Novak (novak) wrote,

Theological Notebook: Good Reading; Thomas F. O'Meara, O.P.

This last week or two has been distinctly pleasurable for me on an academic level. The Mardi Gras holiday gave me a bit of extra time, after the grading chores and such were done, to engage in reading that wasn't directly linked to prepping for my classes. Chapters from Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror on religion and politics in the culture of the 1960s and in the experience of Ireland in the 20th century were alternately cheeky and disturbing. I found Joseph Ratzinger's autobiographical notes Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 to be striking and engaging on his earlier life, although disappointingly sparse as he gets to the period of the Second Vatican Council and beyond, although I can understand that those parts of his life that are still more "live" might have been less easy or appropriate for summation or finalizing in his own mind.

But the biggest treasure has been the autobiographical text entitled A Theologian's Journey by Thomas F. O'Meara, O.P., a former professor of mine at Notre Dame. I had been reading his revised Theology of Ministry with my Master's students in my Church, Sacraments, and Ministry course, and had discovered that the book was nothing short of fabulous: a text I wish I had discovered while writing my dissertation, as his reflections on charisms in the Church were well-developed, historically informed, and would have saved me some of the legwork I had to do in recreating the same research in order to arrive at some of the same conclusions. So, rather jazzed about what I was reading in his theology, I picked up this autobiographical text, which I had had on my shelf for a few years, waiting for a lazy day to read it. In many ways, it is a developed, book-length version of some of the material that I most valued in his class while I was an introductory/Master's student (the painful contradiction of theological education in our time) studying Grace and Thomas Aquinas with him at Notre Dame: reflections on his own educational journey.

He would interject anecdotes in the course of his teaching that took advantage of the very peculiar circumstances that his place in history had afforded him: he came of age as a young Dominican friar from Iowa in the late 1950s, receiving the standard sub-standard theological and philosophical education of his time and place. He was then sent to Germany for a doctorate during the time of the Second Vatican Council, where he received another, entirely distinct education – the historically sensitive and honest vision of theology championed by the Council and the great figures of the theological age like Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Karl Rahner. This gave O'Meara the ability to share with us in the classroom of the 1990s a "street-level" experience of theological education and formation both before and after the Council, which was something that I found particularly useful in getting a grasp of the depth of the changes of those times, in a personalized way that one couldn't obtain simply by reading a history of the Council, or by just reading its documents.

It might sound a bit dull to some, I suppose, in description: a memoir largely composed of recalling a period of education over the course of a decade. But the result is actually both charming and instructive, in much the same way that C.S. Lewis's memoir of his own intellectual and spiritual development up to his belief in Christ, Surprised By Joy, turns education into the greatest of dramas. O'Meara's book is more useful for grasping the essential drama of Catholicism in the 20th century (and much of the intellectual culture of the 20th century in general), particularly as it climaxes in the Second Vatican Council, and I suspect that in future courses I offer on the Council, that I might use the text as a "street level" view of the impact and importance of the Council, which O'Meara describes in an engaging way. I have frequently felt the impulse over the last week to type into the computer some particularly good passage, which I'm sure would have enriched this journal immeasurably, but each time I felt that I was having too much fun reading, and so opted to keep on turning the pages. I suppose that there are other things that add to my finding such sympathy for the text: O'Meara pays a great deal of attention to how culture influences theology and spirituality, and his descriptions are as much about music, art and architecture as they are about academic theology or philosophy, all of which is also of great interest. (Where possible, I've found both enjoyable and helpful the modern tool of being able to find his described locations on Google Earth, along with the photographs that people attach of various places.) The fact that I am also a kid from the Midwestern countryside who has also tried to rise up and overcome his own provincial and under-prepared background in order to become a theologian (of all outlandish things – I can still see in my mind's eye Grandma Sweeney just taking in some account of what I was doing with her deadpan and understated, "Well!") probably has some bearing on the pleasure I take in reading the text. Between this and his Theology of Ministry, I've had to wonder whether he had a far more profound impact upon me than I ever imagined, particularly in my approach to reading and teaching theology through an historical, artistic and spiritual mix, or whether I somehow just came to the same conclusions/orientation on my own (perhaps through that famous Midwestern "common sense" one hears about now and then).

But all that aside, highest recommendation for all you readers: five stars, two thumbs up, et cetera and so on.
Tags: benedict xvi, books, church and state, class-church sacraments and ministry, constitutional, dissertation, ecclesiology, europe, legal, notre dame, political, second vatican council, teachers, theological notebook

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