Over many years I have worked with thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of Catholic students. Why is it so hard to reach people with the message of faith? We have no trouble in modern life getting people to watch MasterChef, buy Iphones or buy bigger houses. Why is it so hard to reach adults and students with a message that might transform their current life in amazing ways and set them up for a nice superannuation deal in eternity?
A while ago I was giving a seminar to about 100 Catholic teachers and rather than try and win any battle of theology or apologetics I talked about The Problem Of Infinite Desire. It was given a good recent articulation by C.S.Lewis but the roots are much deeper. The Problem Of Infinite Desire goes like this; we experience something in this life called hunger and we know that something called food exists. We experience thirst and water exists. We may have more abstract desires such as the desire for a new Audi and we know that Audi’s exist. For most of the desires we have (even if they are dodgy ones) we can meet them. Hopefully we can moderate our desires to things that don’t harm ourselves or others.
Interestingly, there is a class of desire that does not have any way to be satisfied completely. We can eat till we don’t want to eat any more. Think Christmas or Easter for an insight into that feeling. But what about the desire for truth, for beauty and for goodness? Have you ever walked along a perfect beach at sunrise or sunset and said, “Whoa! Hold it there. That’s way too much beauty. Enough already!” Have you ever had too much truth to the point where you wanted lies? Ever got tired of goodness and wished for some badness to happen to you? Probably not.
Lewis’ conclusion was this; “If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy. Then I can only assume that I was not made for here.” This is the problem of infinite desire. It points us somewhere. The roots go back to Aristotle who argued that God was supreme truth, supreme beauty and supreme goodness. These three became known as transcendentals as they transcend any individual example of themselves. For example, a beautiful painting is characterised by beauty. Beauty can apply to that painting and also to anything else that is beautiful. Perhaps we could conceptualise it like a dye that colours all the fabrics it touches in different ways.
So what’s this got to do with Catholic education. My sense is that we need to allocate more of our evangelistic efforts towards what people actually experience and have experienced in their lives. Where have they experienced beauty, truth and goodness and then help them draw deeper conclusions about what those experiences mean or where the same experiences might be leading them. Instead of just seeing a perfect sunrise maybe it was an invitation.
In a recent article in the scholarly journal First Things Edward T Oakes writes magnificently about the work of arguably the greatest lay Catholic theologian of the last few centuries, Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Oakes argues that von Balthasar saw the Transcendtals of truth, beauty and goodness as needing to happen in a particular order in a persons life if they were to be drawn into the life of faith. I want to quote the article directly here. Read it a few times. It’s very, very good:
‘The order of the trilogy is crucial, he insisted, One must first perceive Christian revelation as beautiful and only then would one’s soul be prompted to follow Christ in a dramatic life of Christian discipleship. Finally, once inside the life of obedience to Christ, one comes to see how and why Christianity is true. If one starts with the question of the truth of Christian revelation, one must engage in apologetic arguments. But for Balthasar, argument just gets in the way of the contemplative gaze necessary for the first movement of perception. The spark of delight moves us to seek God. Theology done in the reverse order can reinforce rather than overcome impediments to faith.”
Do you see what he is saying here? If we don’t start with delight, with encounter, with beauty but instead start with facts and arguments we get nowhere. I think of my own childhood when my father made us go to Mass every day in Lent. I was less than enthusiastic. Cold mornings and early starts. But what I remember was beauty. The dark church, the candles, the smell of altar wine and wood polish and the silent gaze of statues and icons. It was sensual in the sense of deep sensory engagement in the concrete reality of beauty. All these years later it is the primary channel of my ongoing encounter with God.
How many of our students do you think have these encounters? It’s become about textbooks and disengagement and boredom. And why? Usually because we have not been enraptured ourselves. We cannot give what we do not have.
I think this is a way forward. We need encounter with the beautiful, the good and the true in that order. We need to speak to what our students, colleagues and parents have already encountered. We need to go deep to the places they have felt moved and help them draw better conclusions about those encounters, conclusions that will lift them up into a wider, more sensual and truly Christian life. We can do this but we must begin with ourselves by making time and space in our own lives for these dangerous and transformative encounters with God who is robed in beauty, truth and goodness.