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An Unteachable Society and the Church

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 01/27/16

The rare virtue of "docility": an eagerness of mind and heart to be taught the most satisfying truth

“But I know all that stuff already!”

Any teacher who has been teaching for more than an hour has almost certainly heard that objection from a student. A veteran teacher can regale you with tales of students who see attempts at instruction to be an intrusion upon their time, attention and energy. When students are admonished for their inattention or lack of cooperation, the reply is often, “But I know all that stuff already!”

What is “all that stuff”? It depends on the subject. If we’re talking about, say, math, students have been observed to complain that they already know all that stuff about addition, subtraction, multiplication and division — so they don’t need to waste their time hearing more about numbers. (“Besides, there’s a calculator on my phone, okay?”) If the subject is American history, students will insist they already know all that stuff about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the movie Saving Private Ryan — so they don’t need to read books or attend lectures about history. (“Besides, there’s always the History Channel, right?”) And if the subject is religion, students will assert that they already know all that stuff about Jesus and tolerance and mercy and the environment — so they don’t need to read the Bible or the Catechism or learn Latin. (“Besides, I’m more spiritual than religious, okay?”)

This unwillingness to learn — the lack of curiosity and diligence — suggests an absence of a virtue not widely discussed today: namely, the virtue known as docilitas. The word does not lend itself to an easy translation. It is rooted in the verb docere, which means “to teach.” In English, one might think of the word “docile,” which has the unfortunate connotation of being passive. Docilitas points to a more energetic reality than the passivity many people associate with being docile. Docilitas as a virtue might be rendered as “teachableness.” In other words, it suggests a readiness, an eagerness, even a burning desire to be taught. So understood, one could easily imagine teachers promoting banners, T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with “DOCILITAS!”

My concern now, however, is not with the classroom but with the life of faith. Specifically: Do we have the habit of docilitas when it comes to the spiritual life? Do we have a readiness, an eagerness, a burning desire to be taught? Do our hearts and minds quicken when people speak of Scripture, Tradition, Patristics, Councils and Creeds? Or do we “know all that stuff already”? Do our ears open wide when people speak of popes, saints and sacraments? Or have we already had our fill of “all that stuff”? I raise these questions not to be a scold but to put before us all (myself included!) the virtue of docilitas as an essential ingredient for spiritual maturity.

Perhaps this comparison will help. My parents were married 53 years. They knew each other so well that they could effortlessly finish each other’s sentences. They had reached such a depth of communion that they could not live without each other and died just a short time apart. And they also insisted that they surprised each other every day that they were married. In their own way, they showed that human persons are mysteries who can never be known exhaustively. They showed that part of the attraction of faithful marriage is the adventure of daily disclosure and discovery. For the deeper riches of marriage to be mined, one needs the virtue of docilitas.

If that is true about married life, how much more must it be true about the life of faith! God is infinite mystery. God can never be fully known. In his providence, he has chosen to reveal himself through his Son and his Church. God is infinite love. In his goodness he has chosen to open his heart through his Son and his Church. Surely, it is beyond madness to discard docilitas when infinite personal love and goodness are offered to us through the authentic life and teaching of the Church! It would be laughable, were it not tragic (and scandalous!) that the free offer of God’s heart and mind are dismissed with a bored yawn and a self-assured, “Oh! But I know all that stuff already!”

Please understand me. I am not at all suggesting that we should be wagging a finger at anyone who is not pursuing advanced degrees in theology or biblical studies. I am not suggesting that gratitude to God demands that we memorize the Bible and the Catechism. Behind all the texts and treasures of Christian civilization (which collectively could not be fully known in a thousand lifetimes) is divine life embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus as a topic can be studied and should be studied; Jesus as a person can be loved and should be loved; Jesus as divine can be worshipped and should be worshipped. True knowledge, love and worship require the virtue of docilitas, a ready “teachableness,” an eagerness of mind and heart to be taught the most satisfying truth.

Docilitas, as my students have learned, takes energy, generosity, discipline and time. It is a sacrifice of lesser goods for the attainment of greater goods. What then should we be ready to give when the greatest good, the person of Jesus Christ, who is the only path to heaven, is offered to us?

When I write next, I will speak of writing letters as a spiritual discipline. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.

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