First, the funny story.
A friend of mine had just had a baby. The baby was fussy and spitting up a lot, and so she thought the baby might be reacting to the cows’ milk my friend was drinking. She might have to cut out dairy.
She was willing quit milk, cheese, and the like, for the good of her baby, despite her great love of these foods. Butter was another story. Surely there was a way to not have to give up butter. It turned out that dairy was not the problem (we can all breathe a sigh of relief with her!), but the whole situation (isn’t it funny how these things work?) left her with a slightly harrowing spiritual insight.
You see, she is an Orthodox Christian, and to keep Lenten and other fasts, she *should* have been giving up dairy to keep the fast. Of course she was often nursing or pregnant, and so didn’t have to keep the fast strictly. But really, she supposes she could have given up butter and cheese and been none the worse off.
Her spiritual insight? That she has disordered loves. She loves, in order, 1. butter (which she was determined to find a way to keep in her diet); 2. her baby (for whom she would give up cheese); 3. cheese; and 4. God (for whom she would not give up butter or cheese). Of course, we all want to be able to say that God is at the top of this list.
So that is a lovely story about our priorities in life, and self-reflection, and how God can use all kinds of situations to teach us and help us grow. But in reflecting on this story over the last couple of weeks, it occurred to me that there is another lesson here, hiding under the surface.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to challenge anyone’s love of butter, ordered or otherwise.
What struck me was the language my friend was able to use to describe this new self-knowledge she had attained. She had found herself to have “disordered loves.”
Which, if any given person takes a couple of minutes to puzzle out, she could probably find that the phrase means “loves in the wrong order.” Yet it’s not the sort of phrase any given person on the street might use, nor is it an accident that my friend would use such a phrase.
She has had a Catholic, classical education, including a good bit of philosophy and theology, which does not count the reading and study she has done on her own in these areas.
Thus, my own little insight: our vocabulary affects our spiritual life; or, more broadly, without some degree of knowledge and study of spiritual things, it will be more difficult for us to attain to the growth we desire.
Of course, it is totally possible for someone who has done little or no study of the spiritual to realize, “Huh, I guess I love butter more than God. Oops.” But it seems to me that without having at some point thought about the fact that we love some things more than others, and that God is one of the options of things to love, and that He ought to be the first of our loves, as well as what love looks like – ahem, sacrifice – that is, without this prior foundation, it would be much more difficult to come to the realization in the first place.
So what are we to do? I don’t think the lack of a degree in philosophy or theology or scripture means we aren’t capable of this sort of spiritual insight. However, I do think that we shouldn’t hope for self-knowledge and growth if we aren’t putting in a little bit of work.
Some of this is easy – pay attention to the scripture readings at Mass. Read the Bible often. (A study Bible with a good commentary can be even more helpful.) Pick up a book on spiritual things once in a while. Go to lectures, if you are so lucky as to have the opportunity, on theological topics, or take the theology-for-lay-people classes that some diocese offer, usually in the evenings to accommodate working peoples’ schedules. Pray – and ask God to show you where you need to grow.
That is all fine and good, but here’s my real concern: are we giving our kids the vocabulary to talk about and ponder spiritual things, as well as we are able? We have the advantage, in our home, of a Theology MA to answer (and pose!) these questions. But even when Craig isn’t home, I have to be ready with the words that will help my children understand their faith. My words form their conception of God, the Church, and what it means to be a person of faith.
No pressure, right?
It is daunting, day in and day out, to not just break up the sibling bickering and direct our children towards virtue, but to do it in such a way that they grow up with the language that creates a framework – a scaffold, perhaps – on which to build their understanding of their faith.
I feel like I should digress and point out that faith is possible without understanding; that a relationship with God is what counts; that many holy people don’t use fancy theological language to describe their love of God…and all this is true. And yet, we have been created with intellect, and spirit, and body, for that matter, and God wants us to use all of them to seek Him out. (Of course, there should be one or more attributions here for this idea – Aquinas, I think – but that part I usually leave to the resident MA.)
All of which goes to show that I myself have a long way to go towards doing this well. Listening more closely to those conversations between our theologian friends will probably be one of my starting points.
And at the end of all my own philosophizing, (or is it theologizing?) I have to thank my friend for her love of butter, and her desire to love God better, and her humility, which allowed her to share this story with me, and me to share it with you. Because it was her funny, self-deprecating story which started my reflection (should there be a tangent on time for reflecting, even on the mundane? Not today!), and it is her story, and, of course, her friendship, which I hope will spur our family along on the path to greater holiness.