Here’s the conclusion to yesterday’s post on intellectual formation. I hope to have the last post on pastoral formation and the whole essay available by the middle of next week.
The Personal Awareness of Grace. Just as I can’t live a Christian life without the grace of the sacraments, I can’t live this life without at least some subjective awareness of God’s presence in my life. It is here, in my subjective or personal, awareness of God that my intellectual formation becomes important. While not unrelated to academics, intellectual formation prepares me for joy. Undertaken in the right spirit, my studies are a preparation for the enduring experience of happiness that is essential to a wholesome human and holy Christian life. How does this happen?
First intellectual formation helps me to know God, what He has done for in Jesus Christ and what He continues to do for me through the life of the Church. Sound intellectual formation introduces me to the Christian tradition as the living reality and witness to God’s friendship toward the human family. Part of this witness, and what is most important for me as a sinners, is that it also relativizes (without minimizing) my experience. Proper intellectual formation gives me a context within which to appraise the strengths and weakness, the rightness and wrongness, of my thoughts and actions. Intellectual formation then is in the service of gratitude and humility.
Where the intellectual dimension of our Christian life often goes wrong, where formation becomes deformation, is when it leads not to gratitude and humility but a sense of entitlement and pride. I am the recipient of a great tradition but I am not its master. Much less am I its Source. Just as there is a surplus of meaning in my life, a surplus exist in the Christian tradition. Just as there is a transcendent dimension to my life, just as I am “more than” the sum of my thoughts, words, and deeds the tradition is “more than” what I or anyone can grasp much less express. This should inspire a humility that in turns moves me to explore evermore fully not simply the tradition but the God to Whom the tradition bears witness and Who works in human history (and in my life!).
There is another deformation about which we must be aware. For some the magnificence of the tradition, its beauty and the depth of meaning that it embodies, causes a kind of paralysis. In this case the person isn’t so much overwhelmed by the manifestation of grace but rather by his relative smallness. Yes, I am a creature and yes, I am the recipient of God’s grace and the inheritor of a great tradition but it is precisely in these that I see my dignity and my importance. To use a modern phrase, divine grace empowers. Just as I come to see myself as lovable in the gaze of the one who loves me so too I understand my real value in grasping the magnificence of the gift that God the Father gives me in Jesus Christ.
All of this admits me to an economy rooted in the gift. All that I have comes to me from outside and does so gratuitously. In the economy of mere exchange this causes me anxiety—after all what I can exchange for the gift of God’s love? What can I offer to God that is worth as much as what He offers me? But in the economy of the gift, I recognize in my lack of control, my lack of full and complete self-possession of my thoughts and action and my relative poverty, the echo and invitation of God’s love.
Embodying that invitation in action, as I hope to show in my next post, is the heart of the pastoral life of the Church.