The life of the soul in time of illness

The thought has weighed on me lately that illness often disrupts consciousness.  While consciousness vanishes altogether when we are deeply asleep, we normally return upon wakening to a mental awareness which is both a constant interior receiving of the world (experience) and a near-constant inner conversation about this reception (reflection).  If you were to ask, “What is it like to be a human?,” the answer would surely be in terms of this interior life.

In his famous work on flow theory, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi concludes that the key to happiness is a well-structured consciousness.  He speaks of tennis players, artists, musicians, and others who are able to “lose themselves” in an activity as having achieved a well-structured consciousness and therefore, on his theory, optimal experience.  On the other hand, he says that people who do not have the necessary habits for structuring consciousness become dependent on something outside of them to provide structure:  television is his favorite example, as it provides an almost entirely passive way of structuring one’s interior awareness.

Illness does not take consciousness away altogether, but in my experience it fragments awareness.  It prevents one from seeing everything at a given moment together, that is, from having an entirely coherent experience.  This may not be at all visible to outside observers:  the sick person’s exterior actions and words may fit quite nicely into the observer’s very coherent experience of the moment, and they cannot see inside the mind of the other how the many aspects of the moment are hanging together only vaguely, with many loose ends and unconnected threads.  When a good friend of mine was ill, she described to me the relief she felt at watching movies and television; in my own experience with illness, I have also felt the urge to watch videos as a way of escaping the tedium of an unstructured consciousness.  Illness seems to strike directly at what it means to be human, at what makes for happiness.

But this morning as I continued my reading through Garrigou-Lagrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, I was reminded to reflect on the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Whereas even the theological virtues and the infused moral virtues are directed by faith, which is an act of the mind, the gifts of the Spirit are meant to prepare us for receiving immediate direction from God:  if the virtues are like the oars on our ship, by which we propel ourselves forward to heaven, the gifts are like sails that enable us to receive the divine wind’s power own movement.  So for example, faith may patiently work out the meaning of a biblical passage, but only a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit will help us answer a sudden an indiscreet question without either telling a lie or betraying a confidence.  The Spirit steps in to pick us up, without our own reflection, and move us suddenly to the right place.

Perhaps illness is a special time for beginning to live more and more according to the gifts of the Spirit.  When consciousness is fragmented, even faith and prudence have a hard time directing the ship to the opposite shore, because faith and prudence both require an act of reason.  But the Spirit, working through his gifts, can direct us there even if our minds are full of fog.

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ST II-II.2.3-4

Articles 3 and 4 of Question 2 address the necessity of faith in general.  Just to drive home the connection between these questions on faith and the definition of theology, I want to point out the parallel between what St. Thomas does here and what he does in ST I.1.1 on theology.

In that first article of the entire Summa, St. Thomas asks whether it is necessary to have “Sacred Doctrine,” which he later refers to by the name “theology.”  He responds that it is necessary because we are ordered an end above our nature, and so we need more than reason can provide, and even we regard to what reason can know about God it was necessary that such knowledge be known more commonly, more quickly, and without error.

In ST II-II.2.3, St. Thomas argues that faith is necessary because we are ordered to an end above our nature.  In ST II-II.2.4, he then argues that faith is necessary even with regard to things knowable by reason because that knowledge needs to be gain more quickly, more commonly, and with more certitude than reason offers.  In other words, he gives all the same arguments but in more detail.

So here’s the punchline, according to St. Thomas:  the reason we need to have theology is the same reason we need faith itself.

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ST II-II.2.2

Article 2 of Question 2 is for the most part not a good point to stop and comment.  St. Thomas offers an account of St. Augustine’s division of faith into credere Deo, credere Deum, and credere in Deum.  As St. Thomas explains it, the first corresponds to the formal object of faith and the second to the material object of faith; we have looked at this distinction already.  The third, he says, corresponds to the fact that in the act of faith the intellect is moved by the will, which urges on to God as a goal.  This theme is something I want to save for a later point, because so much comes together around it.

But for the moment, I’ll just note that the distinction between credere Deo and credere Deum should be as much a playground for anyone interested in the Latin case system as it is a torment for anyone trying to translate the Summa into English.  In general, the dative case (Deo) in Latin indicates a more spiritual object, as when I throw the ball to you, while the accusative case (Deum) indicates a more material object, as when I throw the ball at you.  These line up reasonably well, I think, with the idea of formal and material objects.

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ST II-II.2.1

In Question 2, St. Thomas turns to the act of faith.  In Article 1, he considers “faith” very generically, in a way that applies to natural as well as to supernatural faith.  His layout is straightforward and helpful:

• Knowledge holds firmly that X is true because it sees it to be so
• Opinion holds weakly that X is true, but thinks maybe not because it can’t see it to be so
• Doubt is balanced between thinking X is true and thinking it is not, because it can’t see it to be so

Faith, he concludes, is something in between knowledge on the one hand and opinion or doubt on the other:  faith holds firmly that X is true but does not see it to be so.  This is a perfectly universal definition of what it means to “believe,” applying to my faith in my friends and even to cases where belief is irrational.

However, the way St. Thomas handles the first objection seems incomplete to me.  Here’s the objection:

Cogitatio enim importat quandam inquisitionem, dicitur enim cogitare quasi simul agitare. Sed Damascenus dicit, in IV Lib., quod fides est non inquisitus consensus. Ergo cogitare non pertinet ad actum fidei.

Damascene says that “faith is a consent that is not inquisitive,” while “thinking” always involves inquisitiveness, and so faith can’t be a kind of thinking.  Here’s how St. Thomas replies:

Ad primum ergo dicendum quod fides non habet inquisitionem rationis naturalis demonstrantis id quod creditur. Habet tamen inquisitionem quandam eorum per quae inducitur homo ad credendum, puta quia sunt dicta a Deo et miraculis confirmata.

There is, he says, an inquisitiveness, a search, on the way to believing—one looks into miracles and finds out whether these things have been said by God and so on—but once belief arrives the inquisitiveness is over.  After all, faith doesn’t seek a demonstration that X is true, or it wouldn’t be faith.

It seems to me that we need to make another distinction.  When my wife proposes a sentence for my belief, sometimes I accept that these words go together to form a true sentence just because I don’t happen to see the connection between the words for myself.  For example, my wife might say, “The kids had sandwiches for lunch today while you were at the office.”  I didn’t happen to be at home at lunchtime and so I couldn’t see the truth of the connection between “the kids” and “had sandwiches,” so I just believe my wife and that’s the end of it. I don’t bother myself anymore about it.

But sometimes the reason I can’t see the connection between the words is because I don’t actually understand all the words.  For example, suppose an excellent doctor says to me, “The tests show that your cerebral blood flow is blocked by thrombosis, so collateral circulation has developed, but the collateral vessels are prone to aneurysm.”  In this case, not only have I not seen the tests (like just happening not to be home for lunch), but I don’t actually know what “thrombosis” or “collateral circulation” or “aneurysm” mean.  In this case I immediately accept what he says:  he is an excellent doctor, and if he is sure than his conclusion must be true.  But it would be strange if I didn’t feel inquisitive, given that I don’t fully understand what he said, and especially given its high relevance to my well-being.

The same distinction, it seems to me, applies to supernatural faith.  If Scripture says that Paul left his cloak at Troas, I accept that on faith because Scripture doesn’t lie and anyway I wasn’t there, and then I don’t bother my head about it anymore.  But if Scripture says that my salvation depends on the fact that Jesus is God incarnate, the reason I take this statement on faith is not just because I happen to lack access to firsthand evidence but because I don’t fully understand the terms “God” and “incarnate” anyway.  They are mysterious.  I immediately accept the statement as true, but it would strange if I did not feel inquisitive about it given that I don’t quite grasp what I am assenting to, and especially given its high relevance to my well-being.

So as regards whether statement X is true, faith is like knowledge:  it ends the inquiry, as Damascene indicates.  But as regards statement X itself, faith is like opinion or doubt:  it provokes the mind to action.

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ST II-II.1.7

The topic of Article 7 deserves close attention:  the objections arise under the heading videtur quod articuli fidei non creverint secundum temporum successionem.  That is to say, St. Thomas is asking whether the articles of faith increased (note the past tense!) over time.  He is not asking whether there is such a thing as development of doctrine, which is (present tense!) an increased understanding of the articles of faith over time.  His attention is focused on the period before Christ.

Once his topic is clearly seen, the position he takes is unremarkable.  God revealed more and more over time, and revelation culminated in the time of Christ and his apostles, after which point we do not await any further revelation until the second coming.

However, the arguments he uses to support his position are penetrating.  At the moment I want to focus on his reply to the fourth objection.  There he says that the final consummation of grace—which could include the gift of revelation—came through Christ, and from this fact he reasons that those who were closest to the time of Christ knew the mysteries of faith more fully.  In the ages before Christ, the prophets who lived closer to Christ’s time knew the mysteries of faith more fully than those who lived earlier—that much seems intuitive.

But he goes on to say that, among those who lived after Christ, those who were closer to Christ’s time knew the mysteries of faith more fully than those who lived later.  This may be counterintuitive, because in fact the succeeding centuries have been rich in reflection and probing ever more deeply into the mysteries.  St. Thomas himself, as he writes this article, is engaged in an explication of the faith hardly imaginable without all the intervening centuries of thinkers and saints who laid the foundations for his remarkable achievement.

But I don’t think St. Thomas is saying that the Apostles and those of their generation had the most articulated and systematic grasp of the mysteries.  He is not saying that their grasp of the faith was the best in a discursive way.  Rather, I think he is pointing to their immediate, non-discursive, intuitive grasp of the mysteries.  As brilliantly as St. Thomas wrote about the mysteries, he could never have written these lines from the First Letter of John:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the word was made manifest, and we saw it….

All the wonderful reasoning which later thinkers would do about the mysteries rests on the Apostle’s immediate, non-reasoning contact with the mysteries themselves in the privileged time of revelation’s consummation.  For theology, this is a distinction worth bearing in mind:  there is a knowledge of the faith which is discursive and there is a knowledge of the faith which is a motionless gaze, and the latter is more fundamental than the former.

My experience has been that reasoning can wonderfully deepen one’s intuitive grasp of things; this is one of the chief reasons for reasoning.  But grace can lift one to a deeper gaze into the mysteries than a lifetime of reasoning, as we see in the case of someone like St. Theresa of Avila.  This is why thousands of years of reflection by the greatest minds of all time can be devoted simply to unpacking the short writings of the Apostles, whose only claim to erudition was that they had touched with their own hands the very Word of God.

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ST II-II.1.6

Article 6 brings to a kind of culmination the line of reasoning in the previous articles.  Having argued that the formal object of faith is the first Truth (1) and then drawn the immediate corollary that faith only concerns the true (2), St. Thomas then turns to consider the object of faith from the point of view of its recipients.  He notes that, in contrast to the supreme simplicity of the first Truth in itself, the human mode of knowing involves complexity, dividing and uniting things (3).  That’s a general truth about human knowing.  But when it comes to faith, the more specific thing to say on the side of the recipient is that we do not see for ourselves the truth of what is revealed (4 and 5).  Every single one of these points comes together in the single synthetic statement that the object of faith is divided and combined into articles concerning the first Truth based on different ways of being not seen (6).  The key language occurs once in the body of the article and then more clearly in the reply to the second objection:

Est autem obiectum fidei aliquid non visum circa divina, ut supra dictum est. Et ideo ubi occurrit aliquid speciali ratione non visum, ibi est specialis articulus


Ad secundum dicendum quod ratio formalis obiecti fidei potest accipi dupliciter. Uno modo, ex parte ipsius rei creditae. Et sic ratio formalis omnium credibilium est una, scilicet veritas prima. Et ex hac parte articuli non distinguuntur. Alio modo potest accipi formalis ratio credibilium ex parte nostra. Et sic ratio formalis credibilis est ut sit non visum. Et ex hac parte articuli fidei distinguuntur, ut visum est.

Although it is obvious that we don’t see for ourselves the truth of what we accept on faith, it may sound strange to speak “not seen” as what is formal in the object of faith.  The defining element in the resurrection is “not seen”?  The defining element in the mystical body is “not seen”?  Let me put St. Thomas’s point in everyday language.

I take a lot of things on faith because my wife said so.  Every time I do that, one could give two answers to why I do it:

Q:  Why do I accept on faith anything said about colors or matching clothes?
A:  Because my wife would never lie to me, and because I am partially colorblind.

Q:  Why do I accept on faith that the kids did such-and-such last Tuesday?
A:  Because my wife would never lie to me, and because I wasn’t there.

Q:  Why do I accept on faith that women think like this or that?
A:  Because my wife would never lie to me, and because I have no experience of being a woman.

In every case, there is a single, positive answer on the side of the one revealing:  my wife would never lie to me.  And in every case, there is a different, negative answer on the side of the one believing:  because there is some particular reason I can’t see this for myself.

The same holds true of supernatural faith.  For everything I believe, I can give two answers for why I believe.  Positively and on the side of the one revealing, I say it is because the revealer is Truth itself; negatively and on the side of the one believing, I say it is because there is some particular reason I cannot see this truth for myself.  And on the negative side, the answers are diverse:  the reason I cannot understand the Trinity is not exactly the same as the reason I cannot understand a dead man rising to life.  There are different obstacles, different weaknesses, which impel me to reliance on the first Truth, the formal object of faith.

Of course, nothing of what my wife reveals is in itself beyond the capacity of the human mind.  It just so happens that my eyeballs are defective, that I wasn’t there on Tuesday, and that I am not a woman, but there is nothing inherently unknowable about what she tells me.  But with supernatural faith, the reason I cannot understand what is revealed is because the thing is in itself beyond the powers of any created mind; that is to say, it is inherently supernatural.

Let me try to boil St. Thomas’s entire argument in Article 6 down to a pithy statement:  the formal object of faith is mystery, and so the content of the faith is formally divided according to mysteriousness.

It is not hard to see that this has consequences for theology.  To begin with, although the arrangement of the parts of theology will be according to the connections between the positive content of the articles, the distinctions between the parts will be according to specific ways of exceeding the created mind.  And these two factors may sometimes be in tension.

But further, my experience has been that it is important in every area of theology to arrive at some account of why it is mysterious.  The next best thing to understanding is to understand why you don’t understand.  Studying a particular mystery, we can get wrapped up in pushing our understanding further and further and miss that it is crucial, defining in fact, to get at why our understanding must fall short in this instance.

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ST II-II.1.4-5

Articles 4 and 5 have some very interesting and helpful parsing of the act of faith, but I want to hold off on commenting on the until I look at Question 2, which is all about the act of faith.  For the moment, let me just note that in Article 5, reply to objection 2, St. Thomas says that the reason we consider theology to be a science is because it draws out conclusions from first principles.  And it is interesting to note that he does not say “Sacred Doctrine,” but theologia.

As an aside, I bought Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s commentary on these questions of the Summa.  As I grew up as a thinker, I went through a long period where I didn’t want to read Lagrange’s stuff–or any of the Neo-Scholastic writers, really.  But now I find that I like to pick them up, because they are kind of Joseph Fitzmyer for thomists:  I don’t want to write or think like them, but they’re dang handy to have on the shelf.

And in fairness, I have to say that Lagrange’s spiritual writings strike me as profound and sincere, springing from a lived experience of God.

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ST II-II.1.3

In Article 1, St. Thomas argued that the formal object of faith is the first Truth, God; then in Article 2, he balanced this point against the fact that the object of faith is received in the mode of the receiver, that is to say, that faith forms language and arguments about the simple and unchangeable object of faith.  Here in Article 3, St. Thomas continues his train of thought by asking whether faith can assent to something false.  His answer, put simply, is that faith cannot assent to something false insofar as its proper object is the first Truth, but that falsehood can kind of creep in on the sides due to the human mode of receiving the object.

The Respondeo is fairly straightforward:  strictly speaking, the act of faith is to believe something revealed by Truth itself, and so the assent of faith can never be assent to a falsehood.  This would be like getting badness from Goodness, or non-being from Being.

But the objections and replies are subtle and interesting.  Objection 3 asks about Jews who believed that the Christ was to be born at some future time:  shortly after Christ’s birth, lots and lots of good and faithful Jews believed that the Christ was not yet born, which was false.  And yet it would seem that their belief was a consequence of faith!  Objection 4 brings the problem closer to home for a Catholic today:  we believe on faith that the body of Christ lies under the appearances of bread in the Eucharist; however, a priest could go through the motions of the Mass without intending to consecrate the host, and then the body of Christ would not be present and yet we would still believe—seemingly on faith!

What is interesting about these objections is that they are examples of necessary error.  Think about what it would be like, as a Catholic, to wonder at every Mass whether the priest actually intended to consecrate the host; to withhold judgment; to receive communion in doubt, or perhaps to refrain from communion due to perpetual doubt.  It would not be sustainable as a Catholic life.

Or think about what it would have been like as a Jew over the centuries after the prophets spoke to get up every morning wondering whether, somewhere out there, the Christ was already born and living a secret life.  Even if a thoughtful Jew entertained the possibility, in practicality he would get up and prepare for another day, another week, another year of living before the Christ.  Humanly speaking, it was necessary that the Jews go on assuming that Christ had not come until word of him reached them.

St. Thomas’s response to the objection about the Jews is that these good and faithful people combined something of faith (“The Christ is to be born at some time”) with something of their own conjecture (“That time has not yet come”).  And similarly the Catholic venerating an unconsecrated host is combining something of faith (“The body of Christ lies under the appearances of consecrated bread”) with something of his own conjecture (“This bread was consecrated”).  So the act of faith itself, strictly speaking, does not assent to anything false.

But there are two things to note about St. Thomas’s response, things he does not draw out.  First, the possibility of combining faith with conjecture rests on what he said in Article 2, namely that faith—being an act of the human mind—necessarily involves dividing and combining truths.

Second, once faith begins combining truths in language and argument it is inevitable and even good that it combines truths of faith with human opinions.  There is no clean wall between faith and conjecture such that the truths of faith could be combined only with other truths of faith.  So even though the act of faith itself, strictly taken, is not about our conjectures, the combining of faith with conjecture is a necessary part of the life of faith taken broadly.  When faith concerning the Eucharist gets to follow its impulses, it necessarily gives rise to the conviction that Christ is present here, today, on this altar—it would bizarre if it did not.  And in general, the act of faith strictly taken is always bumping into our own conjectures:  if we believe that Christ’s body is present under the appearances of bread, what do we suppose the human body is?  If we believe that Christ assumed a human nature, what do we suppose human nature to be?  And so on and so forth.

The conclusion, put most baldly, is this:  faith only consents to what is true, but it necessarily involves a broader life of thought and action which includes error.

This is a very helpful conclusion, for my purposes.  I began a while back by supposing that theology is what happens when faith gets to follow its own inclinations.  Given that faith cannot err, this claim might seem to suggest that theology and theologians will always say true things.  But ST II-II.1.3 shows that, if theology is what happens when faith follows its inclinations, then theology will always include some erroneous conclusions.

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ST II-II.1.2

Having emphasized in Article 1 that the formal object of faith is not a bunch of things said but God himself, in Article 2 St. Thomas balances this fact with the principle that everything received is received in the mode of the receiver.  It is a common-sense idea: if a seal is pressed on water, the water will retain its shape only while the seal is present; if the seal is pressed on wax, the wax will retain its shape even after the seal is gone; if the seal is pressed on metal, the shape of the seal will not be received at all.  And along the same lines, if a truth is perceived with the eye then it will be received in one way; if it is received in the mind then it is received in another way; if it were received in the mind of an angel then it would be received in still another way.  So despite the fact that God in himself is entirely uncomposed and unutterable, nonetheless faith receives its object the way a human mind can.

The way of knowing natural of humans St. Thomas describes as “joining and dividing truth.”  We know single realities like “tree” and “green,” and then we join them in affirmations:  “The tree is green.”  We divide them in negations:  “The tree is not an animal.”  And we can combine affirmations and negations to form arguments, and arguments to form elaborate chains of reasoning, and so on.  Language itself is based on this process of dividing and combining our multiple apprehensions of the truth.

Consequently, faith is necessarily bound up with the use of language.  We have the creed, for example, and before that the Scriptures themselves.  God’s revelation comes to us in a way appropriate to us, and our response of faith takes the same form.

When in ST I.1.8 St. Thomas takes up the question of whether Sacred Doctrine uses arguments, he does not appeal to this principle that everything is received in the mode of the receiver.  And yet the point made here in ST II-II.1.2 clearly underlies the fact that theology uses argument:  Precisely because faith operates by combining and dividing, faith also operates with arguments.  Again, it appears that theology is what happens when faith follows its own inclinations.

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ST II-II.1.1, part 4

While St. Thomas distinguishes between the formal object of faith and the material object of faith, it is important to keep in mind that form and matter are two principles or aspects of one thing:  there is only one object of faith, namely God’s revelation.  One way of getting at St. Thomas’s point is to see that faith does not have access to the speaker apart from what is spoken; faith does not come to God apart from God’s revealing himself.  What I have called the “first moment” of faith, when one comes to realize the presence of a Voice, happens in the context of hearing a message.  When the message is finally heard for what it truly is, namely “not as the words of men, but as the word of God at work in you who believe,” then faith perceives the speaker in the message (formal object) and trusts the message of the speaker (material object).

When St. Thomas turns from faith’s formal object (the speaker) to faith’s material object (what is spoken), he continues to emphasize the unity of faith’s formal and material objects.  Speakers speak for some reason; in the case, he claims, the speaker only says things in order to draw the listener to himself.  Here’s one way to translate the key sentence:

[Things other than God] only fall under faith’s assent insofar as they have some ordering to God, namely insofar as certain of the divinity’s effects help man to progress toward the enjoyment of God.

In ST I.1.3, St. Thomas puts it a little differently:

Sacred Doctrine does not deal with God and with creatures equally, but deals with God principally and with creatures according as they relate to God as to a principle or to an end.

He speaks similarly in ST I.1.7:

In Sacred Doctrine, everything is handled under the notion of God, either because they are God himself or because they have an ordering to God as to a principle or to an end.

In these texts St. Thomas says that God only speaks of creatures according as they relate to him, which is either as coming from him or as going to him.  This is the most fundamental way of speaking about things, namely in terms of their ultimate cause, but that doesn’t seem to be St. Thomas’s focus.  Rather, he seems to argue that God speaks in order to draw his creatures to himself, and as a result creatures are only interesting insofar as they relate to God.

The division between the formal and material object of faith and theology has a consequence for the division of theology.  In ST I.1.7, St. Thomas notes:

But some, paying attention to what is deal with in this science and not to the aspect under which they are considered, have designated the subject of this science variously as “signs and things,” or “the works of reparation,” or “the whole Christ, that is, head and members.”

He refers to Hugh of St. Victor, Robert Grossteste, and others.  As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, the contrast St. Thomas raises between theology about God and theology about the “works of reparation” is the ancient division between “theology” and “economy”:  in some of the fathers, “theology” means something about God in himself, while everything about God’s external works is subsumed under the name “economy”—sometimes today one hears reference to the “economy of salvation.”

St. Thomas does not deny that faith or theology is about these other things; he does not say that Hugh of St. Victor is dealing “economy” and not “theology.”  Rather, he finds a place for both under the one name “theology,” but with a certain order.  This tends to confirm the second intuition I began with, namely that the word “theology” will turn out to have multiple analogous meanings in a certain order.

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