Spirituality for Today – September 2010 – Volume 15, Issue 2

I Knew That!

By Rev. Raymond Petrucci

Protected from the rays of a hot Italian sun by a red baseball cap and a generous application of sunscreen, a young boy grabbed his mother's hand, dragging her along the crowded walkway. Wide eyed, he pointed to a row of gondolas bobbing up and down in the olive green water. Obviously, he was caught up in the wonders of his first visit to Venice. As he and his parents turned right onto Saint Mark's Square, it was not the lofty tower, the grand cathedral, or the centuries old buildings that caught his eye but the multitude of pigeons moving agilely among the tourists in search of a handout. How much of the abundant history of the locale did the little boy know or could he appreciate? Still, the city was touching his mind and writing its story on the lasting pages of his memory.

A photo of Venice, Italy

In reality, each of us knows precious little of the people and events that have marked the history of even the most familiar of places. How fascinating it would be to stand in a particular location and to peel back the layers of time to reveal what had occurred there. A person may become awestruck by all that had happened on the spot where there house now stands. More to the point, an increase of knowledge enhances the richness of life. The effect of knowledge, however, varies with the individual. He or she being of a more poetic bent will draw something different from a deposit of knowledge than the person of a more utilitarian nature. Personal beliefs and values influence meaning also. The experience of visiting the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome reverberates differently for the Catholic than for the Hindu. In the final analysis, the overall imprint left by an encounter with a person, place, or object is limitless in its import and effect.

Powerful movements of thought and spiritual awareness emerged in nineteenth century America. In the book American Transcendentalism by Philip F. Gura, the author portrays the quest for knowledge through the contrapuntal religious and philosophical initiatives of the age. To this purpose, Gura cites a work composed in 1841 by Charles Mayo Ellis, Essay on Transcendentalism: Transcendentalism posits "that man has ideas, that come not from the five senses, or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world." In refutation of the empiricism of John Locke that holds that the source of all knowledge is sensory input, Ellis states, "...derives all ideas from sensations, [and which] leads to atheism, to religion that is best self-interest – an ethical code which makes right synonymous with indulgence of appetite, justice one with expediency and reduces our love of what is good, beautiful, true and divine, to habit, association, or interest." One can appreciate the profound consequence of "knowing" by this brief peek into the study of knowledge by great minds of the past.

To what end is this pursuit of knowledge? One might recall the statement of political pundit, Richard K. Bailey: "I get an education so that later in life when I knock on me, somebody answers." A sufficient answer would be the increase of self-understanding and the ability to design one's legacy satisfactorily through that self-awareness. The old slogan – Life is God's gift to us. What we do with it is our gift to God – provides ample motivation. If self-knowledge allows people the opportunity to give their best selves to others and the capacity to avoid inflicting others with the worst of their natures, they then would enjoy the widest possibility of meriting in their lives the twin laurel wreaths of contentment and fulfillment. If God is recognized as the genesis and the destiny of one's existence, the product of self-knowledge and of knowledge itself takes on infinite significance.

Before the establishment of the great edifices of learning and even before the fastidious compilation, organization, and proclamation of humanity's harvest of facts, the desire to understand, to "know" circulated in the human mind. The questions of who, what, when, where, and why colors the very nature of human endeavor. In his Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, William Wordsworth opines, "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting." Perhaps, the unquenchable fire raging in our minds to know and to know more is occasioned by a desire to regain heavenly memories. Whether one is "trailing clouds of glory" or not, the topic of knowledge encompasses the total spectrum of existence itself as well as its Author; its purview reaches from insuperable mysteries to obvious practicalities. Ultimately, one returns to a concern over what fruit this acquisition of knowledge will bear. Once again, emphasis on God being the prime influence over one's act of living and dying creates a dominance of peace and joy as the product of having lived and the essence of all knowing.