Benedict’s Humility

3,300 words

One of the major distorting factors in the formation of Western Christianity was the unnatural focus on celibacy due to the Platonic denigration of matter and elevation of “spirit” to a separate metaphysical substance. Sometimes celebrated with allegorical erotic imagery from the Biblical “Song of Songs,” celibacy was often taken literally as a “marriage” with God. Those and associated distortions were borne forward by the monastic movement that became the principal residence of those ideals. But it would be shortsighted in the extreme to identify monasticism solely with its principal flaw and overlook the millennia of struggle it contributed in the pursuit of an earthly human happiness.

It might seem strange to characterize the monastic quest as “this worldly” when, here in the West at least, it comes attached to a Christian religion whose fixation on Plato’s other world built an extraordinary civilization powered by an inverted dynamism of fear and alienation. The fact is that monasticism antedated Christianity by many centuries and ascetics who were not yet caught in the trap of Plato’s imaginary world had already established the terms of the search, and those terms were happiness in the only world there was. Western monasticism inherited that movement, and offers an ultimate happiness whose achieve­ment, reversing the priorities of Christianity, is explicitly conditioned on abandoning any desire for possessions of any kind, and that includes after death.

Benedict of Nursia

The Benedictine Order has long been acknowledged as the beginning and epicenter of western monasticism. Its founder, Benedict of Nursia, lived from 487 to 547. His order became a widespread, multi-community phenomenon and his ancient Rule was used in one form or another by later religious orders. The Rule was written by Benedict himself, and will be the subject of our inquiry.

Even though celibacy was an unconditional requirement of Benedict’s Rule, it seems its significance came more from Plato’s spiritualism than as a by-product of interpersonal relationship with “God.” Not only is nuptial imagery not found anywhere in the Rule, but the “love of God” or “love of Christ” are sparsely mentioned and then mainly as motivational formalities. There is no direct and explicit focus on a personal relationship with God or Christ as the driving force in the monastic pursuit as conceived by Benedict’s Rule.

But a thorough reading reveals much more. The Rule tells us about the way The Christian message was understood and transmitted in the west in Late Antiquity, and how monasticism conceived its role in that context.

For example, the Rule as written is not centered on Catholic sacramental ritual and the necessary role of the priest.  The word “eucharist” never appears in the Rule, and where “mass” occurs it is always a schedule reference, as in “such and such will be done after mass.” Sacramental “grace” seems not to even have been a theological category and “confession” was understood generically and not as a sacramental event made available by priestly absolution. The Rule seems to consider the entry of priests into the monastery as something of a problem; the Rule makes it quite explicit that they should not presume to perform any sacerdotal functions outside of the direct orders of the abbot. Clearly the monastery wasn’t just a parish for the spiritual elite.

The Benedictine rule has guided the Christian monastic search for wisdom and human fulfillment for 1500 years. It is a short, simple document, produced in the middle of the sixth century. Scholars agree that it is a milder redaction of one written some decades earlier anonymously known as The Rule of the Master. Benedict’s Rule reads more like a friendly letter designed to outline the general intent of the monastery than a systematic document laying out a detailed program and daily schedule.

Clues to the unsophisticated nature of its recommendations are found throughout. Chapter 7, which will be our principal focus in this essay, is a prime example. The Chapter is exclusively devoted to humility. It lists in total 12 “degrees” of humility, no one of which could ever be considered a greater degree than any other. The reader gets the impression that by making a cumulative list, Benedict was trying to emphasize what Elliott would say 1500 years later: “humility is endless.” The unique focus of the chapter and its central location in the rule suggest that humility might be considered the leitmotiv of the Rule.

Humility

But the importance of humility was not a personal insight of Benedict’s. John Cassian, who brought the experience of the Eastern desert hermits to the West, listed “10 rungs on the ladder of humility” in his Institutes written around 420. The Rule of the Master which was composed later by someone who clearly was influenced by Cassian’s text, expanded the list to the 12 “degrees” later repeated by Benedict.

In chapter 5 of Benedict’s 73 chapter Rule, he gives away the game and says that the first degree of humility is “obedience.” He says nothing more about it at that point. But by chapter 7 it sounds like he has decided to work from a different paradigm because there, without acknowledging that he had already declared himself on the issue, he says: the first degree of humility is the “fear of God.”

This is a key oversight and a clue to Benedict’s whole vision. By fear he’s not kidding. He’s talking about being terrified of “the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God.” As becomes clear by the end of the chapter, this first degree really means “first step;” it is one of the two brackets that frame the entire discussion. The Chapter opens by declaring that the monk is expected to begin out of fear of punishment and hope for reward. But after he has mastered the whole 12 degrees of humility, it is hoped he will be a changed man. The last paragraph of chapter 7 reads:

Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.

This clarifies the matter. The phrase “fear of God” was not a generic placeholder, an hyperbole for taking your moral responsibilities seriously. In Benedict’s view you come to his program because you’re scared. You can’t live a Christian life and you know what that will mean for you in the end. But he has no problem with that. In fact it seems quite natural, and the alert reader even gets the impression that this fear and the monastic program work in tandem.

But a young man in the sixth century, afraid for his “soul,” who read the Rule before he entered, would realize that the monastery’s goal is precisely to cast out the very fear that brought him there. He would know up front that the monk is someone in the process of having his motivation transformed from selfish to selfless, from fearful to fearless, from self-protective and acquisitive to abundantly generous, from a resistant and grudging compliance to a zest and pleasure in aligning oneself with LIFE itself. Benedict’s word for this transformation is “humility.” That one word, in Benedict’s Rule, I believe, contains the very essence of his view of human happiness as understood by a sixth century Christian in the Latin West.

Fear

It’s difficult for us not to question the source of that initial fear. Why should the Christian message ever have inspired fear? Obviously in the sixth century there was real fear of “God’s” punishment and the eternal damnation that would cap it off. And I believe it would also be fair to say that if “fear” could be identified by Benedict as the universal and necessary source of the monastic vocation, fear must have been the prevailing motivation proposed by the official Church — in its preaching, sacramental rituals and personal counselling — for all Christians.

I want to point out that most people throughout history and probably even today, would see nothing extraordinary in this. It is exactly what they think religion is all about: people doing what they are supposed to do (as commanded by “God”) and by that means establishing the rule of justice — peace and harmony among men. Failing to obey entails punishment. Religion, and in this case, Christianity, is envisioned primarily as a behavioral program, subordinate to the good of society and therefore something of an ancillary political ideology. In this case perfect obedience — universal moral compliance by all members of the community at all times — would usher in the millennium. It would correspond to the definition of the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus spoke of so often. God will reign over the earth when humankind obeys his commands.

Some, like myself, would challenge this interpretation. As I read it, Jesus’ message was not some kind of re-promulga­tion of the “law,” but rather the definitive announcement of the love of a “Father” whose irreversible benevolence translates into a forgiveness without limit. The keynote is mercy born of compassion. Our Father’s love for us then becomes the model and motivation for our behavior. It is no longer a matter of law, if it ever was. We are to imitate “God” not obey him. It was a message that was intended to cast out fear. If Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” he meant the community of people who had heard the message of God’s endless forbearance and lived compassionate joyous lives in the knowledge of their unbreakable bonds of fearless intimacy with the source of LIFE.

Was Benedict one of them? Is the Rule’s explicit declaration that the very purpose of “humility” was to cast out fear, an indication that Benedict recognized a seminal defect in the secular Church’s message? In other words, did he see monasticism as an evangelical corrective, healing the distorted souls of men who had been deformed by the Imperial Church’s flawed transmission of the gospel and thereby bringing it back to its proper bearing?

Wasn’t there another possibility? Wouldn’t an obedience habituated by years of repeated practice, reinforced by a rule, an abbot and a community of fellow participants, give confidence and peace of mind to the fearful monk, a confidence that would also appear to cast out fear? I believe this amounts to asking: in Benedict’s view, does fear remain an aspect of motivation throughout the monk’s life, or does it actually get cast out?

The Rule says (7:11)

The monk is always to turn over in his mind how all who despise God will fall into hell for their sins, as well as the everlasting life prepared for those who fear God.

So fear remains — in the background, for sure — but it’s always there. It seems that Benedict and the “secular” Church were on the same page, after all. Claims that monasticism was a reaction on the part of persecution-hardened Christians to the sudden wealth, ease and luxury that accompanied Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, did not correspond to the inversion of gospel values that turned Christianity into a quid pro quo moral enterprise. That inversion had to have preceded Constantine’s conversion and, in my opinion, in fact made the latter possible. With the class division of Christian society into elites and commoners, the investiture of the clergy with magical powers, the transformation of the sacraments into quasi-hydraulic suppliers of “grace,” and the fear of eternal damnation for failing to obey the law, Greco-Roman Christianity represented a significant reversal of the egalitarian structures, symbolic rituals and free forgiveness of the Christian communities founded in the apostolic age.

So it’s no surprise that the monastic reaction would also have occurred earlier. Antony and the first of the Eastern desert Fathers began their ascetic experiments in 270, an entire generation before the Diocletian persecution of 303 which was terminated by Constantine’s victory in 312. From Antony’s own writings and his authoritative biography by Athanasius of Alexandria it is more than clear that the essential structures of Greco-Roman Christianity had already displaced the formations evident in Paul’s epistles. Gone was what Luther would identify as Paul’s emphasis on “free forgiveness,” in favor of a quid pro quo system in which moral behavior — obedience to God’s law — was rewarded or punished according to your level of compliance. Gone also was any enthusiastic anticipation of an imminent return of Christ. Eschatological urgency had been transferred to the personal Judgment facing each individual “soul” at the time of death and was the new source of the “fear” that western religions offer as their “stock-in-trade,” proven effective in the running of the far flung and culturally diverse Roman Empire.

obedience

It’s important to elucidate the link between these issues. The “fear” and “hope for reward” that is generated is exclusively connected to compliance with law. “Obedience” is the subjective disposition that activates compliance. So the fear that serves as the motivation for entering the monastery is the antithesis of obedience: fear arises precisely from disobedience. Therefore it should come as no surprise to learn that humility, clearly identified by the founders of western monasticism as the apex of Christian perfection, should be primarily the work and result of obedience.

But the issue is more complex.

The means to humility, in Benedict’s strategy, was obedience. Not only the initial announcement in chapter 5, but then in chapter 7 the second degree of humility reverts to “doing the will of him who sent me.” The third follows hard on the second and counsels the monk to “submit to the Superior in all obedience.”

The fourth degree of humility is that the monk “hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even, possibly, injustice, enduring all without growing weary and running away.” The unapologetic concatenation of humility with obedience in step after step as the driving force in spiritual development in Benedict’s mind is not disputable.

It’s hard to miss the point. These first four degrees of humility are simply different ways of restating that the most important tool for personal development, a tool the monastery is intent on utilizing, is obedience. This is more important than it may seem at first. For I contend that after Benedict’s establishment of humility as transformative of human motivation, his coupling of humility with obedience makes it unmistakably clear that not only is obedience a means and not an end in itself, but that the “kingdom of ‘God,’” for those who might have been erroneously deceived by the de facto preaching and pastoral program of the Church into thinking that it was essentially compliance with law, is to be identified as precisely this personal moral/affective transformation, and nothing else. The “kingdom of God” is the community of the humble: those who have gotten beyond frightened obedience.

This is a complex and somewhat convoluted point; but I hope I can make it clear: Regardless of the distortions of the gospel message that propelled compliant obedience into prominence in the Christian life of Late Antiquity, the monastic ideal as re-presented by Benedict is personal transformation — human healing and the creative energy it releases — not social harmony, distributive justice, or any other community goal, however noble, achieved by a dead, fearful, forced or self-interested compliance. The fact that the pastoral program of the “secular” Church served to provide a solid first step on the road to perfection would have fit perfectly into Benedict’s generally accepted scheme of things. But however valid that first step of fear was, Benedict was also very clear that it had to be transcended. It was not the fullness of Christian life; and it was the monastery’s job to start from there and carry it to fulfillment.

I believe Benedict’s Rule is indirectly stating that the purpose of the monastery is not to make men obedient … or to get a particular pattern of social behavior habituated, rooted in place and running smoothly. Obedience, in other words, was not an end in itself, necessary for social harmony. While the common good was clearly an indirect beneficiary, peace in the community was not the very purpose for demanding obedience. If it were, the motivation that the monk brought to the performance of this compliance would be irrelevant. The end would be the compliance itself, nothing else; the “12 degrees” and endless pursuit of humility would be superfluous. There would be no talk of “casting out fear,” for fear would continue be the most effective driver of compliance.

Benedict’s rule was not a program of social compliance. The Kingdom of God had to be established not in behavior but in the rectification of the emotions, the alignment of the human individual with the joy of LIFE and compassionate service toward the universal suffering LIFE entails. Moral behavior, thirst for justice, peacemaking, mutual aid, would necessarily follow; hence obedience was also a bell-whether: it was an indicator of who was humble. Only those who had gotten past having their own way were capable of obeying with a full heart and there would be no way to hide it. Where there was that kind of obedience, there had to be humility.

From the very first it is made abundantly clear that the most important tool for the achievement of humility is obedience. This immediately gives obedience a much higher purpose than the good order and efficient running of the monastery. By making obedience the servant of humility and not of good order, Benedict made obedience subordinate to personal growth and spiritual expansion, and not the suppressive submersion of the individual in a well-oiled machine. Did his successors all share that priority?

Humility, obedience and the nature of “God.”

There is much to reflect on as we look at this important development in our religious history. It illustrates with great clarity the issues we have been confronting in our pursuit of a new understanding of the “nature” of God as revealed by modern science. It doesn’t take long to realize that the sixth century Roman Catholicism that began to push people into monasteries was not very different from the Tridentine Catholicism that many of us were formed in prior to the Second Vatican Council. I would also wager that in many places not much has changed.

The “fear” that drove Christians into monastic life could only have been provided by a personal, punishing “God.” That means that somewhere along the line those who were in charge of the Christian communities had to decide that the loving, forgiving “Father” they had received from the parables of Jesus had to be re-imagined and re-issued as a wrathful punitive authority whose primary concern was compliance with commandments, not compassion for the self-lacerating grasping generated by the harshness of life. The tradition that Benedict inherited understood Jesus’ message, and utilized its distorted application to reverse the intent of that application and its effects. By making obedience ancillary to humility, it placed the broken human heart and the abject poverty of humankind in a position of revelatory prominence. It was humility that told us what “God” was really like: a “God” that “divinized” the humble, not the compliant. What was that all about?

In the next post I will turn to another monk, Johannes Eckhart, a fourteenth century Dominican whose radical re-conceptualization of “God” — in terms I believe consistent with modern science — was elaborated together with an equally radical re-conceptualization of the significance of obedience. Eckhart’s vision will help us move toward an ascetical practice that is consistent with the best insights of our ancient tradition while functioning totally within the sphere of the transcendent materialism that explains the reality of our universe and our place in it.

 

 

 

 

Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of God

Part 1

2,400 words

April 2017

The argument of this short essay is not complicated or particularly original, but it is world changing for Christianity and especially Catholicism. Simply put, beyond all the theological controversies, doctrinal disagreements and even major religious differences in the West, the “nature” of “God” was one “doctrine” that no one disputed. I contend that all the western religious programs are emanations of that assumed idea of “God.” Once you change that idea, your religious program, and the human society that is built on it will necessarily change radically. Christianity is one example of how the idea of “God” shaped religion and eventually an entire culture.

It was all contained in the word. Once you said “God” you could only mean one thing … an “idea” that by the middle ages some claimed was so clear and inarguable that it included within itself proof for the existence of what it denoted. In other words, the very concept forced you to conclude by iron logic that there had to be a “God.” This was called the “ontological argument.” It was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in 1076, and then reissued in slightly different form in later centuries by other philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Anselm’s classic statement concluded: “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogium)

The cogency of that argument has been challenged since its publication and rejected by most mainline theologians. But regardless of its effectiveness as a “proof,” its perennial re-emer­gence seems to be due to the phenomenon we are discussing here: that no one, even its opponents, disputed the definition of ‘God’ that it was built on: “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Such an overarching label contained, of course, everything we have always imagined “God” to be: a separate entity, a rational person, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, the source, origin and sustenance of all things and the model on which they were designed.

The evolution of “God”

The various aspects of that definition evolved in the Near east beginning in pre-history. A Semitic tribe who called themselves “Hebrews” attributed their existence, inheritance and political destiny to a god named “Yahweh.” Their original understanding of what Yahweh was like mirrored the beliefs of the people in their part of the world and evolved over time. He was thought to be one of a multitude of war gods whose status in the divine realm rose or fell depending on the success or failure of the tribe on earth with whom they had an association sealed by contract. The contract stipulated that Yahweh would provide victory in battle and political ascendancy to the tribe in exchange for worship, sacrifices, monuments, love and respect from the tribe’s people. Love and respect was shown by adherence to a code of ritualized conduct that would mark them out as his devotees wherever they went.

As their political fortunes sank in the competition for power in the fertile crescent of that era, the decision of the “nation,” now called Israel, to remain faithful to their god despite his failure on the battlefield, introduced a new dimension into their national religion and a new understanding of the terms of the contract. After the catastrophic exile to Babylon in 587 bce, they realized that, with Yahweh, it could not be a business contract about success or failure. Their growing awareness that peace and harmony among men was actually the result of human moral behavior — justice — brought them to a deeper appreciation of what the commandments meant and therefore what Yahweh ultimately was all about. Their code of conduct came to be appreciated for its moral significance, and Yahweh was understood now as a god of moral wisdom whose superiority over other gods was not military, but had to do with spiritual depth. Yahweh’s greatness resided in the fact that he gave his people the Torah — the Law — which taught men how to live justly, collaborate and thrive. The relationship endured the transition back to Palestine, and the people were able to accept their abasement as an element of what they were learning about religion and life … and this strange god of theirs. In tandem with their own moral evolution their idea of Yahweh had matured and their relationship with him deepened the way husbands and wives deepen their bond through overcoming trials. No longer a contract for war and the accumulation of power, Israel’s agreement with Yahweh was seen more like a marriage between loving and forgiving spouses who at the end of the day were interested in being together … having one another … whatever their worldly fate.

The Song of Songs

These sentiments were articulated in an extraordinary assortment of openly erotic love poems found among the Wisdom books in the Hebrews’ sacred writings assembled after the exile. They are known collectively today as “The Song of Songs,” and “The Song of Solomon,” in earlier English versions, “The Canticle of Canticles.” Some believe they were intentionally composed as an allegory of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, and others think the poems were common love songs that were selected for the purpose of elucidating the new insight about the nature of the contract.  In either case, commentators agree that they are post exilic and their religious significance was collective, not individual.  It had to do with a new understanding of the covenant, the contract, the relationship between Yahweh and his people.

These poems sing of the intensities of emotion that attend relationships involving sexual love between a man and a woman. They describe the joy of togetherness and possession, and the anguish and despair of separation and loss. Whether they were written for the purpose of characterizing the vicissitudes between the suffering Hebrew people and their protector or not, the entire series must be read as precisely such a metaphor. Yahweh is depicted as a man and is given a dominant, ruling, protecting male personality, Israel as a woman, a weak, needy, vulnerable female eager for union with the male lover.

There is no sense dwelling on the difference between a metaphorical and a literal interpretation of these poems. The distinction made no difference to the people who wrote, selected or read the poetry. They saw the similarities and that was the object of their interest. It was not until the scientific mentality of later centuries that anyone cared at all about what was literal and what was metaphor: before that they were both real in the same way because they both had the same effect. If the poems presented Yahweh as a humanoid male person, it was because that was what everyone thought he was, and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn’t or would not act the part, in any case.

Christians appropriated that poetry as they did the entire Bible and applied it to their own community, the Church.  Ho theos, “God” — the word they used instead of Yahweh — was identified with the “Word,” who had taken flesh in the man Jesus. The “Word” was like a male lover of universal humanity whose union with humankind in the Incarnation were the nuptials that constituted the Church.

While the “Song of Songs” is exclusively focused on love imagery, the theme is not limited to that book. It is found throughout the scriptures of both testaments. At first, the Christian usage paralleled the Hebrew by seeing the poems as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The subsequent application of the clearly individual imagery of the poems to the relationship between “God” and the individual Christian “soul” was an inevitable development and internally consistent: for what is the Catholic Church but the aggregate of its people, the totality of its individual members. The imagery of the Song of Songs soon came to be primarily applied to the relationship between “God” and the individual (Christian) soul and in that form the poems took on an entirely different theological meaning, and one that came to dominate the Christian view of life and redemption. The transition from collective to individual application had the effect of replacing the allegorical character of the poetry with a literal significance, for it eliminated the distance between the analogs. Individual terminology was now applied to a relationship between individual lovers; insisting on allegory under these circumstances would have amounted to a forced reading that could not be expected to endure. It was a major influence on the Western version of the “nature” of “God.”

Nicaea’s Doctrine of “God”

These developments were occurring historically at the same time as the doctrine of “God” being elaborated by Christian theologians under the influence of the political demands of the Roman State, was forced into an unnatural focus on the unique personality of “God-with-Us” in Jesus and his elevation to equal divine status with the “Father.” Nicaea had the effect of “personalizing” “God” in Christ and justifying the spirituality that imagined this new human personal “God” as entering into a love relationship with an individual human person. The elements of the prior, platonic imagery of “God” as a nameless, motionless, distant and infinitely transcendent “Spirit” far removed from any possible contact with humankind, receded into the background as Christians turned their attention to the worship of the god-man, Christ, and compliance with “his” moral demands as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead.” The devotion to Mary was necessitated by this elevation of Jesus from being mediator — one of us, pleading on our behalf — to being “God” himself.  Mary became the new mediator, a human being we could trust to intercede for us with her Son.

“God” became a thoroughly human person and it was as a human person that “he” was imagined to relate to the individual soul, and the “Song of Songs” was disproportionately influential in guaranteeing that that imagery about “God” dominated the Christian imagination.

This was reinforced by the agreement of the “Fathers” of the Church, the earliest interpreters of Christianity who wrote during the first seven hundred years of Christian history. In sermons, letters, reflections and theological treatises, they elaborated what the Church as always regarded as the most authentic understanding of its own significance and the safest pathway to redemption — correct relationship to “God.”  New Testament Paul’s explicit identification of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “marriage” was the first Christian reference to the tradition. Hippolytus of Rome in the second century wrote a lost treatise on the “Song,” but it was given a thorough theological exploration by Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian considered the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity.  Many consider him a martyr.  He was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured.  He was physically broken and died in 254 A.D.  Origen‘s vision was embraced and his thinking imitated by subsequent Fathers.  Gregory of Nyssa wrote his own commentary on “The Song” in the fourth century; Ambrose of Milan quoted extensively from “The Song” in his treatises on “God” and virginity. The “Song’s” significance was also evident in the work of Jerome and Augustine.

By the end of antiquity, through the consensus of the Fathers, the interpretation that the love poems of the “Song” were allegorical representations of the intimate relationship between Christ and the individual soul had come to achieve almost biblical status. In collaboration with the Platonic distortions about the evil of the fleshly matter, it grounded the pursuit of Christian perfection in the suppression of human sexuality. The ideal Christian was a virgin, or failing that, a committed celibate.

Sponsa Christi, Christian Virginity

The virginal ideal occupied a privileged place among the Christians of Late Antiquity. But however unchallengeably superior, it still remained a counsel that was understood to be completely voluntary. There were no laws forbidding marriage;  however, the pressures of the neo-Platonic denigration of the flesh made adamant by a still competitive Manichaean Christianity, introduced legal restrictions on the exercise of sexuality by priests on the days they celebrated the eucharist.  As early as the fourth century, seven hundred years before celibacy was to be mandated by conciliar degree, Councils at Elvira in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were insisting that the priests that consecrated the eucharist were to abstain from intercourse with their wives. The writing was on the wall. The identification of sexuality as evil or at least as hostile to the sacred was clearly functional at the same time that Christian perfection was being defined as a marriage relationship with Christ. The unambiguous call to virginity using the texts of the “Song” as support, was a principal theme for Western Fathers like Ambrose and Jerome. You married Christ and you forsook all others exactly the way a bride embraced her husband and forsook intimate contact with all other men. The two events could not have been so correlated in practice if they were not in fact also taken to be of the same order of metaphysical reality. To cling to Christ was a psycho-sexual act that could not occur in the presence of a similar embrace of a finite human being. “God” and man were literally equated as sexual partners; to have one was to exclude the other. Celibacy was a simple matter of fidelity. Despite theologians’ insistence that they were applying the poems of the “Song” allegorically, in practice they functioned literally, and that led to the absurd image of the sponsa Christi, the “bride” of Christ as a literal relationship on which it was believed you could build your life.

An added anomaly in this whole issue was that the sponsa Christi image was applied equally to men as to women on the grounds that the anima, the soul, was feminine, while “God” and certainly Christ were indisputably male. This mixing of metaphors helps explain why the imagery of the “bride” may have worked well in communities of women but always problematically with men. The gender reversal was not so easily accomplished, though as we know, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. The human imagination, apparently, has no limits.

Part 2

2,100 words

Monasteries

Because monasticism pre-dated Christianity, many of the elements of its program were traditional and did not necessarily reflect the focus on the sacred marriage as the goal of the monk’s pursuits. But in the western tradition founded by Ambrose and Jerome, the counsel offered specifically to communities of religious women about the centrality of the “Song” and its relationship with “God,” came to represent something of an alternative — a source of revival and renewal when traditional male monasticism following Benedict’s ancient rule needed reform. The Cistercian reform instituted at Citeaux in 1098 founded a daughter monastery at Clairvaux in 1115 under the leadership of the Abbot Bernard, Clairvaux’s most famous monk and the order’s most dedicated reformer. His spirituality was characterized by his greatest written work: Sermons on the Song of Songs.

Bernard’s reputation as a reformer made him the most prominent political figure in Europe in an Age when the Church dominated politics. He rallied European monarchs behind the papacy of Innocent II averting a deep schism in Christendom; he organized the second Crusade for the conquest of Palestine at the request of Pope Eugenius III who as Bernardo de Pisa had been a monk at Clairvaux under himself as abbot. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that Abbot Bernard had been an organizing force at the 2nd Lateran Council which decreed universal clerical celibacy in 1139. One can assume that the influential author of the 86 sermons On the Song of Songs supported the Council’s canons 6 and 7 which ordered all clergy above the order of subdeacon to put away their wives.

The Mediaeval theocratic dream of a “Kingdom of God on Earth” which had been conjured by the Papal domination of Christendom, resisted being rudely awakened to the reality of the resulting dysfunction by the constant call to reform. “Reform” kept the dream alive. The Church exclusively looked to the monasteries for its reformers. The monks and their way of life were seen as the only salvation from Church corruption. It is my contention that the disastrous imposition of celibacy on the universal priesthood was part of the overall attempt to bring monastic ideals and discipline to a Church hierarchy addicted equally to the pursuit of impossible platonic absurdities and the wealth and personal security that came with power.

Celibacy was perhaps a viable demand in monasteries where the sexual drive could be sublimated by a family interaction supplied by the community. But to impose celibacy on the universal clergy living alone in the world was to invite a level of hypocrisy and corruption far greater than the inheritance of parish benefices by the sons of priests which had occasioned the reform measure of 1139.

Faith in the “magic” Church

Whatever historians may claim about the economic reasons why clerical celibacy has remained mandatory, I believe that its identification with the Catholic “brand” is indisputable and is entirely due to the mystical dimension. The wizard with magic powers “married to ‘God’” is at the heart of the mystique of the Catholic priest.  It formed the cornerstone of a constellation of “beliefs” considered characteristically “Catholic” that had evolved in the Middle Ages that included the “real” (physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread (permanently present in the Church tabernacle) uniquely provided by the magical powers of the ordained priest whose “soul” had received a special sigillum — “seal” — that would remain for eternity … and the ability, also unique to the priest, to elevate “imperfect” (selfish, frightened) contrition to “perfect” (meriting immediate salvation) through the magical words of absolution in the sacrament of penance (auricular confession).  These beliefs were the bedrock of Catholic parish life for a thousand years, and the scholarship acknowledged by Vatican II that identified them all as of questionable Christian authenticity could not prevail against it.  The perdurance of this configuration of beliefs can be seen today in current cultural artifacts like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a film of 2017 whose evocation of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century could be called “an exploration of faith” only because of the lingering nostalgia for the historically obsolete ideology of Tridentine Catholicism that it was premised on.

It was because of this “faith” in the effective (miraculous) presence of a “God”-entity in the lives of believing Catholics — in the eucharistic bread, in the powers of the priest to forgive sins, and in the mystical presence of Christ in the person of the celibate priest “married to ‘God’” whose fidelity to his vows was itself a proof of “God’s” miraculous presence — that Catholics believed there was no alternative. “Outside the Church there was no salvation,” and they knew exactly why.

The Nature of “God”

The entire point of this essay is to reflect on the nature of “God,” and how that affected the nature of the Church. It should be clear from what has been said so far that much of what Catholics believe about the nature of “God” has been shaped by imagery drawn from ancient sources and ancient ways of relating to “God.” It also should go without saying that the understanding of what “God” is like has evolved through the ages in tandem with our own growing understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This occurred as much in ancient times as it has in our own. The “nature of ‘God’” is not something “out there” we can look at in itself in order to determine what it is, nor was it “revealed” and clearly recorded in the Bible.  What “God” is like can only be inferred from what we know about ourselves and our world, and is time-dependent on when we come to know it on the time line of our evolving moral consciousness.

I contend that the allegory of the “Song of Solomon” early in Christian history came to be taken literally instead of symbolically, and that collaborated with other influences to fatally skew our understanding of what “God” is like.   That disastrous distortion, I am convinced, prevented any true relationship to “God” from occurring, and resulted in a Church whose authority structures, ritual practices, disciplinary decrees and pastoral counseling were warped and twisted to conform to the implications of that impossible and absurd relationship.

Mystical marriage, the theme of the 16th century “theology” of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, imagined a “God” who was a rational humanoid entity — a being — whose masculine “presence” and “absence” was literally reflected in the emotions of the human individual, falsely identified as a feminine “soul” regardless of whether their body was male or female.   It was further believed that such a marriage was in every affective respect, except physical sexuality, able to take the place of marriage between humans, and if it did not, it was entirely the fault of the human partner who failed to yield to the advances of the divine lover.

The attempt to build a Church on a priesthood defined by such impossible fantasies accounts for the massive dysfunction of Catholic clerical life in every age: celibate hypocrisy became the norm and cover-up its constant companion. The continued absurd belief in a humanoid personal “God” is also responsible for the Catholic failure to integrate with the realities of life in our universe across the board, from the inability to accept the real creative initiative of matter in the evolution of the cosmos, through the realities of psychic inheritance due to human evolution (not original sin) and the common sense acknowledgement of the sexual and family needs of every human being.

“God” and true mysticism

“God” is not a “being, greater than which nothing can be imagined;” “God” is not an individual entity of any kind, so is not a “being.”  “God” is energy, LIFE, in mediaeval terms, Pure Act.  Therefore “he” is neither a “he” nor a “person” as we use the term. “God” is not outside of or other than the universe of matter. “God” is the pervasive and all-suffusive energy of LIFE and existence, and as such is intimately interior to every particle of matter and every individual entity everywhere and at all times in the immensely long history of our vast cosmos. “God’s” intimate interior presence to any human individual, far from taking the place of their relationship with a human sexual partner is the source of the outward focus of their sexual need: toward a companion for the purpose of survival and reproduction — more LIFE.  When the mystic is in touch with “God” he is in touch with his own personal, individual concrete LIFE-force transmitted to him with the cells of his parents and pre-disposed to certain preferences through the inherited configurations of his body and the behavioral choices he has made. The face of the “God” who enlivens his self is his very own face, always open to new choice, always aware of its conditioned dependent nature because of the driven character of his conatus, always in need of LIFE because it knows intimately — connaturally — it is not LIFE itself.

This “God” of ours, we have come to realize, is not as our sacred sources and ancient traditions have depicted.  “He” is not “male,” and even Genesis suggested that both male and female were required to even give a modicum of accuracy to the nature of the creative, generous, LIFE-giving, openhanded, big-hearted energy that was “God.” “God” is not a person. “God” is exactly as you see LIFE functioning throughout all the levels of biota and in all the environmental niches across the face of the earth, from deep-sea thermal vents, to dust particles circling high above the planet in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is nothing arcane, or hidden, or mysterious, or self-protective about LIFE.  It readily yields its secrets to our probing instruments and our penetrating mathematics.  Its vulnerability is legendary: we swat a fly fearlessly without a thought about reprisal from the phylum of Arthropoda.  LIFE is as fully present in the fly as in us despite the vastly different levels of functioning.

So we say LIFE is an energy that exists and functions in and through emergent entities congealed and configured through the drive of the conatus to survive and to thrive. “God” is not the person we thought.  We were misled by our ancestors who may be forgiven their mistake.  How could they have known otherwise?  Look at the world, it all fits together like a clock.  How natural to think that some rational Craftsman designed and fashioned it that way.  We know better now.  Thanks to centuries of science and the commitment to sit humbly at the feet of nature we are coming to understand. “God” is not a rational “being.”

I am not the first to realize this. The great mediaeval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, the immediate successor to Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at Paris, writing in the 1320’s in Germany said:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefor God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

“God” is an immense, all-pervasive benvolent and superabundant creative force — the energy of matter — that lends its very own “self” to be the flesh and bones and scales and fur and horns and hooves of all things that fly and swim and crawl and hunt and think and build. But “God” is not our “friend,” “God” is not our “lover,” “God” is not a warrior or a psychiatrist or a surgeon or judge and executioner. Just as we have to learn to forgive our ancestors for their mistakes in thinking they knew the face of “God,” so too we must learn to forgive the real “God” for not being the fantasy that we had cherished and come to expect. “God” is not the protective father nor punishing policman our infantile selves need, to do and to avoid what we know we should.  “God” is not a champion. “God” is not a hero. If we want heroes, let‘s be heroes. If we want champions, be a champion. After all, the LIFE energy coursing in our veins is “God’s” own energy, and if that energy is to become all it can be, it is only with our collaboration and acquiescence.  If “God” is to be a hero it is in and through our heroism, for the LIFE we share in, is the only “God” there is.

 

 

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201

 

Thinking about Edith Stein (III)

I rarely, if ever, talk about my personal struggles in these posts.  But it should be no surprise to anyone who has accompanied me in these “raids on the inarticulate” that I am wrestling with something, not always faceless, that tries to dislocate my hip in the middle of the night.  That wrestling is not without considerable risk.  For in a real and not rhetorical struggle of this nature, you may win and you may lose; and if you lose, you can lose yourself. 

Edith Stein represents, because she embodies, the spirit that I struggle with.  It is the spirit of Tridentine, counter-reformed, infalliblist, exclusivist Catholicism — the “truth” — and I was not only brought up in it, I embraced it with passion and commitment.  It was my world.  It was the world of my people and those local communities that we lived in, but I also made it my own as I matured; it offered membership in a vast community of intelligent seekers and selfless workers whose depth and quality, both modern and going back for thousands of years into the past, no other institution could match.  Where else would you go?

Edith Stein discovered the same Catholicism when she was 30 years old.  After her conversion she brought her formidable intellectual resources to the effort to support it, at first by updating traditional Thomist thinking with contributions from modern philosophy in which she was expert.  But later, she reached beyond the philosophical into regions where few dare — or care — to venture.  She entered a contemplative community of discalced Carmelites and pursued a “truth” that recapitulated everything she had discovered in her odessey.  But now it was “Truth” itself — intensely personal and intimately interior — and she had fallen in love with it.  “Truth” was no longer an abstraction for her; it had a face.  It was the face of “God.” 

Many of us, including myself, are not unfamiliar with this phenomenon.  And we are also not strangers to the serious effort, sustained over many years, to apply the counsels of the mystics in the pursuit of those same goals built on the same vision of the “truth.”  Edith’s endeavors in this regard, for those of us who have passed this way, are more than merely nostalgic.  Like an uncontrol­led “flashback” for one grieving a great loss, her certainty about the facial contours of “living Truth,” reinforced with the irrefutable integrity of her witness, can be immobilizing.   

For many, the refusal to be immobilized means learning to turn your back and walk away, no small accomplishment in itself.  But I believe there was something essential there, and if you don’t struggle to find out what it is and hold on to it, no matter how close to the “edge” it brings you, you lose it.  This sets the terms of the struggle as I see it: the relationship to that “in which we live and move and have our being” comes with birth — it belongs to all of us as Paul clearly acknowledged when he used that phrase; it is not the proprietary domain of a Christian sect that arrogates to itself the possession of “the truth” and insists that its theocratic authority structures are the exclusive conduit for divine energy.  Mystical doctrine as Stein received it had been skewed to support a narrow, ossified, self-exalting Tridentine Catholicism — a Catholicism, by the way, that is far from extinct.  If employed in that form it will suffocate the user; if abandoned altogether, however, the quest itself can atrophy.  In each case something essential to being human is lost.  

Avoiding both Scylla and Charybdis can appear to be a careening ambivalence.  It is not.  It is a struggle that “penetrates to the division of soul and spirit” … it’s a real struggle, it’s not theater, and there’s no guarantee.  This is not an academic exercise.

 

A third major work of Stein’s, and the one she had just barely finished when she was murdered in 1942, was a book with her interpretation of the work of sixteenth century mystical theologian John of the Cross (+1591) a discalced Carmelite canonized in 1726.  Her book is titled: The Science of the Cross and it attempts to organize John’s “doctrine” — a method for achieving mystical union — by mixing her own running commentary with extensive quotes from his poems and four books.  She also incorporates the writings of Teresa of Avila, another canonized Carmelite mystic, who was, most significantly, from a converso Jewish family.  Stein claims it was reading Teresa’s autobiography that inspired her own conversion in 1921.  The Science of the Cross serves to round out the picture of Edith’s search for truth.

It also helps us understand the vision of reality that her phenomenological Thomism had yielded.  For this book on mysticism represents her personal embrace of what she, as a scientist, had come to understand as the real world — the facts, the truth — guaranteed by Roman Catholicism and rendered rationally intelligible by a Thomism updated by her application of “scientific” Husserlian phenomenology.  Notice: she calls her book The Science of the Cross.  And for my purposes, it provides some of the best material for clearly delineating the difference between the world as Stein and counter-reformation Catholicism[1] saw it, and the world as we are inclined to see it in our times, and from there our respective relationships to the “Sacred.”

1

Edith, following John’s descriptions, identifies mystical union as a “lover’s tryst”  — a nuptial event between the human “soul” and “God.”  The necessary basis for this belief is the assumed anthropomorphic “personality” of a transcendent “God.”

These two features of the standard concept of “God” — person and transcendence — are intimately linked.

“God,” for Stein’s Science, is an entity, other than me, a rational “person” who thinks, wills, feels and acts the way human persons do.  It is the fundamental assumption of all the “religions of the book.”  ”God” is not me.  We are two persons who do not compenetrate metaphysically; we achieve union through relationship.  We are and always remain separate, independent individual entities.[2]

An essential element of traditional divine transcendence is “spirituality.”  “God” is supposedly “pure spirit” and therefore completely different from everything material.  It makes “God” to be so “other” as to be totally inaccessible to contact or even understanding.  “God” is not part of this world.  (Why an entity that is “pure spirit” should create a vast universe of “matter,” is never explained.)

My contention is that once you conceive of “God” as “transcendent” in this sense, if you want to have a relationship with “him,” you are forced to find mechanisms to overcome “his” inaccessibility.  Mystical union, imagined in the idiom of John of the Cross as a “lover’s tryst” initiated and consummated by “God,” I submit, is such a mechanism.  It is the psychological, affective equivalent of the metaphysical bridge created by the doctrine of the Incarnation, debated, dogmatized and institutionalized at Nicaea, designed to overcome the inaccessibility of “God.”  It is only “mystical union” that finally achieves “divinization:”

“The substance (sustancia) of the soul is not divine substance, since it cannot undergo a conversion in God substantially (sustancialmente), but through the union with God and through being absorbed in him, she is God by participation.”[3]

Mystical union and Incarnation are different expressions of the same device created to recapture the total unity lost by the aban­don­ment of divine immanence.   Divine immanence is the opposite of transcendence; it means that “God” is the existential envelope in which we are immersed — in which “we live and move and have our being.”  Immanence means that, metaphysically speaking, “God” is “not-other” than what we are, that we compenetrate one another totally, that my life is naturally a share in divine energy, that “God” is part of this world because the material universe is the extrusion of divine material energy.

Transcendence, the “otherness” of “God,” in contrast, is grounded in “spirit,” not matter.  “God” is “other” than everything in this world because “he” is pure spirit and we are matter.  This results from and in turn intensifies a schizoid relationship to ourselves as material organisms.  Since we imagine that “God” is “pure spirit,” in this view, we have convinced ourselves we can only come close to “him” by becoming more “spirit” and less “matter.”  The final union is only achievable when the body is totally discarded at death; then we will be all and only spirit.  “… She [the soul] is completely filled with fervent longing and begs to be freed from the veil of mortal life.”[4]

Working off the poetic imagery and original commentary of John of the Cross, Stein’s interpretation of the highest reaches of Christian aspiration concur with all the premises mentioned above.

Divine Being, however, is personal life and can only flow in where one personally admits him. For that precise reason, it is impossible to receive grace without its being freely accepted. It results in a being-within-each other such as is possible only where a genuine interior being, that is, a spiritual one is available. Only in that which lives spiritually can spiritual life be received.[5]

To this corresponds the very distinct view of the relationship of body and soul, which is to be remarked at this point. The soul as spirit is essentially dominant, even though in her condition after the fall — and this even when elevated to the highest degree imaginable on earth — she is burdened by the body, and weighed down by the earthly shell.  And the ordering of grace adapts itself to this original ordering of nature and gives gifts especially and in the first place to the soul, then only in descending order and eventually through the mediation of the soul, to the body.[6]

I contend that the restoration of the primacy of immanence to our understanding of “God” will allow for a naturally integrated appreciation of oneself as a biological organism in intimate contact with that in which we live and move and have our being.  The body, in an immanentist universe, is continuous with the divine, not discrete and different from it, allotted only a “trickle-down” value.  Mysticism becomes a natural phenomenon and while it will require an asceticism that corresponds to the mindfulness and moral engagement that participation in divine energy implies, it does not involve the kind of loathing for the body and the efforts to suppress it that making contact with “Pure Spirit” has traditionally been thought to entail.  Nor does it harbor the fantasy that “God” is “another” person watching every thought and action and providentially steering you through your life.

Miraculous and “supernatural”

A “tryst” with “God,” for Stein and John, is not an ordinary part of human life; it is the extraordinary vehicle that a distant “God” uses to draw near.  It is in the realm of the miraculous and  necessarily “supernatural” according to their worldview.  The initiative is imagined as “God’s.” But one of the first clues that suggest that the experience may be a projection of affective need (generated by deprivation, voluntary or involuntary)[7] is that the conditions for its possibility run counter to the very premises that are adduced to justify it.  For in order to have a lover’s tryst with “God,” you must conceive of “him” in anthropomorphic terms: as a humanoid “person” who relates to the human being psycho-eroti­cally, and that contradicts the notion of a transcendent spiritual “God.”

Imagining “God” as a “person” has been used in Judeo-Christian religious history to justify other roles as well, like “God” as “law-giver.  This is significant.  It established an “obedience relationship” between the Biblical “God” and the Jewish people, prefigured in Adam.  “Obedience” requires a human-like “other person” who issues commands and “wants” them to be obeyed.  “Person” implies an identifiable entity — a singular “someone” — and “wanting” implies a lack.[8]  Neither accords with a transcendent spirit, but they are essential for social control.  You can see the theocratic imperatives lurking behind all these “inconsistencies.”

In sharp contrast, once it is conceded that “God” is immanent, “God” ceases being “other” and I am understood to be part of “God;” my moral responsibilities must be conceived as coming from within me … not from without.  The obedience demand vanishes and becomes metaphorical.  An immanent “God” not only justifies but requires my autonomy, because if I and “God” are fundamentally the same “stuff” — we share the same existential energy — then there is nothing “outside” of us for me to turn to for direction.  Guidance emerges from the “God” potential — the divine energy — constitutive of my human organism on display in synderesis, my sense of justice and my sense of the sacred which I have in common with all other people.[9]  The whole community accepts the responsibility for discerning a morality that works; immanence does not imply an individual solipsist morality which, for example, Dostoyevsky’s “Raskolnikov” claimed for himself in Crime and Punishment.

The transcendence that Stein establishes in Finite and Eternal Being takes on “flesh,” as it were, in The Science of the Cross.  The divine “personality” that transcendence justified is now revealed in all its anthropomorphic untenability as the “lover” who overcomes all distance and consummates the human destiny of being absorbed back into “Pure Spirit.”  With “mystical union” as imagined by John of the Cross it becomes clear that calling “God” a “person” without imagining “him” with humanoid features is impossible.  “God” displays all those characteristics without which humans could never recognize “him” as a person.  “He” “draws near” or “withdraws his favors” as would a lover.  And the “soul” must “withdraw affection” from everything other than the lover … hence the most severe mortifications, separations and self-denial.  Not only is such a “soul” expected to have no other “lover” (therefore celibacy is virtually mandatory) but “she” is expected to have no affection for anyone or anything else but “God.”

2

We should pause for a moment to allow these equations to sink in.  The logic is straightforward.  If “God” is a “person” the way we are persons, then it follows that to “love” “God” is to activate all those organic factors that are operative in human love and apply them to “God.”  Becoming one with a humanoid “God”-person is virtually the same as becoming one with a human person.  It is marriage — two in one flesh — psycho-erotic, somatic, i.e., implicitly sexual, as human lovers are always in touch with their sexual bond even when engaged in activities that have nothing to do with sex.  Marriage is a joining of “persons” through the joining of bodies.  John imagines his mystical union as a lover’s tryst.  He slips away at night and his lover comes to him, he rests his head on his breast, he runs his fingers through his hair …

From all eternity the soul has been chosen to share the triune life of the Godhead as bride of the Son of God.  In order to lead the bride home, the Eternal Word clothed himself with human nature. God and the soul are to be two in one flesh.[10]

Such intimacy calls for sexual fidelity.  Celibacy has to do very precisely with a lover’s fidelity to “God” as a person.  As a person, “God” relates to us as humans do, in face-to-face communication, and as human lovers do, intimately — what John shamelessly calls “boca a boca.”

All orders of nuns have spiritual betrothals, a ceremony that symbolizes the initiate’s becoming the “bride of Christ.”  But is it only a symbol for John of the Cross?  Stein suggests otherwise:

Here in the [Spiritual] Canticle, it [the bridal relationship] is the focal point for everything. This image is not an allegory. When the soul is called the Bride of God, there is not only a relationship of similarity between two things which permits one to be designated by the other. There is, much more, such an intimate union between the image and the reality that it is almost impossible to speak of them any longer as a duality.  … The relationship of the soul to God as God foresaw it from all eternity as the goal of her creation, simply cannot be more fittingly designated than as a nuptial bond.  … the image and the reality directly exchange their roles: the divine bridal relationship is recognized as the original and actual bridal relationship and all human nuptial relationships appear as imperfect copies of this archetype — just as the Fatherhood of God is the archetype of all fatherhood on earth.[11]

Stein’s insistence on the metaphysical (not metaphorical) nature of this relationship is very revealing.  It is the result of her determination to see John’s descriptions as a “science” that deals with “facts,” instead of what it really is, the poetic response of a human organism culturally organized around the paradigm of marriage as the expression of interpersonal love.

We must understand the depth of the significance of this phenomenon: celibacy in the Catholic tradition at root is not a superficial convenience … it is not merely a juridical expediency to avoid clerical inheritance and keep priests dependent … it is not a filter to keep sexually vigorous people out of the ranks of the clergy … it is not a cloak designed to mystify the ordinary people … it is not a necessary disencumbrance intended to allow the elite total dedication to justice and the advance­ment of the Church.  Even if it has been exploited for all of these purposes, celibacy is grounded in only one thing: the intimate accessibility of a transcendent “God”-person.  Celibacy corresponds to an anthropomorphic concept of “God.”

Celibacy has become central to the Roman Catholic mystique, identified with hierarchical authority — and the celibate priest has become the anchor and centerpiece of the Catholic community — because Roman Catholicism is wedded to a transcendent, personal, paternal “God” who enters actively into the details of our lives, for ordinary Christians with a micro-managing providence, and with mystical intimacy for the spiritual elite.

Married people, by the very fact that their affective lives are focused on one another, according to the dynamics this worldview represents, cannot  — I repeat: cannot — be available to the highest level of intimacy with “God.”  That’s the ultimate reason why married people are denied entrance to the hierarchy: their lives cannot bear the ultimate witness — mystical marriage — to the transcendent “personal” “God.”  And correlatively, once committed celibates become disabused of that assumption about “God,” they can no longer justify remaining celibate, for once the psycho-erotic dimension in the relationship with “God” has been exposed as fantasy, the one necessary component for making the transcendent “God” visible — mystical marriage — disappears, and celibacy becomes meaningless.  It all turns on maintaining belief in a humanoid “God”-person.

3

An immanent “God” on the other hand, needs no such psycho-erotic correlate, and correspondingly, no one needs to be celibate to be intimately related to this “God.”  Relationship to “God” is a relationship to one’s own organism, moral energies and innate proclivities.  An immanent “God” is authentically visible in our bodies as they are — reproductive functions and all, and female as well as male — even before any of its divine potential is activated morally.  And the moral activation of the divine potential resident in the human gendered organism turns it into an active, energizing force that generates sane and upright individuals, healthy families, loving communities and just societies.  With an immanent “God” the sacred is a communitarian energy grounded in sexual reproduction involving the equal contribution of both sexes.  Sex, in an immanentist universe, is sacred.  How that plays out in practice is a matter of community consensus; but in all cases it reflects your concept of “God.”

Learning what it means to be a surviving, collaborating, reproducing and nurturing, socially responsible human being is to draw on the divine energies resident in the human organism.  With that re-definition the traditional ascetical program re-configures to run 180o in the opposite direction.  Instead of trying to suppress and eradicate the body and its instincts, efforts are now directed toward eliminating all the obstacles to the clear vision of the potential wholeness and creativity  resident in the body and its functions.  Growth becomes a constant clarification illuminating the divinity immanent in humanness and allowing it full passionate play.  “Learning to love” stops being obedience to a commandment, or an attempt to cerebralize (“spiritualize”) relationships in order to remain invulnerable to hurt or desire.

Don’t be fooled.  This is not a highway to libertinism, and it is full of painful struggle.  It demands as much discipline and self-transcen­dence as ever.  The difference is that the goal of the program is one of an accurate self-appraisal and creative self-expression, not self-doubt, self-loathing, self-repres­sion and self-destruction — the symptoms of the autogenic disease.  The vision is centered on fulfilling one’s divine potential: a striving for theosis, “divinization.”  And please note well: none of this can be achieved without abandoning the illusion that we are disembodied spirits.

4

I would like to demonstrate how the stark contrasts between these two “concepts of God” are illustrated in Stein’s views which she embraced whole cloth from her mediaeval mentors.  Parenthetically, my criticisms in this section are strictly theological.  I am not implying moral or psychological failure on the part of Edith Stein whose faithful compliance with what she was being taught overrode the potential damaging effects that came with Tridentine Catholicism and its scholastic scaffolding.

The following is a single undivided paragraph taken from her chapter 15 called “Death and Resurrection.”  It speaks for itself.

God is love. Therefore, being seized by God is an enkindling in love — when the spirit is ready for it.  For all that is mortal is consumed in the fire of eternal love. And that means all movements that are released in the soul through creatures. If she turns toward the creature, she withdraws herself from the divine love, although she cannot escape it.  Then love becomes a fire that consumes the soul herself.  The human spirit as spirit is destined for immortal being.  This is shown in the immutability that he ascribes to himself in his own circumstances: he thinks that as things are ordered about him, they will forever remain.  That is a deception, for during his mortal existence he is subject to change.  But one hears in this the consciousness that one’s being is not consumed by what is temporal, but is rooted in the eternal. According to his nature, he cannot decay like material forms. But if, in free surrender, the spirit fastens on to what is temporal, it will come to feel the hand of the living God who can destroy it by his almighty power through the avenging fire of rejected divine love or can preserve it as with the fallen angels, in eternal ruin. This second and most actual death would be our common lot if Christ had not stepped between us and divine justice with his Passion and death and opened a way for mercy.[12]

This is an utterly terrifying statement.  It paints a picture of a violent punitive “God” whose demand for exclusivity in a love relationship parallels Augustine’s version of the obedience relationship originally established with Adam and Eve in the garden.  Those who do not rise to the demand in each case are destroyed or kept alive in a state of moral degeneration by the “avenging fire of rejected love.”

Clearly, Stein has accurately perceived the emotionally immature character of the “God” presented by the Augustinian worldview: a petulant inflexible mega-monster who displays the same character traits at all levels of interaction with humans.  Stein has no difficulty ascribing the most horrendous punishments from “God” as “revenge” for unrequited love.  The “God” she imagines is narcissistic and self-cen­tered.  Humans with those characteristics are considered emotionally infantile and morally crippled.  An ordinary decent human being, morally and emotionally speaking, would be far superior to this imaginary “God.”

“Science” and poetry

Following Husserl and Aquinas Stein always thought of philosophy and theology as “science.”   Her reading of the Carmelite mystic as a “scientist,” is reflected in the title of her book.

Stein often quotes or paraphrases John.  The passage quoted above was her own but three chapters later she quotes John directly and extensively; and, whether she intended it or not, it provides a “scientific” corrective to any and all imagery of the “mystical union.”  The following is copied directly from the kindle version of the ICS text; all quotation marks, ellipses and their positioning are Stein’s.  John is speaking in The Living Flame of Love:

“The soul here sees how all creatures of the higher and the lower orders have their life, their power and their existence in him . . . but that the being of God in himself is infinitely eminent and above all these things so that she understands them better in God’s being than in themselves. In this lies the remarkable delight of this awakening. The soul knows creatures through God and no longer God through creatures. . . . How this movement takes place in the soul is a wonderful thing since God is immovable. . . . For, although God does not really move, it seems to the soul that in truth he moves. Namely, in order to perceive that supernatural sight, since she is changed through God and is moved by him, divine life and the being and harmony of every creature, with their movements in God in that life, are revealed to her with such newness that it seems to her that God moves, and the cause assumes the name of the effect it produces”. . . .  So it is also the soul that is moved and awakened from the sleep of natural vision to supernatural vision.

“In my opinion this awakening and view given to the soul is effected in this way: since the soul, like every creature, is in God substantially, he removes some of the many veils and curtains hanging in front of it so that it might get a glimmer of him as he is. And then that countenance of his, full of graces, becomes partially and vaguely discernible, for not all the veils are removed. Because all things are moved by his power, what he is doing is also evident, so he seems to move in them and they in him with continual movement. That is why the soul has the impression that he moves and awakens when, actually, it is she who is moved and awakened. . . . And so human beings ascribe to God what is actually to be found in them. They who are lazy and sleepy say that God raises himself and wakes up, although he never sleeps. . . . But since in truth all good comes from God and human beings of themselves can do nothing good, it is according to truth that one says that our awakening is an awakening of God and our rising is God’s rising. And since the soul was sunk in sleep out of which she could never by herself have awakened, and because only God could now have opened her eyes and effected this awakening, the soul very appropriately calls this an awakening of God. . . . What the soul experiences and feels in this awakening of God’s excellence is entirely beyond words.”[13]

You would think the inclusion of this clarifying passage would indicate that Edith had to be aware of the poetic, “unscientific” nature of all John’s descriptions.  And yet, it is remarkable that she does not include these “scientific” correctives in the descriptions of the experience itself.  It is my opinion that John intended to clarify his expression of the “doctrine of God” perhaps to satisfy the Inquisition which was particularly alert for “pantheistic” vagaries in mystical doctrine.[14]  The clarification was not meant to minimize in any way the intensity of the experience for the human individual or “God’s” intention to have it materialize in the “soul;” John’s point was that “God” was not moved, not that the soul was not moved.

But the fact remains: John admits the descriptions are metaphors, not literal realities.  They are acknowledged as illusions which he believed were evoked (miraculously) by “God” and therefore must be taken “as real” by the soul in her ascent, but they are illusions nonetheless, and his acknowledgement confirms the subjective and culturally conditioned nature of mystical experience.  It opens the door for the consideration of the descriptions of mystical experience found in non-Christian traditions where the sense of the sacred is not based on interactions with a personal “God” — descriptions that may serve as a guide for us as we pursue “contact” with a “God” which we, in our day, are rediscovering as immanent.

Stein goes out of her way in chapter 14 to distinguish “God’s” presence in mystical union from the “normal” presence of “God” in all created things.  Curiously, she does not seem to recognize the mystical potential of natural immanence even though Teresa of Avila, her namesake who led her to the faith, claimed that she herself only learned about it in mystical experience.[15]  Stein insists on the primacy of all those features necessary to support her preferred image of “betrothal.”  To have a mystical marriage, “God” has to be another person.  A “lover’s tryst,” on the other hand, is not the best metaphor for contact with an immanent “God” in whom you “live and move and have your being,” for you are yourself a part of that “God.”  “Finding your real self” may be an apt description of contact with “God” for the post-modern Christian, but not for Stein.

This is not to deny the authenticity of the experience that Stein examines.  It is quite clear that the metaphors her analysis supports have to do with issues of her own personal and intellectual history and ideological priorities which clearly are in sync with both the mindset of the Church in the 1930’s and of John of the Cross in Imperial Spain of the sixteenth century:  for both it was Tridentine Roman Catholicism.   It generates a poetry that resonates with its worldview.  One would expect nothing less.

But by the same token there is also nothing privileged or “canonical” about it either.  John and Edith’s imagery is not a literal portrayal of reality — the “facts.”  It is not “science.”  It is poetry, and John, for his part, as Edith acknowledges, never suggests it is anything else.  It corresponds to their own affective needs, relational values, personal preferences, theological assumptions and literary tastes — all historically and culturally conditioned.  Catholic claims that mystical union is a “supernatural phenomenon,” the exclusive product of “sanctifying grace” which comes only through the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, is disproven by the extent and depth of mystical experience in the non-Christian world.

Mystical experience is, by its very nature “subjective,” for it is the resonance in the human organism of the suffusive presence of that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

[1] “Counter-Reformation Catholicism,” while claiming to institutionalize the Catholic doctrine in its mediaeval form, the Council of Trent actually represented an evolution of it.  It abandoned in pastoral practice the immanence of “God” in favor of a quid pro quo obedience relationship with an exclusively transcendent “God.”

[2] This correlates with Stein’s metaphysical view of “God” in Finite and Eternal Being where she suggests “God” has a “spiritual body” [Geistleib] that makes “him” to be “enclosed” and “interiorly self-possessed,” — what I call an entity.  pp. 360-1

[3] Stein, Edith (2011-03-17). The Science of the Cross (The Collected Works of Edith Stein Vol. 6) ICS Publications. Kindle Edition.Kindle Locations 3499-3500, the quote is from John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, 2.33-36.

[4] ibid., Kindle Locations 3282-3283.

[5] ibid., Kindle Locations 2947-2950

[6] ibid., Kindle Locations 3443-3444.

[7] Sarah Borden, in Edith Stein, Continuum 2003, p. 7 says:  “Hedwig Conrad-Martius [Edith’s close friend], while not questioning the integrity of Stein’s conversion, suggests that dashed hopes in a relationship played a role in the timing of her decision.”

[8] See footnote #2

[9] It needs to be emphasized that these statements are structural.  That means they are metaphysical, and refer to the ultimate source of responsibility.  They do not take into account the actual presence of immaturity, addictions and other bad habits of mind and behavior that may have so clouded over the moral agent that a serious program of rectification is necessary before such autonomy can be safely trusted, both in thought and action.

[10] Ibid., Kindle Locations 5237-5239

[11] Ibid., Kindle Locations 4791-4794

[12] ibid., Kindle Locations 3186-3196.

[13] ibid., Kindle Locations 3687-3693. Stein provides one global reference for much of this section in footnote #1 of chapter 18 “The Hidden Life of Love.” Kindle Location 6327:  “These last quotations and the paraphrases of the doctrine of St. John are from F.4.1-14. “[“F.” refers to The Living Flame of Love, poem and commentary by John of the Cross.]

[14] ibid., Kindle Location 4671.  This “pantheism,” called “Illuminism” in John’s Spain, represented vestiges of the doctrines surrounding the heresy of the “Brethren of the Free Spirit” in the high middle ages that were connected to immanence.

[15] ibid., Kindle Location 2934-85.  It is significant that already in the 1570’s Teresa of Avila was not even aware of divine immanence from her basic Christian education. It illustrates the universal marginalization of divine immanence in the Roman Catholic worldview 30 years after Trent.  See Interior Castle, fifth dwelling, ch 1.  Edimat Libros edition p. 88:  “I know of a person who had not learned that God was in all things by presence and power and essence; God granted her a favour of this kind, which convinced her of this so firmly that, although one of those half-learned men whom I have been talking about, and whom she asked in what way God was in us (until God granted him an understanding of it he knew as little of it as she), told her that He was in us only by grace, she had the truth so firmly implanted within her that she did not believe him, and asked others, who told her the truth, which was a great consolation to her.”