Forming mind and heart in faith

Jared Staudt

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

People tell me pretty regularly that we should not over-intellectualizing the faith — making the Church simply about ideas, doctrines, and rules. I agree that this can be a problem, but we also have to guard seriously against an opposite problem — emotionalizing and privatizing faith. We are blessed with a reasonable faith that can be studied in harmony with the truth of the natural world. Faith and reason strengthen one another, together leading our minds to conform to the mind of the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. In the midst of a secularism which pits science against the faith, it is important that we form our minds in the truth. Being rooted in the truth of our faith does not lead to abstract ideas, but to an encounter with the living God which sets our hearts on fire with His love.

The Dominicans have a long history of teaching the faith, founded originally to preach to those who had fallen into the dualistic heresy of Albigensian and producing the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The papal theologian, who advised the pope, by tradition comes from St. Dominic’s Order. One of the most renown Dominicans teaching in the United States, Father Thomas Joseph White, has recently been called to Rome to teach at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of the Dominicans. Father White, though a profound scholar, has produced a clear and accessible overview of the Catholic faith.

Father White’s book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press, 2017) offers a serious overview of the Catholic faith. It is not a scholarly work, but one that does challenge us to enter more deeply into the theological tradition of the Church, flowing from the Bible and Catechism, the Fathers, and especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part of the genius of the book is how it uses the theological tradition to address contemporary concerns such as evolution, sexual ethics, and relativism. The book contains seven major sections—Reason and Revelation, God and Trinity, Creation and the Human Person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, Social Doctrine, and the Last Things—as well as a robust epilogue on prayer.

Father White challenges us to “to be an intellectual. . . to seek to see into the depths of reality” (1). As intellectual beings, we have been created in the image of God and are called to enter into his truth and life. Therefore, White reminds us that “every person has to accept risk in truth’s call to us. Even religious indifference is a kind of risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. The mind is reason’s instrument, but the heart its seat” (5). Therefore, the ultimate questions lead the mind into prayerful contemplation of the truth. Theology cannot remain an intellectual enterprise alone, but must lead us to encounter God in prayer: “Prayer is grounded in our natural desire for the truth. When we pray we are trying to find God, to praise him, and to see all things realistically in light of him. In a sense, then, prayer stems from a search for perspective” (288).

Our faith forms us as a whole person and shapes our feelings and desires according to what is highest. Father White rightly points out that “heart and intelligence go together” (49). When it comes to God, intellectual theory is not enough, as he calls us to know him in a “concrete, personal, affective relationship” (48). This does not mean that we can dispense with theology. Quite to the contrary, “we want to get right who God is, and what the mystery of Christ is, so that we can be in living contact with divine love” (42). God speaks to us so that we may come to know him by exercising our minds to know the truth given us through the Church (36).

Knowing God is the work a lifetime and our eternal vocation. We can strengthen our faith by studying theological truths and deepening our capacity to contemplate divine things. Father White’s book will help us all to be theologians, entering into the practice of theology as faith seeking understanding. As we come to know God more, it should lead us to fall in love with him more deeply, strengthening our relationship with him and preparing us to see him face to face.

COMING UP: A pilgrimage through the arts

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I recently visited the Denver Art Museum to see the Degas: A Passion for Perfection exhibit, which runs until May 20th. My kindergartener summed up the thematic content: “Horses and dancing girls.” With this inspiration, Degas’ genius spanned an array of materials — graphite, charcoal, ink, pastel, paints, and sculpture — as well as a spectrum of vision, from rough sketches and undefined abstraction to unexpected color and precision of line (sometimes in the same piece). Following from his study of classical artists, Degas developed new techniques to explore the contours of modern life.

As Catholics, we have abundant opportunities to enter into the beauty of our faith through art — old and new. Here are some recent books to guide us on a pilgrimage of the arts.

Painting

Painting serves as a good entry point into the Catholic arts and Madeline Stebbins’ Looking at a Masterpiece (Emmaus, 2017) provides not only over 40 paintings, but also guides us in how to understand them. It is a large book, which reproduces the paintings in beautiful fashion. Chapter 19, “A Beautiful Journey,” features Francesco Botticini’s “The Three Archangels with Tobias (c. 1470) and typifies the pilgrimage through the arts, as we imitate Tobias in being led by the hand through a journey of beauty, drawing us more deeply to God.

Architecture

Gijs van Hensbergen also leads us on a tour of the greatest modern church with his The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece (Bloomsbury, 2017). Hensbergen describes the complexity and paradoxes of the church and its architect, Antoni Gaudí, whose cause for canonization has been opened. Sagrada Familia, a shrine to the Holy Family, is thoroughly modern and even surrealist, while conveying a truly transcendent and beautiful vision.

Music

Anthony Esolen offers us not simply a theoretical overview of great Christian hymns, but a guide through these hymns, with an accompanying CD, in his Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (TAN, 2016). He arranges the book’s chapters based on major themes, such as the psalms, major events of salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist. This beautiful guide could help Catholic singing to come alive again, both in the home and in parishes.

Poetry

The reading and memorization of poetry were common practices not too long ago. Joseph Pearce hopes to get us reading beautiful, classic poems again with his Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN, 2016). He includes the poetry of some great saints, such as Francis, Gertrude, and Robert Southwell, Catholic artists such as Dante, Chaucer, and Hopkins, as well as other great writers of the English language. In Pearce’s own contribution, he describes the Christian poetic spirit, responding the presence of God: “Thus transfixed / in transient transfiguration, / the impression / of mind’s gaze / becomes expression / and finds praise” (282).

Literature

Dr. Joshua Hren, professor of literature at Belmont College, has founded a new Catholic press to publish both classic and contemporary works of Catholic fiction, Wiseblood Books. An accomplished writer himself, he recently released a collection of short stories, This Our Exile (Angelico, 2017). In the line of Flannery O’Connor, Hren uses the violent afflictions of our culture to contemplate our pilgrimage through this place of exile, hoping to arrest us into a greater awareness of life’s underlying spiritual realities.

The Eternal Pilgrimage

When people ask me what great classic of literature they should read first, without hesitation I answer: Dante’s Divine Comedy (though it helps to read Virgil first). Wyoming Catholic College professor Jason Baxter offers an entry point into the work with his A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Baker, 2018). Baxter offers a wonderful introduction to Dante and a section by section commentary, taking the reader through Dante’s own journey through the afterlife, woven deeply with the poet’s own experience of Tuscan culture. Just as Virgil and Beatrice guided Dante, so some extra support helps to catch the Divine Comedy’s historical and spiritual references.

An Actual Pilgrimage!

The United States has a richer Catholic culture than we might expect at first, with the Spanish settling many parts of the South and West, the French in the Great Lakes Region and Louisiana, and English Catholics in Maryland. We can experience firsthand the great heritage left behind by these Catholic settlers by going on pilgrimage! Santa Fe, N.M., offers many amazing treasures, as well as the beautifully situated missions of California. For a vade mecum while visiting these missions, see Stephen Binz’ Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to California Missions (Franciscan Media, 2017). You can also come with me to the Louvre on my Saints, Monks, and Beer pilgrimage this October (rtijourneys.com).

The great heritage of Catholic art should shape our imaginations, anchoring us in God’s truth, goodness, and beauty during our pilgrimage to his heavenly city.