The Beginning of Knowledge

It’s the end of August, and that means just one thing for a teacher: course prep.

I’m doubly blessed—that’s the word, right?—to be preparing both for homeschooling and for my graduate theology classes. A friend asked me if I was ready for the new homeschool year. No, of course I’m not. But it always starts anyway.

Homeschooling is actually the most fun right now. That’s right, before the year has started. All is promise. All is potential. All is sweetness and light. The curricula I have picked line up in shining rows; the books practically glisten. Visions of docile and happy children working industriously intrude into my mind, despite my intimate knowledge of what it all really looks like. (“Mom, Joseph looked at me funny while I was trying to read!” “Mom, can I just tell you my essay rather than write it out?” “Mom, why do I have to do math? I’ll never use it!” Ignore him, no, and … oh, just do it.)

In fact, I do enjoy homeschooling, or we wouldn’t do it. I love having the kids around and giving them the chance to interact with each other in longer snatches than a few stressful hours before school and before bed. And nothing beats the thrill of seeing a young mind open up with the space and quiet to explore the really exciting things.

But there is no denying that the beginning of the year is always the most exciting. What really stinks is February. By then, the snow seems to be up to the deck railing, the books have grown stale, and I can see all the flaws in the curricula I so lovingly handled six months before. February is a great time for field trips and snow days. (Yeah, I know homeschoolers can’t actually have snow days. We make them up. The homeschool police haven’t arrested us for it yet.) February is not a beginning. February is a stuck-in-the-middle month. It lacks the freshness and potential of a beginning.

Despite all that, however, Proverbs 1:7 tells us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The wisdom we seek in study always has a beginning, and I don’t mean August. The beginning is the step taken into the depths: “Put out into the deep!” as Pope Saint John Paul II always exhorted us. When we “fear the Lord,” we trust that He is God and we are not. We put out into the depths of His loving wisdom. We trust that He really is running the show. We are, in other words, humble. Only the fool thinks he doesn’t need to be instructed. The wise person knows how little he knows.

The beauty of this is that we can reclaim the freshness of the beginning of knowledge any time. Every day is a new start, pulsing with the potential that is as infinite as the triune God. Every hour can be the beginning of wisdom. We can start again … and again … and again. Even in February.

In any case, this year February will be just fine. You see, there’s this new curriculum we’re going to use…

Angela Franks teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Don’t Just Stand There

Pope St. Pius XOne hundred years ago today, August 20, 1914, Pope St. Pius X died. The so-called “War to end all Wars” had ignited less than a month previously, and just two months after the Sarajevo assassination of Austrian archduke Ferdinand. With a hundred years hindsight, we see anew just how influential that conflagration really was. Ethnic and religious tensions since 1991 in Bosnia, Kosovo, Ukraine, and even Syria and Afghanistan can find their roots directly, more or less, in the “Great War.” Pius died watching the world he and the rest of world had known begin to crumble.

A gloomy consideration, to be sure. It is worth noting that Pius X, when his pontificate began, realized that such an end was quite possible. His first encyclical, E Supremi, set out the framework for his papal motto: “Instaurare Omnia in Christo” (to renew all things in Christ). After stating his unworthiness for the papacy, especially having to follow Pope Leo XIII who had reigned for twenty-six years, Pius declared his pontificate would serve God, not earthly partisanship (#4). The odds, Pius admitted, did not look promising. Even in 1903 he saw the pursuit of peace rendered fruitless due to the secular dismissal of religion (#7). Nevertheless, committed to bringing humanity back to God, Pius stated flatly: “Now the way to reach Christ is not hard to find: it is the Church. “(#9) Renewing all things in Christ thus meant the Church needed to get its own act together. Pius then encourages bishops to rekindle pastoral vigor among the clergy while nurturing seminary education. It started, he claimed, with holiness (#11). Secure that first, and then theological and moral rectitude would fall into line. Furthermore, religious instruction of the laity and those outside the Church depended on this proper spiritual orientation.

Pius’ focus might appear strikingly different from our modern view. After all, think of the reminders—and justifiably so!—to consider the plight of the poor. A glimpse at the Catechism #773 indicates the Church has not strayed far. The Church’s Marian charism—an inward holiness and purity—necessarily precedes the Church’s Petrine charism of external authority and leadership. (And thus, here at his pontificate’s beginning, lie the foundations for Pius’ better-known efforts to purify the Church, which these days tend to be viewed as intrusive thought-control.) Furthermore, St. Pius X himself recognized that, as one of my French-Canadian in-laws said, honey attracts more flies than vinegar. “… it is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity.” (E Supremi #13—and here Pius cited I Kings 19, the Old Testament reading for August 10) With that in mind, Pius X wanted Catholic action—yes, a group so-named but more importantly Catholics actually doing something to bring about the renewal his pontificate sought.

For truly it is of little avail to discuss questions with nice subtlety, or to discourse eloquently of rights and duties, when all this is unconnected with practice. The times we live in demand action – but action which consists entirely in observing with fidelity and zeal the divine laws and the precepts of the Church, in the frank and open profession of religion, in the exercise of every kind of charitable works, without regard to self-interest or worldly advantage. (#14)

Quite frankly, this might be why theologians and others preoccupied with an “academic apostolate” find St. Pius X discomforting. Don’t just stand there—do something, for God’s sake! (literally!)

One hundred years later, though, we actually like to hear such injunctions. We continue to enjoy “the Francis effect.” Pope Francis’ recent trip to South Korea met, not surprisingly, with glowing accolades. Vatican insider John L. Allen, Jr. now calls Francis “a truly global papacy” and rightfully so. But at least some of the foundations for the world’s current Francis enthusiasm lay a century ago with a saintly pope that we too often remember quite differently.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.