Avery the Seeker

Dulles youngReaders of this page will likely know that the American Church’s most distinguished theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., died last December.  A recent leisurely Sunday afternoon afforded me the opportunity to reread Dulles’ A Testimonial to Grace.  The book autobiographically recounts Dulles’ journey from his freshman year at Harvard – which he describes as “a wild and chaotic year, marked by an excess of drinking” – to his entry into the Catholic Church several years later.  The story told therein is as fresh and relevant now as when the book was first published in 1946.

We live an age marked by self-proclaimed religious “seekers.”  These men and women (often young people) might be characterized as people who have left the faith tradition in which they were raised and now belong to no organized religion.  They claim to be “seeking” the truth (perhaps “God”) in a process they frequently describe in terms of a search or journey.  Dulles once belonged firmly among their ranks; the first chapter of A Testimonial to Grace is even titled “The Human Search.”  Taking Dulles as a model (no pun intended – if you don’t get this joke, please read more of Dulles’ theology), the following are four characteristics of Dulles’ search which contemporary seekers might do well to emulate.

1) Indefatigable. For Dulles, being a seeker could not be a part-time hobby.  No, instead Dulles’ search consumed him.  He realized that his life would be nonsensical unless he knew the purpose of life.  He explains that for him, philosophy was never dull and unpractical.  Instead, he noted that

It was terribly clear to me from the beginning that I could not do anything – whether to help a friend in trouble, to eat a meal, or even to take a breath – without running the risk of being asked by some Socrates, Why?  What is the principle by which you justify this action?  Does it ultimately tend to bring about that which you deem to be worth while?  These questions haunted me, and I could have no peace until they had been answered.

Faced with the urgency of this question, Dulles poured himself into his search.  When the journey was moving toward Catholicism, he “immersed [himself] in the intricacies of ecclesiastical history and delved into the complexities of medieval theology.”  When faced with the question of the Church’s infallibility, Dulles compared the decrees of various Councils against those of modern Catholic catechisms, looking for one article of faith which the Church had suppressed or retracted.  (By the way, he found none.)

When Dulles finally discovered that the purpose of his life was, in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul,” he did not rest.  The same zeal which the young Dulles exhibited in his religious search the mature Dulles brought to his life as a Jesuit priest (see ordination video below) and theologian, working tirelessly to understand ever more deeply the mystery of God.

2) Fearless. True seekers must have the courage to go wherever their search leads.  They cannot close any doors a priori out of fear of the consequences of walking though them.  Moreover, should they be brought to the truth, they must be willing to embrace it, even if this comes at a great personal cost.  Belonging to a Presbyterian family with a history of eminent statesmanship, entering the American Catholic Church of the 1940’s – the majority of which was poor, uneducated immigrants – was hardly a fashionable move for the young, talented Dulles.  As he writes, “When I entered the Catholic Church, I made a venture that appeared foolhardy in the eyes of most of my family and friends.”  And elsewhere,

I felt . . . a natural reluctance to take any action which would estrange me from my family and friends.  The call of Christ must be obeyed, but I would gladly have dispensed with the religious cleavage.  After becoming a Catholic, it appeared, I could no longer be at ease with persons divided from me by so wide a chasm.

In addition to these fears, right before Dulles’ baptism, there were other fears he had to overcome.  He wondered: I am young, how can I make a commitment for my whole life, not yet knowing if my opinions will change?  Dulles says that he “came into the Church like one of those timid swimmers who closes his eyes as he jumps into the roaring sea.”  Yet, it seems, it is the courageous swimmer who makes that plunge: the timid ones never enter the deep waters at all.

3) Engaging both the head and the heart. We might more aptly describe this as a harmony between faith and reason.  Dulles found truth by following the path of reason, first through ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, then through medieval theologians, up to the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century.  Coming upon reason for the first time was a moment of liberation for Dulles:

On apprehending the dignity of reason and its true relation to reality I all at once felt at home in the universe.  It is impossible for me to exaggerate the sense of joy and freedom which came from this discovery.

Yet, as Dulles knew, “God does demand that we go beyond the evidence of reason.”  His conversion, too, was a matter of the heart:

Now indeed did my soul, like that of the Psalmist, faint in the courts of the Lord.  The very pace and movement of the heart were altered with desire for its absent Lord.  Not the heart only, but the whole body through which the heart’s pulse flowed, was penetrated with the sense of exile and of longing of Him of Whom it had been told.

4) Self-forgetting. A temptation for the seeker is to become obsessed with their own search.  Their search becomes about them and their journey, rather than about the truth they are attempting to find.  Dulles’ search was self-forgetting, concerned with the object he was pursuing rather than the subject doing the pursuing.  This was especially true once Dulles had become a Catholic, a Jesuit, and a theologian.  Acquaintances of Dulles note his tremendous focus: whatever the task at hand was, whether reading, teaching, or saying mass, Dulles was focused on it one-hundred percent.  Such focus comes about through a Christian asceticism that leads one to forget oneself and one’s own glory so that one might think entirely of the external object, especially the great Object which Dulles’ pursued throughout his life: the Trinitarian God.  As he wrote shortly after his conversion:

By forgetting ourselves and living entirely for the glory of Almighty God we can unite ourselves efficaciously with Jesus Christ, Who offered His Sacred Humanity to the Father without stint or hesitation. . . . As the past recedes into obscurity, I watch it disappear without nostalgia.  I recall it with difficulty and without delight.  The man who looks toward Christ looks always forward, striving constantly to become more worthy of his divine Lover, hoping to draw a little closer to Him in this world and, after a little while, to be united with Him in everlastingness.

For Avery Dulles, that “little while” has now passed.  We pray that his lifelong search for God has at last brought him to be, at last, “united with Him in everlastingness.”

© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.

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One Response to Avery the Seeker

  1. Gabriel Austin says:

    Interesting is the cardinal’s memory of his family’s first years in New York City. While his father was earning his spurs at a prestigious [lege “white shoe”] law firm, the family attended services on Sundays at a Presbyterian church. Later they moved to the suburbs and took up golf on Sunday.

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