October 18, 2010

Limits and Paths

Yesterday afternoon I finished St. Bonaventure's Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ and arrived at the epilogue. The Seraphic Doctor writes:

This type of [divine] knowledge can be understood only with great difficulty, and it cannot be understood at all except by one who has experienced it. And no one will experience it except one who is "rooted and grounded in love so as to comprehend with all the saints what is the length, and the breadth," etc. It is in this that true, experiential wisdom consists. It begins on earth and is consummated in heaven. In trying to explain this, negations are more appropriate than affirmations, and superlatives are more appropriate than positive predications. And if it is to be experienced, interior silence is more helpful than external speech. Therefore, let us stop speaking, and let us pray to the Lord that we may be granted the experience of that about which we have spoken.

(trans. Zachary Hayes)

Such an approach to the desire for spirituality, or even mysticism, has always appealed to me. I think it appeals to a lot of people in our time. But we have to remember that Bonaventure writes these words at the end of two hundred pages of making careful disputation and distinction, reviewing the theological speech of many of who have come before him, and presenting his own conclusions with great care.

In other words, if we truly wish to arrive at the mystical moment when speech becomes useless and human articulations about God give way to the Mystery beyond what can be apprehended by our minds, we need to experience this limit through the disciplined use of the speech and reason God has given us. If we try to become mystics without first using the reason and speech God has given us to understand something of himself, we are bound to discover that our spirituality is only another species of vanity.

If we wish to rise above the limits of the mind, the ordinary path is to first know these limits by the careful and disciplined use of the mind's reason.

Here theology ceases to be a body of abstractions and becomes a Living Reality Who is God Himself. And He reveals Himself to us in our total gift of our lives to Him. Here the light of truth is not something that exists for our intellect but One in Whom and for Whom all minds and spirits exist, and theology does not truly begin to be theology until we have transcended the language and separate concepts of theologians.

That was why St. Thomas put the Summa Theologica aside in weariness before it was finished, saying it was "all straw."

And yet, when the contemplative returns from the depth of his simple experience of God and attempts to communicate it to men, he necessarily comes once again under the control of the theologian and his language is bound to strive after the clarity and distinctness and accuracy that canalize Catholic tradition.

Therefore beware of the contemplative who says that theology is all straw before he has ever bothered to read any.

(Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 148-149)


Jeanne said...

Nice post. I like that quote "Let us stop speaking" - and experience. Yes, we have to reason and study first, but it's a nice reminder that sometimes just sitting and being with God is the best prayer.

Anonymous said...

Theology gets a bad Rap that is for sure. I just saw a bummer sticker that said "Keep your Theology off my biology" As if you could separate the too. Richard Roher says that Theology only makes it to 3% of the population - I can only wish it was that high.

Anonymous said...

Does the theological writing become all straw because the theologian finds meaningless their own conclusions, or is it because they forgot the journey that led to those theological conclusions? The learning journey might be what transcends the language, that mystical moment; and the final work might be both a plateau for the theologian and a stepping stone for the student who reads it.A remnant of a process for one and the beginning of a process for another?

Greg said...

Merton, I believe, understands the delicate balancing act between the mystical and the intellectual.

Francis appeared to have understood this delicate dichotomy as well; it seems he chose to lean heavier on the experiential.

Bonaventure was gifted, extremely gifted, with the ability to marry the two views, and leaned heavier, it seems, on his ability to render a theological explanation.

Aquinas appears to have tried to lift himself up through scholastic theology before (correctly) understanding how theology can easily turn to straw.

I hope the Church rediscovers the importance of Bonaventure; his nuanced voice is needed in this time.

I am extremely interested in how you will end up bringing forth the charism of Francis and Bonaventure to a new generation.

jake said...

If we wish to rise above the limits of the mind, the ordinary path is to first know these limits by the careful and disciplined use of the mind's reason.
You make it sound that religous experience is the result of hard work like passing an exam. Isn't more like a gift? I don't really have much experience of this divine knowledge nor much knowledge of theology. I read a little theology so I have greater trust in the sacraments. You've inspired me to learn more about St Bonaventure!