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Conferenza di Fr Michael Casey “The Joy of Random Study”

by | 20 Apr 2024 | Teologia

Fr. Michael Casey, OCSO, born in Ringwood, Melbourne, Australia, has been a monk of Tarrawarra Abbey, Australia,since 1960. He was solemnly professed on 17 March 1965 and ordained to the priesthood on 15 June 1968. After ordination he completed an MA and STL at KatholiekeUniversiteit Leuven, and in 1980 received his doctorate from Melbourne College of Divinity for a study of desire for God in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux. For many decades Fr. Michael has been engaged in exploring different aspects of monastic spirituality, writing, and giving conferences throughout the world. He has published more than a dozen books and 100 articles, many of which have been translated into several languages. His latest books are: Coenobium: Reflections on MonasticCommunity (Collegeville: Cistercian, 2021); A Vision for Renewal: The Social teaching of Pope Francis (Strathfield: St Pauls, 2022); and To Love this Earthly Life: Pathways through Ecclesiastes (New York: Orbis, 2022).

Below you will find the text of the Conference held on April 17th by Fr. Michael at the Pontifical Athenaeum Sant’Anselmo.

I asked the question of my computer: “How many students are there in Rome?”. The answer came back: “268.000”. And I asked another question: “How many students in Rome study?” And no response was forthcoming. That seems to indicate a divergence between the noun and the verb, suggesting, perhaps, that somehow it’s possible to be a student without studying! This makes no sense at all in the context of the history and etymology of the word study“. The ProtoIndoeuropean root *stewd, from which the Latin studērederives, seems to indicate more than an external activity. It evokes an attitude of zeal, dedication, eagerness that underlines a persons application to a task or the pursuit of the goal. There is a certain passion involved. As Cicero noted,study – “studium” – is the assiduous occupation of the mindvehemently applied to something with great pleasure.Assiduous, vehement, pleasurable. Perhaps that’s why no answer was given to the query about how many students study“. How is it possible to be a student without studying? Astudent in the etymological sense is an enthusiast, not a drudge. In contemporary English usage, however, a student is a learner or apprentice to be distinguished from one who has mastered the art, or has become a practitioner or a teacher.Not yet the real thing: most of us would be reluctant to be operated on by a student doctor. Student exist in a transitional state, between ignorance and expertise. How far along that particular spectrum students are judged to be depends on one’spoint of observation; their doting grandparents may regard them as extraordinarily knowledgeable, but their exam results may reveal something rather less spectacular. For students is always an element of discontent due to the fact that they’re not yet where they want to be; what is being asked of them in the present is different from what they hope to be doing in the future. As a result, enthusiasm wanes. They may slacken in the intensity of their efforts, perhaps exaggerating in their own estimation the progress they have made, perhaps, doubting the relevance of the exercises they have been assigned. Study may seem more like a chore than a desired delight. When they achieve their desired goal, study will cease. In contrast to this everyday usage, I like to envisage a distinctive kind of study, that is the embodiment of a detached and disinterested desire to know, to lapse into Lonerganism. Many ancient philosophers insisted that knowledge is the first object to which we are attracted, after the supply of our physical needs.Cicero wrote: “This pertains most of all to human nature. We are all of us drawn to the pursuit of knowledge and science, in which we consider it excellent to excel, where is to be mistaken, to err, to be ignorant, or to be deceived, is both an evil and a disgrace“. And the reason for this is that human nature is endowed with an inherent inclination towards knowledge. Cicero continues: “The search after truth and its eager pursuit, our proper to the human being and so when we are free from the demands of business and cares, we are eager to see, to hear something new and we esteem, a desire to know the secret wonder of things as indispensable to a happy life, thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to human nature“. To speak of knowledge as detached and disinterested is to underline its desirable gratuitousness there is in such pure application of the mind no ulterior motive, no immediate purpose beyond itself. There is an ultimate goal, a telos, but this corresponds to the final destination of human life itself. It is this eros of the mind as Lonergan terms it, that generates in us both a yearning for the absolute and a kind of instinctive guidance in the task of moving towards it. No doubt this is to endow study with a degree of existential seriousness that goes beyond the merely education or the purely functional. It is an activity that helps us to become more fully human. Even while this non-utilitarian investment of time in study is becoming a lifetime habit, desperate glimmerings of who I am, and who I am meant to become begin to sparkle on the surface of consciousness, it’s more than the acquisition of knowledge about the objective world; it is also a burgeoning awareness of my own subjective identity. Such study becomes a means by which I am imprinted with my own particular identity; it facilitates the gradual emergence of the one that I will be for all eternity. This is not to say that nothing of the sort occurs during more formalized educational activity. In fact, it’s often these flashes of insight provide motivation for the hours, spent in gathering, and synthesizing the work of others. In the midst of our toil, or in the moment of leisure, a window opens and we intuit into something of the vast expense that was hitherto beyond our sites. The purity of intelligible truth suddenly emerges from within the mundane realities, which we had been occupied in juggling. I do not doubt that this happens sometimes, but the very unexpected of such eurekamoments, may well be an indication of some deficiency in our general methodology, or some narrowness in our purview.

As I have been suggesting random study is a valuable and maybe interval component of our humanization; it follows that is likely to become impaired to the extent that it is under the control of the ego to be changed by listening to the universe, demands that the ego be silenced. The dynamic of the ego is essentially conservative and defensive. It makes use of the default mode network of the brain to resist change, togive exaggerated respect to routine, and to ensure continuity. It does not give free play to intelligent inquiry, lest questions are asked, whose answers may possibly oppose the threat to the status quo. Controlled research can never be entirely trusted since there is no guarantee that what has been excluded from the scope of disciplined investigation is not relevant to its findings. Authentic study involves letting go.There I say that it demand a certain measure of playfulness.The purity of intention that is the foundation for mindblowing inside demands that we expose ourselves to reality or texts that speak of reality, in a spirit of substantial openness, free from both ambition and apprehension. The ambience that authentic study demands is one leisure. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that the Greek root of the words “scholar” and “school is precisely scholé“, leisure. We are not speaking here of leisure as mindless disengagement, recreational activity, entertainment or idleness; leisure is not an escape, but a discovery. It’s not listless passivity, but an openness to energetic involvement. It’s more properly understood as a state which liberates that which is most deeply personal and thus opens avenues to reality, that are otherwise blocked.Josef Pieper stated this clearly in his highly respected study:“Leisure, the basis of culture“. He wrote: “Leisure is a form of silence, which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality. Leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude. It’s not only the occasion, but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation“. We probably know from experience that our concern with part of reality in inhibits our capacity to be impacted by the totality, nor can we give unconditional concentration, while we leave ourselves liable to diversion. As we hold our cell phones in our hands,we indicate that whatever else we do is subject to interruption.our present task is only a temporary hold on our attention. Our concentration on it is conditional and thereby incomplete. We might go even further adhesion is an invitation to, and an expectation of interruption. Perhaps we might ask out is subject to end interruption. Our present task has only a temporary hold on our attention: our concentration on it is conditional and thereby incomplete. We might go even further. Cellphone adhesion is an invitation to, and an expectation of interruption. Perhaps we might ask ourselves, whether we are in the process of being unable to commit ourselves unconditionally to anything, when we leave the door open to a whole universe of alternatives. However it’s only by being willing to move from disparate parts towards the totality, that we introduce a note of seriousness into our lives. It’s by stepping back from the multiplicity of our occupations and preoccupations, that we create a receptivity to what my will transcend the limits imposed by our habitualhopes and expectations and perhaps also our prejudices. Most of us cannot do this all the time, but we can make a choice to do it sometimes. Although Thomas Merton was speaking about the institutionalized contemplative life, what he says, applies also to the contemplative component of any human life in its integrity: “The contemplative life must provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices—beyond routine choices—become manifest. It should create a new experience of time, not as stopgap, stillness, but as “temps vierge”—not a blank to be filled or an untouched space to be conquered and violated, but a space which can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes—and its own presence to itself. One’s own time. But not dominated by one’s own ego and its demands”.

In speaking of a space from which the ego is excluded, there are two great obstacles to creating a leisurely space, in which study that is assiduous, vehement and pleasurable is likely to occur. On the one hand acedia, on the other hand, multitasking. The Israeli sociologist Shlomo Giora Shohamhas suggested that acedia is the dominant characteristic of contemporary Western society. That was in 1972, before the Internet, cell phones and social media. Acedia can be recognized in a persons willful detachment from serious social engagement in favor of some form of entertainment. It’s almost a choice of nonexistence, a parallel or the opposite form of disengagement is multitasking: by attempting several tasks simultaneously, none is likely to absorb our entire attention; any one task can be neglected on the pretext of attending to something else. Both distraction and hyperoccupation preempt the wholehearted attention the genuine study requires. Since such study involves yoking together the two hemispheres of the brain, so that rational thought and intuition sing together in harmony, the kind of study that is assiduous, vehement and pleasurable demands that left and right hemisphere operate in tandem; it involves the willing application of our whole heart and mind. If you google “study” and ask for images, you get a whole lot of pictures of people interacting with books and computers. This is certainly part of study, but there is another part when the book is closed and the computers switched off; the leisure which allows data collected in active research to be processed is essential for creation outcomes. Just as the body left itself will heal the wound it has suffered, so the mind when it is given some free time will often go off in search of answers to the questions that have been left hanging, when active studies ceased. Some surely have experienced this: when asked where he obtained the content for his books, the American novel is Don DeLilloanswered. “It comes out of all the time the writer wastes”. The image of Archimedes in his bath comes to mind. Perhaps we should consider spending more time in the bath. Because of the evolutionary stance that we, in the last couple of centuries,like to give everything, we tend to believe that every important process should proceed logically and without undue interruption. The life and development of the mind, however, is more than a regimented march through a sequence of prescribe stages, it feeds off contingent and circumstantial components. These may include detours and sidetracks, where what is hidden on the highway, burst into sight. At the time this may seem to be a distraction or delay to real progress, but in fact it can be an enrichment. Development is recognized such only in retrospect; often enough the most desirable and dramatic developments are the result of dangerous thinking outside the box. This is unlikely to happen in a closed regime of the mind, when the spirit of leisure is slacking. By random study, I do not mean an uncommitted fluttering through an ever changing variety of superficial interests; such an activity scarcely merits the description assiduous, nor am I underestimating the necessary contribution made by sustained and close reading of primary sources, and the careful consideration of what others think about them. Such application is indispensable to our growth and knowledge, but sometimes intense concentration can cause us to lose sight of what is on the periphery, and this can result in our vision of the whole being incomplete. Insight is not necessarily linked to the degree of labor invested in research, but often opens up beforr us unbidden; the opposite is also true. Sometimes exclusive concentration and energetic application have the effect of limiting us to our previous purview. Specialist research that consists only in drilling deeper and deeper into a particular topic pursues its goal by casting away everything that is deemed irrelevant. As a result, we find ourselves blocked in our progress by the solid wall of our prejudgments.

By way of illustration, let me draw on my own experience when I was doing the spadework for my thesis on the desire of God in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux – this was in the 1970s BC, before computers! – I trolled through the whole nine volumes of his works, noting every single occurrence of the word and the theme and of a never expanding range of association. The result was hundreds, if not thousands of index cards. My work was certainly a assiduous and perhaps vehement, though not always pleasurable, but I suppose it yielded an acceptable result. However, reading Saint Bernards writings in the decades, since then, in a more leisurely context. I’m frequently surprised to notice highly significant text that completely escaped my attention during my relentless charge to capture relevant data. I’ve since become aware that the full picture of his most important themes is never contained in a single work, but invariably scattered throughout his whole corpus and often flagged informally. Sometimes with an imaginative variation invocabulary, that defies the efforts of those whose work isguided by computers. Incidental nuances are often added in unexpected places. Furthermore I regularly come across interesting details, that would probably feed into a biography, if one were daring enough to embark on such a project. For example, his vivid description of the behaviour of a man on the point of drowning is obviously based on observation and this leads me to ask whether taking advantage of climate change during the warm, medieval period, Bernard could ever have been a swimmer. However, I’m not sure how acceptable to his pious hagiographers would be the picture of a youthful Bernard cavorting naked with his friends in the river Seine during his years at Châtillon. We’ll never know for certain. But even so, I do not consider that this hypothesis can be dismissively set aside. In random study interesting data sometimes pop up unexpectedly: the point is it often we see more when we’re not looking for something in particular. Just as we see more when we are a passenger in the car and not driving, we have the luxury of looking around. Control is achieved by systematic limitation: we decide in advance whatwe are looking for, and as a result, that’s all about we see. I suppose it’s partly a matter of temperament, but I must admit I would rather wonder aimlessly around a strange city and see three interesting things, than to be marched around by an accredited guide and usually forced to register 33 officially recognized sites that absolutely must be viewed. There‘s something luxurious about taking up a project that has absolutely nothing to do with our everyday commitments. To read a thick on the life of Frederick Barbarossa, or some other notable of history, for most of us has little utilitarian benefit. Yet spending such an amount of time wandering in a previously unknown area, cannot be without some impact on who we are, and how we look at things. A little irrelevance can add a sparkle to life. Hearing Peter Wohlleben’s book “The hidden Life of Trees read in the monastic refectory, opened up for me a whole new world of understanding that was more delightful than useful. After that, my world is brighter. I look at trees with a deeper degree of admiration. In his work on the idea of the university, Cardinal Newmanoppose the utilitarian thesis propounded by John Locke on the ground that what is useful today, might be useless tomorrow.There is something in random study that goes beyond success, examination, or winning the approval of academic peers: I’m thinking of studying as a means of enhancing one’s life, in increasing happiness and sewing the seeds from which wisdom sprouts. It can be a means by which the mysteries of the universe are laid bear before our wandering and wandering gazes. Let me go further. I’m suggesting that this kind of gratuitous study may well merit listing among the tools of the spiritual craft. One of the many contributions of father Jean Leclercq of this university was his promotion of what he termed monastic theology“. Notably, of course, in his book, “The love of Learning and the Desire for God“. The meaning of the term itself was not selfevident, and there were some grumpy reactions to it. It did not signal any desire to ignore or marginalize the work of more scholastictheologians, it indicated not a replacement, but a complement to rigorous dogmatic investigation. As he was to write, perhaps by way of retractatio: “Our appreciation from the monastic theology should in no sense lessen the esteem, which is due to that form of theology which developed after the monastic period“. Some thought of the term referred to a theological interpretation of monasticism, such as was surveyed in the well received collective volume, Théologiede la vie monastique“. However, its specific focus was not so much on content, but more on the method and spirit of the theologizing: it sought to inject a subjective component into theological reflection to compensate for its wealth of objective abstractions. Its ambition was not to expand the universe of theological understanding, but to facilitate its translation into self-awareness, prayer and practice. It applied itself to the same mysteries, but expressed its conclusion, using different literary genres and employing a distinctive semantic palette,with certain terms supercharge to facilitate his particular purpose. Its most typical forms were sermons and homilies,rather than the Aristotelian tractates, then coming into favour in the schools, and, as we all know, sermons are inclined to wander. Indicative of the specificity of monastic theology was its greater reliance on the right hemisphere of the brain. It did not spell out everything in precise, analytic detail, but approached its subject holistically and circuitously. Similarities and metaphors abound, Scripture is invoked imaginatively, often making surprising linkages and combining texts. Wordplay is paramount and smiles are not excluded. In monastic theology, intuition is king and poetic discourse is consort. Western monastic theology drew its energy from tradition, as it was practice before the advent of scholasticism, it very clearly stood on the shoulders of predecessors the Latin Church fathers, and others who have been translated into Latin in the course of the centuries, and particularly those who are served as readings in the office of vigils. This kind of monastic study was considerably more than the synthesizing of pre-existing text, such as was done by some medieval plagiarists. It demanded an interchange with the text being studied, not merely to establish what might have been meaning for the writer when first written, but what was it meaning for the contemporary reading; this meant the written text enered into dialogue with the authors experience,past history together with present concerns and needs. The ancient text continued to flex its muscles and enter into contest with contemporary priorities. Monastic theology emerged in the context of a dialogue with tradition. It was a corporate or collective approach with a certain amount of give-and-take rather than a focused pursuit of a definitive answer to particular questions. It enjoyed being a search after truth without aspiring to arrive at the kind of discovery that would cause the search to end. It was the kind of corkscrew engagement, described by Pseudo-Dionysius, going round and round its object, penetrating deeper and deeper, but delighting never to arrive at the terminus ad quem. What was found was that there is yet more to be found and that therefore more to be searched for. Any particular instance of monastic theology can only be appreciated in the context of an ongoing tradition,not just as an inactive passenger in a train, traveling through the centuries, but as an active participant in the evolution of the original gift, continually drawing the new into the old, that so that in the sense to become inseparable.

I suppose this raises the question of whether the style of theologizing practiced in medieval monasteries, and no doubt, somewhat determined by the relative paucity of scholarly resources, can have a relevance today. Would there be any usefulness in it? Yes, I think, that finding a way to reproduce the process in contemporary term, can serve to enhance the life of individuals, who are seeking to incorporate the Scriptures and the wisdom of the Church Fathers into their own emergent philosophy of life. Time invested in the pursuit of wisdom is never time wasted. Spending time, wondering and wondering through the ancient texts is certainly mind expanding and life enhancing, but there is something else.Pope Francis has pointed out something of which most of us are aware: throughout the church the area of homiletics is an urgent need of redemption. If preachers are to build bridges between the sacred texts and the lives of the people it’s not enough that they paraphrase biblical commentaries, or rave onabout their own particular moral predilections; they must themselves have acquired the art of living in the context of God‘s selfrevelation, giving it permission to address their lifesituations, and being willing to be both challenged and comforted by it. Out of this encounter, homilies emerge. A life in which lectio divina is ruminatively ruminative ponded and practically integrated, is more likely to find a style of preaching, which speaks to the hearts of the faithful. Cardinal Newman notes that a general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study and educated people can do what illiterate cannot. The heuristic method employed by monastic theology would probably be useful in scientific investigation that’s beyond my purview but it excels when it comes to whatever may be loosely designated as philosophy. I’m speaking of that topic which has occupied many great thinkers due in the centuries, the pursuit of wisdom. Knowledge is sharply defined, but well-rounded wisdom has no frontiers. Knowledge, however, extensive, is incomplete: it needs broadening even as John Lockeremarked: “Education begins a gentleman, but reading, good company, and reflection must finish it”. In a certain sense wisdom is both infinite and ever expanding. This is because it needs to be reincarnated in every situation, and in every generation. Wisdom can be appreciated in several different ways. It can be seen as a synthesis of the knowledge that we have acquired even outside our chosen and fields of specialization; so it has a combinative element, because it is infinitely hospitable, rather than obsessively evaluative. Wisdom is enriched through the assimilation of many different branches of knowledge and experience. As a result, it is both variegated and nuanced and of course, this is a process that is not realized in a moment, it is protracted through many years, and is in reality, a lifelong pursuit. Wisdom is usually not solitary, it is social: we learn more in company with others. How often a wise person will say: I had a great teacher“. Human being are societal animals, and we grow most when we are receptive of the distinctive gifts of others, not only sharing with our contemporaries, but drawing on the wisdom of ages passed through our active intervention withwholesome tradition; in the best sense wisdom is also traditional. In certain circumstances random study can also be therapeutic. I remember a confrere who coped with the ravages of chemotherapy by immersing himself in the five volumes of Harold McMillan‘s “Memoirs“. A useless occupation, surely, but somehow it enabled him to hold onto his humanity. We can also appreciate that wisdom draws into itself years and years of human experience, so that is characterized by a certain mellowness, that makes it more acceptable than sharpedged knowledge. Dare I say it, butabout wisdom there is a certain sweetness, both to the one who possesses it, and to all who encounter it. Random study is really a matter of the pursuit of wisdom. We cannot know in advance what we will find, and we’re not fully able to explain what we are seeking. We are simply giving free course to the eros of the mind by indulging the detached and disinterested desire to know, seeking the things that are above. Because random study aims for ongoing openness, rather than for a predefined conclusion, it operates at the level of common humanity, and thereby generates a willing hospitality to new information. Random study promotes an ever expandinguniverse of interest rather than compulsive concentration. Dimly aware of the limitless horizon, that is the ultimate mystery, those who practice random study, are not afraid to admit a limitation of their own knowledge, and because of this, they experience a willingness to engage in dialogue, with those who think differently. Their wondering through the byways of reality and history gives points of connection with those coming from different directions; it becomes a little easier to find common ground and to build bridges but span the gulf between divergent opinions. In this way encounter with difference leads beyond conflict to mutual and enrichment. Useful study is useful; useless study is often assiduous, vehement and pleasurable. The hippocampus is vast in capacity and very hospitable. Itss good health and operation depends in part on continual learning; applying ourselves to an area outside the scope of our specialization often leads to the anxietyfree acquisition of new knowledge, and perhaps the formation of new skills. Experience seems to indicate that the more we delve into a particular topic, the more vehement interest becomes. What the first was no more than a slight twinge of curiosity, becomes a passion to learn more, we’re not so much interested in becoming a registered expert on the subject, we just enjoy immersing ourselves onthe topic that has few into immediate linkages. If a fortuitous connection with our everyday world emerges, we gladly exploit it, but this was never the object of our study.Assiduous, vehement, pleasurable. May I be so bold as to assert, that may be the person who indulges in random study, returns to more formal intellectual engagement, broadened and enriched and maybe, after many years of growing inwisdom, they end up being more fully human and thereby more fully divine. Thank you”.

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