Year C – Ascension of Our Lord

On the Kindling of a Flame

(Acts.1:1-11; Heb.9:24-28, 10:19-23; Lk.24:46-53)

The Greek philosopher, Socrates, used to say that education isn’t the filling of a vessel; rather, it’s the kindling of a flame.

Ten years ago I was in Italy, travelling by train from Florence to Pisa.  I was at a crossroads in my life and took this opportunity to pray, asking Jesus, ‘Please tell me what you want me to do with my life.  Tell me, and I’ll do it.’

Over and over again I repeated those words, and suddenly, to my great surprise, I got an answer.  I heard Jesus say with firm voice, ‘I want you to learn’.

Those words completely changed my life.  When I returned home I enrolled in a theology degree and I applied to join the Permanent Diaconate.  Ever since then I’ve been learning all I can about Jesus and the Christian faith.  

I know from personal experience that the learning God wants me to do hasn’t just filled an empty vessel.  It’s actually lit a fire that’s still burning inside me.

Part of my learning included a course on preaching.  At one point I asked the lecturer, ‘If a congregation includes people of different ages, to whom should I pitch my preaching?’  His answer surprised me.  He said, ‘to a 14 year old’.  When I asked why, he said that’s because the average adult Catholic hasn’t grown much in faith since they were in middle high school. He said their understanding of the Church is limited to what they learnt up to the age of 14. Most haven’t bothered to learn any more since then.

What do you think?  Do you agree?

Pope St John Paul II used to worry that too many Catholics really don’t understand their own faith.  He encouraged everyone to do something every day to strengthen their faith – to read the Bible, to learn about the saints, to pray, to go to Mass.  The important thing, he said, is to keep learning and growing.

He practised what he preached.  Every day from 10 to 11pm, before going to bed, he read books or articles he’d set aside during the day.  Every Tuesday he invited 5 or 6 experts in various fields – theology, philosophy, sociology, politics, culture or science – to talk and have lunch with him. 

He made a point of understanding not only his own faith, but many other things as well, including physics and history.  He believed in lifelong learning. 

In Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus says farewell to his disciples.  He’s finished his work on earth and it’s time to return to his Father. He’s taught his disciples all they need to know, and now it’s up to them to continue his work.  He knows they can’t do it on their own, so he promises to send the Spirit to help them.

Becoming a Catholic is a lifetime process. It’s not a one-off event. It’s a continuous process of change.

Now, I wonder how much confidence Jesus had in his disciples, because earlier, in Luke 18:8, he asks the question, ‘when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on Earth?’  He must have worried about it, just as John Paul II did. 

Today, many people have given up learning about their faith. They think they know enough already.  But like everything in life, we only get out what we put in. 

In his book ‘Talent is Never Enough’ (2007), John Maxwell says ‘the greatest enemy of learning is knowing’.  What he means is that sometimes when we know a little bit, we think we know it all.  But the problem is that when we think we know it all, we usually prove that we don’t.

The American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-64) used to say that becoming a Catholic is a lifetime process.  It’s not a one-off event.  It’s a continuous process of change in the way we see ourselves and the way we live our lives. It’s a never-ending process of conversion, and it relies on lifelong learning.

Of course, every learner needs a teacher.  St Therese of Lisieux called Jesus the Teacher of teachers.  She said, ‘… though I’ve never heard him speak, I know he’s within me, always guiding and inspiring me; and just when I need them, lights … break in upon me’.

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats agreed with Socrates.  He said ‘education isn’t just the filling of a pail, it’s the lighting of a fire’. 

Henry Ford said that learning keeps you young.

So, let’s honour our families, ourselves and Jesus himself by becoming the best people we possibly can be.

Both Jesus, and our families, would be proud to know that we’re lifelong learners, filled with fire and passion for the truth, and living life to the full.

It’s time to start learning what we really need to learn.