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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Suppose we start with the sign of the cross: In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
By way of introduction, I wish to say that the retreat we are beginning, I call a theological retreat - no less - and the retreat will be on the Divine Attributes. The present conference will be to put ourselves into the context and explain what we hope to achieve during this retreat on the attributes of God.
We might begin by asking ourselves, "What is a theological retreat?" I would say a theological retreat is mainly addressed to the believing mind. Its fundamental purpose is to strengthen our virtue of faith. And the strengthening of faith means deepening our - first understanding of what we believe. Secondly, clarifying, making it more clear in our minds what we believe and why. And finally, that our faith may be more secure, more certain, more convincing to our own minds. We believe with the intellect. We may then ask ourselves: "why make a theological retreat?" Because in my judgment, there is a major crisis of faith - a crisis of faith in millions of otherwise firm believers whose faith however needs to be shored up and strengthened. Why, why do we need our faith deepened or strengthened? In order that our practice of virtue - all the virtues might be more effectively done according to the will of God. We casually speak of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. The virtue of faith is not the highest or the most sublime of the virtues we are to practice. It is however the most fundamental. In other words, our hope and our charity - indeed all the moral virtues of the Christian life are only as sound and as lasting as our faith is firm. We can so easily and familiarly talk about growing in every other virtue - humility, patience, chastity, charity - but what is the one virtue on which finally all the theological and moral virtues depend? It is FAITH! We are only as hopeful as we are faithful and we are only as charitable as our faith is strong. We might give as a secondary title for this opening conference -- my seeing our retreat - is - on the answer to the question - who is God? By way of summary, here are the five areas that we plan to cover first of all in this opening conference.
First, only God can make us happy. Second, why should we concentrate on knowing who is God? Third, where can we learn -- where should we learn more about God? Fourth, what do we mean by the Attributes of God? And finally, what is our planned procedure for all the conferences in the retreat? First statement therefore: Only God makes us truly happy - We are made by God but with the emphasis, we were made FOR God. We must therefore know, love and serve God in this life to experience peace - already now, this side of eternity. If then we know, love and serve God as we should, we shall be perfectly happy in possessing God in the life to come. I need not spend any time at all in emphasizing the absolute necessity of knowing, loving, and serving God to be happy. The only people on earth with any semblance of happiness are those who know, love and serve God. No one else is really happy. So we ask ourselves, why concentrate on knowing who is God? The reason is because our knowledge of God is the foundation of our love and service of God. Why do we concentrate on this retreat on knowing who is God? Because growth in knowledge is the precondition for growth in loving service. In my now 41 years of giving retreats, this is the first retreat that I can unabashedly call - Theological. I was asked to give a retreat on the Divine Attributes - so we are going to have a retreat on the Divine Attributes. But I have to defend giving this kind of retreat - first to my own mind. Unless, I am convinced, I will never convince anyone else. And how many times I've wished over the years that I could do what hopefully with God's grace we will do during the next week - to concentrate on the BEDROCK of the Spiritual Life - which is FAITH! And we believe with the Mind. (Oh, how pious people can be what heights of mysticism they think they are scaling, comma, poor dears!) We are only as holy as we are growing in the life and love of God only (and I repeat) only, in the depth of our Faith. To repeat: why concentrate on knowing who is God? Because sanctity begins in the mind. When Jesus, before His Passion made the memorable statement addressing his Heavenly Father: "This is eternal life, to KNOW, to know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." We go on. Where can we learn about God? On the prior assumption based on our faith that unless we know God, we will never love Him. And unless we love Him, we will not serve Him. What is the source of this indispensable knowledge which is the foundation of loving service? The first source of our knowledge of God is from the created world that He Made. That is the fundamental reason that God created the world all around us. So that by seeing this world - hear it, touching it, tasting it, feeling it, experiencing it, - Because you see, we can have eyes without seeing - (did you know that)? We can have ears without hearing. And it is God who provides the grace we need (and how we need it) to learn about Him even when He in His Divine Revelation reveals Himself. We know the Gospels too well not to know that all the contemporaries of Christ living in 1st Century Palestine did not recognize who Jesus was.
One last answer to the question "Where can we learn about God?" We can learn about God from the Church's now 19 centuries of teaching. Libraries are filled with the Doctrine of the Church on every conceivable subject. (AH!) But the one subject which the Church wants us most to learn is to know who is God.
We go on. What are the attributes of God which will be from the next meditation on the substance of our conferences? The attributes of God are those qualities which we attribute to God. The noun attribute comes from the verb attribute. None of us needless to say has yet seen God. All that we know about God, we know (even with his divinely revealed) only by comparison and contrast with the world of creatures in which we live. Very well, what is an attribute? An attribute is a quality that we assign to God, relate to God, attribute to God that reason and faith tell us belongs to God but in a way far deeper than we could ever understand by our finite minds. We know that of course in God there is no plurality of qualities. There is no variety of perfections. We speak of God as Good and Wise and Powerful and Holy and Merciful. So He is. But we know and this we presume during the whole retreat that all the qualities we attribute to God though they may be and are distinguished one from the other in our own way of thinking - there is no variety of attributes in God. In God, His Holiness is His Love. In God His Love is His Omnipotence. In God His Goodness is His Love. In God His Love is His Wisdom. Even to talk that language makes us either embarrassed if we don't understand. Don't be embarrassed. No creature understands fully and completely what we are saying. But because in our understandable folly, we try to scale God down to our size.
Nevertheless, even though there is no plurality or variety of attributes in God, for us to understand them as well as we can this side of heaven, the only language we can use if we are going to talk intelligibly about God is the language of attributing to Him perfections, in the plural which Faith tells us are all one, infinitely whole (W H O L E) in the infinite God.
Now something about our procedure in this retreat. And I think procedure or methodology, we better have. This will be needless to say a different retreat. I have my procedure divided into four parts.
Part 1: We'll explain in as much detail as in my judgment the subject requires. Explain what the Church means by each of the Divine Attributes that we will cover.
Second, apply the explanation to our spiritual life. The Divine Attributes are not only to be believed with the mind; they are to be lived out by our whole being. And in some cases, no matter what our age, we may never have seriously considered how one of the Divine attributes could possibly be put into practice by us. Well, with God's grace (and our Lord in front of you and behind me assisting), we'll do our best to apply each attribute to our spiritual life.
Third: As we go on during the retreat, I assure you this will not be a series of lectures that I can do. This is not a series of theological lectures. In the course that I have taught over the years De Deo Uno et Trino - on the One and Triune God - this will be "a retreat. Consequently, number three: we will draw some practical conclusions for our spiritual life with the view of being more generous than we have been in serving God.
Number Four: In each of the conferences, I will recommend that besides drawing some practical conclusions for the mind, we conclude with the intellect. Finally, we will make some definite resolutions with the will promising God anyone or all four of the following: promising God to reform where it is necessary second, to remove what is preventing, preventing us from serving God with our whole heart. Then, make some definite resolutions to reinforce what we have been doing well. A retreat is not only to scour the problems and the weaknesses and the sins which we are guilty. It is also to reinforce what before God we recognize with His grace, we've been doing well. But finally and most importantly, as a result of this retreat, to rededicate ourselves to the service of God.
I'd like to close with a short prayer. Lord God, I am beginning this retreat in order to know you more intimately so that I may love you more ardently, so that I may serve you more perfectly here on earth in order dear God that believing in you now on earth, my faith - I may see you and possess you securely in heaven for all eternity. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
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