Contemplative Theology And Highest Wisdom

Often when I propose the possibility of a contemplative or kneeling theology, someone normally asks about upholding academic rigor.  The presumption is that a theology that is not primarily concerned with the questions of the academy is not likely to be demanding. In this worldview, admittedly the dominant view in most theological faculties, prayer is for the realm of the affections and imagination while study is about rational arguments and systems of thought. Such perceived dichotomy between devout prayer and serious study would seem to undermine the further dialogue that I wish would take place.

In the minds of many, contemplative theology evokes the possibility of no more than pious twaddle  – it is supposedly not serious or disciplined enough. Limited to an exercise in obscure associations and metaphors, too much so-called spiritual literature would seem to confirm such a judgment. Too many retreat conferences are pitched at a level that appeals only to the imagination. Perhaps because we have such atrophied hearts some of this helps us get back in touch with our humanity. Perhaps because we live in an abstract world disconnected from our own bodies, beginning to pray involves getting back in touch with the fact that we are enfleshed souls. The imagination indeed can be part of such an effort for it is connected to our senses. Indeed, nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses – but if we do not plunge our senses into reality, if we do not discipline the flesh, the soul is left empty and the imagination rendered vulnerable to nihilism.

Yet it is a horrific mistake to believe that prayer is not about the truth or that it is mindless. It is rash to assume that contemplation in the Catholic tradition looks out on anywhere other than the very truth for which our whole being hungers.  Indeed, contemplative theology is more demanding, not less, than the theology proper to the contemporary academy. Such a kneeling theology is open to the painful silence that the contemporary academy would rather avoid — and in this silence, it learns to listen.

When we kneel before the presence of God, we must not believe our relationship to Him is limited to some affective imaginative exercise. As we trace the Sign of the Cross, it is catastrophic to presume anything other than this truth: by that power and authority wrought by what He suffered, He makes a claim over our very being, a claim before which we are accountable.  Our Crucified God, present in faith, bears the standard before which is measured what we have done and failed to do, who we are and who we have become. Not to know Him and what He has revealed about who we are can only limit our freedom to fully live — for there is no freedom without this saving truth — oh yes, that truth for which the soul pants and all of creation suffers labor pains.

 

What is at stake is the highest wisdom – that wisdom without which one’s own life can only be diminished, without which the whole world be made less.  This wisdom requires a study of theology that is directed to union with God.  This wisdom also requires prayer informed and safeguarded by sound doctrine, the truth that God has revealed and that the Holy Spirit makes known in the preaching of the Church.  Those who know this wisdom have access to the deep things of God – to a word of hope that their neighbors need now more than ever.

This wisdom requires the ongoing conversion of one’s whole life, an intense struggle against sin and spiritual battle against principalities and powers. This highest wisdom demands deep down maturity – the capacity for renunciation, the capacity for a deeper surrender to God’s love, the capacity to be humble and filled with wonder.  This wisdom requires the baptism of one’s memory, imagination and affections in the Bible until the heart can speak the words of the Word, and at the same time, it demands deep understanding of the rich narratives, interlaced structures, and multivalent meanings of the Scriptures.  The bread chewed on in such study is the only food that can feed a mind intent on such a pursuit. All of this is so because this wisdom requires an encounter with the Lord that humbles the intellect and holds every thought captive.

Such encounters lay open through the wonders that God has revealed and entrusted to the Church – how we live and love, how we worship and adore, how we are tested and rise again – all of this informs, directs, deepens and lifts up the kind of contemplative study that the Church needs today. In such theological adoration, we are raised into the full stature of Christ – made wise by his eternal wisdom, the wisdom from above. Theology filled with adoration and praise roots every exploration of the truth in devotion to Christ.  It is this wisdom alone, this awareness of God’s presence in the study of our faith, that renders a soul vulnerable to a glory and fullness of life too great for this present life to exhaust.

If Catholic education in general and seminary education specifically is ever to surrender itself to highest wisdom, contemplative prayer is an activity that must inform the classroom.  Contemplation of God and the things of God alone can direct these efforts above the latest concern of the academy. Only a kneeling theology can raise the gaze of students to behold what is above – a mystery so beautiful and filled with wonder that tears and joy, fiercest resolve and deepest freedom fill our being. We come to magnify something – no, Someone – not our own, but who is completely given us nonetheless.  Such truth-filled prayer must ignite new scholarly efforts until virtuous life is born.

This article originally appeared on SpiritualDirection.com and is reprinted here with kind permission.

Anthony Lilles

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Anthony Lilles is co-founder and Academic Dean of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and also serves as the Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology at St. John’s Seminary. He is a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality.

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