I’m still reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and I am finding more and more to like… more and more that “clicks” in my mind. The chapter on “Tradition and Revolution” is one of my favorites. Here are some excerpts that particularly resonated with me and with my Dominican soul. They also relate a bit to what I was talking about in my Easter Sunday post on belief and understanding.
… the saints arrived at the deepest and most vital and also the most individual and personal knowledge of God precisely because of the Church’s teaching authority, precisely through the tradition that is guarded and fostered by that authority.
The first step to contemplation is faith; and faith begins with an assent to Christ teaching through His Church; fides ex auditu, qui vos audit, me audit. “He that heareth you, heareth Me.” And “faith cometh by hearing.”
It is not the dry formula of a dogmatic definition by itself that pours light into the mind of a Catholic contemplative, but the assent to the content of that definition deepens and broadens into a vital, personal and incommunicable penetration of the supernatural truth which it expresses–an understanding that is a gift of the Holy Ghost and which merges into the Wisdom of Love, to possess Truth in its infinite Substance, God Himself.
… The dogmas defined and taught by the Church have a very precise, positive and definite meaning which those who have the grace to do so must explore and penetrate if they would live an integral spiritual life. For the understanding of dogma is the proximate and ordinary way to contemplation.
Yet true contemplation is not arrived at by an effort of the mind. … But God gives true theologians a hunger born of humility, which cannot be satisfied with formulas and arguments, and which looks for something closer to God than anaology can bring you.
This serene hunger of the spirit penetrates the surface of words and goes beyond the human formulation of mysteries and seeks, in the humiliation of silence, intellectual solitude and interior poverty, the givt of a supernatural apprehension which words cannot truly signify.
Beyond the labor of argument it finds rest in faith and beneath the noise of discourse it apprehends the Truth, not in distinct and clear-cut definitions but in the limpid obscurity of a single intuition that unites all dogmas in one simple Light, shining into the soul directly from God’s eternity …
Here the Truth is One Whom we not only know and possess but by Whom we are known and possessed.
I have had countless experiences where studying Scripture, the Catechism, or some theological text has led me to a more direct, intuitive apprehension of God.
At times it can be dramatic, like a bolt of lightning. I remember one day sweating over the concept of the Holy Trinity (one of my favorite theological mysteries). My brain was going round and round, tying itself into knots. And then, out of nowhere, without my seeking it or expecting it, there was a kind of “flash”–and all in an instant, I suddenly understood! But in the very next instant, of course, I realized what was happening, and instead of resting in the light and in the sublime vision, my fool of a mind latched on to the experience itself–“Oh my gosh, this must be some kind of contemplative experience!”–and the light vanished as quickly as it had come.
That’s happened to me a few times, and sadly I haven’t learned to stay still and be quiet. Or maybe it’s just supposed to be a quick “flash.” Maybe that’s all I can handle. In any case, it’s always enough to inspire me and keep me going in my pursuit of Truth.
More often, however, I’ll be in the process of studying, and I will just be moved by how incredible God is. How good and beautiful and tremendous and majestic He is. And I find that my studying becomes a form of prayer in which as my mind absorbs the divine truths, it also responds with praise, with thanksgiving, with worship. It becomes like a dialogue between God and my soul. A deep, wordless connection. A sea of love and understanding and wisdom.
This is why it is so important to submit yourself to learning and, if necessary, struggling with Church teaching. And why you must begin from a position of submission and faith, from the position, “I believe that the Church is right.” Do that, and before you know it, your mind and your soul will open up to something and Somebody far greater than you. You will see the light of Truth. It might not happen in a bolt of lightning–it may happen slowly and gradually. But it will happen if you are open.
It’s also why studying theology is so important for me. People ask, “Why do you want to study theology? What good will that do you?” That’s understandable because in our society, studying is often intricately tied to career, to earning a salary, to getting ahead in the world, to gaining prestige. Sure, people also study for leisure and enjoyment, for self-cultivation. Theology is not a field of study usually associated with either career or leisure. OK, maybe it’s part of your “career” if you are becoming a priest, but beyond that, it doesn’t seem to provide any real prospects. So what is it that compels me and so many other people to study it, or to wish to study it?
It is simply this: that theology is an encounter with God. With Life and Love and Truth and Goodness and Beauty and Mercy and Justice and Happiness. With everything that the human soul loves, longs for, and adores.
That is the value in studying theology. It is also the true value in studying anything else, insomuch as any genuine and earnest search for truth will ultimately lead the soul to God Who is Truth.