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Book Learning vs. Life Learning

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

The plaintive themes of Gaugin's masterpiece seem to run through our lives like wind in the trees or waves on the beach, a child tugging at our skirts and asking questions that  we can hardly comprehend, but all must face. A belief-system, a religion, offers some answers and a road-map, of sorts.  Over time, everyone ends up constructing their own system, like a caddis fly larva constructing its protective shell-like home at the bottom of a turbulent stream.

But how do we come to believe what we believe?  How does the spark of faith get planted? And how do we hold on to that belief, once we've found it? These are questions that have cropped up in our home lately, usually in the context of a questioning teen, perhaps spurred by a catechism chapter, even a news story or night time fears.

My own experience was that of being baptized Catholic at about 3 or 4 years of age, and raised in a loving household that was pretty knowledgeable and committed to the faith. So as I grew, I had examples and knowledge to draw from. But that's not the same thing as having faith.

I think I was about 12 or so when I made what the Protestants would  call a "personal commitment to my Lord and Savior".  But that didn't mean I had  a clue as to how to integrate that commitment into my daily actions, other than to continue to avoid committing the major sins. And I can't honestly remember if that was before or after my Confirmation. Probably during my post -death "life review", I'll be able to see how the graces of the Sacraments were at work in my life, but frankly, on this side, it's all still pretty much of a tangled blur.

During my college years, my faith was rather on automatic pilot, so it wasn't until marriage and children that all of that intellectual knowledge, the "book learning", was put to the test. Confronted with the reality of dealing with personalities, likes and dislikes, habits, viewpoints---souls in other words, different than my own---wheels began to turn, dots were connected.  Precepts spelled out in black and white on the pages of the catechism (particularly "original sin" and "suffering"), came into focus and suddenly made sense.

The most striking example of this for me was the birth of my first-born. It's one thing to have the "knowledge" of what pregnancy is all about---to read the glossy fetal development brochures given to you at the midwife's office, to see the first ultrasound, to feel all that kicking and shoving against your bladder...! Oh, yes, that's allrealenough...but then to actually see your child, face-to-face, in those first awestruck moments after birth---that's when you can feel the fabric of the universe tremble with the force of a whole new Reality.That's a "God moment".  That's when "knowledge" becomes "experience", and we enter a whole new realm.

In other words, I had to begin to experience life to understand it more, no matter how much I had thought ahead of time that I had all the answers. With experience, failures and successes, came humility. And what had been a small pilot-light sort of faith has flared up into something deeper, something that really shines forth against the darkness of daily struggles or doubts. Undoubtedly, there is a deep emotional component to the way my faith has been internalized. Recently, returning to a college-student mind-set of looking for mathematical or scientific evidence for God, I've been reading some pretty interesting and exciting books and articles. But the one thing that stands out to me is that lessons I've learned in the home, lessons of patience and self-sacrifice and above all, love, are still the most compelling and understandable. Love is what keeps my faith burning.

Of course, the challenge as parents is: How do we set that love burning in the hearts of our children?  How do we pass on the faith in such a way that it will become truly theirs, and isn't just something they're doing out of habit?  The answer is: We can't.

We can study, and be prepared to answer their tough questions honestly. We can try to model ideal behavior and instill good habits. But mostly, we must just love them and trust---trust that God loves them far more then we do, and that He is leading them through the journey of their own lives.  Once they've let go of our hands, He'll be there reaching for them, waiting to start answering the questions we couldn't.

Where do we come from? Love.

What are we? Love.

Where are we going? Love.

-----(c) S. Kirk Pierzchala. A version of this piece was originally published on the Beauty and Belief blog.

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