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Clothed with Salvation
A Book of Counsel for Seminarians

by Walter Conrad Klein

Evanston, Ill: Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1953.

Chapter VI.
It Appertaineth Not unto Thee

THE seminarian who studies his theology and says his prayers with an unmixed desire to serve and please God will presently become convinced that God is redeeming the world for him and making all things new. This is not autosuggestion, for the wayward human will corrupts creation and there is, in sub-rational creatures, a beautiful natural purity to which the holiest human beings are acutely sensitive. As our attachment to God approaches the relative perfection of genuine unselfishness, the universe assumes a radiant freshness that reflects our interior purgation but exists apart from that purgation. We are granted the enjoyment of everything because we claim nothing. It is the sinner who is subjective. For him the world is discolored by his own envy and lust. He covets the possession, the management, the control, and the unbridled use of nature, in which he perversely beholds, not the manifest omnipotence of God, but the disorder of his own imperious appetites and affections. God has made nature harmonious and lovely in its vast obedience, and those who love God see it that way.

We shall go on seeing it that way if we attend to our own business, which is never of cosmic proportions. The world is full of matters that, whether taken singly or viewed collectively, are no affair of ours in the sense that we are under obligation to take action with regard to them. If something has to be done about them, God has selected others for the task. Somebody else's failure, in our eyes, to carry out the commission we think God has given him may indicate, not that God has transferred the responsibility to us, but that we have all along been mistaken concerning the other man's vocation and duty. May God deliver us from the estimable men and women who look upon themselves as His confidential trouble-shooters! The suggestions they volunteer are irrelevant, impertinent, and distinctly unhelpful, and the steps they take, on their own initiative and with headlong assurance, are uniformly ruinous. We must take care not to be numbered among the zealots who are perpetually occupied with other people's business to the complete neglect of their own. Here lurks a temptation that few seminarians wholly escape. We are defenseless in face of it if we do not know it for what it is.

The identification of this malady is one of the easiest tasks of a seasoned director of souls. He knows that an excessive and, in not a few instances, censorious interest in the behavior of others is characteristic of those who have only recently begun the serious practice of the Christian religion and are still somewhat dazzled and bewildered by the experience of conversion. For such persons the total subjugation of man's will to God's is the least palatable requirement of the faith they have embraced. They imagine that a perfunctory gesture of renunciation suffices, and, having made it, they blithely resume their former manner of life, with a few immaterial changes, and call it Christianity. In the early phases of our transformation into true and faithful likenesses of God's perfection we are simply too naive to recognize the reappearance of the natural selfishness with which even the most righteous men must contend until they reach the grave. The diseased will that is our unfortunate heritage reasserts itself with surpassing cleverness. It maintains its strength against indefatigable piety and, convincingly made up to look like something else, enlists our instincts in its service. This is the source of all our enthusiasm for the improvement of others, and so engrossed are we in the chastisement of our neighbor that our own faults flourish, undetected and uncorrected. Many a misguided movement of reform has originated in somebody's refusal to reform himself. This passion for remaking people, as though one were the Creator, belongs to spiritual adolescence. In priests it is detestable and insupportable. In seminarians a mild form of it is normal and tolerable, but the sooner we leave it behind, the better.

In truth, there is no essential difference, except perhaps one of temperament, between the man who is always pushing dubious causes and giving pointers to presidents, kings, and bishops and the man who keeps himself complacently happy by exposing his neighbor's deficiencies. Both these men are evading the duties God has allotted to them, and for every one of us the first of those duties is his interminable combat with a will that values its own gratification above every other achievement. Power is not given to men to glorify them: its purpose is to implement their loyalty to the ends set for them by the very constitution of the world God has made. We have the custody and use of wealth, but not the title to it. These considerations impart sense to the Christian practice of renunciation and the Christian virtue of detachment. When we speak of sacrifice we do not mean heartbreaking, crushing, inhuman self-denial: we mean simply getting rid of the things that stand in the way of an undistracted response to our vocation. When we speak of indifference we do not mean not being interested in what happens to us: the adoption of such an attitude would empty existence of the purpose that gives it coherence and direction. We have in mind rather a willingness to work with the means God furnishes and to remain where providence, which may look deceptively like accident, has placed us. The consecrated person, so far from fretting at the limitations of his vocation and nosing about in matters that God has committed to others, is absorbed in the labors that are properly his and, as a result, has no inclination to broaden his field of activity without a manifest command from God. He is either diligently exploiting the openings that present themselves or alertly and patiently waiting for fresh openings to become evident. He does not forsake his vocation and plunge into something else because he is momentarily thwarted. If that were a Christian line of conduct, most priests would desert their parishes. More often than not, a young priest realizes, soon after taking up a new work, that his people are fundamentally and well-nigh incorrigibly reluctant to accept and use him as a priest. Three courses are open to him in his disappointment. If he is a trimmer and a time-server, he will become what his people want him to be. If such things as self-development and "being true to oneself" represent the supreme values of his life, he will leave his stupid parishioners to their fate and look to his secular interests for solace. If he is that great rarity, a priest who is all priest, he will study to accomplish by prayer and example what God for the time being does not permit him to accomplish by actual ministrations. Look into the history of the faithful priest, and what do you find? He is not the aggressive seminarian of a few years ago, the brilliant malcontent, the iconoclast and faculty-baiter, the virtuoso who so enjoyed putting his teachers right that he never discovered what they really meant. The seminarian fulfils his vocation by minding his job, which is to lead a life that it is the job of others to plan for him with more attention to what the Church requires of him than to what he, at the moment, prefers. Here is a theme that admits of the most detailed elaboration.

The first of the things no seminarian need worry about is the curriculum. It may be stated categorically that no undergraduate theological student is a competent judge of what constitutes a proper course in theology. Until he has completed such a course, his opinions ought to be exceedingly tentative. He must be taught a variety of things before he can acquire the standards that will enable him to pronounce a just and valid verdict on a theological discipline or on the manner in which it is presented.

Frequently the value and significance of a subject are obscure at the time of study, only to be revealed in luminous clarity when we are at last in a position to make wide and discriminating comparisons. These obvious considerations do not deter the brash beginner, whose meagre attainments give him a cocksure-ness that is impressively absent from the attitude of riper theologians. He knows what the faculty ought to be teaching, but he rarely approaches the faculty with a modest suggestion. Instead, he harps persistently on the single string of his dissatisfaction and so keeps himself upset and stirs up others. Presently he has raised a veritable tidal wave of disaffection, and its destructive power is felt throughout the seminary. Of course, at a reunion years hence the culprit, reminiscing in the fatuous manner of old grads, will laughingly confess that he was wrong, but his long overdue regret will then avail nothing. Thoughtless complaints lead to grave mischief, and the calamitous effect of an academic upheaval is more permanent than the emotion to which such disturbances may commonly be attributed.

Occasionally, to be sure, a student in search of a grievance hits upon a serious weakness in the curriculum. If he will go quietly to the Dean and make courteous inquiry about the matter he will be surprised at what he hears. The Dean will assure him that the faculty has long been conscious of the fault in question and is applying all its resources to the quest for a remedy. Moreover, the real defects of the curriculum cause the faculty more concern, discomfort, and grief than its supposed imperfections cause the most unsympathetic student. If effective action were possible, the faculty would long since have taken it, and undergraduate enthusiasm is not likely to succeed where experienced skill has failed.

If students are quick to detect flaws in the curriculum of a school, they are even more keenly--and unnecessarily--alive to the inadequacies of its administration, its morale, and its discipline. In all of these matters their judgment far surpasses that of the authorities. The simple and cordial cooperation of the students will keep a school going satisfactorily in spite of the most slovenly administration, but mere conformity is too obvious a course for the subtle seminarian to follow. He finds greater delight in pointing out how badly the school is run, and then, of course, he can relax in the knowledge that it is absurd to support a poor system. The morale is his to maintain or break, and the surest way to break it is to whisper in everybody's ear that it is going to pieces. Control of the tongue has no match as a safeguard of morale. One's spirits are best kept up by being infrequently mentioned. And what of discipline? Here the elusive mean will remain forever beyond our grasp. The discipline of a school is always too severe for some, too lax for others, and just right for nobody. The ordinary seminarian finds this an altogether welcome state of affairs. Naturally, he reasons, if the school does not provide a suitable form of discipline one is not bound to practise any discipline at all. Give him a free hand, and he is very generous with his discipline. He knows that others need it far more than he does, and therefore, noble fellow that he is, he imposes it liberally on them and has virtually none left for himself.

God seems never to spare a body of undergraduates in theology the torment of enduring in their midst the student who voluntarily takes charge of everybody's piety and manners. Long before he is a priest he is a model of what, according to his inflexible convictions, a priest should be. Like an army officer whose scale of living anticipates his next promotion, he is perpetually one step ahead of himself. He never gets a theological education, because his devotion to the Breviary and to the spiritual direction of his fellow-students gives him no leisure for study. He distributes his unsought counsel impartially, whether it is appreciated or not, and every novel twist of ceremonial that has its brief day in the school can be traced to him. He knows precisely how everybody ought to pray and what everybody ought to wear, and in his opinion the faculty is deplorably sloppy. The only things he does not know are dogmatic theology, church history, the Old Testament, the New Testament, ethics, moral theology, practical theology, and his own limitations. He will become a priest without ever having been a seminarian. All through his life he will defeat himself by trying to do today what he will not be ready to do until tomorrow. Of him this may confidently be predicted: as soon as he is a priest he will buy himself a mitre and an episcopal ring, and whenever he grows tired of being a priest--a man of his type quickly becomes the victim of a monumental weariness--he will put them on and admire himself in secret.

Another error into which seminarians fall is a premature interest in the affairs of the Church. There are undeniably events and trends in ecclesiastical life that deserve all the intelligent attention we can give them, but no seminarian has time to follow all the little parochial doings that are reported in the church press, and the student who becomes an accomplished retailer of pious gossip will inevitably fail to become something more important. Even if we confine ourselves to broad issues, we should, while we are seminarians, be cautious about drawing fixed conclusions and taking sides. We are in the seminary, not to make decisions in great matters for which we have at present no responsibility, but to prepare ourselves to deal with great matters in future. The more we learn about principles while learning is our privileged occupation, the steadier our hands will be, later on, in the application of principles.

A seminarian engaged to perform a specific task in a parish must make a nice distinction between what is his business and what is not his business. The rector will usually issue explicit instructions, and the seminarian will expose himself to considerable unpleasantness if he does not observe them scrupulously. It is the rector, not the seminarian, who frames the parish program and takes the lead in its execution. A discreet seminarian can make himself inestimably helpful. Rash aggressiveness on the part of an assistant simply multiplies the rector's problems. The seminarian is employed neither as a consultant in pastoral methods nor as a political agent. If there are any strings to be pulled, it is not for the seminarian to pull them. The most harmless-looking string may be in reality a highly charged wire, and the seminarian who impetuously grasps it may get even a greater shock than he deserves. In every parish innumerable booby-traps await the meddling hand of the curious stranger. The seminarian who springs too many of them is a marked man before his career has clearly begun.

Minding our present business does not preclude an occasional sober thought about the business that will be ours in future. We want particularly to know what things are incompatible with that business. If surrender is demanded of us, we prefer to make it gradually. We come to the seminary with the customary personal equipment of educated young men: hobbies, favorite writers, developed aptitudes in athletics--in short an assorted lot of graces, preferences, and accomplishments rightly dear to us because they enable us to be ourselves. Many seminarians, besides, are not happy at the thought of saying farewell forever to their former professions. How much of all this must be laid aside permanently at ordination?

The question is settled partly by realism and honesty and partly by our ordination vows. A man of intelligence and good will can be trusted to reach the right conclusions without much assistance. The priesthood gives us dignity, honor, position, and influence far beyond our natural deserts. It also assures us, if we prove our competence, of all the support we really need for ourselves and our dependents. In material matters we are less subject to uncertainty and worry than the majority of our parishioners. Justice requires us to work at our task with devoted attention and undivided energy. The priesthood has priority over everything else. Surplus time, if we have it, may be used for any purpose that is not in conflict with our principal aim. However, the more zealous a priest is, the less vacant time he will have on his hands. Immoderate enthusiasts become so deeply immersed in the routine of the priesthood that their horizons contract and, in consequence, powers that were intended to be used generously and widely have only the most straitened outlet. Presently those powers will cease to have any outlet at all, for people do not welcome a pastor who sees in every person he meets, not a human being to be sanctified without any loss of humanity, but merely an actual or potential object of priestcraft. In a word, the priesthood must be patently and unmistakably our chief occupation, but we make it a vain occupation the moment we begin to regard it as our exclusive business, either in the sense that we are interested in nothing else or in the sense that the priesthood belongs to us alone. The best safeguard against crippling narrowness is a periodical review of theology. What is the purpose of the divine gifts we are authorized to dispense? Is it to impoverish life or to enrich it?

In the belief that it is good for us, so far as our vocation permits, to look and act like other people, the Church allows us marriage, discretion regarding our dress, ample latitude in recreation, and the freedom to select our reading without reference to an index of forbidden books. This by no means exhausts the catalogue of our liberties. External authority deals very gently with the Anglican clergy, and in all but a few cases the absence of compulsion is abundantly justified. The men who abuse the want of external restraint have not taken the trouble to understand and apply their ordination vows. When we receive the priesthood we undertake, among other things, to "be diligent in prayers, and in reading the Holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh." Sincerity finds these words neither obscure nor ambiguous. They must have substantially the same meaning for all priests. The implementation of the promise is committed to the individual. Prayer gives us a fine sense of right and wrong with respect to our vocation. Priesthood, in one of its aspects, is personal attendance upon God, and one look at our Master's countenance should suffice to scatter all doubts as to how we stand in His sight. The intimacy and regularity of our service keep us in the divine presence, and when we have forfeited, or are in danger of forfeiting, God's confidence, we know well enough what has happened. Because our ministry is no longer single-minded, God is no longer pleased with us. Disloyalty has crept in, and until it is rooted out, trust will not be restored. "The world and the flesh" are comprehensive terms, not necessarily always of the same meaning to the same people, to say nothing of different people. If a list of things to avoid were substituted for the present broad promise to "lay aside the study of the world and the flesh," our religious practice might, it is true, become considerably more definite and uniform, but the closer definition of our duty would afford slender compensation for the loss of the opportunity for heroism that goes with the uncertainty now confronting us. We are given, as it were, a blank that each of us fills in according to his conscience. Whatever specific things we do or do not give up, the vow means for all of us unconditional self-abandonment. More precious to God than any particular surrender is our limitless readiness to enjoy or abstain at His command. We do not develop that willingness overnight, and therefore the seminarian is well advised to ponder these matters before the necessity of action is thrust upon him. Again and again there will be unforeseen chances for the use of his gifts and attainments, and the question for him will always be: Does this opening constitute a hazard to my vocation?

For example, it is at all times desirable to bring the Faith to bear on man's economic pursuits, and there may be times when we cannot escape the obligation to do so. We cannot always be content with the enunciation of principles. Now, if a pastor finds his entire parish paralyzed by a ruinous strike, what is he to do? Should he make it his business to take aggressive action for the relief of his parishioners or, more broadly, for the reconciliation of the clashing interests of employer and employee? He should not act unless his parishioners want him to act, and they will not want him to act unless they know that he is qualified. In this and other recurrent conflicts between one group of human beings and another a priest who knows what he is doing may render priceless aid. Such struggles are not for the blundering amateur, and the priest who, despite his incompetence, elbows his way into an industrial argument has a better chance of uniting the disputants against himself than of settling the question at issue. Clearly a problem like this cannot be solved by the application of an invariable formula. Even the priest whose fitness to arbitrate is universally acknowledged will, in a given case, have to determine whether or not the role of economic peacemaker militates against the obligations of his priesthood. Perhaps the most inclusive observation we can make is that the special knowledge we possess has a claim to use, and, when our qualifications are unique, that claim may assume the character of a divine command. In practice, of course, a priest is almost never placed in the position of being the only person who can end the strike, save the state, or lead the army to victory. Priests who divide their time between their priesthood and economics, politics, education, business, or some other non-priestly employment must have an exceptionally sound reason for leading so difficult a life. Few can endure it very long, and in the end it is the deeper interest that prevails.

By virtue of his office a priest is an apologist constantly engaged in commending the Faith to non-Christians. He is also a resolute opponent of all error that is serious enough to do demonstrable harm to his fellow-Christians. These functions are undeniably his, and it would be cowardly not to exercise them at all, but to say this is not to assert that he is bound to exercise them on all possible occasions. In all cases, he should hold his peace until he has made a sympathetic examination of the false teaching he proposes to attack. This study may indicate that tact and forbearance will prove more potent than denunciation. We have no right to take it for granted that it is our business to raise our voices loudly on behalf of the Faith every time we encounter unbelief or heresy.

The culture of our time conditions us and our efforts. We must speak its idiom. We cannot disregard its tricks of thought. It is a human achievement, and we owe it respect and a certain prudent admiration. It is our business to master the media it offers us for the transmission of a faith that can be made compelling in any tongue. It is not our business to indulge ourselves recklessly in the amenities of an efficient but not conspicuously godly civilization. Human culture is at best a vehicle through which and a framework within which religion pursues its ends. The temper of the age is always in conflict with the imperative of Christ. Novels studied for their analysis of human behavior refined a celebrated English bishop's pastoral touch. Novels have been the opiate of many a disgruntled cleric. We utilize the techniques of civilization, but we do not permit it to dictate our standards. If we meet it with an established attitude, we shall be proof against its seductions. A Christian stand towards the culture of our day cannot be improvised under the pressure of actual contact. In the seminary we have time to assess the secular values by which our contemporaries live, and out of this unhurried criticism grows an intuitive fidelity to our mission, which is so often confused with the glamorous causes of this world. The "indelible character" of the priesthood is an awful reality. It is important to preserve the external tokens of our dedication. It is more important to cherish and develop the dedication itself. When the time comes, we can put on the uniform of the priesthood in a few minutes. We cannot make a complete offering of ourselves to God on the spur of the moment. It is not too early to ponder the questions the Bishop will put to us on the day of our ordination. They became our concern on the day when God invited us to seek the priesthood.

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