The most striking change: I'm not around people any more. Every day as a priest is spent in the company of, at a minimum, a hundred or so people. Here, I see the same 5 morning and evening (though there are others here studying or on retreat, we don't interact much at all). I kind of like it––for now. I'm sure by the time I'm done I'll be hankering to be shuffling around in the madding crowd once again.
My academic duties are quite heavy. The two classes I'm taking meet every day. The first covers the history of Christian thought from 1500-1900. Yes, that includes the leading figures of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Romantic movement, and Catholic theological responses to it. Oh yeah, and the Council of Trent, Vatican I, and the development of neo-scholastic and ressourcement theology (what you might call "strains" of contemporary theology). It's being taught by a German priest of Turkish and Hungarian descent, who routinely pronounces Latin, German, Hungarian, and English phrases with such a heavy accent that it takes a minute or two to understand the syllables coming out of his mouth, or even to realize "ah, he's speaking in another language". But he's a genius, and tremendously humble. He entertains any and all questions. You could literally interrupt him in the middle of the most profound thought he's ever had and he would immediately break off to let you speak your piece. He would take your dumb question and demonstrate to the whole class why a truly wise theologian would ask such a thing.
Deep down, I think this is the reasonable response to what we bring to the table:
Yet we are indulged. Truly, a teacher.
The other class covers the classics of contemporary theology. I'm reading Josef Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity and Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale, which is a theological exploration of the tenet of the creed that says of Christ "he descended into hell". The class is taught by a Jesuit who regularly inserts Shakespearean bon mots in his everyday conversations and is currently reading to us (literally, reading to us) from the first two chapters of his latest book (which is still in manuscript form). We are mostly expected to listen and catch typos. I enjoy him very much.
I've had a number of very surprising reunions, including a college classmate ordained for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, a seminary classmate ordained two weeks after me, and of course all the people I lived with for the 5 years I spent in formation here. The place has gotten even more beautiful, with all sorts of luscious greenery and careful landscaping. What a sanctuary.
I hope to continue updates every few days, including delicious snippets from my theological reading. I'll leave you with something from Ratzinger's book, published in 1968:
Gosh.... makes me wonder if Ratzinger was ever a high school chaplain.
Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with ecclesiastical language and thought by calling or convention soon comes to sense the alien––and alienating––nature of such an enterprise. He will probably soon have the feeling that his position is only too well summed up in Kierkegaard's famous story of the clown and the burning village... According to this story, a traveling circus in Denmark had caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made-up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself. The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown's shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed until they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that it was no trick but bitter earnest, that there really was a fire. His supplications only increased the laughter; people thought he was playing his part splendidly––until finally the fire did engulf the village, it was too late for help and both circus and village were burned to the ground.
... the theologian is the clown who cannot make people really listen to his message. In his medieval, or at any rate old-fashioned clown's costume he is simply not taken seriously. Whatever he says, he is ticketed and classified, so to speak, by his role. Whatever he does in his attempts to demonstrate the seriousness of the position, people always know in advance that he is in fact just––a clown. They are already familiar with what he is talking about and know that he is just giving a performance which has little or nothing to do with reality. So they can listen to him quite happily without having to worry too seriously about what he is saying. This picture indubitably contains an element of truth in it; it reflects the oppressive reality in which theology and theological discussion are imprisoned today and their frustrating inability to break through accepted patterns of thought and speech and make people recognize the subject-matter of theology as a serious aspect of human life.
But perhaps our examination of conscience should go still deeper. Perhaps we should admit that this disturbing analogy, for all the thought-provoking truth contained in it, is still a simplification. For after all it makes it seem as if the clown, or in other words the theologian, is a man possessed of full knowledge who arrives with a perfectly clear message. The villagers to whom he hastens, in other words those outside the faith, are conversely the completely ignorant, who only have to be told something of which they are completely unaware; the clown then needs only to take off his costume and his make-up, and everything will be all right. But is it really such a simple matter as that? Need we only call on the aggiornamento [updating], take off our make-up and don the mufti of a secular vocabulary or a demythologized Christianity in order to make everything all right? Is a change of intellectual costume sufficient to make people run cheerfully up and help to put out the fire which according to theology exists and is a danger to all of us? I may say that in fact the plain and unadorned theology in modern dress appearing in many places today makes this hope look rather naïve. It is certainly true that anyone who tries to preach the faith amid people involved in modern life and thought can really feel like a clown, or rather perhaps like someone who, rising from an ancient sarcophagus, walks into the midst of the world of today dressed and thinking in the ancient fashion and can neither understand nor be understood by this world of ours. Nevertheless, if he who seeks to preach the faith is sufficiently self-critical, he will soon notice that it is not only a question of form, of the kind of dress in which theology enters upon the scene. In the strangeness of theology's aims to the men of our time, he who takes his calling seriously will clearly recognize not only the difficulty of the task of interpretation but also the insecurity of his own faith, the oppressive power of unbelief in the midst of his own will to believe. Thus anyone today who makes an honest effort to give an account of the Christian faith to himself and to others must learn to see that he is not just someone in fancy dress who needs only to change his clothes in order to be able to impart his teaching successfully. Rather will he have to understand that his own situation is by no means so different from that of others as he may have thought at the start. He will become aware that on both sides the same forces are at work, if in different ways.