In a little less than a month, we will begin the observance of the Year of Faith declared by Benedict XVI. To designate a twelve, or, in this case thirteen-month period as a year to be set aside for special commemoration or reflection is a reasonably common practice in the Church. Over the past decade and half we have observed a Year for Priests, a Year of St. Paul, and, most memorably, the Great Jubilee Year of the second millennium of the birth of Christ. In his apostolic letter announcing the Year of Faith, the Holy Father repeatedly pointed to the importance of learning, presenting the observance as being not only an occasion for conversion and evangelization, but also as a special opportunity for the study of the Faith. It seems appropriate, then, at the beginning of a new academic year, to ponder a bit the significance of our common work as students in light of the upcoming holy year dedicated to the deepening of faith.
In one of his better-known and best-loved sermons, Blessed John Henry Newman points out that Christ regularly asked his disciples to risk all for their faith in Him. We might think of St. Peter, moved by love, stepping out of the boat, but not quite having sufficient faith to walk all the way to Jesus. Our very “duty as Christians,” Newman taught, lies in “making ventures for eternal life” much like St. Peter’s, that is, ventures that do not enjoy—at least to our eyes—the “absolute certainty of success.” Yet, says Newman, “success and reward everlasting they will have, who persevere unto the end.”
Let us enjoy together a little taste of Newman’s incomparable preaching:
Doubt we cannot, that the ventures of all Christ’s servants must be returned to them at the Last Day with abundant increase. This is a true saying,—He returns far more than we lend to Him, and without fail. But I am speaking of individuals, of ourselves one by one. No one among us knows for certain that he himself will persevere; yet every one among us, to give himself even a chance of success at all, must make a venture. As regards individuals, then, it is quite true, that all of us must for certain make ventures for heaven, yet without the certainty of success through them. This, indeed, is the very meaning of the word “venture;” for that is a strange venture which has nothing in it of fear, risk, danger, anxiety, uncertainty. Yes; so it certainly is; and in this consists the excellence and nobleness of faith; this is the very reason why faith is singled out from other graces, and honoured as the especial means of our justification, because its presence implies that we have the heart to make a venture. (“The Ventures of Faith,” Parochial and Plain Sermons, IV)
Liberal education is just such a venture.
The world has little use for it. Plato’s extended metaphor of the Cave is justly famous: surely we can all agree that it is often easier to live according to appearances and to gain what we desire by manipulating others through the use of images, by bending the meaning of words to suit our present purpose, or, simply, by relying upon our charm. But the ascent to the light of Truth that is authentic liberal education does not promise worldly effectiveness either in the short term or at length. What it promises is knowledge.
And herein lies the greater difficulty, because until we have mastered an art or have come to know a discipline, we are not able to enjoy it, that is, we cannot have a lively sense of how it stands to us as a good and as the fulfillment of a legitimate desire. This is most clear in the case of the liberal arts. To gain a solid possession of Latin grammar will make you a better reader and writer of the English language, but “Puer puellae bellae rosam dat” may not yet convince us that great gains lie ahead. The student who has come to understand the reason why the perpendicular drawn from the right angle of a right triangle stands to the resulting parts of the base as a mean proportional has gone very far towards gaining a habit of mind that will assist her in all of her future endeavors as a reasoner. Yet one’s first glance at the Pons Asinorum may well be a cause of terror rather than delight. And consider the long list of books that are to be read in our four-year common conversation about Western and Christian Civilization: does it in fact to us seem as inviting as the racks of doughnuts at the coffee shop down the road? Who was Hugh of St. Victor? Was Calderon de La Barca an opera singer or a bull fighter? Isn’t Macrina the name of a cookie made with coconuts? Does anyone know how to spell Solzhenitsyn?
Liberal education, then, requires that the students make a venture of faith, both trusting in their teachers and the curriculum of the College, but also, and more essentially, in the Classical and Christian tradition of liberal education to which we belong. Yet this is altogether appropriate, for the whole of a Christian life is a venture of faith with respect to our understanding of the things of God. For now, as St. Paul tells us, we see only “through a glass, darkly.”
What, then, might this upcoming Year of Faith hold out to us as students and teachers? Certainly, there are concrete and practical aspects of it. The Holy Father seems to be laying especial emphasis on three subjects for study: the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Sacred Scriptures. In our ordinary course of studies, we come upon these texts, and, in the case of the Scriptures, we dwell with them so much that for a student to take with due seriousness the opportunity afforded by our curriculum and the liturgical prayer in our chapel, he will indeed begin to fulfill the Holy Father’s injunction to discover “a taste for feeding [him]self on the word of God.” Yet a more general consideration will also be most helpful to us, and so let us conclude by considering the Holy Father’s observation that “what the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, and capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life, life without end.” (Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, 11.xi.2011, #s 3, 15)
This capacity to “open the hearts and minds” of others to the Truth is an acquired excellence that Benedict XVI has elsewhere identified with the virtue he calls “intellectual charity.”[*] This virtue is a fine approximation of the end and purpose of the education you are here to receive. Intellectual charity should indeed be the very soul of our scholastic endeavors. The Year of Faith, then, in a special way, is for us, who are students and teachers of the Catholic tradition. Let us, each one, make a venture of faith and resolve to profit from it.