At a daily mass a few weeks ago, the celebrant spoke about a sentinal conversation while in the seminary. Fr. David recalled a conversation with a friend and seminarian who was two years ahead of him. The upperclassman had just returned from several months of pastoral formation with a pastor at a local church.
“How was it?” Fr. David Allen asked his friend.
“Interesting, I enjoyed it.”
“Did anything happen that surprised you?”
“Yes, the parishioners at the church kept asking me how I’d gotten to be so holy, so content with silence.
“What did I do?
“How did I pray?
“What prayers did I say?
“And there wasn’t anything I could say that I did.
“In fact, I do nothing! Nothing at all…
“I just love Jesus…the more I love Him the more I want to love Him- it’s like an addictiion!”
Fr. David looked at us and said, “Holiness can’t be taught, it must be caught.
“We all know about addicts, right? ‘I need a fix! Now. It’s all about the drug. How about our drug being Jesus?
How about us getting addicted to Christ?”
During the last several weeks, my thoughts have returned to Fr. David’s comments, frequently enough to decide to write this article. The phrase, “holiness can’t be taught, it must be caught” was apparently coined by one of the saints or a desert father or mother. Fr. David could not recall who it was and in cursory online search I can’t find it either.
And yet this maxim fits anything and everything: Whether we are talking about faith, or learning to cook, or almost anything worth doing, we can learn only the fundamentals from the teacher. The truth of the thing must bubble up from within.
And if it is, in fact, Truth, can be found in just one Person.
I spent a sizable percentage of my life in a variety of schools and several different degree programs. Among all those teachers-maybe hundreds-five stand out: one from high school, two undergrad and one from my doctoral program. What these four men and one woman shared was a love of learning- a veritable passion for it.
And I caught it: the love and search for knowledge, ultimately wisdom. Or, perhaps we’re all imbued with the love of Truth. With the indellible baptismal mark on our souls with the priest’s exhortation, “I claim you for Christ,” the yearning begins.
Although it’s been decades, I can easily recall wandering into a presentation at the AAMC-American Association of Medical Colleges- on the effects of learning on the brain. While waiting for my time slot to present my paper, I heard researchers demonstrate unequivocally that learning results in the development of new neural pathways.
But, of course, we must accept the reciprocal nature of learning. Sitting in a class listening to someone opine is entirely passive. Very different from being in a classroom where the teacher shares his or her love of Shakepeare or moral philosophy. Sprinkling each of their classes with all kinds of fascinating and relevant anecdotes that leaves us thirsting for more.
Reflecting on my experience, no, the privilege, of studying under them, I realize what gifts I’d received and of the dangers implicit in gifts.
Until the gift is gone: whether an essential, like air or water, or a beloved, like a spouse or pet, we take so much for granted. Assume we’ll always have them. Or…the ability to go to church.
Until we no longer have them or cannot go.
So I decided to check the meaning of gift. Webster defines it as “something bestowed or acquired without any particular effort by the recipient or without its being earned.”
The words in that last phrase of the definition , “without effort…or its being earned” seem to shout, don’t they?
All of which brings me back to Jesus, this God-man, Creator of the universe, the earth, of all things and the wholly astounding, irrational and impossible methods with which He works with His creation and His creatures: You and I are given the power to deny Him…to credit all of His creation to some kind of autoevolutionary process.
Because of our “advanced” knowledge, we consider ourselves masters of our lives and our fates. And decide we know better, we can perfect humanity.
The most powerful force in the world is no earthquake or hurricane but the human will.
was answered by one of the hundreds of sobering, provocative and mind-blowing vignettes in Cardinal Robert Sarah’s splendid book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.
Our frequent question is, of course, “How can God permit this?”
The Cardinal writes about the increasing dominance of atheism: “I am convinced that the problem of contemporary atheism lies first of all in a wrong interpretation of God’s silence about catastrophes and human sufferings. If man sees in the divine silence only a form of God’s abandonment, indifference, or powerlessness, it will be difficult to enter into his ineffable and inaccessible mystery. The more man rejects the silence of God, the more he will rebel against him.”
And then Sarah elaborates on this theme by referencing a book called The Concept of God After Auschwitz.
“What did Auschwitz add to that which one could always have known about the extent of the terrible and horrendous things that humans can do to humans and from times immemorial have done?” Hans Jonas naturally calls God into question: “God let it happen. What God could let it happen?”
And why did he allow it? Hans Jonas responds: “In order that the world might be, and be for itself, God renounced His being.” What does that mean?
“To make room for the world, the En-Sof (Infinite; literally, No-End) of the beginning had to contract Himself so that, vacated by Him, empty space could expand outside of Him: the ‘Nothing’ in which and from which God could then create the world. Without this retreat into Himself, there could be no ‘other’ outside God.”
We can guess his conclusion: In deciding on this withdrawal into himself so that man can exist, God becomes by that very fact a suffering God, because he will have to suffer because of man and be disappointed in him. God will also be a concerned God, because he will entrust the world to agents other than himself, to free agents.
In short, this is a God at risk, a God who incurs a proper risk. But then, that God is not an almighty God. In order for the goodness of God to be compatible with the existence of evil, he must not be almighty. More exactly, it is necessary for this God to have renounced power. In the simple fact of allowing human freedom lies a renunciation of power.”The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise
Could there be a greater risk, renunciation of power than for the Creator of the Universe to hide Himself in a white wafer?
Permit Himself to be wholly dependent on the worthiness of His priests to consecrate and the faithful to consume Him?
He who made us becoming real food and real drink.
And yet, when we ponder the ending of the prayer that Jesus taught…”thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we must wonder at them. Perhaps forever wonder.
Recently a friend asked aboout the timing of completing my doctorate and conversion to Cathoicism. He had been commenting on the feat of achieving it while working full-time.
While explaining the utter loss and emptiness following all those years of study, not a shred of the wisdom or relief that I’d expected, I said, “But that’s when God works best in us. When we know we are nothing.”
Holiness can’t be taught- but before it’s caught, we must empty ourselves of ourselves.