Let Your Saint Choose You

by The Rev’d Dr. Daniel Tatarnic

My thesis director gave me a good piece of advice, “Pray your way through your research.” It was the beginning of a prayer that would last nearly a decade, that would impel me through the highs of creative insight and guide me through the pendulum-swings of self-doubt and personal struggle: “Pray your way through your research.” Theology is costly; discipleship is costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right, there is no such thing as cheap grace.

Reinhard Hutter, in Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice (Eerdmans, 1999), makes this point when he writes about pathos, astonishment, and authentic Christian mission which “being affected by being takes place in astonishment…this means undergoing suffering.” Pathos (pashein), in Latin passio, is a reminder of the paschal watermark of theological engagement with the Living God. We are created, as persons, to feel deeply and to suffer (pashein / passio) affection in our souls.

A passing glance at the history of twentieth-century Christian martyrs reminds us that the practice of theology does not take place in ivory towers but in the trenches. From here we encounter its cruciform logic and paschal nature: Bonhoeffer, Romero, Edith Stein. The bloodless martyrdom of theologians like John Henry Newman, Henri deLubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar; Evelyn Underhill, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy Day, Tolkien and Lewis, they all have something to say about carrying affection in the soul. 

The encounter invaded every aspect of my life. Suddenly, everything was speaking!

It was around my comprehensive examinations that my hair turned grey and started thinning. I’ve always had a Dominican spirit, so the idea that prayer was study, and study was prayer resonated well in my soul. There are a good number of Anglican Benedictines. There are a good number of Anglican Franciscans. There aren’t many Anglican Dominicans; maybe I’ll change that someday, who knows. Notwithstanding, I prayed my way through my degree, and watched my hair turn grey. 

Theology became prayer, sacra doctrina, a living conversation with a great cloud of witnesses. The encounter invaded every aspect of my life. Suddenly, everything was speaking! I made new friends: pray, and let your saint choose you, they’ll bring you on an incredible journey, the journey toward sacra doctrina. 

If the Church intends to say anything worth saying to the modern world, it will have to work hard at reclaiming theology as sacra doctrina. The militant atheism of the early part of this millennium tried to expropriate theology from every possible public discourse. Their attacks on religion were venomous and they gained adherents. But we should thank militant atheism for attacking religion so vehemently. In doing so, many people in the church (myself included) were compelled to re-claim sacra doctrina.

Gilles Mongeau, (Regis College, Toronto), has produced a fine book about re-sourcing and re-claiming theology for the 21st century Church. In Embracing Wisdom: The Summa Theologiae as Spiritual Pedagogy (Pontifical Institute, Toronto, 2015), he argues that doing theology is being mission oriented. Authentic Christian mission is embodied in the places (i.e. in the trenches) where God’s people are: teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, first responders, parents, neighbours — all authentic living examples of where God is transforming the world and where theology is taking place.

People (not institutions) are the flesh through which Jesus transforms the world. Therefore, what the 21st century needs are brave ‘ordinary’ Christians, who-and-from-within their own states of life, are willing to suffer (i.e. to carry) life-transforming, life-changing affection in the soul. This is what animating the church and engaging in mission looks like. But, in order to do this work of transformation, our collective root systems — our imaginations, and our memories — will need to sink very deep into the soil of holiness and sacra doctrina.