May 8, 2012

Theological Contemplation - theological and mystical wisdom

Prayer and theology bring the wisdom that comes from the Cross of Christ to bear on the need for truth living in the heart of humanity.  This is, in part, the message of the International Commission on Theology in Theology Today: persepctives, principles and criteria released on November 29, 2011.  This document, the fruit of years of study and conversation by various members of this pontifical commission, offers an approach to theology rooted in the Word of God and the vital engagement of human reason.  

As a student of spiritual theology, the Commission's perspective "theological contemplation" (see #61) is especially interesting. Contemplation of the Word of God is presented as an effort which brings all the powers of reason to bear on the effort to behold the wonder of what God has revealed of Himself in the world for our sake. Divine revelation flows from and leads to the Cross where the Word made flesh lays bear the fullness of what God has to say to each of us. Theological contemplation consists in making human intelligence and affectivity completely vulnerable to this paschal mystery.


Contemplation means "to behold," "to see," "to gaze upon." Those who contemplate behold the wonder of what is. In this wonder filled gaze, the heart opens to all that is beautiful and good. In this kind of knowing, truth and love are co-existence: the mind loves the good sees and sees the truth it loves. This wisdom is possible because we are in the image of God - God who beholds that that is good and loves it into existence including all of humanity to whom He has disclosed Himself definitively in the Word made flesh.

The natural wonder of all that His hands have made is so beautiful that some devote their whole lives to beholding the beauty of creation even if they do not acknowledge it as created: philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, and almost every other kind of scientist in various degrees and according to their distinct methods. Our naturally endowed capacity for wonder frail though it is nonetheless truly opens to the vast splendor of the things that are.

There is another kind of contemplation, theological contemplation, which requires God's help.  This kind of study is no easy undertaking.  Nor is it something someone can safely take up as an isolated individual. Great things in life require great effort, and the most difficult understakings draws us together in support of one another.  While either an urgent plight or a sense of adventure might move someone to take up a great work, theological contemplation involves both the plight of humanity and the noble calling with which each human being is endowed. 

In theology, God draws us to Himself and draws us together with one another so that we might know the truth in a saving way.  Holy Spirit has been sent to the Church so that we might together support one another in this difficult task.  Even with divine assistance and the Church, this kind of study is the most difficult of all human endeavors because what God has revealed far exceeds our frail natural powers to fully comprehend. That is why there is so much strong disagreement and even vital mistakes that are made in the effort to attain this Christian wisdom.

In theological contemplation, God helps all our efforts to understand his incomprehensible love so that we are able to see difficult to discern connections between the truths of the faith not only among themselves but also in relation to what is known by the natural power of reason. God who created our natural powers of reason aids our natural effort to understand what He has done, constantly purifying our gaze and endowing us with ever more penetrating insights. Even after two thousand years, we have barely begun to understand all that Christ has revealed to us.   His riches are inexhaustible! Yet, in addition to his generous cooperation with our efforts to understand Him, He can also raise our natural powers of wonder to participate in his very life. Here, theological contemplation, when radically rooted in the Word of God, glimpses for a moment a light not of this world, a hope that infuses with divine love, an eternal love which makes all things new.  Such is the inheritance of the saints before the Throne of the Lamb.

In theological contemplation where the Word of God is sought in the words of the Bible, where study of the sacred page is imbued with promptings of the Holy Spirit, where prayerful reflection on the tradition handed on to us vigilantly prepares to give an account for the hope we have in Christ; this kind of wisdom brings to humanity an anticipation of the splendor God has yearned to share from before the foundation of the world. The Commission proposes that this effort truly contributes to humanity a certain "supernatural Christian wisdom" of which there are two distinct but related forms, theological and mystical:

This supernatural Christian wisdom, which transcends the purely human wisdom of philosophy, takes two forms which sustain one another but should not be confused: theological wisdom and mystical wisdom. 
Theological wisdom is the work of reason enlightened by faith. It is therefore an acquired wisdom, though it supposes of course the gift of faith. It offers a unified explanation of reality in light of the highest truths of revelation, and it enlightens everything from the foundational mystery of the Trinity, considered both in itself and in its action in creation and in history. In this regard, Vatican I said: ‘Reason illuminated by faith, when it seeks zealously, piously and soberly, attains with the help of God some understanding of the mysteries, and a most fruitful understanding, both by analogy with those things which it knows naturally, and also from the connection of the mysteries among themselves and with the final end of man’.The intellectual contemplation which results from the rational labour of the theologian is thus truly a wisdom.
Mystical wisdom or ‘the knowledge of the saints’ is a gift of the Holy Spirit which comes from union with God in love. Love, in fact, creates an affective connaturality between the human being and God, who allows spiritual persons to know and even suffer things divine (pati divina), actually experiencing them in their lives. This is a non-conceptual knowledge, often expressed in poetry. It leads to contemplation and personal union with God in peace and silence. (Theology Today, #91, bold and italics added)