Vol I No. 7
History & Theology

Not Guru but Midwife

by The Reverend Dr. David Smith

The late Robert Crouse, a Canadian Anglican priest and professor, who died in 2011, was not widely known.  Though he received degrees from Trinity College, Toronto and Harvard, in later life taught frequently at the Augustinianum in Rome, and was in demand as a teacher and preacher across Canada and the United States, he spent most of his life in the ancestral village of Crousetown, Nova Scotia, in a family house by the millpond, and devoted himself to teaching at the University of King’s College, Halifax and at the Classics Department of Dalhousie University, Halifax.   His learning was vast – from Homer to Dante and beyond – but he wrote little and published less. Nonetheless, his influence was profound, not least as a champion and teacher of classical Anglicanism at a time when Anglican Churches were losing their minds. Due to the efforts of former students, two works have recently been published with wide distribution, a short suite of retreat addresses, Images of Pilgrimage, and two volumes of selected sermons, The Soul in Pilgrimage. It is hoped that further works – especially his notable lectures on aspects of classical Anglicanism – will also find their way into print.  We asked two former students of his, for their reflections on his spiritual counsel.

With the publication of his Sermons  and Images of Pilgrimage, the text of a retreat based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, it is a good time to reconsider, or if we are unfamiliar with him, to learn about the teaching of Dr. Robert Crouse. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, and teaching at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Dr. Crouse was surely one of the most learned theological scholars of his generation, and his life-long commitment to the Anglican church made him of special interest to Anglicans.  Those who knew Dr Crouse recognized him as someone who had a deep, inward grasp of the theological tradition and regarded him with great respect. They sought out and highly valued his views, not just about scholarly subjects, but about the faith in general, wanting to learn from a man so deeply familiar with Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante. This short memoir looks not at Dr. Crouse’s learning and teaching, but on the truths he conveyed more generally – truths distilled from his learning, especially for the aid of those who came to him for counsel.  

Those who sought Crouse’s counsel might first find a tranquil affirmation of their convictions and aspirations in the faith. His depth of understanding could intimidate at first, revealing the depth of one’s ignorance about everything! But Crouse did not make you feel that. For me, an evangelical student approaching a professor known as a high churchman on the catholic side of things, there was never any ‘party talk’. An evangelical emphasis on conversion, evangelism, a personal relationship and walk with God – to these, Crouse’s attitude was rather, ‘of course’, than any sort of party criticism. 

Yet he was not much interested in the kind of evangelicalism that emphasized numbers or techniques. I invited him once to address a young adult group but was concerned that the numbers would not warrant his attention. He made light of the concern with a parody of the Genesis story, ‘If there were only thirty, would I come? What about if there were only twenty?’ He was only interested in the power of the word of God for whoever was there to hear it, rather than boosting the numbers.  

Similarly, Crouse was not interested in schemes to popularize theological truths and did not believe that simply disseminating classic teachings would automatically produce spiritual fruit. Put simply, he believed that there was no substitute for the difficult process of learning the tradition and no shortcuts to spiritual growth. Because he had the patristic and medieval expertise many students long to have, they often came to him for solutions from the tradition for the perceived weakness of their spiritual life. Often they would go away disappointed, not because he did not try to help them, but because he did not believe that there were any easy solutions. One might go to him lamenting the seeming emptiness of one’s prayer life, expecting an expert diagnosis, and instead, he would simply say, ‘Sometimes we do better than others, you just have to stick to it’. Surely there are deeper truths in the tradition than that, but there is no getting around our first fumbling efforts, and the difficult formation of habits, in order to get to those depths.  Crouse did not offer special techniques or quick spiritual solutions but the ordinary, fallible way of the soul aspiring towards God, and a confidence that if one followed that, one was on the right track.  

Because Crouse had a knowledge of the saints and doctors of the church that many long to have, people would sometimes press him to provide answers at an easily accessible level. In effect, they wanted to taste the fruit without the effort of cultivation, of learning. He would not allow himself to be put in the role of the conveyer of such knowledge. He would, however, try to assist those trying to go deeper and encourage them as they did so. Like Socrates, he was a midwife to the birth of truth in those around him, rather than a guru imparting knowledge to disciples. 

Someone once approached him to ask him for spiritual direction. He responded that spiritual direction, as it had traditionally been understood, was a practice that involved handing over the direction of one’s life to the director. That was something Crouse did not pretend to offer. His offer was more modest – simply to talk. 

Although he was as fully engaged in the theological controversies of our time as anyone, Crouse was not a man drawn to controversy. His usual disposition was one of tranquility. In one of his sermons, he quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in a characteristically light-hearted way. One of the characters declares that his idea of glory is ‘a knock-down argument’.  In what is surely a reference to the attitude of many at the time, Crouse observes that that kind of glory, the glory of winning arguments against the opposition, would lead to ‘a particularly unpleasant form of hell’. And this was from an expert on Dante! He was not against argument, but the center must be peaceful wisdom. For him, learning the traditions of Christian thought must be more important than defending them.

How do these qualities come together? What is the wisdom that unites them?  He once remarked, ‘We cannot put too much weight on the world – it won’t bear it’. An undue emphasis on numbers and techniques, the desire for an inside track from the masters of the spiritual life, too much emphasis on controversy – perhaps these are all forms of putting too much weight on the world. And the world won’t bear it – it gets distorted, and most importantly, our perception of God gets distorted. The journey Godward is as simple and complex as desiring God whole-heartedly. That is what we must do, in all our human fallibility, but also in faith that a ready path has already been made for us by God himself.  

I believe that Dr. Crouse’s teaching is highly relevant to the spiritual trials and challenges of our time.  His writings can be a great help to us as we seek to learn from the great spiritual figures of the Christian tradition.  But it is also important to know that in his life and conversation he firmly grasped the ordinariness and imperfection of the Christian life.  Several generations of students were blessed by this humble approach to the higher reaches of Christian thought, many of them becoming Anglican clergy.  And that too is part of his legacy to the church.