Our 0.3 mile journey to school is surprisingly eventful. There are more legs than you think. First, you have to decide to depart from the front door or the back. Both present their challenges. If you take the back, there are more toys, swingsets, and interesting sticks that will delay you. The front door requires a slightly more harrowing street crossing. Either way, at the light you always meet Ms. Dot. Dot has been taking kids across Main Street for decades. There, you make a bit of small talk, invariably and awkwardly cut off by the unpredictable light. The children have begun selecting rocks according to some mystifying criterion by this point, so you corral them, rocks and all, and scurry across the road before the big red hand settles into its home. From there it’s a straight shot, unless it’s a bulk trash day. That complicates things. Either way the “straight shot” requires several judgments as to whether your first grader is being dilatory or just seven; it can be quite difficult to distinguish, and I often fail.
That “straight shot” is where we pray. My wife and son have developed their own litany of prayers – remnants they picked up from Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, or around the house. When I walk him to school, and remember the proper procedure, I ask him to teach me their prayers. It changes frequently, alighting upon virtues and visions, my wife’s butterfly spirituality passing down to our son. As he teaches me their prayer, a common refrain rolls across his lips, “Lord, help me be bold and courageous.” We’ve been praying that since his first days of kindergarten.
Next week, my wife and children will drop me off at United Theological Seminary. I estimate it will be the dozenth time I’ve entered a new school. This time, I will be serving as the new Assistant Professor of Church History. “Lord, help me be bold and courageous.”
This fall I’m teaching Church History I and Systematic Theology. My colleagues and I have the responsibility to teach, shape, care for, support, and evaluate the future leaders of the church. It is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. And my students will likely be responsible for my children’s faith formation. “Lord, help me be bold and courageous.”
But the call of God is curious; it’s harrowing, but sometimes it feels habitual. Our callings tumble along amidst paperwork, meetings, and emails. They look like packing sandwiches and getting up earlier than you might choose otherwise. Our first forgettings are the courage required by our vocations. People just look like people, paper like paper, meetings like meetings. We lose their purpose. We miss their opportunities. We forget the courage demanded.
Once a professor of theology at the University of Paris took the leading position of the Franciscan Order. He did so amidst the anti-mendicant, which meant anti-Franciscan, controversy. Two years into his term, Bonaventure journeyed to Mt. Alverna in Tuscany, where St. Francis, the founder of his Order, saw the six-winged seraph and received the stigmata. There Bonaventure received another sort of vision; he conceived the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum – The Journey of the Soul into God. The Itinerarium, as it is called, became formative for Christian theology and spirituality for generations. It carries Bonaventure’s vision of the centrality of Christ across the centuries. The journey of the Itinerarium ascends to the heights of contemplation of God. As it approaches the summit, the soul discovers Christ in his humanity, ready to take it across to pure encounter with God. But that final leg of the journey is by identification with Christ’s death, burial, and descent. The journey requires a specific courage – the courage revealed and empowered by Christ himself.
I suppose Christian courage has always looked somewhat peculiar. The examplars of our faith are the martyrs. Our heroes are great on their knees, not the battlefield. Our courage resides in the smile of a seasoned saint, in the prayers for patience of a struggling father, in the compassionate confidence of a young pastor. It’s courage to confess and courage to forgive. It’s courage to be disciplined, to be molded, to follow. It’s courage to kneel, pray, receive, and welcome.
As Bonaventure recognized, we need examples. We need those who follow the pattern of Christ, if we are going to follow it ourselves. We need the saints, like St. Francis, or St. Bonaventure, who embody Christian courage. As we face the new and the old in the days to come, let us, like Bonaventure, pause to ponder the example of Christ and the suffusion of Christ in the Saints. And join our family in prayer: “Lord, help us be bold and courageous!”