By: David Keran, Seminarian, Diocese of Alexandria
A few evenings ago, I found myself pouring over a set of blueprint-style drawings; the lines and figures – inked here, penciled there, hand-drawn notes scattered in between – represented the form of an airplane in potentia, as the philosophers would say. Taken together, the drawings detailed the building process of a small craft that, properly built, would seat one person, travel some one hundred and twenty miles per hour, and – supposedly – be constructed from scratch “quite easily” by a novice builder in the space of a basement or single-car garage. Me being me, I said to myself: “That sounds like the perfect project for me!”
The reason I mention it here is that I am a firm believer in the power of analogy, a concept hammered into my head – with much gratitude on my part – by the professors of the seminary. Simply put, there are a great number of analogies to be made between aircraft construction and seminary formation. The concept of analogy itself, i.e., the link between a primary meaning with various secondary (but related) meanings, is our link to knowing God. Analogies are written into creation at every turn, describing in uncountably different ways our relationship with God, linking and revealing the very meaning of our existence with divine realities, all in ways that we can actually understand in our human mode of thinking.
The project and its relevance, however, requires some introduction. A number of Lenten seasons ago, I mused in a blog on the benefits of driving a fifty-something year-old Volkswagen under interstate highways, concluding that the apostolate to the homeless is well-served by driving just such a car. Nevertheless, though not planning to give up homeless ministry, I finally sold the car with much reluctance after a period of ownership stretching back several years, wondering why I was selling it even as I was selling it. A Scripture passage concerning “new wine” and “old wineskins” comes to mind, but suffice to say that the “time” had come. It was simply time to move on, however reluctant I may have been.
And though the story of coming to that realization is a story unto itself, what I would like to reflect upon here is the direction of that “moving on.” After selling the car, it made sense to think of another project to get into, since I find these side-project hobbies (of the mechanical variety) to be very complementary to the more academic nature of seminary formation. More specifically, for several years the Volkswagen had represented a process of perfection, and demanded by its very nature that I, the principle agent of attempting this perfection, be a regular part of it, especially if I didn’t want to get stranded on my way to the final destination of the day. My association with the car had begun when it was a rusted-out shell in a Missouri field; from there, the car was improved, over time and with much effort, into a running, driving car that took me all over the eastern half of the country, amidst numerous adventures and misadventures alike. Hence, whatever project would come next, I wanted it to involve a similar “movement”, i.e., a process of perfection, from the “already” to the “not yet”.
The idea of attempting to build an airplane fell readily to mind, since I have always been intrigued by the idea, especially of building one from raw materials. As opposed to a kit that comes in a very large box, a scratch-built design requires sourcing the proper materials, hand-fashioning them into variously sized and shaped parts that number into the hundreds, and fitting them all together per the design on the blueprints. Scratch-building is also significantly cheaper than kit-building, since, as with homemade car restorations, the builder assumes the labor-intensive aspect of the process rather than an expensive shop. The trade-off, of course, requires that the builder “connect” with the designer in thought – and not just in so many words, but through the mediation of the drawings; the design looks simple on paper, but figuring out what gets cut/formed/riveted/installed first can be a marvelously tricky maneuver. It takes time, patience, perseverance, down-time for thought as well as down-time from thought to see the whole thing through. Indeed, a great number of airplane projects begun are never finished – as St. Paul might say, many begin a race that is never finished, not having calculated beforehand the many dimensions of “cost” that the Gospel mentions.
Is this beginning to sound like the outline of the spiritual life, or in some shade like seminary formation? I certainly think so, and it becomes more evident to me with each step in the initial building process. As with seminary formation, certain aspects of the design must be built a certain way, from certain materials, and with certain techniques, because that is the nature of the thing; other aspects are left to the discretion of the builder and his advisors. Using a certain kind of aluminum, for example, has intrinsic meaning for a pilot who cares about whether the wings stay on; the paint design, on the other hand, has more of an “assigned” meaning, “discerned”, if you will, in the freedom of the design to produce a certain effect.
Furthermore, as I mentioned above, the experience of oneness with the design – the connection between builder and designer – is not unmediated, just as one does not experience God in an unmediated way through seminary formation. Rather, the blueprint – the “program of aircraft building”, not to be confused with the Program of Priestly Formation – provides a plan of encounter that, guided by advisors and the efforts of the builder, mediates the encounter into a discerned oneness with the thought of the designer.
It is my hope to continue these thoughts as I move into the building process, which, of course, will take a decidedly leisurely pace, as spare-time hobbies ought. That said, I will close with a thought about the end of the project, a goal that is, as yet, an inarticulate, abstract blip on the horizon of hobby time and space. The goal of a flying airplane notwithstanding, I expect that the project will end in one of two ways: Either I will have a machine that the Federal Aviation Administration will assign a registration number to, or I will figure out that completing an airplane project is “not my calling”, as they say – a possibility, but certainly one that is only discoverable by giving it my best effort. In either case, I will have learned a set of skills that I could only have learned by ordering several sheets of .020 aluminum and a set of tin snips, thence to rivet away.
It reminds me of the two ways that seminary formation is supposed to end: Either with ordination, or with the discerned realization that God is not calling one to the priesthood. In either case, God calls men to the seminary in order that they encounter Him in a way that could not be accomplished by any other means, whether He intends that a particular man be ordained or not. Thus, a solid investment in responding to that call cannot fail to bear fruit, just as a solid investment into the “riveting” nature of aircraft construction cannot fail to produce a worthwhile measure of growth – even if simply by way of analogy.
About the Author: David Keran, Seminarian, Diocese of Alexandria
David is a seminarian for the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, beginning his second year of theology. He enjoys using things such as antique cars, airplanes, and juggling as tools for the New Evangelization.
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