Luminous shadows

20 01 2020

As indicated previously, Thomism and I started off on the wrong foot when I was a teenager, when I tried to study it with the aim of getting a jump start on ecclesiastical studies. Instead I became enamored with modern philosophies that were more in sync with the times. I will admit, my inability to adequately engage with Scholastic philosophy was due to my intellectual isolation. I was in a small town, the local clergy didn’t particularly care for my piety (looking back, I can’t blame them), and Catholic conservatism looked substantially different back then than it did today. This was the time of John Paul II, and as much as modern Thomists try to reclaim him as one of their own, you would be hard pressed to try to jam that phenomenological square peg into the round Aristotelian hole. I am sure many graduate papers are being written trying to do just that, but I’m not going to bother here.

One bête noire who I was also weary of (for no good reason) was Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Traditionalist publishing houses back then seemed few and far between, but the largest was probably TAN Books, and they put out many of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s books in an infamously poor-quality paperback format. I must have bought a few with the little pocket money I had, but I’d be surprised if I read them. So it seemed appropriate some decades later to hunker down and read a book by Garrigou-Lagrange. From what I can tell, the copyright goblins have come and whisked away the ability to publish his works in translation with the previous abandon. But I was able to get a hold of the book, The Sense of Mystery: Clarity and Obscurity in Intellectual Life. This title intrigued me as Garrigou-Lagrange is a leading figure in the sort of Thomism that was vilified by chic resourcement theologians of last century as stale and disrespectful of mystery. So I figured I would read what the “driest of the dry” wooden Thomists said about the ineffable mystery of reality and the Catholic Faith.

I can report that I am pleasantly surprised, particularly by passages such as this one:

In the midst of these difficulties, the philosophical spirit, in order to find truth (or at least the direction one may take toward the truth) senses that philosophical systems are generally true in what they affirm and generally false in what they deny, for reality is richer than any of them.

Garrigou-Lagrange then is no boring positivist. In spite of the precision and clarity he demands in philosophical reasoning, he clearly indicates that it can never attain the fullness of truth. Lacunae and mysteries are everywhere, even at the foundation of the philosophical endeavor. Garrigiou-Lagrange has recourse to the artistic technique of chiaroscuro, the contrast in painting between light and dark, to recount the uncertainty at the heart of even our most seemingly banal insights. He asks:

It is clear that the external bodies act upon the senses – but how? What is the intimate mode by which sensation is produced in the living eye while it is not produced in the very same eye immediately after death?

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty said that the goal of philosophy is to look upon the world again with fresh eyes, like those of a child. Garrigou-Lagrange tackles his subject with the same spirit, and points out that modern schools end up lacking this inclination, to the point of believing in absurdities:

Such a denial makes possible the materialism that imperiously reduces the superior to the inferior, spirit to matter, intellectual life to sense life, sense life to vegetative life, and vegetative life to physico-chemical phenomena. In an inverse sense, the reduction of mystery to absurdity also lies at the root of that idealistic materialism that, with a spirit no less imperious, reduces matter to mind, or to the representation that mind has of the external world, a representation that has its laws and that would be a ‘well-connected dream,’ distinct from the other that is incoherent like a hallucination.

On this point, I love Thomism best when it takes down modern schools of philosophy that are hegemonic in our age. Garrigou-Lagrange’s explicit polemic against positivism is notable:

[P]ositivism is the negation of all philosophy, for it holds that our knowledge does not rise above internal and external experiences, which amounts to confusing the intellect with the sense powers… and confusing the intelligible with the sensible, confusing being with phenomena. Positivism declares that the proofs of the existence of God are not scientific, because they are not verifiable by experience. Thankfully, they are not! If they were verifiable by the senses, God – like sensible things – would fall within the grasp of our experience and would no longer be God – the Supreme Cause and Last End.

This insight is a good example of how Garrigou-Lagrange applies his idea of chiaroscuro to the Catholic Faith directly. It is our duty and natural impulse to try to apply reason to the highest thing imaginable, and this is God by definition. God as the Author and Foundation of our being, however, is beyond us and can never be fully comprehended. That is why approaching the sublime mysteries of the Catholic Faith takes work. One point on this topic that really resonated with me is when Garrigou-Lagrange describes why many of the objections in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae seem more convincing than the reply to the objections: this is due to our imperfect mode of knowing, and our need to go from that which is material and mechanical to that which is ineffable and transcendent. On a personal level, the real problem with my young intellect was that I was not patient, and I wanted everything up-front. But the struggle for wisdom is one that can last our entire mortal lives. It was only relatively recently that I felt that I really “calmed down” enough to tackle Aquinas. Mystery, in a real sense, requires intellectual rigor and patience:

Mystery: it is what the philosophical spirit squeezes out of the perception of the smallest facts, for example, from the least movement, which cannot be produced without the intervention of God the First Mover… And if the philosopher thus sees all of a sudden something very profound in the production of the least of local motions, such as that of a ball being pushed by another, all the more is there reason that he sees it in the production of the least of vital movements in the plant, or in the least case of an animal’s sensation, or in the most insignificant of intellections or volitions of man.

When addressing God, the theologian has to make necessary distinctions between what is knowable by natural philosophical knowledge and what can be known by Revelation alone; as well as what can be known by Divine Revelation and the very interior life of the Deity Himself (Deus sub ratione Deitatis). The aim is to avoid fideism on the one hand, and a vulgar rationalism that reduces all mystery to human concepts on the other. Garrigou-Lagrange is eager to keep the creature in his place vis a vis the Creator, not to belittle the creature, but in order to not belittle the splendor of God as the Cause of All Causes. In discussing the relationship between creature and Creator, Garrigou-Lagrange writes:

In these matters, there is a certain chiaroscuro, where the shade is no less accentuated than the clarity. However, it is a simple corollary to that other chiaroscuro enunciated by God in Exodus 3:14 and that St. Augustine explains in this way: [I am He Who Is such that in comparison to Me, those things that have been created as changeable are not]. Our Lord said likewise to St. Catherine of Siena (and it reveals to us the profound sense and scope of the verb, “to be”: “I am He who is, you are she who is not.” The creature: that which of itself is not and which would not exist except through a free, creative, and conserving fiat; and, all the while, after creation there is neither more being, nor more life, nor more wisdom, nor more love.

Another primary distinction that Garrigou-Lagrange highlights is that of the natural versus the supernatural. For Garrigou-Lagrange, the supernatural is that which, “surpasses the natural powers and the demands of this or that being but would be fitting if it were gratuitously given to it.” He further elaborates that, “the error of naturalism is precisely the confusion of the supernatural with that which is against nature.” While that which is supernatural is not contrary to nature, one cannot reduce it to natural faculties and understanding. One must still strive, and above all, be given the grace to reach supernatural understanding, for even the “demons believe and tremble”. Garrigou-Lagrange speaks of a novice listener to a Beethoven symphony who may have listened to the piece with an untrained ear: he did not hear it in the way that a more trained ear would have. He may have heard the sounds, but he did not hear the symphony. A natural intellect could materially understand the concepts of the Gospel, but not their soul, their inner meaning. The depths of God have to be revealed to the faithful hearer, though they are not contrary to his natural intellectual faculties. Of the proofs of the Faith, Garrigou-Lagrange states the following:

The sides of the polygon, inscribed within the circumference of the circle, can be ever multiplied, but never will it be reduced to being a point; never will the polygon be the circumference. Never will it be the case that reasons of suitability concerning supernatural mysteries will be demonstrations of them. These are sublime probabilities, above the sphere of the demonstrable; they allow one to approach from a distance (along with infused contemplation, which remains in the order of faith) that which will be the wholly supernatural evidence found in the Vision of the Divine Essence.

There is thus no vulgar instantly convincing logic for the truths of Faith. There is only a long slog of dealing with shadow and light, concept and mystery, which one has to commit to in the path toward Divine Life. That’s not to say there aren’t significant obstacles here, at least from my point of view. A minor one for me at least is when Garrigou-Lagrange describes how God loves some entities more than others:

Philosophical reason, when it is not misled, already is sufficient for telling us that God, the Sovereign Good, is the source of every finite good – that is, that creatures are good because God wills good for them, and aids them in their own coming to perfection. From this, it follows that nobody would become better than another if he were not loved more by God – that is, if God had not willed from all eternity that there would be more good in such a one. Thus speaks right reason in the natural order.

I have no problem accepting this, I am just pointing out that this might be a hard pill to swallow for the modern sensibility. If one, on the other hand, views one’s existence as part of a harmonious Whole, then of course some things have to be better than others to enhance the Beauty of the Whole, to contrast grace and heft, the bright and the opaque. A greater challenge arises when asking whether God hates anything He has created. Garrigou-Lagrange and most Christians answer this in the negative, yet the Dominican friar still upholds the existence of an eternal place of torment for some of God’s creatures, ones who have rebelled against His Goodness. What of these entities? Garrigou-Lagrange tackles this problem with many of the rehearsed distinctions that I don’t find at all convincing. Even with stuffy old Friar Reginald, he is still hesitant to bring up the arguments of his master that the eternal afflictions of the souls in Hell enhance God’s glory, and yes, the Elect’s beatitude. What Garrigou-Lagrange puts forward instead is a series of texts with platitudes concerning the goodness of God and the mystery (in the bad sense, in my opinion) of His ways, and ends stating:

Here, we are confronted with a mystery that is inaccessible to every created intellect – how Infinite Justice, Infinite Mercy (which is exercised even in regard to those who are lost), and Sovereign Freedom are intimately reconciled in the Deity (i.e. the most intimate life of God)… This is one of the most sublime chiaroscuros of theology. However, in order to avoid deviating, theological speculation must be brought to completion here in silent contemplation.

Garrigou-Lagrange expresses the same idea in a more satisfying manner elsewhere: Let us first recall that each of our free acts contains a mystery: if it is good and salutary, it contains the mystery of grace; if it is evil, it contains the mystery of the Divine permission of evil in view of a superior good, which often still remains hidden. While I am not necessarily convinced by Garrigou-Lagrange’s argument about predestination, I am still inspired by his unwavering faith in a God of goodness.

Overall, I think that this is a valuable book in that it dispelled latent impressions in my mind that Thomism has a cold and calculating approach to reality and the Divine. I value the book as useful in particular in pointing out the blindspots in the rationalist and materialist vision of the world. Whereas the non-believer chooses to avoid those holes in his own vision to expel mystery from his mind altogether, texts like this one clearly demonstrate why this is far from rational. Our faculties are by nature limited and at times faulty; they have their own intrinsic natural value but this only goes so far. Whether one chooses to be open to mystery or not is a personal choice, if not a moral one.

In terms of one’s relation to God, Garrigou-Lagrange’s book can also be an excellent tool for contemplation. The Dominican theologian puts God’s grandeur first, he indicates that God isn’t an object of thought like any other: “God is not a heap of natural knowable perfections; He is much more than that.” To be the Ground of our being, He is infinitely above it. The greatness of the creature is not in contemplating his own perfections cut off from God, but in the realization of his utter dependence on God. I end with this quote cited by Garrigou-Lagrange from Ernest Hello:

Mysticism is the other wisdom – that which is from on high – that sees far enough to be aware of its own short view. The grandeur of contemplation is a mirror without defect where it sees its own insufficiency. The immensity of the place of its habitation gives the magnificent gift of sacred contempt for itself…

The more the mystery is inscrutable, the higher is the contemplation, the more profound too is the gaze of the contemplative so as to grasp human miseries in their abyss – merciful so as to encourage, mild so as to comfort, ardent so as to love, tender so as to bring relief.







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