Identity and Ideality

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On November 15, 2013, Fr Philip Cleevely made the following chapter address to the community.

Converso society’, writes Rowan Williams, ‘ would be interested in value, weight, meaning beyond the realm of social appearance, which tells us something of why New Christians showed interest in radical religious movements that stressed interior truthfulness and purity, and the conflict between inner promptings and the social networks of convention.’ A little later on, concerning Teresa of Avila in particular, Williams suggests that ‘reading her work as a whole, we can see how the experience of impurity and dishonour itself becomes the keystone of a recovery of certain aspects of the primitive Christian story and proclamation no less radical than that of her reforming contemporaries in Northern Europe.’

Williams’ analysis is suggestive in all kinds of ways, but there are two on which I’d like to focus. 

The first is this. Humanly-speaking, we do not come to God or stay with Him by completing impersonal cycles of reasoning, but rather in the emergent, unfinished character and circumstances of our selves and our lives. And theologically-speaking, too, this is how God draws us. His grace takes root and unfolds in the self-moving yet profoundly interdependent, more or less coherent, more or less troubled terrain of contingent human identities, not in the realm of what Newman somewhere calls ‘bloodless ideality’. 

The second point is this. ‘Bloodless ideality’ is not without its attractions. In particular, it remakes us in the flattering posture of disengaged cognitive and affective mastery, on the one hand, and then as purely spiritually focussed, and therefore socially, culturally and historically undifferentiated, recipients of grace, on the other. Who might not succumb? But if we look instead at what Newman calls ‘living and breathing men…persons…invested with personal attributes and a character of their own, and peculiarities of habit and feeling such as belong to [one] and not to another’, then we find something very different. There is neither idealized mastery nor idealized passivity, but the kind of thing to which Williams draws our attention: we find, that is, highly situated or contextualized forms of experience, fertile, ambivalent and hardly ever fully grasped, which Newman often refers to as Faith’s antecedents. 

He is thinking of such widely-ramified characteristics as a man’s ‘likings and dis-likings‘, his ‘hopes and opinions‘, what he thinks probable or improbable, and also whatever arouses in him ‘reverence‘ or ‘suspense‘ or ‘misgivings‘. Invoking such antecedents seems, in fact, very well suited to unpacking what Williams points to as the impact of the predicaments of converso society upon Teresa’s reforming vocation. That vocation is of course a grace, but that does not require us to deny that it has, as it were, a natural history or genealogy. Part at least of that gets recounted in how Teresa’s converso ambivalence aroused and nourished her ability to imagine and retrieve radical ways of being Catholic. Her grace, then, is essentially embedded in dismantling and reconfiguring historical experiences of inclusion and repudiation, and an overcoming of their mystification, so easily internalized, through historically particular narratives of impurity and dishonour. Here is what Newman calls an historical perspective on the workings of grace, as opposed to perspectives which are dogmatic or (as in conventional hagiography) merely documentary.

If only because of our emphasis on confession and various forms of spiritual direction, I think it may be characteristically Oratorian to be, as it were, inward with antecedents. In Newman’s conception, they are not antecedent only to the beginnings of believing, but around them Faith not only begins, or fails to begin, but also unfolds, or else recedes. Antecedents are socially, culturally and historically mediated expressions of individuality, of what Newman called character or personality. They constitute a kind of subjective economy in the orders of both nature and grace. Through them we are able both to imagine and to receive forms of life, ways of living, which promise, as we might put it, to make sense of us. We cannot say what this making sense could be, without reference to our concrete particularity. ‘To do justice to a Saint’s acts’, Newman writes, ‘we must know the Saint himself’; and more concretely, he says that ‘the lights and shades of the saintly character, of the individual saint, are necessary for understanding what a Saint is [and what he does]’. We should add that they are also necessary for having some grasp of Who God is and what He does, when He calls men and women into the vast and encompassing objectivity of His pattern of redemption and sanctification.