In Memoriam

Fr. Matthew Lamb Remembered by Two of His Students

Theologian and priest Fr. Matthew Lamb (June 5, 1937 – January 12, 2018) will be missed in a special way by those of us who had the providential blessing to be his graduate students. He died peacefully and, as providence would have it, with doctoral students keeping vigil at his side. During his life, he passed on his vision for a renewal of the academy in continuity with the Catholic intellectual tradition. He was directing or advising doctoral students up until his death, having directed or sat on the dissertation boards of about a hundred of his students. His influence will be felt throughout the nation and abroad for many years to come. The two of us stand near the end of the long line of scholars upon whom Fr. Lamb left his mark.

As students, we knew him as a true shepherd of our souls. He was, to borrow from the words of Pope Francis, one “living with the smell of the sheep”—those sheep being penniless twenty- and thirty-somethings who were aspiring theologians. Not only did he pass along his wisdom, but he was also a witness as a model educator. Fr. Lamb understood graduate students and their anxieties in working through a rigorous program. He had mastered the art of criticizing student presentations with encouragement and encouraging with criticism. His own asceticism and contemplative life fostered such charity and gratitude in his own soul that these extended into his interactions with students. He was full of practical wisdom for preparing students for comprehensive finals, which he called “the last academic psychodrama,” and for finishing the dissertation on time: nulla dies sine pagina, in other words, never let a day pass without having written a page. Even while in the flesh, he became a sort of patron saint of the academic job hunter. Indeed, many of his former students will speak to his key role in helping them enter into university jobs.

He took an interest in our lives and in the lives of our spouses and children, some of the little ones calling him “Grandfather Lamb.” As could be said of the Lord, Fr. Lamb “came eating and drinking,” bringing his steady, joyous presence to nearly every graduate party, refreshing his students with memorable anecdotes about his encounters with Hans Küng, Flannery O’Connor, and others. “A friend of sinners” and their children, he repeatedly emphasized the importance of praying the family rosary, the nightly family prayer out of which grew his own vocation to the Trappists. The children, many of whom he baptized, recognized him as one of their own kind, a joyous and childlike soul who shared their own innocence.

He lived the ascetic life of a monk in the subtropics. He sought opportunities to give generously to anyone, whether bringing a bottle of allergy medicine to class for a student adjusting to southern Florida, or money for struggling families, or extra books for graduate students. This past summer, he brought extra socks to the grocery store hoping to find someone, perhaps a poor graduate student, to give them to. We were not merely Fr. Lamb’s students but his sons and daughters. Perhaps we were, in a way, his fellow monks away from the Trappist monastery.

One of Fr. Lamb’s closest companions was Augustine of Hippo. He recognized in Augustine a kindred spirit in pursuit of wisdom and truth. He would often speak of Augustine’s breakthrough, a turning inward to find God in the inmost self. There, Augustine recognized an image of the Trinity in the mind’s remembering, knowing, and loving itself. Fr. Lamb repeatedly emphasized that all of eternity is present to God. As a consequence, “each one of you,” he would repeatedly say, “is willed by God from all eternity to exist and to be here right now at this very moment.”

His significance as a visionary for Catholic education began to be felt before coming to Ave Maria University. In an essay on Catholic graduate theological education written in 1997 while he was still at Boston College, he described the tasks of theology in the first two millennia of the Church. Fr. Lamb decried what he called “the Janus-crisis of specialization and fragmentation” of the day. Specialization itself brings many benefits, but the sort of hyperspecialization and fragmentation of the sciences into countless subspecialities leads to “an inability to understand how nature is a whole.” Such specialization and fragmentation have entered into Catholic universities, Lamb wrote, as they have into theology itself. In a survey he conducted at the time, he observed that 75 percent of doctoral theses focused upon figures from the 20th century and an additional 15 percent focused on figures from the 19th century. Thus, only a tenth of doctoral theses were focusing upon the previous eighteen centuries, an unfitting tithe for the Catholic academy. For Lamb, the new millennium presented a new “kairos” for Catholic universities to begin to reorient themselves in the pursuit of a truly integral wisdom. He argued that they should seek to re-institutionalize wisdom at the heart of the Catholic intellectual life. He wrote,

There has been a definite “aggiornamento” in Catholic theology. What is needed now is that more attention be given to the “ressourcement” so that, two decades hence, there might be more Catholic theologians with degrees in those important resources for Catholic theology: patristic, monastic and medieval philosophers and theologians. This, I have tried to show, is more than a merely historical task. It is a question of attuning the minds and hearts of Catholic theologians to the Divine realities that would assure real, and not merely notional, apprehension and assent in theology.

In those “two decades hence,” Fr. Lamb would live out the remainder of his days doing just that—he left Boston College in 2003 to build a program of graduate theology at Ave Maria University to form Catholic theologians familiar with those sources and able to work in their academic careers toward “the reintegration of science and scholarship with wisdom.” He was resigned to the fact that this effort would require the work of generations of theologians, but he brimmed with hope and expectation in his own students, saying, “we don’t have a moment to lose.” The Ave Maria graduate program that he founded and directed for more than a decade is a model of the vision he set forth for graduate education, and for that reason it retains its distinctiveness among Catholic graduate programs around the nation.

Fr. Lamb’s presence constantly illustrated the habitus of a true theologian, which, as he often reminded his students, was acquired rather than infused. This can only be done through an unwavering orientation toward wisdom. To spend time with him in or out of the classroom was to be instructed in the wonder of creation and revelation. His theology was dedicated to the dialectic between the ancient and modern thinkers. He utilized the history and content of the Catholic intellectual tradition to dialogue with these thinkers charitably but always with the question of truth squarely in focus. Fr. Lamb recognized in Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture an important monument to the challenges posed by the dual threat to modernity in the rise of nominalism and voluntarism and its departure from the ancient wisdom of Greek logos, or reason. Fr. Lamb’s mission to influence theology exceeded the recent trends of textual criticism or mere history. He wanted to form theologians who were faithful, seeing theology as the root for true wisdom and friendship with God. Moreover, this required a holistic understanding of reality as such. The true theologian had to understand how theology and other sciences are related. While theology studies God and the other sciences study the cosmos, both share a pursuit of the truth of reality. Such an understanding was the key to recovering the foundations of the university itself as a collective effort to pursue the uni veritas.

In a 2013 Nova et Vetera article, he wrote,

If we cultivate sound scholarly judgment and are intelligent and faithful, we may discover that the Catholic intellectual traditions are, in fact, a vast and complex cathedral of the mind and heart to which each generation of human beings is called to contribute. A cathedral of the mind and heart, far more enduring than those of stone, wherein dwells an attentive reverence for the goodness and holiness of genuine knowing and loving. In such a cathedral of the mind and heart every discovery of truth is ultimately a gift, a finite, created participation in the embracing Mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Infinite Understanding generating Infinite Wisdom spirating Infinite Love. For this cathedral of the mind and heart is the whole Body of Christ in the City of God.

His work founding the graduate theology program was an effort to help build such a cathedral in the hearts and minds of each of his students. He not only taught this inward Augustinian way, but he lived it as a witness. His sacrifice of praise was a life lived in this “cathedral of the mind and heart.” There he worshipped the God more inward than the inmost self. He entered into his final repose on January 12, but his impact will be felt by generations of students, particularly if more Catholic universities come to realize the vision for graduate education that he set forth. The effects of Fr. Lamb’s vision and courage are only beginning to be felt. Like a modern St. Francis of Assisi, Fr. Lamb was called upon by Christ to rebuild his Church, a calling which he fulfilled, brick by brick.

Kevin M. Clarke About Kevin M. Clarke

Kevin M. Clarke is an adjunct professor of theology at Ave Maria University. He has edited and introduced a book for CUA Press on the Fathers of the Church and the capital vices, which will be published before Lent 2018.

Taylor Patrick O’Neill About Taylor Patrick O’Neill

Taylor Patrick O’Neill is an assistant professor of theology at Mount Mercy University.

Comments

  1. As a classmate and colleague of Professors Clarke and O’Neill, and a humble student of the noble and indefatigable Fr. Lamb, no better tribute could be offered. Thank you. I will always remember his passionate homilies (which inevitably referenced the previous week’s class material), the personable and direct manner of engaging his students, and the reverence he exuded in celebrating the Mass and in baptizing a number of my children. He will be dearly missed, but he will not be forgotten, and his influence will be felt for generations.