Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Opening Rector's Conference - 2013

by Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB


This summer, I re-read a wonderful book by Julian Barnes called The Sense of an Ending. It is the story of a man named Tony Webster, a middle-aged fellow who believes that he has everything worked out, everything settled.

His solitary life is lived by following strict schedules and routine ways of going about things. He likes it. He is boring. He thinks he has everything under control.

Except of course he doesn't. A few visitors from his past remind him that life is full of challenges and that, most of the time, the challenges, and indeed life itself, are beyond our control.

Most of us love control. We like living with the idea and the ideal that we can make things happen, that we can keep things from happening and mostly that we can predict precisely how things are going to come out. In our lives, we live from moment to moment filled with the supreme confidence that we can do it by ourselves.

In fact, it is a cultural imperative. We even think that we can control God. We can take him as we want him, and put him away when it suits our schedules and our needs. That means, of course, that most of us flee conflict. In our lives, we avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable, that creates situations of argumentativeness, that makes us, well, all too human.

There is a problem, however, and that is God cannot be controlled. In fact, our attempts to put God in a bottle or box, to place God precisely in the paradigm of my issues and my situation, are often what cause the most trouble in our lives.

We are somewhat caught off guard by what we hear in the Gospel: Take up your cross. Now, how can anyone want to do that? How can anyone claim to DESIRE to be crucified? Or at least this is the usual misinterpretation of the Gospel. But, in point of fact, what we are asked to do here is not take up the cross of Jesus, the instrument of torture and death. We are asked, rather, to take up the cross, the CHI, the X, of the Greek alphabet.

Now you are wondering where all of this is going. That is precisely the point. Who isn't wondering where things are going? If we are really paying attention to life and not merely trying, like Tony Webster, to keep things under control, if we are really living, then we have to continually stand in that rather uncomfortable place, the crossroads.

The crossroads is that place where we are faced with decisions, moment-by-moment decisions that can take our life in this direction or in that. In Julian Barnes' book, he states that there are two kinds of people, those who have "clear edges" and those who imply mystery. Authentic living resides in the later.

Conflict, perpetually seeing the options that God affords each of us is the only authentic way of living. All of us live with conflict, even when we try to hide its crenelated edges. We try hard to get rid of conflict and thus create a life that is not real, a life hidden behind the barriers of falsehood, such as alcohol, drugs, sex, the pursuit of money, just name it. After all, you read about it every day in the news.

The cross is inevitable; choice, options, openness, opportunity. Every day we are faced with these, sometimes of our making, often not. Jesus says: Embrace the cross. Another way of saying this is: really live. What doors will be open to us if we just lose control, if we give control to God? What possibilities are awakened when we realize that we are living in a world in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female?

What if Saint Paul's ideal was a reality and things were not quite as predictable as we something think or wish they were? What if little miracles could happen?

All of the little mechanisms we have in place to keep things orderly are broken open in the profound message of the Gospel. So it is with each one of us. In the novel, The Sense of an Ending, the protagonist Tony Webster learned more about life when he realized that he knew so little. John Henry Newman remarked famously, the more we know, the more we know we do not. Perhaps in our age, that is the new evangelization.

Today we gather in this place of formation to begin a new formation year. In my rector's conferences this semester, I would like to address the question of the new evangelization. However, before we can consider ourselves as agents of the new evangelization, we must ask: What are the challenges of our world? Perhaps we must ask even more: What are the challenges in us?

Authentic evangelization cannot happen until the world is ready to receive the Good News. It also cannot happen if its proclaimers are unable to be channels of the Good News. These challenges are not merely acts of the will. Our true questions in advance of a new evangelization are quite profound: How can the seminary provide the impetus for a new world vision? Or perhaps even more profound: What precisely is the new evangelization?

To begin this conversation, I want to focus on two contemporary figures in Catholic thought. The first is Christopher Dawson. When I was planning my Eucharist lectures for this year, I had an epiphany (a fairly rare occurrence, I assure you). Why is the question of the Eucharist so difficult to grasp in the Church today? Why is it the case that a large section of the Catholic population neither understands nor accepts the received Catholic ideal of Eucharistic presence?

Dawson wrote two books that address the cultural crisis of contemporary faith. The first is called The Formation of Christendom. In this book, he outlines the way in which the Church transformed the prevailing culture in the late antique period and beyond, seeing in the medieval synthesis the important means by which the Church and culture found its authentic coalescence.

The book is interesting, but even more fascinating is its sequel, The Dividing of Christendom, in which he relates the means by which this unique synthesis of faith and culture were dismantled in the misspoken renaissance, the reformations and the so-called enlightenment of culture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

These are theories that ignite the maelstrom of cultural discontent that has come full force into our contemporary ideology. These are theories such as individualism, the fluidity of the social order, the unexamined ideals of democracy, the sense of contemporary "freedoms" that often act in precisely the opposite way.

In The Formation of Christendom, Dawson states: "Catholicism does not rest on the consensus of human wisdom - even on its highest and most spiritual plane - but on a divine revelation which is also an act of creation." In other words, the culture paradigm of Catholicism is not a choice among equally viable choices; it is the human character in its fullness, which in the economy of the Incarnation is also the Divine Character.

Now we can turn to the second contemporary figure, J.R.R. Tolkien. To begin my remarks, I would like to say a few biographical words about Tolkien. John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was by education and profession a philologist, primarily focusing on Icelandic languages. Perhaps we do not see this as a very promising beginning for a man destined to re-establish the primary mythic basis of Christianity in the 20th century.

Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents in 1892, the closing years of the 19th century. At an early age, he moved with his mother and brother to England, leaving his father in Africa. He would never see his father again, as he died a short time later. Raised by his mother, the entire family converted to the Catholic faith when Tolkien was in his teenage years.

His mother also died young and Tolkien and his brother came under the protection of the Oratorian Fathers of Birmingham, still in the early 20th century very much under the influence of Newman's memory. After his education at Oxford, he married and later fathered children, one of whom became a priest.

Tolkien's life is interesting enough and his career is fairly straightforward for Oxford scholars of this time. However, during his long teaching sojourn in Oxford, Tolkien met some very important friends, among them, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, who formed a social and intellectual group known as the Inklings. It was in the context of the Inklings that Lewis invented his allegorical world of Narnia and Tolkien created the mythos of Middle Earth.

Tolkien's best known works, The Hobbit, published in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings, which finally appeared in 1955, are just the most widely read aspects of a larger project. Tolkien's novels are the result of a vision that incorporated thousands of pages of writing on the history of Middle Earth, the creation of entire languages, mythic origin stories and many other writings that have never been published.

What Tolkien intends with the saga of Middle Earth is nothing short of the demonstration of what true myth is, which is nothing short of this: In our creative capacity, we are participating with the Divine vision. Catholicity, in Tolkien's writings, is less about its specific content and more about its method.

His Catholicism speaks to the world not as another world-view or an alternative vision, but as Truth, not only a truth but the Truth, the Truth for which all are striving, at least implicitly, and the Truth that is our primordial center and destiny.

Here Tolkien differs distinctively with his long-time colleague and friend, C. S. Lewis. For Lewis, who advocated the extensive use of allegory as a mode of Christian storytelling, the symbolic world stood in the midst of another world, the world of distinct secularity. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the world of Narnia represents a type of existence that existed apart from the world, a world for the few and the select, or elect.

Tolkien's Catholic vision could not abide such a distinction. Tolkien dislikes allegory because he does not really believe there is another, non-allegorical world. The entire world is encompassed in the far-reaching myth of Christianity. It is a daring vision that promotes not only the universality of the Church, but its permanent center in human existence, an existence overshadowed by the Holy Eucharist.

I believe what Tolkien is promoting, and indeed what I am recommending, is the centrality of the Euchological in contemporary discourse. Do we see the world as decidedly centered in the reality of the Holy Eucharist? Is the Blessed Sacrament the working center of our lives? To me, this is the new evangelization. We must live by this principle, this ideal, if we are to make any sense at all of what we do in the context of our lives as followers of Christ every day.

We must learn, we must speak the cadences of evangelical speech, a form of speech geared toward building up the human enterprise rather than tearing it down through the constant barrage of critical, indeed hateful, engagement. Our language must perpetually be the language of praise and blessing, even when we understand that praise and blessing as authentic challenge for us to live better lives.

Evangelical speech is not grounded in an unfocused and unrealistic sense of good feeling. Evangelical speech is grounded in the Truth, which we proclaim in Jesus Christ. We speak Good News to one another when we challenge one another to higher living, to better living. We speak Good News to one another when we challenge one another to be saints, realizing full well that preaching with our lives is the most effective evangelical speech there is.

Praise and blessing are not highlights of life. They are a means of life, a way of life, a true life. Opposed to evangelical speech is evangelical terrorism, murmuring, complaining, criticizing, backbiting, all disguised as the promotion of a value which, brothers and sisters, is not at all worth pursuing.

I will state again what I have said many times. When charity fails, when good will breaks down, there is no longer any evangelical goal worth pursuing. In our lives in the world (not just in this place but in the world), the responsibilities of an Evangelical People take hold of us.

What are they?  First, authentic listening. Here we must learn that the first skill of a priest is to learn to listen, listen to what people are saying in confession, in the hospital room, in the prison cell, and in the daily engagements of life.

We must learn to authentically listen to the needs of others, even when we do not fully understand those needs, even when those needs are not our needs. Authentic listening means learning to keep silence while the story of the other is poured out. It means authentically appreciating the story of the other, even when that story is not our story.

Second, we must learn to speak, speak sparingly but meaningfully. Trivial, useless speech that intends to cause laughter or impress others with its very triviality is not Christian speech. That is not to say that there is no place for humor in our discourse (in spite of what the Holy Rule says).

There is room for humor, and even a bit of silliness, but ultimately we must ask ourselves: Does it build up or does it tear down? Is our speech meaningful? One criticism I often hear about our common life is that our table conversations tend to be fairly focused on the trivial.

While I think a little small talk is not a bad thing, I tend to agree with this criticism. The question of table conversation, or casual conversation, or small group discussion, or even theological reflection, may not be bad will, but a lack of skill, an inability to engage the other in somewhat meaningful discourse in which there is no technological interface. We must learn to speak meaningfully to one another. Maybe that starts at the table tonight.

Third, we must act. How willing are we to act as evangelical people? Our lives here and our lives in the future as priests are lives poured out. They are not lives that look primarily to self-preservation. The opposite is true. Martyrdom is our goal, a martyrdom frequently realized in the mundane events of daily life, in the momentary yet momentous opportunities that come every day in the priesthood and often go unnoticed, surprisingly even by ourselves.

Tuning into the smaller things of life and maximizing the minute encounter truly separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Life must be filled with action, but it must be action laced with subtlety. Subtlety is a lost art. Can we revive it?

Finally, this evangelical life is lived by a full awareness of what might be termed organizational literacy. This means knowing where we are, knowing the people around us, and knowing and understanding the mission.

Brothers and sisters, we are called to a ministry, an important ministry that is also a supernatural call. That ministry is not in some future place, at some distant time. That ministry is here. It is now. We are called in our evangelical call to be Christ for one another, and if we can learn to be Christ for one another, we can certainly learn the skills, the ways and means of realizing Christ for a world that so desperately needs to be totally open to him.

Tolkien was a great writer, I believe, because he was completely imbued with an authentic Catholic identity and ethos. What does an authentic Catholic identity and ethos offer us? I believe it offers us the opportunity, if we are truly attuned to our own Catholicity, it offers us the opportunity for four things.

The first is cultural reappraisal. In our world today, we are asked to accept without question the cultural cards we are dealt. Brothers and sisters, they are marked cards. Tolkien demonstrates in his writings that we live in a mixed world. One way he accomplishes this is through his characters. All of Tolkien's characters are somewhat flawed; they are all "on the way" to perfection.

Here Tolkien captures perfectly the dilemma in which we find ourselves. We are folks on the way to something better and something greater, our destinies in God, but we often do not realize it. Our lack of intention, our lack of realization, does not, however, change who we are. Elves are selfish, human beings are weak, dwarves are greedy, and halflings are, well, half.

But for Tolkien, if all are half, we are all half full rather than half empty. All are in the process of becoming perfect by becoming authentic to themselves. That is a profound Christian message. While Middle Earth is a decidedly mixed lot, Tolkien is also convinced that those who are pure of heart are able to see its goodness and to understand and ultimately reject its evil.

Good is not a matter of learning only. It is also something that is innate in the human person. We naturally recognize goodness. We abhor evil instinctively. We are confused when our natural predilections are contradicted by the social message telling us that something is good when we know it to be evil in the depths of our hearts.

The second evangelical tool we are offered is cultural regeneration. If we are down, we are not out. Just as we have it within us to recognize the Truth, so we have it within us to do the good. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien demonstrates the worth of the human spirit in the courage of the hobbits.

What is true and good is not often easy, or at least it may not appear to be. But doing the good is ultimately easier than doing wrong, because to do wrong is contrary to our spirit; it is alien. As we learn to do the good (and think and engage the Good), then it becomes easier; it becomes not second nature because it is our first nature.

Third, our goal as Catholics is cultural reinvigoration - we do not take the culture for granted. Everything is changed by our authentic presence in the world. In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits return to Hobbiton after their adventure. They are not the same. Having engaged the world, having confronted evil, having learned the good, they are different. They cannot return to their homes, their familiar surroundings, with the same spirit.

It is interesting that I often hear seminarians expressing this after a year or so in the seminary. They are not the same men that left home. They do not engage their "hobbit holes" with the same spirit they had before. An authentic search for holiness in the depths of myself often means, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, you can't go home again, at least not the same.

As we progress in Christian life, home is no longer where I grew up. It is not even my rectory, my monastery, my assignments. Home is heaven. We know that as we move through life and we become increasingly homesick as we progress. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo realizes that he cannot live in Hobbiton anymore. He must go to the Grey Havens. He must set sail toward that distant shore, toward eternity.

Finally, there is cultural re-evangelization. Having gone "there and back again" we know, we come to know, that evangelization, even the new evangelization, must begin in my own heart, by my own hearth, in my own home. What is new about the new evangelization is not the need or means, but the understanding of whom. It is us.

In light of these cultural challenges, we have to ask ourselves, what is the condition of our seminaries, of these privileged places where we hope to instill in each one the authentic spirit of the Church? When we look around at our new men here today, all of us are aware that not all of them will rise to the priestly state. Perhaps some of them are wondering that, too.

Ultimately, perhaps strangely, that is not our goal. Our goal is to make each one here a better person for having been here. Our goal is to sharpen the Christian identity of each one, no matter where he or she may go away from this place. Our goal is to assure that you are prepared to receive the call that will come, God willing, one day from your bishop or religious superior.

We must prepare for that call. This is indeed a house of discernment, but that discernment (on your part) is only authentically realized when you give yourself fully to being formed for priesthood, not in standing back and trying to do that work yourself. God will call you in time or He will make apparent to you that you are called to something else.

All of us are called to live our lives in full complement to the Gospel of Christ. There is no other vocation. We live those lives in different states, but there is no other definitive call. We are defined by Christ. Our resting and our rising are defined by Christ. The work we do in this place of prayer is defined by Christ. Our toil in the classroom and the library is defined by Christ. Our recreation, our eating, our friendships and relationships with family; all is defined by Christ. Everything we do is manifested in that essential relationship and our sole reason for being on this earth is to give him glory.

That is the new evangelization. When we realize that, we have evangelized ourselves. And when we are fully alive in the Gospel, we will speak, we will act, and we will be in and for Christ and his Church.

What is next in the new evangelization? This summer I was pursuing an article on CNN about the faith of the millennial generation. The evangelical author had something interesting to say. Let me quote her at length:

"Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply tomake a few style updates - edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in thefellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

But here's the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we're not easily impressed with consumerism or performances. In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular. Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions -Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. - precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being "cool,"and we find that refreshingly authentic. What millennials really want from the churchis not a change in style but a change in substance."

Perhaps that is at least the start of the new evangelization.

In my conferences this semester, I want to spend some more time reflecting on the new evangelization. In doing so, I want to focus on the writings of some other great Catholic authors. In my next conference, I will address the question: How do we accurately diagnose the contemporary situation? I will use the writings of Flannery O'Connor to look at this important question.

In the third conference, I will address the existential question that stands at the center of our contemporary dilemma. What should we be (become)? In this context, I will consider the writings of the priest-novelist Robert Hugh Benson.

Finally, I will ask the important practical question: How do we get there? Gerard Manley Hopkins, that least pragmatic of priest-poets, will hopefully assist in answering this question.

A few months ago, I came across a quote from a contemporary of Tolkien, a great philosopher who said in speaking to his dearest friend: Promise me you'll always remember you're braver that you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.

In our troubled world, I believe that this may well be the new evangelization. That may well be the true sense of an ending, or a beginning. 


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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.