Knowing God


from Ascent to Love
Sr. Ruth Burrows

The real point John is making is that at a certain point of growth a new form of knowledge is introduced that does not come through the normal channels of cognition. This is real knowledge of him who 'is night to the soul in this life', incomprehensible mystery. Thus in a practical existential way we are being asked to accept that 'nothing whatever that our imagination can conceive or our minds grasp in this life, can be God himself'; they are merely ideas about him no matter how spiritual they seem to be. Anything that we can actually regard and give an account of simply cannot be a direct experience of God.

Beginners for John are 'those who meditate on the spiritual road', which means they are those who are totally dependent on thoughts and ideas about God. Now for all of us, whatever state we are in, this is the only distinct knowledge we have; it is all we can know in the common acceptance of the term. When we write or talk it is always this kind of knowledge that is involved. But for beginners it is literally the sum total of their knowledge. It is not, as with advanced persons, merely that this is their conscious knowledge of God--it is, in objective reality, the sum of their knowledge. They are completely dependent on what their intelligence discovers of him and, as knowledge and love are closely intertwined, their love too is limited in this way.

This is so heartening--the thought that with enough progress I do not have to depend upon the nonsense that circulates in my head and calls itself "knowledge of God." My head so bulges and throbs with ideas about God that if my eventual success depended upon them, I would know for certain that there is no hope.

But my journey does begin with my thoughts and my ideas about God. In the light of transforming grace God gently moves me closer to Him by "perfecting" that knowledge in so far as I am capable of grasping it. The truth is that I am extraordinarily limited in this way. If two theologians were debating, I might be able to ask a couple of questions to fuel the fire, but I know so little that I would be persuaded first this way and then that way. The sum of my certain knowledge of theology is found in the revelation of the Scriptures, the defined doctrines and dogmas of the Church (in so far as I know and understand them), and most especially in the Creed. I understand at least the superficial meaning of every statement in the Creed, and I accept them unequivocally. This, at least is an organizing chain for thoughts.

But if we are living the life God has set out for us, thought will inevitably lead to deeper, inexpressible knowledge. This seems to be the message of all the great spiritual writers of the Church. At some point in prayer we move beyond meditation and thought about God into a deeper knowledge of Him that He Himself grants us. This is commonly called infused contemplation. However, that are a great many steps between these two ends, and I think all of us have experiences of the reality and the truth of God that extend beyond mere ideas. That transcendent and overwhelming feeling that has no reliable description in English when one first encounters a stunning landscape or work of art--that it seems to me is a small sense of what Sister Burrows means when she talks about "secret knowledge of God." It isn't a knowledge that sits outside of revelation, but rather a direct encounter.

I suppose one way of thinking about it is the translation from Divine Acquaintance (How do you do? So pleased to see you again.) to Divine Friendship (How can I help you deal with this difficult mater?) to Divine Intimacy (Oh let us be married, too long we have tarried, but what shall we do for a ring?). We all start at Divine Acquaintance. We seem to know something of God but are largely indifferent or only slightly warm to the matter we know. Most of us have probably moved beyond acquaintance to friendship, where we desire to spend more time and really get to know the Other. We go beyond the minimum requirements, but we still withdraw at times and move to be on our own. God stays in His place (figuratively speaking) and we go elsewhere. Finally, we know so much and understand enough, that we wish not to be merely friends that come and go, but we desire to become One Flesh, intimate family--we don't ever want to be parted from the presence or the security of our union. Most of us are like the proverbial bachelor--we want to keep our freedom, Divine Intimacy would really wreck our game plan for life. We need to be free to sample the pleasures of the world.

The reality is that it is only in the bonds of union that we become free enough to know what the pleasures of the world really are. And to get to union we must eventually go beyond our ideas and constructs and begin to trust God for who He is. We must experience the great I AM in the smallness of being "she who is not" (a quote from St. Catherine of Siena). This is the end goal--this is the Easter of our lives. Living the lives of good Christians and striving always to stay in a state of grace, we will find our way to this end eventually. But consider for a moment the profound triumph, beauty, passion, and ecstasy of finding ourselves there while still in the land of the living. Moving beyond merely knowing about into knowing while we still live. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Liguori, in fact every Saint who writes about the deep mystical life tells us that not only is it possible, it is what we are intended for. This is the "Mary" (as opposed to Martha) moment. This is the "one thing necessary." It is the end either here and now or in the life to come.

The good news is that this end is open to every one of us through the Grace of God. It is inconceivable that the God who said, "knock and it shall be opened, seek and ye shall find" would fail to live up to His word. Once again, it is merely a matter of making up our minds to do this. Choose Life. Choose intimacy. Love God now in the ideas and meditations, live the life partaking of sacramental grace, and pray that His will be done, and each one of us who does so can join those saints who achieved Divine Intimacy. It is not beyond us, it is within us, in the form of the Holy Spirit who constantly calls and urges us to move beyond our hesitant and sometimes cool friendship. The Holy Spirit calls us to ardor.

"Now is the acceptable time."

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 10, 2005 8:11 AM.

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