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The Allegorical Meaning of ‘Doubting’ Thomas

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350px-Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Today the Catholic Church commemorates the Apostle, ‘Doubting’ Thomas. Thomas doubted that Jesus had resurrected until he saw him and touched him in the flesh. Eventually he saw and touched Jesus, and then believed. But in response Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Thomas can be interpreted allegorically as symbolizing a certain tendency of our ego to be overly rationalistic and to insist that material facts and logical proofs are the only genuine basis for belief. This doubting disposition denies the experiential reality of other valid forms of knowledge, like intuition, insight, Conscience, inspiration and faith (pistis). Significantly, Thomas means ‘twin’ in Aramaic. Our ego is like one of a pair of twins, the other being a more intuitive, authentic, or higher self.  The ego must learn to loosen its overly tight control.  We must admit to ourselves that sometimes we have valid knowledge from extra-rational faculties.

See if you can catch your own inner ‘doubting Thomas’ in action.  For example, perhaps there is some article of Christian faith which you believe is true, but which your rational mind doubts or about which complains that logical proof is lacking.  Your rational mind says, “You claim to believe this thing by ‘faith’. But what is this ‘faith’?  How can it be seen, touched?  How can it be proven to exist at all, much less be demonstrated to be reliable?”  But despite this, the part of your mind responsible for conviction, for deciding “do I or do I not genuinely believe this to be true?”  has the conviction.  And by conviction we mean the same kind of ‘belief-in-the-trueness-of’ that a closely reasoned argument supplies.  Consider the logical syllogism (1) if A then  B, (2) A is true, (3) therefore B is true.  If we know propositions (1) and (2) are both true, then we believe with absolute certainty that the conclusion (3) is true.  That feeling of certainty is what is meant by conviction.  I am merely suggesting that, if one examines ones thoughts closely, one may detect cases where one has the strong conviction of some article of faith, and that this conviction or convincedness is essentially the same as what is felt for a conclusion that is proven by explicit logic, as in the above example. But the conviction produced by faith is such that it is not accompanied by awareness of a rational argument that proves, in a logical sense, the belief.

Obviously not all forms of ‘unreasoned’ belief are of this character.   It is possible to believe something on mere superstition, because it is flattering, or because of wishful thinking.  Religious beliefs based on these things are not genuine faith, even though an ignorant person — namely one who does not know what true faith is — may claim otherwise.   Atheist writers find ample ammunition from such examples with which to discredit religion. True faith, however, is not like these other things.  It is characterized by genuine conviction; these other cases produce, at best, a shallow delusion or pretense of conviction.

St. Ignatius Loyola and the Discernment of Spirits

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From the life of Saint Ignatius from his own words by Luis Gonzalez

Put inward experiences to the test to see if they come from God

Ignatius was passionately fond of reading worldly books of fiction and tales of knight-errantry. When he felt he was getting better, he asked for some of these books to pass the time. But no book of that sort could be found in the house; instead they gave him a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of saints written in Spanish.

032IgnatiusLoyolaBy constantly reading these books he began to be attracted to what he found narrated there. Sometimes in the midst of his reading he would reflect on what he had read. Yet at other times he would dwell on many of the things which he had been accustomed to dwell on previously. But at this point our Lord came to his assistance, insuring that these thoughts were followed by others which arose from his current reading.

While reading the life of Christ our Lord or the lives of the saints, he would reflect and reason with himself: “What if I should do what Saint Francis or Saint Dominic did?” In this way he let his mind dwell on many thoughts; they lasted a while until other things took their place. Then those vain and worldly images would come into his mind and remain a long time. This sequence of thoughts persisted with him for a long time.

But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Angel Fra_Angelico-Annunciatory_Angel-detail

Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience. Later on, when he began to formulate his spiritual exercises, he used this experience as an illustration to explain the doctrine he taught his disciples on the discernment of spirits.

– from the Roman Catholic breviary, 31 July 2009

Further Reading

First Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius)

Second Rules, for More Probing Discernment of Spirits (from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius)

On Ignatian Discernment of Spirits.  Chapter 12 of All My Liberty, by Fr. John A. Hardon SJ

Written by John Uebersax

July 31, 2009 at 2:38 pm