“The Ladder of Divine Ascent” or “The Ladder of Paradise” is a 12th-century icon described by John Climacus. at the Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai. Wikimedia Commons

Learning from Others

When students bring wisdom to the teacher

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“The greatest sin in terms of one’s relationship with God is apathy,” I said as I pontificated years ago in a class presentation to a group of seniors in high school.

I continued, “Can anyone give me a definition of apathy?”

As silence greeted me, I looked around the classroom and finally addressed the question to one of my most disinterested students that school year. His response was predictable, “I don’t care.” To which I responded enthusiastically, “You are correct!”

The other students broke into mild laughter, getting the gist of my clever repartee — him, not so much.

I mention this brief exchange because he would be the same individual a few weeks later who challenged me in ways he would never realize. The students had just completed a personality and temperament awareness exercise, and I was in the process of elucidating the interpersonal implications of the data.

Before I continue with the story line, I want to stress that knowledge of another’s personality type should never be used to manipulate a situation, but rather should always be approached with utmost respect and dignity. Therefore, I want to add a sincere mea culpa regarding my use of it in this particular circumstance.

One of the personality traits of the aforesaid student does not bow to titles, honors or awards. I, therefore, presented to him my extensive curriculum vitae and concluded with the question, “What do you think of all these life achievements?”

His somewhat predictable response was priceless: “Just because you are older doesn’t make you any wiser. Age has nothing to do with it!”

Much to his surprise, my immediate response was, “You are right.”

His barbed response does, in fact, have a solid scriptural foundation:

“How I love your law, Lord!
I study it all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my foes,
as it is ever with me.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
because I ponder your testimonies.
I have more understanding than my elders,
because I keep your precepts.”
— Ps 119:97-100

What Has the Teacher Been Taught?

For the past 39 years, I have been involved in a myriad of ministries: high school senior religion classes, as well as campus ministry; pastoral leadership in various parishes, both as parochial vicar and pastor; and initial formation work for those considering our Franciscan-Capuchin way of life. In terms of formation work, I have assisted over 130 men, ranging in age from 19 to 49, discern their spiritual path in response to God’s call these past 15 years.

The question for this article is: What have I learned from my relationships with others throughout my years of ministry? In other words: What has “the official teacher” been taught over all these years by his “students” from all walks of life?”

The Franciscan Spanish author Francisco de Osuna (1497-1541), in his classic book, “The Third Spiritual Alphabet,” which later influenced the spirituality of St. Teresa of Jesus (1515-82), shared what goes to the heart of my thoughts: “I once knew an eminent theologian who was as humble as he was learned, and one day he was speaking with a young man, unlearned but very experienced in recollection. After he had expounded several excellent points about recollection, the theologian said: ‘You know this much better than I for you know how it tastes, whereas I, having only read about it, do not hunger for it as keenly as you whose palate anticipates the pleasure of its flavor.’”

Formation Experience

From my 15 years in formation work, I have been challenged to reawaken my sense of enthusiasm (en theo, or “in God”) that sometimes has been misplaced along my life’s journey.

It has everything to do with those entering the first steps of initial formation. For they bring with them a genuine fervor and love for God. An attitude of “give it your all” without initially considering that the ramification can be perceived as imprudent and impulsive, but, at its core, it is an honest desire to respond to the promptings of the Spirit.

They are willing to take a leap in faith before considering if it is practical. It recalls, for me, that, “Oh, what a fool I once was for Christ,” before moments of compromise and bouts with acedia were strewn along the pathway. Too often, walking in the footsteps of Christ over the years becomes a much more measured gait than a bounding experience of joy and anticipation for all that lies ahead.

The Ladder

Second, during a PowerPoint presentation on the history of Christian spirituality, I projected onto the giant screen an image of “Climbing the Ladder of Divine Ascent” that graces many copies of John Climacus’ (579-649) spiritual classic of the same name. For me, it is one of the most powerful visual depictions of our struggle, not to be pulled from one’s journey to paradise as malicious devils attempt to grab the climbers that I have ever been drawn to meditate upon.

One of the class participants keenly observed what I had never noticed: Everyone attempting to climb the ladder into paradise in the painting are either clerics or men from religious orders. “Where are the laity?” he opined in a tone that seemed to express a degree of vexation.

I explained that John Climacus was writing an ascetical treatise in the early days of Eastern Christianity for a monastery located on the shores of the Red Sea. This response, however, begs the questions and, to a degree, dismisses the valuable insight of the participant: “Where is my appreciation of the laity?”; “What have I learned from their commitment to the Church?”; “And by their example, how have I deepened my own commitment?”

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No Bragging Rights: Notable Examples

I have no bragging rights or more of a special place on “The Ladder” than the laypeople I have served. Here are some notable examples: An 11-year-old girl once informed me, over dinner with her family, that I don’t pray enough! (The obvious tip-off for her: I didn’t wait to say grace before digging into the delicious meal set before me). Then in my initial days of ministry, while presenting a Scripture class during which I rued the fact that so many in the group had already made many sacrifices for their faith, a 72-year-old widow taught me not to go on any heroic quest looking for crosses to carry, since “yours will find you soon enough.” Many a married couple have witnessed in faith, hope and love to their vows that often make my privileged position in the Church feel so pithy and hollow.

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Long before Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church came out of the Second Vatican Council, one individual we can thank for respecting the “priesthood of all believers” is Jean Gerson (1363-1429). While held in high esteem for his theology, mysticism and as a leader of the conciliar movement for Church reform that ended the Great Schism, he was also a strong advocate for recognizing and encouraging lay spirituality in the Church.

Vatican II affirmed everyone’s call to holiness by the grace of our baptism — and many a man and woman, whether an adult, a young adult, a teen, a child, married or single, has blown me away with their commitment to God.

At least, someone needs to update “The Ladder” and place a lot of laypeople, sure-footed, on the rungs. Or as one dear friend, with a devilish twinkle in her eye, said: “You wonder, ‘Where are the laity on your ladder?’ Unlike you, they helped each other up, entered the pearly gates and now are anxiously praying and waiting breathlessly hoping for your arrival.’”

In many ways, theological studies, pastoral ministry and the accumulation of life experiences do invite opportunities for growth in wisdom and grace. To this day, I still hold onto the sage words I received while in theological studies: “You need to know enough canon law so that you don’t hurt others due to the poor advice you might give or hurt yourself due to the poor training you settled for.”

Solid education is necessary for a solid foundation, but it’s no guarantee of one’s spiritual maturity. It is what I have been open to learning from all my students over the years that will further help me to achieve that next rung toward sanctity. I can almost taste it now.

FATHER FRANK GRINKO, OFM, Cap., is the postulancy formation director at the Capuchin Province of Mid-America in Denver, Colorado, and a member of the Provincial Council.

 
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