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Pondering the Night of the Senses and the Paradox That We See Farther in the Darkness

September 14, 2017 5 Comments

As human beings we are very visual; there is a certain demand of our flesh to see on its own terms. But of course God, who is pure spirit, will not be seen in this way.

How can the human eye perceive what is spiritual? It is not designed to do so. We cannot see God as God any more than we should expect to be able to see justice sitting down to lunch with humility. These are not physical concepts; they are metaphysical ones. We may see evidence of their existence, but we do not see them physically—so also with God. We see a lot of evidence of His existence, but we do not see Him with our earthly eyes.

There is a well-known (but inaccurate) saying, “Seeing is believing.” Actually it is not; seeing is only seeing. When we see things physically, one of two things happens, either of which eliminates the existence of any sort of faith:

  1. We see something and accept it as true, in which case faith is no longer necessary, for it is not necessary to believe what we can plainly see.
  2. We scoff or act bemused and continue to disbelieve, saying (for example when we see a magic trick), “There’s a way of doing that; it’s just an illusion.”

In either case, faith (human or supernatural) is set aside when we see something with our earthly eyes.

Therefore, as Scripture insists over and over again, faith is not a matter of seeing in a physical way.

  • Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not (Hebrews 11:1).
  • So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:18).
  • For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
  • For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? (Rom 8:24)
  • For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then, we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor 13:12).
  • And though you have not seen [Jesus], you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:8-9).
  • Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29).
  • So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17).

St. Thomas Aquinas says, Faith is a habit of the mind whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 4 ad 1).

Therefore, faith is not about what is seen with our earthly eyes. It comes from hearing—hearing the Word of God.

That said, faith is a way of knowing and thus also a way of “seeing,” but more in the intellectual sense, such as when we say, “Oh! Now I see” when we grasp a point intellectually. Although we know and “see” by faith, spiritual theologians such as St. John of the Cross remind us that the seeing and knowing by faith is “obscure.”

Usually we think of the word “obscure” with a slightly negative connotation. If something is obscure, it is tricky or hard to figure out; we look for something to illumine the darkness, to scatter the obscurity.

Not so fast. Consider the deeply paradoxical notion that the darkness, the obscurity, actually helps us to see better! Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains it this way:

Obscure faith enlightens us somewhat like the night, which though surrounding us with shadows, allows us to see the stars, and by them, the depths of the firmament. … That we may see the stars, the sun must hide, night must begin. Amazingly, in the obscurity of the night we see to a far greater distance than in the day; we see even the distant stars which reveal to us the immense expanse of the heavens. … [And so] faith, although obscure, opens up to us the supernatural world and its infinite depths: the Kingdom of God, His inner life, which we shall see unveiled and clearly in eternity (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Tan Publications Vol 1, p. 361).

In the darkness we see farther and deeper into space. Sunlight is precious, but it envelops us; it closes us in a much smaller world. We see better what is near; what is farther off and higher up is lost to us. From the perspective of our physical senses, faith is a “dark” knowing or seeing. By it, we see farther and higher, longer and deeper.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange continues,

Faith is obscure but it illumines our intellect … in a way very superior to the senses and to reason. … What is evident for our senses is sensible, not spiritual; therefore, it is not God himself. … Now faith makes us attain here on earth the inner life of God in the penumbra, in obscurity. Consequently, a man who preferred visions to infused faith would deceive himself … for he would prefer what is superficial and exterior, and what is accessible to our faculties, to what surpasses them. He would prefer figures to the divine reality (Ibid).

Therefore, we must be wary of the strong demand of our flesh to see on its own terms. Our earthly eyes cannot see God on the terms that our flesh demands. He is just too immanent, too transcendent, for that. Our eyes see what physically exists but not Existence Himself. If we yield to this demand of our flesh we are going to limit our world immensely. We will certainly see worldly and physical things well, but we will miss the greater portion of reality: the Kingdom of God and God Himself!

Welcome to the modern world; a small world increasingly closed in on itself; a world no longer enchanted and charged with mystery; a world that demands to see only in physical terms, preferring what is superficial and exterior, preferring the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

Ponder the great paradox of the “darkness” and “obscurity” of faith. In the humility of accepting the darkness, we see farther, higher, deeper, and longer. Jesus is the Light of the world, but we see Him in the “darkness” of faith; we understand Him most clearly not by the false light of this world, but by faith. Faith is obscure to our senses, but understood by our souls as a necessary condition to loving Him as our true and only Light.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Nick says:

    The night of the body (or senses) is when God increases the battle of prayer: failure in prayer and making us aware of our erroneous notions of prayer. This God does to perfect the human virtues of humility, hope, and perseverence. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2725-2745)

    The night of the soul (or faith) is when God increases one’s share in Jesus’ Hour of Prayer: abandonment to Providence the more one suffers and the more one feels abandoned by God. This God does to perfect our faith. (Catechism 2746-2758)

    These nights are not two unique or separate events, but come continuously, as the soul increases in perfection until death. These nights are not for some but for all souls, in light of Christians’ share in Jesus Life and in light of mankind’s predestination to Heaven.

    A lie that Satan has spread among Christians is that these nights are reserved for “special” souls and that “victim souls” are chosen souls. Rather, these nights are a normal part of Christian life and the so-called “victim souls” are just exemplary sharers in Jesus’ Triple Office. Indeed, all of Israel is chosen because God chooses the dumb, the week, and the poor, because the God of Israel is the God of Jews and gentiles alike.

  2. Peter Beck says:

    The very essence of our faith and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ, explained beautifully. Thank you, Monsignor Pope!

  3. bobster says:

    wonderful insights. the ‘dark night’ term is tossed around freely and often conveys a sort of gloomy trial. the image of being able to see the stars at night is a wonderful clarification.

  4. Dan says:

    Faith is a favor, a gift from God. Most, or all people understand Faith to be ‘belief’. Beliefs are subjective actions that everyone does. Any particular belief can or cannot have a connection to truth, as there are not any rules to belief.

    Faith, (capital “F”), and also quoted as “The-Faith” is connection. God in heaven leans over and extends his right arm down to earth and grabs ahold of a person. This relationship is not an ‘it’ but rather an ‘us’, and again a gift, a grace, as we do not ascend to this like a belief but rather He condescends.

    So, let’s take another look at the Hebrews verse but in the original verbage.

    “Now The Faith is a substance hoped for, evidence of a certain quality of business not seen.”

    Saint Paul never actually mentioned any “things” in this verse. “Things” were added by translators.

    With love, Dan

  5. Fr. Tomas O'Cathail says:

    Blessed be God, Monsignor Pope! A wonder-filled thought that you’ve served us:
    To see beyond what’s in my face and know the things eternal;
    The darker the night the more brilliant the Light,
    and deeper the delight born of His sight!

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