Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stein on Holy Realism

The example of the saints demonstrates to [other believers] how things should actually be: where there is genuine, lively faith, there the doctrine of faith and the "tremendous deeds" of God are the content of life. All else steps aside for it and is determined by it. This is holy realism: the original inner receptivity of the soul reborn in the Holy Spirit. Whatever the soul encounters is received in an appropriate manner and with corresponding depth, and finds in the soul a living, mobile, docile energy that allows itself to be easily and joyfully led and molded by that which it has received, unhampered by any mistaken inhibitions and rigidity. Such realism, when it leads a holy soul to accept the truths of faith, becomes the science of the saints. If the mystery of the cross becomes its inner form, it turns into a science of the cross.

Holy realism has a certain affinity with the realism of the child who receives and responds to impressions with unimpaired vigor and vitality, and with uninhibited simplicity.

St. Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross, Koeppel, tr., ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2002) pp. 10-11. She goes on to note that, as with the realism of the child, this vivid and intimate acquaintance with the foundations doesn't protect one from error; indeed, may lead to highly unreasonable responses. As with the realism of children, however, a good environment can correct, limit, and compensate for any likely illusions or errors that may arise.

The point is quite an important one. One of the things you note very quickly if you do much reading in Catholic theologians discussing mystical theology is a common and repeated emphasis on the need for context. John of the Cross (about whom Stein is writing here), Teresa of Avila, John of Avila, and others repeatedly advise people not to put a great emphasis on flashier kinds of religious experience, not because there is nothing that can be learned from them, but because handling them properly is very difficult. One and all they insist that people focus on basic truths and reasonable responses, only paying attention to religious experiences to the extent that they genuinely help you to be a better person more capable of loving God and neighbor, and the reason is precisely the point Stein notes here: what matters far more than the experiences we have is the maturity of insight we apply to them, and the latter must be developed by discipline. It is a truth whose value and importance extends far beyond the confines of religious experiences. Nonetheless, it is also true that the intensity and intimacy of our interactions, the realism with which we approach things, plays an important role, too: developing a mature insight into any kind of experience is very difficult if your standpoint on it is abstracted and aloof to begin with. Such "inhibitions and rigidity" can be a source of error and mistake on their own; we need to be teachable ("docile," to use the word in the quotation above) and that requires a certain sort of active energy. Becoming an adult, with adult judgment and sensibility, requires simultaneously throwing ourselves into the world around us ("realism" in the sense of a receptive response to the world as it is and seems to be rather than a philosophical position) and immersing ourselves in an environment that can keep us from going astray, whether by misleading external influences or by misleading internal biases.

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