Tag Archives: Benedictines

5 August: The New Name

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He whizzed small stones with skill

across the still pond, the pebbles flat

and fitted to the palm, this serious play

a science of selection and synchronicity:

his muscled shoulder steered the whip-throw,

his feet danced a neat back-hop, he leaned

into the throwing side and a wise wrist flicked,

just so, as knowing fingers turned each stone

into a flight-blade – precise, and frisky with

staccato skips past counting. And so,

this power-pebble, skimming

the still pond’s top-most sparkle,

at last, and with a gentle plash, whispered

its secret as we stood side by side and gazed

upon the ever-widening rings.

SJC

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July 5: What do the Saints Know? Part II, 5: The Theological Virtue of Charity – All Gift

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I would like now to explore how the virtue of charity sheds light on our quest to understand what the saints know. [Cf. Summa Theologiae II, II, 23:1 for much of what follows.] St. Thomas speaks of charity, both toward our neighbour and toward God in terms of friendship, not only because Aristotle does, but because Jesus does: and he quotes the gospel of John, ‘I no longer call you servants, but friends.’ Yet, his is an exalted idea of friendship, as it refers to a depth of love that brings about an experience of mutual indwelling. This friendship, to be authentic, says Thomas, must be more than mere companionship. It must be directed to what is best for the loved one, and not for the self. It must also be a relationship of mutuality, so that the communication goes both ways. And, it must reach beyond the loved one to include what the loved one loves.

Thomas points out that charity is different to faith and hope. They allow us some participation in the divine life, but at a certain ‘remove.’ Charity, on the other hand, is not ‘removed’ from God. It is God.

Going through my notes as I prepared these posts, I found myself thinking with some impatience, ‘Yes, yes. God is love. I know that.’ But then I said, ‘Do I?’ If God is love, how do I even dare to ‘go there’? St. Thomas himself even says, in effect, if you take a good, long, hard look at the human person’s un-graced capacities, we should not be able to love like this (II.II.24. 2, 3). We tend to love in a way that relates to our own need, selfishly. So often, if we are really honest with ourselves, we discover that that apparently generous thing we did for someone was actually all about me. St. Thomas calls this kind of love concupiscence and not charity. God is supremely loveable alright, but, Thomas points out, our capacities tend toward what we can see, and our self-centeredness means that we often see ourselves more than we see anything else. What to do? In one of his most important uses of the concept of connaturality, Thomas explains, “No act is perfectly produced by an actor unless it be connatural to him by reason of some inner capacity to perform that action (II.II.23.2). Therefore, the love of God must be infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is the love of the Father and the Son.”

Charity is founded on a supernatural friendship of God with the human person. It is God who enables us to love. The initiative is God’s: God loves us first, God gets there first, to rephrase the First Letter of John slightly. He communicates his happiness to us, says St. Thomas, and the love that we experience in response is charity. God makes love possible for us. It is all gift.

SJC

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3 July: What do the Saints Know? Part II, 3: HOPE: Hope and Divine Assistance

SCAN0066What does this have to do with our question as to what the saints know? Perhaps it is that saints, steeped in hope, are aware of what kind of answer to look for when they turn to God in prayer. What father would give his child a scorpion when he asked for an egg, as Jesus points out. Or, to turn this question slightly, what millionaire father would give his child only an egg when he asked for an egg? Would he not give him a share in his fortune? So, when God answers my prayer for an egg by giving me his fortune, it means that I get my prayer answered on a much deeper level than the one I am prepared for. A level that usually requires a new depth of obedience to the divine will, and a deeper level of faith. It can be very scary for an egg-sized mind to receive a heaven-sized answer. Perhaps we’ve all been there. But, here is another encouraging thought from St. Thomas (II.II. 17:7): “The object of hope is in one way eternal happiness and in another way divine assistance”. For the attaining of eternal life then, “divine assistance is ready for us,” he says. This line from Thomas seems to say that God knows how hard it can be for us to allow our egg-sized hopes to become wide – indeed, heaven-sized. But, don’t worry, he seems to say. Divine assistance will get us to that wide place.

This brings us back to Thomas’s idea of ‘leaning on’ God. He seems to be saying that God is always supporting us from the wide place. The idea is simple enough: keep leaning on His help, and be at peace – something like the weaned child on its mother’s lap, as one of the psalms puts it. God’s lap is wide.                                       SJC

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July 2: What do the Saints Know? Part II, 2: HOPE: Stretching our Soul

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We are not very well equipped to deal with the infinite – our “small durance… with the steep or deep,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses it in one of his sonnets. There are times of pure pain in our lives. How does this fit with our reflection on hope? I cannot treat here the theme of suffering in depth, but perhaps it can be integrated into these reflections by understanding suffering as the ‘education’ of our hope, as something that gradually ‘stretches’ our deepest being and equips us for the Infinite. And as something we get through only by leaning on God’s help.

St Thomas says:

For we should hope from him for nothing less than himself, since his goodness, whereby he imparts good things to his creature, is no less than his essence. Therefore the proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness. (II. II. 17.2).

Eternal happiness is the object of hope. It is, therefore, a difficult virtue, inasmuch as it is directed to eternal life rather than this earthly life.

Right,’ I say to myself. ‘Hope as a theological virtue is always directed to a good that has not yet been attained. In the theological virtue of hope, I hope for eternal happiness – but I’ve got to die first in order to attain it. That’s part of the problem. And the other part of the difficulty is that the theological virtue of hope places the sufferings of this life in a secondary position, as means to the end – in other words, sufferings are not always meant to be got rid of, for they have a purpose: they stretch our being, and fit it for eternal happiness. They go on for as long as God sees that they need to go on in order to fit us for Him. And that’s why hope is a virtue that must be ‘exercised’ – or worked at.

But, it’s not as grim as all that. Recall, hope is a divine gift, filled with divine life. Therefore, I have intimations of hope’s fulfilment even now, as we saw with the virtue of faith: we have “the beginnings” of eternal life. For instance, St. Thomas, in the one of the above quotations is saying that God gives us himself when we pray to him. He’s not going to give less than that, even though what we ask for is usually less than that. My capacity to recognise Him – especially in times of pain – is limited. But that does not mean that God is failing me. Rather, what comes from Him is always what will lead to a fuller share in His life: to connaturality with him – even now.

SJC

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July 1: What do the Saints Know? Part II, Normal People.

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With great timing, Sister Johanna prepared these thoughts not long before Pope Francis issued his challenge, ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’, calling each of us to be a saint right where we are. Thank you once again, Sister!

St. Thomas Aquinas, Connaturality and the Theological Virtues

Introduction to Part II

In previous posts I explored with readers some aspects of the virtue of faith. We are looking at the question, what do the saints know? I am talking about living saints, walking about on this earth now, struggling with life’s complexities and their own weaknesses. Normal people. What do they know that enables them to become living saints, generous and joyful? We are still looking at this question, and I am using St Thomas Aquinas’s teaching in his Summa Theologiae to guide my thoughts.

When we looked at the virtue of faith, we did this through the lens of an idea of St. Thomas’s that has intrigued me for a long time: the notion of connaturality with divine things. St. Thomas describes faith, hope and charity as gifts of a loving God that are filled with his presence, and that enable us to grow in grace through a knowledge of his very being. That grace makes us participate in his life in a way that enables us to become connatural with him. We saw some ways in which the virtue of faith works upon our soul. Let us turn now to the virtue of hope.

SJC

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July 1: What do the Saints Know? Part II, 1: HOPE: Hunger for God

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  1. HOPE: Hunger for God

[C.f. Summa Theologiae, II. II. 17. 1]

The theological virtue of hope follows a pattern that we know well. This pattern exists first on the level of mere nature before it does on the supernatural level. On the natural level it goes something like this. We want something pertaining to our physical or emotional well-being [say, fish and chips] and we don’t have it; that thing can be attained, but only with difficulty [the fish and chips shop is in the next town, we have to drive there, what a pain…]; we are determined to have our fish and chips despite the inconvenience and difficulty [we must get up from the recliner chair and get in the car…]. Despite these inconveniences, we are pretty hopeful about getting our fish and chips in the end. That, on the simplest level, is how hope functions.

The theological virtue of hope involves the same mechanism, differing mainly in the object of our hope. Here, we hunger for the things pertaining to spiritual goods. Such as? Such as the attainment of nothing less than God himself. We all have a hunger for God. Coming to recognise this hunger is the first stage in the gift of God that is hope. In the theological virtue of hope, we are conscious of a felt longing for that which nothing on earth can satisfy. In the theological virtue of hope it’s eternal happiness we’re hoping for, and, what is of crucial importance, the fulfilment of this hope is really possible by means of divine assistance. Here is how St Thomas expresses it (II. II. 17: 2):

…the hope of which we speak now, attains God by leaning on [innitens] his help in order to obtain the hoped for good. Now an effect must be proportionate to its cause. Wherefore the good which we ought to hope for from God properly and chiefly is the infinite good, which is proportionate to the power of our divine helper, since it belongs to an infinite power to lead anyone to an infinite good.

I love this passage, not only because of the magnificent idea of ‘leaning’ on God (on which, more below), but because Thomas proves his point by neatly using the logic of proportion: ask a giant for a sandwich and you’ll get a sandwich proportionate to a giant. Ask a pixie for a sandwich and you’ll get one proportionate to a pixie – thimble-sized, maybe. The effect is proportionate to what causes it. So, when we hope for a good thing from God, what we get is something proportionate to the divine being: infinite.

SJC

Zakopane: The roof leans on the boss and reaches high.

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29 June: Telling the Truth VII: the telling detail.

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With my work on Archbishop Arthur Hughes I’m finding how what is left out of a story can change the reader’s perception even without the narrator meaning to do so. I well remember how my daughters would complain if a paragraph was left out of a well-loved bedtime story!

There are details that give a more rounded picture of the human being but which are unlikely to appear in official obituaries. Arthur Hughes, as Papal Nuncio in Egypt, writing to his sister – a nun and a headmistress – about a forthcoming world heavyweight boxing match, or punning in French about his post in Egypt (before it was confirmed) ‘My position here is provisional, I am in effect near Cairo/precarious’.

Ma situation ici doit être provisoire; je suis, en effet, près Caire.’

We’ve met Fran Horner before: she works at the John Rylands library in Manchester on Dom Sylvester Houedard OSB, monk, artist and poet. Now she has turned up some odds and ends that bring him to life in ways that supplement words on a page. Read and reflect!

Dom Sylvester’s bus ticket

AWH is front row, centre; about to leave for Uganda in 1933.

MMB.

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16 June. What do the Saints Know? VII: Connaturality

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So we have come to the idea of connaturality with divine things in this notion of participated likeness to God’s knowledge. For me, how wonderful and how freeing the knock-on effect of all this is. Faith’s kind of knowing is the direct opposite of the hurt and cramp of mistrust and suspicion, which the wide arena of human affairs almost obliges us to experience in order to survive in a sinful world. Faith in God is not like that. It is like a cooling breeze sweeping in after the misery of the sweltering, humid heat of August.

When I ponder the truths of the faith, I do not have to fear that I might be standing on quick-sand, or on the fault-line of an earthquake, or that I might be placing my deepest trust in someone who is liable to walk out on me. It is nothing like that at all. With faith in what God has revealed, I do not have to be suspicious, or try to ‘suss out’ the true and the false. I only have to absorb the True, and allow this to Truth to create in me a connaturality with God’s knowledge – a ‘participated likeness’ which begins now and continues – forever.

The theological virtue of faith exists in concert with the virtues of hope and charity. These will be explored in future posts.

SJC

 

Thank you again, Sister Johanna. We look forward to the next of your reflections in Agnellus’Mirror.

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15 June. What do the Saints know? VI: Gifts of the Holy Spirit

HARVESTCHAPEL

Harvest

We have been pondering some wonderful things about the theological virtue of faith and using St. Thomas Aquinas as a guide. Consider this: in St. Thomas’ system, each theological virtue is attended by corresponding gifts of the Holy Spirit, which enable the virtue to exist more profoundly within our mind and heart. The idea is that no virtue is static. So faith does not just ‘sit there’ accumulating dust in our mind. It grows, deepens, flowers, bears fruit. We can count on this.

Thomas says that the gifts of Knowledge and Understanding attend the virtue of faith. In the gift of Understanding, he explains, we are supernaturally enlightened in order to penetrate further into the very essence of faith, and gain a sound grasp of the things to be believed (II.II. 8:1, and 9:1). And, the gift of Knowledge is a spiritual enlightenment by which we acquire a “sure and right judgment” about matters of faith. This knowledge, he says, is a ‘participated likeness’ to God’s own knowledge, and to God’s way of knowing. And God’s way of knowing? It is “not discursive, not argumentative, but absolute and simple” (II.II. 9:1).

So, in the gift of faith we are not given something that will ‘wear out’, that can be ‘used up’, go out of style, grow stale. We are given something that participates in God’s very life, in his way of knowing, and is sustained by further gifts of the Holy Spirit: Knowledge and Understanding. And these gifts continue to work within us, leading us to a participated likeness to God.

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14 June. What do the Saints know? V: Faith and Simplicity

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We are reflecting on the kind of knowledge that the saints have and we are looking at the theological virtue of faith. It seems to me that there is a wonderful simplicity about the quality of ‘knowing’ that goes with faith. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is simple: God is, he says, and “faith grasps that in a simple act” (II.II Q 1:2). Faith has content, then, and that content is God Himself.

Faith is not wishful thinking. It circumscribes and protects a relationship with God. That is what it contains. Once this content has been grasped in what Thomas calls a ‘simple act’ we also find, he says, that faith does involve knowing on a more ordinary level. Faith inspires us to learn about God and his life, to discover what He has revealed, to learn about the articles of belief, and so on. And, this kind of inquiry gives joy, I find. And increases love. Here it becomes possible to see the interconnection of theological virtues. Love of God is increased through the kinds of study that are an expression of faith.

Thomas goes on: it follows that, “…it is proper to the believer to think with assent.” Let’s pause here. It is proper to the believer to think with assent. This is not the way we learned to think in school. Ordinarily, thought means taking a stance not of assent but of disagreement. It goes something like this: ‘Why should I believe that any given statement is true? Chances are, you are trying to get something out of me that is not in my best interests to give.’ Now that may well be true, and faith does not mean that we abandon all capacity for critical distance in relation to the outside world. But faith is not really a dialogue with the outside world per se. It is a dialogue with God. Therefore, a different kind of thought process goes with it.

St. Thomas explains: “The act of believing is distinguished from all the other acts of the intellect, which are about determining the true and the false. In faith, [by contrast] we accept that what God has revealed is true” (II.II Q 2: 1). Why? Because God is Truth. It is simply not necessary to doubt this. On the contrary, faith calls us to absorb God’s truth more and more fully.

SJC

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