“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
To make sense of the spiritual life, it is important to reflect upon the principle of analogy. St. Francis stands as a sign of analogy regarding asceticism and the ladder of divine ascent because the palpable and tangible stories of his life “stand in” for the larger concepts of “self sacrifice,” “interior freedom,” or “purgation.” Each of those concepts on their own are hard to grasp or difficult to apply practically in the real world, but the advantage of analogy is that through an example (like Francis), we can see how certain ways of acting and thinking draw us into the “big-ness” of the abstract.
If you’re reading a book, and you run across some word you’ve never heard, you might ask, “what’s the context of this term?” Your goal is to draw some conclusion about the definition by its context—and this is the analogous principle. In the same way, spiritual goals are like unfamiliar words, but saints give us the wider context. The lives of saints are analogical indications, or “signs,” of a greater spiritual reality. Learning through the saints this way is an example of the principle of analogy.
Christ’s great teaching to Nicodemus in John 3 is an initiation into this great method of instruction and contemplation. In this account, Jesus analogizes about the presence of “wind”—one can’t “hear” the wind, but rather its effects. You can see how it brushes through leaves and grass. You can hear it whistle around your ears as you walk. You can feel it press against you as it gusts by. And “so it is with every one who is born of the spirit.”
Sometimes we talk about the phenomenon of when an “analogy breaks down.” We say this when we come to the limit of when two things are no longer alike. But we might also say this when we can’t see where things are supposed to overlap or map onto each other.
In fact, we might say this about Jesus’ words. It’s easy to track his meaning in the beginning of this passage: he’s saying that you can know something about the wind, but you don’t know its origins, or where it’s going, or many other direct details about it. However, this isn’t his only statement, nor the crux of it: his conclusion is “so it is with every one who is born of the spirit.”
This is confusing. What exactly is analogous here in Jesus’ teaching? Is it that one doesn’t know where a spiritual person comes and where they go? Is it that one doesn’t experience them directly, but only the things they’ve caused by their presence? Does the analogy have something to with the literal nature of “hearing” the teaching or preaching of the born-of-the-Spirit person?
It’s hard to know. However, the effect of attempting to piece these deep spiritual truths together is another spiritual practice which is good in of itself: contemplation. Contemplation helps us to discern what we might learn from St. Francis’ episode of miraculous bilocation (as an example). I can’t bilocate, but I can learn analogous truths by contemplating the account of his miracle. For instance, through contemplation, I might learn that the story teaches me that fraternal love and care can transcend even the (normal) laws of physics. And, this teaches me that I must learn to show charity for others despite being separated by physical distance. Further, it might help me contemplate the “eschaton,” the New Heavens and New Earth, wherein love and relationships reach their perfection.
Learning through this analogical method is required for asceticism, because asceticism requires our constant contemplation of spiritual truths. Analogy allows us to draw almost infinitely from examples, stories, and experiences to learn things about our divine calling towards holiness.