Years ago, a friend and I were seated outside a restaurant to enjoy our meal. Shortly after finishing a mealtime prayer and making the sign of the cross, a stranger approached us with glowing eyes, astounded that we had prayed in public. He spoke at length about God and about how he, too, had spiritual longings and had been trying to pray. He made no indication that he attended church or put faith into practice, but the mere sign of the thought of God was clearly a consolation, an anchor and foundation toward which he felt strongly compelled.
“The Thought of God” is truly the “Stay of the Soul,” in the words of St. John Henry Newman’s beautiful sermon. St. Augustine’s famous words also ring true for seasoned believer, new believer, and unbeliever alike: God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. The word “thought” is, for Newman, a strong word. It does not connote flippant or occasional regard. This sermon and other writings from across Newman’s life suggest that “thought” means a real inward communion, not just a mental notion. It is an attentive and loving adoration with the one who is closer to us than we are to ourselves (as in St. Augustine’s notion, interior intima meo: God is the most intimate dimension of one’s own interior). And his focus on God as the rock and anchor of the soul is not exclusively individualistic; it has a deeply personal dimension and a profoundly ecclesial dimension. Personally and collectively in the Body of Christ, to gaze lovingly upon God is our sole security in the sorrows and sufferings of mortal trials, and our sole delight above all other consolations.
When Adam and Eve sinned, mankind suffered a “Divine withdrawal.” Theologians agree that man’s unfallen perfection in the garden was not by nature, but by grace. Adam and Eve, at first, experienced the fullness of a relationship with God through a divine gift, an infusion of the Divine Life in their souls that was beyond their nature as material beings. But Mankind “lost its spiritual life and health, which was necessary to complete its nature,” to fulfill its highest end, “integrity and happiness.” Deprived of this grace by which the soul communes with God, Adam and Eve, and all their children, suffered spiritual death. Deprived of the Spiritual Life of our soul—communion with God—man is also, as a consequence, reduced to the cycle of animal life and death, material decay. Christ came to restore all the children of Adam so that they may “again approach Him as our Father,” adopted as children, made into New Creatures in Christ. In Christ, his body, blood, soul, and divinity, we can enjoy restored communion with God even in the midst of this “vale of tears” that suffers from the “wages of sin,” but will be redeemed in full when Christ comes in glory.
Without embracing Christ’s Divine Restoration of the primal “Divine withdrawal,” we will be restless, unsatisfied, and agitated in heart and mind—lacking “a ruling principle, object, or purpose.” Scripture calls this miserable state being sick of soul, blind, asleep, “a dry and weary land without water” (Psalm 63:1). Our souls thirst for God. Each human soul is “made for the contemplation of its Maker; and nothing short of that high contemplation is happiness.” This Christmas season invites precisely such contemplation in the most unexpected of places—the face of God laid in a manger in a poor stable, adored by shepherds and magi, asses and oxen, St. Joseph and Blessed Mary.
We are made to be happy—notice how insistent humans are on refusing unhappiness, so insistent that we tend to mistake unhappiness for happiness. One might try to convince others, and even himself, that he is actually happy with his unhappiness in a contradictory attempt to avoid effort, change, or admission of wrong. Trying to seek happiness without God will result in hypocrisy, idolatry, or the “sorrow of the world,” a debilitating and morose obsession with past faults that falls short of repentance and amendment of life.
On the contrary, Newman locates true “happiness of the soul” in “the exercise of the affections.” Like the word “thought,” the word “affections” has a strong meaning for Newman. It is related to the affect, or what philosophers call the appetible faculty by which one desires something good or beautiful. It is not “sensual pleasure” or “activity” or “excitement” or “self esteem,” but appears synonymous to what St. Augustine calls “adhering” to God. It is not spontaneous or out of our control. It is seen, known, desired, chosen, and willed. Just as hunger and thirst elicit a desire in the body for the physical pleasure of sustenance, “so the affections are the instruments by which the soul has pleasure,” that is, true spiritual happiness. Spiritual affection for God must be exercised properly; we will be unhappy if this faculty is left ”undeveloped, restrained, or thwarted.” Our true happiness is to “love, to hope, to joy, to admire, to revere, to adore,” to be lost in God. These kinds of affections even give joy in the midst of repentance for sin, of penitential sorrow for going astray. God never fails to show forgiveness and the path of amendment of life to the truly penitent. This gracious presence to us as we progress away from our sins is, truly, a source of abundant joy, albeit paradoxical to the world of ease and comfort.
“The contemplation of Him, and nothing but it, is able fully to open and relieve the mind, to unlock, occupy, and fix our affections. We may indeed love things created with great intenseness, but such affection, when disjoined from the love of the Creator, is like a stream running in a narrow channel, impetuous, vehement, turbid. The heart runs out, as it were, only at one door; it is not an expanding of the whole man.”
Let us cling to God above all—all else but Him and what He has established is passing away to death. Let us say with the Psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but Thee?” (Psalm 73). Let us turn regularly and habitually, to the Thought of God and the thought of what God has created to bring us into communion with Him. The Incarnation of Christ, the Birth of His Church, the mystery of our sacramental participation, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit all take us into the depths of God. We are made a new creation in Christ, with whom our true selves are hid in the heavenly places (Col. 3:3). The growth is gradual, not instantaneous. Today, make one small resolution to make your first thought be of God before lesser things that will never fully satisfy, especially in common temptations, trials, and shortcomings. God sees and knows everything about us, and does not fail to shower mercy on us His children when we earnestly and sincerely open our whole hearts to Him.