October 25, 2013

Docta Ignorantia

For a few days each year around this time we get, in the Office of Readings, St. Augustine's Letter 130, to Proba, on prayer. It touches me every time.

Today I landed on one of Augustine's somewhat famous expressions, docta ignorantia, 'learned ignorance.' In prayer there is an ignorance, an unknowledge that we learn, for our not knowing "how to pray as we ought" in which "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26) is not just something we lack because of our distraction and sin, or even because of our innate limitedness, but is something positive that we learn in prayer, one of its precious fruits.

Indeed there is much to unlearn in prayer; it is, as Evagrius says, "the shedding of thoughts." I must unlearn about the deity that the flesh weaves out of its lusts and even ideas of the divine that give more rarefied delights to the intellect. True prayer means unlearning the unvirtues of the those false religiosities the flesh concocts to serve its purposes under sacrilegious cover. I am even invited to unlearn cherished ideas and attributions about myself.

In the end, it is all aimed toward the searing unlearning that "there is 'no such thing' as God because God is neither a 'what' nor a 'thing' but a pure 'Who.'" (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, chapter 2) And it is precisely this awakening that bears the most blessed fruit of prayer, the shedding of the 'whatness' and objectification of other people, learning to see them only as persons, as 'who.'

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