March 2012 Print

God Is Simple

Fr. Albert, OP


We all like simple things. Advertisers, those great observers of human nature, know this, and that is why their golden rule is: “Keep it simple!” If you try to say something complicated to someone, they will turn away with disgust, because no one likes complicated things. We all love simplicity.

Simplicity Does Not Mean Easy to Understand

This is one of the reasons why God is eminently lovable, because God is simple, eminently simple; super-simple, one might say. He is so simple that we can’t understand it. Usually we can’t understand things because they are too complicated, but God is so easy to understand that we can’t understand Him: He’s too simple. That is why children, and simple people in general, understand God better than anyone else. They are at His level. The ox and the ass and the shepherds and St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary: these are the ones who could recognize God’s appearance in the world, because they were simple.

God’s simplicity, however, is rather deceptive, or rather we can mistake it for something we know that appears to be like it, but which isn’t it at all. The simplicity we know is imperfect, defective; it is what is lowest on the scale of perfection. It is the simplicity, for example, of an amœba, which has only one cell. God’s simplicity is just the opposite. He is not so simple because He is imperfect, like the amœba which is on the edge of nothingness. On the contrary, He is so simple precisely because He is so perfect. He is absolutely simple because He is absolutely perfect.1

The “Dumb Ox” Speaks Very Eloquently

St. Thomas Aquinas, that great simpleton whom his fellow students called “The Dumb Ox,” speaks very eloquently about the simplicity of God in his Summa when, after proving that God exists, he begins to talk about what He is. His biographer tells us that when he was only five years old St. Thomas was constantly asking that question: “What is God?” Finally, when he grew up, he found the answer to his question, an answer which might first appear rather disappointing but which in fact, again, is just the opposite. The answer is: “We don’t know.”

Once we know that something is, he says, it remains to inquire about how it is, so that we might know what it is. But since we cannot know about God what He is, but what He is not, we cannot consider about God how He is, but how He is not (I, q. 3, Prologue).

Most people would be put off right away by such a prospect and go study something else that they can say something about, but not St. Thomas because he knows, as Aristotle already said before him, it is better to know imperfectly the highest things than to know perfectly lower things. This principle attains its ultimate application in God, the super-highest being about whom we can know nothing. We can, however, know what He is not, and He is a being of such a height that knowing that about Him is worth infinitely more than knowing everything else about all other beings.

What God Is Not

And so St. Thomas sets out to do this, which brings him to speak immediately of God’s simplicity: “Now we can show how God is not by denying of Him what does not belong to Him, namely composition, motion, and other such things. Let us, therefore, first inquire about His simplicity, whereby we deny composition of Him.”

We can already see a little by all this why simple people love studying about God: it’s so easy. You don’t have to dig down into great detail and minutely observe and record a bunch of things and try to fit them all altogether; you just have to deny that things you know already apply to God. This is rather disconcerting for most people, especially if they are smart: they feel lost when you tell them they have to do the opposite of what you usually do when you study something and so they “go away sad” like the young rich man. To know God you have to be “poor in spirit” because you have to put up with not knowing what you are talking about, and many people find that unbearable. Simple people, however, quite like it.

St. Thomas follows, then, with a whole question on the simplicity of God where he simply denies of God all the various kinds of composition he can think of, explaining why, each time, it is necessary to do so. God cannot be composed of quantitative parts (that is, be a body) because He is the first being, and therefore has no potency in Himself 2 whereas all bodies have potency since they are able to be divided. Similarly God is not composed of matter and form because matter is potency, and God has no potency; that is to say, He is not ordered to receiving something more than He already has because He is absolutely perfect already. This is necessary because, again, He is the first being by definition, the being we must posit in existence to explain everything else, and so it is inconceivable that He have a capacity or disposition to receive something from something else because He is precisely that from which everything else has to receive. So God has no potency, He is Pure Act. The same principle applies to all the other imaginable sorts of composition which all involve some sort of potency or other, and so they cannot belong to God who therefore is “omnino simplex: utterly simple.”

Simplicity and the Spiritual Life

This simplicity of God has important practical consequences for our spiritual lives. For the perfection of the spiritual life consists in union with God, and because God is “omnino simplex” progress in the spiritual life consists in becoming more simple, more like God so that we can be united to Him.

The great “Mystical Doctor,” Saint John of the Cross, constantly refers to this principle, explaining how the whole road of what he calls “the Ascent of Mount Carmel” (the symbol he uses to describe the progress of the soul towards union with God) is made up of a continual series of ever-deepening abnegations which simplify the soul more and more and thus prepare it to be united with the “utterly simple” God. Beginners must start with knowing God by the multiple sensible images and consolations He gives them, but He does this only to draw them out from the multiple sensible world up to the simplicity of the realm of the spirit. Thus in their life of prayer, the beginners have to pass through “the night of the senses” where they can no longer meditate and use their imagination as they used to, but have to let themselves gradually be led into what is called “the prayer of simplicity” which is a simple loving gaze of the soul directed towards God. This simplification continues until finally in the unitive way, which is the stage which immediately precedes divine union, the main occupation of the soul is to “purify”3 its intelligence of all its thoughts and its will of all its affections so that it can be united to the One who is All.

One important practical consequence of this for everyone is that in their spiritual lives they must be careful not to get too attached in their reading and meditation to their imagination. It is sad to hear sometimes how devout Catholics who want to progress in their spiritual lives spend all their time and effort in reading books like those of Anne Catherine Emmerich, or even watching movies like the one of Mel Gibson on the Passion of Christ, which are full of all sorts of fantastic images of the life of Our Lord. Such things can be helpful and even necessary for beginners, but after a certain point they become a veritable obstacle to progress precisely because, as we have just seen, progress consists in leaving what is multiple and sensual and ascending to what is simple and spiritual.

Again, this principle is not very popular with a lot of souls, who feel they have to be “doing something” when they pray and are constantly wanting to exercise themselves in acquiring new virtues, etc. This has its place, of course, but it is a secondary one, as is shown by the following little story about St. Therese of the Child Jesus recounted by her sister Celine.

“Ah!” I said to her one day when I was her novice, “when I think of all I have to acquire!”

“On the contrary,” replied Sr. Thérèse, “say rather: ‘How much I have to LOSE!’ ”4

And another time:

Once when we were in front of some shelves filled with books she said to me: “Oh! how sorry I would be to have read all these books!”

“But why?” I replied, “because they would have been read and it would be a good acquired. I could understand: ‘I regret to have to read them’ but not ‘I regret having read them!’ ”

“If I had read them I would have racked my brains and lost precious time that I could have spent in simply loving the good God.”5

1 We make a similar error with regard to motion. For us, what is without motion is dead: motion is the sign of life, the sign of power. In reality, however, once one moves up the scale of beings towards the top, they get more and more motionless until, at the very top, one reaches God, who is so powerful, so perfectly alive, that He doesn’t move at all.

2 Because potency follows act which always goes before it (potentia dicitur ad actum, says the adage), so what is absolutely first cannot have any potency, since there can’t be anything before it.

3 This is the term used by St. John of the Cross himself. Cf. The Dark Night, Book Two, chapter 8.

4 Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, Conseils et Souvenirs (Carmel de Lisieux, 1952), p. 26.

5 Ibid. p. 59