Retrospect at 40, part four
  • Friday, August 16, 2013

Cæli enarrant

I found Notre Dame’s department of theology at its best to rather reek of asceticism, in a hidden way — necessarily, and mercifully. Whatever holiness might be had would be won from wrestling with God, and a thoroughgoing theocentrism and scripturalism pervaded all that we studied and the way we did so, certainly in my own “History of Christianity” subfield (historical theology, by another name). In this respect, God was presumed to be of personal interest, and I imagine in most cases was, in keeping with the department’s Anselmian motto, “faith seeking understanding” (fides quarens intellectum). The Inquisition never turned up to make sure we were saying our prayers, though Masses proliferated daily in every chapel in every dorm, in the on-campus basilica, and elsewhere.

I suppose the spirit of something like what Aquinas allows in the first question of his Summa — that “a man learned in moral science might be able to judge rightly about virtuous acts, though he had not the virtue,” even as the cultivation of the habit of virtue remains central to theology (see article 6, reply 3) — had wound its way into our thinking, as a principled item of Catholic methodology in a university setting. Aquinas says, in effect, looking out at a classroom of fresh-faced Dominican seminarians, set to begin their formal studies: “Yes, personally transformative wisdom, such as may be had when we encounter God in the sacraments, is of primary interest to the Christian pilgrim, and in a sense will drive all that we do here. And, since you are sitting in this class, I am pleased to report that a great and long labor of thinking about God awaits you — bending your mind to the question, for which you will be rewarded both by me and by God: by me quite immediately and apparently, by God in more long-term and likely inscrutable ways. Let your prayer inform and guide your study, therefore, and vice versa, but distinguish between the two. God wants you to know him as perfectly one and triune, as a creating and redeeming Word, and to contemplate these things: this is what sacred Scripture is for. Accordingly, give God your mind, and he will form you into an articulate priest of the Church and her faith.”

Of course, certain scoffers persist in supposing that the very idea of a Roman Catholic university is an oxymoron. They are fools, and would do well to look more deeply into the origins of European humanism, fed by a Christian-classicist synthesis that feared no inquiry or question whatsoever, even from Islamic quarters. Sadly, the epithet “medieval” is taken by our ignorant era as shorthand for nasty, brutish, and short, as if a work like the Summa were a brief memo of fearful fideism and papal dictate, carved into a stone with which to smash the skull of some poor, defenseless Saracen. In fact, to encounter a multimillion-word work like Thomas’s that retrieves and organizes the whole of Western culture to date, spanning all fields of knowledge, including Greek, Jewish, and Muslim contributions, so as to account for the goodness and truth of all things, without the aid of word-processing or the internet, is to glimpse something of the comparative poverty of most contemporary scholarship, including the study of religion.

It’s a bit cute but basically correct to say that my primary teachers were conservative Roman Catholics who learned Catholic theology from Protestants at Yale. Partly on this count, I am sure, a self-consciously ecumenical mode prevailed in our discourse. On visiting as a prospective student, I appeared in the office of then-chair John Cavadini, who leaned back and, unprompted by even a word on my part, initiated our conversation: “Hans Frei was a great man.” I concurred (though I only knew the master secondhand), and we were off and running. Later, on my first day of classes, I marveled as David Burrell introduced his philosophical theology seminar via a web of Yaleish references, immediately after which Cyril O’Regan similarly kicked off his seminar on the Trinity. Joseph Wawrykow, a bone-breaking Thomist of Lindbeckian extraction with a withering Canadian wit, became my adviser, in part because, always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, he upheld a commitment to standing before oncoming trains in defense of students, while maintaining the highest standards of rigor and organization.

All were at the top of their fields, and — I can say without hyperbole — it would be hard to invent a better set of teachers and mentors. And there were many others — more than 50 full-time faculty, plus the resources of the philosophy and other departments, and of the Medieval Institute, all together forming the deepest theological bench in the English-speaking world.

Which might suggest that we always took ourselves entirely seriously, or otherwise pushed and pulled in a competitive jockeying of a sort that often characterizes academia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many students were married with children, for one thing. And, as is common in doctoral programs in theology, many were previously ordained and helping out at one or another parish or congregation, spanning the denominational spectrum. (I once heard that a full half of the 100 or so doctoral students were Protestant, and I would guess that is about right, as were not a few of the faculty.) A certain humility, therefore, predominated among us, as did a sweet spirit of cooperation and mutual encouragement.

There also seemed to be a kind of natural law in place, such that on matriculating one must attend the first home football game, near the beginning of which one would detect in oneself a previously undiscovered passionate partisanship for the Fighting Irish. I happily joined a gaggle of doctoral colleagues in buying season tickets for the home games at bargain-basement student prices, in order to stand and cheer for the duration, interspersing theological humor in between plays and during ubiquitous TV timeouts. One could only participate ironically in the “kill, kill” cheer, set to the tune of “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” while standing next to a Mennonite, as I often was. Here, as a Jesuit professor observed, was a quintessential exercise in folk Catholicism, replete with an elaborately choreographed half-secular liturgy, bookended by pre- and post-game Masses.

I began visiting Episcopal parishes from my first week in South Bend, and on a memorable Sunday in Advent that first semester I walked into St. Paul’s, Mishawaka, to find my home for the next seven years. Like St. Andrew’s, New Haven, the liturgy at St. Paul’s was Catholic but not fussy, while the preaching was evangelical, from the cutting edge of the spiritual life of our rector, the Rev. David Ottsen. We crossed ourselves, bowed, and kneeled, but not uniformly so and without normative instruction, leaving room for a diversity of practice. In Lent, Fr. David would remind us of the opportunity to observe the sacrament of reconciliation, and on Fridays we followed the stations of the cross. We processed around the neighborhood waving palm fronds and singing songs on Palm Sunday, observed an all-night vigil with the Blessed Sacrament on Maundy Thursday, and then enjoyed the fullness of the Good Friday liturgy and Easter Vigil.

As is common in many parishes of the old Biretta Belt, the sanctuary of St. Paul’s is filled with dark wood, including an ornate rood screen crowned by a carved crucifix. A shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham stands at the rear of the nave. Less common is the statue of St. Charles the Martyr. And I was struck to discover that placed in the altar in 1954 were not only a primary relic of St. Domitius and secondary relics of St. Placidus and St. George but also a holy card from the shrine of the Little Flower in Lisieux and soil from the grave of St. Patrick, besides which the mortar to seal the cavity was mixed using water from the holy wells at the shrines of both Our Lady of Walsingham and Our Lady of Fatima: sure markers of middle 20th-century Anglo-Catholic piety, gratefully indebted to and unembarrassedly appropriative of Roman Catholic streams.

The parish became a magnet for Notre Dame-affiliated graduate students during my time there, so that when I left the student members represented fully 30 percent of the average Sunday attendance. From this momentum an organic fellowship of younger members blossomed, fed by Wednesday potlucks for several years, often at my home, which housed six persons who were mostly graduate students and mostly interested in Christian community of a spontaneous, ad hoc sort — the kind where a reading group, or Compline, might break out in the living room at a moment’s notice; where a visiting priest or missionary might be found crashing in the guest room; and where, should one of us choose to place an icon or crucifix on a wall, or indeed invite a host of Anglicans (with or without children) to tramp about the premises, no one would object, at least not strenuously.

All sorts of voluntary service at St. Paul’s led finally to diocesan convention for me, after which I was swept into wider diocesan labors, largely through friendship with Bishop Edward Little. Other friendships followed, especially with clergy and lay members of the Commission on Ministry on which I served, which provided an instructive window onto the diocese, thence trends in the larger Episcopal Church, not least the need for local leadership and training in the face of dwindling congregations without full-time pastors. And a further layer of education-cum-hazing came when I agreed to serve as a lay deputy to General Convention in 2006, which turned out to include a prior year on a special commission charged with sifting potential responses to The Windsor Report, on the way to a larger argument or case for Anglican unity in communion.

Here, to be sure, was an ecumenist’s dream — Lindbeck, or Henry Chadwick for that matter, would be proud, I thought — and I did harvest much of the material I had taught in an introduction to ecumenism to Notre Dame undergraduates the year before. Thanks to a grant from the Episcopal Church Foundation, I was able to feed myself and pay the rent while devoting the better part of my sixth year of doctoral work to pro bono service of the church, which proved to be a great adventure and continuing education. I developed friendships with a range of leaders across the Episcopal Church, a number of whom I already knew through the notorious, unofficial online forum founded by Louie Crew, “the House of Bishops and Deputies listserv,” where I first met Frs. Matthew Gunter, Mark Harris, Daniel Martins, and many others. At the convention in Columbus I was assigned to the committee charged with carrying on our commission’s previous labors, and worked with fellow committee members Little and Martins, alongside Fr. Ian Douglas and Bps. Dorsey Henderson (Upper South Carolina), Peter Lee (Virginia), Robert O’Neill (Colorado), and Geralyn Wolf (Rhode Island), among others, to craft something acceptable to all. We made some progress, thanks to considerable self-expenditure in love and very long hours, but finally failed to forge a coalition capable of convincing a restless convention to follow our lead.

I returned to South Bend, and my neglected dissertation, exhilarated and grateful for the formative experience, and especially for the many faithful saints I had encountered in our small corner of the Vineyard. It took some convincing of the long-suffering Wawrykow (to say nothing of Dad) that my continued ecclesial labors over the next two years were the perfect companion — and fuel, even — for my study of Aquinas’s Christology, which I did happily complete before moving on to other things.

Looking back — and ahead — I can say with firm conviction that God reigns over history from the throne of the crucified body of his Son. And this serves as a figure, or type, for the Church across all ages: the Church, which follows Jesus to his death. This, after all, is what crosses are for. We take up our cross, individually and together, in order to “die with him,” as St. Thomas says (John 11:16). And before doing so we suffer a series of preparatory sorrows: agonized tears in the garden, painful scourging at the pillar, and the crowning humiliation of thorns.

In this way God performs victory in the world for the world. In this way God seeds new life by blood. And in this way he forms and reforms his body on earth, through a mysterious — sacramental — relinquishing of control by re-conversion and renewed dependence. “Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” “Take, eat; this is my body broken for you.” And broken by you, wherefore you must be broken as well, in order to be given in love.

Stanley Hauerwas, a Yale graduate, notes that he first cottoned onto the “resident aliens” theme of Scripture in the pages of several, seminal early-1970s essays by Lindbeck, who was reading the same sources and signs of the times as Joseph Ratzinger post-1968. Both men began to imagine ecclesial renewal after a chastened, apostolic pattern: humble, powerless, and on this count clear about its identity. Here, Lindbeck often said, an at least sociologically (not theologically) “sectarian” remnant may yet be made visibly one and articulately catholic — made by God, in and after his Son. Forty years on, that evaluation and expectation seems apt as ever.

“Great things are they that you have done, O Lord my God; how great your wonders and your plans for us! There is none who can be compared with you” (Ps. 40:5).

Christopher Wells

Image of Notre Dame’s God Quad by Michael Fernandes (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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