On Retreat

This past week I had a three day retreat at the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Couteau, Louisiana. The center is on the site of the former St. Charles College, which the Society of Jesus established in the 1840s to educate the young men of the area. As well, it was, and still is, the site of a novitiate where men from the Southeastern U.S. entering the Society of Jesus spend their first two years in formation.

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St. Charles College, the site of the Jesuit Spirituality Center and Jesuit novitiate. A statue of its patron, St. Charles Borromeo, is in front.

Grand Couteau has a rich Catholic heritage. The parish church of St. Charles Borromeo is a beautiful wood frame building with an picturesque bell tower. Nearby is the Sacred Heart Academy, which also dates to the 1840s. The cemetery running between the parish church and the college grounds has several old parts, including two separate plots for Jesuits. The grounds running behind and around the rest of the college are serene, full of oak and pine trees.

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St. Charles Borromeo Church with clock tower

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The older of two Jesuit grave plots. The oldest tombstones date from the 1840s.

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The grounds of St. Charles College through the oak trees.

Of course, the most important aspect of life on retreat was the time dedicated to prayer. I chose the Jesuit Spirituality Center because I wanted a retreat rooted in Ignatian spirituality. I wanted to work with a retreat director who would take me through the forms of mental prayer and contemplation developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola and taught by members of his Society of Jesus for centuries. I met daily with my retreat director. After an initial conversation exploring my purposes for the retreat, he provided me with biblical passages to mediate on with specific prayer requests (“graces” in the Ignatian vocabulary) to bring to God during these periods of prayer, designed to last an hour. In the midst of all this, silence was kept with my other retreatants. I spent my time in my comfortable but simple room, walking the grounds, or at daily Mass.

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A typical room for daily meetings with a retreat director.

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The bedrooms, especially the recliners, were comfortable.

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Daily mass was said in the Chapel of St. Ignatius. Two rows of pews on three sides faced the altar.

The greatest fruit of the retreat for me was the ability to spend time daily in meditative prayer on biblical passages that emphasized God’s love and care for all God’s creatures, including me. Through that, my retreat director led me to the wonderful beginning of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius:

Each living person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All the other beings on the face of the earth are created for the sake of humankind, to help each person realize the original purpose he is created to achieve.

I find this call to praise, reverence and serve God as a means of discovering my true purpose to be deeply liberating. This vision calls forth a path to journey on, a way to move ever closer to the purposes of God for myself and for all people. I left the retreat giving thanks for the work of God in Ignatius, in all members of the Society of Jesus, and in myself.

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                      A.M.D.G.    All for the greater glory of God

 

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More Thoughts on Seminary and Graduate School

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I have been mulling over the various responses on Facebook and in the comments on this blog regarding my last post, “Seminary is not Graduate School.” They have been thoughtful and I have enjoyed the give and take in the discussions. I want to offer three points as a general response.

First, when I argue that seminary is not graduate school, I am not advocating for the absence of rigor or critical thinking. A proper formation for ministry requires deep learning and critically reflective engagement with the tradition. As one commenter put it, perhaps the emphasis should be less on “graduate” and more on “school.” This fits with my reference to the Rule of Benedict — preparation for ministry is about preparing in a school for the Lord’s service.

When I think about the kind of ministers the church needs (and here I first am thinking about priests), I believe seminaries need to help form effective catechists and pastors. Students do need theological formation, they need to express the teachings of Scripture and the church well in teaching and preaching, and they need to be spiritually astute and grounded, skilled in the discernment of spirits. They do not need to be excellent according to the standards of the academy. But they need to be adept in the care of the people of God, which does require a discerning mind and an ability to think critically. Seminary is meant to help accomplish that.

Second, while I think academic rigor is absolutely necessary, my concern with labeling seminary as graduate school is that it then locates the work of seminary in the life of the academy rather than in the church. I greatly value the work of humanities based education and the perspectives it offers to our common life. But the academy is dedicated to universal humanist values which downplay the commitments of religious particularity. While I think this is crucial for civil society, it is less helpful for the life of the church. Being a Chrisitan in the contemporary West means a kind of dual citizenship, toggling between sacred and secular values that do not always align well. I believe seminary training is a time to dive deep into ecclesial commitments and be shaped by them before returning back to the dual citizenship that contemporary ministry requires. Seminary is a time apart, not unlike many other cultural initiation processes that precede entry into a new role.

Finally, while it might be possible for university religious studies departments to offer much of the academic training there is something deeply formational and important about time at a residential seminary. (Here I am bracketing the university divinity school, largely because I think this is a separate topic.) I want to return to the topic of spirituality and discernment in my first point. I think one of the most important things one should learn in seminary is how to pray and how to teach others to pray. That is, seminary ought to be the time when one begins to be a skilled spiritual practitioner. One ought to be in spiritual direction, one ought to be developing the spiritual gift of discernment of spirits, and one ought to be developing a spiritual vocabulary and narrative of the Christian life that is easily shared with others. This is not the realm of graduate school. But it is the work of spiritual formation found in the school of the service of the Lord.

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Seminary is Not Graduate School

dsc_0035When I first began teaching in seminary a decade ago, I sometimes said to a student who complained of the workload: “Welcome to graduate school.” I myself was only recently out of graduate school. In my mind, the work expected for those pursuing a master’s degree was all about learning academic disciplines, synthesizing knowledge, and moving to even deeper understanding, all in service of the life of the mind. I knew I was for the most part training people for ordained ministry and I was very happy to do that. But my orientation was distinctly towards the type of learning found within the academy.

But over the years, my mind has changed. I was reminded of this while reading an essay by Martyn Percy on clergy formation in Anglicanism. Martyn Percy was principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon when I was on sabbatical there and is now dean of Christ Church in Oxford. He is a friend and a mentor.

In reading his essay he made the argument that “a person who is perhaps not a good theologian or a fine preacher may, nonetheless, be an excellent priest.” What Martyn Percy was getting at is that in many professions, like medicine or law, the emphasis is on fully mastering skills and gaining knowledge. A doctor or lawyer deficient in either of those areas would not be a very good one at all. Yet a priest who is not a very good theologian or a middling preacher may still be a fine priest.

Such a situation is possible because of the importance of formation in the education of clergy. By formation, Martyn Percy has in mind “the partial setting aside of the skills and knowledge an individual candidate may have; and then the institution, together with the sponsoring or receiving bishop, engaging in the spiritual process of discernment of the vocation of the person who is offering for ministry.”

In a counter-intuitive way, the formation that happens within community is as (or even more) important than the knowledge and skills that are formally taught. In other words, what happens at seminary is the process by which the ethos of the community seeks to “infuse individuals with formational values.” But this is never a process that ought to be about the culture of the seminary itself but how the seminary has responded to the question “What kind of ministry does the church require?” The church might not need every priest to be a strong theologian or an excellent preacher, though competency here of some sort would be expected. What the church does need are priests who excel at being priests in their context.

Martyn Percy’s argument echoes much of my current thought about what kind of school a seminary is.

I think it is time to put the classification of seminary as graduate school to bed. Seminary is not graduate school because the term graduate school implies an institution that is shaped by the norms and expectations of the academy. But if we are shaping clergy, then we ought to be shaped by the norms and expectations of the church. Here I note the irony that the seminaries who are best weathering the storms besetting theological education are those housed at universities, and so most susceptible to being cast as graduate school. But I write from the view of an independently endowed denominational seminary.

But if seminary is not graduate school, what is it?

Let us look at the very word seminary to know what it is. It comes from the Latin seminarium meaning “seed bed.” Seminary is not graduate school. It is a garden, a plot land, a place where each student ought to be tended to and cultivated so that they might bear the fruit they are called to by God through the discernment of the community of believers, the church.

Seminary is a school, but much more in the spirit of the Rule of Benedict it is a school of service to God. Seminary is the place of vocation, discernment and learning. It is the place where by instruction one does gain the knowledge and skills needed to be a priest. But the learning is done in the spirit of cultivation and discernment. The question ought not to be, “how excellent a student is this person?” but “how does this person need to be cultivated to become the priest God has called them to be?” The faculty then move from being dispensers of information and assessors of skills (though that is retained as a feature) to being cultivators of vocation.
So the next time a student comes to me about the stresses of seminary, I will welcome them to the garden of their formation.

(Martyn Percy, “Context, Character, and Challenges: The Shaping of Ordination Training” in Mark D. Chapman, et al., The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies490-503.)

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CPE and the Seminary Professor

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I spent the majority of this summer working as a chaplain intern in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Seton Medical Center Austin. This was an unusual departure from my typical summers, which involve catching up on writing projects, researching, preparing for the new academic year, and vacation time with my family. None of those were in the offing this summer. Instead, as part of my ordination process I worked on the oncology and intermediate care floors. True to its purpose, this CPE program provided me with opportunities to minister, to reflect, to learn, and to grow.

I was also in an unusual situation. While the rest of my cohort, save one, were seminary students, I was a seminary professor. On top of that, about a third of the group were current students at my school. For the sake of my own learning and growth, I bracketed my role as professor in the context of CPE. At the same time, since I am pursuing ordination while remaining in a seminary community, I often reflected on how CPE was informing my understanding of my dual vocation of professor and priest.

I had many important experiences during CPE. I gained greater confidence in my role as a pastoral caregiver. I learned how to be present in the face of physical, emotional, and mental suffering. I thought a lot about family systems and their effects on all facets of one’s life, including health. As a former evangelical and a devoted Episcopalian, I dove into praying extemporaneously and learned a great deal about the nature of prayer.

About halfway through CPE I had an insight about why it was important for my own vocational journey: All seminary professors ought to take CPE.

First, some context for this insight. In my world of Episcopal seminaries it is fair to estimate that about half to two-thirds of faculty are clergy in the Episcopal Church. For virtually all of them, CPE was a requirement of their ordination process. (While the canons do not require CPE, I don’t know of a diocese that doesn’t). That means about a half to a third are lay faculty. Most are Episcopalian. I would guess this proportion holds for most other accredited seminaries. One surprise to me was that not all denominations require CPE for ordination. What this means is that there can be a healthy number of faculty in seminary who have never taken CPE.

So why do I think that the CPE experience matters for all seminary faculty?

Because faculty are in the vocation business and CPE is a critical means of discerning vocation.

I don’t think seminary is best understood as graduate school. That view provides a distorting effect on training for ministry since it places so much emphasis on intellectual achievement. Rather, I view seminary as a vocational training school. It is a place where people go who have discerned a call in community and where they learn the concepts and skills they need to live into their vocation. Seminary is also a place for ongoing and sustained discernment about the shape of a person’s vocation to ordained ministry. As they learn the content for effective ministerial leadership (biblical studies, theology, history) they also are learning how to apply that content in ethical, pastoral, liturgical, and administrative patterns. But so much of this learning process can seem abstracted and students too often have a hard time imagining themselves as ordained leaders. As a result, they often can’t imagine how their learning links to their vocation. This is where CPE comes in as a place where students concretely exercise their vocational identity and work through how that maps onto their personal identity, the formation they have received up to that point, and what they have learned in seminary.

So how do seminary professors fit into all this?

I would argue that the benefit of CPE for faculty who have not done it before is that it helps them to better understand the experience of their students. (Here I have in mind especially my own Episcopal context.) In particular, it provides an up close view of how formation for ministry and continued vocational discernment is happening to students during their seminary careers. I would argue it puts faculty into a more compassionate space and provides an opportunity to see the integrative work going on in the lives of students.

But this is not just about understanding student experiences. The genius of CPE is that it requires one to do integrative work and come to greater self-knowledge. One gains greater insight about one’s own behaviors, assumptions, and relational patterns. And this in turn provides insight into why one has chosen one’s vocational path. In short, I would argue that CPE offers the seminary professor a way of moving out of some of the deficits of university-based doctoral training that emphasizes intellectual achievement as the greatest good. CPE helps one pivot towards the vocational and formational focus that is proper to seminary-based education. This pivot enables faculty to better shape curricula, courses, and assignments towards the vocational goals towards which students are moving. On top of this, a unit of CPE can allow faculty to reconnect with their own vocational path. They can gain deeper self-knowledge about what ministry means for them in a seminary context and as a result live into a fuller calling as a seminary professor.

I realize that doing a summer of CPE is a sacrifice. It means a summer with no research, writing, or class prep. Vacation time is basically eliminated. Seminaries expect some sort of productivity during the summer, so doing CPE requires working with deans and presidents. But I believe the sacrifices are worth it.

I have also been blessed by the fact that at Seminary of the Southwest we as a faculty have been in sustained conversations over the course of the past year about what formation and vocation means. As a result, our own patterns of teaching and course design have changed and will continue to for the next several years. Not all institutions are in the same place. But I am grateful to be in a place where I can pivot from a focus on the university based model of intellectual achievement to a model of integrative preparation for a life-long vocation.

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Into the Night

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Wednesday of Holy Week

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm 70

John 13:21-32

 

Our gospel reading brings us right to the edge of the drama of the Triduum.

It is the night of the arrest of Jesus.

He is at table with his disciples and he predicts that one of them will soon betray him.

Jesus hands the bread to Judas, the one he knows will betray him.

The gospel reads:

“So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” (John 13:30-31).

“It was night.”

Judas slips out into the darkness of the world on his mission to betray Jesus.

And at that very moment, Jesus declares, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

This declaration is one of the most powerful and sublime elements of John’s Gospel.

At one of the very darkest moments of human history, somehow God is glorified.

 

I am captured by the image of first Judas and then Jesus plunging into the night.

For Judas, like for us, it is a headlong fall into our destruction.

We all have had moments when we find ourselves going out into the night.

For some of us, the night stands for the tragedies that mark our lives.

The deaths, the transgressions, the abuses, the betrayals.

I also am thinking of the dark moments of our common life.

The terrorist attacks in Brussels.

The racism and xenophobia erupting in our politics.

The crushing burdens of poverty and injustice.

It can feel like we are all plunging into the night.

It can feel like we are at the darkest hour.

 

And yet Jesus declares that at this darkest hour is when he will be glorified and the Father with him.

We stand on the cusp, waiting for this to be revealed.

The revelation of who Jesus truly is depends on his plunging into the night we find ourselves in.

When Jesus goes out from his last meal and into the night on his walk to Gethsemane, we can grasp the full meaning of John 3:19:

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

The events of Holy Week puts into relief the darkness this world reveals.

 

Like the disciples, we can become scattered when the evil of this world strikes, when night falls.

But we can also turn to the example of the beloved disciple.

Imagine resting up against the chest of Jesus.

Imagine the security and the love you would feel nestled there.

Imagine choosing to be like the Beloved Disciple who stays close to the heart of Jesus.

And in that choice he too is plunged into the darkness of this world.

He is brought to the foot of the cross and to the grave.

He is there when darkness swallows everything up.

 

If you choose to be like the Beloved Disciple will stand at the foot of the cross and weep.

But you will realize that when it seems that death has swallowed everything up in its night, the light of Christ breaks forth.

So abide in the gathering darkness, close to the heart of Jesus, and do not fear stepping into the night.

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Reconciliation

Ash Wednesday

February 10, 2016

Christ Chapel

Seminary of the Southwest

 

Joel 2:1-2; 12-17

Psalm 103

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-22

 

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:20b)

As we enter into this season of Lent, I have been thinking a great deal about reconciliation.

I have felt deep in myself all the places in which divisions and hurts have created deep chasms and gulfs among people.

We see this in our politics where the Democratic and Republican fields reveal stark contrasts about the nature of this country and where it ought to head.

And these are divisions not only between the parties but strong generational and ideological divides within these electorates.

We feel it deeply in the life of the Anglican Communion where both progressives and traditionalists alike can appeal to Scripture, reason, and tradition to offer completely different views on human sexuality.

These seemingly irreconcilable views have lead to deep wounds in our life together as Anglicans.

And of course we feel it daily in our lives — the hurts we have experienced and done; the isolation and anonymity of our lives, the marginalization of the poor, the homeless, the different.

We live in our bubbles, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people, resisting encounters with those whose very presence might upset our vision of reality.

 

And so we must hear again earnestly these words of Paul — “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:20b)

Why first must we be reconciled to God before we can be reconciled to each other?

The witness of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is that since humanity is, as the pinnacle of creation in the image and likeness of God, the stability of the created order and our own lives depends on humans first living in right relationship with God.

If we see God as the source of all good things and we remove ourselves as the center of reality, we, our relationships, society, and creation itself, is able to live in harmony.

But if we remove God as the source of all and put ourselves, our politics, our economics, or anything else in the center, chaos eventually creeps in.

Too often this is exactly what happens.

And so we need reconciliation.

And if we see the signs of the need for reconciliation in our lives and in the world around us, it is also a sign of our collective need for reconciliation with God.

 

This reconciliation is constantly offered to us by God.

We experience it as something done for us definitively in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But it is also something we are called to over and over again in our lives, as we hear in the words of the prophet Joel.

“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

We are called to return to God over and over in the Scriptures.

And why do we return?

Because God has revealed to us his true nature.

God is not a fierce, angry judge waiting to destroy us.

Rather, God is, as we first heard in Exodus when Moses was on Sinai, and now again in Joel, God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.

The punishments that fall upon us are the results of the chaos and discord that raises up when we draw away from God as the scope and focus of all things.

But when we draw near to God, we encounter grace, mercy, love.

We experience reconciliation.

We experience reconciliation, first with God and then with one another.

 

It is fitting that we place ashes on our heads today.

They serve as a sign of our true repentance and our deep desire for reconciliation.

And as dust they remind us of the dust to which we will return.

But that dust also represents the earth, the created order.

We stand remembering it is God who made all that is and that we are here to live in right relationship with God and all creation.

And we stand on the cusp of the long journey towards the cross and the grave, to that moment, when Jesus, returned to the earth, rose up from it, triumphed over death and set all things right.

Jesus Christ is the author of our salvation and the maker of our reconciliation with God and all creation.

So let us receive our ashes and return again to the work of reconciliation.

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Sent

J Appears to His Friends

Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

1 John 1:1-2:2

John 20:19-31

The Christian faith is bookended by two great mysteries:

the mystery of the Incarnation and the mystery of the Resurrection

During the season of Christmas we hear the truth that God came to dwell among us as an infant, completely dependent on human kindness.

And now in the season of Easter we declare that this same child grew to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and was wrongfully arrested and executed for it.

But not only that, but after all seemed lost, after his shameful death and the scattering of his followers in confusion, Jesus was raised from the dead, triumphing over sin and death.

But, if you were one of his disciples, in those days after his death, would you be ready to believe his resurrection was about to happen?

Imagine you are Peter or Martha, and Mary Magdalene comes to you on that morning and tells you that she has seen Jesus and that he is not dead but alive.

Would you believe it?

Suppose that while you are there, Jesus suddenly appears among you.

And it is not a ghost or mass hallucination.

Instead he is there and you see the marks on his body, the marks that showed how terribly he died.

And he does not upbraid you for not believing but instead says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Hear that phrase again: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

This one you have loved so much, who has been murdered so violently, he says to you simply: “Peace.”

And then next Jesus breathes on you – literally giving the breath of God — the Holy Spirit.

And then he tells you that if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.

This is the core of what Jesus has sought to teach his disciples – he has come to grant the peace of God, found especially in the forgiveness of sins.

In that moment of receiving the Spirit, the disciples grasp who Jesus truly is.

And they grasp who they are – apostles – apostle in the New Testament Greek meaning those sent to continue the mission of God in Christ on earth.

But suppose you were not there at that pivotal moment.

Suppose you are Thomas.

For whatever reason, you were not there when Jesus appeared to the others that Easter Day.

And you wonder if all they said is really true.

But then you, Thomas, receive a gift – Jesus appears to you and the other disciples a week later.

And you see all that the disciples saw before.

And you too fully grasp who Jesus was in that moment and you worship him as your Lord and God.

I think John is telling us that in the act of recognizing who Jesus truly is; that act also makes Thomas an apostle, a sent one.

And so here we are.

We are all like Thomas in our own ways.

We were not there when Jesus was raised from the dead.

And yet every week we are called to proclaim this great mystery of the resurrection.

Indeed Jesus says of people like us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29).

The Apostle Paul says that to the world, believing that someone was raised from the dead can seem like great foolishness.

So why do we believe?

For each one of us that believing has different beginning points.

But I would venture that for most of us we believe because our hearts have been touched by someone who spoke the good news of Jesus to us.

It could have been your mother or father, a friend, a teacher, a counselor, a pastor.

I would argue then that the message of the good news of Jesus has come to us through apostles in our day, ones who have been sent to us in our lives.

And to go one step further, the one who brought you to the gospel, that person had been brought there by other apostles who had proclaimed the gospel to them.

Now, let us consider that if there are about 25 years in a generation then we could imagine a line of about 80 people between the ones who proclaimed Jesus to us and those first apostles who encountered the risen Jesus two thousand years ago.

Imagine that line of 80 people extending from the pack of the church all the way up to the altar.

Imagine the ones who have gone before you — the ones sent out to proclaim “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (I John 1:1).

We are the ones now sent to proclaim the Good News of the Risen Christ.

As you come up to this altar and as you sit in your pew while others receive communion, imagine us all flowing up to the altar seeking the risen Christ and meeting him there and returning again to our seat, sent from the altar as his apostles in the world.

Christ is risen, let us go forth from here as his apostles, his pierced hands and pierced feet in this world.

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