Jobs They Love: Theology Professor
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays – or their next gig -- with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
In writing about the rituals of the Christian season of Advent – the weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas -- Leo Guardado talks about the concept of the “holy imagination.” It’s a way of thinking constructively beyond the seemingly intractable, and often unjust world we live in to imagining the way things could be: a world “of mercy, of love, of peace.”
It’s a fitting description, in a nutshell, of Dr. Guardado’s job as Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University in New York City. In his courses, students learn not just the fundamental histories of religious and mystical beliefs and practices, but also ways that theological thinking can actually change the world for the better: the way things could be.
“Liberation theology,” an approach that embraces social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples, and the Catholic church’s role in providing sanctuary for refugees of civil strife, are areas of special interest for Guardado. His connection to the subject isn’t simply academic. When he was 9 years old, Guardado and his mother fled the violence of the 1978-92 civil war that was tearing their native El Salvador apart. They made the long and harrowing journey north to the U.S. border, trudging through dangerous desert territory by night and narrowly evading capture by criminals and government officials on both sides of the border.
Guardado and his mother settled in the Bay area of California where he attended high school and went on to earn his B.A. at St. Mary’s College. He lived for a while in a Trappist Monastery in northern California before completing his Master of Theological Studies at Notre Dame. He earned his Ph.D. at Notre Dame in a joint program between the theology department and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Studying theology is an obvious requirement for students of the ministry but how does it benefit the average student who’s pursuing an education in business or the arts, say?
For my undergraduate students, that is a really a key question. Like, why do I have to take two theology classes at Fordham? I can go somewhere else and not take any theology. Why do I have to take this? What does it do for me? How does it benefit me? This is especially true for the business students. I say, well, have you ever thought of the possibility that one day you may be doing business in India and that you should know something about Hinduism or that you may find yourself in Indonesia, and you should probably have some basic knowledge of Islamic practice, cultural values, language, ideally.
Or I say, have you considered how U.S. history, culture, and government are built, for good or ill, upon a basic kind of Christian framework that's been altered and made into its own American religion, civil religion, but it's deeply interwoven with versions of Christianity? The U.S. Constitution is a form of scripture. You ought to know that for your own sake, as a responsible citizen in this country, in this era, under the Trump or Biden or any other administrations. I also explain how you ought to know how so much of what you see on television in regard to government is ritual. It's religious ritual of a civil religion. To be religiously illiterate is to miss out on how power operates in this world.
Your experience fleeing El Salvador and emigrating to the U.S. as a young boy must have been a traumatic undertaking. What were the bright spots, if any, that gave you strength or confidence that you would make it through?
Well, I was a 9-year-old boy, so I'm not sure that I was thinking about whether we would make it or not make it. But we were a part of a community. I mean, there were 15 of us who took off from our town or village in El Salvador. I was the youngest at 9. The next oldest was about 15, this young girl. And you're a community throughout the journey, so you support each other, you help each other out. There was this one day when my mother and I had to be separated because she was going with the adults who were going to run on foot through a part of Mexico and they said I would not be able to keep up. So, she literally had to entrust me to a stranger in one sense, but who was also a community member of this group migrating together -- the coyote -- the woman who was smuggling us, if you put it that way.
I was simply trying to do what I was told on a given day to not deviate from, you know, how the system works. For example, if you're going through Mexico, you need to remember who the president of Mexico is. And know a few key words so that you can hopefully pass as Mexican in case you get stopped. So, it's just moving day to day. Today I'm a Guatemalan, tomorrow I'm a Mexican, and here's what I need to remember. Then the next day, it's something else.
For me at that point it was an adventure. It was a thrill of sorts. I did not have the long view of how dangerous the experience can be, and that's one of the beauties, I think, one of the saving graces of children in the midst of war and forced displacement. From an adult's perspective, it is trauma and definitely it lives in your flesh and in your bones and your memories. But the body and the imagination of a child is also amazingly resilient and creative in making beauty and joy out of violence and out of constraint. So even in the midst of traumatic experiences, to be a child is to always have a possibility not only of survival, but just of great adventure.
I say this not to belittle the reality and the violence, but to reframe it from a child's eyes.
Is there hope for nonviolence as a practical movement or tactic in bringing about social justice or peacefulness in the world? Perhaps it’s just the omnipresence of corporate and social media blaring bad news at us 24/7, but it seems like we’re losing ground with this all around the world.
Nonviolence is such a layered possibility that is yet to be, I would say, even grasped by the majority of people in this day and age in terms of the power. Or the force that it is, or how vastly superior it can be to the destruction of violent forces.
Nonviolence continues to be rendered as passive, as for the weak, as some religious option that is the high moral ground, but radically ineffective in the real politic of the modern world. And part of this plays off the previous question regarding children. We are radically failing at imagining other ways of being in relationship as nations, as peoples across the world. And we radically fail to imagine that in the struggles, in the midst of conflict.
The question is how do you deal with conflict? You deal with it violently or creatively. And the two are pretty antithetical. To deal with conflict nonviolently is to be open to a radically creative way of engaging with the other, whether that's a person or a community or a nation. That does not foreclose possibilities of the other having something correct or right in this conflict. And it does not foreclose that you may not have all of the information or that you may not be completely right.
It's very difficult in this day and age to say, no, no, we're completely right and they're completely wrong. But to actually engage in genuine negotiation and genuine struggle for my truth versus your truth, I can’t kill you for my truth, I need to convince you that I'm right. And in that struggle that does not give way to violence lies the possibilities of creative nonviolence. But we've yet to really, I think, understand that at a mass level, though it happens everywhere in day-to-day relationships, in social movements. But it's still mostly dismissed by the media.
And it's more than simply we continue to see the violence in terms of the everyday. It's a sense that the mainstream media does not understand or even have the capacity, it seems, to consider the possibility that there are other ways of relating that do not do away with or hide the conflict, rather actually bring it to the surface in a much more real way. But it just means that we're not going to kill each other over it.
And of course, there’s the classic scenario as well with someone like Hitler -- I mean, how can you practice nonviolence with a Hitler regime? That’s a longer and complex question. However, in the 2012 book, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” the authors Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan go back and research that the most successful political transformations and transitions of regimes that have happened, the most successful ones, have been nonviolent. They analyzed all this data for the past 100 years where political transitions have taken place -- through dictatorships, through wars, through conquest as in Afghanistan. They go on to show how long these transitions have lasted historically before the conflict arose again. And then they trace wherever nonviolent transitions of power took place -- people's uprisings, the Velvet Revolution, the Orange Revolution, you name it, around the world in the 20th century, in the past hundred years. They end up showing that the peace or the stability that came afterward was so much deeper and long lasting. So, they say actually nonviolence as a means of conflict transformation, and transitions of power works radically better.
I think we've yet to come to grips with a figure like Gandhi and what Gandhi has meant and will continue to mean for the future. This is part of this longer answer to the question, but it's part of the suppressed knowledge of the Global South that takes place in the real politics of the Global North. We can say, oh, Gandhi worked in India, but Gandhi wouldn't work here so well. Gandhi may not work, but there's a lot to the methods that he developed for conflict transformation, satyagraha, what he called the “truth force.” And that has a lot of not only potential, but a lot of creativity.
It does mean, though, that in the Western mentality, we would have to make peace with something that I think is really, really difficult. And that is, in the West we operate by means and ends. I have an end. Here's my objective. Here's how I get there. And the end is the goal. And so, it's a matter of how do I get there? You end up doing whatever you need to do to get there. With Gandhi’s kind of philosophical system, there is no way of separating the ends and the means. He said the means are ends in the making. And you cannot have this duality of ends and means. If you want this kind of society, a democratic society, then you practice democracy now. For Gandhi, democracy is way more than just the voting box. Yeah, it's protest. That's one version of it. But it's so much more. For him, it's really about the village.
You construct villages, you construct education, women's education, health care, at the local level. You deal with the necessities of a village, and you just rebuild society from that microscopic level. And you keep doing that as communities. You keep doing that, and it rebuilds society from the ground up. If you want a society with education, then you start providing it right there at the village level. If you want a society with greater religious pluralism, then you do it right there in the village. That's a very different approach than say the top-down mentality.
I do have a conviction that is inevitable, that we have to move forward beyond violence, otherwise we will continue to not only slaughter each other, but in the age of nuclear weapons, literally obliterate each other. In the West, we have to turn towards holistic frameworks. We have to get beyond thinking in dualistic terms and when we do that, then the means is always the ends in the making. There is no end that can be separate from how we get there.
Fordham is a Catholic institution that teaches in the Jesuit tradition, encouraging curiosity and introspection in students, and thinking in new and different ways about healing injustice in the world. What are some surprising takes on this that you’ve learned from your students?
One thing I've learned from my students -- I'm not sure it necessarily reflects the Jesuit kind of thinking – is how quickly points of reference change from one generation to the next. I think of myself as rather young still. But if I'm teaching a student in their first year of college, I want to reference a song that I think highlights what I'm talking about. So, I play the YouTube video of the song and they have no idea who the artist is. And I realize, oh, we're from very different generations. This is a very practical example that we're in a very important moment, where we are trying to decolonize our ways of thinking.
For the first couple of years at Fordham, I used a text to introduce students to Buddhism, but the text was not written by a practicing Buddhist. It's written by a scholar of religion. But the scholar was not Buddhist or did not identify as such. So, a student said, why aren't we reading from someone that actually comes out of this tradition? I could have said, well, because this is actually very well regarded. This is a great top scholar in the field and so forth. Instead, I said you know, you're right. How do I not only make space, but how do I recognize that the ways that we teach and what we teach are deeply, deeply interwoven with histories of the colonization of knowledge and people's knowledge.
And so, as they think about it, especially at Fordham, a Catholic Christian institution, where they're going to get a lot of Christianity, even if indirectly, even if they don't subscribe to it, it's part of the structure. It's part of the language. And I need to be attentive to how do I, as a theology professor, build in as much as possible the voices that are from non-Christian perspectives and not only Christians talking about one Christian, however progressive, they may be, but how do I actually let Buddhists speak about their tradition. Muslims speak about their tradition. Jewish communities speak about their tradition.
That was a good a learning moment for me, which I think embodied very much what we want college to be about – that investigation, that kind of curiosity of the mind. And how do I, even with all my do-gooder attempts to make it an inclusive space, how do I continue to learn from the newer generations? It isn't enough for a top scholar to tell us about a tradition that is not their own. Give me the scholar from that tradition. And that means. if I don't know it, then I have to go figure it out. And so that's been a real helpful, I would say, challenge that I faced in my first couple of years.
I've since moved the syllabus and I've added a lot of different voices that weren’t necessarily familiar to me. In university, I learned from classic works like Huston Smith’s “The World's Religions,” which is a great read and it's beautiful, but Smith doesn't quite represent the amazing diversity of perspectives. And not only the theoretical, you know, learned perspectives but also that knowledge that may only come across when you read between the lines, what someone from that tradition writes, and how they write it.
And that means constantly seeing how many of these authors are from the Global South, how many of these authors would not have had a place in the Western Academy as bearers of knowledge? How many of these are women? How many of these are non-Christian? Because that's really all part of, I would say, a Jesuit education.
You lived in a Trappist monastery for a time. What was it like to help heal the world by retreating from it -- isolating yourself from the outside distractions to think, pray, and chant?
Well, I'm not sure that I was healing the world. If anything, I was trying, maybe, to heal myself in the process.
You know, monasteries are a “desert” experience, at least especially in the Trappist tradition, which is very grounded in the early church kind of experience, where monks and nuns would go off to the desert to face their own demons. Out in California, the monastery where I lived is literally in a desert. Summer temperatures there soar to 110 degrees. We tended vineyards for wine and orchards of walnut and plum trees.
So, I think the healing that can happen living in a place like that is really one's own process of unraveling. Unraveling many layers -- what Thomas Merton calls the masks that we wear, in his classic 1960s book, “New Seeds of Contemplation.” He has this notion that we all wear masks, and we can take them off and we can put them on. And he says that's fine, but you can’t keep doing that for the rest of your life. Masks have a way of naturalizing. They end up becoming permanent. And there comes a point when you can no longer take off that mask. You think you can, but it's kind of become part of you. And Merton says the problem with that is that you never then come to really know who you are, the real you.
So much of monastic life is oriented toward unmasking. Sometimes in a pretty raw way like ripping a bandage off of a wound. You're like, OWW, that hurts! How does that happen? I think partly through the disorienting, on the one hand, the pattern in your life and on the other reorienting yourself toward a different set of patterns. So, you get up at 3 a.m. and you go to bed at 8 p.m. and you have seven prayer times that you need to be in chapel for and every hour is scheduled for you. That's that process that reorders the way you do things, whatever they may be.
You may be a person who likes to work, say, and so you're out there proudly working in the vineyards. You think, oh I can keep doing this for three more hours. I'm just getting at the peak of, like, clipping the grape vines. Well, guess what? The bell just rang, and you have to now go in to prayer. Or maybe you're someone who is very pious and wants nothing but to pray for hours and that's great. But actually, prayer is only for these 45 minutes and now you have to go back outside to work or you have to go clean the kitchen or you have to go study in the library. It's the reconstituting of a self, but a different self that is communally oriented.
The fact that you're doing this with each other, for each other, that it is in that encounter of your brother or your sister in the monastery. That is in that encounter with that monk who drives you nuts and who you actually have learned to hate, that that's where you're supposed to work at loving God. There's no easy shortcut in monastic life, and of course you can leave. And that's why a lot of people do leave. It's a raw and an awful journey toward God that, if you let it, can radically reconstruct you.
I think more than anything, we go there to find part of ourselves. And it doesn't mean that every person that benefits from monastic life has to stay there. I felt that I had to make a decision between possibly staying there or continuing my education. I had an opportunity to go to University of Notre Dame for further studies. And one thing one thing led to another, and now I'm teaching theology in New York City. And here's one of the great connections: I teach a mystics class and I introduce students to Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk, and I end with Thomas Merton. And in the mist, we read 20 other people of great classics of Christian tradition from Origen of the second century to Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart or Simone Weil more contemporarily, Howard Thurman -- a lot of people.
But on the last day of class, we have a Zoom meeting with Father Thomas Davis, who was a student of Thomas Merton and someone who's like deeply into the Cistercian and mystical tradition. The students get to ask him whatever they want and engage them in conversation. And they ask all kinds of things. Have you had a mystical experience? Who's your favorite mystic? Why did you become a monk? Why did you stay? What was Merton like? How do you think one should be holy? Should more people become monks. Do the monks do anything good for the world? How do you reconcile social justice and being a monk, isolated from the suffering of the world?
And so that's how I'm making these links from the depths of monastic life with someone who has spent 60-plus years in a monastery talking to a community of 20-year-olds in Manhattan, who just went like on a semester-long journey through the mystics of the Christian tradition. And some students are radically like, wow, that was so different than what I thought! And others like, wow, I'm so glad the semester is over! But still for them to have this opportunity to engage in something that they wouldn't otherwise, that's how I'm trying to weave together the contemplative, the monastic, with the beautiful chaos of New York City and my job at hopefully opening doors for a whole other generation to consider the richness of all these traditions, including the monastic tradition.
What’s your favorite time of day?
Well, when I was at the monastery, it was after Vigils and that is the first prayer service of the day at 3:30 in the morning and it is finished around 4:15 a.m. It was that time between Vigils and Lauds where the night is finishing. The sun hasn't risen, the stars are fading, the moon is setting. There's such a stunning stillness in that time of day. I wish I were awake more often at this time, but I'm not in the monastery, so I no longer go to bed at 8 p.m. I go to bed around midnight these days and I get up like at 7 or 8 a.m. now. So that time is long gone by the time I open my eyes.
Living in a place like New York City now, my favorite time of the day is right before the sun sets and the day is coming to an end. Sometimes I go for a walk, and I feel like either I accomplished something today or that I squandered my day doing nothing or doing something that didn't add to my greater becoming Leo, or to my work that I'm supposed to be doing.
I guess it’s the moment of the day when I take stock of my accomplishments -- what did I do today? How good was it? Have I been putting something off? And it happens just in a few minutes. And once night comes and then you mix a Manhattan cocktail, well then you feel ok, that day is done!
Or if everything isn't done and the time arrives, I think yeah, tomorrow will be different -- hopefully. That's good.
Photos (from top): Leo Guardado, Fordham.edu; Hindu wedding ceremony, Dinesh Cyanam, Creative Commons; Mahatma Ghandi, Thehindu.com; Bessing of the palm during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, al-ex at Freeimages.com; Abbey of New Clairvaux, Newclairvaux.org;
Hildegard of Bingen, Oshonews.com.
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