A divided mind

This is When I was eleven, my family moved from our small hometown in Northern Minnesota to Los Angeles for three years, in search of warm weather.  This had the side effect of putting us in the proximity of Catholic schools.  At my grandmother’s urging my two sisters and I attended St. John the Evangelist grade school and began bringing home instructions from powerful agents called nuns, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, to be exact.   My rather non-religious parents could resist my Irish grandmother’s call to grace, but we kids had our orders from the nuns.  Soon all of us were at mass every Sunday and Holy Day.

Then the coup de grâce: the Jesuits.  To make sure I remained under religious tutelege, my grandmother convinced her brother to use part of his railroad pension income to pay my tuition at Loyola High School.  I was there only a year before we moved back to the midwest, eventually to the same small mining town we started out from.  But it left me a marked boy.   I now sought more rational clarity and intellectual stimulation than anything else available to me in my hometown high school.  So I decided to join the Jesuits, the only male religious order I knew at first hand, as a source of intellectual life.  I thought at least I would try it out for a year.

I was an obedient Jesuit, and properly pious, though my religiousness now looks rather superficial to me.  One night I was lying asleep in bed in the juniorate, then out in the country near Florissant, Missouri.  A bolt of lightning struck the tree outside my window with a sudden horrendously loud bang.  Frozen with fear I got my mind working enough to tell me that it was over, that the lightning had done its work and I was unscathed..  Actually I got only half my mind working on this.  The other half was reciting, furiously, compulsively, to the last syllable and with great earnestness: “O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended thee . . . .”  I could not stop until I finished it:  “To confess my sins, to amend my life and with the help of thy grace to sin no more.  Amen.”

There was a subsequent occasion when I experienced a divided consciousness, that changed my life significantly.  It took place on Holy Saturday in my second year in the philosophate.  I had been in “formation” for about five and a half years then.  There had been some odd surprises along the way concerning prayer.  The first was to hear already in the novitiate about prayer without words, about contemplating God without making any requests or saying much of anything.  This was a little difficult to figure out, but it had something to do with appreciating the absolute grandeur of God and not making God into just another person, even if the most powerful one.  I approached this mode of prayer eventually not by silence but by talking to myself in the presence of God, evaluating what I had to say in the light of eternity.  Like any good Jesuit I also tried to practice an Ignatian awareness of the presence of God in all things.  That was more or less my prayer style for the next few years.

Eventually I began the course of studies in the philosophate at St. Louis University, all Neo-Thomist, including metaphysics and natural theology.  In this latter course the teacher reinforced a notion already part of the metaphysics course, that the Ultimate reality which we call God is infinite and therefore incomprehensible.  I would find a few years later that Rahner summed this up nicely in his three articles on the concept of mystery in Catholic theology.  But at the time it was something of a puzzlement to me.

Then came the Holy Saturday experience.  That afternoon I was in the library of the philosophate, heavy with books in philosophy for the academic side of our lives and books in spirituality for that aspect of our lives.  I had finished my current spiritual reading during the grand silence from Good Friday to Easter and was flipping through a few possibilities on the library shelves.  I skimmed a few pages from one of Thomas Merton’s book, The Ascent to Truth. In those pages Merton explained that the God of Juan de la Cruce was, after all, the God of the Summae of Thomas Aquinas.  The dark night of the senses and the soul were steps of purifying one’s awareness of all inadequate understandings of God in order to be open to the divine infinite incomprehensibility.

For whatever reason, this came to me as another lightning bolt.  Everything fell into place, or rather everything fell out of place.  It was as though the walls of the building melted and I was swimming in the infinite.  I was immovable in that tiny spot in the library and immersed in the immensity of God.  Oddly, one small corner of my mind was observing all this with awe and repeating to itself/myself “O my God, I will never forget this; o my God, I will never forget this . . . .”

The effect of this experience was at first exhilarating.  If I saw a note on the bulletin board about choir practice, I would see that as a moment of the presence of God.  If the sole of my tennis shoe had a hole in it, I found that to be a humorous aspect of the presence of God.  Another effect was that I finally understood some of Hopkins’ poems.  The dappled world was indeed charged with the grandeur of God.

A long term effect, however, was that I no longer thought that it was important to remain in religious life in order to be religious.  I had indirectly learned a lay theology. The presence of God in truly all things means that whatever one does can be done as a vocation.  The consequentialist ethics that had come to make most sense to me made it clear that constructive love of neighbor could be asked of people everywhere in any form of life.  There were other issues in my life that also were leading me towards a decision to leave the Jesuits, but this particular religious experience opened the door wider.  I left with my licentiate in philosophy in hand.

In the world again, I received a phone call from St. Ambrose College in Davenport.  A philosophy teacher had just died and they needed an instant replacement.  George Klubertanz, the dean of the philosophate I had just left, had given them my name.  Would I come teach for what was then a princely $6000 a year.  The money would enable me to start a Ph.D in theology at  Marquette’s new program begun by Bernard Cooke.  While in the program a few of us, including one professor, were discussing Lonergan’s Insight, in particular the chapters on general and special transcendence, in which Lonergan offered something like an argument for belief in the existence of God.  I thought that there was something of a circular element in one of the arguments.  I wanted to probe this issue with the others present.  But one of them just said to me that because we all knew that God existed there was not much point in haggling over this point.

That was a moment of profound disappointment to me.  To the others I was just revealing my rather rationalist bent.  To myself, I was expressing what I have come to see as my most basic vocation, to pursue issues of truth all the way to the wall.  That includes admitting when I should be agnostic.  And that is where I have ended up, still with a divided mind.  I am intellectually agnostic about God.  But I am morally committed to living as though being a social person in the world were ultimately meaningful.
Michael Barnes, mbarnes1@udayton.edu
University of Dayton

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