By: Rev. Paul Scalia
“We do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, Who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that His hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge.” – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Now that we are sufficiently distant from the annual Saint Patrick Day’s silliness of celebrating a Catholic Saint and culture by abandoning Lenten discipline and indulging the flesh, let us give that great saint due honor by benefiting from his spiritual wisdom. In the Breastplate of Saint Patrick, he invokes God’s power against, among many other things, “every knowledge that blinds the soul of man.” Some translations have it as the knowledge that “binds” the soul of man, or “corrupts” or “endangers man’s body and soul.” Whatever the translation, the petition is the same: to be shielded against a knowledge that brings not benefit but blindness, binding, corruption, and danger.
It is a shocking invocation especially for the modern mind, as we tend to think that knowledge is always good. “Knowledge is power,” we foolishly parrot. No, knowledge is knowledge, and the inordinate desire for it can lead us, as it did Adam and Eve, to grave evil. Virtue is power (literally, coming from the Latin for power, virtus). The man who has knowledge but no virtue might be powerful – in the same way an errant missile is. He might also be sitting around being knowledgeable and benefiting no one.
We find this kind of knowledge in the Pharisees, whose familiarity with Scripture puffed them up and blinded them to the truths of Christ. “Have you not read?” Jesus asks them repeatedly. Of course they had read the scriptures. They knew them backwards and forwards. But they knew the scriptures with a haughty knowledge that blinded them to the deeper truths contained therein. It was a knowledge that bound them in their arrogance and blinded them to our Lord’s words. To confound them Jesus speaks in parables – those riddles accessible only to those who acknowledge their need to be taught, their need to learn, and that they do not know it all.
Saint Paul likewise saw the danger of this knowledge without virtue. Writing to the Corinthians he warns, “‘Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). This is the knowledge of the know-it-all, the man whose knowledge prompts him to look down on others and consider himself somehow immune from falling. To such a man the Apostle says, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:18-19).
Another version of this blinding knowledge is related to the vice of curiositas. It is this vice, this inordinate desire for knowledge, that binds so many to the 24-hour news cycle and information glut. We think that by consuming more facts and figures we will be freer, more powerful – more “in the know.” In reality, we only become more enmeshed in the affairs of the world. We find it more difficult to lift our heads above the flow of information and look at higher things.
The kind of knowledge that truly enlightens and therefore frees is the knowledge that we receive. When we do not grasp (as Adam and Eve grasped for the fruit tree of the knowledge of good and evil) but instead receive reverently the truth about things, then we dispose ourselves not only for knowledge but also for wisdom. This is the way of children, always responding to the world with an attitude of wonder. They see the world as a place to marvel at and to be enlightened about – not as something to be seized and conquered. Our quest for knowledge must be the childlike path of reverence and wonder. So it is that that highest knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit – a gift not to be grasped but to be received by children.
The truth is not something we conquer but something we dispose ourselves to receive. We are not its masters but its servants. Through the intercession of Saint Patrick may the Lord deliver us from every knowledge that corrupts!