Today we celebrate the feastday of St. Gabriel (Possenti). While still a popular saint in Italy (he died in 1862) and was canonized by Pius XI in 1926), he is no longer well known here in the States, even though years ago he was quite well known here too, especially as patron of youth.
He was only 24 years of age when he died, and the question was often put about him: why canonize someone so young, who hasn’t tasted life yet, and who basically doesn’t know what life is all about. (Indeed, this complaint could be lodged against a whole raft of young saints canonized the last 150 years, including the ever popular Little Flower, Therese of Lisieux). Those of us who make this complaint probably do so for self-serving reasons, since we have seen a lot of life, and may not have fared too well out of this experience, so we’re looking for a reason to explain the discrepancy between a Gabriel and ourselves.
Much of this situation comes down to a relationship between love and knowledge. As we know, it is love that is going to get us to heaven but, after all, it is seasoned love, not just puppy love. The “love at first sight” phenomenon is not to be dismissed as juvenile or insipid, but we know that, in most instances, it is ephemeral, and gives way, with the passage of time, to other, more seasoned, loves. This seems to mean that, with the passage of time, we learn more, that is, we gain more knowledge, and on the basis of that growth in knowledge, we position ourselves for a better, stronger, more proven love. In other words, love follows after knowledge. The more we know, the better positioned we are to love.
So these young people, for instance, who are being called saints, really haven’t lived long enough to know very much, so their love(s), including love of God, should be relatively uninformed and shallow. How can they gain heaven on the basis of such a love? If Gabriel, for instance, who was preparing for ordination to the priesthood and was studying theology as part of this preparation, died before completing his studies, there was a lot of book knowledge about God he never acquired, so how can you love someone you really don’t know much about?
For example, a married couple might have experienced a puppy love relationship early on in their relationship before they really knew one another very well, but, once married, they begin to know a lot more things about one another, both for good and for bad. This can lead to a rocky relationship along the way, but, after some turbulence, another kind of love can take over, based on a much more informed love for one another than the kind they experienced earlier on. And this latter stage of love is likely a more enduring and deeper love than the first time around. Greater knowledge leads to greater love. Right?
Kind of. But it all depends on what you mean by “knowledge”. There is book knowledge, for instance, and then there is personally learned knowledge, like the medical knowledge of a pediatrician and the “life knowledge” learned by a mother. She brings her sick baby to the doctor’s office and he makes a diagnosis and recommends a certain medicine, and the mother knows instinctively that this is not the way to go—not for her baby. Both of these adults have knowledge about babies, but, in different ways. The mother has connatural knowledge, that is, experience-based appreciation of what is good or not for her baby. She learned this from experience.
So when we come to a saint like Gabriel, we ask: so what does he know? Well, not much by one standard, but maybe quite a bit by another. Thanks to God’s grace, and Gabriel’s cooperation with it, Gabriel was drawn close to God and learned to love Him by the familiarity he enjoyed with God, so that even before concluding his theological studies about God, he already knew Him in another way. In this scenario, love precedes knowledge. So this young man, lacking knowledge and experience in one dimension, had already acquired it in another way.
Does knowledge go before love? Sometimes. Does love precede knowledge? At other times. Love and knowledge are interwoven with each other and it is difficult to disentangle them from each other.