Sense of Life. Articles in English. The Night of Faith Toward Union with God.
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The Night of Faith Toward Union with God

The following are excerpts from St. Edith Stein’s last book, titled The Science of the Cross, a brilliant study of the theology of St. John of the Cross.

The night of faith embraces the higher, reasoning part of our being. It is an inner experience that deprives the soul of the light of reason or rather blinds it with a dazzling light. Theologians call faith a sure but dark and enduring disposition (habitus) of the soul, a dark disposition because it bids the soul to believe in the revealed truths of God Himself, and these transcend our native lights and human understanding. Thus the superabundant light imparted to the soul in faith becomes for her a murky darkness; for, what is greater engulfs and overcomes the lesser. The sheer superabundance of light imparted by faith overwhelms the light of our reason, which by its nature seeks after natural knowledge.

Reason is able to know supernatural things when God wills to raise it to the act of knowing the supernatural. Left to its own devices, reason seeks to know natural things by ways that are native to it, i.e. through the senses, which bring the object into its ken. Thus it must receive phenomena and impressions of things as they really are or in the likeness of those things. When we hear of something we have never seen, or unlike anything we have known that might help us to know it, we can only know the name of the thing, never picture it — as with someone who is color-blind. It is similar with faith. Faith tells of things we have never seen or heard. Nor do we know anything like these things. We can only accept them in faith, extinguish the light of our natural reason, and assent to what we hear, even though the knowledge does not come to us by way of the senses. Thus, faith is a totally dark night to the soul. And yet it is precisely through this darkness that the light enters and perfects a sure knowledge that exceeds all knowledge and wisdom. Only in pure contemplation can we properly grasp the notion of faith. That is why the Prophet says: “Si non credideritis, non intelligetis” — If you do not believe, you will not understand (Isaiah 7:9).

Faith is not only a dark night; it is also a path, a way of attaining a goal — the goal sought after by a soul that seeks union with God. Only faith gives us knowledge of God. How can we unite ourselves with God, if we do not know Him? If faith is to lead to its goal, the soul must proceed in the right way. She must, of her own free will and to the extent that it depends on her, enter into the night of faith. Having in the night of the senses cut herself off from every desire for created things, she must, in order to reach God, die to her natural abilities, to the senses, and even to reason. To achieve this supernatural transformation, she must withdraw from everything that is natural to her.

Those who want to achieve union with God must believe in a God who does not fall under reason, the will, the imagination, or any of the senses. God cannot be known in this life. Even the most sublime experiences and intuitions of Him fall infinitely short of the One He really is — infinitely short of possessing Him. Those who would, while still in this life, unite themselves through grace with the One to Whom they are to be joined in glory in the future life — a life, which in the words of St. Paul, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9; Isaiah 64:3- 4)) — those who would do this, must grow as insensitive as possible to all that the eye, the ear, the imagination, and the heart can perceive. Those who rely on their own powers create only hardship and obstacles for themselves.

Departing from one’s own way means embarking on the true path. To reject our own way is already to arrive at the Goal Without Limits — which is God Himself. The soul attaining to this state does not have her own way, nor is she bound to it; indeed, she may not bind herself. We are talking here about a special way of understanding, a special way of sensing and experiencing. The soul possesses everything at once — like someone who, having nothing, has everything. Stepping out of her natural internal and external limitations, the soul enters into the limitlessness of the supernatural, in which there are no particular ways, since the supernatural essentially embraces everything. The soul must rise above everything that is able to comprehend and know by way of the mind and senses. The greater value she attaches to that which is comprehended, the more she distances herself from the highest Good. Conversely, the soul that regards the comprehensible as nothing in comparison with the greatest Good quickly — even though she remains in darkness — approaches union with God through faith.

To clarify his point, the Saint explains briefly what he means by unification with God. Here he is referring not to God’s substantial union with created nature, by which He keeps all things in existence, but to “the soul’s absorption and transformation into God through love.” Such a union takes place only when the soul comes to be like God in love. The former union is natural; the latter is supernatural. Supernatural union takes place when the will of the soul and the will of God merge into one, so that the one can in no way be opposed to the other. Thus when the soul rejects absolutely everything that is irreconcilable with the will of God, she becomes one with God through love. Here it is not only a matter of individual acts of opposition regarding God, but also of every disposition that is contrary to Him. Since no created being, no creaturely activity or ability can attain to the essence of God, the soul must strip herself of every created thing, of every one of her inherent abilities and aptitudes. Only then can her transformation into God be achieved. God’s light already dwells naturally within her, but for the soul to be shot through with light and transformed into God, she must for His sake empty herself of everything that He is not — and that is called love! God imbues the soul with His own supernatural being to the extent that she seems to be like God, possessing what attributes He Himself possesses.

So complete is this union “that everything which God and the soul possess becomes one in a shared transformation. Then the soul seems more like God than a soul.” Indeed, she is God, by partaking of His divinity, even though despite the transformation, she keeps “her natural existence which remains quite separate from God’s.”

Excerpts taken and translated from Edyta Stein,Wiedza Krzyza, Krakow, 2005, pp. 108-113; see also Josephine Koeppel’s English translation of Edith Stein’s masterpiece: The Science of the Cross, Washington, D.C. ICS Publications, 2002.

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