“Welcome to Superior – Living up to our name”
This slogan graces a large metallic sign on the corner of Tower Avenue and Belknap Street, which is perhaps the primary commercial intersection in the city of Superior. It is a sign and slogan I enjoy for its cleverness and simplicity.
It is also a sign and slogan that flashed to my memory in early September when, at a welcoming dinner at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, I was asked the question “What is one thing we should know about Superior?” I responded, “We live up to our name.”
In the days to follow, I was lauded for my sharp response, but the response also led me to a spiritual reflection on two questions.
What does it mean to be superior? And do I really “live up to the name?”
As for the first question, let us turn to the etymology of the word “superior.” According to etymonline.com, the word superior can be derived from both the French supérieur and the Latin superiorem meaning “higher, upper, situated above.” Now, I have a dilemma here with which linguistic history to investigate. The French supérieur is perhaps the more applicable root for our diocese, as 17th century Jesuit missionaries such as Fr. Claude Allouez and Fr. Jacques Marquette were some of the first to use the nomenclature of “Superior” in their mapping of northwest Wisconsin.
However, as a Roman Catholic seminarian in his first semester of studying Latin, I am going to pick the universal language of the Church and explore the Latin roots of the word. If we dissect superiorem, we find the Latin adjective superus meaning “above, over” and the suffix iorem, which indicates the comparative form of an adjective. So, one could say that from its Latin roots superiorem might be translated to the English “more over.”
With this etymological knowledge in my mind, a spiritual image arose in mind from some saintly writings I discovered two years ago.
The 12th century French Cistercian monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux penned perhaps his most famous spiritual work as a series of 86 sermons on the Old Testament wisdom book “Song of Songs.” In his 18th sermon, St. Bernard reflects on the two operations of the Holy Spirit as follows:
“The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself.
“Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare.
“So urgent is the charity of those through whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us, that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves.”
Wow. The first time I heard this passage I was floored by this image of a life in the Holy Spirit as a reservoir instead of a canal. Is it not so true that often in life we see ourselves as transactional and systematized as water moving through a canal and, to our detriment, we forget that we need to be filled up as a reservoir so we might overflow with joy and the love of God?
So what does it mean to be Superior? Well, in spiritual terms we might say a Superior individual will be “more over” or an “overflowing” reservoir of God’s grace. Not just a static pond, but a reservoir that desires to be poured forth into the world through a joyful witness to the love of Jesus Christ and His Church.
That leads to question No. 2. If to be Superior in the life of faith means to be an overflowing reservoir of God’s grace, am I living up to the name?
Here lies a question we must ask throughout our journey of faith. Personally, I know I will return to this question many times in my seminary formation and beyond. Here are some more specific questions to consider that might lead us to be an overflowing reservoir of grace.
In my life as a disciple of Jesus Christ, have I turned away from the empty life of sin? Have I allowed God to fill me up with his grace through prayer and the Sacraments? After being filled up, am I then giving of myself in charity to those who are in need in my parish and community?
Tracy is a seminarian for the Diocese of Superior. He can be reached at