Friday, October 14, 2011

Why prayer is better than apologetics

We are often deceived into thinking that doing great things for God is something for tomorrow and the life of prayer is something only to be taken up when one's life's circumstances allow it to be more of a priority. This is not the way the saints understand time.

Bl. Julian of Norwich
 I encourage you to read the rest of Dr. Anthony Lilles' "The Present Moment – Eternity Begun and Still in Progress". There's a downside to coming at Catholicism strictly from an intellectual, apologetics approach as I usually do: you miss the interior communion with God that forms the core of Catholic spirituality, a dialogue without words.

Let me give you an example of what I mean: 

Too often when we say, "God is eternal," we filter that proposition through our own experience of Time – a vast yet finite succession of individual "nows", with both foresight and hindsight crippled by lack of knowledge and emotional biases. But for God, there is no "yesterday" or "tomorrow" ... for lack of a better way to express it, to God all moments are NOW. Furthermore, His knowledge is complete, His vision undistorted by human needs and wounds.

St. John of the Cross
Now, having a bit of a science background and having read a smattering of science fiction, my first thoughts on realizing this were that God's actions through history can't be judged by human standards because our perception of those actions are necessarily bound by our human limitations. Thomas Nagel has argued persuasively that we really can't know what it's like to be a bat because we can't ever know what it's like to have our entire reality constructed solely by echolocation: in a sense, we're too "big" to fit inside the bat's mind. In the opposite direction, any attempt to say what God should have done in historical situation x is merely to blow up an idealized human to vast yet finite proportions ... an immortal being with mortal limitations of knowledge and psyche. We trust that God is omnibenevolent, yet we don't know how that omnibenevolence works with His Wisdom and His ultimate Purpose.

As I said, I approached this from an apologetics standpoint, while I was working my way through the problem of evil (I have some conclusions here, though necessarily somewhat constricted). But it also paid a different benefit — I finally "got" the story of Job.

St. Teresa of Ávila
The moral of Job's story is one of those things you either "get" or you don't, and you don't "get" it until you do. Until that moment, I'd always been unsatisfied with God's reply to Job (chapters 38-41); it had always struck me as a non-answer, the kind of non-answer parents give their kids when they say, "I'm the mommy/daddy, that's why!" – except that it was more of a "Shut up, you don't know enough to criticize me!"

And then it burst upon my mind: I really don't know enough to criticize God. There's simply no way I or any other human being could possibly see it from His angle. We don't have the knowledge base. We don't have the experience of all time simultaneously; we can barely keep a grasp of our own personal histories, let alone the entire Story of the Universe. Suddenly I was stripped of my comfortable, familiar image of God, a spiritually malnourished mental image not much better than the Almighty of the cartoons and the boggart-God of the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" critiques,to be replaced with Something unutterable, incomprehensible and so completely Other as to be completely Alien.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Now, I could chunder on about how this realization first frightened me, then opened me up to a deeper appreciation of some of the most irritating commonplaces people mindlessly toss back and forth at each other – such as "Life is unfair" and "It is what it is" – and in fact I almost did. But that's not the point. The point is, what it took me a fairly tough slog to get through to, the mystic comes to naturally through prayer. I think; the mystic contemplates. My process treats the soul almost as an accessory and a hindrance; the mystic's process engages the soul properly, as that which unifies reason, sense and emotion. The process I use is colorless, dry and arid; the mystic's prayer irrigates that desert and plants a riot of flowers in it.

And now I can understand why the great mystic saints like Bernard of Clairvaux could spend so much time on their knees, with only passing thought for food or sleep. The mystic dwells within, is grounded in, the eternal now that destroys the arbitrary divisions we impose on Time; while a thousand years is not precisely as a day, twelve hours passes as fifteen minutes. The mystic doesn't try to treat or approach God as an equal, as we tend to do; she not only recognizes His Otherness but glories in it.

Apologetics has its place, sure. But the rational approach, as satisfying as it may be, is not the whole of Catholicism. Andrew M. Greeley once wrote that the ideal bishop is 95% agnostic and 5% mystic (he was thinking of the ecclesial bureaucrat we've become familiar with over the years, I'm sure). But the goal of most Catholic devotions is to reach the mystic in us all and integrate her into our lives, not to supress her with endless reasoning or unfocused emoting.

Doctor Lilles closes with a quote from Abp. Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, writing from the horror of the prison cell:

If I wait for an opportune moment to do something truly great,
how many times will such occasions actually present themselves?
No, I will seize the occasions that present themselves every day.
I must accomplish ordinary actions in an extraordinary way.
Jesus, I will not wait,
I will live the present moment,
filling it to the brim with love.
Juan de Valdés Leal, In Ictu Oculi (In the Wink of an Eye)
 The past is done with; the future may never arrive, for this night your life may be required of you (cf. Lk 12:16-21). There is only the now; now is the only opportunity we have to love and serve each other, to throw ourselves at His feet, into His arms.

And all manner of things will be well.