On the shoulders of giants

Where have you heard this before?  Stephen Hawking wrote a book titled that.  It’s been attributed to Isaac Newton.  Oasis has an album named that (sorry Jody, but Sally can wait.)

I’d refer you to this quote, and wikipedia explanation of it. 


 An illustration of New Testament evangelists on the shoulders of Old Testament prophets, looking up at the Messiah (from the south rose window of Chartres Cathedral)

On Friday past I had the pleasure of spending time with Fr. Timothy Danaher, O.P., newly ordained, behind the scenes and occasional contributor to Catholic Stuff You Should Know podcast.  I met Fr. Tim because I email the podcast (often), and I commented on my love for St. Dominic’s church in DC.  Fr. Tim was assigned there over his diaconate.  So one email led to another and I met him in the…. ok I’m going to call it a priory but that may be wrong, and had coffee and conversation.  And over the course of that hour and a half, I felt I’ve made a friend – at the minimum, a brother in Christ and a kindred spirit on this road.


Well, time passed and we weren’t able to meet up again, even with an attempt at the March for Life this year we couldn’t meet up.  I had family responsibilities, and he was going to be ordained and if you don’t know, it’s the same stresses you get when getting married!!!  When the opportunity arrived this Friday though, I couldn’t pass it up, and we met up at the Starbucks in Centreville.  41321475295_9e85255712_o.jpg

Some things in our conversation are private, but I’d like to share some things that I learned this Friday.

One, having a Dominican friar walk into your Starbucks opens baristas to ask questions about the habit (almost called it a dress!), which then, in turn, opens up conversations to open doors of exploration.  A way of preaching without being preachy, open affiliation without pretence.  And Mario, our barista who makes good lattes, took interest and was open to following up on his own time.

Two, I am very grateful when people can take a conversation and go places with it.
If you knew me, you know that I loved to wax poetic (and my friend Kelly won’t let me forget it, hah!)  I’m not able to do that the same way anymore, but now, in turn, I am able to listen to others wax poetic.

Three, I have so much still to learn.

Fr. Tim and I have different vocations in life, how we particularly are called to get ourselves and others to heaven.  He gets greater opportunity to study and learn to incorporate into his daily life and preaching, while I have some time, but I have it allocated according to my own vocation.

Here is where I refer back to giants.  When you are forced to study something on your own, making free time, making the mental effort, is it difficult?  Say maybe on the train when you are very sleepy, or at the pool when you have to watch your kids, or at home when the 3yo wants to play Batman, is it easy to allocate the mental stamina to process stuff to study?  Say it’s a concept that’s difficult.  Say, like me, you are interested in a custom wheelchair and the reference website is full of examples of “it’s just maths, whatever size you need”.  I’m sorry, i’m a history major, not an engineer!giphy-downsized.gif

So then we can rely on others to aid us in learning, right?  Someone else who has parsed the problem and can put it into a meaningful explanation that you and I can understand.  For me, the podcasts that I listen to help me do this, from understanding religion to understanding racing lines, to aerodynamics.  Fr. Tim is another one.  Naturally, our talk went to faith and religion and God’s will for us – he just underwent a fundamental transformation, and I have a terminal illness.  And Fr. Tim has read giants of the faith, the fathers of the Church, the earliest Christian writers, and he was able to talk about them with an understanding.

Which leads me to my question – why do we pass up those giants who already had to answer tough questions of the faith centuries ago in exchange for a modern take?  Or, even worse, our own interpretation?6RzLGzS  Would we throw out Newton in exchange for the dude who launched himself on a rocket to prove the earth was flat?  What about Einstein for me?  I can barely do algebra.

Yet… I’m gonna interpret faith by myself.

Yeah, ok.

Listening to basic explanations of complicated questions from a young man much wiser than I both put me in my place and helped my understanding of what it is I am seeking.  We need someone to help us understand unless we are the smartest on that particular topic.

Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee. – St. Augustine

The last I checked, am I the smartest?  Heck no… so people like Fr. Tim are invaluable.  Midevil scholars knew this, in the 1100s the knew that we would learn more by building on the wisdom of those that came before us – stand on the shoulders of those giants.  Even in the windows at the Cathedral at Chartres, you can see large prophets standing with normal size evangelists on their shoulders.


What I got from Friday was again a friendship I will treasure, but also a lesson learned, and in our conversation, a bit of peace for my own situation.  It’s not to say that I won’t have turmoil in the future or that all my questions are answered, but I was in the place I needed to be to hear what I needed to hear with the person I needed to be with, who was leaning on lessons that are 1000’s of years old.

Friday also gave me the lesson that I, a history major, am intensely aware of- that we learn from the wisdom of those that went before us so that we are not doomed to repeat their mistakes.

“Not a sermon, just a thought.”

Oh, and if you are in Centreville, VA, in the shopping centre with the Starbucks by the ABC store, go in and see Mario – he makes good coffee.  And anyone willing to ask a Dominican about his outfit should be shown good Christian support!

2 thoughts on “On the shoulders of giants”

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