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

Take This Naan: Faith and Food

Good food is awesome.
Good food with amazing company and delightful conversations are times when I feel as though God allows me glimpses of Heaven. And there’s always this recurring joke whenever supper is eaten at a particular Indian eatery and the Naan arrives at the table:
Take this Naan, and eat of it.
And then, after a minute of laughter (or groaning depending on the person) at the pun, we proceed to break bread and sup.  In case, the hints weren’t clear enough, the allusion is to the source and summit of a Christian’s life: the Mass and more specifically, the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Bread and wine are central to a Catholic’s life. After all, in Mass, we believe that the bread and wine offered are transformed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. We, as Catholics, are then called to this Feast, this Communion to partake of the Body and the Blood of Christ. And most of us know that the bread must be unleavened and the wine, red and natural. Still, even fewer of us know that the bread must be made with only wheat. (Even I didn’t know this and in case you were wondering, Code of Canon Law, Canon 924).
Believe me when I say that NAAN (heh) of us had any grand delusions that we could actually transubstantiate the pieces of naan on our plates (or prata if you want actual unleavened bread) into the Body of Christ. However, one does wonder at times: why exactly bread and wine? I mean, looking at the context of the Last Supper, the wine seems to be an obvious choice seeing that it was the only drink present during the meal. But bread? Why not the bitter herbs or the charoset, a sweet paste eaten at the Passover? Even better yet, why not the lamb? That would make an awful lot of sense wouldn’t it?
As Archbishop Fulton Sheen brilliantly puts it:
“First of all, because no two substances in nature better symbolize unity than bread and wine. As bread is made from a multiplicity of grains of wheat, and wine is made from a multiplicity of grapes, so the many who believe are one in Christ.
Second, no two substances in nature have to suffer more to become what they are than bread and wine. Wheat has to pass through the rigors of winter, be ground beneath the Calvary of a mill, and then subjected to purging fire before it can become bread. Grapes in their turn must be subjected to the Gethsemane of a wine press and have their life crushed from them to become wine. Thus do they symbolize the Passion and Sufferings of Christ, and the condition of Salvation, for Our Lord said unless we die to ourselves we cannot live in Him.
A third reason is that there are no two substances in nature which have more traditionally nourished man than bread and wine. In bringing these elements to the altar, men are equivalently bringing themselves. When bread and wine are taken or consumed, they are changed into man’s body and blood. But when He took bread and wine, He changed them into Himself.”
First of all, unity. In CCC 1, it states that “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life… He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church” We are called to be united in Christ and not just called; we were made to share and be united in God’s life. The bread and wine were staples of that time and important parts in the diet of the Jewish people at that time. Unlike meat, which was a luxury and wasn’t eaten on a daily basis, bread was consumed as part of the daily meal and likewise for wine. By choosing food that was consumed by the majority of the Jewish people at that time and not simply the rich, He united the people, regardless of their status, into one Church, one Body of Christ. And it wasn’t just simply that. He united the covenant held by the Jewish people in the Old Testament into a new one in Him by taking two key aspects of the Passover meal, and then changed them into Himself. In short, Jesus came and united the rich and the poor, the educated and the non-educated, the elites and the plebeians into one Church, a Church that up till now stands united and universal in Christ.
The second point is beautifully made by Archbishop Sheen. Just to add on (not that it actually needs adding on since the words he wrote were just so incredibly Spirit-filled and beautiful), I think nowadays, we take it for granted that we can easily purchase the flour, milk and yeast to make bread or better yet, just buy the bread itself. However, at that time, bread was a daily affair and the wheat had to be harvested and milled by hand, a back-breaking and time-consuming task before it can be made into bread. Wine (even now) involves an equally laborous process of harvesting and crushing before it can be stored. I think going back to unity, it also unites the people with the sufferings of Jesus. Back then, a lot of effort was needed to make bread and wine and while it’s easy for us now to simply order sacaramental bread and wine, it doesn’t detract from the fact that to be in Communion is to be, like the grape and the wheat as well as the people of old, united in the sufferings of the world and of Christ and to die to ourselves that we may live in Him.
Lastly, it shows the unity of the bodily and spiritual aspect of man. CCC 355 says that God made us in His Image, including that “in His own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds”. Jesus as fully God and fully Human reinforces this through taking bread and wine, material objects, and changes it to His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity. Such as bread and wine nourished the Jewish people in their diets, so may the Body and Blood nourish the soul of humankind that we may awaken to ourselves, the full nature of our being, a being of spirit and body. As we receive Communion, may we remind ourselves that just as bread and wine nourish our bodies (or maybe Naan and Lassi heh), we allow Jesus to nourish our souls through the Eucharist.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan