“Thus religious truth is neither light nor darkness, but both together; it is like the dim view of a country seen in the twilight, which forms half extricated from the darkness, with broken lines and isolated masses.”
Religion without dogma made no sense to Newman; without that it was “mere sentiment” – and that was a foundation of sand. But he was well aware of the limits of humanity and acknowledged that the application of the intellect to religious matters might well produce a diminution of faith. It was, he commented, as though it was assumed that theologians were “too intellectual to be spiritual” and thus “more occupied with the truths of doctrine than with its reality.”
For Catholics the Church is the rock upon which dogma rests; we accept the historical reality of the Revelation it transmits to us. But intellect alone will not suffice; that is where prayer and devotional practices are needed; we do not worship by brain-power. For Newman,“Revealed religion should be especially poetical – and it is so in fact.” Prose was inadequate to convey the Truth of revealed religion, but, without an Authority to pronounce on revelation and tradition, private judgement would simply lead to the sort of chaos he came to discern within the Church of England in his own day. Thus, the mixture of light and dark in the quotation which heads up this essay.
Although we are each the subject of our own experiences, and whilst Christ came to save each of us, our egos are but a vehicle when it comes to understanding that Christ Himself is at the centre of our Faith. The central truth of the Christian Faith is the Incarnation. God became man and died that we should have eternal life. And yet knowing this, we can, nonetheless, in times such as this lose sight of this and, in despair, wonder why God is silent in the face of our prayers for healing and safety.
Much prose has been given over to the problem of why God allows mankind to suffer – the technical term is theodicy. But the intervention which speaks most to my heart is the poem, “Denaill” by George Herbert:
When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
This is no intellectual exercise, it is the heart-felt anguish of the poet who agonises at what he feels is God’s refusal of his prayerful requests. He feels abandoned, as though his soul has no mooring. It is only in close reading that we see that the poet is, himself, in “denial”. Each stanza concludes with a last line which does not rhyme – except for the last one which concludes:
O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhym
Which, of course, is a rhyme. God has answered, it is the poet who has been in denial. God’s answer may not be the one we expect; it maybe that we are not listening.
We are made in God’s image; but we are not God. How much we long for a God whom we can understand, as well as worship, how often we think that God is absent; but how often to we think that it is we who are absent, we who are deaf?
T.S. Eliot, as so often, expresses it best in the first part of Little Gidding:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
We have to put away our worldly concerns. Our intellects can rest secure on the rock of the dogma proclaimed by the Church. What should concern us is prayer, and even the best of prayers is but the antechamber to our encounter with God. We intersect with the past and the present, the living and dead, and above all with Him whose Kingdom shall have no end.
God is not silent; we lack the ears with which to hear Him if we think so.