A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a speech given about the theologians and philosophers of antiquity. The context of the speech reminded me of the paradigm shift, I experienced, when I first began to read texts written centuries ago. I was constantly amazed at the language use, its imagery was either powerful or gave me insight as to the extension of their perceptions we use today. I was energized by knowing, some theology and philosophy I know and use today, was around for hundreds of years. I was further encouraged to find, many of the theological practices I put in place now, were originated by those who walked in step with Jesus. However, as I wanted to explain what I discovered, I found many people either uncaring, or unconcerned with the knowledge of origination for our very beliefs now. In truth, I found people to be somewhat glued to the belief in our current times as the epitome of existence. I’m not sure if this is because of technology, time in perspective, or because they’ve been taught from an early age to embrace the present as we relegate the past to ineptness. Whatever the focus for any one person, failing to recognize the contributions of the past, as they lift us up on their mighty shoulders, is similar in failing to acknowledge the sacrifice of the brave for the freedom we now possess.
Often times, we are presented with an action, we neither know its origin, nor do we care too much about why we’re doing it. I once heard an anecdotal story, which has probably been changed many times, but the moral of the story remains solid. A young woman, was taught from an early age, when she baked a ham, to cut off the very end before placing it into the oven. She repeated this process for years, and eventually passed this tradition of cutting off the end portion to her children. As they came of age, and were eventually baking hams for their families, a question was posed by one of their children over a holiday weekend, “Mom, why do we cut off the ham, is it to make the food taste better?” Bemused by the seemingly innocuous question, she had no answer, she thought about whether or not it would make the food more delicious, but to no avail, she had no good response for her child. As the day went on, the question continued to nag at her inquisitive nature, and she called her mother. “Mother, why do we cut off the end of the ham, is it for taste?” To this, her mother stated, “I haven’t the slightest clue why we do it, it’s just been something we’ve always done”, but just like her daughter, not knowing left her restless. Soon, she called her mother, who for all intents and purposes no longer cooked, but always enjoyed an invitation to dine with her children over the holidays. “Mama, why do we cut off the end of the ham”, she asked, “does it have to do with the flavor?” Her mother said, “Well, I never thought about the flavor, but the dish I got from your grandmother wasn’t large enough to fit a whole ham, so I always had to cut off the end so it would fit”. At this moment, everything fell into place, the tradition for cooking a ham in their family was purposeful, as long as they understood what the purpose was. When time moved one, and different pans were used, larger pans were used, the need to cut the ham became a tradition practiced but not understood.
The story for me, was eye-opening. It presented a paradigm which challenged our willingness to accept tradition, without truly finding out why we were doing what we were doing. This behavior is human for sure, but it has good and bad consequences associated with it. For instance, following a teaching, without asking why, makes us like sheep, regurgitating what we’ve learned, but never able to apply a deeper meaning to what we know. Only until we ask, “why?” will we ever be able to move past our own arrogance as it translates to the life we lead. Those who bothered to ask questions before our time, and who risked everything to example courage to all of us, seem to be less than a footnote in the annals of history, this is until we bother to really look. This was where I was at, when I first began to read about who I was, where I was from, why I believed what I believed, and why in my belief I followed practices which were over two thousand years old.
I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, the beliefs of the Catholic Church are antiquated, and either belong in the past or modernized to fit today’s times. This is often how the movement, to today’s arrogant times is phrased, “today’s times”. This inoffensive statement proceeds to remove the word morals and replace it with something providing a more effusive term which embraces the now and discounts what is perceived as antiquated behaviors and teachings. Though one question always bothered me about modernizing beliefs. If we modernize a belief, does it remove the objectivity, and if we make an “objective truth” more modern, were the people who practiced it wrong? This is where courage in questioning takes place, because with hardly any thought given to the question, we run the risk of attempting to destroy the lifetimes of people who lived before us, and everything they ever believed in. The problem with trying to make the past fit the now, is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. No matter how we want to see the past through the lens of today, it will never be quite right, and it creates villains where villains never existed.
Take for instance Rome, a society where their army was always in some conflict, slaves were common, arena fights (not always to the death) were exhibited in grand fashion, and political turmoil and strife was the measure of the day for hundreds of years. Though, because we largely accept their contributions to our modern society, we’re willing to look past the more negative aspects of their traditions and societal encumbrances, and we embrace what we identify as ours now. Of course, this is how history works, those who could etch out a description of themselves and do it in such a way as to make their legacy a fitting explanation stand to be lifted upon the pedestal of history. Those who lost wars, who failed to explain themselves (as if this was proper form) become the losers in history and receive the indignation of those wishing to find a reason for their plight. The statue removal, currently happening in the US, shows us this hypocrisy in action. We remove statues which belong to the losers, and find ridicule by diminishing a life’s work into two categories; were they good or were they bad? The criteria is the simplistic ideology of today’s lens, and yesterday’s actions and we relegated someone who’s life extended for decades into one question, without really looking into who the person was and why they did what they did.
When I was a child, I attended church regularly. I did not know why we did what we did, and sometimes when I would ask my father, he didn’t have a clear answer, or would assume my immaturity wouldn’t understand, and so he would brush off my question with an answer failing to reach the crux of my question. Over the years, I eventually stopped asking and would just accept what I saw, as part of the tradition, and I became sullenly bored with the whole process. This was until I met, who would become my future wife, and she took me to a play her church was presenting. The play, in its entirety, was presented to show us a reality after death, and because of the choices in this life the eventual resting place for each and every one of us. To put it mildly, it scared the hell out of me, and I eventually walked down with a group of people and received a blessing from the preacher. I was told, I was saved. I wasn’t sure how to take this, because the people around me acted like I was a prize to be won rather than how I felt. At the end of the day, this play I watched over twenty years ago, lit the fire of my learning which hasn’t to this day been quenched.
With my questions, I began with my father once more. A knowledgeable man, who was able to give me some direction, because of his own formation and training within the theology of the church. However, I quickly realized, he could only do so much, as my formation was concerned. I was going to have to live what I learned, and I was going to have to study in order to live this life. Well, as some have probably figured out from my previous writings, I wasn’t about doing hard work early in life, and I abandoned (somewhat) a desire to know God. I pursued a life of self, a life where I demanded the Church modernize its viewpoints to suit the Common Era and focus on bringing more people into its hallowed halls. If the Church was unwilling to do this, the minimum, then I was unwilling to try any harder than I tried. I would attend church, but I wasn’t invested in why I was there. I would go and talk about topics of theology and philosophy, all the while I was saying to myself, I’m not sure how much I actually believe. I was lukewarm, and because I refused to go to the fire of truth, I allowed my actions and mind to be swayed by the great deceiver. Though, like most of us, who think we can do it alone, I hit a wall. The proverbial wall of arrogance, knocked me flat, and it took me about three years to regain my footing. In those three years, I started slowly asking those questions I would ask my father. Except this time I would ask my Father in heaven, and in the silence of my heart, I started to receive answers, and not always the answers I wanted to hear. Sometimes, it was an answer of desire to learn more, to know more, and to accept there were people who already answered my question, God just needed me to go in this direction.
The most significant find of my life were two authors, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the humble Dr. Peter Kreeft. St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote the Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology) and Dr. Peter Kreeft explained it. What these two authors showed me, was an existence far before my time but just as relevant to my own. Dr. Kreeft, is a modern philosopher, who has a way of explaining the truth as if it were a matter of discussion over a cup of coffee before hitting your morning commute, and this becomes relevant because we all need explanation for truth, even when we know the truth. We all need a source of exposition, perhaps a question for us the opportunity to reveal the truth, much like Jesus question to the Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16)
St. Thomas Aquinas though was the cathartic experience which changed how I will forever look at the past and those who spent lifetimes seeking the light of Christ. In his work, Summa Theologica, Aquinas, details objections to the faith and summarily answers them with finality. This work was written in the early 13th century and what it illuminates is the very foundational understanding of philosophy, we have today, are based on his courage to answer those questions which seemed impossible but needed to be answered. His courage, has allowed me to be lifted up on his shoulders, that I might have a greater opportunity to see the light of Christ myself.
I always say, “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, when it’s not necessary”, simply meaning, if we can utilize the knowledge of the past, then we need to do so. This is never more prevalent and understanding than with the faith and traditions of our past. We can’t frivolously continue to cut off the end of the ham, and not know why we’re doing it. We can’t attend church, and not know why we stand there and sing hymns, bow, recite prayers, or partake in Holy Communion. Failing to do so, creates in us a chasm of failure to open our eyes to the beautiful, embracing what we want rather than what it is. Dr. Kreeft remarked about the boredom of church as it relates to a sporting event, and in doing so, his analogy indicates a vast portion of our boredom come in to practice when we don’t understand or we don’t accept what it is we see. Failing to do either, when it comes to the very presence of Christ, has more to do with arrogance than with an ability to know and react to what is pure light and love in our lives.
Over the last ten years, I’ve devoted more of my time and energies to study and attempting to humble myself in every which way I can think. This is one of my primary reasons for opening up about my life, my shames, my expectations, and my hopes for everyone to see what I’ve seen. My knowledge of the past (what little I know) indicates to me there is a mountain of tradition and understanding those who came before me have courageously fought to answer.
So going into this holiday season, dig deep, find out a little more as to why we celebrate the birth of Christ. Recognize, as intelligent and intuitive as we seem to think we are in this modern age, you might be surprised at the intellect and insightful but beautiful language which exists from the past. Some of the most beautiful language ever written was done so over seventeen centuries ago and our very comprehension of morality is based on this language. The traditions of the church are steeped in a deep and thoughtful understanding of who Christ is to us all, and not some notion of someone who never took the time to really understand and accept what these traditions were. Finally, Christ in the Eucharist, is the greatest gift we can ever partake in, and this is one tradition many of the ancient and modern authors all agree upon, and the way I see it is, if it stands the test of time, and it can be argued with a central understanding of objective interpretation, then the application of truth exists.
This Christmas, like so many before, offers us all the rebirth we need to be a little more holy, a little more understanding, and above all else a little more willing to humbly accept the ground we stand on is actually the shoulders of the giants who lift us up to see the light of Christ more clearly, and they stand upon the gentle hands of God in every way possible. May God bless you and your family!!!
God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good!!!