Increasing in the Knowledge of God

As we approach the Feast of the Epiphany, the intimacy of the Christmas Octave gives way to the universality of Christ’s three-fold “showing forth” in the visit of the Wise Men, the Baptism in the Jordan, and the Wedding-Feast of Cana. The shining star of the East is the symbol of the Epiphany, and to it we may apply St. Paul’s luminous words: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:6).

The Apostle of the Gentiles also prayed for the Colossians, as he told them, “That you may walk worthy of God, in all things pleasing; being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). The whole Christian life is designed to make us increase in the knowledge of God, and in the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” that I wrote of last time. As I promised then, this time I will consider just how we cultivate this loving knowledge. The following points are neither exhaustive nor systematic.

Devout Reception of the Sacraments —Each of the seven sacraments is a movement of Christ, who touches us with His Incarnate reality. In the Eucharist, this is most literally achieved by a body to Body contact. Like the disciples on their way to Emmaus, who “knew him in the breaking of the bread” (Acts 24:35), we must make our Eucharistic Communions moments of loving knowledge of Jesus. (Read, if you will, the Thanksgiving Prayer of St. Pio of Pietrelcina to behold the dispositions of a saint during Holy Communion.) We should also hear Christ in our father confessor, who stands in persona Christi as Judge and Physician. “Let a man so account of us,” St. Paul said, “as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (I Cor. 4:1). (Let’s face it, seeing Christ in the sacred clergy is oftentimes a supreme test of our faith, but it is a test we must pass.) Also deserving of special mention is the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, which is a figure of the union of Christ with His Church, and by which the spouses are to sanctify each other until death, just as they administered the sacrament to each other on their wedding day. All of the sacraments are moments when Christ comes to touch us, and make Himself known, if we but know the time of our visitation.

Liturgical Worship — The Church is the Bride of Christ. Her official worship is the union of two chaste lovers. What better way to learn the secrets of the Sacred Heart than to make our own the Church’s sweet songs of adoration, love, thanksgiving, reparation, and petition? We ought to have a sense of awe in the presence of God. At times, a feeling of unworthiness should grip us, leading us to realize the inadequacy of our words. The Church, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, gives us words that are truly worthy of God. Too, the Church’s liturgical cycle of mysteries presents us with Christ under so many aspects to know Him better: the helpless Infant, the obedient Son, the wise Teacher, the Suffering Servant of Yahweh,  the Victim-Priest, the King of Glory, and the universal Judge. We ought to avail ourselves of the great wisdom contained in the traditional Missal (and Breviary) to know Jesus as only a spouse can know Him. Traditional liturgical worship employs all our external senses. We see, hear, taste, touch, and yes, smell the divine realities. When we consider that all our senses are cognitive faculties — that is, they are meant to bring us knowledge — then we see that liturgy is a way of knowing God. This is in addition to the main function of liturgical worship, to render homage to the Blessed Trinity.

Mental Prayer — Intimate contact with Jesus in prayer can give us what theologians call a “quasi-experimental” knowledge of God. In the Beatific Vision, the blessed know God as He is by a direct vision of His essence. In other words, they know him experimentally, or by direct experience. In this life, all our knowledge of God is strictly analogical, not by experience. (We ascend to purely spiritual concepts by knowledge of material realities.) But by the “quasi-experimental” knowledge that comes to the mystics through the gift of Wisdom, the soul is brought almost to the Beatific Vision, if we may thus express it. This kind of sublime mystical knowledge stands between analogical knowledge and experimental knowledge. It is said of St. Teresa of Avila, that only a thin veil separated her from the Beatific Vision. While we can’t all expect to achieve such divine intimacy in prayer, those who persevere in mental prayer and are generous with God will have something of this “quasi-experimental” knowledge. At the very least, we will acquire a holy savor of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, one that makes our faith more lively and our charity more ardent. (To learn more about this, read  The Practice of Mental Prayer, or listen to my conferences on the subject.)

Closely related to mental prayer are Spiritual Reading and Lectio Divina. In mental prayer, we talk to God, in spiritual reading and lectio divina, God talks to us.

Obeying the Moral Law — The book of Wisdom (1:4) tells us, “Wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul, nor dwell in a body subject to sins.” Wisdom is but another name for the loving knowledge of God. If we wish to know the Eternal Lawgiver, we must unite ourselves to Him by “the obedience of faith” that St. Paul proposes to the Romans (1:5, 16:26). Obeying the ten commandments of God and the six precepts of the Church is an effective sign that our knowledge is indeed loving, and not merely academic. Our Lord’s discourse to His disciples after the Last Supper, and later, his High Priestly Prayer (John 17) are filled with references to the knowledge of God, including this connection between obedience and God’s deeper manifestation of Himself to the soul. Here are only a few excerpts:

[John 14:15] If you love me, keep my commandments. [16] And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever. [17] The spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, nor knoweth him: but you shall know him; because he shall abide with you, and shall be in you. … [23] … If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him. [24] He that loveth me not, keepeth not my words. And the word which you have heard, is not mine; but the Father’s who sent me. [25] These things have I spoken to you, abiding with you. [26] But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you. … [John 15: 14] You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you. [15] I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.

Seeking Christ in our Neighbor — The Gospel enjoins us to love both God and neighbor. In loving Jesus, we fulfill both precepts, for He is God become our Neighbor, not just to first-century Palestinians, but to all who dwell near him in the Blessed Sacrament. By virtue of Sanctifying Grace, the Trinity is present in our Catholic brothers and sisters “as the known in the knower and the loved in the lover” — to use the graceful expression of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is our union with each other in the Mystical Body of Christ that forms the highest principle of Christian charity. We ought to love each other because “we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25). To do this for a supernatural motive, and, especially, when our neighbor is unpleasant to us, is not easy. But the saints recognize Christ in their neighbor, especially in the poor, the sick, the suffering. Jesus Himself tells us that He is identified with “these least of my brethren” (Mt. 25:40). If we are truly seeking Jesus, we will find him where He is, and He dwells in our neighbor.

The Lives of the Saints — Reading the lives of the saints is another way to increase in the knowledge of God. We know the artist by his art. The divine Artist uses the “joined instrument” of Christ’s Sacred Humanity, with the “unjoined instruments” of the sacraments, to paint an icon of Himself in each saint. (St. Thomas Aquinas borrowed and embellished this lovely metaphor of St. John of Damascus.) The brushstrokes of these instruments leave on the canvas of our frail humanity a resemblance to the Prototype of all saints, the Holy One of God Himself. This is why each saint is, in however limited a degree, a witness to the world of God’s glory. Reading their lives leaves us to exclaim “Blessed be God in his saints,” and reveals to us a good deal about God’s activity in souls.

True Devotion to Mary — We mortals do not have the ability to choose our mothers, but God could choose His Mother. When He deigned to become Man, the Second Person of the All-Holy Trinity chose Mary. The choice is revealing. Mary — the Father’s perfect daughter, the Son’s worthy mother, and the Holy Ghost’s faithful spouse — reveals to us something about the Three Persons who call Her “my love, my dove, my beautiful one” (Cant. 2:10). Where Mary enters in, she brings Jesus. Where she is known and loved, Jesus is known and loved.

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The Catholic Faith is a revealed religion. In fact, it is the only revealed religion, since it stands in continuity with the true religion of the Old Testament. The whole purpose of this revelation is that we might know the Blessed Trinity here by faith working by charity, so that we will know the Blessed Trinity hereafter by direct vision.

It is an axiom of Trinitarian theology that “knowledge of and belief in the Triune God is dependent on knowledge of and belief in the Son of God.” The faithful of the Old Testament did not know the Trinity. Only with the Incarnation, when the Son of God became the Son of Mary, did we learn this sublime truth. And we learned it, as St. Paul said of his own preaching, “not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in shewing of the Spirit and power” (1 Cor. 2:4). That is, the miraculous Conception and Birth, the sublime Life and Miracles, the bitter Passion and Death, the triumphal Resurrection and Ascension, and, finally the wondrous sending forth of the Holy Ghost and perennial holiness of His Church — all these manifestations of Christ’s eternal glory have brought our race a knowledge of the Son of God, and of His Father, and of their Holy Ghost.

St. Paul simplified it all when he called Jesus “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), using the Greek word εἰκὼν (icon) where we have “image.” Let us grow in contemplation of this Icon not made with hands, that we may ever increase in the loving knowledge of God that is necessary for our salvation.