Monday, September 24, 2012

The Via Negativa

The Via Negativa -- the way of negation is a kind of contemplation of God.   For those, like Evagrius Ponticus, influenced by Platonic philosophy and gnosticism, this kind of contemplation is necessary because the visible world we live in is on a lower level of being than the invisible world of spiritual things.   It is a matter of "the One" and "the many."   The many visible things of this life - according to this model - cause us to suffer from fantasies.   Only by conversion - in this case, turning away from things and renouncing the fantasies they cause are we free to enter into ourselves to find the logos, the truth.  Developing (or devolving) the Greek concept of "know thyself" this contemplation is a movement inward to find the truth.  In fact, for Evagrius, the truth alone overcomes our fantasies.  This contemplation which is essentially an entering into oneself to find God, they say, identifies us in some sense with "the One."  So this is a mysticism of identity not unlike that which is offered by Hegel and various religious traditions from India where individual identity is lost in the absolute.

Pseudo-dionysius, also influenced by neo-platonism but in a different way, advances that Christian theology demands that we go beyond negation -- negating negation by seeing the world not as mere illusion, but rather as manifestation - epiphany.   The reasoning is that God is so totally other, He is even able to transcend his otherness by creating creatures that are able to manifest his glory.   The vision of God that is opened up in this approach suggests the Divinity is so vast, so mysterious, so deep; the glory of God requires a great multitude of unique creatures to be properly communicated.  St. Thomas Aquinas is profoundly influenced by this kind of theological contemplation.

Rather than a movement in (en-stasis), Pseudo-dionysius provides us a contemplation that is a movement out of self (ex-stasis). Unlike as is the case in a Hegelian or Gnostic system, the visible physical world is not an obstacle to the invisible spiritual world.  Instead, the whole cosmos comes from God and is ordered to God.   In other words, creation including individual souls, are meant to be in harmony with the Trinity.  Such harmony with God in his works is possible because the Trinity itself is characterized by divine and eternal subsistent relations: knowing, loving and personal relations.   Divinity goes beyond itself by allowing space for creatures to exist that they might share in his life and love.   Creatures go beyond themselves by manifesting the Creator - the ultimate end of the divine economy is ecstatic.  It is a mysticism of relation, harmony, mediation, and beauty.

In this kind of mysticism, the more they manifest Him, the more they become the creature they were created to be.   In other words, creation is in the end not identified with the Creator but in relation to the Lord - the more his works reveal the Invisible God, the more fully each creature realizes its true identity as creature in jubilant relation to the God.  This constitutes a liturgical significance for the things that are -- everything exists to reveal the glory of God.  The vision of John in the Apocalypse of all ranks of creatures gathered around the throne of the Lamb in endless praise is in harmony with this kind of contemplation of God.   At the same time, it present a paradox concerning the mystery of God - He is hidden, yet disclosed.  Here, the doctrine of the analogy of being (analogia entis) is, in its Christian sense, born.   

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Theological Contemplation

What is theological contemplation?  In paragraph 58 of the Rule of St. Benedict, a section which treats on how to admit new brethren, St. Benedict refers to the practice of lectio divina within the context of quaerere Deum, conversatio morum and habitare secum.  The study of theology, as a form of lectio divina, ought to be considered in the same context.   Lectio divina is a devotion imbued study of the Word of God which leads to ongoing personal conversion and the capacity to be reconciled with God, one's neighbor and one's own self.

Devotion is referred to here in its strict sense as it applies to the search for God, quaerere Deum.  It is not sentimental or non-scientific.   Devotion refers to commitment and passion to seek and find the One whose truth remains ineffable to the light of natural reason and yet transforms the mind in divine splendor.   Such devotion is the fruit of quaerere Deum, the effort to seek God with the whole will, intelligence, desire and strength of one's soul.   This rationally ordered devotion and devout rationality is integral to both advancing the scientific investigation of sacred doctrine and the deeper reception of the mystical wisdom given by God to those who engage in theological contemplation.

Lectio divina or sacred reading was not originally distinguished from contemplation or prayerful reflection or scientific study or mental prayer.   The practices organically flowed together for the Desert Fathers and the early Benedictines.  Theirs was a kneeling theology out of which not only great intellectuals arose but also scholarly saints.  Their reflections rose to the level of scientific consciousness even to the point that they produced rationally ordered discourses about their mystical insights.   At the same time, their insights were born deep in the holy affections the Lord stirred in them as they beheld the wonders of His Love echoing in the liturgical readings of the Bible their way of life amply provided.

They did not oppose rationality or affectivity or spirituality but sought a living integration of their whole being and life activities in their pursuit of God.  Any study requires curiosity, but the study of God and all things in relation to God also requires the rightist) is properly ordered to its object.   It is a disciplined pursuit of the truth where what we study and how we study it must be commensurate.  God discloses Himself as the One who desires humanity to be in right relation to Him.   Scientific contemplation of God ought to break out in affection for the One who produces holy affection in the heart and created the desire to find Him.

Any study requires curiosity, but the study of God and all things in relation to God also requires the right desire for God Himself.  The only proper response to the Triune mystery disclosed in revelation is total devotion of the heart.  Accordingly, a relational knowledge informs the investigation even as insights are raised to a scientific level of consciousness.

Thus, lectio divina properly informed by quaerere Deum leads to conversatio morum.  Conversatio morum could be referred to as conversion of life, but the Latin conveys a deeper meaning than the English suggests at first sight.  Morum refers to one's whole manner and all of one's mannerisms, the mode by which one relates to oneself, the world and to God.  In the Gospels, disciples either followed the Way of Christ or returned to their former way of life, the traditions of their fathers.   Similarly, those who encounter the Word made Flesh in lectio divina also must die to their old way of life and allow themselves to be animated by new life in Christ.

The conversion lectio divina makes us vulnerable to is much more like a ongoing conversation than it is a simple modification of one's way of life.  Everything, all of one's actions, feelings, fantasies, thoughts, and judgments; all of this is to be submitted to the Risen Lord.  Lectio divina is less about scrutinizing passages of the Scriptures and more about by scrutinized by the Word revealed in the words of Holy Writ.  Lectio divina which searches for God is constantly confronted by divine judgment.  Devotion imbued contemplation of Sacred Doctrine ponders the demands of divine justice and is pierced to the heart by the limitlessness of divine mercy.

Those willing to submit the limits of their misery to the limitlessness of divine mercy in this kind of contemplation discover the secret of being at peace with themselves, with their neighbor and with God.  They enjoy this secret even if they are rejected and hated by those entrusted to them.  They enjoy this secret even if they are afflicted by insecurity over their own sinful brokenness.

This is a secret rooted in confidence in God, a confidence only He can give, a confidence which is the fruit of his exceeding love.  It is a secret in which God imparts a great purpose to a soul, a personal mission.  From the womb of theological contemplation ecclesial mission is conceived and born into the world.