Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Putting the “Sapor” Back in “Sapientia”

A couple of weeks ago, I assigned my students one of the hymns by the Wesley brothers to talk about Protestant challenges to the Eucharist (“Victim Divine, Thy Grace We Claim”). In their journals, many of my students reflected on how refreshing it was to read a hymn, even one that was so richly theological and complex as this one. As one student wrote, “Songs can be theology too.”

Indeed they can. This is one of the reasons I love studying the Medievals like Thomas Aquinas. Although Aquinas is known most for his Summa Theologica (which I think is a remarkably beautiful work even if it is intellectually rigorous), Aquinas also did theology in other forms besides the Scholastic disputational method we see in the Summa. For example, he wrote commentaries on Scripture, sermons, prayers, and yes, even songs. One of the most beautiful and most commonly sung is the “Tantum Ergo”:

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
veneremur cernui:
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui:
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque
laus et iubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio:
procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.
Amen.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble sense fail.
To the everlasting Father,
and the Son who reigns on high,
with the Holy Ghost proceeding
forth from Each eternally,
be salvation, honor, blessing,
might and endless majesty.
Amen.

It is uncommon today for a theologian to do more than dapple in such a range of theological genres as someone like Aquinas, as my colleague Jana Bennett bemoans over at catholicmoraltheology.com. There are a lot of reasons for this (which she identifies), including time, ability, and tenure track requirements. One reason, however, that we do not witness the same aesthetic pursuit in academic theologians today as we did in the Medieval period may have to do with the way we think of wisdom.

In our post-Kantian world, wisdom is purely a matter of intellect. The wise person is the smart person, the educated person, the person who can make and win rigorous intellectual arguments. For the Medievals, wisdom is an intellectual virtue, but it is an intellectual virtue with a strong affective component. Take, for example, the following discussion from Denys the Carthusian’s Prefatory Questions on the Sentences:

Just as, then, those heroic men who are perfect in love, through the gift of wisdom that they have according to a perfect degree, are as it were the counselors, and secretaries, and the familiar friends of God, from whom they are strongly illuminated as they stand in a certain contact with the sun of uncreated Wisdom, and who by a supernatural and abundant internal taste know and taste the divine things to be believed and who judge well and certainly about the same things through the conformity and connaturality of their affections for them, so through the gift of understanding by which they are adorned to a perfect degree they understand most clearly, most certainly and most subtly those things that belong to our faith, and they also understand the connections and order of things to be believed and the supernatural reasonableness of the Catholic truth. . . Hence, this illumination is not given only to students in theology and to all of them, or to people who have great natural abilities, but to those who more stand out in their purity of heart and in their charity. One of these is the holy Brother Giles, who did not with say ‘I believe in God’ but rather “I know God.’ And another was the Seraphic Saint Francis.

Wisdom, it seems, is not just based in the intellect, but is based rather in “a supernatural and abundant taste of divine things to be believed.” Denys is appealing here to the etymology of wisdom [sapientia] which is rooted in sapor [to taste].

For Aquinas, wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit discussed in the context of his treatise on charity, a virtue rooted in the will. Aquinas treats wisdom both as an intellectual virtue (and intellectual gift), and as virtue with a strong affective component, rooted not just in the activity of the intellect, but also, and primarily, in the loving relationship (a connaturality) with God:

Wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learned the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality (II-II, 45.2).

Returning to the quote from Denys, Aquinas would agree that the unschooled St. Francis was wise, not as a result of rigorous philosophical and theological study, but rather, because of the indwelling of grace that had brought him into union with God who is Wisdom himself. For Francis and others who possess such wisdom, their theological writings may lack the intellectual character of a figure like Aquinas, but are nevertheless still works of genuine wisdom. Francis did not need to study to be wise; the source of his wisdom was not learning but love.

What is the lesson here? As a theologian and an academic (like Thomas in kind but not in degree) I am firmly convicted that the study of theology is important for the development of wisdom. It is important to engage in disputation, to explore in depths the principles of the faith, and to deduce conclusions (especially ethical conclusions) from those principles. But it is also important, perhaps even more important, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” The liturgy is a powerful source of this sapor, where the music and the psalms and the incense and the light infiltrating in through the stained glass all culminate in the reception of the Eucharist as the senses, intellect, and will are all brought into union with Christ who presents himself bodily at the altar. From this sapor, a different sapientia flows forth in poetry and song: “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory, of His flesh the mystery sing,” as we sing with Thomas in the Pange Lingua.

The taste of this wisdom depends also on our ability to let ourselves be passive recipients of the God who offers himself to us. For Aquinas, wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a free gift of grace. Our inability to taste is often, I think, rooted in our desire to feed ourselves, rather than to let ourselves be fed. In the Anima Christi, we pray, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me,” indicating, I think, that we need to let our guard down, lose a little of our self control, and be rendered vulnerable to the working of the Spirit who offers us a foretaste of that Divine Banquet where “ we shall be drowned, lost in that ocean of divine love, annihilated in that immense love of the Heart of Jesus!”

Knowing God Through Love

The knowledge of God is often talked about in purely intellectual terms. Aquinas most definitely thinks that some knowledge of God is possible through rational reflection, as he expounds on in his notorious “Five Ways” whereby he offers several rational methods to argue for the existence of God. However, the Johannine tradition challenges intellectual renderings of our knowledge of the specifically Christian God:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

God is love. Picking up on this, Augustine writes in Book VIII of De Trinitate that it is by love that we arrive at the knowledge of God:

No other thing, then, is chiefly to be regarded in this inquiry, which we make concerning the Trinity and concerning knowing God, except what is true love, nay, rather what is love. . . For as there are two commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets, love of God and love of our neighbor . . . because he who loves God must both needs do what God has commanded, and loves Him just in such proportion as he does so; therefore he must needs also love his neighbor, because God has commanded it . . . the Law and the prophets hang on both precepts. But this, too, is because he who loves his neighbor must needs also love above all else love itself. But “God is love; and he that dwells in love, dwells in God.” Therefore he must needs above all else love God” (De. Trin, Bk. VIII, ch. 7, n. 10).

In other words, we come to know God when we love because the love by which we love is God’s very self. We need not look for God in nature, nor in argumentation, nor even in Scripture. True knowledge of God is derived rather from true love. When we love, we come to know God because it is the very presence of God in our heart which makes love possible.

This Augustinian formula became central in the 12th century in Peter Lombard’s definition of grace as found in Book I of the Sentences. It is the Holy Spirit, Lombard tells us, that is the love by which we love God and neighbor:

It has been said above and it has been shown by sacred authorities, that the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son by which they love each other and us. It must be added to this that the very same Holy Spirit is the love or charity by which we love God and neighbor. When this charity is in us, so that it makes us love God and neighbor, then the Holy Spirit is said to be sent or given to us; and whoever loves the very love by which he loves his neighbor, in that very thing loves God, because that very love is God, that is, the Holy Spirit (Bk. I, Dist. 17, v. 2).

In other words, for Lombard, Christian love (charity) is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so when we love, it is actually the Holy Spirit working in us that is loving with the same love that exists between God the Father and the Son.

Now, Aquinas will openly disagree with Lombard on this point. For Aquinas, charity is not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but rather a habit created in the will by the Holy Spirit. For Aquinas, it is the human will that loves by virtue of the fact that the Holy Spirit renders the will capable of loving through the supernatural habit of charity:

it is evident that the act of charity surpasses the nature of the power of the will, so that, therefore, unless some form be superadded to the natural power, inclining it to the act of love, this same act would be less perfect than the natural acts and the acts of the other powers; nor would it be easy and pleasurable to perform. And this is evidently untrue, since no virtue has such a strong inclination to its act as charity has, nor does any virtue perform its act with so great pleasure. Therefore it is most necessary that, for us to perform the act of charity, there should be in us some habitual form superadded to the natural power, inclining that power to the act of charity, and causing it to act with ease and pleasure (II-II, q. 23, a. 2).

Despite this very significant disagreement between Lombard and Aquinas about what charity is, they are in agreement that love (charity) is made possible by an intense intimacy between God and humans. For Lombard, this intimacy is defined in terms of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; for Aquinas, it is expressed in terms of friendship and a communication of God’s happiness to us (II-II, q. 23, a. 1). For both, hearkening back to the Augustinian position, love is a critically important way in which we come to know God.

Ultimately, Augustine’s, Lombard’s, and Aquinas’s positions on love are metaphysical in nature. They are not saying that we consciously choose to know and love God when we love our neighbor. They are all trying to characterize the essence of human love in light of the fact that God has revealed Godself as love. But for all three, metaphysical reflection on the nature of love can lead us into a more conscious understanding of the God who makes love possible. As Augustine writes,

Let no one say, I do not know what I love. Let him love his brother, and he will love the same love. For he knows the love with which he loves, more than the brother whom he loves. So now he can know God more than he knows his brother: clearly known more, because more present; known more, because more within him; known more, because more certain. Embrace the love of God, and by love embrace God (De Trin Bk. VIII, ch. 8, v. 12).

Prayer and Contemplation

In the Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, Aquinas took “prayer” to mean specifically the “petition for the things needed for this life.” In the Summa, Aquinas defines prayer as “an ascent of the intellect to God.” (II-II, Q. 83, art. 17). Both of these descriptions focus on the intellect. It is the intellect, especially as perfected by the virtue of prudence, which discerns what the needs of life are, and the intellect which inclines to God in prayer.

We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a highly intellectual pursuit, a matter of thinking, discerning, and speaking. Accordingly, prayer is intentional. We might set aside time to pray, or designate a specific part of the house as a spot for prayer. However, more often than not, many of us find our mind racing or wandering to topics often unholy during our intentionally designated prayer times. Even when our minds do not wander, we might fumble around for the right words to say, or worry that our petitions and offerings of praise are inadequate. As a result, we may emerge from our times of prayer intensely dissatisfied.

One solution to this problem is to focus more attention on contemplative prayer. The contemplative Carmelite William McNamara described contemplation as “a pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality.” Jesuit Walter Burghardt calls contemplation a “long loving look at the real.”

As a Dominican, contemplation was integral to Aquinas’ spirituality. What is wonderful about contemplation is that it is largely not an intellectual pursuit, but rather, a passionate, emotional, even intuitive endeavor. Aquinas writes, citing Gregory that “the contemplative life is to cling with our whole mind to the love of God and our neighbor, and to desire nothing beside our Creator.” He goes on,

Now the appetitive power moves one to observe things either with the senses or with the intellect, sometimes for love of the thing seen because, as it is written (Matthew 6:21), “where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,” sometimes for love of the very knowledge that one acquires by observation. Wherefore Gregory makes the contemplative life to consist in the “love of God,” inasmuch as through loving God we are aflame to gaze on His beauty. And since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense (II-II, Q. 18o, art. 1)

He says later in the same question:

Although the contemplative life consists chiefly in an act of the intellect, it has its beginning in the appetite, since it is through charity that one is urged to the contemplation of God. And since the end corresponds to the beginning, it follows that the term also and the end of the contemplative life has its being in the appetite, since one delights in seeing the object loved, and the very delight in the object seen arouses a yet greater love. Wherefore Gregory says (Hom. xiv in Ezech.) that “when we see one whom we love, we are so aflame as to love him more.” And this is the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life, namely that the Divine truth be not only seen but also loved.

Contemplation is, therefore, a lot like falling in love. Contemplation is the passionate discovery of God’s delightfulness. I say “passionate” because contemplation, like love, emerges from something deep within us, from our appetites which incline us, often unconsciously, toward the good and the beautiful.

Walter Burghardt writes that contemplation, understood as the “long loving look at the real”

means that my whole person reacts. not only my mind, but my eyes and ears, smelling and touching and tasting. Not senses utterly unshackled; for at times reason must temper the animal in me. But far more openness, far more letting-go, than we were permitted of old, in a more sever spirituality, where, for example, touch was “out,” because touch is dangerous. No one ever thought of reminding us that free will is even more dangerous. Or cold reason.

Contemplation is integral to the life of prayer, but it cannot be forced. Rather, we must cultivate a capacity for the contemplative life, even in the midst of our busy activities. Burghardt offers five suggestions:

First, seek out some sort of desert experience. This does not need to be some sort of long, drawn-out ascetic withdrawal from life, but rather, an experience that “brings you face to face with solitude, with vastness, even with powers of life and death beyond your control.” A desert experience is simply something that interrupts the routine of your day-to-day life in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable and heightens your awareness and perception of the unfamiliar world around you.

Second, cultivate a feeling for festivity, the experience of doing something utterly lacking in utilitarian value. Closely related is the third suggestion: cultivate a sense of play. Both festivity and play are contrary to work. Watch children who spend hours playing dress-up or other games of make-believe and you will understand the spirit of festivity and play. Both are linked to a sense of awe and wonder: “Let your imagination loose to play with ideas–what it means to be alive, to be in love, to believe and to hope.”

Fourth, learn to let go, to not posses, to let experiences and things be ephemeral. Most of us are conditioned when we see something beautiful–a sunset, a flower, a cute puppy, or our own children–to take a picture. The contemplative life savors the moment but lets it pass.

Finally, make contemplative friends, friends who radiate wonder, whose sense of delight is finely tuned. I have a very dear Jesuit friend and colleague who has taught me more about the contemplative life than I could ever learn from study. He does his morning prayer in the woods and though he has seen the same herons lighting on the water in the early morning light for the last five years, he still does not fail to mention each sighting in conversation with awe and wonder. The word I hear most from him is “amazing,” which he usually says in a loud voice, eyes sparking, wide smile on his face. Nothing is too simple to be “amazing” for him, be it a Rush concert, a line from Aquinas or Cicero, a sip of single malt scotch, or a heron searching for fish in the shallow water.

This particular friend offers perhaps the best advice for cultivating the contemplative life: think about your life, think about those moments where you experience the most profound delight and the strongest affective pull towards God, and be more intentional about seeking out those experiences. If you find it in gardening, garden more. In running, run more. In looking at art, get a season pass to a museum. For each of us, the contemplative life will look different. But if we are to have a meaningful life of prayer, a life where we “pray without ceasing,” cultivating the contemplative life is indispensable.

And to my dear friend, Father Nick Austin, SJ, who is now preparing to return to England to continue his career in moral theology and parish life, I give you my thanks for all that you have taught me about the contemplative life. The world is thirsty for people like you whose entire being radiates in love for God. You, my friend, have chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from you (Lk. 10:42).

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