Our new Vicar Forane in the Smoky Mountain Vicariate the other evening described me as being like Peter Abelard, the most brilliant if somewhat heretical philosopher who firmly established the foundations for all that which would be scholasticism after his death with Saint Thomas Aquinas (Abelard being born about a millennium ago).
The comparison, mind you, wasn’t about Heloise, or even smarts, but rather a marked hubris that antagonized whatever powers of hubris in whomsoever they might be incarnated at any given time or place, no matter how powerful, no matter how famous they might be. He made a career of challenging and humiliating all adversaries.
He did have some mighty adversaries, mind you, such as, according to a General Wednesday Audience of the great Pope Benedict XVI, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard pursued Abelard trying to convert him from his unstoppable hubris. Abelard finally calmed down a bit on his death bed with his famous, “Je ne sais pas.”
What provoked this was my story of what I did with Father, now Cardinal Prosper Grech, an Augustinian and Maltese Patristic Scholar, indeed, co-founder of the Augustinianum across the street from Saint Peter’s Square, who was teaching the course on the historical critical method at the Pontifical Biblical Institute when I as a student there.
Father Grech was also a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. He was to be most feared by students in that, for instance, pretty much every candidate for the doctorate at the Biblical Commission who was praised by all members as the most brilliant in the world would nevertheless be forthwith failed by the supposedly merciless priest-academician, Father Grech, he destroying life-times of study with a stroke of his pen.
Father Grech told us at the end of the course that we had two options for the final exam, but only because he was forced to offer both by the Biblicum itself. He said that he would quite certainly fail all those who chose to write an essay, and this within the first paragraph, not even bothering to read the rest. “DON’T write an essay!” he commanded us, saying that he warned us, again forbidding us. The other option was to do an oral exam in which he promised that, as a consolation prize, he would look at the floor indicating our condemnation to hell, but thus giving us a chance to change our minds mid-sentence and provide, instead, the correct answer.
I, of course, waltzed right up to him after class and asked if I could nevertheless go ahead and write an essay. Astounded and speechless for some five seconds, grasping for words (hard to do that for five seconds mind you), he finally blurted out, visibly upset and yet enthralled at the same time, that, yes, he had to permit me to make this foolhardy move. I think that he secretly loved the fact that someone had the hubris to do the right thing, learning something while researching and thinking and writing. He would spy on me in the library researching my chosen topic, and even approached me a couple of times as I flew through the pages of massive tomes to discover what I just knew could be discovered in whatever language, living or dead, of whatever century or location, and discussed what I was doing, leaving quite flabbergasted. I finally handed in the essay at the last possible moment and waited in anticipation of hell. He gave me, according to the Roman system, 10 out of 10. Ha ha. Cardinal Grech is the best. I love him to pieces.
I could fill volumes with such stories, academic, ecclesiastical, political, interpersonal.
- One diocesan priest at the Urbaniana University (right next to the Augustinianum) said that he would totally destroy me in print should I publish on “Yahweh Elohim” as a sentence name given what he thought he knew (but didn’t) about historical perceptions of Northwest Semitic by Semites to the South. Whatever.
- One Dominican priest at the Angelicum said that if I published a defense of Saint Catherine of Sienna’s portrayal of Jesus commenting on Saint Paul, gutting the possibility of his mocking the great saint, he would pursue me right around the world by way of his iron grip on Catholic and Christian and Biblical publishing companies, easily convincing them to steer clear of anything written by yours truly. Whatever.
- One Cardinal, papabile at the time but now deceased, said that if… [I had better stop…] But these stories are endless…
- One Rabbi, head of relations between the State of Israel and the Holy See, said that if I were to continue spearheading a certain project, that would mean that… [again, I had better quit…]
I guess it’s that I’ve discovered early on that doing one’s best to do the right thing no matter what with no compromise always leads one way or another to the most interesting and varied of lives one couldn’t otherwise even imagine. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I just hope that on my death bed I will repeat those words of Peter Abelard with the attitude of hoping that perhaps I might thereafter be instructed by the Most Holy Trinity in the beatific vision, for after all, it is what Christ Jesus would have us say, we who know nothing at all, about our present understanding: “Je ne sais pas.”