In 1999, when Tuesdays With Morrie hit the media, I knew I had to call Vince Rush and spend time with him. Of all the things I experienced at St. Thomas, taking his class was unquestionably the best. Rush arrived at St. Thomas in 1968 and instantly made his mark with the students. He won the "Teacher of the Year" award four times. Rush, who retired in 1986 due to a heart condition, died in 2005.
His course in Christian Morality and his unique Socratic teaching style calibrated my life’s moral compass. It called me to something bigger. It compelled me to commit myself to somehow exercise my God-given "power of one." I knew I must use my energy, gifts, limits and folly to create something life-giving for others. He gave me freedom from fear. He gave me freedom for a lifestyle of social interest and enduring purpose.
Rush informed us that not only did we need to have proper intention, we also had to have correct action, freely chosen. If our Sunday Mass attendance was chosen primarily to make our parents happy or to follow the "rule" of the church, and it was not our deliberately, freely chosen action, its value was lost.
He made us all think – a lot. He would argue both sides of a moral issue – and yet you could never tell what he personally subscribed to on a particular moral issue. He would start: "Freedom is the beginning of everything. If there is any way that we are made in the image and likeness of God, it is in being free." From this preface he wove a tapestry of living that rested on individual choice and responsibility.
There was no way around creating your own goodness. No law or ritual could do it for you. You, and only you, could answer to the call of God. He complicated matters further by informing us that it was not only on our behavior that we would be judged, but also on our intention. If one were to donate a huge sum of money to a public charity for the personal publicity, the act would benefit the common good but do nothing for the sanctity of the donor since he or she lacked the appropriate intention.
Rush often said that "if you give students the answer before they have asked the question, the answer will not mean anything." Then he would ask us: "What are the two most important words in all of morality?" The answer: "It depends!" For, in making mature moral choices, we must always consider: all of the circumstances, the consequences of the action, our given nature (what fulfills us and others), our intentions, the laws (church and civil), our conscience, and what Jesus would do (gospel values).
By the time the semester ended, I was energized by the life-giving power bestowed on me. After some consideration, I was also a bit overwhelmed by the task. Now, nearly 30 years later, I realize how blessed I was to have had this man articulate the classical moral decision-making considerations, methods and processes that I take into account when I make choices.
Life is not easy for any of us. For me, to have lived these post-St. Thomas years without these insights surely would have resulted in many more big life decisions based on emotion, ignorance, peer pressure, corporate culture and political mania.
Following Rush’s direction did not give me a life free of mistakes. Yet it has kept me from blaming my parents, my wife, my religion or my friends for my screw-ups and shortcomings. He used to remind us that "integrity, not life, is the ultimate Christian value. How else could Jesus lay down his life and how else could we canonize martyrs?"
How do you thank someone who taught you: "Without your integrity, you’re dead in the water. Live your values and you will have self-respect and self-esteem. It is the one gift that you give yourself, one that no one else can ever give you. If you do not do it for yourself, it will never, ever, happen."
Rush emphasized the individual’s attempts to discern a moral life path, but he also taught that this always takes place in the context of community. Jesus didn’t talk about global warming, nuclear waste, immigration or organ transplants. As his Church and followers, we are called to reach out to each other and reason out responsible approaches to our problems.
Rush made a humble contribution, frequently reminding us, "I offer you a word to consider, not the first word, not the only word, and surely not the final word." By example, he simply called us all to do our part in life’s dance, neither enhancing our image nor diminishing our import – just doing with love what is there for each of us to do.
Tom Klein ’78 lives in Eden Prairie with his wife and two children. Former alumni of Rush’s Christian Morality course meet at Famous Dave’s BBQ on West 7th Street in St. Paul. Also, a parishioner has made a DVD of Rush’s lectures. For information, contact www.titleset.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.