My second favorite line from Les Miserables is something Hugo writes about the bishop in the first fifty pages: “He did not study God; he was dazzled by him.” Great advice for all seminarians, theologians, and human beings.
In my experience, there are days it does not feel like this. There are days when it feels like you can’t see any higher than the stack of books piled up on your desk, all due tomorrow, along with that exegesis paper. There are days when it feels like Greek verb structures obscure your view. There may even be days when it feels like the Son is just too bright and you’ve been blinded rather than dazzled. Let me encourage you on those days to look through the page, over the shoulder of the author who is doing his best to point out the glory he sees. Let me encourage you on those days to blink and squint at the verbs until they form a window for you. Let me encourage you on those days to borrow some sunglasses from Gregory of Nyssa and keep on with it. Remember that God is dazzling.
Yet being dazzled by God is a pursuit that takes a lot of work and a lot of sitting still. Start with classes and study. My favorite image for this is stolen from my friend Kent, who stole it from Fredrick Buechner, who stole it from Karl Barth. Kent read Buechner, who quotes Barth, who says that reading the Bible is like looking down from a skyscraper at a bunch of people (Moses, David, John, Paul) who are pointing at something you can’t quite see from your position in the building. We look at them, try to read their lips, try to follow their finger and see what they’re pointing at. That’s what we do in the classroom (and in your apartment when you’re doing homework). Like my friend Kent, you’re following Buechner’s finger, who’s pointing to Barth, who’s pointing to Moses and John, who are pointing to Jesus. But you’ll be following Basil’s finger and Aquinas’s finger and Luther’s finger and your professor’s finger as they point to whatever glimpse of God they’ve received.
Will this be easy? No, not particularly. Gregory of Nyssa is the first person I think of as someone who is dazzled by God. I imagine him staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed, stammering, doing his best to put words to the glory he sees. I love picturing him that way. But I don’t particularly enjoy reading him. He’s my least favorite Cappadocian. He’s mystical and speculative; he’s trying to put words on something that transcends words. In short, he’s hard to understand. But I keep at it because I’m convinced he’s seen something, and I want to see it too.
So how will you approach your classes? Will you see them as a chance to see things you’ve never seen before? Or will you do them grudgingly? When you reach a difficult reading, will you dig in and try harder? Will you ask your professors for help and look up the big words? Will you study with friends and teach each other? Or will you decide that Augustine is an idiot and should have worked harder to be comprehensible? The people you read have seen something. I promise it’s worth it to dig deep and figure it out. Your professors have seen something. Ask us what we’ve seen and follow our fingers. The people who sit beside you in class have also seen something. Listen to them. Work together to figure it out. Tell each other about the people who’s fingers you’ve followed; stand on each other’s shoulders. Don’t complain about how obfuscatory Barth or Rahner or your professor is — ask questions and give your energy, time, and attention so you can hear what they’re trying to say!
Take your work seriously. It’s a spiritual discipline. Sometimes you’ll encounter ideas that you haven’t heard before or that sound specious. Things that don’t sound at all like what you’ve been taught before. Things that you’re not sure you can believe. That’s okay. But don’t dismiss them. Like Jacob at the Jabbok, hold on, wrestle, and refuse to let go until they bless you. Trust those of us who have gone before. These things will lead to a deeper, more solid faith. Read in such a way that you are moved to prayer. Write in such a way that mystery catches you. Then stand beside Gregory of Nyssa, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, and dazzled.