Sunday, February 24, 2008

Preparatio Evangelica and the Traditional Three Stage Path of Christianity

No one familiar with the great literature of the world can fail to miss the immemorial expression of a deep hunger, an immortal longing which is unmistakably characteristic of man at large. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “The origin of poetry lies in a thirst for a wilder beauty than earth supplies". The same can be said for all types of literature, art and religious expression. How can one not be moved in some strange way by the Greek mythos wherein the visitation of the starry and terrible gods was commonplace? How can one not feel the obscure radiance at the summit of the soul lighted from Oriental skies by the ineffable Absolute of Indian religion? More importantly, how can one be un-empathetic to one of the main themes of early Hebrew experience: the echo of the desperate cry for Justice, which served as the supreme backdrop upon which the expectation of the Messiah lingered for ages? Indeed, such “familiarity” works at a deep level of our being, it enriches our very capacity for experience, immerses us in the more noble attributes of our common humanity, and enlivens our own expectation for the coming of the Divine.

Ironically, modern man living in the “information age” has become less informed in the social, moral, imaginative and spiritual depths of his being. Having a personal relationship with Christ and God has a great appeal – and rightly so -- to many of us in an alienated culture running on the philosophy of an isolated and *impersonal* individualism. The “Evangelical” stress on such a relationship with God has its place; but its appeal, in so far as it stops there, is in much need of supplemental depth. The emotion of conversion, which is likely to eventually wear out -- as all emotions do --, needs to be supported by growth in understanding, by an enriching social environment, and, more importantly, by daily and weekly rituals involving the will (prayer, fasting, virtue, confession – all manner of devotions): most churches are good at providing and encouraging these basic necessities. But over and above these “supports”, we’d do well to consider a return to the more comprehensive program for lifelong conversion, and to the context in which it naturally arises. Let’s take a look at the latter first.

The early Christians saw in all regions of human religious experience what they called preparatio evangelica -- a preparation for the news of Christ in various beliefs, practices, customs and rituals which naturally inclined a culture to receive it. They noted that all good things were from God. But more than just pagan shadows awaiting the concrete form of Christianity there was, in turn, light streaming forth from the pagan backdrop which pieced together with the revelation of Hebrew Christianity arising from the Jewish historical background; in so doing it broadened the scope of Christ’s religion and made it, in a very real sense, catholic (universal): On the one hand tightly knit communities bound by a calendar of feasts, fasts, rituals and public worship as well as the sense of the sacred in matter -- in temples, in fire, in oil, in wine and even in blood –; all of these aspects of traditional Christianity are shared not only with ancient Judaism but also with polytheistic paganism. On the other hand, a systematized form of ethics and philosophical reasoning, in addition to the ascetic and mystical practices found in the East -- which trickled in from Plotinus -- were similarly baptized by the Church. All the essential expressions by which human nature is involved in it’s search and desired communion with the divine were brought together under one umbrella -- joined together by God, in and through his Church, in order to produce “rightly fashioned person[s]”, or what the Church calls Saints: men and women who attain a high degree of union with God -- some of whom fulfill Christ’s prediction that there would be those who would do even greater things than he’s reported to have done.

So, to summarize thus far: the context for a comprehensive program of lifelong conversion involves what we may call sacramental (sacredness of matter) and mystical (knowledge beyond reason) theology, which, together, touch on the deepest themes, excite the inexhaustible motives, which enrich human experience and spur us on in our adventure to God through Christ -- often sustaining us when our more immediate and fleeting emotions waste away.

Now, the adventure itself, the lifelong program – this has long been understood as the three stage ( ) path to union with God through Christ: the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive Ways.

The Purgative Way


The Purgative way, of course, begins with an initial conversion. Scripture is clear that following Christ involves being united to him and other believers through baptism; a baptism which requires faith that, as the Son of God, Christ lived, died, and was restored to a new, immortal life; it is this new life he then offers us to take part in through baptismal waters, continued repentance, obedience, and devotion.

*The first step I’d therefore suggest to begin in the Purgative way is to make a profession of faith, which Christianity has best summed up in what she calls the Nicene Creed (just replace the “we” with “I”).

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us (men) and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
And his kingdom will have no end
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life,
Who proceeds from the Father (and the Son)
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic [universal] and apostolic Church
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

*The next thing to do is to get into contact with a priest or pastor about being baptized, perhaps with the help of someone – a friend or family member -- who is familiar with the process. In Catholicism, if you’ve already been baptized then the next step is to be confirmed. If you’ve already been confirmed then the next step, if you’ve been away from practicing your faith for a while, is to go to confession so you can be, as they say, restored to full communion.

*Finally (this last step is actually involved in all the steps, and continues on until we reach the Beatific Vision) begin to develop a prayer life, grow in virtue and devotion – such things as adoration, reading Sacred Scripture, learning more about your faith, going to church regularly).

--These steps, then, begin the Purgative stage, which involves, as the name implies, purging our selves from those things that are not of God. It entails a conversion of faith, what some people refer to as a born-again experience, which is often accompanied by emotions of gratitude, zeal, the feeling of newness, hope and the like. This experience flows over into the will, and naturally leads one to leave behind serious sin – what Catholics call mortal sin.

Sober Inebriation

Sober inebriation... comes not from drinking a new type of wine but from enjoying God (paraphrased). --St. Bernard

Sober inebriation: to “enjoy God”; the phrase in quotes may have an odd ring to modern ears. What, exactly, does it mean to “enjoy God”? Are we to see God with our eyes? Are we to embrace Him with our arms? Are we to drink Him in, like some new knowledge from an unknown book which excites and interests us? Or is He more like a cosmic bar tender, mystically releasing sensations within us, which normally only half a bottle of wine begins to do?

Christian mystics and philosophers of the orthodox past would immediately understand such a phrase as St. Bernard’s in a spiritual sense. In other words, they would say – and St. Bernard means – that sober inebriation comes from spiritually enjoying God. We will not perceive Him through our senses or through images, because our senses and imaginations can only perceive things with limitations; nor will we merely know about Him abstractly, like we know a science or like we know mathematics. We will, instead, know Him by an intellectual intuition, that is, by perceiving Him directly with our spirits. This, they say (by both reason and experience), is the ultimate Joy. Everything that brings us delight here in time -- all of our favorite things, the things we love most – have yet a lingering hint of something more within them, a something more which is the same in them all, illuminating them all in their variety, like the same sun illuminates the various planets of our solar system. But to face the source itself, to rise above all the partial delights we’re capable of experiencing and to touch God with our spirits, would be not only to bathe in all partial delights at once and forever, but to be immersed in a joy for which those partial delights are mere longings: a Joy of an entirely different and higher order altogether. Theologians call this experience the Beatific Vision, taken from among the list of beatitudes which Jesus left us: namely, “blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

It is difficult to imagine this experience – it’s impossible, really. But, we do know that even describing normal vision to a person born blind is just as problematic. Unless someone has experienced vision himself, you can only excite longings within him by describing the world as green, a waterfall as crystal clear, or a women as beautiful. And so it is with mankind; we who are born spiritually blind, but who, according to the Unitive promise of Christ, can begin to see even here and now -- can begin to taste and see, walking by faith in Christ through the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive Ways, the glory of God around, among and within us.