In eighth-grade science you took apart a flower and then labeled the parts: pistil, stamen, petal. But did the flower remain? You can stretch definitions and say, yes, the sum of these parts is the flower. It would not, however, be the single chrysanthemum of the corsage you gave the girl you took to the September junior prom. It did not have the same meaning in the lab that it had on the dance floor, where it was a sign to match her evening of beauty. In the lab it was an object of dissection; on her gown it was a sign of affection.
Theology is roughly analogous to this distinction. Throughout history there have been theologians who grindingly tried to define God down to every last thinkable thought, and the end result may be loss rather than gain. In the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas, for all the great work he did in trying to comprehend every aspect of God in being and behavior, so to speak, reputedly said at the end of his life, “it was all straw.” This does not mean that Aquinas is unworthy of study; many continue to study his work and the twentieth century saw a revival, called appropriately Neo-Thomism. For many students, however, Aquinas lacks one crucial approach in his work: wonder and awe.
On the other hand, look at St. Gregory of Nyssa, fourth century theologian whose take was different. For St. Gregory, God and beauty were intertwined. He was awed by God and so his approach stressed mystery. For him, beauty and mystery were also intertwined. This approach enabled him to realize that we could never comprehend God, never wrap our arms around a definition of God, because there is never an end to our appreciation of beauty. If we approach God through beauty, then we are always on an uphill path to see more and more of this beauty which is never-ending in this life and, who knows, might extend into any life beyond. In order to do so, however, we have to see beauty. And that requires additional steps.
This pathway to God by way of beauty may be seen in another group of theologians, who lived in Syria and other parts of the near east in those early centuries. Their approach to theology was to write poetry. Ah! For St. Ephraim of Syria, for example, the only way to get to God seems to be through metaphor, simile, image and symbol. These people understood intuitively that God cannot be dissected, labeled, and defined but must be approached through reverent contemplation. They saw the chrysanthemum and not its individual parts.
Evagrius of Pontus, one of those eastern thinkers of the fourth century, said in his Treatise on Prayer, “If you are a theologian you will pray truly. If you pray truly you will be a theologian.” Prayer? Beauty? What do these have to do with each other?
Only this: recall the poetic approach of these thinkers. Poetry is a way to describe your world and yet remain in awe and wonder. Just like those theologians. And at the heart of this awe and wonder is the simple, yet profound, act of paying attention. Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “I don’t know what prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass…” You can see the twinkle in her eye the same way you can see it in Ephraim the Syrian or Evagrius of Pontus. This is prayer. This is theology. Pay attention!