"...Without this word no man judgeth rightly"---The Imitation of Christ
The Most Human Question
Our First Love. There is a marvelous little story somewhere which relates that, as a little boy, the future St. Thomas Aquinas would wander about asking the bewildered adults around him, "What is God?" Surely those adults could never have imagined the fertility of thought and heart which lay in the ovum of that little boy's question.
And I believe the story is more than mere legend, precisely because it is, while surely charming, not all that unusual. While most of us could never even remotely approach the deductive genius which would be born from little Thomas' question, doubtless all of us at one time or another began asking it, at least implicitly. It is a question that is proper to children ---and to the most erudite philosophical and scientific minds in all ages. In some ways it is the most human question of all.
For something in us tells us that we are contingent creatures in a contingent world and universe. Something very early nudges us to the realization that we did not create ourselves, and that we do not possess the reason for our own being within ourselves. Something in us points yonder, to a Heart which accounts for our own beating hearts, as surely as a deer pines for running waters.
The Shock of Being
While I did not formulate the experience into a question at the time, I do very distinctly remember the first time I was confronted by the reflective shock of being, i.e., of existence. I was very young, maybe five or six; it was close to a half century ago now.
It was a beautiful, bright, exquisite sunny morning with skies all blue and white fluffy clouds, and I had gone out to sit on the front steps of the house my family lived in, maybe to wait for some friends. Even now as I recall it the picture presents itself to my mind in a way that evokes palpable emotion. I remember just sitting there, alone, and listening to the wondrous sounds of the morning, and breathing its mystical sweet air. For the first time---at least so far as I can recall---I saw the world, or, rather was grasped by it, and was astonished. It was the first time the world presented itself to me as mystery.
"Seeing" it in such a way, rather than just "playing" as on other ordinary days, was something utterly new, a precious, dumbfounding, breakthrough. It was an experience of being.
The Intuition of Being
In a footnote in his memoir, Approaches without Shackles (Arthème Fayard, 1973), Jacques Maritain said (and the words are entirely his):
"The intuition of being has been lived and practiced by St. Thomas and the Thomists (the good Thomists) but I do not know (perhaps due to my ignorance) of a treatise or disquisition where it has been explicitly studied by them".
The comment makes me marvel. How could it be that that which is the pre-condition of all thought itself, has not been "explicitly studied" throughout the centuries as such? Doubtless the good Thomists "lived and practiced," it as Maritain says, but still...
But then again maybe it was the mystics, together with art and poetry which had to fill that breach, with the theologians generally called to be the referees, pointing out the foul lines in light of the revelation of God in Christ.
It certainly is true that an unfettered immersion into sheer being without guidance can plunge a person into a chaos of thought and false deductions, if there is no chart, compass, and lighthouse to lead the way. But perhaps we could have expected better guidance from the theologians had they explicitly focused on it in published reflection.
The Light of the World
Jesus said, "I am the Light of the world, He that walks in me will not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life" (Jn 8:12). "Without this Word no man judges rightly," the Imitation of Christ says.
Good artists of all kinds have some share in this revelation of the Light of the world:
"Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every “epiphany” of the inner beauty of things." ---JPII, Letter to Artists, #6
Maybe had the theologians pondered this matter of true art and the intuition of being more deeply at the time, poor Savranola, who detested and feared so much of the art of the Renaissance, might have understood more, and spared himself much bitterness and his sorry, scandalous end. Such were the times.
The Mere Polemicists
But even today, there remain many Savranola's - who argue endlessly about theology more than experience the wonder of the intuition of being sometimes called practicing the presence of God---which is arguably the first subject of both philosophy and theology, and which leads us to spiritual perception, little by little; and ultimately to spiritual awakening, charity, and good works. Polemics has its place, answering falsehoods, no question it is sometimes necessary, but once a point has been made, there is no point in obsessing as if we were one dimensional...
A philosopher said, "a little philosophy and science will take a man away from God; but a great deal of it will bring him back." This is because philosophy, too, must ever return, again and again, to its source, to the Triune God, to the intuition and shock of being and its implications; and in so doing, it implicitly awaits the revelation of the Light of the world.
Human thought itself is in a sense a revelation of creation, of the mystery that anything is, and that every existent must have a cause, and that it defies reason itself to suggest that the ultimate symmetrical interrelatedness of the universe does not reflect intelligent design but evolved from chance and the Nothing. To treat existence in a ho-hum, casual fashion, as something "ordinary," is sheer delusion, shocking myopia, a postponing of the inevitable awakening which explains why we are or that anything is at all. After the creation of the universe, every true miracle is but a footnote.
Our Call to the Immediate
Presence of God
The intuition of being reminds us that all persons, and certainly Christians, have a call to the immediate presence of God, who has revealed Himself as the Light of the world, as Living water to those who thirst, and as heavenly Bread to the spiritually hungry.
This immediate presence of God often takes place in the spaces between our thoughts, without prejudice to thought. Sometimes, especially today, we must turn off the obsessive discursive chattering in our world, and in our heads, and simply be in the presence of God, if we are to find ourselves as intended by the Creator. To be in His presence is to relish Reality.
We know that every act of evil is a free rejection of the commandments of God. Man is free is choose to obey, or to go his own way in the abuse of the gift freedom without which we would be robots, not free at all. Heaven and Hell begin in our hearts here; and when we pass this life, we carry the weight of our sins or the gift of forgiveness into eternity with us. The tree lay where it falls. The verb of life becomes the noun of who we have become through the exercise of our freedom in this life.
Wherever We Are
The Cure of Ars said that when he adored in front of the Blessed Sacrament, he simply "looked at the Good God" and the Good God "looked back" at Him. It is this being in the presence of God, in silence, adoration, and thankfulness which makes us human. The human person pines for Another beyond and above all others, just as a baby pines for the milk of its mother.
There's a time for speaking to God and a time for silence before Him. Our Lord often went into the Mountains and other places of solitude to pray, doubtless in words sometimes as well as in periods of protracted holy silence. Our Lord's prayers in the Gospels were short. I suspect His silences of Love within the presence of the Father were long.
Whether we simply sit in front of the Tabernacle or a homemade altar with icon and candle, walk contemplatively through the neighborhood, letting go of our anxieties, conscious of each grain of sand and flower; or close our eyes on the subway, we can be "with Him" now, wherever we are, and return to our Source and Solace. We need that for our souls.
Thomas a' Kempis summed it up beautifully:
HAPPY is he to whom truth manifests itself, not in signs and words that fade, but as it actually is. Our opinions, our senses often deceive us and we discern very little.
What good is much discussion of involved and obscure matters when our ignorance of them will not be held against us on Judgment Day? Neglect of things which are profitable and necessary and undue concern with those which are irrelevant and harmful, are great folly.
We have eyes and do not see.
He to whom the Eternal Word speaks is free from a multitude of opinions. For from this Word are all things and of Him all things speak -- the Beginning Who also speaks to us. Without this Word no man understands or judges aright. He to whom it becomes everything, who traces all things to it and who sees all things in it, may ease his heart and remain at peace with God....
The more recollected a man is, and the more simple of heart he becomes, the easier he understands sublime things, for he receives the light of knowledge from above. The pure, simple, and steadfast spirit is not distracted by many labors, for he does them all for the honor of God. And since he enjoys interior peace he seeks no selfish end in anything. What, indeed, gives more trouble and affliction than uncontrolled desires of the heart?...
Tell me, where now are all the masters and teachers whom you knew so well in life and who were famous for their learning? Others have already taken their places and I know not whether they ever think of their predecessors. During life they seemed to be something; now they are seldom remembered. How quickly the glory of the world passes away! If only their lives had kept pace with their learning, then their study and reading would have been worth while.
How many there are who perish because of vain worldly knowledge and too little care for serving God. They became vain in their own conceits because they chose to be great rather than humble. ---The Imitation of Christ, Bk 1: Chapter III
In the end all men rely on some authority whether they know it or not, they place faith in certain presuppositions. Christians follow Jesus. They don't make up the kind of revelation he revealed. "Let God be true and every man a liar,"---Rom 3:4