Archive for July, 2009


Reading Selections from The Freedom of Heaven & the Freedom of Hell by Anthony Esolen

July 31, 2009

Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college’s Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek.

As you know, I am on an eternal read of the Divine Comedy and it is one of my favorite topics for posts. This essay, appearing in First Things several years back, is a splendid read and I don’t think you can find a better piece that correlates the Christian faith to Dante’s work. The Christian faith is rooted in a narrative, the narrative of the Gospels. You can also find it in Dante’s creation. Selections from the essay here:

The Modern Suspicion Of Heritage
Woodrow Wilson once remarked that the purpose of the modern university was to make young men as unlike their fathers as possible, fathers who had immersed themselves in business and could no longer see the grand sweep of history. Otherwise, their sons would be hard to enlist in the progressive movement, man’s march toward greater enlightenment and freedom.

Wilson’s dictum was, in a way, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, translated into practical politics. Man is growing at last into adulthood, Kant suggested in his 1784 manifesto What Is Enlightenment? Man is learning to think for himself, liberating himself from the malign influence of traditional authorities and the past. “Reason,” wrote Kant, “must regard itself as the author of its principles, independent of foreign influences; consequently, as practical reason or as the will of a rational being, it must regard itself as free.” Those foreign influences include the claims of loyalty impressed on us by those among whom we live: the “book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth.”

There is something chilly about Wilson’s vision of liberated men, marching, like Christian soldiers, away from their forefathers — individuals all, and good party members. And there is something treacherous in Kant’s dismissal of tradition and community, as though they were not gifts to be received in gratitude, whatever their limitations.

Nonetheless, we in the West have inherited this suspicion of heritage. We share the assumption that freedom must mean freedom from — freedom from the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family. It seems not to matter that such freedom presupposes our alienation from one another. Existential alienation is a small price to pay for enlightenment, the fulfillment of the progressive movement, or the satisfaction of appetites.

The Medieval Definition Of Freedom
It is hard to recall the medieval definition of freedom, which was not the political license to follow our bellies or the philosophical encouragement to send our elders packing. Freedom was understood, rather, as a growing into the habits, the virtues, that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.

In the Divine Comedy, the pilgrim Dante, having climbed the mountain of Purgatory and scoured away the effects of habitual sin, hears Virgil say that the fruit of joy once lost in Eden is now near. And so he fairly rushes into the freedom of being what he has been created to be:

Will above will now surged in such delight
to climb the top, that with each step I took
I felt my feathers growing for the flight.

Dante’s callow soul will soon be welcomed into the community of the blessed saints, for whom freedom means the grace-filled incapacity to will anything but the good for themselves and for one another. Thomas Aquinas steps forth from the constellation of the wise to express this freedom as the now utterly natural and supernatural virtue of love. Says he to Dante, who has been too stunned with wonder to ask his name:

When the radiance
of the Lord’s grace, which lights the flames of true
love and by love still grows in eminence,
With such multiplication shines in you
it leads you up these stairs no man may take
descending, without climbing up anew,
He who’d deny his flask of wine to slake
your thirst would not be free, would have such power
as rivers not returning to the sea!

Thomas cannot do other than love. In that very propensity, as of a rushing river, consists his freedom.

Dante’s Rejection of Wilson and Kant’s Modern Notion of Freedom
In his way, Dante has foreseen our modern notion of freedom — the notion expressed by Wilson and Kant — and he has rejected it. That is not because such false freedom is often directed toward evil, as when it becomes the license to snuff out the life of an unborn child. It is, rather, because any freedom that severs us from one another, from our memories of those who came before us, is built on a lie about being. It is a misunderstanding of that Being whose essence is to exist. It is autonomy collapsing into antinomy [vocab: A contradiction between principles] , the denial of law itself and of our created being. Dante knows both that there is an autonomy in accord with the structure of created existence, which is truly free, and that there is an autonomy that violates it, caught by its own snare.

On The Nature Of Hell and Satan
In the first part of his epic, Dante and his guide Virgil descend ring by ring, down into the sludgehole of the universe. This is the funnel of hell, leading to an icy and windswept wasteland. Students who read the Divine Comedy for the first time may be surprised by the relative absence of fire from hell. Dante employs fire as punishment for sins that affront the majesty of the Deity: blasphemy, for instance. But, for the poet, the activity, freedom, and divinity of fire, and the love that fire suggests, make it less fit for the worst sinners — the traitors — than the hard, dead stasis of ice.

So there Dante and Virgil are, picking their way among the ice-encased traitors, slowly making their way toward Satan, the creature of fundamental sin, error, and falsehood — fundamental, because traitors mistake what it means for any of us to be. This is not a Satan who spits out a volley of abuse, like the demonic stooges of the popular drama. Nor does Dante create a grand antihero, uttering Milton’s great words of defiance: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven! Indeed Satan does not speak at all. The creature called by Christ “the father of lies” says nothing. He seems sublingual, even subsapient. And his speechlessness reveals the poet’s deep insight into the nature of truth and love and created being.

Though he says nothing, Satan does do a few things, with the terrible regularity of an automaton. He has three mouths, from three faces, joined ignobly “where the cock sports his crown,” and in those mouths he gnaws forever the naked bodies of the great traitors of Church and empire, the two great communions Dante believed were ordained by God. Satan gnaws Judas Iscariot headfirst, in the central mouth, and Brutus and Cassius feet first, to the left and right. With his claws he strips the leather off their backs — blood is a rich part of this diabolical communion. He strips and chews, strips and chews. And he does one thing more:

Beneath each face extended two huge wings,
large enough to suffice for such a bird.
I never saw a sail at sea so broad.
They had no feathers, but were black and scaled
like a bat’s wings, and those he flapped, and flapped,
and from his flapping raised three gales that swept
Cocytus, and reduced it all to ice.

Consider the flapping of those wings. It is natural for earthbound human beings to see in the flight of birds a symbol of freedom — a disconnection with the earth. If we could fly, we think with our misty apprehension of infinity, we would make contact with a terrestrial world only when and where we wanted. We should be princes of the air.

Yet it is that very motion of the wings that raises the gale above the River Cocytus and freezes Satan in his place, along with all the other traitors. If he could cease to move those wings, the gale would subside and the Cocytus would melt. In other words, if he could cease to act on his will to rise, he would be able to rise.

Now the foolish way to regard this is to see in it only an adventitious connection between Satan’s flapping and the ice that locks him in place. That is, God has decided, with malice, to stick Satan in just that hole wherein his sin — if it be a sin to wish to rise and be free — would be self-thwarted and self-punished. It is exactly as if God were to plunge a thirsty man into saltwater, with the added zest that the man would never die.

The Essence Of The Sin Is Made Manifest In The Punishment
But readers of Dante’s Inferno who have traveled with him all the way to the bottom know that the essence of one’s sin is made manifest in the punishment — that the punishment is the sin repeated endlessly and inexorably. And appropriately so. Thomas Aquinas, in justifying the eternity of hell, notes that mortal sin is an infinite and self-defining act of enmity against the peace of the City of God. Such sinners long for immortality, he says (quoting Gregory the Great), so that they might sin forever — for, even more than they love life, they love the sin to which they have given their lives.

What exactly, then, is the sin made manifest here in hell’s deepest pit? The flapping of wings, the ice, the act of treachery, and the temptation of Satan that penetrates time all derive from falling to the temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.” These four motifs have much to teach us about freedom and autonomy, rightly and wrongly understood.

The Psalms lend a hint: All things, says the psalmist, declare that “he made us; we did not make ourselves.” Even the atheist must agree that we did not make ourselves. The statement expresses contingency and dependence, and these are plainly discernible by reason. I did not come into the world self-made. Indeed, I came into a world already present for me to enter: an intelligible world, not a congeries of arbitrary and unrelated forces. Had there been no such world, I would not have existed.

To claim, then, that we did make ourselves would be to deny the real contingency of our beings — which would also be to deny the web of relations into which we have entered by our being and without which we must cease to be. Deep at the heart of this denial is the prideful sin of ingratitude. We see that we are provided with what we could not have provided for ourselves: not only the material conditions that support our existence — our food and drink, the care of our parents — but the fact of our existence itself. Yet we respond with a lie. We repeat what Satan implicitly affirms at the bottom of hell, the loneliest words ever uttered: “I am my own, I am my own! My mind is my own, to fashion what truth I shall please. My body is my own, to dispose of as I please. My will is my own. I rise — by my power. I exist — by my power.”

A Chaos Of Isolated Atoms Of Will
If this is autonomy, if this is what it means to be a law unto oneself, then law is the first thing that must die. No genuine communion among such autonomous beings is conceivable. We would be left with a chaos of isolated atoms of will, sometimes rebounding against one another in war or in the falsely called love that is often worse than war, but always essentially alone. To deny that “we did not make ourselves,” either explicitly or by our behavior, is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world and the community into which we have entered.

The man who says, “I am my own, good and evil are what I declare them to be,” may happen to have a gentle temperament, never lifting his hand in anger. But when he dies, he dies a traitor nonetheless. If we missed it in the murderous history of the twentieth century, we can still see it in the frozen Cocytus of Dante’s hell. Frozen in isolation from one another are the traitors — those who partake most fully of the fundamental lie that is also the fundamental mistake, those who in their treachery most clearly say, “I am my own, I rise by my power.” They are free in the sense in which a being, cast out of the universe and severed from true connection with every other being, would be free. They have made their law, and they obey it; they are bound to it.

With every flap of his wings, Satan sins again, commits treachery against God and also against all contingent and dependent beings. That treachery locks him in the ice of his self-imposed law. While he flaps those wings, he engages in an act that should remind him of his contingent being, but it becomes a sign of his brute power over other beings: He eats Judas and Brutus and Cassius, everlastingly. Not that he derives nourishment from them. His wings never manage to lift his hide out of the ice.

Why Satan Does Not Speak
It is no surprise that Satan does not speak. What would he say? The idea of a word, for a contingent being, implies the existence of one who is not myself (the one to whom I speak) and the existence of a truth that is not myself (that about which I speak). Language is a robe for love. The fundamental lie is that we are not for or from one another. Such a lie distorts existence itself. The devil is a liar and the father of lies, says Dante, quoting the Word of God, and that is why, in the end, Satan has nothing to say.

Freedom Is A Good Thing And Good Has Substance
Let us affirm, as Dante did, that freedom is a good thing and that the word good has substance to it. What, then, is freedom good for? If it is supposed that some contingent beings are free, then freedom must be good for them, and for them as contingent beings. But then freedom must unite them, precisely because they do not possess their existence from themselves. Such beings can be, together, a law unto themselves — autonomous — if they recognize that the law in question is not one they give themselves. That is, if they recognize and accept their contingency.

They will then see that the law that binds them together depends not on any one contingent being nor on all contingent beings taken in a collective but rather on the fact of contingency itself. It will depend on what it means to depend — one on another, and all together on a world that no contingent being has made. They will thus be free in their gratitude for that world, in their humble recognition that their existence is not necessary, and in their love for all those who share their mode of being and on whom they rely.

Purgatory Where We Learn How To Be Free
Gratitude, humility, love — we do not see these in hell. But we do enjoy them in that realm of the Divine Comedy where souls go in fellowship to learn how to be free; we enjoy them in purgatory. At the base of the island-mountain of purgatory, Dante and Virgil see a light swiftly approaching them through the mists of dawn. Virgil recognizes what is coming and cries:

Now fold your hands in prayer! Fall to your knees!
Behold, it is the herald of the Lord!
Now you will see such ministers as these.
See how he holds man’s instruments in scorn:
he needs no oars nor any other sail
but his own wings, between such distant shores.
See how he lifts his pennons to the sky,
sweeping the air with his eternal feathers,
changeless — unlike the hair of those that die.

Their crossing of the waters of hell required many of man’s instruments, notably the long pole that Charon, the ferryman of the dead, plants in the mud of the Acheron to punt his miserable vessel along, bringing the damned to their eternal loss. The angel pilot in purgatory, however, needs no oar, no sail; he sweeps the air with his wings and speeds the blessed souls across the ocean with a swiftness that befits their journey to freedom.

In that angel’s beating wings, there is no likeness to Satan’s. The blessed spirit lifts his pennons “to the sky,” to the heavens, and thence comes his power. He is immersed in the curious freedom of one who acknowledges that he is not his own, that he is neither from himself nor for himself. For though he need not bother with an oar, the angel pilot is not too haughty to deal with air and boats and human souls. He assists those souls, and his last act is to bless them with the sign of the cross as they disembark. He is free to love them. The exaltation whereby he can ferry them across the seas is one with the free humility whereby he will do it; though an angel, he is a member of their community.

As for those souls, they’re glad to be in the boat and are eager to reach the mountain where their purgative suffering will begin. They are singing their burial hymn, In exitu Israel de Aegypto, the psalm that the priest and acolytes chanted as they took the body from the church to the grave. Yet it is a jubilant song of freedom, not from the body but from the bondage of sin, which is itself a living death, a turn toward nonbeing. They rejoice to have begun their journey of liberation from Egypt, with all its worldly might, its fleshpots and vast tombs, across the sea and desert to the Promised Land.

The Souls In Purgatory
The souls in purgatory do not seek a freedom to be found after death. They seek, instead, a freedom from death to be found by dying to themselves. As Christ says, “Whosoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” These souls in the boat have made their final and complete confession of being from and being for.

That gives them the strength and the freedom to do a few things the reader has not yet seen in the Divine Comedy. They are together, not just in space but in spirit, as they sing with one voice. They reverse the curse of the traitors, because they reverse the sin. They can form a community. By their song they assist one another in hope and worship. They are not disconnected Israelites but Israel, and it is only in their being together that they individually find themselves. To paraphrase Aristotle, man, the contingent being — not self-sufficient even for his modest material needs, let alone for his intellectual thirst — is the sort of being that thrives only in the context of a community. Man is an ecclesiastical animal.

Thus the blessed souls of purgatory can be trusted to love. They do not need to be “herded like sheep into hell,” as Psalm 49 puts it. No Minos confronts them, slinging his bull’s tail round his waist to indicate the number of their prison cell. No one in purgatory pushes them. The discipline of the mountain, embraced by all the souls, will cure them of the remaining effects of the lie they no longer accept, until finally they will enjoy autonomy, needing no one to enforce from without the law of their created beings. Lord of yourself I crown and mitre you are Virgil’s last words to Dante after he has passed through the final stage of purgation, the wall of fire separating the mountain slopes from earthly paradise at the peak.

There Is No Prayer In Hell
To be free of the delusion that I am my own: This is what the souls, praying and singing in the boat, illustrate and foster. Prayer is impossible for a soul trammeled up in itself, and therefore there is no prayer in hell. There is also no song in hell, for song would require bursting the prison walls in the freedom of exuberance. But we may justly say that song and prayer are what purgatory is, as a foretaste of and preparation for paradise. The prayer is a confession of dependence, and the song is an expression of gratitude for what has been given. What the angel does with his wings, they do with their hearts and voices.

But the song means more. Consider again the mystery of singing. There is something about song that is playful and gratuitous, like the splendor of finches’ wings. It swells forth from the abundance of the heart. Whence should contingent beings derive this plenty, if not from a being that possesses it in himself? It is insufficient to say that God is capable of love. God, as the Gospel of John puts it in one of the most misunderstood verses of Scripture, is love. His love is not contingent on creation. God is Love, before he ever spoke the light into existence and saw that it was good. Love is essential to his being, his life. He is, as Dante puts it, “the One who moves all things,” loving them into being and loved by them in turn, whence comes their motion.

To dwell on the meaning of God’s love, for the Christian poet, is to stand at the brink of a glorious and unfathomable sea. When Dante has risen to the utmost heights of paradise, he stands before a vision of that one God — the unity that comprehends plurality. There is a plenty in the being of God, and this plenty admits of love, receives love, and is love:

O Light that dwell within thyself alone,
who alone know thyself, are known, and smile
with love upon the knowing and the known!

Dante revels in the plenitude of God, for whom even the ancient Israelites, to whom we owe the clearest expressions of his oneness, used the plural Elohim to describe a power and glory that burst the bonds of what we can comprehend as single and alone. “Let us make man in our image,” says God (Genesis 1:26).

The Trinity and Freedom
The Trinity, then, has something to teach us of freedom. Even had he never created a universe, God would himself have been a universe of love. As Benedict XVI has written, God, in his own being, comprehends being from and being for; “man is in the image of God precisely because the being for, from, and with constitute the basic anthropological shape.” Thus, if any contingent being longs to be truly free, he must reflect that ultimate freedom of God. His autonomy can make sense only in the self-emptying of love.

Love opens our eyes, allowing one contingent being to reveal the mysteries of beauty to another. But it also gives us wings, prompting the intellect to soar in contemplation of that beauty. Throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante’s beloved Beatrice has been preparing the pilgrim for the ultimate and yet infinite flight, to see the Beloved face to face.

In harsh contrast is the vision of Satan and his trinitarian heads. They are seamed together, but incongruously. There is no harmony among them, as there is no interaction among the traitors he gnaws. No community, no exit from the self. “Hell is other people,” said Sartre, and he was correct in this sense: If for you hell is other people, then you are in hell, and so are your fellow traitors.

Satan’s lie, then, is also Satan’s mistake. He who is not God wants to be God, to rise by his own power and be his own. But God is his own precisely in his love — in his being for. “You should be as gods,” Satan says to Eve, and he unwittingly speaks the truth. We should be as gods, and we can be, in gratitude and humility and love. For the outpouring of a grateful heart, which loves because it receives what it has not deserved, reflects the exuberant power of God, who loves into existence beings whom he does not need. And the self-emptying that is essential to love — the humble willingness to acknowledge that, as we did not make ourselves, we do not exist for ourselves — reflects the plenitude of God, who in his creation deigns to put himself at the disposal of the contingent beings he loves.

He is the cup that runneth over — in love. He can be sung about; he can be prayed to. If we would be laws unto ourselves, Dante would say, we must wisely and freely embrace the laws of our contingent being, obeying them as an obedient and beloved son cheerfully obeys his father, growing into the father’s authority by deeper and wiser and freer acts of obedience. And in obeying those laws we will find ourselves great-souled, able to love one another. We should be as gods.

Contingent Intellect Grasps Incontingent Love
Therefore, Dante’s last vision is not of God as Creator but of God as the power and wisdom and love that lie at the heart of reality — the three Persons that Christians adore in the Trinity. Within that Trinity, Dante beholds the central mystery of God, the ultimate being for: the Word made flesh. He sees two rings, with a fire proceeding between them, and in the second ring the image of a man. He cannot fathom how this can be: “Mine were not the feathers for that flight.”

The pilgrim poet is straining to understand with his contingent intellect what incontingent love is all about. He is flapping his wings, to no avail. Yet it is God who has given him these wings, and it is he who descends to speed Dante on an instantaneous flight, smiting his mind like a bolt of lightning.

This is, finally, what it means to be a law unto oneself, utterly free from the shackling self-will of the traitor. The law is Love, who freely gives the freedom to fulfill the law:

Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.
Already were all my will and my desires
turned — as a wheel in equal balance — by
The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.




Conversion Stories: My Bright Abyss

July 30, 2009
Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman is the author of Hard Night, a book of poems, and the editor of Poetry. His most recent book is a collection of his essays, Ambition and Survival. Conversion stories are a way for all Catholics to listen and reaffirm their own faith. When you have someone as gifted and intelligent as Mr. Wiman, the story can become an apologetic marker of sorts, a buoy in the water that all can relate to. You can find examples of Mr. Weiman’s poetry here  (which I really enjoyed) as well as Amazon links to his books. This essay was in the American Scholar back in March and deserves a longer play for attention – which is what we do here, pay attention.


  My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

And there the poem ends. Or fails, rather, for in the three years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way — to will my way — into its ending. Poems in general are not especially susceptible to the will, but this one, for obvious reasons, has proved particularly intractable. As if it weren’t hard enough to articulate one’s belief, I seem to have wanted to distill it into a stanza. Still, that is the way I have usually known my own mind, feeling through the sounds of words to the forms they make, and through the forms they make to the forms of life that are beyond them. I have always believed in that “beyond,” even during the long years when I would not acknowledge God. I have expected something similar here. I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more than I can say.

IN TRUTH, though, what I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is I believe. It is not that I am tired of poetic truth, or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reason. The opposite is the case. Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends, as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world, it can be very difficult to retain any faith at all in that original moment of inspiration. The memory of that momentary blaze, in fact, and the art that issued from it, can become a kind of reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time. Grace is no different. (Artistic inspiration is sometimes an act of grace, though by no means always.) To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace, yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates. I crave, I suppose, the poetry and the prose of knowing.

IF YOU RETURN to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientation is entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations — motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious. As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself. It eats away at the intensity of the experience that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith, and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind.

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some remote, remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life — which means, of course, that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.

To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to religion does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative any more than acknowledging the chemical reactions of romantic attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.

ON THE RADIO I hear a famous novelist praising his father for enduring a long, difficult dying without ever “seeking relief in religion.” It is clear from the son’s description that the father was in absolute despair, and that as those cold waters closed over him he could find nothing to hold on to but his pride, and drowned clutching that nothing. This is to be admired? That we carry our despair stoically into death, that even the utmost anguish of our lives not change us? How astonishing it is, the fierceness with which we cling to beliefs that have made us miserable, or beliefs that prove to be so obviously inadequate when extreme suffering — or extreme joy — come. But the tension here is not simply between belief and disbelief. A Christian who has lived with a steady but essentially shallow form of faith may find himself called to suffer the full human truth of God — which is the absence of God — may find himself finally confronted with the absolute emptiness of the cross. God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life. Radical change remains a possibility within us right up until our last breath. The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.

I DON’T MEAN TO SUGGEST that the attitude of stoic acceptance is not at times a worthy one. I don’t know what was going on in the mind of the novelist’s father, but what was going on in the mind of the novelist himself is quite clear: it’s the old fear of religion as crutch, Freudian wish fulfillment, a final refusal of life — which in order to be life must include a full awareness of death — rather than a final flowering of it. Christians love to point to anecdotes like that of Nietzsche, idolater of pure power, going insane at the end of his life because he saw a horse being unmercifully beaten; or Wallace Stevens, the great modern poet of unbelief, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. But there are plenty of anecdotes to contrast with these: Freud’s courage when suffering his final illness, Camus’ staunch, independent humanism in the face of the utter chaos and depravity he both witnessed and imagined (“What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”).

There is not a trace of resignation or defeat in Camus. Indeed, there is something in the stalwart, stubbornly humane nature of his metaphysical nihilism that constitutes a metaphysical belief. If it is true — and I think it is — that there is something lacking in this belief, that it seems more like one man’s moral courage than a prescription for living, more a personal code than a universal creed, it is also true that all subsequent Christianity must pass through the crucible of unbelief that thinkers like Camus underwent.

IF GOD IS A SALVE applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all of my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.

BE CAREFUL. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.

IT IS THIS LAST COMPLACENCY to which artists of our time are especially susceptible, precisely because it comes disguised as a lonely, heroic strength. Sometimes it truly is a strength: Giacometti, Beckett, Camus, Kafka. Yet it is a deep truth of being human — and, I would argue, an earnest of the immortal Spirit who is forever tugging us toward him — that even our most imaginative discoveries are doomed to become mere stances and attitudes. In this sense, art does advance over time, though usually this advance involves a recovery of elements and ideas we thought we had left behind for good. This is true not only for those who follow in the wake of great accomplishments, but also for those who themselves made those accomplishments.

What belief could be more self-annihilating, could more effectively articulate its own insufficiency and thereby prophesy its own demise, than 20th-century existentialism? To say that there is nothing beyond this world that we see, to make death the final authority of our lives, is to sow a seed of meaninglessness into that very insight. These artists knew that, and made of that fatal knowledge a fierce, new, and necessary faith: the austere, “absurd” persistence of spirit in both Camus and Beckett, the terrible disfiguring contingency that, in Giacometti’s sculptures, takes on the look of fate.

There is genuine heroism here, but there is also — faintly at first, but then more persistently, more damagingly — an awareness of heroism. (Only Kafka seems to fully feel his defeat: he is perhaps the most “spiritual” artist in this group, though he treasures his misery too much ever to be released from it.) This flaw — the artist’s adamantine pride — is what made the achievement possible, but it is also the crack that slowly widens over time, not lessening the achievement but humanizing it, relativizing it, causing what had once seemed an immutable, universal insight to begin to look a little more like a temporal, individual vision — a vision from which, inevitably, there comes a time to move forward.

CHRISTIANITY ITSELF IS THIS, to some extent. To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man. This is why he could be a paragon of rationality for 18th-century England, a heroic figure of the imagination for the Romantics, an exemplar of existential courage for writers like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which is to say, his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.

If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go — Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish to make them see.

WHEN I THINK OF THE YEARS when I had no faith, what I am struck by, first of all, is how little this lack disrupted my conscious life. I lived not with God, nor with his absence, but in a mild abeyance of belief, drifting through the days on a tide of tiny vanities — a publication, a flirtation, a strong case made for some weak nihilism — nights all adagios and alcohol as my mind tore luxuriously into itself. I can see now how deeply God’s absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to. Was the fall into belief or into unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.

WHEN I ASSENTED to the faith that was latent within me — and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for no white light appeared, no ministering or avenging angel tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and knew, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief — when I assented to the faith that was latent within me, what struck me were the ways in which my evasions and confusions, which I had mistaken for a strong sense of purpose, had expressed themselves in my life: poem after poem about unnamed and unnamable absences, relationships so transparently perishable they practically came with expiration dates on them, city after city sacked of impressions and peremptorily abandoned as if I were some army of insight seeing, I now see, nothing. Perhaps it is never disbelief, which at least is active and conscious, that destroys a man but unacknowledged belief, or a need for belief so strong that it is continually and silently crucified on the crosses of science, humanism, art, or (to name the thing that poisons all these gifts of God) the overweening self.

THEY DO NOT HAPPEN NOW, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred, and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you — and even something in you — seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they’d been flung. Worse than snow, worse than ice, a bad sandstorm shrinks the world to the slit of your eyes, lifting from the fields an inchoate creaturely mass that claws at any exposed skin as if the dust remembered what it was, which is what you are — alive, alive — and sought return. They do not happen now, whether because of what we’ve learned or because the earth itself has changed. Yet I can close my eyes and see all the trees tugging at their roots as if to unfasten themselves from the earth. I can hear the long-gone howl, more awful for its being mute.

LORD, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world — directly, immediately — yet I have no hunger greater. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you — or is this evidence of your hunger for me? — that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the ember’s innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that “seem.”


The Pornography Culture

July 29, 2009

One of my favorite writers is David Bentley Hart who was at the core of one of my disagreements with a fellow Catholic recorded in Failing Fellowship. His essay on “Tsunami and Theodicy” is one of the pages on this blog.  The David B. Hart Appreciation Site has much more of his writings. This is one of my favorite pieces:

“Writing not as a lawyer, I am able to address the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) only somewhat obliquely. Concerning the legal merits of the case, certainly, I have little to say. This is not necessarily because I believe one must be a lawyer to understand the Court’s decision, but because I am largely indifferent to the legal arguments contained within it, and am convinced that even the question of whether or not it was dictated by genuine constitutional concerns deserves very little attention (as I shall presently argue).

I can begin, however, by confessing my perplexity at some of the reasoning behind the court’s majority ruling, most especially the curious contention that COPA might prove to be unconstitutional on the grounds that there exists filtering software that provides a “less restrictive means” of preventing access to pornography on the Internet and that does not involve “criminalizing” any particular category of speech. Surely, if we are to be guided by logic, the existence or nonexistence of such software (which is, after all, merely a commercial product that parents may purchase and use if they are so inclined and have the money) cannot possibly make any difference regarding the question of whether the act violates constitutional protections. Moreover, it is difficult for me to grasp why the Court works upon the premise that whatever means are employed to protect children from Internet pornography should involve the barest minimum imposition possible upon the free expression of pornographers.

Again, not being a lawyer, I have no idea what shadowy precedents might be slouching about in the background of the Court’s decision, and I am aware that the alliance between law and logic is often a tenuous one. I can even appreciate something of the Court’s anxiety concerning the scope of the government’s control over “free expression,” given that the modern liberal democratic state — with its formidable apparatus of surveillance and legal coercion, and its inhuman magnitude, and its bureaucratic procedural callousness, and its powers of confiscation, taxation, and crippling prosecution, and its immense technological resources — is so very intrusive, sanctimonious, and irresistible a form of political authority. Allow the government even the smallest advance past the bulwark of the First Amendment, one might justly conclude, and before long we will find ourselves subject to some variant of “hate speech” legislation, of the sort that makes it a criminal offense in Canada and Northern Europe for, say, a priest to call attention publicly to biblical injunctions against homosexuality.

We have, as a society, long accepted the legal fiction that we are incapable of even that minimal prudential wisdom necessary to distinguish speech or art worthy of protection from the most debased products of the imagination, and so have become content to rely upon the abstract promise of free speech as our only sure defense against the lure of authoritarianism. And perhaps, at this juncture in cultural history, this lack of judgment is no longer really a fiction.

In a larger sense, however, all human law is a fiction, especially law of the sort adjudicated by the Supreme Court. As much as jurists might be inclined to regard constitutional questions as falling entirely within the province of their art, the Constitution is not in fact merely a legal document; it is a philosophical and political charter, and law is only one (and, in isolation, a deficient) approach to it. Constitutional jurisprudence, moreover, is essentially a hermeneutical tradition; it is not the inexorable unfolding of irrefragable conclusions from unambiguous principles, but a history of willful and often arbitrary interpretation, and as such primarily reflects cultural decisions made well before any legal deliberation has begun. And since legal principles — as opposed to exact ordinances — are remarkable chiefly for their plasticity, it requires only a little hermeneutical audacity to make them say what we wish them to say (one never knows, after all, what emanations may be lurking in what penumbras).

Just as the non-establishment clause might well have been taken — had our society evolved in a more civilized direction — as no more than a prohibition upon any federal legislation for or against the establishment of religion, so the promise of freedom of speech might have been taken as a defense of political or religious discourse, and nothing more. There is certainly no good reason why “free speech” should have come to mean an authorization of every conceivable form of expression, or should have been understood to encompass not only words but images and artifacts, or should have been seen as assuring either purveyors or consumers of such things a right of access to all available media or technologies of communication.

We interpret it thus because of who we are as a society, or who we have chosen to be; we elect to understand “liberty” as “license.” How we construe the explicit premises enshrined in the constitution is determined by a host of unspoken premises that we merely presume, but that also define us. This is why I profess so little interest in the question of the constitutionality of COPA; the more interesting question, it seems to me, concerns what sort of society we have succeeded in creating if the conclusions we draw from the fundamental principles of our republic oblige us to defend pornographers’ access to a medium as pervasive, porous, complex, and malleable as the Internet against laws intended to protect children.

The damage that pornography can do — to minds or cultures — is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate. (DJ: Leave it to PBS to dissent.)

Nor has the availability and profusion of pornography in modern Western culture any historical precedent. And the Internet has provided a means of distribution whose potentials we have scarcely begun to grasp. It is a medium of communication at once transnational and private, worldwide and discreet, universal and immediate. It is, as nothing else before it, the technology of what Gianni Vattimo calls the “transparent society,” the technology of global instantaneity, which allows images to be acquired in a moment from almost anywhere, conversations of extraordinary intimacy to be conducted with faceless strangers across continents, relations to be forged and compacts struck in almost total secrecy, silently, in a virtual realm into which no one — certainly no parent — can intrude. I doubt that even the most technologically avant-garde among us can quite conceive how rapidly and how insidiously such a medium can alter the culture around us.

We are already, as it happens, a casually and chronically pornographic society. We dress young girls in clothes so scant and meretricious that honest harlots are all but bereft of any distinctive method for catching a lonely man’s eye. The popular songs and musical spectacles we allow our children to listen to and watch have transformed many of the classic divertissements of the bordello — sexualized gamines, frolicsome tribades, erotic spanking, Oedipal fantasy, very bad “exotic” dance — into the staples of light entertainment. The spectrum of wit explored by television comedy runs largely between the pre- and the post-coital.

In short, a great deal of the diabolistic mystique that once clung to pornography — say, in the days when even Aubrey Beardsley’s scarcely adolescent nudes still suggested to most persons a somewhat diseased sensibility — has now been more or less dispelled. But the Internet offers something more disturbing yet: an “interactive” medium for pornography, a parallel world at once fluid and labyrinthine, where the most extreme forms of depravity can be cheaply produced and then propagated on a global scale, where consumers (of almost any age) can be cultivated and groomed, and where a restless mind sheltered by an idle body can explore whole empires of vice in untroubled quiet for hours on end. Even if filtering software were as effective as it is supposed to be (and, as yet, it is not), the spiritually corrosive nature of the very worst pornography is such that — one would think — any additional legal or financial burden placed upon the backs of pornographers would be welcome.

I am obviously being willfully naïve. I know perfectly well that, as a culture, we value our “liberties” above almost every other good; indeed, it is questionable at times whether we have the capacity to recognize any rival good at all. The price of these liberties, however, is occasionally worth considering. I may be revealing just how quaintly reactionary I am in admitting that nothing about our pornographic society bothers me more than the degraded and barbarized vision of the female body and soul it has so successfully promoted, and in admitting also (perhaps more damningly) that I pine rather pathetically for the days of a somewhat more chivalrous image of women.

One of the high achievements of Western civilization, after all, was in finding so many ways to celebrate, elevate, and admire the feminine; while remaining hierarchical and protective in its understanding of women, of course, Christendom also cultivated — as perhaps no other civilization ever has — a solicitude for and a deference towards women born out of a genuine reverence for their natural and supernatural dignity. It may seem absurd even to speak of such things at present, after a century of Western culture’s sedulous effort to drain the masculine and the feminine of anything like cosmic or spiritual mystery, and now that vulgarity and aggressiveness are the common property of both sexes and often provide the chief milieu for their interactions.

But it is sobering to reflect how far a culture of sexual “frankness” has gone in reducing men and women alike to a level of habitual brutishness that would appall us beyond rescue were we not, as a people, so blessedly protected by our own bad taste. The brief flourishing of the 1970s ideal of masculinity — the epicene ectomorph, sensitive, nurturing, flaccid — soon spawned a renaissance among the young of the contrary ideal of conscienceless and predatory virility. And, as imaginations continue to be shaped by our pornographic society, what sorts of husbands or fathers are being bred? And how will women continue to conform themselves — as surely they must — to our cultural expectations of them?

To judge from popular entertainment, our favored images of women fall into two complementary, if rather antithetical, classes: on the one hand, sullen, coarse, quasi-masculine belligerence, on the other, pliant and wanton availability to the most primordial of male appetites — in short, viragoes or odalisks. I am fairly sure that, if I had a daughter, I should want her society to provide her with a sentimental education of richer possibilities than that.

My backwardness aside, however, it is more than empty nostalgia or neurotic anxiety to ask what virtues men and women living in an ever more pervasively pornographic culture can hope to nourish in themselves or in their children. Sane societies, at any rate, care about such things — more, I would argue, than they care about the “imperative” of placing as few constraints as possible upon individual expression. But we have made the decision as a society that unfettered personal volition is (almost) always to be prized, in principle, above the object towards which volition is directed. It is in the will — in the liberty of choice — that we place primary value, which means that we must as a society strive, as far as possible, to recognize as few objective goods outside the self as we possibly can.

Of course, we are prepared to set certain objective social and legal limits to the exercise of the will, but these are by their very nature flexible and frail, and the great interminable task of human “liberation” — as we tend to understand it — is over time to erase as many of these limits as we safely can. The irreducibly “good” for us is subjective desire, self-expression, self-creation. The very notion that the society we share could be an organically moral realm, devoted as a whole to the formation of the mind or the soul, or that unconstrained personal license might actually make society as a whole less free by making others powerless against the consequences of the “rights” we choose to exercise, runs contrary to all our moral and (dare one say?) metaphysical prejudices. We are devoted to — indeed, in a sense, we worship — the will; and we are hardly the first people willing to offer up our children to our god.

The history of modern political and social doctrine is, to a large degree, the history of Western culture’s long, laborious departure from Jewish, classical, and Christian models of freedom, and the history in consequence of the ascendancy of the language of “rights” over every other possible grammar of the good. It has become something of a commonplace among scholars to note that — from at least the time of Plato through the high Middle Ages — the Western understanding of human freedom was inseparable from an understanding of human nature: to be free was to be able to flourish as the kind of being one was, so as to attain the ontological good towards which one’s nature was oriented (i.e., human excellence, charity, the contemplation of God, and so on).

For this reason, the movement of the will was always regarded as posterior to the object of its intentions, as something wakened and moved by a desire for rational life’s proper telos, and as something truly free only insofar as it achieved that end towards which it was called. To choose awry, then — through ignorance or maleficence or corrupt longing — was not considered a manifestation of freedom, but of slavery to the imperfect, the deficient, the privative, the (literally) subhuman. Liberty of choice was only the possibility of freedom, not its realization, and a society could be considered just only insofar as it allowed for and aided in the cultivation of virtue.

There would be little purpose here in rehearsing the story of how late medieval “voluntarism” altered the understanding of freedom — both divine and human — in the direction of the self-moved will, and subtly elevated will in the sense of sheer spontaneity of choice (arbitrium) over will in the sense of a rational nature’s orientation towards the good (voluntas); or of how later moral and political theory evolved from this one strange and vital apostasy, until freedom came to be conceived not as the liberation of one’s nature, but as power over one’s nature.

What is worth noting, however, is that the modern understanding of freedom is essentially incompatible with the Jewish, classical, or Christian understanding of man, the world, and society. Freedom, as we now conceive of it, presumes — and must ever more consciously pursue — an irreducible nihilism: for there must literally be nothing transcendent of the will that might command it towards ends it would not choose for itself, no value higher than those the will imposes upon its world, no nature but what the will elects for itself.

It is also worth noting, somewhat in passing, that only a society ordered towards the transcendental structure of being — towards the true, the good, and the beautiful — is capable of anything we might meaningfully describe as civilization, as it is only in the interval between the good and the desire wakened by it that the greatest cultural achievements are possible. Of a society no longer animated by any aspiration nobler than the self’s perpetual odyssey of liberation, the best that can be expected is a comfortable banality. Perhaps, indeed, a casually and chronically pornographic society is the inevitable form late modern liberal democratic order must take, since it probably lacks the capacity for anything better.

All of which yields two conclusions. The first is that the gradual erosion — throughout the history of modernity — of any concept of society as a moral and spiritual association governed by useful ethical prejudices, immemorial reverences, and subsidiary structures of authority (church, community, family) has led inevitably to a constant expansion of the power of the state. In fact, it is ever more the case that there are no significant social realities other than the state and the individual (collective will and personal will). And in the absence of a shared culture of virtue, the modern liberal state must function — even if benignly — as a police state, making what use it may of the very technologies that COPA was intended somewhat to control.

And that may be the truly important implication of a decision such as the Supreme Court’s judgment on COPA: whether we are considering the power of the federal government to penalize pornographers or the power of the federal court to shelter them against such penalties, it is a power that has no immediate or necessary connection to the culture over which it holds sway. We call upon the state to shield us from vice or to set our vices free, because we do not have a culture devoted to the good, or dedicated to virtue, or capable of creating a civil society that is hospitable to any freedom more substantial than that of subjective will. This is simply what it is to be modern.

The second conclusion is that every time a decision like that regarding COPA is handed down by the Court, it should serve to remind us that between the biblical and the liberal democratic traditions there must always be some element of tension. What either understands as freedom the other must view as a form of bondage. This particular Court decision is not especially dramatic in this regard — it is certainly nowhere near as apocalyptic in its implications as Roe v. Wade — and no doubt there are sound legal and even ethical arguments to be made on either side of the issue, within the terms our society can recognize. But perhaps the COPA decision can provide some of us, at least, with a certain salutary sense of alienation: it is good to be reminded from time to time — good for persons like me, with certain pre-modern prejudices — that our relations with the liberal democratic order can be cordial to a degree, but are at best provisional and fleeting, and can never constitute a firm alliance; that here we have no continuing city; that we belong to a kingdom not of this world; and that, while we are bound to love our country, we are forbidden to regard it as our true home.”


Letting The Life OUT

July 28, 2009

This man is an absolute treasure of our Church and one of the main motivations of this blog:


Her Choice, Her Problem: How Abortion Empowers Men

July 27, 2009

Elites are often the only voices for women heard in the transnational political arenas

The following is a short essay found on First Things. Richard Stith, the author, teaches at Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana.

“This summer, President Obama proclaimed again that we ‘need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t end at conception.’ In a sense, of course, he is absolutely right. But the problem is that, in another sense, he is completely wrong: Male responsibility really does end at conception. Men these days can choose only sex, not fatherhood; mothers alone determine whether children shall be allowed to exist. Legalized abortion was supposed to grant enormous freedom to women, but it has had the perverse result of freeing men and trapping women.

The likelihood of this cultural development was foreseen by the radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon, one of the critical voices responding to Roe v. Wade’s extension of the right of privacy to cover abortion. In an essay called ‘Privacy vs. Equality,’ MacKinnon argued that ‘abortion’s proponents and opponents share a tacit assumption that women do significantly control sex. Feminist investigations suggest otherwise. Sexual intercourse . . . cannot simply be presumed coequally determined.’ Indeed, she added, ‘men control sexuality,’ and ‘Roe does not contradict this.’

‘Abortion facilitates women’s heterosexual availability,’ MacKinnon pointed out: ‘In other words, under conditions of gender inequality [abortion] does not liberate women; it frees male sexual aggression. The availability of abortion removes the one remaining legitimized reason that women have had for refusing sex besides the headache.’ Perhaps that is why, she observed, ‘the Playboy Foundation has supported abortion rights from day one.’ In the end, MacKinnon pronounced, Roe’s ‘right to privacy looks like an injury got up as a gift,’ for ‘virtually every ounce of control that women won’ from legalized abortion ‘has gone directly into the hands of men.’

At the time, MacKinnon’s work may have seemed little more than a curiosity on the left, but, as the years have passed, some of the essay’s claims have proved prescient. I recall a law student who would admit when pressed, ‘I’m in favor of keeping abortion legal because I don’t like using condoms.’ Since abortion could now come between conception and birth, he saw no benefit to missing any portion of sexual pleasure, even though it imposed a risk of surgery on his partner. He may have assumed a rational partner would choose abortion either freely or under pressure. With less deliberate callousness, under the influence of passion almost any male may think quite simply: ‘At least there’s a way out if the unlikely happens and pregnancy occurs.’

I’ve also met a clever female undergraduate student living with her boyfriend, who thought she had solved this problem. When I asked whether she was for or against abortion, she answered: ‘I’m pro-choice, but you can bet I tell him I’m pro-life!’  She reasoned that, in light of her warning, he would be careful not to fool around in ways that could lead to pregnancy.

Such a lie may not provide protection for every young woman in her situation, however. If she says she is pro-life so that he thinks abortion is not an option for her, he might decide to keep her from getting pregnant by leaving her for someone more open to abortion, a woman who doesn’t insist on his using a condom. That is, the presence in the sexual marketplace of women willing to have an abortion reduces an individual woman’s bargaining power. As a result, in order not to lose her guy, she may be pressured into doing precisely what she doesn’t want to do: have unprotected sex, then an unwanted pregnancy, then the abortion she had all along been trying to avoid.

Even though her abortion in this case is not literally forced, it would be, in an important sense, imposed on her. And, far from alleviating her overall situation, it would merely return her to the same sexual pressures, made worse by a new assurance to her boyfriend that she is willing to take care of a pregnancy.

Perhaps it was difficult to foresee such cultural trends back in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court. But they simply track the inner logic of choice and the market. Economists have shown that such scenarios have in fact become common since abortion was legalized in the United States.

Easy access to abortion has increased the expectation and frequency of sexual intercourse (including unprotected intercourse) among young people, making it more difficult for a woman to deny ­herself to a man without losing him, thus increasing pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. (See, for instance, Jonathan Klick and Thomas Stratmann’s 2003 study, “The Effect of Abortion Legalization on Sexual Behavior,” in the Journal of Legal ­Studies.)

Furthermore, if a woman attempts to choose birth instead of abortion, she may well find the child’s father pushing the other way. Her boyfriend’s fear of fatherhood would once have been focused on intercourse itself and could have led him either to be careful to avoid conception or else (overcoming that fear) to commit himself beforehand to equal responsibility for the child. His fear now will turn to getting her to choose abortion. One investigator, Vincent M. Rue, reported in the Medical Science Monitor, that 64 percent of American women who abort feel pressed to do so by others. Another, Frederica Mathewes-Green in her book Real Choices, discovered that American women almost always abort to satisfy the desires of people who do not want to care for their children.

Catherine MacKinnon seemed to suggest that abortion leads to greater male sexual aggression only ‘under conditions of gender inequality,’ which implies more equality for women could reduce the male exploitation caused by Roe v. Wade. That makes sense in theory. To the degree that individual women are economically, educationally, and in other ways empowered, they should be more able to stand up to male pressures to have unwanted sex (and to have unwanted abortions in order to give the guys still more unwanted sex).

But counteracting the negative forces of sexual competition is difficult. Even if women were universally to agree to refuse sex without condoms, for example, enforcement of this agreement in such an intimate sphere would be nearly impossible. Women would always be tempted to increase their individual sexual competitiveness by consenting to sex without a condom, while relying on abortion as a backup, thus causing female solidarity and power to collapse. Only women strong enough to forgo boyfriends altogether might be likely in the end to resist.

Furthermore, if MacKinnon is right, wherever women have not yet overcome gender inequality, involuntary sex and involuntary abortion will tend to be more frequent, precisely as a result of abortion’s availability. To the degree that a culture is built on machismo, for example, the legalization of abortion will make women relatively worse off by giving men another tool to manipulate women as sex objects. Again, to the degree that an economy employs mainly men, leaving women dependent on economic handouts, women will be much less likely to resist male pressures to make use of abortion. Wherever men make women’s decisions for them, the option of abortion will be a man’s choice, regardless of how the law may label it.

Human-rights activists in developing nations must learn to consider this fact. In those countries, only a thin, elite layer of truly independent and powerful women may be relatively unharmed by the availability of abortion, because only for them is the abortion option more nearly their own. Proclaiming a right to abortion in developing countries may mean just adopting the viewpoint of these well-to-do professionals — which ought to be no surprise. Those elites are often the only voices for women heard in the transnational political arenas where abortion is debated.

Moreover, the availability of abortion may make all societies less open to empowering women in other ways. MacKinnon may well be right that stronger women would more often resist male pressures to risk pregnancies and have abortions. But, perhaps paradoxically, the option of abortion actually makes sympathy and solidarity — and thus women’s empowerment — less likely.

When birth was the result of passion and bad luck, some people could sympathize with a young woman who was going to need help with her baby, though the stigma of bastardry was genuine. If money or a larger place to live were going to be necessary for her to stay in school, a sense of solidarity would likely lead friends and family to offer assistance. The father would feel strong pressure as well, for he was as responsible as she for the child. He might offer to get a second job or otherwise shoulder some of the burdens of parenting.

But once continuing a pregnancy to birth is the result neither of passion nor of luck but only of her deliberate choice, sympathy weakens. After all, the pregnant woman can avoid all her problems by choosing abortion. So if she decides to take those difficulties on, she must think she can handle them.

Birth itself may be followed by blame rather than support. Since only the mother has the right to decide whether to let the child be born, the father may easily conclude that she bears sole responsibility for caring for the child. The baby is her fault.

It may also seem unfair to him that she could escape motherhood (by being legally allowed to prevent birth), while he is denied any way to escape fatherhood (by still being legally required to pay child support). If consenting to sex does not entail consenting to act as a mother, why should it entail consenting to act as a father? Paternity support in this context appears unjust, and he may resist compliance with his legal duties.

Prior to the legalization of abortion in the United States, it was commonly understood that a man should offer a woman marriage in case of pregnancy, and many did so. But with the legalization of abortion, men started to feel that they were not responsible for the birth of children and consequently not under any obligation to marry. In gaining the option of abortion, many women have lost the option of marriage. Liberal abortion laws have thus considerably increased the number of families headed by a single mother, resulting in what some economists call the ‘feminization of poverty.’

The mother is even worse off if, during pregnancy, tests show that the child will have a disability: Doctors often press for abortion, in order to be sure that she does not later blame and sue them for the costs of raising her child. Some have suggested that health-care plans should provide no postbirth coverage for a handicapped child whose mother refuses a paid abortion. If she does not abort, after all, she will be causally responsible for the costs and the alleged burdens that the child brings. Even her friends and neighbors may make her feel ashamed for not choosing to abort her child.

Employers may likewise react negatively to maternal needs where abortion has been available. If they (or the state) pay for abortions, they may feel less obligated to shape labor practices to the needs of mothers. If maternity causes problems with work routines or job schedules, the employer may well consider these to be private or personal problems that female employees brought on themselves. The availability of abortion makes women’s claims for better working conditions lose a measure of legitimacy.

Throughout human history, children have been the consequence of natural sexual relations between men and women. Both sexes knew they were equally responsible for their children, and society had somehow to facilitate their upbringing. Even the advent of birth control did not fundamentally change this dynamic, for all forms of contraception are fallible.

Elective abortion changes everything. Abortion absolutely prevents the birth of a child. A woman’s choice for or against abortion breaks the causal link between conception and birth. It matters little what or who caused conception or whether the male insisted on having unprotected intercourse. It is she alone who finally decides whether the child comes into the world. She is the responsible one. For the first time in history, the father and the doctor and the health-insurance actuary can point a finger at her as the person who allowed an inconvenient human being to come into the world.

The deepest tragedy may be that there is no way out. By granting to the pregnant woman an unrestrained choice over who will be born, we make her alone to blame for how she exercises her power. Nothing can alter the solidarity-shattering impact of the abortion option.”

I have never understood how intelligent women have lined up for the pro-choice “freedom” of “control over our own bodies.” To me the above article by Richard Stith presents the real world case that shows how abortion enslaves women. “[A woman] wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.” And yet millions of so-called “feminists” condemn their fellow sisters to this grim fate.

The trapped animal analogy resonates with women. It speaks to the desperation they often feel when faced with an unintended pregnancy. Trapped animals do desperate things to escape when they feel threatened — even killing those they perceive to stand in the way. Likewise, abortion pits mother against child. A woman may believe that her only (or best) response must be at the expense of her own child’s life. However, women are not animals, and it’s not natural for women to kill their children. A woman knows this intuitively, so abortion offers them an unnatural solution to often-circumstantial problems.

Abortion becomes the trap that awaits pregnant women who are without an adequate support system, namely a stable marriage relationship or perhaps a privileged upbringing. Being single adds to the dilemma. Even if a woman wants to continue her pregnancy, financial worries and the disruption of school or career plans are what most often pushes her toward abortion. This is where society’s acceptance of abortion denies women a true choice in an unexpected pregnancy. Women need to know that they can continue their pregnancies and keep their place at school or on the job.

Unfortunately, abortion has become the cultural default position. And, women have gotten the message that in less than ideal circumstances, you are better off to abort your child. It is a form of class warfare. Society accepts abortion as an easy out, not just for women, but for all of us. Abortion will never be rare as long as we allow it to be the default position. Abortion is no choice for a woman who thinks that it is her only choice.

The pro-life community needs to support laws that punishes those who do not provide pro-life counseling such as abortion clinics and doctors. Then it needs to assist women to create environments to support their children. The message needs to be: there ARE ways because we will MAKE WAYS for you. You CAN do this and we STAND BY YOU.



Gerard Manley Hopkins

July 24, 2009
Self Portrait, Reflection in Water

Self Portrait, Reflection in Water

Images of metaphysical transcendence in either the form of earth, air, fire, water, and/or archetypes abound throughout Gerard Manley Hopkins’s writings, including his poems, letters, journals, essays, sermons and correspondence with friends and colleagues.

Most noticeable, these images rhetorically grow in textural and spiritual depth–visually, audibly, intellectually- and in human and spiritual complexity as Hopkins himself grows intellectually and spiritually, especially in his moral and theological beliefs and in his increasing commitment to God and to his philosophy of incarnation and the universal transcendence of the Trinity-God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost. For Hopkins, proof of the Creator’s incarnation and the transcendence of the Trinity lie in the inscapes instressed (witnessed/realized) in Nature, which encompasses all the creatures, plants, humans, and landscapes, as well as in the external elements of this vast universe-its stars, meteors, comets, planets, and galaxies.

Significant to understanding Hopkins’ poetry and prose, especially his images of transcendence, is Hopkins’s usage and meaning for “inscape” and “instress,” terms he invented but never formally defined. As a result, argues W. A. Peters, S. J., numerous critics and scholars have either avoided consideration and/or inclusion of these terms in their analysis and evaluations of Hopkins’s work or have misinterpreted his intended meanings. Peters provides numerous examples of these instances both in his text and in his endnotes.

Since Hopkins in his journals, essays, and correspondence with friends and colleagues states that “’inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry” (letter to Bridges dated 15 February 1879); inscape is “the very soul of art.” Peters labels these critics and scholars’ treatments of Hopkins’s poetry, in particular, as “too cursory and superficial and even incorrect.” Peters believes that nearly all of them have mistaken “’inscape’ for little more than one of many words that Hopkins invented because the English language did not contain any one word representing this objective fact or thing, or because he was dissatisfied with the existing word for reasons of euphony. They have failed to see that this word represented something that was not observed by other men, [and] therefore caused a very personal experience, and so was to stand for something not experienced by others, for which consequently there existed no word, because the need for it was never felt”

Peters thus defines inscape as “the unified complex of those sensible qualities of the object of perception that strike us as inseparably belonging to and most typical of it, so that through the knowledge of this unified complex of sense-data we may gain an insight into the individual essence of the object”  Citing specific examples from Hopkins’ poems, journals, and correspondence, Peters further concludes that for Hopkins “the inscape of an object was . . . more ‘word of God’“ and therefore reminded him more of the Creator than a superficial impression could have done.”  He also notes that Hopkins himself writes that “’this world is word, expression, news of God.”

What is inscape ?
Inscape is a concept derived by Gerard Manly Hopkins from the ideas of the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. The term itself means the unique, distinctive, and inherent quality of a thing. Hopkins believed that everything in the world was characterized by inscape and in turn inscape was what designed an individual’s dynamic, never static, identity.

Hopkins use of the concept is filtered through his conviction that God the Creator is endlessly inventive and makes no two things alike. This is related to a logocentric theology and the imago Dei. A logocentric theology of creation is based on correlation of the Genesis account and John 1. Since all creation is by the Word (divine fiat) human identity in God’s image is grounded in God’s speech and no two creation words are ever spoken alike. This idea is mirrored by JRR Tolkien who compares the Creator to a perfect prism and creation to the refraction of perfect light. Tolkien writes,

‘Dear Sir,’ I said — ‘Although now long estranged, Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed Dis-grace he may be, yet is not de-throned, and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned: Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Because humans are the most highly selved in the world, we can recognize the inscape in other beings of the world through a process called instress, says Hopkins; and to recognize a being’s inscape through instress requires a divine intervention. Inscape and instress play a major part in organizing the structure of Hopkins’s poetry.

The idea is strongly embraced by the famous Trappist monk and literary genius Thomas Merton who admired both Scotus and Hopkins. In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton equates the unique “thingness” of a thing, its inscape, to sanctity. The result is that holiness itself is grounded in God’s idea of being. To the extent that any “thing” (include humans) honors God’s unique idea of them they are holy. Holiness thus connects to “vocation” (from the Latin vocare for “voice”) in two ways. First, God creates through the word; and second, when being responds rightly to God’s speech by expressing his unique word the result is Holiness.

Perhaps one of the best illustrations of Hopkins’s appreciation of what he calls the inscape of an object [or being]-of “God’s utterance of Himself outside Himself is this world” appears in his journal notation following his perception of a bluebell he found to be extraordinarily beautiful:

I know the beauty of our lord by it  as we drove home the stars came out thick: I lent back to look at them and my heart opening more than usual praised our lord to and in whom all that beauty comes home, this busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to god and filled me with delightful fear.

Here, Hopkins’s image of transcendence following his experience with the bluebell seemingly exemplifies how that intrinsic force that “keeps a thing in existence and its strain after continued existence,” that is, the instress of the inscape of the bluebell has allowed him to lose consciousness of time, of himself, of even where he is and what he is doing as he becomes unified with the oneness of the Universe, with God.

This theme flows through many of Hopkins’s poems such as Deutschland. Hopkins clearly pronounces that God is present in everything in this world: it would be impossible for him but for his infinity not to be identified with them or, from the other side, impossible but for his infinity so to be present to them

Obviously, Hopkins’s perception of the individualization of God in and of this world, naturally prompted his usage of personification of the object in his poetry. Based on his definition of inscape, however, Peters believes that Hopkins is actually “impersonating” the object’s inscape as he witnesses its inner essence to be. Consequently, Hopkins is not personifying the object in that he does not deliberately use intellectual construction and design; he is simply using impersonating the object to project its inscape as in the following example from Deutschland:

hope had grown grey hairs,
hope had mourning on,
trenched with tears, carved with cares,
hope was twelve hours gone.

In this example, Hopkins’s description appears to personify “hope,” but it also illustrates what Peters believes to be Hopkins’s definition of inscape. Rather than personifying the abstract noun hope, Hopkins is actually impersonating the inscape of hope as he has perceived it.

Hope, A Significant Image Of Transcendence
Consequently, Hope becomes a much more significant image of transcendence of suffering that humans must experience on the road to salvation, a necessary condition in experiencing their oneness to the Universe, to God the Creator. In impersonating the inscape of the humans trapped on the ill-fated Deutschland and the experiences and events that occur as the ship sinks, the tragedy itself becomes an image of transcendence of God’s presence in the Universe and of his promise of eternal life in a world free from stress and strife. That Hopkins at this point in time had been deeply influenced by Plato’s philosophy of the ideal real world adds credibility to this interpretation.

Hopkins And His Use Of Impersonation In Gerard Manley Hopkins
In A Critical Essay Towards the Understanding of His Poetry, Peters provides a detailed explication of Hopkins use of impersonation and its application to personification, including specific examples from his poems and journals. That Hopkins does impersonate and thus personify the inscapes he senses and observes in all of Natures’s subjects-trees, birds, water, men, animals, and so on-that through these entities he gleams or comes to know the presence of God at the core of each object-that each object is charged with God actually empowers Hopkins as well as his readers to experience or to transcend to a spiritual level of knowing the unknowable through the images of these objects he creates-to transcend the physical world of reality to the reality of the spiritual world to the true essence of God-to experience the Trinity on Earth. 

Coming to know the inscape of entities in the Universe is dependent upon instress, “that stress or energy of being by which all things are upheld and strive after continued existence,” the power that “ever actualizes the inscape.”  Hopkins himself contends that instress refers to the intrinsic force that “keeps a thing in existence and its strains after continued existence” as exemplified in his after experience with the bluebells: Hopkins states, “as in man all that energy or instress with which the soul animates and otherwise acts in the body is by death thrown back upon the soul.” 

Inscape And Instress Simplified
To simplify, inscape is that inner and outer essence of an entity that can be seen, touched, heard, and/or described whereas instress is the mystical experience, the feelings within us that the inscape or energy of an object stirs within us that all but defies description; it is the instress of the inscape we experience that connects us with the Spirit of our Creator. Peters notes,

In Hopkins there remains a clearly marked separation between the activity of the poet and the independent activity of the object; they do not become one in a poetic experience in which the subjective element and the objective element have been fused by the imagination. the emotional activity ascribed to an object by hopkins is real to him and fancied, as real as its inscape

Hopkins’s use of instress as incorporating both the “cause and effect” may be seen in the following quote from his notes on the bluebells:

Bluebells in hodder wood, all hanging their heads one way. I caught as well as I could . . . the lovely / what people call / ‘gracious’ bidding one to another or all one way to another or all one way, the level or stage or shire of colour they make hanging in the air a foot above the grass, and a notable glare the eye may abstract sever from the blue colour / of light beating up from so many glassy heads, which like water is good to float their deeper instress in upon the mind.

In another journal entry, Hopkins writes:

I saw the inscape though freshly, as if my eye were still gowning, though . . . for the constant repetition, the continuity, of the bad thought is that actualizing of it, that instressing of I…

And in another,

This access is either of grace, which is ‘supernature,’ to nature or of more grace to grace already given, and it takes the form of instressing the affective will, of affecting the will towards the good which he proposes…it is to be remarked that choice in the sense of taking of one and leaving of another real alternative is not what freedom of pitch really and strictly lies in. it is choice as when in English we say ‘because I choose,’ which means no more than . . .I instress my will to so-and-so.

In Hopkins’s attempt to make known his feelings of instress in objects, he utilizes not only verbs, similes and metaphors but also alliteration and assonance as in the following:

flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
wave with the meadow, forget that there must
the sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.


A Workable Definition For Hopkins’s Intended Usage Of “Inscape” And “Instress”
In Peters’s excellent discussion and analysis of Hopkins’s poems and his implied meanings of inscape and instress in his writings, he presents a workable definition for Hopkins’s intended usage of “inscape” and “instress” in his poems and that his respect for Hopkins’s perception of the world in which he lived should remind readers that in examining Hopkins’s work, especially his images of transcendence, that Hopkins is a serious, intellectual man who took life, his poetry, and his spiritually seriously and that his work deserves careful attention and respect, that Peters’s definitions of inscape and instress are indeed relevant in the examination of Hopkins’ writings and his beliefs in Spiritual transcendence.

Hopkins, Man And Poet
The complexity of Hopkins’s works, especially his experimentation and love of language, his incorporation and experimentation with the writing techniques of other writers and philosophers including the early classical ones, and failure to fully understand Hopkins’s intended meanings for instress and inscape may partially explain the multiple and varied interpretations and evaluations of Hopkins the man, Hopkins the poet, Hopkins’ poetry, and Hopkins’s place in literature among other poets.

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe– Gerard Manley Hopkins 

                Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.                

 I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.                

 If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

                So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

                Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child. 

Carl Jung and the Collective Unconscious
Certainly, in comparing Hopkins’s earlier work with his later, the most noticeable change is his decreased usage of similes for more sophisticated metaphors, a topic that several of his critics have discussed. Another change is in the types of metaphors he selects that seem to include universal archetypes as first proposed by Carl Jung (1875-1961), founder of analytical psychology, who believed there existed a “collective unconscious, a genetic myth- producing level of the mind common to all men and women, and serving as the well-spring of psychological life.”  In his examination of mythological motifs and primordial images, he came up with seven major archetypes:

the wise old man,
the trickster,
the persona,
the shadow,
the divine child,
the anima and animus, and
the great mother

Hopkins and the collective unconscious Since Jung noted the usage of these archetypes in international myths and legends, he believed that they did indeed stem from what he came to call the “collective unconscious” and began using them in analyzing his patients. As writers became more and more familiar with the concept of archetypes, they began using these in their writings to further enhance their characterizations. While Hopkins would have had no access to Jung’s theories, he still seems to have tapped into the “collective unconscious” in many of his poems.

In “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” the “Great Mother” archetype appears. Hopkins refers to Mary as the “world-mothering air” without whom man would be as spiritually dead as he would be physically dead without life-giving air, for it is she who “Gave God’s infinity/ Dwindled to infancy.”

Here, she obviously represents the archetype of feminine mystery and power, the Queen of heaven. She is “divine, ethereal, and virginal” and exudes all those traits and qualities that Hopkins holds close to his heart; she also represents the mother of childhood who nourishes, supports, and protects. As Hopkins creates this image of transcendence, he proclaims Mary’s “presence” and “power” to be greater than that of a goddess’. He acknowledges that “God’s glory” travels “Through her” and flows from her.

In the following lines, his description of Mary may well equate to his love and feelings for his own mother, perhaps even to his grief of separation from his mother when he chose to become a Catholic in spite of his parents’ objections:

she holds high motherhood
towards all our ghostly good
and plays in grace her part
about man’s beating heart,
laying, like air’s fine flood,
the deathdance in his blood;
yet no part but what will
be christ our saviour still.

Continuing the Great Mother motif, Hopkins states that Mary has given new life not only to Christ but to all of us:

men here may draw like breath
more Christ and baffle death;
who, born so, comes to be
new self and nobler me
in each one and each one
more makes, when all is done,
both God’s and mary’s son.

Hopkins continues his life-giving image of air as he moves into the breath-taking description of the sky, distinctly marked with light images that intensify feelings of warmth, and the coolness of life-giving water as we caress his words:

Again, look overhead
How air is azured;
O how! Nay do but stand
where you can lift your hand
skywards: rich, rich it laps
round the four fingergaps.
yet such a sapphire-shot,
charged, steeped sky will not
stain light. yea, mark you this:
it does no prejudice.
the glass-blue days are those
when every colour glows,
each shape and shadow shows.
blue be it: this blue heaven.

The fiery images that follow these lines

His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault,”

light and lift our spirits higher as we move into Hopkins’s proclamation,

through her we may see him
made sweeter, not made dim,
and her hand leaves his light
gifted to suit our sight.

In addition to the archetype of the Great Mother who births, nourishes, protects, and loves, the archetype fire appears in this poem that places Mary in the spotlight to remind us that through Mary’s gift of Christ, sin is destroyed, we are liberated, cleansed, purified, we are liberated from darkness-from death to a life ever-after; we are one with the Spirit, with Christ, with God.

As someone who came to the Church through a literary imagination, I have a tremendous debt to Hopkins for having taught me the true meaning of Mary to the Church. My habit is to memorize poems that move me and The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe was one such poem. Over the period of a couple months I would start my workday trudging along to the bus stop with a folded piece of paper where I had printed out the poem. Memorizing a poem forces you to repeat it over and over again until you master its rhythms and intricacies. Parts of it become traps, you can’t seem to recall it and you realize those parts are the ones the author is forcing you to look up and pause, reconsider.

I spent a number of years in Japan learning the art of bonsai and Japanese gardens. When I visited Kyoto and many of the famous gardens there I learned of the phenomena of “borrowed scenery.” The designer[s] would place stones on a path for you to follow but would purposely place one of the stones out of order or at a slightly different spacing. It would take you out of your step, force you to stop, and in that moment cause you to be aware of your surroundings – usually to focus on something beyond the garden space. Of course as a long legged American I would have to try to envision where that place was. I recalled the experience when reading Hopkins, how he would force you at certain places in a poem to THINK and try to interpret the significance of what he was saying.

This section here:

Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

With the broken reading occurring on Him and There, the mellifluousness of  “Who, born so, comes to be/New self and nobler me” encapsulates so much of the experience of learning this poem –realizing the spiritual path we follow that echoes the physical birthing of Christ and how it is Mary who can guide us. As someone who had a challenging mother-son relationship, I was always suspicious of the Church’s emphasis on Mary but came to realize the absolute integrity of that stance though this poem.

Much of the above is adapted from an essay by Evelyn Wilson titled “Gerard Manley Hopkins – Images of Transcendence.”


Understanding the Magisterium

July 23, 2009
An Illustration From The Baltimore Catechism

An Illustration From The Baltimore Catechism

Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council has stated emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles” (Dei Verbum, Ch2 10). Scripture, therefore, is not the Church’s sole point of reference and, as John Paul II pointed out in Fides Et Ratio, this is the kind of assertion we find in Biblicism or Christian fundamentalism. Rather the “supreme rule of our Catholic faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the two others.

The task of the Magisterium becomes “giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 85) and this is a task that has been entrusted only to the Magisterium. It cannot be performed by theologians or biblical exegetes, for example (protestations to the contrary). We can find the reason for this in the catechism: “The authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 85) “The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abide in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 890) 

The rule of what we must believe as Catholics was defined by the First Vatican Council (1870). Thus: “Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching [magisterium], proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed” (Dogmatic Constitution, De Fide, Ch 3).   Note that the “solemn judgment”, also referred to at times as the extraordinary Magisterium, refers to an infallible teaching emanating from the sacred deposit of faith and derives from the sensus fidelium (or the supernatural sense of faith – sensus fidei) of the Church. Sensus fidelium is the “sense of the faithful” and refers to the idea that beliefs, consciences and experiences of the faithful is one of the valid sources of truth in Catholic theology. Its very nature preserves it from fundamental error and is rooted in the promise of Christ to protect his Church (the mystical body of Christ) from error through the guidance of the Spirit.

So while nostrums such as “everyone makes mistakes” and “no one is infallible” may guide the ordinary citizen in the conduct of his secular affairs, when it comes to matters of the extraordinary Magisterium and its guidance by the Holy Spirit, these apparent common sense maxims no longer apply – derisive comments by the Church’s cultural detractors not withstanding. And it is here one must understand that the extraordinary Magisterium is just that: something rarely invoked (only twice in the past couple hundred years: Pope Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854), and Pope Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption of Mary (1950)) and begs to be distinguished from the ordinary and universal Magisterium which pours out thousands upon thousands of encyclicals, exhortations, homilies, addresses, letters and messages (estimated to be more in the last forty years that the previous 1960).

“Ordinary” means that it is accomplished via the ordinary means of teaching that the Church uses, and “universal” means that it is taught by the entire body of bishops, and usually over a period of time. For generally when a doctrine has been taught as authoritative over time and by many popes and bishops, this indicates that it is a teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium and must be received and believed as faithfully as teaching that is solemnly defined by pope or council. The Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, no. 25, taught, “Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith or morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.”

Much of the moral teaching of the Church is taught only by this ordinary and universal Magisterium. For example, abortion: “There can obviously be no room for any legitimate dispute among Catholics about the moral evil of abortion. Yet there has never been a solemn definition accompanied by anathemas against this heinous practice. But there is no need for one, since abortion has been condemned in numerous documents of the Church, starting with the Didache, a very early Catholic writing probably dating from between 80 to 90 A.D., and continuing on to the numerous documents and sermons of John Paul II and of many other contemporary bishops throughout the world. And whether or not the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI (1968) was infallible of itself, as some have argued, its teaching clearly was, for the doctrine that contraceptive acts violate the natural law has always been taught in the Church. Thus Catholics must reject any minimalist understanding of doctrine that would reduce it to only those pronouncements that have been solemnly made.” (Thomas Storck, “What Is the Magisterium?” Catholic Faith Magazine July/August 2001).

Moreover, we must distinguish the “ordinary and universal Magisterium” from simply “the ordinary Magisterium.” This latter is authoritatively discussed in the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII (1950) and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, of the Second Vatican Council (1964). Pope Pius XII wrote: “Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such… does not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority [Magisterium]. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority [Magisterio enim ordinario haec docentur], of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you,…heareth me” (Lumen Gentium no. 20).  

Lumen Gentium teaches that Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be revered by all as witnesses of divine and Catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated (Lumen Gentium no. 25).  In this case the Magisterium is ordinary but not universal. Even so, it demands a “loyal submission of the will and intellect” on the part of the whole Church. It must be emphasized, though, that when this passage refers to bishops, it is speaking only about those bishops “who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff.”

How does the charism of infallibility work? “There is something like a Catch 22 here (in the idea of sensus fidelium, which the Magisterium interprets). If the sense of the faithful is measured by the belief of those who are faithful, then those who are not faithful to the Church’s teaching do not have a voice in defining what is the Church’s teaching. One may be forgiven for suspecting an element of circularity in this reasoning. Those who disagree with the official Magisterium are, by definition not faithful and therefore are not part of the sensus fidelium that bears witness to the truth of what the Magisterium teaches. In untangling this knotty question it may be useful to recall Cardinal Newman’s example of how the faithful held out for what would come to be recognized as orthodoxy when most of the bishops were leaning toward the Arian heresy (the belief that the Son is not co-equally God with the Father). In the liturgy and devotional life of the Church the faithful intuited the necessity of affirming that Jesus Christ is at once God and true man. They knew they worshiped Jesus Christ as God and, if he were not God, they would be guilty of idolatry. The bishops assembled in council would in time be led by the Spirit to recognize and ratify what the faithful believed. (Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, (Basic Books;New York,2006) What Augustine called the City of God is, like the earthly city, a creature of time. Unlike the earthly city, its destination is eternal life, the New Jerusalem. That is the Tradition, the truth that is passed on from generation to generation. The oft-quoted words of Jaroslav Pelikan are in order: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.” (Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters).

 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it (the sacred deposit of faith). At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86) Hence the reciprocity noted earlier between it and Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Tradition is like the conscience of a community or the principle of identity that links one generation with another; it enables them to remain the same people as they go forward throughout history, which transforms all things. Yves Congar has written that “Tradition is memory, and memory enriches experience. If we remembered nothing it would be impossible to advance; the same would be true if we were bound to a slavish imitation of the past. True tradition is not servility but fidelity.” (Y.M.J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (London: 1966)

Here is another Fr. Neuhaus analogy that I liked concerning the Church and the Magisterium:

“The Church is called the barque of Peter on its way to the destination of the promised Kingdom. In the third Eucharistic prayer we ask God “to strengthen the faith and love of your pilgrim Church on earth.” The images speak of stability and movement, of communal identity through time. Employing the nautical imagery, the Magisterium is in command on the bridge. Once may be asked to help out from time to time, but one is not in charge. In a different turn on that image, Newman said that, all in all, he was very happy in the barque of Peter, and he was happier the farther he was from the engine room. Those on the bridge and in the engine room have their appointed tasks and, we are assured, the charisms necessary for carrying them out. As do we all. We are pilgrims and passengers and members of the crew beckoned onward by what the Church calls “the universal call to holiness.” Which is to say, beckoned on by Christ and the promise of the Kingdom. What is expected of us is to respond to the call where we are, and in doing so to allow ourselves to be carried where we are to be.” (Y.M.J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions)

Thinking of the Jaroslav Pelikan quote above, I would posit that the life of the Church can be understood as a continuing conversation. If seen in this way, then the Magisterium is the moderator of the conversation and sets the rules, making sure it is a conversation and not a shouting contest. Tradition said Chesterton, is the democracy of the dead, and the Magisterium assures that, in that sense, the conversation is democratic. The conversation is not about whatever anybody wants to talk about it. It is about, in the words of the New Testament letter of Jude, “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). What is called “the deposit of faith” — the truth (comprised of particular truths) by which the Church is constituted; the revelation of God in the history of Israel and preeminently in the incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ, and witnessed by the divinely inspired Scriptures. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s sentire cum ecclesia – thinking with the Church — begins with thinking. Theology has been described as fides quaerens intellectum – faith in search of understanding. In this sense, every faithful Christian is a theologian trying to think his way more deeply into the faith once delivered to the saints with the help of the Magisterium via sentire cum ecclesia.  

Not just sometimes but at the deepest level we confess, “I do not understand, but I believe.” And in believing we understand in a way that, as the prophet Isaiah wrote is “a peace that surpasses understanding” (Isaiah 26:3). We are finite, God is infinite. In the twelfth century, St. Anselm wrote, “God is greater than that which cannot be thought.” (Anselm in Proslogion, Ch. 15) The Church, through the Magisterium, teaches us how to think and speak rightly about that which cannot be adequately thought or spoken….Fr. Neuhaus again: “When the Church speaks infallibly, the faithful Catholic assents with heart and mind. We may not understand the pronouncement, we may think the teaching poorly expressed or inadequately supported by argument, but we obey, remembering that the etymology of obedience is “responsive listening.” …The alternative to obedience is to turn the conversation into a cacophony of Christians making it up as they go along. Obedience does not come easily for there is in all of us the rebellious spirit of John Milton’s Satan (Non serviam), who would rather rule in hell than obey in heaven” (Anselm in Proslogion, Ch. 15)

Obedience clashes with the current cultural ethos that exalts freedom. The Church remains profoundly misunderstood by not only its secular critics but by those who sit in her pews on Sundays. The Church is not primarily a bureaucratic institution — although there are, to be sure, bureaucracies to carry out many of the Church’s activities and, sadly, bureaucracy may often be the face of many parishes. Nor is the Papacy or the Magisterium, as the secularists would have us believe, political offices that exist primarily to carry out executive and legislative functions. Rather, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God. This claim, which is part of our faith, is sheer nonsense to our scientific-materialist detractors. The papacy and the episcopate were established by Christ himself, not to legislate, but to teach Christ’s savings truths to his people. Contrary to its depiction in the Boston Globe and other secular media, the Magisterium does not ”ban” abortion or contraception or homosexual activity; banning is a legislative act — rather the Magisterium teaches the truth that such acts are intrinsically immoral, contrary to Christ’s saving truths and incompatible with the sharing of divine life.

Robert George, writing in The Clash of Orthodoxies, explains: “Understanding the nature of the Church and its authority makes all the difference when it comes to issues of moral consequence. People who view the Church as essentially a political body and the Magisterium as a legislative office will chafe under the authority of decisions that strike them as restricting freedoms they enjoy. They will test those decisions by appeal to conscience — understood now, not as a judgment of what one is morally required to do or not do, but, rather, as one’s feeling about whether a certain activity — abortion, premarital sex, or whatever — is in fact morally available for one’s choice, the Church’s teaching about the wrongfulness of that activity notwithstanding. By contrast, people who understand the essentially mystical reality of the Church and the function of the Magisterium as teacher of Christ’s saving truths will adopt an attitude of humble — and grateful — submission to the Church’s moral teachings. They understand those teachings as making known the mind of Christ and thus helping to make possible our salvation. Such people will treat those teachings as principles of the formation of their consciences. And they will struggle to live in accordance with them.” 


My Notes on Dante

July 22, 2009
"I came to in a gloomy wood..." Gustave Dore

"I came to in a gloomy wood..." Gustave Dore

Halfway through the story of my life
I came to in a gloomy wood, because
I’d wandered off the path, away from the light.

It’s hard to put words to what that wood was;
I shudder even now to think of it,
So wild and rough and tortured were its ways;

And death might well be its confederate
In bitterness; yet all the good I owe
To it, and what else I saw there, I’ll relate.

Inferno 1. 1-9; translation Ciaran Carson

For years I have been reading in/around/through Dante. Here is a selection of some of those readings with hopes that spur you towards a book, that like Fr. Romano Guardini’s The Lord, has me on a permanent read.

Appreciating Dante
To appreciate Dante it is not, of course, necessary to believe what he believed, but it is, I think, necessary to understand what he believed, and to realize that it is a belief which a mature mind can take seriously. The widespread disinclination today to take Hell and Heaven seriously results, very largely, from a refusal to take this world seriously. If we are materialists, we look upon man’s life as an event so trifling compared to the cosmic process that our acts and decisions have no importance beyond the little space-time frame in which we find ourselves. If we take what is often vaguely called “a more spiritual attitude to life,” we find that we are postulating some large and lazy cosmic benevolence which ensures that, no matter how we behave, it will all somehow or other come out right in the long run. But here Christianity says “No. What you do and what you are matters, and matters intensely. It matters now and it matters eternally; it matters to you and it matters so much to God that it was for Him literally a matter of life and death.”
Dorothy Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante

The Inferno And Today’s Society
That the Inferno is a picture of human society in a state of sin and corruption, everybody will readily agree. And since we are today fairly well convinced that society is in a bad way and not necessarily evolving in the direction of perfectibility, we find it easy enough to recognize the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of a living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self-opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including one’s own; the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercializing of religion, the pandering to superstition and conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and ‘spell-binding’ of all kinds, venality and string –pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance; these are the all-too-recognizable stages that lead to the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilized relations.
Dorothy Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante

On the Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy suggests a love story: a tale of sweethearts beyond the grave, Dante and Beatrice, legendary lovers, divided by death, reunite in a poetic afterlife. In fact it is a truer love story: that of a dispossessed soul learning the meaning of life and finding the grace to love that meaning. Attaining that kind of love depends on developing  “the good of the intellect,” Dante wrote… a tale for those who have dreamed of creating something that seems beyond them.
Dante In Love — Harriet Rubin

George Santayana on Dante’s Exile
What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world? Locomotion — the privilege of animals — is perhaps the key to intelligence. The roots of vegetables (which Aristotle says are their mouths) attach them fatally to the ground and they are condemned like leeks to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them at the particular spot where they happen to be stuck. In animals the power of locomotion changes all this pale experience into a life of passion; and it is on passion, although we anemic philosophers are apt to forget it, that intelligence is grasped.
Dante In Love — Harriet Rubin

Dante’s Love Contrasted
Dante helped T.S. Eliot see the connection between the medieval Christian Inferno and modern life. Both the poet and his reader have to plumb the depths of Hell and bear the ordeals of Purgatory to reach the love that frees one of desire. Love becomes the basis of creativity. Love as the habit of genius is Dante’s invention, his miraculous synthesis.
Saint Francis’ love — caritas, charity — is not sufficient to assure one’s move … into paradise…A different kind of love, amor, which is intimate and spiritual will do that. Amor is a divine love that is individual, as in the feeling for a child or a lover for a beloved. In the Inferno Dante will see love as an enslaving passion, desire run amok.. He will find that a person enslaved by love dies, a person liberated by love acts…there comes to mind the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s hero “It is as if you had been given back to me after you died.”
Dante In Love — Harriet Rubin

Whatever praises Dante the pilgrim, speaking in character may address to Virgil, Dante the poet knew and intended from the beginning that Virgil and his Humanism were inadequate to salvation. The action of the story tells us so. From the very beginning Humanism is presented to us as damned. In its own strength, it can never rise higher than Limbo; in its own wisdom it can only show us Hell. Grace sends it on its errand of salvation; even as far as Purgatory it can come only in company with a soul in grace, and here it does not of itself know the way and is subject to this authority of all the Ministers of Grace. The spiritual signification resides in the action and the development of the story as whole.
Introductory Papers On Dante – Dorothy Sayers

The Active Life And The Church
There is a fundamental error about the Church’s attitude to the Active Life – a persistent assumption that Catholic Christianity, like any Oriental Gnosticism, despises the flesh and enjoins a complete detachment for all secular activities. Such a view is altogether heretical. No religion that centers about a Divine Incarnation can take up such an attitude as that. What the Church enjoins is quite different: namely, that all the good things of this world are to be loved because God loves them, as God loves them, for the love of God, and for no other reason. That is the right ordering of love, about which so much is said in the Purgatorio. A full Active Life, rightly ordered, is therefore in no way incompatible with holiness or even with a rich Contemplative Life. Indeed many of the greatest Contemplatives have been masterly men and women of business – one need only instance St. Augustine of Hippo, St Theresa of Avila, or St Gregory the Great.
Introductory Papers On Dante – Dorothy Sayers

The Ways Corruption Is Reached And The Ways Of Restoration
We find it fairly easy to recognize the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including ones’ own the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercializing of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and “spell-binding” of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest means of mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-too-recognizable extinguishing of all civilized relations….For Dante the restoration of society must come from within and not from without: the change of heart must precede the establishment of right institutions…
The evil loves that have to be purged are (a) the pride that seeks domination and cannot bear to see another person, class, or nation enjoying equal or superior privileges (b) the envy that is terrified of any sort of competition, lest another’s gain should be one’s own loss (c) the anger that exacts vindictive reparations and cannot forgive past injuries.
Then there is sloth, which may take the forms either of indifference, delay or despair. Then come the disordered love for things right in themselves but wrong when they are made and end in themselves (a) avarice, which is the love of money, whether in the sense of grudging thrift or conspicuous waste, and the lust for that power which money gives (b) the greed of a high standard of living; and (c) the lussuria which is the exaltation of emotional and personal relationships above all other loyalties, human or divine.
Introductory Papers On Dante – Dorothy Sayers

A Story of Conversion
The story of the Commedia is the story of a conversion, and the stages of the process are those which the accounts of many such experiences in real life have made familiar to us. Peculiar to Dante is the part played by Virgil. The sinner, who has fallen so far that he can no longer hear the call of religion, is reached, through the grace of God, at the rational level. He realizes, one may say, that he is on the point of betraying even the ordinary human decencies; and this salutary shock opens his eyes to his condition and starts him on the road to repentance. This recognition of the cooperation of Nature with Grace is characteristically Catholic…
Heaven like Hell is within the soul – it has to choose which possibility to embrace, and, having chosen Heaven, it must die to sin with Christ and make free its will so that it may become one with the will of Christ within it…if love is rightly ordered…it will keep the Law because it wants to keep it and find its freedom in that service.
Introductory Papers On Dante – Dorothy Sayers

This Inverted World
The descent into hell, whether metaphorical as in the Confessions, or dramatically real as in Dante’s poem, is the first step on the journey to the truth. It has the effect of shattering the inverted values of this life (which is death, according to Christian rhetoric) and transforming death into authentic life. The inversion of values…what seems up is in fact down; what seems transcendence is in fact descent…just as the reversed world of Plato’s myth in the Statesman represented a world of negative values…Augustine alludes to Plato’s myth when he describes his own spiritual world before conversion as a ‘regio dissimilitudinis’ (region of unlikeness)…Augustine turns to the light of the Platonic vision, only to discover he is too weak to endure it. He is beaten back by the light and falls, weeping, to the things of this world…(He asks himself) “why God had given him certain books of Napoleonic philosophy to read before leading him to Scripture.” (He answers) “So that I might know the difference between presumption and confession: between those who saw where they were to go, yet saw not the way, and the way itself, that led not to behold only, but to dwell in the beatific country.”…This is the dramatic purpose of Dante’s prologue scene.
Dante The Poetics of Conversion — John Freccero

The Wounded Will
No reader of Dante’s first canto can fail to remember that after resting his tired body, the pilgrim sets off to his objective “si che ‘l pie fermo sempre era ‘l piu basso”

And as he who with laboring breath has escaped from the deep to the shore turns to look back on the dangerous waters, so my mind which was still fleeing turned back to gaze upon the pass  that never left anyone alive.

The pie fermo signifies the pilgrim’s will, unable to respond to the promptings of the reason because of the Pauline malady, characteristic of the fallen man whose mind far outstrip the ability of a wounded will to attain the truth. The fallen will limps in its efforts to reach God…Augustine insists upon the inability of the will to complete the journey:

I was troubled in spirit, most vehemently indignant that I entered not into Thy Will
and Covenant, O my God, which all my bones cried out unto me to enter, and praised
it to the skies. And therein we did not enter by ships, or chariots, or feet, nor move not
so far as I had come from the house to that place where we were sitting. For, not to go
only, but to go in thither was nothing else but to will to go, but to will resolutely and
thoroughly; not to turn and toss, this way and that, a maimed and half-divided will,
struggling, with one part sinking as another rose.

Dante The Poetics of Conversion — John Freccero

Descent In Humility
Augustine expressed with the exhortation “Descend so that you may ascend.”  In the spiritual life, one must descend in humility before one an begin the ascent to truth, and in the physical world , according to both Dante and Aristotle, one must travel downward with respect to our hemisphere in order to rise. …
The pilgrim in the prologue scene is a man left to himself, unable to order his appetites to his reason, This spiritual disorder, which Aristotle called “incontinence”, is represented by the pilgrim’s inability to move his feet consecutively, just as Plato represented disorder in the soul by the figure of the limping man. Unfortunately for man in his fallen state, the soul’s powers are not equal to the task  of moving toward God for  the intellect is stronger in knowing than is the will in loving, or to state the matter in another way, the affections bind the intellect…
The Christian does not begin at zero point on his journey, but rather from the world of generation and corruption, a topsy-turvy world of inflated pride where directions and values are both inverted. Although the fall from grace left the natural light intact, it involved the will in a conversion to lower things, and the consequent distortion can be cured only by a descent in humility and an ascent to grace. Before the soul can make progress, the twisted course of the will must first be unwound. A passage attributed to St. Augustine expresses the situation in much the same terms:

The love of earthly things extinguished in me the delectation of the heavenly: the having of vice emptied in me the sense of the true gifts. From those gifts am I removed, in thee evils am I occupied; secluded from them included in these; from those am I unwound, in these wound up. Here is that prison and here are those chains, here is weight and darkness.

Dante The Poetics of Conversion — John Freccero

The Limits of Knowledge: Ulysses And Dante
Dante begins to worry about the limits and excesses of art and the artful mind. Ulysses believes that the distance between truth and lies can be bridged by knowledge. He convinces his companions to make this voyage by seducing them with words. And of course, he convinces himself. It is a kind of thievery, secret and furtive. But far from being the master of his art, Ulysses is possessed by it. Knowledge is not the way to the mind of God, as Adam’s dismissal from Eden proved. Knowledge is not Paradise. It is not perfection. It is not bliss…
Ulysses journey was circular. The hero returned home, to Greece and to the afterlife, the same person as when he left. Dante’s is a journey of change. He wants to be free of what imprisoned him, the world of relative truths, cycles of loves, not love. For him the journey is the poem: the ultimate objective of the pilgrim is to become the poet and gain poetic knowledge. Purely philosophical excursion do not please another…Com’ altrui piacque (As Pleased Another — the last line in Inferno when Ulysses describes his death at sea within sight of  Mount Purgatory)
Dante In Love — Harriet Rubin

The Nature of Souls in Paradise
The ambition for everything other than love is silenced in Paradise, there is no desire. Each soul is perfectly happy according to his potential to know happiness there is no envy, no striving. What makes these souls different from the damned in Hell is not that they have not sinned but that they have found repentance, love, and grace. The spirit, Foulquet of Marseille, appears as “joy”. He doesn’t merely greet Dante at a distance, as the souls in Hell and Purgatory have done. Folquet can enter Dante as a joy enters a person. He tells Dante that since his soul in Paradise is one with God, it shares his omniscience. Folquet here knows exactly what is on Dante’s mind:

Here all our thoughts are fixed upon the love
That beautifies creation, and here we learn
How the world below is moved by world above.

Dante In Love — Harriet Rubin



Romano Guardini on the Imitation Of Christ

July 21, 2009


Among the instructions that Jesus gives the Twelve before sending them out into the world are the following:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  
Matthew 10:34-39

Jesus’ message is one of good will. He proclaims the Father’s love and the advent of his kingdom He calls people to the peace and harmony of life lived in the divine will. Yet their first reaction is not, union, but division. The more profoundly Christian a man becomes, the deeper the cleft between him and those who refuse to follow Christ — its exact measure proportionate to the depth of that refusal. The split runs right through the most intimate relationship, for genuine conversion is not a thing of natural disposition or historical development, but the most personal decision an individual can make.

The one makes it, the other does not, hence the possibility of schism between father and son, friend and friend, one member of a household and another When it comes to a choice between domestic peace and Jesus, one must value Jesus higher, even higher than the most dearly beloved: father and mother, son and daughter, friend or love. This means cutting into the very core of life, and temptation presses us to preserve human ties and abandon Christ. But Jesus warns us: If you hold “life” or the world fast, sacrificing me for it, you lose your own true life. If you let it go for my sake, you will find yourself in the heart of immeasurable reality.

Naturally this is difficult; it is the cross. And here we brush against the heaviest mystery of Christianity, its inseparableness from Calvary. Ever since Christ walked the way of the cross, it stands firmly planted on every Christian’s road, for every follower of Christ has his own personal cross. Nature revolts against it, wishing to ‘preserve’ herself. She tries to go around it, but Jesus has said unequivocally, and his words are fundamental to Christianity: He who hangs on, body and soul, to “life” or the world will lose it; he who surrenders his will to his cross will find it — once and forever in the immortal self that shares in the divine life of Christ.

On the last journey to Jerusalem, shortly before the Transfiguration, Jesus’ words about the cross are repeated. Then, sharply focused, the new thought:

“For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?”
(Matthew: 16:26).

This time the point plunges deeper. The dividing line runs not between one person and another, but between the believer or one desirous of belief and everything else! Between me and the world. Between me and myself. The lesson of the cross is the great lesson of self-surrender and self-conquest. The passion of the Lord is the time that we turn to Christianity’s profoundest, but also most difficult mystery: Why did Jesus come? To add a new, higher value to those already existent? To reveal a new truth over and above existing truth, or a nob1er nobility or a new and more just order of human society? No, he came to bring home the terrible fact that everything, great and small, noble and mean, the whole with all its parts — from the corporal to the spiritual, from the sexual to the highest creative urge of genius — is intrinsically corrupt.

This does not deny the existence of individual worth. What is good remains good, and high aspirations will always remain high. Nevertheless human existence in toto has fallen away from God. Christ did not come to renew this part or that, or to disclose greater human possibilities, but to open man’s eyes to what the world and human life as an entity really is; to give him a point of departure from which he can begin all over with his scale of values and with himself. Jesus does not uncover hidden creative powers in man; he refers him to God, center and source of all power.

It is as though humanity were one of those enormous ocean liners that is a world in itself: apparatuses for the most varied purposes; collecting place for all kinds of passengers and crew with their responsibilities and accomplishments, passions, tensions, struggles. Suddenly someone appears on board and says: What each of you is doing is important, and you are right to try to perfect your efforts. I can help you, but not by changing this or that on your ship, it is your course that is wrong; you are steering straight for destruction.

Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals or onto a reef. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him.

Jesus actually is the Rescue-Pilot who puts us back on the right course. It is with this in mind that we must interpret the words about winning the world at the loss of the essential; about losing life, personality, soul, in order to possess them anew and truly. They refer to faith and the imitation of Christ.

Faith means to see and to risk accepting Christ not only as the greatest teacher of truth that ever lived, but as Truth itself (John 16:6). Sacred reality begins with Jesus of Nazareth. If it were possible to annihilate him, the truth he taught would not continue to exist in spite of the loss of its noblest apostle, but the Truth itself would cease to exist. For he is the Logos, the source of Living Truth. He demands not only that we consent intellectually to the correctness of his proclamation –  that would be only a beginning — but that we feel with all our natural instinct for right and wrong, with heart and soul and every cell of our being, its claims upon us. We must not forget: the whole ship is headed for disaster. It does not help to change from one side of it to the other or to replace this or that instrument. It is the course that must be altered. We must learn to take completely new bearings.

What does it mean, to be? Philosophy goes into the problem deeply, without changing being at all. Religion tells me that I have been created; that I am continuously receiving myself from divine hands, that I am free yet living from God’s strength. Try to feel your way into this truth, and your whole attitude towards life will change. You will see yourself in an entirely new perspective. What once seemed self-understood becomes questionable. Where once you were indifferent, you become reverent; where self-confident, you learn to know “fear and trembling.” But where formerly you felt abandoned, you will now feel secure, living as a child of the Creator-Father, and the knowledge that this is precisely what you are will alter the very tap root of your being. . . .

What does it mean to die? Physiology says the blood vessels harden or the organs cease to function. Philosophy speaks of the pathos of finite life condemned to aspire vainly to infinity. Faith defines death as the fruit of sin, and man as peccator(Latin for sinner) (“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23). Death’s arm is as long as sin’s. One day for you too its consequences and those of death’s disintegration will have to be drawn. It will become evident how peccant (sinful, guilty) you are and consequently moribund.

Then all the protective screens so elaborately arranged between you and this fact will fall, and you will have to stand and face your judgment. But faith also adds, God is love, even though he allows sin to fulfill itself in death, and your Judge is the same as your Savior, If you were to reflect on this, over and over again until its truth was deep in your blood, wouldn’t it make a fundamental difference in your attitude towards life, giving you a confidence the world does not have to give? Wouldn’t it add a flew earnestness and meaning to everything you do?

What precisely is this chain of acts and events that runs from our first hour through our last? The one says natural necessity, the other historical consequence, a third, something else. Faith says: It is Providence. The God who made you, saved you, and will one day place you in his light, also directs your life. What happens between birth and death is message, challenge, test, succor — all from his hands It is not meant to be learned theoretically, but personally experienced and assimilated. Where this is so, aren’t all things necessarily transfigured? What is the resultant attitude but faith?

Religion then!  But there are so many, one might object, Christ is just another religious founder. No, all other religions come from earth True, God is present in the earth he created, and it is always God whom the various religions honor, but not in the supremacy of his absolute freedom. Earthly religions revere God’s activity, the reflections of his power (more or less fragmentary, distorted) as they encounter it in a world that has turned away from him.

They are inspired by the breath of  the divine, but they exist apart from him, they are saturated with worldly influences, are formed, interpreted, colored by the historical situation of the moment. Such a religion does not save. It is itself a piece of “world,” and he who wins the world loses his soul.  Christ brings no “religion,” but the message of the living God, who stands in opposition and contradiction to all things, “world-religions” included.  

Faith understands this, for to believe does not mean to participate in one or the other religions, but: “Now this is everlasting life, that they may know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou hast sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3) Men are to accept Christ’s tidings as the norm of their personal lives.

My attitudes towards things to be done may be various. One follows the principle of maximum profit with minimum effort. This is the clever or economical approach. I can also consider a specific task in the light of duty the fulfillment of which places my life on a spiritual and moral level. Christ teaches neither greater cleverness nor a higher sense of duty, he says.

Try to understand everything that comes into your life from the viewpoint of the Father’s will. If I do, what happens? Then I continue to act in accordance with cleverness and utility but under the eyes of God. I will also do things that seem foolish to the world, but are clever in eternity. I will continue to try to act ethically, to distinguish clearly between right and wrong and to live in increasing harmony with an increasingly dependable conscience. All this, however, in the living presence of Christ, which will teach me to see things I never would have noticed alone. It will change my concepts and trouble my conscience — but for its good, stripping it of  self-confidence, of moral pride, and of the intellectual stiffness that results from too much principle-riding. With increasing delicacy of conscience will come a new firmness of purpose and a new energy (simultaneously protective and creative) for the interests of good.

Similarly, my attitude to my neighbor may be ordered from various points of view I can consider others competition, and attempt to protect my interests from them. I can respect the personality of each. I can see them as co-sharers of destiny responsible with me for much that is to come, and so on and so forth. Each of these attitudes has its place, but everything is changed once I understand what Christ is saying. You and those near you — through me you have become brothers and sisters, offspring of the same Father.

His kingdom is to be realized in your relationship to each other. We have already spoken of the transformation that takes place when fellow citizens become brothers in Christ, when from the “you and me” of the world springs the Christian “we.” Much could be said of the Christian’s attitude to destiny and all that it implies in the way of injustice, shock and tragedy: things with which no amount of worldly Wisdom, fatalism or philosophy can cope — and preserve its integrity This is possible only when some fixed point exists outside the world, and such a point cannot be created by man, but must be accepted from above (as we accept the tidings of divine Providence and his all-directing love). St. Paul words it in his epistle to the Romans (Chap. 8): “Now we know that for those who love God all things work together unto good….“This means an ever more complete exchange of natural security self-confidence, and self righteousness, for confidence in God and his righteousness as it is voiced by Christ and the succession of his apostles.

Until a man (or woman) makes this transposition he will have no peace. He will realize how the years of his life unroll, and ask himself vainly what remains. He will make moral efforts to improve, only to be come either hopelessly perplexed or priggish. He will work, only to discover that nothing he can do stills his heart. He will study, only to progress little beyond vague probabilities — unless his intellectual watchfulness slackens, and he begins to accept possibility for truth or wishes for reality. He will fight, found, form this and that only to discover that millions have done the same before him and millions will continue to after he is gone, without shaping the constantly running sand for more than an instant. He will explore religion, only to founder in the questionableness of all he finds.

The world is an entity. Everything in it conditions everything else. Everything is transitory. No single thing helps, because the world as a whole has fallen from grace. One quest alone has an absolute sense: that of the Archimedes-point and lever which can lift the world back to God and these are what Christ came to give.

One more point is important: our Christianity itself must constantly grow. The great revolution of faith is not a lump of reality fallen ready-made from heaven into our laps. It is a constant act of my individual heart and strength I stand with all I am at the center of my faith, which means that I bring to it also those strands of my being which instinctively pull away from God. It is not as though I, the believer, stood on one side, on the other the fallen world Actually faith must be realized within the reality of my being, with its full share of worldliness.

Woe to me if I say: “I believe” and feel safe in that belief. For then I am already in danger of losing it (“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”– 1 Corinthians: 10:12). Woe to me if I say: “I am a Christian” — possibly with a side-glance at others who in my opinion are not, or at an age that is not, or at a cultural tendency flowing in the opposite direction. Then my so-called Christianity threatens to become nothing but a religious form of self-affirmation. 

I “am” NOT a Christian; I am on the way to becoming one — if God will give me the strength. Christianity is nothing one can “have”, nor is it a platform from which to judge others. It is movement. I can become a Christian only as long as I am conscious of the possibility of falling away. The gravest danger is not failure of the will to accomplish a certain thing, with God’s help I can always pull myself together and begin again. The real danger is that of becoming within myself unchristian, and it is greatest when my will is most sure of itself. I have absolutely no guarantee that I shall be privileged to remain a follower of Christ save in the manner of beginning, of being en route, of becoming, trusting, hoping and praying.


From Eight Bad Thoughts to Seven Sins

July 20, 2009


Naming the Demon
The era of the desert fathers and mothers was no less complex than our own — the fourth-century Mediterranean was in great political and social turmoil — but monks such as Evagrius were free of the heavy baggage of Western Christendom’s concept of sin. What the Church later defined as sin, desert monks termed “bad thoughts’ which to my mind is a much more helpful designation.

Given the history of the Church’s emphasis on sins of the flesh, contemporary readers may find it odd that the early monks regarded lust as one of the lesser temptations. They identified it as a form of greed, the desire to possess and use another person inappropriately in the pursuit of one’s own satisfaction. Anger, pride, and acedia were considered the worst of the “thoughts” with acedia the most harmful of all, for it could inflict a complete loss of hope and capacity for trust in God.

As the “eight bad thoughts” of the desert monks eventually became the Church’s “seven deadly sins” acedia was dropped from the list, and the monks’ profound understanding of the common temptations that all people suffer lost ground to a concept of sin as an individual’s commission of a bad act or omission of a good one. This in turn led to a superficial form of self-justification, for instance:  If I don’t overeat, then I’m not guilty of gluttony; if I don’t commit adultery, I am free of lust.

The new emphasis on acts also contributed to the Church’s power; it alone could identify the acts that it alone had the power to absolve. The monks’ subtle comprehension of temptation as thoughts that the individual may identify and resist before they turn into harmful actions was largely submerged. The insidious thought of acedia was not easily defined as an act, and it was soon subsumed within the sin of sloth.

I regard the early monastic perspective on the basic temptations that all people face as an ur-psychology that is as relevant today as when it was first conceived. In The Praktikos, his primary work on these temptations as he experienced them, Evagrius characterizes them as gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride.

The idea of sadness as a “bad thought” may strike modern readers as perverse, but Evagrius explains that it often comes upon us when our desires are thwarted, and we call to mind poignant memories of our parents caring for us at a time when we felt more at home in the world. this exercise in nostalgia can be treacherous.  As the scholar Lucien Regnault points out,  Evagrius came to believe that the demons “cannot act directly on the intellect.” They arouse evil thoughts by working on the memory and imagination.

Evagrius warns that if we do not resist these seemingly harmless thoughts at the outset, they soon pour out in pleasures that are. . . only mental in nature and then seize us and drench us in sadness. As we come to prefer living in the past, we grow less able to enjoy the present or invest in the future.

Evagrius is quite astute on the subject of how quickly a person’s unresolved anger can turn against him, building an intensity that is inappropriate to its presumed cause. The one who inwardly harbors such an all encompassing indignation manifests “a general debility of the body, malnutrition with its attendant pallor, and the illusion of being attacked by poisonous wild beasts.”  John Eudes Bamberger, the Cistercian monk who translated The Praktikos into English, and who is a physician, notes that Evagrius’s “description of the dynamics of disproportionate anger” is best “appreciated for its accuracy … by those who have carefully followed the progression of certain forms of schizophrenia.”

I recognize all too well anger as Evagrius describes it: “a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes.  I have endured what Evagrius terms “alarming experiences by night” when indignation overpowers me and disrupts my sleep.

I may dwell for a time on the immediate cause of my anger, but if I do not check my rage, I am likely to think of other slights, other people who have been disagreeable, or whom I feel I have good reason to detest. Once when I was furious with my husband, the importance of resisting the “bad thought” of anger was brought home to me.

I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, brimming with resentment. David had acted irresponsibly, and I felt thoroughly justified in my rage. But as my litany of complaint raced on, moving from my husband to others who had recently wronged me, and then to those who had annoyed me in the more distant past, I stopped. Wait a minute, I said to myself, this could go on forever. What’s really happening here?

That question had an answer. And only after I had consciously dismissed my anger for the phantom it was could I see past the shadows. My husband had not been able to help himself, and was in fact in a highly fragile state. My anger had masked what I really felt for him, which was fear. Somewhere in my reading of monastic literature I had found a description of anger as the seed of compassion, and I felt this keenly on that night. What my husband needed most was hospitality, and an open ear. I had to reject my feelings of hurt and anger, which were self-indulgent under the circumstances. I needed to clear my vision.

But even as I recognize the psychology involved in this change of perspective, I have to admit to its theological import. If anger had imprisoned me within myself, only love could free me, the love that is the gift of a merciful God.

When discussing the psychology of the desert monks, we must remember that for them God was at the center of it all. They disdained discussing theology, and while they often spoke about the importance of loving one’s neighbor, they did not specifically mention the love of God. But God was always their reference point. As John Eudes Bamberger has commented, the monks’ concerns were eminently practical, yet they were also directed at more than the psychological and social consequences of bad thoughts and actions. If their hearts and their lives were to mirror God’s pure and unconditional love, they needed to concern themselves with anything that clouded that divine image.

To Speak of Sin
A friend who is a monk, a scholar, and, like some contemporary Benedictines, the client of a psychiatrist and a user of psychotropics, once remarked that what we call “issues” the early monks called “demons” It’s probably not that simple, but I’m tempted to brandish my poetic license and say that he’s right. And what of sin?

Shouldn’t we dump the sick old theology that makes the depressed person feel not only worthless but evil as well? Of course, but we need to be clear about what we are doing, and recognize that this subject is likely to trigger an intense and also polarized response. Some people bristle at the suggestion that they be held in any way accountable for their mental states, while others regard a concern with underlying causes or motivations as an attempt to excuse bad behavior and evil acts.

The psychiatrist Karl Menninger, struggling with this dilemma in the latter half of the twentieth century, observed that even though one may detect the reasons behind a sin, this “does not correct its offensiveness, its destructiveness, its essential wrongness. If  “ignorance of the law excuses no one,” ignorance of the truth surely cannot absolve one from all sins of omission.

Call it sloth, acedia, apathy, indifference, laziness, callousness, or whatever — if refusal to learn permits the continuity of destructive evil, such willful ignorance is surely wrong. It may be, for example, that a person abuses a child because he or she suffered similar cruelty in childhood. This does not diminish the reality of pain for the child now undergoing the abuse, or in Menninger’s terms, its “wrongness.” And unless that wrong is named and addressed, its harmful effects will be passed on to future generations of innocent children.

By treating acedia as a sin, I am not suggesting that people bear responsibility for being overwhelmed by the medical condition diagnosed as depression, which is not a moral failing but an illness. Yet like any essayist, I am an explorer, and I mean to explore freely what I have experienced for most of my life as acedia —  in the light of literature, theology, psychology, and pharmacology. I need to essay, in all its senses —  try out, test, weigh, and probe the distinctions between the disease of depression and the vice of acedia. I suspect that an informed understanding of sin can assist us in sorting them out.

I regard sin as a viable concept, one that helps explain the mess we’ve made of our battered, embattled world, and the shambles we make of so many personal relationships. It’s the abuse of the doctrine that trips us up, as theologians and church leaders have often settled for a facile and narrow view of sin that leaves people either firmly convinced of their own virtue or resigned to believing that they are beyond redemption. I find it instructive that while the early monks tossed around the words “demons” and “bad thoughts” with abandon, they did not speak of sin.

Acedia is best understood not as one of the seven deadly sins, but as the eighth bad thought. Depression may well be one of its names, yet I sense that acedia contains something more than what we generally mean when we say that someone is depressed. I am in good company Both John Cassian and Thomas Aquinas recognized that acedia operates on the border between the physical and the spiritual life. They considered it both a sin and an ailment — a recurring theme in the history of acedia. As a remedy for the affliction, Thomas Aquinas recommended a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep.

Certainly I am grateful for the great advances that have helped destigmatize mental illness and brought relief to millions, including my husband and me. Still, labeling despair as an illness may be less helpful than it seems. It’s a start in the right direction, but only that. We are at a primitive stage in determining the role of genetics and environment in influencing our behavior, and what we believe to be our enlightened and sophisticated understanding of the human character may prove, within a few short years, to be as primitive as Aristotle’s notion that four humors are the prime determinants of temperament.

Acedia and Vocation
The concept of acedia has always been closely linked with that of vocation. Acedia was, and remains, the monk’s most dangerous temptation, as it makes the life he has vowed to undertake seem foolish, if not completely futile. As one scholar has stated, the monk struggling with acedia is “dealing with more than bad moods, psychic fluctuations, or moral defeats.

It is a question of the resolve that arises in the wake of a decisive choice for which the monk has risked his life and to which he must hold . . . to realize [his] full potential in oneness with God. He has bet everything that he has and everything that he is on this.” Monastic people live with the tension of having to find meaning in a way of life that the world, for all the reverent lip service paid to “holy orders” considers largely anachronistic and useless. Artists can feel a similar disconnect, and many could no doubt identify with a caustic remark attributed to T. S. Eliot, to the effect that when all is said and done, the writer may realize that he has wasted his youth and wrecked his health for nothing.

Acedia has been observed in other areas in which the labor is long and the rewards are slow to appear, if they come at all. An article published in the 1960s, “Scientific Acedia” elaborates on the vice as “an occupational hazard among men of learning that takes the form of a general withdrawal of motivation for research and an increasing alienation from science.” Acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value. The world does not care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength. But the demon of acedia is adept at striking when those resources are at a low ebb, as John Berryman notes:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no
Inner Resources? I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature.

One would expect that literature, especially great literature, would inspire a writer such as Berryman, or at least enhance his faith in the worthiness of his craft. But no, acedia insists, it’s just boring. Acedia’s genius is to seize us precisely where our hope lies, to tear away at the heart of who we are, and mock that which sustains us.

Liminal Acedia
Acedia’s liminal status in the history of Western culture, and in the Christian East, has allowed it to be a slippery operator, persistently eluding our attempts to comprehend it. Trying to talk about acedia is like trying to define a negative or grab a shadow. As the monks’ “eight bad thoughts” evolved into the Church’s “seven deadly sins,” and acedia was hidden within the sin of sloth, it played a terrible trick on us.

We came to regard sloth as an insignificant physical laziness, or a pleasant and even healthy lassitude. Evelyn Waugh acknowledges that most of us believe sloth to be “a mildly facetious variant of ‘indolence,’ and indolence, surely, so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the most amiable of weaknesses?’

But I wonder. Specifically, I wonder about our synonyms for laziness: listlessness, languor, lassitude, indolence. They sound harmless enough, a good, long stretch on plump pillows. Listlessness has a seductively soft sound, but at root it means being unable to desire, which is a cause, and a symptom, of serious mental distress. Languor derives from a Latin word meaning “to feel faint,” and lassitude from a word meaning “to fall forward because of weariness.  It is related to alas, connoting misfortune and unhappiness.

The harder sound of indolence clues us in to even more serious trouble. It is defined as “habitual laziness” and in its root we find a very bad habit indeed. Dolor is an ancient word for “pain” and indolence is the inability to feel it. We’ve now come close to the worst that acedia can do to us: not only does it make us unable to care, it takes away our ability to feel bad about that. If we can no longer weep, or desire, or feel pain and grief, well, that’s all right; we’ll settle for that, we’ll get by.

Whether there is a wily devil lurking out there or we have merely bedeviled ourselves with delusions concerning the true nature of sloth, I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia, Maybe that’s one reason why, as we languish from spiritual drought, we are often unaware of what ails us. We spend greater sums on leisure but are more tense than ever, and hire lifestyle coaches to ease the stress. We turn away from the daily news, complaining of “compassion fatigue,” and enroll in classes to learn how to breathe and relax.

Increasingly, we need drugs in order to sleep. We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available “twenty-four/seven” and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible. But when distraction be comes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feel ing itself, We are more likely to indulge in public spectacles of undemanding pseudo-care than address humanity’s immediate needs. Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own? How can that be, when so few know its name?

If only it were as easy as shouting “Rumpelstiltskin” and watching the fiend dissolve in a rage around his fire. But acedia has been called by many names. To the ancient Greeks it was the black gall; to the fourth-century monks it was a vicious and tenacious temptation to despair. Petrarch called it the nameless woe, and Dante named it a sin. It became known to Robert Burton and others in the Renaissance as melancholy.

In Shakespeare, it is the boredom of Richard III, arguably as responsible as ambition in triggering his monstrous violence. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope called it spleen; to Baudelaire, and to many writers in the years to follow, it was ennui. To Kierkegaard it was the soul turned into a Dead Sea, over which no bird can soar without falling to its death.

To the nineteenth-century French, it was the mal du siècle, or the illness of the age. To twentieth-century playwrights — Chekhov, Ionesco, and Albee among them — it fuels the acrimony that underlies domestic relationships, making us suspect that relationship itself is absurd and unworkable. Acedia is the place where we wait for Godot, and it is the state of waiting. It is the fashionably negative pose of ironic detachment, of valuing life as “less than Zero.”

I can hear scholars howling, with some justification, that I am mixing it all up, failing to make the necessary and proper distinctions. That is their job, not mine. I am deeply indebted to the work of Reinhard Kuhn, who in The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature examines acedia’s baleful effects on the human spirit over many centuries. He finds that already in the literature of antiquity, “the seeds of the modern plague were present” noting echoes of Aristotle’s “black bile” in Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the horror loci (fear of place) of Lucretius and Horace in Baudelaire’s “The Voyage” and Beckett’s tramps, and the squeamishness of Seneca’s Serenus in the nausea of Sartre’s Roquentin.

As for me, I need to tell a story. More than twenty years ago, not long after I had been surprised to find myself in the description of acedia made by a fourth-century monk, I conceived this book. I had no idea how long and painful the labor would be, or I might have rejected it from the start. But in conversations with my husband, David, who was also a poet, I began to work with the connections I was making between my experience of acedia and my experience as a writer.

David suggested that I look at Aldous Huxley’s essay “Accidie.” I tried interlibrary loan, but despite its author’s renown, this work, like much that has been written about acedia, was not easy to locate. It took some time to track it down, and when I did I found something that changed my life.

Kathleen Norris’ story is in Acedia & Me from which these reading selections are taken.


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