Ways of Knowing
Coexistence: Beliefs and Experience
Monday, October 14, 2019
We cannot know God only by thinking thoughts. Unfortunately, for much of Christianity, faith largely became believing statements to be true or false (intellectual assent) instead of giving people concrete practices so they could themselves know how to open up (faith), hold on (hope), and allow an infilling from another source (love). Contemplation opens our heads, hearts, and bodies to God’s living presence.
Over the last couple weeks, I shared about my own Franciscan order. Benedictines, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 480–547), are another Catholic order that often emphasizes practical, experiential spirituality. During one homily, Brother Michael, a member of the Benedictine monastic community of Weston Priory in Vermont, reflected on the day’s Scripture readings (1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Luke 4:38-44):
What I heard Paul saying, basically, was that although he has preached, there was something more for the Corinthians than simply listening to preaching. It was their actual experience of believing. And I think Paul was trying to ask them really the question: what do you believe?
I think that’s such an open question for ourselves right now, when there’s a lot of information, a lot of preaching, a lot of answers given to us. But the same basic question remains: what is our experience of our beliefs?
For myself that was the real window into the Gospel today that talks about the miracle stories of Jesus. These stories are not about the suspension of natural laws. The Gospel writers are trying to tell us that something new was happening. I think that Jesus was somehow able to wake people up, to cure them and heal them of their dis-ease. I think that there was something in his message; the reign of God is close at hand. What does that mean? What does that experience signify for us? I think it brings it right into our own time, into our life together. Trying to move into our experience of believing, of living, of loving, and finding within it, within the many challenges, that that’s where our hearts are fully engaged.
Maria Guarino reflects on Brother Michael’s message:
It may seem radical for a man in a Christian vocation to call the literal truth of the miracle stories into question, but this is exactly the kind of grounding . . . spoke[n] to in [his] reflections. Just as [another] admonished his monks to take the Rule of Benedict very seriously but not to take it literally, so the brothers took matters of spirituality, scripture, and faith very seriously but with an open-mindedness grounded in the immediate reality of experience. . . . As in all aspects of the Benedictine life, there is a balance to be struck. . . . The brothers were open to mystery and the ineffable, but . . . the mysterious did not require suspension of the rational or the intellectual. For them, the rational mind and the spiritual heart coexist. Head and heart, rational and spiritual, need not stifle or silence one another. Both are necessary as the brothers position themselves toward an experience of God that is immediate yet distant, familiar yet ineffable, immanent yet transcendent, and as rational as it is unknowable.
Maria S. Guarino, Listen with the Ear of the Heart: Music and Monastery Life at Weston Priory (University of Rochester Press: 2018), 148, 149, 150-151.