In the Darkness We See Farther – Pondering the Paradox of the "Dark Knowing" of Faith

051215As human beings we are very visual and 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 physically see them. And so also with God. We see lots 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.” But actually it is not; seeing is only seeing. When we see physical things or events, 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.

  1. Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not (Hebrews 11:1).
  2. 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).
  3. For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
  4. 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)
  5. 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).
  6. 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).
  7. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29).
  8. 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 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, as when we say, “Oh! Now I see” when we grasp a point intellectually. And though 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.”

Now usually we think of the word “obscure” with a negative connotation. If something is obscure, it is tricky or hard to figure out and 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).

And therefore we must beware of the strong demand of our flesh to see on its own terms. Our earthly eyes are not going to 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. For 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 and 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 only and true Light.

When Have You Prayed Enough? A Quick Guide for the Anxious or Scrupulous Soul

070113In his attempt to discourage the faithful, Satan will often tap into the idealism of those who have chosen to pursue a special and dedicated spiritual path. In effect, he will tempt them with a false piety by sowing the thought that they have not done all they could do, that if only they would do more, pray more, fast more etc., they would have better results, or that other souls, or that the world would be in better condition.

Not only do such a thoughts seem pious, but, in fact, such thoughts have some roots in reality. Our finite abilities and capacities mean there will always be more that we can do, more that can be accomplished. Frankly, commitment, for limited creatures like us, can always be expanded in wider directions! And this how Satan discourages the devoted and dedicated soul.

But the trap is this, when you could always do more, you have never done enough! And thus discouragement and the sense of being overwhelmed sets in. Presuming that the call to pray more and more is from God, the vexed soul starts to experience God more as a task-master and slave driver, than as a savior and deliverer. And this is just where Satan wants us: discouraged, angry and fearful.

Therefore, it is important for the dedicated, yet scrupulous or afflicted person to consider, along with a spiritual director, a path and prayers that can reasonably be said, given one’s state in life. And, having done so, to pursue that path steadily, not allowing Satan to discourage them by guilty thoughts and false piety, which says they should do more, and more.

In this regard, St. Ignatius, in the Spiritual Exercises advises the faithful: Age quod agis (Do what you are doing). In other words, stay the course, hold fast and be constant to an agreed-upon, and reasonable spiritual program.

St. Francis De Sales says in his Introduction to the Devout Life, addresses a similar concern when he writes: The practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation, and to the duties of each one in particular…Tell me please, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life as if he were a monk, or for a working man to spend all day in church like a religious. Is not this sort of devotion…unorganized and intolerable?

St. Augustine also says in his Letter to Proba: More things are accomplished in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words.

St. Paul does say that we should “Pray always” but by this he means that we should seek the gift to be in living conscious contact with God all through the day. He does not mean prayer in the sense of having suspended all other actions or neglecting other duties.

And thus one should pray daily, but other duties ought not be neglected, including duties to  yourself, to sleep, work, family and communal involvement etc. Prayer is to be integrated into our lives, and by God’s grace support us in our other duties. It will be helpful to speak with a pastor, spiritual director or other wise soul to ensure one does not neglect prayer, but neither is one scrupulously anxious of never having done enough.

Each day, having prayed, serenely move to the other duties of the day and do not be unsettled by discouraging thoughts from the devil that you ought to pray longer and with more words. The Lord knows your heart, and your desire for deliverance, and for holiness.  And when thoughts occur that you ought to pray more and more and in often burdensome ways, simply say, “Jesus, I trust in your love for me.”

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
Thy wings shall my petition bear
To Him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless.

And since He bids me seek His face,
Believe His Word and trust His grace,
I’ll cast on Him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

The Our Father: More than Words, it is a Structure for the Spiritual life.

Of all prayers, the Our Father is the best known. This is good but it also bespeaks a challenge. For when something is so well known we can say it mindlessly and miss its message. The Our Father is more than words to say. The words are surely precious for they are from the Lord but if the exact words were the only point then surely we would not have different wording  in the Matthean and Lucan versions. Even more essential than the exact words is the teaching and message they convey about what our spiritual life should be.

I want to recommend for your consideration that the Our Father gives us more than words to say. It also gives us a structure for our prayer life, a basic plan for our spiritual life. There seem to be five basic elements set forth in the Lord’s Prayer. I would like to set them forth in what follows after discussing the introduction to the Our Father.

In Matthew’s Gospel the Lord gives the Our Father in the middle section of the Sermon on the Mount. He introduces it with these words:

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matt 6:7-8)

Multiplying words? It will be noted that when someone is a stranger we tend to multiply words. This is because we are nervous and so we chatter about the weather, dumb stuff etc. because we cannot bear the silence. But when we know someone well, even extended periods of silence are not uncommon or nerve-wracking.  Further, we instinctively know when we have communicated effectively with those we know. We don’t have to keep repeating our self. This is likely what Jesus had in mind. If God is a stranger we multiply words and doubt we have been understood. We can even be superstitious and think that certain incantations will unlock the Divine will. But when we are in living conscious contact with God we are at peace. We don’t have to nervously chatter and be superstitious, thinking only many words and proper incantations will satisfy.

This does not mean we should not specifically make our needs known or not persist in prayer (which is different than chattering away). Persistence is elsewhere and consistently taught by Jesus as a norm for prayer: Lk 18:1ff; Lk 11:5ff; Mat 7:7.

It does not mean that prayers like the rosary are excluded either. But we must be clear that the repetition of  the rosary is for our sake not God’s. The rhythmic repetition of prayers can facilitate a peaceful atmosphere for prayer. The rosary is like the Gospel on a string where we systematically meditate on the truths of the Gospel. It provides a structure for us, as it were. But it is not to be recited for the purpose of “springing” something from a reluctant God by some form of magic or mechanistic means. It is we who need things like the rosary, not God.

More than Words – This insight is important for what follows because the Lord is not rejecting verbal prayer only to superimpose a new but briefer verbiage. The Our Father is not a new “incantation.” It is rather the description of what ought to be going on in the mind and heart of one who prays. It is not as though Jesus is teaching, “Say only these exact words.” The words are precious but here again Jesus is trying to illustrate a deeper reality in us. He is illustrating by these words what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart as we pray: Here is what the mind and heart of a person of prayer is like. The Lord’s prayer suggests some basic qualities and dispositions of our spiritual life.

This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven,   hallowed be your name,  your kingdom come,  your will be done,   on earth as in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread; 12 and forgive us our debts,   as we forgive our debtors;  and do not subject us to the final test,   but deliver us from the evil one. (Matt 6:7-13)

Here then is the five-fold description of the basic elements of the Spiritual Life:

1. RELATEOur Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with family intimacy, affection, reverence and love. We are not praying the “the Deity” or the “Godhead.” We are praying to our Father who loves us, who provides for us and who sent his only Son to die for us and save us. When Jesus lives his life in us and His Spirit dwells in us we begin to experience God as our Abba, (Father). As developed in other New Testament texts, the deeper Christian word Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.”  When my Father was alive I did not call him “Father” I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. It is the family word for Father. It indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why the word Abba is not used here in the Our Father  is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme here:  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15 ) and here:  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”(Gal 4:6 ) The first element of the Spiritual life is to RELATE to God as to a Father who loves us and to experience him as Abba.

2. REJOICEhallowed by thy name!  The praise and love of God is the foundation of our lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due.        Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made: We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of God’s glory. Our prayer life should feature much joyful praise. Take a psalm of praise and pray it joyfully. Take the Gloria of the Mass and pray it with gusto! Rejoice in God, praise his name. Give glory to him who rides above the clouds. This is a refreshing way to pray since we were made to praise God and when we do what we were made to do we experience a kind of satisfaction. The second element of of the spiritual life is a life of vigorous praise: REJOICE!

3. RECEIVE (REFLECT) – your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven  – At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to his word of instruction, to his plan for us and for this world.  When Jesus lives in us we hunger for God’s word and strive to know his will and have it operative in our life. A basic component of the Spiritual life is receive the word and instruction of God so that his will might be manifest to us and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina). We ought to study the faith through the Catechism or other means. These are ways that we become open to God’s will that his Kingdom might be manifest in our lives. The Third element of the Spiritual life is an openness to to God’s teachings through the Church and Scriptures: RECEIVE!

4. REQUESTGive us today our daily bread – Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Allow bread in this case to be a symbol of all our needs. Our greatest need of course is to be fed by God and thus bread also points to the faithful reception of the Eucharist.  Intercessory prayer is often diminished today by many. But take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, pray the news. Much of the news contains many things for which to pray: victims of crime, disaster or war, the jobless, homeless and afflicted. Many are locked in sin and bad behavior, corruption, confusion, bad priorities and the like. Many are away from the sacraments and no longer seek their Eucharistic bread who is Christ. Pray, pray, pray. There are also good things we hear of and we should be grateful and ask that solutions be lasting. This intercessory prayer flows from our love and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray. The fourth element of the spiritual life is to intercede for ourselves and others.

5. REPENTand forgive us our trespasses,   as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  – Sin is understood at two levels here: 1: sin – (lowercase) our personal sins and trespasses, also referred to as our debts. 2. Sin (upper case) – referring to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins. Referred to here as evil. An essential element of our spiritual life is that we come to recognize the sins and deep drives of sins in our own life and beg deliverance from them as well as mercy. It is also true that we live in a sin soaked world were the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that it’s power will be curbed. Surely the rosary is a great tool in this regard as Our Lady has promised. Fasting and other forms or prayer are also helpful antidotes.  But in the end we must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own lives and that the whole world. The Fifth element of the Spiritual life is to REPENT of evil.

So here then is a structure for our spiritual life contained in the Our Father. Some may use this a structure for daily prayer. Hence if they are going to spend 25 minutes praying they spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use this structure for an over all reference for their spiritual life in general. It does not follow that all five need to be done every day without fail, but it does bespeak basic elements that ought to be present in our spiritual life in a regular sort of way.

Here is the Our Father sung in Aramaic, the Language of Jesus: