A Heart on Fire:
Pierce Gibson, SJ
Writing back to Rome in 1584, Matteo Ricci, SJ, summarized the Chinese intelligentsia’s attitude toward his new map of the world: “If you speak truth concerning geography, we will believe you concerning religion.”
I first stumbled upon this passage during a six-day silent retreat at a Franciscan retreat house in Wisconsin. The book, a recent biography of Matteo Ricci (d. 1610), was left behind in my room by a previous retreatant. I had never heard of Matteo Ricci. Having converted to Catholicism when I was 17, I had toyed with the idea of the priesthood and religious life for some years, but my discernment had grown much more serious of late. And while my attraction to the priesthood was sincere, so was my aversion to being a parish priest. I enjoyed academics, and I wanted to teach.
As a convert, I didn’t know much about the Jesuits other than the name. My discernment had drawn me closer to the Dominicans and especially the Franciscans, though even there the attraction was weaker than I had secretly hoped for.
The first chapter of Ricci’s biography was a sweeping exposition of the Jesuit order: their foundation, their mission, their formation, their “way of proceeding”—and I was hooked. In characteristically Jesuit fashion, Matteo Ricci utilized Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, Euclidean Geometry, astronomy, and geography to woo the Mandarins of the late Ming Dynasty toward Christianity. Ricci utilized subjects not explicitly religious to communicate truth and beauty, thereby opening the door to the implicitly religious. In other words, Ricci found God in all things.
I have now been a Jesuit for five years and am in my regency period teaching Latin, Greek, and ethics at Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. I attempt to communicate the truths of the faith through the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, while articulating the theological truths explicit in our philosophical discussions. I love my work, and like Ricci, I believe that the beauty and truth found in literature, art, and language dispose my students toward the truths of our faith.
Near the end of the semester, my class and I were reviewing a Latin poem by Horace, when one of my students mentioned that he thought it odd that a pagan poet would invoke “God” in the singular—didn’t the Romans believe in many gods? I answered that many pagan poets and philosophers believed in the existence of a single God and that some had offered logical proofs for his existence. A look of skepticism crossed his face, and although he didn’t quite say “If you speak truth concerning this, we will believe you concerning God,” the suggestion was unmistakable. I devoted the rest of the period to three philosophical proofs for God’s existence: two from the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and one from the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca.
At the end of the period the young man said, “Wow, that actually seems reasonable.”
“Indeed,” I smiled, “very reasonable.”
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