While I have previously here remarked on the fact that both my patrons saints left academia to pursue monastic vocations, it took the jest of a friend and co-worker to cause me to wonder if my leaving academia more than two years ago was, in fact, perhaps inevitable. Since, after all, both my patron saints left academia, isn’t there some sort of spiritual gravitational pull impacting me in that regard?
In the first place, is the example of St Benedict:
Saint Benedict was born in the town of Nursia, a small city in the Italian province of Umbria, but he was sent to Rome to study the worldly sciences of his time. Yet, perceiving a multitude of profligates in the pagan schools he attended, and how they lived according to their lustful passions, he departed thence, fearing lest on account of a little book-learning he destroy the great understanding of his soul, and lest, having debauched himself with wanton people, he fall headlong into the abyss of sin. Thus, he left school an unlettered wised man and a wise fool, and disdained superficial philosophy so as to preserve his inner chastity. [St. Dmitri’s life of Saint Benedict (tr by Isaac E. Lambertson) from The Menology of St. Dmitri of Rostov, vol. VII (March)]
In the case of Father Seraphim, this, from his letter to his parents on his leaving academia:
It’s time that I chose the academic life in the first place, because God gave me a mind to serve Him with, and the academic world is where the mind is supposed to be used. But after eight or nine years I know well enough what goes on in the universities. The mind is respected by only a few of the “old-fashioned” professors, who will soon have died out. For the rest, it’s a matter of making money, getting a secure place in life—and using the mind as a kind of toy, doing clever tricks with it and getting paid for it, like circus clowns. The love of truth has vanished from people today; those who have minds have to prostitute their talents to get along. I find this difficult to do, because I have too great a love of truth. The academic world for me is just another job; but I am not going to make myself a slave to it. If I am going to serve God in this world, and so keep from making my life a total failure, I will have to do it outside the academic world. (Letter to his parents, 14 June 1961)
There are some wonderful things about academia that I miss: the engagement with ideas and the dogged pursuit of truth, the camaraderie and “inside” jokes, the research and writing, the instruction of those students, all too few, for whom your offering of your work and talents kindles in them a similar desire for truth and knowledge, even, in a very few case, for wisdom. But there is so much about academia that I do not miss, and am glad to be rid of: the politics, the infighting, the propaganda, the prostitution of research and learning to fuel personal and political agendas, the quest for indoctrination instead of the promotion of fellows seekers after truth, the sheer mercantilization of the degree process and the turning of the classroom into a tool for the production of degree recipients, and the classist system in the professoriate. I could go on. I went in to academia naive, thinking it could be like my best experiences as an undergraduate. And thankfully there were many times it was just that. But such instances, and indeed such institutions, are sadly all too rare.
I don’t need to lament that for which Bloom, Hanson, Thornton, and Heath and many others have already written the epitaph. And, since I have come to a much different understand what is meant by the term “vocation,” there really isn’t much to lament. Even while heavily involved in my degree program and teaching, I lacked sufficient time and resources to do the research, thinking and writing I longed to do and envied others their capability of doing. Nothing really has changed apart from what accounts for the lack of that time now.
But as to whether, since both my patron saints left academia, there was some sort of spiritual gravitation that would have resulted in my leaving academia anyway, well, I’ll leave that to men of far greater spiritual insight than myself. One wonders.
In any case, this is not so much about being in or out of academia. As both St Benedict and Fr Seraphim display, these things are a matter of the salvation of one’s soul. That it is possible to save one’s soul and remain in academia is not in question. Rather, this is a matter of my particular living out of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. And God has seen fit to lead me in a different way than others. After all, vocation is not so much about what one does, but about what one is and becomes. One can pray, fast and give alms as a professor as well as a carpenter. In fact, I happen to know one Carpenter who provides us the very salvation we seek.