A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXXIII.

Introduction and Part II

XXXIII.

“The eye perceives the visible; the intellect apprehends the invisible. The intellect that enjoys the love of God is the light of the soul. He who has such an intellect is illumined in his heart, and sees God with his intellect.”[1]

No one who is good is “immoral,” while the wicked is a “lover of the body.”[2] “The first virtue is to reject the demands of the flesh.”[3] If we avoid all that is changeable, all that is purely material, out of free choice, we become the “heirs of eternal and incorruptible blessings.”[4]

“If someone possesses intellect, he knows himself and what he is; and he knows, too, that man is subject to corruption. And he who knows himself knows all things: he knows that all things are created by God and made for man’s salvation. For it lies in man’s power correctly to apprehend all things and to hold correct beliefs concerning them. Such a man knows with certainty that those who detach themselves from worldly things must endure some slight hardship in this present life, but after death they receive from God eternal blessedness and peace.”[5]

The body needs the soul, and the soul needs the intellect if it is to be truly alive and “receive God.[6]

Our author continues the theme of attaining a perfect intellectual and how it leads us both toward God and to a proper understanding of oneself.  He is reinforcing his central point: wisdom can lead us to holiness if we put it into practice. We must avoid all distraction, all that would divert us away from God. If we are good, we will put what wisdom teaches us into practice so that we can unite ourselves with God. But if we get caught in on ourselves, if we love ourselves and the limited pleasures of the body so that we make the body and our own personal pleasures as our end, we will not be open to God. We will end up caught up in vice after vice, seeking for those pleasures alone. We will not attain any lasting happiness. It is not that the body is evil, and that its pleasures are evil; it is the attachment to them, of turning a relative good into an absolute good by making it one’s ends do they lead us into sin.

We must purify the intellect, freeing it to know and see reality as it is. True spiritual knowledge is not the memorization of propositions, but the actual knowledge of spiritual realities from experience. Speculative ideas are, at best, secondary developments from experience; they help try to explain that experience. We can apprehend the truth, we can discuss it and, to some level, construct ideas about it, but we must not confuse the derivative nature of propositional positions as the same thing as actual spiritual knowledge. “Only by relying on immediate experience can one survey the spiritual treasures of the Church and come to see their value. Only by passing a damp sponge over ancient writings, can one wash them with living water and decipher the letters of the church literature”[7] It is only this way that one can fully appreciate and understand the teachings of the faith, understanding the spirit behind them instead of relying upon the rough letter used in their exposition.

We can know the real, we can apprehend it, and in such a way, we can come to know all things.  When one has purified oneself and has properly opened the intellect so that our conceptual, speculative ideas do not pollute it and get in the way of the apprehension of reality, one can and will encounter God. One will find oneself united with God, merging with him as if becoming one with him. “Where the abyss of his wisdom is, he will teach you what he is, and with that wondrous sweetness the loved one and the Beloved dwell one in the other, and how they penetrate each other in such a way that neither of the two distinguishes himself from the other.”[8] In this unity, we can see all things in God as God, and we can know all things according to their relationship with God. For in God all things exist and are enjoyed by God as himself, as Meister Eckhart explains: “God enjoys himself. His own inner enjoyment is such that it includes his enjoyment of all creatures not as creatures, but as God. How own inner enjoyment includes everything.” [9] And the reality of this is expressed by Eckhart from his own mystical experience, where he felt himself one with the Godhead; as he emerged out of that experience, everything was seen and experienced as something of God, proclaiming God to him:

God becomes as phenomena express him. When I existed in the core, the soil, the river, the source of the Godhead, no one asked me where I was going or what I was doing. There was no one there to ask me, but the moment I emerged, the world of creatures began to shout: ‘God!’[10]

To get to this experiential relationship with God, we are told we must come to know ourselves. However, to properly know ourselves, we must know ourselves in God, and that means to know God. How, then can knowing ourselves lead to knowing God, if it is only by knowing God we can know ourselves? It is because we can come to know the process of freeing the intellect from all preconceived notions by first developing an understanding and awareness of ourselves; we can advance quite far and, as we do, our knowledge and experience of God will develop – we will see that the elimination of all that detours us from knowing who we truly are will also eliminate much which hinders our spiritual enlightenment. We come to understand why theories about the person fail when they meet the reality of the person. To know ourselves, we must first die to the self.  We crucify the false, egotistical self, and allow in the end, the real person slowly emerge, being brought back to life by the kind grace of God. In that resurrection, God reveals himself to us, and allows us to unite with him and to truly come to know ourselves. The path of self-knowledge, true self-knowledge, requires work on our part, but it also requires the work of God in our lives in order to properly reach such self-knowledge.  And it is only because of the love of God for us that any of this is possible; it is his love which enlightens the world to help the people of the world realize the need for such self-realization, as we have already seen St. Anthony in his letters tell us: “The rational man who has prepared himself to be set free through the advent of Jesus, knows himself in his intellectual substance. For he who knows himself knows the dispensations of the Creator and all that He does among His creatures.”[11]

Our disproportionate love for transitory pleasures, especially pleasures of the body, has diverted us away from our proper spiritual end. We must understand the good contained in all things, and even these pleasures, of themselves, cannot be said to be worthless. They are, however, often misappropriated, and we find ourselves attached to some at the expense of our spiritual growth. Such attachments hold us back from proper personal development. It is like one lifting weights: if they only exercise one muscle, that muscle can certainly develop, but they will end up lopsided in their bodily physique; and indeed, the rest of their muscles might end up atrophying. What good is it to strengthen the arm if one doesn’t also work the legs and make sure they remain in good shape? So too, when we ignore the fullness of our being, we find much of who we are and what we are capable of doing withering away, until at last, we might have all that we worked for, but the whole of our personal existence is significantly diminished and incapable of providing the happiness we all seek. It is only through a holistic development of our full, personal nature, that we can come to know the fullness of our being and in that fullness of being, find ourselves united with God and in perfect happiness. The intellect, which allows us to apprehend so much of the real, so much which is necessary if we want to be all that we can be, can atrophy. When this happens, it is as if it were destroyed; but the grace and work of God in history shows us, even if we let it go so far, God can resurrect it – what we destroy, God consistently seeks to restore, giving us chance after chance to change our ways and to follow the path to eternal beatitude; and so, no one who has life is without hope; as long as one has life, one can turn toward God and be saved.

There is no doubt that this section continues with one of the major themes of the letters of St. Anthony: the need for one to be the true, “intellectual Israel,”[12] who has wrestled (with God’s help) the passions so as to have freed the intellect from its bodily imprisonment so that one can know both oneself and God. Anthony in his letters returns to this idea again and again, in letter after letter; it would be of no surprise, therefore, he would do so in other writings of his. It is one of the features of our text which really indicates either Anthony’s own hand in its construction, or at least Anthony’s influence on the one who composed our text. And since it comes to us, even if under questionable attribution, as a text of Anthony’s, it is a point strongly in favor of Anthony’s hand being involved in its creation. Someone else might have felt they have already tackled this issue and would have moved on; but with Anthony, because it is a central point of his teaching to others, we would expect him to press on this theme, even if we, the reader, might find he has already made his point and would like to hear more advice from him.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#128).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#129).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#129).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#129).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#130).

[6] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 349 (#131).

[7] Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 5.

[8] Hadewijch, Letter 9 in Hadewijch: the Complete Works. trans. Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 66.

[9] Meister Eckhart, “Creatures Seek God Through Me” in Meister Eckhart. Trans. Ramond B. Blakney (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1941), 225.

[10] Ibid., 225-6.

[11] Chitty, The Letters of St. Antony, 9 [Letter III].

[12] See Chitty, Letters of St. Antony. 14 [Letter V].

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