Vocation and Ecstasy
“Vocation calls for response which, in one effort to surmount self, hears and consents” (xxi). Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
I want to take a pause from reflecting on what Sertillanges has to say about reading and loop back to the beginning of the book and draw out some of his thoughts about the intellectual life itself and in particular the summons to the intellectual life. His thoughts on vocation are interesting in themselves, but what I find most fascinating is the way he consistently discusses vocation and ecstasy together. For him they are twined themes because both are a summons for the self to move outside the self. To answer the call, to respond to vocation, one must move beyond the self, and this is literally the nature of ecstasy, ek-stasis, the self moving out of the self toward the object of desire, in this case Truth. The pursuit of truth is the telos of the intellectual life, and from Sertillanges’ point of view, whether one is a theologian or a physicist, both are after the same thing, Truth with a capital T. And this quest for truth is not simply one of duty but one of delight as well. As he puts it, “Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy; only in the second place does the talent of arrangement, the technique of transitions, connection of ideas, construction, comes into play. Now, what is this ecstasy but a flight upwards, away from self, a forgetting to live our own poor life, in order that the object of our delight may live in our thought and in our heart?” (xix).
One reason I’m interested in this idea is because in my doctoral research I’m looking at some of the things Hans Urs von Balthasar has to say about ecstasy as it relates to beauty. Ecstasy, ek-stasis, as I said requires the movement of the self out of the self toward the object of desire. Both Sertillanges and Balthasar agree on this but approach the question from two different starting points. Sertillanges insists on the ecstatic nature of Truth, while Balthasar insists on the ecstatic nature of Beauty. Both are looking at the same question from different angles, namely the question of Being, and its constituent transcendentals—Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. In Balthasar’s image each of the three transcendentals are different doorways into the cathedral of Being, and right contemplation of Being is a part toward knowledge of God.
On the question of Truth and its relation to Being, Sertillanges makes this seemingly startling statement when he asserts, “the quasi-incarnation of God in being, of eternal Truth in every separate instance of the truth, should also lead up to a heavenly ecstasy.” (131) One might be taken aback by the incarnation language, but what he says is perfectly aligned with St. Thomas and much of the theological tradition. He is saying in effect that every instance of truth participates in Truth, and the Truth is constitutive of Being itself. What Sertillanges says is really just a riff on St. Thomas, whom is the master theologian of ecstasy: “For St. Thomas, ecstasy is the child of love; it carries you out of yourself, toward the object of your dreams. To love truth ardently enough to concentrate on it and so be transported into the universal, into the heart of abiding truths, is the attitude of contemplation and of fruitful production. One is then in a sense like the animal in the forest, concentrated, watchful, crouching with his eye on his prey; and the inner life is intense, but with a sense of distance as if one were moving among the stars. One feels at once delivered from all trammels and yet enchained, free and enslaved; one is fully oneself in surrounding to what is above self; one exults while forgetting self: it is a nirvana in which the intelligence is intensely happy and active” (133).
What we all want it ecstasy and what is important here is the necessity of contemplation. Contemplation is the fundamental act of the intellectual life, and without it there can be no summons, no vocation, no ecstasy, because contemplation is the posture of receptivity, what Sertillanges referred to in the reading section as docility. We cannot hear a call, a summons, if we do not have ears to hear. Contemplation is a path outs of the self towards the other, and so is a path of love. As a path of love, it is also a path of joy: “According to the Angelic Doctor, contemplation begins in love and ends in joy; it begins in the love of the object and the love of knowledge as an act of life; it ends in the joy of ideal possession and of the ecstasy it causes” (255). Ideal possession means to receive things in the manner that they are meant to be received, to love things in the manner in which they are meant to be loved, and one can only come to know such things through contemplation.