Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

Month: March 2017

The Catholic Academy and the Sanctified Mind

Having spent the most of my life in one sort of Catholic educational institution or another, as a student in primary, secondary schools, and a Catholic university, and also as a teacher in a Catholic secondary school, and in Campus Ministry in a Catholic university, I have increasingly been concerned with the efficaciousness of the Catholic education system, at least as I have experienced it, in passing on the faith, and in its role in educating as such.

Through a happy twist of fate that I do not hesitate to name providence, I was able earlier last year (2016) to settle on a topic for a Masters thesis, which I was planning to write. I had just completed the coursework component for the MTS (Master of Theological Studies) degree at Melbourne’s ill-fated John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, and was increasingly interested in everything! Narrowing down a topic to write on was quite a task indeed, but the groundwork had been done by what I feel was an incredible program of studies through the Institute, and I was able to settle upon the topic for a thesis which was to enable me to think through systematically much of the concerns that I was perhaps unable to articulate adequately until then.

Then I happened across the following, openning lines to an essay which really knocked my socks off, and I was able to make a decision:

“Sanctity should provide the inner form of the intellectual life, in a way that affects both the methods and the content of the modern academic curriculum”

David L. Schindler

The thesis, which was eventually to be titled, The Catholic Academy and the Sanctified Mind: The Implications of David L. Schindler’s Critique of Liberal Metaphysics for the Ethos of Catholic Academies (the introduction of which can be read here – or email me if you’re interested in reading it in full), emerged over the 8 months or so that I was able to work on it as a piece which answered many questions for me, and has opened up new avenues for thinking, which I hope to be able to develop at some stage in the future.

Happily, I was able to delve deeply into the work of a formidable thinker in David L. Schindler, who I think is somewhat underappreciated at present, but whom I think will, in future, be recognised as increasingly important. Schindler’s work is deep, and while I was able to push out the thesis in 8 months, I must admit that much of the difficult work of getting to the kernel of Schindler’s thought (to the extent that I have been successful in doing so), was done in the years preceding.

What attracted me so much to Schindler’s thinking is, perhaps, what puts so many others off. That being, simply, the incredibly radical nature of his claim. And I will leave this blog post with a quote from the man himself which demonstrates this:

[I]f we as Christians accept the ontological force of the Incarnation, then we must consider [that]… things have their being only in relation to Jesus Christ and to all else in Jesus Christ, then of course they can have health and wholeness of being only in relation. They can be properly understood, from the beginning and finally, only in relation.

– David L. Schindler, ‘Faith and the Logic of Intelligence: Secularization and the Academy’, in Catholicism and Secularization in America, ed. David L. Schindler (Huntington, Indiana: Communio Books, Our Sunday Visitor, 1990), 170-93 at 176.

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Submitting my thesis. December 2016

2 April – Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A)

Gospel John 11:1-45

‘By now he will smell…’

Lazarus was a good mate of Jesus. In fact, it seems that they had known each other for some time and were close. Jesus wept when he heard the news of his death.

There is much to consider in the passage before us. The depth of Jesus’ sorrow is expressed in sighs and in weeping. It was obviously a difficult thing for him, as it is for us, to experience the death of a loved one.

But it is in the midst of this suffering, of his own sorrow, that Jesus reveals the glory of God, by raising his friend from the dead. The reality of his activity here is brought home by the inclusion of Martha’s concern – ‘by now he will smell!’ Surely, she is grieving, and she just wants her deceased brother to rest peacefully. Uncovering his bloated, stinking carcass would only exacerbate their grief.

What follows in this story is fantastic, in the sense that it really is the stuff of fantasy. Jesus raises his old mate, from the dead.

The difficult thing here though, is that this is not fantasy. Jesus really did this.

It would be easy to try and brush this off – Jesus wept, shared the pain of the others, and told them, ‘Lazarus will always be with us… It’s like he is alive again… He lives on in our hearts.’ We have all been to funerals where this kind of fluff has been shovelled at us. In the face of suffering we often do not know how to act. We do not want to acknowledge it, and so paper over it.

If he were just to paper over the pain and sorrow of Lazarus’ loved ones, then this would simply be a weak, fluffy, fairy dust story, that doesn’t hit the ground. If that were the case, then there would be no reason to re-tell the story 2000 years later.

However, there is perhaps nothing more real than that little detail included here, that quite simply, he stank. When he emerged for the tomb, Lazarus was still covered in the burial garments and bandages. He was dead. And now he is not.

Those who witnessed this were no doubt astonished, and we are told that they came to believe in him. Faced with that kind of evidence, it seems to me that only the hardest of hearts would not.

And here we are with the testimony of those who witnessed this miraculous act…

26 March – Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A)

Gospel John 9:1-41

“Tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.”

The miracles of Jesus can seem far removed from our own experience. In the midst of our own sufferings we can be impatient at God’s apparent inactivity, or even hopeless that He would even seek to intervene to make our situation any better. As such, when we read these stories we are often tempted to gloss over the reality contained within.

There is much here that gives one pause – Jesus’ actions are particularly odd. He spits on the floor and makes a paste out of his spit and the dirt, and then smooshes it onto that blind blokes’s face. These are not regular, commonplace activities. This is decidedly out of the ordinary.

The Pharisees in the story, we are told, are so concerned with the fact that Jesus did this work of healing on the Sabbath that they miss the oddity of these bizarre and wonderful things that are before them. For them, the law has become an ideology, which – like all ideology, prevents them from being open to reality as it is.

This is not the case for the formerly blind man, who instead, because of his encounter with Jesus, is much more open to the reality of the mysterious things that have happened to him.

It is in fact, incredibly difficult to identify and root out the ideologies that we are subject to. Consequently, we are not free – like this formerly blind man – to accept reality when we are confronted with it. Reality can seem hostile, lonely, cold, and unfeeling. But is this really the case?

In our late-modern world, for example, we have succumbed to ideologies which have done away with any sense of the mysterious, replacing it with notions of chance, fluke, randomness, or chaos. We have fallen prey to a particular scientism that reduces things to merely what they are made of, or what we can do with them. In this disenchanted existence, we are unable to even conceive of the ‘Son of Man’, and so, unlike this formerly blind beggar, are unable to even ask to be told who he is, so that we may believe in him.

Our prayer then can be to ask God to liberate us from the ideologies that blind us and prevent us from seeing him, whatever they may be. Let us pray that we would allow the uncomfortable spitty mud of Christ to smoosh over our eyes, so that our sight would be restored, so that we too can believe and worship him.

Point to Ponder

‘We are up against mystery. To call this mystery “randomness” or “chance” or a “fluke” is to take charge of it on behalf of those who do not respect pattern. To call the unknown “random” is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known.’

– Wendell Berry, ‘Letter to Wes Jackson’, in Home Economics (1992).

19 March – Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)

Gospel John 4:5-16,19-26,39-42

‘Give me a drink’

In another context, this question is wholly unremarkable. But here it launches a discussion that radically changes the life of this woman of Samaria.

We know of the social mores that would see such public contact between a man and a woman in first century Palestine as scandalous, and we know too of the hostilities that existed between the Jewish people (like Jesus) and the Samaritans. So, right from the beginning this is an encounter that is out of the ordinary – but following it through, we see that this encounter is increasingly astonishing.

The woman, in fact, recounts how it has changed her life: ‘He told me all I have ever done…’

In her encounter with Jesus, this woman sees herself with a new and profound clarity. No longer does she see herself as identified by her sin. Instead, she sees herself as Jesus sees her. Beloved. Dignified.

The sin, which had up until now defined her, was now seen as it truly was, a distortion of her true self, of who she really is. True love, and her experience of it in and through the person of Jesus clarifies her vision.

This fact is perhaps a little counter intuitive. The philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand writes, ‘love is that which gives us sight, revealing to us even the faults of the other in their full import and causing us to suffer because of them’ (DVH, 12).

This is the kind of vision with which Christ sees this woman before him. Her faults do not define her, but they are not obliterated. They remain present and in his love, he enters into the suffering that those faults cause redeeming them.

12 March – Second Sunday of Lent (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 17:1-9

‘it is wonderful for us to be here…’

When reading through the Gospels I am often struck with the unabashed and child-like  honesty of Peter.

Before us today is a story truly fantastic. Jesus takes aside three disciples – those three who for whatever reason are closest to him, and then is transfigured, taking on what could be considered angelic or divine features, appearing with characters from the Scriptures which they would have known so well.

Peter’s child-like response strikes me as almost comical. One can picture him, there with the others, who are notably (and perhaps most appropriately) silent in the presence of a majesty that is truly miraculous.

Instead of the silent reverence of the other two, Peter comes forward a blurts out, somewhat embarrassingly, how good it is to be there. He’s likely thinking of the others who were left behind, and who therefore are unable to witness these astounding events.

It is wonderful to be here.

As contemporary readers of passages such as this, we are often somewhat scandalised by the fact that Jesus chose specific people to witness such events, but not others. Zooming out somewhat, we can transpose that sense of scandal or even indignation to the fact of the Incarnation itself – why did God choose to become Incarnate in the person of Jesus in first century Palestine? Why did God single out Abraham and his descendants to be the chosen people?

These questions are not easily answered, but they give us good pause for thought.

Peter, we might say, was lucky – and he was given opportunities to talk with, walk with, and live with the person of Jesus. We might even be jealous of such experience, thinking ‘if only such opportunities were afforded me, then my belief (or lack thereof) would be firmer.

Instead, Peter exemplifies an appropriate attitude of child-like receptivity that we should all strive to emulate. Do I take advantage of the opportunities which have been given me to encounter Jesus bodily in the Church (cf. Rom 8), in the Sacraments, and in the poor, sick, or suffering.

Point to Ponder

“Christianity is a living truth which never can grow old. Some persons speak of it as if it were a thing of history, with only indirect bearing upon modern times; I cannot allow that it is a mere historical religion. Certainly it has its foundations in past and glorious memories, but its power is in the present.”

John Henry Newman, A Grammar of Assent (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1924), 487-8.

5 March – First Sunday of Lent (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 4:1-11

‘He was very hungry…’

Of course he was!

I get hungry pretty well every hour, on the hour. And if I don’t eat I get all sorts of ‘hangry’ (hunger + anger). Ok, perhaps that’s overstating it, but the idea of not having eaten for 40 days and nights seems to me to be a tremendous feat.

On one level, the inclusion of the detail, ‘he was very hungry’ seems comical, and yet, perhaps it points to something much more profound.

When we read the story that follows we are confronted with an episode which is fantastic – an out of this world tale, shrouded in mystery which we could otherwise dismiss as the work of a fanciful imagination.

But what if we take seriously this otherwise comedic detail. He had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and we are told that it is in this state of what would no doubt be enormous hunger and weakness that he is confronted with these temptations.

Had the author merely been trying to tell an imaginative or inspiring story, this detail would be better left out. Instead, however, its inclusion points to something far more extraordinary – the fact that the author here wants us to take this seriously.

This opens us up to something that should in fact give us tremendous hope. In the letter to the Hebrews we are told, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” (4:15)

Despite his sufferings Jesus displayed tremendous strength and fortitude in the face of temptation. Not as an act of sheer will like some sort of stoic hero – but as an act of love. Love received and given.

Jesus did not refuse temptation out of fear of Divine retribution, but because of the relationship of love which he enjoyed with his Father, and with the Holy Spirit. This bond of love is what we are called to share in and to enter into more deeply in this Lenten season.

Point to Ponder

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’

– Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1

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