When I was a teenager, I remember resenting how adults would try to prevent me from doing what I wanted. They would often warn me not to “learn the hard way” that something was wrong. I would often be told that I should learn from them and their experiences not to make the same mistakes they did. The rebel in me thought that it might be fun to “make a few mistakes of my own.” Arrogantly, I thought that I would escape the consequences.
In the end of course they were right; and one of the most valuable gifts I have received from others is to have learned from their experience. As a pastor too, I must say that my staff has saved me from innumerable errors through their expertise and long experience with the parish.
The word “experience” comes from the Latin experientia, meaning the act of trying or testing. More deeply, it comes from two Latin words: ex (out of) and periri (which is akin to periculum, meaning peril or danger). Hence “experience” refers to those who have endured trials, perils, testing, and danger, and speak of these to us so that we don’t have to endure the same things. It is a very great gift!
The Church too offers us the great gift of long experience. Indeed, one of the great advantages of making our home in the Catholic Church is that we are at the feet of a wise and experienced teacher who has “seen it all.” The Scriptures, the Catechism, the lives of the Saints—all of the Church’s teaching is a wealth of knowledge and collected experience for us. Through this vast treasury, The Church, as a good mother and teacher, helps us to learn from the experiences of others.
At this point I would like to let G.K. Chesterton do the talking:
The other day a well-known writer, otherwise quite well-informed, said that the Catholic Church is always the enemy of new ideas. It probably did not occur to him that his own remark was not exactly in the nature of a new idea…Nevertheless, the man who made that remark about Catholics meant something…What he meant was that, in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which…claim to be new. [But] nine out of ten of what we call new ideas, are simply old mistakes.
The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves…There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and nearly all errors.
The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them. On this map of the mind the errors are marked…[but] the greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes. But [the Church] does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction…By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past, but which might otherwise entrap travelers again and again in the future.
The Church does make herself responsible for warning her people against these; she does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes…Now all false issues have a way of looking quite fresh, especially to a fresh generation…[But] we must have something that will hold the four corners of the world still, while we make our social experiments or build our Utopias. (From Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (1926). Reprinted in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 3 Ignatius Press 1990)
Yes, what a gift! Many may take of the role of a pouting teenager and be resentful at any warning from the Church. But in the end, it’s a mighty fine gift to be able to learn from others and benefit from their experience.
Here’s a funny commercial that shows the value of learning from the experiences of others: