The Poverty of God

“The Nativity,” Arthur Hughes

Today at our new faculty orientation at St. Mary’s, we discussed what it means for us to work at a Catholic, Lasallian college. These are not often simple discussions.

It is no secret that Catholic and collegiate identities do not mesh easily in the present age. It is a complex struggle, since neither a college nor Catholicism are simple monoliths. Of this complexity I will not say more, except to allow the story to continue.

In the room populated with new professors, I was – shall we say – aware of my position as the little Catholic theologian. Neither portion of the moniker, neither “Catholic” nor “theologian,” present themselves readily for comprehension. Theology takes seriously that God has spoken, that God has revealed himself in Christ, and that subsequent reflection may be shaped by the attempt to understand this revelation. Which is to say that theology works backward compared to every other field supported by a college: it is in a certain sense supplied with its conclusions and then searches out the reasons. Theology does not deduce; it meditates.

In this way, theology is strange and backward to many. Catholicism perhaps more deeply so. I am aware of this perception, and fascinated and concerned by it.

Today we, a collection of new scholars – many in fields without reference to Catholicism – grappled with the puzzle. The Christian Brothers, founded by St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, have five principles by which we found our way forward:

(1) Concern for the poor and social justice
(2) Quality education
(3) Inclusive community
(4) Respect for all persons
(5) Faith in the presence of God

I was moved and amazed by the reflections given by my new colleagues as we discussed these principles. With genuine sincerity, every scholar tried to envision what it would mean to teach with these ideas held in mind. Every scholar revealed to me a depth of passion for teaching, for the disenfranchised, for gathering each student into a community of learning. They were illuminating and humbling.

One of my favorite lines from the Rule of Benedict is the very first: “Listen carefully, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.” For Benedict, the monk is one who listens. The monk’s heart is trained to listen by attending to the voice of his abbot, and then – through that voice and with his brother monks – attending to the voice of God. I have a small snatch of the Latin on a little wristband that I wear. Inclina aurem cordis tui. Incline the ear of your heart. I see this attitude as essential to my vocation as a theologian, and it is one I struggle to learn. So, as the only theologian in the room, the little scholar, I listened to the puzzle as it bubbled beneath the surface.

The puzzle of what to do with God. The puzzle knowing that the faith referenced was decidedly Christian. Human dignity and respect are easily shared by all, especially in an academic culture accustomed to setting high standards of interest in social action, diversity, and community. God and Christianity are not so simply appropriated. To be honest, I was not sure to say in a way that showed I cared about what my colleagues had contributed. And I did care, and I do. My little Latin emblem weighed on my wrist: incline the ear of your heart.

But that emblem is not an excuse for silence.

We had a chance to respond to one or two of the Lasallian principles on our own. I waited until the last possible moment, ever the quiet soul, and then I raised my hand.

“Speaking of thinking outside the box,” I said, nodding to a colleague who had just done so with great insight, “I am a Catholic theologian. This is a Catholic college. So I’m aware that I am the box. I represent box-ness.”

The room erupted in laughter. I grinned.

“Students often worry what it means that I talk about God. They worry I will make them think like me. I won’t.” I smiled again. “But then it seems to me helpful to remember that Christians believe that God himself became poor. He became poor out of love for each of us. God prefers the poor, and God loves us. So to attend to the poor, to respect each person, is in fact to imitate the attitude of God himself. And – well, what does that mean? To ask that question is to start to think theologically. This is what I think about in the classroom.”

It is my genuine hope that I spoke in a way that showed I had inclined my ear. It is my genuine hope that I spoke in a way that inclined ears.

“Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ,” says Pope Francis, “is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor, so that they are not abandoned to the laws of an economy that seems at times to treat people as mere consumers.”

Giving a voice requires listening to a voice. Witnessing to love requires inclining a heart. But first, before us all, before me most of all – and here is really the thing – God himself listens, and inclines his heart.

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