‘The place for which we are destined’

When the editors asked me to offer a contribution for the back to school issue, my guess is that they expected me to comment in some form on my three decades in Catholic education, from kindergarten to PhD, and now on to my sixth Jesuit university campus at Loyola. Yet, the recent days saw the passing of my grandmother (an avid Star Herald reader!) Helen at age 90, on the 75th anniversary of the death of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and so I think it’s appropriate to reflect a bit on the teaching and learning environments each of us experience outside of traditional classroom settings. I feel confident in asserting that I learned at least as much in this hospice-bedside-mourning-celebrating life process than in any of my systematic theology classes —unless any of my former professors are reading this, then obviously your lecture was the lone exception.

What is life, ultimately, other than a series of unending tests and lessons, of crosses and resurrections, read against a wider horizon of hope and trust in the ultimately inexpressible Mystery into whose luminous darkness we abandon ourselves every day in our trials, joys and sorrows? What are the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, really, other than the guiding hand of a Father who cares for us by taking our hand in his and teaching us to trace more perfectly the sketchy lines we scrawl in our stumbling attempts to write larger than our own shallow self-interest often dictates? What is any kind of learning, at essence, other than the means of articulating more clearly our own authentic nature, destiny and relationship with those placed on our path by chance, choice or providence? What is teaching, at its most fundamental level, if not the holistic embodiment of these lessons in all that we say, do and are, both in the most political and social of settings, and in the solitude of our hearts in the middle of the night, when the world can feel as still as the tomb?

Obviously, such teaching and learning is a lifelong process. Theologians sometimes use the mathematical model of asymptotes to describe certain elements of our faith journeys. If you remember graphing points in geometry when in school, an asymptotic line was one that ever approached the axis, getting infinitely closer without ever reaching it. We, too, are never quite at the terminal point where the conversion is complete, where we are the perfect disciple (or parent or child or teacher or student) we are called to be, yet there is movement and progress as life teaches us to engage and apply ever widening horizons, even as we need to fight the increasing tendency toward self-satisfaction, complacency or simply becoming set in our own ways.

But this growth is also obviously twinned with decline. Like the car driven off the lot immediately depreciating in value, the human person from the moment of conception is, in a very real sense, on the path to the grave. We don’t know what a human being who wasn’t dying would look like, and that includes our Brother in all things but sin, Jesus. Anyone who has cared for an aged relative or friend knows how true it sometimes is that “becoming ever-more childlike” is not a spiritual platitude. As pleasant a patient as my grandmother was, how many times in recent weeks did Jesus’ words to Peter come into my mind: “When you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (Jn 21:18).

We learn by imitation, of the good works others do beside and for us, and of the “cloud of witnesses” who show us what it means to live the Christian vocation, especially in difficult moments. It’s for that reason we can stand with confidence at the foot of the open grave and sing Alleluia.

As the monastic prayer the Itinerarium puts it: “Lord, you led Israel dry-shod through the sea, and you opened a way for the Magi to find you by the guidance of a star. You called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, and preserved him from harm through all his wanderings. Be now a help as we set out upon this, our journey: comfort along the way, shade from burning heat, shelter in foul weather, rest in weariness, refuge in danger, a staff in slippery paths, a haven in shipwreck. Lead us, that we may come happily to that place for which we are destined, and return again safe to our true home.”

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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