Saturday, February 27, 2010

Personal Trainer

I guess it is one of the consequences of teaching 100+ adolescents each day that they come up with sobriquets, or nicknames, for you. I've never really had many nicknames. My brother used to call me "Bumster" and my father used to refer to me by a modified version of my middle name Gerard and would call me "Gerard-o". My mom generally called me "Ry" and as a Jesuit most people, at least to my face, simply call me "Duns."

So I've been most interested by the creativity shown by my students in developing nicknames for me...although, I fear, I know only the vanilla ones! Commonly heard:

  • Mr. D
  • Big D
  • Big Daddy D
  • Dunsy (the y in this case is held long, akin to Duns-eeeee)
  • Duns-y (the y in this instance in emphasized, sort of like Duns-E)
  • Abba D
  • Abba Duns
The latter two - the Abba series - are most common with the underclassmen whereas the first five tend to be bigger with the seniors. With some trepidation I am including this link to the Abba Duns page on Facebook - one of my students created it and put up a rather interesting picture of me. I wouldn't suggest becoming a fan of the page, but you might want to check it out if only to see how deranged (I mean that in a good way) my students are.

I've been reading John Henry Newman's Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. In this work, Newman makes a distinction between theology and religion that has been really helpful for me, one that makes a comment made by one of my freshmen particularly gratifying.

Theology, as I understand Newman, is the realm of abstract notions whereas religion is the real stuff of devotion. Without going too in-depth, my understanding is that theology is the speculation about something whereas religion is the lived experience of that thing. Hence Christology is the theological reflection about Jesus Christ, while discipleship is the concrete relationship one has with the person of Jesus met through prayer and practice.

A few weeks ago, one of my students said to me, "Abba Duns, you're kind of like a personal trainer for my faith. This class is like a gym and I feel like I'm getting a really good workout."

This is one of the nicest things a student has ever said to me. It is true that part of my job is to teach theology - there is content to the course: dates, doctrines, developments, history, controversy, etc.. The propositions of theology, what it is that I can test them about, are like the fixtures of a gym: pull-up bars, weights, treadmills, and the like. But it is only when a student comes in a wants to work out, wants to do more than take stock of what the gym has and actually use it, that I can do what I really love: introduce him to the person of Jesus Christ and help him to grow in that relationship. Just as a trainer cannot make someone fit, but can only give advice and assistance, so too is it that a "personal trainer for the faith" can only instruct those willing to exercise.

This has been one of the great privileges of my regency thus far: I have gotten to teach kids about theology but, I hope, I have managed to show them how to live their religion with joy. I am much taken with John Allen's phrase "Affirmative Orthodoxy" as a stance of saying what Catholicism is for rather than a polemical screeching about what it is against. I pray that I communicate to my students that their faith can be about a joyful commitment to the Kingdom of God and a deep and loving relationship with Jesus Christ, a friendship that carries both the grace of discipleship and the burden of the cross, but one that enables them always to live life for the Greater Glory of God.
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