Tuesday and Wednesday evenings this week I attended my first two three-hour classes in the masters in ministry (MAM) program at the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization. The Institute is affiliated with St. John’s Seminary, priestly training ground for the Archdiocese of Boston.
Now in its sixteenth year, the Institute trains Catholic laypeople, as well as deacons and religious, in ministry (e.g. chaplaincy) and theological studies. It is headquartered in a converted parochial school on a quiet residential street in Brighton, just west of Boston. Part of the building is occupied by the local Head Start program. (My illustration of the entry shows the logos of both the Institute and Head Start.)
With a chapel, a large assembly area, several classrooms, administrative offices, and a religious library, it is a clean, well-appointed, professional, and welcoming operation. It’s also—and in my excitement about returning to studies after many years, I had forgotten this—it is also, well, school.
There are some things that I had forgotten about school, which now I am recalling. For instance:
1. School requires attention, i.e. not falling asleep. A three-hour class with one short break would have elicited groans from twenty-something me. From the sixty-something version, it is more likely to produce snores. The courses—“Basic Truths of the Catholic Faith” and “The Terrible Beauty of the Prophecy of Jeremiah”—are no punts. I already have made it a routine on class days to take a nap after lunch before heading into the city, so that my head doesn’t bob and I don’t have to pretend I am nodding.
2. I am not in class alone. Like the monk who left the Carthusians because he could not stand the cacophony of his fellow choir monks in An Infinity of Little Hours, I was reminded on my very first night at the Institute that part of taking part in a class is the class itself—i.e. classmates. Already I have a pet peeve (no comment) and a favorite classmate. The latter is a religious sister and the only student taking both classes with me. Happy coincidence, she and her community are involved in book publishing and selling, just as I once was. We’ve hit it off.
3. The teachers are smarter than me. But then this is good. I admire teachers: for their wisdom and for their vocation. I think of Norman Maclean’s wonderful definition: “A great teacher is a tough guy who cares deeply about something that is hard to understand.”
Our Jeremiah teacher, Celia Sirois, is visibly not a “guy” but I don’t doubt her toughness or deep caring about a subject that is hard to understand. Fr. Paul Ritt, longtime teacher of “Basic Truths” and a founder of the Institute, is evidently a guy though he hardly seems “tough” at first glance. But then watch him prowl the ring made by our surrounding tables, jabbing like a boxer with his head and eyes instead of fists. It is clear—by the way he lovingly wraps our smartest and dumbest comments in clear catechesis—that he cares deeply not only about Truth but about Us.
Both teachers are fantastic.
4. Studying in a Catholic school moves me. It is a happy thing to look up from my notebook, raise my eyes from the professor, and notice a crucifix above the center of the white board; a reproduction of a detail from Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; an icon of Christ; a long shelf holding nothing but religious books.
Wednesday evening I arrived early to just sit in the library, eating a sandwich and looking around. From my seat I looked down a shelf of religious texts toward the usual scholastic jumble in the corner: a video monitor, a copying machine that isn’t copying anything right now. Above the jumble, unifying all, was a crucifix. This is beautiful to me.
5. Where school is concerned, my heart is bigger than my eyes, in the same way that eyes are bigger than stomachs. That is, I desire hungrily to learn. That desire has drawn me back to school. That hunger has roots in the place in me that wants to be closer to Christ. But my head is often far from that place and often inept at grasping what needs grasping. My heart wants to learn everything at once. My head must slog slowly, one thought at a time.
The heart still beats, though. That I also learned on my first two nights back at school.