Friday, March 7, 2014

Descartes, Getting Lost and Finding My Way

Thinking is a passion of mine, but thinking too much can get me into trouble.
That's why it's important to have friends in high places.

You know, I am really glad that I am an older student. 

I really am glad that I waited to have this experience. I know that the mothers out there who pushed their kids to attend school right out of high school will disagree with me, but seriously, this is so much better. Well, it is for me, anyway.

We just finished studying Descartes in Philosophy class. If I had any question about my Catholicism, this class might have brought me to my knees, and not in a good way. Sometimes I get so tangled up in the questions of Philosophy that I lose myself there. I get caught in that web of doubt and can't find my way out.

It's not that our professor is leading us astray. He's not. In fact, he's doing a spectacular job of making us think - hard - about what we believe and why we believe it. This is an excellent exercise in building your faith. But still...

At the end of a recent class, the professor asked if there were any questions. I told him I had more questions than answers. He told me that was good. That's what Philosophy is supposed to do. Of course, he's right.

It's not necessarily the subject matter. Despite the fact that the first step of the Method can be basically distilled into "Doubt everything," Descartes takes the trouble first to define his own existence: "I think, therefore I am" - later expanded to "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore, I am." Then he proves that God exists: God must exist because the inferior -imperfect- mind cannot conceive of a perfect one unless a superior being put that thought there, i.e. God.**

**(Disclaimer: this is greatly distilled and probably not as accurate as it should be. If you want to know what he actually said, read Descartes' "Discourse on Method".)

So, it's not the philosopher, either.

So what is it?

It's the student. It's me.

Even with 25 years of pretty committed Catholicism under my belt, finding clear and discernable proofs of my faith has been a challenge. First with Plato, and now with Descartes, I have had to prove to myself that what I believe really is the best course. It is the Truth.

In the end, this questioning is not a bad thing.

But, that being said, I think back to my 18-year-old self and I see a poorly catechized, confused young lady who would never have made it out of a basic philosophy class and remained a Catholic. That's a sobering thought.

There are definitely things I have learned as I have navigated the straits of life.

Here's what has been helping me stay on track:

  • When you have more questions than answers, ask them. Talk. If you lock yourself up inside your head with your doubts, they will eat you alive. Drag them out into the light. Share them and develop new questions.
  • Find a good confessor. You need someone with a few good solid courses in Philosophy under his belt. Talk to him and share your thoughts. It's helpful to have a sounding board so you can make sure you're not wandering off the reservation. 
  • Schedule a Theology course in tandem with Philosophy. It's a tremendous amount of reading, but it will keep you thinking along the right path so you can find your way through the woods.
  • Finally, spend time in prayer, especially Adoration. Like all exercises of the mind, philosophy and reason are gifts from God. There is no reason to believe that God would not enlighten someone who prays for clarity of thought.
I am not sure where the prayer below originally came from, but we call it Msgr. Gallen's Prayer. He used it at the beginning of every class he taught, from Mathematics to Music. It's a great one for just about everything you might do in a day:

Omnipotence of the Father, help my weakness; 
draw it out of the depths of its misery.
Wisdom of the Son, direct my every thought, word and action.
Love of the Holy Spirit, be the beginning of the operations of my soul, 
so that they always may be conformed to Thy divine good pleasure.
O Lord, open our lips that we may sing; 
open the ears of Thy people that they may hear and praise Thee with us, 
so that we may grow together in Thy grace.



  1. What an excellent prayer! I need to copy that someplace where I will see it frequently.
    You're right--philosophy is one of those things that, rather than being "lost on the young" can be absolutely dangerous--especially when it's badly handled by a professor. The more life experience you have before you read philosophy, the better.

  2. Wonderful post hit on so many things I have been thinking about lately, the questions, seeking answers, all of it. Thanks.

  3. Thank you Katie, having studied philosophy myself I value your comments. ...particularly 'Finally spend time in prayer'. "The heart has reasons that the reason does not know." Rousseau