Wednesday, August 03, 2011

'Useless' Study

Ammon (of the place called Raithu) brought this question to Sisoes: "When I read Scripture, I am tempted to make elaborate commentaries and prepare myself to answer questions on it" He (Sisoes) replied, "You don't need to do that. It is better to speak simply, with a good conscience and a pure mind". From Rowan Williams, Where God Happens. p.140

This quote has been buzzing in my head the last few weeks, largely because of the time of year. Summer brings with it both more free time and a kind of internal pressure to do something 'productive' in my, admittedly, arcane patristics hobby. Don't get me wrong. This isn't about compulsive workoholism (I don't think....). It expresses a dilemma which has been with me for more than ten years, since I left my PhD in Classics. On one side, I truly love learning for its own sake and one of my joys is to have the tools to do that with the Church Fathers. I enjoy my reading of patristic texts and scholarly discussions of them. I like translating the texts--as odd as that sounds. And I have to acknowledge my debt to this study which has affected how I think about my faith and how I live out my spirituality. I can see how St. Augustine's Confessions influenced my conversion as a Christian and how St. Benedict's Rule informs my approach to fatherhood and, oddly, the teaching profession. The Desert Fathers (like Sisoes above) challenge my materialism and draw attention to the 'bad thoughts' which plague my attempts at humility and faithfulness. The Fathers do me the service of calling attention to my theological blind-spots (rather different from their own blind spots), help me read Scripture more deeply and remind me that theology isn't just an intellectual pursuit, but a spiritual one as well. When you get those benefits, more study seems like a profitable thing.

Yet, on the other hand, like Ammon of Raithu, I feel compelled to do something with my studies. That is, I shouldn't just read or translate for my own edification, I should publish something for goodness sake. I'm not saying that publishing is a bad thing nor am I saying that I won't consider working on a project intended to be published. This is probably not the time to fast-track it for it, not the least reason being my committment to my young family. Any planning that I make about this have to be long range, very long range, indeed. Perhaps some fruit will come that. I don't know.

Yet, I also feel the sting of this saying of Abba Sisoes. I don't need to do this. That is, this should not be a compulsion to produce, to argue, to explain. It is better to keep my attention on the spiritual virtues and prayer which my study of the Fathers and of Scripture give me day to day, yer to year. Then, I should do something radical and revolutionary: practice them. What I worry about my desire to 'do' is that it is a manifestation of one or the other of my two great temptations in my study: that all too common compulsion to produce as opposed to just shut and pray or a temptation to intellectualize my faith rather than mediate on it. Prayer, spiritual reading and work on self are gloriously useless activities, at least in the eyes of the world. Yet, I recognize that I need to do all these three things if I expect any spiritual growth or wisdom or, in fact, discernment over what I can contribute to the life of the Church. I need the ability to speak simply, with a a good conscience and pure mind, especially if I expect to write about spiritual things.

That means discernment. What is God calling me to? My main vocation is to teaching and, to my enduring my surprise, teaching adolescents . Yet, I feel the calling to write, but is that vainglory and/or avoiding spiritual growth? Time and discernment will tell me that, of course. So, patience is what is called for and the willingness to do what is 'useless' for as long as it takes. That, I trust, will be enough.

Peace, Phil


Magister Christianus said...

My brother, I felt as if I were reading my own biography.  I, too, was on the Ph.D. track in the early to mid 1990s. I stopped because I found myself asking different questions from those of my peers and professors. Where they asked philological questions and questions about literary influences on a particular author, I was asking whether what that author said were true. Perhaps I should have switched to the philosophy department, but I had felt the call to teach Latin and be a Christian presence in public schools since I was in high school.

This fall I enter year 21 if teaching, and I still love it. I have been blessed with opportunities to write and publish both articles and books, and that has satisfied my craving for research and intellectual stimulation.

One of my favorite passages is from Cicero's Pro Archia:  ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt ut nihil possint ex eis neque ad communem adferre fructum, neque in aspectum lucemque proferre. As a result, I do think it important to do something with all those delightful hours spent in study. Besides, I find my engagement with great works ever so much more fun when I can share it with others, whether in the classroom, in private conversation, or in publication.

That said, I, too, know the drive for productivity that is really more about me than anyone else. It is one if the pitfalls of the academic writer, I suppose, and one to be guarded against in prayer.

Although my wife and I have been married for 20 years, our children are quite young, and I find my enjoyment of the calling of fatherhood equaling if not surpassing my academic pleasures. Of course, when I can combine them by helping our children learn the riches of the Christian faith and if Classical antiquity, so much the better.

God bless you, brother.

Phil Snider said...

Thanks for your kind message, magister. You're right. There are some close parallels between you and I.

I'm only entering my seventh year, but I spent ten years trying to get into and through a PhD. So, that explains the rest of the time. I think the wheels began to fall off when I started to wonder about the relationship of what I was studying and the faith I was called to. That has taken me years to work out and my study of the Church Fathers is a result of that concern.

Anyways, thanks for your comment!


Suburbanbanshee said...

One presumes that Ammon was a desert monk. There's not much call for apologetics and answering questions out in the desert with the professional holy guys.

Teaching teenagers, OTOH, is probably all about the hard questions as well as living well and spending time with them. Answers to hard questions may not be all they want and need, or even most of what they want and need; but it is a big part of it. (If only to keep their attention so you can teach them the more important stuff.

The point is that of course there are times to strip away everything, but there's no disgrace in writing and thinking. The reason the Desert Fathers could afford to be "anti-intellectual" was that they came from the Alexandrian background, where Christians were expected to be thoughtful and love learning, and where people wrote plenty of books and Scripture commentary. Our modern world doesn't really have that background; we're mostly fellahin with cars and computers.

Phil Snider said...

suburban banshee;

Thanks for your comments. I think my main concern isn't necessarily with writing and thinking (God knows I do both of those things), but rather seeking God's will in both. I do feel a call to writing, possibily in the form of translation and/or possibly something more devotional. I'm still in a discerning stage with both ideas. I, however, still feel many days that I don't have a good enough grip on what I want to comment on. That could be due diligence or perfectionism, I'm not sure. So, I'm still trying to work things out.

Peace, Phil