The Feast of Understanding (June 2000)

June 2000
The Feast of Understanding ©

It may surprise some readers to see me refer to Pentecost as the Feast of Understanding. There is great joy in celebrating the many gifts of the Holy Spirit, but what I think most corresponds to the change that came over the apostles during the event we commemorate on this occasion is their meaningful appropriation of the great truths that they had freely accepted in faith.

Until that point, they had followed Jesus and had called him teacher, but their statements and behaviour revealed that they did not truly comprehend the fullness of God’s Truth and, most particularly, the new meaning that Jesus gave to Love. Evidently, they had not understood that the only antidote to the fear that caused them to barricade themselves in a cloistered room is the Spirit of Truth – truth that can only be understood once having accepted in faith and hope in the liberating quality of Love.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we find the circumstances in which the apostles came to understand the Truth that Jesus had preached and the Truth that had vindicated his ministry through his resurrection.

In fact, the word Pentecost reminds us of the central mystery of our faith, namely Easter. The root of the word tells us that it marks the fiftieth day following the Resurrection of our Lord and coincides, not haphazardly, with the Jewish harvest feast, at first known as the Feast of Weeks.

When you send forth your spirit,
they are created;
and you renew the face of the earth.
– Psalm 104: 30

The feast was an occasion for social and joyful gatherings and was, like the Passover, attended at Jerusalem by a great homecoming of the Jews from all parts of the world.

We find in the ancient book of Deuteronomy a reference which reads “You shall count off seven weeks, computing them from the day the sickle is first put to the standing grain. You shall then keep the feast of Weeks in honour of the Lord.”

Later, the Feast of Weeks became more commonly known as Pentecost. Indeed, in the passage of the Acts of the Apostles referred to above, we find the verse that reminds us that “devout Jews from every nation under heaven (were) staying in Jerusalem”. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all in one place.”

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”

Tongues recall the proclamation of Truth and fire recalls the brilliance and warmth of Love, qualities that best describe the God of ancient and new scriptures.

How is it that we hear,
each of us, in our own language.
– Act 2: 8

We are told that the Spirit of Truth and Love “gave them ability”.

In fact, St. Paul later told the Galatians that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law”. It would be wrong to interpret this as meaning that the law has no value. Rather we must understand that knowledge of the law is incomplete without faith in the power of truth and love. Truth and Love empowered the apostles to accomplish deeds that “renew the face of the earth”, even to this day.

Given the fact that close to Pentecost we celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony, it is worth noting the well-known Franciscan’s perspective on faith in relation to knowledge. St. Anthony was the first theologian to join the order. In fact, so impressed was the founder by St. Anthony’s learning that St. Francis invited him to instruct the friars but with the clear proviso that, “as the Rule prescribes, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished”.

This is a clear indication of the complementarily of faith and knowledge, if exercised in a spirit of humility, and of their mutual exclusion, if exercised in a spirit of vanity.

Moreover, even though St. Francis understood the challenge that knowledge poses to humility, the fertile soil which makes faith grow, he appreciated the virtue of understanding and chose Pentecost as the occasion to discuss the progress of his order.

In the Legend of Three Companions, we read the following: “After blessed Francis had been given the sanctuary of Saint Mary of the Angels, the Portiuncula, by the abbot of Saint Benedict, he decided that(…)at Pentecost(…), all the brothers should gather there and hold a chapter. At the Pentecost meeting the bothers discussed how to observe the rule more perfectly.”

We do well to recall that Pentecost occurs on the Feast of harvest of the first-fruits, because that way we may see that at Pentecost we received the first-fruits of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23), and that understanding is the harvested fruit of faith, just as the Resurrected One is “the first-born from the dead” (Col. 1:15). The seed once fallen into the ground now gives abundant life.

Understanding is made up of faith and knowledge. Faith is virtually powerless without knowledge, just as faith is useless without love, as St. Paul told the Corinthians. But, without faith, knowledge is just a random series of facts. And disconnected data, in its benign state, are simply dysfunctional. But they are malignant, threatening life in the Spirit, if allowed to mislead or to give rise to an overblown sense of self-sufficiency.

The tragedy is that without faith, they are very likely to do so since the Prince of Illusion misrepresents the meaning of knowledge to serve destructive ends.

Fortunately for us, the light of Truth can penetrate even the deepest darkness. Some scientists will tell you that you cannot reach the outer edges of scientific knowledge without being touched by the existence of God. Nothing makes so much sense in enabling the human mind to understand knowledge than faith.

If we live by the Spirit,
let us be guided by the Spirit.
– Gal. 5: 2

Nothing can equip you quite so well for the awe-inspiring magnificence of the natural world than a healthy appreciation of the supernatural. Nothing can help you deal with the secular quite as efficiently and effectively as the sacred. Nothing can ground natural inquiry quite so perfectly as confidence in the guiding hand of nature’s Creator.

To subtract essence and context from the matter which we observe is to reduce creation to absurdity. Indeed, to fully appreciate the splendour of creation is to understand our intended place in it, by seeing verifiable knowledge through the discerning eyes of faith. Science reveals the dots; faith connects them. Both are needed to render sensory knowledge intelligible.

Above all, the gift of understanding allowed the disciples to discern the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit. As St. Paul instructed the Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are contrary to “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

St. Paul’s point, I believe, is that until the moment

of understanding, the apostles accepted in faith that the law, which promoted similar virtues, was God’s legacy to his chosen people, but now they saw how, through faith in Jesus, Love incarnate, we are heirs to the living Word that transcends the written law.

There is perhaps no greater sign of God’s love for us, aside from sending his only Son into the world so that we might gain victory over evil and freedom from fear, than the gift of that same Love through the action of his Holy Spirit in our own lives.


Faith and Science

“Faith does not offer resources to scientific research as such, but it encourages the scientist to pursue his research

knowing that he meets, in nature, the presence of the Creator.” (Pope John Paul II, March 30, 1979)

“Only a dynamic relationship between theology and science can reveal those limits which support the integrity of either discipline, so that theology does not profess a pseudoscience and science does not become an unconscious theology(…)No one can read the history of the past century and not realise that(…)the uses of science have on more than one occasion proven massively destructive, and the reflections on religion have too often been sterile. We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.” (Pope John Paul II, June 1, 1988)



Faith and Beauty

There is perhaps no more compelling argument for faith as key to understanding that the relationship between knowledge and beauty.

When we fix our senses upon something that truly emanates from God, our natural response is one of awe and wonder, even if we are unfamiliar with its origins. In fact, faith has the ability to increase our capacity for awe and wonder, hence to broaden our view onto the magnificence of creation and the loving interaction between the sacred and the secular.

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar focused our attention on this fact in writing about the aesthetic model of revelation.

St. Bonaventure, seven centuries earlier, also wrote about Creation as Revelation. He would posit that God is to Creation as light is to stained glass. We cannot grasp the full beauty of the former, but we can appreciate its effect on the later.