This week some seminarians are preparing for ordination either to the priesthood or the transitional diaconate. We simply hope that they are good priests and deacons. But every seminarian needs the example of a good priest. In order to know a good priest it is good to hear what the sheep think. While the sheep are often wrong and ignorant, their testimony matters. As one of the sheep, I hope to point the seminarians to a particular a priest who cared for me and many others.
My life changed when I took a class on the theology of prayer taught by Fr. David Meconi, SJ at Saint Louis University (SLU). I heard about the class from some friends who were part of a small group led by Fr. Meconi called the Campion Society. Through them, I met Fr. Meconi and was inspired. He made you want to be a saint. After many conversations with him, he said I should be part of his class on prayer. I enrolled. But with the pressure to be “practical” and my own faulty assumption that the world is best understood according to man’s economy and not God’s, I signed up for a course in economics in place of Fr. Meconi’s class. But Fr. Meconi was not going to have any of that. He found me on campus and yelled something like: “Hey Mixa, get back in my class!” So I did. And I cannot thank him enough. He taught me that the only practical, and true, way of living is in Christ. Like a good mystagogue, he helped me delve into the mysteries of Christ.
Fr. Meconi received his doctorate from Oxford, writing on St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification, the heart of which is understanding “the Christian life in terms of the Son of God’s becoming human so humans can become God.” While I am a cradle Catholic, Fr. Meconi helped me see the faith with new eyes. Growing up, my catechesis and religion classes where based on being like Jesus, which typically meant being nice and non-judgmental. Ultimately, this catechesis was lacking, specifically in regards to the particularity of Christ and the meaning of communion with Him. Within such a picture, prayer lacked intelligence, finding its proper place in the realm of sentimentality and private judgement, i.e. ontologically nowhere. I also assumed that the relationship prayer fostered was like the relationship between me and a rock, external and dead. Fr. Meconi helped me understand the true, living nature of prayer.
The way Fr. Meconi taught his class is instructive for all priests helping their flock enter the mystery of Christ. At first, he did not give the class a metaphysical answer but just had us pray. Fr. Gabriel Bunge, more on him below, says in relation to prayer, “If you want to learn how to swim, jump in the water.” Similarly, Fr. Barron often says that the way to teach kids how to play baseball is not by teaching them the infield fly rule but having them play. Accordingly, Fr. Meconi started every class having us pray the liturgy of hours. And so, we united our voices with the voice of God thereby becoming part of His Life.
But Fr. Meconi didn’t want us mindlessly doing this. Yes, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ command to ‘give alms’ so as to believe, he made us pray but in the spirit of faith seeking understanding. Eventually, he explained to us his reason for starting there. This was true theology. We entered the Word and the Word entered us. The Word was the a priori of all our thinking.
Reading Augustine’s Confessions was transformative for me. I must admit that I was a little intimidated reading it because I intuitively knew that Augustine was going to change me. Fr. Meconi often stressed that Augustine’s great insight was that everything in his life would either move him further from God or closer to Him, there are “no neutral loves” – as Fr. Meconi would say. Thus, Augustine woke me up from my spiritual slumber (i.e. acedia). I saw myself in Augustine’s life, struggling and trying to conform myself to the Father’s will. His restlessness was my restlessness. His desire was my desire. His conversion was my conversion. If you can open up the lives of the saints like this, then you will reap many conversions.
The other book Fr. Meconi had us read was Fr. Gabriel Bunge’s Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer. The great claim of Fr. Bunge’s book is that “faith ‘evaporates’ when it is no longer practiced – in a way that accords with its essence.” This book teaches the spirituality of the Fathers. I cannot recommend it enough. Bunge explains the places and times of prayer, manners of praying, and prayer gestures (not silly gestures like yoga’s difficult one-legged king pigeon pose). Man must place himself with “both soul and body,…in God’s presence.” It is only through the bodily practice of prayer that we come to the knowledge of God. Ratzinger affirms this. He says, “The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.” I urge you to encourage kneeling, even if it hurts.
Fr. Meconi’s admonition for me to get back in class turned out to be like the gaze of Christ calling his children back to the Father. For this I am thankful. I hope our seminarians learn from priests who are focused on the gaze of Christ, for only then will they bring His people to the Father, which is truly the heart of a priest’s mission. I encourage you all to travel down the Mississippi River to meet Fr. Meconi.