Monday, October 31, 2011

Learned Ignorance

St.  Ambrose of Milan said: “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind's salvation.” Whatever precisely he may have meant by these words, it is true that to eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit. Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is “life”? And what does “eternity” really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true “life” is—this is what it should be like. Besides, what we call “life” in our everyday language is not real “life” at all. Saint Augustine, in the extended letter on prayer which he addressed to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow and mother of three consuls, once wrote this: ultimately we want only one thing—”the blessed life”, the life which is simply life, simply “happiness”. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer. Our journey has no other goal—it is about this alone. But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,” he says, quoting Saint Paul (Rom ). All we know is that it is not this. Yet in not knowing, we know that this reality must exist. “There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), so to speak”, he writes. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this “true life”; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.
Spe Salvi 11
Reflection - What a lovely passage this is from Spe Salvi. I didn't plan it this way (I will spare you the details, but the way I select passages for the blog resembles nothing quite so much as throwing darts blindfolded in the dark - what gets hit, gets blogged about, basically), but here we are on the eve of November, the e'en of All Hallows (hey, that has a great ring to it - someone should turn that into a holiday!). And it is the month of the dead, the month of death in the Catholic calendar.
Time for us, amidst the grey and bareness of the late fall/early winter terrain, to think about that other world, that other life which is simply 'life', simply the possession of happiness, to which we long and yearn even as we thrash about grabbing for every sweet thing we can get our hands on. Candy... and chocolate... and licorice... and (hey, that sounds really good! Someone should come up with some sort of tie in with candy this time of year!)
Anyhow. What a great reading from the Pope. We do yearn for sweetness, for joy, for all manner of good things... and we don't seem to quite find it all here, not really. Too much candy rots your teeth and gives you a tummy ache. But what is this that we want that we cannot find here?
I love the phrase from Augustine - learned ignorance. It means that we have to learn that we do not know what we want. We have to learn that we're made for something that we don't know much about. All the spooky oogly-googly stuff around death and zombies (hey! Maybe that could fit in the candy and all that!) bears witness to that: we just don't know what comes next. Even if we're Christians, we don't really know.
But we know we want something. And hopefully we know and believe (a little bit?) in God's love for us, which is the heart of matter like I said yesterday. So we know and believe, maybe just a bit, that there is a life waiting us, a joy in store for us, that life is gearing us up for a treat, not a dirty, mean trick.
And this is what we will be pondering in the Church in November. Everything around us is dying, but we do not die, even if we die. And so, Happy Hallowe'en! Don't eat too much, and don't let the monsters scare you. There are no monsters, because Christ has conquered death and filled the universe with his victorious light. 

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