Parents often desire to have accomplished children, providing the children with the opportunity to learn many things, like music lessons, or dance lessons, for example. Most of the time this is to enhance the child’s life; but more and more it can be for the purpose of having these accomplishments in order to put them on the child’s cv with an eye to enrollment in better high schools and afterwards the top ranked universities. Little thought is given to the right use of children’s talents.
In a thought-provoking sermon, St. John Henry Newman warns of the danger of accomplishments. The types of accomplishments to which he is referring are not those which one may at first assume, like completing a higher degree, or finishing requirements for professional qualification, or running a successful business. The accomplishments he’s warning about are those types of pleasurable things mentioned above which people may have acquired in various ways, including subjects learned in a liberal arts college. He writes:
“I am not speaking of human learning . . . but of the elegant arts and studies, such as poetry, literary composition, painting, music, and the like; which are considered . . . to make him trifling.”
Newman refers to St. Luke and St. Paul, both who were educated and more than likely possessed these “elegant arts.” They were accomplished men. St. Luke was “ . . . a native of Antioch, a city celebrated for the refined habits and cultivated intellect of its inhabitants; and his profession was that of a physician or surgeon, which of itself evidences him to have been in point of education something above the generality of men. This is confirmed by the character of his writings, which are superior in composition to any part of the New Testament, excepting some of St. Paul’s Epistles. . . . St. Paul was a polished writer, yet an evangelist.”
So the danger doesn’t lie in possessing the accomplishments, but in our use of them. These accomplishments, like other goods, can be abused. Newman explains,
“But the abuse of good things is no argument against the things themselves; mental cultivation may be a divine gift, though it is abused. All God’s gifts are perverted by man; health, strength, intellectual power, are all turned by sinners to bad purposes, yet they are not evil in themselves: therefore an acquaintance with the elegant arts may be a gift and a good, and intended to be an instrument of God’s glory, though numbers who have it are rendered thereby indolent, luxurious, and feeble-minded.”
The saint asks how it is that excellent things, even things divine in nature, can be so commonly perverted. He gives a straightforward answer:
“Now the danger of an elegant and polite education is, that it separates feeling and acting; it teaches us to think, speak, and be affected aright, without forcing us to practise what is right.”
What we need to be aware of, then, according to Newman, is choosing carefully in how we enjoy these accomplishments. In all things we do with our time, even those things we may enjoy in leisure, these should bring us closer to God. St. John Henry uses the example of novel reading:
“ . . . the works of fiction I speak of [ought] to inculcate right sentiments; though such works . . . are often vicious and immoral.”
Newman warns against many types of leisure activities which were common during his time, and we can extrapolate to the current age and all the ways that our time may be misused.
In other words, our accomplishments should result in right action. Newman echoes St. Augustine who was a highly accomplished man. At first, St. Augustine misused his education, and became one who wallowed in luxury and trivial pursuits. What Augustine came to learn is that education is measured by its service of the good. Looking back on his former life, he prayed, “Let every useful thing I learned be devoted now to your service.”
Newman taught that education was about learning to be wise— we can know we are wise when we utilize our accomplishments to His glory.
Human accomplishments are ephemeral. Their highest value, as Saint Josemaría Escrivá also taught, lies in the fact that God awaits us there. Life only has full meaning when we do things out of love for Him—and to serve others for love of Him.
Newman ends his sermon inviting us to follow the example of St. Luke and St. Paul, who:
“ . . . show us that we may be sturdy workers in the Lord’s service, and bear our cross manfully, though we be adorned with all the learning of the Egyptians; or rather, that the resources of literature, and the graces of a cultivated mind, may be made both a lawful source of enjoyment to the possessor, and a means of introducing and recommending the Truth to others”
These lessons of St. John Henry brings us to one of the first questions of The Baltimore Catechism: “Why did God make me?” The response is, “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” Perhaps this is a good place to start in taking a critical look at where we store our treasure of time. Does your use of your accomplishments help you to know God, to love God, and to serve God? The danger of accomplishments comes from misuse of our time and talents.