Kneeling Theology

“Feet of a Kneeling Man,” Albrecht Durer

Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called for the return of “kneeling theology,” by which he meant theology that breathes with the life of prayer. It’s almost a stereotype now: Balthasar and his kneeling theology. A touching and fanciful idea, soft and perhaps soft-headed. I sense steel underneath the gentle call, however, and I grit my teeth like Jeremiah. I know this is a hard and unflinching thing, and I’ll not be seduced (cf. Jer 20:7).

I suck at praying. I am not only distracted, but also hesitant, standoffish, and insolent. Closer to lost anger than loving trust. I don’t blame God for the immense, even unthinkable suffering that I have endured. I don’t think God wasn’t there. I simply imagine that God will continue to be with me in that strange absence of his, in that wakeful removal that characterizes abandonment. It makes me shake, fearful and furious, to imagine enduring it again as it was at its worst. Something like it continues, and I tremble as I become aware of God’s persistent withdrawal in my life. I don’t know how to speak with God about that. Balthasar says that with prayer, we become “almost like inarticulate children once again, wanting to say something but unable to do so” (Prayer, 14).

No kidding. Half the time I drop to my knees in church and think, “Fuck you.” It is as if all the words I have learned from theology have disintegrated, leaving me only with what is raw and simple. I think “I love you” just as often, and the two phrases echo one another in my head in difficult, confusing ways.

Everything is clearer when I have donned the robes of a theologian. When I bear the weight of the role, the one that is still new to me and that I have instincts about anyway. My instinct is that being a professor of theology is a form of ministry, of spiritual service. Like any ministry, it has duties and perspectives unique to itself. The professoriate bears the scholastic task as its essential form: research, critique, study. Its spiritual service is highly intellectual, even necessitates a certain careful remove from the passions that enliven and twist other ministries. I do not mean that the theologian is unfeeling. I mean that the theologian must patiently last through feelings, must be awake in the tumult, watching and taking note. That is different than being the one to soothe, or the one to bless, or the one to carry. It is being in the thick of things distinctly. As we all are anyway.

I do not imagine myself as a spiritual director (or did you not read the “fuck you” paragraph?). I imagine myself as the one who asks why we need direction, and who asks what that means in the eyes of God. It may even be important, at least in my peculiar life, that I am not a spiritual director. That I not pretend to be one. It is definitely important to know that I am less essential than a spiritual director.

Still, ministry always involves other people, a ministry to someone. Balthasar must have meant something like this when he spoke of kneeling. “It is impossible,” he writes in Prayer, “to contemplate the word without the serious intention of doing justice to it in practical behavior”(223). Balthasar has a profound love for the genius of Catherine of Siena, and he likes to drop her into conversations as a sign and seal of something greater. Her genius consists in the thorough and inextricable link of love for God and love for neighbor. Notice what God says in her Dialogue:

…in no other way, can she [the soul] act out the truth she has conceived in herself, but, loving Me in truth, in the same truth she serves her neighbor.

“And it cannot be otherwise, because love of Me and of her neighbor are one and the same thing, and, so far as the soul loves Me, she loves her neighbor, because love towards him issues from Me. This is the means which I have given you, that you may exercise and prove your virtue therewith; because, inasmuch as you can do Me no profit, you should do it to your neighbor.

Scholarship is for others. I do not mean that the theologian must write what everyone can understand, but I do mean we should try not to forget the people we sit with in pews. Much more essential than this is what the theologian does in day-to-day life on campus. That is where people come up more often than not. How we interact with colleagues and students is an extension of our vocation rather than a pause from it, especially because of the academic setting.

I think of this often as I carefully attend to what another scholars says, even – perhaps most of all – when I disagree with that scholar. The Christian in conflict is always a crisis and a testimony. How I handle a parting of ways is a reflection on the Church whether I like it or not. What I struggle to know, the awareness that needs sharpening, is understanding when to dig in my heels and resist openly, and when to quietly listen without announcing opposition. My tendency is not to say when I disagree. There are times when this cannot, must not, be the case. I never quite know when.

John of the Cross writes about the “wound of love” that the soul receives from God, that sweet ache of being desperately in love. A poem of his, “The Spiritual Canticle,” describes the soul as “she” runs through the world seeking God, who seems to have left: “You fled like the stag after wounding me; / I went out calling you, / but you were gone.” And the world is filled with evidence of God:

Pouring out a thousand graces,
he passed these groves in haste;
and having looked at them,
with his image alone,
clothed them in beauty.

Jeremiah, by the way, lets himself be seduced by God. He and John of the Cross have something in common.

For all my interior struggles, for every painful silence that speaks of God’s absence, there is still the effort to seek him. Despite my intellectual sophistication, I am not much for complicated ways to seek God. I’m no mystic, and I’m too impatient and hurt for immense sanctity. But doing small things: this I can do. (Here is Thérèse of Lisieux.) Remembering a student’s name, or countenancing a small detail in the life of someone else: this I can do. It is not a direct confrontation with what ails me, but it is a confrontation with what yet may heal me. Remember what Catherine of Siena said: what God has given we are to use for others. I have an intellect and I know how to listen. “You’ve gotta use your talents,” my mom would say, semi-quoting Matthew 25.

I like to remember the Rule of Benedict Chapter 53: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me’ (Matt. 25:35).” I don’t know who my guests are except the people who walk through my office door.

I’m not about to claim that all this profoundly shifts my academic writing, transfigures it entirely. To be honest, I’m not sure that it does. But I’m not sure that it doesn’t. What it does seem to do is widen the horizon of what I might say, of what I might find. Because I might find God. Fides quaerens Deum. Or rather, I might find that God has already found me. I know that – and I don’t really. Fides quaerens intellectum. It’s okay to know a truth that I don’t really know yet. That is, in its way, all of theology.

The better a man learns to pray, the more deeply he finds that all his stammering is only an answer to God’s speaking to him; this in turn implies that any understanding between God and man must be on the basis of God’s language. It was God who spoke first.

Balthasar, Prayer, 14


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