Knowledge and Purity


A friend of mine recently said Mass for an elementary school and during the homily he asked the young students to provide him with one word that they think best describes the Mass.

One girl raised her hand to say: "Mass is the Mass"; another said "Mass is praying to God", etc. He assured them that their answers were true, but he reminded them that he was looking for one word that would best describe what the Mass is. One young grade six boy raised his hand and said: "Sacrifice". "What do you mean?" asked my friend. He said: "God does all this stuff for us, but what can we offer to God in return? We have to give something back to God, but we have nothing good enough to give Him. So he sent Jesus to us so that we might have something to give to God."

Needless to say, my friend was quite taken aback. "I want to talk to you after Mass", he said. But the boy was not finished: "It's like a ladder. God came down on a ladder, and Jesus is the ladder that we use to get back to God."

Recently I discovered that a friend of mine, a colleague in teaching, has experienced the same phenomenon that I have experienced over the years when teaching the lowest grades of high school students (grades nine and ten). Both of us tend to discuss more theology and at a much loftier level with our grade nine and ten students than we ever do with our grade twelve students. Why is it that we both sense that grade nine and ten students have a greater capacity to appreciate deeper and loftier theological ideas than the more "sophisticated" grade twelve students? And how does one explain the profound theological response of a grade six child to a simple question about the nature of the Mass?

I believe the answer lies in a very real connection between purity and knowledge, in particular the intellectual gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, and understanding). My younger students have a greater innocence and a deeper purity than most of the senior students of the school. This is especially true of the grade six boy who understood so much about the Mass.

St. Thomas points out that lust, which is inordinate sexual desire, produces four offspring, two of which are related to the intellect. Lust darkens or clouds the mind and it destroys counsel, which is an important part of prudence. Gluttony, or dainty eating, also dulls the intellect and leads to a loss of interest in things spiritual and intellectual, according to Aquinas. But to clearly explain the intimate connection between purity and knowledge is not easy, because it isn't all that clear.

I believe, however, that a deeper glance at the hierarchy of being within the physical universe provides a clue. At the lowest end of the hierarchy we find the mineral level, which is characterized by physical and chemical change. When non-living matter reacts with other elements, chemical or substantial changes may occur, and when these take place, both substances cease to be what they are and become something else entirely, for example, hydrogen and oxygen cease to be what they are and become an entirely different kind of substance, namely water.

But higher still is the vegetative level, that is, the level of living things. The most fundamental activity at this level is nutrition, in which the living thing will take non-living matter into itself, transforming it into living matter. As a result, the living thing grows. What is different about this nutritive activity from the previous, that is, chemical change on the mineral level, is that the plant remains what it is, while the minerals cease to be what they are. Water or salts from the soil, for example, which are non-living matter, when incorporated into the plant are transformed into living parts of a living whole. The plant has a greater stability and its activity is immanent, as opposed to the merely transeunt activity of non-living things.

Higher than the vegetative is the animal level, characterized by the activities of sensation and sense appetite. At this level, a material singular acts upon the senses of the animal, for example, a surface hot to the touch, or light that acts upon the retina, or sound waves that act upon the ear drum, etc. But sensation is more immanent than nutrition; for sensation is a knowledge of material singulars; the animal knows something outside of itself without ceasing to be itself and without changing the object of its perception. For example, seeing an apple does not change the apple, or hearing a cat in the bushes does not change the cat, and neither does smelling the spruce tree change the tree.

The criminal, in some ways like a brute animal, lives by destroying others for the sake of his own preservation. And although some are not criminals willing to destroy others, they might be better compared to parasites that live on their hosts without benefiting or killing them. At the highest end of this level is the saint who willingly gives his life so that others may live and that God may be loved.

The highest level within the physical universe is of course the human, which is characterized by a different kind of knowing, an intellectual knowing and willing. Intellectual knowledge is not limited to a knowledge of material singulars, but opens up onto a world of universals (concepts). The human person is capable of knowing the natures of things, what they are in themselves. We also apprehend the very existence of the thing whose nature we come to know, and we are able to reason on the basis of what we know of things and their first principles to what we do not know directly, but indirectly and through analogy.

An important point to note is that animals only know material singulars, and only insofar as they have a reference to themselves. Brute animals do not contemplate, nor do they appreciate beauty. They are not interested in the masterworks of Greek or Latin literature, for example. One day I came home to discover that the spine of my 1941 Random House edition of the Basic Works of Aristotle had been chewed up. There must have been some leather in the cover that my dog found appealing, but there was nothing about the content of the book that was of any interest to her. The human person, on the other hand, can know things as they are in themselves, their natures and principles, and the human person can will the good of other human persons without any reference to the self.

Now, there is a hierarchy within each level of the hierarchy of being. Certain substances are more stable than others; certain plants are more beautiful than others, and who would doubt that a horse is superior to a worm. The lowest in each hierarchy is near in perfection to the highest in the level below it.

Man's purpose is to exist most fully, and he achieves that by coming to know and love the highest things for their own sake or the highest being. The lower he is, the more he approaches the level of the beasts, and almost everything he knows, he knows for the sake of himself. The criminal, in some ways like a brute animal, lives by destroying others for the sake of his own preservation. And although some are not criminals willing to destroy others, they might be better compared to parasites that live on their hosts without benefiting or killing them. At the highest end of this level is the saint who willingly gives his life so that others may live and that God may be loved.

Now there is a point in human development, at the end of childhood and at the beginning of adolescence, at which the young person has achieved a certain level of intellectual maturity. At this point, there remains in such a person the purity of childhood, and the eyes of such youngsters do not have the degree of self-reference that they will have as they proceed through adolescence. With the onset of sexual maturity, the mode of perception and knowing of senior high school students, generally and for the most part there are exceptions , becomes somewhat more self-referenced. He or she will begin to see others and evaluate them on the basis of what they do for him or her sexually or romantically.

This is a necessary stage of human development, to be sure, but what is involved is a leaving behind the purity of childhood. The heart is not as selfless, and so the mind's activity is less oriented to being for its own sake, being as it is in itself, and it is being that lights the mind. The greater the disposition to refer reality to the self, the more diminished is the light that illumines the interior of the intellect. This movement towards the self is a turning towards the bestial, and with that lowering comes a decreased ability to know for the sake of knowing and to love for the sake of the other, not the self. There is, thus, a corresponding loss of interest in things spiritual.

Perhaps this explains the strange phenomenon of being more able to discuss loftier theological ideas with young grade nine and ten students than with those in later adolescence let alone adults thoroughly immersed in the world. The purity of childhood is a quality that is part of our vocation to re-capture: "Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God" (Mt 5, 8). After adolescence, the human person has to re-learn that selfless way of seeing the world, but he can only do so by becoming selfless, that is, through the virtue of purity. This can be seen as a return to what is best in childhood: "Unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God" (Mt 18, 3).


Deacon Douglas McManaman. "Knowledge and Purity." CERC (February 2011).

Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.


Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He maintains the following web site for his students: A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright 2011 Douglas McManaman

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