The opposite of zeal is laziness. We're not faithful disciples of the Master if we're doodling through life, blowing off serious study, and wasting the gifts he's given us to serve him and help him redeem the world.
In this series on the Plan of Life until now, we have considered practices that ought to happen at a certain frequency, daily (various prayers), weekly (Marian Saturdays), biweekly (Confession), monthly (a Day of Recollection) and annually (a retreat).
Beginning this week, we are going to shift focus to practices that are meant to be ongoing spiritual priorities that we should seek to do as much as we can. Some of them may be able to be done several times a day -- like acts of faith, hope, and love -- and other things may be done more episodically, as time permits, even though our desire for them should be constant.
We begin today with one of those episodic, constant practices of the Plan of Life: study.
Jesus tells us that we are to love the Lord our God "with all [our] mind" (Mt 22:37). He beckons us, "Learn from me" (Mt 11:29). He calls us to convert and become like little children, and we know that kids are always hungry to learn, to ask why, to seek answers (Mt 18:3). He wants us to be as amazed and as astonished at his teaching as those who heard him in the synagogues, on the mountainsides and plains, and from the pulpit of Peter's boat (Mk 1:22). He came to set us free and told us it is through the truth that that liberation will happen (Jn 8:32). The mind he has given us is a talent that faithful Catholics should never bury but one that should bear dividends, five for five, two for two, according to the intellectual gifts God has given us (Mt 25:14-30). He wants us to respond to the truth not with hardened, superficial, or distracted soil, but good soil that is receptive and hugely fruitful to the seeds he implants (Mt 13:3-23).
Jesus calls us, in short, to be his disciples, and the word disciple comes from the Greek for student. To be Jesus' student is our life-time vocation. And the word student comes from the Latin for "zealous" or "hungry" to the point of starving to learn. Study is not meant to be a dry exercise in which we just read something for a given period of time. Worse, it's not supposed to be approached as if we were giving blood. When we learn the faith, we're supposed to be on fire, the way the most ardent fan of a sports team, or author, or band looks forward to going to a game, or reading the next book, or attending a concert.
The opposite of zeal is laziness. We're not faithful disciples of the Master if we're doodling through life, blowing off serious study, and wasting the gifts he's given us to serve him and help him redeem the world. God gave us our brain for a reason and wants us to develop that gift. Our fidelity as disciples and our fruitfulness as apostles depend not just on our prayer and sacrifice but on our competence. Ignorance is a real enemy of the faith and the mission of the Church. Study helps us to know God better and to be able to serve him capably.
Many of us, unfortunately, have never learned how to study without extrinsic motivation, like to pass school exams. As Christians, we're supposed to be intrinsically motivated to study out of love for God, for the Truth, and for those whom we will help through what we learn. Study is more than just reading: it's aimed not just at being taught but trained and transformed, at being "formed" and not just "informed."
There's a two-fold application to this importance of study.
The first is with regard to our work. God doesn't want us to be mediocre students, teachers, parents, managers, employees, nurses, lawyers, or priests. Our work is not only a means for our sanctification through doing it well for God but also a path by which we can be salt, light and leaven. We will have far greater influence if through study, diligence and integrity we rise to the top of our profession than if we're unexceptional or below average.
The second is with regard to our knowledge of the faith. Since our faith concerns the things that matter most, we ought to know our faith better than we know everything else. Far too many Catholics, however, have remained at an elementary understanding of the faith, inadequate to the many challenges the modern world poses to faith. They barely know the Bible, have a limited understanding of the Sacraments, have never studied an adult Catechism, and never read papal documents applying the truths of faith to modern issues. Not only does this lack of zealous study leave them vulnerable to doubts and drifting, but it hampers their ability to defend and spread the faith.
In today's culture, Christians need to know how to give reasons for the hope within them (1 Pet 3:15) against secularists who think religious faith is evil and who are trying to suppress our freedom to exercise it; against challenges from the new brave world of bioethics; against criticisms from those influenced by the distorted love of the sexual revolution or whose hearts have been seduced by the false gods worshipped in materialism, consumerism, individualism, emotivism, and radical feminism. Christians also need to know how to carry out the new evangelization: how to propose the real "yes" of the faith to those persons and cultures who have perhaps been baptized but who have never been captured by the faith's beauty.
It's an enormous task and our minds are finite. We're never going to know everything we need. The Holy Spirit is present to help us, just like he helped the first apostles, who certainly didn't have PhDs. But it all begins with a hunger to learn and making the time and studious effort to learn things profoundly and well.
The Holy Spirit -- with his gifts of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, prudence, and courage -- wants to help us all to become zealous disciples of the Master, learning and living off every word. He also stands ready to assist us through our work and apostolate to draw others to discover that same Teacher and join us in His joy-filled, life-saving, never-ending classroom.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.