Education leads us to human fulfilment

  • September 18, 2008
{mosimage}Throughout his remarkable visit to Paris and Lourdes in mid-September, Pope Benedict XVI showed France and the world what is best about contemporary Catholicism. He reached out with great warmth to all the people he met, from the mighty of this world — his first stop was a conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy — to sick pilgrims and intellectuals, the youth of Paris, Jews and Muslims.

He preached the Gospel with zeal, witnessed to the love revealed 150 years ago at Lourdes, and encouraged the French clergy and others called to dedicated lives to stand firm in the face of Europe’s deepening unbelief. And he did these things with shining charity.
But of all Benedict’s public appearances, one stands out for me as especially urgent: his lecture to some 700 cultural officials and academics at the recently restored Collège des Bernardins in Paris, a medieval foundation that now serves as a centre for dialogue on Christianity and contemporary culture.

Benedict’s topic was, in his words, “the origins of Western theology and the roots of European culture.” The search for these origins is not some antiquarian chase through the annals of history. Rather, it is a rescue of our Western inheritance from the forgetfulness of modern secularism — the recovery, especially, of the legacy of monasticism.

“(A)mid the great cultural upheaval resulting from migrations of peoples and the emerging new political configurations,” Benedict said, “the monasteries were the places where the treasures of ancient culture survived, and where at the same time a new culture slowly took shape out of the old.” Their motivation, however, was neither to preserve the culture of the past nor create a new one for the present. “Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential — to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself.”

But for the men and women who established the traditions of European monasticism, this was not an errand into a “trackless wilderness.” “God Himself had provided signposts, indeed He had marked out a path which was theirs to find and to follow. This path was His word, which had been disclosed to men in the books of the sacred Scripture. Thus, by inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word or — as Jean Leclercq put it: eschatology and grammar are intimately connected with one another in Western monasticism.”

This “culture of the word” — this devotion to the biblical texts and to language itself, cultivated in the monasteries of Europe during the Dark Ages and beyond — is the crucible in which the serious Western philosophical and theological thought took the characteristic form it has had ever since: bookish, committed to logical inquiry, concerned with the questions of human role purpose and destiny. “The monastery serves eruditio, the formation and education of man — a formation whose ultimate aim is that man should learn how to serve God. But it also includes the formation of reason — education — through which man learns to perceive, in the midst of words, the Word itself.” This education “does not lead to a purely individual path of mystical immersion, but to the pilgrim fellowship of faith.”

From the study of words, to the knowledge of the Word, to membership in the living, worshipping and praising community — how badly we need to recover the basic sequence of educational formation that Benedict sketches out. Contemporary culture is a churning maelstrom of words — opinions, theories, notions of every kind. Without the guidance of reason and revelation, humankind is condemned to live in turmoil. In our confusion, two temptations are always pulling at us: Benedict calls them “fanaticism and arbitrariness.” But education, as the European monastics understood it, is the way, not only to fellowship with God and with each other, but also to human fulfilment in all its dimensions.

This way has been opened to us by the Holy Spirit, and, in following it — studying the Holy Scriptures, praying the Liturgy, living a life of reason — we discover the true duty involved in being human.

“The Spirit is Christ, and Christ is the Lord who shows us the way,” Benedict said. “With the word of Spirit and of freedom, a further horizon opens up, but at the same time a clear limit is placed upon arbitrariness and subjectivity, which unequivocally binds both the individual and the community and brings about a new, higher obligation than that of the letter: namely, the obligation of insight and love.”

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