Monthly Archives: September 2016

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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