My last piece was a meditation on Victor Hugo’s description of the bishop in Les Miserables: “He did not study God; he was dazzled by Him.” There I explored how our study, done well, leads us to dazzlement. I don’t want to leave the idea there, though. Study alone will not suffice. In fact, study alone will probably turn you into one more of Thielicke’s young theologians (see earlier piece here) with dead theology. Here I offer two more ways that we are moved toward God’s dazzling in seminary.
The first is worship. Worship is about being useless before God. It’s about taking time to be in awe. Also, worship forms us in particular ways. It inscribes the story of the gospel on us, captures our imaginations, trains us to see things in certain ways, and forms us to assume certain things about the way the world works. It reminds us that they story is not about us. Mostly, it trains us to be in awe. Worship orients us to the One we study, or to the who dazzles us.
There are usually two opportunities to be dazzled in worship during seminary. First, go to chapel. Second, go to church. You’ve got a wealth of opportunities on campus for worship. Seminary chapel is unique. Never again will you be in a congregation where you are the audience. After seminary, you are not the audience of any pastor. Here every preacher has you in mind. They know the peculiarities of seminary life and education, and they are facilitating a worship for you, the kind of place that invites you in particular to glimpse the glory of God should God deign to show up. You’re also going with your classmates, who understand your situation. You’re a community in a particular way for this season. Let chapel be a breath where you intentionally sit in awe before the subject of your study.
And go to church. Not just on Sundays, but get involved. Find a church in the area and let them teach you how to be a theologian in a church. It’s harder than you think. Let the congregation — the faithful old women and the energy-filled children and everyone in between — let them point out to you the glimpse of glory they have received. Follow their fingers and hear their stammers. You can’t really have too much worship. Be involved. Let the community bless you and take care of you; bless the community with your presence and witness.
In addition to the local church you find, remember that your classmates here will understand you in ways others won’t. Be a community. Encourage one another, help one another, argue with one another, call each other out when you have to — gently and kindly, but honestly. Grab each other by the shoulder, point, and say, “Look! It’s God!” And then stand there being dazzled together.
The second thing that will move you toward dazzlement in seminary is rest. When the light is just too bright, you may need to find some sunglasses. Abba Antony says that if you constantly work hard, if you strain every muscle and brain cell every moment, it’s like constantly pulling back the string on a bow. It can’t handle the pressure, and eventually it’ll break. So loosen up. Learn to take breaks. Smile. Play. And laugh. Especially laugh. Wendell Berry says that laughter is immeasurable, and he’s right. When you’re laughing, you’re breathing. God delights in our play and our lightness of spirit. The worst kind of seminarians — or, God forbid!, pastors — are the heavy ones. The ones who don’t know how to smile and are pious in the stereotypical rather than the pious way. Don’t be that. Take time to laugh. At yourself and at the ridiculousness of the gospel. Read the Nicene Creed one afternoon and take it in. This is what you believe. And it’s ridiculous. God is ridiculous.
Some of you are asking how this helps us to be dazzled. There’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that reads, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant/ Success in circuit lies/ Too bright for our infirm delight/ The truth’s superb surprise./ As lightning to the children eased/ with explanation kind/ The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” The Truth must dazzle gradually. Sometimes we bog ourselves down in the gravity of faith. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes the Spirit is blowing around with a mischievous grin waiting for you to catch the joke. Sometimes if you work too hard for too long you can forget that God dazzles at all. He’ll be all blotchy and dull because your eyes are bleary or you’ve just been staring at the Son too long. Put on some sunglasses and remember how glittery God can be.
These methods — study, worship, rest — aren’t foolproof. There’s no formula. But they can be a start. If you give yourselves to these things, you can perhaps find yourself standing with Gregory of Nyssa staring at the glory of God. May you not only study God but be dazzled by Him.