From a young age I have been very gifted at mathematics. All the way through high school I was always in math classes two grades above my age level AND excelling. Part of why math made sense to me was because it was all logic. As long as you knew the rules of the game, you could figure out ANYTHING.
For this very reason, these rules were DRILLED into us from a young age. Our teachers wanted these rules to stick with us and even used memory tricks to do so! I asked some friends what rules they still remember from their school years. There was a lot of overlap in their answers...
From your very first days of elementary school, you are taught to add and subtract. Then as you get a bit older you learn multiplication and division. Then you learn about exponents. It is around this time that you learn what order these more complicated equations need to be solved in. To help you remember, many used the acrostic, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”.
Then in algebra, you needed to know how to solve for “x”. To do this with more complicated equations, you were taught the “quadratic formula”. Many used a song to memorize the equation and can still sing it to this day.
The one that sticks with me the most was taught to me in Geometry, the lesson on congruent triangles. Triangles are congruent if they are the same shape and size. To determine congruency, you COULD measure every single side and every single angle of the two triangles to compare, BUT it is much easier to only do half of that. The rules of triangle congruency told you that if you had these three variables equal to each other, then the two triangles were congruent. The reason this one stuck out to me was because the only 3-letter acronym that DOESN’T prove congruency spells a “bad word”. High school Dani thought that was pretty funny. (This graphic I found reverses the letters to keep it PG-rated.)
All of these rules were drilled into us for a reason. If we could just remember these rules, then we could solve any equation or problem that was thrown our way. It was these rules that opened the door to us. It was only through following these rules that we truly had freedom to explore the world around us.
Because of this, mathematics can be seen as just a list of rules. Often, so can the Catholic faith. When I hear this, I can tell these rules are seen as “limiting”, a list of all the things they can’t do. To be fair, this is an understandable misunderstanding when our most well-known rules literally say, “thou shall not…”
BUT just like the math rules, the rules of Catholicism are in fact not limiting, instead, they lead you to the answers. Those who know the rules and follow the rules can succeed in solving the problems of life.
Each of the readings from this past Sunday celebrate this truth, but I want to remind you of a line from the first reading from Deuteronomy. In it, Moses said, “Observe them [the statutes and decrees] carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations." (Deuteronomy 4:6) Those that know the rules and live out the rules are those who are seen as wise and intelligent. The same is true in math, those who know the laws and are able to apply them are the ones seen as geniuses.
Similar to what was asked of us in school, we as Christians are called to learn and apply the statutes of the faith. We have all been taught the basic “rules” of Catholicism, but how much time have we spent really thinking about them and why God gave them? Each week we hear the word of God at Mass. We hear it, but many times we don’t take it with us out of that church building. In math you have to study the rules. Those that become very good at solving math problems are those who take the time to learn WHY the rules are the way they are and how they work, not the ones who just memorize them and can recite them back. The same is true in our faith. Those that take the time to really think about the rules and why they were given are the ones who have found the keys to the kingdom.
This week I encourage you to dive deeper into the “statutes and decrees” of the Catholic faith. The way that I will be doing this is to spend time with an examination of conscience. (Here are a few: Examinations of Conscience Link) These examinations of conscience break down the teachings of the Church to help you examine how well you are following them. They are more thorough than what you might have seen before, helping you to look closer at the meaning behind the “rules”. When we understand them better, we are more fully able to live them out.
As the reading from Deuteronomy said, “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” There are no better tenets to live our lives by than the teachings of Jesus Christ.