God the Real: Can we Know and Love Him?
God the Real: Can we Know and Love Him?

God the Real: Can we Know and Love Him?

In the first part of this article, published in our previous issue, Fr. Holloway critiqued the view, held by some theologians in the post-conciliar years, that we cannot comprehend the nature of God and therefore cannot love God in a personal sense.

Let us come to the heart of the matter. What is the relationship between the body and the soul? First, it is wrong to look upon the soul as made simply to control and direct the body, to “look after it” so to say, because the brain of man is a matter-energy formula that needs the soul and is unintelligible in nature without it (see Catholicism: A New Synthesis p. 81). This statement may be true, but through the spirit the body is meant to be taken up and ennobled in the order of the spiritual. This is the whole meaning and majesty of the Incarnation of God in Christ, and why we must place the Incarnation in its meaning, not at the Fall but at the meaning and purpose of the Universe itself. The body is not made to be a burden and a nuisance to the spirit. It is the effect of Original Sin which has brought something of this truly into the relationship of the body to the spirit (Romans 7:13-25).

The soul has its own proper powers, superior to the powers and senses of the body. It is through these powers of the intellect and will which define the spiritual substance that we do, even in this life, come to the partial but real inner “knowing” of God, and the partial but real “love” of God. Man is a union and communion of matter and spirit, but these are distinct energies of being, the spirit cannot evolve from, or with matter. The senses of the body, the word read, spoken or thought, these can and do prompt the soul to union with God through the powers of the soul, for man is a unity in nature.

From the same unity, the direct action of God upon the substance of the soul can, and often does, exalt the body in the spiritual joy of God known and savoured. In this communion with God in grace, to quote from memory a quaint phrase from St. John of the Cross, “both constituents of the human person feed on God, from their own separate plates.” But the experience is one in the one personality of man. It is through the superior powers, proper to the soul, and not dependent intrinsically upon the body for act that, after death and before the final restoration, we may hope to enjoy the blessed possession of God “as He Is”, as “co-sharers of the divine nature.” It is within these powers of the soul, the only true intellectual and volitive powers in human nature, that the Godhead itself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes to indwell in the communion of grace, according to the explicit teaching of Christ and of the Church (Aquinas, Grace, Wisdom, Joy in God: 1.2. QQ 110, 112, 115). How this can be without some sort of communion in knowing and in love, simply does not, at least to this writer, appear.

Mystics who have mapped “The Way”

We cannot ignore the explicit teaching of the Fathers of the Church in this matter, nor particularly of the two greatest and most easily available of the canonized mystics of the Reformation period, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila. It is for their teaching on the degrees of the communion of the soul with God in grace, and the continuity of that knowing and loving into the beatific possession, that they are both declared “doctors” or teachers of the Church. They are not infallible, but they do have very great authority. In the prayer of quiet for instance, in that higher degree of contemplative union in which the agony of the “dark night” of purgation is either not present or is suspended, a man or woman will find no desire to commune with God through “discursive” meditation, but will rest simply in the happy possession of “Him.” Yet, if the need of others should call for sermon or exposition, then “words, similes and metaphors will pour forth with greater abundance, and more certainty of conviction” according to St. John of the Cross. In this we understand how an apparently “nameless” but sweet savouring of God as wisdom through the interior virtue of faith contains and prompts all the knowledge which we strive to express by words and pictures, or what in technical scholastic philosophy would he called the “species expressa” of sense data.

One could suggest that this supports St. Thomas Aquinas’ theory of the “analogy of the degrees of being and reality,” and the “linkage” between them, and does more.  It implies that between this inner wordless possession in spiritual joy, and the outpouring of words in perhaps beautiful similes, there is also a natural proportion, so that in their own order as matter serving the spirit in man, these words and metaphors have a genuine similarity, intrinsically in their own order, to the simple union of the spirit. If it were not so, how would we explain the union and communion of man as one nature? If  it were not so, what authority and intrinsic truth would be contained in the parables of Jesus Christ, especially those from St. John’s Gospel, which portray the intimate, inner union of man with God? Such parables as the Vine and Branches, the Good Shepherd, or even the relationship of the body of Christ to his divinity, given to us as “the Bread of Life”? Whatever the testimony of reliable mystic saints to the reality of God known in peace and love, there can be few statements more explicit, or more shattering than Aquinas (2.2 QQ 24, 28, 45. 2. 2. Q 180) himself in this matter, in which he says of personal sanctifying grace that: “it is nothing other than a certain participation of the divine nature, which exceeds every other nature, and can be caused by none other than God.”

God the “energy” of the soul: grace as response of “life”

There is an enormous volume of writing upon the nature of grace. Shall we say starkly that it is that inner response of the soul through intellect and will, which prompts, at the divine communing the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The sunshine is the natural life energy of the bough that bursts into flower and fruit in the springtime, on earth. In that “environment” it lives, moves, and has its In the terms of sharing in his own divine life, God alone is the proper, and the only possible life-energy of the

created spirit, whether angel or man.being. In the terms of sharing in his own divine life, God alone is the proper, and the only possible life-energy of the created spirit, whether angel or man. God is our “environment”: in Him we live, move and have our being. God is the Sun, the Day Star from on high who has visited us. In the person of Jesus Christ, God has said of Himself that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and again, “I am come that they may have life, and have it the more abundantly” (John 14:6 and 10:10). God is the sun: on earth, even in the life of grace his Fulness overwhelms us, we do not compass it. Yet, God’s “sunshine” could be called the ray of participation, the real possession of his being in which the soul does bathe. This degree, like our earthly sunshine, differs in degrees of life-energy according to our response, just as earth’s sunshine differs according to favoured latitudes and positions.

“The Bread of Life”

The response of man’s spirit and whole person to God, like the setting of the blossom on the bough, is a growing in real life, a deepening in God. The virtues and the fruits of the Holy Spirit are the true harvest of the soul. Christ’s own analogy is similar – the Vine and the Branches - except that as the Vine he expresses not alone the office of the Godhead to the created spirit, but the office also of his manhood to us through the divine nature. This office is one with Christ”s relation- ship as Bread of Life. Thus body and soul we live in and by Him, and the whole man is “raised up” again at the last day. In the order of the Incarnation (Aquinas. Link between The Eucharist and Incarnation:

3. Q79, art I.) of God we perceive how, in the nature of mankind, body and soul, sense and spirit, are linked in a unity of comprehension of God and fulfilment in God. The words and the sacraments of Christ effect what they signify, in the body and also in the spirit. The dual energies, material and spiritual, of man’s being receives understanding and love in its own formality. The body, in its sensory imagery and expression, expresses faithfully like the sacraments of the Church, in a unity of symbolism, the inner communion of God upon man as a unity of body and soul. This writer at least sees no way of expressing this order of creation, which is in fact the order of the Incarnation of God, and of the action of God in the sacrament, except through the philosophy and theology of Aquinas. It means that the soul, through the data of sense can faithfully express the simple, higher possession of God in the inner man, and that God the purest of spirits, HE WHO IS, can faithfully reveal Himself, and be truly “grasped” by us in the flesh and in the spirit in the revelation of The Word, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Testimony of mystic saints

Dare one suggest that there is no need to say that God creates any sort of spiritual “representative impression” (species impressa) within the soul in the order of grace. The soul itself can well be the limiting principle which makes it possible to join itself to God, and yet by its limitations be unable at first either to know Him as he is, or even to possess him to that degree at which deliberate sin becomes morally impossible. Aquinas himself and more expressly St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila” (St. John of the Cross: Allison Peers ed. works: see Dark Night and Spiritual Canticle. St. Teresa of Avila: Allison Peers ed. works, esp., Way of Perfection and Interior Castle) imply that as the soul develops in likeness to God through grace, in its very being, that concupiscence is bound, and can even die out. In any case, as the “two flames become one Flame” the affection for that which is contrary to God’s perfection dies in the will and becomes distasteful. St. John of the Cross, in his degrees of love, through the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive way; St. Teresa through the imagery of the Interior Castle, in the centre of which the King dwells in his own regal state, express a continuity of process in which the limiting factor to fulness is the created spirit itself, and the fulness of which is the culmination of that process into blessedness when the web of the body (which must rise again, remade without the innate tendency to disobedience implanted by Original Sin) is cut from the transformed spirit.

The soul as image of the Trinity

Finally, this writer would like to express a leaning to Augustine rather than to Thomas, in being unable to accept the doctrine of Aquinas that in the possession of beatitude the intellect is superior to the will in the creature. Neither however is the will superior to the intellect. It is a matter of philosophy and has never been expressed in FAITH (for alas there is no market at all for pure philosophy in our readership!) but it seems that we need to develop The possession of God in beatitude is more than “vision,” it is joy proceeding from vision, and the degree of the joy is determined in proportion to the fulness of the wisdom, of the intellectual vision.

our concept of the intellect and will  as merely “faculties” of the soul. They should be defined rather as integrating aspects of the very substance of the angel, or of the soul of man. The possession of God in beatitude is more than “vision,” it is joy proceeding from vision, and the degree of the joy is determined in proportion to the fulness of the wisdom, of the intellectual vision. In the same way, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the “vision” between the Father knowing and the Son known. The Holy Spirit who proceeds according to will, or “love” is in no way inferior to, or superior to the Father and the Son.

One is saying that the Trinity is of the simple essence of God, and we are made to that image of the Trinity which in God is his “natural” Being. The intellect and will proceed within our substance by a direct analogy with the being of God, and the consequences need to be rethought, and Christian philosophy developed a little here. It will make of course all sorts of delightful controversies about whether or not a “natural” end for the nature of man, given that man’s nature expresses the God who is the Supernature by definition, is conceivable etc. Alas, such carnal indulgence cannot detain us here. It is enough for us to know that we can know God and love Him for real, person to person, and that His Incarnation is testimony enough to it. “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you, abide in my love ... and this is my commandment unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 14:9, 12). “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for

those also who through their words will believe in Me. May they all be one Father: may they be one in Us, as you are in Me, and I am in You. So that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you have given to me, so that they may be one as We are One. With Me in them and You in Me, may they be so completely one, that the world will realise that it was you who sent me, and thot I have loved them, even as You have loved Me. (Jn 17:19- 23). So, the sweet union and communion of God with men that the disciples knew in their lives on earth, belongs also to us, in the prayer of Christ. Let us confess that love, and abide in that love.

This was first published in the July/ August 1989 issue of FAITH. For more information about Fr. Edward Holloway’s writings, visit www.faith.org.uk/ideas/ edward-holloway.






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