“What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?”
― Godfrey Diekman OSB
At A Level my theological and spiritual horizons were widened thanks to the excellent teaching of Sr Michael and all of the Sisters of Mercy working in St Anthony’s, Sunderland. My heart and mind were like a sponge and I soaked up everything on offer. Studying Scripture at A Level became a gateway to so many important things in my life. I realized that I had a thirst to know more and to experience more. I was accepted at Heythrop, the Jesuit college, to study for a Bachelor of Divinity. In truth, I had very little idea where the real hard work would lie. Moving to London was huge in itself. I remember in December of the first term walking back from college to my hall of residence and stopping to look at the lights on Regents St, my bag heavy with books and notes that I barely understood. I wondered if I had made a mistake. Pretty much everyone on my course was feeling a little at sea.
College ran a one to one tutorial system and nothing prepared me for the mild terror of presenting my weekly offering to a tutor who had written their doctorate on the same subject. I’ll never forget my first tutorial. The subject was Joshua and the Conquest. I sat down and my tutor said; ‘You’ve made two big assumptions in your work: that Joshua actually existed and that the Conquest took place.’ My tutor was quite correct and what followed was a very instructive tutorial on how we assess archaeological evidence etc. If you are reading this and thinking, ‘That’s terrible, typical Jesuit approach.’ then bear with me. I came to love the tools of Biblical scholarship and it is to those tools that I most often return when I want to explore an issue. The world of Biblical genre and how stories convey meaning is the very stuff which underpins my monastic life today.
This tutorial experience was to be repeated many times over. There was a great dismantling taking place for me on several levels. It’s not uncommon in the things which I read online for people to distrust any method which deconstructs. I don’t share their distrust. Deconstruction can be necessary in order to understand the core values of an area of theology. One of the most important things which I learnt in theology was the need to see all of the disciplines as related. What you say in Christology must hold true in Liturgy, Ecclesiology etc etc.
When I signed up for a module in Ecclesiology I had very little idea what was coming. I knew about Vat II and even had the Abbott edition of the documents on my shelf. My first lecture was entitled ‘The Church as the Prism of Humanity.’ My first notes read: ‘The biggest mistake made by Christians is to isolate themselves- thinking in exclusive terms.’ ( I have kept all of my college notes.) I think I was a bit too young at the time to really take on board all that was said. There were so many concepts that needed unpacking. I had never thought seriously about any of them. What stayed with me was the interplay between Jesus preaching the Kingdom and the emergence of the Church. How you understand this shapes your understanding of Church and what it signifies. This then shapes your understanding of the life of the Church and how it functions. There was much talk of transcendence and immanence. There was talk too of what it means to say that the Church is ‘holy’. I had taken so much for granted and never really questioned anything. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I think I had an underdeveloped understanding of the importance of immanence.
When I look back over these years I realise that the tutors who had the most impact upon me were those who appeared to have integrated head and heart. My ecclesiology tutor, Fr Joe Laishley sj, was one such man. His lecturing style was clear and rather gentle. I always had the sense that he had personally grappled with every issue he laid before us. He believed passionately in Vatican II and taught us the value of becoming very familiar with the texts of the documents and making our personal connections. I never really did this as a student.
One of the gifts of the set up at Heythrop was being able to celebrate the Eucharist as a student community with one of our tutor’s presiding. Fr Joe was a very unassuming presider. He lived out the model of priesthood which he taught. And for this I will always be grateful. You can read his article What is a Priest? here:
One of the biggest shocks to my system was attending lectures on Christology. It involved so many disciplines and I had competence in none of them. I struggled to read the Greek script of the very erudite Anthony Meredith sj and the complexity of the philosophical models underpinning the Christological controversies felt beyond me. It took me a while to find my Christological feet. Then came the lectures on models of Atonement and this is where I was most challenged. Up until that time the biggest influences on my understanding of Atonement came in the form of hymnody, art and the Stations of the Cross.
It’s probably this hymn more than any that shaped my understanding. At its simplest my understanding was this: Christ suffered untold agony because of my sins.
By the blood that flowed from thee
In thy grievous agony;
By the traitor’s guileful kiss,
Filling up thy bitterness;
Jesus, Saviour, hear our cry;
Thou wert suff’ring once as we:
Now enthroned in majesty
Countless angels sing to thee.
By the cords that, round thee cast,
Bound thee to the pillar fast;
By the scourge so meekly borne;
By the purple robe of scorn;
By the thorns that crowned thy head;
By the scepter of a reed;
By thy foes on bending knee,
Mocking at thy royalty;
By the people’s cruel jeers;
By the holy women’s tears;
By thy footsteps, faint and slow,
Weighed beneath thy Cross of woe;
By thy weeping Mother’s woe;
By the sword that pierced her through,
When in Anguish standing by,
On the Cross she saw thee die.
When we studied St Anslem’s theory of Satisfaction it all seemed very plausible to me. (Christ makes satisfaction to God for the sins of humanity.) This time my tutor was Anthony Baxter. I wrote an essay agreeing with St Anselm and thought I had done a pretty good job. In the tutorial I was called to defend the implied image of God. I had to admit defeat.
I am not a natural philosopher and found Philosophy of Religion lectures rather a tall order. Peter Vardy was incredibly dynamic and set a very high standard in essays, seminars and tutorials. My essays would come back to me with nearly a full page of ‘notes’. I needed to muster every bit of brain power I had for my tutorials and always ate a bar of chocolate before I went in. My most vivid memory was of an essay title ‘Does it make sense to talk of answered prayer?’ If I am honest, I was angry that this was set as a title and even angrier when I realized that the implied as was ‘No’. Nearly 37 years on I see the wisdom in asking the question.
At times it felt as if every piece of solid ground was crumbling beneath me. The one thing that felt certain was New Testament Greek. I loved it. Our tutor had a very dry wit and to a room that was perhaps 60% women the suggestion was made that we ‘put the list of irregular verbs on our shaving mirrors.’
Alongside my journey of theological discovery runs my faith journey. I’ll share this in my next post.