to the truth of it, what is knowledge if not used for the greater glory of God and for the chance to get to know better the One who has not only created such knowledge, and made all things so that they could be known in the first place, but has loved us into being? I know it’s hard to do it if you have a paper due in a day or two and you haven’t even picked a topic, or if that math or biology homework just plain doesn’t make sense, or if that Greek translation due tomorrow seems just like, well, Greek, but let that lead you to prayer. I think Psalm 8 is a good place to start- I’ll let you look it up, it’s worth it. But we are created and loved by the One who has created all things, and made them the way they are. Maybe see that paper as a chance to meet God in the beauty of human thought; maybe find in that math and biology homework signs of the Creator who has given beautifully complex structure to all things; maybe in that Greek (or Spanish, or French, or whatever), find the words of God, spoken in human tongues. Sure, it’s hard to see these things, but we can only start by first asking God for the grace to see these things. After all, God doesn’t just call us to know What He Is, He calls us to know Who He Is.