Understanding: Connecting the Physical With the Abstract

COMMENTARY: Part of a Register series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

(photo: Shutterstock/Szasz-Fabian Jozsef)

As we saw last time, the natural human faculty for understanding means the ability to “read between the lines” and see the inner essence of a thing. At a very basic level, for instance, a written word is not merely made up of black marks on white paper, but has significance in its meaning.

A series of those words strung together is not merely a random concatenation of words thrown together, but is a sentence, conveying an even deeper meaning. Our ability to grasp this is why we experience the normal human thrill of discovery when, in first grade, we are able to decode “See Jane run” and understand what that sentence means.

However, human beings don’t and can’t remain at this simple and concrete level of understanding. Almost immediately, we begin to look past mere concrete physical realities and start using both words and the things around us to express even deeper realities. We pass from saying, “My pet is a dog” to saying, “That movie was a dog.”

In other words, we start to connect the things we see around us with ideas that are abstract; we use metaphor, simile, allusion and various other figures of speech. A mother calls her child “honey,” and her child does not reply, “Mother, I am not a gob of bee saliva made from the pollen and sweet juices of flowers.” She understands language at a deeper level than “See Jane run.”

As we are initiated into the human race from our first day on the planet, we begin to be initiated into an enormously complex system of symbols in which virtually everything we see takes on secondary and tertiary meanings, as well as multiple meanings all at once.

Take water. If I splash the cat with water, he cannot understand the difference between playful and unpleasant because he cannot “intellect” the difference. He’s a cat. He hates getting wet. Period. If I splash my wife, she can understand the difference and knows my intent is to be playful, and she responds in kind.

But I can take the meaning of water much further than that. If I tell my wife that her eyes are the waters of the Mediterranean, dancing green under a bright summer sky, I am connecting water with a great many other ideas (love, beauty, light, joy and power) that require her to “read between the lines” more deeply still to get at the essence of what I am saying about realities that go well beyond the merely physical composition of water or her eyes.

It is at this level of understanding that we typically live. That is because language was invented, not by mathematicians or scientists, but by poets, which is to say, human beings. (Indeed, ordinary language is so bad at getting at the things mathematicians and scientists are trying to get at that they had to invent their own languages to do the job.)

Language exists to make startling yet true and beautiful connections between things that no beast would ever connect. And our growth in understanding consists in being able to comprehend those connections.

The upshot is this: By the time we reach adulthood, all it takes is a mere allusion, and we find that we understand what somebody is getting at. Water becomes a potent symbol of an immense range of things, from life to death to healing to drowning to cleansing. It fills our poetry and our songs — and long ago ceased to be merely H2O, but is instead a symbol of all sorts of other things.

So what? So this: God, in his wisdom, takes this natural tendency to make connections between physical reality and abstractions like purity, truth, beauty and love and raises it and all things to communicate, not mere ideas, but his very own life to us. How? More on this next time.

Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.

Follow the links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.