Part III: To Believe & to Know: Intellectual Formation & Joy

HighPriest21The Presence of Joy. Other projects have distracted me and kept me from continuing with my earlier series of posts on formation (you can read them here, here and here). I want now to pick up where I left off in July and look briefly with you at the intellectual formation of clergy (and by implication, of the laity).

Recently there has been a series of essays on natural law. What makes these essays especially interesting to me is that the series was inspired by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart‘s rejection of natural law in an article in First Things (here, with follow-up pieces here and here). While I admire the beauty and elegance of Hart’s language, I find myself agreeing with his critics. There are to be sure various theories of natural law but the Christian (and after reading Levinas’s (1969, 1987) work, I would say the biblical) understanding of natural law is rooted in a careful attention to human experience. Hart, like the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras (1984), rejects natural law as such but a natural law rooted in ontological abstraction. Natural law in the biblical sense does not seek to draw ethical conclusions from abstract ontology speculation but from human experience.

Attending to my experience I realize that I only want to be happy. Looking a bit more closely at myself I realize that some things make me happier than other but that sometimes even the best things can leave me feeling empty. I also realize some things bring me only a temporary feeling of happiness—they make me happy for the  moment—while other things have the ability to bring me a lasting happiness. The Christian tradition calls this latter, lasting happiness, joy. So my experience tells me that not only can I be happy I can be joyful. There are thoughts and actions that bring me a kind of happiness that is not dependent on circumstances event. The paradox of joy is that it transcends the very circumstances that revealed it  to me. My thoughts and actions embody what Paul Ricoeur calls a “surplus of meaning” (1976). Sensitivity to this surplus of meaning, to the transcendent dimension of human experience, is essential to a wholesome human life and especially to the Christian life.

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Priestly Formation: A Suite in Four Parts

Being a pastor is more like being a jazz musician than it is being say an engineer. All three of these occupations require a great deal of technical skill to be sure. But the pastor, like the jazz musician, is often called upon to improvise on a theme more than, like the engineer, apply a theory to a problem. This is all to say that pastoral ministry is more art than science.

Over the last 10 years or so I’ve worked with communities in transition. What I’ve notice is that typically problems arise in the parish when someone—it needn’t be the pastor—takes what we might call an engineering approach to the life of the congregation. They have a theory and they are going to fit the community into its framework.

This is also something I see frequently as a spiritual director and confessor. When I talk with people about the different ways they go off track in their prayer lives, at work or with their family and friends the source of their suffering is that life just isn’t working out according to [their] plan. Problems in living arise when life becomes a project to be completed or a problem to be solved and not the other way around. When I lose a living sense of awe in the face of reality, or when I don’t see my life as a mystery to be lived, this is when life becomes a problem. Continue reading

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Affective Intuition & Human Formation

Mostly what priests encounter in our flocks is what existential or humanistic psychologists call problems in living. Life just becomes flat. Relationships that once were easy and life giving just aren’t anymore. Saddest of all, what was once a source of joy in life is now merely “blah” if not something much worse.

The first step in responding to those moments when life becomes a problem is the accurate apprehension that this is the case. This is the step of affective intuition—I need to have at least a sense of the contours and content of what is wrong. In the human sciences we use a technical term—verstehen—or the “interpretive or participatory examination” of the situation. Continue reading

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Formation for Freedom: The Challenges Before Us

(Because of our impending move to Wisconsin next week, I have not been able to post for the last several days. Because I will be without internet access for several days starting next week I did want to outline (even if poorly) my thoughts on the challenges we face relative to the formation of Orthodox clergy in obedience. I ask your kind indulgence for the next week or two as my wife and I leave our current home and settle into our new life in Madison.)

Obedience, especially for Americans, has a bit of a bad reputation. While not universal, more and more it seems that American culture is offering us a formation in what Adrian van Kaam calls “autarkic individualism.” For the autarkic individualist the goal of life is not self-sufficiency—indeed more and more it seems that many of us are incapable of caring for ourselves, much less others. Rather the person closes in on himself in a peculiar fashion choosing (only more or less consciously) to live a life parallel to others. Living in this way, the person may come close to others but does so without ever quite touching emotionally or spiritually. Maybe the clearest expression of this is seen in the realm of sexuality. Not just for the young, it is this emotional and spiritual separation that makes promiscuity possible.

But the living of a parallel life has consequences in not only in the realm of human sexuality, but throughout human life. While this is always damaging, I think it does the most harm when we ordain to men so (de-) formed.

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A Bit More About Obedience

René Girard writes that “To seek comfort is always to contribute to the worst” (“On War and Apocalypse,” First Things, July 2009, p. 22). Pausing to reflect on this I realize that I will often seek from the Church and from Holy Tradition mere comfort and that (more often then not) this comfort will take the form of having opinions confirmed. Even if I am correct in my views, what I seek is not a confirmation of the truth as a gift but rather as the product of my own abilities, my own cleverness and insight. So what ought I instead to seek?

Rather than seek seek out mere comfort and ego-pleasing confirmation of my views, what I need from the Church is the encouragement and support that makes it possible for me to do the hard work of self-examination and growth in self-knowledge. In this sense, and for all their differences, the tradition of the Church and Freud’s psychoanalytic project (as I hope to show) are at least potential allies. Continue reading

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So, What is Obedience?

Obedience is a real struggle for me as I suspect it is for most people. But the struggle is not simply, much less exclusively, a struggle to conform to an external authority. At its core, my struggle is a struggle to be obedient to the God Who speaks to me in the depth of my heart and who has called me (in my case) to be a husband for my wife and priest for my parish. It seems to me, and again I am more than open to correction here, that the objective content of Holy Tradition (what we might call the facts of the faith) is in the service of our personal obedience to the Holy Trinity embodied in our fidelity to own personal vocations.

Returning to Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day) we read that at the heart of what he calls “formation to responsible freedom” is an “education of the moral conscience.” He continues by observing that this education is more than merely a functional submission to a set of moral norms. True obedience the pope has a symbolic or sacramental quality. The obedience that makes freedom possible, as John Paul writes, is an obedience that arises from the “depths” of the human person and so makes manifest not only the identify of the one who is obedient, but also what he calls “the deep meaning of such obedience.”

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Obedience and Growing Up

I tell my own spiritual children that love is a union of lives, and obedience, the submission of the will to another, is simply love in working clothes.

To be sure, obedience without love, without that mutual commitment to the welfare of the other, obedience is not life giving but degrading. But when love is the context, then I think I am on safe ground to argue that obedience is key to growing in affective maturity.

This primacy of love is essential also in helping us understand the argument made by Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day). Forget love and I am likely to misunderstand and misapply Pope John Paul’s singling out obedience as having an central role to of play in sound human formation.

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