St Benedict, St Thomas and the Thought Police

How, you may ask, do I get from today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 19–23, which is about desire and corruption of the will, to St Thomas Aquinas and what I have called the thought police? It is really very simple. Today is the feastday of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian whose work has proved so influential on Western thought. His attempt to reconcile several elements of Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity led to many disputes which have continued to our own day. At one point, Thomas was even accused of championing Averroism (an extreme form of Aristotelianism he specifically rejected). It seems that not everyone was capable of reading what he wrote in the way that he intended, and those who put a false interpretation on his words assumed he held a position he did not. A very similar situation exists today, but it is more generalised and is often an unintended consequence of the way in which the internet has opened up all kinds of speculation and discussion. We read the words others have written and interpret them according to our own ideas. Sometimes we fail to understand properly, or we put a sinister twist on them. That is when the thought police launch their attack!

I sometimes wonder whether, had Thomas lived today and done much of his writing on the internet, he would have been able to do as much as he did. I suspect a lot of his time would have been taken up with patiently trying to explain to those less gifted than himself what he had already explained. I feel quite sure he would have been accused of lack of orthodoxy and had his motives impugned. Those who scoff at truth, or, just as bad, assume they have mastered the truth, easily forget that theology is a prayerful quest for understanding. It is not an exact science. Speculation, thinking aloud we might call it, sharing ideas, arguing, are all part of the way in which we deepen our comprehension; but the final point, the aim of theological endeavour, is, surely, experience of God. As Thomas remarked to Reginald after what is generally regarded as some sort of mystical experience, ‘All I have written seems like straw to me.’

When Benedict writes about desire, he too is urging us to go beyond the material facts of our daily life to experience of God. Not our will but His is to be done. He is aware that good people are led astray not by bad things but by good (cf Proverbs 16.25). Just as those who censured St Thomas Aquinas thought they were doing a good deed, so we can be misled. Benedict’s remedy is the constant scrutiny of mind and heart, the watchfulness I touched upon yesterday. He is a practical man, writing for practical people, few of whom will have the intellectual or spiritual gifts of St Thomas. He simply tells us God is always with us and our every desire is before Him. That is both a comforting thought and a very disturbing one.


From Mysticism to Mischief-Making by Way of Misunderstanding

A report in the Italian-language edition of Zenit has set the media buzzing again about the reasons for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s resignation. The first problem, as always, is establishing what he actually said, to whom, and in what language. Not surprisingly, we have an unattributable story which has been quoted piecemeal,  without any understanding of the language of prayer and discernment.

According to Zenit, ‘a few weeks ago’ (i.e. before 19 August, when the story was published) Pope Benedict allegedly said to ‘someone’ in a private audience (i.e. an anonymous source in a private meeting, so not intended for formal reporting or publication), in reply to a question about the reason for his resignation, that ‘God told me to’, ‘immediately clarifying that it was not any kind of apparition or phenomenon of that kind, but rather “a mystical experience” in which the Lord gave rise in his heart to an “absolute desire” to remain alone with him in prayer.’

I think most people who pray will have no difficulty with this. Pope Benedict was merely saying that, after much prayer and discernment, he had come to the conclusion that it was time for him to step aside and devote himself to serving the Church by prayer. The reasons he gave publicly earlier in the year are no different from the ones he gave privately to that anonymous source except in their expression. Reported speech doesn’t convey the way in which words are spoken, nor do those who are outside a religious tradition necessarily understand the way in which words are used. ‘God told me to’ is religious shorthand, if you like, for a long process of prayer and discernment. It doesn’t mean a private revelation with Hollywood-style special effects, it means long hours of  searching for God’s will, coming to a conclusion and then testing that conclusion by every means open to one. In Benedict XVI’s case, surely that meant weighing up his own health and the demands of the papacy, the problems faced by the Church and his ability to get on top of them, the ‘talent’ within the College of Cardinals and finally a humble acceptance that he might have done all that he could as pope. The fact that this was accompanied by an ‘absolute desire’ to be alone with God rings true. Every monk and nun has experienced that same desire growing in their heart — and ‘growing’ is the operative word. To one who prays perseveringly, the desire to be with God grows ever greater, no matter how hard or unrewarding the experience of prayer may seem to be.

For many, of course, it is that reference to ‘mystical experience’ which is troublesome; so let us be clear, mystical experience is not what most people think it is. It does not involve apparitions, lights, voices, sweet smells, levitations, extraordinary revelations or anything of the kind, except incidentally and only in the early stages. Any writer on prayer will tell you that such things should be disregarded and are often delusions of the devil. No, mystical experience is beyond all that. It can be dark, painful, searing. It has to do with the will rather than the affections. A better word for it might be contemplative prayer. And as with all prayer, its authenticity must be tested by its fruits, what scripture calls, ‘testing the spirits to see if they come from God’. Is the desire/resolution formed in prayer good or bad, is it consistent with the Church’s doctrine, does it lead to greater charity, and so on.

I don’t think anyone who has read Benedict XVI’s writings can be in any doubt that they proceed from an intense interior life of prayer. By resigning the papacy he has demonstrated that he believes prayer to be the most important service he can offer the Church at this stage of his life. Prayer has no limitations, no boundaries; like love, it can never hurt anyone and achieves victories far greater than many realise. It is at the intersection between time and eternity. The media may want to make a little mischief by misunderstanding what the pope emeritus allegedly said, but all the mischief-making in the world cannot alter the facts. We are blessed to have in Benedict XVI someone who prays for the Church and the world with unremitting zeal and fidelity; and I, for one, am glad of that.