The relation between the study of theology and the interior life
There is often too great a separation between study and the interior life; we do not find sufficiently observed, that beautiful gradation spoken of by St. Benedict which consists in: reading, cogitation, study, meditation, prayer and contemplation.(69) St. Thomas, who received his first education from the Benedictines, retained this wonderful gradation when speaking of the contemplative life.(70)
Several defects result from separating study too much from prayer. Thus the hardship and difficulty that not infrequently accompany study are no longer considered a salutary penance, nor are they sufficiently directed to God. Thus weariness and disgust sometimes result from study, without any spiritual profit.
St. Thomas speaks about these two deviations (71) when discussing the virtue of studiousness or application to study, which must be commanded by charity as a check to inordinate curiosity and sloth, so as to study those things which one ought to study, how, when, and where one ought, especially with regard to the spiritual end in view, this being for the acquisition of a better knowledge of God and for the salvation of souls.
To avoid the above-mentioned defects that are opposed to each other, it is good to recall how our intellectual study can be sanctified, by considering first what benefit the interior life receives from a study that is properly directed, and then, on the other hand, what the study of theology can hope to receive in an increasing degree from the interior life. It is in the union of these two functions of our nature that we find the best verification of the principle "Causes mutually interact, but in a different order." There is a mutual causality and priority among them, which is truly wonderful.
The indebtedness of the interior life to study
By the study of theology the interior life is especially preserved from the two serious defects of subjectivism in piety and particularism.
Subjectivism, as it applies to piety, is often now called "sentimentalism." It consists in a certain affected love which lacks a true deep love for God and souls. This defect arises from the fact the natural inclination of our sensitive nature prevails in prayer according to each one's disposition. An emotion of our sensitivei nature prevails, and this emotion sometimes expresses itself certain outbursts of praise which are quite without solid foundation in reality. In our days several skeptical psychologists, such as Bergson in France, think that even Catholic mysticism is the result of some prevailing and noble emotion that arises from the subconscious self, and that afterward finds expression in the ideas and judgments of the mystics. But a doubt always remains whether these judgments are true that result from the impulse of the subconscious self and the affections.
Contrary to this, our interior life must be founded on divine, truth. It already has this from infused faith that rests upon authority of God revealing. But study that is properly directed is of great help in fully realizing what the truths of the faith are strictly in themselves, independently of our subjective dispositions. Study is of special help, indeed, in forming a true concept of God's perfections, of His goodness, love, mercy, justice, as also of the infused virtues of humility, religion, and charity, and this without any admixture of emotion that has not its foundation in truth. Therefore St. Theresa says (72) that she received much help by conversing with good theologians, so that she might not deviate from the path of truth in difficult straits.
When our study is rightly ordered, it frees the interior life not only from subjectivism but also from particularism resulting from the excessive influence of certain ideas prevalent at some period of time or in some region, ideas which after thirty years will appear antiquated. Some years ago ideas of this or that particular philosophy prevailed, which now no longer find favorable acceptance. It is so in every generation. There is a succession of opinions and events that arouse one's admiration; they pass with the fashion of the world, while the words of God remain, by which the just man must live.
Thus, in truth, study that is well ordered preserves intact the objectivity which the interior life should have above all the deviations of our sensitive nature, and it also preserves the universality of the same which is founded upon what the Church teaches everywhere and at all times. Thus it becomes increasingly clear that the higher, the deeper, and the more vital truths are none other than the elementary truths of Christianity, provided they are thoroughly examined and become the subject of daily meditation and contemplation. Such are the truths enunciated in the Lord's Prayer and in the following words from the first page of the catechism: "What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world." Equally so it becomes increasingly clear that the fundamental truth of Christianity is: "God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son."(73)
It is a matter of great importance that these truths profoundly influence our lives, without our deviating into the subjectivism, sentimentalism, and particularism prevalent at some period of time or in some region. In this, however, our interior life is in many ways benefited by good study; and the choicest fruit of penance is to be found in the arduousness of study. It is a fruit much more precious than the natural pleasure to be found in study that may consist in intellectual labor not sufficiently sanctified or directed to God. In diligent study that is commanded by charity, we find pre-eminently verified the common saying: If the roots of knowledge are bitter, its fruits are the sweetest and best. We are not considering here the knowledge that inflates, but that which, under the influence of charity and the virtue of studiousness, is truly upbuilding.
The interior life, which study saves from a number of deviations, therefore remains objective in its tendency and is truly founded on what has been universally and at all times the traditional doctrine. On the other hand the interior life influences the study of theology.
69. Rule of St. Benedict, chap. 48.
70. Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.1i8o, a.3.
71. Ibid., q. 166.
72 Autobiography, chap. 13.
73. John 3: 16.