It is interesting to note how many great Saints were illiterate and yet so perfect in virtue and full of wisdom. For example, St Anthony of the Desert never learned how to read or write, and yet he came to a great understanding of virtue through its constant practice and imitation of those around him who exceeded him in virtue. (To hear more on the life of St Anthony of the Desert, check out our new Audiobook on his struggles with demons!)
It seems to have become like an echo that continues to reverberate throughout the Catholic world in recent times “Know your faith” or “We have to study our faith”. In my limited experience of going about to Catholic gatherings or listening to recordings of various conferences and homilies, it is normally one of the primary solutions presented to the crisis in the Church proposed to the faithful.
The exhortation to come to know one’s faith is a good one. Faith most certainly comes from hearing Romans 10:17 and all scripture is useful for teaching 2 Tim 3:16:17. But just like prayers can be said out of self love or out of a desire to be seen, fasting for vanity, and almsgiving for human respect, study of the faith can become an occasion for curiosity, a source of pride, a distraction from duty, a departure from the cross. Like any good thing, it must be subjected to reason, and it must have some specific end in mind.
“Leave curious questions. Study such matters as bring thee sorrow for sin rather than amusement.” The Imitation of Christ, Chapter 20 Of the love of solitude and silence.
It is fair to say that it does a man no good to memorize all the scriptures, or have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Catechism when he offends God by his life by breaking the commandments. We shall know if our study is motivated from the desire to please God if it is done with the mind of conquering sin, growing in virtue, the defense of His honor, or the perfecting of a good work.
If you feel irritation at me because you believe such a thing is obvious, let me explain why I mentioned it. Ever know a Catholic apologist who could not guard his tongue from bad speech? How about Catholic bloggers who cannot help themselves at slandering and attacking others? Or knowing a person who, after studying theology, feels more comfortable in committing sins because they better understand the distinctions between mortal and venial sins? (This is explicitly mentioned as a problem in Outlines for Asceticism for Seminarians by FJ Remeler, a pre-Vatican II textbook)
I’m sure you could think of your own examples. The truth is that the world, the flesh and the devil will do anything to interfere with the keeping and perfecting of the commandments and of our own prayer, fasting and almsgiving. God, in order to confound His enemy, allows us to be tested (like He did with St Anthony) but He is present during the struggle of his faithful. “The Lord is as a man of war, Almighty is His Name.” Exodus 15:3
“Let this especially be the common aim of all, neither to give way having once begun, nor to faint in trouble, nor to say: We have lived in the discipline a long time: but rather as though making a beginning daily let us increase our earnestness” St Anthony of the Desert
Whenever we pick a work to study, hear a homily, or observe virtuous actions let us strive to make practical resolutions to become more pleasing to God, especially by more strictly keeping the commandments and perfecting good works. By doing this, God Himself will teach you “And as for you, let the unction, which you have received from Him, abide in you. And you have no need that any man teach you; but as His unction teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie. And as it hath taught you, abide in Him.” 1 John 2:27
No matter what one does - apologetics, teaching catechism, instructing home-schooled children, or just being a good neighbor - this is the means of study that gives glory to God's kingdom and draws others to Christ our King.
“And it is [the interior life] important to us not only as individuals, but also in our social relations; for it is evident that we can exert no real or profound influence upon our fellow-men unless we live a truly interior life ourselves” The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life, Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP
So let us not run to study to find excuses to break commandments, avoiding dry prayer, enduring hunger and or suffering deprivation. “So let us daily abide firm in our discipline, knowing that if we are careless for a single day the Lord will not pardon us, for the sake of the past, but will be wrath against us for our neglect.” St Anthony of the Desert.