I was widely known as a biblical scholar during my teaching career from the late 1970’s to mid-2015. My focus was the Catholic Epistles and towards the end of that period I produced three different commentaries on 2 Peter. Yet I was also teaching Christian spirituality during this same period. Still, while I was highly critical of the Nestle-Aland28 edition of Novum Testamentum Gracae for (among other things) changing the text of 2 Peter 3 to read that the earth as well as the heavens and the heavenly bodies would be destroyed (versus the burning up of the heavens and the heavenly bodies and the laying bare of the earth – by the removal of this covering – for judgment), I often quipped that I hoped that the judgment would result in the burning up of all that I had written, for I did not want to be embarrassed by my foolishness and errors throughout eternity. I was more conscious that my writings would likely end up on the back shelves of some research library where they would be consulted on rare occasions by some research scholar as I had done to other obscure scholars during my doctoral studies.
While there was a transition process between my retiring from then Houston Baptist University and my appointment as chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist at Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory, I believe the Lord made increasingly clear to me that my career as a biblical scholar had ended, except as I poured my knowledge into homilies and the like, and my calling as a Catholic priest was rather monastic, to a life of prayer, worship, and sacramental ministry, not forgetting that I am married and have a wife who needs my care as well as an aging body. I did, at the request of a friend, give a paper at a conference in 2022 and submitted the paper for publication, but thought of it as my last. Pope Benedict XVI citing Pope St John Paul II confirmed to me that priests are in fact monks under all three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, although in a form somewhat different from the form of typical religious communities. One has left the world, although one ministers to the world, as do many religious communities (even the totally cloistered ones are praying for the world). I started to refer to myself as “the hermit of the eastern march,” which actually comes from C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, but in my case refers to living in the eastern border area of Georgetown.
So I was interested this week in a number of my friends and acquaintances announcing the publication of the second edition of InterVarsity Press’ Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Each was appropriately happy to see the articles that they had written in print. I thought back to the original edition of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, then the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, and finally the Dictionary of the Latter New Testament, in all of which I had articles. All were edited (along with a co-editor) by Ralph Martin, from the generation before me at Manchester University, whom I knew well and with whom I was co-editor of that third volume. Those were indeed good times with great conversations enjoyed with faithful colleagues. But the announcements of this publication were to me a reminder that those days are memories of the past. By eyes are already on prayer and worship and sacramental ministry, already turned beyond this age to the coming age that is breaking into this one. My work is already fading, pushed onto and perhaps off the forgotten shelves of libraries, for those who have used it in the past as in the twilight of their careers and for those who are active in their careers my oeuvre is replaced by or quickly being replaced by that of others. And that is good for me.
Jesus said to set our eyes on things above, that is on the coming age now breaking into the world. He called people who forsook perfectly good careers for a rather insecure career of following him and then itinerant ministry to the nascent Church (after his resurrection). Biblical studies can indeed help one draw closer to Jesus – it was through this and the associated study of the spiritual classics that that happened to me – yet the time came for me when he implicitly said, I want you more identified with me. It was almost as if he said, “Your name is Peter. Do you love me more than these (in my case, these books and studies)?” And I have received the gift of time in relative obscurity in my “hermitage” to live out that conformity to the person of Christ, to grow in love, and to let prayer and worship become the runway for my transition to a new phase of life at one with him, what the Eastern Church calls divinization (for 2 Pet 1). It is a gift.
So my prayer for my friends is that they enjoy their ministry as biblical scholars thoroughly, that they absorb from it the lessons that our Lord is teaching them, but that they also realize that this too will pass, that there is, as C S Lewis also said, an eventual call to come “further in and higher up.” And in that I rejoice.