Friday, July 08, 2011

No other light

When I went to University of Notre Dame in the 1950s, Thomas Aquinas ruled the roost. Our required philosophy and theology courses, of which there were many, were solidly Thomistic, earthquake-resistant brick buildings of logical disquisition. Oh, we had proofs of the existence of God, proofs laid out like mathematical theorems -- axioms, corollaries, QEDs. The Angelic Doctor had written voluminously on every aspect of the divine, and our teachers poured his bookish wisdom into our empty heads like syrup onto pancakes. God was as familiar to us, and as intimidating, as the professor in black cassock at the front of the class.

Except that I didn't buy any of it. I was busy with my own religious adventure, which was darker, sexier, less cerebral, more visceral. It wasn't in the musty pages of the Summa Theologica that I went looking for the divine, but in the dark night, the wind and stars, and the feminine light of the moon.

It was another Catholic tradition that called to me across the ages, that of the medieval mystics -- Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle -- and if you have read Honey From Stone you will know that their influence lingered long after I had left every shred of Catholic orthodoxy behind.

"What is God?" asked Richard Rolle. "I say that you shall never have an answer to this question. I have not known; angels know not; archangels have not heard. Wherefore how would you know what is unknown and also unteachable."

Take that Aquinas!

At the age of fourteen Rolle was sent up to Oxford, hub of learning and disquisition. He wasn't happy there. Metaphysics seemed empty and remote from real experience. He gave it up, and at the age of eighteen or nineteen returned to Yorkshire, made himself a gown of rough cloth, and set out across the moors. The rest of his life was spent in solitude and contemplation, a strange and inscrutable figure to all who encountered him. The dry theological ponderings of the university had no attraction for him. "I would be like a little bird," he said.

Rolle was by all accounts a bit of a weirdo, prone to ecstasies and hallucinations no doubt induced by fatigue, poor diet and mortifications of the flesh. But when I was young and impressionable, Rolle and the others of his kind seemed more in touch than were my Thomist professors with whatever it is in nature that stirs a response of wonder, awe, reverence, and gratitude. The knowledge of God the mystics sought was what John of the Cross called "the knowing that unknows."
…no sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide
except for my heart -- the fire,
the fire inside.