Understanding and Love

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Let the one who is wise understand these words,
Let the intelligent one grasp their meaning.
For the ways of Yahweh are straight,
and the virtuous walk in them
but sinners stumble.

Hosea 14: 10

And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Mark 12:34

Mark’s context for the dialogue within which Jesus gives us the two great commandments is very different from that of Matthew and Luke.  In both of those accounts Jesus is questioned by a pharisee and a lawyer, both of whom are trying to trick or trap him.  But in Mark’s account it is a scribe who engages Jesus in sincerity and whom Jesus thus proclaims to be “not far from the kingdom of God.”  Unlike the interlocutors in the other two gospels, the scribe of Mark’s account evokes praise from Jesus because of  his “understanding.”  Likewise, Hosea says that the hallmark of a wise person is understanding.

Today’s scriptures invite us to reflect on the significance of understanding as he basis of the love to which Jesus calls us, love of God and love of neighbor.  To understand is to grasp the reality of a situation or a person from our spiritual or transcendent capacities.  It is a “personal knowledge” that comes of personal participation and commitment (cf. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge).  We cannot come to know or offer  love  from a distance.  Thus, at some point, love requires of us that we abandon what we think we know.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Horatio comes across Hamlet after his encounter with his dead Father’s ghost.  As he witnesses what must be for him a very bizarre sight, Horatio exclaims:   “O day and night but this is wondrous strange!”  Hamlet, in turn, replies:  “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  (I,v)  Love requires of us that we give welcome to the stranger and the strange because we know that there is, in every encounter, always more to be understood than we can know with our cognition alone.

The call to understanding in its spiritual sense is difficult for us who are formed in a secular age.  Our compulsion is for explanation.  We believe, for example, that if human beings can find in their past an explanation for an emotional struggle that they will find peace.  We search unceasingly for the explanation of how our brain chemistry and  circuitry works, believing that this will reveal to us the mystery of human imagination and will.  We tend to think that we know others based on the amount of detail of their past lives to which we are privy.  So, we endlessly and tediously explain ourselves to each other without experiencing being understood.

Understanding requires of us that we “stand under.”  That, in the words of Shakespeare, we recognize that the life as we encounter it  is always a stranger and that we are “therefore as a stranger [to] give it welcome.”  I can never come to love what I observe at a distance, but only that which I welcome in its mystery and come to know by personal participation and commitment.

What is required of us to grow in understanding?  What Lenten practices can serve our transformation of presence from the drive for explanation to the aspiration for understanding?  Perhaps at least one practice is in our relationship to time.  We can try to temper our rational-functional compulsions just a bit more and thus create even a moment or two of humble presence that can welcome what is strange, what we can’t yet understand, and in this empty and open moment become a participant in what is for us the mysterious world of the other.  We can do this by  recognizing our initial judgments of another or a situation as the partial explanations which they are, and in the cognitive darkness that such a self-abandonment evokes, we can engage our hearts to participate in the mysterious life before us, and await, even momentarily, a deeper understanding of that world and the way in which we are called to participate in it.

The Word of God in all its manifestations cannot be known by explanation.  Fundamentalisms of all kinds are a reduction of the spiritual call to understanding.  They are an attempt to reduce the Mystery to the level of our own cognition.  Such pride and presumption will always, to some degree or other, lead to violence.  If we “know,” then we are compelled to set everyone else straight.  But, as Hosea says, it is only the Lord’s ways that are straight.  Those ways are always mysterious to us, and dark to our minds.  But if we commit ourselves to the Mystery, we may gradually come, through participation in and commitment to that Mystery, to understand increasingly its ways in our hearts.

By means of fervent interior affection and a loving inclination, together with God’s faithfulness, the second stream springs forth from the fullness of grace in the unity of the spirit.  This stream is a spiritual resplendence which infuses its light into the understanding and reveals many kinds of distinctions, for this light truly makes manifest the distinction among all the virtues.  This, however, does not lie within our own power.  Even if we constantly have this light in our souls, it is God who makes it be silent or speak, God who can reveal it or hide it, bestow it or take it away, at any time and in any place, for it is his light.  He therefore works in this light when he wills, where he wills, upon whom he wills, and what he wills.  The persons upon whom he works in this way have no need of revelations or of being caught up above their senses, for their life, their abode, their conduct, and their being are already in the spirit, above their senses and above their sensibility.  It is there that God shows them what he wills as being necessary either for them or for other persons.  

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II, ii, B

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2 Comments

  1. I recently read of the “outpouring” of the Spirit which accompanies each sacrament. I was struck by “outpouring,” with its suggestion of lavishness, of inundation–quite different from my (self-induced) humdrum experience of sacraments and other religious practices. At Mass this morning I thought of the outpouring occurring in the quiet confines of this parish church and everywhere else Mass was being celebrated. As van Ruusbroec might put it: This outpouring doesn’t lie within our power. It is God who makes it, God who can reveal it or hide it, bestow it or take it away. If we commit ourselves to the mystery we may come to understand increasingly its ways in our hearts. Be still and know that I am the Lord.

  2. Tom Kelly (former Brother Ernest) says:

    To me, the profession of teaching, when actuated by love, is sacramental in nature. It is the outward sign of the inner truth that love, expressed as the wholehearted investment of one human being in the welfare of another, is the greatest creative force in the universe.

    I say this specifically to honor Brother Jim Boyle — Sulpicius when I first knew him — whose teaching of English was indeed an outpouring of the spirit. His wit, both wry and dry, his trademark uplift of the head offering a glimpse of amused eyes from beneath his glasses, his confidence that we could always do better, his communication of quiet enthusiasm when a passage of youthful writing shone with the glint of genuine talent — these were all gifts of the spirit to the callow and uncertain gathered before him.

    Thanks, Brother. So many of us owe a meaningful portion of the joy we have experienced in life to your talent, passion, and commitment to the spiritual and intellectual development of your students. Without hyperbole I may truthfully say you are God’s gift — or at least one of the uncountable many.

    Proficiat et vita abundantior.

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