Being united to God is essential to becoming fully the person God intends each of us to be and the only way to be holy. The Church Fathers understood this well and St. Augustine, for example, referred to the capax dei, to the human capacity for God. The Greek Fathers, in particular, referred to the restoration of our image and likeness to God, described in the creation of Adam but lost by his sin, as our path to “divinization” or becoming like God through God’s grace. We were created to have a living correspondence to God rather than being the opposite of what God is.
The Cistercian Abbot, Baldwin of Ford, wrote eloquently in his Treatise on the Common Life about how we share in God’s life. Baldwin acknowledges that faith gives us true knowledge of God while reminding us, as the Fathers insisted before him, that love is also a real form of knowledge–even a deeper, more complete knowledge. Faith, hope and love are complementary perspectives, modes of perception, completing one another. As St. Paul taught so clearly in his First Letter to the Corinthians, There are three things that last, faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love. Love is genuine knowledge, if knowledge of a particular sort; it may not be directly verified by the senses and it may, at times, defy logic; nor is it geared to survival or self-promotion. Yet love is, paradoxically, the best nourishment for the true self. Unlike other ways of knowing, love originates in the will and reforms the will; love is only itself when it is freely given.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux distinguishes three kinds of relationship with God: that of the slave (bound by fear), that of the mercenary (bound by gain) and that of the bride (bound by love). Despite their qualitative contrast, they are all responses to God’s initiative; they all respond to God’s initiative of seeking us! And God seeks our love from us. As the relationship matures, the slave can change and aspire to the free love of the bride. The terminology became common currency of Christian spirituality and St. Teresa of Avila, in her Interior Castle describes a mansion beyond the mansion of the bridal relationship to God. The Seventh Mansion represents the unitive way–not two sharing love but the experience of being one that defies any human expression. Impossible to articulate but a true experience, she alludes to a creative and transformative state beyond the mind’s grasp or language’s articulation.
St. Bernard also referred to this experience as a visitation of the Word, recognized only by the Word’s absence after the experience. This unitive state is beyond our comprehension (to put it clumsily, even beyond our “experience”) but we know it happened by the emptiness we felt when it had passed. Whoever has such an experience does not doubt God; and who can be afraid after such a “taste” of God? This is knowledge of the Most Holy Trinity: the visit of the Word in the Spirit which indicates God, the font of divinity. This is the fulfillment of human life, what God has prepared for those who love him.
Such is knowledge of God. It is not unimportant for us to understand what is our goal, what is the way we are called to tread so we aren’t way-laid or lost. If we know where we want to go, we will realize when we are getting lost and seek the way back to our goal and stay the course. The “Kingdom of God” is one way of naming our goal; another is “Love”. But ultimately, we confess that the Blessed Trinity is, indeed, our life.
from a Chapter Talk by Abbot Robert, 15 June, 2014