What is the relationship between knowledge and contemplation? How much should we concern ourselves with news events? How can we trust God when bad things happen? I have been meditating on all these questions and more lately, and would like to share my musings with you.
Growing in knowledge
Centering Prayer advocates such as Fr. Thomas Keating tend to downplay the knowledge of God. Fr. Keating calls receptivity “an attitude of waiting for the Ultimate Mystery. You don’t know what that is. But as your faith is purified, you don’t want to know” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th Anniversary Edition, p. 66). This is false. It’s like saying the more a man loves a woman, the less he desires to know about her. How absurd!
What actually happens when a man falls in love is this. He sees a woman and notes something attractive about her. She is beautiful, she is smart, et cetera. He wants to get to know her better. The two spend time together. As their intimacy grows, they share their life stories, their memories, their hopes, their fears. The man moves beyond desiring more facts about his beloved to desiring her self. He desires to know her intimately, literally to know her from the inside.
Facts now take second place. But they are not lost. If he ceases to care about the details of his wife’s life, in some sense he ceases loving her. Facts still matter, but different facts than struck him at first. Perhaps it was her gorgeous hair that first attracted him. Now they are old and her hair is gray and thinning. He loves her still. She was young and robust. Now her health is compromised. That does not change his love. He cares for her person, which is so much deeper than her appearance, her likes and dislikes, her talents. He has a deeper knowledge, a knowledge from experience, a knowledge of her essence. He knows and understands her much better, not less. He still cherishes everything about her, but the physical becomes less important to him.
This is akin to the knowledge of God that comes by faith.
The knowledge of faith
Contemplative knowledge is knowledge that comes by faith. It is true knowledge of God, deeper than the knowledge of facts about Him. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange summarizes the teaching of John of the Cross in this way:
“St. John of the Cross tells us that obscure faith enlightens us. It is obscure because it makes us adhere to mysteries we do not see; but these mysteries, which are those of the inner life of God, greatly illumine our intellect, since they do not cease to express to us the goodness of God, who created us, raised us to the life of grace, sent His only Son to redeem us…” (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Ch. 26).
He goes on to say about the knowledge of faith:
“It is very superior to the senses and to reason; it is the proximate means of union with God, whom it makes us know infallibly and supernaturally in obscurity.”
Fr. Thomas Keating implies that as we become contemplatives we know longer care whether God is a Trinity, whether Jesus came to save us, whether He is Love personified. That’s like saying the man at the height of his love no longer cares about his beloved’s hopes, fears, and desires, or the memories they share.
In contemplative knowledge, we know God Himself. We know Him from the inside, because we have been drawn up into His life. We know Him as a whole. Articles of Faith are part of that whole, but the whole is beyond them. The Articles of Faith can never express the fullness of the God we have come to know. Yet, those facts are still true, and we love them more than ever, because we love Him more than ever.
We need to distinguish between the Articles of Faith, however, and theology, especially theological speculation. Some of us are tempted toward inordinate curiosity. We want to learn all there is to know about God. So we read the Summa, and so on. Here is something we need to understand: Unless God calls you to be a theologian or teacher of theology, seeking intellectual knowledge about God can become a hindrance to spiritual growth.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange criticizes “heavy and stupid intellectual curiosity” (again paraphrasing John of the Cross). He calls it “a mania of collecting” that St. Thomas Aquinas attributed to spiritual sloth. It can lead to pride and folly. He writes:
“This type of work, instead of training the mind, smothers it, as too much wood smothers a fire. Under this jumble of accumulated knowledge, they can no longer see the light of the first principles, which alone could bring order out of all this material and lift up their souls even to God…”
All this knowledge can lead to blindness through pride. Do we really desire to know God better, or just to know facts about Him, facts with which we can correct others or pride ourselves in understanding?
St. Paul was one of the most learned men of his time, but his learning did not help him to recognize the Messiah. Later, he wrote, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2).
It’s not that this knowledge of facts or speculation about God is bad. It’s that as far as union with Him is concerned, it’s useless. And to reach that union, we must let go of every useless thing. We need to come to the point where it no longer matters to us whether there will be animals in Heaven, for example. Or what happened to the lost tribes of Israel. Or even how God’s Providence and man’s free will interact.
How much more do we need to let go of current events or politics or scientific theories or history (unless, of course, God specifically calls us to such knowledge)!
Trust and tragedy
How can we trust God amid the daily suffering we bear, the tragedies in our families and friends or nation? How can we avoid being anxious or distraught when we choose to sin? The answer is the same: let go of focusing on the parts and focus on the whole.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says:
“If we followed this rule, the consideration of details would no longer make us lose sight of the whole, as so often happens, just as trees seen too near hinder one from seeing the forest. Those who say that the problem of evil cannot be solved and find in it an occasion of sin, are absorbed in the woeful verification of certain painful details and lose the general view of the providential plan in which everything is ordained to the good of those who love the Lord.
“The excessively meticulous study of details makes us depreciate the first global view of things; when the latter is pure, however, it is already elevated and salutary. Thus when a Christian child sees the starry sky, he finds in it a splendid sign of the infinite grandeur of God. Later on, if he becomes absorbed in the scientific study of the different constellations, he may forget the view of the whole, to which the intellect must finally return the better to comprehend its loftiness and profundity. It has been said that if a little learning withdraws a person from religion, great learning brings him back to it.”
And when he comes back to it, he must then let his great learning go.
Every event of our lives, every event of history, is only one tree in the forest of God’s plan, which has been working itself out since the dawn of creation. We cannot hang on to the trees. If we dare to let go, dare to know nothing except Christ, He will raise us up to where we can see the whole forest. For the forest is within God, and in contemplation we come to know Him from the inside.