Tag Archives: virtue

September 16: What is Theology Saying? XXVI: What is Grace and what does it do?

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We live in secular times – in the course of the ages we have taken more and more possession of the earth and all it contains; we control much more than people of ages past. We also have better self-awareness – realising that customs, rules and ideas of order and beauty are not always shared by other societies. Customs and traditions are not the inevitable and only right way of doing things.

When we understood less we tended to see the transcendent God as the all-powerful organiser. This God made thunder when he was angry, sent plagues and disasters to punish and redressed everything that had gone wrong. God worked in unseen ways. Outwardly a man might seem good and virtuous, inwardly he could have lost God’s grace and be out of sorts with God and living in darkness. Lost God’s Grace – outwardly, before and after baptism there might be no difference in a person – inwardly there can be all the difference between night and day in that realm where God is active and inaccessible to our experience. As we began to take more control of the world, we also took more responsibility for what was going on – in the external world. We have lightening conductors replacing the sign of the cross; we have air traffic control instead of prayers for travellers; we have learned to seed clouds from the air instead of novenas for rain.

This has also made its way into the inner world of our spiritual life. We are starting to distrust ritual ways of obtaining God’s favour. We have reasoned that a person can’t receive additional charity unless we are really loving more and more. Accounts of the spiritual life, the redemptive work of Christ and the service of the Church are now sounding more like common sense psychology than strictly Christian teaching. Some are even doing away with the idea of Grace.

AMcC

Mosaic from S Aloysius, Somers Town, London, (near Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross). While I know trains are very safe, I like to make a pilgrim’s prayer if I find this church open. MMB.

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5 September. Little Flowers of Saint Francis XXXIV: Crowd Control at Rieti.

And when he drew nigh to Rieti, so great a press of people came out to meet him, that he would not for this cause enter into the city; but gat him to a church that lay without the city, it might be a two miles’ space. The city folk, coming to know that he was gone to the said church, ran together for to see him, in such sort that the vineyard of the church was spoiled altogether, and the grapes of it were all plucked; whereof the priest was sore grieving in his heart, and repented him that he had received Saint Francis into the church.

The thought of the priest being revealed of God unto Saint Francis, he let call him, and said: “Dear father, how many measures of wine doth this vineyard yield thee, the year it yields its best?”

Replied the priest: “Twelve measures.” Quoth Saint Francis: “I pray thee, Father, that thou bear patiently with me if I tarry here some days, seeing that I find here much repose; and let whoso will pluck of the grapes of this thy vineyard, for the love of God and me, his poor little one; and I promise thee, in the name of my Lord Jesu Christ, that it shall yield thee twenty measures every year.” And thus did Saint Francis in return for his sojourning there, because of the great fruit of souls that was manifestly gathered of the folk that resorted thither; whereof many departed drunken with love divine, and abandoned the world.

The priest trusted the promise of Saint Francis, and freely gave up the garden unto all that came to him. And it was a marvel to see how the vineyard was all spoiled and plucked, so that
scarce any bunches of grapes were found left.

The time of the vintage came ; and the priest gathered in such bunches as remained, and put
them in the vat and trod them out, and according to the promise of Saint Francis got thereout twenty measures of the best wine. By this miracle it was manifestly set forth, for men to understand, that even as the vineyard despoiled of grapes abounded in wine, through the merits of Saint Francis; even so the Christian people, that had grown barren of virtue by reason of sin, through the merits and teaching of Saint Francis oftentimes abounded in the good fruits of penitence.

People still come looking for God’s Word to be shared with them. African pilgrims at St Maurice; L’Arche at Canterbury, and World Youth Pilgrims in Poland.

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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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4 July, What do the Saints Know? Part II, 4: HOPE: The Gift of Filial Fear

The image of God having a ‘lap’ that we looked at in the last post chimes with the gift of the Holy Spirit that strengthens hope. St. Thomas calls the gift “filial fear” (II.II.19:9) – the fear not of a slave for his master, but of a son/daughter, “whereby”, he continues, “what we fear is not that God may fail to help us, but that we might withdraw ourselves from his help. Wherefore filial fear and hope cling together, and perfect one another.”

This reminds me of something Jean Vanier* said in a talk once that I was privileged to hear. He said that the only thing to fear in our relationship with God is not that we might get angry with God over the sufferings we are going through. Anger with God isn’t the problem. It is the fact that we might just start to ‘tune God out’ he said, just stop turning to Him, stop praying to Him, just switch off. This fear of switching God off is an excellent description of ‘filial fear’. The saints know themselves. They know that they are at risk of turning away from God. They don’t want to.

This loving language of leaning and clinging that St. Thomas uses in writing of hope suggests connaturality again. In the virtue of hope, it becomes connatural to lean more on God than on the self. We’re looking for the kind of mentality the saints have. A certain peaceful leaning-on-God-mentality must be what becomes connatural to them as hope grows within them.

SJC

*Jean Vanier, born in 1928, is a Catholic philosopher, theologian and author. In 1964 he founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. His vision was that disabled individuals would live together in community as equals with those who are not disabled, in a sharing of life and of gifts that is profoundly healing and enriching for all community members. There are now L’Arche communities spread over thirty-seven countries. Jean Vanier has authored at least thirty books on religion, disability, community, human development. He has received numerous honours and awards, including the Community of Christ International Peace Award (2003), and the Templeton Prize (2015).

Images from L’Arche in India, England and Syria.

 

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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 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

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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11 June: What do the Saints know? II, What is connaturality?

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What does St. Thomas mean by the idea of connaturality? Does he use the word at all? How does it fit into his teaching?

The latin word connaturalitate comes easily sixty or so times throughout the Summa. And, it means what you would expect it to mean: it is not a mysterious or complicated concept. A connatural abililty refers to something that a being does or thinks which comes naturally to it, although the ability may not be an original part of its nature. It may be an acquired ability. Say, cooking! Or the way an actor acts a part. Or the ability to play an instrument well. Such abilities may feel strange at first, but eventually proficiency is achieved and the ability becomes connatural – or second nature. But, the level of connaturality we are considering here has to do not only with a set of physical abilities, or even mental ones. For St Thomas, connaturality goes much deeper, into a kind of sympathy with something (compassio is the latin term used by St Thomas), or a participation in something, a union with something to the point of undergoing what that thing undergoes, suffering what it suffers (patiens); an understanding of it from within.

St. Thomas uses the word connaturality a lot. He seems to like it. It is even possible to miss the use of the word connatural some of the time, because St Thomas uses it fairly unsensationally. But, eventually, when he begins to talk about faith, hope and charity – the famous ‘theological’ virtues – and to describe the effects of grace, he uses the word connatural again, to show that participating as fully as possible in our supernatural end – which is God’s very life – can become just as natural to us as living merely according to our natural tendencies. Here he is making a profound point, because he says many times that although we were created with an ‘inbuilt’ tendency toward our supernatural end, that end is beyond the reach of our fallen, un-graced, abilities. So, when he says that life with God can become connatural to us, it is something to notice. In fact, to my mind, whenever he is talking about the transforming power of grace, the idea of our arriving at a state of connaturality with divine things is implicit in an overarching way, even when he is not actually using the word.

The theological virtues, faith, hope and charity, are the root of all virtue for Thomas (II.II.4.7). They are at the beginning of the journey, not the end; they are our capacity for salutary action, and they fit us for connaturality with God, or better, they communicate God’s life to us. You might say that in the theological virtues, God is very ‘busy’ on our behalf, in Thomas’s teaching. Tomorrow we will begin to explore the virtue of faith.

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10 June: What do the Saints know? I, Introduction

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Welcome back to Sister Johanna OSB of Minster Abbey. Today we resume the Sundays in Ordinary Time after Easter, Pentecost, Trinity and Corpus Christi. And what gets us through ordinary time but the great virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, also called the Theological Virtues because they tell us about God, each one in its own way. Over to you, Sister Johanna!

St. Thomas Aquinas, Connaturality and the Theological Virtues

Part I

  1. Introduction

I was recently asked to give a talk to a group of retreatants visiting my monastery. This was a group with a particular interest in exploring the relationship between theology and prayer. The leader of the group had proposed ahead of time that we all reflect on the question, “What do the Saints Know?” and prepare a talk on this subject.

I was delighted with the question, and loved pondering it. It intrigued me to imagine the kind of knowledge of God enjoyed by the saints – I mean living saints who are walking about now on this earth and have not yet entered into eternal life with God – the ones who have struggled with the complexities of existence; the ones who desire to know God but feel that they have a long way to go. How do such strugglers arrive at sanctity? Do they develop a special ability to ‘know’ God, I wondered?

This thought led me back to something I discovered when studying the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas several years ago. St. Thomas is not always the easiest theologian to read and understand, but I have learned an enormous amount from him. I have presented some of my findings in previous posts. I think Thomas has something to offer now as we seek to understand what the saints know. This may be found in his teaching on the gift of connaturality with divine things – indeed, with God himself. This rather overlooked theme in the Summa of St Thomas underlies much of his teaching on human growth in divine grace. The reflections which will follow in the posts this week are based on Part II of the Second Part of the Summa Theologica. And they represent my personal dialogue with the text as I have read and pondered his words for my lectio divina.

Photo: On a journey. MMB.

 

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