It is known that at a particular point in his life Thomas Aquinas grew silent and never wrote another word. He realized that everything he wrote (volumes upon volumes about God) were as nothing, because what he really knew about God was nothing.
We live under the illusion that we know God. But we don’t! We can’t! God is beyond our most brilliant thought processes. Thomas Aquinas realized the futility of writing about that which he could not know.
When I reflect on Thomas Aquinas’s decision and then look upon myself – who do I think I am? Of course, Thomas Aquinas did not stop thinking about God. He did not stop employing his magnificent mind in trying to know more about God. What he did stop was sharing his ideas with others. He realized the possibility that others, in knowing less than he about God, probably knew more. They knew more because they knew less.
It is another great paradox of the spiritual life that the thoughts of our greatest spiritual thinkers may be far from the actual knowledge of God. But the further paradox is contained in the avid thirst for that knowledge in each human being. We refuse to give up trying to know God and I believe this pleases Him greatly.
My own rationalization in writing these letters is that they help me keep You present in my life and they help me to focus on the relationship I wish to cultivate and nurture. My belief that You sometimes speak to me through them encourages me to imagine that they help me grow in the knowledge of God. The reality is that my “knowledge” of God is a construct of my own creation with (I like to think) some help from You. I must realize and accept, like Thomas Aquinas, that sharing with others what I think I know about God fuels a false conceit. Other than my own speculations, I don’t know any more about God than anyone else. Maybe we should concentrate more on accepting and loving God than on knowing Him. This works with people too!
When I was in the seminary we studied scripture. I have also attended New Testament courses taught by a priest-friend of mine and I have often discussed scripture with another friend who is a deacon. I also continually read scripture and many commentaries on its various books. I recognize and accept it all as the inspired word of God. But through all of it I can’t get it out of my head that while it is indeed a record of God’s revelation to mankind, it is man’s recording of that revelation and I know what flawed instruments men are.
It was pointed out to me once while I was intensely studying the words You spoke in the gospels, that none of that, or only some of it, might be direct quotes because it was written down by the writers from memory or from the recounting of others long after the actual events. That being said, God had to know in spades that anything He wanted to communicate to humanity had, inevitably, to pass through the minds of men. All we can hope is that men, including ourselves, somehow get it right which, consequently, places great emphasis on our efforts to do so.
Maybe some of the details in scripture are not exact. Maybe the church we have made out of Your movement is not precisely what You were trying to convey. In any case, using what we have, what we have been given, Your grace and the help of Your Spirit, we try! We make the effort despite our own feelings and weaknesses, despite our doubts.
Man’s tendency is to embellish and adjust what is recounted to him. I think the fact that the synoptic versions are so similar bears witness to the authenticity of the recounting. What John says is appreciably the same from a different angle. Thus, even with my doubts about the exactness of men’s recounting of Your revelations, I feel confident that the message delivered by the gospels is, indeed, Your message.
I have observed that there are some similarities in what might be termed Your “style” as to how You met people in Your time on earth and how You meet people still.
After You became somewhat “known” in Your own time, people often came to You – they still do. But it’s not these I’m thinking about here. Rather, I’m thinking about those to whom You came - to whom You just “showed up” like a surprise in their lives. There are accounts in scripture about these people and there are accounts down through the centuries after Your ascension of such people. They are a different group (in a sense, a more favored group) than those who came to You. At least it would seem that they are more favored because You made the effort to come to them: John The Baptist, the apostles, the elders in the temple, the Samaritan woman, the good thief, Paul, etc.
Then there were those who pursued You: Your mother, Nicodemus, Zachary, the centurion, the disciples, the lepers, the woman who touched You, etc It’s good to pursue You. But it seems better to be pursued by You. After Your ascension the saints pursued You, and we pursue You in our own lives. But there are those to whom You still come. You just “show up” like a surprise.
We cannot leave out that You still come to each of us daily in the Eucharist. I’m sure it’s all in my own perception, but there seems to be these two groups: those who seek You and those You seek out in a special way. Of course, being pursued by You better satisfies our vanity. But it is true that there are those whom You still seek out in special ways.
The semblance of Your coming to individuals, of seeking and pursuing them, seems aimed particularly in our day at those who may not be paying particular attention to You but whom You favor for a specific task. The rest of us plod onward seeking (and often finding) You in our own way. You love and desire that we come to You – that we seek You. Yet, for us there is a special glow upon those to whom You come in special ways. Maybe it’s the whole idea of You coming to us that keeps us going – waiting. Maybe the whole concept of the Messiah’s coming drives everything here in this life – or, if not here, in the life to come.
There is an element of God’s relationship with man that should be extraordinarily compelling, but doesn’t necessarily seem so in our society. I’m speaking of the lengthy historical record of God’s reaching out to mankind contained, primarily, in scripture but also in apocryphal texts and the writings of many saints and holy men and women. Even if we dismiss these writings as uninspired and purely the products of humans, the recurring theme of God’s reaching out to us is remarkably pervading.
It’s meaningful that this theme should be so timeless. It may be true that it endures throughout time because we so strongly desire it to be true, but my thought is that it comes from somewhere – it has a source placed within us that is more than psychological. It transcends psychology. We not only want to know but we actually do know with something more profound than intelligence that we are being sought. This inclination is so primal that we are compelled to express it. This is one sense in which scripture is “inspired.” Everything we describe about our relationship with God has historically been based on His reaching out to us. We are His people. He is our God.
The historical scriptural record of our responses is not so easy! It’s as if God’s reaching out for us is enough – as if God’s desire to touch us is all that’s needed. Can one picture the hand of God reaching out to touch man as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and man’s hand being balled into a fist? God wishes us to complete the connection. If the instinct we have that God reaches out to touch us does not move us to reach out to Him, then this point is moot. We say that God can do anything, but He cannot make us love Him, accept Him, or believe in Him. Yet He still reaches out to us to try.
The acceptance of friendship is Spirit.In order to convey something of the Holy Spirit of God we often describe it as the relationship generated by the love shared between the Father and the Son. I think it might also be said that in this sense the Spirit can be enhanced or diminished by the love shared between me and You. Thus, as Your relationship to the Father is Spirit, so is my relationship with You.
The Holy Spirit flourishes or withers in my life in proportion to the effort I make in nurturing and growing our relationship. The existence of the Spirit of God in my life has permitted itself to be predicated upon my acceptance and nurturing. As the acceptance and openness of the disciples had to be cultivated for the seed of the Spirit to grow in them, so too You cultivate in me, by Your gifts and graces, a soil in which the Spirit may be accepted and take root. But with me, as with the disciples, the choice must be made on our own.
The thematic element in many of Your parables spoke, by design, of scattered seed and things that grow; of vines and trees and wheat. You did this because You wished to communicate simply that the Spirit of God is something that must take root and it cannot do so without being cultivated. So, there can be no thriving relationship with You without the acceptance of our friendship – which is Spirit and must be watered and nurtured regularly. This, therefore, seems to say Your Spirit, in me, depends on me. If I say the Spirit of God in me depends on me, it sounds presumptuous. But You would have it no other way. The choice must be free and loving. You force no one. The Spirit is a gift, but gifts sometimes go unopened!
Since the writing of a recent letter to You my head is still swimming with theological speculations – this time about the source and destiny of our spirits.
Could it not be that the Trinitarian personage of the Holy Spirit is the soul within us? If we seek and accept God in our lives, do we not participate in the formation of God’s Spirit in the world? If we characterize the Holy Spirit as the personage of God generated by the love between the Father and You, cannot, by extension, the Holy Spirit be the soul within us generated by the love of God for us and us for Him?
We speak mystically of being members of the body of Christ and this concept is accepted and promulgated as a metaphor for the church. Our bodies form that body. Yet, again, metaphorically, our body itself is considered a church, a temple of our essential spirit – the Spirit of God in us. Thus the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit – is the elemental source and conduit of the soul within us. Furthermore, it is that aspect of God by which we fulfill our destiny, our union with Him, in the way that union is formed between Him and You. Our spirits are formed by that Spirit. In fact, may they not be, in a kind of pantheistic sense, a member of that Spirit as our bodies are members, mystically, of Yours?
Whether our souls are unique to our bodies or have transmigrated through other bodies striving to perfect themselves, they are each inner manifestations of the love and union between the Father and You. This is what we call the Holy Spirit and what, I think, is our soul – the tongue of God’s fire within us.
The pervasiveness of God the Holy Spirit, His love, His touch, His whisper from within leads me to speculate that these activities of His in our daily lives are evidences of the essence of the soul within us. There are eastern religions that hold a belief that our spirits are a part (though separate) of the supreme spirit. This does not validate my speculations but it does support them. In any case, my speculations do draw me closer to You, not more distant.
There is, for me, meaning in references to the Father as “creator,” or to You as “redeemer.” But most references to the Spirit (such as “paraclete”) leave me mystified. Yet I think I have at least a partial handle on the action of the Spirit in our lives. I’m led, therefore,to try to come up with a one-word descriptor, like “redeemer” or “creator” that would characterize the work of the Spirit without being so mystifying.
The dictionary lists about ten shades of meaning for the word “spirit,” and I found some help in the fifth one: “disposition or mood.” If the Father is the creator and You are the redeemer, then the Holy Spirit is the “disposer.”
If we nurture the Spirit in our lives, what it does is incline our attention to the love and presence of the creator and redeemer in our daily lives. The Spirit moves us. If we accept and allow the Spirit of God to work in us, our relationship with God is dynamic, not static. Thus God leaves us His Spirit, His disposer, His connection to Himself. As such, the Spirit is the dynamo of the inner life. There is no inner life unless we allow the Spirit to move us and dispose us.
When we talk of “school spirit” or “Christmas spirit” we’re talking about something that supports school or Christmas. I have a bookmark with a phrase from St. Paul on it which says, “There are many gifts, but only one spirit.” Each of us has his/her own unique gifts, but the Spirit of God unifies and disposes us to use our gifts to support and promote our relationship with God.
If, in the triune God, the Spirit seems least present to us it is, in fact, because, as a spirit, a ghost, He is always present as the disposition we have (or don’t have) toward God.
How does law come to be?I am thinking here more specifically of moral law. From what are the “do’s and don’t’s” of morality formed?
The ethics of various institutional religions may vary in certain details but basically they address the same issues of being human in this world. In Christianity the teaching that comes from You combined with the older Judaic traditions of moral law are the foundation. Morality and church law are based on it. But as we move along through the centuries how is that law affected by the flow of life? Mark Twain once wrote that, “...custom supersedes all forms of law.” There’s something to be said about this.
First of all there’s truth in it because life on this planet does evolve and change; and, second, institutional religion always seems very slow and cautious in recognizing this. The purpose of any law is to protect something. As life evolves new things need to be protected. As the life of the spirit evolves, this is also true. People, over time, form certain habits of protecting the mind, body, and spirit. These habits become widely recognized and accepted. They become custom. If the demand for accepting the custom is wide-spread, emphatic, and pragmatic it often becomes a law – thus bearing out Twain’s observation.
But it’s not exactly the same with moral law and church law. The situations of modern life, like the ongoing innovations in the field of electronics, have ever-speedier attrition rates as life speeds forward. The ethics of these situations seem more and more to be affected by custom, whether or not the customs become law. In moral terms the dilemma is magnified by trying to determine what, against custom, and what, against law, is sin? There is only one path for uncomplicating the whole matter in spiritual terms: prayer to know God’s will and courage to act on it.
St. Paul in Galatians says, “...love joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – against such there is no law.”
There are things to be carefully considered in the current squabble within our diocese over the closing of a number of parishes by the bishop – things about which I wonder what You would say.
It seems there are at least some things that can be said for the bishop’s side, for the side of a few outspoken clergy who oppose the bishop’s actions, and for the side of groups of faithful from some of the closed parishes.
From an economic and administrative standpoint I don’t think there was any doubt that the diocese had to do some “down-sizing.” This understandably hit life-long members of a closed church very hard. Often two, three, or more generations of a family saw their churches shut down. The degree of resentment and reaction varied. Many have filed appeals to either the bishop or directly to Rome. One group has rented their own building and, with their pastor, has continued to be an active parish despite the bishop’s threats of excommunication. The bishop, it seems to me, has definitely put himself in an indefensible position with this move. He may be a renowned administrative leader, but his pastoral leadership is becoming infamous. His threats regarding the endangerment of their souls and about excommunication to those who most strongly oppose him seem hollow and self-righteous compared to a flock that has found a way to worship together and celebrate with an alternative that still allows the bishop to close their church building.
I cannot help but thinking that You would say that all sides are missing the point. Establishing, nurturing, and growing in our relationship with You is not about buildings, or priests, or bishops, or even about economics or administration. All these my have ties to our growth, but they are not the foundation. In Russia people’s faith survived for decades without churches. We don’t often enough consider the fact that people are church – not buildings!
The historic major changes that have taken place in our diocese and been officially announced recently have made me once more reflect on the meaning of “church.”
Due to times of economic difficulty, a shrinking diocesan population, and fewer clergy, down-sizing on a large scale has come to our diocese. It has manifested itself in the closing and/or merging of about 50 parishes. There is, of course, emotional backlash from long-standing parishioners who’ve seen a particular church that has served their family for generations suddenly closed for good and probably later demolished. I can’t say I’m totally immune from those feelings. The parish our family has belonged to for 40 years was not that old when we joined it. So, we have no previous history with it.Even now, we spread our attendance around so much that only occasionally are we at our own parish. Thus the attachment there is one of proximity and convenience more than anything else. It will be merging with two other parishes to form one new one.
But the parish I grew up in, now almost 100 years old, to which I have not been actively connected for 40 years, has been closed. This tugs at my heartstrings. This is the parish in which my mom and dad were married, where my brother and I were raised and went to school; where we were baptized and received our first communion and confirmation. It was the church we attended every Sunday and the church from which our mom and dad were buried. It was the church where I served Mass and where my aunt took instructions and was baptized. It’s a huge, beautiful basilica-type edifice full of marble and stained-glass. It was modeled after a famous cathedral in Palermo, Sicily; and now it will be gone – just like that!
Somehow I can’t see You being as sentimental about it as I am. And that’s the point. Church most certainly is people, not a building. When or wherever we gather together in Your name is church. So the moaning and crying over the closings is really an outcry against habit, comfort, and history that has been “violated.”
Our lives, most basically, are about our relationship with God, and, while it helps, we don’t even need a church for that. If anything it offers us a chance to exert more effort in pursuing our relationship with You. One other major concern is that the programs of good works established by specific ministries in certain parishes will be lost in the shuffle. I don’t think this will happen despite the loss of certain familiar location.All of this best serves to remind us that WE are church!