During my middler year at LSTC I was a commuter student, which meant that, in order to beat the traffic, I was often sitting in the refectory early in the morning sipping coffee and reading. It was not uncommon in those years to find Joseph Sittler sitting at one of the small tables looking out onto the seminary courtyard… although he saw so little by then, one could never be sure whether he was seeing nothing… or everything. One morning, I was actually bold enough to ask if I could join him for the morning ritual, a self-invitation to which he most graciously agreed.
The conversation was very free-flowing and general, mostly focusing on how much better we both thought the courtyard would look as a garden rather than as an open plot of sod. And then in the course of that conversation he asked me how old I was. I told him with some embarrassment that I was 31. I was embarrassed because I was a second career student and felt way too old to be changing directions yet again in my professional life.
“Thirty-one?” Sittler replied, “Why you’re ALMOST old enough to start doing theology.”
“Thirty-one?” Sittler replied, “Why you’re ALMOST old enough to start doing theology.” The comment was both reassuring and completely mystifying to me at the time. But as I have reflected on that exchange, particularly in the context of my class work and my subsequent conversations with Sittler, it makes complete sense. Because, of course, for Sittler the entire vocation of pastoral ministry was the capacity to reflect theologically on experience.
It is a vocation that requires first, the capacity to reflect theologically. As Joe once said in a class I attended, “having a passionate faith does not necessarily presuppose having a cerebral bypass.” It was one of the many “Sittlerisms” worth remembering in a society that tends to be somewhat arrogantly anti-intellectual, and a Church culture that seems to value the heart at the expense of the head.
For Sittler the boundary between sacred and secular was a relentlessly permeable membrane.
But our vocation, as Sittler understood it, also requires the time and intentionality of immersing oneself in experience — not merely professional church experience and not merely educational experience, but rather, an immersion into an experience of the comprehensive wonder of creation. For Sittler the boundary between sacred and secular was a relentlessly permeable membrane. Theology was not a department. Theology was the great unifying principle of the universe that has so stubbornly eluded both religionists and naturalists.
And this, for me, has been the lasting legacy of my all-too-brief time as a disciple of this giant of our tradition. In our compartmentalized, post-modern culture, where it seems increasingly that truth can never be experienced as more than the juxtaposition of insulated contradictory particles, Joseph Sittler drives us back into a deeper theological reflection on experience and offers us the hope once again of a cosmos that is whole.