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Spiritual Progress and Contemplation

John Kelleher

A topic as yet only implicitly considered here, but one often treated in manuals of moral theology, is spiritual progress, and its end in "contemplation," the interior communion of the soul with God, the completion, the perfection, of the soul's journey.

We preface the following discussion by reiterating here what we have already written: covenantal moral theologies may deploy theories of the 'spiritual', 'the good', 'evil', etc., but covenantal moral theologies are strictly, as a matter of method, unable to regard those theories as anything but provisional, and cannot accept any of them as foundational.

This does not mean that the 'spiritual', 'the good', 'evil', etc. cease to exist, if we treat our theories about these realities as provisional only; all we mean to say is that while the map may be good or bad, precise or vague, mistaken or correct, in every case, the map is not the territory.

Which is to say, covenantal moral theologies aim to take with methodological seriousness the free responsibility of the Lord with His bride. Covenantal moral theologies assume a priori the reality under study, and they may ask questions of it, but as a matter of method, they do not impose a structure on the reality under study, or act as if some structure is coterminous with it.

Thus, regarding the freedom of the responsibility of the New Covenant, covenantal moral theologies are aware, with as much methodological rigor as they can deploy, that the object of their inquiry is possessed by them as sheer Gift, radically in history, in ecclesia, in and by the liturgical, sacramental worship of the Church.

And regarding the free responsibility of the New Covenant, as has been already written in these essays, the Gift which the believing Catholic possesses in ecclesia and radically in history has always been concrete: it has never been nebulous, never indefinite.

The New Covenant, the Eucharistic Event, is now and has ever been an ongoing, utterly free and yet distinctly concrete history of free gifts, works, and obligations. Thus the New Covenant, the Eucharistic Event, is a radically historical Gift of 'this' and not 'that'; for the second Eve has never considered herself superior to the 'this' and not 'that' of the Gift by which she is Virgin, Mother, and Bride of her painstakingly concrete Lord in His excruciatingly historical One Sacrifice.

A system cannot found covenantal moral theologies, which must strive to be vulnerable, open-ended -- radically historical -- as a matter of method. There is a 'this' and not 'that' to be honored, but it is the radically historical 'this' and not 'that' of the sacramental worship of the Church. It is definitely not "the rationalized notion of 'nature' heretofore in common use." [ CT Vol. II, Appendix, p. 656 ] This holds for the entire moral life, which therefore includes our topic, spiritual progress and contemplation.

To begin. These essays 'towards' a covenantal moral theology are only essays, not exhaustive academic disquisitions, but it scarcely requires a thousand-page scholarly tome to observe that for centuries, it was a commonplace of theological discourse that the idea of spiritual progress is founded on the Analogy of Being.

There is certainly nothing wrong with the categories deployed in the Analogy of Being. With the theological tradition, Fr. Keefe also references them, and quotes [CT, Vol. II, Ch. 6, p. 588] "a once familiar couplet [that] distilled for the Middle Ages a nearly millennial tradition":

Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria
Moralis quid agas, quo tendas (quid speres) anagogia.

[ The Letter teaches deeds, Allegory what you believe
The Moral how to act; Anagogy (what you hope for) shows your destiny. ]

A brief excursus: Covenantal Theology does not prefer these categories, but rather emphasizes a different "order" in preference to the "order" of the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical; which is to say, the order of sacramentum tantum, res et sacramentum, res tantum.

The reasons for this preference are multiple, but perhaps the primary one is that the theological tradition developed the order of sacramentum tantum, res et sacramentum, res tantum within a much more direct reflection on the sacraments.

This is an "order of anticipation, realization and fulfillment which has its cause and source in the sacramentum tantum, res et sacramentum, and res tantum of the Eucharist." [ CT Vol II Appendix p. 659 ]

But to return to the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical: these categories, originally hermeneutic, for the reading of Scripture, began also to be deployed regarding spiritual progress. 'The soul' was held to be drawn up beyond a lower level of its being, by, and to, a higher level of being.

Thus 'the soul's' lowest level of 'being', the literal, was drawn up, beyond itself, by, and towards, the allegorical level of being, and so on progressing, in heaven, to the anagogical level of being -- being in its highest form, 'being' in its fullness and perfection, which was held to be unmediated participation in the very life of God.

This is the Analogy of Being; and when not pushed too far into 'philosophy' it remains alive and beautiful. The couplet encapsulated the reflection of saints, but remains insufficiently baptized, as we will see shortly.

As Fr. Keefe implies in a passage to be cited momentarily, the couplet distilled the thinking of saints for whom the 'natural' world still pulsed with religious significance and value, but such a world was "irreconcilable with the dogmatic rationalism of the Aristotelian act-potency analysis."

That is, the Analogy of Being fails when pushed on too hard, when it becomes fully rationalized, fully dehistoricized. This fully dehistoricized Analogy eventually became the framework that was commonly and then well-nigh universally assumed regarding 'spiritual progress'.

At which point the notion of 'spiritual progress' fails, because the thoroughly rationalized Analogy of Being by which 'spiritual progress' was understood cannot be sustained; it collapses into its own self-generated radical contradiction.

However, the Analogy still succeeds in the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, in which the very bodies and work of the Bridegroom with His bride ever unite the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical in concrete sacramental mediated multi-personal ecclesial history.

Yet when a naive version of the Analogy is pushed fully into 'philosophy', when it becomes fully dehistoricized, fully de-sacramentalized, the Analogy of Being becomes radically contradictory:

While the influence of Plato's Timaeus was still effective in the Thomist metaphysics, by way of the tradition stemming from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, coloring the notion of the natural with a religious significance and value, this nostalgia was irreconcilable with the dogmatic rationalism of the Aristotelian act-potency analysis. This has the consequence that the usual "Thomist" analogy of being set up a radically contradictory postulate of a transcendent creator who is "naturally" known to be the metaphysical absolute, for it is immediately evident that of the transcendent absolute precisely nothing is or can be known, as a matter of definition: of the ineffable, nothing is said. This had been worked out in the Latin West by the close of the thirteenth century and, since the nominalist triumph of logic over cosmology in the next century, only a school loyalty coupled to a religious obedience, now unavailing, has kept the Thomist "natural" or philosophical analogy in use....

[CT Vol.I, Ch. II, n. 37, p. 278]

Once God is the ineffable, time-less One, then an Analogy of Being with that God as its perfection, as its end, and hence that idea of spiritual 'progress', collapses under the weight of a radical contradiction.

For how can 'progress' even be detected, if it is progress towards the transcendent absolute, about which "precisely nothing is or can be known, as a matter of definition"?

The question, as asked, can only be fudged -- as it was fudged repeatedly in the theological tradition -- but it cannot be answered, because it is asked with reference to a God unknown to the Catholic church, she who worships her crucified and Risen Lord, One Flesh with her, His bride, radically in history.

The beginnings of a covenantal Analogy of Being can be guessed at here. For one thing, it would be radically historical, with the source and summit of that history the sacramental re-presentation of the New Covenant, of the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice. As one consequence, a covenantal Analogy of Being would be less de-blooded than previous versions -- not so prone to conflate the intellectual or the immaterial with the spiritual.

For example, a covenantal Analogy of Being would not regard Our Lord's smiling blubbers as an infant as insufficiently "contemplative," and therefore as somehow less revelatory of the Father; nor would it be tempted to regard our devout contemplation upon His infant blubbers as somehow more spiritual and holy and worthy than His actual infant Self existing in concrete history.

For similar reasons, a covenantal Analogy of Being would not be so ready to pronounce upon a 'natural', necessary, hierarchy of spiritual gifts; for instance, it would not be apt to characterize St. Therese of Lisieux's "Little Way" as spiritually lesser, not just littler; and it would take with complete seriousness Fr. Keefe's characterization of the theologian as "Our Lady's Juggler." [ CT Vol. II, Epilogue, p. 654 ]

One delightful consequence of a covenantal Analogy of Being is that Heaven no longer belongs merely to the anagogical -- or rather to an ineffable version of it available solely after death -- but rather, the anagogical is really present, Heaven is really present, though in mediated, sacramental form, in the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

In the One Sacrifice made re-present at every Mass, not only are the Bridegroom and His bride One Flesh in our concrete history:

This is the chalice of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal covenant

but also the Bridegroom and His bride are in communion with all those who eat the One Bread of the One Sacrifice, who are thence also in communion with each other:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

[ 1 Cor 10:16-17 ]

Moreover, in that same Eucharistic Event, at that same Mass, by His same One Sacrifice, we are also in communion with all those who have died in the Lord's saving death -- that is, with all the saints -- and with all the angels, who join in singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

But by definition, this whole and full communion, with the Lord and His bride, with all who eat the One Bread, with all who have died in the death of the Lord, and with the angels, is Heaven. Not Heaven 'symbolically' -- Heaven mediated, yes, in the sign of the sacrament -- but Heaven, as actual and as real as the Lord's Presence, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.

This is not a 'poetic' fancy, unable to be taken seriously; rather, it is a demonstration that a theology rooted in dehistoricized cosmology was inevitably blind to the historical, Event-character of the Eucharist, thus could not confidently assert the simultaneous independence and yet inseparability of Offertory, Consecration, and Communion (which constitute an Event radically in history and not a time-less 'instant'), and therefore could not confidently assert that not only the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord, but also Heaven itself, is made really present at every Mass.

It is scarcely a new idea in the Church that Heaven is -- somehow -- made present at Holy Mass. So many aspects of the Church's worship pointed to it. The very buildings in which the Eucharist is made re-present showed, and still show, the angels and saints around us.

The sole advance that a covenantal theology brings here is to provide a systematic; that is, a methodological, theological, basis for this venerable insight.

In sum, since a dehistoricized Analogy of Being fails, so also does any 'progress of the soul' based on it.

The traditional Analogy of Being only 'worked' if not pressed too hard; that is, before the Analogy became fully 'philosophical', prior to the imposition of Thomistic/Aristotelian rationalism upon the idea.

But the problems with the spiritual progress of 'the soul' do not end with the fact that a fully 'natural', 'philosophical' -- a rationalized, a dehistoricized -- Analogy of Being is based on a radical contradiction.

For if by 'contemplation' one means a time-less, static, intellectual, unmediated, individual union with God achieved by means of a perfect understanding of Christ and perfect conformity with Him, then covenantal moral theologies must have nothing to do with it, must refuse it, for there is nothing covenantal about this 'contemplation', whether as a means or an end.

To begin with, we have learned that none but Jesus's Virgin Mother has an unmediated relationship with Him -- none of us are His bride, except her; and in fact even the idea of intruding on their nuptial union is unmasked as wholly uncovenantal, ridiculous if not actively scandalous, indeed, completely unChristian.

For this sort of 'contemplation' must assume and posit, not the Bridegroom in indissociable and radically historical covenant with His bride, but instead, a nebulous, time-less, unhistorical, even disembodied 'Christ' wholly unknown to the Church's worship.

There is, of course and obviously, contemplation in the Church, and it is fully personal, but it is wholly ecclesial; it is never even a little bit unmediated.

To say it differently, covenantal moral theologies must refuse tout court the curious contention that 'the soul'; viz., any soul but our Lady's, can have any sort of ummediated union with her Lord.

In short, He is her Lord first; He is our Lord, insofar as we are His adopted brothers, and her adopted sons. Any union we have with God occurs solely in and through the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice; this is basic covenantal theology.

Undoubtedly the Risen Lord can appear as a light from heaven to a certain someone, knock him to the ground, blind him, and ask him, "Why do you persecute Me?"

However, we forget much if we forget that this concrete moment did not at all amount to contemplatio, did not at all make Saul of Tarsus 'one' with the Lord, but rather brought him to his real history; that is, first, to the entirely mediated and historical company of the saints, and from thence, to Saul's entirely mediated and historical baptism -- to his substantial history with the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, to his real, personal name, whereby he began his free history of free gifts, works, and obligations with all who eat the One Bread, and with all men, each one of whom is meant to be offered that Gift.

It is simply and flatly untrue to say that anyone, other than His bride, can have even an instant of unmediated relationship with her Lord, whether that be 'intellectual', 'spiritual', 'mystical', or otherwise, whether on earth or in heaven; and as has just been said, to seek such is at best completely mistaken.

Covenantal moral theologies do not -- cannot, must not -- deny the existence nor the value of the mystical, but whatever some saints have experienced, whatever visions and manifestations and conversations, however intimate, none of it was part nor parcel of an unmediated relationship with the Lord, since this is reserved for His bride.

Given its dehistoricized theology, the contemplatio of the theological tradition then seemed always reserved for a decidedly 'spiritual' -- nonhistorical -- Christ (and, we blush to spell out, a decidedly unattached one).

Again, that the very idea of 'the soul's' 'bridal' relationship with the Christ did not seem indecorous in the extreme, only serves to reveal how radically mistaken some aspects of theological language were, or at least, had become.

Similarly, we have also learned to refuse the idea of achieving a "perfect understanding" of God. For we cannot circumscribe God, hedge Him about, confine either His love or His free responsibility in a 'ratio'.

God is intelligible, but He is not comprehensible; there is nothing 'beyond' or 'behind' God that would 'explain' either why He loves us, or why He is steadfast in His love.

Thus covenantal moral theologies must refuse the idea that either on earth or in the next life a "perfect understanding" of God is available, whether to men or angels. It is not time, nor fallenness, nor anything else, that 'prevents' a perfect understanding of God.

Covenantal moral theologies do not seek the truth, but possess the Truth in ecclesia as sheer Gift. We will never be able to understand why the Bridegroom and His bride love us, nor why they are steadfast in their love.

We pause to emphasize that the 'charity' of the theological tradition is no solution to this. Within that theological tradition, a covenantal, let alone a trinitarian, conception of unity is unimaginable. It may be partly available in exceptions, silent contradictions, and fudges, but is methodologically off the table.

With covenantal unity off the table, the logic went something like this: since God is Love (charity), and since charity (God) is the Deus Unus -- monadic Being, time-less Being, indivisible, etc. Being -- then being caught up in charity (in heaven) means being incorporated into the fullness of monadic, time-less, indivisible Being, Whose Name is charity, Love.

Hence in heaven, and only in heaven, we achieve a perfect understanding of God, because we are caught up in the One, in God and His monadic, time-less, etc. perfection of being, which is charity.

But even when the One is 'charity', how are we, as not-Ones -- redolent with extension and multiplicity -- able to become one with the ineffable, monadic One, thus achieving a perfect understanding of the One? Or how can we retain any identity at all, any 'not-One-ness', if we indeed become fully united with the One?

But this of course is the problem of the One and the Many, and as Fr. Keefe has shown over and again, the problem is insoluble, because it is self-generated by incorrect priors.

In a word, a dehistoricized theology can provide no framework within which the concept of a 'perfect understanding' of God can even be intelligibly formulated.

What we emphasize here is that the concept of a 'perfect understanding' of God cannot be intelligibly formulated within any conceivable covenantal moral theology, either; and even more, that covenantal moral theologies must refuse such a concept, whole and entire.

For neither time, nor fallenness, nor weakened intellects, nor anything else, and certainly not a lack of charity, is the reason why we cannot achieve a "perfect understanding" of God. God is intelligible, and there will always be more to understand about Him, but there will be no Greek 'perfect understanding' of Him, as if there were some time-less Principle prior to Him, in terms of which He can be "perfectly understood."

In a word, covenantal moral theologies are theologies of gift. The attempt to comprehend the Gift is an attempt to 'step outside' it, to get oneself entirely around it, to grasp at it, rather than to possess it as gift in ecclesia. A "perfect understanding" of the love and the free responsibility of the Bridegroom with His bride is thus either a concept so inherently malformed that it is unformulable -- or it is a variant of what the devil told Eve.

Nor will the inherent freedom of covenantal existence allow covenantal moral theologies to envisage a perfect conformity with Christ as anything but living, breathing, working, singing, with Christ and His bride, but not as them, radically in history, a 'conformity' that is mediated, sacramental, historical, ecclesial, multi-personal, surprising, inherently creative -- and a conformity anything but 'perfect', in the sense of statically 'complete', organically 'one' with Him, 'outside' of time.

And -- putting this as generously as possible -- a dehistoricized contemplatio at very best makes an afterthought of the sacraments.

For the sacraments, in history, sign "the very life of God" so often referred to in the spiritual tracts, but they are not signs 'in the flesh' that merely point to some 'interior reality,' let alone to some 'lower' level of being ('lower' than contemplation, to be specific); the firm dogma of ex opere operato professes that these particular signs cause what they signify.

And in so causing what they signify, not as 'emanations' from or 'examples' of some time-less other realm, but radically in history, the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church sign and therefore cause "the very life of God;" they reveal the Father perfectly -- for Jesus does reveal the Father perfectly, and the sacraments are His works with His bride in history.

The works radically in history of the resurrected Lord with His resurrected bride, One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, alone are "the source and summit," are "the very life of God," are the sole source and indefatigable foundation of all that may bridge, unify, integrate the primordial with the historical with the eschatological, of all that may bridge, unify, integrate the literal with the allegorical with the moral with the anagogical.

There simply is no 'level' of contemplation that exceeds -- that even comes near -- our participation in the sacraments. Our fullest union with God, with each other, and with all the angels and saints, occurs within the concrete historical sacraments in concrete history.

The priority of the direct, specific, concrete, infallible works in history of the Risen Lord with His bride -- that is, the priority of the sacraments -- to anything else, including any autonomous, solitary, nonhistorical 'contemplation', ought to be unassailable on its face; to say otherwise ought to be like saying that the moon is made of green cheese -- it ought to be a simple non sequitur.

The spiritual value of Catholic lives lived in a celibate, sexually continent community and centered around the Holy Eucharist, the other sacraments, and the praying of the Liturgical Hours, can never be gainsaid:

We say it again: even to hint that all, or any, of the manifold goods and graces flowing from the union of the Bridegroom and His bride, the Catholic Church, even in the Most Holy Eucharist, or from the union of man and woman in the sacrament of matrimony -- even to hint that any of these manifold goods and graces are possible without or apart from His sacrificial death, is to align oneself with the work of the Evil One.

Our Lord's sacrificial death is metaphysically prior to all these goods and graces. His One Sacrifice is One at the Last Supper, at Calvary, at the eschaton, and as continually represented sacramentally in history at every Mass. Our entry into the joys of covenantal existence does not occur without our first personally being baptized into His death, nor without our own free personal acceptance of covenantal moral responsibility. Without His One Sacrifice, apart from His One Sacrifice, we have nothing, and we are nothing.

"We proclaim Your Death, O Lord, and profess Your Resurrection, until You come again." We must ever remain in awe of those in the Church who are called to "fast" in personal witness to this most terrible, holy, and utterly fruitful truth.

Nonetheless, covenantal moral theologies must refuse all theologies of the spiritual life that make as their goal, and look for progress toward, a dehistoricized contemplatio.

This refusal, we fully recognize, characterizes, as mistaken, centuries of theological speculation, and at least some of the spiritual practices that inspired such speculation or arose from it.

To make this as clear as possible: if as an article of faith, the 'beatific vision', and if 'contemplation', is nonhistorical, time-less, static, ideal, autonomous, unmediated by the radically historical work of the Bridegroom and His bride; viz., not mediated by the sacraments on earth, nor mediated both on earth and in heaven by the ecclesia, by the totus Christus, then all conceivable covenantal moral theologies must crumble into dust; nor will covenantal moral theologies mourn their own demise, but rather be glad to be disproved, for the simple facts of the matter would thus show them to be mistaken.

However, Covenantal Theology devotes four volumes and millions of words to show, beyond the possibility of refutation, that for a very long time, Catholic theology -- markedly as distinct from the perennial worship of the Catholic church -- in the grip of an incorrigibly pagan dehistoricized cosmology, made itself profoundly mistaken about the Lord Jesus, and the new and eternal covenant that He makes with His bride, even as Catholic worship continued to be radically historical, and thus to profess Him just as He is: not any kind of Greek god at all, but the Lord of history, One Flesh with His bride in the One Sacrifice.

There we let the matter rest.

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