At the Edge of Attention

The Grand River, near Fergus.

The Grand River, near Fergus.

Lectures began again today, the start of what will be a milestone semester. It’s the last time we’ll share desks with fourth-years Johan, Rick, Steve, Gerard, and Randall. It’s hard to say how things will change when they’re gone – more elbow room, I guess, and maybe less lively classroom crossfire – but change they will. Probably the biggest change yet, as they’re the students we’ve known best and longest.

Then, of course, there is the first classis exam awaiting us third-years. I do have mixed feelings about it. There’s the thrill of it, first of all. I was pretty excited last year to find out what texts the third-years were given; even Arenda was excited. Getting a text for sermon session is always something to look forward to. It’s like meeting a new friend, even if the first thing that friend does is readjusts your sense of intellectual dignity. So I have the same sort of anticipation for the classis exam text, even if that won’t come until the end of the semester.

But there’s also the potential for failure. And if you fail, you miss out on the summer internship which is a necessary part of the Pastoral Training Program. You’d have to do the internship the summer after fourth year, then. Which isn’t the end of the world, but does amount to the kind of mid-to-upper-level hassle you do your best to avoid in life.

That’ll all be coming at the end, in May. When it’s green again here, and there’s a mayfly hatch coming off somewhere. Speaking of which, Fergus is one of Ontario’s fly-fishing hubs, and that’s where I’ll be doing my summer internship. Rev. Marc Jagt, and the consistory of Fergus North, was kind enough not to reject my offer; so if all goes as planned Arenda and the kids and I will be moving north for the three summer months so I can find my Bambi-legs in the pulpit.

Anyways, again, that’s all a few months away, after a semester which is only one day old. I thought I’d share a bit yet on what’s called around here “spiritual formation.” That’s just a fancy phrase for “sanctification” which itself is a fancy phrase for “the hallways of my soul are not quite as damp and cheerless as they were last year.” In your first year at CRTS, you have to come up with a spiritual formation plan. You have to look long and hard at yourself, and decide how to both develop your strengths and challenge your weaknesses. If you genuinely have a tough time finding weaknesses, I can guarantee that you’ll find them by the start of the winter semester in your third year.

With the plan in place you progress through the years by referring back to it with your mentor, one of the professors. My mentor is Dr. de Visser, for whom I’m very thankful. The goal, of course, is to develop your strengths and at least manage your weaknesses. To that end, the students are assigned a book each year that they read during the holidays and then discuss as a class. This year, that book was The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges.

I’ve also picked up some readings of my own along the way. It’s a growing collection of articles and books that I’ve marked “read once a year.” Some of them are important enough that they’re marked “read every semester,” and they come from a book called The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. One of them is a short piece from Thomas Aquinas called, “Letter to Brother John.” I posted it here some time ago, and I’ve considered memorizing it.

The other is a longer piece by Simone Weil called, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Simone Weil was a Christian mystic from the early-to-mid twentieth century, so there are things in this piece that a Reformed Christian will find questionable. Although, there have been times, like after hearing Dr. Tipton’s speech at the CRTS conference this weekend, that I’ve wanted to move the family to the woods, grow my beard, subsist off of berries and trout, and do nothing but meditate on the illuminated cosmic vistas of God’s Word.

The main thought in her article is that the point of all studying is to develop the discipline of attention. The real value of a disciplined attention comes through in your prayer life: “Prayer consists of attention. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.” The value of attention also shows itself in pastoral ministry: “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

There’s attention, but there’s also the formation of humility: “When we force ourselves to fix the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity, a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence.” Like I said, by the start of your winter semester in your third year…

That’s just a preview of what is a profound read, and one that I’ve found invaluable for my own atrial warmth and cheer. It isn’t too long, and it will pay you back many times for the effort you put into reading it. You can read it online here:

Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God

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