|Spillway at Fontana Dam, North Carolina|
At our monthly meeting, the Dominican Tertiaries were discussing Aquinas’ Summa, Part 1, Question 12. How God is known by us. I noted that this was where Aquinas and Palamas parted company. Article 1 states clearly (after ditching a few objections):
Unde simpliciter concedendum est quod beati Dei essentiam videant.
Hence it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God.
But then there are 11 articles of rolling it back and what we discover is that Aquinas says, ok, the blessed can see God’s essence but everyone is not equally blessed. This discovery of a hierarchy in heaven stressed our conversation for a while. It was agreed that the Theotokos as “higher than the Cherubim” – a title we do not use for any other saint – indicates a hierarchy; and it was also agreed that to us, here, anyone in that blessed dance is equally blessed because we cannot, from here, even look at the light directly. There was also concurrence with the idea that a humble Christian soul taking her place in that assembly would simply say – without envy or pride – this place and no other by his grace is where I dance to the divine Komos.
But then the conversation ended and we moved on to other topics.
Thomas goes on to explain theosis, and the intellectual process (the learning process) by which grace reveals to us the Divine Essence, first through hints, then through actions and, in the final analysis, through direct contact. Thomas calls theosis deiformitate in Latin, “deiformity,” and says we shall grasp the divine essence to the degree of our deiformity.
Hence the intellect which has more of the light of glory will see God the more perfectly; and he will have a fuller participation of the light of glory who has more charity; because where there is the greater charity, there is the more desire; and desire in a certain degree makes the one desiring apt and prepared to receive the object desired. Hence he who possesses the more charity, will see God the more perfectly, and will be the more beatified.
I left it there until today when we came to the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux. In today’s Office of Readings we cite St Bernard, writing 200 years before Aquinas as saying,
The Bridegroom’s love, or rather the love which is the Bridegroom, asks in return nothing but faithful love. Let the beloved, then, love in return. Should not a bride love, and above all, Love’s bride? Could it be that Love not be loved?
Rightly then does she give up all other feelings and give herself wholly to love alone; in giving love back, all she can do is to respond to love. And when she has poured out her whole being in love, what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent of that original source? Clearly, lover and Love, soul and Word, bride and Bridegroom, creature and Creator do not flow with the same volume; one might as well equate a thirsty man with the fountain.
What then of the bride’s hope, her aching desire, her passionate love, her confident assurance? Is all this to wilt just because she cannot match stride for stride with her giant, any more than she can vie with honey for sweetness, rival the lamb for gentleness, show herself as white as the lily, burn as bright as the sun, be equal in love with him who is Love? No. It is true that the creature loves less because she is less. But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given. To love so ardently then is to share the marriage bond; she cannot love so much and not be totally loved, and it is in the perfect union of two hearts that complete and total marriage consists. Or are we to doubt that the soul is loved by the Word first and with a greater love?
Bernard has us wonder how it is possible that we – mortals as we are, and finite – can Love God, who is infinite and Love himself. How it must this relationship be ordered since it cannot be one of equals. How will she match “stride for stride with her giant” in love? Bernard sees that the bride loves the bridegroom by virtue of his love for her: God’s love pouring into us allows us to love God – and others.
This, then is the heavenly hierarchy: CS Lewis and Dante see it extending through Purgatory and Hell. Our capacity to love – possessing more agape – is the degree to which we can be “Deiformed”.
The smallest part of infinity is also infinity.
If our heart is open to God’s love we can love him with the infinity he pours through us. We can love him as he loves us at least briefly.
The saints love us in the same way: with that infinite love that is not their own – yet is.
It pours out of them more perfectly on to us, for the act of Kenosis is the supreme act of charity. The saints shed on us God’s love for us as we, opening, begin to pour it back and on our neighbours like streams of living water rising from within us.
Baptism begins the flow, Eucharist and Confession, prayer and meditation, contemplation and adoration, open and flow out the spillways on to those around us and return it thereby back to God. We cannot love infinitely from here, but we can love infinitely if God loves through us.
Here, in this place and no other, by his grace will I dance.