Archive for January, 2012


Reading Selections 2 From The Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris By John Paul II

January 31, 2012

The God of Job's comforters, who claim that Job's trials are punishment for his sins, is to Blake a false god, equivalent to the demiurge of the Gnostics. This was more of a distinction between Elohim (the creator) and Yahweh (the law-giver) than it was any direct influence of Gnosticism. For Blake, Yahweh was an imposer of laws upon a humanity that could never keep to them -- he appears in the 11th illustration as a cloven-hoofed apparition who menaces Job while pointing to the tablets of the covenant. In Blake's mythology he is analogous to "the Accuser of Sin", the specter, and Urizen. This particular print was based upon Blake's earlier monotype, Elohim Creating Adam.

The Quest For An Answer To The Question Of The Meaning Of Suffering
Within each form of suffering endured by man, and at the same time at the basis of the whole world of suffering, there inevitably arises the question: why? It is a question about the cause, the reason, and equally, about the purpose of suffering, and, in brief, a question about its meaning. Not only does it accompany human suffering, but it seems even to determine its human content, what makes suffering precisely human suffering.

It is obvious that pain, especially physical pain, is widespread in the animal world. But only the suffering human being knows that he is suffering and wonders why; and he suffers in a humanly speaking still deeper way if he does not find a satisfactory answer. This is a difficult question, just as is a question closely akin to it, the question of evil. Why does evil exist? Why is there evil in the world? When we put the question in this way, we are always, at least to a certain extent, asking a question about suffering too.

Both questions are difficult, when an individual puts them to another individual, when people put them to other people, as also when man puts them to God. For man does not put this question to the world, even though it is from the world that suffering often comes to him, but he puts it to God as the Creator and Lord of the world. And it is well known that concerning this question there not only arise many frustrations and conflicts in the relations of man with God, but it also happens that people reach the point of actually denying God.

For, whereas the existence of the world opens as it were the eyes of the human soul to the existence of God, to his wisdom, power and greatness, evil and suffering seem to obscure this image, sometimes in a radical way, especially in the daily drama of so many cases of undeserved suffering and of so many faults without proper punishment. So this circumstance shows — perhaps more than any other — the importance of the question of the meaning of suffering; it also shows how much care must be taken both in dealing with the question itself and with all possible answers to it.

 Man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it, as we see in the Revelation of the Old Testament. In the Book of Job the question has found its most vivid expression.

The story of this just man, who without any fault of his own is tried by innumerable sufferings, is well known. He loses his possessions, his sons and daughters, and finally he himself is afflicted by a grave sickness. In this horrible situation three old acquaintances come to his house, and each one in his own way tries to convince him that since he has been struck down by such varied and terrible sufferings, he must have done something seriously wrong.

For suffering — they say — always strikes a man as punishment for a crime; it is sent by the absolutely just God and finds its reason in the order of justice. It can be said that Job’s old friends wish not only to convince him of the moral justice of the evil, but in a certain sense they attempt to justify to themselves the moral meaning of suffering. In their eyes suffering can have a meaning only as a punishment for sin, therefore only on the level of God’s justice, who repays good with good and evil with evil.

The point of reference in this case is the doctrine expressed in other Old Testament writings which show us suffering as punishment inflicted by God for human sins. The God of Revelation is the Lawgiver and Judge to a degree that no temporal authority can see. For the God of Revelation is first of all the Creator, from whom comes, together with existence, the essential good of creation. Therefore, the conscious and free violation of this good by man is not only a transgression of the law but at the same time an offence against the Creator, who is the first Lawgiver. Such a transgression has the character of sin, according to the exact meaning of this word, namely the biblical and theological one.

Corresponding to the moral evil of sin is punishment, which guarantees the moral order in the same transcendent sense in which this order is laid down by the will of the Creator and Supreme Lawgiver. From this there also derives one of the fundamental truths of religious faith, equally based upon Revelation, namely that God is a just judge, who rewards good and punishes evil: “For thou art just in all that thou hast done to us, and all thy works are true and thy ways right, and all thy judgments are truth. Thou hast executed true judgments in all that thou hast brought upon us… for in truth and justice thou hast brought all this upon us because of our sins.”

The opinion expressed by Job’s friends manifests a conviction also found in the moral conscience of humanity: the objective moral order demands punishment for transgression, sin and crime. From this point of view, suffering appears as a “justified evil”. The conviction of those who explain suffering as a punishment for sin finds support in the order of justice, and this corresponds to the conviction expressed by one of Job’s friends: “As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same”(24).

 Job however challenges the truth of the principle that identifies suffering with punishment for sin. And he does this on the basis of his own opinion. For he is aware that he has not deserved such punishment, and in fact he speaks of the good that he has done during his life. In the end, God himself reproves Job’s friends for their accusations and recognizes that Job is not guilty. His suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent and it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence.

The Book of Job does not violate the foundations of the transcendent moral order, based upon justice, as they are set forth by the whole of Revelation, in both the Old and the New Covenants. At the same time, however, this Book shows with all firmness that the principles of this order cannot be applied in an exclusive and superficial way. While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment.

The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. Revelation, which is the word of God himself, with complete frankness presents the problem of the suffering of an innocent man: suffering without guilt. Job has not been punished, there was no reason for inflicting a punishment on him, even if he has been subjected to a grievous trial. From the introduction of the Book it is apparent that God permitted this testing as a result of Satan’s provocation. For Satan had challenged before the Lord the righteousness of Job: “Does Job fear God for nought? … Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face”. And if the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, he does it to demonstrate the latter’s righteousness. The suffering has the nature of a test.

The Book of Job is not the last word on this subject in Revelation. In a certain way it is a foretelling of the Passion of Christ. But already in itself it is sufficient argument why the answer to the question about the meaning of suffering is not to be unreservedly linked to the moral order, based on justice alone. While such an answer has a fundamental and transcendent reason and validity, at the same time it is seen to be not only unsatisfactory in cases similar to the suffering of the just man Job, but it even seems to trivialize and impoverish the concept of justice which we encounter in Revelation.

The Book of Job poses in an extremely acute way the question of the “why” of suffering; it also shows that suffering strikes the innocent, but it does not yet give the solution to the problem.

Already in the Old Testament we note an orientation that begins to go beyond the concept according to which suffering has a meaning only as a punishment for sin, insofar as it emphasizes at the same time the educational value of suffering as a punishment. Thus in the sufferings inflicted by God upon the Chosen People there is included an invitation of his mercy, which corrects in order to lead to conversion: “… these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people.”

Thus the personal dimension of punishment is affirmed. According to this dimension, punishment has a meaning not only because it serves to repay the objective evil of the transgression with another evil, but first and foremost because it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.

This is an extremely important aspect of suffering. It is profoundly rooted in the entire Revelation of the Old and above all the New Covenant. Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God.

But in order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the “why” of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love.

In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering, following the revealed word of God, we must open ourselves wide to the human subject in his manifold potentiality. We must above all accept the light of Revelation not only insofar as it expresses the transcendent order of justice but also insofar as it illuminates this order with Love, as the definitive source of everything that exists. Love is: also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ.


Reading Selections From The Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris By John Paul II

January 30, 2012

John Paul II

The Power Of Salvific Suffering
Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the Apostle Paul says: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church”(Colossians 1:24).

These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the Word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason Saint Paul writes: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake”(Colossians 1:24). The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help — just as it helped him — to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.

The Theme Of Suffering
Even though Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, wrote that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now”( Romans 8:22), even though man knows and is close to the sufferings of the animal world, nevertheless what we express by the word “suffering” seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense “destined” to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.

When Suffering Enters Your Life
It can be said that man in a special fashion becomes the way for the Church when suffering enters his life. This happens, as we know, at different moments in life, it takes place in different ways, it assumes different dimensions; nevertheless, in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man’s earthly existence.

Assuming then that throughout his earthly life man walks in one manner or another on the long path of suffering, it is precisely on this path that the Church at all times – and perhaps especially during the Holy Year of the Redemption – should meet man. Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man “becomes the way for the Church”, and this way is one of the most important ones.

A Meditation On Suffering
Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates
. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart, and also by the deep imperative of faith. About the theme of suffering these two reasons seem to draw particularly close to each other and to become one: the need of the heart commands us to overcome fear, and the imperative of faith — formulated, for example, in the words of Saint Paul quoted at the beginning — provides the content, in the name of which and by virtue of which we dare to touch what appears in every man so intangible: for man, in his suffering, remains an intangible mystery.

The World Of Human Suffering
Even though in its subjective dimension, as a personal fact contained within man’s concrete and unrepeatable interior, suffering seems almost inexpressible and not transferable, perhaps at the same time nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its “objective reality”, to be dealt with, meditated upon, and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought. It is evident that it is not a question here merely of giving a description of suffering. There are other criteria which go beyond the sphere of description, and which we must introduce when we wish to penetrate the world of human suffering.

Medicine, as the science and also the art of healing, discovers in the vast field of human sufferings the best known area, the one identified with greater precision and relatively more counterbalanced by the methods of “reaction” (that is, the methods of therapy). Nonetheless, this is only one area. The field of human suffering is much wider, more varied, and multi-dimensional. Man suffers in different ways, ways not always considered by medicine, not even in its most advanced specializations. Suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself.

A certain idea of this problem comes to us from the distinction between physical suffering and moral suffering. This distinction is based upon the double dimension of the human being and indicates the bodily and spiritual element as the immediate or direct subject of suffering. Insofar as the words “suffering” and “pain”, can, up to a certain degree, be used as synonyms, physical suffering is present when “the body is hurting” in some way, whereas moral suffering is “pain of the soul”. In fact, it is a question of pain of a spiritual nature, and not only of the “psychological” dimension of pain which accompanies both moral and physical suffering The vastness and the many forms of moral suffering are certainly no less in number than the forms of physical suffering. But at the same time, moral suffering seems as it were less identified and less reachable by therapy.

Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. Let us quote from the books of the Old Testament a few examples of situations which bear the signs of suffering, and above all moral suffering: the danger of death, the death of one’s own children and, especially, the death of the firstborn and only son; and then too: the lack of offspring, nostalgia for the homeland, persecution and hostility of the environment, mockery and scorn of the one who suffers, loneliness and abandonment; and again: the remorse of conscience, the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer, the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbors; and finally: the misfortunes of one’s own nation.

In treating the human person as a psychological and physical “whole”, the Old Testament often links “moral” sufferings with the pain of specific parts of the body: the bones, kidneys, liver, viscera, heart. In fact one cannot deny that moral sufferings have a “physical” or somatic element, and that they are often reflected in the state of the entire organism.

As we see from the examples quoted, we find in Sacred Scripture an extensive list of variously painful situations for man. This varied list certainly does not exhaust all that has been said and constantly repeated on the theme of suffering by the book of the history of man (this is rather an “unwritten book”), and even more by the book of the history of humanity, read through the history of every human individual.

It can be said that man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil. In the vocabulary of the Old Testament, suffering and evil are identified with each other. In fact, that vocabulary did not have a specific word to indicate “suffering”. Thus it defined as ” evil” everything that was suffering. Only the Greek language, and together with it the New Testament (and the Greek translations of the Old Testament), use the verb * = “I am affected by …. I experience a feeling, I suffer”; and, thanks to this verb, suffering is no longer directly identifiable with (objective) evil, but expresses a situation in which man experiences evil and in doing so becomes the subject of suffering. Suffering has indeed both a subjective and a passive character (from “patior“). Even when man brings suffering on himself, when he is its cause, this suffering remains something passive in its metaphysical essence.

This does not however mean that suffering in the psychological sense is not marked by a specific “activity”. This is in fact that multiple and subjectively differentiated “activity” of pain, sadness, disappointment, discouragement or even despair, according to the intensity of the suffering subject and his or her specific sensitivity. In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer.

Thus the reality of suffering prompts the question about the essence of evil: what is evil?

This questions seems, in a certain sense, inseparable from the theme of suffering. The Christian response to it is different, for example, from the one given by certain cultural and religious traditions which hold that existence is an evil from which one needs to be liberated. Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he “ought” — in the normal order of things — to have a share in this good and does not have it.

Thus, in the Christian view, the reality of suffering is explained through evil, which always, in some way, refers to a good.

In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific “world” which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were “in dispersion”. Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that a world”, but at the same time” that world” is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity.

Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists “in dispersion”, at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity. We shall also try to follow this appeal in the present reflection.

Considering the world of suffering in its personal and at the same time collective meaning, one cannot fail to notice the fact that this world, at some periods of time and in some eras of human existence, as it were becomes particularly concentrated. This happens, for example, in cases of natural disasters, epidemica, catastrophes, upheavals and various social scourges: one thinks, for example, of a bad harvest and connected with it – or with various other causes – the scourge of famine.

One thinks, finally, of war. I speak of this in a particular way. I speak of the last two World Wars, the second of which brought with it a much greater harvest of death and a much heavier burden of human sufferings. The second half of our century, in its turn, brings with it — as though in proportion to the mistakes and transgressions of our contemporary civilization — such a horrible threat of nuclear war that we cannot think of this period except in terms of an incomparable accumulation of sufferings, even to the possible self-destruction of humanity.

In this way, that world of suffering which in brief has its subject in each human being, seems in our age to be transformed — perhaps more than at any other moment — into a special “world”: the world which as never before has been transformed by progress through man’s work and, at the same time, is as never before in danger because of man’s mistakes and offences.



The Impossible Self – Laura Quinney

January 27, 2012

The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake's work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecie.

In one sense the self is thriving. Magisterial works such as Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self and Jerrold Siegel’s The Idea of the Self as well as the plethora of other recent titles on the self testify to the current fascination of the topic. Yet it is a widespread assumption among contemporary philosophers and literary theorists that the concept of “the self” is obsolete. At the end of their recent book, The Rue and Fall of Self and Soul, Raymond Martin and John Barresi conclude that the notion of the self as a “unified entity” has been permanently debunked by modern science and philosophy: “Analysis has been the self’s undoing. As a fragmented, explained, and illusory phenomenon, the self [can] no longer retain its elevated status. And it is hard to see how it might ever again regain that status. It is as if all of Western civilization has been on a prolonged ego trip that reality has finally forced it to abandon.”

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science did away with the concept of the “soul,” and the eighteenth century replaced it with the concept of “self,” but the march of progress liquidated that notion too, along with the related idea of the universal “subject.” Thus much contemporary thought dismisses the discourses of soul, self, and subject as anachronisms. This common view is, I believe, malformed because it entails dismissing the actual experience of subjectivity, that is, the subject’s experience of itself as a subject.

The self supposed to be obsolete is the unitary subject, the integral, transcendent self linked to the traditional religious idea of the immortal soul. I state categorically that the actual subject has never mistaken itself for a Subject of this kind. Modern skeptical thought congratulates itself for a work of demystification that the subject by virtue of its subjectivity performs every day.

Martin and Barresi concede that this “ego trip” is likely to go on despite our putative enlightenment: the idea of a unified self is not dispensable because many everyday practices depend on it. More deeply, the individual has an intuition of selfhood so strong that it cannot be summarily dispelled: “each of us seems to have a kind of direct, experiential access to him- or herself [a Cartesian intuition] that makes the development of theories of the self and personal identity, however interesting, seem somewhat beside the point.” The intuition of selfhood is tenacious; it rides roughshod over the rational truth.

As is often the case, we are enlightened in theory but benighted in practice: “For many central and persistent purposes of everyday life, theory and practice are likely to remain autonomous, at least when it comes to theories of the self.” But does the everyday self really live with itself so naively and happily? Here Martin and Barresi make a mistake characteristic of those who treat the concepts of self and soul in the abstract: they fail to inquire further into the self’s own relationship to the idea of selfhood. For whereas the intuition of selfhood persists within the self, it also is already embattled within the self.

If the intuition of selfhood attends Western subjectivity, then so does its frustration. Subject-life entails interior struggle and disappointment because the actual “self” fails to coincide with its own self-definition. Even to speak of “the self” or “subject” here is a misnomer: we must say that an elusive and as-yet-un-unified “self” feels an imperative to find in itself a “Self” worthy of the name and that the imperative never desists, although such a Self cannot be found. The self does not possess its intuition of selfhood in comfort — it does not fall back on a reassuring confidence in its integrity, but rather seeks for such confidence in vain; it seeks wholeness, but encounters self-division and self-doubt.

Disillusionment with “the self” that contemporary thinkers attribute to modernity actually defines the experience of selfhood. When Jacques Lacan deconstructs the Cartesian cogito and demonstrates that “I” is not self-coincident, he may scandalize the theorist, but the subject is likely to assent because Lacan’s claim captures the felt insecurity of selfhood. The “error” of Rene Descartes’s philosophical idealism cannot be sustained, Lacan says, for “There is no subject without, somewhere, aplianisis [vocab: fading, disappearance] of the subject, and it is in this alienation, in this fundamental division, that the dialectic of the subject is established.”

The rhetorical power of Lacan’s argument lies in its appeal to the experience of subjectivity. Whatever the ontological truth of the matter, to be a subject is to feel that such a description of subjectivity is true. The language of “self” and “subject” may have been rendered atavistic, but the concepts can never lose their hold on the individual subject, because subjectivity is constituted in its balked relation to them.

In fact, the intuition of selfhood has always been perplexed in theory as well as in practice. Western philosophy and literature have borne witness since the time of Greek mythology to the fragmentation of the self. This sense of fragmentation has given rise to the many fascinating paradigms of self-division: everything from Plato’s tripartite division of the soul to Gnosticism’s evocation of the “incrusted” transcendental spirit, Augustine’s description of the “darkness hidden within” him, Descartes’s dualism, and Kant’s faculty psychology, to Sigmund Freud’s map of the psyche and Melanie Klein’s kaleidoscopic “inner chaos.” Radically dissimilar as these paradigms of self-division and their provenances are, they all emphasize the confusion of the self in relation to its own selfhood. They begin by treating the self’s embattled experience of itself as a central fact that cries out for explanation. And the fact is sufficiently central that its explanation opens a window on expansive metaphysical views. It becomes the pivot of far-reaching claims.

The self’s experience of itself as fragmented testifies to larger truths about human nature and sometimes divine nature and the nature of reality. Each theory offers up this feature of subjective experience as a validation of particular ontological truths. Why must reason struggle with emotion and appetite? Because reason is the highest faculty of the soul; it is confirmation of the soul’s origin in the intelligible world. Why is the transcendental soul benighted in the world? Because it fell from heaven, and was waylaid here by an evil god. Why is there darkness hidden within? Because of the human soul’s inherent perversity. Why is the ego beleaguered? It is menaced by insubordinate repressed energies.

The beauty of these claims is that evidence of their truth becomes available to everyone through the simplest act of introspection. Common experience of selfhood is the proof, as Socrates shows in the Phaedo when he disputes the definition of the soul as a “harmony.” The soul is a harmony neither in our experience of the inner life nor in the literary representation of it. (The tripartite division of the soul appears in the Phaedrus; in this passage, “soul” is a unitary faculty but selfhood is divided.)

We previously agreed that if the soul were a harmony, it would never be out of tune with the stress and relaxation and the striking of the strings or anything else done to its composing elements, but that it would follow and never direct them?

We did so agree, of course.

Well, does it now appear to do quite the opposite, ruling over all the elements of which one says it is composed, opposing nearly all of them throughout life, directing all their ways, inflicting harsh and painful punishments on them, at times in physical culture and medicine, at other times more gently by threats and exhortations, holding converse with desires and passions and fears as if it were one thing talking to a different one, as Homer wrote somewhere in the Odyssey where he says that Odysseus “struck his breast and rebuked his heart saying, `Endure, my heart, you have endured worse than this.”
(9q c-d, Complete Works 82)

The soul must discipline the wayward passions and appetites, and the result is frequent internal conflict. This internal conflict, a basic fact of psychological experience, is offered as evidence for the soul’s sovereignty and then, in a leap, of its divinity and immortality. Strikingly, it is not the soul’s conviction of its own transcendence but rather the persistence and strength of inner conflict that proves it is transcendent. The self’s fraught experience of itself testifies to major metaphysical realities. It is a surety that, like Platonic recollection, lies in every heart as intimate and indubitable truth.

From the point of view of science, the authoritative discourse of our own time, the self’s experience of itself has lost its hold on truth-value. Since the eighteenth century, the evidentiary value of introspection has come under grave suspicion. The story of how and why this change occurred is incisively told by E. S. Reed in his book From Soul to Mind: The Emergence of Psychology from Erasmus Darwin to William James. Developments in eighteenth-century thought cast doubt on the significance of the subject’s testimony as to its own state.

The tradition of British empiricism in particular taught investigators to treat the witness of consciousness with suspicion: Humean skepticism introduced the idea that consciousness may be self-deceiving, and Hartleian associationism argued that it is shaped by unconscious processes of which, by definition, it has no knowledge. The subject’s experience of itself was thus radically demoted in testamentary status and the study of it banished to “unscientific” discourses: philosophy (primarily phenomenology), religion, literature, and “humanistic” psychology.

In Reed’s view, the chief casualty of this disciplinary divide is respect for “concrete, lived experience,” now treated by science as an amorphous and incidental phenomenon unavailable to analysis. Reed concludes severely that scientific psychology has thus rendered itself irrelevant: “Once the science of psychology arrogates the right to reject out of hand the content of a person’s experience — because it is too inchoate, mystical, or whatever — it can no longer pronounce on the meaning of that experience.

Psychology in its present divided state applies at best intermittently and incompletely to the lives most of us lead.” Reed warns that as a consequence, a void appears where authoritative response to ordinary inner struggle should be. Scientific psychology abandons “the important territory connecting everyday experience with meaningful self-understanding” to the seductive manipulation of demagogues and fanatics.

According to Reed, the last scientific psychologist to try to bridge the gap was William James, who in his view resisted the subdivision of disciplines and maintained the value of investigating “a wider realm of experience” than his contemporaries. James insisted not only on taking the experience of consciousness seriously but also on treating it as a subject about which science ought to find something useful to say. James wrote a deft argumentative sally that Reed does not cite but that clearly supports his view of James. It occurs in The Varieties of Religious Experience, at a moment when James is questioning the scientific ideal of objectivity.

It is absurd for science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places, — they are strung upon it like so many beads. To describe the world with all the various feelings of the individual pinch of destiny, all the various spiritual attitudes, left out from the description — they being describable as anything else — would be something like offering a printed bill of fare as the equivalent for a solid meal. Religion makes no such blunder. The individual’s religion may be egotistic, and those private realities which it keeps in touch with may be narrow enough; but at any rate it always remains infinitely less hollow and abstract, as far as it goes, than a science which prides itself on taking no account of anything private at all.

Much as I delight in James’s polemical vigor, I cannot pretend I know enough to evaluate his comments on the limitations of scientific psychology. But neither do I think it is his aim to endorse “religion.” James points out that, when it comes to addressing “private” experience, there is a very strict division of labor between “scientific” and “unscientific” discourses. His polemicism enters in when he adds that supercilious disregard of subjective experience leads to a certain irrelevance. I quote this passage because I wish to draw an analogy between what James and Reed see as the neglect of lived psychological experience in scientific psychology and the suspicion of “the self” in much current literary discussion.


William Blake’s Loneliness Of The Soul – Laura Quinney

January 26, 2012

Blake's Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the "single-vision" of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass (recalling Proverbs 8:27, an important passage for Milton) to write upon a scroll that seems to project from his own head.

Blake’s essential topic is the unhappiness of the subject within its own subjectivity, or to use a more plangent idiom, the loneliness of the soul. This unhappiness is very often expressed in dualism, either of mind-body or of subject-object; both imply that subjectivity is anomalous in a material world and that each subject is isolated from others. Blake seeks to repair this deep ontological wound.

He starts from the premise that consciousness intrinsically experiences the intuition of soul and its loneliness in the world (its failure to fit in), or at least consciousness in what he would have called the “six thousand years” of Western history. The major religions and philosophical movements of the West have built on this intuition and also strengthened it. Sacrificial religion, Judaism, orthodox Christianity, Aristotle, and the Stoics all conspire to diminish the ontological status of the human being in its own eyes by representing the soul as “an atom in darkness,” a mere spot of consciousness engulfed by all-powerful external forces. The most recent avatars of this error can be found in empiricism and the New Science.

Blake’s critique of empiricism is usually described in philosophical terms as an objection to its ontology, its treatment of Nature and natural man as final realities. But Blake’s more profound objection to empiricism is psychological: the New Science is “a Science [of] Despair.” It encourages the center of consciousness, or “I,” to regard itself as passive and helpless. The “I” has been thrust into a material world whose power and influence over it are disproportionate; it is invisible and intangible where the world is solid and real.

The world was there before it, and so its “life” is largely reactive. It floats about, an immaterial node, embedded in its disturbing private experience. It can master neither the stimuli to which it is exposed nor the effects of stimuli in its interior. The “I” finds the self to be dark and strange, occupied by things it does not acknowledge as its own — hidden processes and extrinsic “impressions” the world has forced upon it.

In empiricist psychology, personal identity; or the unique “I,” is stranded. Because it is immaterial, it is isolated in the material world, and because it is an atomic or unique existence, it is isolated in itself. Blake summarizes this plight in The Four Zoas in the opening lament of Tharmas, who complains of having a troubling and contradictory sense of self:

I am like an atom
A Nothing left in darkness yet I am an identity
I wish & feel & weep & groan Ah terrible terrible
The Four Zoas, William Blake

Tharmas says he feels like an “atom” because he is experiencing his subject-life in the terms that empirical science suggests. He must figure the “I” as a thing because the spiritual terms have been debarred.

So he describes the “I” as a little node of consciousness adrift in a dark and alien world of matter. It is a like an atom: single, essential, small, opaque. And yet it is not material after all. Consciousness is not comparable to matter, but once matter is stipulated as the prevailing reality, consciousness loses definition. What place in a material world can that have which is immaterial, and hence wispy and spectral? So Tharmas pessimistically revises his formulation; his “I” is less than an atom, it is ‘A Nothing left in darkness.” But that description does not seem quite accurate to him either, and he has to revise again. “I am… A Nothing left in darkness yet I am an identity.”

Dwarfed by the dominance of matter, the “I” feels that it is nothing, and yet it also has the opposite intuition: it knows itself as the one reality it is sure of (as Descartes would say), the one true being, an “identity” How to explain this contradiction? The word “identity” takes over here from the word “atom”: it is still reductive, it still suggests thing-ness.

Blake no doubt alludes to the chapter of Locke’s Essay in which he defines “personal identity,” or continuity of the self, in minimal terms as present consciousness plus its continuous memories of itself. This is a narrow definition, befitting a materialist psychology, and to Blake’s mind it deserves parody. Blake counters empiricist definition in this passage by using the word “identity” in a subtly: ironic sense, intimating its perverse inadequacy. Tharmas clearly feels no better once he has defined consciousness as “identity” because he right away dissolves into incoherent emotional protest: ‘Ah terrible terrible.”

Thus he characterizes himself as an “identity” insofar as he “wish[es] & feel[s] & weep[s groan[s]” in vain. Tharmas finds that selfhood seems on the one hand insignificant, cant and on the other, absolutely central. Even in an empiricist, the inter life reasserts its urgency, but it cannot assign a meaning or purpose to either its tumults or their bearing on anything without. A Nothing left in darkness ought not to be burdened with a vain but engulfing internal life, and that is what seems so “terrible.”

Empiricism’s reductive accounts of identity fail to address the urgency the inner life. Blake’s point is not that philosophy remains irrelevant to our daily practice, but rather something much deeper. He perceives that the subject cannot possibly conform to the proscription on selfhood implicit empiricism; it cannot live peacefully with the contradiction between the conclusions of naturalism and the intuition of selfhood.

The place of the subject in a material world has become a vital issue with the rise of the New Science amid the New Science, Blake says, has imposed on the subject an untenable view of itself. One cannot live with the bracketing of subjectivity; it creates a form of psychological division too agitating to be ignored. The transcendent intuition pursues you even if you disavow it. It must be owned, but possibly the worst way to own it is through orthodox cosmology, theology, or eschatology in which the divinity of the soul is referred to the noblesse oblige of a tyrannical creator-god and to fulfillment in another life. Blake recommends instead identifying it with a creative power that is your own possession in the here and now. Above all, he says, how the self thinks and feels about itself must be taken into account. A descriptive psychology like his own, he asserts, speaks directly to the self’s intuitions and fictions about itself.

When Tharmas adopts the empiricist view of the subject — when he defines himself as Natural Man — he falls into a revealing state of confusion. His bafflement reminds us that although empiricism and the scientific materialism to which it is related claim to present an objective or “neutral” view, they are themselves ideological, forcefully “interpellating a subject,” [the process by which ideology addresses the pre-ideological individual and produces him or her as a subject proper]as we would say now, rather than leaving the domain blank, as it purports to do.

Peter Otto forcefully remarks: “Blake is not suggesting that Locke, Bacon, and Newton are wrong in their descriptions of fallen humanity. In fact they are correct.”  That is how we live now. Any body of knowledge that gives an account of human nature automatically “interpellates a subject,” and it perpetrates bad faith when it claims that it does not. Blake makes this argument in his address “To the Deists,” where he insists “Man must & will have Some Religion; if he has not the Religion of Jesus, he will have the Religion of Satan” (J 52, Ezot).

Consciously or not, everyone holds some concept of the human and the divine and their interrelation. There is such a view hidden in empiricism, precisely insofar as it denies that anything meaningful can be said about the divine and the relation of the human to the divine. For embedded in this notion is an assertion of the subject’s helplessness. If we must have a view, says Blake, let us have a more constructive one. Let us have Blake’s own, in which there is neither a distant nor a punitive God and the human subject does not have to look upon itself as a poor thing abandoned to darkness.


William Blake And The Intuition Of Selfhood – Laura Quinney

January 25, 2012

Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, painted in 1807. The original hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Martin and Barresi in “Paradise Lost,” their chapter on twentieth-century challenges to the discourse of the self, name as demystification’s major figures Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, the thinkers most influential for current literary study. In fact, neither Lacan nor Derrida scotched the topic of the self; they adduce the bafflements of the self’s desire for masterful selfhood with some degree of sympathy. More clearly influential for this particular species of demystification is the received Foucault, the poststructuralist sloganeer who coined the catch phrase “the subject is dead.” (I will return further on to a subtler, deeper Foucault.) The dogmatic reception of these thinkers has promoted wholesale disdain for psychological discourse.

This disdain sometimes reaches the level of unthinking caricature. The trend is so common that I hardly know where to begin citing instances of it. Consider this example, chosen at random from an undergraduate textbook on literary criticism. Catherine Belsey opens her essay “Literature, History, Politics” with a mocking portrait of the literary psychological subject: “The sole inhabitant of the universe of literature is Eternal Man (and the masculine form is appropriate), whose brooding, feeling presence precedes, determines and transcends history.” Belsey reflexively, and symptomatically, conflates attention to subject-life with sexism, ahistoricism, and gross metaphysical illusion. (The strangely, unintentionally Blakean phrase “Eternal Man” gives one pause be- cause it would have so radically different a resonance in his poetry) The assumption seems to be that analyzing the experience of selfhood automatically means endorsing a bogus concept of Self. But that is the very concept perpetually under siege in ordinary psychological experience.

The Self is always with us, already undermined, but there can be no progress in understanding its problematic relation to the actual experience of selfhood if the very discourse is declared taboo. Both James and Reed describe with admirable clarity the distortion that results from fixed inattention to subjective experience. It is ironic that literary study should have come to join in this neglect because subjective experience has since the Enlightenment increasingly become the province of literature and of other discourses dismissed as “merely” literary (such as psychoanalysis). Many literary texts have devoted themselves to dramatizing the experience of interior schism and struggle that science, the most authoritative discourse of our day, refuses to address. Yet a good deal of literary criticism now also refuses to address it.

As Socrates’s citation from the Odyssey suggests, Western literature has always paid attention to the self’s experience of itself and, particularly, to its experience of its own disunity. Yet literary treatment of these topics seems to accelerate from the late eighteenth century onward, and any number of compelling examples could be adduced from Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist novels and poetry. To give a smattering, consider the representation of the subject divided against itself or puzzled by its own nature in such canonical works as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection,” George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The popularity of these topics is no accident.

As Reed shows, the later eighteenth through early twentieth centuries witness the official splitting of the subject between conscious and unconscious, with the result that the testimony of consciousness is demoted. Literary focus on the experience of subjectivity occurs simultaneously with the bracketing of subjectivity in scientific discourse, and it can be interpreted as a response. Literature picks up where some other contemporary discourses leave off, drawing on the fascinating new anatomies of the subject formulated in contemporary science and philosophy but seeking to explore them as they are experienced in psychological life.

The major philosophical debates in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain revolve around the clash between religion and the New Science. For our purposes, the important form of this clash is the dramatic challenge scientific materialism and a newly naturalistic psychology pose to traditional ideas of self and soul. Can the old theological discourse of the “soul” serve any function in a scientific environment? Can it be replaced with a naturalistic concept of “self,” which emphasizes the preservative instincts of the organism? Should that concept, too, be superseded by theories of mind and brain functioning founded on sensory atomism?

Essentially there is a showdown between scientific materialism and subjective intuition. The important intervention of literature is this: it shows that the questions raised by scientists and philosophers already influence the self’s experience of itself. The self carries on these debates and feels the force of these questions in the form of anxiety and self-bafflement. To give an example: the exploration of self-division might be said to climax in the period’s emblematic text on the subject, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Jekyll’s last testimony, he reflects with repugnance on his “other” half.

[Jekyll] had now seen the full deformity of that creature that shared with him some of the phenomena of consciousness, and was co-heir with him to death: and beyond these links of community, which in themselves made the most poignant part of his distress, he thought of Hyde, for all his energy of life, as of something not only hellish but inorganic. This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead and had no shape, should usurp the office of life.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Reed discusses Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the context of contemporary speculation about the existence of a rational “unconscious.” To my mind, it more obviously dramatizes the contemporary discussion of “soul” in its relation to matter. Does matter think? Does mere neural activity create the “illusion” of consciousness and the intuition of soul? Regardless of whether Stevenson takes a position on the controversy, he makes a claim that the contemporary science does not: namely, that the intellectual debate is experienced as conflict by and within an individual psyche. For a tear is an intellectual thing. Jekyll is tormented by the gulf between subjectivity and material being; his horror at the errant vitality of Hyde reflects the subject’s alienation from the body and its autonomy.

Consciousness balks but cannot extract itself from its entanglement with the body. The body is neither inert nor, by contrast with Plato and Descartes, is it merely a source of deception and temptation; it has its own ways and will from which consciousness or reason can by no means detach themselves. Clearly Jekyll’s experience is not universal. Yet the novel does what horror stories commonly do: it raises everyday conflicts to the register of the supernatural. The literary text takes up the philosophical issues, translating them into psychological crisis: the center of consciousness, or “I,” reacts to material being with dread and uncertainty.

But the quandary from which Jekyll suffers is not necessarily substance dualism, for the “I” in him that quarrels with material being does not identify itself as a different order of being (an intelligible substance, something divine). Instead his anxiety seems topical; it reflects the pressure that scientific materialism exerts over the sense of self. (Not that materialism was invented in eighteenth-century Britain, but then and there it established a major cultural empire it had never had before.)

It was the Romantic poets, two generations before Stevenson, who first began to explore the impact of materialism on self within the experience of the subject. The isolation of consciousness in the material world is a topic uniquely associated with Romanticism. The contemporary prestige of materialism made the isolation of consciousness a more acute problem because, stripped of its transcendent provenance, consciousness must struggle to make sense of its existence. Why must one labor tinder the burden of subjectivity if there is no intelligible world to which the soul belongs, or if mind itself reduces to the firing of neurons?

One Romantic reaction is to reinstate the transcendent provenance of the spirit, although usually with considerable new refinements. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge borrows from German Idealism to oppose the living Subject and the “dead” object world. Instead of arguing the issue in the abstract, the Romantic crisis lyric — Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” — dramatizes the plight of a subject struggling to understand its relation to the object world. Such dramatization can reach impressive heights of complexity: Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode presents the traumatic experience of consciousness awakening to its alienation from actuality and seeking, with all deliberate if uncertain will, to create for itself a faith in its transcendent provenance. No dramatization of this plight is starker than the anguished soliloquy of Shelley’s Alastor Poet, who addresses his urgent questions about the purpose of consciousness to a swan who cannot understand him.

And what am I that I should linger here,
With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes,
Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned
To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers
In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven
That echoes not my thoughts?
Alastor,” 11. 285-90, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 81

Shelley presents as psychologically tormenting the experience of the subject marooned in a no-man’s-land between lost transcendence and reductive materialism. With his intellectual sophistication and keen historical sense, Shelley might have thought the Alastor Poet’s anguish premature or primitive. But the whole body of his work, right down to the Neoplatonic poignancy of Adonais, with its fierce claim that “Life … Stains the white radiance of Eternity” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose), manifests his respect for the aspirations of the subject and his insistence that pat formulas are insufficient to cure its unease.

This is where Blake comes in. Of all the Romantics, Blake was keenest and most systematic in his critique of materialism; more to the point, he was the one who insisted in the most explicit terms that the intuition of selfhood does not dissipate just because it has been renounced. For Blake the intuition of selfhood includes the intuition of its transcendence — its superiority to the material world — and he maintained that if this intuition is simply discounted as an illusion, it will not die down but rather rankle and torment. Martin and Barresi rather complacently say that it is progress to “shed illusions” and that it shows how important the repudiation of the concept of self is that “it may be psychologically impossible to embrace [it] wholeheartedly.”

But what happens when we are unable to embrace it? We become avatars of Hegel’s unhappy consciousness; we find ourselves living at odds with our own subjectivity. Blake satirized the proponents of such dead-end unbelief in the person of the Idiot Questioner, “who publishes doubt & calls it knowledge, whose Science is Despair” (M 41:15, E142). His target was equally the empiricists and the philosophes — “[Francis] Bacon, [Isaac] Newton & Locke,” “Voltaire Rousseau Gibbon Hume” (M 41:5, E142; J 52, E2o1) — all to his mind reductive skeptics who superciliously disregard the torment of subjectivity.

But Blake thought Lockean empiricism especially guilty of imposing cruel strictures on the subject, requiring it to regard its experiences as irreal [vocab: Not real. irreality], shadowy epiphenomena of a “real” physical world. This theory outraged Blake — he thought it entailed forcible suppression of the subject’s need and its nature; its just and unavoidable need to esteem subjectivity and its natural intuition of transcendence.

Blake claimed that the subject laboring under the injunctions of empiricism will suffer from a kind of schizophrenia in which it has to treat as phantasmal (the inner life) what at the same time presses upon it with the utmost urgency. In short, he found empiricist psychology simplistic and grossly inadequate.

Blake thought of himself as providing what his philosophical contemporaries had abjured: an account of inner realities from the subject’s point of view. For he perceived that the science and philosophy of his own day had become increasingly committed to discounting the value of perception and introspection, and that they were thereby simply abandoning the subject to its vexed experience of itself. The subject’s bewildering intuition of transcendence, in particular, was definitively discharged, which left it with no choice but to go seek a home in False Religion.


The Prayer of Jesus: Jesus’ Prayer on the Mount of Olives in the Letter to the Hebrews – Pope Benedict XVI

January 24, 2012

William Blake, The Agony in the Garden, circa 1799-1800

We must turn our attention to the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that points toward the Mount of Olives. There we read: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and lip was heard for his godly fear” (5:7). Here we may identify an independent tradition concerning the Gethsemane event, for there is no mention of loud cries or tears in the gospels.

We have to admit that the author of the Letter is clearly not referring exclusively to the night in Gethsemane, but has’ in mind the whole of Jesus’ via dolorosa right up to the crucifixion, that is to say, to the moment when, according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus “cried out with a loud voice” the opening words of Psalm 22; these two evangelists also tell us that Jesus expired with is loud cry; Matthew expressly uses the word “cried” at this point, meaning “cry out” (cf. 27:50). John speaks of Jesus’ tears at the death of Lazarus, and this in the context of his being “troubled” in spirit — for which, as we have seen, John uses the word that was to reappear in the “Palm Sunday” passage corresponding to the Mount of Olives tradition.

Each time, it is a question of Jesus’ encounter with the powers of death, whose ultimate depths he as the Holy One of God can sense in their full horror. The Letter to the Hebrews views the whole of Jesus’ Passion — from the Mount of Olives to the last cry from the Cross — as thoroughly permeated by prayer, one long impassioned plea to God for life in the face of the power of death.

If the Letter to the Hebrews treats the entire Passion as a prayer in which Jesus wrestles with God the Father and at the same time with human nature, it also sheds new light on the theological depth of the Mount of Olives prayer. For these cries and pleas are seen as Jesus’ way of exercising his high priesthood. It is through his cries, his tears, and his prayers that Jesus does what the high priest is meant to do: he holds up to God the anguish of human existence. He brings man before God.

There are two particular words with which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews underlines this dimension of Jesus’ prayer. The verb “bring” (prospherein: bring before God, bear aloft — cf. Heb 5:1) comes from the language of the sacrificial cult. What Jesus does here lies right at the heart of what sacrifice is. “He offered himself to do the will of the Father”, as Albert Vanhoye comments (Let Us Confidently Welcome Christ Our High Priest, p. 60).

The second word that is important for our purposes tells us that through his sufferings Jesus learned obedience and was thus “made perfect” (Hebrews 5:8-9). Vanhoye points out that in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, the expression “make perfect” (teleioun) is used exclusively to mean “consecrate as priest” (p. 62). The Letter to the Hebrews takes over this terminology (cf. 711, 19, 28). So the passage in question tells us that Christ’s obedience, his final “yes” to the Father accomplished on the Mount of Olives, as it were, “consecrated him as a priest”; it tells us that precisely in this act of self giving, in this bearing-aloft of human existence to God, Christ truly became a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:9-10; cf. Vanhoye, pp. 61-62).

At this point, though, we must move on toward the heart of what the Letter to the Hebrews has to say concerning the prayer of the suffering Lord. The text states that Jesus pleaded with him who had the power to save him front death and that, on account of his godly fear (cf. 5:7), his prayer was granted. But was it granted? He still died on the Cross! For this reason Harnack maintained that the word “not” must have been omitted here, and Bultmann agrees. But an exegesis that turns a text into its opposite is no exegesis. Rather, we must attempt to understand this mysterious form of “granting” so as to come closer to grasping the mystery of our own salvation.

We may distinguish different aspects of this “granting”. One possible translation of the text would be: “He was heard and delivered from his fear.” This would correspond to Luke’s account, which says that an angel came and comforted him (cf. 22:43). It would then refer to the inner strength given to Jesus through prayer, so that he was able to endure the arrest and the Passion resolutely. Yet the text obviously says more: the Father raised him from the night of death and, through the Resurrection, saved him definitively and permanently from death: Jesus dies no more (cf. Vanhoye, Let Us Confidently Welcome Christ Our High Priest, p. 60). Yet surely the text means even more: the Resurrection is not just Jesus’ personal rescue from death. He did not die for himself alone. His was dying “for others”; it was the conquest of death itself.

Hence this “granting” may also be understood in terms of the parallel text in John 12:27-28, where in answer to Jesus’ prayer: “Father, glorify your name!” a voice from heaven replies: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again. The Cross itself has become God’s glorification, the glory of God made manifest in the love of the Son. This glory extends beyond the moment into the whole weep of history. This glory is life. It is on the Cross that we see it, hidden yet powerful: the glory of God, the transformation of death into life.

From the Cross, new life comes to us. On the Cross, Jesus becomes the source of life for himself and for all. On the Cross, death is conquered. The granting of Jesus’ prayer concerns all mankind: his obedience becomes life for all. This conclusion is spelled out for us in the closing words of the passage we have been studying: “He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:9-10; cf Psalm 110:4).



The Prayer of Jesus: Jesus’ Will and the Will of the Father – Pope Benedict XVI

January 23, 2012

Giovanni Bellini, Le Christ Benissant, 1465 – 1470, at the Louvre in Paris

What does this mean? What is “my” will as opposed to “your” will? Who is speaking to whom? Is it the Son addressing the Father? Or the man Jesus addressing the triune God? Nowhere else in sacred Scripture do we gain t deep an insight into the inner mystery of Jesus as in the laver on the Mount of Olives. So it is no coincidence it the early Church’s efforts to arrive at an understand of the figure of Jesus Christ took their final shape as a result of faith-filled reflection on his prayer on the Mount of Olives.

At this point we should undertake a rapid overview of the early Church’s Christology, in order to grasp its understanding of the interrelation between the divine will and the human will in the figure of Jesus Christ. The Council of Nicea (325) had clarified the Christian concept of God. The three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are one, in the one “substance” of God. More than a century later, the Council of Chalcedon (451) sought to articulate the relation between divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ by adopting the formula that the one person of the Son of God embraces and bears the two natures — human and divine — “without confusion and without separation”.

Thus the infinite difference between God and man, between Creator and creature is preserved: humanity remains humanity, divinity remains divinity. Jesus’ humanity is neither absorbed nor reduced by his divinity. It exists in its fullness, while subsisting in the divine person of the Logos. At the same time, in the continuing distinction of natures, the expression “one person” conveys the radical unity that God in Christ has entered into with man. The formula of Pope Leo the Great — two natures, one person — expresses an insight that transcended by fit the historical moment, and for that reason it was enthusiastically accepted by the Council Fathers.

Yet it was ahead of its time: its concrete meaning had not yet been fully set forth. What is meant by “nature”? But more importantly, what is meant by “person”? Since this was by no means clear, many bishops after Chalcedon said that they would rather think like fishermen than like Aristotle. The formula remained obscure. Therefore the reception of Chalcedon was an extremely complex process, and fierce battles were fought over it.

In the end it led to division: only the Churches of Rome and Byzantium definitively accepted the Council and its formula. Alexandria in Egypt preferred to remain with the formula of “one divinized nature” (monophysitism); while farther east, Syria remained skeptical about the notion of one person, as it appeared to . compromise Jesus’ true humanity (Nestorianism). It was not simply ideas that were at issue here: more significantly, contrasting forms of devotion burdened the debate with the weight of religious sensibilities, rendering it insoluble.

The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon continues to indicate, to the Church of all ages, the necessary pathway into the mystery of Jesus Christ. That said, it has t be appropriated anew in the context of contemporary thought, since the concepts of “nature” and “person” have acquired quite different meanings from those they had at the time. This task of reappropriation must go hand to hand with ecumenical dialogue with the pre-Chalcedonian Churches, so that our lost unity may be regained in the core of our faith — in our confession of the God who became man in Jesus Christ.

The great battle that was fought after Chalcedon, especially in the Byzantine East, was essentially concerned with the question: If there is only one divine person in Jesus, embracing both natures, then what is the status of his human nature? If it subsists within the one divine person, can it be said to have any real, specific existence in itself? Must it not inevitably be absorbed by the divine, at least at its highest point, the will?

This leads us to the last of the great Christological heresies, known as ” monotheletism”. There can be only one will within the unity of a person, its adherents maintained; a person with two wills would be schizophrenic: ultimately it is in the will that a person manifests himself, and where there is only one person, then ultimately there can be only one will. Yet an objection comes to mind: What kind of man has no human will? Is a man without a will really a man? Did God in Jesus truly become man, if this man had no will?

The great Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) formulated an answer to this question by struggling to understand Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. Maximus is first and foremost a determined opponent of monotheletism: Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos; it remains complete. And the will is part of human nature. This irreducible duality of human and divine willing in Jesus must not, however, be understood to imply the schizophrenia of a dual personality.

Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each. In other words: in Jesus the “natural will” of the human nature is present, but there is only one “personal will”, which draws the “natural will” into itself. And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will. In becoming attuned to the divine will. it experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation.

Maximus says in this regard that the human will, by virtue of creation tends toward synergy (working together) with the divine will, but that through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will. He regards consenting to God’s will, not as his opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.

The drama of the Mount of Olives lies in the fact that Jesus draws man’s natural will away from opposition and back toward synergy, and in so doing he restores man’s true greatness. In Jesus’ natural human will, the sum total of human nature’s resistance to God is, as it were, present within Jesus himself. The obstinacy of us all, the whole of our opposition to God is present, and in his struggle, Jesus elevates our recalcitrant nature to become its real self.

Christoph Schonborn says in this regard that “the transition between the two wills from opposition to union is accomplished through the sacrifice of obedience. In the agony of Gethsemane, this transition occurs” (God’s Human Face, pp. 126-27). Thus the prayer “not my will, but yours” (Luke 22:42) is truly the Son’s prayer to the Father, through which the natural human will is completely subsumed into the “I” of the Son. Indeed, the Son’s whole being is expressed in the “not I, but you” — in the total self-abandonment of the “I” to the “you” of God the Father. This same “I” has subsumed and transformed humanity’s resistance, so that we are all now present within the Son’s obedience; we are all drawn into sonship.

This brings us to one final point regarding Jesus’ prayer, to its actual interpretative key, namely, the form of address: “Abba, Father” (Mk 14:36). In 1966 Joachim Jeremias wrote an important article about the use of this term in Jesus’ prayer, from which I should like to quote two essential insights: “Whereas there is not a single instance of God being addressed as Abba in the literature of Jewish prayer, Jesus always addressed him in this way (with the exception of the cry from the Cross, Mark 15:34 and parallel passages). So we have here a quite unmistakable characteristic of the ipsissima vox Jesu (Abba, p. 5).

Moreover, Jeremias shows that this word Abba belongs to the language of children — that it is the way a child addresses his father within the family. “To the Jewish mind it would have been disrespectful and therefore inconceivable to address God with this familiar word. For Jesus to venture to take this step was something new and unheard of. He spoke to God like a child to his father … Jesus’ use of Abba in addressing God reveals the heart of his relationship with God” (p. 62). It is therefore quite mistaken on the part of some theologians to suggest that the man Jesus was addressing the Trinitarian God in the prayer on the Mount of Olives. No, it is the Son speaking here, having subsumed the fullness of man’s will into himself and transformed it into the will of the Son.


The Prayer Of Jesus: The Prayer On The Mount Of Olives – Pope Benedict XVI

January 20, 2012

Christ in Gethsemane by Heinrich Ferdinand Hofmann, 1890

The prayer on the Mount of Olives, which follows next, has come down to us in five versions: first, there are the accounts in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46); then there is a short text in the Fourth Gospel that John places among the collection of Jesus’ sayings in the Temple on “Palm Sunday” (12:27 28); and finally there is one based on a separate tradition in the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-10). Let us now attempt, by examining these texts together, to approach as close as we can to the mystery of this hour of Jesus.

After the common recitation of the psalms, Jesus prays alone — as on so many previous nights. Yet close by is the group of three disciples — Peter, James, and John: a trio known to us from other contexts, especially from the account of the Transfiguration. These three disciples, even though they are repeatedly overcome by sleep, are the witnesses of Jesus’ night of anguish. Mark tells us that Jesus “began to be greatly distressed and troubled”. The Lord says to his disciples: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch” (14:33-34).

The summons to vigilance has already been a major theme of Jesus’ Jerusalem teaching, and now it emerges directly with great urgency. And yet, while it refers specifically to Gethsemane, it also points ahead to the later history of Christianity. Across the centuries, it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up possibilities for the power of the Evil One. Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the Evil One at work in the world and by all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth.

In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad, so as to continue in the self satisfaction of its own comfortable existence. Yet this deadening of souls, this lack of vigilance regarding both God’s closeness and the looming forces of darkness, is what gives the Evil One power in the world. On beholding the drowsy disciples, so disinclined to rouse themselves, the Lord says: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” This is a quotation from Psalm 43:5, and it calls to mind other verses from the Psalms.

In the Passion, too — on the Mount of Olives and on the Cross Jesus uses passages from the Psalms to speak of himself and to address the Father. Yet these quotations have become fully personal; they have become the intimate words of Jesus himself in his agony. It is he who truly prays these psalms; he is their real subject. Jesus’ utterly personal prayer and his praying in the words of faithful, suffering Israel are here seamlessly united.

After this admonition to vigilance, Jesus goes a short distance away. This is where the prayer on the Mount of Olives actually begins. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus falls on his face — the prayer posture of extreme submission to the will of God, of radical self-offering to him. In the Western liturgy, this posture is still adopted on Good Friday, at monastic professions, and at ordinations.

Luke, however, has Jesus kneeling to pray. In terms of praying posture, then, he draws Jesus’ night of anguish into the context of the history of Christian prayer: Stephen sinks to his knees in prayer as he is being stoned (Acts 7:6o); Peter kneels before he wakes Tabitha from death (Acts 9:40); Paul kneels to bid farewell to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:36) and again when the disciples tell him not to go up to Jerusalem (Acts 21:5). Alois Stöger says on this subject: “When they were confronted with the power of death, they all prayed kneeling down. Martyrdom can be overcome only by prayer. Jesus is the model of martyrs” (The Gospel according to Saint Luke II, p. 199).

There now follows the prayer itself, in which the whole drama of our redemption is made present. In Mark’s account, Jesus begins by asking that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him (14:35). This is then filled out by a statement of the essential content of the prayer: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (14:36).

We may distinguish three elements in this prayer of Jesus. First there is the primordial experience of fear, quaking, in the face of the power of death, terror before the abyss of nothingness that makes him tremble to the point that, in Luke’s account, his sweat falls to the ground like drops of blood (cf. 22:44). In the equivalent passage in Saint John’s Gospel (12:27), this horror is expressed, as in the Synoptics, in terms reminiscent of Psalm 43:5, but using a word that emphasizes the dark depths of Jesus’ fear: tetáraktai —  is the same verb, tarássein, that John uses to describe Jesus’ deep emotion at the tomb of Lazarus (cf. 11:33) as well as his inner turmoil at the prophecy of Judas’ betrayal in the Upper Room (cf. 13:21).

In this way John is clearly indicating the primordial fear of created nature in the face of imminent death, and yet there is more: the particular horror felt by him who is Life itself before the abyss of the full power of destruction, evil, and enmity with God that is now unleashed upon him, that he now takes directly upon himself, or rather into himself, to the point that he is “made to be sin” (cf. 3 Corinthians 5:21).

Because he is the Son, he sees with total clarity the whole foul flood of evil, all the power of lies and pride, all the wiles and cruelty of the evil that masks itself as life yet constantly serves to destroy, debase, and crush life. Because he is the Son, he experiences deeply all the horror, filth, and baseness that he must drink from the “chalice” prepared for him: the vast power of sin and death. All this he must take into himself, so that it can be disarmed and defeated in him.

As Bultmann rightly observes: Jesus here is “not simply the prototype, in whom the behavior demanded of man becomes visible in an exemplary manner … he is also and above all the Revealer, whose decision alone makes possible in such an hour the human decision for God” (The Gospel of John, p. 428). Jesus’ fear is far more radical than the fear that everyone experiences in the face of death: it is the collision between light and darkness, between life and death itself — the critical moment of decision in human history. With this understanding, following Pascal, we may see ourselves drawn quite personally into the episode on the Mount of Olives: my own sin was present in that terrifying chalice. “Those drops of blood I shed for you”, Pascal hears the Lord say to him during the agony on the Mount of Olives (cf. Pensées VII, 553).

The two parts of Jesus’ prayer are presented as the confrontation between two wills: there is the “natural will” of the man Jesus, which resists the appalling destructiveness of what is happening and wants to plead that the chalice pass from him; and there is the “filial will” that abandons itself totally to the Father’s will. In order to understand this mystery of the “two wills” as much as possible, it is helpful to take a look at John’s version of the prayer. Here, too, we find the same two prayers on Jesus’ lips: “Father, save me from this hour … Father, glorify your name” (John 12:27-28).

The relationship between these two prayers in John’s account is essentially no different from what we find in the Synoptics. The anguish of Jesus’ human soul (“I am troubled”; Bultmann translates it as: “I am afraid”, p. 427) impels him to pray for deliverance from this hour. Yet his awareness of his mission, his knowledge that it was for this hour that he came, enables him to utter the second prayer — the prayer that God glorify his name: it is Jesus’ acceptance of the horror of the Cross, his ignominious experience of being stripped of all dignity and suffering a shameful death, that becomes the glorification of God’s name.

For in this way, God is manifested as he really is: the God who, in the unfathomable depth of his self-giving love, sets the true power of good against all the power of evil. Jesus uttered both prayers, but the first one, asking for deliverance, merges into the second one, asking for God to be glorified by the fulfillment of his will — and so the conflicting elements blend into unity deep within the heart of Jesus’ human existence.


I Believe In The Resurrection Of The Body, And The Life Everlasting — Fr. Ronald Knox

January 19, 2012

Fr. Ronald Knox, the famous Catholic convert and apologist who was a major figure in the English Catholic Literary Revival during the first half of the twentieth century.

From his classic, The Creed in Slow Motion.


I WAS TALKING TO YOU LAST SUNDAY, if you remember, about sitting in the confessional on Saturday evenings, and how it’s liable to give you pins and needles. And for fear you should think that that is a very heroic sacrifice on my part, let me recall to your memory the life of that very nice Saint, St. John Vianney, the Cur of Ars. I should have liked to give you a whole sermon about him, but I expect you know something about him already; if you want to know what he looked like, you’ve only got to go to the pigsties in the old stables, and you will find him there on a window-sill, because he is supposed to be rather good at looking after the health of farm animals. And if you think he would mind being in the pigsty, it shows you know very little about the Cure d’Ars.

He used to spend about fourteen hours every day in the confessional. He came out for his lunch, which consisted of one or two potatoes, and he knew all his people and loved all his people and spent a lot of time visiting them, but, as I say, for fourteen hours every day he sat in the confessional, because penitents used to come to him from all over the world and queue up for absolution. He went to bed for three or four hours at night, but it didn’t do him much good, because the devil, whom he used to call the grappin (which I think means the toasting-fork) used to come and pull him out of bed nearly every night, in the hope of persuading him to live differently.

However, he went on living like that very happily till he was over seventy. And one day, talking to a friend, he said, “I know one old man who would look rather a fool if there were no future life “. Then he checked himself, and said, “Although, as a matter of fact, it is such an honor to serve God, that we ought to be proud and glad to do it, even if he gave us no reward at all at the end of it “.

Well, now we’ve got to the end of the Credo and we’ve got to think of our lives, and the reward we are going to get perhaps. When God put man in an earthly paradise, and man made a mess of it, he could perfectly well have arranged, if you come to think of it, that Adam and Eve shouldn’t have any children. And if they hadn’t, one would be disposed to think, the situation would have been very neatly cleared up. Adam and Eve might have been allowed to spend a longish and fairly comfortable life, and then died, and been annihilated at death; or some kind of Limbo could have been invented, in which they could have lived on eternally as a pair of curiosities.

But God, for some reason, didn’t want to do that; he wanted mankind to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and, when they died, to fill heaven. He was determined to have a lot of human beings about in heaven, sharing his happiness. That’s curious, if you like. Of course, you may think it’s jolly to live in a crowd; and perhaps you rather pity the poor nuns when the holidays come and they are left all alone by themselves.. . . Well, you know, Aldenham isn’t too bad in the holidays. Anyhow, God wanted to have human beings about in heaven; and he left us with our free will, so that we could make use of the grace which he gives us and go to heaven if we did. If we didn’t, that is the most mysterious thing of all, and a thing I suppose we shall never understand in this life, that God has left human beings free to go to hell, if they want to. He lets us have our way, like an indulgent Father, and if we insist on sending ourselves to hell, he allows us to do it.

There are plenty of difficulties about this last article in the Credo. We are talking about hell as well as heaven, when we say we believe in the resurrection of the body. Why it is that the lost souls in hell have to have their bodies restored to them after the general judgment is not immediately obvious. It isn’t so that hell can hurt more; because the souls in hell do suffer, even before the general judgment, bodily pain.

You see, all the pain which we feel in our bodies has got to get through to us, if it’s to hurt. There’s no harm in your tooth aching, if that were all. The trouble is that You have got a toothache. And these sensations of pain which we derive, on earth, through the body, are felt, now, by the souls in hell, although they have at present no bodies to feel them with; the process, somehow, is short-circuited. And the pains of hell go on forever. The lost souls live in an eternal, changeless moment of despair.

All that, as I say, is a thing which I don’t suppose we shall ever understand in this life. There’s a story of an Irishman who had doubts about hell, and the priest said to him, “Well, look at it this way, Pat; if there’s no hell, where’s Cromwell?” And he said, “Ah, your Reverence, I hadn’t thought of that “. But somehow I don’t know that even that makes it clear. All you can say is that if you’re going to have a faith you have got to believe what it tells you, the uncomfortable parts as well as the comfortable ones.

However, it isn’t necessary to be thinking about the uncomfortable parts all the time; and as we are getting to the end of the Credo and the end of the term let’s try and finish up with a pleasant taste in our mouths. Let’s pretend, you and I, that we are going to heaven. Mind you, I don’t say that you are, still less that I am; but there’s no harm in pretending. Even so, what are we going to make of this odd clause, “the resurrection of the body”?

First, let’s notice that for some reason the Credo we say is a mistranslation of the Latin. The Credo which is said by the universal Church hasn’t got Corporis Resurrectionem, the resurrection of the body, as its last clause but one. Its last clause but one is CARNIS Resurrectionem, the Resurrection of the Flesh. And the flesh, in theological language (which comes from the Hebrew), means a great deal more than the body.

It means the whole of your human nature, gifts of mind as well as of body, so long as they are natural, not supernatural, gifts. However, that takes us into complicated questions of theology; so let’s just think about our bodies rising again, as they certainly will when the general judgment comes. Two common-sense questions naturally suggest themselves. One is, “How will it be possible for my body to rejoin my soul? Nothing will be left of my body by then, except a skeleton, if that “.

Do you know a book of poems called The Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers? Rather good, I think. In one of them Montrose, the Cavalier general who was killed by those very unpleasant people, the Covenanters, is made to say, “Go, nail my head to yonder tower, Give every town a limb; The God who made will gather them, I go from you to him “. That, in itself, seems rather a lot to hope for. But what about people who have been burnt in a fire; how are all their ashes going to be seccotined [vocab: A trade-name of a cement used to unite surfaces of paper, cloth, leather, etc] together again? And I think I’m right in saying that St. Thomas Aquinas, who always liked to allow for everything, discussed the question, What was going to happen about people who were eaten by cannibals? Because you might have a missionary saying, “Here, that’s my big toe “, and a cannibal saying, “No, it’s not, it’s part of my stomach “.

Well, that isn’t really as difficult a difficulty as it sounds. You see, it’s a mistake to think of one’s body as made up simply of so many bits of pink stuff. Your body is a living thing, which goes on changing all the time, as living things do. I think the scientific people tell us that every year every part of one’s body is made up of different pieces of stuff compared with last year. I’ve still got a scar where I had an operation in the year 1906. The pieces of skin round that scar have changed thirty-seven times since then, but it’s still there, which shows that I’ve still got the same body. The same body, though not made up of the same bits of skin; it isn’t going to be difficult for us, then, to get back the same body in the next world, without going round looking for lost bits and pieces. If you come to think of it, your finger-nails aren’t the same finger-nails, in a sense, as they were when the war started, because you’ve cut them a good many times since then, at least, I hope you have. But they are still your finger-nails. We shan’t want to collect, when the general judgment comes, every single piece of stuff in the world that has once been our finger-nails; if we did, we should find ourselves in heaven with finger-nails about a mile long. No, God can give us back our bodies without bothering about all the pieces of skin and hair that once belonged to them.

And there’s a third question that obviously suggests itself, about heaven. “What shall we want bodies for?” Think of the Saints in heaven now; our Lady’s body, as we know, was taken up to heaven when she died, but that isn’t true of St. Peter or St. Paul or any of the other Saints. Well, you can’t imagine St. Peter, now, in heaven, complaining that he finds it rather uncomfortable not having a body. And therefore, if people can get on quite, comfortably without their bodies till the general judgment, why can’t they get on quite comfortably without their bodies after the general judgment?

The answer to that, I think, is that body and soul were made for one another, and therefore both of them are in an unnatural state when you divide them, and demand to be reunited. It isn’t that the soul is unhappy without the body; it can express itself otherwise, in heaven. But the body, which has been our companion all through our earthly pilgrimage, must not be permanently left out in the cold; that wouldn’t be right. It, too, has its passport to eternity.

Not that, in heaven, our bodies will be in the same state as here. St. Paul tells us that our heavenly body won’t be any more like our earthly body than the harvest which you cut in the summer is like the miserable little wizened seeds which you sowed in the late autumn. Our bodies, in heaven, will be etherealized; they will have none of the disabilities which they had on earth; there will be no getting pins and needles in heaven. Our bodies, here, are rather a nuisance in some ways, aren’t they? Always running into things, or even into people. Our bodies in heaven, the theologians tell us, will offer no resistance to the touch, won’t be solid. And another awkward thing about our bodies here is that they can’t get about quick enough; we haven’t quite finished drying them when somebody shouts “Last bell!” and we know that they ought to be in the refectory. That will be all right in heaven; we don’t have the kind of body which takes time in moving from place to place. We shan’t have bodily needs, either, which we have to satisfy, by eating and drinking, for example. Perhaps you don’t regard that as very good news, but it’s all right really. I’m sure, before now, you must have been late for meals because you were so excited about a game you were playing or a book you were reading? Well, if you like to put it that way, heaven means spending eternity in a state of such excitement that we shall be eternally late for our meals.

Some things the theologians tell us about heaven are just guess-work, and don’t pretend to be more than guess-work. I think they say we shall all be thirty-three years of age, because that is the perfect time of life; I dare say it’s true, but it’s not in the Credo. They also tell us we shall all be good-looking; which is good news for some of us, and makes us wonder how our friends are going to recognize us; but that again isn’t in the Credo. What I think you can say with perfect confidence, although as far as I know it isn’t laid down officially anywhere, is that we shall know one another, and that part of our happiness in heaven will be due to finding ourselves re united with those we love. We shall be united, too, with the Saints who prayed for us while we were on earth; we shall be united by a love we never dreamt of to our Lord himself.

And at the same time, when we get to heaven, if we get to heaven, we shall realize that the Credo was true, instead of just going on believing it was true. We shall be conscious of God as our Father; we shall recognize that everything which happened on earth was part of an almighty design. We shall find it quite natural that there should be three Persons in the Godhead, and that the second Person should be both God and man; God’s only Son, our Lord, the visible object, now, of our worship, thanking us for all the little services we did for him.

We shall have no difficulty in seeing that our Blessed Lady became his Mother and yet remained a Virgin. And although pain and suffering will then be only a distant memory of the past, no part any longer of our daily experience, we shall be able to look into and understand the sufferings which our Lord underwent when he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, all those billions and billions of years ago; we shall understand those sufferings, and take, from them, the measure of his love. We shall look down into the twilight world of Limbo, where once the patriarchs were; quite empty, now, only a record of the past; and the strange old people we used to see in stained-glass windows will be real people to us then; brought to light when our Lord descended into hell.

The Resurrection will not merely be something that seems quite natural; we shall be conscious of it at every instant as the very condition of our being; for we, too, shall have become part of that Risen Life which our Lord brought back with him from the tomb. We shall see him, ascended, sitting at the right hand of his Father, thank him for the merciful judgments he passed on us, living and dead. We shall feel the presence of the Holy Spirit within us; we shall know the Church for Christ’s glorious Bride; we shall be in conscious communion with all the Saints; our sins, instead of looking black, will be rose-hued, like clouds at sunset, with the grace of final forgiveness. We shall be risen, soul and body; soul and body pulsing at every moment with the energies of an everlasting life.


The Golden Virgin – Paul Fussell

January 18, 2012

Albert, France had been held by the Allies since September 1914 and had been an organizational focal point throughout the British Somme offensive of 1916. In a matter of weeks of the British departure artillery fire brought the famous, precariously leaning, 'Virgin and child' statue on the tower of the basilica of Notre Dame be Brebières, crashing to the ground.

Winner of the 1976 National Book Award for Arts & Letters, Paul Fussell’s accomplishment, The Great War and Modern Memory, was (in the words of Lionel Trilling) “an original and brilliant piece of cultural history and one of the most deeply moving books I have read in a long time.”  It was listed as #75 in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century. A short vignette:

A memorable instance of the prevailing urge towards myth is the desire felt by everyone to make something significant of the famous leaning Virgin and Child atop the ruined Basilica at Albert. No one wanted it to remain what it literally was, merely an accidentally damaged third-rate gilded metal statue now so tenuously fixed to its tower that it might fall any moment. Myth busily attached portentous meaning to it.

Mystical prophecy was first. The war would end, the rumor went, when the statue finally fell to the street. Germans and British shared this belief, and both tried to knock the statue down with artillery. When this proved harder than it looked, the Germans promulgated the belief that the side that shot down the Virgin would lose the war. This is the prophecy recalled by Stephen Southwold, who associates the wonders attaching to the leaning Virgin with those ascribed to miraculously preserved front-line crucifixes:

There were dozens of miracle-rumors of crucifixes and Madonnas left standing amid chaos. In a few cases the image dripped blood or spoke words of prophecy concerning the duration of the war, .round the hanging Virgin of Albert Cathedral there gathered a host of these rumored prophecies, wonders and marvels, the chief one being that whichever side should bring her down was destined to lose the war.

The statue remained hanging until April, 1918, after the British had given up Albert to the Germans. Determined that the Germans not use the tower for an artillery observation post, the British turned heavy guns on it and brought it down, statue and all. Frank Richards was there:

The Germans were now in possession of Albert and were dug in some distance in front of it, and we were in trenches opposite them. The upside-down statue on the ruined church was still hanging. Every morning our bombing planes were going over and bombing the town and our artillery were constantly shelling it, but the statue seemed to be bearing a charmed existence. We were watching the statue one morning. Our heavy shells were bursting around the church tower, and when the stroke cleared away after the explosion of one big shell the statue was missing.

It was a great opportunity for the propagandists:

Some of our newspapers said that the Germans had wantonly destroyed it, which I expect was believed by the people that read them at the time.

But while the statue was still there, dangling below the horizontal, it was seen and interpreted by hundreds of thousands of men, who readily responded with significant moral metaphors and implicit allegorical myths. “The melodrama of it,” says Carrington “rose strongly in our hearts.”

The most obvious “meaning” of the phenomenon was clear: it was an emblem of pathos, of the effect of war on the innocent, on women and children especially. For some, the Virgin was throwing the Child down into the battle, offering Him as a sacrifice which might end the slaughter. This was the interpretation of Paul Maze, a French liaison NCO, who half-posited “a miracle” in the Virgin’s precarious maintenance of her position: “Still holding the infant Jesus in her outstretched arms,” he says, “the statue of the Virgin Mary, in spite of many hits, still held on top of the spire as if by a miracle. The precarious angle at which she now leaned forward gave her a despairing gesture, as though she were throwing the child into the battle.” Philip Gibbs interpreted the Virgin’s gesture similarly, as a “peace-offering to this world at war.”

Others saw her action not as a sacrifice but as an act of mercy: she was reaching out to save her child, who — like a soldier — was about to fall. Thus S. S. Horsley in July, 1916: “Marched through Albert where we saw the famous church with the statue of Madonna and Child hanging from the top of the steeple, at an angle of about 400 as if the Madonna was leaning down to catch the child which had fallen.” Still others took her posture to signify the utmost grief over the cruelties being played out on the Somme. “The figure once stood triumphant on the cathedral tower,” says Max Plowman; “now it is bowed as by the last extremity of grief.”  And to some, her attitude seemed suicidal: she was “diving,” apparently intent on destroying herself and her Child with her. But regardless of the way one interpreted the Virgin’s predicament, one’s rhetoric tended to turn archaic and poetic when one thought of her.

To Stephen Graham, what the Virgin is doing is “yearning”: “The leaning Virgin . . . hung out from the stricken tower of the mighty masonry of the Cathedral-church, and yearned o’er the city.” The poeticism o’er is appropriate to the Virgin’s high (if vague) portent. In the next sentence Graham lays aside that particular signal of the momentous and resumes with mere over, which marks the passage from metaphor back to mere cliche: “The miracle of her suspense in air over Albert was a never-ceasing wonder. . . .”

Whatever myth one contrived for the leaning Virgin, one never forgot her or her almost “literary” entreaty that she be mythified. As late as 1949 Blunden is still not just remembering her but writing a poem of almost too lines, “When the Statue Fell,” imagined as spoken to a child by her grandfather. The child has asked,

“What was the strangest sight you ever saw?”

and the ancient responds by telling the story of Albert, its Basilica, the statue, its curious suspension, and its final fall, which he makes coincide with the end of the war.

And in 1948, when Osbert Sitwell remembered Armistice Day, 1918, and its pitiful hopes for perpetual peace, he did so in imagery which bears the deep impress of the image of the golden Virgin, although she is not mentioned at all. His first image, remarkably, seems to fuse the leaning Virgin of one war with the inverted hanging Mussolini of another:

After the Second World War, Winged Victory dangles from the sky like a gigantic draggled starling that has been hanged as a warning to other marauders: but in 1918, though we who had fought were even more disillusioned than our successors of the next conflict about a struggle in which it was plain that no great military leaders had been found, we were yet illusioned about the peace.

Having begun with a recall of the leaning Virgin as an ironic and broken Winged Victory, he goes on to remember, if subliminally, her bright gilding: “During the passage of more than four years, the worse the present had shown itself, the more golden the future . . . had become to our eyes.” But now, remembering the joy on the first Armistice Day, his mind, he says, goes back to two scenes.

In both gold is ironically intrusive: “First to the landscape of an early September morning, where the pale golden grasses held just the color of a harvest moon”: but the field of golden grasses is covered with English and German dead. “It was a superb morning,” he goes on,

such a morning, I would have hazarded, as that on which men, crowned with the vast hemicycles of their gold helmets, clashed swords at Mycenae, or outside the towers of Troy, only to be carried from the field to lie entombed in air and silence for millenniums under their stiff masks of virgin gold.

Thirty years after Sitwell first looked up and wondered what to make of her, the golden Virgin persists, called up as a ghost in his phrase virgin gold. Perhaps he thought he had forgotten her. Her permanence is a measure of the significance which myth, with an urgency born of the most touching need, attached to her.


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