(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)
“It may easily be conceived how great a trial it is to us to write the following history of ourselves; but we must not shrink from the task.”
I was in fifth grade when Quill and his best friend (he goes by the handle Aecusim– that’s a bit of a story) came to my school. It was a fairly small Catholic school, and I had been there since kindergarten, so I knew virtually everyone within one or two grades of me. Aecusim was my year, Quill a year ahead. Our paths crossed shortly into their foray into the world of Catholic schooling, and I must confess that they were simply friends-of-a-friend to me for quite some time. This changed well before my eighth grade year. Nevertheless, we went to school together for a couple years, way back when, in a fairly solidly Catholic atmosphere.
I finally came to attend Catholic school in the sixth grade after having asked it of my parents. All throughout elementary school I had attended a Southern Baptist Christian school, since while my mother was Catholic, and I had been baptized Catholic, my father was raised as a Baptist. Attending a Baptist school familiarized me for the first time with Sacred Scripture in ways for which I remain deeply grateful today. It also introduced me to differences of Christian belief and practice which perhaps served as my first taste of the pressing need to know the Faith deeply, for reasons both ad intra and ad extra. My first troubled feelings about these sometimes radical differences, and the pressing questions that lay beneath them, would not begin to meet with answers until I finally attended a Catholic school. Recognizing, in so far as a young child with virtually no catechesis can, that I was Catholic, not Baptist, and that this difference mattered, I wanted to go to a Catholic school, not a Baptist one– it helped, of course, that my closest childhood friend, whom I already considered a brother, would also be attending this school.
At length I was able to receive a Catholic education, starting with middle school. Then I began to receive the first hints of answers to my questions, unformed as they must have been; answers which sprang from the Sacred Tradition whose depth and breadth I could not possibly have begun to guess at. Thoughts about faith, sin, and salvation had begun to trouble me from my days spent in Baptist school. Surely there was something more to salvation (or damnation) than mere intellectual assent (or its absence) to a set of propositions? Surely my conduct had some part to play– whether I coupled my notional belief in Jesus Christ with a life of struggles to live the Gospel or of abject surrender to sin? In the midst of all this, could they really say with certainty that my Jewish friends were assuredly damned for not accepting Jesus Christ into their hearts? Of course, I didn’t conceptualize any of these troubled thoughts this way at the time, but nevertheless the concerns were there in some form. It was at my Catholic school that I finally began to receive answers to these questions and more: appreciation for our Faith’s rich sacramental life; recognition of our need to avoid sin (distinguished as mortal and venial!), repent of them through sacramental confession, and persevere in the pursuit of virtue for love of God and neighbor; and love for the astounding communion of saints, of which we form one part together with the Church Triumphant and Church Suffering, and with whom we remain in sacramental, prayerful union– that communion which has furnished all the world with such stunning examples of sanctity, virtue, and erudition.
It’s really amazing how much you can learn in middle school. For me, it was primarily social growth that marks those years–I finally found good, honest friends, Quill and Aecusim among them. Nevertheless, as I continue to glean from the past in order to move forward, I realize how much my fifth- through eighth-grade years influenced me. It was in fifth grade that I first heard of the March for Life. The pilgrimage to that site became a reality in my seventh grade year, beginning the tradition in my family of making our way to the DC March for Life every year. That year, I met the man who was to become the love of my life–J.R.R. Tolkien. Sixth grade introduced me to the seventh-graders who would eventually form the majority of my inner circle of friends. Seventh grade solidified those bonds and made absolute geeks out of all of us (hello, Runescape!). Eighth grade saw my friends leave for high school and me and my family prepare to make a very big move, far away, just in time for me to go to high school.
Education and learning involve the whole human being, however, not merely the intellectual faculties; and an account of the blessings I have received from a Catholic education would not be complete without recognizing the irreplaceable friends whose lives have bound themselves with my own along the way. Middle school was where my closest, dearest, and oldest circle of friends took shape: Aecusim I had already known for seven years, but over the next three years we would join paths with many others whose friendships have changed who I am– among them Ink. We wrote, we told stories, we exchanged discoveries and ideas– from Tolkien and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms to our creative writing collaborations and our endless games. Though graduation from middle school would see us each moving on to a different high school, our shared friendship has remained the rich ambiance in which so much of my formation has taken form.
My Catholic education continued with the ninth grade, in which I remember experiencing the first stirrings of a love for learning about the Catholic Faith that would take on greater force in the following years; but it was during my sophomore year that I met two teachers who changed my life and kindled my passion for philosophy and theology. In their classes– American Literature on the one hand, Sacred Scripture and thereafter Foundations of the Catholic Worldview on the other– I was introduced to the poetry, the philosophy, and the beauty that made me fall entirely in love with the Church. It was like knowing for the first time, like discovering the world as if I had never seen it before. Reading authors of so many different kinds– from Plato and Aristotle to Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot– and coming into contact with such a captivating array of traditions and schools, of perplexing questions and illuminating insights, I finally found myself in love and at home: learning from within the heart of the Church.
My ninth grade year introduced me to the necessity of defending the fundamental tenets of the Faith. While I was technically attending a Catholic school, an enormous portion of my classmates were not Catholic–and ninth grade theology was a horrific experience. The teacher knew her stuff on only about 75% of the issues, and even if she was right, she was so disagreeable that I still wanted to argue with her. My Hermione instinct combined with my very solid middle-school foundation and resulted in my immediate dive into what is REALLY taught by the Church and how best to spin the teachings. This began my search into apologetics. During this time, I quickly began to discover just how messed-up my diocese was. I began blogging in my sophomore year, determined to use my blog as an outlet for my discoveries. From liturgical abuse to research on Catholic authors, I devoured everything I could. Non-fiction wasn’t boring when it was news. I discovered Cleansing Fire, a local-to-me blog dedicated to rooting out corruption. (They would go on to recruit me as one of their writers in the 2010 revision of the site.) In a sense, even though I was at a high school which called itself Catholic, I was quickly being forced to decide what breed of Catholic I was–a true Catholic, or a Catholic In Name Only. What did the Church REALLY teach? And exactly how is it written? What are the arguments for and against it? Much of my research was reactionary: when someone disputed a particular point, I promptly looked it up to find the Truth behind it. As I delved further and further into my research, I found myself drawn more and more towards the intense beauty of the Church. What’s not to love about Her?
I was blessed with a high school faithful to the teaching of the Church and with teachers in the highest sense. The education and the formation which they gave me not only prepared me for the rest of my life– academically, morally, spiritually– but also equipped me with the tools and dispositions to further the education and formation which began there. In that light, my ongoing Catholic education has yet to end, nor shall it ever: its embrace is truly in its scope and depth universal, and I hope that it shall only come to rest, by the grace of God, in contemplating the splendor of His Truth.
Over the course of my high school years, I found myself commiserating more and more with Quill–a friend with equal passion for the same situation but no idea what was going on in my diocese. Being an outsider, he had the appropriate amount of indignation for the rampant liturgical abuse and idiotic things being taught and implied. As he learned, so did I, as we frequently shared with each other our respective discoveries. Many times I would come back from school Mass fuming and begin extensive research on appropriate treatment of the Eucharist; others I would be intrigued by something from one of my theology classes which had piqued my interest and then I would ask him what he knew about it before delving in deeper. My Catholic education had such a positive effect on me that I have been asked if I was a convert. No, I reply, just perpetually in love. Ironically, the school which turned out so much watered-down theology, and which never emphasized the beauty and truth of the Church’s teachings, is the very same school which kindled the fire of my passion for the Faith.
In all these ways and more than we could possibly describe, our Catholic education prepared us, not only for the rest of our education, but also for the pressing task of persevering in faithfulness to Christ through the turbulence of our times.