Their eyes were wide. But I wanted to make an impact.
So I overwhelmed them with a ton of books.
Let me explain.
For several years, my Catholic parish asked my to convene a series of discussions with high school juniors and seniors (recently Confirmed in tenth grade) on how to cultivate their Catholic Faith. I focused on topics such as Dignity, Calling, Suffering and Grace. The discussions were open, honest, wide-ranging and rooted in Scripture, Church documents and the works of Saints and apologists for the Catholic Faith. The students were hungry, earnest and inquisitive. It was a joy to facilitate.
That particular night’s discussion was on Sources of the Catholic Faith. The table in front of us was organized into books laid out in concentric circles. The Bible was at the center, the next circle was Church documents (Catechism, Encyclicals, Apostolic Exhortations) followed by works of the Saints, works of apologists, works of literary Catholics and finally what I would describe as “Echoes of God in a Secular World”. This final ring included books of art (Michelangelo, Bernini, da Vinci, Caravaggio), architecture (Cologne cathedral, Notre Dame, Chartres, St. Peter’s Basilica) and music (Palestrina, Bach and Mozart – I even play a segment of Mozart’s Requiem).
As I worked my way from the innermost circle to the outermost, we discussed the far-ranging wisdom and beauty that permeates the Catholic Faith. It was clear that many of them (prior to this series) had never heard of or read G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, St. Thomas More or St. Therese of Lisieux. But as they surveyed all the resources that could help them grow in their faith, I returned to a paraphrased Chesterton quote that formed the backbone of this series, “The Catholic Faith has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
“Now simply consider this,” I said as I looked at these bright students, “Many people leave their faith before they have ever explored it. They hear people call it a fairy tale. They endure the condescension of a snooty professor or the sniffing dismissal of self-described sophisticate. They fade away when the dark night of the soul seems too dark. Or they just get distracted by life. But they leave too soon. They haven’t tried their faith and found it wanting, but found it difficult and left untried. It’s not simply that they haven’t read Augustine or Aquinas or Newman or Chesterton. Most people haven’t. It is that they haven’t even read a Gospel…one single Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Now, let me ask you honestly (and without shame), how many of you have ever read an entire Gospel? Just twenty-eight chapters?”
One or two hands go up. Most don’t.
And yet this bright gathering of students had read War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Hamlet.
“So here’s the point,” I continued, “If you haven’t even read one Gospel (and I would reason that most people who leave their faith never do) and, further, we have this immense additional treasure (I point to the other books on the table) of intellectual and mystical brilliance awaiting us beyond the Gospels, how could we ever claim that we truly explored our Faith?”
I think this is an important point during Advent. Here is why.
A friend recently made a stunning observation about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music that I completely missed. A deeply Catholic governess, Maria, and her lively charge of children explore the beauty of life and love expressed in music in the midst of an encroaching and ruthless Nazi menace. But Maria (played by the incomparable Julie Andrews) makes a point in a few simply musical lines that I was trying to make to the high school students over the course of a year. Sitting on a hillside with children who were bewildered by the process of making and appreciating music, the guitar-strumming Maria pauses, considers and then proceeds with this,
Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi
How many times have I heard this? How many times have I sung it myself or with my daughters? But I am not sure I ever really considered how profound it is when applied to my faith.
Like reading and music, our faith requires us to start at the very beginning. We must understand the fundamental story. We must know it deep in our marrow. And in so doing, girded by the beauty, wonder and glory of the Gospel story, we are made free. Our dignity is brighter, our calling is more clear, our grace is more palpable for we know the Christ from whom it came. Advent, in particular, reminds us of the Beginning that changed everything: The arrival of the Christ who was born to die. Advent brings us back to the start, to the indispensable life-changing Basics. We must know this Story to live the Story. To quote Maria, “When you know the notes to sing, you can do most anything.”
Advent is a time to rediscover the notes to sing. I asked the high school kids to go back to the Gospel – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – and read.
And I must do it too.
Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
Photo Credit: http://fashionindustrybroadcast.com/tag/films/