Responding to Receiving
By Peter Cao, devoted husband and father
I found writing the last reflection piece in the evening such a wonderful way to use time I would otherwise have spent preoccupied with my future financial state of affairs, or anxiously mulling over my day after I had already completed a thorough nightly examen. Fr. Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges profoundly asserts in The Intellectual Life that “To speak is to listen to one’s soul and to the truth within it. To speak alone and wordlessly, as one does by writing, is to listen and perceive truth with a freshness of sensation like that of a man who rises early morning and holds his ear to nature”1 and I would add “to God.” What is it about cultivating this intellectual life that is so appealing? After a year of really diving into our rich Catholic faith during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am convinced that in order to develop our relationship with God, we need to seek Him through not only what He has revealed to use through Divine Revelation but also to seek Truth through avenues like the beautiful works of His faithful. This should be one of our responsibilities in responding to the gifts we have been bestowed with. In my first reflection, I wrote about ways that we can be more open to receiving; I want to take this time now to write about what this should motivate us to do.
Responsibility to Seek the Truth
One of the marvelous things about the Catholic faith is that in addition to Sacred Scripture, we have the Sacred Traditions to draw from. St. Irenaeus once wrote “When, therefore, we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth, which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone whoever wishes draws from her the drink of life.”2 In addition to the teachings of the early Church Fathers, we also have contributions from saints, philosophers, theologians, religious, and more modern Catholic writers throughout our rich history that can nourish our hearts, minds, and souls; but only if we are receptive. Making the time to sit still, intentionally reflect and meditate, and truly open our hearts and minds to the Truth; can be a difficult endeavor in the noisy world we live in. But it can bear much fruit, allowing us to wield them as tools to mold a more humble heart and follow a more virtuous Christian lifestyle. It will also open our eyes to the wonders of God’s creation and his presence in everyone and everything around us. I remember diving into some of G.K. Chesterton’s works starting with Orthodoxy and then being totally engrossed in Dale Ahlquist’s The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton, savoring each and every chapter line by line. Initially, I thought I was attracted to the wisdom and clarity of writing. I have come to believe that going past the superficiality of the style of writing, I was attracted to Truth and that this search has brought me closer to God.
How does one get started then? I am embarrassed to admit that I fit the stereotype of the Catholic who is fairly ignorant of Sacred Scripture. I have read through plenty of commentary about the Bible like for example the works of Professors John Bergsma and Peter Kreeft, but have skirted around the actual Word of God. It took me 36 years to finally make a serious attempt at reading through the Bible. This is not to say I have not tried to do so in years previous. Since the rekindling of my faith about 5 years ago, I have picked whichever books that interested me at the moment. This usually meant I stuck with the more relatable New Testament readings. I labored through these books using the Ignatius Study Bible, which was filled with insightful footnotes that linked to other parts of Sacred Scripture, included allusions to Sacred Tradition with quotes from the early Church Fathers, and also tied in teachings from the Catechism, remaining faithful to the Magisterium. I would also have weekly discussion meetings with our parish’s men’s group where we would go through a few chapters at a time. Surely, this period bore much fruit, but it felt like a slog at times, where I focused not so much on God’s Word and how it was speaking to me during the pertinent season of life, but became too much of a purely intellectual exercise. And in staying away from what I perceived was the less relatable Old Testament, I was also missing the big picture in seeing Sacred Scripture through the lens of Salvation History. With this conviction, this year I discovered Fr. Mike Schmidt’s The Bible in a Year podcast where he uses the The Great Adventure Bible timeline to go through the Bible in 365 days. In addition, since the birth of the Church a little over 2 millennia ago, we have at our disposal so many great spiritual works to deepen our faith and fuel our love for Christ. A great resource that compiles many of these works is Mike Aquilina’s A Year with the Church Fathers: Patristic Wisdom for Daily Living.
What I have discovered recently is that you may not be in the right stage to dive through some of these works. For example, I can say that currently in my state of life as a relatively new father, I am reading through many books that encourage me to step up into the role of leadership and embrace the true masculine role that God has called me into. Such books include Joseph’s Way: The Call to Fatherly Greatnessby Devin Schadt, St. Joseph and his World by Mike Aquilina, Leaving Boyhood Behind by Jason Craig, and Fire and Light: Learning to Receive the Gift of God by Fr. Jacques Philippe. On the other hand, there are a few books that I just could not enter into, but that I could imagine later enjoying as I spiritually mature in life – namely, the autobiographical works of St. Theresa of Avila and St. Therese de Lisieux. In addition to choosing well, Fr. Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges also admonishes us to read little – to read intelligently, not passionately, that “the passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality, is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set up in it uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.”1 This passage struck me deeply, as it came during a time when I was voraciously seeking out intellectual material to fill the time that was now available during my Exodus 90 adventure, when the ascetic practices freed me from previous attachments like social media. However, I soon found myself anxiously reading through Peter Kreeft’s philosophical Socrates’ Children and eventually with a copy of Plato’s Five Dialogues lying on my bookshelf, likely never to be read. Indeed, it is important that one reads to think, in other words “the reader, if in a certain way he must be passive in order to open his mind to truth and not to hinder its ascendency over him, is nevertheless called on to react to what he reads so as to make it his own and by means of it to form his soul.”1 It is important to realize that in seeking the Truth, we are not only responsible in finding opportunities to do so, but also in the way and method we employ to go about doing so.
Responsibility to Be Generous with our Neighbors
Our response to receiving gifts should be one of gratitude, and that gratitude should be reflected in our generosity with our neighbors. This notion was not received openly during my early adult years. I developed a habit of taking, amassing, hoarding – feeding the never-ending depths of my ego. A veritable Ebenezer Scrooge with avarice as my right-hand man, I entered into utilitarian relationships and thought only of how I would benefit. What a rude awakening I was in for when I entered into the role of husband and father, where space both physical and emotional was now shared. Enter our Catholic faith, and we are called into the sacrificial role as disciples of Christ and servants to our family. Mother Teresa once said that “I must be willing to give whatever it takes to do good to others. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.”3 To combat my inner selfishness, I had to work hard to develop the virtue of generosity. This does not mean carelessly throwing away money, which can lead into the vice of prodigality. In Dante’s Inferno, the greedy occupy the 4th circle of Hell, where they are encumbered by heavy weights and spend an eternity trotting along a circular path colliding and arguing with the spendthrifts before turning around and repeating the same at the other end.
What are some practical ways to exercise generosity? The answer to this question lies with the proper orientation of how we view our current resources. If we accept the truth that everything we have is ultimately from God, we then should view ourselves as being stewards of these resources. The resources include not only our material property but also our time and our talents. Ordered properly, the exercise of generosity should be willingly undertaken in a spirit of what we have borrowed and been given, rather than what we have achieved or produced ourselves. Again, this notion was difficult for me to accept because in my formative years, I was very proud of my achievements, many of which were done at the expense of people around me. But this search for more honor and more money left me unsatisfied, not at peace. I learned early on that volunteer experiences during my teenage and young adult years made me feel good in the moment, but it was not sustained because sometimes it was done with the wrong motive or was done from a place of comfort. I was chasing a feeling, and the opportunities to do so were far and few between. Reflecting over the past few years, I think some of the genuinely joyful moments were those when I made small sacrifices for those around me, when I said a little word of encouragement or went out of my comfort zone so as to make someone else more comfortable. I am reminded of the Little Way of St. Therese. We do not need grand gestures to live the holy lives of saints. Fr. Lawrence Lovasik writes that “the little acts of kindness, the little courtesies, are the things that, added up at night, constitute the secret of a happy day.”4 During my nightly examen, if I can identify a moment when I was generous, I consider it a day well spent. In addition to our time, we must too strive to be generous with our money, to tithe appropriately to our parish and help those who are less fortunate. And we must strive to be generous with our talents, to nurture the talents we possess so that we can build up the Kingdom of God. I would hope that my writing will be used for the glory of God, keeping in mind that despite the difficulty at times to get the words on paper, “To father some intellectual work is to sow a good and fruitful seed. Every work is a wellspring!”1
He is Risen!
The weeks leading up to Holy Week, culminating in the glorious Easter Sunday, have been such a blessing to me and my family. I have observed some changes for good but also realize that this is a work in progress. The virtuous life requires practice and a breaking of old habits. One of the core sins of mine is pride, the roots of which have grown deep. Developing the exercise of seeking Truth and generously giving has guided me towards the path of humility, whereby I can properly view my relationship to God and to Neighbor. These two exercises are by no means mutually exclusive either – in our habitual pursuit of learning, we enter into a depth that transforms us by its shaping of our moral lives and lives with others. Professor Zena Hitz points to Dorothy Day as a prime example of this transformation – “Her sympathy for human beings depicted in books has transferred into real people, not automatically – for…alternative paths were possible for her – but because of her hard thinking about her own life and the lives of others, thinking driven by her deepest desires.”5
I think of this process as a way to fortify my faith, so that in Christ I will not only survive but continue to thrive during the many inevitable trials of life. However, this requires much dedication, as St. Clement of Alexandria once wrote “Some people who think themselves naturally gifted don’t want to touch either philosophy or logic…[or] natural science. They demand bare faith alone – as if they wanted to harvest grapes right away without putting any work into the vine. We must prune, dig, trellis, and do all the other work…I say you’re truly educated if you bring everything to bear on the truth. Taking what’s useful from geometry, music, grammar, and philosophy itself, you guard the Faith from assault.”6 Let us therefore approach the Easter season with hope that God will grant us the grace to die to our old selves and be transformed into true soldiers of Christ.
- Sertillanges, A.G. (1992). The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Catholic University of America Press.
- St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200 AD). Against Heresies.
- Mother Teresa (1997). In the Heart of the World. MJF Books.
- Lawrence, Lovasik (1962). The Hidden Power of Kindness. Sophia Institute Press.
- Hitz, Zena (2020). Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. Princeton University Press.
- Aquilina, Mike (2010). A Year with the Church Fathers: Patristic Wisdom for Daily Living. Saint Benedict Press.