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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Christian Enlightenment

Nescivi – I no longer knew anything. This is the first word of the last retreat reflections Elisabeth of the Trinity would author. These words denote an experience of Christian enlightenment different from any other kind of enlightenment ever known. Faith gives us a certain but general kind of knowledge different from any natural light by which we might see things. In this kind of knowledge, love leads and understanding follows. It is the knowledge of of one moved by eros - but not simply a natural love, divine eros drives the heart. It is August 16, 1906. She is suffering from Addison’s disease and will die within three months. She is racked in pain and weakening, unable to nourish herself or sleep. She has been struggling with this illness for a year. Severe pain for long periods of time has a way of purifying what we see in life. But this kind of knowledge, the knowledge one receives by suffering chronically and acutely at a young age, is not that to which Elisabeth is trying to draw attention. Merely enduring suffering was not really the driving force of her life. What drove her more than ought else was her desire for Jesus. She was so focused on this pursuit that she even saw her illness as just one more way that she might find him. And she found him all the time, in ever new and deeper ways. Each time she found him, a new supernatural light beckoned her to seek Him even more. Nescivi, as is the case in most all her reflections, has layers of meaning. Some of these are obvious and others subtle, requiring prayerful attention to ascertain. In this case, she asserts that Nescivi is the Bride’s song in the Canticle of Canticles 6:11 and 12. If we look at the Scripture passage itself, it does not quite suggest Elisabeth's explanation. She did not have access to the actual full text of the Canticle of Canticles. Her understanding of the actual scriptural passage draws from a secondary resource: John of the Cross's poetic reinterpretation Spiritual Canticle. In the Spanish poem, more than the Scripture verse itself, nescivi expresses the effect of having encountered the Beloved. Truly meeting Jesus has the tendency of changing everything we thought we knew about life. It is not that what we knew was completely wrong. It is just that the way we knew it missed the point. We discover in a single lingering instant, He is the point. John of the Cross tries to convey the weight of this kind of encounter of Christ by poetically describing it in terms of the nuptial romantic love celebrated in the Canticle of Canticles. In this endeavor, his poem focuses on the interior movements of the Bride and the Bridegroom, the particular quality of their shared eros. After entering into a secret wine cellar to tryst with her beloved, the Bride recalls how overcome with love she was and begins to sing, “I no longer knew anything.” Elisabeth identifies with this experience. It is the music of a certain kind of knowledge, which St. John of the Cross explains, is unlike any other kind of knowledge we could ever possibly have. It is personal knowledge of Christ in which the heart leads the intellect. This loving knowledge moves our entire being, dragging the intellect with it. This knowledge is not irrational, but super-rational - something which merely human insight cannot arrive at. St. Augustine explains that it is not merely a light above our minds like oil on water—it is a participation in the light from which our intellects come. It is a kind of divine knowing in us.

When we know the Lord in this way, we no longer desire to know anything else. This encounter with Jesus is so magnificent, so absorbing that it envelops our whole existence, captivates the full capacity of our awareness. At the same time, this absorption, envelopment, and captivation deepens our uniqueness, makes us even more ourselves. If we lose ourselves, it is only so that we more profoundly find out who we really are. Elisabeth contemplated in this experience her true identity - at once particularly hers and eternally the destiny of those who love the Lord, "to be the praise of his Glory." When we are overwhelmed by the love of the Lord and in this love see who He has called us to be, we have a new supernatural kind of knowing. St. Paul calls it the renewed mind, the mind of Christ. In relation to everything we once thought was important, this kind of knowing instills a sense of not knowing anything at all. Elisabeth herself explains this experience in the words of St. Paul, "I no longer want know anything" but “to know Him.” This is different than any natural sort of enlightenment because of its particular and, at the same time, supernatural character. When the Bride encounters the Bridegroom, her particular identity is realized in their loving encounter as is the truth about the Bridegroom. By analogy, the encounter with Jesus reveals at once the truth about who he is and at the same time, the truth about the soul who encounters Him. But unlike the encounters of nuptial love, this truth does not end in death. Something about this encounter is deeper and more ancient than death itself, and reveals something that the mortal light of nature cannot see. Supernatural enlightenment, the gift of knowledge, allows us to see the world as the Risen Lord sees it - no longer subject to death but a glorious pathway to the Father's House. For Elisabeth, the source and ground of this kind of knowledge is rooted in the knowledge of Christ himself, the song that echoes in the heart of the eternal Son of the Father. No one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son reveals Him. In supernatural enlightenment, each particular human heart is known in relation to God from the perspective of Christ crucified. In turn, Jesus sees each one of us and all of us together with the eyes of his Father. Jesus knows the deep recesses of the Father's heart and suffers the Father's love for us. Christ's heart actually aches to share this love particularly and universally. Similarly, in the Father's wisdom and love, He foreknew each of us and all of us together in his Son. The Father knows how much Jesus aches for love of us. And so, the Father searches for us and waits for us in his Son. His Son is our way to Him. How do we set on this way? Accordingly to Blessed Elisabeth, we must join the music of Christ's soul - the movement of love in His heart, His divine eros must move our hearts as well. His love and confidence in the Father must become our own love and confidence. His love for the world and desire that all might have eternal life, must become the burning passion of our own hearts. When, in our own uniqueness, we imitate Christ, not only exteriorly by our efforts to love but interiorly by faith on which all real love depends, the Father is delighted because now He knows his Son in us. This delight of the Father in us is what Jesus allows us to taste when we encounter Him. As we follow Jesus in this loving kind of knowledge, paradoxically, we become more fully human, more authentically ourselves. How different this is from every other form of enlightenment where we are either absorbed into a greater reality or unmasked as a mere illusion to hide nothingness. The Father created each unrepeatable and unique human heart outside himself not so that it might be absorbed in Him, but rather that it might be loved and learn to love. Such is divine eros - the love revealed in the household of God. This is the inheritance of the saints. Elisabeth is pointing to this as she begins her reflections for the sisters of her community. This kind of enlightenment, this kind of knowledge, is the most important of all human pursuits. Without it, the true destiny of our humanity remains obscure. It lacks the certainty that only God's love can bring. How do we find this enlightenment? The passion to love God in real friendship, divine eros, is a gift. It is something to be asked for in earnest. Like a Bride, we must utilize our full human capacity, all our effort, all our might, to seek the Bridegroom - for in Christian enlightenment, the one who asks, receives; the one who seeks, finds; and the one who knocks discovers the welcoming eyes of the Lord.

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