One of the many interesting things that Jesus, Our Lord, said in the Gospels is that there is only one teacher in life: God. Then He added: the rest are learners.
This is fascinating to me. After I finished Seminary, I was so tired of schooling. I had been through 20 years of it: 8 in Grammar School, 4 in High School, 4 in College, and 4 in Seminary. Count them: 20! You could just imagine how many tests and term papers I had to take and do!
I felt that I had had enough! But then the learning really began. In my parishes and in my subsequent assignments, I learned in practicum. I am still learning how to be a priest after nearly 45 years of Priestly service! God was my teacher through the many parishioners I served as well as the priests and religious with whom I served.
Now, after all that, I would love to go back to the academic environment to take courses in things that I am enthusiastically interested in. (Maybe in retirement!)
As in many things, we can learn from the tradition of our Jewish confreres. When the Rabbis began to codify what constitutes the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), they also began to write down the different opinions of verses of the sacred books. This developed into what was called the Mishnah. So, if you look at a copy of the Mishnah, you see the Bible verse literally surrounded by the great insights of the sages about the best way to interpret the verse. This, in turn, was surrounded eventually with another series of interpretations of both the Bible verse and the Mishnah commentary. This triple layer of verse, interpretation and then commentary on the interpretation became known as the Talmud. Observant Jews still pore over the Talmud, the approved interpretations of the Talmud, and the approved interpretations of the Scripture verse. One can see page by page, verse by verse, layers of tradition that surround the revealed text of the Biblical verses.
Thus, in Judaism there is a system of study and reflection on the revealed Word of God that is still learned and reflected upon.
However, when a Catholic modern reader of the Bible takes a verse and gives his or her ideas about it, without reflecting on the thousands of years of communal pondering on that same verse, it can very easily lead to an erroneous understanding of what God is saying.
Just as the Jewish sages were able to continually endeavor to understand a verse and apply its meaning to daily life, so in our Christian understanding we need to know what the saints and the official Church have articulated about a certain passage of Scripture and then we need to let the word grow and mature within our own consciousness.
This takes time and effort. A quick opinion about some section of Scripture can be completely wrong and we can actually do more harm than good by communicating our opinion to others. This is why we must accept the role of continual learners. This requires humility since it is a function of the sin of pride when we elevate our casual opinions to be divine truth.
We can, therefore, see how important and helpful is the Magisterium’s role as a sort of ‘guard rail’ to keep us on track. But within the space of this legitimacy of interpretation there is plenty of room for God to say something unique and personal to each and every learner who approaches the verse with the necessary humility.
I love the fact that I am still a learner and that there is infinitely more for me to discover than I now know. This is similar to Almighty God in a way. Even in the Beatific Vision, there will never be a time that we can say “I know God”. Impossible!
One of the great Fathers of the Church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, wrote that one of the joys of heaven is that there is always more: more God, more love, more friends, more delights. And each of them gets greater and greater!
Thus, we are all on the very beginning of an endless journey into joy. That sure beats the usual idea of heaven as sitting on clouds playing harps!
I joyfully proclaim that I am a learner and that that is all I want to be!