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10 Things I Learned in My First Year of Seminary

May 21, 2015


After finishing my first year of seminary, before I set out to spend the summer at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, I spent some time reflecting on the experience. Here are ten things I learned that first year:

1. The Liturgy of the Hours is the Prayer of the People of God

The Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, is the prayer of the People of God for two reasons. First, because it is prayed for you. Priests make a public promise to pray these prayers daily for the Church. They’re not meant to replace private prayer, but to supplement it. Second, the laity are invited and encouraged to join in these liturgies, as well as to pray the Hours privately. The Catechism (CCC 1175), citing the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Conciliumhas this to say:

The Liturgy of the Hours is intended to become the prayer of the whole People of God. In it Christ himself “continues his priestly work through his Church.” His members participate according to their own place in the Church and the circumstances of their lives: priests devoted to the pastoral ministry, because they are called to remain diligent in prayer and the service of the word; religious, by the charism of their consecrated lives; all the faithful as much as possible: “Pastors of souls should see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more solemn feasts. The laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.”

So what is the Divine Office? It is a set of up to seven prayers (called “hours”) punctuating the day, so that we can pray with the Psalmist, “Seven times a day I praise thee for thy righteous ordinances” (Psalm 119:164). Typically, monks and nuns pray all seven, priests pray five, and the laity are encouraged to pray at least two or three (Lauds and Vespers, and hopefully, Office of Readings). Each “hour” consists of a hymn, Psalms (or parts of the Psalms), Scripture reading, and prayer:

  • Invitatory: This isn’t a separate hour of its own. Rather, as explains, “The Invitatory is the introduction to the first hour said on the current day, whether it be the Office of Readings or Morning Prayer.” Traditionally, the invitatory Psalm is Psalm 95. Psalm 100, Psalm 67, or Psalm 24 may also be used, but I have never seen this done.
  • Office of Readings: This is a major hour, and replaces Matins. After the hymn and three Psalms, there are two readings. The first is from Scripture, and the second typically comes from the Church Fathers or a Church Council. The second reading often serves as a commentary on the Scripture reading or the liturgical feast of the day. In all, Office of Readings takes about 15 minutes.
  • Morning Prayer (Lauds): After the hymn and three Psalms, there is a short Scripture reading (usually only a couple verses long: just enough to give you something to reflect on), a short Responsory Prayer, the Canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79), intercessions, the Our Father, and a closing prayer. Lauds also takes about 15 minutes.
  • Daytime Prayer (Terce, Sext, None): These are minor hours, prayed at mid-morning, midday, and mid-afternoon. They are three short Psalms, a short reading from Scripture, and a closing prayer. Diocesan priests are only required to pray one of these. Monks and nuns will often pray all three. Traditionally, they are prayed at about 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. (the third, sixth, and ninth hours: hence, the names). Each one takes about 5 minutes to pray.
  • Evening Prayer (Vespers): The structure of Vespers is almost identical to Lauds, except that instead of praying the Canticle of Zechariah, you pray the Canticle of Mary (the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55). It also takes about 15 minutes.
  • Night Prayer (Compline): After reflecting on your day, you pray an act of contrition, followed by a hymn, one Psalm, a short Scriptural reading, the Canticle of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis, Luke 2:29-32), and a closing prayer. Typically, this is followed by a Marian hymn.

2. We 
All Want to Be Good (And Can’t Help It)

St. Thomas Aquinas’ moral philosophy is built upon what he calls the notion of the good, that “good is that which all things seek after.” We pursue what we view as good: all of us do this, always

Think about it: if a thing didn’t seem good in some way, we wouldn’t bother striving for it. To will something is to desire it, and all of our intentional actions are willed. So even when we do something that we know, rationally, is evil, it shows that some part of us is unconvinced: some part of us — our passions, for example — views it as a good worth achieving. Evil, by definition, is treating something which isn’t good as if it were. This point will turn out to be both the bedrock of Thomas’ ethical system, and (as we shall see below) an answer to some of the strongest arguments from modern philosophers. 

But this point is also profoundly humanizing, because Aquinas doesn’t demonize evildoers. He reminds us that they, like us, are people who love and seek that which they think (on some level) is good. 

3. One of Aristotle’s Four Causes reveals the meaning of life.

 Why does Michelangelo’s David exist? Who or what caused it? According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, our answer to that question should delineate four different types of causes: formal, material, efficient, and final. (Obviously, he didn’t address the David directly).

Materially, the cause is the marble. The formal cause is the shape of the statue: it’s David. Together, the form and matter of the statue are what give it its nature (as a marble statue of David). But the form and matter don’t tell the full story. We have to look to the efficient (or agent) cause: primarily, that’s Michelangelo. In a secondary sense, Michelangelo’s tools can also be described as efficient causes.

But there’s one more cause: the final cause. The final cause is the end, “that for the sake of which” the thing exists. In other words, the final cause is the goal, the motive of the action. Only if you ask why Michelangelo made the David can you fully understand the statues’ causes.

Final causality applies to all human activity. Take the example of a batter swinging at the first pitch of a baseball game. What’s his goal in swinging the bat? To hit the ball. But there’s a more final cause: he’s trying to hit the ball so that he can get on base. And he’s trying to do that so that he can score a run, and so on.

When you start to arrange the causes in these sorts of sequences, they begin to converge. So, for example, a batter not swinging at a pitch is the opposite action as the last example. But when you explore why the two batters swing (or don’t), you can see that they are pursuing the same goal: trying to get on base, score runs, win the game, etc. So these opposite actions are done for the same final ends.

If you were to arrange all human activity into these series of causes, you’d see them eventually converge at a single point: one goal which is desired only for its own sake (since if it’s done for the sake of something else, that something else is a further end). Aristotle describes this as perfect happiness, which he says can be achieved fully only in contemplating the Divine for eternity. For a pre-Christian pagan, that’s an incredible insight.

But this method is something we too rarely practice: we act without considering why we’re acting. Why work overtime, or own a car, or go on vacation? Why do anything at all? We need to have our goal in view, or our actions become (literally) pointless.

4. Thomas Aquinas Solved the “Is / Ought” Problem… Five Hundred Years Early

Philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776) and G. E. Moore (1873-1958) have posed what’s called the “is / ought” problem. In a nutshell, it says that prescriptive statements (what we ought to do or not do) can never be deduced from descriptive statements (describing what is).

So, for example, pointing out that the Final Solution was genocide is merely descriptive. According to Hume and Moore, this isn’t enough to prove that the Nazis shouldn’t have pursued it, since that’s a prescriptive judgment. The most we can say is that they shouldn’t have done it if some subjective condition was true. For example, they shouldn’t have done it if they wanted history to judge them well, or if they wanted to treat the Jews with respect, etc. But all of these conditions are prescriptions (we ought to want to treat the Jews with respect, etc.).  So it appears that every  moral system requires something to be added to the objective facts.  This addition adds an arbitrary, or at least subjective, element, so we can’t describe any moral system as objectively true.

This argument appears strong, and it’s a dangerous one. If morality is something added to the objective facts, this would seem to show, in Hume’s word, that “the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.” Moore went even further, arguing that this showed that “anything whatsoever can be called good.” In this view, the terms “good” and “evil” come to mean nothing more than “agreeable (or disagreeable) to my subjective preferences.”

But it turns out, Aquinas already solved this problem back in the thirteenth century, some five hundred years before Hume posed it.

Aquinas’ answer starts with the notion of the good, which I mentioned above (see # 2, above): that “good is that which all things seek after.” From this, he forms what he calls the first precept of natural law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” In other words, to describe something as evil is to simultaneously prescribe that it is not to be done. If something is evil, we ought not do it. Why? Because all of us seek the good, and to will something is to treat the object as good  (again, see # 2). So we’re not adding a subjective condition, since this “condition” always applies to everyone, absolutely.

But Aquinas provides a second way of answering the objection, by showing that our final end (see # 3) is God. We are made by and for God. With that end in view, we can evaluate whether something is good or evil. If we know where we’re supposed to be going, we can tell how well we’re getting there. If we know how someone or something ought to behave, we can say whether they’re doing it well or poorly. We can speak objectively of someone who bowls a 300 as a good bowler, and someone who bowls a 0 as a bad bowler. A clock that tells time is objectively a better clock than one that doesn’t tell time (even if we happen to like the way the broken clock looks).

G. E. M. Anscombe’s husband, Peter Geach, made a similar point in a 1956 essay called Good and Evil, in which he definitively answered the is / ought problem (using similar reasons to what we find in Aquinas’ writings). In the essay, he showed how philosophers like Moore were conflating attributive and predicative adjectives (the argument is actually much more interesting than it sounds). At one point, answering the argument that good merely meant “agreeable to my subjective preferences,” he writes:

I totally reject this view that good has not a primarily descriptive force. Somebody who did not care two pins about cricket, but fully understood how the game worked (not an impossible supposition), could supply a purely descriptive sense for the phrase good batting wicket regardless of the tastes of the cricket fans. Again if I call a man a good burglar or a good cut-throat I am certainly not commending him myself; one can imagine circumstances in which these descriptions would serve to guide another man’s choice (e.g. if a commando leader were choosing burglars and cut-throats for a special job), but such circumstances are rare and cannot give the primary sense of the descriptions. It ought to be clear that calling a thing a good A does not influence choice unless the one who is choosing happens to want an A; and this influence on action is not the logically primary force of the word good.  

So if we know how cricket is supposed to be done, we can say whether someone is good at it. Likewise, if we know how human life is supposed to be lived (that is, how God designed it to be lived), we can say whether someone’s actions are good or not-good (evil), and even whether the person’s life is good or evil.

5. The Pre-Christian Pagans Got Much Further than Post-Christian Pagans Can Ever Hope To

Reading through the Greek writings written a few centuries prior to Christ, it’s amazing how much these thinkers got right. They start off asking the right questions, but generally giving the wrong answers.

They ask where everything comes from, and what being is, but end up coming to conclusions like “everything is fire.” Even that conclusion isn’t as strange as it sounds. Rather, it’s Heraclitus’ attempt to explain why change perpetually exists within the closed system of the universe. His reasoning was that it is the nature of fire to be in a perpetual state of flux, so perhaps the rest of the universe is simply fire in different phase changes. Smart reasoning, very wrong conclusion.

From their midst, a few philosophers emerge – namely, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – who start giving the right (or nearly-right) answer to one question after another. When the Gospel reaches the Greeks, it finds people who are both intellectually curious, and already convinced of many of the truths of Christianity. It’s little wonder that early Christians like Justin Martyr (100-165) should conclude that the Greek philosophers played the same role for the Gentiles that the prophets played for the Jews: to prepare them for the Gospel. Justin went so far as to say:

We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.

Of course, all of this is a stark contrast to where post-Christian pagans have gotten. They started by giving the wrong answers to the right questions, and frequently fail to even ask the right questions: to the point of denying the existence of objective truth. The lights of intellectual curiosity appear to be dimming.

This isn’t to say that relativists didn’t exist among the Greeks: they did. Sophists like Patagoras argued that truth was relative, and the Sophistic school treated reason as subservient to rhetorical manipulation. But the Sophists was answered by Socrates and Aristotle, to such an extent that “Sophistic” comes down to us as an insult.

So what gives? The answer seems to be this: Plato and Socrates were one way that God prepared the Gentiles for the Gospel. But the post-Christian pagans have received the full light of the Gospel, and rejected it. There’s nowhere to go from there but down.

6. Changes in Philosophy Impacted Art (and Everything Else)

One of the major changes between Aristotle and Plato was this: Plato viewed the realest thing as the ideal. That is, he believed in what’s called the Theory of Forms, which goes something like this: various things may possess the same trait (like two numbers possessing “even-ness”). This points to the existence of a transcendent Ideal, or Form (in this case, the Form of Even-ness). Plato, who regarded the material world with great suspicion, viewed this transcendent Ideal as more real than the individual manifestations of it. So the Ideal of Green was truer than all of those things that we call “green.”

Aristotle rejected all of this, holding that the individual substance was the realest thing: a green leaf is more real than the abstract notion of green. The Renaissance painter Raphael captured this well in his massive painting School of Athens, depicting all of the great Greek philosophers of antiquity. At the center of the painting (see the image on the right) are Plato and Aristotle. Plato is pointing upward to his ideal forms: Aristotle counters by pointing forward to the things of the created world.

Why does all of this matter, from a Christian perspective? One reason is art. When Christians were heavily influenced by Platonism, they tended towards iconography, as an attempt to capture the Ideal of Christ. Instead of depicting a single scene from the life of Christ, the Icon would attempt to capture something broader. So, for example, the Christ Pantocrater icon depicts Christ as simultaneously a Merciful and Just Judge (and simultaneously God and Man) by giving Him different expressions on different sides of His Face.

As Western Christian philosophy became increasing Aristotelian, the artistic emphasis shifted as well. Instead of seeking to capture the Ideal or Form of Christ, art focused more on capturing specific events from the Life (or Death) of Christ. Benedict XVI explained all of this in Spirit of the Liturgy:

Platonism sees sensible things as shadows of the eternal archetypes. In the sensible we can and should know the archetypes and rise up through the former to the latter. 

Aristotelianism rejects the doctrine of Ideas. The thing, composed of matter and form, exists in its own right. Through abstraction I discern the species to which it belongs. In place of seeing, by which the super-sensible becomes visible in the sensible, comes abstraction. The relationship of the spiritual and the material has changed and with it man’s attitude to reality as it appears to him. 

For Plato, the category of the beautiful had been definitive. The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself. 

Something of this Platonic foundation lives on in the theology of icons, even though the Platonic ideas of the beautiful and of vision have been transformed by the light of Tabor. Moreover, Plato’s conception has been profoundly reshaped by the interconnection of creation, Christology, and eschatology, and the material order as such has been given a new dignity and a new value. This kind of Platonism, transformed as it is by the Incarnation, largely disappears from the West after the thirteenth century, so that now the art of painting strives first and foremost to depict events that have taken place.

Thus, it should be no surprise that the shift from iconography to other forms of Christian art runs parallel (both geographically and temporally) to the shift from Platonism to Aristotelianism.

7. Philosophy Means “Love of Wisdom”

 “Sophia” is the Greek word for “wisdom,” which is why the early Christians named a church “Hagia Sophia,” or “Holy Wisdom.” “Philo-” is a prefix meaning “love of,” from the same root as words like “Philadelphia” (city of brotherly love). So true philosophy involves loving wisdom: how could it not point you towards God?

8. Science, Philosophy, and Theology Used to be United

As Msgr. Ronald Knox has explained, in the Medieval period, “science, philosophy, and theology are not three disparate branches of learning, but three rungs in a single educational ladder. From the contemplation of nature you rise to pure thought; from pure thought, grace elevates you to the contemplation of the supernatural.”

And this view was by no means limited to the Medieval period. The pre-Christian Greeks viewed philosophy similarly: thinkers like Thales treated “philosophy” as including everything from astronomy to mathematics, and Thales used his love of wisdom to do everything from predict eclipses to aiding the Greek army in rerouting a river (by creating a channel to enable the army to pass). And even after the Medievals, we see examples of thinkers firmly committed to doing serious science, serious philosophy, and serious theology, without feeling a need to choose one against the other two.

But between science, philosophy, and theology, there has certainly been a divorce, an often acrimonious one. Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of blame to go around. In his essay on the subject, Knox credibly blames Descartes, for taking philosophy in a radically-critical direction at odds with science or theology; Luther, for viewing man as so totally depraved that science and natural philosophy became irrelevant to theology; and the Deists, for trying to create a philosophical religion that didn’t need theology. Others, like Darwin, could easily be added to the list. 

The end result, as Knox notes, is that “men of science, as we know, are still fond of playing about with philosophy; but always they are at issue with the philosophers.” And he’s saying all of this decades before books like Hawking and Mlodinow’s Grand Design, or the general New Atheist push to argue metaphysics without bothering to study it.

9. We Can Go Much Deeper in Prayer

The Catechism refers to three broad types of prayer: vocal, meditative, and contemplative. But God wills for us to go deeper and deeper in contemplation of Him, but it’s not always clear how to do this. There are several great guides for this, but one in particular that I would recommend is Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel on Prayer, which explores Carmelite spirituality in an easily-understood way. I would recommend it for almost anyone looking to get more serious about prayer.

10. I am Worse Than I Knew, But Everything is Grace

Perhaps nothing exposes one’s lingering faults quite like seminary. It is a group of Christian men who are serious about sanctity, and have cultivated an attention to detail. Furthermore, we are encouraged to engage in “fraternal correction,” on the theory that iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), and we have a moral duty to look out for one another. But fortunately, God is there through all of this. Where I succeed, it is due to His grace. Where I fail, He stands ready to pick me up again. No matter how big my failings, faults, and sins, God’s Mercy is always bigger. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux is said to have said, “everything is grace.” 

The first year was quite a journey, but it’s one that I was humbled and thrilled to take.