The Inseparability of Theology and Life

Tom Norris


Lecturer in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical College of St. Patrick’s, Maynooth, Tom Norris is also secretary of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting and member of the International Theological Commission. In this article he tells what meeting the charism of unity meant for him in terms of study and the teaching of theology.

In early December 2000 there was an ‘Ecumenical School’ held at the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City near London. The subject of the weekend was the ARCIC Agreed Statement on the Church as Communion (1991). The various inputs had been prepared in an exceptional atmosphere of unity at an earlier session for the teachers of the school. I presented the theme of “God as Communion” in which I showed how the life of the Divine Persons is one of communion that Christ has brought down to earth so that it will be our life, our place, our authentic Lebensraum (living space).

The many people present who represented a wide spectrum of ecclesial communities found themselves completely at home with the theme that was presented. The impression of one lady stands out for me in a particular way. “I had always thought of the Trinity as something I was considering from the outside: now I was suddenly experiencing the Trinity from the inside. It was all so simple and so real. I understood that it isn’t enough just to love the other person, but I have to allow them to love me back and be open to receive it back. Because then our love becomes reciprocal, and if it’s reciprocal we live the life of the Trinity and we can have Jesus in our midst” [1].

This precise and recent experience is a good instance of the great surprises that have continued to cross my theological path for a quarter of a century, in fact, since I first discovered the spirituality of unity in the Focolare Movement.

But it was not always like that. In fact, in the early part of my life, and especially since I began to study theology for the priesthood in the sixties, I had begun to notice an amazing cleavage or separation: it was the separation of theology and spirituality. Later I was to read the diagnosis of Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subject, “In the whole history of Catholic Theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints [2]. The result of this separation he describes as follows, “On the one hand, the bones without the flesh, ‘traditional theology’; on the other, the flesh without bones, that very pious literature that serves up a compound of asceticism, mysticism, spirituality and rhetoric” [3].

But that was not all. Even within theology as it existed there seemed to be a certain flattening out of the content of faith. I do not mean that there was anything unorthodox or subversive of “the faith given once for all to the saints.”(Jude 3) But there was a rarefying of what was essential, an unconscious marginalisation of what was genuinely central.

I accepted with some sadness the evaluations of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar according to whom the faith life and prayer of Christians today would remain largely unaffected if the doctrine of the Trinity were to be dropped from the Church’s profession of faith in the morning! This central mystery of the faith had nothing to do with daily living, nor with the basic understanding of God in the minds of many Christians.

Was not the absolute novelty of the New Testament the revelation of the Trinity: that God the Father has blessed us with the gift of his Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit? Irenaeus of Lyons stressed the fact that the Trinity was the most concrete of religious facts: in the mission of the Son made flesh of our flesh and of the Holy Spirit sent to the apostolic community at Pentecost he saw the two arms of the Father extended towards and enfolding humankind [4]. How could such a vision of faith as it is given in divine revelation have faded to the point that it did not impinge on the everyday life of believers? How had it come about that this revelation seemed to have nothing to offer to the social, economic, political and cultural problems of our times?

For generations candidates for the priesthood had studied two tracts on the mystery of God. The one bore the title De Deo Uno, the other the title De Deo Trino. The former was the more philosophical. It concentrated principally on the proofs of the existence of God and on the divine attributes. The latter dealt with the mystery of the unity and the trinity of God employing the ‘psychological analogy’ as sketched by St Augustine and elaborated by St Thomas Aquinas. This option for the intra-personal analogy produced inevitably a theology of the Trinity that had nothing to say to our essential interpersonal and social nature.

It generated a condition of being locked into the self without any rapport with the other(s). Accordingly, the mystery of the Trinity, itself the first and primary of the mysteries, had nothing in practice to say to our essential social condition nor indeed to the living out of the greatest commandments of the Gospel. To use Pascal’s distinction, the God of the philosophers had won out against the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus Christ.
I began my theological studies when the Second Vatican Council was in progress. In the texts of the Council I read everywhere its preoccupation with the Mystery of Christ as the integrating and hermeneutical principle of the whole faith. The Church was a people made one from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, 4). The same constitution stressed the fact that “it has pleased God… to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people” (LG, 9).

In fact, the whole kaleidoscope of the Council’s constitutions and decrees is shot through with the themes of the communion and the unity that lie at the heart of divine revelation. They constitute the divine plan for humankind and history. This was the theology that jumped off the pages of the conciliar texts. I found it captivating.

And I was certain that this was the theology of the Fathers of the Church. In them one opens the Church’s youthful diary. I had read in St Augustine, “In truth, you see the Trinity if you see charity”, and also, “They are three: the lover, the loved, and love” [5].

I had read in one of the great Greeks, Gregory Nazianzen, “Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at duality, rested in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father, Son and Holy Ghost” [6]. And beginning to read John Henry Newman in the early seventies, himself “the nineteenth century Father of the Church”, I had read that it was his view that “the doctrine of Trinity is not proposed in Scripture as a mystery” [7] but rather as the form of our life with God and with one another, for all revealed truth is practical. Newman stressed, in fact, the principle that God reveals not that we should know more but that we should do better. Good theology inspires and requires good living: theology and spirituality while distinguishable are not to be separated. If they are, both are impoverished.

But where was this form of faith-life in operation? I understood that the Christian Faith had to be vigorously, indeed constitutively, communitarian if it was going to be faithful to its revealed credentials, its patristic teachers and its authoritative magisterial texts. But where was there such an expression of Christian faith-life in existence?

I looked around for the first years of my time as a priest but did not see any. I searched for a way, a spirituality to live the mystery of the Church as the Communion of the Trinity on earth gathering up the scattered children of humankind. And my searching and looking became increasingly anxious in the measure in which I realised that Jesus had raised unity and communion to the status of essential principles of pastoral fruitfulness, “By this love you have for one another all men will know that you are my disciples” (Jn 13:35). An imperative jumped up from the page, and at me: Be what you are, or else you wont’ find the fullness God wants from you. And the Church around you won’t flourish!

It was at this time that I was invited to a Focolare meeting. It was 1974, and there were about one hundred people present. They included young and old, married and consecrated, priests and lay people. I knew little or nothing about the Movement except what I had learned from a priest friend who had met with people from the movement while he was a student of philosophy in Louvain in the late sixties.

That Meeting was a new experience of God for me. The occasion impressed on my soul aspects of the Christian mystery that came like music to my inner soul. Above all, the cleavage between thinking the faith and living the faith seemed to be overcome: from the beginning to the end of those unforgettable days the guiding motto proposed to us all was, “Live that you might understand!” Here I saw the primacy of doing over speaking. I recognised in it a New Testament principle, as in the case of Jesus who first began to do and only then to teach (Acts 1:1), and who warned us that it is not those who profess the faith in words only who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but those who keep his word and put it into practice (Mt 7:21; 24-27).

And what were we asked to live? The words of Jesus in their simplicity and radicality, sine glossa. In particular, there were the words of Jesus stressing the concrete service of each neighbour, or rather of Jesus in each neighbour. And then there were the references to the presence of Jesus in so many places: Jesus in his Word, in the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and then too in the bishop, in the poor and suffering, in every suffering, in the midst of those gathered in his name (Mt 18:20).

Now I had heard of all of these presences in the course of my theological studies. The texts of the Second Vatican Council mention them all. And I had been fascinated on more than one occasion by the way one or other of them had been lived by a great friend of Christ, such as, to mention but one instance, St Francis and his love for His Lady Poverty whom he saw and served in every poor person and especially in every situation of suffering to the point of receiving the stigmata of the Crucified on his body two year before his death.

In that Meeting, however, there seemed to be a bringing together of the theological and the sanctity traditions of the Church. This explained why a Jesuit priest could share his experience to the effect that Chiara’s charism had helped him to understand St Ignatius better and the charism Ignatius had transmitted to the Jesuits and to the Church.

For a moment there was a doubt: could these be ‘freaks’? I noticed myself going to bed at night very happy and lying awake for a time wondering and thinking about what I had seen and heard and asking myself what was happening. But the next day the adventure would continue. And always I looked forward to “living”. This way of living appealed to me more and more. Any lingering doubts soon evaporated like morning dew. The wonderful atmosphere not only continued, it even deepened. Suddenly it dawned on me: Jesus is in our midst because we are united in his Name! He is the one who is enlightening us. I had seen and so I believed.

And not only that, but it suddenly occurred to me that because all the others, by living united in Gospel love and so rendering possible the presence of Jesus among us, had gained for me the grace of understanding. They had lived the reciprocity of mutual love, “the pearl of the Gospel” as John Paul II calls it. I enjoyed the light that this brought, just as promised in the gospel. They had brought me to find God in a new way. Now I understood. I experienced how living precedes speaking and for me, a theologian, this was a new and challenging goal.

Now I began to see theology in a different light. In the Irish and Anglophone worlds generally people speak of “doing theology”. The discovery of the Way of Life had suggested a set of new imperatives for that “doing” as well as providing certain new categories of theological thought. Not only was the method of theology going to be affected but also the content was going to be radically revised.

First, it was clear that how I lived as a man, a Christian and a priest was more important than what I did as a theologian. And here the words of Pope Paul VI came to mind, “Modern men and women listen to witnesses more readily than to teachers, and if they listen to teachers at all it is because they are first witnesses” [8]. This imperative meant that living the Gospel was of an importance that required living for unity in order to generate the presence of Jesus in the midst of the community. And to do this without halting not even before the mystery of the Cross. I began to realise why this was exactly the focus of St Paul who could say to the Corinthians: “When I came among you I professed to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, and also, “We are those who have the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:1-2; 16).

The category of relationship now assumed a new significance. In fact, it had become the central concern in the process of lecturing and teaching. It was more important to live for Jesus in the students than to have the most excellent themes of theology. They were my actual and immediate neighbours. Of course, the concern to serve Jesus in the students through the teaching tended almost automatically to make me pay attention both to what I taught and how I taught it.

This concern to live the faith while teaching, and in that way to give priority to relationship, naturally led on to the question of how to teach as Jesus would teach. After all, he is the only Teacher. The secret, then, is to let him be the Teacher. When I could establish this kind of relationship with the students, I noticed a “most fruitful understanding of the mysteries of faith” that the Church identifies as the goal of theology.

I also noticed that when students began to live the Gospel concretely (like the case of taking a sentence every month as in the Focolare Movement) they acquired a more direct contact with the person of Jesus. He no longer appeared as a distant founder of a religion, but a living and ever-present Lord, who can teach and correct and show the way that leads to life. And since his “Word is something alive and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12), the experiences of the various “Words of Life” turned out to be wonderful pedagogic tools.

These experiences often served to illustrate the most difficult and subtle points of doctrine and theology. They also provided the correct hermeneutical attitude towards the whole Word of God as expressed in Scripture, Tradition and the teaching of the Church.

Perhaps most significant of all, such a lively participation by the students gave to theology lectures a vibrancy and an attraction that could scarcely be attained in any other way. And I began to see anew how living the word transforms ears into eyes. I came so realise why such giants of holiness such as Richard of St. Victor and Thomas Aquinas used to say: “Ubi amor, ibi oculus”, love makes you see!

Finally, the light of the New Testament revelation that “God is love” (I Jn 4:8, 16) shone its kindly light over the component areas of theology. In a conversation – indelibly imprinted on my memory– which I had with a friend, himself a theologian, Tony Weber, shortly after discovering the spirituality, stressed the need to stamp every area of theology with the mystery of the Trinity. By this he meant that God who is both One and Three is the divine interpreter of all his own works. This led to many insights.

It is helpful perhaps to give a few examples in illustration. The ecclesiology of Vatican I and Vatican II brings up the subtle matter of the infallibility of the Pope and of the whole College of Bishops united with the Pope. Chiara Lubich, in her work, Servants of All, shows how it is best to harmonise the twofold subject of infallibility in the light of the unity and the trinity of God. “We can also think of the Church’s government as being conceived in the image of God who is one and three… The Pope calls to mind the mystery of God’s unity. The college, which consists of many people, calls to mind, by analogy, the Trinity” [9].

In the theology of the Eucharist, one sees that “the Eucharist makes the Church” (Henri de Lubac) because it makes the many to be one Body (I Cor 10:17), and also draws the many within the mystery of the Godhead who is One and Three (Jn 6:57).

Finally, in teaching the tract on Divine Revelation and its transmission, it is fascinating for students to learn that God’s self-communication to the world consists above all in the Son’s bringing into history the perichoretic love of the divine Persons. This is the very life of his homeland but it is to become our life, our very Lebensraum already now.

It was not only my method of teaching theology that changed, nor indeed the fact that the contents of theology had to be understood anew. It was my whole “doing” theology that had to be different. Theology itself had to become different. Thus I began to see that theology has to have new loci, as it were. Theology begins from within the Mystery of Christ “in whom man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and comes to share in the divine nature (Eph 2:18; 2 Pt 1:4)” [10]. Thus the “locus theologicus” (theological place) is the bosom of the Father. In fact, “no one has ever seen God. It is the only Son who is nearest the Father’s heart who has made him known” (Jn 1:18).

I had studied the theological method of Cardinal Newman and had stressed that his insight is a guide for the theologian of our times [11]. Now I realised that Christian revelation presents us with a Theologian who is the Father, a Theology who is the Word made Flesh in our history, and a Tutor in the Holy Spirit “who leads into the complete truth” (Jn 16:13).

It was imperative to make room for that Theology. How? By living the pact of mutual love so that “gathered in his name” (Mt 18:20) he would be present among us, making us become him and enlightening us.

In this way too Mariology came to have a central place. As the model of believing and pondering and putting the Word of God into practice, Mary was the Woman wrapped in the Word to the point of being the Theotokos. She was the icon for whoever would wish to receive the Word of God and transmit it faithfully by living, by teaching and by writing.

Only a week before he died, Bishop Klaus Hemmerle gave an interview on the subject of the experience of God in Chiara Lubich. He concluded a moving and most autobiographical account of his life in words with which I can identify profoundly. “This is the interesting point: Chiara has conveyed to us a school of life. This school of life, however, is also a school for theology. The result is not so much an improvement of theology, as an original theology that originates from revelation.” [12]

1 See “Ecumenism: Breaking new Ground” in New City London: January 2001, p. 16
2 See Word and Redemption, New York: 1965, p. 49
3 The Word made Flesh, p. 193
4 See Adversus Haereses, IV, 7,4; IV, 20,1; V, 1,3; V, 5,1; V, 6,1; V, 28,4
5 De Trinitate, VIII, 8,12; VII, 10,14.
6 See The Third Theological Oration, 2, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol.II, Grand Rapids and Michigan: 1974, p. 301
7 Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. I, London 1868, p. 210.
8 Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41; cf. n. 75
9 Chiara Lubich, Servants of All, London 1979, p. 98.
10 Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 2.
11 See T. Norris, The Theological Method of John Henry Newman. A Guide for the Theologian Today, Leiden: 1977.
12 “Tell me about your God”, in Being One 5 (1996), p. 20.

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