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Making spiritual progress is not about how smart you are


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 08/01/21

Intellect and wisdom are not the same thing.

I often feel intellectually inferior to other priests. I definitely felt that way in seminary. In class, in our circle of chairs, everyone would eagerly discuss obscure philosophical ideas from St. Thomas Aquinas and I would sit there and nod, trying not to let everyone know I was a fraud. In our Biblical Greek class, I had a friend who would memorize the vocabulary and grammar for each quiz literally the hour before class, then he would take the quiz and get every answer correct. I, meanwhile, had studied late into the night before and didn’t do as well. Please, don’t ask me to read any Greek.

When I take an inventory of other priests, many have become quite accomplished. Some have professional degrees in counseling, some have been sent to Rome to study advanced theological topics, and in our diocese, for some inexplicable reason, more than a few of our priests actually have prior careers as rocket scientists, nuclear technicians, or biologists. I’m not kidding. These guys are all geniuses.

Add in to this the fact that the other priests theoretically have free time to continue reading books and studying. They’re still developing their intellect years into their ministry. I’m in awe of the energy they bring to it, how motivated they are to continue learning and getting better at their vocation.

I happen to be a married priest (formerly an Anglican priest) with six young children, so instead of quiet nights reading the Summa Theologica before the fire in the rectory, I’m washing dishes, changing diapers, and sitting in the parking lot waiting for volleyball practice to dismiss. It’s a wonderful life and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but there’s very little time for private intellectual pursuits.

When I was in seminary I took a class on Buddhism. What stood out to me was that it was the monks who were considered the holiest and most spiritually advanced. It was the monks who had the luxury of time and space to meditate, read, and write. Their intellect was correlated with their sanctity and was translated into religious success. Those who were smart became the spiritual leaders and were considered the most wise.

In another class, I learned about St. John Vianney. In school, he was always the oldest child in class and the younger studies mocked him for being stupid. Later, when he applied to enter the seminary, he failed the entrance exam and was only admitted when his former teacher vouched for him. In seminary, his academics didn’t improve. After failing an examination, a teacher said to him, “The professors do not find you fit for sacred ordination to priesthood. Some of them have called you an ass knowing nothing of theology. How can we promote you to the reception of the sacrament of priesthood?” The future saint responded, “Monsignor, Samson killed one hundred Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. What do you think God could do with a whole one?”

Somehow, miraculously, he was ordained a priest and sent to the small town of Ars where he couldn’t do too much damage. He got lost on the way there.

St. John Vianney is not considered a great intellectual. I cannot imagine him spending late nights studying subtle theological books and writing brilliantly erudite sermons. He would not have fit in with those Buddhist monks. And yet, St. John Vianney is a saint of the church. He has become the patron of all priests, and is known far and wide for his insight and wisdom. People came from far and wide to make confessions to him and obtain his advice. His catechetical talks, originally for the parish children, began to draw adults as well.

For those of us smart enough to know we’re not the smartest person in the room – and let’s be honest there’s always someone, somewhere, who is smarter, so that’s no judgment on anyone – it’s a life-changing revelation to realize that intellect and wisdom are not the same thing. Prudence and academic prowess are not the same. Simplicity does not equal lack of insight.

Many of the great saints of the church, men and women, possessed of great spiritual wisdom, were not academically accomplished. Nevertheless, their words, deeds, and writings continue to inspire millions.

Spiritual “success” is not about who’s the smartest, has the most time to read, or understands theology the best. It’s about love. Spiritually successful people accept grace, act with humility, and seek to spend time alone with God. God is the source of all wisdom, and it is those closest to Him who become the most wise.

Find God’s love in the messiness and chaos of parenting, find it in acts of service to others, find it in doing your job with integrity, find it in the silent moments stitched in between your other daily responsibilities. If you can, find it in daily Mass and the Rosary and taking walks alone in the park. Whatever you do, do it with great love and wisdom, happiness, and spiritual growth won’t be far behind.

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