Why Catholic Philosophy - St. Bernard's

Why Catholic Philosophy?

Aug 1, 2023

Eric Schantz

I decided to study Catholic Philosophy at St. Bernard’s because I am on a quest for meaning in the second half of life. Like the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, I found myself last year in mid-life, wandering through a “Dark Wood.” This was something akin to what Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, taught about Dante’s Divine Comedy. Jung describes this midlife wandering as a transition from a search for identity to a search for meaning in our life, connecting us with something beyond us, something larger. This happens whether we already have a strong religious faith or not. We look for answers, but ideally, we really end up learning how to ask the right questions. this is more important for living a complete life.

A search for meaning, wandering, asking the right questions – along with Dante, these themes remind me of another medieval story. This one recounts Parsifal (meaning, “Joyous Fool”), and his twenty year-long wandering search for the Holy Grail, housed in the “Grail Castle.” I am Parsifal, a joyous fool, constantly looking for the Grail of Christian enlightenment. Twenty years ago, I graduated from St. Bernard’s and now I have returned to learn more. I must continue learning the right questions to ask in order to become the King of the Grail Castle, i.e., fully who God created me to be. In Jungian terms, this means to achieve “individuation” (i.e., to achieve meaning, the best possible expression of me in the second half of life) by becoming like Parsifal, engaging in the questions of philosophy: a search for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

Parsifal visited the Grail Castle twice: once as a young man, and once as a war-weary soldier after years of battle as a knight in King Arthur’s Court. The Grail Castle is ruled over by the Fisher King, a man gravely wounded who must fish in a pond to find relief from his suffering. Jung stated that this symbolizes fishing in the waters of the Unconscious, i.e., looking inward, engaging in psychotherapy, all the while knowing that, “Bidden or unbidden, God is always present,” a quote by Erasmus that Jung had inscribed over his office door in Switzerland.

The Fisher King directs Parsifal to the Castle to find lodging. There he witnesses a great pageant, really a recreation of the Processional of the medieval Mass, including the Cross, the spear that pierced Christ’s side, and the Holy Grail itself. Tragically, young Parsifal does not inquire about what the symbols mean; he is not wise enough yet to know what to ask. When Parsifal returns years later and the King again directs him to the Grail Castle for lodging, he finally has learned to ask the right questions: Whom does the Grail serve? What is the meaning of these symbols I see? This time, as soon as he asks, the Fisher King is allowed to finally drink from the Grail: he is restored to health, and Parsifal becomes the new King of the Castle, even though the old Fisher King still lives. In Jung’s world, this is the alchemical process we undergo to achieve enlargement of our souls, a death and resurrection of our souls. “The King is Dead: Long Live the King.”

I have spent my life in pursuit of God. Born and raised Catholic, I looked for answers, but found none in the Church at that time. I left the Church at an early age and found many answers, since God is always present. As a child version of Parsifal though, I didn’t know the questions to ask yet inside the Church. I returned to the Catholic faith after twenty years, finally understanding the truth, beauty, and goodness in the Catholic faith, which Jung himself was mesmerized by. Another twenty years have come and gone, and I once again return to St. Bernard’s to ask more questions.

Ultimately, my reason for studying Catholic philosophy has much to do with the answer given by an author I have studied under my advisor, Dr. Marco Stango: a German scholar named Josef Pieper. He describes what he calls the “world of work.” Really, he is describing the world of systems, that which is practical, of utility to the human race. This of course is very good. For example, in our infrastructure we need firefighters, police officers, construction workers, grocery store clerks. We need maintenance of that infrastructure: even Jesus was a carpenter. The problem arises however, Pieper wrote, when people see this “world of work,” and nothing else. Think of this worldview as “domed.” It is finite. Good? Yes, much of it, and necessary - but there is no larger picture. What lies beyond is the world of philosophy, of enlightenment. This world helps transform the world of work and gives it meaning; the world of work cannot do the same for the world of philosophy.

This then, is Catholic philosophy at St. Bernard’s: it offers an alternative. It introduces us to Socrates; Plato; Aristotle; the Neo-Platonists; Pseudo-Dionysius and Anselm; Bonaventure; Aquinas. I have also learned priceless wisdom from twentieth and twenty first-century philosophers, not only Pieper, but also Remi Brague, Pierre Hadot, D.C. Schindler, and Rene Girard, among others.

In my journey to midlife, I have gained much, thanks in large part to St. Bernard’s. I now return to study Catholic Philosophy in my lifelong quest for the Holy Grail of meaning. In this Dark Wood of our nihilistic society that worships the self, St. Bernard’s and its programs stand like a fire on a mountaintop, beckoning us wanderers to engage in philosophical discussion together of the true, beautiful, and good. It is the Grail Castle, waiting for us to ask the right questions. The Fisher King points the way.

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Eric Schantz has practiced as a therapist for eighteen years. He holds a Master’s degree from St. Bernard’s in Pastoral Studies (with a prior heavy concentration in biblical studies), where he is once again enrolled in the Master’s program in Catholic Philosophy (MACP). He earned a Master’s in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University in Maryland. He recently completed a diploma program in spiritual direction, started at The Haden Institute and completed through the Carmelite Priory in Oxford, U.K. Licensed as a Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), he lives and works in Rochester, N.Y., with his fellow therapist, a Yorkie mix named Zoe.