Archive for May, 2011


When Death Becomes Inhuman — Professor Robert Spaemann

May 31, 2011

Robert Spaemann

[From Wikipedia] Robert Spaemann (born 5 May 1927) is arguably the foremost Roman Catholic philosopher in Germany today. Spaemann’s focus is on Christian ethics. He is known for his work in bioethics, ecology, and human rights. Although not yet widely translated into languages other than his native German, Spaemann is internationally known and his work is highly regarded by Pope Benedict XVI.

Spaemann’s two most important works are Glück und Wohlwollen (Happiness and Benevolence, 1989) and Personen (Persons, 1996). In Happiness and Benevolence, Spaemann sets forth a thesis that happiness is derived from benevolent acting: that we are created by God as social beings to help one another find truth and meaning in an often confused and disordered world.

The paradigm of acting from benevolence is any action by which we come to the help of human life which requires this help…only when we are helped do we learn to help ourselves, that is, to enter into that indirect relationship with ourselves which is constitutive of for all rationality which is not strictly instrumental, [and instead] constitutive for all ethical practice.”

Professor Spaemann participates in Pope Benedict’s Schülerkreis, a private conference with Benedict convened since the late 1970s.

“WE HAVE BEEN KILLING FELLOW MEMBERS OF OUR SPECIES AGAIN.  This time it has been in the land where Eden is said to have been located, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. It was no worse than the countless massacres of the last century. In fact, it was more restrained. And it was being done, so it was said, in order to prevent more killing later on. One thing is certain: deliberate killing of fellow members of the species, together with the deliberate killing of oneself, is a privilege reserved to man alone. It is a privilege due to the fact that man, as we have good reason to suppose, is the only being who has knowledge of death, both others’ and his own.

The German poet Reiner Kunze says in one of his poems,

You’re nothing special 
It’s just that you cling to beauty
Knowing you’ve got to leave it all.”

Wesen bist du unter Wesen /
Nur daß du hängst am Schönen /
Und weißt: du mußt davon.”

The knowledge Kunze speaks of pervades every moment of our lives. Heidegger made knowledge of death the key to his hermeneutic of Dasein. It is only when we know about death that we start to discover what it means to live. And yet the fear of death, held in secret, isolates each man, for death is not a collective act. Everyone has to die alone, and whoever has realized this can no longer look to society for the meaning of his existence. He knows that one day he is going to abandon society and society is going to abandon him.

This knowledge of death is curiously ambivalent. On the one hand, it tends to rob man’s doings of any meaning: everything is ultimately pointless. On the other hand, the knowledge of finitude gives existence its precious value. If we never died, everything would lose its significance. Everything that we do today, we might just as well do tomorrow.

For two people who establish a life together on the basis of love, sixty years is a short time. They can wake up on the morning of their golden anniversary wishing that they could finally really get started. But without end? That would immediately destroy the whole thing. The knowledge that there is an end is what first opens up for us the dimension of meaning, which is the condition for having anything like the feeling of meaninglessness in the first place. “It’s just that you cling to beauty”: that is the other characteristic mark of the human in Kunze’s poem.

The experience of the beautiful is closely connected with the knowledge of death. It is the experience of something whose meaning does not come from its value for our biological self-preservation, or even from its utility for others, who, after all, must also die. We call something beautiful that has its point in itself. And among such beautiful things are also human gestures and actions, even when they prove to be useless or unwittingly wasted on the wrong people.

The beautiful is resistant to the vortex of “Creation, Evolution, and the Drama of Redemption absurdity which the knowledge of death threatens to suck us into. For the believer, and indeed already for Plato, it is an anticipated glimmer of something that survives death. How does society deal with death and dying, which are the shipwreck of the totalitarianism of the social?

At least when he dies, if not earlier, man ceases to be a member of a social whole. The state can threaten death, but no one is stronger — and, given the right circumstances, more dangerous –  than someone who has conquered the fear of death. The threat of death is a powerful weapon. The need to make the threat a reality is a defeat.

The European tradition’s ritualized culture of dying and burial was a dialectical phenomenon that enabled society to relativize itself. By embedding death in cultic forms, society integrated into itself the very thing that called it into question. This integration required a religious sense. The thing that relativized society also legitimated it. By acknowledging that it was not God, it was also able to understand its authority as divinely sanctioned. Faith in eternal life also relativized the opposition between life and death. There is an old executioner’s axe in Münster that bears the words, “When I raise the axe I’m wishing eternity for a poor sinner.”

Because modernity is structurally atheistic, it has to conceive the opposition between life and death as if it were absolute. “I’ll live on in my children.” — What an empty phrase in the face of man’s experience of himself as an individual person. Society thus struggles doggedly to prolong life, only to be forced to capitulate in the end. It is unable to develop any authentic rituals to accompany the journey to this end because it lacks any horizon in which to relativize itself.

The first result of this is a tendency to put death out of its mind. Death takes place with increasing frequency in some out-of- the- way holding room in a clinic. The consequence: repressed and yet increased fear of death. Most people today face the prospect of their own death without ever having been present at another’s.

But then there is a further tendency simply to eliminate quietly those who can no longer be perceived as members of the social world. Holland has legalized euthanasia and yet it is by no means ejected from the international community. On the contrary: its doctors think they are in the avant garde when they kill. And all of a sudden it seems as if things cannot happen quickly enough.

The new definition of death as “brain death” makes it possible to declare people dead while they are still breathing and to bypass the dying process in order to quarry spare parts for the living from the dying. Death no longer comes at the end of the dying process, but — by the fiat of a Harvard commission — at its beginning. The Jewish-Christian custom of burial is increasingly replaced by the machine-like disposal of corpses through cremation without any public to look on.

And more and more people believe that they are doing something good for their children when they cut costs by having themselves anonymously stuck in the ground. The oldest distinguishing feature of homo sapiens, ritual burial of the dead, is disappearing. My description of the current state of affairs has been a partisan one. But the official standard account is too. It consists of sheer euphemism. I am making no proposals. Every reflection on the foundations of humanity requires that we start out by taking stock of what is.”
Translated by Adrian J. Walker


“The Children” from Visions of Christ by Ranier Maria Rilke

May 30, 2011

Let The Children Come Unto Me by Fritz von Uhde

“The Children” by Ranier Maria Rilke

There stood
amid the children of the neighborhood
a rnan. His garment was of modest wear,
and bright as home was his redeemer’s-hair.
And just as on a day in early spring
the blossoms, suddenly awakened, stare,
so had the children gathered, marveling
at him, whom none of the adults would dare to name.
But he is well-known to the young,
who crowd the gateway of the city’s poor.

One of the swarm — a pale one — murmurs: “You’re
the Mercy for whose sake my mother wrung
her hands.” The words are tender on her tongue:
Your home is in the sunset — am I right?..
there, where the mountain-peaks are proud and bright.
To you the tree-tops nod; to you are sung
the windsongs; and you visit — like a friend –
good children in their dreams.” At this they bend
like birches, all of them — the dark, the blonde –
before his smile — and the adults are stunned.
Unto his blessing, as if home were there,
come children scurrying from everywhere,
and all are listening. The word he brings
spreads over them the whiteness of its wings:
“Is there among you one who meditates
how hastily the soundless hours lead you,
how day by day and night by night they speed you
through thousand doorways and through thousand
And all the hinges move just as they need to, [gates?
and all the doors fall softly into place;
your conscience and your comrade I remain,
although the journey ripens past my reign.
I am not life, and life is what you're after;
the darkness is your portion -- I illume;
'Renounce!' I cry -- but you are lured by laughter;
you crave good fortune, and -- my voice is doom."
He ceased. The grownups listened from afar.
Then, sighing, he continued. "When we are
balked at the border, don't abandon me.
You'll be too young to take me where you go;
but as you travel, turn back once to see:
perhaps in a poor place where flowers grow,
or in the tender smile of her who's been
a long time yearning, or perhaps within
an expectation: I am Memory,
and Childhood. Go -- but as you seek strange lands,
turn back to offer me one final glance
already dipped in life from which the new
and never-prayed-to God holds out his hands.
Go on, then. There's a world awaiting you."
They hear, in haste, the promise he speaks;
warmer and warmer grow their cheeks:
"Shall we be pounding at the doors?!"
cries out a wild one in the throng
cries out and anxiously implores:
"Through forest and flood, come speed us along!
And is the greatest door, the last,
soon to be passed?"

Thus, for the future the Master has vowed,
the eyes of that youngster boldly ignite;
and he blooms in the midday light.
But one, of that hushed and hearkening crowd,
lifts himself now, one child alone;
dishevelled and wilted his hair, wind-blown,
as over a helmet's rage still flies
proudly the torn prize.
The voice of this one flutters and begs:
"You!" He anxiously clasps his legs
with poor, starved hands: "You never
warned us, You never said
it would end forever!
Let the ungrateful gallop ahead
to years that the swiftest cannot recover --
I am different, different from these!"
And in a convulsion he clasps his knees.--
The lips of the radiant one, they quiver,
and he bends toward the weeping lad:
"Does mother give you games and food?"
Then into his lap sobs the boy:
"I'm too old for a toy."
"Does she bring you broth, fresh-brewed,
mornings when you wake?"
The lad has begun to quake:
"Too poor; I go unfed."
"Don't her kisses make
your cheeks sometimes turn red?"
Then he confesses: "Mother
has been a long time dead."…
And the bright one's lips are unsteady
as leaves in autumn weather:
''Then you've been out in life already,
and now we can stay here together."

In the summer of 1897, Rainer wrote "Die Kinder.” '"The Children," a poem in which adoring youngsters, and adults in the periphery, crowd around the radiant iconographical figure of Christ, seeking his blessings. His sermon, however, contains some sobering paradigms:

I am not life, and life is what you're after;
the darkness is your portion -- I illume;
'Renounce!' I cry -- but you are lured by laughter;
you crave good fortune, and -- my voice is doom."

Rilke is touched by the simple faith of sheltered children but is aware that it will have to give way, as it did for him, when confronting life. Childhood illusions obviously serve up to a point in the natural development of the individual; beyond that point, Rilke seems to imply, each person must seek for himself the meaning of life and death. The way of Christ may not be the way for all men in that Christ's lonely mission was a despairing one even for himself.

Rilke's Christ is inspired by Matthew's portrayal which glows with affection for children: "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for such is the Kingdom of heaven." Those who seek Christ, says Rilke, can find him metaphorically in scenes of child -- in a mother's smile, a moment of expectancy. In that sense can the following statement of Rilke's Christ be understood: "I am Memory and Childhood."

The theme of Christ and the children lends itself to pathos and tenderness rendered by the infinitely soft alliterations and gliding rhymes in the dreamlike lines.

Some of Rilke's poetic pictorializations of Christ scenes were inspired by and adapted from the paintings of the once well-known artist Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911). Today, Uhde's prolific and largely representational output seems passe. In one of Uhde's devotional portraits, Christ graphically illuminates the darkness and represents light as does the figure in Rilke's "The Children."

In Munich Rilke sporadically attended lectures on art history at the university. Yet his taste in art developed strongly only after he met Rodin, felt the impact of Cezanne and Picasso, and turned his attention from subject to form. Rilke was fascinated by the Christ themes in Uhde's work. Uhde went the gamut from realism, imitational baroque devotionalism, to impressionism -- sometimes expressing his own vision of life and sometimes acceding to public tastes.

Some of Uhde's Christ paintings departed from the tradition of pictorial splendor by bringing Christ close to contemporary surroundings, especially to the peasant folk, and by giving him simple dress descriptive of no single period. Undoubtedly, Uhde found precedent in the humanization of Biblical figures by Rubens and the stress on moral expression rather than physical beauty by Rembrandt. Greater than his finished and smoothed-out paintings, his sketches show Uhde to have been a painter who could have transcended his time had he the will and self-confidence that makes of art an absolute mission. Rilke thought that the best of Uhde's work was that in which children played a role and in which Uhde indirectly captured the Christ figure of love and faith and refuge as reflected in their eyes.

Rilke's deeply subjective description of Uhde's Christ picture called Let the Children Come unto Me holds particular interest because it shows the mood and portraiture which Rilke attempted in his poem "The Children:"

In "Let The Children Come Unto Me," it was the concern of the painter to give the wishes and dreams of these children a common focal point, to create a pair of rich and kind hands stretched out toward the hesitant questions and search of these helpless hands, lips which can give consolation and answer to the thousand boundless and bold questions of children, and to create an eye which is radiant enough to become a homeland to those who come out of the dark. He wanted to make the children a gift of a father without the worries, agedness, or anger of a father; in short, to fulfill the deepest and most mysterious longings of their tiny, awakening souls.'

Rilke prefers the Uhde paintings in which the onlookers reveal by their emotions the presence of Christ, to those in which Christ and the onlookers are grouped conventionally. Unfortunately Uhde was pliable when attacked by philistine demands for conventional renderings so that when his painting of the Holy Night (1888) was castigated for allegedly showing in his Madonna "the features of a prostitute who has brought her child into the world in a dive," he promptly beautified Mary's face, tidied up her surroundings, and added symbolical iconographic devices. Similar concessions were made when the influential Munich gallery, the Pinakothek, offered to purchase Uhde's painting "The Ascension of Christ" (1897) provided that he accent the Christ figure and its ascent. Rilke published a biting article about the stipulation, noting that Uhde's earlier redeeemer was "in no way acquainted with all the finesses of flight techniques. "

Rilke also mentioned in the article that he had visited Uhde's studio in November 1896 and that he had seen the preliminary painting—a superbly dynamic rendering on gray canvas with turbulent charcoal strokes and vast space over the heads of the crowd. The phenomenon of belief and its power attracted Rilke; apparently Uhde's preliminary sketch spoke to him in those terms:

Imagine if you will a group of people -- not of peasants and not of the educated but simply of people: the elderly, men, maiden, and women. And, imagine this group to be forcibly drawn together, united and commonly enthralled by one sensation. In fine shading on all the faces is the effect of something great and incredible: wonderment in the women, in the maiden: glorification in the children, trust . . . And then in their hands -- in that of the elderly, doubt; fear in those of men and women, longing in the hands of maiden; and the hands of children half-unconsciously imitate the gesture of the wondrous one…

Rilke scorned the officially sanctioned ascension which Uhde agreed to paint by touching up and changing his original work: "it proves that basically he no longer sees Christ very clearly." In the new version, the painter dissociates himself from the crowd and gives it the conventional "Jesus" rather than Christ, "the redeemer who humanly and modestly was on solid ground" in earlier Uhde paintings.
Siegfried Mandel, Visions of Christ

A little Jungian synchronicity at work as I sat down one day last week with my friend Priscilla to watch the film Seraphine. “A well done period piece and art history filled with fascinating historical detail and brilliantly acted by Yolande Moreau as Séraphine Louis, a poor French peasant, and Modern Primitive, self-taught, naïve, folk artist. Séraphine is the true story of a woman who was ecstatically inspired to paint her angels demanded it. Born in 1864, she walked a life-long fine line between divine inspiration and madness, and ended her life alone and penniless in an asylum in 1942. Séraphine is discovered  in 1912 by German art collector Wilhelm Uhde, who provides patronage and begins to get her work into exhibitions, until he is forced to leave France in 1914 due to war between Germany and France.

Uhde returns in 1927 and continues his patronage of the artist, who becomes quite successful for a short period of time (though completely unable to handle either the money or the fame, which, at least as depicted in the film, may have contributed to destabilizing her rather delicate mental balance) before she ultimately has a psychotic break in 1932, and spends the last decade of her life hospitalized and deprived of her painting (mercifully, this decade is mostly absent from the film.) This is not a particularly happy story, but it is a fascinating one, told with direct simplicity and wealth of detail. And Yolanda Moreau is totally mesmerizing.” [From a Netflick’s review]


Through Work And Solitude: Rilke’s Visions of His Christ Cycle — Siegfried Mandel

May 27, 2011

One of the most well-known German female artists at the beginning of the 20th century, Modersohn-Becker was a central figure at the artist's colony at Worpswede in the north of Germany. Her painting here is one of the best known of Rilke.

Every artist has an outer and an inner biography. The outer biography consists of dates and events as well as the artist’s obvious relation to intellectual currents; the inner biography consists of personal insights and the reflections of the inner mind which reacts, sifts, and interprets. Rilke measured the worth of his writings by the necessity out of which they arose, but he reserved for himself the decision of keeping out of print those works which unambiguously revealed his inner biography, most specifically his Visions of Christ, the novella Ewald Tragy, and many observations recorded in his diaries.

The prolific publication of poems, stories, dramas, and articles makes apparent the surface activity during his Prague days, while the long unpublished works mirror the subsurface and those experiences that become lifelong grist for the inner biography. The route to the Visions is best taken through experiences and observations which Rilke thought critical in his years of rebellion and esthetic formulations.

The recently published memoir of Frau Hertha Koenig, one of Rilke’s many benefactresses, covers some old ground but does it from a new vantage point, namely through a portrait of Rilke’s mother. Upon first meeting Sophia Rilke in 1917, Frau Koenig – as related in Rilkes Mutter [Hertha Koenig, Rilkes Mutter, Tubingen: Neske, 1963. The quotes in my discussion are translated from the 32-page memoir] — was able to understand and share the apprehensive feeling which came over Rilke whenever he felt the presence of his mother with her determined voice and restless, searching eyes: “The close ties with her Catholic church were so strongly apparent that one almost felt it indecorous to sit next to this woman in an earthly sphere and to have other than pious thoughts.”

In 1930, four years after Rilke’s death, Frau Koenig on several occasions visited the 79-year old Sophia in Munich. Dressed in stylish mourning, Sophia embodied the paradox between extreme piety and vanity. Consciously she strove for her old elegance in dress and touched up her hair with the black of charred corks; at the same time she decorated a table as if it were an altar — a brass crucifix and burning candles flanked a picture of her son and a memorial hour was set aside daily during which she imagined herself to be with her son. Sometimes Sophia would startle a visitor by placing a finger on her lips, with the admonition that God was listening. The crucifix reminded her of things past: “Look here, once I taught Rene how one must pray — he was three years old — and that great suffering came from the Savior and that therefore we must never complain when we suffer.”

She also recounted the time when she rushed to the bedside of her “Renetscherl” who sobbed, “But mama, how can I fall asleep, I haven’t yet given the dear God a kiss.” She gave him the small brass crucifix and calmed him. At other times Sophia would tell Frau Koenig, with great self-satisfaction: “Once I used to be the best dancer, the best skater . . . Rene was proud of his elegant Mama, loved it dearly when I dressed well. Others were often so fat but I always slim, paying attention to appearances.” The commingling and the impact upon the child of the pietistic and the erotic are powerfully drawn in Rilke’s novel Malte Lauride Briggs and become deeply marked in his poetic works  — including the Visions, as is the ambivalence of love and hate for the mother figure.

Few first-hand sources which give us a picture of Rilke’s mother and father are unbiased. Rilke’s son-in-law in his Rene Rilke: Die ]ugend Rainer Maria Rilkes claimed that Rilke’s childhood was not as grim as the poet has limned it, but that his mother’s grotesque bigotry, akin to that of converts, did much to unsettle the child who learned to talk of God as “Himmelspapa,” Papa in heaven, and of Maria (the Virgin Mary) as “Hinmielsmama,” Mama in heaven. Sieber gave such a totally unsympathetic and spiteful account of Sophia that it evoked an indignant reply by Wolfgang Schneditz in an introduction to a reissued volume of aphorisms, written by Phia Rilke and originally published in 1900, Ephemeriden, Graz: Kienreich, 1949.

Schneditz defended Sophia as a courageous and witty woman who tried to maintain the prestige of her family status: he notes that Rilke’s heirs have avoided the release of the correspondence between mother and son and that this would be indispensable for accurate biography. Of course, one cannot judge until the correspondence becomes public but in one Sieber excerpt and one long letter of Christmas of 1925 (published in 1945), signed with his discarded name Rene, one sees a devoutness and a son so loving and appreciative that he seems to be a person other than the one who wrote so disparagingly of his mother in his poetry and in letters to numerous friends and acquaintances.

Two things, I believe, are at work here. First, Rilke suffered a personal conflict between love and hate. Son and mother alike possessed an indomitable will, a streak of independence, imaginative faculties, super sensitivity or hypochondria, and were prone to mediumistic and supernatural superstitions; Rilke resented his own resemblance to his mother. Second, in the presence of the mother — or in correspondence, the son, as he himself once said, is made to ”feel small with her again,” experiencing it seems a psychological regression into childhood.

Although Sophia claimed that by her rigorous example she taught Rene how to pray, she seemed to ignore what his alter ego Malte reported in the novel of 1910. Of Mama he wrote, “She did not really teach me how to pray; however, it was soothing to her that I gladly kneeled and that I now clasped my hands and then folded them upright — just as it seemed most expressive for me to do.”

The youngster very early learned how to dissemble or at best to shape his attitude in ways to please his mother. In contrast, the boy’s father exhibited “a complete correctness and immaculate courtesy; in church it seemed to me sometimes that he was chief huntsman in God’s service.” Caught in the cross-current of his parents’ disaffection for one another and their contrasting religious miens, the boy was confused. The echo of such scenes reverberate in the Visions and in the corridor of Rilke’s mind for the rest of his life.

Imaginary Life Journey

First a childhood, limitless and without
renunciation or goals. O unselfconscious joy.
Then suddenly terror, barriers, schools, drudgery,
and collapse into temptation and loss.

Defiance. The one bent becomes the bender,
and thrusts upon others that which it suffered.
Loved, feared, rescuer, fighter, winner
and conqueror, blow by blow.

And then alone in cold, light, open space,
yet still deep within the mature erected form,
a gasping for the clear air of the first one, the old one . . .

Then God leaps out from behind his hiding place.

                           (Schöneck, September 13, 1923)

He told Frau Koenig in 1917, and many others before her, that his mother with typical willfulness had wished to correct the mistake of fate which had given her a son instead of another girl in place of the one that died. She made him wear long blond locks and stubbornly dressed him like a little girl as long as possible. And, as part of his outfitting for the military school, his mother had given him linen and underclothing with delicate embroidery which exposed him to the ridicule of schoolmates and superiors. One of them tore off a medallion on a thin chain about his neck. So alive remained the memory, although more than thirty years had passed, that Frau Koenig imagined that Rilke still felt the cut upon retelling the story.

Frau Koenig in her memoirs notes Rilke’s timidity and shrinking in the company of his mother. A startling parallel emerges when we compare an account given by a much older second cousin of Rilke who described the little Rene as a tender and intimidated child (“verschiichtertes Kind”) who, during her only visit to the family, constantly citing to his mother’s hand. Of Joseph and Sophia Rilke, cousin Anna Grosser-Rilke wrote in her Nie Verwehtte Klange: Lebenserinncrunn aus acht Jahzehnten, Leipzig: Beyer, 1937: ”Joseph Rilke cut a stately figure. Rainer Maria’s mother, Sophia, lives in my memory as a fantastic woman, a strict Catholic and — I am almost tempted to say — a bit exalted for contemporary tastes. She possessed a firm belief that her son was a God-graced genius. None of the family relatives or close friends shared this opinion and she was ridiculed as a mother with an exaggerated love. But time has proved her to be correct” (p. 15).

Also indelible in his memory was the childish tormentor who struck him in the face. According to one of Rilke’s versions, he reacted by saying, “I suffer it because Christ suffered it, silently and without complaint, and while you were hitting me, I prayed my good God to forgive you.” At first the tormentor was struck dumb but then broke into derisive laughter and spread the story; this resulted in more laughter. The young Rene prayed for death but no response came. In another version, he flew into a towering rage and predicted that the tormentor would be punished; the tormentor promptly fell and broke his leg.

Since the first version was told to his betrothed Vally in 1894, while the other came many years later as a retrospective wish fantasy of what should have happened, we can see his early disillusionment with meekness and passivity; they seemed to be inoperative virtues. When the child received no answer to some material prayer his mother would tell him that God was quite busy and that his prayer would have to wait its turn,” an answer whose superficiality became painfully apparent when the boy matured.

Finally, conventional prayer became synonymous for him with distasteful command as when in the military school the non-commissioned officer would walk down the aisle of beds as if he were in the service of silence and darkness,” “Right-side turn, `heavenly Father’ pray; go to sleep!” From a number of sources. then, came authoritarian intrusions into a sensitive area of the child’s psyche, which proved disruptive.

From that time, said Rilke of the military school:

[A]fter long fearful battles, I abandoned the violent Catholic piety of childhood, made myself free of it in order to be even more, even more comfortlessly alone; but from things, from their patient bearing and enduring, a new, greater and more devout love came to me later, some kind of faith that knows no fear and no bounds. In this faith life is also a part.

The faith that knows no bounds was to be found in art, a conviction — like that of Carlyle and Arnold — which grew in the late Prague years. Abandoning the violent piety of which he spoke meant hauling in anchor and temporarily drifting to another extreme. In a poem of 1893, “Glaubensbekenntnis,”” “Confession of Faith,” he defiantly strikes an atheistic pose, satirizing the congregational sheep who dociley accept the dogma of the Trinity and the sacrifice of Christ for mankind, who reject this life in favor of the next, and who choose a comfortable illusion instead of reality. To the threat that he will be doomed when the trumpet sounds for the resurrection of the dead, lie saucily answers, “Have thanks — I’ll remain lying/ and be satisfied/ with this the only world.” Reward, he notes, comes in this world through love, a teaching “which to me is religion.”

In another poem also written in 1893 — “Christus am Kreuz,” “Christ on the Cross,” lay the seeds of the later cycle of Visions. Around a modest wooden cross with a garishly colored figure of Christ stand two children immersed in prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Choked with sympathy, the poet says, “Who can rob them of their hope, whose budding breaks through their meager life.”

Prayer has given their work-weary limbs new strength. Almost jealous of their faith and with a doubt-torn heart, he asks himself why he cannot pray and why he sees nothing except a piece of colored metal when he looks at Christ from whom the others sought help. The answer comes to the poet:

He was, like me, a person, — but he trusted
far more upon his powers than he should…
That he was great was proved by his devotion
to noble aims. But one thing made him small:
that he, in the excess of his emotion,
denied he was a person like us all…
Precisely at the time his power spread
across the whole wide earth by every road,
precisely then he might have proudly said:
I who accomplished this am flesh and blood!
Within him, though, that lust for homage woke
because of which so many a great man falters, –
he wished that someday for his sake the smoke
would climb into the skies from golden alters.
Not worship as a man did he desire, –
no, he would rather suffer and expire,
die on the cross — but die with a God’s name.
It’s clear to me now why I neither can love and adore him, nor unto him call:
he would have stayed so godlike as a man:
as god he seems so human now, so small!”
I looked up, where upon the cross hung grim
the painted figure with averted face.
Day came at last — I turned my back on him
and dried my tears… and then I left the place.”

The poet’s almost colloquial argument was to become a refrain in the Visions: Christ as a man possesses godly greatness but as a presumptive divinity seems so humanly small and vain.” Rilke’s view about Christ and God was prudently kept from family, relatives, and public print. Rilke’s view of the deliberateness of Christ’s martyrdom in order to help fulfill the Messianic prophecy was not original; Goethe, historians, among others, have theorized in this vein.

Christ on the cross has not infrequently caused poets to react literally and to lament the impossibility of faith in so disconsolate a figure. We find a parallel to Rilke’s thoughts in the French romanticist Alfred de Musset who in his youth indicated that he would wish for nothing better than to be able to believe, but that reality — “a world too old” — prohibited it. In his poem “Rolla” he pronounces both the cause and the body of Christ to be dead: “Ta gloire est morte,  Christ! et sur nos croix d’dbene/Ton cadavre celeste en poussiere est tombs,” (Your glory is dead, oh Christ, and on our cross of ebony/Your heavenly corpse has fallen into dust) .

Somber religious themes such as these were rare in Rilke’s Prague years as he pursued academic and literary goals as well as life’s pleasures and pleasantries. In Munich however, he hoped to chart his way into the “open” and to dedicate himself to the vocation of poetry; he keenly felt the contrast between the rather gay atmosphere of Prague and the serious tasks he had set himself in strange surroundings. Between October 5 and 9, 1896 — in the creative smithy which he called “work and solitude,” “Arbeit and Einsamkeit,” he finished three poems in the Visions of Christ cycle.


The Cultural Background To Rilke’s Visions of Christ – Siegfried Mandel

May 26, 2011

Rainier Maria Rilke

With Ranier Maria Rilke’s move from Prague to Munich in September 1896 at age twenty-one came a period of contemplation, a summing up of experience, and a firmer sense of direction. The first poetic task which engaged his attention in Munich was a cycle of poems  which he referred to in correspondence and conversation as Visionen (Visions) or more frequently Christusvisionen (Visions of Christ or Christ Visions). If it seems strange that Rilke wanted to launch his new poetry cycle from so esoteric a base, one must understand that Rilke was reshaping his ideology under the impact of highly personal experiences and general currents of thought. The latter may be sketched briefly.

By Rilke’s time, the nineteenth century spirit of laissez-faire had drastically changed men’s orientation. What the historian J. A. Fronde said of England in the 1840′s also characterizes subsequent developments throughout Europe: “It was an era of new ideas, of swift if silent spiritual revolution.” In time the revolution, abetted by Darwinian and Marxian ideas, gained momentum. Of prime significance was the rending away of the Church from its old anchorage while materialism and skepticism had pervasive effects. Religious controversy and the “higher criticism” particularly helped to erode Biblical infallibility and the Tractarians and Christologists closely reevaluated dogma and problems of historicity. How deeply the English intellectuals of the Victorian period felt that they lived in a “marked” time, a time when religion and the church had to undergo changes, may be seen in two excellent studies: J. H. Buckley, The Victorian Temper, New York: Knopf, 1964; W. L. Burn, The Age of Equipoise: A Study of the Mid-Victorian Generation, New York: Norton, 1964

In the forefront of controversy were such books as the theologian David Friedrich Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu (1835/36; translated into English by George Eliot in 1846 as The Life of Jesus) , viewing Jesus as a human about whose life myths were woven; Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen der Religion (1851) (The Essence of Religion), suggesting that the hereafter is nothing but the present idealized, that theology is the product of the human spirit, and that the concept of God is an ideal rationalized and projected from the best instincts of man; Ernest Renan’s La vie de Jesus (1863) — an antidote to the defensive and romantic Le Genie du Christianisme (1802) by Francois de Chateaubriand and J. R. Seeley’s Ecce Homo (1865) , portraying Jesus in human dimensions, without recourse to metaphysics.

The fray was joined by scientists who pointed to biological and zoological findings incompatible with the Bible, and by materialists who saw man as a product not of spiritual but of environmental forces and those of his immediate milieu, although some like Pasteur stoutly maintained orthodox belief. Some skeptics accepted the higher criticism and the implications of new teachings of science but were unwilling to proclaim these views publicly lest the structure of society be threatened or out of fear of becoming embroiled in controversy. Rilke was to be in a similar situation with his Visions.

Artists and writers were not unaffected by the controversies and took a “notoriously” individualistic view of religious themes. In protest against what he felt to be an encroachment by art upon religion, a gentleman by the name of T. Chambers arose in the House of Commons in 1869 to declare: “while a community might and ought to be preached at and lectured by the Philosopher and the minister of religion it was not for the artist to take upon him that duty.”

In addition to the inclination toward preaching, the artist’s transvaluation of religion in the 19th century was most strongly influenced by Thomas Carlyle’s dictum: the poet-artist is the superior priest; his works of Beauty include and transcend Truth. Carlyle exalted the beautiful over the good and the artist as morally superior to the prophet and Matthew Arnold predicted that poetry would replace religion. Echoes of such enunciations were soon heard from Pater, Whistler, Wilde, and Yeats. Similar chords were struck in Germany as Friedrich Schlegel proclaimed, “Only he is an artist who has religion of his own, an original view of infinity.”

Even more drastic were Richard Wagner’s dreams to make art a religion and the opera house its temple. And with Wagnerian prose and rhapsodic sermons Nietzsche poured scorn upon the anti-intellectualism of mass thought and the unChristian aspects of the religion-professing times. In a gentler vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson (the subject of a Rilke lecture) exhorted the “dead alive” mass man to listen to “the voice of God in the intuition of the heart”; like the Antinomians and other Puritan “heretics,” he asserted a private faith. “The poet,” wrote Emerson “is the sayer, the namer…a sovereign emperor in his own right.”

Most brilliant in 19th century literature in this regard is Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov [Rene Girard interprets here ] [a further look by Henri de Lubac well worth your time here ]which raises the subject of how little remains in the modern world of Christ’s ancient teachings. The theological experience is variously conceived and expressed also by such 19th century writers as De Quincy,Robert Browning, Emily Bronte, Arnold, Hopkins, Swinburne, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson. In the works of Lamartine, Vigny, Hugo, and Musset, the figure of Christ became a symbolic synonym for the modern poet — a humanitarian guide, a forsaken and lonely prophet who — with unintentional irony — preaches fruitlessly.”

In short, theologians, philosophers, and an inexhaustible array of literary personages touched upon, in one way or another, major religious issues and reinterpreted the savior-archetype figure of Christ. One critic has evaluated the phenomenon in this fashion: “It is as natural for the Western writer of tragedy to make Christ his objective correlative, against which he measures the experience of man, as it was for the Greek playwright to build his tragedy around the stories of Dionysus. Both figures are topical dramatizations of the archetype of the sacrificial hero.” ( From E. M. Moseley, Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel: Motifs and Methods, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962, p. 24: Whether central or peripheral, the preoccupation with Christ by modern writers is impressive as shown by Moseley’s study of Conrad, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Lawrence, Reinarque, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Forster, Steinbeck, Shone, Malraux, Koestler, Camus and Hemingway)

However, one can note as well some other historical shifts of emphasis. One common idea, despite the diversities of ritual and philosophy, that seemed dominant among the ancients was the need for a mediator between man and God as represented by the figures of Prometheus, Dionysus, Mithras, Moses, Christ; during the Middle Ages especially, Mary and the saints were venerated as intercessors. With the impact of the Reformation and the influence of the mystics, a closer man-God relationship became envisioned and evident. Some philosophers and writers by emphasizing the man-God relationship de-emphasized the Christ figure; others scaled Christ to human dimensions, eliminating him as an intercessor, rejecting the Pauline interpretations, and accepting the views of the communal primitive church. With some reservations, Rilke was inclined toward interpretations favoring Christ not as divine but as human.

Some of the intellectual currents which I have sketched touched Rilke. To those must be added his reading of Goethe — though sparse, Heine (especially the polemics) , Nietzsche, and Rilke’s academic studies in religion and philosophy. Direct discussion of contemporary religious issues occurred during his Prague “castle” days when he collaborated with the Baroness Laska’s brother Friedrich Werner van Oesteren on one of the issues of the Wegwarten periodical. Friedrich was to receive attention for his contributions to German-Bohemian literature and particularly for his political novel Christus nicht Jesus (Christ, not Jesus), taken from his educational experience at a Jesuit seminary. The title of course draws distinction between Christ as the Greek-derived form of Christos, the Messiah, and Jesus the moralist and teacher; the Jesuits — who emphasized the martyriological aspects of Christ — are portrayed as pursuing worldly rather than idealistic goals.


Sándor Márai And The Twitch Upon The Thread

May 25, 2011

Sándor Márai

The following is patched together from two sources and is a story I was drawn to. The first source is from a Google biographical essay by Catherine LaCroix:

Sándor Márai was born on April 11, 1900 in Kassa, Slovakia, a city in what was then upper Hungary, part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire. He was born to a distinguished bourgeois family. His father was a lawyer, and his mother came from a family of military officers, government officials, and more lawyers. He was the eldest of four children. “To me,” he wrote late in life, “being a bourgeois was never a matter of class status – I always believed it was a calling. In my view, the bourgeoisie was the best human phenomenon that modern Western culture produced, because it was the bourgeoisie who created modern Western culture.”

Márai  had a private tutor until he was 10, and then attended a series of grammar schools. He ran away from home while at the first local one, so he was sent to a Catholic school in Budapest, where he spent only a year before moving to another school. His family was Catholic, but he lost his faith while still young. He looked to bourgeois humanism for principles that could order and direct his life. He read voraciously and took up writing at an early age, starting with poetry. He published his first story in a Hungarian newspaper when he was 14. He published his first collection of verse at 18. In 1919 he worked in the short–lived Bolshevik commune as a journalist and was — only briefly — a communist. When the Bolshevik administration lost power, his parents thought it best that he go abroad.

Márai went to Germany, where he began to study journalism at the University of Leipzig and philosophy at the universities of Frankfurt and Berlin. He contributed to magazines and newspapers during that time, and translated works of Kafka into Hungarian. He married a Jewish woman, Lola or Ilona Matzner, whom he had known in Kassa. In 1923, he and his wife moved to Paris, where he pursued further studies of philosophy. He earned his living by contributing to Hungarian-language publications. He reported on court cases, sports events, and holiday resorts. He also began to publish novels, novellas, short stories, plays and poetry.

In 1929 he and his wife returned to Hungary and settled near Budapest. By this time Márai  was established as a writer, and he moved to a neighborhood that included many other prominent Hungarian writers of the time. His face adorned magazines; his newspaper columns were collected and sold in book form. He wrote as many as 46 books, 27 of them fiction. These included Embers, written in 1942. (Written, that is, at almost exactly the same time as the period in which it is set.) Other works included an autobiography, Confessions of a Middle Class Citizen, marked by searching self-analysis. He became one of Hungary’s most popular writers of the inter-war period, and his work appeared in several languages.

His heritage was important to him. He wrote that people “should remain faithful to those to whom their descent, upbringing and memories bind them,” adding that he felt anarchy to be “immoral.” His main inspiration came from nostalgia for the way of life destroyed in the upheaval after the First World War. One of his memoirs describes his Budapest apartment as filled with furniture passed down from the estates of his family and that of his wife. He mentions portraits of his father, grandfather, and other ancestors, and a library of 6,000 books. He describes the white–gloved maid who cleared the dishes after 11 Márai relatives dined together.

In 1939 Lola gave birth to a son, Kristof, who died after a few weeks, following an internal hemorrhage. It was a terrible loss. They were to bear no more children.

The Hungarian government was an ally of Germany during World War II. The Russians took over Budapest at the end of the war in 1945, during which process Russian bombing destroyed Márai ’s apartment. The Márai s fled to a nearby village, where they looked after a young boy who would become their adopted son. As the Communists solidified power in Hungary, Márai found that he could not live or publish in a regime so contrary to his own values. In 1948, he and his wife emigrated to Switzerland. They soon moved to Italy, where they spent four years.

While in Italy, his diary includes a 1949 entry that “the world has no need of Hungarian literature.” He added, “Back home, literature has disappeared … the country has collapsed; in its place all that is left is a communist Russian colony.” He concluded that he faced two forms of artistic suicide: tailoring his work for “foreign tastes,” or writing for non-existent Hungarian readers in a “deaf nothingness.” Indeed, back in Hungary, his name all but vanished, because the Communists did not publish his work; his books reappeared only after the collapse of Communist rule many years later.

In 1952, the Márais moved to New York City where, until he retired in 1967, Márai  worked for Radio Free Europe. In 1979, he and his wife settled in San Diego to be near their adopted son. By then Márai had concluded that bourgeois civilization and bourgeois humanism had lost their luster and deteriorated into mass-market trash. Throughout his tenure in the United States, he continued to write, but all of his works were nostalgic period pieces, written in Hungarian for a Hungarian audience. They focused on faith and freedom of thought. Some works were translated into German or French, but none was published in English in Márai’s lifetime.

Márai lost his wife to cancer in 1986 and his adopted son to cancer as well in 1987 (at age 46). Both were devastating losses, for a man who by that time was wholly wrapped up in his family. Overseas, his brothers and sister also passed away. On February 21, 1989, after writing a note to his remaining family, Márai called the police. He told them that he was about to kill himself, and added where to find his apartment. He hung up and shot himself.  According to news accounts, it was only while cleaning out his apartment after his death that his American daughter-in-law and three granddaughters discovered what a prolific and prominent author he had been.

Nine years later, in 1998, the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso was flicking through a catalog of older works in Paris when he came across some Márai works in French translation. This was the beginning of the Márai renaissance in the West, including the Janeway translation of tonight’s book, Embers.

Anecdotes revealing Márai ’s personality are relatively sparse in the materials I reviewed. One story illustrates his apparent intense, unbending personality. When he heard that his estranged younger brother, a film director, had gone blind, he traveled across half the world to visit him. On arrival his brother exclaimed, “Sándor!” to which Márai  replied only, “You can see?” then turned on his heels and left. 

Another biographic insight concerns Márai’s devotion to his Hungarian heritage and language. The biographer suggests that the isolated Hungarian language contributes to the strength of Hungarian identity and friendships (as illustrated in Embers) and also to the ultimate loneliness of the exiled Márai’s life.
Catherine LaCroix, Sandor Marai A Biographical Essay

This next source is a reading selection from a WSJ book review, A Hungarian Novelist’s Literature of Fidelity by Eric Ormsby:

“Literary renown in English for Sándor Márai came to him in 2002 with the translation of “Embers.” “One spends a lifetime preparing for something,” he remarks in the book, “but when that something arrives, it is barely recognizable.”

One way Márai achieves a sense of depth in his novels is by treating time as strangely elastic. A single instant, half forgotten, will reveal its full import only decades afterward. His characters wait for years to grasp what one fleeting encounter portended. In “Embers,” the General has been waiting for 41 years to confront the friend who has betrayed him. In “Esther’s Inheritance,” Esther waits more than 30 years for the man who traded her inheritance for a worthless bauble, and in the end she surrenders her house and property to him.

“Portraits of a Marriage” (Knopf, 371 pages, $27.95), is the fifth Márai novel to be made available in English by Alfred A. Knopf since its success with “Embers” (it was followed by “Casanova in Bolzano,” “Rebels” and “Esther’s Inheritance). “Portraits” (1941) tells the story of the aristocratic Peter, who waits through 12 long years of a loveless marriage to take possession — or rather, be possessed by — Judit, the beautiful servant girl with whom he had a single exchange of words one Christmas Day. Márai shows how the past eludes us even more cunningly than the present, mutating as we examine it. Worse, remembrance is never unanimous; a shared past is a disputed past. Sometimes we believe we’ve uncovered some lost, almost irrecoverable moment and think it to be the moment that determined — or destroyed — our lives.

This is what Peter tells himself as he prepares to leave his wife, Ilona: “I understood that the decisive events of our lives are moments of stillness and silence, and that behind the visible, sensible events there lies another level, where something lazy is slumbering, a sleeping monster lodged under the sea or deep in the forest, in the heart of man, a dozy monster, some primeval creature, that rarely shifts itself, that yawns and stretches but rarely reaches for anything, and that this too is you, this monster, this otherness.”

This appears to be an impressive insight, the hard-won result of Peter’s dogged examination of conscience. As it turns out, it’s really much too easy. The monster he finds dozing within is actually a composite beast, made up not only of his own tenuous image of himself but the image of him created by his two overpowering and equally implacable wives. Ilona loves him too much; she wants to possess him completely, to winkle out “the secret of his soul.” Judit, by contrast, stands aloof, drawing him to her just as a magnet drags an iron filing irresistibly to itself.

As their successive monologues reveal, none of these three sees the others for what they are. To Peter, Judit is “terrifyingly beautiful,” but Judit, a poor peasant girl who grew up in “a ditch” that her family shared with field mice, is mesmerized by the glittering accoutrements of Peter’s affluent life. She marvels at his impeccably polished shoes in their dozens or at the special drawer designed for his many pairs of gloves. Each of these entangled characters comes through as thoroughly credible and desperately human. Though Márai’s eye is unsparing, he refrains from judgment. He’s less interested in presenting his characters’ spiraling self-deception — though he does that with uncanny insight — than in laying bare the terrible isolation that underlies all human relationships.

One of Márai’s contemporaries, the great Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres, expressed the frightening sense of something dark and fathomless beneath our busy lives. In his poem “The Secret Country” (as translated by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan), he wrote:

Below earth and sea there is
a black lake,
motionless and mirror-sharp,
no one knows its chasms.

Such subterranean awareness gives Márai’s fiction its compelling force. Ilona or Peter or Judit are presented with all their quirks and little peculiarities. Their habits, their way of dressing, the patterns of their speech, their emotional swerves from profound boredom to blazing rage, are all meticulously rendered. The scenes of their disclosures — a café in Budapest, a sleazy bedroom in Paris — are conveyed in a few deft strokes. But the novel’s realism only serves to intensify the uneasy feeling that these three people are always teetering just on the brink of that black lake with its unknowable chasms.

Unlike Proust, for whom the recovery of the past, even in its humblest instants, epitomizes an involuntary, almost magical occurrence, Márai offers no madeleines cooked up by nostalgia for our delectation. Instead, he treats memory as a caustic; it strips away the cozy lies and half-truths, the well-buffed legends, we concoct about ourselves. Yet, surprisingly, such corrosive remembrance confers unexpected nobility on his characters; their fixation on the past stands finally revealed not as a pathological symptom but as a rare fidelity to something essential in themselves, to some small but hard-won truth about their obscure lives that even time recovered cannot eradicate.”
Eric Ormsby, A Hungarian Novelist’s Literature of Fidelity

I guess the fascination for me with Márai follows from his lifelong concern with memory. I am much more in the Proustian vision of memory as it flows more neatly with a Catholic vision. When Adam and Eve refuse to accept their condition and by their inordinate desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” form the Christian account of original sin, it not only provides a “first cause” explanation of human perversity, it also identifies through a rich narrative the archetypal pattern for every sin.

How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth. As John Paul II writes, “the term ‘myth’ does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.” The myth of the fall has this quality. Much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well.
Nathan Schlueter, Reading The Theology Of The Body Into Wendell Berry’s Remembering

And so memory has become for me one of those hard wiring connections that the creature has with his creator that create the “twitch on the line” that Chesterton wrote about and was picked up by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited:

The Process By Which God Calls Us Back To The Center
The contemporary English novelist David Lodge was asked what makes his novels specifically Catholic. His response: they are all in different ways about God’s relentless pursuit of his errant children, This answer has always put me in mind of one of the greatest religious novels of the twentieth century, Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited.The second “book” of Brideshead bears the title “A Twitch upon the Thread,” and this image is derived from one of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown stories:

“I caught him [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Waugh’s novel is about the process by which God calls his children back to the center — even those who have drifted to the furthest edge. As such, it is a particularly apt illustration of the first path of holiness…. The story opens as Captain Charles Ryder and his troop, in the course of their training exercises in the English countryside, come upon a stately manor house called “Brideshead.” This chance encounter triggers in Charles a flood of memories, for that place had for many years been at the center of his emotional life.

The novel unfolds as the account of Charles’s reminiscences of the people that moved through that house and of the events that swirled around it. What becomes plain in the course of the tale is that the central character is none of the human figures, but rather the mansion itself: indomitable, alluring, haunting Brideshead. St. Paultold the Corinthians that Christ is the head of his body the church and, shifting the metaphor, that Jesus is the bridegroom and the church the bride. Waugh combines these two Pauline images, making of Brideshead itself (the head of the bride) a powerful figure of both Christ and the church. The novel is, accordingly, the complex account of how people circle around Christ, now fascinated, now repelled, sometimes in his embrace, sometimes in flight from him. It is about the power of the center.
Fr. Robert Barron, The Strangest Way

This, for me, is the phenomena of memory and what makes Márai’s vision so transfixing for me is the almost 180 degree vision it offers to the Christian vision. In Márai we see the human person whose conception of God or the world has him blocked — hence the wait for years that his characters endure to grasp what one fleeting encounter portended. No Proustian or Brideshead memories here that are leading his characters (and us) to a deeper interpretive relation with the world. No, these are “corrosive remembrances,” where memory is a “caustic,” that “strips away the cozy lies and half-truths, the well-buffed legends, we concoct about ourselves.” 

For Márai, who has “lost his faith” according to these literary historians, the world sits “on a black lake, motionless and mirror-sharp” and “no one knows its chasms.” Yet even despite himself and his nightmare visions, Márai creates an “unexpected nobility on his characters.” These are, after all, Maritain’s human persons – “their fixation on the past stands finally revealed not as a pathological symptom but as a rare fidelity to something essential in themselves, to some small but hard-won truth about their obscure lives that even time recovered cannot eradicate.”

Blessedly I hope that in his writing he was touched by our Lord, the power at the center, as he saw that “rare fidelity” and responded to that “twitch upon the thread.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Revelation 21:5-7


Tradition and the Natural Law

May 24, 2011

Allen: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
Woman: Yes, it is.
Allen: What does it say to you?
Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straitjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.
Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allen: What about Friday night?
Woody Allen, Play It Again Sam (1972)

No U.S. Supreme Court dictum in decades has faced such vilification as has poor Justice Kennedy’s 28 words in Planned Parenthood vs Casey 505 US 833 (1992):

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.”

Interestingly enough, Kennedy’s words aren’t even original. Rather they reflect the dictum of another Supreme Court majority opinion written almost 50 years earlier, in which Justice Felix Frankfurter included his own “mystery” passage:

“Certainly the affirmative pursuit of one’s convictions about the ultimate mystery of the universe and man’s relation to it is placed beyond the reach of law.”

That case, Minersville v. Gobitis, (1940) was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States involving the religious rights of public school students under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Court ruled that public schools could compel students — in this case, Jehovah’s Witnesses — to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance despite the students’ religious objections to these practices. Happily they overthrew it three years later but then Justice Kennedy dusted it off for the feminists in the Casey decision. The point of all this being that when some issue is at stake there is a segment of the population (either left or right) who will say the law shouldn’t apply, that FREEDOM and our right to choose what that means, trumps all. Viva Guns, Abortion and Woody Allen’s girlfriend above.

Needless to say they are all wrong — in a secular blindness the court chose again to propound a universal moral right not to recognize the universal moral laws on which all rights depend.  As J. Budziszewski notes “Such liberty has infinite length but zero depth. A right is a power to make a moral claim upon me. If I could “define” your claims into nonexistence — as the Court said I could “define” the unborn child’s — that power would be destroyed.

What the Supreme Court tells us is that we need to have an understanding of nature as being designed according to its teleological purposes. The key definition concerning freedom (“a process of growing into the habits (i.e., virtues) that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice”) implies that we know what the end of human being to be. Saint Thomas has written that the “nature” of any particular thing is “a purpose, implanted by the Divine Art, that it be moved to a determinate end”. Provided that we haven’t been taught not to, this is the way we tend to think of things anyway. Part of the despair of modernity is that we have lost the will to distinguish not only what our purpose in life is, but the very notion that things (even us) possess an essential nature:

An acorn is not essentially something small with a point at one end and a cap at the other; it is something aimed at being an oak. A boy in my neighborhood is not essentially something with baggy pants and a foul mouth; he is something aimed at being a man. In this way of thinking, everything in Creation is a wannabe. We just have to recognize what it naturally wants to be. Natural law turns out to be the developmental spec sheet, the guide for getting there. For the acorn, nature isn’t law in the strictest sense, because law must be addressed to an intelligent being capable of choice. For the boy, though, it is. The acorn can’t be in conflict with itself. He can.

But there is something missing here. According to the old tradition of natural law, the human arrow is unlike all others because it is directed to a goal which its natural powers cannot reach. We have one natural longing that nothing in nature can satisfy. That boy on the corner is something that by nature wants to be a Man, and being a Man is hard enough. But a Man is something that by nature wants to be in friendship with God, and that, short of grace, is impossible.

God is not only the author of human nature, but the direction in which it faces and the power on which it depends, its greatest good. He isn’t just the most important good for me because of my faith commitments; He is the most important simply. Revealed religion concurs: “For [even] the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know

We appear to be running smack into what the detractors of Natural Law accuse it of being – a cover for divine law and a theocratic state. “Some natural lawyers assure us that the natural law would make perfect sense even if there were no God at all — forgetting that if there were no God there would be no nature either. On the other hand, some believers say that since we have the Bible to tell us what to do, we don’t need a natural law.”

Even though the elementary principles of the moral law are known by nature, they are elicited, elucidated, and elaborated by tradition. “Nature dependent on tradition” may sound inconsistent but it shouldn’t. Sound tradition works like a talented sculptor with a piece of marble: the artist liberates the object which is imprisoned in the block. In the same way, tradition gives voice to what in some sense we already know, but inarticulately. When tradition is silenced or forgotten, people are left to work out all these things out for themselves – a hit-or-miss undertaking at best. What is evident to the isolated tradition-less self is the repeatable human error sealed with the words “self-evident.”

Moreover, in tradition, intellect and moral character work together. As J. Budziszewski points out, if the mind is like the eyes, then the virtues are like the lenses which focus them. The classical Natural Law thinkers held that although there are broad moral truths which cannot be blotted out of the heart of man, there are others, more remote from first principles, which can all too easily be blotted out, usually by bad living.

The goods of fidelity, are plain and concrete to the man who has not strayed, but they are faint, like mathematical abstractions, to the one who is addicted to other men’s wives (think Arnold). The assistance of “second nature” is needed for nature to come into its own; the natural is brought to bear by the habitual. This is the source of all Eastern artistic teachings, copying the works of the masters over and over and over again. Americans are the bane of any Japanese art – they’re ready to fly and explore their inner selves after they think they’ve got the basics. Indispensable, then, is a living tradition that transmits not only teachings, but disciplines. How many American Catholics do you know who think of their faith as a discipline?

So when we require the assistance of tradition here, we are speaking of the assistance of a particular kind of tradition. Understand that clear vision of the moral law can be crushing. Because the first thing that an honest man sees with this clear vision is a debt which exceeds anything he can pay. Apart from an assurance that the debt can somehow be forgiven, such honesty is too much for us — it can kill with a deadly realization of our complete unworthiness. The sinners first reaction is what forgiveness, what salvation can there be?

Without a special revelation from the Author of the law, it is impossible to know whether the possibility of forgiveness is real. Therefore we look away; unable to accept the truth about ourselves, we may keep the law in the corner of our eye, but we cannot gaze upon it steadily. We are simply unworthy, our damnation more than reasonable.

Without a faith and salvation that is greater than our Natural Law tradition, one that settles the matter of forgiveness once and for all, our highest ethics would be littered with evasions and suicides. Although Natural Law was named by the pagans and is in some dim fashion known apart from the Bible, reflection about it has never gone far except within biblical revelation.

J. Budziszewski borrows a metaphor used by C. S. Lewis in another context, namely that our particular traditions are like the different rooms of a great house, and the public square is like the entrance parlor. The parlor is indispensable room; it is where everyone meets and goes in and out. But we learn even our parlor manners in the family rooms, the family rooms are where people actually live, and one of the chief topics of parlor conversation is — surprise! — our families.

Members of different traditions cannot always speak together, but sometimes they can, and in ways that tradition less people never can. The greatest insights into Natural Law coincided with the period during which they were intensely and simultaneously engaged with the pagan thought of Aristotle, the Jewish thought of Maimonides, and the Muslim thought of Averroes. A great leavening of all these traditions has occurred and all that is required of us is to cultivate the art of listening to each other to learn what the Natural Law teaches us.

The greater difficulty lies in speaking with people (relativists, atheists, et. al.)who have no traditions of unfolding the Natural Law, only “traditions” of evading or obscuring it. Budziszewski cautions us that although this kind of conversation is not impossible, it presents special difficulties: we can better teach speech to the mute if we have learned it among people who speak. So seek out the philosophical and the traditions on the issues of faith in the public square. Learn the vocabulary, understand the traditions of the Natural Law.

It is only in God and in light of God that we rightly know any man. Any “self-knowledge” that restricts man to the empirical and tangible fails to engage with man’s true depth. Man knows himself only when he learns to understand himself in light of God, and he knows others only when he sees the mystery of God in them.
Jesus of Nazareth – Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)


The Impenetrability of Natural Law

May 23, 2011

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Disputing with the Doctors a Sketch, 1652

One of the topics I found somewhat impenetrable for the longest time was “Natural Law.” I could never find a good definition of what it was, never mind a codification of it that everyone agreed upon. It wasn’t until reading J. Budziszewski’s What We Can’t Not Know that I was able to put a better grip on why some of these things eluded me.

Basically the point of the natural law is that there are some moral truths that we all know or that we should know if we are playing with a full deck. NOT knowing them gives you an entrée into the world of the sociopath. Yet even this simple assertion quickly breaks down. Remember those tribes that Colin Turnbull wrote about in the New Yorker years back, the Ik?

Turnbull was an unconventional ethnologist who rejected neutrality. He idealized the BaMbuti tribe he wrote about and reviled the Ik, describing the latter as lacking any sense of altruism, in that they force their children out of their homes at the age of three, and gorge on whatever occasional excesses of food they might find until they became sick, rather than save or share. They seemed to be candidates for a breed of people who were clueless to the Natural Law and reasons to view the assumption that “Everybody knows it” as proof the Natural Law lacks the universalism it claims for itself.

Well it turned out that old Colin was mistaken. Several anthropologists have since argued that a particularly serious famine suffered by the Ik during the period of Turnbull’s visit may have distorted their normal behavior and customs, and some passages in his book make it clear that the behavior and customs of the Ik during the period he describes were drastically different from what was normal for them before they were uprooted from their original way of life. They even turned out to have a to have a strong sense of mutual obligation, according to some scholars.

Still there is a lot to be said to contradict the assumption that Natural Law is universal. The defenders of Natural Law (of which I am one) point out that Natural Law, while as real and plain as abc’s and arithmetic, can be as elusive as Original Sin.

J. Budziszewski describes these basic natural moral principles and their elusiveness as follows:

They are a universal possession, an emblem of rational mind, an heirloom of the family of man. That doesn’t mean that we know them with unfailing, perfect clarity, or that we have reasoned out their remotest implications: we don’t, and we haven’t. Nor does it mean that we never pretend not to know them even though we do, or that we never lose our nerve when told they aren’t true: we do, and we do. It doesn’t even mean that we are born knowing them, that we never get mixed up about them, or that we assent to them just as readily whether they are taught to us or not. That can’t even be said of “two plus two is four”. Yet our common moral knowledge is as real as arithmetic, and probably just as plain. Paradoxically, maddeningly, we appeal to it even to justify wrongdoing; rationalization is the homage paid by sin to guilty knowledge.
J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know

We can go back to 1931 and the philosopher J. Cooper who innocently wrote a seemingly clear-cut definition here:

The peoples of the world, however much they differ as to details of morality, hold universally, or with practical universality, to at least the following basic precepts. Respect the Supreme Being or the benevolent being or beings who take his place. Do not “blaspheme.” Care for your children. Malicious murder or maiming, stealing, deliberate slander or “black” lying, when committed against friend or unoffending fellow clansman or tribesman, are reprehensible. Adultery proper is wrong, even though there be exceptional circumstances that permit or enjoin it and even though sexual relations among the unmarried may be viewed leniently. Incest is a heinous offense. This universal moral code agrees rather closely with our own Decalogue taken in a strictly literal sense.’
John M. Cooper, cited in Russell Hettinger’s The Natural Law

In our own culture rationalization is the homage paid by sin to guilty knowledge so even Arnold knows he did wrong fathering a love child and lying about it for ten years. But many would declare it a private matter and shy from declaring it an example of Natural Law at work. Libertarians focus on “rights”, relativists declare “it all depends” and, as Budziszewski points out, such poor moral philosophy always tries to connect the dots of what we seem to already know and blithely goes on to cook the moral data as the dishonest statistician cooks the numbers.

Hence if we like to feel pleasure, the utilitarian sort of cook ignores every datum but that: “we don’t want dinner, but the pleasure of feeling full; nor knowledge, but the pleasure of feeling knowledgeable; nor love, etc. etc.” Following that line of reasoning we should all become anorexic — eat, purge, and eat again, capturing all the joys and none of the negatives. But a life of constant vomit leads the rational side of us to figure out that (like Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy) it just plain doesn’t work out. That is, if we have a rational side.

Degenerate theories of Natural Law abound, none more pernicious than the relativist Justice Kennedy and the derivative Natural Law he invented in (Planned Parenthood vs Casey 505 US 833 (1992). It is here that the modern sense of freedom is most radically expressed and carried to its logical and ugly extreme:

 “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.”

In the interests of holding together a pluralist society, the justices leave the determination of the deepest and most important questions wholly to the whim of individuals, freedom having completely trumped truth or in the words of John Paul II, “freedom lapsed into arbitrariness and truth devolved to oppression.”

Christians can have no truck with this form of liberalism, for we do not think that Christ’s truth can be bracketed or set aside. We are convinced that authentic peace and liberty will be achieved only in correlation to the Word of God which appropriately grounds them. Paul can say, “It is for freedom that Christ set you free,” and he can proclaim himself “a slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans. 1:1), because he is not saddled with a modern conception of freedom. He knows that when we are enslaved to the truth that appeared in Christ, we are free to realize who God wants us to be. Long before the nitwits of our generation used “Freedom” to trump the will of God, our wiser medieval forefathers regarded it as a process of growing into the habits (i.e., virtues) that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.

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

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

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

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

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

In his way, Dante has foreseen our modern notion of freedom — the notion expressed by Wilson and Kant — and he has rejected it. That is not because such false freedom is often directed toward evil, as when it becomes the license to snuff out the life of an unborn child. It is, rather, because any freedom that severs us from one another, from our memories of those who came before us, is built on a lie about being.

It is a misunderstanding of that Being whose essence is to exist. It is autonomy collapsing into antinomy [vocab: A contradiction between principles] the denial of law itself and of our created being. Dante knows both that there is an autonomy in accord with the structure of created existence, which is truly free, and that there is an autonomy that violates it, caught by its own snare.
Anthony Esolen, The Freedom of Heaven and the Freedom of Hell


The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance And The Recovery Of The Sacred

May 20, 2011

Evelyn Waugh

A further adaption of Gregory Wolfe’s essay Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World. The focus is on one of his conclusions on how these intellectuals were able to battle for the recovery of the sacred from the grips of modernity’s secular smother hold on society. We may have lost it again, but the memory remains  with us.

Who Were They?/Where Did They Come From?
In theology, there is a principle which states that the bigger and more mysterious a being is, metaphysically speaking, the harder it is to describe its nature in direct terms. When it comes to understanding God himself, it has often been said that it is better to attempt to say what he is not, and in this way inch closer to a perception of what he is. Gregory Wolfe borrows this technique to describe the modern Catholic Renaissance:

First, the Renaissance was not an expression of anything that might be called an “establishment”. The single most striking fact about the majority of its writers is that they were converts. In the earlier generation, one could point out Leon Bloy, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Paul Claudel, Gabriel Marcel, Charles Peguy, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Edith Stein, and Adrienne von Speyr. The younger generation included such converts as Louis Bouyer and Walker Percy. Add to this such near-converts as Henri Bergson and Simone Weil, as well as the Anglo-Catholic converts T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, and you have a picture of a worldview that had the capacity to draw many of the leading minds of the age.

Conversion is an experience that is in some sense unique to every convert, but it inevitably involves a process of discovery — the feeling, to quote T. S. Eliot, of arriving home and knowing the place for the first time. Ironically, many of these intellectual converts did not find ready acceptance in official ecclesiastical circles. All this goes to show that the converts were hardly submitting themselves blindly to authority figures in order to assuage their anxieties about sex, guilt, and death (a common charge of their secular critics).

Rather, they were engaged in a protracted mental and spiritual struggle that ended in a willing embrace of the central mysteries of the Faith. To all of them, their faith was an asset, a key to understanding both the highest truths and the most pressing problems of the moment. They would undoubtedly share Flannery O’Connor’s belief that “there is no reason why fixed dogma should fix anything that the writer sees in the world. On the contrary, dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery.”

If the Renaissance intellectuals were not creatures of any establishment, neither did they form a “movement”. There were, of course, “schools” of thought, including the Thomists, the Catholic existentialists, and the neo-patristic theologians, but even within these schools there were widely divergent views. This point may seem a truism, but it is, to my mind, an important corroboration of the intellectual honesty of these thinkers that, while they shared a common faith, their explorations of the world took them down disparate paths.

Finally, it is worth noting that these writers were predominantly laypeople, not clerics. We take the leadership of lay intellectuals in the Church today somewhat for granted, but it has largely been a modern development. It is a development that recent popes and the Second Vatican Council itself have strongly endorsed, seeing it as a necessary consequence of an increasingly secularized society, and also because the specific character of the laity is to know the natural goods of various forms of worldly endeavor.

The leading figures of the Catholic Renaissance moved easily and naturally in secular professional circles — a fact we may tend to forget. This is a testament not only to the greater openness of secular intellectuals in the earlier decades of the century but also to their positive rejection of the fortress mentality on the part of the Renaissance thinkers. Their place, as they saw it, was on the front lines of culture, and if they encountered some hostility, they also found a great deal of respect. As James Hitchcock has pointed out, the Catholic Thomists helped to spur a neo-scholastic movement that was taken up by such teachers as Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon at the University of Chicago, where the joke was that “atheist professors taught Catholic philosophy to Jewish students.”

Orthodoxy Responds To Heresy
It has been said that orthodoxy develops only in response to the challenges posed by heresy. But if the great orthodox thinkers have received their impetus from the need to oppose a narrowing and distortion of the faith, it is equally true that they always manage to rise above merely defensive postures to achieve a vision which reawakens in us a sense of the beauty and wonder of the world.

One need only think of a work like Saint Augustine’s The City of God, which was written as a response to the pagans who claimed that Christianity was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire. This magisterial book not only refuted those charges but became the blueprint for the political and social order of medieval Europe for nearly a millennium. I would like to suggest that the greatest of the Catholic Renaissance writers in the modern era accomplished this twofold mission of critique and imaginative vision. One of the many themes that run throughout their writings, is what  Wolfe calls “the recovery of the sacred.”

Where the Catholic novelists of the twentieth century have succeeded in providing us with intimations of grace, they have revealed it in experiences that seem to confound our normal expectations for revelation. Greene, Mauriac, Bernanos, and O’Connor, among others, have depicted grace in the lives of seemingly odious and pitiful individuals, in moments of violence, and in quiet, almost unnoticeable ways. Though these novelists were accused of being obsessed by dark visions of sin, they replied that grace is precisely an irruption of the divine into the fallen creation.

Evelyn Waugh And The Recovery Of The Sacred
Evelyn Waugh is a case in point. Known primarily for his biting satire, Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, set himself the ambitious goal of showing “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” Ironically, the reaction of many readers, including a good number of Catholics, to Brideshead can be summarized by a letter Waugh received from an American reader soon after its publication: “Your Brideshead Revisited is a strange way to show that Catholicism is an answer to anything. Seems more like the kiss of Death.”

A plot summary would certainly seem to support that contention. The agnostic painter Charles Ryder witnesses one member after another of the Catholic, aristocratic Flyte family die or fade away in lives that appear largely futile. Early in the novel, Ryder’s intimate friend Sebastian Flyte explains:

So you see we’re a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; Mommy is popularly believed to be a saint and Papa is excommunicated — and I wouldn’t know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want . . . I wish I liked Catholics more.

By the end of the novel, Sebastian and Cordelia are also living stunted and sad lives. But, as happens so often in the fiction of Evelyn Waugh, a throwaway phrase contains the core of the novel’s meaning: “happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it.”

For Waugh, the notion that the life of faith ought to lead inevitably to worldly prosperity and what the pop psychologists call “wellness” is both unrealistic and dangerous. In a fallen world, afflicted by evil and stupidity, happiness can never be a gauge of fidelity to God. To think otherwise is to confuse happiness, with its bourgeois connotations of comfort and freedom from any burdens, with blessedness, or what Catholics call the “state of grace”.

Catholics, Waugh believed, have always clung to the foot of the cross, profoundly and intuitively aware of what the Spanish philosopher Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life”. When Julia Flyte, one of the “half-heathens”, reaches a moment of crisis in Brideshead Revisited, it is the unexpected memory of the crucifix on the wall of her nursery that shocks her into a recognition of how far she has drifted from God.

As the characters in Brideshead enact their “fierce little human tragedy”, it becomes clear that they are all in some fashion struggling against God and his Church, symbolized by Brideshead Castle, that magnificent baroque backdrop to the novel’s action. Thomas Howard has spoken of the Church as the “unseen” character in the novel.

Wolfe was convinced that Waugh intended the Church to look like the “kiss of death”, not out of perversity but because he understood it to be a “sign of contradiction”. The sufferings that it seemingly inflicts, because of its laws and absolute claims, are the bitter herbs through which the disease of sin is purged. On closer inspection, the lives that the characters lead at the end of the novel, while not “happy”, are in many ways “blessed”. Sebastian is a holy fool, a drunken porter for a monastery in North Africa. When he learns of this, Charles asks Cordelia: “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”

But Wolfe thinks he does. One can have no idea what the suffering might be, to be maimed as he is — no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him… I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much of it coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love.

Brideshead Revisited is only one example of the ways in which the twentieth-century Catholic writers sought to recover the sense of the sacred. But in its depiction of the Church as a sign of contradiction, it fulfills Flannery O’Connor’s requirements of revealing both a drama of salvation and a way of addressing “the particular tragedy of our own times”.

If you’ve never read Brideshead or seen a film adaptation spend some time here.


The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance

May 19, 2011

“When the future historian describes the Catholic Renaissance of the twentieth century, it is my guess that he will pay particular attention to the emergence, during the great wars and that the darkest moment before the dawn, of the great 'doctors' who were the prophets of the new age. He will point to men like Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain and Edward Watkin and, certainly, to Christopher Dawson (picture here). Perhaps he will see that with these erudite and devoted men the Church moved out of that state of siege in which it had been living for four centuries.”

Christopher Dawson in The Reality of Christian Culture has written that “the tradition [of Christian culture] exists today, for though the Church no longer inspires and dominates the external culture of the modern world, it still remains the guardian of all the riches of its own inner life.” If our society were once again fully Christian, imagines Dawson, this sacred tradition would once more flow out into the world and fertilize the culture of societies yet unborn.

Dawson shows us that the movement toward Christian culture is at one and the same time “a voyage into the unknown, in the course of which new worlds of human experience will be discovered, and a return to our own fatherland — to the sacred tradition of the Christian past which flows underneath the streets and cinemas and skyscrapers of the new Babylon of America as the tradition of patriarchs and prophets flowed beneath the palaces and amphitheaters of Imperial Rome in its day.”

Whenever I have had the chance to visit second-hand book shops in recent years — whether they be converted barns in Pennsylvania, decaying mansions in the Corktown section of Detroit, or dank corridors in Oxford or London — I have found myself shouting out my discoveries to my friends. More often than not, my finds have been books by Catholic thinkers that have been out of print for twenty or thirty years. On their frayed dust jackets and faded paper covers, the praise of critics whose names are all but forgotten today testifies to the excitement these books once generated. The prices have been hard to beat: Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World for a dollar, Christopher Dawson’s The Historic Reality of Christian Culture for 30 pence, Chesterton’s Manalive for a quarter. Many of these books come from libraries — predominantly Catholic libraries. In fact, I have personally profited from the closing of dozens of seminaries and convents in the Anglo-American world. With a feeling that is at once elated and guilty, I run off with spoils that once lined the shelves of imposing Gothic buildings.
Gregory Wolfe, Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World

These are the same books that I check out of the library and record reading selections from for PayingAttentiontotheSky — they are the writers whose works were those who made up what was once called the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance, “an outpouring of philosophy, theology, history, and literature which combined fidelity to the ancient teachings of the Church with considerable sophistication of mind and spirit.” Here were the works of the minds who dominated Catholic letters for the first half of the twentieth century, gathering dust, rejected by the current establishment, only to be discovered and then hoarded as treasures by a small segment of the young (and not so young), members of a cranky cultural underclass that you, dear reader, are part of by virtue of your reading allegiance to this blog a few times a week.

The outstanding Catholic historian James Hitchcock has termed the eclipse of these writers in the 1960s and 1970s “the slaying of the fathers”. But in cocktail parties at most Catholic universities today, the mention of names such as Maritain, Gilson, Mauriac, or Waugh would very likely evoke not so much hostility as an amused condescension for individuals who are considered thoroughly passé. Relegated to that zone of weeping and gnashing of teeth known as the “pre-Vatican II” world, the Maritains and Mauriacs are thought of as apologists for an order that has been largely left behind in our progress toward a more enlightened dispensation. “To be sure,” the cocktail chat might go, “they were men of cultivation and learning, even of wit, but, you know, they were positively medieval.”  

Of course, many of the writers of the Catholic Renaissance would have been flattered to be associated with the Middle Ages, a time which to them connoted not barbaric darkness but a remarkably integrated culture, a world of light and grace, where flesh and spirit jointly mounted toward heaven. But leaving the virtues of the High Middle Ages aside for the moment, I would like to suggest that, in the long run, the thinkers who made up the Catholic Renaissance will prove to be the most authentically modern and original of all. Scratch a progressive and more often than not you will find, just beneath the language of “liberation” and “dialogue”, notions that made their first appearance during the debates of the patristic era. But show me a thinker who has faithfully grappled with the achievements of Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas, and you will likely find someone who has the ability to grasp the real challenges of the modern world.
Gregory Wolfe, Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World

The paradox about the spiritual and intellectual life of the Church is its ebb and flow that Catholics periodically refer to as “reform.” Chesterton knew about it. For Chesterton, our modern master of paradox, the word reform is both meaningless and dangerous unless we recover its literal definition.

The liberal conceptions of reform as either a gradual evolution away from an older doctrine or practice or as a revolution against tradition are woefully misguided. True reform, he says, involves a return to form. Only in subjecting oneself to the rigors of the original form — a term that itself reminds us of something ordered, coherent, and specific — can the detritus of time and human folly be washed away and vitality return.

But just as one might step in at this point and argue that Chesterton’s definition is really nothing more than a slavish imitation of the past, notice how the paradox executes its boomerang turn. By returning to the original form from the standpoint of the crisis of the present, the resulting reform might well take on a radically different path when compared with the immediate past. In other words, the return to form may yield results that are startling but that remain true both to the distant past and to the conditions of the present. (Chesterton loved his self-proclaimed role as a “conservative radical”.) As the brilliant theologian Cardinal Henri de Lubac puts it in his Paradoxes of Faith: “To get away from old things passing themselves off as tradition it is necessary to go back to the farthest past — which will reveal itself to be the nearest present.”
Gregory Wolfe, Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World

Beyond the paradoxes of intellectual history and institutional reform, of course, lies the fundamental paradox of the divine nature itself, which Saint Augustine in Confessions X.27described as the beauty that is “ever ancient, ever new”. It is also the paradox of the Gospels, which remain united with the Old Testament even while ushering in the New:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”  
Revelation 21:1-8

The thinkers we might group under the heading of the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance embodied that paradox in their writing. It is what makes them at the same time profoundly traditional and strikingly modern. Few of these figures could be called tame or timid; ever the servants of the Church, they nonetheless were bold, occasionally shocking, figures, who were suspected by some of their less imaginative contemporaries of being imprudent or even heretical.

At times, the accusations of the super-orthodox led to excruciatingly bizarre situations, as when Evelyn Waugh, that staunchest of papal Catholics, was accused by a prominent priest-editor of writing a novel that would corrupt the morals of the faithful. Waugh’s long letter of justification to the archbishop of Westminster, with its patient explanation of his harshly ironic satire against modern secularism, makes for grimly comic reading. But these attacks from the extreme Right balance those of the Left and offer further proof of the wisdom and vision of these great minds.

More on this Catholic Intellectual Renaissance in a later post.


A Reading Selection from The Geometry of Love by Margaret Visser

May 18, 2011

Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (Saint Agnes Outside the Walls)

Margaret Visser chose a little church in Rome, Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, to write about. A church, after all, is the most intentionally meaningful structure in all of architecture and she helps us learn how to “read” its universal language of space. A great idea, a wonderful book.


The word “remember” comes from the same Indo-European root as “mind.” And the English word “mind” is both a noun (“what is in the brain”) and a verb (“pay attention to,” “care”). When one has forgotten, to remember is to call back into the “attention span,” to recall. Attention is thought of here as having a span — an extension in space. Forgetting, on the other hand, is like dropping something off a plate, falling off an edge, not “getting” it, but having to do, instead, without it. Remembering is recapturing something that happened in the past; it is an encounter of now with then — a matter of time. Buildings — constructions in space — may last through time as this church has lasted. Such structures can cause us to remember. Their endurance, as well as their taking up space, may counter time and keep memory alive.

This particular church reminds us of Agnes, who was killed by having her throat cut almost — 1,700 years ago. But like any church, it recalls a great deal more. One of a church’s main purposes is to call to mind, to make people remember. To begin with, a church sets out to cause self-recollection. Every church does its best (some of them are good at this, others less so, but every church is trying) to help each person recall the mystical experience that he or she has known.

Everyone has had some such experience. There are moments in life when — to use the language of a building — the door swings open. The door shuts again, sooner rather than later. But we have seen, even if only through a crack, the light behind it. There has been a moment, for example, when every person realizes that one is oneself, and no one else. This is probably a very early memory, this taking a grip on one’s own absolutely unique identity, this irrevocable beginning.

I remember myself, walking along a narrow path in the Zambian bush. The grass was brown and stiff, more than waist-high. I was wearing a green-and-white-checked dress with buttons down the front. I was alone. I said aloud, stunned, “Tomorrow I’m going to be five! Tomorrow I’m going to be five!” I stopped still with amazement: fiveness was about to be mine! I had already had four. The whole world seemed to point to me in that instant. The world and I looked at each other. It was huge and I was me. I was filled with indescribable delight. I took another step, and the vision was gone. But it’s still there, even now, even when I am not recalling it.

This was a mystical experience. As such, one of its characteristics was that in it my mind embraced a vast contradiction: both terms of it at once. I was me and the world contained me, but I was not the world. I was a person, but I wasn’t “a person” — I was me. A mystical experience is before all else an experience, and beyond logic. It is concrete, and therefore unique. It is bigger than the person who experiences it; it is something one “enters.”

People have always, apparently in all cultures, conceptualized the world as participating in, or expressing, or actually being a tension between a series of opposites: big and small, high and low, same and different, hot and cold, one and many, male and female, and so on. Societies of people can have very idiosyncratic ideas about what is opposite to what: a culture can find squirrels “opposite” to water rats, oblongs “opposite” to squares, bronze vessels “the opposite” of clay ones. Anthropologists dedicate themselves to finding out what such classifications could mean; the answers they give us usually show how social arrangements are reflected outward upon the world, and determine human perceptions of how nature is ordered. One result of a mystical experience, therefore, can be a profound demystification.

For no sooner has a culture organized its system of contradictions than the mystics arise. They steadfastly, and often in the face of great danger, assure their fellow human beings that they are wrong: what appears to be a contradiction in terms is merely a convention, a point of view, a facon de parler, no matter how self-evident it may appear. These are people who believe and convince others that they have been lifted out of this world and have seen a greater truth: the opposites are, in fact, one. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus can say, “The way up and the way down are the same.” Or: “Step into the same river twice, and its waters will be different.”

Such mystic realizations (up and down are one, sameness and difference coincide) have to keep occurring, both for the sake of truth and for the necessity of realizing that neither our senses nor our thinking faculties have access to, or are capable of encompassing, everything. (“The last proceeding of reason,” wrote Pascal, “is to recognize that there is an infinity of things beyond it.”) For all the outrage and bafflement with which the pronouncements of the mystics are greeted, we remember their words; in time we learn to appreciate and value them. In our own day, physicists have been talking like mystics for some time: expressing physical reality, for example, as conflating space and time or declaring that waves and particles (lines and dots) can be perceived to be “the same.” The rest of us are only beginning to take in what they are saying.

From the point of view of the person experiencing them, privileged moments — those that allow us to see something not normally offered to our understanding — do not last. Regretfully, necessarily, we cannot remain in such an experience. We move on, into the practical, the sensible, the logical and provable, the mundane. But after one such glimpse of possibility, we henceforth know better. We know what it is to experience two or more incompatible, mutually exclusive categories as constituting in fact one whole. We have seen both sides of the coin, at one and the same time. An impossibility — but it has happened. We may bury this experience, deny it, explain it away — but at any moment something could trigger it, raise it up, recall it. Because it has happened, and cannot unhappen.

One of the consequences of having had a mystical experience is a sense of loss. If only it could have gone on and on, and never had to stop; if only the door would open again! One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in life is that we cannot bring about such an experience, any more than we can make it last. Sex can remind us of it because, like a mystical experience, sex is ecstatic, overwhelming, and delightful; it feels bigger than we are. Drugs can also make us feel as if we’re “there” again. So people pursue sex and drugs — experiences they can get, they can have. This other thing, this greater and unforgettable thing, this insight, is not anyone’s for the asking. It comes (it always comes, to everyone, at different times and in different ways), and there is no telling what it will be or when or where, let alone how. You can’t buy it or demand it or keep it. It is not a chemical reaction, and there is nothing automatic about it.

A mystical experience is something perceived, and it calls forth a response. But you are free to turn away from the vision, to behave as though it never happened; you are free not to respond. (This is something I have had to learn: when I was almost five there was no question of not responding.) The invitation cannot be made to anyone else but you — and not even to you at any moment in your life other than the one in which it is made. I shall never be five again, so no other mystical experience I have will ever again be that one. I shall never again wear that green-and-white-checked dress; it is very likely that the path through the brown grass has disappeared. What I have left is the enormous memory, and the fact that it has enlarged all of my experience ever since.

Now a church (or a temple or a synagogue or a mosque — any religious building) knows perfectly well that it cannot induce in anyone a mystical experience. What it does is acknowledge such experience as any of its visitors has had, as explicitly as it can. A church is a recognition, in stone and wood and brick, of spiritual awakenings. It nods, to each individual person. If the building has been created within a cultural and religious tradition, it constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thousands of mystical moments. A church reminds us of what we have known. And it tells us that the possibility of the door swinging open again remains.

The staircase takes you down into the catacombs and the main church.

The church, built at the level of the catacombs, is accessed via a dramatic wide marble staircase decorated with sculptures and inscriptions from the catacombs. It’s an exquisite church, built on a basilical plan, with three aisles; marble pillars in the nave support the seating for the nuns in a lovely frescoed gallery, below a richly-decorated, wooden ceiling. The apse is marble with a Byzantine-like mosaic in the upper part depicting Sant’Agnese receiving the crown of martyrdom from the hand of God.

Memory, in a church, is not only individual, but also collective: the building is a meeting house for a group of people who agree with each other in certain important respects. They come together to express solidarity, and they do this by participating in an intensely meaningful performance known as a rituals

The closest relative of a church is a theatre, where people also come together to witness a scripted performance. There is a stage in a church, and seats for the audience; in both theatre and church, people come in order to live together through a trajectory of the soul. They come to be led by the performance to achieve contact with transcendence, to experience delight or recognition, to understand something they never understood before, to feel relief, to stare in amazement, or to cry. They want something that shakes them up — or gives them peace. Successful drama, like a well-performed ritual, can provoke an experience of transcendence: through feeling, for example, two contradictory emotions at once. Aristotle spoke of catharsis — “purification” — as the aim of tragedy. Catharsis, he said, is achieved by undergoing two opposing movements of the soul — pity (feeling for, and therefore drawing close) and fear (longing to move out of the danger’s range) — at the same time.

In a theatre the audience is the receiver of a play, and essential to a play. At an ancient Greek drama the audience was indeed part of the spectacle. The form of the theatre, a huge horseshoe shape, ensured that this was so. The Greek theatres that survive today allow us to imagine what it must have been like, sitting in a vast crowd of fellow citizens with everyone spread out in full view, in broad daylight, fanning out to embrace the round dancing-floor below them. Actors say that an audience can draw out of them their best performances, just through the quality of its attention, its intentness.

A theatre is like a church – not the other way around. “Church” or “temple” is the main category, and “theatre” a division of it. Historically, drama grew out of religious performance (and never entirely left it) in a process wherein the play gradually separated itself from the crowd watching. The distance between watcher and watched is essential to theatrical experience. (“Theatre” comes from Greek theatron, a place for viewing.) People come together in a church, however, not to view but to take part. The word “church” comes from Greek kyriakon, “house of the Lord”; it is a place of encounter between people and God.

It is perfectly possible to be moved at a spiritual level at the theatre; one can open oneself and be brought to mystical insight, as Aristotle showed us, through attentive watching. (Such experiences, however, can occur anywhere, at any time — indeed, they seem to prefer arriving when we are least expecting them, at times and places we would be least inclined to call “appropriate.”) But a performance in a church is permitted to involve people to an extent that the theatre traditionally avoids.

People come to participate in it, to join in, and then allow the realization to enter them and work upon them. The whole point of the proceedings is to help them change the orientation of their souls, even though they are also confirming the foundation of their beliefs. They have come to meet, to make the ceremony, and to respond, at a level that may include but goes well beyond the aesthetic. But a church can go on “working” even when there is no performance and no crowd. A person can come into a silent church in order to respond to the building and its meaning. This can produce an experience as profoundly moving as that of attending a performance. The same thing cannot be said of visiting an empty theatre.

A church like Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (Saint Agnes Outside the Walls) vibrates with intentionality. It is meaningful — absolutely nothing in it is without significance. Even if something is inadvertently included that has no meaning to start with, a meaning for it will be found, inevitably. A church stands in total opposition to the narrowing and flattening of human experience, the deviation into the trivial that follow from antipathy towards meaning, and especially meaning held in common. Meaning is intentional: this building has been made in order to communicate with the people in it. A church is no place to practice aesthetic distance, to erase content and simply appreciate form. The building is trying to speak; not listening to what it has to say is a form of barbarous inattention, like admiring a musical instrument while caring nothing for music.

The building “refers” to things beyond itself, and it deliberately intends to be a setting where spiritual knowledge receives explicit recognition and focal attention. Sometimes the meanings are highly specific and complex; for the sake of clarity they may even be explained in inscriptions. Other meanings are more general: the nave is “like a ship” (which is what “nave” means), or windows let in light (a symbol of God). But these meanings also engage in intricate play among themselves, arouse further associations, and end up offering some of the most complex meanings of all. And always — silently, intently — the building points at once both to the individual’s own inner being and to the things commonly done in the company of other people in the church: the place where “the Word” is read, for example, and the site of baptism, or Christian initiation. The altar table is usually given centre stage, for at the heart of Christianity is a shared meal, together with everything meant by sharing a meal.

Contemplating all these meanings, even when you are alone in a church and there is no performance going on, is intended to help focus your mind and soul. You go into a church to exclude the extraneous, to get away from noise and distractions, to go back into yourself and take a good look at what is there. You go because you want to restore and enrich your relationship with God, by participating in a religious ceremony, by praying, or by just sitting alone in silence. All of the church’s “language” exists to help you do this, to get your mind humming and to make you receptive.

It is also supposed to help you keep in good spiritual shape. For one of the central tenets of Christianity is that belief and love and trust and insight, like mystical experience, are given to you. You can’t cause a gift such as belief or trust or love — whether felt or received — to be given, although a longing for what is called “grace” will surely be satisfied. Only, when the gift comes, you have to be ready. (Longing for it is part of being ready; Christians say even that to long is already to have received.) It is entirely possible to be so distracted that you don’t notice the gift at your doorstep, or to be in such poor shape spiritually that you do not recognize or cannot accept what is being offered. God comes “like a thief in the night.” (Notice that in this biblical simile, when God “breaks in” the person is thought of as like a house, a building.) All that a human being can do is be vigilant, notice what is happening, and then respond. A church is there to remind you, to teach you to pay attention, and to awaken the poetry in your soul. It gives you exercise in responding. 


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