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by Matthew Kelly
Theology for Beginners
by Father Bob Sherry
One of the massive differences between God and human beings is consistency. God is incredibly consistent, human beings are not.
We are constantly changing our minds about all sorts of things. One day we feel this way about something, and the next day we may feel differently. This happens with not only things or situations, but also other people too. Yesterday we may have had very positive feelings toward a person, but today our feelings toward that same person may be negative.
Just one tiny aspect of the beautiful genius we call God is his consistency. And at the core of that consistency is his love for us. He loves us always. We may change the way we feel about God, but he never changes the way he feels about us.
This month, let us all strive to be a little more consistent with our patience, with our love with our encouragement, with our prayer, with our work, with our exercise. In our ordinary everyday lives, let us strive to be consistent in every way we can.
Knowledge serves love in a still better way, because each new thing learned and meditated about God is a new reason for loving him.
— From “Theology for Beginners” by Frank Sheed
Twenty-five years ago I visited a town where I was to lecture. A young woman told me she was coming to my lecture, and then asked what it was to be about. I said, “The Blessed Trinity.” She said, “Oh,” and then after a distinct pause, “Ah well.” In other words, if her bishop wanted her to listen to a lecture on the Blessed Trinity, she would listen to it. She hoped, doubtless, that she would do even harder things if her bishop called for them. The one thing that emerged most definitely was that she expected no joy. And in that she represented any number of millions of her fellow Catholics. As a body, we hope to go to heaven, which means spending eternity with the Blessed Trinity, and we expect the experience to be wholly blissful; but in the prospect of spending an hour with the Blessed Trinity here below, there is no anticipation of bliss.
The incident took me back further years. I had remarked to a theologian how sad it was that a layman could not get a course in theology. He said, “But why should you study theology? You are not obliged to.” In my new excitement over dogma, I was quite incapable of giving any lucid answer to his question why. I mumbled something to the effect that the truth would make me free, and I wanted to be free. I shall try now to answer that question.
In a way I am still hampered now as I was then by a feeling of the strangeness of having to make a case for anything so exciting and so joy-giving. But the joy and excitement of theological knowledge is like the joy and excitement of any other love—it cannot be explained to one who has not experienced it; it need not be explained to one who has. I shall keep, therefore, to the plainest of reasons. Truth is food and truth is light.
“Not on bread alone does man live,” said Christ Our Lord, quoting Deuteronomy to the devil. Everybody knows the phrase, and most people tend to complete it according to their own fancy of what is most important to the hungry soul of man. But it had its own completion in Deuteronomy and Our Lord reminded the devil of that too: “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Revealed truth, then, is food. Now it is a peculiarity of food that it nourishes only those who eat it. We are not nourished by the food that someone else has eaten. To be nourished by it, we must eat it ourselves.
Truth is light too. Not to see it is to be in darkness, to see it wrong is to be in double darkness. The greater part of reality can be known only if God tells us. Doctrine is what he tells; lacking it, we lack light. To be stumbling along in the dark, happy in the knowledge that our guides can see, is not at all the same thing as walking in the light. It is immeasurably better than stumbling through the dark with blind guides but it is poverty all the same.
It will be said that no Catholic can go wholly unnourished, for there is the Eucharist, or wholly in the dark, because of the truths that the Church does manage to get through to the least interested of her children. As to the Eucharist, this is most gloriously true, though even there a man will be helped by going as far into the doctrine as the Church can take him, that he may know better by what food his soul lives. But as to the truths, I am not at all so sure. Some monstrous shapes flit about the Catholic mind. I remember an educated Catholic who was asked how God could be in three persons and answered, “God is omnipotent, and can be in as many persons as he likes”; and another who thought Christ is slain at every Mass; and having kept no record, I cannot tell the number of times I have heard the phrase “The poor Holy Ghost, he is so neglected”—that is, he does not get much of our attention and must make out as best he can with the company of the Father and the Son!
Let us not labor this. A Catholic, thank God, never can be wholly unnourished or wholly in the dark. But he may be living an undernourished life in the half-dark, and that is a pity.
I cannot say how often I have been told that some old Irishman saying his rosary is holier than I am, with all my study. I daresay he is. For his own sake, I hope he is. But if the only evidence is that he knows less theology than I, then it is evidence that would convince neither him nor me. It would not convince him, because all those rosary-loving, tabernacle-loving Irishmen I have ever known (and my own ancestry is rich with them) were avid for more knowledge of the faith. It does not convince me, because while it is obvious that an ignorant man can be virtuous, it is equally obvious that ignorance is not a virtue; men have been martyred who could not have stated a doctrine of the Church correctly, and martyrdom is the supreme proof of love. Yet with more knowledge of God they would have loved him more still.
Knowledge serves love—it can turn sour, of course, and serve pride or conceit and not love, and against this we poor sons of Eve must be on our guard.
Knowledge does serve love. It serves love in one way by removing misunderstandings that are in the way of love, which at best blunt love’s edge a little. For example, the fact of hell can raise a doubt of God’s love in a man who has not had his mind enriched with what the Church can teach him, so that he is driven piously to avert his gaze from some truth about God in order to keep his love undimmed. But knowledge serves love in a still better way, because each new thing learned and meditated about God is a new reason for loving him.
When it was time to prepare to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, the kids in my Confirmation class were told to each select a saint’s name. I had always known I would pick “John.” As it turned out, my older brother Tom and I were to be confirmed on the same day. (He was in eighth grade and I was in seventh grade.) Before I had a chance to share which saint’s name I had chosen, Tom announced his chosen name: John. I couldn’t believe it! He took my saint’s name. So I had to pick another name. I chose the name Peter—not just another apostle, but the head of the apostles! (That’ll show Tom!)
Over the years, I have learned three things from reflecting on this ancient episode:
It was providential that I was forced to choose a different name. I acted more like Peter than John: hotheaded, rash, impulsive, and chicken. (But I wasn’t a fisherman.) As we hear from the Acts of the Apostles at daily Mass during this Easter Season, I see how the Holy Spirit re-molded Peter from a chicken into a mighty and fearless witness. Come, Holy Spirit of Fire! Come!
I was obsessed with having “John” as my Confirmation name. What I should have been obsessed with was receiving a greater share of the Holy Spirit and his gifts. As I approach the 50th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, (May 28), I see more clearly that as I get older, “someone else will have to dress me and lead me where I do not want to go” just as what happened with Peter. Say goodbye, Bob, to the hotheaded, rash, and impulsive youngster. Instead, become a fisherman and throw your nets over the right side of the boat. (I’m still wondering what that means.)
There is nothing sissy about doing what my older brother does, or has done. I can’t take the name John anymore—unless I join a religious order, or get elected pope—but I can thank him and others for their patience with me and helping to form me into a-better-version-of-myself! I still have a long way to go, but the longest journey begins with the first step.
What are you longing for?
Want to share your story? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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