Why Learning Complements Our Faith

Garrett muses on how the faithful should not fear learning, but learn to employ it.

“For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.” – Charlemagne, De Litteris Colendis

This is a quote from a letter written by the Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled over much of Europe for much of the 8th century, to Baugulf of Frida, the abbot of a monastic community. A towering figure who came to the support of the popes, Charlemagne was also extremely interested in the topic of education, and in the ability of the Catholic Church at the time to educate people (keep in mind that these were hard times with low literacy rates). In this letter, the Emperor expresses his desire that churchmen should feed the minds of the people as well as their souls:

“[…] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favor of Christ to our control, in addition, in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observance of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly.”

Reading this letter was interesting for me as I’ve always valued learning, and never really saw any disparity between knowledge and the faith. In fact, my faith was strengthened greatly by reading as a young boy the works of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and while my understanding was somewhat limited, it drove me to learn more and more about the faith and why we should believe. And indeed, one could argue this was the way God ‘trapped’ me – even if I were to want to walk away from the faith, I think deep down inside I would know that it would be a fundamentally dishonest act.

But that said, I find that most of my friends have become somewhat wary of knowledge and learning. And while their reasoning has merit, I think there is a better way to approach the problem, and if we’re going to grow as Christians, especially in a modern city like Singapore, it is necessary to strengthen our knowledge of the faith. Thus, this article will be serve as a discussion and hopefully a proposal on ways we can use knowledge to strengthen our faith.

So what is the main problem people have with knowledge? I think it lies in the fear that being so immersed in the technical aspects of the faith detracts from one’s personal relationship with Jesus. This worry can be summed up in the maxim that some people “know a lot about God instead of knowing God”.

I won’t say that this is an unfounded fear. I think most people in Catholic communities might know someone like that. Someone extremely widely read in matters of faith and spirituality, but whose knowledge gives them a sense of superiority over others. For such people, their knowledge has become a stick to beat others with, and not surprisingly, leave people with a bad taste in their mouth.

However, despite this potential pitfall, I don’t believe that we are justified in simply tossing out learning wholesale. As with all things, there is a right and wrong way of approaching the issue. One wrong way is the one I just described, to use learning as a means to engage in theological pedantry and endless (often fruitless) wrangling.

And yet I have had moments where being theologically informed did come in useful when ministering to others. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing”. What Bishop Sheen said about the Bride of Christ is true of her Spouse as well. There are a lot of misconceptions people have about God, and many people have false conceptions of Him. Even our fellow Catholics, and even ourselves. No one can know God in His entirety, but we can know what He has revealed to us, through scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church. In a sense, learning about God is getting to know Him better as well, and helps us to introduce Him more effectively to others.

 “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer.” – Saint Josemaria Escriva

St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, was a big believer in the value of study and learning. So much so that he dedicates an entire chapter of short sayings on the topic in his most famous work, The Way. Having reflected on his writings, I think this is born of being appreciative of the time God has allowed us to live in. Think about it. We live in a time of extremely high literacy rates. Electricity allows us the ability to continue reading and learning even at night. This is both a blessing and a curse for us urban city-dwellers. On one hand, we have so much information available to us. On the other, we are overwhelmed by the plethora of ideas and views that seem omnipresent on social media and other things we interact with on a daily basis.

Thus, I feel that it is more important than ever to embark on an adventure of learning, to truly appreciate for ourselves the beauty of the Catholic faith, and to communicate that to others as well. I hope that this article inspires you to explore the amazing breadth of our Faith and learn more. God bless!

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Hope in an Imperfect Society

Greg reflects on Chris’ article about striving and wonders whether striving for a utopia on Earth is even achievable

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:4-5)

Chris wrote an article, reflecting on the notion of striving and working from the above Bible passage, about our own frustration when our striving bears no fruit (or fish in the above case) and about the discerning of the when for our striving versus simply striving for. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been starting to watch and catch up on the Supergirl series, something that has been way overdue. During the season 1 finale of Supergirl, (spoiler alert!) she helps the city overcome the mind control it has fallen under by broadcasting a message of hope to them. Thinking about it, the mind control wasn’t totally malicious. The main antagonist, Non, united the city through mind control in hopes of alleviating social problems such as poverty, global warming and the likes by controlling the city to work on these problems together as a whole. While he does do some pretty bad stuff while mind controlling these people (which in itself is already morally questionable), the main idea of unity and a betterment of society is quite a good one. In fact, this same theme has always been around in popular works of fiction, most notably in utopian/dystopian novels such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four, The Giver amidst many, many others. Even if in some of these novels, the means towards the ends may be morally unacceptable, the end result seems tantalizing. Who wouldn’t want to live in a utopia? Continue reading “Hope in an Imperfect Society”

Gregory, I choose you!

If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon already, Pokemon Quest was just released on mobile a few months ago after its Nintendo Switch release! Prior to that, “Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!” was also released last November and Pokemon fans were going crazy because Pikachu SHOULD NOT have spoken English. Nope. Not at all. That slight rant aside, it is a loose retelling of the first season of the animated Pokemon series and a new movie is expected to come up this year as well! With all these exciting developments, (Wewew!) it’s gonna be another good year for Pokemon fans.

So, how does this link back to our faith? Well, read on fellow Pokemon trainers, and see how our journey towards being the very best that no one ever was, is similar to our journey together as one Body of Christ.

Continue reading “Gregory, I choose you!”

Teaching and St. John Baptist De La Salle

Chris shares more about St. John Baptist De La Salle and why he is one of Chris’ favourite Saints.

“You can perform miracles by touching the hearts of those entrusted to your care.”                                                                                                                                                                                      – [Meditations 180.3]

It is often very easy for us to get lost in our work – especially when we live in a fast-pace, productivity-driven society like Singapore. Amidst the hum-drums of routine work and key performance indicators (cue the dreaded “KPI”), it is often tempting to lose ourselves in our jobs, equate our identities with our professions and forget that we are so much more than what we do. In short, in losing ourselves to work, we lose our self-identities completely. Indeed it is often very tempting to get so caught up with the things we do at work on a daily basis that we forget the very rationale, purpose and objectives of our work as calling. Therefore, it is often necessary to re-focus and re-center our attention to first-principles; it is important to (re)anchor ourselves lest we get blown around in the turbulence of societal expectations and competing voices.

Continue reading “Teaching and St. John Baptist De La Salle”

7 Last Words — “It is Finished” (John 19:30)

Chris reflects on the very last words of Jesus, and what they mean for our Christian mission here on earth.

Mission Accomplished. For the longest time in my childhood, the words “Mission Accomplished” were my two favorite words in the English Language because they always appeared with the completion of a particular level and/or scenario in a video game. Be it Super Mario Brothers, Harvest Moon or Grand Theft Auto, I enjoyed playing these games as they required the fulfillment of a designated mission. The completion of a mission often gave me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. More importantly, however, the completion of a mission opened up yet another (unknown) level that I could further explore and with it came another mission to be fulfilled. This cycle was repeated until I finished playing the entire game.

Continue reading “7 Last Words — “It is Finished” (John 19:30)”

7 Last Words — “Woman, behold your son …” (John 19:26-27)

Chris reflects on the truly self-sacrificial love of Jesus, and how this love can be an example for us.

What pain and what agony Jesus must have felt when He said those words to his loved ones. What pangs of loss and anguish that Jesus must have experienced knowing that He would be (momentarily) separated from His mother and His beloved disciples. Separation: have we all not experienced this in one way or another before? Have we all not felt pain through separation, death and loss? Separation implies a dis-connection – to separate is to break away, to break apart, to be divorced from community; indeed the oft-used phrase “to go our separate ways” is undeniably tinged with melancholy and sadness. Here, then, we see a visceral portrayal of Jesus’ humanity – His desire for community and intimacy. Indeed, apart from being the savior of the world, Jesus was also a beloved son, a beloved brother, and a loving friend. Similar to you and I, Jesus also wanted to love and be loved by those around Him, especially in seasons of sorrow and loss.

Continue reading “7 Last Words — “Woman, behold your son …” (John 19:26-27)”

7 Last Words — “Truly, I say to you …” (Luke 23:43)

Chris reflects on the paradox of the ‘good thief’ who came to conversion by Jesus’ side on the Ctoss.

Imagine a middle-aged man who has lived a life of debauchery, decadence and waste. A man whom society would probably consider a menace, a “good-for-nothing” and an absolute failure in life. Imagine that this man whom many have given up on – possibly including himself – decides one day that he has had it, that an ultimatum is nigh. He thus commits a heinous crime: he steals something very valuable, clearly violating one of Moses’ 10 Commandments, a crime that requires him to be executed – hanged on a cross to die on Mount Golgotha … right next to Jesus Christ.

Continue reading “7 Last Words — “Truly, I say to you …” (Luke 23:43)”

“Ash-Wednesday” and Lenten Resolutions

Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘Ash-Wednesday’ Garrett shares his Lenten resolutions.

So, what are you giving up this Lent?

I once saw a YouTube video (now taken down), where the speaker suggested that rather than giving up an arbitrary minor inconvenience to us during this season, we should instead follow a 3-step process: 1) Figure out where God wants us to be. 2) Think of something that will help us reach that goal. 3) Carry it out throughout Lent and be sure to think of what will happen once the season ends. I found this process helpful as it helps us to construct a sustainable framework of spiritual self-improvement as we enter the season of Lent.

So how does this influence me, personally, this Lent? I admit that in the present moment, I find myself in a complicated position. I find myself growing in my love for God, and also my desire to defend Him and His Church on campus, both in the classroom and by serving him through my friends. “When I was a child” said Saint Paul, “I used to talk like a child, and think like a child, and argue as a child, but now that I am a man, all childish ways are put behind me” (1 Cor 13:11). Never have these words held so much meaning for me. I strongly feel that the call for me this Lent is to take a good hard look at my life and leave behind the ‘childish’ things in my life so that I can become more mature in my faith, ready to share it and pass it on.

And yet, through prayer I also realize the need to be patient, to allow God’s plan to unfold in my life and purify me as I become more aware of my flaws and foibles. If undertaken in a prideful manner, my Lenten resolution can very easily become self-serving, a form of self-improvement rather than a drawing nearer to God. So how am I to negotiate this tension between self-seeking glory and the greater glory of God? I believe this question was also considered by T.S. Eliot in his conversion poem, ‘Ash-Wednesday’.

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about Elliot, introducing him and his poetry in preparation for this article. This was because despite his complexity, Elliot’s poetry really spoke to me throughout the last year in some of my darkest moments, and I’d like to share it with as many people as possible. From the first part of ‘Ash-Wednesday’, which we will be looking at in this article, it is obvious that Elliot could grasp the issue I’m struggling with now – the ease of which we can use holy language to mask selfish motives.

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?”

Eliot begins by turning our usual expectations of ‘church-y’ language on its head, much like how I mention he often does in my previous article. He said that he does not ‘hope to turn again’, when hope is a word of such significance to a Christian (e.g. Faith, Hope and Love). Likewise, we often use ‘turn’ in a positive sense – metanoia, a turning towards the Lord. ‘Turning’ has connotations of repentance and salvation.

But remember the context here: if this is Eliot’s conversion poem, then he is already on the side of Christ, or at least striving to be. To hope to turn, in that case, would be to turn away from Jesus and back to the world. Describing himself as an ‘aged eagle’ (remember also that Eliot was born an American), he portrays himself as tired of the ‘usual reign’ of sin in his life, where he would compete with and be envious of others (this man’s gift and that man’s scope).

Returning to the eagle, one famous biblical image is the promise of Isaiah 40:31 – “but those who hope in the Lord renew their strength, they put out wings like eagles. They run and do not grow weary, walk and never tire.” Perhaps this Lent, one call for me is to recognize that I too am an ‘aged eagle’, grown old with pride and sin. It is only by turning –truly turning!- to the Lord can my strength be renewed.

“Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”

Skipping a little ahead in the poem, Eliot goes back to this theme of eagles. Well, wings, at least. In keeping with the idea of turning to the Lord in our weariness to be renewed, the poet describes an inhospitable environment around him. Eliot describes the air as ‘thoroughly small and dry/ Smaller and dryer than the will’, the air seeming to represent the things beyond our control, or rather, the things in God’s control. I may have lofty Lenten ambitions, but it is also important for me to remember that it is God that sets the stage for me to grow – the wings of an old eagle are ‘no longer wings to fly’ after all!

I love also the last two lines, ‘Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.’ I think these lines reveal to us something about detachment, that it isn’t necessarily something that you can force by supressing your attachments and putting up the façade that you have it all under control. Rather, detachment comes when you allow God to be at the center of your life, allowing Him to put everything in its proper place, to be a teacher to us.

This first part then ends with these two line:

“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

Sound familiar? Those lines are taken straight from the famous Hail Mary prayer, where we ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for us. I think that this is a nice way to end the first part of the poem, and a nice way to end my Lenten reflection as well. As Lent dawns upon us, let us keep each other in prayer, and ask for the intercession of the Saints in heaven as well, so that we can all look forward to Easter with our lives renewed!

I hope you enjoyed my Lenten sharing, and also along the way found Eliot less confusing and somewhat informative as we went through his poem. All the best with your Lenten resolutions and God bless!

Letter to St. Peter

Greg asks St Peter about the divides present in the Church

Hey St Peter!

What’s up? (If Heaven is truly above us, then you would be up I guess) Thanks for taking care of the keys of Heaven and for continually praying for us to our Father in Heaven! Thanks for letting me write a letter to you (truly very honored to be writing to the first Pope)! I must say, it is truly an honor to be writing to the first Pope of the Church and the Rock on which Jesus build His Church upon. I think it’s quite fascinating for me to be able to converse with someone who has not only walked alongside Jesus literally but have continued to spread the message of Christ to all and have ultimately, paid the price through your death (my sincerest condolences). So many questions I have in my head, so little time (or space).

Continue reading “Letter to St. Peter”