Most of us go through a period of inquiry that marks the transition between the thoughtless practice of our parents’ faith and the adoption of faith as a living force in our own lives. This period of inquiry is sparked by different events in different people. Sometimes, as our friends shift toward the comfortable agnosticism of the age, we pause and look back and ask what we’re leaving behind. For others, after a period of rejection or doubt, some merit in the old ideas is revealed, or the tassels of popular theology brush up against us and alleviate our sorrows. Whatever it is that strikes us while we are ungrounded and brings us gracefully back to earth, we tend to see those first intimations of eternal glory as the touchstone and key to our theological lives. In my generation many people are touched this way by the Theology of the Body, or by the works of Chesterton and Lewis and their descendants. A spark of grace and hope leaps from these fringes of the Christian Tradition into the lives of young people and they hold fast to it.
Once we grab hold of faith, we tend to enshrine the voices that first called us to it, and, in accord with our delight and satisfaction with the gifts received, we tend to take these first hints of meaning and insight as fundamental: the most important, the most wonderful, the most accessible and upbuilding and beautiful. This tendency springs from our longing to have finished, to have understood once and for all what’s in store for us, not to need to strive for further transformation and development as participants in the divine truth handed down to us from the Apostles.
In fact, the longing to be done with thinking — to have divided the world cleanly between what is intelligible and already known, and what is mysterious and utterly unknowable — is one of the perpetual harbingers of heresy, ideology, and errant fideism. And, by contrast, the cautious recognition that the mysteries are both definitely intelligible and infinitely profound has been one of the continuous hallmarks of the Catholic Church throughout its history. The fullness of the Christian faith is in the Catholic Church, in the monuments of the tradition, in the liturgy and scripture and the writings of the saints. But this is a faith that is always being recorded, because no tablet of stone or stack of paper can contain the richness of its truth. Rather, it is written on the table of the heart, and the contents of this revelation, though perpetually the same, shine forth in ever new and different ways. To have the mystery truncated by enshrining those glimmers of it closest to hand and easiest to hear, is to kill the mystery and deprive ourselves of the elevation and spiritual wealth which make those glimmers so delightful in the first place. Instead we need to reach deeper and deeper into the past, to grab hold of that garment more insistently and greedily so that by embracing all of it, and not just the fringes closest to us, we find ourselves embracing Christ and seeing him face to face.