While both forms of knowledge are legitimate, there is little doubt that the knowledge from lived experience is deeper and more profound.
Take for example the learning of a martial art. One can study the different kicks, punches, and throws of the art in a book or through images. All of this knowledge can be gained from the comfort of an armchair. Yet, no matter how thoroughly these moves are mastered intellectually, this knowledge is fundamentally different and more shallow than that gained through the sweat and pain of actual practice.
We’d laugh at a self-professed “black belt” whose knowledge of karate came only from library books, who’d never sparred even once. Such a claim of knowledge would be delusional on a grand scale.
To really know a thing, we must put it into practice.
Just Do It
So it is in the spiritual life. The only knowledge that really matters is the knowing that comes from doing. But it’s the doing that’s much harder than the facts.
I know this from experience. I collect and read books about prayer and asceticism. I pour over them until I am positively aglow with knowledge. “What great advice,” I think. “What a nugget of wisdom! This is the way to heaven!” And the more I read, the more spiritual facts fill my head. The more spiritual facts that fill my head, the more I fancy myself a knowledgeable and devout Catholic.
But the painful question, the question I shudder to face, is this: How much do I practice prayer or asceticism? If I am honest, the only answer is not nearly as much as I read about them. My knowledge of these disciplines remains largely theoretical, shallow, and abstract.
This equation of knowledge with piety is a mistake. It is the same delusion as the pretend karate master.
So how do we avoid delusion? “Be doers of the word,” exhorts St. James, “and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
St. Francis de Sales echoes this counsel: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working, and just so, you learn to love by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves.”
The only way to avoid this delusion is to continually practice what we know. Doing so may result in failure, missteps, discouragement, and trials. It is certainly always safer to dwell in the realm of theory. But practice, with all its risks, is the only real way to be a Christian.
Hearing and Keeping
I am convinced there will be many in the kingdom of God who lacked the formal knowledge of books and catechisms, but who kept the commandments and loved God and their neighbor. I also believe there are many who possess great theological knowledge and who are considered spiritual masters, but who fail to reach the kingdom because they never progress beyond the realm of theory.
Christianity is not a formula to be believed. It is a way of life to be lived. It is not an intellectual castle in the clouds. It is inextricably linked to the choices we make every day, to the messiness of ordinary life. The Gospel makes it clear that the entrance exam to heaven will not be a theological quiz, but a test of works. We will give account not for what we knew, but rather what we did.
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”