Archive for November, 2011


On Suffering, Faith, Sanctity III – Léon Bloy

November 30, 2011

Léon Bloy

A series of quotes from the Maritain’s tribute to Léon Bloy, Pilgrim of the Absolute. See this post for an intro to Bloy.


[THE SIN OF OMISSION.] I have often thought that the most dangerous injury to the soul is the sin of omission. The sin of action, however vast it may be, can be forgiven because Jesus has paid. But He has not paid for the sin of omission, which concerns the Holy Spirit. Here is a tormenting thought, especially at the end of your life, when you accurately remember certain circumstances in which you could so easily have accomplished certain acts God asked for, and which you neglected or formally refused to carry out.

That is my case. In this way, I am exactly on a level with the rich who could, without giving themselves the least trouble, have helped me to fulfill my mission, and who did not want to. All I can do is to weep bitterly, as did Saint Peter, who could have avoided denying his Master, and who obtained forgiveness only when the Holy Ghost fell upon him like a thunderbolt.

I AM GOING TO COMMUNION. The priest has uttered the fearful words which a fleshly piety calls consoling: DOMINE NON SUM DIGNUS . . . Jesus is about to come, and I have only a moment in which to prepare myself to receive Him … In a moment He will be under my roof.

I do not recall having swept clean this dwelling wherein He will enter as a king or as a thief, for I do not know what to think of this visit. Indeed, have I ever swept it clean, my dwelling place of unchasteness and carnage?

I give it a glance, a poor glance of terror, and I see it full of dust and full of filth. Everywhere there seems to be an odor of dirt and decay.

I dare not look into the dark corners. In the last shadowy places, I behold awful spots, old or new, which remind me that I have slaughtered innocents, and in what numbers, with what cruelty!

My walls are alive with vermin and trickling with cold droplets that recall to me the tears of so many unfortunates who implored me in vain, yesterday, the day before yesterday, ten, twenty, forty years ago …

And look! There, before that ghastly door, who is that squatting monster whom I had not noticed until now, and who resembles the creature I have sometimes glimpsed in my mirror? He seems to be asleep on that trap door of bronze, sealed by me and padlocked with such care, in order that I might not hear the clamors of the dead and their pitiful Miserere.

Ah! truly it takes God not to fear entering such a house! And here He is! How shall I greet Him, and what shall I say or do?

Absolutely nothing.

Even before He may have crossed my threshold, I shall have ceased thinking about Him, I shall no longer be there, I shall have disappeared, I know not how, I shall be infinitely far away, among the images of creatures.

He will be alone and will Himself clean the house, helped by His Mother whose slave I claim to be, and who is, in fact, my humble serving-maid.

When They will have gone, both of Them, to visit other dens, I shall return and I shall bring with me a new mass of filth.


My well-beloved sovereign, I do not know what it is to honor You in this or that of Your Mysteries, as has been taught by certain of Your friends. I want to know nothing except that You are the sorrowful Mother, that all Your earthly life was nothing but sorrow, infinite sorrow, and that I am one of the children of Your sorrow. I have placed myself at Your service like a slave, I have entrusted to You my temporal and spiritual life in order to obtain through You my sanctification and that of other men. Only in this way, under this title alone, can I speak with You. I lack faith, hope and love. I do not know how to pray and I am unacquainted with penance. I can do nothing and I am nothing but a son of sorrow. You know that long ago, more than thirty years past, in obedience to an impulse that surely came from You, I called down upon myself all possible suffering. Because of this I reason with myself that my suffering, which has been great and continual, can be offered to You. Draw from this treasure to pay my debts and those of all the beings I love. And then, God willing, vouchsafe me to be Your witness io death’s torments. I ask this of You by Your most tender name of Mary.

WE ARE CREATED THAT WE MAY BE SAINTS. If anything is written, this surely is. Sanctity is so required of us, it is so inherent in human nature, that God presumes its existence, so to speak, in each of us, by means of the sacraments of His Church, that is, by means of mystical signs invisibly making operative in souls the beginning of Glory. Sacramentum nihil aliud nisi rem sacram, abditam atque occultam significat. (A Sacrament is nothing other than a sacred, withdrawn and mysterious thing.) This sacred and mysterious thing thus alluded to by the Council of Trent has the effect of uniting souls to God. The most transcendent theology contains nothing stronger than this affirmation.

There are even three sacraments that imprint a character, and whose mark cannot be effaced. Thus we are virtually saints, pillars of eternal Glory. A Christian may disown his baptism, debar the Holy Spirit from his thought, and, if he is a spoiled priest, reject the succession of the Apostles conferred upon him by holy orders; in short, he may damn himself forever; nothing will be able to disunite him, to separate him from God, and what an unfathomable mystery of terror is this persistence of the sacred Sign even into the infinite pangs of perdition. Hence it must be said that hell is peopled with fearsome saints become the companions of the hideous angels!

However evil such saints or angels may be, they have God in them. Otherwise they would not be able to subsist, even in the state of nothingness, since nothingness, also inconceivable without God, is the eternal reservoir of Creation.

All that God has made is sacred after a fashion which only He could explain. Water is holy, stones are holy, plants and animals are holy, fire is the devouring likeness of His Holy Spirit. His entire work is holy. Man alone, who is more holy than other creatures, will have none of sanctity.

He considers it ridiculous and even insulting to his dignity. Such is, in the twentieth century of the Redemption, the visible and perceptible result of the unfaithfulness of so many shepherds, of the monstrous blindness brought about by those who should have been the light of the world, and who extinguished all light.

It is certain indeed that never, at no age of the world’s history, were men as far from God, as contemptuous of the Sanctity which He demands, and yet never has the necessity for being saints been so manifest. In these apocalyptic days it truly seems as though only a film of nothingness separates us from the eternal gulfs.***

“Not all men are called to saintliness,” says a Satanic cant phrase. To what then are you called, O wretch? and above all in our day and age? The Master said you must be perfect. He said it in an imperative, absolute way, giving to be understood that there is no alternative, and those whose duty it is to teach His word, by themselves presenting an example of perfection, ceaselessly assert that it is not necessary, that a reasonably trifling average of love is more than enough for salvation, and that the desire for the supernatural way of life is rash, when it is not culpable presumption.

Aliquam partem, “a certain portion,” they argue, debasing an expression in the Liturgy, a tiny little corner in Paradise, that is what we need. To this base retreat, to this formal denial of the divine Promise, they give a color of humility, cunningly omitting the heroic sequel to the two liturgical words, in which is specified that the “portion” in case is nothing less than “the company of the Apostles and the Martyrs.”

But cowardly minds and mediocre hearts can avail nothing against the Word of God, and the Estote perfecti (Be ye perfect) of the Sermon on the Mount continues to weigh upon us infinitely more than all the globes in the firmament.

Sanctity has always been required of us. In older days, it was possible to believe that sanctity was demanded from afar, like a debt due on a vague date, which might possibly lapse. Today sanctity is laid on our doorstep by a wild-eyed, blood-smeared messenger. Behind him, a few steps behind him, are panic, fire, pillage, torture, despair, the most frightful death ..

And we have not even a moment in which to choose!

[THERE IS BUT ONE SADNESS . ..] Today Clotilde is forty-eight, and looks as though she were at least a hundred. But she is more beautiful than before, and resembles a pillar of prayer, the last pillar of a temple wrecked by cataclysms.

Her hair has become entirely white. Her eyes, burned by the tears that have furrowed her face, are almost extinguished. Yet she has lost none of her strength.

Hardly ever is she to be seen sitting still. Ever journeying from one church to another, or from cemetery to cemetery, she stops moving only to get on her knees, and you might say that she knew no other posture.

Her head covered only with the hood of a great black coat which reaches to the ground, her invisible feet naked in sandals, upheld for ten years by an energy far more than human, there is no cold or foul weather capable of frightening her. Her dwelling place is that of the rain which falls.

She asks for no alms. She limits herself to taking with a very tender smile whatever is offered to her, and giving it in secret to the destitute.

Whenever she encounters a child, she kneels down before it, as did the great Berulle, and, with its pure little hand, traces upon her forehead the sign of the cross.

Comfortable and well-clad Christians, who are inconvenienced by the Supernatural and who “have said to Wisdom: Thou art my sister,” judge her to have a disordered mind, but ordinary people are respectful to her, and a few churchdoor beggarwomen believe her to be a saint.

Silent as the celestial spaces, she seems, when she speaks, to return from a beatific world situate in an unknown universe. This can be felt in her distant voice, which age has deepened without impairing its tender charm, and this can be felt even better in her words.

Everything that happens is divine,” is her usual comment, with the ecstatic air of a creature a thousand times overwhelmed, who would find no other utterance for every movement of her heart and mind, were the occasion a universal plague, or were the moment that of her being devoured by wild beasts.

Although they know she is a vagrant, the police, themselves astounded by her power, have never sought to molest her.

After Leopold’s death — his body was never found amid the nameless and appalling ruins — Clotilde had sought to conform herself to that one of the Precepts in the Gospels the rigorous observation of which is considered more unbearable than even the torture of fire. She had sold all that she possessed, had given the proceeds to the poorest of the poor and overnight had become a beggar.

What the first years of this new life must have been like, God only knows! Wonders have been told about her which resemble those wrought by the Saints, but what seems altogether likely is that the grace was granted her of never needing rest.

“You must be very unhappy, my poor woman,” some priest once told her, after he had seen her bathed in tears before the Blessed Sacrament exposed — a man who happened to be a real priest.

“I am perfectly happy,” she answered. “You do not enter Paradise tomorrow, or the day after, or in ten years, you enter it today, when you are poor and crucified.”

Hodie mecum eris in paradiso (Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise),” murmured the priest, who moved off overwhelmed with love.

By virtue of suffering, this pulsating and vigorous Christian found out that there is, above all for women, only one way of being in contact with God and that that way, that wholly unique way, is Poverty. Not that easy, beguiling poverty of complicity, which gives alms to the world’s hypocrisy, but that difficult, revolting, scandalous poverty, which must be succored without the least hope of glory and which has nothing to give in return.

She even understood — and this is not very far from the sublime — that Woman really exists only on condition of being without bread, without abode, without friends, without husband and without children, and that only thus can she force her Saviour to descend.

After the death of her husband, this beggarwoman of good will became even more the wife of that extraordinary man who gave his life for Justice. Perfectly tender and perfectly implacable.

Linked to every form of wretchedness, she was able fully to see the murderous horror of what calls itself public charity, and her constant prayer is a torch shaken against the mighty…

Lazare Druide was the sole relic of her past who still occasionally saw her. Here was the only tie she had not broken. The painter of Andronic was too upright to have been able to win the favors of fortune, whose age-old custom is to spin her wheel in filth. This made it possible for Clotilde to visit him without exposing to the mud of a worldly luxury her ragged vesture of a wanderer and “pilgrim of the Holy Sepulchre.”

At rare intervals, she came to inject into the soul of that profound artist a little of her peace, of her mysterious grandeur, then she went back to her vast solitude, in the midst of the streets swarming with people.

There is but one sadness,” she told him, the last time she saw him, “and that is for us NOT TO BE SAINTS ..:’

[IN PARADISE.] The basis of Paradise or of the idea of Paradise is union with God starting in the present life, which is to say the infinite Distress of man’s heart, and union with God in the future Life, which is to say Beatitude. ***

Union with God is certainly achieved by the Saints, starting in the present life, and is perfectly consummated at once after their birth into the other Life, but that is not enough for them and it is not enough for God. The most intimate union is not enough, there must be identification, which itself will never be enough, and thus Beatitude cannot be conceived or imagined except as an ascension ever more lively, more impetuous, more thundrous, not toward God, but in God, in the very Essence of the Unbounded. A whirlwind of the knowledge of God without end or surcease, which the Church, speaking to men, is forced to name Eternal Rest!

The raging multitude of the Saints is like unto a vast army of cyclones, hurling itself upon God with a blast able to uproot the nebulae, and this for all eternity …***

It will be a firmament of differentiated, inconceivable splendors. The Saints will rise to God like lightning, supposing that lightning doubled itself in strength, second by second, forever and ever, their charity ever growing along with their brilliance — ineffable Stars who will be followed at an enormous distance by all those who will have known only the Face of Jesus Christ and who will have been unaware of His Heart. As for the others, the poor Christians called practicing, the observers of the easy Letter, yet not perverse, and capable of a certain generosity, they will follow in their turn, not being lost, at a distance of billions of lightning flashes, having previously paid for their places at an unutterable price, but joyful all the same — infinitely more so than could express the rarest lexicon of happiness  – and joyous precisely at the incomparable glory of their elders, joyful in depth and in width, joyful as the Lord when He finished creating the world!

And all, as I have said, will climb together like a tempest without lull, the beatific tempest of the endless end of ends, an assumption of cataracts of love, and such will be the Garden of Delights, the indefinable Paradise named in the Scriptures.


On Suffering, Faith, Sanctity II – Léon Bloy

November 29, 2011

Portrait of the Young Léon Bloy

A series of quotes from the Maritain’s tribute to Léon Bloy, Pilgrim of the Absolute. See the previous post for an intro to Bloy.


[OBEDIENCE.] There is but one action, and that is Obedience, which is the characteristic mark of superior men, of true men; that sublime and holy and salutary and virginal and miraculous and primitive Obedience which is quite simply the theological term for the lost earthly Paradise … So go out and find a poor priest, the one I mentioned to you or any other, but a Priest, O my child, that is to say a man, good or bad, but invested with the sacerdotal character, and thence having the very power of God to give peace to your soul, which is an empire the greatest of which you do not know. “Father, have mercy upon me, wash me, purify me, loosen me!” And then, the heavenly sweetness, the eyes streaming with tears, the racing heart, the burning heart, the joy of which one seemingly would die.. . Ah! If you but knew, if you but could get a glimpse of this just once! There is Activity! Do you know that the mass, the Sacrifice of the mass, is the sole act of obedience, the essential Act.

[WE ARE ON THE RACK ONLY IN ORDER TO AVOW GLORY.] Christ said in the Gospel: “I am the Truth,” and the truth, my dear Henri, is that we all must suffer, since He who calls Himself the Truth, He who thus states His Family Name, is precisely the Chief of the suffering and of the tortured. We must suffer even as He suffers, for others and in others, men or beasts, telling ourselves that God’s words are not in vain, and that it is wholly certain that the humblest among the oppressed will in the end be avenged and in the end consoled, when will come the hour of the infallible retributions. We are on the rack only in order to avow Glory.

Do you know that to be a real Christian, that is to say a Saint, one must have a tender heart within a shell of bronze? Saint Luke tells that in the midst of the most unutterable suffering, Christ had pity on the brutes who were crucifying Him and that He entreated His Father to forgive them. “They know not what they do,” He cried unto Him. Now remember that a filthy butcher or pig-sticker who, not satisfied with slaughtering his poor animals, unworthily and ridiculously mutilates them after their death, carries on — after a fashion — in the most unfathomable darknesses, the immolation of the Saviour, and that they are enfolded in His Prayer. All the more do they need it as they are more abject, more unfeeling, more snug in an appalling ignorance of what they do.

Christ is at the center of all things, He takes all things upon Himself, He bears all things, He suffers all things. It is impossible to strike a human being without striking Him, to humiliate someone without humiliating Him, curse or kill anyone without cursing Him or killing Him, Himself. The lowest of contemptible fellows is forced to borrow the Face of Christ in order to receive a blow, from no matter what hand. Otherwise the buffet could never reach him and would remain hanging in interstellar space, through the ages of ages, until it should have met with the Face which forgives…

The altogether noble sorrow and indignation which make your stomach turn at the sight of the disgusting degradations whereof you tell me would serve you as a counterpoise were you habitually mindful of deep realities to think about the vast scope of that Forgiveness.

People who kill or cause suffering, people who degrade or who dishonor in any way whatsoever the divine work and who, consequently, cannot know what they do, are themselves in such horrible wretchedness that it was needful for the dying Jesus to insert them into the testament of His Passion, in order that they might obtain mercy.

So raise up your soul by contemplating the things that are not obvious. Be a man of prayer, and you will be a man of peace, a man living in peace. Tell yourself, I beg of you, that everything is but appearance, that everything is but a symbol, even the most heart-rending sorrow.

We are sleepers who cry in their sleep. We cannot ever know whether this or that which grieves us is not the secret principle of our later joy. At present we see, said Saint Paul, per speculum in aenigmate, literally: “into a puzzle by means of a mirror,” and we cannot see otherwise before the coming of Him who is all aflame and who is to teach us all things. Until then all we have is obedience, the loving obedience which restores for us, on earth, the paradise lost through disobedience.***

I knew well what fatherhood would accomplish in you. Before becoming a father myself, I ill understood the Our Father. Our Father Who art in heaven … When my little daughter speaks to me, it seems to me that my kingdom comes … You will feel that.

All that happens is divine: this I maintain with all the authority of my utter poverty, which is perfect as God is perfect, and which is therefore itself divine. Complain all we will, you and I, we cannot escape from this law, and we shall never succeed in giving life to a plausible grievance against Providence. If we lack money, it is because money would be baneful to us, and we shall certainly be rolling in it whenever that metal will have ceased to be, for us, an occasion of peril.

To believe this, fully to see this, such is the sole means offered us not to fall below the level of brutes. If your foot hurts you, my poor Henry, it is because moving about would be harmful to you at the moment, and if I myself am stuck, with my wife and child, for some time more in this devilish blind alley, [In the Petit-Montrouge suburb of Paris] it is doubtless because pure air and the perfume of flowers would be less advantageous for us than the odor of cesspools and the nasty smell of carrion which we breathe here.***

Do we not know, at the very moment when we suffer some painful blow, that it is Jesus, covered with wounds, who is tumbling upon the muddy carpet of our souls, begging us, at the least, not to bristle too much against Him, and that thus we are filled to overflowing with the most unimaginable happiness?

You know how Job speaks of the world: Terram tenebrosam (this darksome earth), etc. What about it? Remember that this is the dwelling place of fallen man, the tabernacle of the disobedient, this is what we refer to as our spinning ball of earth, and we have been amply warned, by these sure Words, that it would be either idiotic or ill-willed to suppose that what the Church calls a “vale of tears” is, on the contrary, a luminous and comfortable place. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who weep and those who hunger for justice, blessed also are the merciful, the pure of heart and the peacemakers. Blessed, finally, are those who suffer persecution. Ah! Yes indeed. Don’t you see that all these Elect, among whom we belong, more or less, even though we be most unworthy, are in an admirable position to decipher Job’s text and that it is always a beginning of Paradise to glimpse, even if barely at all, a lineament of the Word of God.

[THE TEARS WE HAVE SHED.] Dear friend, you have written me a beautiful and painful letter. I would that God might give me words of comfort for you. In my helplessness and sorrow which are indeed great I wish first to try to answer your question: “What have you been doing with yourself?” It would be easier for me to tell you what I have not been doing. Here it is more than thirty years that I have sought the one and only happiness, Sanctity. The result makes me ashamed and fearful. “I have this much left, that I have wept,” said de Musset. I have no other treasure. But I have wept so much that I am rich after this fashion. When you die, that is what you take with you: the tears you have shed and the tears you have caused to be shed, your capital of bliss or of terror. It is on these tears that we shall be judged, for the Spirit of God is always “borne upon the waters.” A sculptor of great talent is at present finishing my bust. “Do not forget the furrow,” I said to him, “this gutter here under each of my two eyes.”

That is what I wish for you, my dear Rouault. I should like you to be bathed in tears at the feet of Jesus. Quare tristis es, anima mea … why art thou sorrowful, my soul, and why troublest thou me? Spera in Deo. As I read this sublime beginning of the mass, how often have I not shed those tears that are worth more than canticles and that place the heart in the meadows of Paradise.

You are among those whom God seeks. Quaerens me, sedisti lassus… As you sought me, you sat down, outworn with weariness. Let yourself be found, go forth to meet that shepherd … Then He will make you weep so sorely that almost you will be no longer able to suffer.

[SORROW IS NOT OUR LAST END.] Your whole article “De Profundis” bears witness to and heralds a religious, ardent and profound soul. When you wrote me in answer to my friendly counsel, you declared yourself without appetite for happiness — which is obviously absurd. It is in the power of no man not to seek Paradise, were it even in despair. But in that case it is the earthly Paradise.

Sorrow is not our last end; it is Blessedness which is our last end. Sorrow leads us by the hand to the threshold of eternal Life. There it takes leave of us, that threshold being forbidden to it. You yourself see it this way, when you write: “The solid understructure of every great moral edifice is despair,” an utterance that would be a contradiction in terms if you had in mind philosophic despair alone, which consists in expecting Nothing from men and All from God, “the great starry despair,” to use your magnificent phrase. “From this do hope and religion take their flight toward heaven.” So here we are wholly in agreement. A new edition of my Le Desespere could bear this epigraph drawn from Carlyle: “Despair carried far enough completes the circle and becomes once more a kind of burning and fruitful hope.”

As for the other despair, the theological, the despair that expects nothing from God, we shall leave it to the bourgeois who seek the joy of their bellies.

“I am too beautiful to be loved!” says Sorrow.

[I HAVE ASKED TO SUFFER.] I find in your dear letter a phrase that worries me. You tell me that you want to sacrifice your time to prayers. I fear you may be under an illusion. What God asks of each of us is the sacrifice of our will, nothing more, and that includes everything.

If circumstances demanded that for a while you give to lesser pursuits the time you could give to prayer, you must look upon this as an order from God and believe that that sacrifice is more agreeable to Him than your prayer, that it is itself an infinitely better prayer.

As for my sufferings, my beloved Jeanne, accept them generously as having been willed by God and, I beg of you, do not pay too much attention to my complaints. If I must be unhappy, very unhappy, for a long time still — which I do not believe is the case — all the better for you. The reason would be that it is needful for the payment of your debt. When we receive a divine grace, we should be confident that someone paid for it on our behalf. Such is the law. God is infinitely good, but He is at the same time infinitely just and, as such, He shows Himself an infinitely rigorous creditor. About fifteen years ago, when you were still a little girl, I spent months asking God, in prayers that were like the tempest, that He should make me suffer all a man can suffer, so that my friends, my brethren, and souls unknown to me who lived in darkness might be helped, and I assure you, my love, that my prayers have been granted in a terrible fashion. Well, I am just about convinced that it is thus that I have won you, and that it is through the infernal sorrows of fifteen years that I have paid for the extraordinary joys which will come to you.

[SUFFERING IN OTHERS.] Do you know, my love, that what is hardest for the soul is to suffer, I do not say for others, but IN others. That was the most terrible of the Saviour’s

agonies. Underneath the appalling visible Passion of Christ, beyond that procession of tortures and ignominies, to form a vague idea of which in itself gives us so much trouble, there was His Compassion, which we shall need eternity to understand — a heart-rending compassion, absolutely beyond words, which quenched the sun and made the stars waver in their courses, which made Him sweat blood before His last agony, which made Him cry out His thirst and beg His Father for mercy during His agony.

[THE COMPASSION OF JESUS.] Reflect that Christ suffered in His heart with all the knowledge of a God, and that in His heart were all human hearts with all their sorrows, from the time of Adam until the consummation of the ages.

Ah, yes! Suffering for others, that can be a great joy when one has a generous soul, but suffering in others, that is what really deserves to be called suffering!

When he in whose church you go to pray every Sunday, when the wonderful Saint Vincent de Paul, having no other means of redeeming a poor galley convict, paid with his own person by taking on his irons in his place, this Christian hero must have felt a great joy, but at the same time a most great sorrow, a sorrow that infinitely surpassed that joy, when he said that his sacrifice could serve for only one miserable wretch and that around him a multitude of captives continued to suffer.

[REFLECT, MY GENTLE REDEEMER.] “My divine Saviour Jesus, who for two thousand years are crucified by me, for me, in me, and who Yourself are waiting to be set free while bleeding upon us, from the height of that terrible Cross which is the image and the infinitely mysterious likeness of Your devouring Spirit — I implore you to look upon my appalling wretchedness and utterly to have pity upon me. Reflect, my gentle Redeemer, that I, I too, have had pity on You, that Your sufferings have very often torn my heart, and that I have wept day and night tears without number while remembering Your agony. Have You not seen me whole years through at Your holy feet, shot through with love and compassion and turning away with horror from the joys of life in order to sob with Your Mother and the throng of Your dear martyrs who did not blush at accepting me for their companion? Nor can you have forgotten that out of respect for Your divine Wounds I have seldom neglected to suffer for the unhappy, and that I have drawn a few of them from the bottom of all abysses to bring them with brotherly love into Your presence.

“Nonetheless, You have demanded much of me, You have overwhelmed me with a very heavy burden, and You have willed that I should endure sorrows so great that You alone, my God, can know them. When I wanted, in these latter days, no longer to hope in You, to part from You forever, You sent me, in Your mercy, this sweet creature who loves You, who has been seeking You for so long a while and whom You have at last pushed into my arms. My divine Master, Yourself put to death, You cannot be the executioner of the poor souls for whom You are in agony. I implore You, by the sacred name of Joseph, by the pierced heart of Your Mother, and by the glorified bones of all Your saints, have pity upon my well-beloved Jeanne and upon me. Fill us to overflowing with Your grace and unite us into Your service forever.”

… WE must pray. Everything else is fruitless and stupid. We must pray to endure the horror of this world, we must pray to be pure, we must pray to obtain the strength to wait.

There is neither despair nor bitter sadness for the man who prays much. It is I who tell you that. If you but knew how much I have the right and with what authority I speak to you!

You know the commonplace troubles of life, but you do not know true Sorrow. You have not received the true blow that pierces the heart. Perhaps you never will receive it, for very few do, though many claim that they have.

There is an infinite number of men who have never grown up and think they suffer immeasurably while actually suffering very little. There is an infinite number who imagine that they have the Faith, yet whose faith would not raise a grain of dust. As for Hope and Love, what words have been more prostituted?

Faith, Hope and Charity, and Sorrow which is their substratum, are diamonds, and diamonds are rare, as you have learned. They are very expensive, never forget.

Diamonds of such sort cost Prayer, which is, itself, a priceless jewel only wrested by conquest.

[WHEN WE PRAY.] Christians know or ought to know that prayer is the surest of all forces, but its effects are unknown. When we pray we place in God’s hand a naked, magnificent and dread sword wherewith He doeth as He listeth, and we know nothing more. Prayer for a little child is surely the most mysterious of all with respect to its effects. We are then ourselves like children at the edge of the sea, or like beggars who look upon the Milky Way. In the heights and in the depths lie treasures or terrors beyond conception.

I feel strong, my dear Benoit, that is to say, able to act upon God (praevalens Deo), only when I feel my utter wretchedness and when this makes me weep. I refer, of course, to the wretchedness of my soul and mind, which in far more real than one might think. Believe me, all I may ever have written that was good, beautiful if you prefer, all that was profitable to a few souls, was given me because I wept over myself at the same time as I wept over many another, over the whole creation mutilated by the fall, and those blessed tears, they too, were a wonderfully free gift, so that I am, in truth, a very poor man, the poorest of the poor, God knows.

[ALONE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD.] To Jean de la Laurencie: Dear friend, my wife, who saw you today, tells me that you ascribe to me the power of comforting you. You have already written me similar things and it always astounds me. Does no one of your own age exist, so that you think you need me! What need have I not myself to lean upon someone! How many times have I tried it! How many times have I thought I had found columns of granite which were nothing but ashes, or even worse! And I am truly fearful that I myself am nothing more.

What little I have, God gave me without my playing any part in it, and what use have I made of it? The worst evil is not committing crimes but failing to do the good one could do. It is the sin of omission, which is nothing other than non-love, and of which no man accuses himself. Anyone who might watch me every day, at the earliest mass, would often see me weeping. These tears, which might be holy, are rather tears of great bitterness. I do not, at such moments, think of my sins, some few of which are enormous. I think of what I could have done and did not do, and I tell you it is black indeed .. .

Do not tell me that it is the same with everybody. God had given me the feeling, the need, the instinct — I do not know how to put it — of the Absolute, just as He has given quills to the porcupine and a trunk to the elephant. An extremely rare gift, of which I was aware even in childhood, a faculty more dangerous and tormenting even than genius, since it implies a constant and ravenous appetite for that which does not exist on earth, and since through it is infinite isolation acquired. I could become a saint, a worker of wonders. I have become a man of letters.

If only people knew that these sentences or pages they choose to admire are merely the residue of a supernatural gift of which I have made a hateful mess and for which I shall be required to make a fearful accounting!

I have not done what God wanted of me, that’s sure. I have dreamt, on the contrary, of what I wanted from God, and here I am, at sixty-eight, with nothing in my hands but paper! Ah! I know well that you will not believe me, that you will assume this to be some quirk of humility. Alas! When one is alone, in the presence of God, at the entrance of a most darksome avenue, one sees into oneself and is in no position to overrate oneself!

True kindliness, unadulterated good will, the simplicity of little children, all that calls for a kiss from the Mouth of Jesus — you know very well that you have none of this and that you really have nothing to give to poor suffering hearts which beg for succor. Here is my position with regard to you, dear friend. Certainly I can pray for you, I can suffer with you and for you, by trying to bear a little of your burden; yes, but the drop of water drawn from a chalice of the earthly Paradise it is impossible for me to give you. I have felt today I had the duty to tell you this so you might not count too much on a weak and sorrowful creature…


On Suffering, Faith, Sanctity I – Léon Bloy

November 28, 2011

The Fiery Léon Bloy

“Bloy is quoted in the epigraph at the beginning of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, and in the essay “The Mirror of Enigmas”, by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who acknowledged his debt to him by naming him in the Foreword to his short story collection “Artifices” as one of seven authors who were in “the heterogeneous list of the writers I am continually re-reading”. In his novel The Harp and the Shadow, Alejo Carpentier excoriates Bloy as a raving, Columbus-defending lunatic during Vatican deliberations over the explorer’s canonization. Bloy is also quoted at the beginning of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and there are several quotations from his Letters to my Fiancée in Charles Williams’s anthology The New Christian Year.

Bloy was born in Notre-Dame-de-Sanilhac, in the arondissement of Périgueux, Dordogne. He was the second of six sons of Voltairean freethinker and stern disciplinarian Jean Baptiste Bloy and his wife Anne-Marie Carreau, pious Spanish-Catholic daughter of a Napoleonic soldier. After an agnostic and unhappy youth[2] in which he cultivated an intense hatred for the Roman Catholic Church and its teaching, his father found him a job in Paris, where he went in 1864. In December 1868, he met the aging Catholic author Barbey d’Aurevilly, who lived opposite him in rue Rousselet and became his mentor. Shortly afterwards, he underwent a dramatic religious conversion.

Bloy’s works reflect a deepening devotion to the Catholic Church and most generally a tremendous craving for the Absolute. His devotion to religion resulted in a complete dependence on charity; he acquired his nickname (“The Ungrateful Beggar”) as a result of the many letters requesting financial aid from friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers, all the while carrying on with his literary work, in which his eight-volume Diary takes an important place.

Bloy was a friend of the author Joris-Karl Huysmans, the painter Georges Rouault, and the philosopher Jacques Maritain, and was instrumental in reconciling these intellectuals with Roman Catholicism. However, he acquired a reputation for bigotry because of his frequent outbursts of temper; and his first novel, Le Désespéré, a fierce attack on rationalism and those he believed to be in league with it, made him fall out with the literary community of his time and even many of his old friends. Soon, Bloy could count such prestigious authors as Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Renan, Alphonse Daudet, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paul Bourget and Anatole France as his enemies.”
From the Wikipedia article on Léon Bloy

The following quotes are taken from Jacques and Raissa Maritain’s tribute to Bloy Pilgrim of the Absolute.


[SUFFERING.] Freedom, that prodigious, incomprehensible, indescribable gift by means of which we are given the power to vanquish the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, to kill the incarnate Word, to stab seven times the Immaculate Conception, to excite at a single word all created spirits in the heavens and in hell, to hold God’s Will, Justice, Mercy and Pity in abeyance on His Lips and to prevent them from flowing down upon His creation; this inexpressible freedom is nothing but this: the respect God has for us.

Let us try to picture it a little to ourselves: God’s respect! And so great is this respect that never, since the law of grace, has God spoken to men with absolute authority. On the contrary, He has ever spoken with the timidity, the gentleness, I would even say the obsequiousness, of a poor petitioner whom no affront could rebuff. By a highly mysterious and inconceivable decree of His eternal will, God seems to have condemned Himself until the end of time never to exercise over man any immediate right of master to servant, of king to subject. If He desires to have us, He must seduce us, for if His Majesty does not please us, we can throw it from our presence, buffet it, scourge it and crucify it to the applause of the vilest rabble. God will not defend Himself with His power, but only with His patience and His Beauty.***

Between man involuntarily clothed in his freedom, and God voluntarily stripped of His power, it is normal that there be an antagonism; attack and resistance reasonably balance each other, and this perpetual combat between human nature and God is the gushing fountain of inexhaustible Suffering.

Suffering! Here then is the key word! Here the solution for every human life on earth! the springboard for every superiority, the sieve for every merit, the infallible criterion for every moral beauty! People absolutely refuse to understand that suffering is needful. Those who say that suffering is useful understand nothing about the matter. Usefulness always supposes something adjectival and contingent, and Suffering is necessary. It is the backbone, the very essence of moral life. Love is recognized by this sign, and when this sign is lacking, love is but a prostitution of strength or of beauty. I say that someone loves me when that someone consents to suffer through or for me.***

Well, we are — what, Lord God? — yes, we are the MEMBERS of Jesus Christ! His very members! Our unutterable wretchedness comes from our continually taking for figures or inanimate symbols the clearest and most living assertions of the Scriptures. We believe, but not substantially. Ah! the words of the Holy Ghost should enter and flow through our souls as did molten lead in the mouth of a parricide or a blasphemer. We do not understand that we are the members of the Man of Sorrows, of the Man who is supreme Joy, Love, Truth, Beauty, Light and Life solely because

He is the Lover eternally stricken with the supreme Suffering, the Pilgrim of the last torment, who, to endure it, rushed up through infinity, from the far deep of eternity, and on whose head have been heaped in an appallingly tragic unity of time, place and person, all the elements of torture, collected from every human act performed during each second, over the whole surface of the earth, for the length of sixty centuries! ***

We can use this as a starting point to measure all things. In declaring us members of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit clothed us with the dignity of Redeemers, and, when we refuse to suffer, we are straitly guilty of simony [vocab: Simony is the act of paying for sacraments and consequently for holy offices or for positions in the hierarchy of a church, named after Simon Magus (Also, Simon the Sorcerer), who appears in the Acts of the Apostles 8:9-24. Simon Magus offers the disciples of Jesus, Peter and John, payment so that anyone on whom he would place his hands would receive the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the origin of the term simony; but, it also extends to other forms of trafficking for money in "spiritual things.”] and betrayal of trust.

We have been made for that, and for that alone. When we shed our blood it flows on Calvary, and from thence over the whole earth. Woe to us, therefore, if this blood be poisoned! When we shed our tears, which are “the blood of our souls,” they fall on the heart of the Virgin, and from there onto all living hearts. Our standing as members of Jesus Christ and sons of Mary has made us so great that we can drown the world in our tears. Woe, then, and three times woe upon us, if these tears are poisoned!

Everything in us is identical with Jesus Christ, to whose likeness we have been naturally and supernaturally shaped. So when we refuse suffering, we adulterate as much as we are able our own substance; we cause to enter into the very Flesh and even the Soul of our Head, a profanating [vocab: to profanate = to profane] element which He must afterwards cast from Himself and all His members by an inconceivable redoubling of torment.

Is all this clear? I have no idea. The gist of my thought is that in this tumbling world, all joys burst forth in the natural order, and all suffering bursts forth in the divine order.* * *

The Saints have sought the society of Jesus’s Passion. They believed the saying of the Master when He said that he possesses the greatest love who gives his life for his friends. [John 15, 13] In all ages, ardent and magnificent souls have thought that in order to do enough, it was absolutely necessary to do too much, and that thus did one ravish the Kingdom of the Heavens…

[PARADISE LOST.] Look about you on the distant mountains, on all the balconies of the horizon; look at those panic-stricken heads, those millions of faces taking on expressions of horror and grief as soon as the Fall and the lost Paradise are mentioned. Here is the universal testimony of men’s consciences: the deepest, the most invincible testimony.

There is but one sorrow and that is to have lost the Garden of Delights, and there is but one hope and one desire, to recover it. [There is but one regret…there is but one sorrow…Bloy seems to like this pattern. It’s a powerful one. dj]The poet seeks it in his own way, and the filthiest profligate seeks it in his. It is the only goal. Napoleon at Tilsit and a foul drunkard picked up in the gutter have precisely the same thirst. They must have the water from the Four Rivers of Paradise. All know instinctively that it cannot be bought too dearly. The ditch digger and the tinker spend their fortnight’s salary on it, and Napoleon, four million men.

Empti estis pretio magno (You have been bought at a great price). That is the key to everything, in the Absolute. When you know this, when you see it and realize it, you are like a God and ceaselessly do you weep. Your wish to see me less unhappy, kindly Raissa, is a thing that was in you, in your substantial being, in your soul which prolongs God, long before the birth of Nachor, who was Abraham’s grandfather. Strictly speaking, your desire is the desire for the Redemption accompanied by the presentiment or the intuition of what it cost Him who could pay. It is Christianity, and there is no other way of being a Christian. Kneel then at the edge of this fountain and pray for me thus:

“My God who has bought me at a great price, I most humbly beg You to make me at one in faith, hope and love with this poor man who is suffering in Your service, and who is perhaps suffering mysteriously for me. Set him free and set me free for the Eternal life which You have promised to all those who would hunger for You.”

Here, my most dear and blessed Raissa, is what a man truly sorrowful is able to write you today, but a man filled with the most sublime hope for himself and for all those he bears in his heart.”

[FAITH.] To Jacques Maritain:
You are seeking, you say. O professor of philosophy, O Cartesian, you believe, with Malebranche, that truth is something one seeks! You believe that the human mind is capable of something! You believe — in other words — that with a certain degree of effort a person with black eyes could manage to acquire green eyes spangled with gold! You eventually understand that one finds what he desires only on that day when he has most humbly renounced seeking what lay under his hand, unbeknown to him. For my part, I declare that I never sought or found anything, unless one wishes to describe as a discovery the fact of tripping blindly over a threshold and being thrown flat on one’s stomach into the House of Light. [Guess that takes care of Jacques’ pretentions…dj]

[THE FRIEND OF GOD] … At bottom, what should you do to avoid being an idiot or a swine? Merely this: you should do something great, you should lay aside all the foolishness of a more or less long existence, you should become resigned to the fact that you will seem ridiculous to a brace of janitors and a notary if you are to enter the service of Splendor. Then will you know what it is to be the friend of God.

The Friend of God! I am on the verge of tears when I think of it. No longer do you know on what block to lay your head, no longer do you know where you are, where you should go. You would like to tear out your heart, so hotly does it burn, and you cannot look upon a creature without trembling with love. You would like to drag yourself on your knees from church to church, with rotten fish strung from your neck, as said the sublime Angela da Foligno.

[I AM A PILGRIM WHOM THE VERY SUN DISSATISFIES.] To Henriette Charasson [Henreitte was part of a stable of writers who wrote for The Monthly Magazine, founded by Jean Daujat in 1933 and published until 1939. In addition to its own articles and those of Yvonne Estienne, there were many prestigious authors who wrote for the magazine, such as Father Garrigou-Lagrange, Mgt Ghika, Father Lallement, Jacques Maritain, Henri Gheon, Charles Du Bos, Stanislas Broth, Robert of Harcourt, Gustave Thibon, Henriette Charasson, Olivier Lacombe, Merleau-Ponty, and Jacques Madaule. dj]:

You say you are “anaesthetized,” which is the ugliest way of being dead. Why could you not be mistaken? Your love of the Beautiful shows you to have a lack of certainty which cannot help make you suffer. You have too much insight to hope that works of art will be able to satisfy your heart. You know very well that beyond the masterpieces there is a burning hearth of Love from which artists must necessarily draw their inspiration, without ever becoming satisfied, and that they cannot, even with genius, give more than a very faint echo, a most pallid reflection of that thunder and that furnace.

“You do not know,” says Ruysbroeck the Admirable, “the delights God gives, and the delicious taste of the Holy Spirit.” You know what that means. You must have lodged in your past, prior to the disaster that has befallen your faith, some remembrance of the joy of love, of the dazzlement of which he speaks; and the feelings or stirrings you have experienced over beautiful human works must have seemed little, compared with that wondrous moment.

Talent does what it wants, genius does what it can,” is Hello’s magnificent statement. The more a man has genius, the more he gives evidence of his incapacity. Here is what deep souls feel. An artist of talent shows all there is to be seen; an artist of genius imparts the desire for what cannot be seen, and so the matter stands. I am one of those whom nothing can satisfy, I am that pilgrim in La Femme Pauvre “whom the very sun dissatisfied.” How could I not have pity on you? The greatest poet, the greatest musician in the world is a beggar, a pitiable ragamuffin, a man dying of hunger and thirst, whom your alms of admiration is prodigiously, ridiculously incompetent to assuage. I have believed I saw a soul within you, and that is why I am writing you these things.

“When the first doubts pierced me,” you have written me, “I was stricken with horror because I thought that there was the breath of the Devil.” You were right, but this devil would certainly and on the spot have lost all his power had he told you his name: “I am the devil of the Hackneyed.” Everything you tell me is worn utterly threadbare. “I spent hours before my crucifix in order to find the truth … I could not accede to intellectual dishonesty, I could not practice when I no longer believed . . . I had acted as I thought I ought to.” Poor pensive lamb, who would have no further dealings either with grazing or with shepherd! “I no longer had a God, but I had the hope that someday I should cease being.” As though this frightful hope were a conceivable thing! And to this loss and hope you add “the love of the Beautiful”! But child though you are, how can you not have been aware that all this was hideously commonplace and mediocre, that the ringing of this change is to be found in every cheap novel? …

God refuses His grace to no one. If He has withdrawn it from you for a time, which I do not know that He has, it is because there lies within you some obstacle unknown to me, but which your conscience must surely point out to you. You speak of dishonesty, as if it could ever be dishonest to obey! To practice when one no longer believes! You are very wide off the mark and the meaning of the words escapes you. Here is simply a case of seasickness. One day I was on the Baltic, making my first sea voyage. As I stepped aboard, I decided I should not be seasick — an ailment as ridiculous as it is painful. An hour later I felt it coming on. My will to resist thereby grew all the firmer, and I began to walk about like a wild man, telling myself that I would not give in. Complete victory, dizziness and nausea disappeared, and my joy at having triumphed over them was a delight.

Well, my poor little one, you are doing the exact opposite; though you know better, you cowardly retreat before phantoms. Pretty and clever, either by choice or by laziness you pledge your troth to ugliness and folly. What a future is ahead of you! A sophist against yourself and a sentimentalist against God, it is all too easy for me to challenge you to scorn that which I adore.

As much as I reread your letter, I do not find a single intellectual objection in it, a single argument, even though specious. Nothing but literary cant phrases. Make a clean breast of it; confession frightens you, pure and simple obedience revolts you, and the Hail Mary or the Our Father seem less beautiful to you than a poem by Baudelaire. How you must suffer at having come down to so low a level!

This morning at mass I was reading the liturgical words of the day’s communion: “Qui manducat meam carnem … He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me, and I in him.” I thought of you, of others who are dying of hunger and thirst, and tears welled up within me. These inexpressibly holy and mysterious words became a gulf of splendors for me. I shall try to translate this into a book which I have tremblingly in mind. Trembling from what I see, trembling from what I know, trembling from what I do not know. More and more I work in this way. I go to mass, I go to communion. I say the rosary with the joy or the hope of being with the simple and the little ones, to whom belongs the “kingdom of heaven.” The vast door, then, half opens … I come back twice as strong, often heaped with delights, having God in me.


The Transfiguration – Fr. Jean Corbon O.P.

November 25, 2011

An Apostle From the Transfiguration, Matthias Grünewald,1511

Christians are still too likely to misunderstand the Transfiguration and look upon it as just one miracle among others, a kind of apologetic proof. The feast celebrating it has likewise become indistinct to them, perhaps because it is the only one not to have a place in the chronological sequence of the Lord’s feasts. It is a commemoration of an event that occurred during his mortal life, but it is celebrated after Pentecost and in the bright light of summer (August 6). Yet this event, which upsets the logic that we see as governing time, is precisely the one that best brings home to us the eschatological condition of the body of Christ; it is an apocalyptic vision at the center of the Gospel.

The Synoptic writers deliberately make this “strange sight” the high point of the ministry of Jesus. [Mark 9:2-10; Matthew  17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36] The astonishment felt and the questions roused by the preceding theophanies “Who can this be?” “Who do you say I am?” — lead to this summit, and it is from here that the journey to the final Passover in Jerusalem begins. The miracles were anticipations of the energies of the risen Christ; the transfiguration is the theophany that reveals their meaning or, better, that already brings to pass what these energies will accomplish in our mortal flesh: our divinization.

The transfiguration is the historical and literary center of the Gospel by reason of its mysterious realism: the humanity of Jesus is the vital place where men become God. Christ is truly a man! But to be a man does not mean “being in a body”, as all the unrepentant dualisms imagine; according to biblical revelation, it means “being a body”, an organic and coherent whole. Because men are their bodies, they are also, like their God, related to other persons, the cosmos, time, and him who is communion in its fullest possible form.

Moreover, ever since the Word took flesh he has a “human” relationship, with all its dimensions, to the Father and to all other men: the fire of his light sets the entire bush aflame; the whole of his humanity is “anointed” with it; “in him, in bodily form, lives divinity in all its fullness” (Colossians 2:9), and to this Paul adds, “and in him you too find your own fulfillment” (Colossians 2:10).

What was it, then, that took place in this unexpected event? Why did the Incomprehensible One allow his “elusive beauty” to be glimpsed for a moment in the body of the Word? Two certainties can serve us as guides.

  1. First, the change, or, to transliterate the Greek word, the “metamorphosis”, was not a change in Jesus. The Gospel text and the unanimous interpretation of the Fathers are clear: Christ “was transfigured, not by acquiring what he was not but by manifesting to his disciples what he in fact was; he opened their eyes and gave these blind men sight.” [Saint John Damascene, Second Homily on the Transfiguration (PG 96:564C)] The change is on the side of the disciples.
  2. The second certainty confirms this point: the purpose of the transfiguration, like everything else in the economy that is revealed in the Bible, is the salvation of man. As in the burning bush, so here the Word “allows” the light of his divinity “to be seen” in his body, in order to communicate  not knowledge but life and salvation; he reveals himself by giving himself, and he gives himself in order to transform us into himself.

But if it be permissible to take off the sandals of curiosity and inquisitive gnosis and draw near to the mystery, we may ask: Why did Jesus choose this particular moment, these two witnesses, and these three apostles? What was he, the Son — so passionately in love with the Father and so passionately concerned for us — experiencing in his heart? A few days before Peter had already been given an interior enlightenment and had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God. Jesus had then begun to lift the veil from the not far distant ending of his life: he had to suffer, be put to death, and be raised from the dead. It is between this first prediction and the second that he undertakes to ascend the mountain.

The reason for the transfiguration can be glimpsed, therefore, in what the evangelists do not say: having finished the instruction preparatory to his own Pasch, Jesus is determined to advance to its accomplishment. With the whole of his being, the whole of his “body”, he is committed to the loving will of the Father; he accepts that will without reservation. From now on, everything, up to and including the final struggle at which the same three disciples will be invited to be present, will be an expression of his unconditional “Yes” to the Father’s love.

We must certainly enter into this mystery of committed love if we are to understand that the transfiguration is not an impossible unveiling of the light of the Word to the eyes of the apostles, but rather a moment of intensity in which the entire being of Jesus is utterly united with the compassion of the Father. During these decisive days of his life he becomes transparent to the light of the love of the One who gives himself to men for their salvation. If, then, Jesus is transfigured, the reason is that the Father causes his own joy to flame out in him. The radiance of the light in the suffering body of Jesus is, as it were, the thrill experienced by the Father in response to the total self-giving of his only Son. This explains the voice that pierces through the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).

We can also understand the profound feelings of Moses and Elijah, for these two men who had sensed the closeness of the divine glory that was impatient to save man are now contemplating it in the body of the Son of Man. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people…. I have heard them crying for help…. I am well aware of their sufferings, and I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7-8); “Answer me, Yahweh, answer me…. I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh Sabaoth, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant” (1 Kings 18:37; 19:10).

All this is expressed now not by divine words or human words but by the Word himself in his humanity. No longer is there only promise and expectation, for the event has occurred; there is now present “the reality … the body of Christ” (Colossians 2:17). Moses and Elijah can leave the cave on Sinai without hiding their faces, for they have contemplated the source of light in the body of the Word.

The three disciples, for their part, are flooded for a few moments by that which it will be granted to them to receive, understand, and experience from Pentecost on, namely, the divinizing light that emanates from the body of Christ, the multiform energies of the Spirit who gives life. The thing that overwhelms them here is that “this man” is not only “God with men” but God-man; nothing can pass from God to man or from man to God except through his body.

Peter will bear witness in his Letters, as John does in all his writings, to the second of the two certainties I mentioned earlier: that participation in the life of the Father that pours out from the body of Christ is measured by the faith of the human recipient. The new element in the transfiguration consists in this light of faith that has given their bodily eyes the power to see. Thanks to this light, they “touch the Word of life” when they draw near to the body of Jesus.

Henceforth there is no longer any distance between matter and divinity, for in the body of Christ our flesh is in communion (without confusion or separation) with the Prince of life. The transfiguration of the Word gives a glimpse of the fullness of what the Word inaugurated in his Incarnation and manifested after his baptism by his miracles: namely, the truth that the body of the Lord Jesus is the sacrament that gives the life of God to men.

When our humanity consents without reserve to be united to the humanity of Jesus, it will share the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4); it will be divinized. Since the whole meaning of the economy of salvation is concentrated here, it is understandable that the liturgy should be the fulfillment of the economy. The divinization of men will come through sharing in the body of Christ.


The Burning Bush And The Divine Body of Christ – Fr. Jean Corbon

November 24, 2011

Moses at the Burning Bush REMBRANDT (1606 – 1669)

The reason that the divine compassion can lay hold of our death and communicate its love to us is only by taking flesh among us. It is always in his body that the Word “comes” to save men: not only at his first coming in the flesh and at his Second Coming in glory but also in the time of kenosis in which we are now living.

The eternal liturgy, which Jesus celebrates at his Ascension and which takes form in his Church, permeates our world of death and gives it life; but the locus of this encounter and the path its light takes are always the body of Christ. How can this adorable body that lives now with the Father “come” into our mortal condition and become a wellspring of life for us?

Moses glimpsed the mystery of this “coming” in the theophany that inaugurated the prefigurative event of Passover (Exodus 3:1-6). The name of the holy Lord Jesus was first stammered here as it was entrusted to this man who “saw God” [This is how the Byzantine tradition speaks of Moses on his feast, which is celebrated on September 4.]. It was made known to him not by a course in theology or by an ecstasy that took him outside the flesh but in a very simple sign: a bush on fire.

There are thousands of bushes on the hills of this half-desert landscape, and even a bush that is on fire is not uncommon near camps. The surprising thing about the bush Moses sees is that it is not burned up. He says, “I must go across and see this strange sight and why the bush is not being burned up.” It is then that the overwhelming revelation takes place. He draws near to see and he hears Someone speaking. Through the sign that he sees, the mystery of the living God is made known to him: the Wholly Other who flames at the heart of the vision is the divine compassion that shares the distress of his people.

There is here neither pantheism nor a simple process of sacralization, for this presence is the presence of a person. The Holy One does not destroy but penetrates with his fire everything that is. Men are his holy land, and the divine glory permeates it all the more profoundly as the divine salvation draws closer. But the flame that burns us without consuming is not to be comprehended at first glance, no matter how penetrating this may be; it reveals itself by giving itself and becomes known by being received.

It is not our flesh that stands in the way of our seeing, as the ancient dualisms claim, but our lack of selfless generosity and love or, in other words, our death. Here everything is given gratuitously, both in the fire that reveals itself and in the heart that receives it. Here everything is full of life. The same mysterious flame burns both in the event and in the heart of the person present here; only in the heart that receives it does the fire become light.

When, in the fullness of time, the light enters the world in person, he who spoke to Moses takes a body and dwells among us. The Virgin conceived, formed, and gave birth to this “body of the Word” [Prayerbook (euchologion) of Saint Serapion, bishop of Thmuis (in Egypt, fourth century)] by the power of the Holy Spirit; John revealed it as the Lamb of God, the true Passover, and the suffering Servant. But men like ourselves also drew near to it. The “strange sight” on Sinai became what the Synoptic Gospels call a “miracle” and the fourth Gospel a “sign”, for the incarnate Word is the true burning bush. “Power came out of him that cured them all.” [Luke 6:19; see Mark 5:30] This energy of the Word amid our noise, of the light amid our darkness, of life amid our death, is henceforth the fire that leaps from the bush.

Those who draw near to him touch his body, but “his flesh is divine”; those who look upon him see a mortal man like themselves, but his face is “the face of life”.[Two expressions used by Saint Gregory of Nyssa in his Life of Moses] He is truly a man; he is truly God. The flame of his divinity does not consume his humanity but illumines it from within and shows through it.

His “astounding” actions, that is, his miracles, already bear witness in his mortal condition to the energies that will radiate from his incorruptible body when he rises from the dead. By his miracles Jesus shows himself to be the great and unique sacrament of God for man and of man for God. [When the first Christian community subsequently wrote down these miracles, it was "reminded" by the Spirit of their fleshly and historical coherence, but it was also guided by the Spirit to "the complete truth" about their abiding meaning, for it is in this way that the risen Lord continues to live among us in the last times. Understanding of the "spiritual meaning" of Scripture does not come through sophisticated thinking; rather the wholly simple energy of the Spirit reveals it by making Christians experience it. This is precisely one of the fruits of the liturgy.]

For example, one day Jesus gets into the boat with his disciples (Mark 4:35-41); they put out into open water, and, as they sail, he falls asleep. He is not pretending; he is truly a man who has grown tired both because of his human effort and because of the mysterious divine weariness of which the prophets speak (Isaiah 7: i 3). A squall roars down on the lake, and the waves crash over the boat and soon fill it. Then, like Moses, the disciples “draw near”: “Master, do you not care? We are lost!” How could he himself be anxious? In the midst of the storm he is, even in his humanity, the One in whom all things have their being and who holds all things in his hand. Nonetheless, in a movement that acquires its full meaning in the light of his Resurrection, he “awakes” and “arises”. With his bodily lips the Word who at every instant calls all things from nothingness into being says to the sea: “Quiet now! Be calm!”

The wind drops, the waves quiet, and there is a great calm. In this storm we are no longer at the dawn of creation but in the tragic time of human salvation; the divine energy no longer acts alone but, in the body of Christ, acts in synergy with a man; that is why Jesus is the great sacrament. For when the love of our God acts in our behalf, it calls for our cooperation, that is, our faith. But that faith, still very timid indeed, was present in the worried hearts of the disciples. They were afraid, these men of little faith; if Jesus nonetheless asks them, “Have you still no faith?” it is in order to liberate that faith from fear and to make it grow. Then they are overwhelmed by the awe that allows faith to expand and open itself to the divine presence: “Who can this be?”

The external setting at that time was a storm on Lake Tiberias; today it is new and different at every moment, but that changes nothing essential; the important thing is the event that is experienced, now as then, by the Word together with men, and this event always takes place in his body. Whether in the fullness of time or now in the last times, the body of the Lord Jesus is the sacrament that gives life to men. To convince ourselves of this, we must once more ascend a mountain, where the theophany of the burning bush finds its counterpart and fulfillment.



Eliot On Realizing A Humane And Moderate Politics – Roger Scruton

November 23, 2011

T.S. Eliot

An amazing essay that you will read and reread again, posing as it does vital questions about ourselves and who we are as seen through the poetry and criticism of Thomas Stearns Eliot. I confess to have been totally entranced by it. Roger Scruton is a fine scholar and really knows how to grasp the essentials of Eliot and his worldview.  We are so much the better for it.


ELIOT’S LIFE BEGAN WITH A QUESTION: the question of modern life and its meaning. His literary work was a long, studious, and sincere attempt to provide an answer. In the course of this enterprise, Eliot re-shaped the English language, changed the forms of English verse, and produced some of the most memorable utterances in our literature. Although an impressive scholar, with a mastery of languages and literatures that he reveals but does not dwell upon in his writings.

Eliot was also a man of the world. He worked first as a teacher, then in a London bank, and then in the publishing house of Faber and Faber, which he made into the foremost publisher of poetry and criticism in its day. His unhappy first marriage did not impede his active participation in the literary life of London, over which he exerted an influence every bit as great as André Breton over the literary life of Paris.

His refusal, through all this, to adopt the mantle of the bohemian, to claim the tinsel crown of artist, or to mock the “bourgeois” lifestyle, sets him apart from the continental tradition which he otherwise did so much to promote. He realized that the true task of the artist in the modern world is one not of repudiation but of reconciliation.

For Eliot, the artist inherits, in heightened and self-conscious form, the very same anxieties that are the stuff of ordinary experience. The poet who takes his words seriously is the voice of mankind, interceding for those who live around him, and gaining on their behalf the gift of consciousness with which to overcome the wretchedness of secular life. He too is an ordinary bourgeois, and his highest prize is to live unnoticed amidst those who know nothing of his art — as the saint may live unnoticed among those for whom he dies.

To find the roots of Eliot’s political thinking, we must go back to the modernism that found such striking expression in The Waste Land. English literature in the early part of the twentieth century was to a great extent captured by pre-modern imagery, by references to a form of life (such as we find in Thomas Hardy) that had vanished forever, and by verse forms which derived from the repertoire of romantic isolation.

It had not undergone that extraordinary education which Baudelaire and his successors had imposed upon the French — in which antiquated forms like the sonnet were wrenched free of their pastoral and religious connotations and fitted out with the language of the modern city, in order to convey the new and hallucinatory sense of an irreparable fault, whereby modern man is divided from all that has preceded him.

Eliot’s admiration for Baudelaire arose from his desire to write verse that was as true to the experience of the modern city as Baudelaire’s had been to the experience of Paris. Eliot also recognized in Baudelaire the new character of the religious impulse under the conditions of modern life: “The important fact about Baudelaire,” he wrote, “is that he was essentially a Christian, born out of his due time, and a classicist, born out of his due time.”

Eliot’s indictment of the neo-romantic literature of his day was not merely a literary complaint. He believed that his contemporaries’ use of worn-out poetic diction and lilting rhythms betrayed a serious moral weakness: a failure to observe life as it really is, a failure to feel what must be felt towards the experience that is inescapably ours. And this failure is not confined, he believed, to literature, but runs through the whole of modern life. The search for a new literary idiom is therefore part of a larger search — for the reality of modern experience. Only then can we confront our situation and ask ourselves what should be done about it.

Eliot’s deep distrust of secular humanism — and of the socialist and democratic ideas of society which he believed to stem from it — reflected his critique of the neo-romantics. The humanist, with his myth of man’s goodness, is taking refuge in an easy falsehood. He is living in a world of make-believe, trying to avoid the real emotional cost of seeing things as they are. His vice is the vice of Edwardian and “Georgian” poetry — the vice of sentimentality, which causes us not merely to speak and write in clichés, but to feel in clichés too, lest we should be troubled by the truth of our condition.

The task of the artistic modernist, as Eliot later expressed it, borrowing a phrase from Mallarmé, is “to purify the dialect of the tribe”: that is, to find the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience — not my experience, or yours, but our experience, the experience that unites us as living here and now. And it is only because he had captured this experience — in particular, in the bleak vision ofThe Waste Land — that Eliot was able to find a path to its meaning.

He summarizes his attitude to the everyday language of modern life and politics in his essay on the Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and it is worth quoting the passage in full:

To persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing — when a word half-understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the utter meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences of which we have read in the newspapers, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation [vocab: evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement]– Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbose. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it.
For Lancelot Andrewes (London: Faber, 1970 [1929])

For Eliot, words had begun to lose their precision — not in spite of science, but because of it; not in spite of the loss of true religious belief, but because of it; not in spite of the proliferation of technical terms, but because of it. Our modern ways of speaking no longer enable us to “take a word and derive the world from it”: on the contrary, they veil the world, since they convey no lived response to it. They are mere counters in a game of cliché, designed to fill up the silence, to conceal the void which has come upon us as the old gods have departed from their haunts among us.

That is why modern ways of thinking are not, as a rule, orthodoxies, but heresies — a heresy being a truth that has been exaggerated into falsehood, a truth in which we have taken refuge, so to speak, investing in it all our unexamined anxieties and expecting from it answers to questions which we have not troubled ourselves to understand. In the philosophies that prevail in modern life — utilitarianism, pragmatism, behaviorism — we find that “words have a habit of changing their meaning. . .or else they are made, in a most ruthless and piratical manner, to walk the plank.” The same is true, Eliot implies, whenever the humanist heresy takes over: whenever we treat man as God, and so believe that our thoughts and our words need be measured by no other standard but themselves.

Eliot was brought up in a democracy. He inherited that great fund of public spirit which is the gift of American democracy to the modern world and the cause of so much ignorant hatred of America. But he was not a democrat in his sensibility. Eliot believed that culture could not be entrusted to the democratic process precisely because of the carelessness with words, this habit of unthinking cliché, which would always arise when every person is regarded as having an equal right to express himself. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he writes:

When the poet finds himself in an age in which there is no intellectual aristocracy, when power is in the hands of a class so democratized that while still a class it represents itself to be the whole nation; when the only alternatives seem to be to talk to a coterie or soliloquize, the difficulties of the poet and the necessity of criticism become greater.
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 [1961]), 22.

Hence, the critic has, for Eliot, an enhanced significance in the modern, democratic world. It is he who must act to restore what the aristocratic ideal of taste would have spontaneously generated — a language in which words are used with their full meaning and in order to show the world as it is. Those nurtured on empty sentiment have no weapons with which to deal with the reality of a god-forsaken world. They fall at once from sentimentality into cynicism, and so lose the power either to experience life or to live with its imperfection.

Eliot therefore perceived an enormous danger in the liberal and “scientific” humanism which was offered by the prophets of his day. This liberalism seemed to him to be the avatar of moral chaos, since it would permit any sentiment to flourish and would deaden all critical judgement with the idea of a democratic right to speak — which becomes, insensibly, a democratic right to feel.

Although “human kind cannot bear very much reality” — as he expresses the point, first in Murder in the Cathedral, and then in Four Quartetsthe purpose of a culture is to retain that elusive thing called “sensibility”: the habit of right feeling. Barbarism ensues, not because people have lost their skills and scientific knowledge, nor is it averted by retaining those things; rather, barbarism comes through a loss of culture, since it is only through culture that the important realities can be truly perceived.

Eliot’s thought here is difficult to state precisely. And it is worth drawing a parallel with a thinker whom he disliked: Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the crisis of modernity had come about because of the loss of the Christian faith. This loss of faith is the inevitable result of science and the growth of knowledge. At the same time, it is not possible for mankind really to live without faith; and for us, who have inherited all the habits and concepts of a Christian culture, that faith must be Christianity. Take away the faith, and you do not take away a body of doctrine only, nor do you leave a clear, uncluttered landscape in which man at last is visible for what he is. Rather, you take away the power to perceive other and more important truths, truths about our condition which cannot, without the benefit of faith, be properly confronted — such as the truth of our mortality.

The solution that Nietzsche impetuously embraced in this quandary was to deny the sovereignty of truth altogether — to say that “there are no truths,” and to build a philosophy of life on the ruins of both science and religion in the name of a purely aesthetic ideal. Eliot saw the absurdity of that response. Yet the paradox remains. The truths that mattered to Eliot are truths of feeling, truths about the weight of human life. Science does not make these truths more easily perceivable: on the contrary, it releases into the human psyche a flock of fantasies — liberalism, humanism, utilitarianism, and the rest — which distract it with the futile hope for a scientific morality.

The result is a corruption of the very language of feeling, a decline from sensibility to sentimentality, and a veiling of the human world. The paradox, then, is this: the falsehoods of religious faith enable us to perceive the truths that matter. The truths of science, endowed with an absolute authority, hide the truths that matter, and make human reality imperceivable. Eliot’s solution to the paradox was compelled by the path that he had taken to its discovery — the path of poetry, with the agonizing examples of poets whose precision, perception, and sincerity were the effects of Christian belief. The solution was to embrace the Christian faith — not, as Tertullian did, because of the paradox, but rather in spite of it.

This explains Eliot’s growing conviction that culture and religion are in the last analysis indissoluble. The disease of sentimentality could be overcome, he believed, only by a high culture in which the work of purification was constantly carried on. This is the task of the critic and the artist, and it is a hard task:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. . . .
East Coker in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

This work of purification is a dialogue across the generations with those who belong to the tradition: only the few can take part in it, while the mass of mankind stays below, assailed by those “undisciplined squads of emotion.” The high culture of the few is, however, a moral necessity for the many, for it permits human reality to show itself, and so to guide our conduct.

But why should the mass of mankind, lost as they are in bathos, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” be guided by “those who know” (to use Dante’s pregnant phrase)? The answer must lie in religion, and in particular in the common language which a traditional religion bestows, both on the high culture of art and on the common culture of a people. Religion is the life-blood of a culture. It provides the store of symbols, stories, and doctrines that enable us to communicate about our destiny. It forms, through the sacred texts and liturgies, the constant point to which the poet and the critic can return — the language alike of ordinary believers and of the poets who must confront the ever-new conditions of life in the aftermath of knowledge, of life in a fallen world.

For Eliot, however, religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, should not be seen merely in Platonic terms as an attitude towards what is eternal and unchanging. The truth of our condition is that we are historical beings who find whatever consolation and knowledge is vouchsafed to us in time. The consolations of religion come to us in temporal costume, through institutions that are alive with the spirit of history. To rediscover our religion is not to rise free from the temporal order; it is not to deny history and corruption, in order to contemplate the timeless truths. On the contrary, it is to enter more deeply into history, so as to find in the merely transitory the mark and the sign of that which never passes: it is to discover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time,” which is, according to Four Quartets, the occupation of the saint.

Thus there emerges the strangest and most compelling of parallels: that between the saint and martyr of Murder in the Cathedral and the meditating poet of Four Quartets. Just as the first brings, through his martyrdom, the light of eternity into the darkness of the people of Canterbury (represented as a chorus of women), so does the poet “redeem the time,” by finding in the stream of time those timeless moments which point beyond time. And the attempt by the poet to rediscover and belong to a tradition that will give sense and meaning to his language is one with the attempt to find a tradition of belief, of behavior, and of historical allegiance, that will give sense and meaning to the community. The real significance of a religion lies less in the abstract doctrine than in the institutions which cause it to endure. It lies also in the sacraments and ceremonies, in which the eternal becomes present and what might have been coincides with what is.

FOR ELIOT, therefore, conversion was not a matter merely of acknowledging the truth of Christ. It involved a conscious gesture of belonging, whereby he united his poetical labors with the perpetual labor of the Anglican church. For the Anglican church is peculiar in this: that it has never defined itself as “protestant”; that it has always sought to accept rather than protest against its inheritance, while embracing the daring belief that the truths of Christianity have been offered in a local form to the people of England.

It is a church which takes its historical nature seriously, acknowledging that its duty is less to spread the gospel among mankind than to sanctify a specific community. And in order to fit itself for this role, the Anglican church has, through its divines and liturgists, shaped the English language according to the Christian message, while also bringing that message into the here and now of England. In “Little Gidding,” the last of the Four Quartets, the poet finds himself in the village retreat where an Anglican saint had retired to pray with his family. He conveys what to many is the eternal truth of the Anglican confession, in lines which are among the most famous that have ever been written in English:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Little Gidding in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

Later, returning to this theme of communication with the dead – our dead — and referring to those brief moments of meaning which are the only sure gift of sensibility, Eliot completes the thought:

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
Little Gidding in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

Much has been written about “Little Gidding,” the atmosphere of which stays in the mind of every cultivated Englishman who reads it. What is important, however, is less the atmosphere of the poem than the thought which advances through it. For here Eliot achieves that for which he envies Dante — namely, a poetry of belief, in which belief and words are one, and in which the thought cannot be prized free from the controlled and beautiful language. Moreover, there is one influence throughout which is inescapable — the King James Bible, and the Anglican liturgy that grew alongside it. Without being consciously biblical, and while using only modern and colloquial English, Eliot endows his verse with the authority of liturgy, and with the resonance of faith.

These lines take us back to the core belief of modern conservatism, which Burke expressed in the following terms: Society, he wrote, is indeed a contract; but not a contract among the living only; rather, it is a partnership between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. And, he argued, only those who listen to the dead are fit custodians of future generations. Eliot’s complex theory of tradition gives sense and form to this idea. For he makes clear that the most important thing that future generations can inherit from us is our culture. Culture is the repository of an experience which is at once local and placeless, present and timeless, the experience of a community as sanctified by time. This we can pass on only if we too inherit it.

Therefore, we must listen to the voices of the dead, and capture their meaning in those brief, elusive moments when “History is now and England.” In a religious community, such moments are a part of everyday life. For us, in the modern world, religion and culture are both to be gained through a work of sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice upon which everything depends. Hence, by an extraordinary route, the modernist poet becomes the traditionalist priest: and the stylistic achievement of the first is one with the spiritual achievement of the second.

To many people, Eliot’s theory of culture and tradition is too arduous, imposing an impossible duty upon the educated elite. To others, however, it has been a vital inspiration. For let us ask ourselves just what is required of “one who knows.” Should he, in the modern world, devote himself like Sartre or Foucault to undermining the “structures” of bourgeois society, to scoffing at manners and morals, and ruining the institutions upon which he depends for his exalted status? Should he play the part of a modern Socrates, questioning everything and affirming nothing? Should he go along with the mindless culture of play, the post-modernist fantasy world in which all is permitted since neither permission nor interdiction have any sense?

To answer yes to any of those questions is in effect to live by negation, to grant nothing to human life beyond the mockery of it. It is to inaugurate and endorse the new world of “transgression,” a world which will not reproduce itself, since it will undermine the very motive which causes a society to reproduce. The conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically, in full consciousness that human achievements are rare and precarious, that we have no God-given right to destroy our inheritance, but must always patiently submit to the voice of order and set an example of orderly living. The future of mankind, for the socialist, is simple: pull down the existing order, and allow the future to emerge. But it will not emerge, as we know. These philosophies of the “new world” are lies and delusions, products of a sentimentality which has veiled the facts of human nature.

We can do nothing unless we first amend ourselves. The task is to rediscover the world which made us, to see ourselves as part of something greater, which depends upon us for its survival — and which still can live in us, if we can achieve that “condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything),” to which Eliot directs us.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Little Gidding in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

Such is the conservative message for our time. It is a message beyond politics, a message of liturgical weight and authority. But it is a message which must be received, if humane and moderate politics is to remain a possibility.


Introducing T. S. Eliot — Roger Scruton

November 22, 2011

Thomas Stearns Eliot

See more of Roger Scruton writings on beauty and other topics here.


Thomas Stearns Eliot was indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the twentieth century. He was also the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Samuel Johnson, and the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement. His social and political vision is contained in all his writings, and has been absorbed and reabsorbed by generations of English and American readers, upon whom it exerts an almost mystical fascination — even when they are moved, as many are, to reject it.

Without Eliot, the philosophy of Toryism would have lost all substance during the last century. And while not explicitly intending it, Eliot set this philosophy on a higher plane, intellectually, spiritually, and stylistically, than has ever been reached by the adherents of the socialist idea.

Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture.

ELIOT WAS BORN in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888, and educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Merton College, Oxford, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, whose Hegelian vision of society exerted a profound influence over him. He came, as did so many educated Americans of his generation, from a profoundly religious and public-spirited background, although his early poems suggest a bleak and despairing agnosticism, which he only gradually and painfully overcame. In 1914 he met Ezra Pound, who encouraged him to settle in England.

He married during the following year, which also saw the publication of his first successful poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This work, together with the other short poems that were published along with it as Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, profoundly altered the course of English literature. They were the first truly modernist works in English, although the most visible influences on their imagery and diction were not English but French — specifically, the fin-de-siècle [vocab: French for “end of the century,” the term sometimes encompasses both the closing and onset of an era, as it was felt to be a period of degeneration, but at the same time a period of hope for a new beginning. The "spirit" of fin de siecle often refers to the boredom, cynicism, pessimism and the widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence, that were recognized as prominent in the 1880s and 1890s] irony of Laforgue, and the symbolism of Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Verlaine.

They were also social poems, concerned to express a prevailing collective mood, even when dressed in the words of a specific protagonist. The wartime generation found themselves in these poems, in a way that they had not found themselves in the pseudo-romantic literature of the Edwardian period.

Shortly afterwards Eliot published a book of essays, The Sacred Wood, which was to be as influential as the early poetry. In these essays, Eliot presented his new and exacting theory of the role of criticism, of the necessity for criticism if our literary culture is to survive. For Eliot, it is no accident that criticism and poetry so often come together in the same intelligence — as in his own case, and the case of Coleridge, whom he singled out as the finest of English critics.

For the critic, like the poet, is concerned to develop the “sensibility” of his reader — by which term Eliot meant a kind of intelligent observation of the human world. Critics do not abstract or generalize: theylook, and record what they see. But in doing so, they also convey a sense of what matters in human experience, distinguishing the false from the genuine emotion.

While Eliot was to spell out only gradually and obscurely over many years just what he meant by “sensibility,” his elevated conception of the critic’s role struck a chord in many of his readers. Furthermore, The Sacred Wood contained essays that were to revolutionize literary taste. The authoritative tone of these essays gave rise to the impression that the modern world was at last making itself heard in literature — and that its voice was T. S. Eliot’s.

THE SACRED WOOD turned the attention of the literary world to the “metaphysical poets” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the Elizabethan dramatists — the lesser predecessors and the heirs of Shakespeare, whose raw language, rich with the sensation of the thing described, provided a telling contrast to the sentimental sweetness that Eliot condemned in his immediate contemporaries. There is also an essay on Dante, discussing a question that was frequently to trouble Eliot — that of the relationship between poetry and belief. To what extent could one appreciate the poetry of the Divine Comedy while rejecting the doctrine that had inspired it? This question was a real one for Eliot, for several reasons.

Eliot was — like his fellow modernists and contemporaries, Ezra Pound and James Joyce — profoundly influenced by Dante, whose limpid verse-form, colloquial style, and solemn philosophy created a vision of the ideal in poetry. At the same time, he rejected the theological vision of the Divine Comedy — rejected it with a deep sense of loss. Yet in his own poetry the voice of Dante would constantly return, offering him turns of phrase, lightning flashes of thought, and — most of all — a vision of the modern world from a point of view outside it, a point of view irradiated by an experience of holiness (albeit an experience that he did not then share). And when Eliot did finally come to share in this vision, he wrote, in the last of the Four Quartets, the most brilliant of all imitations of Dante in English — an imitation which is something far finer than an imitation, in which the religious vision of Dante is transported and translated into the world of modern England.

One other essay in The Sacred Wood deserves mention — “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which Eliot introduces the term which best summarizes his contribution to the political consciousness of the twentieth century: tradition. In this essay Eliot argues that true originality is possible only within a tradition — and further, that every tradition must be remade by the genuine artist, in the very act of creating something new. A tradition is a living thing, and just as each writer is judged in terms of those who went before, so does the meaning of the tradition change as new works are added to it. It was this literary idea of a living tradition that was gradually to permeate Eliot’s thinking, and to form the core of his social and political philosophy.

Prufrock and The Sacred Wood already help us to understand the paradox of T. S. Eliot — that our greatest literary modernist should also be our greatest modern conservative. The man who overthrew the nineteenth century in literature and inaugurated the age of free verse, alienation, and experiment was also the man who, in 1928, was to describe himself as “classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” This seeming paradox contains a clue to Eliot’s greatness as a social and political thinker. For Eliot recognized that it is precisely in modern conditions — conditions of fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief — that the conservative project acquires its sense. Conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this fact lies the secret of its success.

What distinguishes Burke from the French revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past, but rather his desire to live fully in the concrete present, to understand the present in all its imperfections, and to accept the present as the only reality that is offered to us. Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.


You Have Made Us For Yourself – St. Augustine

November 21, 2011


St. AugustineTiffany Window at the Lightner Museum, St. Augustine FL

This is the famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions in which Saint Augustine states “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” It is used in the Roman Office of readings for the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary time with the accompanying biblical reading of Job 28:1-28, also included here.

If you think about it, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” really forms the basis for the Christian assertion that God’s existence need not be “proven” in any way for the knowledge of his existence comes with the territory of simply being human and sharing in the glory of his creation. That is not to deprecate any of Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics or any of the great Doctor’s meditations on the nature of God’s existence. Rather it is to recognize that for many, God’s existence begins with the knowledge that we already possess of him and the restlessness that occurs in our being when we sense ourselves not being ordered to His creation or abusing the imago dei in ourselves and others.


Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.

Grant me to know and understand, Lord, which comes first. To call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you? Must we know you before we can call upon you? Anyone who invokes what is still unknown may be making a mistake. Or should you be invoked first, so that we may then come to know you? But how can people call upon someone in whom they do not yet believe? And how can they believe without a preacher?

But scripture tells us that those who seek the Lord will praise him, for as they seek they find him, and on finding him they will praise him. Let me seek you then, Lord, even while I am calling upon you, and call upon you even as I believe in you; for to us you have indeed been preached. My faith calls upon you, Lord, this faith which is your gift to me, which you have breathed into me through the humanity of your Son and the ministry of your preacher.

How shall I call upon my God, my God and my Lord, when by the very act of calling upon him I would be calling him into myself? Is there any place within me into which my God might come? How should the God who made heaven and earth come into me? Is there any room in me for you, Lord, my God? Even heaven and earth, which you have made and in which you have made me – can even they contain you? Since nothing that exists would exist without you, does it follow that whatever exists does in some way contain you?

But if this is so, how can I, who am one of these existing things, ask you to come into me, when I would not exist at all unless you were already in me? Not yet am I in hell, after all but even if I were, you would be there too; for if I descend into the underworld, you are there. No, my God, I would not exist, I would not be at all, if you were not in me.

Or should I say, rather, that I should not exist if I were not in you, from whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things? Yes, Lord, that is the truth, that is indeed the truth. To what place can I invite you, then, since I am in you? Or where could you come from, in order to come into me? To what place outside heaven and earth could I travel, so that my God could come to me there, the God who said, I fill heaven and earth?

Who will grant it to me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good? What are you to me? Have mercy on me, so that I may tell. What indeed am I to you, that you should command me to love you, and grow angry with me if I do not, and threaten me with enormous woes? Is not the failure to love you woe enough in itself?

Alas for me! Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation. Let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you. Do not hide your face from me: let me die so that I may see it, for not to see it would be death to me indeed.
St. Augustine’s Confessions

Job 28:1-28
“Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be refined. Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from ore. Miners put an end to darkness, and search out to the farthest bound the ore in gloom and deep darkness. They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation; they are forgotten by travelers, they sway suspended, remote from people.

As for the earth, out of it comes bread; but underneath it is turned up as by fire. Its stones are the place of sapphires, and its dust contains gold. “That path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it. The proud wild animals have not trodden it; the lion has not passed over it. “They put their hand to the flinty rock, and overturn mountains by the roots. They cut out channels in the rocks, and their eyes see every precious thing. The sources of the rivers they probe; hidden things they bring to light. “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?

Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.

The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom is above pearls. The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it, nor can it be valued in pure gold.

Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living, and concealed from the birds of the air. Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’ “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.

When he gave to the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out. And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’”


The Fullness of Time – Fr. Jean Corbon O.P.

November 18, 2011

Christ,Andrei-Rublev, c1425. Andrei Rublev was born circa 1360 (presumably). According to the anonymous author of the The Lives of Russian Saints, a book compiled in the early eighteenth century, Andrei Rublev died on January 29, 1430, and was buried at the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow. Rublev's name has long become legend. Already in the fifteenth century icons painted by Rublev were considered worth their weight in gold and were much-coveted collectors' items. So great was Rublev's fame, that the Church Council, held in Moscow in 1551, thus prescribed in its statutes the official canon for the correct representation of the Trinity: "... to paint from ancient models, as painted by the Greek painters and as painted by Andrei Rublev..."

This is a reading selection from Fr. Corbon’s classic The Wellspring of Worship.  The first time I ever came across it was in a seminary class on spiritual liturgy. It anchored all the readings we had that semester. I have encountered a lot of spiritual writing the past five or six years but have never encountered anyone quite like Fr. Corbon. His vision is so unique, so powerful and mesmerizing, you find yourself wondering how you could have ever comprehended the New Testament without it. It is one of those little books (I think of Fr. Romano Guardini’s The Lord) that comes off the shelf from time to time, and functions both as a touchstone and solace.

Since the beginning of time the river of the mystery has watered the earth to make it inhabitable and to prepare a “home among men” (Revelations 21:3; Ezekiel 37:27). It carried Abraham to the place of meeting with the promise; it has “uncovered the whole way of knowledge” [Baruch 3:37, where the reference is to wisdom as embodied in the law.] and makes its way through the ongoing course of time. But it could not be given a name as long as “his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11 ); the inexhaustible gift would be recognized only when it was accepted. The river would acquire a name only when it flowed up out of a new fountain. Then the name would ring out like an echo: there would be as it were an encounter of two thirsts that slake each other by giving themselves a name.

The Word Becomes Flesh: The Kenosis of the Son
We are now in the third phase of the “tradition” of the mystery. The mighty energy of the gift that is offered finally encounters the other fountain that has been dug and purified through centuries of expectation, the fountain of acceptance, the Daughter of Zion, namely, Mary.

Ezekiel, the prophet of the restoration, had foreseen that “in those days” water would flow from beneath the temple (47:1). But its source is hidden. The time of the promise brings hither its gift: the patience of the just and their faith amid the night, the psalms of praise and lamentation, the suffering and fidelity of the poor, a people of hope that is fed by the word, a sinful people constantly made new by pure mercy.

The entire energy of the gift patiently poured out at the heart of Jerusalem, ends here in a fountain whose entire vital energy takes the form of acceptance. Mary has carried the Word long before conceiving him and has learned the self-giving of him whose whole being is consent to the Father. She has been fashioned by the Spirit and sees without realizing it that the most fruitful activity of the human person is to be “able to receive” God. Now the humble maidservant can respond to the message with all her being and in the very words that her Lord used at the beginning of time: “Let it be!” (Luke 1:38 and Genesis 1:3).

Mary says “Yes”, and the Spirit who unites the Word and the Yes, divine energy and human energy, gift and acceptance, comes upon her. The Spirit of the Father is the one who crafts this Covenant, fulfilled at last, between the Word and flesh. In the first creation all that exists is “called from nothingness to being”. [Anaphora of Saint John Chrysostom]

In the new creation that is beginning here, he who is eternally begotten of the Father is fashioned out of living earth, namely, the entire being of his mother. “But how shall this come about?” (Luke 1:34): Mary’s question, which is a prelude to all the “whys” of the New Covenant, is given its answer by the Holy Spirit on this first, hidden Pentecost at Nazareth.

He who is to be born of the Daughter of Zion has been conceived not by any “will of man” or by any set of determining causes [John 1:13; "flesh and blood" here is a Semitic way of expressing the determinisms at work in the present world.] but by the power of the Holy Spirit. The latter, who is the outpouring of the Father’s love, makes his own the energy of acceptance that is operative in the Virgin Mary and renders it fruitful.

The age of the mysterious “synergy”["Synergy" (literally: joint activity, combined energies) is a classical term in patristic theology. It represents a faith-inspired effort to go beyond the rational categories of causality (whether coordinate or subordinate) and to account for the utter newness in the union of God and man in Christ and in the Christian life. For those who live in Christ, every action of the Holy Spirit is in synergy with the action of man.] between the river of life and the world of the flesh has begun; in the new creation every conception will henceforth be virginal. In the Incarnation of the Word Mary is not simply an inert locus of the event; rather, her entire being as a person is offered, given, handed over to the Holy Spirit.

Again, the Father does not stand far off and send his Spirit to carry out his redemptive plan; he gives himself by giving his only Son in his Spirit, who is Love. After the synergy of this first Pentecost, everything is unmerited and personal, everything a manifestation of the Spirit’s power. Those who are not caught up in this mystery of the virginal conception of the Word are incapable of receiving the revelation of “what is now to take place very soon” (Revelations1:1), for henceforth it is always in this manner that the river of life enters into our flesh.

Henceforth, everything fleshly is permeated by the energy of love. When the river of life joins the energy of acceptance, it acquires a name; at last there is a name in which the Father utters himself and utters his beloved Son: JESUS. Now indeed joy erupts! The source is here, still hidden in the kenosis, but it has come to birth. [See Luke 2:10-14]

The coming of the eternal mystery shakes our death-marked time and causes it to gape open; the power of the gift of the Spirit of love and the power of its acceptance by “the poor woman of Yahweh” will fill the void. The emptiness will be filled by him in whom “in bodily form lives divinity in all its fullness”. [Colossians 2:9. See The New Jerusalem Bible, p. 1947, n. e.]

For we are now in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4): the fulfillment of the expectation that marked the time of promises, the entrance of the presence of God into “the land of oblivion” (Psalms 88: 12), the breakthrough of day into the darkness of our night, the coming of the river of life into the desert of our death. And this fullness is Jesus: no longer simply words of the Word but the Word of the Father in person; no longer a law exterior to man but the grace that comes to birth in our humanity through her who is “full of grace” (Luke 1:28).

“Then Jesus Appeared”: The Manifestation
The economy of salvation is marked by a law whose operation we can still verify in our own lives: the “theophanies”, or manifestations of the mystery, are measured by the kenosis of love; the more our God gives himself, the more he reveals himself. In his Incarnation, the Word “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as men are.” [Philemon 2:7] How, then, will the Spirit make him known?

“Then Jesus appeared: he came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John” (Matthew 3:13). He comes to the human in order to be “immersed” in it, [To be baptized, that is, literally to be "immersed"] with a baptism that extends even to his death. When Jesus appears, the mystery of love that has taken human form in him permeates the sign in which it expresses itself the river of life, “kept hidden through all the ages”, becomes one with the river Jordan.

The lowliest and most derisory among the rivers of the world at that tirne [The Jordan descends from the southern slopes of Mt. Lebanon into the trough of the Arabah (which is 300 meters below sea level near Jericho) and empties into the Dead Sea] becomes a sign that carries the mystery within itself. Jesus is baptized in the water — that is the sign; the reality manifested is that henceforth the flesh and time, man and the world, are permeated by the Word of life, who has clad himself in them forever.

The fleshly manifestation of the fullness of grace is a mystery of anointing, namely, the Christ. [In Hebrew and in Greek the name "Christ" means "anointed"] In Jesus the entire energy of love impregnates human energy with an “anointing” that makes this human energy its own and gives it life. In Jesus the Father gives himself wholly, and the Son accepts him. In him everything human is offered up, and at the same time the Father fills him. Jesus is the supreme embodiment of the synergy that will give life to everything, for in him there is no longer a divine action on the one side and a human on the other, but the single action of the one Christ; let us call it a “Christic” action in order to bring home to ourselves the astounding realism of the word “Christian”.

Union without confusion, distinction without separation: that is how the great Christological Council of Chalcedon was to put it four centuries later. In the least action of Christ God lives humanly and man lives divinely, not in a modal union but in the union that is a single person. Throughout his mortal life everything will show forth this marvelous anointing.

When Christ speaks, his listeners hear the man Jesus, and at the same time the Father utters himself in his incarnate Word. Even when faith has not yet penetrated this mystery of unity between Jesus and the Father, the simplest folk cannot but be amazed: “No one has ever spoken like this man” (John 7:46). When Jesus acts, even the least and most human of his reactions, and not only his “astonishing” deeds, express some reflection of the mystery of the Father. If Jesus is humble, it is not a “pretense” or an effort to make us comfortable with his holiness; no, it is authentic, with a truth that is not only human but divine, for our Father is humble beyond anything we can possibly grasp.

When Jesus weeps, the mysterious suffering of this most loving Father has truly entered into our flesh. The entire Gospel needs to be reread from this theophanic point of view: for each aspect of the kenosis of the Word, that is, our entire authentic human condition, manifests the Holy One of God, who has immersed himself in it. Through the baptism of the Son into our humanity all flesh — every person and community, all of time and the world, all suffering and joy, all death and life — is permeated with the presence of the Wholly Other. Time is irreversibly anointed with his fullness.

Even before our response and participation the river of life has reversed the direction of history. [Hymnology and iconography often interpret Psalms 1 14(1 13A):3, "The Jordan turned back", in the sense that is realistic at the level of symbol: when Jesus is baptized, the Jordan (the sign) returns to its source (the river of life, which it signifies). The symbol thus returns to its origin.]

The Father himself puts the seal of his own testimony on this coming: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him” (Matthew 3:17). “This man”? Yes, this man whom we see and whom we believe to be the son of Joseph [Luke 3:23, at the beginning of the genealogy that follows upon the account of the baptism.] is in fact the reflection of the Father’s glory. [This accounts for a variant, regarded as apocryphal, in two manuscripts of the Vetus Latina: "And while he was being baptized a great light came out of the water"; see The Jerusalem Bible, New Testament, p. 19, n. k (omitted in The New Jerusalem Bible).]

Because of him every one of God’s scattered children will have the power to become the Father’s joy and his longed-for dwelling place. [The dove as theophanic symbol of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 3:16 refers back to the end of the story of the Flood: the failure of the dove to return signifies that the land is once again habitable (Genesis 8:12). The dove at the baptism also signals the beginning of the new creation (see Genesis 1:2).]

The voice from heaven does not announce a promise; it proclaims a wondering exultation at an event that has been awaited for age upon age: the deformed man who had hidden himself far from the Father’s face is now discovered again by the Father in his own beloved Son!

This Son is indeed present among men as one unknown to them (see John 1:26), but he is nonetheless in their midst. This mysterious marriage, which only the friend of the bridegroom can recognize, [John 3:29. The reference is to John the Precursor and Baptizer] is experienced by Jesus in the depths of his heart. Who could possibly have any inkling of the testings and sufferings he had to undergo in order to seal this covenant in the truth of his human heart?

For it was in this heart that the drama of the river of life was henceforth played out, and this at every moment of his mortal days. To be inseparably God and man was unceasingly to accept the new life from his Father and at the same time to be heir, through his virginal mother, to all the earthiness of our humanity. It was to be the place where two pursuits, two thirsts, meet, the place where two worlds, of grace and the flesh, intermingle. It was to be the meeting point of two loves and the focus of their covenant; the place where two piercing nostalgias met, but also the source of their satisfaction. “Who has given credence to what we have heard? [Isaiah 53:1 cited in John 12:38, just before the Passion of Jesus]

The fountain is there, and it is the heart of the Savior: place of the Passion of God and the passion of man, place of the corn-passion. There God is born in man and man in God: a place of birth and connatural knowledge, a threshold that death is forbidden to cross, a silence filled with outpouring joy. Finally, it is in this heart, where kenosis has achieved its utmost, that the river will arise, and the glory of the Father will be revealed. Then “all flesh will see it” (Isaiah 40:5): that will be the hour of Jesus, the hour when the mystery becomes event.


How Poetry Finds Laws of Moral Existence – Russell Kirk

November 17, 2011

Russell Kirk and friend

Pure Poetry Searches The Human Heart To Find Laws Of Moral Existence
So pure poetry, and the other forms of great literature, search the human heart to find in it the laws of moral existence, distinguishing man from beast. Or so it was until almost the end of the eighteenth century. Since then, the egoism of one school of the Romantics has obscured the primary purpose of humane letters. And many of the Realists have written of man as if he were brutal only — or brutalized by institutions, at best.

So arose Ambrose Bierce’s definition in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906): “Realism, n. An accurate representation of human nature, as seen by toads.” In our time, and particularly in America, we have seen the rise to popularity of a school of writers more nihilistic than ever were the Russian nihilists: the literature of disgust and denunciation, sufficiently described in Edmund Fuller’s Man in Modern Fiction (1958).

To members of this school, the writer is no defender or expositor of standards, for there are no values to explain or defend; a writer merely registers, unreservedly, his disgust with humanity and himself. This is a world away from Dean Swift — who, despite his loathing of most human beings, detested them only because they fell short of what they were meant to be.

Yet the names of our twentieth-century nihilistic authors will be forgotten in less than a generation (How True!!!!), I suspect, while there will endure from our age the works of a few men of letters whose appeal is to the enduring things, and therefore to posterity. I think, for instance of Gironella’s novel The Cypresses Believe in God (1951) (You missed that one, Russell).

The gentle novice who trims the hair and washes the bodies of the poorest of the poor in old Gerona, though he dies by Communist bullets, will live a great span in the realm of letters; while the scantily-disguised personalities of our nihilistic authors, swaggering nastily as characters in best sellers, will be extinguished the moment when the public’s fancy veers to some newer sensation. For as the normative consciousness breathes life into the soul and the social order, so the normative understanding gives an author lasting fame.

Real Love And Real Hatred Are Absent From Modern Novels
Malcolm Cowley, writing a few years ago in Horizon of the recent crop of first novelists, observed that the several writers he discussed scarcely had heard of the Seven Cardinal Virtues or of the Seven Deadly Sins. Crimes and sins are only mischances to these young novelists; real love and real hatred are absent from their books. To this rising generation of writers, the world seems purposeless, and human actions meaningless. They seek to express nothing but a vagrant ego. Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect [1959], has some shrewd things to say about the unjustified pride of the decade’s array of aspiring writers.

And Mr. Cowley suggests that these young men and women, introduced to no norms in childhood and youth except the vague attitude that one is entitled to do as one likes, so long as it doesn’t injure someone else, are devoid of spiritual and intellectual discipline empty, indeed, of real desire for anything.

This sort of aimless and unhappy writer is the product of a time in which the normative function of letters has been greatly neglected. Ignorant of his own mission, such a writer tends to think of his occupation as a mere skill, possibly lucrative, sometimes satisfying to one’s sanity, but dedicated to no end. Even the “proletarian” writing of the twenties and thirties acknowledged some end; but that has died of disillusion and inanition.

If writers are in this plight, in consequence of the prevailing “permissive” climate of opinion, what of their readers? Comparatively few book-readers nowadays, I suspect, seek normative knowledge. They are after amusement, sometimes of a vicariously gross character, or else pursue a vague “awareness” of current affairs and intellectual currents, suitable for cocktail-party conversation.

The young novelists described by Mr. Cowley are of the number of Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” Nature abhors a vacuum; into minds that are vacant of norms must come some new force; and often that new force has a diabolical character.

The Person Who Reads Bad Books Instead Of Good May Be Subtly Corrupted; The Person Who Reads Nothing At All Maybe Forever Adrift In Life
A perceptive critic, Mr. Albert Fowler, writing in Modern Age, asks the question, “Can Literature Corrupt?” — and answers in the affirmative. So literature can; and also it is possible to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all maybe forever adrift in life unless he lives in a community still powerfully influenced by what Gustave Thibon calls “moral habits” and by oral tradition. And absolute abstinence from printed matter has become rare. If a small boy does not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), the odds are that he will read Mad Ghoul Comics.

So I think it is worthwhile to suggest the outlines of the literary discipline which induces some understanding of enduring values. For centuries, such a program of reading though never called a program — existed in Western nations. It powerfully influenced the minds and actions of the leaders of the infant American Republic, for instance. If one pokes into what books were read by the leaders of the Revolution, the framers of the Constitution and the principal men of America before 1800, one finds that nearly all of them were acquainted with a few important books: the King James version of the Bible, Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare, something of Cicero, something of Vergil.

This was a body of literature highly normative. The founders of the Republic thought of their new commonwealth as a blending of the Roman Republic with prescriptive English institutions; and they took for their models in leadership the prophets and kings and apostles of the Bible, and the noble Greeks and Romans of Plutarch. Cato’s stubborn virtue, Demosthenes’ eloquent vaticinations, Cleomenes’ rash reforming impulse — these were in their minds’ eyes; and they tempered their conduct accordingly. “But nowadays,” as Chateaubriand wrote more than a century ago, “statesmen understand only the stock market — and that badly.”

Sheer Experience, As Franklin Suggested, Is The Teacher Of Born Fools.
Of course it was not by books alone that the normative understanding of the framers of the Constitution, for instance, was formed. Their apprehension of norms was acquired also in family, church, and school, and in the business of ordinary life. But that portion of their normative understanding which was got from books did loom large. For we cannot attain very well to enduring standards if we rely simply on actual personal experience as a normative mentor. Sheer experience, as Franklin suggested, is the teacher of born fools.

Our lives are too brief and confused for most men to develop any normative pattern from their private experience; and as Newman wrote, “Life is for action.” Therefore we turn to the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience, if we seek guidance in morals, taste, and politics. Ever since the invention of printing, this normative understanding has been expressed, increasingly in books, so that nowadays most people form their opinions, in considerable part, from the printed page. This may be regrettable sometimes; it may be what D. H. Lawrence called “chewing the newspapers”; but it is a fact. Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master.

Another fact is that for some thirty years we have been failing, here in America, to develop a normative consciousness in young people through a careful program of reading great literature. We have talked about “education for life” and “training for life adjustment”; but many of us seem to have forgotten that literary disciplines are a principal means for learning to adjust to the necessities of life. Moreover, unless the life to which we are urged to adjust ourselves is governed by norms, it may be a very bad life for everyone.


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