Desire and the ways to knowing God: Benedict XVI’s Paths to Faith

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent catechesis on faith have been illuminating some interesting aspects related to creation and the environment. A few weeks ago he spoke of science as a path to faith. Recently he has spoken of another path, related to creation, which can also lead us to faith: a healthy human desire. This was the theme of a recent Catechesis on faith. Here he speaks of how human beings are constant seekers, and their desire leads them to search, while never being fully satisfied. We are seekers of the Absolute. And desire well understood, leads to God and should be promoted: “Educating individuals from an early age to savor the true joys, in all areas of life – family, friendship, solidarity with those who suffer, self-denial to serve others, love for knowledge, for art, for the beauties of nature -, all this means exercising that inner taste and producing effective antibodies against the trivialization and flattening prevailing today. Adults, too, need to rediscover these joys, to desire true realities, purifying themselves from the mediocrity in which they find themselves entangled. It will then become easier to drop or reject everything that, while seemingly attractive, instead proves insipid, a source of addiction and not of freedom. And this will cause that desire for God of which we are speaking to emerge.”  The love for knowledge and beauties of nature speak to how the environmental interest of many people, and science and learning can lead to God. We must therefore be open to the dynamic of desire in the human person (1), and this opens both believers and non-believers towards a true fraternity in the quest for God (2).

1)The human experience of love has within it a dynamism that leads beyond oneself, it is an experience of a good that leads one to go out of oneself and to find oneself before the mystery surrounding the whole of existence. Similar considerations could also be made with regard to other human experiences, such as friendship, the experience of beauty, the love of knowledge: every good experienced by man reaches out into the mystery surrounding man himself; every desire that arises within the human heart echoes a fundamental desire that is never fully satisfied. Certainly, from that deep desire, which also hides something enigmatic, one cannot arrive directly at faith. Man, after all, knows well what does not satisfy him, but he cannot guess or define what would make him experience that happiness the nostalgia of which he carries in his heart. It is not possible to know God on the basis of man’s desire alone. From this point of view, the mystery remains: man is the seeker of the Absolute, a seeker who advances through small and uncertain steps.

2) In this pilgrimage, let us feel ourselves the brothers of all men, the travelling companions even of those who do not believe, of those who are seeking, of those who allow themselves to be questioned with sincerity by the dynamism of their desire for truth and goodness. Let us pray, in this Year of Faith, that God show his face to all those who seek him with a sincere heart.

In the following weeks Catechesis the Pope emphasized this human fraternity and the attitude of “gentleness and reverence” to atheism, to scepticism, to indifference to the vertical dimension, in order that the people of our time may continue to ponder on the existence of God and take paths that lead to him.” And he proposed three avenues in which people may come to know God: “I want to point out several paths that derive both from natural reflection and from the power of faith itself. I would like to sum them up very briefly in three words: the world, man, faith.” Clearly, the first one of these contains many elements pertinent to creation. The Pope called for an “attentive contemplation of creation” as an important path to faith in our times.

The first word: the world. St Augustine, who spent much of his life seeking the Truth and was grasped by the Truth, wrote a very beautiful and famous passage in which he said: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky… question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful’. Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?” (Sermo 241, 2: pl 38, 1134).

I think we should recover — and enable people today to recover — our capacity for contemplating creation, its beauty and its structure. The world is not a shapeless mass of magma, but the better we know it and the better we discover its marvellous mechanisms the more clearly we can see a plan, we see that there is a creative intelligence. Albert Einstein said that in natural law is revealed “an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection” (The World As I See It, 1949). Consequently a first path that leads to the discovery of God is an attentive contemplation of creation.

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