I recently officiated at the wedding of one of my nieces back in the rural Ohio town where I grew up. At the reception that followed I was seated next to the godfather of the Bride. We struck up a conversation and in the midst of it he asked me about the parish I served. I responded that my main ministry was that of teaching and scholarship in theology and that my primary work was in the classroom at the University of Portland in Oregon.
The man paused, furrowed his brow, and with a simple straightforwardness he asked: “Why with such a shortage of priests in the parishes, do they let so many of you teach?” I struggled mightily to give him a rather self-justifying answer, which he graciously accepted, but it left me cold. I was troubled, not so much by the man’s question, or by my desperate self-justification in answering, but by a deeper question that pricked me: “As a religious and priest why do I teach?”
The short answer to that question is: I really don’t know what else to do. Now that response may, on the surface of it, sound just as unsatisfying as the answer I gave the bride’s godfather, but I think there is more to it. I am a monk at heart and an apostolic religious and priest by training. I love the contemplative life and have steeped myself for years in the Christian spiritual tradition. It feeds me. Intellectually it fascinates me endlessly and spiritually it keeps me alive. I have always somehow known intuitively that the heart of my own call is about integration (or perhaps better said, interpenetration); the work of taking what seems contradictory and opposite and letting God bring them into a collision within me, and hopefully in time, and through His work, integration as well. The monk and the apostolic priest are a fundamental pair of such colliding opposites within me whose fission-and-fusion relationship keeps opening up unexpected vistas and experiences.
Perhaps all of this is why after nearly 14 years of religious life and priesthood I decided, in 2006, to pursue a Ph.D. in the academic discipline of Christian Spirituality. And, perhaps, all of this is why in the midst of those studies I landed on the medieval theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart, as the object of my study. Eckhart, even in his own day, was recognized as one who was both lesemeister (learned master) and lebemeister (life or spiritual master). Eckhart’s chiaroscuro spirituality with its constant collision of the human and divine, light and dark, clarity and obscurity speaks to me intimately as if it were something I have somehow already known.
So how does all this address my troubling question: “Why as a religious and priest do I teach?” Well when I first went to college 30 years ago, I began as an elementary education major. In my sophomore year I transferred to secondary education. But in my junior year I went to the seminary and consciously chose to pursue the priesthood leaving teaching behind. I figured it was no longer the path I was being called to tread and in choosing religious and priest I was rejecting out of hand the teacher.
Now most people wouldn’t necessarily think of teacher and priest as opposites but for some reason I had set them in opposition. It had to be one or the other. Well here I sit, many years later, priest and teacher and learning how these two collide and slide into place in my own spiritual life every day, just like the monk and the apostolic minister do as well. And those collisions and surprising interpenetrations in me provide the fuel for how I teach and what I research in the spiritual life.
So why do I teach? C.S. Lewis once wrote: “I am what I do.” He wasn’t acquiescing to some utilitarian understanding of life, but rather was giving voice to the deep integrity that is part and parcel of the spiritual journey. When your insides and your outsides come together, even in the midst of contradictions, and create a oneness, that is God’s work in you.
Why do I teach? I am learning (yes, very much still learning) that it is because “I am what I do.” The object of study in the academic discipline of Christian Spirituality is the lived experience of faith. My lived experience of faith keeps teaching (and re-teaching) me the simple truth of something Jesus once said:”For humans it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Fr. Jeffrey Cooper, C.S.C. is an Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at the University of Portland. Fr. Cooper, C.S.C. professed Final Vows with Holy Cross on August 28, 1993, and was ordained a priest on April 9, 1994.