Last year I retired after three decades in the classroom, and that gives plenty of grist for the reflective mill to grind. I am thinking about the big question, “What is Catholic education?” and thinking about it in a way that I hope is helpful to Catholic educators at all levels. I will start by suggesting that education in general is concerned with the question “what is real?” This is not meant to be an exclusive definition. There could be additional ways we could describe the goals and effects of education. We could, as one of my professors used to put it, say that education is “liquidating ignorance.”
Open cranium and insert things like “the square root of 9 is 3, the Magna Carta, 1492, To be or not to be, ribonucleic acid, bicameral parliament, sine, cosine, and tangent, rate of free-fall acceleration, Hannibal crossed the alps,” and so forth. Or we could say that education concerns the formation of a person. In cooperation with the home, there is the goal of creating the good citizen, the gentleman and refined woman who can participate in civil discourse and contribute profitably to society. Or we could say that education is concerned with developing skills. Talents hidden from view are brought to the surface, the craftsperson and sales agent are trained, the business accountant and laboratory assistant are equipped, the future school teacher is prepared.
I admit these are also true descriptions of education, but for now I am going to entertain the hypothesis that behind all these other goals is the question “what is real?” Education is a bridge between the world and the mind, and what is real in the world traverses that bridge to the mind. I remember a time when this bridge had significant traffic. It was during a stage when our children were young, and a stage probably common to most other children. Our kids could not get enough about animals then. They were fascinated with knowing about animals. For a year, it seemed, my wife and I did not read about Jack and his Beanstalk, or about Lowly Worm’s adventures in Busytown, but from a two-volume children’s encyclopedia about mammals.
I found myself saying, soothingly, quietly, in preparation for bedtime, things like “Bandicoot is the name for 21 common species of marsupials found throughout Australia and Indonesia.” And “the body of a polar bear has many features that make it an excellent hunter.” We would read this night after night, and they soaked it up like sponges because they were interested in what was real. In this zoology lesson, they were also getting a lesson in metaphysical reality: they were drawing boundary lines between marsupials in Australia and monsters in the closet, between real bears and imaginary bogeymen. I always thought it would be grand if education could continue with such native thirst. Would you not love to have that kind of student in your classroom?
Chesterton was fond of pointing out to any person whose sensibilities had become jaded that life itself is actually magical. He had the goal of remaining childlike himself, even after growing up, because children escape the curse of being weary of wonders. He says they have an elementary wonder, which
Is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this [elementary wonder at reality]. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”
For a child of three the mere life of a marsupial is interesting enough.
These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
Chemistry will tell us that the river’s water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom; geography will tell about the life cycle of the river; and earth science will tell about the weather cycle that keeps it filled with water. But once upon a time (as all good fairy tales begin), we knew something else about the river. And when it is made to run with wine in a fairy tale, it is so we might just barely remember what the river really is.
Education concerns the question “what is real?” but I want to drive that question deeper down, all the way to the most fundamental basis I can find. I suppose I could go to the authoritative textbooks of various fields of education to receive my answer in that particular discipline. I would read there that at the very bottom of all reality are either chemicals, or numerals, or historical narratives, or social constructs, or the id and superego, or cultural expressions, or fractals, or wormholes, or electrons, or particle strings. But there is real, and then there is real. And I want to know what is really real. In C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace meets an Old Man who is a star now retired from the celestial dance, but who is being rejuvenated by a fire bird that brings him a fire berry to eat each morning. Amazed, Eustace observes “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” The Old Star replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Lewis had learned the Old Star’s lesson from his friend Tolkien during their 1931 stroll down Addison’s Walk. Tolkien went home and wrote a poem after the discussion, titled Mythopoeia, and dedicated it to Lewis, namely, “To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver.’” Its opening lines describe the outlook of a worldly materialist:
A star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
My hypothesis was that education is concerned with the question “what is real?”, but now I have tweaked that hypothesis. Natural science looks at what a thing is made of, but there is something that stands under the highest magnification setting on the microscope. And that is what theology looks at. Theology looks at the sub-stance of things. To tell the story of the Catholic view of faith and reason, we must start in the Middle Ages, around the twelfth century.
Etienne Gilson has defined the medieval concept of science by calling it a virtue, because a virtue is “the power to act.” It comes from vir which means strength or power (virile scientists!). Science is a power that “puts reason into a state in which it can judge certain objects of knowledge soundly.” Unscientific knowledge will make unsound conclusions drawn from quick impressions, anecdotes, individual instances that are not coordinated. But educators want to create a power of knowing—a virtue of knowledge—in their students. The educated student would be a person empowered to judge objects of knowledge soundly.
Now, in the twelfth century, there was a new turn to new objects needing sound judgment. Aristotle was rediscovered, and the empirical observations made by this old philosopher about various things in the world led Albert the Great to look anew at the world. I imagine he would have written up bandicoots, if he had ever seen one. Albert was recognized in his time as an authority on physics, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, chemistry, zoölogy, physiology, and even phrenology. But for that last, now discredited science, Albert was a one-man high school science department. Chesterton describes Albert’s new way of looking like this:
Most of the Schoolmen [before Albertus], if informed by the only informants they had that a unicorn has one horn or a salamander lives in the fire, still used it more as an illustration of logic than an incident of life. What they really said was, “If a unicorn has one horn, two unicorns have as many horns as one cow.” And that is not one inch the less a fact because the unicorn is a fable. But with Albertus in medieval times, as with Aristotle in ancient times, there did begin something like the idea of emphasizing the question: “But does the unicorn only have one horn or the salamander a fire instead of a fire-side?” Doubtless when the social and geographical limits of medieval life began to allow them to search the fire for salamanders or the desert for unicorns, they had to modify many of their scientific ideas.
This is the beginning of modern science, and had it been available, I imagine Albert applying to the National Science Foundation to sponsor a unicorn hunt in the desert. There was a new appreciation for sense perception and rational investigation by the medieval scholastics, and they laid the platform for the later work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.
So, science is a power of judging objects soundly. It seeks to know the object adequately. It wants to know what is real. But here is something the medieval university knew that we may have forgotten: theology is a science, too. Theology is a science because theology also empowers reason to judge objects of knowledge soundly. In fact, theology is the queen of the sciences because it judges the highest objects of knowledge.
Thomas Aquinas (Albert’s pupil) was especially concerned to maintain a unity in the world of knowledge. It is one universe, so it needs a university to study it. The diversity is not overlooked, but the diversity resides in a unity. He acknowledges that there is a difference between the starting point and subject matter of natural science versus the starting point and subject matter of supernatural science, but he insists there is nevertheless a connection between faith and inquiry. Chesterton writes:
He had won his battle for a wider scope of philosophy and science; he had cleared the ground for a general understanding about faith and enquiry; an understanding that has generally been observed among Catholics, and certainly never deserted without disaster. It was the idea that the scientist should go on exploring and experimenting freely, so long as he did not claim an infallibility and finality which it was against his own principles to claim. Meanwhile the Church should go on developing and defining, about supernatural things, so long as she did not claim a right to alter the deposit of faith, which it was against her own principles to claim.
In other words, Albert’s experimental wisdom in the natural sciences did not conflict with his intellectual wisdom in the theological sciences. Scholasticism was perfectly capable of teaching about both marsupials and angels.
This made the range of subjects that the medieval educator called “science” much larger than the range of subjects nearly all modern educators call “science”—except at the Catholic school. The modern person habitually restricts science to the study of empirical objects, believing these to be the only objects that can be judged soundly. But the Catholic school—whether a medieval university or a modern elementary and high school—includes theology and metaphysics as sciences, because the Catholic believes there are topics here that stand in need of sound judgment too. Catholics not only want their children to be well-schooled in the habits of bandicoots, they also want them to be empowered to make sound judgments about soul and body, life and death, angels and humans, faith and reason.
Catholic education surely cannot be charged with narrow-mindedness when it tries to accommodate, simultaneously, all the reality which heaven has revealed and reason has discovered. Catholic education is unwilling to consign its children to live in parallel universes, one earthly and the other heavenly, one using Aristotelian reason and the other Abrahamic faith. It is unwilling to conclude that the truths of the science of theology are irrelevant to the truths of the sciences of math, physics, social studies, psychology. Or vice versa. There is no truth that is irrelevant to another truth.
There was a nemesis to Thomas Aquinas who thought so, named Siger of Brabant. In Chesterton’s words, again:
Siger of Brabant said this: the church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and he declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve.
Thomas objected. He objected vociferously. And Catholic tradition has objected with him.
The Dumb Ox is bellowing now; like one at bay and yet terrible and towering over all the baying pack. . . . St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith could ultimately contradict the facts. It was in truth a curiously daring confidence in the reality of his religion.
I pause to summarize. So far, I have made the assertion that education is a stab at knowing reality. Education builds a bridge for the world to come to the mind on. But I immediately complicated matters by suggesting that the real and the really real must be approached differently. What something is made of is a different question from what something is. And then I took recourse to a moment in Catholic history (Albert and Thomas) when that difference was sanctioned, and not seen as a problem. So long as one does not confuse what something is with what something is made of, then the scientist should go on exploring and experimenting freely. This is explicitly affirmed in Gaudium et Spes §36, which explains that a closer bond between human activity, on the one hand, and religion, on the other, will not work against the independence of the sciences:
If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which . . . lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.
I now have to ask how to find what is really real, and I will suggest to you that the answer is liturgical.
First of all, liturgical theology confesses that creation is still in motion. Creation is not a past event, it is a present and ongoing event. Each moment comes from God’s hand. Do not say “God created,” say “God is creating.” He does so, as Gaudium et Spes said, with stability, proper laws and order, making his creation susceptible to investigation. But salvation history knows of God’s personal presence in this world. In the words of Yves Congar, “Sacred history, the history of the Church as the Church of God, is made out of the succession of God’s ‘visitations’ thanks to which men elicit those responses of faith and love by which the City of God is built up.”
In the Church of the Old Testament, there was the visitation of God in the three angels to Abraham; the visitation to Moses before a burning bush; and God knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb. Liturgy is a love relationship, and a liturgical view of the world sees personal visitations happening still.
Liturgy, therefore, sees things in process because all relationships grow as the one discloses himself more completely to the other. Man and woman are still on their way to perfection, and in the liturgical vision of reality we have yet to become as real as we will be. At least, so says a fine book on metaphysics and ontology (also enjoyed by our children alongside the big book on mammals) titled The Velveteen Rabbit:
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was very wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced, like the Skin Horse, understand all about it.
“What is real?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit.
“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t be made unreal again. It lasts for always.”
To see the really real—what something is, and not just what it is made of—you must be made new yourself. We are approaching the season of Lent again. (Did we not do this last year? Yes, and will continue until we get it right.) The word “Lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that means “lengthen.” It means springtime, when days are lengthening after the darkest days of winter. Lent is the springtime of our souls. It is a time of spring training for the resurrection. The Greek word for “training”—used exactly of their athletes, too—was askesis. Asceticism is a discipline or training that is begun in the waters of the font, and continues as we are being conformed to become an image of the image of God.
Lent is the season of mortification. During it, most of our hair will be loved off so we can discard the garments of skin Adam and Eve wore after the fall and can be reclothed in the glory of God. Our eyes will drop out so that we can see with new eyes. We will get loose in the joints, and not be stiff-necked like Pharaoh of old, so that we can bow our heads in submission to God. But if the ashes and crosses and fasting make us look shabby, it does not make us ugly, except to people who do not understand. This is the continuation of our baptism when God loved us into being really real.
Liturgical asceticism is baptism stretching forward to completion. Liturgical asceticism increases the measure by which we can participate in the liturgical life into which baptism initiated us. Liturgy is where the Kingdom is symbolized in its fullest capacity, and askesis cleanses the surface of the liturgist to reflect glory.
It should be clear that in order to find what is really real, we cannot limit ourselves to any one discipline and apply it to all the rest. We cannot elevate one of the species and make it the genus. What physics knows about paint pigments cannot explain the meaning of Van Gogh. The way sociology analyses the birth of a culture will not explain the birth of new stars in a galaxy. On this level, each discipline is a game played by rules only relevant to its game. Each has its own tools for getting a grip on its own part of the world. But to find out what is really real, we want to get a grip on the whole world.
A theological doctrine of creation is concerned with why anything is; a theological doctrine of consummation is concerned with what anything is on its way to becoming. The one deals with beginnings (protology) and the other with endings (eschatology). Science can judge objects adequately along the line that lies between, but only theological science adequately judges the whole timeline. Only theology looks at the opening note and the closing coda, to understand the symphony in its entirety. And the vision of the whole is performed in the liturgy. Liturgy is the place where space, time, and matter are recapitulated. Human beings are loved into being really real, and the cosmos undergoes a transfiguration to serve their deification, and liturgy celebrates exactly this.
Real is not how something is made, it is something that will happen to a new heavens, and a new earth, and a new humanity. Nothing is finished yet. There is no finished thing yet. People are being made real in the waters of baptism, and being rejuvenated every morning with a fireberry from a burning bush—I refer to the Eucharist. Everything is coming from its origin in God and returning to its destiny in God.
In his book, Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI (now of blessed memory) chose this same framework in order to talk about the Eucharist. He borrows the Christian schema of exitus and reditus. The former refers to creation coming forth from God, and the latter refers to creation returning home to God. All things come from the hand of God, and all things will return to the hand of God, and every liturgy is a celebration of that truth at one particular point along the line. If Gnosticism has the view that matter is evil, or the source of evil, or the result of an evil influence, Christianity has a totally different view, Benedict XVI says.
Exitus is first and foremost something thoroughly positive. . . . It is [the Creator’s] positive will that the created order should exist as something good in relation to himself, from which a response of freedom and love can be given back to him. [Creation] is not, therefore, something negative in itself but, on the contrary, the wholly positive fruit of the divine will.
According to Christian cosmology, the reason why God created a locus of space, time, and matter, called the universe, was to have a place from which a response of love (reditus) could be made by free and intelligent non-divine beings. It is a pleasant past time to analyze the star dust leftover from that divine decision, but that is not the reason for this universe’s existence. It was not created for us to have matter in our test tubes to study; it was created to be raw material for a temple. Maximus the Confessor asks us to “seek the reason why God created, for that is knowledge,” and then suggests an answer to his own quiz: “God who is beyond fullness did not bring creatures into being out of any need of his, but that he might enjoy their proportionate participation in him and that he might delight in his works seeing them delighted and ever insatiably satisfied with the one who is inexhaustible.” This world we study exists as a place where God can come to other creatures whom he invites into his life of love.
Benedict XVI goes on to say that, in this context, the transubstantiated host at Eucharist is “the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the christological ‘fullness.’” The Eucharist is the action of God that “is the real ‘action’ for which all of creation is in expectation. The elements of the earth are transubstantiated, pulled, so to speak, from their creaturely anchorage, grasped at the deepest ground of their being, and changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The New Heaven and the New Earth are anticipated.” The really real activity of the universe is liturgical action, and the really real stuff of the cosmos is sacramental stuff.
Eustace had to learn the difference between what a star is and what it is made out of; in other words, learn the difference between reality and materiality. Augustine had to learn the same lesson:
So what you can see, then, is bread and a cup; that’s what even your eyes tell you; but as for what your faith asks to be instructed about, the bread is the body of Christ, the cup the blood of Christ. . . . Such a thing may cross somebody’s mind: “. . . How can bread be his body? And the cup, or what the cup contains, how can it be his blood?” The reason these things, brothers and sisters, are called sacraments is that in them one thing is seen, another is to be understood.
This is a definition of sacrament that is shared by many of the fathers. One reality is seen, but the eyes of faith see its real reality. The Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, says such eyes see the world as sacrament. “Everything is destined for a liturgical fulfillment. . . . The final destiny of water is to participate in the mystery of the Epiphany; of wood, to become a cross; of the earth, to receive the body of the Lord during his rest on the Sabbath. . . . Olive oil and water attain their fullness as conductor elements for grace on regenerated man. Wheat and wine achieve their ultimate raison d’etre in the eucharistic chalice. . . . A piece of being becomes a hierophany, an epiphany of the sacred.”
And at this point we can see the true reality of ourselves, as well, so Augustine continues:
You, though, are the body of Christ and its members (1 Cor 12:27). So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer, Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true.
So much theology is exchanged between the minister of communion saying “The Body of Christ” and the communicant replying “Amen”! The Eucharist makes one body of Christ, so Augustine commands his parishioners (and us) to eat our bond lest we disintegrate: “In order not to be scattered and separated, eat what binds you together.”
The Eucharist is a bond with the whole Church. And the Church with whom we are bound in the Eucharist is not merely the tiny part of the Church that happens to be alive right now. As the Catechism says, “Liturgy is an ‘action’ of the whole Christ (Christus totus). Those who even now celebrate it without signs are already in the heavenly liturgy, where celebration is wholly communion and feast” (§1136). You have heard about an iceberg being only 1/10th above the surface of the water. Imagine the iceberg upside down and what we can see now occupying our church buildings is only 1/1000th of the mass of Christians that extend up into heavenly eternity. The book of Revelation pictures heaven-liturgy, with the three persons of the Trinity present at the throne. God is seated upon it, the Lamb is standing by it as though it had been slain, and a river of life (the Holy Spirit) flows from the throne.
To whom? To whom does the river of life carry the Father’s love through the Son’s mediation? The Catechism gives the guest list it sees:
“Recapitulated in Christ,” these are the ones who take part in the service of the praise of God and the fulfillment of his plan: [namely] the heavenly powers, all creation (the four living beings), the servants of the Old and New Covenants (the twenty-four elders), the new People of God (the one hundred and forty-four thousand), especially the martyrs “slain for the word of God,” and the all-holy Mother of God (the Woman), the Bride of the Lamb, and finally “a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and tongues.”
It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the church enable us to participate whenever we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments [CCC §1138–39].
This eternal liturgy is made up of all things that are really real. What we study in our disciplines is the sacramental raw material for a temple, the house of God. But like any home, the bricks and mortar is a secondary reality compared to the love that is within. The liturgy reveals to us through bread and water and incense and smoke and oil and touch and vestment and community what is really real.
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in G. K. Chesterton Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 1986) 256–57.
 C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Chronicles of Narnia, collected edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001) 522.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia” (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
 Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956) 262.
 Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, vol. 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986) p. 455–6.
 Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 473–74.
 Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 474.
 Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 474.
 Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1967) 262.
 Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit (New Orleans: Anchorage Press, 1989).
 Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) 32.
 Maximus the Confessor, “The Four Hundred Chapters on Love,” in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 76.
 Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings, 66.
 Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 29.
 Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 173.
 Augustine, Sermon 272 in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, vol. 7: Sermons 230–272 (New York: New City Press, 1993) 300.
 Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1990) 117.
 Augustine, Sermon 272, 300.
 Augustine, Sermon 228B in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, vol. 7: Sermons 230–272 (New York: New City Press, 1993) 262.