I have a friend from way back who recently met nine of my seminarian brothers at one time, which might be a harrowing experience for anybody, I’m sure. Afterwards, I asked her what she had thought of them, and she exclaimed with a huge grin, “You’re all such nerds!”
“Spiritual nerds,” another friend was quick to clarify, as if to soften the blow. They both laughed and agreed.
That phrase stuck with me over the next couple of days, bubbling up again and again in my mind. “Spiritual nerds.” It wasn’t meant to have any negative implications, of course—in high school, all three of us had been nerds, and if anything, this was their way of saying “these guys are like us!”: the joyful discovery that seminarians are not plaster saints, hands folded at a forty-five degree angle, right thumb over left, from the womb, but actual flesh and blood men with personalities and quirks and diverse histories and (ahem) singing abilities.
Still, it wasn’t the phrase I would have chosen to describe the group of guys who had come with me that night, which included, to pick a couple at random, a former inmate, a high school football player, and a guy whose vocation story includes words like “rodeo”. There are seminarians I could see being called ‘nerds’: the liturgy geeks among us, for example, who debate minutiae like whether we ought to say “my mouth shall” or “will proclaim your praise” at the invitatory, or whether the Dominican arc or Roman ninety-degree turn is the more ancient custom; the ones, maybe, who study the Second Vatican Council documents or read German philosophers for fun, or engage in logical analysis of Facebook memes—all of which are definitely things I have done.
But the difference seemed obvious, as I reflected on it further, between the men who were spiritual and the spiritual nerds. Nerds are people who take an academic interest in their passions. Call us the St. Thomas Aquinases. We’re likely to be converts or reverts because we undertook a serious study of the faith and were astonished to find that it was true, that it had logical integrity and historical continuity. We’re excited about how it all works, history, theology, philosophy, the lot. Study becomes a form of prayer for us.
But there are also St. John of the Cross types, who spend hours in the chapel in quiet contemplation of our Lord. There are St. Sebastians, not so interested in theory, maybe, but ready to step up and go the long haul, whatever needs to be done, no matter what pain or hardship they face. There are St. Francises, eager to get through classes so they can get back to ministry, and Blessed Fra Angelicos, always ready to go back to their rooms to draw or paint or write down some idea, express some particular beauty revealed to them in God’s creation.
There is a huge diveristy among the men God calls out of the world to discern on this holy mountain. Not all of us are nerds. None of us are easily categorized. I can see aspects of myself and my brothers in all these saints and many more besides. But one thing we have in common is that we are spiritual, which of course means that we are filled up with the breath of the Holy Spirit, who expresses Himself in a beautiful panoply of gifts and talents and graces.
A holy monk, priest and professor of Mt. Angel passed away two weeks ago, at the end of a long battle with cancer. I was so struck by these simple words he said, these heart-rending words, which Abbot Gregory related to us at his funeral homily:
“I love you so much, Jesus Christ!”
It would be easy to skim over that. It would be easy to smile knowingly and dismiss those words, we products of a post-Christian culture, who have grown up seeing the name “Jesus” and that word “love” plastered on every highway billboard, felt banner, Evangelical church poster and late-night televangelist ad. It would be easy to explain them away as sentiment or simple piety.
It would be easy to categorize the kind of men who devote their lives to the Word of God, the sacred liturgy, ecclesiology, and all the rest, as “spiritual nerds”—as if “spirituality” were just another interest or area of study, like anthropology, or linguistics, or French hats.
But Fr. Thien was just such a man, and his life is not so reducible. Others may devote their lives to a study of this or that discipline; you will not find them on their deathbeds exclaiming “O linguistics, how I love you! O anthroplogy, I love you so much!”
The essential fact about the men God calls to his holy priesthood or to the monastic life is not that they are nerds. Some are! Many aren’t. The essential thing is that we are deeply, passionately, profoundly in love with Jesus Christ. We come to the Church as who we are, academics or athletes or poets or politicans or engineers. We retain our individuality because God glories in the plurality of creation, and “Christ plays in ten thousand places / to the Father through the features of men’s faces!” But despite our different passions, personalities, abiltiies and approaches to life, we are all here because God called us out of the world into deeper intimacy with Him, and we responded. The Catholic faith is not a discipline or an abstraction or a theory. It is for us, to quote G.K. Chesterton, a love affair. Not a ‘what’ in which we’re interested, but a ‘who’, whom we love, with everything we are.
Let us pray, then, that we all might live a life like Fr. Thien’s of total self-giving love to the One who gave Himself for us, so that when our time comes to be born into eternal life, we may give our last breath just as he did. “Jesus, I love you so much.”