‘Wisdom! Be attentive’

Saint Augustine (354-430), church father and bishop of Hippo, North Africa. Photo: By the Hand of Fr. Joseph-Marie, www.ladyminster.com
By on March 1, 2022

Learning from the ancient Christians

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Daniel Tatarnic

I’ve learned from the school of hard knocks that there are things you best learn on your knees. Wisdom is one of those things. I’ve spent the past 28 years working in the church, in various ministry settings and in both lay and ordained orders. A lot has changed in that time. Pandemic ministry brings its own set of challenges and affirmations. It’s easy, when stability is not guaranteed, to feel alone and discouraged. When the sands keep shifting underfoot, some days are better than others.

To maintain and enhance my devotional life during lockdowns, I enrolled in Huron College’s Wisdom of the Ancients, taught by the Rev. Lisa Wang of the faculty of divinity, Trinity College, in the University of Toronto. For eight weeks, the evening class (offered by Huron’s Licentiate of Theology program) gathered students from across the country, from Kingston, Ont. to Whitehorse: clergy and laity, postulants for ordination and lay readers, elder lifelong learners and a young mother with babe in arms. What they all had in common, besides their Anglican identity, was a desire to study the writings of the ancient Christians, the “fathers and mothers” of the Church.

Why did I share this desire? First, I felt I needed the structure of an intellectual challenge, a structure that wasn’t necessarily present in the work-a-day life of a parish priest. Second, I knew I needed an adult learning community in which to engage with these issues. Third, the topic was one that I feel passionately about, namely the wisdom of the ancient, unbroken, Christian tradition. I’m writing in order to provide words of encouragement, and to testify why a return to ancient sources is timely for mission in our Anglican church today.

I’m writing this, not only as a parish priest, but as the father of two teenagers—because life with teens affirms that there is much that is learned on one’s knees. The twentieth-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that “love alone is credible.” The Wisdom of the Ancients was an invitation to enter into that life-transforming event of falling in love with Wisdom, and of life in-formed by prayer and study. In the frenetic, anxious world in which we minister, there is that far-off cry from the time of the undivided Church, “Wisdom! Be attentive.”

My children inhabit a secular pedagogy grounded in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The internet provides a steady source of good and bad information—quickly, and with no mechanisms of discernment. The information superhighway is congested with data, but it lacks wisdom.

I have nothing against STEM programming. I think it’s wonderful. My kids will benefit from a solid STEM education, and they will have opportunities I never dreamed of. But my children also love music, painting, and imaginative play; they love going to church, and they love animals. Their natural curiosity about the meaning of things astonishes me; they are chock-full of questions, and they will push hard (and I mean hard) against things that don’t make sense. The days of providing half-baked and mediocre answers to meaningful questions are behind us. “Wisdom! Be attentive.”

As a priest and father, I’m very aware of this phenomenon. If I’m not prepared to meet my kids’ thought-full questions with penetrating answers, of a wisdom born of the ages, prayed on the knees, and nurtured in the fields of martyrdom, I will lose them. The same holds true of my parishioners and seekers alike; the golden age of trite-talking, evangelizing cartoon vegetables is over and done!

Just this morning a major news outlet carried the headline, “Gone by 2040.” We all know what it means. But decline in the Church is not the death of the Church. It’s easy to lose sight of—and to lose confidence in—our story, just at a moment where Christian authenticity is needed most. Huron’s Wisdom of the Ancients got me excited again. It reminded me of why I felt called, and continue to be a priest in a declining church. There is no denomination better suited to bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western traditions than Anglicanism; this is a great gift we have to offer the world. To meet the questions of this age requires us to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil of a vast and rich tradition; upward, downward, outward. Aristotle says, “All persons by nature stretch out to know.” So, stretch out, lean into the wisdom that has formed us; lean into the sacraments, into the Holy Eucharist, into the Sacred Scriptures, into the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours—be authentic!

I knew that taking this course was the right thing to do when I felt my devotional life change for the better. My soul began to settle. Think outside the box—that’s what I’ve always been told. But praying alongside our ancient tradition, journeying daily with the Communion of Saints, challenges me to remain inside the box, and to find there an endless stream of wisdom. Questions around meaning and authenticity, God, nature, ethics, science, art and existence don’t belong to the past alone, but are asked in every generation by every generation. We either meet them with 2,000 years of wisdom or risk losing those who need it most. Because there is movement in the world today—especially amongst a younger population, which possesses an openness, a receptivity, a willingness to explore the ancient tradition of the Church and to stop, and to listen. Wisdom! Be attentive.

Daniel Tatarnic is a priest of the diocese of Niagara, stationed at St. Alban’s, Beamsville. He is a regular contributor to the Niagara Anglican, a friend of the Anglican Centre in Rome, and an avid student of return-to-the-sources theology.

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