Dr. Alice von Hildebrand Faith: key to mystery

Dedicated to Ed and Alice Ann Grayson

When aged eleven, I read Pascal’s Pensees for the first time, I was particularly struck by one sentence – among many others – in which this noble thinker declares man to be the most wonderful object in nature. God’s creation is indeed incredibly rich and mysterious, but why should Pascal claim that man is the most amazing of them all?  Life has taught me how right he was.

I shall make a modest effort to shed some light on this claim.
Genesis tells us that man is the only creature mentioned in this sacred book that is made to God’s image and likeness. The admirable variety of animals, beautiful as they are, have not received this privilege. But the mystery that is man is clearly referred to when God tells us that he formed Adam’s body from the slime of the earth – a very modest material – but then gave him an immortal soul, a purely spiritual substance that has none of the characteristics of matter.  It has no color, no weight, does not occupy space, to mention some of the most prominent. In other words, man is made up of two radically different substances which, nevertheless, are so closely united in him that they are one: to be a human being is to have a soul animating a body.

When we compare man with the most perfect animals – namely mammals – we immediately perceive that similar as they seem to be, this very similarity hides abysmal differences which lazy philosophers (i.e. materialists) deny for the sake of convenience. Clearly attracted by the law “of the least intellectual effort”, they reduce every phenomenon to matter. Materialism claims that whatever exists is essentially measurable and related to space. Thought is a product of the brain; as a matter of fact, its relationship to the brain can be likened to the relation between urine and the kidneys (Max Stirner). What we call intelligence is only a more subtle form of instinct, and as Falstaff stated emphatically, “Instinct is a great thing.” A consequence of this “philosophy” is that death is the terminal end of human existence. To die is “to cease to be” as John Keats poignantly feared in one of his poems.  On the other hand, materialists, convinced as they are that science and science alone can solved all questions, tell us that sooner or later, it will solve all the problems of man’s existence. They give their disciples some glimmer of hope that one day, man will be able prolong life indefinitely. Science will conquer death. Materialists emphatically deny the immortality of the soul while prophesying the possible “immortality” of matter. One thing is certain: science has already taught us how to destroy the world.  If man cannot as yet say “be” and bring new beings into existence, it now definitely can say: “be not” and reduce our material world to dust and ashes.

That very many men, quite independently of any religious belief, were convinced of the immortality of the soul, is a fact that cannot be denied. But the question they face is not easy to answer.

If man’s soul is not affected by the death of the body which, soon after its demise, is reduced to a handful of dust, how can we claim that man is a person made up of body of soul? The body, then at best, should be viewed as an uncomfortable shack in which we live for a while, and for which we are, one day, gleefully liberated. It was St. Paul who exclaimed: “Who will rescue me from this body which is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24). In her admirable auto biography, the heroic St. Teresa of Avila speaks eloquently of the burden that her body was for most of her life. Except for moment of extraordinary graces, she makes it clear that it was her daily enemy. Those who have experienced excruciating pains testify that they can lay such a burden on their soul that suicide is very tempting. We fear death, and yet there are many, as proven by the popularity of assisted suicide, who now view it as a lesser evil. “Modern” man is convinced that it is his divine right to freely choose the moment of his death. For if he cannot choose the day of his conception and of his birth, he has now discovered that he has the right to choose the day of his demise.

That the soul is immortal has not only be defended by great thinkers such as Plato (Phaedo), but is also taught by our faith, in the amazing dogma of the resurrection (one is almost tempted to say: “re- creation”) of the body. But before this amazing event takes place, the fact remains that there are billions of souls whose body is reduced to ashes, but who still ARE. Let us think of those bodies “pulverized” by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Where are their ashes? That one day, body and soul will be reunited after thousands of years of radical separation, is an abysmal mystery; some “readjustment” seems to be called for.

Not only is the existence of the soul not affected by the death of the body to which she was so closely linked for many years, but at the very moment of death, she is judged by God, and is either saved or condemned for ever. Let us assume that a St. Therese of Lisieux, having achieved a high degree of holiness, went straight to Heaven, without spending a single minute in Purgatory, she immediately received her reward: to contemplate God for ever. Tasting the ineffable blessing of enjoying eternal beatitude, how can she possibly miss her body?

The immortality of the soul raises the following question: granted that to claim that man is only a soul, temporarily imprisoned in a body – the key thesis of Gnosticism – should be  thrown out of court as a grave error called “dualism” (Descartes is viewed as one of the main culprits),  the fact remains that body and soul can be separated for thousands and thousands of years (let us think of Adam and Eve) and that during these long years, the soul is unaffected in its existence, this fact challenges us to raise the question whether there is another meaning to the word “dualism” which is not a denial of  man’s nature, but a “mystery.”

The deepest and greatest wish of every human being should be to be united to God forever, to contemplate His Infinite perfection and beauty, and to sing His praise: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” (St. Augustine, Confessions, 1:1) But if this union can be achieved before the resurrection of the body how can the soul “miss” her earthy companion?  If she does miss it, her “beatitude” cannot as yet be called beatitude. But she does not, how can one claim that man is essentially made up of body and soul while claiming that the soul can be totally happy separated from her body? I once wrote that when the body dies, the soul is “widowed.” But any loving widow keeps longing for the blessed moment when she will be reunited with the one who was her great human love.

Now we see why “dualism” can be an intellectual temptation. Let me repeat:  if the soul can enjoy beatitude while her body is reduced to dust, can one claim that man is essentially both body and soul? If the soul cannot be fully happy as long as her body (from which she has possibly be separated for thousands of years) is no longer a human body, then how can one claim that at the moment of death, she shall be judged and either be united to God in a way that was not possible on earth, or condemned to the darkness of hell?

Is it not daring to try to find a satisfactory answer to this question? One thing I do know: one of the great dangers of “intellectuals” is to assume that with time, there is no question that the human mind cannot solve, thanks to “research.”

But those whose intelligence has been watered by humility, will have no difficulty acknowledging that there is such a thing as “mysteries” and faith is rich in mysteries. How very right Kierkegaard was when he claims that one should read the Bible “on one’s knees.” In the Divine Comedy (Purgatorio) Dante wisely hints at the fact that there are questions that human beings cannot answer to their satisfaction. (Purgatorio, III:37-39). The age of faith was blessed for it taught men how to come out of the dark den of ignorance and prejudice. The “Enlightenment”, on the other hand, sings the praise of those who having chosen to go back to the dark den, light a candle, and are acclaimed as liberators. The tragic lack of wisdom of rationalists is to flatly deny the existence of what their crippled understanding cannot understand.

We need the help of the supernatural, the very backbone of faith. Intellectual humility is the door to wisdom. Pride has a blinding effect on our limited human mind. Humility opens our eyes to mystery, and to accept the reality of mysteries alone can clear our human vision affected by intellectual cataracts.

We should hold fast to two truths which arrogant rationalism cannot combine: the essential union of body and soul, and the fact that the soul survives the death of the body.

Faith is the science of mystery and one of the most mysterious one, is “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” But one thing is certain, the resurrected body of those that are saved, will no longer be enslaved by matter. I will be “spiritualized,” and will rise from death with luminous brightness, impassibility that is it will  no longer subject to suffering, will be  characterized by agility, enabling it to traverse space in the twinkle of an eye, and  by “subtlety”  that is totally unimpeded in its course by the thickness of matter.

It was, I believe, St. Teresa of Avila who during one of her ecstasies, was given such an insight into the mystery of the Holy Trinity that its divine reality became luminous to her, even though no human word could communicate what she had been favored to see. Faith and humility are intimately connected, and he who is blessed by having responded to God’s grace will grow new organs:  new eyes, new ears, and a sensitivity to perfumes that only holiness is given to enjoy. Indeed, it is said in the book of Revelation 21:5, "I am making all things new."

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