Archive for July, 2010


Poem: Hurrahing in Harvest by Gerard Manley Hopkins

July 30, 2010

Gerard Manley Hopkins asserted with great ardor that man could approach his Lord by the inconsiderable trifles of the world, a love for irises and moths and falcons. His notebooks are crammed with the canniest descriptions, born of love, of what he called the “inscapes” of the things he saw, the peculiar inner fingerprint of a thing that made it itself and no other:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I came
(“As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” 5-8)

His term inscape is well chosen. It suggests a creation that delves deep within a thing, to its essence. The term is derived from the German schoepfen (to create) and -schaft (knowledge, as of a craft), and from the Anglo-Saxon scieppan (to shape or fashion) and scop (a shaper of verses, that is, poet) Hopkins says the finding of inscapes is precisely what the world is for, all things are for man’s beholding, that he may learn of his Maker and sing his praises.

Hence the typical irony of Hopkins’s poetry. Knowledge is everywhere to be gleaned, but only by those who love. The fault line severs those who can read the signs, often in the most unexpected places, from those who cannot, because their love does not beat warmly enough. The double identity of the world — as heaven penetrates this smallish portion of the world that we misconstrue as the whole — comes across quite nicely in the following notebook entry, describing the first time Hopkins saw the northern lights:

Mv eye was caught by beams of light and dark very like the crown of horny rays the sun makes behind a cloud. At first I thought of silvery cloud until I s aw that these were more luminous and did not dim the clearness of the stars in the Bear. They rose slightly radiating thrown out from the earthline.

Then I saw soft pulses of light one after another rise and pass upwards arched in shape but waveringly and with the arch broken They seemed to float, not following the warp of the sphere as falling stars look to do but free though concentrical with it.

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 of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear.
(Sept. 24, 1870)

Note that Hopkins senses a time-within-time, independent of the clicking minutes whereby we calculate our days in the countinghouse. But it is also a time above that time, steering it, leading it from the nothingness whence it came to the eternity whither it is going. He experiences the fearful sense of the provisionality of time, of its being embedded in God’s time — against which our minutes seem to clash.

BUT IF OUR HEARTS are open, we will see. Then it will be as if the veil of creation had been torn in two. We will not see beyond creation, leaving it behind in disdain, but into creation… We will see even unto the dangerous and loving Creator who awaits within and beside and beyond. God is no mere object of love, but the Lover who will tear through cloud and sky to grip the heart of man That explains the ironic reversals in one of Hopkins’s loveliest hymns to natural beauty:

Hurrahing in Harvest
Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, willful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world wielding shoulder
Majestic as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! –
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet

The first line of the poem leads, or misleads, the reader to believe that he is about to hear of the “barbarous” beauty of late summer. Hopkins echoes Shakespeare’s famous line describing the sheaves brought in for the harvest, “Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard” (Sonnets 12 8 ) The “stooks” or ricks of baled corn are bearded and bristly — in that sense barbarous, punning on the Latin barbatus (bearded) — and of a rough and rustic thrusting into the sky

But that is the last sight of an autumn harvest we have in the poem. For Hopkins casts his eye upward. Dante had called the world “this little winnowing floor” (Paradise, 22 151), alluding to Jesus’ warning that it the Last Judgment the wheat would be winnowed from the chaff. Hopkins instead looks to the physical heavens — there is the harvesting, unbeknownst to the men who shock the grain on earth. The skies are “wind-walks” where the horses of the air march round (and there, not simply round and round but in the wildest streams) to power the fan to blow the straw free; the clouds are silky sacks grain a-bursting; they spill the meal, flowing away in sudden runnels and siftings and scatterings.

It is no mere physical description. A real gleaning is going on, with the poet as gleaner, walking through the rows of grain: and his instruments are his heart and eyes. He is gleaning the Savior. That image is meant to evoke a theology of love. In most of the New Testament passages that refer to the harvest; Jesus is comparing the grain to the souls of the blessed (e.g., Luke 8:4-15). In at least one place the souls’ enjoyment of the kingdom of God is compared to a bumper crop at the harvest, “good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). And why not? Since the life of Christ is the feast: he is the manna from heaven, the food that brings eternal life.

This is the paradox of Hopkins’ poetics of love. God loves a world whose beauty should stir man to fall in love with it and with Him. The more truly I love the meal-drifting clouds, the more truly I love God, because unless I see God in them, I do not fully see what they are. In the same way, Christ gives himself the Eucharist that we may be gleaned by our gleaning our taking Him in is His own taking us up to Himself, so that Aquinas properly says of the sacrament that it is not heaven that descends to us, but we who are raised to heaven.

No earthly love can match the fullness, even the violence, of God’s love for man, when man lifts up his heart to God. Christ’s is a “real” and a “round” reply, a halloo more reverberating than any man’s shout of joy, a kiss more real and warm than the most passionate lover’s embrace. Worship is not for the faint of heart. The hills above are the world-wielding shoulder of this hero — this God and man who is as “stalwart” (and as self-willed!) as a “stallion,” yet mysteriously as sweet as “very-violet.” Very God and very man, says The Book of Common Prayer; but Hopkins combines both natures in those superb images of royalty and approachable beauty.

Just as the northern lights seem to keep a time fixed upon eternity — a real time, a rounder time than what we know — so too the beauty of the harvest is and has always been ready for our seeing. Not the harvest of an Irish countryside, but in that harvest the harvest of oneself, in harvesting Christ. What is wanting? Only our attention: “the beholder.” But we are here to behold it. Then it is our love that is wanting. But if that heart should once move in love, it will find ravishment, swept away by and from the beauty of the earth to the beauty of Christ. For ‘they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles” (Isaiah 40:31).


The Son Bore the Wood

July 29, 2010

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio 1590-1610

Anthony Esolen contrasts the irony Virgil shows us in The Aeneid with the more robust conception we find in the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. There you will find the  ironies that will build into the Christian vision of the world and the endless richness of the divine providence of God the Father.

The providence we see in pagan works such as Virgil’s The Aeneid is ambiguous, a flicker of hope perhaps that in the great scheme of history events will work out under some benign plan. But Virgil’s poem does not end with the marriage of Aeneas and Latinus’ daughter Lavinia. It ends with a confused and disappointed man in the grip of wrath. The irony of the Greek victory at Troy is that it seals their own defeat; the irony of the Roman conquest of the Greeks might well have been their consequent abandonment of piety. All paganism seems to end in despair. Even in Virgil we are left with the iron cycles of birth and death, and rise and fall – one state succeeds another and the only design in it all serves to reveal the littleness of man.

Such irony — which shows man, who thinks he knows things, to be a counter in a game played out by fate or impersonal law or design — in a strange fashion presupposes the providence it denies. It is parasitic upon a suppressed belief in One who foresees. For there either is a plan, or there is not. If there is not, then all man’s attempts to divine meaning in his history are vain. One irony of a flat and uninteresting sort pervades all: man thinks he knows, then learns that he knows nothing, if he can even be said to learn that. Yet hidden deep within a belief in a disillusioning fate is a belief that there ought to be a providence: that, despite all we see to the contrary, history ought to be a stage for justice, however dimly perceived and incomplete, and that man is made to know, however straitened that knowledge must he on this side of the grave.

So believers in providence have more, not fewer, opportunities to see irony at play than have the disbelievers. For, granting providence, the artist may illustrate man’s movement from ignorance to knowledge: or from perception of one kind of order to perception of order of a wholly different magnitude, not contradicting but comprehending the former. The artist may attend to knowledge gained in surprising ways that yet are most suitable for the knower, for the thing known, and for the God who grants the knowledge; or he may attend to those who can have no pretensions to knowledge, for instance to children and fools, who yet prove wiser than their betters. And the artist may see these ironies at work not only in the life of one person, but in mankind’s long and meandering history.

Augustine was the first, in his City of God, to outline a Christian theory of history. But the notion that history had a meaning (other than providing object lessons in valor and, more commonly, folly or vice) was implicit in scripture and was a cornerstone of the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ. History was going somewhere: events of old not only prepared the way for events to come hut foreshadowed them, concealing their full meanings until the time for complete revelation should come.

The Jews held, for instance, the mysterious belief that the prophet Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah — yet the same Jews were deeply divided on the question of the survival of the soul after death. Evidently they expected someone who was not Elijah’s soul reincarnate, but who was Elijah in more than an analogical sense: someone who fulfilled the meaning of Elijah, who was, and had always been meant to be, Elijah come again. Thus the Jews ask Jesus, “Are you Elijah?” they do not mean, “What can you tell us about King Ahab, who lived back in your day?” or “Are you playing the role of Elijah?” but rather “Is Elijah fulfilled in you? Are you Elijah?”

If you do not understand this belief in a history-ordaining God, you cannot understand scripture, Old Testament or New or both together. Nor can you understand the rich ironies of Christian literary works that model their own “history” after the pattern of God’s revelation not only in history but by means of it. Let us return now to the story of father Abraham.

Despite his old age—and his laughter! —Abraham has been granted a son of laughter, Isaac. He has circumcised him by his own hand and has thereby dedicated him to God. Through the loins of Isaac shall come the promise, the descendants as numerous as the stars.

Then one night God delivers a startling command:

And it came to pass alter these things, that God did tempt Abraham: and he said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And he said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of .
(Genesis 22:1-2)

It is important to remember the darkness surrounding Abraham. He must have been crushed by God’s command — led so soon from unexpected joy to despair. Nor is there a convenient detour. For, with the Lord’s consent, Abraham has allowed his wife Sarah to banish the concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael, a boy whom Abraham loved dearly. God reconciled Abraham to the banishment by promising care for Ishmael (which he does provide, miraculously and tenderly [Genesis 21:14-21]; but for all Abraham knows, their bones are bleaching in the desert).

And God reasserted his covenant, to be fulfilled through Isaac and his sons: “Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah bath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice, for in Isaac shall thy seed he called” (Genesis 21:12).

Now all has been snatched away. Abraham has left his kin forever; he has banished his son, at the command of this strange God. He has won victory in battle, with this God’s assistance, and has witnessed the destruction of the wicked cities Sodom and Gomorrah, at the hands of this God; and he was allowed to plead for the lives of the few just people living there, namely his nephew Lot and his household. Beyond these things Abraham knows nothing about God, or at least nothing we are told.

So he is crushed, but I think not entirely surprised. He is the victim of a god’s practical joke. That is how gods are. They set you up and knock you down. There is no reason to trust them, except that refusal to trust might end up even worse. Yet on that grim morning, Abraham trusts. It is no myth he follows, but the voice of the living God. He does not know why he trusts; we are granted no revelation regarding his thoughts. If he could reason his way into a proof of Cad’s trustworthiness, that would derogate from his trust, God speaks to him — not a theological proposition, not a mythical father of might, but God in truth — and Abraham responds.

Man and son climb the mountain alone. Abraham has left two young companions at the base, saying, “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again unto you” (Genesis 22:5). Of course, Abraham is lying, in part. Worship there will be, but as far as he knows, Isaac will never return. Yet we who know the story (and ‘we” includes all the Hebrews, who told and retold with reverence this foundational story of their race) know that Abraham speaks the truth unwittingly. He thinks he has been fooled by God, and does not suspect that he is being fooled by God.  He thinks he knows that God is capricious, like all the gods; he will find that God is faithful, like none of those shams.

The innocence of the boy makes the climb all the more terrible. Abraham carries the knife and, carefully, in both hands, a pot of glowing coals for the fire. Isaac bears the wood strapped to his back — for Mount Moriah is bleak and bare, with no decent firewood to be found. Isaac unsuspectingly asks the obvious question: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is a lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7).

With what hardly controlled agony the father replies! “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). He dissembles; he believes that God has already provided the lamb, the son Isaac born by God’s miraculous intervention. Perhaps Abraham hopes against hope that another lamb will be provided — if so, it is surely a great example of his faith. Yet such a “perhaps” must be gray and flickering. Abraham hears the steps of his young and harmless boy beside him, knows what Isaac does not know, and must imagine the black loneliness of returning down the accursed mountain without him.

Again, however, Abraham has spoken the truth he did not see. For as he raises his knife to slay Isaac, bound upon the same stone altar his own young hands have helped his father build, Abraham is stopped by a herald of the Lord: “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:12). Such is the language God uses to present truth to the finite mind of man. God has known Abraham all along; it is rather Abraham here who learns. He learns about his own faith, and he learns, should he ever doubt it, that God will not break his word. He is not a god like the other gods.

As for those other gods — fertility gods especially, the Baals of the Canaanites and Moloch (Melkor) of the Phoenicians — they demanded human sacrifice as the filthily ironic price of good harvests and large families. Abraham knew as much, as did the Hebrews who told the story. The gods, in malevolent control of everything, require that you slay your child (which seems, to the ignorant, a counterproductive thing to do), so as to secure more children (as everyone as sophisticated as the Phoenicians knows will happen, for that is the cruel yet necessary bargain). But it is not so.

Or it is so, in a way the surrounding peoples do not understand. Their sacrifices form part of an iron economy, a rigid rule for the universe. They give up, to gain. They kill, but they do not yield; they allow the wailing infant to pass through the fire to Moloch, on condition that Moloch uphold his end of the deal. Abraham must have thought that God was requiring something similar from him. It is remarkable that God has, however, given Abraham no hint of a recompense, and yet Abraham obeys anyway.

The message, then, is that God does not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in that way. God is no rewarder of mercenaries, nor does a mercenary really offer a sacrifice. Abraham has slain the choice of his heart, and for making that sacrifice God rewards him with the return of Isaac, and a ram for the offering:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen”
(Genesis 22:13-14).

What has providence to do with this episode, beyond fashioning a narrow escape for the heroic Abraham? Consider the ram tangled in the thicket. It is slain in place of Abraham’s first-born son. God has provided is now the name of the fateful spot; Abraham names it, recalling his words to Isaac as they climbed the mountain. The lesson would not be lost on the Hebrews, who owed their survival as a free people to another such sacrificial lamb: the Pasch, the Passover lamb, whose blood besprinkled upon the lintel and the doorposts would cause the Destroying Angel to pass by their homes on that dread night when God smote the first-born of Egypt and of all her bleating gods.

It is pointless for the critic, and blasphemous for the Christian, to say that the similarity is accidental. Pointless., because what matters is how the Christian faith, and that includes Christian habits of reading scripture, helped determine the ironies build into the Christian vision of the world as given color and form in Christian literature. Blasphemous, because it denies the providence of God, implying that the Creator of the universe could never have willed from all eternity the foreshadowing of the Passover in the sacrifice of Mount Moriah.

But the providential wisdom does not end there. Examine the celebrated icon of the Holy Trinity by the fifteenth-century Russian artist, Andrey Rublev (see figure below). The genius of the icon lies in a profound theological insight. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, distinct yet as one, are the three angelic visitors to Abraham, sitting at table, while Sarah prepares the lamb. But the outlines of their robes form, in a kind of absent presence, the negative of a chalice: the cup of wine consecrated to become the blood of Christ, given for all. They are the ones invited to a feast, as Abraham thinks; but the truth is that they are inviting to their feast Abraham and all his descendants in faith. And since they are announcing the conception and birth of Isaac, the artist has implied a long arc of providential meaning, extending from this moment under the terebinth trees of Mamre, to the birth of Isaac, to the “sacrifice,” to the true Passover lamb, the Christ. God gives himself wholly to man, that man may rise to enjoy the life of God.

The ram provided by God to spare the life of Isaac, the firstlings of the Passover feast to spare the lives of the Hebrews in bondage what were they, say the ancient Christians, but shadows of Christ? He it is who gives his body not merely in place of ours, to stuffer death, but to redeem us from sin and the death that is sin’s wages. Isaac lived another day, to sin and die and await his Redeemer. So did the Hebrews who followed Moses across the Red Sea. But the true Lamb that the Lord provides is no substitute simply, but his own Son, his only beloved Son, that is to say his very self, that all who believe may be cleansed of sin and may live forever. They will enjoy the wedding feast of the Lamb, himself, his own life, given as food to those he loves (Revelations 19:9).

A world governed by so playful — I can find no better word — a providence abounds in meaning, a cascade of it, from every least word or action. If God is no miser of his blessings, neither is he a miser of meanings: they burst from every tree and leaf. It follows that we cannot know the full significance of what we say and do, but that God does know and can choose to reveal that significance to others, especially by means of events that reenact the past and reveal it to have been far more, or far other, than what the actors themselves supposed.

A charming instance of this cascade is given unwillingly by the inspired author of the Abraham and Isaac episode. Abraham, he says, carried the knife and the fire-pot. Isaac carried the wood. A deft Anglo-Saxon poetic rendering of the scene, in the so-called Genesis A text, makes the connection swiftly and explicitly: Wudu baer sunu (2887B). “The son bore the wood,” the poet says, calling attention to his line by the rhyme, most unusual in Anglo-Saxon composition. Or, since wudu and sunu possess identical forms in the nominative and the accusative cases, “The wood bore the son.” Without dropping any other hint, the poet recalls to his audience a new field of significance, one unknown to Abraham and Isaac. The lad — from whom we hear not one word of protest against his father — foreshadows Christ, who carried the wood up another hill for a sacrifice, his own. Christ was Isaac, was the ram; Christ bore the wood to the altar, and the wood bore him. God spared the son of Abraham, but did not spare himself, so great was his love for the world.

To believe in a world governed by the all-wise and loving Father, who demands justice but whose very act of creation was a condescension, an act of mercy, is to know that divine providence is endlessly rich, embodied in the exploding galaxy and in the grain of sand on the shore. It is a world brimming with consequence: allusions shooting like weeds, wonderful and lush; paradoxes hidden like thrush’s eggs in the tree-crotched nest; etymological parallels winking one to the other like the glaze of dewdrops on the first day. And as long as there are creatures like us, once naked in the garden, wise and innocent — now wise in our own minds, therefore foolish and half-blind and huddled up in disguises — the play of irony will thrive. We now experience irony mainly as that cold splash that wakes us, when we thought we knew what we did not; a child would experience it rather as that warm and sweet moment of wonder, when something whose meaning he did not know suddenly assumes its surprising and self-displaying place in the garden of knowledge and love and time, the created garden of God.


Benedict XVI on Saint Paul and the Doctrine of Justification

July 28, 2010

I am showing you a reproduction of an oil painting, produced by a Valentin de Boulogne dated roughly around 1600. The painting is entitled “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles.” The apostle is sitting at a desk, with quill in hand which he dips into an inkwell, surrounded by books, manuscripts, and a note book, all of which he consults in composing his letter. The picture was produced approximately 150 years after the publication of the Gutenberg Bible. It is an unmistakable example of a reproduction of the media situation as it presented itself around 1600. Paul is a writer, who compares different texts--one of them being a printed text (presumably the Hebrew Bible)--in order to produce his own text. This is how the typographic imagination, a thoroughly literary, text-centered imagination, conceived of the composition of the Pauline letters: texts grow out of other texts! The only concession to the ancient setting is a scroll in the right corner of the table. It requires a strenuous act of historical imagination to remember that the Paul of the first century did not write but dictate his letters, that all his writings, including the most intricate theological argumentations in Galatians and Romans, were mentally composed, and that large segments of his arguments are structured in keeping with the conventions of Hellenistic-Jewish rhetoric. The painting succeeded in displacing Paul's oral, rhetorical, scribal culture with the exclusively literary, textual, typographical media culture of the 16th century, and it did so around the same time when rhetoric was eliminated from the curriculum at most European universities.

I’ve studied this several times, once in a class at St. Johns, so one would think I could verbalize the distinctions between Protestant and Catholic interpretations or at least explain the basic controversy – but it just doesn’t seem to stick with me. Then I came across this elucidation by Benedict XVI – wonderfully clear, crisply expressed. Saved!

The Doctrine of Justification: from Works to Faith.
On the journey we are making under St Paul’s guidance, let us now reflect on a topic at the centre of the controversies of the century of the Reformation: the question of justification. How does man become just in God’s eyes? When Paul met the Risen One on the road to Damascus he was an accomplished man; irreproachable according to the justice deriving from the Law (cf. Philemon3: 6), Paul surpassed many of his contemporaries in the observance of the Mosaic Law and zealously upheld the traditions of his fathers (cf. Galatians 1: 14). The illumination of Damascus radically changed his life; he began to consider all merits acquired in an impeccable religious career as “refuse”, in comparison with the sublimity of knowing Jesus Christ (cf. Philemon 3: 8).

Paul’s Transition From A Justice Founded On The Law To A Justice Based On Faith In Christ
The Letter to the Philippians offers us a moving testimony of Paul’s transition from a justice founded on the Law and acquired by his observance of the required actions, to a justice based on faith in Christ. He had understood that what until then had seemed to him to be a gain, before God was, in fact, a loss; and thus he had decided to stake his whole existence on Jesus Christ (cf. Philemon 3: 7). The treasure hidden in the field and the precious pearl for whose purchase all was to be invested were no longer in function of the Law, but Jesus Christ, his Lord.

The relationship between Paul and the Risen One became so deep as to induce him to maintain that Christ was no longer solely his life but also his very living, to the point that to be able to reach him death became a gain (cf. Philemon 1: 21). This is not to say he despised life, but that he realized that for him at this point there was no other purpose in life and thus he had no other desire than to reach Christ as in an athletics competition to remain with him for ever.

The Risen Christ had become the beginning and the end of his existence, the cause and the goal of his race. It was only his concern for the development in faith of those he had evangelized and his anxiety for all of the Churches he founded (cf. 2 Corinthians 11: 28) that induced him to slow down in his race towards his one Lord, to wait for his disciples so they might run with him towards the goal. Although from a perspective of moral integrity he had nothing to reproach himself in his former observance of the Law, once Christ had reached him he preferred not to make judgments on himself (cf. 1 Corinthians 4: 3-4). Instead he limited himself to resolving to press on, to make his own the One who had made him his own (cf. Philemon 3: 12).

It is precisely because of this personal experience of relationship with Jesus Christ that Paul henceforth places at the centre of his Gospel an irreducible opposition between the two alternative paths to justice: one built on the works of the Law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ. The alternative between justice by means of works of the Law and that by faith in Christ thus became one of the dominant themes that run through his Letters:
“We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law; because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians   2: 15-16).

Luther’s Translation
And to the Christians of Rome he reasserts that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3: 23-24). And he adds “we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3: 28). At this point Luther translated: “justified by faith alone”.

Freed from What Law?
First, we must explain what is this “Law” from which we are freed and what are those “works of the Law” that do not justify. The opinion that was to recur systematically in history already existed in the community at Corinth. This opinion consisted in thinking that it was a question of moral law and that the Christian freedom thus consisted in the liberation from ethics. Thus in Corinth the term: “πάντα μοι έξεστιν” (I can do what I like) was widespread. It is obvious that this interpretation is wrong: Christian freedom is not libertinism; the liberation of which St Paul spoke is not liberation from good works.

So what does the Law from which we are liberated and which does not save mean? For St Paul, as for all his contemporaries, the word “Law” meant the Torah in its totality, that is, the five books of Moses. The Torah, in the Pharisaic interpretation, that which Paul had studied and made his own, was a complex set of conduct codes that ranged from the ethical nucleus to observances of rites and worship and that essentially determined the identity of the just person. In particular, these included circumcision, observances concerning pure food and ritual purity in general, the rules regarding the observance of the Sabbath, etc. codes of conduct that also appear frequently in the debates between Jesus and his contemporaries. All of these observances that express a social, cultural and religious identity had become uniquely important in the time of Hellenistic culture, starting from the third century B.C. This culture which had become the universal culture of that time and was a seemingly rational culture; a polytheistic culture, seemingly tolerant constituted a strong pressure for cultural uniformity and thus threatened the identity of Israel, which was politically constrained to enter into this common identity of the Hellenistic culture. This resulted in the loss of its own identity, hence also the loss of the precious heritage of the faith of the Fathers, of the faith in the one God and in the promises of God.

Against this cultural pressure, which not only threatened the Israelite identity but also the faith in the one God and in his promises, it was necessary to create a wall of distinction, a shield of defense to protect the precious heritage of the faith; this wall consisted precisely in the Judaic observances and prescriptions. Paul, who had learned these observances in their role of defending God’s gift, of the inheritance of faith in one God alone, saw this identity threatened by the freedom of the Christians this is why he persecuted them.

How Paul’s Encounter With The Risen One Changed His Relationship With The Torah
At the moment of his encounter with the Risen One he understood that with Christ’s Resurrection the situation had changed radically. With Christ, the God of Israel, the one true God, became the God of all peoples. The wall as he says in his Letter to the Ephesians between Israel and the Gentiles, was no longer necessary: it is Christ who protects us from polytheism and all of its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity within the diversity of cultures.

The wall is no longer necessary; our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just. Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St Paul speaks of faith that works through love (cf. Galatians 5: 14).

When Faith That Creates Charity The Entire Law Is Fulfilled
Paul knows that in the twofold love of God and neighbor the whole of the Law is present and carried out. Thus in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled. We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is Love. We shall see the same thing in the Gospel next Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel of the judge whose sole criterion is love. What he asks is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you give me food to eat when I was hungry, did you clothe me when I was naked? And thus justice is decided in charity. Thus, at the end of this Gospel we can almost say: love alone, charity alone. But there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St Paul. It is the same vision, according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the fulfillment of communion with Christ. Thus, we are just by being united with him and in no other way.

At the end, we can only pray the Lord that he help us to believe; really believe. Believing thus becomes life, unity with Christ, the transformation of our life. And thus, transformed by his love, by the love of God and neighbor, we can truly be just in God’s eyes.

From The Doctrine of Justification: The Apostle’s Teaching on Faith and Works

A Summary of Above
In the Catechesis last Wednesday I spoke of how man is justified before God. Following St Paul, we have seen that man is unable to “justify” himself with his own actions, but can only truly become “just” before God because God confers his “justice” upon him, uniting him to Christ his Son. And man obtains this union through faith. In this sense, St Paul tells us: not our deeds, but rather faith renders us “just”. This faith, however, is not a thought, an opinion, an idea. This faith is communion with Christ, which the Lord gives to us, and thus becomes life, becomes conformity with him. Or to use different words faith, if it is true, if it is real, becomes love, becomes charity, is expressed in charity. A faith without charity, without this fruit, would not be true faith. It would be a dead faith.

Thus, in our last Catechesis, we discovered two levels: that of the insignificance of our actions and of our deeds to achieve salvation, and that of “justification” through faith which produces the fruit of the Spirit. The confusion of these two levels has caused more than a few misunderstandings in Christianity over the course of centuries. In this context it is important that St Paul, in the same Letter to the Galatians radically accentuates, on the one hand, the freely given nature of justification that is not dependent on our works, but which at the same time also emphasizes the relationship between faith and charity, between faith and works: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5: 6).

Consequently, there are on the one hand “works of the flesh”, which are “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry…” (Galatians 5: 19-20): all works that are contrary to the faith; on the other, there is the action of the Holy Spirit who nourishes Christian life, inspiring “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians   5: 22-23). These are the fruits of the Spirit that blossom from faith.

Agape, love, is cited at the beginning of this list of virtues and self-control at the conclusion. In fact, the Spirit who is the Love of the Father and the Son pours out his first gift, agape, into our hearts (cf. Romans5: 5); and to be fully expressed, agape, love, requires self-control. In my first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, I also treated of the love of the Father and the Son which reaches us and profoundly transforms our existence. Believers know that reciprocal love is embodied in the love of God and of Christ, through the Spirit. Let us return to the Letter to the Galatians. Here St Paul says that by bearing one another’s burdens believers are fulfilling the commandment of love (cf. Galatians   6: 2).

We Are Called To Live In The Love Of Christ For Neighbor
Justified through the gift of faith in Christ, we are called to live in the love of Christ for neighbor, because it is on this criterion that we shall be judged at the end of our lives. In reality Paul only repeats what Jesus himself said and which is proposed to us anew by last Sunday’s Gospel, in the parable of the Last Judgment. In the First Letter to the Corinthians St Paul pours himself out in a famous eulogy of love. It is called the “hymn to love”: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13: 1, 4-5).

Christian love is particularly demanding because it springs from Christ’s total love for us: that love that claims us, welcomes us, embraces us, sustains us, to the point of tormenting us since it forces each one to no longer live for himself, closed into his own selfishness, but for him “who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5: 15). The love of Christ makes us, in him, that new creation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5: 17), which comes to belong to his Mystical Body that is the Church.

Seen in this perspective, the centrality of justification without works, the primary object of Paul’s preaching, does not clash with faith that works through love; indeed, it demands that our faith itself be expressed in a life in accordance with the Spirit. Often there is seen an unfounded opposition between St Paul’s theology and that of St James, who writes in his Letter: “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”(2: 26).

In reality, while Paul is primarily concerned to show that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient, James accentuates the consequential relations between faith and works (cf. Jas 2: 24). Therefore, for both Paul and James, faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ. Salvation received in Christ needs to be preserved and witnessed to “with fear and trembling. For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure…. Do all things without grumbling or questioning… holding fast the word of life”, St Paul was to say further, to the Christians of Philippi (cf. Philemon 2: 12-14, 16).

Once Saved Always Saved?
We are often induced to fall into the same misunderstandings that characterized the community of Corinth; those Christians thought that since they had been freely justified in Christ through faith, “they could do as they pleased”. And they believed and it often seems that today’s Christians also think this that it is permissible to create divisions in the Church, the Body of Christ, to celebrate the Eucharist without looking after the neediest of our brothers, to aspire to better charisms without being aware that each is a member of the other, and so forth. The consequences of a faith that is not manifested in love are disastrous, because it reduces itself to the arbitrariness and subjectivism that is most harmful to us and to our brothers.

On the contrary, in following St Paul, we should gain a new awareness of the fact that precisely because we are justified in Christ, we no longer belong to ourselves but have become a temple of the Spirit and hence are called to glorify God in our body with the whole of our existence (cf. 1 Corinthians 6: 19). We would be underselling the inestimable value of justification, purchased at the high price of Christ’s Blood, if we were not to glorify him with our body. In fact, our worship at the same time reasonable and spiritual is exactly this, which is why St Paul exhorts us “to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12: 1). To what would a liturgy be reduced if addressed solely to the Lord without simultaneously becoming service to one’s brothers, a faith that would not express itself in charity? And the Apostle often places his communities in confrontation with the Last Judgment, on the occasion of which: “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Corinthians 5: 10; cf. also Romans 2: 16). And this idea of the Last Judgment must illumine us in our daily lives.

The Christian Ethic Is A Consequence Of Our Friendship With Christ
If the ethics that Paul proposes to believers do not deteriorate into forms of moralism and prove themselves timely for us, it is because, each time, they start from the personal and communal relationship with Christ, to be realized concretely in a life according to the Spirit. This is essential: the Christian ethic is not born from a system of commandments but is a consequence of our friendship with Christ. This friendship influences life; if it is true it incarnates and fulfils itself in love for neighbour. For this reason, any ethical decay is not limited to the individual sphere but it also weakens personal and communal faith from which it derives and on which it has a crucial effect. Therefore let us allow ourselves to be touched by reconciliation, which God has given us in Christ, by God’s “foolish” love for us; nothing and no one can ever separate us from his love (cf. Romans 8: 39). We live in this certainty. It is this certainty that gives us the strength to live concretely the faith that works in love.


“Dost Thou Love Me?”

July 27, 2010

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1600

Anthony Esolen relates the story of Peter and the Irony of Faith seen in Quo Vadis.

LOVE IS STRONGER THAN all the powers of the world. It is hard to remember, after our familiarity with Christianity, how startling an assertion that is. But love is essential to man as a being made for God, and, in God, for his fellow man. So true is this that even what look like feats of wondrous faith — impressive churchliness, we might say — are nothing at all without love: “And though I have the gift of wondrous prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Consider another scene. Jesus has been speaking to the Jews about a manna come down from heaven, bringing life everlasting: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger, and lie that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). But the Jews say to themselves (again we witness man’s small-hearted refusal to see) that they know better. They interpret Jesus’ words not literally (for surely they are familiar with figures of speech) so much as contemptuously: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?” (John 6:42).

Jesus gives them no quarter. He does not say, “I was using a metaphor,” as indeed he was not, but goes on to assert that the bread “is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). When the Jews again snort — insisting upon a literal interpretation for its absurdity, so that they can dismiss Jesus and his claims — Jesus goes them one better, asserting that “except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:53).

At this point it is not Jesus’ enemies alone who leave, but many of his It disciples, muttering, “This is a hard saying: Who can hear it.” (John 6:60). When finally Jesus turns to the twelve, his chosen apostles, he asks them whether they will leave, too. Peter replies. Note that by his own light Peter understands no more of what Jesus has said than does anyone else. He too must feel mystified and disappointed. But he does know one thing: he loves. Beyond all rational argument, he knows that he wants to stand beside the teacher “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of ever lasting life.” (John 6:68)

Peter’s life is a history of love, of wanting to be beside Jesus. We are told that John was the disciple whom Jesus in his humanity loved most, but it was Peter, not John, who said atop the mount of Transfiguration, “Master, it is good for us to be here and let us make three tabernacles one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias’ (Mark, 9:5), wanting to pitch some tents so that the prophets of old could tarry with them awhile It was Peter, not John, who so loved Jesus that at first he did not want to sully him with his presence “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5: 8 )

It was Peter, not John, who tried to walk on the water to he near Jesus in the storm (Matthew 14:24-31) It was Peter, not the younger and fleeter John, who was first to enter the tomb on Easter morning (John 20:3-6). And after the Resurrection, to soothe the pain of Peter’s having denied that he knew him — a caustic and salutary penance, this — Jesus asks Peter three times, once for each denial, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” When Peter replies that he does, Jesus assigns to him again the loving care for his brothers: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15).

Note that in choosing the chief of the apostles, Jesus does not ask Peter whether he is courageous and self-denying. That is what a good Stoic would take pride in. Nor does he ask whether Peter is fully conversant with scripture. That is what a good rabbi would take pride in. Nor does he ask whether Peter has attended the lectures of the wisest men and read the works of Plato and Aristotle. That is what a Greek would take pride in. Jesus rather wants to confirm Peter in love. It is this love that will confer upon Peter both knowledge and more strength of character than any Stoic could boast, not through Peter’s grim determination but through the gladsome ministrations of the Holy Spirit.

But this passage in John’s gospel, taking as given what the early church knew about Peter’s leadership after the Resurrection, focuses on Peter’s crucifixion in Rome, a slave’s death that conformed him to the One he loved, who set him free. For when Peter, sad and exasperated, says for the third time, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee” (21:17), Jesus replies by predicting what would look to the world like weakness and shameful defeat:

“When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.

This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God.”

It is well here to touch upon that death — it is the climactic event of Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? (The Latin title means, Where are you going?) Legend had it that Peter was advised by his friends to leave Rome before Nero could lay hands upon him. They were thinking practically: the chief of the apostles must not lose his life. They needed him. Those friends loved Peter, and genuinely strove to build the church. But God’s love is dangerous and brings to bear upon man’s life a power from which he yearns to hide. On his way out of the city, along the Appian Way, Peter sees a vision, a figure emerging from the gleam of the sun. His disciple Nazarius does not see it; but Peter falls to the ground in adoration. The following scene is a small masterpiece of irony, as Peter is confirmed in love:

“He fell with his face to the earth, as if kissing some one’s feet.

The silence continued long; then were heard the words of the aged man, broken by sobs — ‘Quo vadis, Domine?”

Nazarius did not hear the answer; but to Peter’s ears came a sad and sweet voice, which said, — ”If thou desert my people, I am going to Rome to be crucified a second time.”

The Apostle lay on the ground, his face in the dust, without motion or speech. It seemed to Nazarius that he had fainted or was dead; but he rose at last, seized the staff with trembling hands, and turned without a word toward the seven hills of the city.

The boy, seeing this, repeated as an echo, — “Quo vadis, Domine?”

“To Rome,” said the Apostle, in a low voice.

And he returned. (402)

Sienkicwicz understands and presents with keen insight the irony of the event that follows. Rome is about to be stormed and taken by force: its gates will not prevail. No one sees it. Not the debauched Nero, with reason afraid of his sycophants. Not the weary libertine Petronius, who will die by his own hand, witty and sad to the end. Not the soldiers who wait their chance to send the effeminate and cruel emperor to his deserved apotheosis — who would make a god of him with all speed, that they might set up a puppet more to their liking.

But the Christians are even now conquering. Tertullian would say, two hundred years later, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the the church. And that same Peter who sheds his last blood in an act of communion with the teacher he once denied but never ceased to love, that same Peter, we Christians say, will be the savior of Rome herself. As a stranger he did not merit beheading within the city walls; but on his tomb will be built the great basilica, as upon the ruins of Rome will be built a new center of Christendom.

Who remembers Ctesiphon or Susa or Ecbatana, the capitals of once great empires? Carthage is a desert plain sowed with salt. Memphis is a vast sand-rippled tomb. Rome remains; but it was the “criminal” Peter, true to the last to his love for the master, who saved her. A Christian of any persuasion can relish the irony of a redemption that no one but an old Jewish fisherman, about to be executed, could see:

“The Apostle, with his head in the sun-rays and golden light, turned for the last time towards the city. At a distance lower down was seen the gleaming Tibet; beyond was the Campus Martins; higher up, the Mauso­leum of Angustus; below that, the gigantic baths just begun by Nero; still lower, Pompey’s theatre; and beyond them were visible in places, and in places hidden by other buildings, the Septa Julia, a multitude of porticos, temples, columns, great edifices; and, finally, far in the distance, hills cov­ered with houses, a gigantic resort of people, the borders of which vanished in the blue haze, — an abode of crime, but of power; of madness, but of order, — which had become the head of the world, its oppressor, but its law and its peace, almighty, invincible, eternal.

But Peter, surrounded by soldiers, looked at the city as a ruler and king looks at his inheritance. And he said to it, “Thou art redeemed and mine!” And no one, not merely among the soldiers digging the hole in which to plant the cross, but even among true believers, could divine that standing there among them was the true ruler of that moving life. “


William F. Buckley Jr. Patron Saint of the Conservatives – John B. Judis

July 26, 2010

William F. Buckley Jr. marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse.

Let me indulge some nostalgia here: I am a child of the sixties and grew up with William F. Buckley.  I thought he was the funniest thing on TV and like many others had a bowl of popcorn and a dictionary handy when Firing Line came on. No one has ever replaced him for me. The only one the least comparable with WFB (in terms of vocabulary and scholarship) is David Hart, but he’s not a media figure and not political.  A month or so ago I was haunting the library when I saw Judis’ biography of WFB and picked it up.  All the old stories were in there and it was a great memory lane read. Anyways, here are some anecdotes that capture some of Buckley… I do miss him.

The Army Influence
When Bill entered the Army, he was an obnoxious brat incapable of forming friendships except with a select few whose background, beliefs, and intelligence he approved of. When he left the Army two years later, he had learned a certain humility and had become capable of appreciating people who didn’t share his background and beliefs. He explained what he had learned in the Army in a long letter to his father:

I don’t know whether you were aware of this while I was in Millbrook, but I was not very popular with boys. After a good deal of self-analysis, I determined that the principal reason for this revolved around my extreme dogmatism — particularly in matters concerning politics and the Catholic Church. I could not understand another point of view; it seemed to me that anyone who was not an isolationist or a Catholic was simply stupid. Instead of keeping these sentiments to myself, I blurted them out and supported them upon the slightest provocation. I was intolerant about all kinds of things. I would not sit in on sex conversations or trivial gossip because I considered them wrong. Because I was intellectually able to support most of my arguments, my opponents would normally lose out in any discussion. The result of this was that my company was very little sought for except by a few close friends.

When I went to the Army, I learned the importance of tolerance, and the importance of a sense of proportion about all matters — even in regard to religion, morality etc. Some friends I made whom I really prized were atheistic, and even immoral. But I learned. nevertheless, that regardless of the individual’s dogmas, the most important thing as far as I was concerned was the personality: would his friendship broaden your horizon or provide you with intellectual entertainment? I found that there were actually very few prerequisites to, the good friend: he had to have a good sense of humor, a pleasant personality and a certain number of common interests.

Bill had not abandoned his political or religious convictions, nor the sense that he had a mission to defend these beliefs in a world that was hostile to them. But in the Army, he had learned to distinguish the rules of personal friendship from those of political combat.

 Publisher’s Statement in National Review’s First Issue
Buckley saw conservatism as a radical and dissenting philosphy. He made the point in a “Publisher’s Statement” that he wrote for the first issue:

Let’s face it: Unlike Vienna, it seems altogether possible that did National Review not exist, no one would have invented it. The launching of a conservative weekly in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that, of course: if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who do.

Winter Vacations in Switzerland
Buckley spent most of his evenings at dinner parties. According to Kenner, the most memorable was an evening that he and the Buckley’s spent with Charlie and Oona Chaplin, who lived in Monteux. The dinner party at a restaurant in Vevey had been arranged by Buckley’s friend James Mason, who was also there. Chaplin was preoccupied with the assassination of President Kennedy, which had occurred three months earlier, and he suggested to his guests that it had been a plot by the CIA or Texas John Birchers.

“I don’t trust the FBI. Do you, Mr. Buckley?” Chaplin asked.

“No,” Buckley replied. “After all, they let you get out of the country without paying your income tax.”

Pat kept kicking Bill under the table, but Chaplin himself was amused by Buckley. “Bill was being masterfully skeptical,” Kenner recalled. “He was dissenting quite principally from the things that Chaplin was saying without offending him in any way.” Later, Oona Chaplin told Pat, “Mrs. Buckley, you mustn’t mind. Don’t kick your husband. I’ve been kicking mine for thirty years, and it simply doesn’t work.”

Lessons from Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham
Drawing from the theme of the unfinished Revolt Against the Masses, he declared that “there is growing in America a spirit of resistance to the Twentieth Century. . . . In America we are dragging our feet; kicking, complaining; hugging on to our ancient moorings.” But the revolt against the twentieth century was by no means complete, and if conservatives attempted to hurry it beyond its accepted pace, they might risk sidetracking it. Buckley put into his words what he had learned from Chambers and Burnham and what had been reinforced by the Goldwater experience:

A conservative is concerned simultaneously with two things, the first being the shape of the visionary or paradigmatic society towards which we should labor; the second, the speed with which it is thinkable to advance towards that ideal society and the foreknowledge that any advance upon it is necessarily asymptotic; not, at least, until the successful completion of the Society for the Abolition of Original Sin. How this movement, considering the contrary tug of history, has got as far as it has got, is something that surpasses the understanding of natural pessimists like myself. Even so, I am guilty of yielding, from time to time, to the temptation to overstress the ideal, often at moments when the prudential should weigh most heavily. I urge you to join with me in trying to resist that temptation.

These two insights — that conservatism, even on the eve of Goldwater’s humiliation, was on the rise, but that conservative politics, to succeed, must mediate between the ideal and the prudential — would inform Buckley’s politics over the next decades and, through his writings, would influence a great many conservative politicians. Buckley’s speech to the New York Conservatives marked his final break with his own radical and pessimistic past.

The Mayoralty Campaign, City of New York 1965
REPORTER:          What would you do if you were elected?
BUCKLEY:            Demand a recount.

Buckley refused to display what he later called “the usual neurotic confidence of all political candidates.” But he also feared that, come November, he might not only lose, but lose big. “I felt no confidence, other than in the cogency of my views, and would have found it personally and professionally embarrassing to go about town speaking nonsense about my own expectations,” he wrote later.

In reporting his announcement, the Herald Tribune described Buckley as a “right-wing and ultra-conservative debater” and warned that 1965 was not a proper year for “staging esoteric debates.”  But Buckley’s wit and defiance of convention thoroughly charmed the city’s press corps and even attracted national media attention to the campaign. While the editors fulminated, the reporters and columnists covered Buckley’s press conferences the way they might a good Broadway show. According to The New Yorker, the members of the press had a “non-partisan reaction: regardless of what Buckley says, they thoroughly enjoy the way he says it. They seem to be grateful for being spared campaign clichés, and to relish his wit, vocabulary, and rococo style.”

Writing in the New York World-Telegraph after Buckley’s first press conference, Murray Kempton commented:

We have already had candidates for mayor various enough to satisfy every taste except the most refined, and the apparition of William F. Buckley may complete the scale. The truly refined taste, after all, progresses from discontent with each way the thing is being done to the final decision that the thing ought not to be done at all. And Buckley made it plain yesterday that he does not merely disdain the opposition but rather disdains the office itself.

Buckley carried through these indignities as handsomely and containedly as any gentleman ranker offered his first introduction to the men’s latrine. He also had the kidney to decline the usual humiliation of soliciting the love of the voters, and read his statement of principles in a tone for all the world that of an Edwardian resident commissioner reading aloud the 39 articles of the Anglican establishment to a conscript assemblage of Zulus.

The Mayoralty TV Debate
The first televised debate was held on Sunday, September 26, and was broadcast over WCBS-TV. Lindsay was platitudinous (“I ask all New Yorkers to join me, to roll up their sleeves, to care”), Beame was visibly nervous and tedious (“I will go to Washington, where I will be welcomed as a Democrat, and fight for federal aid”), and Buckley was acerbic and witty. Asked if he still would be “flabbergasted” if he were elected, Buckley responded, “Having heard Mr. Beame and Mr. Lindsay, I would be flabbergasted if I weren’t elected.”

The Unmaking of a Mayor
By making his writing more personal, Buckley changed his literary persona. He became far more attractive to his readers — appearing in print the way his friends and his colleagues on National Review experienced him. In his early books, Buckley appeared to be an arrogant brat. In The Unmaking of a Mayor, Buckley portrayed himself as an innocent in the wilds of politics; his humor was often at his own expense. For instance, he (recounted his experience the evening of the day in which he had proudly announced his plan for a bicycle path through Manhattan — a proposal that all his advisers had urged him to forgo because it would be seen as flippant.

I remember the evening of that press conference, which I spent at the home of an old Negro election-district boss in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a former Pullman porter of indefatigable political energy and utterly total recall, who had promised to deliver me the entire Bronx, or whatever, and had got together his family and a few lieutenants. We sat about the living room while his warm and hospitable wife in the kitchen below sent up a torrent of sandwiches, cakes, drinks, cigars, as the old gentleman rambled around in his copious memory telling us of this and that. His daughter-in-law, a sophisticated, slightly cynical, more than slightly bemused nurse’s aide from a local hospital, told me at one point: “You know, I was for John Lindsay until today.” “What,” I asked, delighted, “did John Lindsay do today?” “It was that ridiculous bicycle scheme,” she said. I paused. But only for a moment, let the devil record. “That was ridiculous, wasn’t it,” I exclaimed — changing the subject, and concluding that as of that moment, I had really and truly become a politician, and how would I formulate that sin at my next session with my confessor.

The Bill Buckley of God and Man at Yale had charmed older conservatives and inspired younger ones who felt themselves to be part of an embattled Remnant. But the new Buckley could win the sympathy and attract the interest of a far broader range of readers. The Unmaking of a Mayor made Buckley into a popular writer.

Dislike For Politics
He expressed his dislike for politics in more abstract terms in a speech he gave in December 1965 at National Review’s tenth anniversary celebration.

Politics, it has been said, is the preoccupation of the quarter educated, and I do most solidly endorse this observation, and therefore curse this country above all things, for its having given sentient beings very little alternative than to occupy themselves with politics it is all very well to ignore [the Johnson administration’s] Great Society. But will the Great Society ignore us? . . . Where can we go and feel free not to read the New York Times? No such freedom exists nowadays, which is the conclusive reason, surely, to deplore this century’s most distinctive aggression, which is against privacy, publicly understood

WFB at the U.N.
Having convinced himself that Nixon wasn’t simply trying to appease the right wing by appointing him and that he might have some impact at the U.N., Buckley agreed to serve for one term, from September to December. Over the summer, he was confirmed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (When the FBI called Rusher to check routinely on Buckley, it asked him, “Has Mr. Buckley done anything since 1969 that might embarrass the Nixon administration?” “No,” Rusher replied, “but since 1969 the Nixon administration has done a great deal that has embarrassed Mr. Buckley.”

Buckley’s experience, from the first day, confirmed his initial misgivings about the U.N. job. At the orientation in Washington, Buckley was told that someone must always sit at the U.S. desk in the General Assembly and appear to be listening to the speaker. “Above all, we were warned, we must guard against falling asleep.” When Buckley met with Scali (the UN Ambassador who had asked him to the public delegate position) to receive his formal assignment, Scali began to hedge on appointing him as the head of the Third Committee delegation. It was “my first premonition,” Buckley wrote later, “that Walter Mitty was dead.”

The first week, he sent Scali a memorandum, with a copy to Kissinger, outlining what he thought could be accomplished on the Third Committee. “Unless I am instructed to do otherwise,” he wrote, “I plan to feel free to discuss human rights even if the inference can be drawn from what I say that I also believe in human rights within the Soviet Union.” Scali called him in the next morning and instructed him not to send memoranda either to him or to Kissinger and to clear all his speeches with him. And Scali warned Buckley that détente with the Soviet Union was the “overarching policy.”

Over the next months, Scali and his aides vetoed one after another of Buckley’s speeches as being too “provocative.” A column Buckley wrote describing a speech by Zaire’s President Mobutu (“An aide to General Mobutu placed his speech on the podium, and, after he was done, retrieved it. Such menial tasks as placing one’s own speech on a podium are inconsistent with the pride of the President of Zaire.”) caused a furor in the White House, which was planning to receive the offended Mobutu. Buckley’s best lines had to be reserved for unofficial addresses.

On United Nations Day, Buckley gave a speech on New York politics at a buffet lunch organized by New York socialite Mrs. John Loeb. During the question-and-answer session, a black ambassador asked Buckley what his views were on a transportation bond referendum. “To tell you the truth,” Buckley replied, “I have not studied the issue, which I can divulge in good conscience because I don’t have to vote on it, since I vote in Connecticut.” Mrs. Loeb interjected, “You see, Mr. Ambassador, in America, we don’t vote where we work, we vote where we sleep.” “Well,” Buckley responded, “even that is not exactly correct. If I voted where I slept, I would vote in the United Nations.”

Meeting Ronald Reagan
Buckley’s friendship with Reagan dated back to 1960 when Reagan, the chairman of Democrats for Nixon in California and National Review subscriber, introduced him at a Nixon rally in Beverly Hills. Buckley described the incident in an article about Reagan:

He was to introduce me at a lecture that night in Beverly Hills. He arrived at the school auditorium to find consternation. The house was full and the crowd impatient, but the microphone was dead; the student who was to have shown up at the control room above the balcony to turn on the current hadn’t. Reagan quickly took over. He instructed an assistant to call the principal and see if he could get a key, He then bounded onto the stage and shouted as loud as he could to make himself heard. In a very few minutes the audience was greatly enjoying itself. Then word came to him: no answer at the principal’s telephone. Reagan went offstage and looked out the window. There was a ledge, a foot wide, two stories above the street level, running along the side of the window back to the locked control room. Hollywoodwise, he climbed out on the ledge and sidestepped carefully, arms stretched out to help him balance, until he had gone the long way to the window, which he broke open with his elbow, lifting it open from the inside and jumping into the darkness. In a moment, the lights were on, the amplifying knobs turned up, the speaker introduced.

With David Niven
While Buckley was in Switzerland, Saving the Queen appeared. Although the major reviews were lukewarm—in The New York Times, Walter Goodman called it “serviceable entertainment”– it quickly climbed to the top of the best-seller list. Buckley, Niven, and Gaibraith continued their friendly competition over whose books were superior. Asked by an interviewer to explain Saving the Queen’s success, Gaibraith said, “Bill Buckley has a genuine talent for fiction, as his discriminating readers have always known.” He called Buckley’s decision to write novels “a quantum step in self-recognition.”

David Niven had reasons of his own to take Buckley down a notch. When Niven’s second book of memoirs had appeared in 1975, he had asked Buckley for a jacket blurb and Buckley had responded with “Probably the best book ever written about Hollywood.” When Saving the Queen was about to be published, Buckley asked Niven for a blurb, and the actor, busy filming, told Buckley to write it for him. When they were in Switzerland, Buckley told him casually that he had submitted a statement in his name, “Probably the best novel ever written about fucking the Queen. David Niven.” “1 think that was the only time I ever saw him really caught off balance,” Buckley said. “For about half a second, which for him was a long time. Then he started to laugh.”

But Niven got his revenge that winter. Buckley and Niven painted together in Switzerland at an atelier they rented, and Niven brought the painter Marc Chagall to visit. Niven, who described Buckley as “the worst amateur painter in the world,” had warned him not to show Chagall any of his paintings, but Buckley insisted upon trotting out a collection of paintings, including several of his own. When Chagall came upon a blank canvas, he exclaimed, “I like that one best.”

Debating the Panama Canal Treaties with Ronald Reagan
Reagan became the national leader of the campaign against the treaties, using it as the first stage of his 1980 campaign for the presidency. Buckley and Reagan were both concerned that their disagreement over the treaties might endanger their friendship, and they took pains to soften the blow of their difference. After an exchange of correspondence on the issue, Reagan wrote Buckley: “I must confess we are still disagreeing on the matter of the canal. [But] I assure you it would not in any way affect the friendship I feel for you.”

In January, the two aired their differences in a public debate. Reagan accepted Buckley’s invitation to join him in a special two-hour Firing Line, staged at the University of South Carolina. Buckley took along George Will and Burnham as seconds, while Reagan was accompanied by Pat Buchanan and Latin-American expert Roger Fontaine.

Buckley was in a difficult situation for a debater — one that, ironically, recalled his Yale days. The audience was very conservative and supportive of Reagan’s rather than his own position. Reagan was able to appeal to sentiment — the imperial nostalgia that had affected Americans after the American defeat in Vietnam — while Buckley had to call on his listeners to rise above sentiment. But just as he had at Yale, he relished the situation. “If Bill was concerned, he never showed it,” Neal Freeman recalled. “He delighted in debate and rebuttal.” The debate was held in a theater in the round, with the two camps seated facing each other. The Washington Post described it as a “Super Bowl of the right.” To the audience’s applause, Reagan, tanned and relaxed, argued that without control of the Canal, the U.S. could get pushed around in time of war when it needed to send its ships through the Canal. Buckley, somewhat disheveled, his hair fashionably long, his eyebrows popping up and down, his tongue darting, responded that the U.S. would be better off militarily if the Panamanians were not harboring resentment against the U.S. for controlling part of their land. If the U.S. needed to move its Navy quickly through the Canal, Buckley said, “that mobility is more easily effected if we have the cooperation of the local population.”

The two men made the most of their own embarrassment at being on opposite sides of a major public issue.

If Lloyds of London had been asked to give odds that I would be disagreeing with Ronald Reagan on a matter of public policy, Buckley began, I doubt they could have flogged a quotation out of their swingingest betting man because judging from Governor Reagan’s impeccable record, the statisticians would have reasoned that it was inconceivable that he should make a mistake. But of course it happens to everyone. I fully expect that someday I’ll be wrong about something.

After the two debaters had made their opening presentations, they were given seven minutes to question each other. “Well, Bill,” Reagan began, “my first question is why haven’t you already rushed across the room to tell me that you’ve seen the light? ““I’m afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you,” Buckley replied.

When Reagan claimed that it was the Torrijos government, rather than the people of Panama, that was demanding the return of the Canal, Buckley turned his wit on Reagan’s argument.

BUCKLEY:  But it was before Torrijos became the dictator that the initial riots took place demanding an assertion of sovereignty. How do you account for that?

REAGAN:  I think the first time that it was expressed was in 1932 in the Charter of the new Communist Party of Panama that they put as one of their top objectives the taking over of the Canal.

BUCKLEY:  Are you saying that the Communists invented patriotism in Panama?

REAGAN:  No, no.

BUCKLEY:  Yes. Well, you really tried to say that.

In his concluding remarks, Buckley made light of Reagan’s recitation of the history of American-Panamanian relations. He recounted the explanation of the Louisiana Purchase that James Thurber had given to two inquiring ladies:

He said, “Louisiana was owned by two sisters called Louisa and Anne Wilmont, and they offered to give it to the United States, provided it was named after them. That was the Wilmont Proviso.”

Now, intending no slur on my friend Ronald Reagan, the politician in America I admire most, his rendition of recent history and his generalities remind me a little bit about that explanation for the state of Louisiana having been incorporated into this country. He says we, in fact, don’t negotiate under threats, and everybody here bursts out in applause. The trouble with that is that it’s not true.

Buckley’s performance—designed at once to re-establish his credentials as a hardliner and to appeal to American generosity—was masterful and largely defused Reagan’s jingoistic appeals.

Buckley got the last word not only on Reagan but on the press. In his story on the debate, Washington Post reporter Ward Sinclair chided Buckley for being wrong. “He says Cortez crossed Panama and was the first to espy the the Pacific Ocean. It was Vasco Nüfiez de Balboa.” Buckley responded in a letter to the Post.

What I said in my speech was, “If there is a full-scale atomic war, the Panama Canal will revert to a land mass, and the first survivor who makes his way across the isthmus will relive a historical experience like stout Cortez when, with eagle eyes, he stared at the Pacific and ail his men looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien.”

The lines are from John Keats, his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” I felt presumptuous enough correcting Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy without straightening out Keats’s historical solecism. But tell Mr. Sinclair not to worry: It happens all the time, people’s inability to tell where I leave off and Keats begins.

Buckley wrote later of Reagan’s stand on Panama, “I think, ironically, that Reagan would not have been nominated if he had favored the Panama Canal Treaty, and that he wouldn’t have been elected if it hadn’t passed. He’d have lost the conservatives if he had backed the treaty, and lost the election if we’d subsequently faced, in Panama, insurrection, as in my opinion we would have.” (Overdrive. 119.)


Michelangelo’s Fresco of the Last Judgment

July 23, 2010

Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, 1536-41

A powerful meditation by José Granados, DCJM, is assistant professor of patrology and philosophy of the body at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. It was part of an article titled Risen Time: Easter as the Source of History in the Spring 2010 issue of Communio that is devoted to The Paschal Mystery. More information on the latter here:

An online tour of the Sistine Chapel, which allows you to interact with the painting and the space, here:


Perhaps I should begin with the conventional view (from the Vatican website) before presenting Fr. Granados’ meditation on the fresco:

“The mighty composition, painted by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541, is centred around the dominant figure of Christ, captured in the moment preceding that when the verdict of the Last Judgment is uttered (Matthew 25:31-46). His calm imperious gesture seems to both command attention and placate the surrounding agitation. It starts a wide slow rotary movement in which all the figures are involved. Excluded are the two upper lunettes with groups of angels bearing in flight the symbols of the Passion (on the left the Cross, the nails and the crown of thorns; on the right the column of the scourging, the stairs and the spear with the sponge soaked in vinegar). Next to Christ is the Virgin, who turns her head in a gesture of resignation: in fact she can no longer intervene in the decision, but only await the result of the Judgement. The Saints and the Elect, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict.

Some of them can be easily recognized: St Peter with the two keys, St Laurence with the gridiron, St Bartholomew with his own skin which is usually recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo, St Catherine of Alexandria with the cogwheel and St Sebastian kneeling holding the arrows. In the centre of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse who are wakening the dead to the sound of long trumpets. On the left the risen recover their bodies as they ascend towards heaven (Resurrection of the flesh), on the right angels and devils fight over making the damned fall down to hell. Finally, at the bottom Charon with his oars, together with his devils, makes the damned get out of his boat to lead them before the infernal judge Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of the serpent.

The reference in this part to the Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia is clear. As well as praise, the Last Judgment also caused violent reactions among the contemporaries. For example the Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said that “it was most dishonest in such an honored place to have painted so many nude figures who so dishonestly show their shame and that it was not a work for a Chapel of the Pope but for stoves and taverns” (G. Vasari, Le Vite). The controversies, that continued for years, led in 1564 to the decision by the Congregation of the Council of Trent to have some of the figures of the Judgment that were considered “obscene” covered. The task of painting the covering drapery, the so-called “braghe” (pants) was given to Daniele da Volterra, since then known as the “braghettone”. Daniele’s “braghe” were only the first and in fact others were added in the following centuries.”

Now read this carefully, I found it so impressive:

When Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was unveiled for the first time, Pope Paul III fell to his knees in an act of reverent adoration, fearful before the figure of Christ in judgment) This impression of a Christ condemning the damned has become a widespread interpretation of the painting. It is not the only possible reading, however; Jesus’ raised hand could indeed signify a rejection of the wicked, but it may equally well be viewed as an invitation to the blessed to advance toward him. In this view, Christ in judgment is the dynamic center of the painting and sets the entire scent in motion.

This interpretation is reinforced if we consider that Michelangelo’s original intention may have been to illustrate not the final judgment but rather the resurrection of the flesh. If this is the case, what the painter intends to focus on is precisely the body of the Redeemer, together with the bodies of all the risen. The center of the picture would then he the powerful strength that radiates from Christ and causes all the figures in the painting to move around him.

In this regard, it is important to note that the body of the risen Christ is not the type we find in Greek sculpture.  Michelangelo does not portray the self-contained body depicted in ancient art, a body that expresses the nobility and harmony of the soul. To the contrary, this Christian body is full of energy, it is a body that exerts a magnetic attraction over the other bodies on the Sistine wall, a body endowed with a force that springs out into the rest of the picture.

His vision of the body goes beyond the Greek harmony of a self-contained corporeal presence. What we have here is a body that comes out of itself a body capable of expansion and communication beyond its borders because it is filled with divine strength. It is from the dynamism of Jesus’ body, as Michelangelo painted it in the Sistine Chapel, that the whole of history is set in motion.

The dynamism that Christ’s risen body bestows upon the entire scene helps us to see the resurrection not only as the destination point of history, the final moment of a long series, but also as the very source of history’s dynamism. Thus, Easter brings with it a new understanding of time. Is it also a spiritual time, analogous to the spiritual body of the glorious Lord (cf. I Corinthians 15:44)?

Jesus’ risen body is the source of a risen time, a spiritual time fulfilled by the Spirit’s presence. This risen time is not alien to earthly time: its structure preserves an analogy to the human experience of past, present, and future, understood in light of an interpersonal encounter. The past is one with our coming from God and witnesses that the Father is Origin and Fountainhead. The present is the present of fidelity, of the keeping of the promise, first received from God and then uttered by us. The future is transfigured into the fecundity of love, the continuous excess of our encounter with the divine.

Since our time became at Easter a time fully shared in God with others, Jesus’ time call be donated to us, it can communicate to us its rhythm. Moreover, it is capable of expanding toward the past and future to embrace the whole of history. History, from beginning to end, has been inserted into the dynamism of filiation, promise, and fruitfulness that is proper to eternity. At the end of time, history will be fully conjoined to the embrace of love of Father and Son in the Spirit. And what Michelangelo requests in one of his poems will come to pass: “make my whole body an eye, so that there is no part of me that does not enjoy you.”


Paul’s Relationship with the Historical Jesus — by Pope Benedict XVI

July 22, 2010

Caravaggio, Conversion of St. Paul 1601

I’m reading Saint Paul by Pope Benedict XVI, the collection of Wednesday audiences that the Holy Father gave, speaking to the topic of Saint Paul during the year devoted to the great Saint. For some reason this particular exposition concerning Paul’s relationship with the historical Jesus were so compellingly and direct, I wish to highlight them here.

Ways of Knowing
In the last Catecheses on St Paul, I spoke of his encounter with the Risen Christ that profoundly changed his life and then of his relationship with the Twelve Apostles called by Jesus – especially his relationship with James, Cephas and John – and of his relationship with the Church in Jerusalem.

The question remains as to what St Paul knew about the earthly Jesus, about his life, his teachings, his Passion. Before entering into this topic, it might be useful to bear in mind that St Paul himself distinguishes between two ways of knowing Jesus, and more generally, two ways of knowing a person. He writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer” (5: 16).

The First Way
Knowing “from a human point of view,” in the manner of the flesh, means knowing solely in an external way, by means of external criteria: one may have seen a person various times and hence be familiar with his features and various characteristics of his behavior: how he speaks, how he moves, etc. Although one may know someone in this way, nevertheless one does not really know him, one does not know the essence of the person. Only with the heart does one truly know a person.

Indeed, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were externally acquainted with Jesus, they learned his teaching and knew many details about him but they did not know him in his truth. There is a similar distinction in one of Jesus’ sayings. After the Transfiguration he asked the Apostles: “who do men say that the Son of man is?”, and: “who do you say that I am?”. The people know him, but superficially; they know various things about him, but they do not really know him.

The Second Way
On the other hand, the Twelve, thanks to the friendship that calls the heart into question, have at least understood in substance and begun to discover who Jesus is. This different manner of knowing still exists today: there are learned people who know many details about Jesus and simple people who have no knowledge of these details but have known him in his truth: “Heart speaks to heart”. And Paul wants to say that to know Jesus essentially in this way, with the heart, is to know the person essentially in his truth; and then, a little later, to get to know him better.

Three Forms Of Reference To The Pre-Paschal Jesus

  1. Having said this the question still remains: what did St Paul know about Jesus’ practical life, his words, his Passion and his miracles? It seems certain that he did not meet him during his earthly life.
    Through the Apostles and the nascent Church Paul certainly must have come to know the details of Jesus’ earthly life. In his Letters, we may find three forms of reference to the pre-Paschal Jesus. In the first place, there are explicit and direct references. Paul speaks of the Jesus’ Davidic genealogy (cf. Romans 1: 3), he knows of the existence of his “brethren” or kin (1 Corinthians 9: 5; Galatians 1: 19), he knows the sequence of events of the Last Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians11: 23) and he knows other things that Jesus said, for example on the indissolubility of marriage (cf. 1 Corinthians7: 10 with Mark 10: 11-12), on the need for those who proclaim the Gospel to be supported by the community since the laborer deserves his wages (cf. 1 Corinthians9: 14, with Luke 10: 7). Paul knows the words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians11: 24-25, with Luke 22: 19-20), and also knows Jesus’ Cross. These are direct references to words and events of Jesus’ life.
  2. In the second place, we can glimpse in a few sentences of the Pauline Letters various allusions to the tradition attested to in the Synoptic Gospels. For example, the words we read in the First Letter to the Thessalonians which say that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5: 2), could not be explained with a reference to the Old Testament prophesies, since the comparison with the nocturnal thief is only found in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke, hence it is indeed taken from the Synoptic tradition.
    Thus, when we read: “God chose what is foolish in the world…” (1 Corinthians1: 27-28), one hears the faithful echo of Jesus’ teaching on the simple and the poor (cf. Matthew 5: 3; 11: 25; 19: 30). Then there are the words that Jesus spoke at the messianic jubilee: “I thank you, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to babes”. Paul knows — from his missionary experience — how true these words are, that is, that the hearts of the simple are open to knowledge of Jesus. Even the reference to Jesus’ obedience “unto death”, which we read in Philippians 2: 8, can only recall the earthly Jesus’ unreserved readiness to do his Father’s will (cf. Mark 3: 35; John 4: 34). Paul is thus acquainted with Jesus’ Passion, his Cross, the way in which he lived the last moments of his life. The Cross of Jesus and the tradition concerning this event of the Cross lies at the heart of the Pauline kerygma.
    Another pillar of Jesus’ life known to St Paul is the “Sermon on the Mount”, from which he cited certain elements almost literally when writing to the Romans: “love one another…. Bless those who persecute you…. Live in harmony with one another… overcome evil with good…”. Therefore in his Letters the Sermon on the Mount is faithfully reflected (cf. Matthew 5-7).
  3. Lastly, it is possible to individuate a third manner in which Jesus’ words are present in St Paul’s Letters: it is when he brings about a form of transposition of the pre-Paschal tradition to the situation after Easter. A typical case is the theme of the Kingdom of God. It was certainly at the heart of the historical Jesus’ preaching (cf. Matthew 3: 2; Mark 1: 15; Luke 4: 43). It is possible to note in Paul a transposition of this subject because, after the Resurrection, it is obvious that Jesus in person, the Risen One, is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom therefore arrives where Jesus is arriving. Thus the theme of the Kingdom of God, in which Jesus’ mystery was anticipated, is transformed into Christology. Yet, the same attitudes that Jesus requested for entering the Kingdom of God apply precisely to Paul with regard to justification through faith: both entry into the Kingdom and justification demand an approach of deep humility and openness, free from presumptions, in order to accept God’s grace.
    For example, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (cf. Luke 18: 9-14), imparts a teaching that is found exactly as it is in Paul, when he insists on the proper exclusion of any boasting to God. Even Jesus’ sentences on publicans and prostitutes, who were more willing to accept the Gospel than the Pharisees (cf. Matthew 21: 31; Luke 7: 36-50,) and his decision to share meals with them (cf. Matthew 9: 10-13; Luke 15: 1-2) are fully confirmed in Paul’s teaching on God’s merciful love for sinners (cf. Romans 5: 8-10; and also Ephesians 2: 3-5). Thus the theme of the Kingdom of God is re-proposed in a new form, but always in full fidelity to the tradition of the historical Jesus.

His Use of Titles
Another example of the faithful transformation of the doctrinal nucleus imparted by Jesus is found in the “titles” he uses. Before Easter he described himself as the Son of man; after Easter it becomes obvious that the Son of man is also the Son of God. Therefore Paul’s favorite title to describe Jesus is Kýrios, “Lord” (cf. Phil 2: 9-11), which suggests Jesus’ divinity. The Lord Jesus, with this title, appears in the full light of the Resurrection.

Abbà Father
On the Mount of Olives, at the moment of Jesus’ extreme anguish, (cf. Mark 14: 36), the disciples, before falling asleep, had heard him talking to the Father and calling him “Abbà Father”. This is a very familiar word equivalent to our “daddy”, used only by children in talking to their father. Until that time it had been unthinkable for a Jew to use such a word in order to address God; but Jesus, being a true Son, at that moment of intimacy used this foRomans and said: “Abba, Father”. Surprisingly, in St Paul’s Letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, this word “Abba”, that expresses the exclusivity of Jesus’ sonship, appears on the lips of the baptized (cf. Romans 8: 15; Galatians 4: 6) because they have received the “Spirit of the Son”. They now carry this Spirit within them and can speak like Jesus and with Jesus as true children to their Father; they can say “Abba” because they have become sons in the Son.

Death Of Jesus As Having Been Bought At A Price
And finally, I would like to mention the saving dimension of Jesus’ death that we find in the Gospel saying, according to which: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 45; Matthew 20: 28). A faithful reflection of these words of Jesus appears in the Pauline teaching on the death of Jesus as having been bought at a price (cf. 1 Corinthians 6: 20), as redemption (cf. Romans 3: 24), as liberation (cf. Galatians 5: 1), and as reconciliation (cf. Romans 5: 10; 2 Corinthians 5: 18-20). This is the centre of Pauline theology that is founded on these words of Jesus.

The Reality Of The Living Jesus
To conclude, St Paul did not think of Jesus in historical terms, as a person of the past. He certainly knew the great tradition of the life, words, death and Resurrection of Jesus, but does not treat all this as something from the past; he presents it as the reality of the living Jesus.

For Paul, Jesus’ words and actions do not belong to the historical period, to the past. Jesus is alive now, he speaks to us now and lives for us. This is the true way to know Jesus and to understand the tradition about him. We must also learn to know Jesus not from the human point of view, as a person of the past, but as our Lord and Brother, who is with us today and shows us how to live and how to die.


The Philosophical Act II by Josef Pieper

July 21, 2010

A continuation of yesterday’s essay on the nature of the philosophical act. Written over 60 years ago, but still relevant to asking the big questions in a world where the capacity to see the laws of material being seems to make us incapable of seeing the ethical message contained in that being. Let’s remind ourselves what the philosophical act is all about…

So, then: whoever philosophizes, takes a step beyond the work-a-day world and its daily routine.

The meaning of taking such a step is determined less by where it starts from as by where it leads to. We must ask a further question: just where is the philosopher going when he transcends the world of work? Clearly, he steps over a boundary: what kind of region lies on the other side of this boundary? And what is the relationship of the place where the philosophical act happens, to the world that is transcended and left behind by this same philosophical act? Is that the “authentic” world, and the world of work the “inauthentic”? Is it the “whole” as opposed to the “part”? Is it the “true reality” as opposed to a mere shadow world of appearances?

No matter how such questions could be answered in detail, in any case, both regions, the world of work and the “other realm,” where the philosophical act takes place in its transcending of the working world — both regions belong to the world of man, which clearly has a complex structure.

Therefore, our next question is, “What is the nature of the world of man?” — a question that cannot be answered if the human being is ignored. In order to give a clear answer at this point, we must begin again, and start as it were from the very bottom.

It is in the nature of a living thing to have a world: to exist and live in the world, in “its” world. To live means to be “in” a world. But is not a stone also “in” a world? Is not everything that exists “in” a world? If we keep to the lifeless stone, is it not with and beside other things in the world? Now, “with,” “beside,” and “in” are prepositions, words of relationship; but the stone does not really have a relationship with the world “in” which it is, nor to the other things “beside” which and “with” which it lives. Relationship, in the true sense, joins the inside with the outside; relationship can only exist where there is an “inside,” a dynamic center, from which all operation has its source and to which all that is received, all that is experienced, is brought.

The “internal” (only in this qualitative sense: the “inside” of a rock would refer only to the spatial location of parts) — the “internal” is the ability to have a real relationship, a relation to the external; to have an “inside,” means ability to be related, and to enter into relationship. And “world”? A world means the same thing, but considered as a whole field of relationships. Only a being that has an ability to enter into relationships, only being with an “inside,” has a “world”; only such a being can exist in the midst of a field of relations.

There is a distinctly different kind of proximity that obtains in the relationships of pebbles, which lie together in a heap somewhere beside the roadway and are “related” in that way, and, on the other hand, in the relationship of a plant to the nutrients which it finds in the vicinity of its roots. Here we see not merely physical proximity as an objective fact, but genuine relationship (in the original, active meaning of relationship): the nutrients are integrated into the orbit of the plant’s life — by way of the real internality of the plant, through its power to be related, and to enter into relationship. And all this — all that can be taken in by the relating-power of that plant — all this makes up the field of relationships, or the world, of that plant. The plant has a world, but not the pebble.

This, then, is the first point: “world” is a field of relations. To have a world means to be in the midst of, and to be the bearer of, a field of relations. The second point is, the higher the level of the inwardness or, that is to say, the more comprehensive and penetrative the ability to enter into relations, so the wider and deeper are the dimensions of the field of relations that belongs to that being; to put it differently: the higher a being stands in the hierarchy of reality, the wider and more profound is the standing of its world.

The lowest world is that of the plant, which does not reach beyond what it touches in its own vicinity. The higher-ranking, spatially wider realm of the animal corresponds to its greater ability to enter into relationships. The relation-ability of the animal is greater, insofar as the animal has sense-perception. To perceive something is quite extraordinary, compared with what the plant can do: it is a completely new mode of entering into relationship with one’s environment.

But not everything that an animal, as such, can perceive (because it has ears to hear and eyes to see) really belongs to the world of such an animal: it is not true that all the visible things in the environment of an animal with vision are in fact seen, or even can be seen. For “environment” as such, the perceivable environment, is still not a “world.” That was the typical belief, until the environmental researches of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll; until that time, as Uexküll puts it, “it was generally held, that all eye-equipped animals could see the same things.” But Uexküll discovery was that, on the contrary, “the environments of animals are not at all the whole expanse of nature, but resemble a narrow, furnished apartment.” For example, one could well imagine that a crow could see a grasshopper (a very desirable object for a crow) whenever the grasshopper came across its path, or to be more precise, whenever in came into view of its eyes. But that is not the case! Instead, to cite Uexkull, “the crow is completely incapable of seeing a grasshopper sitting still… we would first assume that the form of a resting grasshopper would be very well known to a crow, but because of the blade of grass in the way cannot be made out as a unit, just as we have difficulty seeing an image hidden in a picture-puzzle. Only when it jumps does its form ‘release’ itself from the neighboring shapes — or so we would think. But after further investigation, it can be shown that the crow does not even recognize the form of a resting grasshopper, but is only prepared to sense moving things. This would explain the ‘playing dead’ behavior of many insects. Since their resting-form does not at all appear in the sense-world of their predators, they escape that world completely and securely simply by lying still, and cannot be found, even if they are actively sought.”

This selective milieu, then, to which the animal is completely suited, but in which the animal is also enclosed (so much so that the boundary cannot be crossed — since “not even if it looks for something” — even if equipped with an excellent searching-organ, could it find something that does not correspond to the selective principle of this partial world); this selective reality, determined and bounded by the biological life-purpose of the individual or the species, is called an “environment” [Umwelt] by Uexküll (in distinction from a “surrounding” [Umgebung], and in distinction also, as we will later see, from a “world” [Welt]). The field of relations of the animal is not its “surroundings,” nor the “world,” but is its “environment,” in this special sense: a world from which something has been left out, a selected milieu, to which its dweller is at once perfectly suited — and confined.

Someone will perhaps ask at this point, what has this to do with our theme, “What is it to philosophize?” Now the connection is not as distant or indirect as it may seem. We last inquired about the world of the human being, and this was the immediate interest in Uexküll concept of environment — namely, that our human world “can in no way claim to be more real than the sense-world of the animal” (so he says); that, consequently, the human being is in principle confined to his world in the same way as the animal; that is, to a biologically selected partial environment, and that man cannot perceive anything that lies outside this environment, “not even if it was actively sought” (no more, then, than the crow could find the resting grasshopper). One might well ask how a being so enclosed in its own environment, so closed in on itself, could be able to perform scientific research on the nature of environments.

But we don’t want to engage in controversy on this point; rather, we can leave the point aside and ask another question instead, since our attention is directed to man and the human world to which he belongs: what is the relating-power of the human being? What is its nature? What power does it have? We said that the perceptive-ability of the animal, when compared with what is in plants, is a more far-reaching way of relating to things. Would not, then, the peculiarly human manner of knowing — for ages past, termed a spiritual or intellective knowing — in fact be another, further mode of putting-oneself-into-relation, a mode which transcends in principle anything which can be realized in the plant and animal worlds?

And further, would this fundamentally different kind of relating power go together with a different field of relations, i.e., a world of fundamentally different dimensions? The answer to such questions can be found in the Western philosophical tradition, which has understood and even defined spiritual knowing as the power to place oneself into relation with the sum-total of existing things. And this is not meant as only one characteristic among others, but as the very essence and definition of the power. By its nature, spirit (or intellection) is not so much distinguished by its immateriality, as by something more primary: its ability to be in relation to the totality of being.

“Spirit” means a relating power that is so far-reaching and comprehensive, that the field of relations to which it corresponds, transcends in principle the very boundaries of its surroundings. It is the nature of spirit to have as its field of relations not just “surroundings” [Umwelt] but a “world” [Welt]. It is of the nature of the spiritual being to go past the immediate surroundings and to go beyond both its “confinement” and its “close fit” to those surroundings (and of course herein is revealed both the freedom and danger to which the spiritual being is naturally heir).

In Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, the De Anima,[De Anima III, 8 (431b)] we can read the following: “Now, in order to sum up everything said up until this point about the soul, we can say again that, the soul, basically, is all that exists.” This sentence became a constant point of reference for the anthropology of the High Middle Ages: anima est quodammodo omnia [“The soul, in a certain way, is all things”. “In a certain way”: that is to say, the soul is “all” insofar as it sets itself in relation to the whole of existence through knowing (and “to know” means to become identical with the known reality -- although we cannot go into any further detail about this as yet).

As Thomas says in the treatise De Veritate (“On Truth”), the spiritual soul is essentially structured “to encounter all being” (convenire cum omni ente[Quaestiones disputatae de veritate I, 1]), to put itself into relation with everything that has being. “Every other being possesses only a partial participation in being,” whereas the being endowed with spirit “can grasp being as a whole.” [Summa contra gentiles III, 112] As long as there is spirit, “it is possible for the completeness of all being to be present in a single nature.”[Quaestiones disputatue de veritate III, 2] And this is also the position of the Western tradition: to have spirit [Geist], to be a spirit, to be spiritual — all this means to be in the middle of the sum total of reality, to be in relation with the totality of being, to be vis-à-vis de l’univers. The spirit does not live in “a” world, or in “its” world, but in the world: world in the sense of “everything seen and unseen” (omnia visibilia et invisibilia).

Spirit, or intellection, and the sum-total of reality: these are interchangeable terms, that correspond to one another. You cannot “have” the one without the other. An attempt to do just this (we mention only it in passing) — to grant the human being superiority to his surroundings, to say that man has “world” (Weld) (and not merely “environment” [Umwelt]), without speaking of man’s spiritual nature, or rather (what is more extreme), to maintain that this fact (that man has “world” and not only “environment”) has nothing whatever to do with this “other” fact, that the human being is equipped with intellection or spirit — this attempt has been made by Arnold Gehlen in a very comprehensive book which has received a great deal of attention: Man: His Nature and Place in the World.

In opposition to Uexküll, Gehlen rightly says that the human being is not closed within an environment but is free of his surroundings and open to the world; and yet, Gehlen goes on to say, this difference between the animal as environmentally limited and the human being as open to the world-as-a-whole does not depend “on the characteristic of. . . spirit.” Instead, this very power to “have the world” is spirit. Spirit by definition is ability to comprehend the world.

For the older philosophy — that is, for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas — the connection of the two terms “spirit” (or “intellection” [Geist) and “world” (in the sense of total-relatedness) is so intimately and profoundly anchored in both directions that not only is it true to say that “spirit is relatedness to the sum total of existing beings”; for the earlier philosophers, the other truth, asserting that all things are essentially in relation to spirit, is just as valid, and in a very precise sense, which we do not dare to formulate in words as yet. For not only is it the property of the spirit that its field of relations includes the sum total of existing things; rather, it is also the property of existing things that they lie within the field of relations of the spirit. And to go further: for the older philosophy, it is all the same to say that “things have being” as to say that “things lie in the field of relations of the spirit, are related to spirit,” whereby is meant, of course, no mere “free-floating” spirituality in some abstract sense but rather personal spirit, a relating power that is well grounded, but then again, not only God, but the created, finite, human spirit as well. For the old ontology, it belonged to the nature of existing things to be within the field, within the reach of the spiritual soul; “to have being” means the same as “to lie within the field of relations of the spiritual soul”; both statements refer to one and the same situation. This and nothing else is the meaning of the old doctrine which has become so removed from us:

“All being is true” (omne ens est verum), and the other doctrine with the same meaning: “being” and “true” are convertible expressions. For what does “true” mean, in the sense of “the truth of things”? To say that something is true is to say that it is understood and intelligible, both for the absolute spirit as well as for the non-absolute spirit. I need to ask for your patience in simply accepting this for the moment, since it is not possible to justify these things in any detail at this point.

“Intelligibility” is nothing other than being related to a spirit that has understanding. So when the old philosophy states that it belongs to the nature of existing things, that they are intelligible and are understood, there could not be any being which is not known and knowable (since all being is true); when it is the said that the concepts “being” on the one hand, and “intelligibility” on the other, are convertible, so that the one could stand in the other’s place, so that it is the same for me to say that “things have existence” as to say that “things are known and intelligible”; in saying this the old philosophy also taught that it lies in the nature of things to be related to the mind (and this -- the concept of the “truth of things” -- is what matters in the context of our present inquiry). To summarize, then, what we have been saying: the world that is related to the spiritual being is the sum-total of existing things; this is so much the case that this set of relations belongs as well to the nature of spirit; the spirit is the power of comprehending the totality of being, as it belongs to the nature of existing beings themselves: “to be” means “to be related to spirit.”

What stands revealed to us, then, is a series of “worlds”: at the lowest, the world of plants, already locally limited to the surroundings they touch. Beyond this is the realm of the animals; and finally, transcending all these partial worlds, is the world related to spirit, the world as the totality of being. And to this ranking of worlds and fields-of-relations correspond, as we have seen, the ranking of the powers that relate: the more comprehensive the power, the more highly dimensioned is the corresponding field of relations, or “world.”

Now a third structural element is to be added to this twofold structure. For the stronger power of relating corresponds to a higher degree of inwardness; the power to relate is greater to the same degree as the bearer of that relation has “inwardness”; the lowest power of relating not only corresponds to the lowest form of being in the world but also to the lowest grade of “inwardness,” whereas the spirit, which directs its relating-power to the sum total of being, must likewise have a corresponding inwardness. The more comprehensive the power of relating oneself to the world of objective being, so the more deeply anchored must be the “ballast” in the inwardness of the subject. And when a distinctively different level of “world” is reached, namely, the orientation toward the whole, there too can be found the highest stage of being-established in one’s inwardness, which is proper to the spirit.

Thus both of these comprise the nature of spirit: not only the relation to the “whole” of the world and “reality,” but also the highest power of living-with-oneself, of being in oneself, of independence, of autonomy -- which is exactly what has always been the “person,” or “personality” in the Western tradition: to have a world, to be related to the totality of existing things -- that can occur only in a being that is “established in itself”: not a “what,” but a “who” -- an “I,” a person.

But now it is time to look back over the path we have taken and return to the questions from which we began. There were two questions, one more immediate, the other more remote. The first was, “What kind of world is the world of man?” and the second was, “What does it mean to philosophize?”

Before we begin again with our formal discussion, a brief remark is in order about the structure of the world that is related to the spirit. It is not, of course, by a greater spatial compass that the world that is spirit-related differs from the world that is related to the non-spiritual (a point that was not addressed when I distinguished “environment” from “world”). It is not only the sum-total of things; but it is also the “nature of the things,” with which the world related to the spirit is constituted. The reason why the animal lives in a partial world is because the nature of things is hidden from it. And it is only because the spirit is able to attain to the essence of things that it has the ability to understand the totality of things.

This connection was made by the old doctrine of being, whereby “the universe,” as well as the nature of things, is “universal.” Thomas says, “Because the intellectual [or spiritual] soul is able to grasp universals, it has a capacity for the infinite.”[Summa Theologiae L Q, 76, a. 5, ad 4um] Whoever attains to an understanding of the universal whole essence of things is thereby able to win a perspective from which the totality of being, of all existing things, are present and ascertainable; in intellectual understanding, an “outpost” is reached, or can be reached, whence the whole landscape of the universe can be taken in. We have reached a context into which we can take only a brief glimpse but which will also lead us into the very center of a philosophical understanding of being, knowing, and spirit.

But now, let us return to the questions which we set out to answer. The first step to take is to the more immediate question, “What kind of world is the world of man?” Is the world of man the world that is related to the spirit? The answer would have to be that man’s world is the whole reality, in the midst of which the human being lives, face-to-face with the entirety of existing things — vis-à-vis de 1’univers — but only insofar as man is spirit. But man is not pure spirit; he is a finite spirit so that both the nature of things and the totality of things are not given in the perfection of a total understanding, but only in “expectation” or “hope.”

But first, let us consider the fact that man is not pure spirit. This statement, of course, could be spoken in a variety of tones. Not seldom, it is said with a feeling of regret, an accentuation that is usually understood as something specifically Christian, by both Christians and non- Christians alike. The sentence can also be said in such a way as to imply that “certainly, man is not pure spirit,” but that the “true human being” is nevertheless the intellectual soul.

Now these. doctrines have no basis in the classical tradition of the West. Thomas Aquinas used a very pointed formula on this matter which is not as well known as it should be. The objection he raises is the following: “The goal of the human being is to attain complete likeness to God. But the soul when separated from the body which is immaterial would be more like God than the soul with the body. And therefore the souls will be separated from their bodies in their final state.” This is the objection, that the real human being is the soul, dressed out in all the tempting glamour of theological argumentation.

And how does Thomas reply to the objection? “The soul that is united to the body is more like God than the soul that has been separated from its body because the former more perfectly possesses its own nature.” [Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei 5, 10, ad 5] This is no easily digested statement, considering how it implies not only that the human being is bodily, but that the soul itself is also bodily.

If this is the case, if man essentially is “not only spirit,” if man is not in virtue of a denial, or on the basis of a departure from his authentic being, but really and in a positive sense a being in whom the various realms of plant-, animal-, and spiritual beings are bound into a unity — then man lives essentially, not exclusively, in the face of the totality of things, the whole universe of beings. Rather, his field of relations is an overlapping of “world” and “environment,” and necessarily so, in correspondence to human nature. Because man is not purely spirit, he cannot only live “under the stars,” not only vis-à-vis de l’univers; instead, he needs a roof over his head, he needs the trusted neighborhood of daily reality, the sensuously concrete world, he needs to “fit in” with his customary surroundings — in a word: a truly human life also needs to have an “environment” (Umwelt), as distinct from a “world.”

But at the same time, it pertains to the nature of body/soul being that man is, that the spirit shapes and penetrates the vegetative and sense-perceived regions in which he exists. So much so, that the act of eating by a human being is something different from that of the animal (even apart from the fact that the human realm includes the “meal,” something thoroughly spiritual!). The spiritual soul so profoundly influences all the other regions that even when the human being “vegetates,” this is only possible because of the spirit (neither the plant nor the animal “vegetates”). Consequently, this very non-human phenomenon, this self-inclusion of man in the environment (and that means, in that selective world determined solely by life’s immediate needs), even this confinement is possible only on the basis of a spiritual confinement. On the contrary, to be human is: to know things beyond the “roof” of the stars, to go beyond the trusted enclosures of the normal, customary day-to-day reality of the whole of existing things, to go beyond the “environment” to the “world” in which that environment is enclosed.

But now, we have unwittingly taken a step closer to answering our original question: What is it to philosophize? Philosophy means just this: to experience that the nearby world, determined by the immediate demands of life, can be shaken, or indeed, must be shaken, over and over again, by the unsettling call of the “world,” or by the total reality that mirrors back the eternal natures of things. To philosophize (we have already asked, What empowers the philosophical act to transcend the working-world?) — to philosophize means to take a step outside of the work-a-day world into the vis-à-vis de l’univers. It is a step which leads to a kind of “homeless”-ness: the stars are no roof over the head. It is a step, however, that constantly keeps open its own retreat, for the human being cannot live long in this way.

He who seriously intends to wander finally and definitively outside the world of the Thracian maiden is wandering outside the realm of human reality. What Thomas said about the vita contemplativa applies here also: it is really something more than human (non proprie humana, sect superhumana). [Quaestio disputata de virtutibus cardinalibus I] Of course, man himself is something more than human: man transcends man himself for the sake of the eternal, Pascal said; an easy definition does not go far enough to reach the human being.

But instead of developing these considerations, which may lead us too near to babbling nonsense, let us return to the question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” and attempt another approach to it, in more concrete fashion, and on the basis established by the foregoing. How does the philosophical question different from the non-philosophical question? To philosophize means, we said, to direct one’s view toward the totality of the world. So is that a philosophical question (and that alone) which has for its explicit and formal theme this sum-total of all existing things? No! What is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question is that it cannot be posed, considered, or answered (so far at least as an answer is possible), without “God and the World” also coming into consideration, that is, the whole of what exists.

Once again, let us speak quite concretely. The question, “What are we doing, here and now?” can clearly be intended in various ways. It can be meant philosophically. Let us attempt it, then. The question can be asked in such a way as to anticipate a technical-organizational answer. “What is happening now?” “Well, a lecture is being delivered during the Bonn Week of Higher Education.”

That is a straightforward, informative sentence, standing there in a clearly lit world — or rather, “environment.” It is an answer spoken with one’s attention directed to what is immediately at hand. But the question could also be meant in another sense so that the questioner would not be content with the answer just now given. “What are we doing right now?” One person is speaking; others are listening to what he is saying, and the listeners “understand” what is being said; approximately the same process is taking place within the minds of the many listeners: the statements are grasped, thought about, weighed, accepted, denied, or accepted with some hesitation, and then integrated with each person’s own fabric of thought. This question expects an answer coming from the special sciences; it can be meant so as to call on the psychology of sense perception, cognition, learning, mental states, and so on, and these sciences would provide the adequate answer.

An answer of this kind, then, would exist in a world of higher and deeper dimensions than the first answer, with its merely organizational interest. But the answers of the special sciences have still not reached the horizon of total reality; this answer could be given without having to speak at the same time of “God and the World.” But if the question, “What are we doing right now?” were meant as a philosophical question, such an exclusion would not be possible; for if the question is meant philosophically, then the question is about the nature of knowing, of truth, or even of the nature of teaching itself.

What, in the last analysis, is it “to teach”? Now someone will come along and say, “A man cannot really teach; just as when someone is healed from illness, it is not the doctor who has healed him, but nature, whose healing powers the doctor has, perhaps, allowed to operate.” Someone else will come up and say, “It is God who really teaches, within, on the occasion of human teaching.” Then Socrates will stand up and say that the teacher only makes it possible for the one who learns “to acquire knowledge from himself” through reminiscence; “there is no learning, only recollection.”[ Plato, Meno 85; 81] And still another one will say, “All human beings are confronted by the same reality; the teacher points it out, and the learner, or the listener, sees for himself.”

What are we doing here? What kind of phenomenon is taking place? Is it something of a socially organized nature, a part of a lecture series? Is it something that can be analyzed and researched in terms of psychological science? Is it something taking place between God and the World?

This, then, is what is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question, that something comes to the fore in it, touching the very nature of the soul: to “come together with every being” (convenire cum omni ente) — with everything that exists. You cannot ask and think philosophically without allowing the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World.


The Act of Philosophizing – Josef Pieper

July 20, 2010

The reason why the philosopher can be compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonder…
St. Thomas Aquinas

Josef Pieper

When the physicist poses the question, “What does it mean to do physics?” or “What is research in physics?” his question is a preliminary question. Clearly, when you ask a question like that, and try to answer it, you are not “doing physics.” Or, rather, you are no longer doing physics. But when you ask yourself, “What does it mean to do philosophy?” then you actually are “doing philosophy” — this is not at all a “preliminary” question but a truly philosophical one: you are right at the heart of the business. To go further: I can say nothing about the existence of philosophy and philosophizing without also saying something about the human being, and to do that is to enter one of the most central regions of philosophy. Our question, “What is the philosophical act?” belongs, in fact, to the field of philosophical anthropology.

Now, because it is a philosophical question, that means it cannot be answered in a permanent or conclusive way. It pertains to the very nature of a philosophical question that its answer will not be a “perfectly rounded truth” (as Parmenides said it), grasped in the hand like an apple plucked from a tree. Later, we will have occasion to discuss the “hopefulness” built into philosophy and philosophizing, but for the moment we cannot promise a handy definition, a comprehensive answer to our question. Indeed, our four brief essays [Found in Leisure, The Basis of Culture] will barely be enough to clarify the problem as a whole.

But, for a first approach, we can venture the following: a philosophical act is an act in which the work-a-day world is transcended. We must first explain what we mean by “work-a-day world,” and second, what we mean by “transcending” it.

The work-a-day world is the world of the working day, the world of usefulness, of purposeful action, of accomplishment, of the exercising of functions; it is the world of supply and demand, the world of hunger and the satisfaction of hunger. It is a world dominated by one goal: the realization of the “common utility”; it is the world of work, to the extent that work is synonymous with “useful activity” (a characteristic both of activity and effort), The process of working is the process of realizing the “common utility”; this concept is not equivalent to that of the “common good” (bonum commune): the “common utility” is an essential component of the “common good,” but the concept of the bonum commune is much more comprehensive. For example, as Thomas puts it [Commentary on the Sentences lv, d. 26, 1.2], there are people who devote themselves to the “un-useful” life of contemplation; to philosophize belongs to the common good, whereas one could not say that contemplation, vision, or philosophizing serve the “common utility.”

Of course, in the present day bonum commune and the “common utility” seem to be growing more identical every day; of course (it comes to the same thing) the world of work begins to become — threatens to become — our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.

If it is correct to say that the philosophical act is one which transcends the working world, then our question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” — our so very theoretical, abstract question — becomes suddenly, and unexpectedly, a question of utmost relevance. We need only to take a single step, in our thoughts or in physical space, to find ourselves in a world in which the working process, the process of realizing the “common utility,” determines the whole realm of human existence. Inwardly and outwardly, there is a boundary, very near and easy to jump across, in order to win entry into the work-a-day world, in which there is no such thing as genuine philosophy and genuine philosophizing — all this presupposes, of course, that it is correct to say that “philosophy transcends the working world” and that it pertains to the very essence of the philosophical act not to belong this world of uses and efficiencies, of needs and satisfactions, this world of “useful good” (bonum utile), of the “common utility,” but is, rather, to be incommensurable to it in principle.

Indeed, the more acute the incommensurability, the more obvious the “not-belonging.” It could even be said, perhaps, that this very opposition, this threat from the world of total work, is what characterizes the situation of philosophy today more than its own particular content. Philosophy increasingly adopts — necessarily, it seems — the character of the alien, of mere intellectual luxury, of that which seems ever more intolerable and unjustifiable, the more exclusively the demands of the daily world of work take over the world of man.

And yet, we have something more to say, something very concrete, about the incommensurability of the philosophical act, of this transcending the world of work, that takes place in the philosophical act.

Let’s recall the things that dominate the contemporary working day; no special effort of the imagination is needed, for we all stand right in the middle of it. There is, first of all, the daily running back and forth to secure our bare physical existence, food, clothing, shelter, heat; then, the anxieties that affect, and absorb, each individual: the necessities of rebuilding our own country, Europe, and the world. Struggles for power for the exploitation of earth’s commodities, conflicts of interest in matters great and small. Everywhere, tensions and burdens — only superficially eased by hastily arranged pauses and diversions: newspapers, movies, cigarettes. I do not need to paint it in any fuller detail: we all know what this world looks like.

And we need not only direct our attention to the extreme instances of crisis that show themselves today: I mean simply the everyday working world, where we must go about our business, where very concrete goals are advanced and realized: goals that must be sighted with an eye fixed on the things nearest and closest at hand. Now it is not our purpose here to condemn this world, from the standpoint of some “holiday-world” of philosophy. No words need be wasted on saying that this work-a-day world is very much with us, that in it the foundations of our physical existence are secured, without which nobody can philosophize at all.

Nevertheless, let us also recall, that among the voices which fill the workplace and the markets (“How do you get this or that item of daily existence?” “Where do you get that?” etc.) — in the midst of all these voices suddenly one calls out above the rest: “Why is there anything at all, and not nothing?” — asking that age-old question, which Heidegger called the basic question of all metaphysics. [M. Heidegger, Was Ist Metaphysik? (Frankfurt, 1943), p. 22. The formulation, of course, is not new: it was used by Leibniz: “Pourquoy il y a plust et quelque chose que rien?” Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften (Darmstadt, 1965, ff.), vol. I, p.426.]

Must we explicitly state how unfathomable this philosopher’s question is, in comparison with that everyday world of needs and purposefulness? If such a question as this were asked, without introduction or interpretation, in the company of those people of efficiency and success, wouldn’t the questioner be considered rather…mad? Through such extremely formulated contrasts, however, the real, underlying distinction comes to the fore: it becomes clear that even to ask that question constitutes taking a step toward transcending, toward leaving behind, the work-a-day world. The genuine philosophical question strikes disturbingly against the canopy that encloses the world of the citizen’s work-day.

But the philosophical act is not the only way to take this “step beyond.” No less incommensurable with the working-world than the philosophical question is the sound of true poetry:

In middle and ending ever stands the tree,
The birds are singing; on God’s breast
The round Creation takes its holy rest.
Konrad Weiss, In Exitu (first verses)

Such a voice sounds utterly strange in the realm of actively realized purpose. And no differently sounds the voice of one who prays: “We praise you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory…“ How can that ever be understood in the categories of rational usefulness and efficiency? The lover, too, stands outside the tight chain of efficiency of this working world, and whoever else approaches the margin of existence through some deep, existential disturbance (which always brings a “shattering” of one’s environment as well), or through, say, the proximity of death. In such a disturbance (for the philosophical act, genuine poetry, musical experience in general, and prayer as well — all these depend on some kind of disturbance) in such an experience, man senses the non-ultimate nature of this daily, worrisome world: he transcends it; he takes a step outside it.

And because of their common power to disturb and transcend, all these basic behavioral patterns of the human being have a natural connection among themselves: the philosophical act, the religious act, the artistic act, arid the special relationship with the world that comes into play with the existential disturbance of Love or Death. Plato, as most of us know, thought about philosophy and love in similar terms. And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the “wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. [Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3]

This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation toward the “wonderful” (the mirandum — something not to be found in the world of work) — on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the “wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return.

The closeness of this connection is so real that whenever one member of the system is denied, the others cannot thrive: the result is that in a world of total work, all the various forms and methods of transcendence must themselves become sterile (or, rather, would have to become sterile, if it were possible to destroy human nature completely); where religion is not allowed to grow, where the arts can find no place, where the disturbances of love and death lose their depth and become banal — there too, philosophy and philosophizing cannot survive.

But worse than the mere extinguishing or silencing is the distortion into false forms of the original; there are such pseudo-realizations of those basic experiences, which only appear to pierce the canopy. There is a way to pray, in which “this” world is not transcended, in which, instead, one attempts to incorporate the divine as a functioning component of the work-a-day machinery of purposes. Religion can be perverted into magic so that instead of self-dedication to God, it becomes the attempt to gain power over the divine and make it subservient to one’s own will; prayer can become a technique for continuing to live life “under the canopy.” And further: love can be narrowed so that the powers of self-giving become subservient to the goals of the confined ego, goals which arise from an anxious self-defense against the disturbances of the larger, deeper, world, which only the truly loving person can enter.

There are pseudo-forms of art, a false poetry, which, instead of breaking through the roof over the work-a-day world, resigns itself, so to speak, to painting decorations on the interior surface of the dome, and puts itself more or less obviously to the service of the working world as private or public “fashion poetry”; such “poetry” never seems to transcend, not even once (and it is clear, that genuine philosophizing has more in common with the exact, special sciences than with such pseudo-poetry).

Finally, there is a pseudo-philosophy, whose essential character is precisely that it does not transcend the working world. In a dialogue of Plato, Socrates asks the sophist Protagoras just what he teaches the youth who flock to see him? And the answer is, “I teach them good planning, both in their own affairs, such as how one should best manage his own household, and in public affairs, how one can best speak and act in the city-state.” [Protagoras 318 ff.] That is the classic program of “Philosophy as Professional Training” — a seeming philosophy only, with no transcendence.

But even worse still, of course, is that all these pseudo-forms work together, not only in failing to transcend the world, but in more and more surely succeeding in closing off the world “under the canopy”: they seal off humanity all the more within the world of work. All these deceptive forms, and especially such seeming-philosophy, are something much worse, something much more hopeless, than the naive self-closing of the worldly man against what is not of daily-life. Someone who is merely naively confined to the work-a-day may one day nevertheless be touched by the disturbing power that lies hidden in a true philosophical question, or in some poem; but a sophist, a pseudo-philosopher, will never be “disturbed.”

But let us now return to the path marked out by our initial question: when a question is asked in the truly philosophical manner, one asks about something that transcends the working world. This shows that such a question, and such a way of calling into question, possesses a special acuteness today, since the world of total work has emerged with demands more all-encompassing than ever before in history. And yet, this is not merely to make a criticism of a period of history. It is rather to speak of a misunderstanding that is fundamentally timeless in nature.

For Plato, the laughter of the Thracian maiden, who saw Thales of Miletus fall into a well while he was staring at the skies, is the typical response of feet-on-the-ground, work-a-day reasoning to philosophy. And this anecdote of the Thracian maid stands at the very beginning of Western Philosophy. “And always,” as Plato says in the Theaetetus, the philosopher is the butt of humor, “not only for Thracian maidens, but for most people, because one who is a stranger to the world falls into wells, and into many other embarrassments too.”[Theaetetus 174]

Plato does not only express himself explicitly, in formal statements: he prefers to use images. There is a certain Apollodoros, a character of secondary importance (as it seems at first) in the dialogues Phaedo and Symposium. Apollodoros is one of those uncritical, enthusiastic youths in Socrates’ circle, who may represent someone like Plato himself once was. We hear of Apollodoros in the Phaedo that he alone among the assembled burst into groaning and tears when Socrates put the cup of hemlock to his lips: “You know this man and his manner.”[ Phaedo59a-b]

In the Symposium [Symposium 172 f] Apollodoros says of himself that for years he was eager to know what Socrates said and did every day. “I ran around, and thought I was doing something, but was just as miserable as anyone.” But now, in a wonderful way, he has given himself over completely to Socrates and philosophy.

In the city now they call him “crazy Apollodoros”; he rails against everyone (even himself) but only spares Socrates. In complete naiveté, he lets it be known everywhere, “how happy he is, beyond all measure,” when he talks about philosophy or hears someone else do so; and then again, how wretched he is, that he has not yet attained to the real thing, to be like Socrates.

One day, this Apollodoros encounters some friends of his from earlier days — the very ones, in fact, who now call him “crazy,” the “madman.” As Plato expressly points out, they are business people, people of money, who know precisely how someone can succeed, and who “intend to do something big in the world.” These friends inquire of Apollodoros, to tell them something about the speeches about Love that were delivered at a certain banquet at the house of the poet Agathon. It is clear that these successful businessmen really feel no desire to be instructed about the meaning of life and existence, and certainly not from Apollodoros!

What interests them is only the witty remarks, the well-spoken repartee, the formal elegance of the debate. And on his part, Apollodoros cherishes no illusions about the “philosophical” interests of his old friends. Rather, he says directly to their face, how much he pities them, “…because you believe you are accomplishing something, when you really are not. And maybe now you are thinking, I am not very well off, and you may be right, but I do not merely ‘think’ the same about you, I know it for sure!” All the same, he does not refuse to tell them about the Love-speeches; indeed, he cannot be silent — “If you really want me to tell you, I will have to do it” — even though they may take him for a madman.

And then Apollodoros narrates…the Symposium! For the Platonic “banquet” has the form of indirect speech: a report from the mouth of Apollodoros. Too little attention, in my view, has been paid to the fact that Plato allows his deepest thoughts to be expressed through this over- enthusiastic, uncritical youth, this over-eager disciple Apollodoros. And the audience of the report is a group of moneyed, successful Athenians, who are not really prepared to listen to such thoughts or even take them seriously. There is something hopeless in this situation, a temptation to despair, against which (this is probably what Plato means) only the youthful, undistracted thirst for wisdom, the true philosophia, can take a stand. In any case, Plato could not have brought out any more clearly the incommensurability between philosophizing and the self-sufficient world of daily work.

And yet the incommensurability of this situation is not merely negative, for there is another side as well, known as.. . freedom. For philosophy is “useless” in the sense of immediate profit and application — that is one thing. Another thing is, that philosophy cannot allow itself to be used, it is not at the disposal of purposes beyond itself, for it is itself a goal. Philosophy is not functional-knowing, but rather, as John Henry Newman put it, [The Idea of a University, V, 5.] is gentleman’s knowledge, not “useful,” but “free” knowing.

But this freedom means that philosophical knowing does not acquire its legitimacy from its utilitarian applications, not from its social function, not from its relationship with the “common utility.” Freedom in exactly this sense is the freedom of the “liberal arts,” as opposed to the “servile arts,” which, according to Thomas, “are ordered to a use, to be attained through activity.”[Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3.] And philosophy has long been understood as the most free among the free arts (the medieval “Arts Faculty” is the forerunner of the “Philosophical Faculty” of today’s university).

Therefore, it is all the same whether I say that the philosophical act transcends the working world, or whether I say, philosophical knowing is useless or whether I say, philosophy is a “liberal art.” This freedom belongs to the particular sciences only to the extent that they are pursued in a philosophical manner. Here likewise is to be found –both historically and actually — the real meaning of “academic freedom” (since “academic” means “philosophical” if it means anything); strictly speaking, a claim for academic freedom can only exist when the “academic” itself is realized in a “philosophical” way. And this is historically the reason: academic freedom has been lost, exactly to the extent that the philosophic character of academic study has been lost, or, to put it another way, to the extent that the totalitarian demands of the working world have conquered the realm of the university. Here is where the metaphysical roots of the problem lie: the “politicization” is only a symptom and consequence. And indeed, it must be admitted here that this is nothing other than the fruit…of philosophy itself, of modern philosophy. Of which theme, more will soon have to be said.

But first, something needs to be said on the theme of philosophy’s “freedom,” in distinction from the special sciences: and this means a freedom understood as not-being-subordinated-to-purposes. In this sense, the special sciences are “free” only insofar as they are pursued in a philosophical way, insofar, that is to say, as they share in the freedom of philosophy. As Newman put it, “Knowledge, I say, is then especially liberal, or sufficient for itself, apart from every external and ulterior object, when and so far as it is philosophical.”[Idea of a University, V, 5] Considered in themselves, however, the various particular sciences are essentially “to-be-subo4inated-to-purposes”; they are essentially relatable to a “use that is reached through activity” (as Thomas says of the servile arts)[Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3]

But we can speak still more concretely. The government of a state can say, “In order to complete our five-year plan, we need physicists who can catch up with the progress of foreign nations in this or that special area,” or “We need medical doctors, who can develop a more effective flu vaccine.” In these cases, nothing is being said or done that is contrary to the nature of these sciences. But, if someone were to say, “We need some philosophers, who. . .“ Will do what? There could only be one possibility: “. . . will justify, develop, defend, such and such an ideology. . .“ To say this and act upon it would be a destruction of philosophy. And it would come to the same, if someone said, “We need some poets, who will. . .“ Who will do what? Again, it could only be one thing: “who. . . will [as the expression goes] use the pen as a sword, on behalf of certain ideals determined by reasons of state. .“ And if this was being said, we would likewise see the destruction of poetry. In the same moment, poetry would cease to be poetry, and philosophy would cease to be philosophy.

But this is not to say that no relationship whatsoever can be found between the realization of the common good of a nation and any teaching of philosophy that takes place in it! Rather, the point is that such a relationship cannot be instituted and regulated by the administrators of the common good; that which has its meaning and purpose in itself, that which is itself purpose, cannot be made the means for some other purpose, just as someone cannot love a person “for such and such” or “in order to do such and such”!

Now, this freedom of philosophy, this quality of not-being-subservient-to some purpose is intimately connected with something else (a connection which seems extremely important to point out): the theoretical character of philosophy. Philosophy is the purest form of theorem, or speculari (to observe, behold, contemplate), consisting in a purely receptive gaze on reality, whereby things alone are determinative, and the soul is completely receptive of determination. Whenever some existent is taken up into view in a philosophical way, the questions are asked in a “purely theoretical” manner, and that means a manner untouched by anything practical, by any intention to change things, and thereby be raised above all serving of further purposes.

The realization of theoria in this sense is, however, connected with a presupposition. For what is presumed is a definite relationship with the world, a relationship that appears to precede all conscious positing or setting-forth of some intention. For to be “theoretical” in this full sense (in the sense of a purely receptive contemplation, without the slightest trace of an intention to change things; rather, it is precisely the opposite, a willingness to make the “yes” or “no” of the will dependent on the actuality of being, which is to be brought to expression in the knowledge of being) — the vision of man will only be “theoretical” in this undiluted sense, when being, the world, is something other than him and is more than the mere field, the mere raw material, of human activity.

Only that person can view the world “theoretically” in upon habitually seeing the world as the raw material of human activity. When the world is no longer looked upon as creation, there can no longer be theoria in the full sense. And with the fall of theoria, the freedom of philosophy falls as well, and what comes in its place is the functionalizing, the making it into something “practical,” oriented toward a legitimation by its social function; what comes to the fore is the working character of philosophy, or of philosophy so-called. Meanwhile, our thesis (which can now be more clearly formulated), maintains that it is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work.

This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor, again, in “becoming lords and masters of nature,” but rather in being able to understand what is — the whole of what is. Ancient philosophy says that this is the utmost fulfillment to which we can attain: that the whole order of real things be registered in our soul [Cf. Thomas, Quaestiones disputatne de veritate II, 2] – a conception which in the Christian tradition was taken up into the concept of the beatific vision: “What do they not see, who look upon Him, Who sees all?”[Gregory the Great, as quoted by Thomas in the passage just cited]


Concerning the Our Father by Simone Weil

July 19, 2010

Madonna of Humility, circa 1415–20

Something so familiar and yet so totally transformed in this reading by Simone Weil.  Note the closing reference to paying attention.

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·
“Our Father which art in Heaven.”

He is our Father. There is nothing real in us which does not come from him. We belong to Him. He loves us, since He loves himself and we are His. Nevertheless He is our Father who is in heaven — not elsewhere. If we think to have a Father here below it is not He, it is a false God. We cannot take a single step toward Him. We do not walk vertically. We can only turn our eyes toward Him. We do not have to search for Him, we only have to change the direction in which we are looking. It is for Him to search for us. We must be happy in the knowledge that He is infinitely beyond our reach. Thus we can be certain that the evil in us, even if it overwhelms our whole being, in no way sullies the divine purity, bliss, and perfection.

ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
“Hallowed be thy Name.”

God alone has the power to name himself, His name is unpronounceable for human lips. His name is his word. It is the Word of God. The name of any being is an intermediary between the human spirit and that being; it is the only means by which the human spirit can conceive something about a being that is absent. God is absent. He is in heaven. Man’s only possibility of gaining access to him is through His name. It is the Mediator. Man has access to this name, although it also is transcendent. It shines in the beauty and order of the world and it shines in the interior light of the human soul. This name is holiness itself; there is no holiness outside it; it does not therefore have to be hallowed. In asking for its hallowing we are asking for something that exists eternally, with full and complete reality, so that we can neither increase nor diminish it, even by an infinitesimal fraction. To ask for that which exists, that which exists really, infallibly, eternally, quite independently of our prayer, that is the perfect petition. We cannot prevent ourselves from desiring; we are made of desire; but thb desire that nails us down to what is imaginary, temporal, selfish, can, if we make it pass wholly into this petition, become a lever to tear us from the imaginary into the real and from time into eternity, to lift us right out of the prison of self.

ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
“Thy Kingdom Come.”

This concerns something to be achieved, something not yet here. The Kingdom of God means the complete filling of the entire soul of intelligent creatures with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit bloweth where he listeth? We can only invite him. We must not even try to invite him in a definite and special way to visit us or anyone else in particular, or even everybody in general; we must just invite him purely and simply, so that our thought of him is an invitation, a longing cry. It is as when one is in extreme thirst, ill with thirst; then one no longer thinks of the act of drinking in relation to oneself, or even of the act of drinking in a general way. One merely thinks of water, actual water itself, but the image of water is like a cry from our whole being.

γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου,·
“Thy will be done.”

We are only absolutely, infallibly certain of the will of God concerning the past. Everything that has happened, whatever it may be, is in accordance with the will of the almighty Father. That is implied by the notion of almighty power. The future also, whatever it may contain, once it has come about, will have come about in conformity with the will of God. We can neither add to nor take from this conformity. In this clause, therefore, after an upsurging of our desire toward the possible, we are once again asking for that which is. Here, however, we are not concerned with an eternal reality such as the holiness of the Word, but with what happens in the time order. Nevertheless we are asking for the infallible and eternal conformity of everything in time with the will of God. After having, in our first petition, torn our desire away from time in order to fix it upon eternity, thereby transforming it, we return to this desire which has itself become in some measure eternal, in order to apply it once more to time. Whereupon our desire pierces through time to find eternity behind it. That is what comes about when we know how to make every accomplished fact, whatever it may be, an object of desire. We have here quite a different thing from resignation. Even the word acceptance is too weak. We have to desire that everything that has happened should have happened, and nothing else. We have to do so, not because what has happened is good in our eyes, but because God has permitted it, and because the obedience of the course of events to God is in itself an absolute good. 

ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς·
“On earth as it is in heaven.”

The association of our desire with the almighty will of God should be extended to spiritual things. Our own spiritual ascents and falls, and those of the beings we love, have to do with the other world, but they are also events that take place here below, in time. On that account they are details in the immense sea of events and arc tossed about with, the ocean in a way conforming to the will of God. Since our failures of the past have come about, we have to desire that they should have come about.

We have to extend this desire into the future, for the day when it will have become the past. It is a necessary correction of the petition that the kingdom of God should come, We have to cast aside all other desires for the sake of our desire for eternal life, but we should desire eternal life itself with renunciation. We must not even become attached to detachment. Attachment to salvation is even more dangerous than the others. We have to think of eternal life as one thinks of water when dying of thirst, and yet at the same time we desire that we and our loved ones should be eternally deprived of this water rather than receive it in abundance in spite of God’s will, if such a thing were conceivable,

The three foregoing petitions are related to the three Persons of the Trinity, the Son, the Spirit, and the Father, and also to the three divisions of time, the present, the future, and the past. The three petitions that follow have a more direct bearing on the three divisions of time, and take them in a different order—present, past, and future.

τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·
 “Give us this day our daily bread” — the bread which is supernatural

Christ is our bread. We can only ask to have him now. Actually he is always there at the door of our souls, wanting to enter in, though he does not force our consent. If we agree to his entry, he enters; directly we cease to want him, he is gone. We cannot bind our will today for tomorrow; we cannot make a pact with him that tomorrow he will be within us, even in spite of ourselves.

Our consent to his presence is the same as his presence. Consent is an act; it can only be actual, that is to say in the present. We have not been given a will that can be applied to the future. Everything not effective in our will is imaginary. The effective part of the will has its effect at once; its effectiveness cannot be separated from itself. The effective part of the will is not effort, which is directed toward the future. It is consent; it is the “yes” of marriage. A “yes” pronounced within the present moment and for the present moment, but spoken as an eternal word, for it is consent to the union of Christ with the eternal part of our soul.

Bread is a necessity for us. We are beings who continually draw our energy from outside, for as we receive it we use it up in effort. If our energy is not daily renewed, we become feeble and incapable of movement. Besides actual food, in the literal sense of the word, all incentives are sources of energy for us. Money, ambition, consideration, decorations, celebrity, power, our loved ones, everything that puts into us the capacity for action is like bread.

If anyone of these attachments penetrates deeply enough into us to reach the vital roots of our carnal existence, its loss may break us and even cause our death. That is called dying of love. It is like dying of hunger. All these objects of attachment go together with food, in the ordinary sense of the word, to make up the daily bread of this world. It depends entirely on circumstances whether we have it or not. We should ask nothing with regard to circumstances unless it be that they may conform to the will of God. We should not ask for earthly bread.

There is a transcendent energy whose source is in heaven, and this flows into us as soon as we wish for it. It is a real energy; it performs actions through the agency of our souls and of our bodies.

We should ask for this food. At the moment of asking, and by the very fact that we ask for it, we know that God will give it to us. We ought not to be able to bear to go without it for a single day, for when our actions only depend on earthly energies, subject to the necessity of this world, we are incapable of thinking and doing anything but evil. God saw “that the misdeeds of man were multiplied on the earth and that all the thoughts of his heart were continually bent upon evil.” [Genesis 6:5] The necessity that drives us toward evil governs everything in us except the energy from on high at the moment when it comes into us. We cannot store it.

καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,
ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφίεμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·
 “And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”

At the moment of saying these words we must have already remitted everything that is owing to us. This not only includes reparation for any wrongs we think we have suffered, but also gratitude for the good we think we have done, and it applies in a quite general way to all we expect from people and things, to all we consider as our due and without which we should feel ourselves to have been frustrated. All these are the rights that we think the past has given us over the future.

First there is the right to a certain permanence. When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think that it is ours and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying it. Then there is the right to a compensation for every effort whatever its nature, be it work, suffering, or desire. Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. The effort of suffering from some offense causes us. to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of a universal law of the soul.

Every time we give anything out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalents should come into us, and because we. need this we think we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. That is the claim we have to renounce.

To have forgiven our debtors is to have renounced the whole of the past in a lump. It is to accept that the future should still be virgin and intact, strictly united to the past by bonds of which we are ignorant, but quite free from the bonds our imagination thought to impose upon it. It means that we accept the possibility that. this will happen, and that it may happen to us in particular; it means that we are prepared for the future to render all our past life sterile and vain.

In renouncing at one stroke all the fruits of the past without exception, we can ask of God that our past sins may not bear their miserable fruits of evil and error. So long as we cling to the past, God himself cannot stop this horrible fruiting. We cannot hold on to the past without retaining our crimes, for we are unaware of what is most essentially bad in us.

The principal claim we think we have on the universe is that our personality should continue. This claim implies all the others. The instinct of self-preservation makes us feel this continuation to be a necessity, and we believe that a necessity is a right. We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: “Sir, I must live,” and to whom Talleyrand replied, “I do not see the necessity for that.”

Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die than admit this. From our point of view the equilibrium of the world is a combination of circumstances so ordered that our personality remains intact and seems to belong to us. All the circumstances of the past that have wounded our personality appear to us to be disturbances of balance which should infallibly be made up for one day or another by phenomena having a contrary effect. We live on the expectation of these compensations. The near approach of death is horrible chiefly because it forces the knowledge upon us that these compensations will never come.

To remit debts is to renounce our own personality. It means renouncing everything that goes to make up our ego, without any exception. It means knowing that• in the ego there is nothing whatever, no psychological element, that external circumstances could not do away with. It means accepting that truth. It means being happy that things should be so.

The words “Thy will be done” imply this acceptance, if we say them with all our soul, That is why we can say a few moments later: “We forgive our debtors.”

The forgiveness of debts is spiritual poverty, spiritual nakedness, death. If we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us. For to ask him to forgive us our debts is to ask him to wipe out the evil in us. Pardon is purification. God himself has not the power to forgive the evil in us while it remains there. God will have forgiven our debts when he has brought us to the state of perfection.

Until then God forgives our debts partially in the same measure as we forgive our debtors.

καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν,
ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.
 “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The only temptation for man is to be abandoned to his own resources in the presence of evil. His nothingness is then proved experimentally. Although the soul has received supernatural bread at the moment when it asked for it, its joy is mixed with fear because it could only ask for it for the present. The future is still to be feared. The soul has not, the right to ask for bread for the morrow, but it expresses its fear in the form of a supplication. It finishes with that. The prayer began with the word’ “Father,” it ends with the word “evil.”

We must go from confidence to fear. Confidence alone can give us strength enough not to fall as a result of fear. After having contemplated the name, the kingdom, and the will of God, after having received the supernatural bread and having been purified from evil, the soul is ready for that true humility which crowns all virtues. Humility consists of knowing that in this world the whole soul, not only what we term the ego in its totality, but also the supernatural part of the soul, which is God present in it, is subject to time and to the vicissitudes of change.

There must be absolute acceptance of the possibility that everything natural in us should be destroyed. But we must simultaneously accept and repudiate the possibility that the supernatural part of the soul should disappear. It must be accepted as an event that would come about only in conformity with the will of God. It must be repudiated as being something utterly horrible. We must be afraid of it, but our fear must be as it were the completion of confidence.

The six petitions correspond with each other in pairs. The bread which is transcendent is the same thing as the divine name. It is what brings about the contact of man with God. The kingdom of God is the same thing as his protection stretched over us against temptation; to protect is the function of royalty. Forgiving our debtors their debts is the same thing as the total acceptance of the will of God. The difference is that in the first three petitions the attention is fixed solely on God. In the three last, we turn our attention back to ourselves in order to compel ourselves to make these petitions a real and not an imaginary act.

In the first half of the prayer, we begin with acceptance. Then we allow ourselves a desire. Then we correct it by coming back to acceptance. In the second half, the order is changed; we finish by expressing desire. Only desire has now become negative; it is expressed as a fear; therefore it corresponds. to the highest degree of humility and that is a fitting way to end.

The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.


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