Studying: A Crucifixion
St. Thomas Aquinas once said: “Study is crucifixion at a desk.” It is the hardest work in the world, says Chesterton, because hard work, he says, is repugnant to our nature.
What is interesting to me is that Aquinas should call study a crucifixion. The crucifixion is the place where Jesus dies for us, where Love reveals His true nature: that love is self-sacrificial, total, faithful, and (on this tree of life) it is fruitful. It is there that the deep truth about God is revealed: that God is a loving God. But it is also on that same cross that the deep truth about humanity is revealed: that man is most fully man when he ascends this wooden ladder in love, for it is there that man achieves his ultimate reality—that is, as St. Athanasius once said: that man might become gods.
So, when Aquinas calls study a crucifixion, he isn’t merely saying that study is hard. He is also saying that, in study, we encounter Love and Truth. Indeed, it is in study that we begin to encounter God and also our humanity’s dignity and vocation. Thinking, therefore, is not only the search and expression of Truth, but it is also a labor of one who loves. Yes, study and friendship—like Truth and Charity—are married.
And we know this from experience: your friends: you got to know them by spending time together, by expressing and receiving ideas, and by having your friendship tested through trial. This was study. The desk might have been the local McDonald’s or your mom’s kitchen table as your played cards, but the book was one of the most interesting (and, paradoxically, one of the most unread): the book of humanity.
Friendship, we hear in the first reading, is a treasure beyond price, like fire tried in gold, or a sturdy shelter built on rock that can withstand winds and storms—unlike sand. And friendship—yes, even friendship—required study. And thus, friendship requires both loving and thinking.
And if such is the case with human friends, then should not even more be the case for God?
The Status of the Non-Crucified Culture
Now, let me be frank with you, graduates: our world today avoids study of God and his friendship and has therefore lost its ability to think and to love. If you haven’t already encountered this, you will encounter it soon. You’ll see it in the words people use. Do you notice the words people use? Let me give you a few examples. [Inspired by Dale Alquist’s book “Chesterton, the Complete Thinker”]
Whatever. Whatever reveals the default position of the world: “Whatever. I’m not going to think about this. It’s too hard. Or I don’t care. Or whatever.” As the world has lost its ability to think, so too has it lost its ability for true friendship. You can be unfriended at a bad glance, at the click of the “unfriend” button, or through boredom. This is because the world doesn’t stop to think when the storms of emotion and gossip begin to swirl. And without thinking, it never encounters Truth, that thing that protects the treasure of friendship, the home of charity. With no thinking and no truth, such homes and friends crumble into the sand. Just like whatever.
Like. No, I’m not talking Facebook. But I could say a lot about Facebook and friendship, but I would digress… “Like” is a lack of precision, that something is vaguely similar. It expresses mere opinion. “I like this.” Or “this is like something.” In itself, there is no problem to liking something. The problem is, however, as we have seen in Facebook, that everything is a status update; everything is an opinion. Our world is full of opinions (mine here included). But I’m tired of opinions. I want the truth! The world uses “like” a lot because it cannot say what something “is.” I don’t want a “like” button on Facebook. I want an “is” button. I want truth. Yes, this… IS.
You know? That’s the last of these words. You know? “You know” means “I don’t know… but I hope you know because I don’t. You know?”
Um, yeah. Um—like, that’s what we are reduced to. You know? Yeah. Whatever.
Why can’t the world talk? Because it doesn’t think. And why doesn’t it think? Because it either does not want to do the work—which, in a microwaveable, give-it-to-me-now world, is easy to avoid, or because it has never been taught how to think.
And how frustrating it is for a society that cannot think or talk! This is the quickest way for isolation—which is the opposite of friendship and love.
Results of a Society that Unfriends Jesus
How does society react? Often with anger because it is the easiest emotion when one cannot think or encounters things too hard to think about. Society reacts with even more anger because it doesn’t know how to express its anger since it cannot speak. And so the rage is released in the most brutal and unimaginable ways—in terrorism, in shootings at school, in mindless video game violence, in loud music that fills empty minds with sound instead of logos, and in empty, soulless and mindless sex.
And, if you think about it, isn’t this what the devil wanted from the beginning? He didn’t want Adam or Eve to think because that would have an effect on how they loved. Thinking and loving, the devil knows, are the things that make us godly in the first place. And Satan hates God. So Satan hates thinking and loving.
This is why sin is stupid.
And what is the result of sin? What is the result of all this lack of thinking and loving? It’s slavery. That is not where our culture is going—it is where our culture is. People are enslaved to their stuff because they can’t think beyond their stuff. And because they can’t think beyond their stuff, they can’t love anything beyond their stuff. And so they become isolated in lives of quiet desperation. Or not-so-quiet rebellion. Remember: the Crucifixion was a result of a lot of enslaved people not thinking.
The strange thing is: in such a state of slavery, you will find that the non-thinkers will accuse the thinkers of something ludicrous: namely, of being unreasonable.
We are told to believe that the Catholic Church wants to return the world to the Dark Ages, that moment in history that was supposedly freed by the Enlightenment. We heard this when Cardinal Burke was Archbishop of St. Louis. “He wants to return the Church to the Dark Ages!” they said. This couldn’t be further from the Truth.
When the Visigoths and Barbarians—Barbarians, from which we get our word today—were destroying civilization in murderous, non-sensical ways, it was the Catholic Church that preserved civilization, persevered its languages and literature and philosophy and sciences and art and architecture and music. The only reason why we can read Virgil and Plato and Socrates today is because the Catholic Church preserved such works from the book-burning Barbarian barbarians. It was in such ways that the Catholic Church brought the world out of the Dark Ages and into a renaissance. The Catholic Church held thinking close to her breast.
Later, when the “Enlightenment” began, we did not see the shining of light into man’s minds, but the dark clouds of doubt and despair, the fruits of which we have reaped by the greatest genocides, wars, and New Barbarianism ever known to man.
And yet we are told that we are unreasonable and, even worse, we are told that we are intolerant. We are told that we are the ones causing this mess, that we are behind the times, that we need to learn the truth of charity and friendship.
But, as Chesterton once said, there is nothing more fanatical and intolerant than the fanatical hatred of morality—especially of Christian morality.
And it is this world’s fanatical intolerance of Truth and Charity that is rapidly spinning our world into a new slavery: a slavery of the passions and emotions. And this might be the worst of all slaveries, because the slave-master happens to be our self, and his demeanor is often unpredictable.
In the Creed: an Encounter with the yet-Uncrucified Jesus
Into this mess, Jesus comes, saying: “I no longer call you slaves,… but friends.” This escape from slavery and into friendship came when Truth in Charity was revealed through the 10 Commandments. Have you ever noticed how they begin? It says: “I am the Lord your God who freed you… from slavery.” Does this not invite us to consider a deeper friendship with the Lord?
Friendship involves commitment. And so, to the 10 Commandments I offer my 10 Commitments:
God says, “You will not have any other gods.” To which I respond: “I won’t have any other gods. I commit to that, Lord.” I commit to using His Sacred Name only in blessing and in prayer and praise. I commit to keeping Sunday sacred and every Holy Day of Obligation. I commit to loving my parents. I commit to protecting life. I commit to a life of holy purity and chastity, seeing people as they are and not for my own use. I commit to using what I have been given and never to steal. I commit to telling the truth and never to gossip. I commit to being thankful for what I have and faithful to the relationships to which I have given my promise.
In the simple words of St. Dominic: “I’d rather die than sin.”
Because sin is stupid. And it hurts my friend.
Probably the most poignant reminder for me to lead a life of thinking and of charity comes every Sunday when we say the Creed. During the creed, we profess our belief in God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church. We even mention Mary and the communion of saints.
But what is odd for me and what is the most poignant reminder is that we also name Pontius Pilate by name. Why? Because Charity and Truth stood in the flesh before him, inviting him into friendship.
How did Pontius Pilate respond? He said, “What is truth?”
This is the modern response to the Catholic faith. This is the modern response to Truth. This is the modern response to Charity. This is the modern response to thinking. “What is truth?” the world asks—not in a thinking way, but in a distant, I-don’t-really-care-about-the-truth-but-I’ll-at-least-sound-sophisticated-if-I-pose-the-question kind of way.
This is a lack of integrity. And for this reason we recite in the Creed: “And he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
Truth. Charity. They were both crucified under the apathetic Pontius Pilate who feigned to think and to care, but who could really care less.
When I say his name every Sunday, it serves as a remind to me to examine my conscience: How am I responding to Jesus’ invitation to friendship in Charity and Truth? Am I responding to the crucifixion at a desk or am the one doing the crucifying?
Pope Benedict XVI once wrote:
Each person finds his good by adherence to God's plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:32). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). (Caritas in Veritate, 1).
Yes, to know and articulate and defend the truth in charity are exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Truth and charity helps us to let go of our “subjective opinions and impressions, [and allows us] to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things” (Caritas in veritate, 4).
In other words, to study God and to enter into his friendship helps free us from the dictatorship and slavery of relativism and mere opinion.
To practice this helps us “to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.” (CV 4)
This is what led St. Thomas Aquinas to say that the greatest work of mercy was to instruct the ignorant.
On this note, I wish to thank your parents and the faculty and administration and priests here. We were all once ignoramuses, and they have set us free. This is the greatest work of charity: to instruct us in the truth.
Now you must go and do the same.
Go out into the world. Do not enter into a Catholic ghetto. Be like the yeast which leavens the entire loaf. And remember: it only takes a little yeast—just a little!—to make the whole loaf rise.
And yes, you’ll be crucified. But you won’t be afraid, because you’ve been on that cross for a while now. You’ve been on that cross while on your knees and at your desk. You’ll have been at the place where Truth and Charity meet, where there is friendship and joy with the God who loves you.
And so, this is my prayer for you: that in all your studies, they may be such a place to encounter God’s Truth and Charity. Yes, may your study always be a crucifixion.