I was reading the following article (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1337041?eng=y) about the celebration of Pentecost at Mount Athos, Greece. I have, for many years, wanted to go to Mount Athos – a sort of monastic nation – to see the way in which their strict monastic life has vivified spiritual life in Greece for thousands of years.
In reading this article, however, I came across a rather common Greek criticism of the West and its theologians: “Our God is not the God of Western scholasticism,” the igoumenos of the Gregoríos monastery on Athos moralizes. “A God who doesn’t deify man can’t have any appeal, whether he exists or not. A large part of the reasons behind the wave of atheism in the West are found in this functional, incidental Christianity.”
Nonsense. Scholasticism is the opposite of any attempt to “functionalize” religion and God. It comes from a monastic tradition of lectio divina, in certain ways. People often make this misunderstanding, however, on the side of the Orthodox who are looking into the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the diagnosis is completely accurate as to what is wrong with the Western Church: too great an emphasis on “function” or “action.” One example is that liturgy is seen as a “tool” to form political activists or people “for mission” rather than as an end in itself; people have manipulated it accordingly to fit their political/ideological programmes. Contemplation is the “one thing necessary” to save our liturgy and our faith; political revolution, active “service,” or any other kind of activist programme will help nobody if it isn’t informed by correct principles – faith and love of the Triune God (whose particular character we celebrate today, the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity).
The feast of the Holy Trinity has always been my favorite because it emphasizes this aspect of our faith most clearly. People died to save the true faith from extinction in the midst of the Arian heresy not to merely save “dry” “useless” “scholastic” things, but to save Truth itself. Faith is a virtue of the intellect and is absolutely necessary for any true love of God or spiritual life. For example, the relationships in the Trinity are important because they direct us as to how we should live our lives. We will forever participate in that life of the Trinity, so what we believe about Him makes a significant difference in our life. But, even more so, it is precisely knowledge of the Trinity itself, contemplation of the Divine Essence, that is good in itself and will be our heavenly reward, apart from any “practical” effects faith might have on earth.
The Scholastic theology attempts to love Truth for its own sake. In my own Order, we have the high point of Scholasticism: St. Thomas Aquinas. The point of formulating distinctions and technical theological language is to appreciate more clearly what we believe and what God is. St. Thomas was said, as a child, to have spent much time in school asking, “What is God?” Theology is the science of God as He is in Himself and is essentially a part of prayer. That is Scholastic theology – contemplation is its perfection, not its antithesis.
This is not to say that action is useless, or that politics are nonsense. We are not angels, and the Greek as well as the Latin fathers know this. St. Thomas succinctly says: “Just as it is better to illuminate than merely to shine, so to pass on what one has contemplated is better than merely to contemplate.” But, vis-a-vis Aristotle, what marks the virtuous man is not what particular actions he does, but with what spirit he does them; both the thief and the courageous soldier brave many dangers, but with an entirely different reason. It is important to keep in mind, too, what politics is for. As Aristotle says, we deliberate about the end of our action first in the order of intention. Politics isn’t an end in itself, but has as its end the “common good.” And what is that? The true common good is the Good itself – the thrice-blessed Triune God.
Thus, as the great Western father St. Augustine said in his Rule (which governs my life as a Dominican brother), “The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.”
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Dominic, OP