Sense and Nonsense: The Divine Brevity

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In his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, the African bishop St. Cyprian asks, “Why does the fact that God has taught us such a prayer as this astonish us?” Cyprian figures that Christ did not want “His disciples to be burdened by memorizing His teaching.” With this famous prayer, He stated the basics, something that could be learned easily by anyone, however busy or simple. What is it that we need to know? To answer this question, Cyprian cites John: “And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.” Emphasizing the conciseness of what is taught in the Lord’s Prayer, Cyprian adds: “[Christ] summarized His teaching on the mystery of eternal life and its meaning with an admirable, divine brevity.”

Needless to say, I quite like that terse phrase, the “divine brevity.” Scripture, of course, is full of such pithy words that go right to the heart of things. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” “My Lord and My God.” “Follow Me.” “Holy, Holy, Holy.” What are the creeds, after all, but the effort of the Church to condense and to state as precisely and as carefully as possible what it is that we need to hold? We are given minds to know the truth of things—including, or especially, divine things—but of these latter, we first need to be taught. What divine things are, we do not make up ourselves out of our own heads.

We do not always have time for a full explanation of everything. Even worse, we like to think that we do not have to consider ultimate things. This justifies our intellectual laziness or covers over our skepticism or our sins. Nonetheless, a healthy instinct looks for the briefest statement of all that is. What is striking about the human intellect, that power by which we know all things, is its ability to get to the essence of things while not ignoring the incredible particularity in which what exists is found before us.

Now, I am not one of those who use the “divine brevity” to excuse us from considering what I will call the “divine totality.” The divine brevity implies that we have much to do and know just to survive. But concentrated attention on immediate things, this brevity of statement is only needed as a temporary first step. Eventually, we want to know everything in an orderly fashion. All particulars lead us beyond ourselves without denying themselves.

 

Recently, I read an essay about Graham Greene who, at one point in his life, was wont to contrast “belief” and “faith.” It was as if he wanted to know the divine brevity but not the divine totality. We know the divine brevity precisely that we might be led to the divine totality, the divine abundance—the divine “superabundance,” a word found in Aquinas. Whenever the divine brevity is used in opposition to the divine totality, we are in trouble. To put it succinctly, the Nicene Creed is amazingly brief, while the Summa Theologiae, at 4,006 large pages, is amazingly profuse, total, abundant. The smallest thing surely leads us to the greatest.

The fact is that, in terms of many words, we do not need to know much to be saved. Yet what we need to know, in its most brief statement, implicitly contains everything: to know the Father and Him whom He sent. But it is a very jaundiced view of the Faith to want to pit its marvelous brevity of statement of the Godhead and His mission in this world against the divine completeness to which this same brevity points. The fact is that we are made in time for eternity. Vita breve is itself ordained to vita aeterna.

We are justified by faith from which our deeds should flow. “Eternal life is to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.” Such is the divine brevity, in case we have no time for memorizing anything else.

Fr. James V. Schall

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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