Greater Communion


Viewing posts tagged contemplation

Would you make a distinction between a pastor or priest and a theologian?

There used to be a time when simply being a pastor or a priest meant you were also a theologian. There is no doubt that many contemporary pastors and priests study their Bibles and seek to know and teach others about God. In that sense, they are doing “theology.” What primarily accounts for the distinction between theologian and pastor / priest today has everything to do with the breadth and depth of study. The sad truth is that many contemporary pastors spend more time reading modern-day self-help, leadership books, and biblical commentaries than they do the Church Fathers. If Augustine, Aquinas, or Bonaventure happens to be quoted in a sermon, usually it’s because they read it in a commentary on the book they’re studying rather than from actually reading Augustine or Aquinas themselves. I realize there are exceptions to this; but the trend—at least as it appears to me—is that many contemporary pastors and priests have made themselves more dependent on biblical commentaries for their homilies than they have on some of the greatest theological minds of all time. It would behoove them to give up on the Top Christian Bestsellers lists and read a book or two from one of these theological giants. Their soul would be the better for it. Their sermons would be the better for it. Their congregations would be the better for it. And their wallets would be the better for it: most of these works are available for free.

I should also mention that it’s important for pastors and priests to not only get in the habit of reading some theological classics, but to stop speaking in ways that belittle those who do this more often than they do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in on a sermon and listened to subtle gibes at those with PhDs in theology or philosophy. I don’t know if it’s because of some deep-seated insecurity they have around those who pursued a more academically rigorous degree than they did or some need to be perceived as the sole dispenser of wisdom for God’s sheep; but for whatever reason, there is a tendency to elevate the practical ministry over the theoretical one. The consequence is young people who grow up thinking it’s more important to learn how to become a charismatic leader than it is to study and contemplate the deep things of God and share with others from this rich storehouse of contemplation and study.

What is the most pressing spiritual need in our world today?

The most pressing spiritual need in our world today is people who know how to regularly pay attention to the best of all things. Curbing this fundamental spiritual problem thus entails two things: (1) learning how to pay attention, and (2) connecting with / knowing about / experiencing the best of all things. In the case of the first, our society is losing the habits of mind that ensured the kind of mental staying-power needed for contemplation and prayer (e.g., memorization, meditation, lectio divina). This requires uninterrupted blocks of time in which children, teenagers, and adults stay with something. No interruption, no distraction, no diversion. The reason our education system in the United States is in such shambles right now is, in part, due to this “inattention to attention.” We break students’ attention by breaking up their days, moving swiftly from subject to subject, from teacher to teacher, one activity to another, and we certainly never force or encourage them to memorize or meditate on much of anything. How can one pay attention to anything, let alone to the best of all things, if one has not cultivated habits of mind and soul that can keep one focused on something for very long? if one’s mind is so quickly allured by noises, text messages, and emails? It should come as no surprise that distracted children grow up into adults who lack the ability to stay with anything or anyone for very long, with deleterious effects on individuals, cities, and nations.

So what about the second, attending to the best of all things? It all depends upon the range of things one believes there is to behold. If the world is merely physical, the best of all things is the best of all physical things: perhaps the male or female form? sun, moon, and stars? sub-atomic particles? or some other aspect of physical reality? But if there is more beyond the physical, and the best of all things is one of them, then one must search out invisible things in order to connect with / know about / and experience it for themselves. Without this openness and awareness to the invisible things, one cannot know oneself, let alone God.

Because we do not have people who know how to pay attention, we do not have a society of people capable of attending to the best of all things; and because people have limited their attention to the things they can—quite literally—only hold in their hands, they live like the cave-dwellers of Plato’s Republic, content to contemplate their own shadows, insensible to the light that leads to both self-awakening and the knowledge of God.