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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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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

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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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13 June. What do the Saints Know? IV: How do we Cultivate our Faith?

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How do we cultivate our faith? If faith is a ‘place’, as I asserted yesterday – my word and not St Thomas’s – then we need to discover where we are. It is not a place on a map. So, and this is St. Thomas now, faith is cultivated (the ‘place’ comes to be understood) through questions, says Thomas. Faith, he says, “involves the intellect in a kind of inquiry.” What kind? Not the kind demanding empirical evidence (cf. II.II.1,5). Nor, when we inquire about the object of faith are we setting ourselves up as judges of the object of belief. If so, then this is not the kind of inquiry that is an expression of faith. It is merely a pitiful attempt to out-smart God. Thomas says that the kind of inquiry that goes with faith is that which attempts to “grasp with greater understanding what God has revealed and how he has confirmed it.” Faith, then, concerns not a vacuum in our knowledge; indeed, it concerns something that already exists, something that God has revealed, something that we therefore already ‘know’ – even if we only know it obliquely.

For me, this teaching from St. Thomas helps to dispel that temptation to think that we have to have faith because we can’t know God. At all. Faith, in that case, becomes something that merely tries to plug up the vacuum, a vacuum that we might not like to acknowledge is there in the first place.

What do we know, then? What can we say about faith? St. Thomas asserts: we can say that we know about eternal life. Or at least, we know it a little. This is how he puts it: “Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (II.II.4:1). The little words ‘in us’ are so important, I think. They tell us that we are ‘in touch with’ eternal life. And, so eternal life is not ‘out there’ beyond our reach. It’s not in an unbearably dull theological book. It’s not across the sea. We ‘have it’ in us. Going back to the image of the vacuum, well, we simply don’t have one, because through faith eternal life is begun in us.

This word ‘begun’ is important. Faith is not about the completion of the knowledge of God – if there even is such a thing. Which I doubt. Faith is about something that exists as a beginning – a beginning of something beautiful. This is something we ‘know’, but in a different way, on a different level from what we usually say we ‘know.’

Now, I can live with that understanding of faith pretty happily. It will probably not convince a hardened sceptic, but it does help to make my act of faith intelligible to me. If faith starts with ‘a divine infusion’ then it starts with mystery. This coexistence of real knowledge with mystery is not something to dismiss but to validate, and St Thomas does. In his teaching, faith is a real connection with eternal life, not in its fullness, but in its beginnings; not in clarity, but in mystery; not in fantasy, but in reality.

SJC.

Cultivating or Ploughing near Beachy Head, Sussex.

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12 June: What do the Saints know? III, Faith

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The Theological virtue of faith

What is the act of faith for St. Thomas? What is the nature of this kind of ‘knowing’? What does faith have to do with connaturality?

St. Thomas insists on the divine initiative here, as he does with all the theological virtues. Theological virtues are gifts of God. He says, “Faith is from God moving man inwardly by grace” (II.II.6.1). So faith is established in the soul by a divine infusion of grace. I love this teaching on the “infused” aspect of faith, because, that is how faith has come to me.. Faith is not something that I just decided to have one day. Nor is faith something that I have because some told me I ‘ought to’ have it because it is ‘good for me’ – like eating your vegetables. In my experience, I began to have real faith (as opposed to just going through the motions of faith) because of something that happened to me – a conversion experience, if you will. For me, faith was a gift that was a response to that other, more fundamental gift of God. Faith was a way of saying thank you to God and of acknowledging that he was now so real for me that everything else was real only in a secondary sense: because it was sustained by the Real reality, who was God. And this experience held a divine imperative – inwardly compelling and joyful – that summoned me to, you might say, ‘cultivate’ my faith and make faith a habit of existence. Cultivate is a weak word, though. My experience was more like being picked in one place and put down in another – in a whole new country! It was a change in the nature of existence; it was existence in a new ‘place’ on a new level. ‘Cultivating’ my faith means coming to know and understand this place, this level. As St. Thomas says, it has all been the gift of God, moving me inwardly by grace.

The idea of faith being a ‘place’ a ‘new country’ is expressive of the way God infused the gift of faith into my soul. For others, another image might be better. Perhaps it was slower for you, a bit by bit experience. Gentler, perhaps. Maybe it was through suffering that Faith was given and deepened. Maybe you have always had faith. Maybe you lost it – or thought you did – and then re-discovered it somehow. It might be helpful to meditate on the way you have found faith in your life – or it has found you – before we go on to explore the subject further.

A whole new country …

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