The Joys of the Intellectual Life
It was almost ten years ago that I returned to the Catholic Church.
My conversion initially was the result of an experience: a spontaneous return to the confessional, an honest confession, and the power of God unleashed through the sacramental absolution of my sins. There, on the spot, I could feel the reality of God and the presence of Christ. This was undeniable. But as powerful of a conversion experience as it was, it was primarily emotional. My heart was renewed; but I had not yet reconciled my mind with the faith. The skeptic in me still had questions. And as it turned out, my “intellectual” conversion was a much longer journey—far from instantaneous—and required substantial effort and risk. I was prepared to follow the truth wherever it would lead.
Almost immediately I discovered two twentieth-century giants: Frank Sheed and C.S. Lewis. These two characters—one Catholic and the other Anglican—became two of my closest guides in those early days. Sheed’s Theology for Beginners and Theology and Sanity were especially influential. They took the great “heap” of Catholic doctrines I had been exposed to as a youth and, using reason and Revelation, organized the miscellany of parts into an orderly system of rites, rituals, sacraments, and teachings. For the first time in my life I saw the genius of Catholicism’s inner coherency through the lenses of Scripture, history, and reason.
Lewis’ Mere Christianity was the first work of Christian apologetics I read. His moral argument for God’s existence seemed deceptively simple—and yet it was rationally airtight, as far as I could tell (I still think so). I was impressed. I was even more impressed with G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy; and although I didn’t understand a word of it, my life was completely flipped right-side-up by it. Reading that strange and wonderful book changed my way of seeing the world more than any book I had read previous to it (and few have come close since).
Eventually I discovered the writings of the early Church—and writers like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin Martyr, Origen, Augustine, and others—and, aside from the Bible, no readings would play a more significant role in my earliest days of intellectual conversion. Through the ancient writings of these bishops, priests, scholars, and teachers, I arrived at a decisive whole-minded acceptance of the Catholic faith that fit in perfect complementarity with my whole-hearted commitment to Jesus Christ.
The intellectual life
What I discovered through my own journey was that the Christian intellectual life held the power to more completely bring me in touch with the infinite wisdom and love of God. And I discovered that my “intellectual” conversion was not something to be completed on a certain day or at a particular time. Indeed, spiritual conversion of the whole person—whether it is you, or I, or Mother Theresa—is never finished in this life. Conversion of the soul is the ongoing project of God and, while he is the primary cause of our interior transformation, our willed participation is an essential element.
The Christian must enter into the struggle of the intellectual life whether he be a layperson or religious, carpenter or professor. A person’s state of life does not exempt him from being the rational creature he is, made to know and love God. For every believer is commanded to love the Lord our God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength (Lk. 10:27). And as Frank Sheed taught me several years ago, one cannot love what one doesn’t know. Thus, every Christian ought to be committed to the struggle of the intellectual life because every new thing learned about God—however hard it may have been to learn—is one more thing to love about God.
A happy struggle
The essential work of the human intellect is the distinguishing of truth from falsehood; and it is indeed that: work. Like our bodies, the more the intellect is trained and nourished, the healthier it will be and the better it will perform. Time, effort, and strain are required. But unlike our bodies, space has no power over it. The mind’s capacity for expansion is limitless.
Like anything else that bears good fruit, the intellectual life makes demands of those who wish to reap its rewards. Reading, writing, and argument are all essential elements of study; and study (that is to say, the willed effort to learn) is at the heart of the intellectual life. “It implies a serious resolution,” states Dominican philosopher A.G. Sertillanges in his classic The Intellectual Life:
The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometime superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.
The intellectual life is not ment to be easy. But the best and most worthwhile things in life are often the hardest. And despite the travails of the intellectual life, the joys are immense. The struggle is real—but worth it. And in the end, the intellectual life is the happy life because it leads to order, peace, and the expansion of the soul; and what is more, it keeps us on the path towards he who is the consummation of all knowledge: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn. 17:3).