Thursday, May 1, 2008

teacher vs master

Tonight was the last hall mass of the school year that our regular presider, Fr. Wayne Hellmann, OFM Conv., can attend; we will do mass next week, but we'll have another priest come in for that one evening because he'll be at a conference. Anyway, he and I alternate preaching; one week he gives a homily, the next I do a little reflection. I put a lot of work into the things I come up with, and I pepper them with quotes from theologians, Merton, whoever, and they're ok, I suppose. Fr. Hellmann, on the other hand, speaks extemporaneously, and it is clear that he is a scholar's scholar (he brings in a lot of Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure, two people on whom he is an expert), but even when what he says is earthy, simple stuff, there's a clear difference between my reflections and his homilies. That's the difference between a teacher and a master: I try to make it pertinent and give people something to take away that can feed them, maybe give them something new to think about, but when he talks, it's clear that he is a real master of the tradition. He is full of energy when he preaches, and it's contagious; he does more than just engage our minds (although he does that too); he draws us into sharing his sense of wonder at the richness of God, and that's a gift.

I'm in the middle of reading Lawrence Thornton's book Imagining Argentina at the moment, a book that Walter Brueggemann, my old professor and mentor, mentions in the beginning of his phenomenal little book The Prophetic Imagination. In brief, it is set during the "dirty war" in Argentina, in the 1970s. A man finds himself with a gift for imagination, to see what has happened to those who have been disappeared by the goon squads, and what he imagines comes to be. He can't control it, but things in his imagination that are seemingly impossible in fact come to pass. The mythic framework is something like this: there are two Argentinas, that of the generals, and that which the people carry in their hearts, and their imaginations are in conflict, and the imagination of the people has to be stronger than that of the government. It isn't imagination as fantasy, but imagination as the capacity to picture alternative ways of existing -- it doesn't have to be like this, it shouldn't be like this, and we can create a vision of reality that is other than what they are telling us it has to be like. It is a compelling story, as much for that mythic model of imagination as for the story itself, and the spirit of that kind of imagination runs through Brueggemann's writings.

Lastly, I just started a little book by Robert Waldron called Thomas Merton: Master of Attention, the basic premise of which is that Merton cultivated attentiveness to beauty, to the present moment, as a pillar of his interior life. I'm not very far in it yet, but it so far is compelling, using a lot of stuff from Simone Weil as well as Merton. A couple of days ago I spent a little time outside on a bench, and reading led me into contemplation -- one of those books that you read for a few pages and put down, not because it isn't good, but because it creates a contemplative spirit that lends itself to being read slowly and leading into prayer itself. He quotes Cistercian Michael Casey: "Lectio divina is like reading poetry: we need to slow down, to savor what we read, and to allow the text to trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness." (29) Nice. I'm looking forward to having the time to do that, to not just have to plow through readings for the sake of product.

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