The Interior Life

To speak of Catholic education is to acknowledge, for one thing, a specific telos to education, and, for another a distinctive tradition. The recognition of that telos is, of course, shared by other believers. It consists in the awareness that the grave is not the end of man, that man is called to a life in union with the divine, a life, whatever else it might be, consisting primarily in a knowledge and love of God. Acknowledgment of this transcendent end colors the whole of education. At no stage is ultimate fulfillment confused with terrestrial happiness.

The distinctive feature of Catholic education is the Catholic tradition itself, a very complex tradition spanning two thousand years of history. One need only enter the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan to have the historical asserted. There, under the high altar, lie the remains of Ambrose who died in 397, accompanied by the remains of Saints Gervase and Protase, both first-century martyrs.

Physical continuity is a visible reminder of intellectual inheritance. Ambrose taught Augustine and Augustine taught the West. The Fathers, no less than the Greeks and Romans upon whom they drew, were concerned with education. From Augustine’s De Magistro to Newman’s Idea of a University, one can find dozens of books, some of them Christian and literary classics, which speak to the aims of education. In common they recognize that the end of life is contemplation and that the road to the Beatific Vision requires a kind of interiority even in the midst of the crassest temporal pursuits. What follows are reflections on what I take to be the features and conditions of this “interior life.”

By the interior life, I mean the life of the intellect, but the life of the intellect under certain conditions: the intellect drawing upon its experience of the present, on experience understood and interpreted within the context of an appropriated past, but future oriented in a movement whose ultimate end is nothing less than self-fulfillment. Christ himself is the model. In teaching he appealed to common sense and built upon the inherited. Christ came to proclaim a new law but in doing so was respectful of the best of ancient codes. He drew upon his listeners’ grasp of nature’s laws, and on that foundation taught those things that unaided intellect alone could not fathom. His disciples found him credible. When St. John Chrysostom sought an empirical proof for the existence of God, he found it in the splendor of the Church. The evidence which he found compelling came from the fact that the Church in its teaching appealed to noble and low, rich and poor, learned and not, and had by that teaching in a brief span succeeded in transforming the lives of individuals and nations for the better. An institution which produced such good effects, thought Chrysostom, could only have a divine origin.

Three things I wish to underscore: the requirement of critical intelligence, the need for learning, and the need for the Church. Unaided intelligence will not suffice. Isolated from tradition and from community it will become as sterile as Hume’s believer, sequestered in a private meditation for a moment in the confines of his study. Just as a knowledge of the practical arts is required for success in most of life’s activities, so too in matters of religious activity learning is required. It would be foolish to proceed as if God and the way to God were unknown. Religion is a communal activity. The acknowledgment of God’s existence, the acknowledgment of man’s debt to Him, and an awareness of the propriety of paying that debt are communal affairs. Awareness of the need to worship is found wherever men are found. Piety is thus a natural virtue. “Spirituality” is but a term for the lifting of intellect and will to things divine. It is a habit of referral, grounded in contemplation, a habit of understanding things in the light of their finality.

The love of God requires some knowledge of God. No one can love an unknown God. God has to be present in some manner before his goodness can command the volitional act. Awareness is the result of some act on our part, the result of our attentiveness to a witness, be it oral or written. The normal channel of awareness is parental teaching reinforced by formal education. Formal education can carry us to the heights of theological speculation, but the basic truths which ground appreciation are simple and are available to the whole of mankind. There are degrees of knowledge and there are degrees of appreciation. Natural knowledge is complemented by revelation, and he who hears and is privileged to possess the best of human knowledge can advance without limit. Development is open-ended. Like science, the augmentation of a knowledge of things divine profits from concerted effort. Rational disputation is social. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila were learned people. They made use of both native intelligence and education to ferret out the secrets of the divine.


The interior life is not to be confused with a life of introspection. The latter is fraught with danger. Self-questioning, which leads to a constant scrutiny of motives, to a perpetual assessment of goals, can distract one from the proper task. Introspection can generate unhappiness and dissatisfaction. One may object that there can be no progress unless one is dissatisfied with one’s self. Did not Socrates proclaim as much? With the interior life, as with all things, there is a knowable objective order to which one must conform if one is to be successful. One need not begin as if human nature first came into being with one’s self.

The interior life is the life of the mind in the context of divine revelation buttressed by centuries of ecclesiastical teaching. That life of the mind is object-directed even in the depths of its interiority. It seeks, as Socrates taught, a tripartite wisdom: a knowledge of one’s self in the light of self, a knowledge of one’s self in the light of nature, and a knowledge of one’s self in the light of God. It proceeds with confidence that there is objective knowledge about human nature, about the material order, and about God. To know who one is, is first to identify with mankind, while recognizing the vagaries of inheritance, chance, custom, and geographic setting. One’s possibilities and limitations can only be assessed in context. That context includes nature. Avila is not the Grand Meteora. Other things must be borne in mind: intelligence is not evenly distributed; nor are health, nervous constitutions or other physical traits which influence behavior.

Man, while rational, is an animal. The great rule-givers in the history of Western monasticism recognized that and provided accordingly. Only so much can be tolerated by the human body without psychic damage. What is possible and what is not is, after centuries of experience and reflection, knowable. If one is not to go it alone, one has to appropriate this knowledge through study. Given man’s discursive mode of intelligence, study is necessarily protracted. If knowledge of nature is difficult, how much more is a knowledge of God. With respect to nature, human nature, and God there are sciences with principles, methodologies, and laws which demand recognition. These principles and laws, once acknowledged, begin to control. Where an over-zealousness might prevail they mitigate excessive bodily deprivation; they prevent flights of fancy in divine meditation. While we may be amused by tales of Don Giovanni arguing with the Crucified Christ about his problems with the Communist mayor, we would not take the fictional priest as an example to be followed in ordering our interior life.

The contemplative mind is a discursive mind. It combines and divides and proceeds from one judgment to another. It feeds off experience, its own and what it knows of the experience of others. When it takes God as its object, it focuses most often upon the person of Christ. The life of Christ is available to all, from the child who may be taken with the Infant Jesus in the manger, or with the boy-Christ, to the sage who has the benefit of centuries of meditation upon the divine Incarnation. To think about things divine we need our images. The public life of Christ supplies an object, a focus of the imagination as well as a fount of learning. His teaching and his person co-mingle into an awesome whole. But Christ has to be understood within the context of a triune God, a creating, begetting, bequeathing God who not only gave us his Son but a Church infused with his Spirit. Unaided imagination without the teaching of the Church cannot fully grasp the significance of the man from Galilee. That teaching itself is not ready-made but requires the efforts of the wisest of men, adjudicated by the successors of the apostles. Without the authoritative influence of the Church the all too fallible intellect can go astray.

Perhaps no one was more aware of this than the great Origen, who wrote: “I want to be a man of the Church. I do not want to be called by the name of some founder of a heresy, but by the name of Christ, and to bear that name which is blessed on the earth, it is my desire, in deed as in spirit, both to be and to be called a Christian.” Origen, who was certainly one of the greatest theologians of his day, a man who inspired Jerome and Ambrose, also had a realistic appreciation of the limited role of the theologian in the Church: “If I [he says] who seem to be your right hand and am called a presbyter and seem to preach the word of God, if I do something against the discipline of the Church and the rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, the Church, then may the whole of the Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and throw me away.”

What makes a theology useful to the believer is that it is grounded in a shared insight. Theologies can be plural. The Church, though it has recommended some, does not adjudicate between theologies; the propositions which they engender, yes. It can say, in effect, “such teaching is consistent with the tradition,” or conversely, “such teaching is deficient; examine your premises, and your arguments.” The starting point of theology is propositions given on the side of faith. But what one makes of those propositions is determined by the philosophical intelligence one brings to their explication. Theologies differ because philosophies differ. There can be a plurality of roads to the same affirmation, but usually not. If one believes that philosophy is a science one must believe that theology is a science. From agreed upon data, whether garnered by faith or reason, the conclusions flow. As long as the discourse is straight, and all parties are talking about the same thing, arguments can be checked for accuracy.

The discursive intelligence of the theologian, sometimes the poet/theologian, grounded as it is in Sacred Scripture and in its knowledge of nature can lead the contemplative mind along fruitful paths and to the heights of human insight. God’s grace and special intervention may produce that infrequent special witness we call the “mystic.” Some spiritual writers say all are called to the mystical life, but none say, to the same degree. We appreciate to the extent that our natural light and learning permit. The child with all his might can love the Crucified Christ and the intensity of his love may never be surpassed in later life, but the object of that love will grow with the understanding that comes with effort and with maturity. To remain childlike in matters of faith is to retain the intensity of love while expanding its object. The hound of heaven pursues endlessly throughout temporal life. The chase ends only when the pursued has been admitted to the Beatific Vision.

It is sometimes said that the God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but this remark fails to acknowledge a vast difference between philosophies. Certainly the God of the philosopher Aquinas is compatible with the God of Revelation. The same could be said for the philosophical God embraced by the Fathers and of that subscribed to by nearly all of the medieval doctors. One may not recognize the God of Alfred North Whitehead or of Charles Hartshorne in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. It is evident that not all philosophy will be of assistance to the believer as he seeks to know better the object of his quest. God has revealed himself in the Sacred Scriptures but he remains an elusive God nevertheless. The Scriptures are full of contradictions and ambiguities which beg for the clarifying light of reason.

There is an interesting reciprocity here. What we make of reason or intellect is settled on the philosophical side. And whether we confidently accept the conclusions of philosophy or look upon them as illusory determines, first of all whether we are open to Christianity, and then the kind of Christianity we embrace. The difference between Catholicism and much of Protestantism is determined by what is made of classical learning. A Von Harnack and his contemporary counterparts such as Leslie Dewart and Paul van Buren will decry the Hellenization of Christianity. Luther and Calvin both embraced a doctrine of the fall that lessened their confidence in natural intelligence. Both thought a natural theology impossible and were untroubled because they thought it unnecessary. For Luther and Calvin, faith is completely gratuitous; there is no rational preamble. In the words of Kierkegaard, “faith is a leap into the dark.”

Catholic spirituality centers on the Eucharist, but it doesn’t begin there. What one thinks when one is on one’s knees before the Eucharist depends on what one brings to the occasion. That one is upon one’s knees before the tabernacle is the result of the assent given to a series of propositions which the believer holds to be true, namely that God is, that God is the creator of the universe, that man fell and was redeemed by the sacrificial act of the God-man, Christ, that Christ founded a church and gave to it a priesthood with awesome power, including the power to consecrate. That bread becomes the body and blood of Christ requires the co-action of man and God. That all of this makes sense to the believer is due to a certain education, if you will. That these doctrines can be held by a rational person is due to the fact that they are consistent with experience and reason. The claim that Christ came in the fullness of time is not without justification. The intellect of the then civilized world had been prepared by centuries of Greek and Roman learning.

Reflecting on early Christian conceptions of learning, we find it interesting to note that St. Benedict in composing his Rule had little to say about spiritual life, but it is clear that his Rule is designed to make that life possible. Benedict’s asceticism is tempered compared to that of the Desert Fathers or to that of the Celts. It is an asceticism within the reach of a much greater number, largely because Benedict recognized the role which community plays in shaping the individual. A high priority is assigned to communal reading; table reading is, in fact, mandatory. Its end is the promotion of the interior life. Each monastery is to have a library and an archive; chronicles are to be kept. Within Benedict’s own lifetime, monasteries became centers of learning, and were soon famous for their scriptoria where the classics of antiquity were copied for posterity. The librarian is specifically enjoined by the Rule to acquire new works.

This attitude toward learning had important and lasting effects. The great monasteries became the cultural centers of Europe. Independent schools emerged in the abbeys, each seeking to outrival the others by increasing its library, by attracting professors of renown, and by drawing students to its intellectual tournaments. These schools promoted the study of the sciences and were to create a legion of remarkable theologians, philosophers, lawyers and scientists. We need but cite the schools of Cluny, Citeaux, Bec, Aurillac, St. Martin, and St. Omer. A roll call of the leading scholars of the age, from Gregory through Bede, Lanfranc, and Anselm, would name the abbots of many of those monasteries. The twelfth-century Benedictine, Bernard of Clairvaux, became an author almost against his will when monks clamored for the text of his homilies. His books and monographs grew out of lectures recorded by fellow monks who circulated them sometimes without his knowledge and often without his editorial scrutiny. A Brother Godfrey asks him to write about the virtue of humility and the result is De Gradibus Humilitatis. Those books are part of our intellectual and spiritual heritage. With Sertillanges we can say, “Contact with genius is one of the choice graces that God grants to humble thinkers.” But the availability of this heritage is not to be taken for granted. Alternative conceptions of the religious life militate against it.

The nineteenth century Protestant theologian, Albrecht Ritschl, reminds us of important differences between the traditional Catholic mind and the spirit of the Protestant Reformers. Of Protestantism he says, “Essentially a religion of action, (it) is hostile to both monasticism and asceticism. Abandoning the contemplative ideal, it substitutes in its place the standard of practical moral duty.” This difference in emphasis is frequently overlooked by contemporary Catholic thinkers who have themselves substituted social work and counseling for theological inquiry and contemplation. Who has not heard it said, “What men think about God is of little importance as long as they live up to their social and moral ideals”? Contrast that if you will with the dictum of St. Bonaventure, “If you wish to contemplate the invisible traits of God insofar as they belong to the unity of his essence, fix your gaze upon Being itself.” For many, belief and theology are no longer the central features of the religious life. Almost without notice religion has degenerated into a man-centered enterprise of moral concern and healing.

It should never be forgotten that the primary aim in making life comfortable for others is to enable them, too, to lead the interior life. The greatest service which we can render others is to introduce them to the storehouse of Christian wisdom which gives life meaning. The pursuit of that wisdom is compatible with the acquisition of those skills which enable the subject through his labor to transform materials into economic resources. The impulse to beneficence has to be rightly directed. The active life is rudderless without the contemplative mind at its helm. We should never allow a false ecumenism to blur contradictory modes of approach. There are real differences between a Catholic outlook and a Protestant or secular perspective. As Sertillanges reminds us, “The choice of an intellectual father is always a serious thing.” Respect for the contemplative life, whether it be led within the distracting chaos of urban life or within a secluded cloister in the countryside is a distinguishing mark of the Church. If indeed the contemplative way has been neglected in favor of an active life and one pursued largely for material goals, then the Bernards and Theresas among us ought to speak. No matter life’s fortunes, there is available to all that serenity which comes with contemplation and adoration before the Eucharist, and this ought to be said, and often.


  • Jude Dougherty

    Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...