Supernaturalizing Our Social Interactions

What follows is a series of meditations that represent a concrete application of some wisdom I gratefully learned to a topic of both practical and theoretical importance for me and my fellow Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, namely, our community life as religious. For the writer, this originated as a spiritual exercise of a personal nature but it developed into something I shared with my community members and, from thence, to something am sharing with our readers, in the tradition of contemplata aliis tradere (“to hand on to others the fruit of our contemplation”).

These meditations are based on what I have learned from Dr. Andrew Willard Jones concerning that convention of medieval Biblical exegesis, the quadriga. Some preliminary explanation is necessary in advance of the meditations so that their framework will be clear to the reader.

Let me say at the outset that the original name of this piece was “The Quadriga and Community Life,” but I felt that to be potentially too off-putting. The new name is appropriate because the attempt here is precisely to supernaturalize our social interactions, and this particular method fits into a beautiful Catholic tradition that fuses Holy Scripture and daily living.

The four senses of scripture are not simply a set of static, side-by-side interpretations we can choose from while interpreting the Bible. The medievals read Scripture in a very dynamic way, in an ascending way. Founded on the literal sense, each higher sense represents not simply an ascent to a higher elevation, but a radical leap to a higher ontological plane. Moreover, this is applied not only to reading the sacred text but to living life itself. Each individual believer is called by Baptism to rise from the historical through the allegorical to the tropological senses in this life, and even to anticipate the life of Heaven by achieving some measure of “anagogy” or contemplation here below. “Pure anagogy” can only be achieved in the Beatific Vision, but its anticipation by way of contemplation in this life is the worthy pursuit of the saints.

While insisting on the reality of the historical sense, Dr. Jones also speaks of the defect of one who remains in that sense and fails rise above it, for instance, by not seeing Christ in the Old Testament. Such a man is, to use my own expression, “stuck in history,” without seeing history’s point: Jesus Christ. The person who has ascended to the allegorical sense sees Jesus Christ as prefigured and pointed to throughout sacred history, but he needs to go further, and from that sense rise to the tropological by assimilating, in his daily life, the doctrine, morals, and sacraments established by Jesus Christ for our salvation. To do this is to “make the tropological turn,” as Dr. Jones says, employing the very etymology of the word. Using the threefold medieval path to living one’s Baptismal life, the Doctor notes that whether one (1) prays like a monk or cleric, (2) fights like a knight, or (3) works like a farmer or artisan, we each have our own “tropology” — that is, our own way of living out the virtuous Christian life. It is the especial task of the cleric as preacher, a man who has mastered the four senses in his intellect and will, to help others make the tropological turn, directing them yet higher to the ultimate anagogy of Heaven.

In other words, far from being only a way of studying the Bible, to our medieval forebears the quadriga was a way of seeing all reality and a way of living life.

In the lines that follow — and they will be continued in the next Ad Rem — I apply the quadriga to my life in community. Such a way of considering one’s state in life with its duties and circumstances has been profitable for me. If it helps you, Dear Reader, feel free to use whatever is useful here for your own personal meditations.

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I write concerning my social interaction with my fellow Slaves in community. As consecrated to Jesus through Mary by vow in the life of the evangelical counsels, my fellow Slaves are holy — and I mean the word here in the sense of consecrated, i.e., “set aside for divine use.” In addition, we are each called to be holy in that more excellent sense of a plenitude of sanctifying grace accompanied by the perfection of Christian virtue. As personal holiness consists in the perfection of charity, how we live our community life is directly relevant to our holiness. This highest of all virtues was called, by the Apostle, the vincula perfectionis (“bond of perfection,” Col. 3:14). Here I stand in awe both of the Divine Majesty and of the dignity to which He has elevated my brethren, as well as the exalted end to which He has called us all.

May the Father grant me to think of, and interact with His consecrated children and my fellow Slaves with a mind and heart animated by holy fear, perfect charity, true humility, patient forebearance, and all the other virtues and gifts of the Holy Ghost that are necessary to perfect our friendship in holiness and to fructify it with abundant good works.

Literal Sensethe realm of “nature” (or, better, of the most immediate appearances of a perceived reality), corresponding to lectio in monastic prayer: Here, I see each of my Brothers (Sisters) in their essence and nature as a reality, a “given,” with all of their personal qualities and attributes, their temperaments and character traits. With some of them, an easy and natural concord flows from a compatibility of those personal qualities and attributes. With others, such easy amity is lacking owing to a less compatible arrangement of our personalities. I know, illuminated by faith, that if I remain at the literal sense in my relationship with each and every one of them, I am doomed either to sin or at least to imperfection and mediocrity, which is why I must ascend to the higher senses in my intellect, my will, and my actions. As our Father, Saint Augustine, directs in the Rule: “Your affection one for the other must not be carnal, but spiritual (Non autem carnalis, sed spiritalis inter vos debet esse dilectio).” Here he seems not to be speaking of unnatural sins against chastity, but of a friendship that is merely natural and not spiritual, or, as we have it here, a friendship that is not perfected by being elevated from the literal to the higher senses.

Allegorical Sensethe realm of faith, corresponding to meditatio in monastic prayer: This sense tells me what things really and fully mean when they are perceived in the superior light of divine and catholic faith. Supernaturally, I know that, like me, my brethren are called to grace in this life and glory in the next — a blissful participation in God’s own eternity. In this sense, I can know, at least in broad outline, what their part is in the economy of salvation. I know them to be my brethren in Christ. Further, I know that they are friends (or spouses) of Christ, consecrated by vow as I am to the life of the evangelical counsels and the service of religion. They are also the Father’s dear sons (daughters) and vessels of the Holy Ghost, who dwells in them. Like me, each is a voluntary Slave of Jesus through Mary. By a shared faith and membership in the same congregation as well as being part of the same “school of thought,” we agree on all essential things both divine and human. While “particular friendships” are to be avoided — those, that is, which exclude friendships with others or which detract from community life — I am nonetheless closer with some than with others, and my relationship with each differs based upon a variety of factors that color our interactions with each other. Each, though, must be a recipient of my charity and a beneficiary of my prayers. In faith enlightened by understanding and knowledge, I must view these multifaceted relationships as part of our common supernatural vocation. If we practice the Christian virtues both singly and together, we can enjoy a holy friendship that is beneficial both to ourselves and to others. Such holy friendships among the saints have, throughout the history of the Church, benefited the friends and, in certain cases, have been “charismatic” — in the sense of sanctifying of others and building up the Church.

From this higher vantage point of allegory, in addition to “seeing” in the obscurity of faith those things that can be known only by revelation (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation), I can also see the realities that I know from the literal sense — but now illumined by the higher light of faith in addition to the light of natural reason. Thus, allegory gives me a loftier perspective on those things already known. Of course, faith and reason are not opposed; because grace builds on nature and does not destroy it, what is known by the grace of faith does not falsify or render moot what we know by the use of natural reason. Rather, the higher light helps to produce a true synthesis in which the amazing complexity that exists in nature and the causality that operates in it are seen — if only partially and imperfectly — as part of the wondrous meeting of secondary causality with the First Cause, where grace and nature intersect.

Because of this, none of the valid observations of medical science, psychology, and even the social sciences are denied by faith (the emphasis is on valid as there is also a lot of chicanery in those areas). The causes that operate at the level of nature and which those sciences can address are quite real and contribute to the complexity of the human condition. The light of faith allows us to see them all sub specie aeternitatis, as they are among the “all things” that Saint Paul writes of: “And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (Rom. 8:28). This has practical implications in the vicissitudes of our personal and community life: Our natural temperaments, varying conditions of health, mental or emotional trauma, family background, etc., do affect us personally and do influence our interactions with each other. From such circumstances many challenges follow. Without calling evil good or good evil (cf. Is. 5:20), we can see these challenges as occasions for grace and the practice of virtue (the business of tropology) in keeping with Saint Paul’s admonition: “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good” (Rom. 12:21).

(To be continued…)