Who do I say that I am?
When Christ asked the famous question of his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, we can presume he knew the answer well enough. That famous “I am” sends echoes all the way back to Exodus. However, I would love to turn the question around, and ask him who he says that I am, for he alone fully knows. I suppose I shall have to be patient and hear the answer only in the next life. But in the meantime, you might well ask: who do I say that I am?
For all of us, to truly know who and what we are remains a work in progress during our time on Earth. We are to a large extent mysteries to ourselves. The inquiry ultimately resists explanation in the usual sense, and the matter paradoxically grows more uncanny the more we seem to crack the mystery. Those who may happen upon my website, and the texts and videos I am now posting online, have a right to expect a rough-drawn sketch of my own self-assessment. Fair enough. After all, I am approaching – two years hence – the sobering status of a septuagenarian. By this point, I should know enough about myself to stand confidently, if somewhat precariously, between the ecstasies and agonies of seven decades. It may be time to cast a bemused glance at the providential meaning of it all.
I sometimes feel that my existence has been that of a maverick probe, dipped more variously than most into the crazy seas of the second half of the 20th, and the early decades of the 21st centuries. Nothing about my life is particularly momentous, but I have probably been exposed to the world, its continents, its religions, its peoples, its languages and its enigmas more than most, and to a degree that may afford the ability to make a few pertinent observations. We live in a world sorely in need of context and perspective. I would be selfish were I not to share my modest harvest of insights.
A bit more about my origin and travels you can read in my Seven Islands, available in the “Trips” link above. Ever since I emerged from puberty and hit the grand age of 14, I’ve been obsessed with philosophy, religion and the stars (my first teenage career goal was to be an astronomer!). When my father bought the 1960 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, I found myself reading every article it contained about astronomy, religion and philosophy. In my own adolescent way, I was already looking for wisdom. Since then, I have clocked up half a century of experience in trying to understand and approach what has come to be known as the “three wisdoms,” that is, wisdom seen from the philosophical, theological and mystical points of view.
Like so many of my generation, I emerged from the psychedelic 60s a bit battle-worn and confused. Still, that famous period was hardly a shipwreck. Despite the turmoil and missteps, there was plenty of glory in those days, even if you only considered the music that played on our turntables from 1965-75 (say, from Rubber Soul to Captain Fantastic). And our minds were not always bufuddled with psychotropic agents; there was earnest pursuit of higher goals and a thirst for genuine transcendence. Most of us really did strive for more than a suburban household with functioning appliances.
I spent my first year of college at the University of Chicago, but soon thereafter was back in Kansas to pursue a budding romance. A year later, I returned to college and the romance began to fade. But this time I chose the University of Kansas, closer to home and incomparably cheaper than Chicago. At that time my plans were to study analytic psychology (à la Jung) and pursue a career that seemed suited to wed my religious and philosophical aspirations (and also keep an eye on the stars).
However, the two and a half years at KU brought to those aspirations a radical reformulation. A unique Integrated Humanities Program, taught by a trio of gifted professors, brought multiple strands of my own thinking into unexpected focus and surprising unity. (More about the program in the “Humanities” link above.) Dots of my life began to connect like stars in a constellation. Since the stars had never ceased to both astonish and summon me, I now began to identify their magic in three simple attributes: they are all-encompassing, overwhelmingly beautiful and deeply mysterious.
These three professors – of widely different temperaments and emphases – slowly unveiled a view of reality that dramatically mirrored those three qualities, and their program was integrated indeed. But more importantly, they refused to shy away from the role played by Christianity in all that is special and noble in our civilization. For some, including myself, that role finally directed our gaze to the most misunderstood vehicle of Christianity of them all: the Catholic Church. This new focus of interest surprised no one more than myself.
One thing I can say with full confidence: my conversion to Catholicism would never have occurred if I had not grown convinced of its radical and inalienable catholicity. Otherwise, I would hardly have embraced a Christian tradition that seemed so out of step with that of my own family and ancestors (of Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist vintage), or for that matter, with the vaguely Buddhist and Hindu sympathies I embraced as I emerged from the 60s. I had to be convinced that, for the Church, Catholic (upper case) truly implies catholic (lower case).
In other words, the philosopher in me had to be on good terms with the inchoate theologian. If I was to be enlisted in this tradition, it would have to be more than just one more club, one more navel-gazing society convinced that it is right about everything and everyone else is wrong. Of course, you will find triumphalists in every religion and philosophy, but I came to recognize in Catholicism a self-corrective universalism (in the best sense), and one that was quite difficult to find elsewhere. The whole world, the ecumene, was involved here, and no mere province. But that whole was a totality the Church was called upon to understand and to serve, and not to politically or militarily dominate. As per Christ’s charge, we are to be salt, leaven and light, and not to turn everyone overnight, with a sprinkle of holy water, into salt, leaven and light – what an unsatisfactory meal of sodium and yeast that would be, and what a futile light that had nothing to illuminate!
As I wandered into this massive congeries of saints and sinners (aka the Church), the catholicity I found and slowly embraced was not, in the first instance, a claim to possess all truth. Rather it was the gift of being radically open to all truth, due to its affirmation of a few seminal truths without which all else loses context and perspective. These seminal truths regard especially the order of truth; what was possessed here was not an iron fist over all possible knowledge, but rather a nimble hand holding the key to its coordination. What was claimed was an ability to identify, situate and establish each truth encountered in its God-given station, whether natural or supernatural.
This orchestration was possible to the Church because of its union with the God who is Truth but became man. He alone proved able to situate all truths within the world-embracing space and the foolproof, providential pattern that lies between the humiliation of his Cross and the glory of his Resurrection. It was he who revealed the secret without which “the center cannot hold” (Yeats), and which points to the great “eccentric” gatherer and collector of it all, with its uneasy seat in Rome. (The “eccentric” nature of Rome’s centrality is a notion I owe to Rémi Brague’s book, Eccentric Culture.) I ponder this matter more thoroughly here: What Catholic Should Also Mean.
To continue the story: hardly had the Baptismal water dried from my brow than a vocation to the priesthood began to tease me. This was quite unwelcome at the time (especially because another young lady was already in my sites). But the call was not to be ignored. After graduation I left for Europe, principally to learn French, and then hopefully also to study philosophy and theology at an institute in Paris. I didn’t know it at the time, but back then, at the end of 1974, as I walked through the jetway into the low-cost airship of Icelandic Airlines heading for Luxembourg (also known as the “Hippie Express”), I was never again to live in the country of my birth.
By mid-1975 I felt my French was adequate enough to begin studies. However, I was advised to examine the possibility of joining a religious community and then studying under its auspices. After multiple peregrinations in Europe, visiting monasteries and seminaries in search of a good fit for my particular strengths and weaknesses, I found it, to my surprise, in a community based in Austria. But to my chagrin, I was told my French would be useless there and I would have to learn German. Still, to add charm to the tale, the community was housed in a medieval Hapsburg castle nestled in the Alps of Tyrol. For a Kansas boy, this was hard to resist. The community itself had been inspired by a holy woman who lived a life of intimacy with the Passion of Christ and in unusual communion with the world of the angels (something that sounded strange to me too when I first heard it!). During the next two decades the story unfolded.
I underwent nearly three years of novitiate training under a stern but kindly Trappist priest, and was then sent off to study in Rome. I was ordained in 1983 and immediately sent to be spiritual director of a house of the community in India. After my return to Europe, I was asked to give retreats in Germany and the States, and then was myself appointed novice master in another house of the community, this time in Portugal. I served in that capacity for seven years. Since in the meantime I had managed to finish my doctorate in philosophy, and novices were in short supply, in 1991 I was sent – and never has a mission surprised me more – to Brazil. My task was to teach at a seminary of the community in the Midwest of the country.
I could write an epic book on those 20 years of community life (and this may one day happen) but let that suffice for the moment. In 1996 I was offered a chair of philosophy at the University of Brasilia and resolved to take leave of my old community. The separation was painful, but I have never doubted for a moment that it was the right thing to do. There were no scandals, and I certainly was not booted out, but the signs were unmistakable that Providence was pointing me in other directions. Since then I have been incardinated in the archdiocese of Brasilia and employed in the philosophy department of that city’s federal university. After some time adjusting myself to the oddball city of Brasilia (reminiscent in some ways of a lunar colony), I have now learned to treasure its relatively clean air and temperate climate. It has proven a surprisingly favorable base from which to do research, teach, and also to write and travel.
Although I had globe-trotted a fair bit in my life already (over most of Europe and all the way to India), it occurred to me that my new situation afforded opportunities to pursue more ambitious expeditions. However, I was not – and still am not – interested in travel for travel’s sake. Actually, due to chronic digestive ills, I don’t travel well. Furthermore, I find nothing more insufferable than listening to people bragging about all the places they have visited. But my interest in the “three wisdoms,” embracing the world’s philosophies and religions, together with their varied mysticisms – and the broad distribution of their places of gestation around the globe – led me to jot down a list of corresponding travel destinations. This could be enticing.
The list got quite long (with Varanasi, Jerusalem, Luxor, Bodh Gaya, Palitana, Tirumala, Mount Tai, Xi’an, Lhasa, Kyoto, Machu Picchu quickly making the list, just for starters). I decided I’d better get moving. That was in 1998. Since then, until about 2014, I had visited all the major sites on my list and was dizzy with impressions, meditations, questions and fortunately also, insights. Again, my text Seven Islands gives a good tour d’horizon of these journeys, which finally involve around 60 countries. However, I have digested them there into visits to seven islands that wrap like a garland around the globe. They serve to sum up the extent of my wanderings and also to put on paper the more interesting meditations they occasioned.
After 2014, I began to feel that my experiences and slow personal maturation had reached a critical mass, and that it was time to think more about giving back rather than accumulating further impressions. Lest I get too erudite for my own good, I resolved to look beyond the small circle in which I had hitherto taught and preached. I decided to enter the cyberworld. In 2015, I opened a website and christened it with a name that had fallen into my brain like a meteor: “disciplined wonder.” Ever since standing as a boy under the stars of the Kansas night sky, wonder has always been central to my thinking and a motive for my travels. Since I also realized how much effort is needed to keep wonder’s deliverances in the foreground, I settled on this unusual phrase.
Alas, good friends and students have politely complained that 1) the word “discipline” is hardly an attractive howdy-do to prospective readers; and 2) the phrase is not particularly memorable, aside from being a cumbersome mouthful for foreigners. Thus, I turned again to the muse of web-domains and requested a new inspiration. It was not long in coming.
Shifting from the notion of wonder to the wisdom to which wonder points, I found wonder’s threefold destination – in all its manifestations – to suggest a far more appropriate name for my website. Thus was born the title: “Three Wisdoms.” As a finishing touch, the numeral served to further simplify the title, hence: “3wisdoms.com.”
My professorship commits me to the pursuit of the first wisdom. My priesthood binds me to the challenges of the second. My own salvation requires growth in the third. This final experience of wisdom is, after all, the ultimate goal of the other two. It lies not in “mystical experiences ” or “states of consciousness,” but simply in the perfection of charity and the accompanying wisdom which is a Gift of the Holy Spirit. I am still very much a pilgrim in all three pursuits.