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Deacon Kyle Eller: Ongoing formation is part of what it means to be a disciple

Years ago, during a diocesan assembly, one of the speakers said something I had not fully grasped: ongoing catechesis is part of being a disciple of Jesus. 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

That idea dovetails with advice I got in confession on a pilgrimage once. I had confessed some struggles with faith, and the young priest advised me that continuing to spend time learning about the faith would be a helpful remedy for those struggles.  

All this may even seem counterintuitive to us at first. After all, isn’t being a disciple more a matter of the heart than of the mind? As last month came to a close, we heard in our Sunday Gospel about the two greatest commandments in the law, about loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Surely it is this love, one might argue, that is the true measure of our discipleship, not the depth of our knowledge of theology? 

But knowledge is part of love. With any relationship, we seek to know more and more deeply the one we love. It’s hard to imagine a real friendship or marriage in which those friends or spouses at some point just stopped caring about knowing the other person more deeply. Why should it be any different in our relationship with God? We keep learning about him because we love him.  

Think of how often Scripture refers to Jesus’ closest companions as “disciples” — the very word meaning those who learn from their teacher and then pass on what they have learned. 

It is possible to turn learning about God into a mere academic exercise, and maybe such experiences are what sour some people on learning their faith. But when catechesis is directed to love, it is a joy, not a chore. 

In a similar way, if we struggle with the faith, the temptation can be to think about something else. Or maybe we will begin to focus on apologetics, delving into arguments in defense of the faith, rather than simply seeking to become more deeply formed in it, as the counsel I got seemed to suggest. 

Apologetics certainly has value, but I have come to believe there is a lot of wisdom in the idea that it’s helpful to more deeply “put on the mind of Christ,” as St. Paul admonishes. The Catholic Christian faith is not just a matter of affirming some more or less arbitrary doctrines and rules, it is truly light in the darkness of this fallen world. God, in his Son, has revealed for us the truth about ourselves, about the whole creation, about the point of life. It is a whole way of thinking and seeing — a profoundly different way than what we find in those governed by the “spirit of the world.” 

How often do our struggles with faith come from being better versed in the “catechism” of the world than we are in our faith? Even among practicing Christians, for instance, biblical literacy has reached a scandalous decline. How often do our struggles come from trying to understand some doctrine or moral teaching ripped from its context in that whole deep vision of the universe that our faith presents to us, because we’ve simply lost that vision? 

In fact, this vision is so deep and rich that its fullness is always partially beyond us in this life — there’s always some new insight, some ongoing need for conversion on our part. We can never really be done learning it and learning to conform ourselves to it. This always presupposes work, because left to inertia our lives trend in the other direction, both because of our own woundedness and because the spirit of this world never stops shouting its alternative. 

If we are not progressing in putting on the mind of Christ, we’re slipping backwards. 

I was thinking of this recently in terms of memory. A book I recently read spoke of the challenges 21st century life presents to memory. “Everything about modern society is designed to make memory — historical, social, and cultural — hard to cultivate,” the author, Rod Dreher, wrote. 

I’ve been noticing this more and more. Our culture, perhaps in part because of our short attention spans damaged by social media addictions and omnipresent distractions, forgets even important ideas and events from only a few years or at times even just months ago. How much more so does our whole culture, in particular secular media, academia, and the arts, seem ordered to erasing or redefining the deeper things, like historical, philosophical, and most important of all religious truths, that make us who we are? 

Because of that, it’s all the more urgent that we continue to learn our faith and put on the mind of Christ, as the best way to swim against that tide of amnesia. 

So find ways to continue learning your faith. Join a parish Bible study. Get involved when adult catechesis programs are offered. Take part in a Catholic book club. Spend time reading and praying with Scripture and the Catechism and the writings of the saints. 

As our bishop noted in one of his own recent columns, we are lifelong learners in the faith. So let’s be intentional about that, and seek out ways we can continue to grow as disciples, learning about the one we love. 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].