Archive for February, 2012


On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings Part II – William James

February 29, 2012

William James, Fully Alive

Part II of a remarkable essay


Richard Jefferies has written a remarkable autobiographic document entitled The Story of My Heart. It tells, in many pages, of the rapture with which in youth the sense of the life of nature filled him. On a certain hill-top, he says:

“I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight…. With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean — in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written — with these I prayed, as it they were the keys of an instrument…. The great sun burning with light; the strong earth, dear earth; the warm sky; the pure air; the thought of ocean; the inexpressible beauty of all filled me with a rapture, an ecstasy, an inflatus. With this inflatus, too, I prayed….

The prayer, this sold-emotion, was in itself, not for an object; it was a passion. I hid my face in the grass, I was wholly prostrated, I lost myself in the wrestle, I was rapt and carried away…. Had any shepherd accidently seen me lying on the turf, he would only have thought that I was resting a few minutes. I made no outward show. Who could have imagined the whirlwind of passion that was going on within me as I reclined there!”

Surely a worthless hour of life when measured by the usual standards of commercial value. Yet in what other kind of value can the preciousness of any hour, made precious by any standard, consist, if it consist not in feelings of excited significance like these, engendered in someone by what the hour contains?

Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale. Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human values in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power, and laying low in a minute the distinctions which it takes a hard-working conventional man a lifetime to build tip. You may be a prophet at this rate; but you cannot be a worldly success.

Walt Whitman, for instance, is accounted by many of us a contemporary prophet. He abolishes the usual human distinctions, brings all conventionalisms into solution, and loves and celebrates hardly any human attributes save those elementary ones common to all members of the race. For this he becomes a sort of ideal tramp, a rider on omnibus-tops and ferry-boats, and, considered either practically or academically, a worthless unproductive being. His verses are but ejaculations — things mostly without subject or verb, a succession of interjections on an immense scale. He felt the human crowd as rapturously as Wordsworth felt the mountains, felt it as an overpoweringly significant presence, simply to absorb one’s mind in which should be business sufficient and worthy to fill the days of a serious man. As he crosses Brooklyn ferry, this is what he feels:

Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high!
I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me   than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more
to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
It avails not, neither time or place — distance avails not;
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thickstem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls — I saw them high in the air,
floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops — saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high … into the night,
Casting their flicker of black … into the clefts of streets.
These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you.

And so on, through the rest of a divinely beautiful poem. And it you wish to see what this hoary loafer considered the most worthy way of profiting by life’s heaven-sent opportunities, read the delicious volume of his letters to a young car-conductor who had become his friend:

“New York, Oct. 9, 1868.

“DEAR PETE. It is splendid here this forenoon — bright and cool. I was out early taking a short walk by the river only two squares from where I live…. Shall I tell you about [my life] just to fill up? I generally spend the forenoon in my room writing, etc., then take a bath fix up and go out about 12 and loaf somewhere or call on someone down town or on business, or perhaps if it is very pleasant and I feel like it ride a trip with some driver friend on Broadway from 23rd Street to Bowling Green, three miles each way. (Every day I find I have plenty to do, every hour is occupied with something.)

You know it is a never ending amusement and study and recreation for me to ride a couple of hours of a pleasant afternoon on a Broadway stage in this way. You see everything as you pass, a sort of living, endless panorama — shops and splendid buildings and great windows: and on the broad sidewalks crowds of women richly dressed continually passing altogether different, superior in style and looks from any to be seen anywhere else — in fact a perfect stream of people — men too dressed in high style, and plenty of foreigners — and then in the streets the thick crowd of carriages, stages, carts, hotel and private coaches, and in fact all sorts of vehicles and many first class teams, mile after mile, and the splendor of such a great street and so many tall, ornamental, noble buildings many of them of white marble, and the gayety and motion on every side: you will not wonder how much attraction all this is on a fine day, to a great loafer like me, who enjoys so much seeing the busy world move by him, and exhibiting itself for his amusement, while he takes it easy and just looks on and observes.”

‘Truly a futile way of passing the time, some of you may say, and not altogether creditable to a grown-up man. And yet, from the deepest point of view, who knows the more of truth, and who knows the less — Whitman on his omnibus-top, full of the inner joy with which the spectacle inspires him, or you, full of the disdain which the futility of his occupation excites?

When your ordinary Brooklynite or New Yorker, leading a life replete with too much luxury, or tired and careworn about his personal affairs, crosses the ferry or goes up Broadway, his fancy does not thus soar away into the colors of the sunset’ as did Whitman’s, nor does he inwardly realize at all the indisputable fact that this world never did anywhere or at any time contain more of essential divinity, or of eternal meaning, than is embodied in the fields of vision over which his eyes so carelessly pass. There is life; and there, a step away, is death. There is the only kind of beauty there ever was. There is the old human struggle and its fruits together. There is the text and the sermon, the real and the ideal in one.

But to the jaded and unquickened eye it is all dead and common, pure vulgarism, flatness and disgust. “Hech! it is a sad sight!” says Carlyle, walking at night with someone who appeals to him to note the splendor of the stars. And that very repetition of the scene to new generations of men in secula seculorum, that eternal recurrence of the common order, which so fills a Whitman with mystic satisfaction, is to a Schopenhauer, with the emotional anaesthesia, the feeling of ‘awful inner emptiness’ from out of which he views it all, the chief ingredient of the tedium it instills. What is life on the largest scale, he asks, but the same recurrent inanities, the same dog barking, the same fly buzzing, forevermore? Yet of the kind of fibre of which such inanities consist is the material woven of all the excitements, joys and meanings that ever were, or ever shall be, in this world.

To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance. But how can one attain to the feeling of the vital significance of an experience, if one has it not to begin with? There is no receipt which one can follow. Being a secret and a mystery, it often comes in mysteriously unexpected ways. It blossoms sometimes from out of the very grave wherein we imagined that our happiness was buried.

Benvenuto Cellini, after a life all in the outer sunshine, made of adventures and artistic excitements, suddenly finds himself cast into a dungeon in the Castle of San Angelo. The place is horrible. Rats and wet and mould possess it. His leg is broken; and his teeth fall out, apparently with scurvy. But his thoughts turn to God as they have never turned before. He gets a bible, which he reads during the one hour in the twenty-four in which a wandering ray of daylight penetrates his cavern; he has religious visions; he sings psalms to himself and composes hymns; and thinking, on the last day of July, of the festivities customary on the morrow in Rome, he says to himself: “All these past years I celebrated this holiday with the vanities of the world; from this year henceforward I will do it with the divinity of God. And then I said to myself, ‘Oh, how much more happy I am for this present life of mine than for all those things remembered!”

But the great understander of these mysterious ebbs and flows is Tolstoi. They throb all through his novels. In his War and Peace, the hero, Peter, is supposed to be the richest man in the Russian empire. During the French invasion he is taken prisoner, and dragged through much of the retreat. Cold, vermin, hunger, and every form of misery assail him, the result being a revelation to him of the real scale of life’s values.

Here only, and for the first time, he appreciated, because he was deprived of it, the happiness of eating when he was hungry, of drinking when he was thirsty, of sleeping when he was sleepy, and of talking when he felt the desire to exchange some words…. Later in life he always recurred with joy to this month of captivity, and never failed to speak with enthusiasm of the powerful and ineffaceable sensations, and especially of the moral calm, which he had experienced at this epoch. When at daybreak, on the morrow of his imprisonment, he saw [I abridge here Tolstoi's description] the mountains with their wooded slopes disappearing in the grayish mist; when he felt the cool breeze caress him; when he saw the light drive away the vapors, and the sun rise majestically behind the clouds and cupolas, and the crosses, the dew, the distance, the river, sparkle in the splendid, cheerful rays; his heart overflowed with emotion. This emotion kept continually with him, and increased a hundred-fold as the difficulties of his situation grew graver….

He learnt that man is meant for happiness, and that this happiness is in him, in the satisfaction of the daily needs of existence, and that unhappiness the fatal result, not of our need, but of our abundance…. When calm reigned in the camp, and the embers paled and little by little went out the full moon had reached the zenith. The woods and the fields round about lay clearly visible; and beyond the inundation of light which filled them, the view plunged into the limitless horizon. Then Peter cast his eyes upon the firmament, filled at that hour with myriads of stars. ‘All that is mine,’ he thought. ‘All that is in me, is me! And that is what they think they have taken prisoner! That is what they have shut up in cabin!’ — So he smiled, and turned in to sleep among his comrades.”

The occasion and the experience, then, are nothing. It all depends on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents at absorbed by what is given. “Crossing a bare common,” says Emerson, “in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in m thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Life is always worth living if one have such responsive sensibilities But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite, exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level. To be imprisoned or shipwrecked or forced into the army would permanently show the good of life to many an over-educated pessimist. Living in the open air and on the ground, the lopsided beam of the balance slowly rises to the level line; and the over-sensibilities and insensibilities even themselves out. The good of all the artificial schemes and fevers fades and pales; and that of seeing, smelling, tasting, sleeping, and daring and doing with one’s body, grows and grows.

The savages and children of nature to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental static goods of life. “Ah, my brother,” said a chieftain to his white guest, “thou wilt never know the happiness of both thinking of nothing and doing nothing; this, next to sleep, is tin most enchanting of all things. Thus we were before our birth, and thus we shall be after death. Thy people, … when they have finished reaping one field, they begin to plough another, and as if the day were not enough, I have seen them plough by moonlight. What is their life to ours — their life that is as nought to them? Blind that they are, they lose it all! But we live in the present.”

The intense interest that life can assume when brought down to I In non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception, has been beautifully described by a man who can write, Mr. W. H. Hudson, in his volume, Idle Days in Patagonia.

“I spent the greater part of one winter,” says this admirable author at a point on the Rio Negro, seventy or eighty miles from the sea… It was my custom to go out every morning on horseback with my gun and, followed by one dog, to ride away from the valley; and no sooner would I climb the terrace and plunge into the grey universal thicket than I would find myself as completely alone as if five hundred instead of only five miles separated me from the valley and river. So wild and solitary and remote seemed that grey waste, stretching away into infinitude, a waste untrodden by man, and where the wild animals are so few that they have made no discoverable path in the wilderness of thorns…

Not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but day after day I returned to this solitude, going to it in the morning as if to attend a festival, and leaving it only when hunger and thirst and the westering sun compelled me. And yet I had no object in going — no motive which could be put into words; for although I carried a gun, there was nothing to shoot — the shooting was all left behind in the valley…. Sometimes I would pass an entire day without seeing one mammal, and perhaps not more than a dozen birds of any size. The weather at that time was cheerless, generally with a grey film of cloud spread over the sky, and a bleak wind, often cold enough to make my bridle hand quite numb…. At a slow pace, which would have seemed intolerable in other circumstances, I would ride about for hours at a stretch.

On arriving at a hill, I would slowly ride to its summit, and stand there to survey the prospect. On every side it stretched away in great undulations, wild and irregular. How grey it all was! hardly less so near at hand than on the haze-wrapped horizon, where the hills were dim and the outline blurred by distance. Descending from my look-out, I would take up my aimless wanderings again, ,and visit other elevations to gaze on the same landscape from another point; and so on for hours, and at noon I would dismount and sit or lie on my folded poncho for an hour or longer.

One day, in these rambles, I discovered a small grove composed of twenty to thirty trees, growing at convenient distance apart, that had evidently been resorted to by a of deer or other wild animals. This grove was on a hill differing in from other hills in its neighborhood; and after a time I made a point of finding and using it as a resting-place every day at noon.

I did ask myself why I made choice of that one spot, sometimes going out of my way to sit there, instead of sitting down under any one millions of trees and bushes on any other hillside. I thought nothing about it, but acted unconsciously; only afterwards it seemed to me afterwards having rested there once, each time I wished to rest again the wish came associated with the image of that particular clump of trees, polished stems and clean bed of sand beneath; and in a short time I formed a habit of returning, animal-like, to repose at that same spot.

It was perhaps a mistake to say that I would sit down and rest, I was never tired: and yet without being tired, that noonday pause, during which I sat for an hour without moving, was strangely grateful. All day there would be no sound, not even the rustle of a leaf. One day while listening to the silence, it occurred to my mind to wonder what the effect would be if I were to shout aloud. This seemed at the time a horrible suggestion, which almost made me shudder.

But during those solitary days it was a rare thing for any thought to cross my mind. In the state of mind I was in, thought had become impossible. My state was one of suspense and watchfulness: yet I had no expectation of meeting with an adventure, and felt as free from apprehension as I feel now when sitting in a room in London. The state seemed familiar rather than strange, and accompanied by a strong feeling of elation; and I did not know that something had come between me and my intellect until I returned to my former self — to thinking, and the old insipid existence [again] .

“I had undoubtedly gone back; and that state of intense watchfulness, or alertness rather, with suspension of the higher intellectual faculties, represented the mental state of the pure savage. He thinks little, reasons little, having a surer guide in his [mere sensory perceptions]; In is in perfect harmony with nature, and is nearly on a level, mentally, with the wild animals he preys on, and which in their turn sometimes prey on him.”

For the spectator, such hours as Mr. Hudson writes of form a mere tale of emptiness, in which nothing happens, nothing is gained, anti there is nothing to describe. They are meaningless and vacant tracts of time. To him who feels their inner secret, they tingle with an importance that unutterably vouches for itself. I am sorry for the boy or girl, or man or woman, who has never been touched by the spell of this mysterious sensorial life, with its irrationality, if so you like to call it, but its vigilance and its supreme felicity. The holidays of life are its most vitally significant portions, because they are, or at least should be, covered with just this kind of magically irresponsible spell.

And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us.

Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sickrooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.


On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings Part I – William James

February 28, 2012

William James

R. D. Richardson writes in The Heart of William James (a collection of James’ essays and writings):  On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings was William James’s own favorite among his short pieces of writing. On April 24, 1899, he wrote to one correspondent that the piece contained “the perception on which my whole individualistic philosophy is based.” To another he wrote on April 18 of the same year, “I care very much indeed for the truth it so inadequately tries by dint of innumerable quotations to express.” The blindness he has in mind, the sorry truth, as James put it in “Human Immortality,” is “that we are doomed, by the fact that we are practical beings with very limited tasks to attend to, and special ideals to look after, to be absolutely blind and insensible to the inner feelings, and to the whole inner significance of lives that are different from our own.”

James aims to set this right, to restore our sight. What “Self-Reliance” is to the work of Emerson, what “Song of Myself” is to the work of Whitman, On a Certain Blindness is to the work of James. The piece deserves a place among the defining documents of American democracy. In it, James quotes, at length, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, Tolstoy, and others. The use of skillfully edited lengthy quotations is a technique James also employed in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Here as there, readers have the feeling that they are hearing one witness after another give personal testimony. Each is allowed his or her own voice for his or her own experience.

Perhaps great writers, like all great artists, can, if they try, enter into other lives by a sort of imaginative sympathy or negative (in the sense of self-forgetting) capability. It is worth noting that the English word “empathy,” from the German “Einfuhlung,” only appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century. But most of us cannot, or cannot easily, enter into the lives and points of view of people unlike ourselves.

So James is daringly open to stating his conclusion in negative as well as in positive terms. Our blindness as to the lives of others, he says, “absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer.”

A lengthy piece for a web posting, I’ve divided it in two and given it more paragraph breaks for readability. If you wish to print it out, you can find the whole essay here.  It is refreshing to see a leading scientist of his day reaching to the mythopoetic to find observations rooted in Truth. It is a rare sight these days. [dj]


OUR JUDGMENTS CONCERNING THE WORTH OF THINGS, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

Now the blindness in human beings of which this discourse will treat is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.

We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others — the others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals.

Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other! — we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art.

As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will towards you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?

The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderingly round one of our American travelers who in the interior had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and being asked for what they wanted it, they said: “For an eye-medicine” — that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface.

The spectator’s judgment is sure to miss the root of the matter and to possess no truth. The subject judged knows a part of the world of reality which the judging spectator fails to see, knows more whilst the spectator knows less; and wherever there is conflict of opinion and difference of vision, we are bound to believe that the truer side is the side that feels the more and not the side that feels the less.

Let me take a personal example of the kind that befalls each one of us daily.

Some years ago, whilst journeying in the mountains of North Carolina, I passed by a large number of ‘coves,’ as they call them there, or beads of small valleys between the hills, which had been newly cleared and planted. The impression on my mind was one of unmitigated squalor. The settler had in every case cut down the more manageable trees, and left their charred stumps standing. The larger trees he had girdled and killed, in order that their foliage should not cast a shade. He had then built a log cabin, plastering its chinks with clay, and had set up a tall zigzag rail fence around the scene of his havoc, to keep the pigs and cattle out.

Finally, he had irregularly planted the intervals between the slumps and trees with Indian corn, which grew among the chips; and there he dwelt with his wife and babes — an axe, a gun, a few utensils, and some pigs and chickens feeding in the woods, being the sum total of his possessions.

The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty. Ugly indeed seemed the life of the squatter, scudding, as the sailors say, under bare poles, beginning again away back where our first ancestors started, and by hardly a single item the better off for all the achievements of the intervening generations.

Talk about going back to Nature! I said to myself, oppressed by the dreariness, as I drove by. Talk of a country life for one’s old age and for one’s children! Never thus, with nothing but the bare ground and one’s bare hands to fight the battle! Never, without the best spoils of culture woven in! The beauties and commodities gained by the centuries are sacred. They are our heritage and birthright. No modern person ought to be willing to live a day in such a state of rudimentariness and denudation.

Then I said to the mountaineer who was driving me: “What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?” “All of us,” he replied; “why, we ain’t happy here unless we are getting one of these coves under cultivation.” I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story.

But when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil and final reward. The cabin was a warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle, and success.

I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.

Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement, of reality; and there is ‘importance’ in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be.

Robert Louis Stevenson has illustrated this by a case drawn from the sphere of the imagination, in an essay which I really think deserves to become immortal, both for the truth of its matter and the excellence of its form.

“Toward the end of September,” Stevenson writes, “when school-time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull’s-eye lantern. The thing was so well known that it had worn a rut in the commerce of Great Britain; and the grocers, about the due time, began to garnish their windows with our particular brand of luminary. We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigor of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more.

The fishermen used lanterns about their boats, and it was from them, I suppose, that we had got the hint; but theirs were not bull’s-eyes, nor did we ever play at being fishermen. The police carried them at their belts, and we had plainly copied them in that; yet we did not pretend to be policemen. Burglars, indeed, we may have had some haunting thoughts of; and we had certainly an eye to past ages when lanterns were more common, and to certain story-books in which we had found them to figure very largely. But take it for all in all, the pleasure of the thing was substantive; and to be a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat was good enough for us.

“When two of these asses met, there would be an anxious ‘Have you got your lantern?’ and a gratified ‘Yes!’ That was the shibboleth, and very needful too; for, as it was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognize a lantern-bearer, unless (like the polecat) by the smell. Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a ten-man lugger, with nothing but the thwarts above them — for the cabin was usually locked, or choose out some hollow of the links where the wind might whistle overhead. There the coats would be unbuttoned and the bull’s-eyes discovered; and in the chequering glimmer, under the huge windy hall of the night, and cheered by a rich steam of toasting tinware, these fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or on the scaly bilges of the fishing-boat, and delight themselves with inappropriate talk. Woe is me that I may not give sonic specimens….

But the talk was but a condiment; and these gatherings themselves only accidents in the career of the lantern-bearer. The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness ill the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.

“It is said that a poet has died young in the breast of the most stolid. It may be contended, rather, that this (somewhat minor) bard in almost every case survives, and is the spice of life to his possessor. Justice is not done to the versatility and the unplumbed childishness of man’s imagination. His life from without may seem but a rude mound of mud; there will be some golden chamber at the heart of it, in which he dwells delighted; and for as dark as his pathway seems to the observer, he will have some kind of a bull’s-eye at his belt.

“… There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life: tin fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself on his return stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognize him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and the days are moments. With no more apparatus than an ill-smelling lantern I have evoked him on the naked links. All life that is, not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands: seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each so incommunicable.

And just a knowledge of this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn the pages of the red ist. There, to be sure, we find a picture of life in so far as it consists ill mud and of old iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we in ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time-devouring nightingale we hear no news. ..

Say that I came [in such a realistic romance] on some such business as that of my lantern-bearers on the links; and described the boys as very cold, spat upon by flurries of rain, and drearily surrounded, ill of which they were; and their talk as silly and indecent, which it certainly was…. To the eye of the observer they are wet and cold and drearily surrounded; but ask themselves, and they are in the heaven of a recondite pleasure, the ground of which is an ill-smelling lantern.

“For, to repeat, the ground of a man’s joy is often hard to hit. It may binge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern, it may reside in the mysterious inwards of psychology…. It has so little bond with externals … that it may even touch them not; and the man’s true life, for which he consents to live, lie altogether in the field of fancy…. In such a case the poetry runs underground. The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad.

For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but l u himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed ilu-ough by winds and rested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb up after him like a squirrel, and catch ;nine glimpse of the heaven for which he lives. And the true realism, •always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy re-%ides, and give it a voice far beyond singing

“For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse. To one who has not the secret of the lanterns, the scene upon the links is meaningless. And hence the haunting and truly spectral unreality of realistic books . . . In each, we miss the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes what is naked and seems to ennoble what is base; in each, life falls dead like dough, instead of soaring away like a balloon into the colors of the sunset; each is true, each inconceivable; for no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.”

These paragraphs are the best thing I know in all Stevenson. “To miss the joy is to miss all.” Indeed, it is. Yet we are but finite, and each one of us has some single specialized vocation of his own. And it seems as if energy in the service of its particular duties might be got only by burdening the heart towards everything unlike them. Our deadness towards all but one particular kind of joy would thus be the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures.

Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world, as Clifford called it, the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.

The change is well described by my colleague, Josiah Royce:

“What then is thy neighbor? Thou hast regarded his thought, his feeling, as somehow different from thine. Thou hast said: ‘A pain in him is not like a pain in me, but something far easier to bear.’ He seems to thee a little less living than thou. His life is dim, it is cold, it is a pale fire beside thy own burning desires…. So, dimly and by instinct, thou hast lived with thy neighbor, and hast known him not, being blind. Thou hast made [of him] a thing, no Self at all. Have done with this illusion and simply try to know the truth. Pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere even as in thee. In all the songs of the forest birds; in all the cries of the wounded and dying, struggling in the captor’s power; in the boundless sea, where the myriads of water-creatures strive and die; amid all the countless hordes of savage men; in all sickness and sorrow; in all exultation and hope; everywhere from the lowest to the noblest, the same conscious, burning, willful life is found, endlessly manifold as the forms of the living creatures, unquenchable as the fires of the sun, real as these impulses that even now throb in thy own little selfish heart. Lift up thy eyes, behold that life, and then turn away and forget it as thou canst; but if thou hast known that, thou hast begun to know thy duty.”

This higher vision of an inner significance in what, until then, we had realized only in the dead external way, often comes over a person suddenly; and when it does so, it makes an epoch in his history. As Emerson says, there is a depth in those moments that constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. The passion of love will shake one like an explosion, or some act will awaken a remorseful compunction that hangs like a cloud over all one’s later day.

This mystic sense of hidden meaning starts upon us often from non-human human natural things. I take this passage from Obermann, a French novel that had some vogue in its day:

“Paris, March 7. — It was dark and rather cold. I was gloomy, and walked because I had nothing to do. I passed by some flowers placed breast-high upon a wall. A jonquil in bloom was there. It is the strongest expression of desire: it was the first perfume of the year. I felt all the happiness destined for man. This unutterable harmony of souls, the phantom of the ideal world, arose in me complete. I never felt anything so great or so instantaneous. I know not what shape, what analogy, what secret of relation it was that made me see in this flower a limitless beauty…. I shall never enclose in a conception this power, this immensity that nothing will express; this form that nothing will contain; this ideal of a better world which one feels, but which it would seem that nature has not made.”

Wordsworth and Shelley are similarly full of this sense of a limitless significance in natural things. In Wordsworth it was a somewhat austere and moral significance, a ‘lonely cheer.

“To every natural form, rock, fruit or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the high-way.
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”

“Authentic tidings of invisible things!” Just what this hidden presence in Nature was, which Wordsworth so rapturously felt, and in the light of which he lived, tramping the hills for days together, the poet never could explain logically or in articulate conceptions. Yet to the reader who may himself have had gleaming moments of a similar sort the verses in which Wordsworth simply proclaims the fact of them come with a heart-satisfying authority:

The morning rose, in memorable pomp,
Glorious as e’er I had beheld — in front,
The sea lay laughing at a distance; near,
The solid mountains shone, bright as the clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn –
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And laborers going forth to till the fields.”

“Ah! need I say, dear Friend! that to the brim
My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit. On I walked
In thankful blessedness, which yet survives.”

As Wordsworth walked, filled with his strange inner joy, responsive thus to the secret life of Nature roundabout him, his rural neighbors, tightly and narrowly intent upon their own affairs, their crops and lambs and fences, must have thought him a very insignificant and foolish personage. It surely never occurred to any one of them to wonder what was going on inside of him or what it might be worth. And yet that inner life of his carried the burden of a significance that has fed the souls of others, and fills them to this day with inner joy.


Ever Not Quite – R.D. Richardson

February 27, 2012

William James, Young and Old

One of my less savory habits is to peek to the last pages of a biography to find a sense of the closing days of a great man. This is from Richardson’s magisterial life of William James, nominated for many honors. Read the stuff about the second law of thermodynamics and substitute global warming theory…


WILLIAM JAMES RETURNED TO CAMBRIDGE in early September 1909. Going to Putman Camp was out of the question. Country walking meant too much struggling up hills; indeed, walking “at any angle” was difficult, Cambridge was bleak. All the elms had been attacked by leopard-moth caterpillars. “The College yard now contains nothing but butts of trees,’ he wrote Pauline Goldmark. “Most of the limbs having been killed and amputated.”

In mid-September he went to Worcester, Massachusetts, at Stanley Hall’s invitation. Hall was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Clark University with an international conference of psychologists. Sigmund Freud, who was fifty-three and beginning to be well known, was there. His book, The Interpretation of Dreams had appeared, as had The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Three Essays on Sexuality, though none had yet been translated into English.

The psychoanalytic movement was in its earliest stages, the first international congress had been held in Salzburg in 1908, and the lectures Freud gave at Clark in 1909 would form the basis, of his Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, published in 1916. Accompanying Freud was a thirty-four-year-old Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, who had met Freud three years earlier and who was now a favored, perhaps the favored disciple. James went to Worcester “in order to see what Freud was like,” the one he hit it off with — up to a point — was Jung.

James was very ill but had lost none of his intellectual curiosity or his enthusiastic generosity. According to Freud’s biographer Earnest Jones, James’s “parting words, said with his arm round my [Jones's] shoulders were “The future of psychology belongs to your work. James’s comment to his colleague Mary Calkins was less wholehearted. “I strongly suspect Freud with his dream-theory, of  being a regular hallucine” (deluded one) he told her. “But I hope that he and his disciples will push it to its limits, as undoubtedly it covers some facts, and will add to our understanding functional’ psychology.” To his old friend Theodore Flournoy, about whom Jung had spoken warmly, James wrote ten days later that Freud “made on me personally the impression of a man obsessed by fixed ideas.” James told Flournoy that Freud had given an interview to a Boston paper in which he “condemned the American religious therapy (which has had such extensive results) as very dangerous because so `unscientific.’ Bah!”

Jung, on the other hand, “made a very pleasant impression” on James. James had two conversations with Jung, who noted that they “got along excellently with regard to the assessment of the religious factor in the psyche.” After his second conversation with James, Jung even found himself beginning to have doubts about certain aspects of Freud’s work.

After two days in Worcester, James was ready to go home. Freud accompanied him on the mile-and-a-half walk to the railroad station. “James stopped suddenly,” Freud recalled, “handed me a bag he was carrying and asked me to walk on, saying that he would catch up as soon as he had got through an attack of angina pectoris which was just coming on. I have always wished that I could be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.”

In October The Meaning of Truth appeared. A grumpy thank-you note from brother Bob urged William, “For God’s sake stop your research for truth (pragmatic or otherwise) and try and enjoy life.” In November James found himself lying late in bed and doing just “a little writing.” In the spirit of trying everything, he undertook a course of treatments, twenty-one over a month’s time, with a Christian Science practitioner, Mr. Strang. In December he caught a cold, and the wretched business of Eusapia and Munsterberg unfolded. [Eusapia Palladino (1854 – 1918) was a Italian Spiritualist medium who was debunked by Hugo Münsterberg, who succeeded James at Harvard University]

James was increasingly limited physically, but as he turned sixty-eight, on January 11, 1910, he was keeping up an extensive correspondence, working on his introduction to philosophy, finishing and sending off several essays, sitting for his portrait by Bay Emmet, and preparing for and speaking at a banquet in his honor. He was able to work — write — an hour and a half a day. Late in January The Moral Equivalent of War was published. James had recast the argument, dropping the idea of voluntary poverty and proposing instead that young people be universally conscripted to work in coal and iron mines, on fishing boats, at road- and tunnel-building, in foundries, and on building construction. As John Dewey would remark, “An immense debt is due William James for the mere title of his essay.”

In February he published A Suggestion Concerning Mysticism (written in mid-December 1909). The suggestion was “that states of mystical intuition maybe only very sudden and great extensions of the ordinary “field of consciousness.” Any sudden lowering of the threshold between conscious and unconscious “will … bring a mass of subconscious memories, conceptions, emotional feelings and perceptions of relation etc. into view all at once.” In other words, the sudden enlargement is the mystical state. This seems to be an uncharacteristically reductive conclusion, but it does democratize the mystical state, and may indeed signal James’s acceptance that he himself had had such states. One old friend wrote him, “But my dear man! — I could have described the general experience years ago and told you all about it — if you’d ever thought to ask me.”

Early in February further ominous signals came from England about Henry’s state of mind, which made Alice want to go immediately to Rye to be with him. A letter from Henry of February 8, 1910, spoke of “the last dismal six weeks of persistent and depressing stomachic crisis,” and of collapsing and going to bed. All this he summed up as “some rather depressing discouragements for a fortnight.”

William’s son Harry took ship at once to go to his uncle, who was glad to see him, but who then suffered a new and terrifying collapse. Harry described, in a letter home, how Henry James “panted and sobbed for two hours until the doctor arrived, and stammered in despair so eloquently and pathetically that as I write of it the tears flow down my cheeks again. He talked about Aunt Alice and his own end and I knew him to be lilt mill not only the frustration of all his hopes and ambitions” — in October 1909 had come the second royalty report, with its grim word of the utter failure of the New York Edition — “but the vision looming close and threatening to his weary eyes, of a lingering illness such as hers; in sight of all that, he wanted to die.”

Then Henry himself wrote William. In an extraordinary letter he described his collapse of just before Harry’s arrival and gave a vivid sense of his state of mind: “The week before he [ Harry] came — arrived – was all collapse. It seems in fact all difficult and endlessly uphill – and I have a kind of terror of finding myself alone here again with my misery. This, I know, is the perfect platitude of weakness, but I long for you, and yearn for you, dearest William, Alice, and Peggy — and offer you all I have for your possible society. I would say to Harry “Take me back to THEM – ANYhow.”

That letter, of course, did it. A lifetime of Henry’s reserve and ,self-control  seemed to have simply evaporated. William and Alice determined to go to England at once. They had the eminent French philosopher Emile Boutroux staying with them at Irving Street. James’s shortness of breath had become so severe he could barely speak to introduce Boutroux’s lectures As soon as Boutroux left, William — who now had trouble with any exertion whatever — took ship with Alice to be with Henry, who had obviously suffered a major nervous collapse, the worst such episode of his life.

William and Alice found Henry at Rye, where Alice now had two invalids on her hands. Henry was deeply depressed, though he had occasional short remissions. William was essentially housebound. Edith Wharton sent over a car and driver for ten days so they could get out. William kept at work, writing and sending off “A Pluralistic Mystic,” on the life and work of Benjamin Paul Blood, whom he had admired for so long. The essay is a kind of coda to A Pluralistic Universe. Looking at Blood from a philosophical, not a religious, point of view, James is concerned with Blood’s later mysticism, as it expresses itself in “a sort of `left-wing’ voice of defiance, and breaks into what to my ear has a radically pluralistic sound.”

James endorses Blood flamboyantly and generously, quoting extensively and with obvious approval. “Certainty is the root of despair,” Blood had written:

“The inevitable stales, while doubt and hope are sisters. Not unfortunately the universe is wild — game flavored as a hawk’s wing. Nature is miracle all. She knows no laws; the same returns not, save to bring the different. The slow round of the engraver’s lathe gains but the breadth of a hair, but the difference is distributed back over the whole curve, never an instant true — ever not quite.”

Blood’s “ever not quite,” which James has made famous, is another response to Plato. In the Theaetetus, when Socrates and his always-too-quickly-agreeing young men are making fun of Heraclitus, Socrates proposes that a good Heraclitean “oughtn’t even to use the word `so’ because what’s so wouldn’t any longer be changing.” All a good Heraclitean might be able to say, Socrates goes on, would be “not even so.” “Ever not quite,” James said, “is fit to be pluralism’s heraldic device.” As with “certainty” so with “conclusions.” “Let my last word, then, speaking in the name of intellectual philosophy, be his word: — `There is no conclusion. What has been concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!”

Early in May, writing his son Harry, William gave his considered diagnosis of Henry’s condition, which he called “typical melancholia” (that is, severe depression). He asked Harry not to “use the word melancholy but speak rather of a bad nervous breakdown.” “Melancholia,” he explained, “suggests insanity, which this is not.” He added, “The inevitable course is complete recovery.” Henry, still convinced that his Fletcherizing was the real root of the problem, wanted to believe that his depression had an organic cause, while William was struggling to convince himself that his own all-too-organic symptoms had at least “an element of nervous hyperaesthesia,” as he claimed in a letter to Dr. William Osler, the great Canadian physician who was now the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. As he well knew, there was a possible advantage to his believing his trouble to be nervous, because with a change of attitude there might be it chance for improvement.

James was well enough to go to Bad Nauheim by himself in May, stopping in Paris to see Henry Adams and Henri Bergson. In June Alice and the hard-to-move Henry joined him. Henry was still very much down. William wrote his mother-in-law that he was unable, and Henry unwilling, to do anything but sit and watch the time pass. Alice wrote in her diary, “William cannot walk and Henry cannot smile.”

Just as life had slowed almost to a halt, William finished reading Henry Adams’s Letter to American Teachers of History. This “letter,” which fills 125 printed pages and which was later published as The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, is Adams’s grim extension of the second law of thermodynamics to the course of human history. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, had said in a paper of 1852, called “On a Universal Tendency, in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy,” that the inevitable and irreversible running down of the earth’s energy — defined as heat available, for work — meant that the earth was headed for a “thermal death” that the earth would become “unfit for the habitation of man as at present constituted, unless operations have been, or are to be performed, which are impossible under the laws to which the known operations going going on at present in the material world, are subject.”

Seven years before publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Thomson had thus “tossed the universe into the ash-heap.” Adams now interpreted the sixty years leading up to 1910 as a struggle not just between Darwin and Thomson, but between the application of Darwin to history (evolutionism) and the application to Thomson’s idea (degradation of energy, or degradationism).

Adams had bitten deeply into the apple of entropy. The gloomy Spenglerian “Letter” James read presented with tacit approval the fevered predictions by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion of the eventual and inevitable approach of the terminal ice. “No longer will man live, no longer will he breathe — except in the equatorial zone, down to the last day when the last tribe, already expiring in cold and hunger, shall, camp on the shores of the last sea in the rays of a pale sun which will henceforth illumine an earth that is only a wandering tomb, turning around a useless light and a barren heat.”

Adams had, in his Education, drawn attention to a leading feature of the new American world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — its love affair with energy — and he had proposed the dynamo or generator as the symbol of that energy. William James’s life work was the discovery, retrieval, and harnessing of previously unused energies that lie dormant within us.

So James was stirred, in June 1910, to rise in protest against the urbane and learned pessimism of his friend Adams’s book-length funk. Finishing Adams’s “Letter” in mid-June, James fired off a riposte. The beginning was jolly enough. Referring to the “Letter,” James said, “To tell the truth it doesn’t impress me at all, save by its wit and erudition, and you I ask you whether an old man soon about to meet his maker can hope to save himself from the consequences of his life by pointing to the wit and learning he has shown in treating a tragic subject. No, sir, you can’t do it, — can’t impress God in that way.”

He then got down to cases. “I protest against your interpretation of some of the specifications of the great statistical drift downwards of the original high-level energy.” Adams had neglected to remember, and James reminded him, that history is “the course of things before that terminus in the course of things it was a question of what use was made of any giyen spoonful of energy.

Physically a dinosaur’s brain may show as much intensity of energy exchange as a man’s, but it can do infinitely fewer things, because as a force of detent  it can only unlock the dinosaur’s muscles, while the man’s brain, in locking far feebler muscles, indirectly can by their means issue proclamations, write books, describe Chartres Cathedral etc. and guide the energy- of the shrinking sun into channels which never would have been entered otherwise — in short make history. Therefore the man’s brain and muscles are from the point of view of the historian, the more important place of energy-exchange, small as this may be, when measured in absolute physical units.

For this reason, James concluded, sweeping his hand across Adams’s chessboard, “the `second law’ is wholly irrelevant to `history.”

It is impossible, after reading James for any length of time, to refrain using italics oneself. But even italics fail to do justice to this magnificent outburst, the last stand of William James for the spirit of man.  What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? It is a scene fit to set alongside the death of Socrates. The matchless incandescent spirit of the man!

The end came more quickly than anyone expected or imagined. By the end of June, Henry was beginning to emerge from his depression, but William had increasingly bad nights. On July 3 Bob James died of a heart attack in his sleep in Concord. “What a triumph, to slip out like that,” William wrote his son Billy. Early July was spent dragging about the Continent; William and Alice and Henry returned to Rye on the twenty-third. Henry was finally having some good days, but William was “worse anti worse since leaving Nauheim.” He wrote out instructions for Horace Kallen to follow in getting Some Problems in Philosophy ready for the press. “Say that I hoped by it to round out my system, which now is too much like an arch built only on one side.”

He was very weak, breathing became more difficult, but he still had moments of what he chose to call improvement. On August 10 he noted in his diary, “On the whole have gained strength and breathe better, but Lord, how little.” Next day he left Rye with Alice and Henry, who was accompanying them back to America. William was so weak he had to be carried aboard the ship they took, not to Boston but to Quebec, because William wanted to see Chocorua again.

They arrived at Chocorua on August 19. Henry commented on the dreariness of the train trip, on “that flat desert of fir trees broken only here and there by a bit of prehistoric swamp.”

“Better than anything in Europe, Henry,” William replied. “Better than anything in England.”

He could no longer sit up; he was taking digitalis and morphineThey fed him milk every half hour. On the twenty-fourth he said to Alice, “I can’t stand this again — cruel cruel.” He added, “It has come so rapidly, rapidly.” He made a “solemn request” that Alice “go to Henry when his time comes.” On August 26, at two-thirty in the afternoon, with Alice holding his head, William James died. At the end there had been, Alice noted, “no pain and no consciousness.”

ALICE NOTED IN HER DIARY that the autopsy showed “acute enlargement of the heart. He had worn himself out. They have laid him in the coffin and I can see his face no more.” No one was harder hit than Henry, who, a week later, wrote to Tom Perry:

“I sit heavily stricken and in darkness — for from far back in dimmest childhood he had been my ideal Elder Brother, and I still, through all the years, saw in him, even as a small timorous boy yet, my protector, my backer, my authority and my pride. His extinction changes the face of life for me — besides the mere missing of his inexhaustible company and personality, originality, the whole unspeakably vivid and beautiful presence of him. And his noble intellectual vitality was still but at its climax — he had two or three ardent purposes and plans. He had cast them away, however, at the end — I mean that, dreadfully suffering, he wanted only to die.”

To H. G. Wells, Henry wrote, “He did surely shed light to man, and gave, of his own great spirit and beautiful genius, with splendid generosity. Of my personal loss — the extinction of so shining a presence in my own life, and from so far back…I won’t pretend to speak…I feel abandoned and afraid, even as a lost child. But he is a possession, of real magnitude, and I shall find myself still living upon him to the end.”

He would not be the only one.


The Bright Sadness Of Lent

February 24, 2012

The theme chosen for Lent was "Where is Christ in the Desert of Your Life?" The stark setting included rocks of the desert painted cream to match the walls, a barren bush, water jug, and black fabric, draped from cream cloth on the altar of sacrifice down onto the marble tile. The setting remained throughout the 40 days of Lent.

You will find in this meditation by Fr. Schmemann a wonderful reflection on sloth. I have another five essays on Understanding Acedia/Sloth  as it is something I truly struggle with in my religious life – it makes a shambles of everything I struggle to do or be. I can’t even seem to get others to understand it, either. A therapist I was working with recently couldn’t see past my struggles for the sin itself and found in it a reason to break off our sessions. I had exceeded my number of visits and she was looking for a way out but I can’t tell you how her distorted view of me added to my utter despair.


For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent — something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

This Lenten “atmosphere,” this unique “state of mind,” is brought about mainly by means of worship, by the various changes introduced during that season into the liturgical life.’ Considered separately, these changes may appear as incomprehensible “rubrics,” as formal prescriptions to be formally adhered to; but understood as a whole, they reveal and communicate the spirit of Lent, they make us see, feel, and experience that bright sadness which is the true message and gift of Lent.

One can say without exaggeration that the spiritual fathers and the sacred writers who composed the hymns of the Lenten Tradion, who little by little organized the general structures of the Lenten services, who adorned the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts with that special beauty which is proper to it, had a unique understanding of the human soul. They truly knew the art of repentance, and every year during Lent they make this art accessible to everyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see.

The general impression, I said, is that of “bright sadness.” Even a man having only a limited knowledge of worship who enters a church during a Lenten service would understand almost immediately, I am sure, what is meant by this somewhat contradictory expression. On the one hand, a certain quiet sadness permeates the service: vestments are dark, the services are longer than usual and more monotonous, there is almost no movement. Readings and chants alternate yet nothing seems to “happen.” At regular intervals the priest comes out of the sanctuary and reads always the same short prayer, and the whole congregation punctuates every petition of that prayer with prostrations. Thus, for a long time we stand in this monotony — in this quiet sadness.

But then we begin to realize that this very length and monotony are needed if we are to experience the secret and at first unnoticeable “action” of the service in us. Little by little we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed “bright,” that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access — a place where they have no power.

All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and superficial happiness which comes and goes twenty times a day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having, in the words of Dostoevsky, touched “another world.” And that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy, of an inexpressible trust. We understand then why the services had to be long and seemingly monotonous. We understand that it is simply impossible to pass from our normal state of mind made up almost entirely of fuss, rush, and care, into this new one without first “quieting down,” without restoring in ourselves a measure of inner stability.

This is why those who think of church services only in terms of “obligations,” who always inquire about the required minimum (“How often must we go to church?” “How often must we pray?”) can never understand the true nature of worship which is to take us into a different world — that of God’s Presence! — but to take us there slowly because our fallen nature has lost the ability to accede there naturally.

Thus, as we experience this mysterious liberation, as we become “light and peaceful,” the monotony and the sadness of the service acquire a new significance, they are transfigured. An inner beauty illumines them like an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain. This light and secret joy come from the long alleluias, from the entire “tonality” of Lenten worship. What at first appeared as monotony now is revealed as peace; what sounded like sadness is now experienced as the very first movements of the soul recovering its lost depth. This is what the first verse of the Lenten alleluia proclaims every morning: “My soul has desired Thee in the night, O God, before dawn, for Thy judgments are a light upon the earth!”

“Sad brightness”: the sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home. Such is the climate of Lenten worship; such is its first and general impact on my soul.

The Lenten Prayer Of St. Ephrem The Syrian
Of all lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed the lenten prayer. Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life — St. Ephrem the Syrian. Here is its text:

O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth,
     faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
     humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
     and not to judge my brother;

For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages.

This prayer is read twice at the end of each Lenten service Monday through Friday (not on Saturdays and Sundays for, as we shall see later, the services of these days do not follow the Lenten pattern). At the first reading, a prostration follows each petition. Then we all bow twelve times saying: “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” The entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.

Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire Lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the negative and positive elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a “check list” for our individual Lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.

The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down’ rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.

The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.

Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in a radically wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and self-centered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction.

If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master — the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments.

The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate “others.” It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.

Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very “seal” of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John 1:1) . But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It “enforces” sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.

These four are thus the negative “objects” of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer — this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four.

  1. Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.
  2. The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God’s majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.
  3. Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The “natural” or “fallen” man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue.God is patient not because He is “indulgent,” but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.
  4. Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love — that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone — the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.

All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the Lenten prayer in which we ask “to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we “see our own errors” and “do not judge our brothers,” when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy — pride will be destroyed in us.

After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire Lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all. In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body.

The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh — the animal, the irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious, the body is holy, so holy that God Himself “became flesh.” Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body.

For this reason, the whole man — soul and body — repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the Lenten rite par excellence.


Theologian of Life in the Spirit: St. Gregory Of Nyssa

February 23, 2012
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) (also known as Gregory Nyssen) was bishop of Nyssa from 372 to 376, and from 378 until his death. He is venerated as a saint in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism and Anglicanism. Gregory, his brother Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers. 
Each of these lives seems to contain a life experience that Benedict XVI makes jump off the page for me.

In the last chapters, I spoke of two great fourth-century Doctors of the Church, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, a bishop in Cappadocia, in present-day Turkey. Today, we are adding a third, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s brother, who showed himself to be a man disposed to meditation with a great capacity for reflection and a lively intelligence open to the culture of his time. He has thus proved to be an original and profound thinker in the history of Christianity.

Gregory was born in about 335. His Christian education was supervised with special care by his brother Basil, whom he called “father and teacher” (Epistle 13, 4: SC 363, 198), and by his sister Macrina. He completed his studies, appreciating in particular philosophy and rhetoric.

Initially, he devoted himself to teaching and was married. Later, like his brother and sister, he too dedicated himself entirely to the ascetic life. He was subsequently elected bishop of Nyssa and showed himself to be a zealous pastor, thereby earning the community’s esteem. When he was accused of embezzlement by heretical adversaries, he was obliged for a brief period to abandon his episcopal see but later returned to it triumphant and continued to be involved in the fight to defend the true faith.

Especially after Basil’s death, by more or less gathering his spiritual legacy, Gregory cooperated in the triumph of orthodoxy. He took part in various synods; he attempted to settle disputes between churches; he had an active part in the reorganization of the Church and, as a “pillar of orthodoxy,” played a leading role at the Council of Constantinople in 381, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Various difficult official tasks were entrusted to him by the Emperor Theodosius, he delivered important homilies and funeral discourses, and he devoted himself to writing various theological works. In addition, in 394, he took part in another synod, held in Constantinople. The date of his death is not known.

Gregory expressed clearly the purpose of his studies, the supreme goal to which all his work as a theologian was directed: not to engage his life in things but to find the light that would enable him to discern what is my worthwhile. He found this supreme good in Christianity, thanks to which “the imitation of the divine nature” is possible (De Professione Christiana: PG 46, 244c).

With his acute intelligence and vast philosophical and theological knowledge, Gregory defended the Christian faith against heretics who denied the divinity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (such as Eunomius and the Macedonians) or compromised the perfect humanity of Christ (such as Apollinaris).

He commented on Sacred Scripture, reflecting on the creation of man. This was one of his central topics: creation. He saw in the creature the reflection of the Creator and found here the way that leads to God. But he also wrote an important book on the life of Moses, whom he presents as a man journeying toward God: this climb to Mount Sinai became for him an image of our ascent in human life toward true life, toward the encounter with God.

He also interpreted the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, as well as the Beatitudes. In his Great Catechetical Discourse (Oratio Catechetica Magna), he developed theology’s fundamental directions, not for an academic theology closed in on itself but in order to offer catechists a reference system to keep before them in their instructions, almost as a framework for a pedagogical interpretation of the faith.

Furthermore, Gregory is distinguished for his spiritual doctrine. None of his theology was academic reflection; rather, it was an expression of the spiritual life, of a life of faith lived. As a great “father of mysticism,” he pointed out in various treatises — such as his De Professione Christiana and De Perfectione Christiana — the path Christians must take if they are to reach true life, perfection. He exalted consecrated virginity (De Virginitate) and proposed the life of his sister Macrina, who was always a guide and example for him (cf. Vita Macrinae), as an outstanding model of it.

Gregory gave various discourses and homilies and wrote numerous letters. In commenting on human creation, he highlighted the fact that God, “the best artist, forges our nature so as to make it suitable for the exercise of royalty. Through the superiority given by the soul and through the very makeup of the body, he arranges things in such a way that malt is truly fit for regal power” (De Hominis Opificio 4: PG 44, 136b).

Yet we see that man, caught in the net of sin, often abuses creation and does not exercise true kingship. For this reason, in fact, that is, to act with true responsibility for creatures, he must be penetrated by God and live in his light.

Indeed, man is a reflection of that original beauty which is God: “Everything God created was very good,” the holy bishop wrote. And he added: “The story of creation [cf. Genesis 1:31) witnesses to it. Man was also listed among those very good things, adorned with a beauty far superior to all of the good things. What else, in fact, could be good, on par with one who was similar to pure and incorruptible beauty? The reflection and image of eternal life, he was truly good; no, he was very good, with the radiant sign of life on his face” (Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1020c). Human being was honored by God and placed above every other creature:

The sky was not made in God’s image, not the moon, not the sun, not the beauty of the stars, no other things which appear in creation. Only you (human soul) were made to be the image of nature that surpasses every intellect, likeness of incorruptible beauty, mark of true divinity, vessel of blessed life, image of true light, that when you look upon it you become what he is, because through the reflected ray coming from your purity you imitate he who shines within you. Nothing that exists can measure up to your greatness.
(Homilia in Canticum 2: PG 44, 805d)

Let us meditate on this praise of the human being. Let us also see how man was degraded by sin. And let us try to return to that original greatness: only if God is present does man attain his true greatness. Man therefore recognizes in himself the reflection of the divine light: by purifying his heart he is once more, as he was in the beginning, a clear image of God, exemplary Beauty (cf. Oratio Catechetica 6: SC 453, 174). Thus, by purifying himself, man can see God, as do the pure of heart (cf. Matthew 5:8): “If, with a diligent and attentive standard of living, you wash away the bad things that have deposited upon your heart, the divine beauty will shine in you…. Contemplating yourself, you will see within you he who is the desire of your heart, and you will be blessed” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272ab). We should therefore wash away the ugliness stored within our hearts and rediscover God’s light within us. The Human goal is therefore the contemplation of God. In God alone can one find one’s fulfillment.

To somehow anticipate this goal in this life, one must work ceaselessly toward a spiritual life, a life in dialogue with God. In other words — and this is the most important lesson that St. Gregory of Nyssa its bequeathed to us — total human fulfillment consists in holiness, in a life lived in the encounter with God, which thus becomes luminous also  others and to the world.

A Theologian of Human Dignity
I present to you certain further aspects of the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

First of all, Gregory of Nyssa had a very lofty concept of human dignity. The human goal, the holy bishop said, is to liken oneself to God, and one reaches this goal first of all through the love, knowledge, and practice of the virtues, “bright beams that shine from the divine nature” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272c), in a perpetual movement of adherence to the good like a corridor outstretched before oneself.

In this regard, Gregory uses an effective image already present in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: epekteinomenos (3:13), that is, “I press on” toward what is greater, toward truth and love. This vivid expression portrays a profound reality: the perfection we desire to attain is not acquired once and for all; perfection means journeying on; it is continuous readiness to move ahead because we never attain a perfect likeness to God; we are always on our way (cf. Homilia in Canticum 12: PG 44, 1025d).

The history of every soul is that of a love that fills every time and at the same time is open to new horizons, for God continually stretches the soul’s possibilities to make it capable of ever greater goods. God himself, who has sown the seeds of good in us and from whom every initiative of holiness stems, “sculpts the block … , and polishing and cleansing our spirit, forms Christ within us” (In Psalmos 2, 11: PG 44, 544b).

Gregory was anxious to explain: “In fact, this likeness to the divine is not our work at all; it is not the achievement of any faculty of man; it is the great gift of God bestowed upon our nature at the very moment of our birth” (De Virginitate 12, 2: SC 119, 408-10). For the soul, therefore, “it is not a question of knowing something about God but of having God within” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1269c). Moreover, as Gregory perceptively observes, “Divinity is purity, it is liberation from the passions and the removal of every evil: if all these things are in you, God is truly in you” (De Beatitudinibus 6: PG 44, 1272c).

When we have God in us, when one loves God, through that reciprocity which belongs to the law of love one wants what God himself wants (cf. Homilia in Canticum 9: PG 44, 956ac); hence, one cooperates with God in fashioning the divine image in oneself, so that “our spiritual birth is the result of a free choice, and we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we ourselves wish to be, and through our will forming ourselves in accordance with the model that we choose” (Vita Moysis 2, 3: SC 1ff., 108). To ascend to God, one must be purified:

The way that leads human nature to heaven is none other than detachment from the evils of this world…. Becoming like God means becoming righteous, holy and good…. If, therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5:1), “God is in heaven’,” and if, as the Prophet says, “You have made God your refuge’ (Psalm 73[72]:28), it necessarily follows that you must be where God is found, since you are united with him. Since he commanded you to call God “Father” when you pray, he tells you definitely to be likened to your Heavenly Father and to lead a life worthy of God, as the Lord orders us more clearly elsewhere, saying, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
(De Oratione Dominica 2: PG 44, 1145ac)

In this journey of spiritual ascesis, Christ is the model and teacher; he shows us the beautiful image of God (cf. De Perfectione Christiana: PG 46, 272a). Each of us, looking at him, finds ourselves “the painter of our own life,” who has the will to compose the work and the virtues as his colors (De Perfectione Christiana.: PG 46, 272b). So, if man is deemed worthy of Christ’s name, how should he behave? This is Gregory’s answer: “[He must] always examine his own thoughts, his own words, and his own actions in his innermost depths to see whether they are oriented to Christ or are drifting away from him” (De Perfectione Christiana.: PG 46, 284c). And this point is important because of the value it gives to the word Christian. A Christian is someone who bears Christ’s name, who must therefore also liken his life to Christ. We Christians assume a great responsibility with baptism.

But Christ, Gregory says, is also present in the poor, which is why they must never be offended: “Do not despise them, those who lie idle, as if for this reason they were worth nothing. Consider who they are and you will discover wherein lies their dignity: they represent the person of the Savior. And this is how it is: for in his goodness, the Lord gives them his own person so that through it, those who are hard of heart and enemies of the poor may be moved to compassion” (De Pauperibus Amanidis: PG 46, 460bc). Gregory, as we said, speaks of rising: rising to God in prayer through purity of heart, but also rising to God through love of neighbor. Love is the ladder that leads to God. Consequently, Gregory of Nyssa strongly recommends to all his listeners: “Be generous with these brothers and sisters, victims of misfortune. Give to the hungry from what you deprive your own stomach” (De Pauperibus Amanidis.: PG 46, 457c).

Gregory recalls with great clarity that we all depend on God and therefore exclaims: “Do not think that everything belongs to you! There must also be a share for the poor, God’s friends. In fact, the truth is that everything comes from God, the universal Father, and that we are brothers and sisters and belong to the same lineage” (De Pauperibus Amanidis.: PG, 465b). The Christian should then examine oneself, Gregory insists further: “But what use is it to fast and abstain from eating meat if with your wicked puss all you do is to gnaw at your brother? What do you gain in God’s eyes from not eating your own food if later, acting unfairly, you snatch from their hands the food of the poor?”

Let us end our catechesis on the three great Cappadocian Fathers by recalling that important aspect of Gregory of Nyssa’s spiritual doctrine, which is prayer. To progress on the journey to perfection and to welcome God within him, to bear the Spirit of God within him, the love of God, man must turn to God trustingly in prayer: “Through prayer we succeed in being with God. But anyone who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is a support and protection of charity, a brake on anger, an appeasement and the control of pride. Prayer is the custody of virginity, the protection of fidelity in marriage, the hope for those who are watching, an abundant harvest for farmers, certainty for sailors” (De Oratione Dominica 1: PG 44, 1124ab).

The Christian always prays by drawing inspiration from the Lord’s Prayer: “So if we want to pray for the kingdom of God to come, we must ask him for this with the power of the Word: that I may be distanced from corruption, delivered from death, freed from the chains of error; that death may never reign over me, that the tyranny of evil may never have power over us, that the adversary may never dominate me nor make me his prisoner through sin but that your kingdom may come to me so that the passions by which I am now ruled and governed may be distanced, or better still, blotted out” (De Oratione Dominica., 3: PG 44, 1156d-57a).

Having ended his earthly life, the Christian will thus be able to turn to God serenely. In speaking of this, St. Gregory remembered the death of his sister Macrina and wrote that she was praying this prayer to God while she lay dying: “You who on earth have the power to take away sins, `forgive me, so that I may find refreshment’ [cf. Psalm 38:14], and so that may be found without blemish in your sight at the time when I am emptied from my body [cf. Colossians 2:11], so that my spirit, holy and immaculate [cf. Ephesians 5:27], may be accepted into your hands `like incense before you” (Psalm 141:[140]:2) (Vita Macrinae 24: SC 178, 224). This teaching of St. Gregory is always relevant: not only speaking of God but also carrying God within oneself. Let us do this by commitment to prayer and living in a spirit of love for all our brethren.


Origen Of Alexandria

February 22, 2012

Origen (Ōrigénēs), or Origen Adamantius, 184/5–253/4 was an early Christian Alexandrian scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early Church.

Another reading from Benedict XVI on a figure from early Church history and why his thought remains important to us today. See if you don’t agree.

His Life and Work
In our meditations on the great figures of the early Church, we now become acquainted with one of the most remarkable. Origen of Alexandria truly was a figure crucial to the whole development of Christian thought. He gathered up the legacy of Clement of Alexandria, on whom we meditated in the last chapter, and launched it for the future in a way so innovative that he impressed an irreversible turning point on the development of Christian thought.

He was a true “maestro,” and so it was that his pupils remembered him with nostalgia and emotion: he was not only a brilliant theologian but also an exemplary witness of the doctrine he passed on. Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, said, “His manner of life was as his doctrine, and his doctrine as his life. Therefore, by the divine power working with him he aroused a great many to his own zeal” (cf. Church History 6, 3, 7).

His whole life was pervaded by a ceaseless longing for martyrdom. He was seventeen years old when, in the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, the persecution against Christians was unleashed in Alexandria. Clement, his teacher, fled the city, and Origen’s father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son longed ardently for martyrdom but was unable to realize his desire. So he wrote to his father, urging him not to shrink from the supreme witness of faith. And when Leonides was beheaded, the young Origen felt bound to welcome the example of his father’s life.

Forty years later, while preaching in Caesarea, he confessed: “It is of no use to me to have a martyr father if I do not behave well and honor the nobility of my ancestors, that is, the martyrdom of my father and the witness that made him illustrious in Christ” (Hom. Ez. 4, 8). In a later homily — when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of the emperor Philip the Arab, the possibility of bearing witness by shedding one’s blood seemed no longer to exist — Origen exclaims: “If God were to grant me to be washed in my blood so as to receive the second baptism after accepting death for Christ, I would depart this world with assurance…. But those who deserve such things are blessed” (Hom. Iud. 7, 12). These words reveal the full force of Origen’s longing for baptism with blood.

And finally, this irresistible yearning was granted to him, at least in part. In the year 250, during Decius’s persecution, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Weakened by the suffering to which he had been subjected, he died a few years later. He was not yet seventy.

We have mentioned the “irreversible turning point” that Origen impressed upon the history of theology and Christian thought. But of what did this turning point, this innovation so pregnant with consequences, consist? It corresponds in substance to theology’s foundation in the explanation of the Scriptures.

Theology to him was essentially explaining, understanding Scripture; or we might also say that his theology was a perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In fact, the proper hallmark of Origen’s doctrine seems to lie precisely in the constant invitation to move from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in knowledge of God. Furthermore, this so-called allegorism, as von Balthasar wrote, coincides exactly “with the development of Christian dogma, effected by the teaching of the Church Doctors,” who in one way or another accepted Origen’s “lessons.”

Thus, Tradition and the magisterium, the foundation and guarantee of theological research, come to take the form of “Scripture in action” (cf. Origene: II mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa [Milan, 19721, 43). We can therefore say that the central nucleus of Origen’s immense literary opus consists in his “threefold interpretation” of the Bible.

But before describing this “interpretation,” it would be right to take an overall look at the Alexandrian’s literary production. Saint Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately, most of these works have been lost, but even the few that remain make him the most prolific author of Christianity’s first three centuries. His field of interest extended from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, apologetics, ascetical theology, and mystical theology. It was a fundamental and global vision of Christian life.

The inspiring nucleus of this work, as we have said, was the “threefold interpretation” of the Scriptures that Origen developed in his lifetime. By this phrase, we wish to allude to the three most important ways in which Origen devoted himself to studying the Scriptures: they are not in sequence; on the contrary, more often than not they overlap.

First of all, he read the Bible, determined to do his utmost to ascertain the biblical text and offer the most reliable version of it. This, for example, was the first step: to know truly what is written and what specific scriptural passage intentionally and principally meant.

He studied extensively for this purpose and drafted an edition of thy• Bible with six parallel columns, from left to right, with the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters — he was even in touch with rabbis to make sure he properly understood the Bible’s original Hebrew text — then the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek characters, and then four different translations in Greek that enabled him to compare the different possibilities lot its translation. Hence comes the title of Hexapla (“six columns”), attributed to this enormous synopsis. This is the first point: to know exactly what was written, the text as such.

Second, Origen read the Bible systematically with his famous Commentaries. They reproduced faithfully the explanations that the teacher offered during his lessons at Alexandria and Caesarea. Origen proceeded verse by verse with a detailed, broad, and analytical approach, with philological and doctrinal notes. He worked with great precision in order to know completely what the sacred authors meant.

Last, even before his ordination to the priesthood, Origen was deeply dedicated to preaching the Bible and adapted himself to a varied public. In any case, the teacher can also be perceived in his Homilies, wholly dedicated as he was to the systematic interpretation of the passage under examination, which he analyzed step by step in the sequence of the verses.

Also in his Homilies, Origen took every opportunity to recall the different dimensions of the sense of Sacred Scripture that encourage or express a process of growth in the faith: there is the “literal” sense, but this conceals depths that are not immediately apparent. The second dimension is the “moral” sense: what we must do in living the Word; and finally, the “spiritual” sense, the unity of Scripture which throughout its development speaks of Christ.

It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to understand the Christological content, hence, the unity in diversity of Scripture. It would be interesting to demonstrate this. I have made a humble attempt in my book Jesus of Nazareth to show in today’s context these multiple dimensions of the Word, of Sacred Scripture, whose historical meaning must in the first place be respected.

But this sense transcends us, moving us toward God in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, shows us how to live. Mention of it is found, for example, in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen likens Scripture to [fresh] walnuts: “The doctrine of the Law and the Prophets at the school of Christ is like this,” the homilist says; “the letter is bitter, like the [green-covered] skin; second, you will come to the shell, which is the moral doctrine; third, you will discover the meaning of the mysteries, with which the souls of the saints are nourished in the present life and the future” (Homily on Number 9, 7).

It was especially on this route that Origen succeeded in effectively promoting the “Christian interpretation” of the Old Testament, brilliantly countering the challenge of the heretics, especially the Gnostics and Marcionites, who made the two Testaments disagree to the extent that they rejected the Old Testament.

In this regard, in the same Homily on Numbers, the Alexandrian says, “I do not call the law an `Old Testament’ if I understand it in the Spirit. The law becomes an `Old Testament’ only for those who wish to understand it carnally,” that is, for those who stop at the literal meaning of the text. But “for us, who understand it and apply it in the Spirit and in the gospel sense, the law is ever new, and the two Testaments are a new Testament for us, not because of their date in time but because of the newness of the meaning…. Instead, for the sinner and those who do not respect the covenant of love, even the gospels age” (cf. Homily on Numbers 9, 4).

I invite you — and so I conclude — to welcome into your hearts the teaching of this great master of faith. Origen reminds us with deep delight that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in consistent commitment to life, the Church is ever renewed and rejuvenated. The Word of God, which never ages and is never exhausted, is a privileged means to this end. Indeed, it is the Word of God, through the action of the Holy Spirit, which always guides us to the whole truth. And let us pray to the Lord that he will give us thinkers, Theologians, and exegetes who discover this multifaceted dimension, this ongoing timeliness of Sacred Scripture, its newness for today. Let us pray that the Lord will help us to read Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way, to be truly nourished with the true Bread of Life, with his Word.

The Thought of Origen of Alexandria
We have examined the life and literary opus of the great Alexandrian teacher, identifying his threefold interpretation of the Bible as the life-giving nucleus of all his work. Now we take up two aspects of Origenian doctrine that I consider among the most important and timely: his teachings on prayer and the Church.

In fact, Origen — author of the important and ever timely treatise On Prayer — constantly interweaves his exegetical and theological writings with experiences and suggestions connected with prayer. Notwithstanding all the theological richness of his thought, his is never a purely academic approach; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, of contact with God. Indeed, to his mind, knowledge of the Scriptures requires prayer and intimacy with Christ even more than study. He was convinced that the best way to become acquainted with God is through love and that there is no authentic scientia Christi without falling in love with him.

In his Letter to Gregory, Origen recommends:

Study first of all the lectio of the divine Scriptures. Study them, I say. For we need to study the divine writings deeply … and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them and it shall be opened to you by the porter, of whom Jesus says, “To him the gatekeeper opens.”

While you attend to this lectio divina, seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures. And do not be content with knocking and seeking, for what is absolutely necessary for understanding divine things is oratio, and in urging us to this the Savior says not only “knock and it will be opened to you,” and “seek and you will find,” but also “ask and it will be given you.”
(Epistle on Gregory 4)

The “primordial role” played by Origen in the history of lectio divina instantly flashes before one’s eyes. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who learned from Origen’s works to interpret the Scriptures, later introduced them into the West to hand them on to Augustine and to the monastic tradition that followed.

As we have already said, according to Origen the highest degree of knowledge of God stems from love. Therefore, this also applies for Human beings: only if there is love, if hearts are opened, can one person truly know the other. Origen based his demonstration of this on a meaning that is sometimes attributed to the Hebrew verb to know, that is, when it is used to express the human act of love: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Gen 4:1). This suggests that union in love Mrcures the most authentic knowledge. Just as the man and the woman are “two in one flesh,” so God and the believer become “two in one spirit.”

The prayer of the Alexandrian thus attained the loftiest levels of mysticism, as is attested to by his Homilies on the Song of Songs. A passage is presented in which Origen confessed: “I have often felt — God is my witmess — that the Bridegroom came to me in the most exalted way. Then he suddenly left, and I was unable to find what I was seeking. Once again, ,I am taken by the desire for his coming and sometimes he returns, and when he has appeared to me, when I hold him with my hands, once again he flees from me, and when he has vanished I start again to seek him” (Homily in Cant. 1, 7).

I remember what my venerable predecessor wrote as an authentic witness in Novo Millennio Ineunte, where he showed the faithful “how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart.” “It is,” John Paul II continues, “a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications…. But it leads, in various possible ways to the ineffable joy experienced by mystics as “nuptial union”

Finally, we come to one of Origen’s teachings on the Church, and precisely — within it — on the common priesthood of the faithful. In fact, as the Alexandrian affirms in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, “This discourse concerns us all” (Homily on Leviticus 9, 1). In the same Homily, Origen, referring to Aaron’s prohibition, after the death of his two sons, from entering the Sancta sanctorum “at all times” (Leviticus 16:2), thus warned the faithful:

This shows that if anyone were to enter the sanctuary at any time without being properly prepared and wearing priestly attire, without bringing the prescribed offerings and making himself favorable to God, he would die…

This discourse concerns us all. It requires us, in fact, to know how to accede to God’s altar. Oh, do you not know that the priesthood has been conferred upon you too, that is, upon the entire Church of God and believing people? Listen to how Peter speaks to the faithful: “Chosen race,” he says, “royal, priestly, holy nation, people whom God has ransomed.”

You therefore possess the priesthood because you are “a priestly race” and must thus offer the sacrifice to God…. But to offer it with dignity, you need garments that are pure and different from the common clothes of other men, and you need the divine fire.
(Homily on Leviticus)

Thus, on the one hand, “girded” and in “priestly attire” mean purity and honesty of life, and on the other, with the “lamp ever alight,” that is, faith and knowledge of the Scriptures, we have the indispensable conditions for the exercise of the universal priesthood, which demands purity and an honest life, faith, and knowledge of the Scriptures.

For the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, there is of course all the more reason why such conditions should be indispensable.

These conditions — a pure and virtuous life, but above all the acceptance and study of the Word — establish a true and proper “hierarchy of holiness” in the common priesthood of Christians. At the peak of this ascent of perfection, Origen places martyrdom. Again, in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, he alludes to the “fire for the holocaust,” that is, to faith and knowledge of the Scriptures which must never be extinguished on the altar of the person who exercises the priesthood. He then adds: `But each one of us has within him” not only the fire; but he “also has the holocaust and from his holocaust lights the altar so that it may burn forever. If I renounce all my possessions, take up my cross, and follow Christ, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God; and if I give up my body to be burned with love and achieve the glory of martyrdom, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God”
(Homily on Leviticus 9, 9).

This tireless journey to perfection “concerns us all,” in order that “the gaze of our hearts” may turn to contemplate Wisdom and Truth, which are Jesus Christ. Preaching on Jesus’ discourse in Nazareth — when “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (cf. Luke 4:16-30) Origen seems to be addressing us:

Today, too, if you so wished, in this assembly your eyes can be fixed on the Savior.

In fact, it is when you turn the deepest gaze of your heart to the contemplation of Wisdom, Truth, and the only Son of God that your eyes will see God. Happy the assembly of which Scripture attests that the eyes of all were fixed upon him!

How I would like this assembly here to receive a similar testimony, and the eyes of all — the non-baptized and the faithful, women, men, and children — to look at Jesus, not the eyes of the body but those of the soul! .. .

Impress upon us the light of your face, O Lord, to whom be the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen!
(Homily. in Luke 32: 6)


Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite

February 21, 2012

Pseudo-Dionysius was an Armenian monk whose writings were highly recommended by many of the Medieval popes. His works, including Celestial Hierarchies, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Ten Letters and The Divine Names were collectively referred to in the Middle Ages as the Corpus Areopagiticum . In these written works he called himself Dionysius the Areopagite, i.e., the famous first century A.D., Athenian member of the Areopagus (law court) that the Apostle Paul converted per Acts 17:34 of the Bible. Today, he is usually referred to as "Pseudo" Dionysius because it was conclusively shown, as early as the 15th century, that this man actually lived no earlier than the sixth century A.D. The Florentine humanist Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) was the first academic to provide evidence that the author of the Corpus Areopagiticum could not have been St. Paul's convert. In 1895, two important Roman Catholic scholars, Hugo Koch and Joseph Stiglmayr both working independently of each other, published research papers that showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Dionysius' claim to be the Areopagite was false.

Pope Benedict has written numerous short biographies of saints and theologians and are found in his books titled Great Christian Thinkers, The Church Fathers, Doctors of the Church, etc. They offer wonderful little synopsis of various church figures. This is one I have come across here and there in my readings: Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite. As Derek Jeter, I have chosen on this blog to write under a pseudonym, much like this sixth century theologian – perhaps in his honor I should rename myself Pseudo-Derek, The Yankee SS, but I digress…


In the course of my catechesis on the Fathers of the Church, I speak next of a rather mysterious figure: a sixth-century theologian whose name is unknown and who wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite. With this pseudonym, he was alluding to the passage of Scripture, the event recounted by St. Luke in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, where he tells how Paul preached in Athens at the Areopagus to an elite group of the important Greek intellectual world. In the end, the majority of his listeners proved not to be interested and went away jeering at him. Yet some, St. Luke says a few, approached Paul and opened themselves to the faith. The evangelist gives us two names: Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris.

If five centuries later the author of these books chose the pseudonym “Dionysius the Areopagite,” it means that his intention was to put Greek wisdom at the service of the Gospel, to foster the encounter of Greek culture and intelligence with the proclamation of Christ; he wanted to do what this Dionysius had intended, that is, to make Greek thought converge with St. Paul’s proclamation; being a Greek, he wanted to become a disciple of St. Paul, hence a disciple of Christ.

Why did he hide his name and choose this pseudonym? One part of the answer I have already given: he wanted, precisely, to express this fundamental intention of his thought. But there are two hypotheses concerning this anonymity and pseudonym. The first hypothesis says that it was a deliberate falsification by which, in dating his works back to the first century, to the time of St. Paul, he wished to give his literary opus a quasi-apostolic authority.

But there is another, better hypothesis than this, which seems to me barely credible: namely, that he himself desired to make an act of humility; he did not want to glorify his own name; he did not want to build a monument to himself with his work but rather truly to serve the gospel, to create an ecclesial theology, neither individual nor based on himself. Actually, he succeeded in elaborating a theology which, of course, we can date to the sixth century but cannot attribute to any of the figures of that period: it is a somewhat “de-individualized” theology, that is, a theology that expresses a common thought and language.

It was a period of fierce polemics following the Council of Chalcedon; indeed, he said in his Seventh Epistle: “I do not wish to spark polemics; simply speak of the truth; I seek the truth.” And the light of truth by itself causes errors to fall away and makes what is good shine forth. And with it this principle, he purified Greek thought and related it to the gospel. This principle, which he affirms in his seventh letter, is also the expression (if a true spirit of dialogue: it is not about seeking the things that separate but seeking the truth in Truth itself. This then radiates and causes errors to fade away.

Therefore, although this author’s theology is, so to speak, “supra-personal,” truly ecclesial, we can place it in the sixth century. Why? The Greek spirit, which he placed at the service of the gospel, he encountered in the books of Proclus, who died in Athens in 485. Proclus belonged to late Platonism, a current of thought that had transformed Plato’s philosophy into a sort of religion, whose ultimate purpose was to create a great apologetic for Greek polytheism and return, following Christianity’s success, to the ancient Greek religion. He wanted to demonstrate that in reality, the divinities were the active forces in the cosmos.

The consequence to be drawn from this was that polytheism must be considered truer than monotheism, with its single Creator God. What Proclus was demonstrating was a great cosmic system of divinity, of mysterious forces, through which, in this deified cosmos, one could find access to the divinity. However, he made a distinction between paths for the simple, who were incapable of rising to the heights of truth — certain rites could suffice for them — and paths for the wise, who were to purify themselves to arrive at the pure light.

As can be seen, this thought is profoundly anti-Christian. It is a late reaction to the triumph of Christianity, an anti-Christian use of Plato, whereas a Christian interpretation of the great philosopher was already in course. It is interesting that this Pseudo-Dionysius dared to avail himself of this very thought to demonstrate the truth of Christ; to transform this polytheistic universe into a cosmos created by God, into the harmony of God’s cosmos, where every force is praise of God, and to show this great harmony, this symphony of the cosmos that goes from the seraphim to the angels and archangels, to humans and to all the creatures which, together, reflect God’s beauty and are praise of God. He thus transformed the polytheistic image into a praise of the Creator and his creature.

In this way, we can discover the essential characteristics of his thought: first and foremost, it is cosmic praise. All creation speaks of God and in praise of God. Since the creature is praise of God, Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology became a liturgical theology: God is found above all in praising him, not only in reflection; and the liturgy is not something made by us, something invented in order to have a religious experience for a certain period of time; it is singing with the choir of creatures and entering into cosmic reality itself.

And in this very way, the liturgy, apparently only ecclesiastical, becomes expansive and great; it becomes our union with the language of all creatures. He says: God cannot be spoken of in abstract way; speaking of God is always, he says using a Greek word, a hymnein, singing for God with the great hymn of the creatures, which reflected and made concrete in liturgical praise. Yet, although his thelogy is cosmic, ecclesial, and liturgical, it is also profoundly personal. He created the first great mystical theology. Indeed, with him the word “mystic” acquires a new meaning. Until then for Christians such a word was equivalent to the word “sacramental,” that is, what pertains to the mysterion, to the sacrament. With him the word mystic becomes more personal, more intimate: it expresses the soul’s journey toward God.

And how can God be found? Here we note once again an important element in his dialogue between Greek philosophy and Christianity, and in particular biblical faith. Apparently what Plato says and what the great philosophy on God says is far loftier, far truer; the Bible appears somewhat “barbaric,” simple or pre-critical one might say today; but he remarks that precisely this is necessary, so that in this way we can understand that the loftiest concepts on God never reach his true grandeur: they always fall short of it. In fact, these images enable us to understand that God is above every concept; in the simplicity of the images, we find more truth than in great concepts.

The face of God is our inability to express truly what he is. In this way, one speaks, and Pseudo-Dionysius himself speaks, of a “negative theology.” It is easier for us to say what God is not rather than to say what he truly is. Only through these images can we intuit his true face; moreover, this face of God is very concrete: it is Jesus Christ.

Although Dionysius shows us, following Proclus, the harmony of the heavenly choirs in such a way that it seems that they all depend on one another, it is true that on our journey toward God we are still very far from him. Pseudo-Dionysius shows that in the end the journey to God is God himself, who makes himself close to us in Jesus Christ. Thus, a great and mysterious theology also becomes very concrete, both in the interpretation of the liturgy and in the discourse on Jesus Christ: with all this, Dionysius the Areopagite exerted a strong influence on all medieval theology and on all mystical theology, both in the East and in the West.

He was virtually rediscovered in the thirteenth century, especially by St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who in this mystical theology found the conceptual instrument for reinterpreting the heritage, so simple and profound, of St. Francis. Together with Dionysius, the “Poverello” tells us that in the end love sees more than reason. Where the light of love shines, the shadows of reason are dispelled; love sees, love is all eye, and experience gives us more than reflection. Bonaventure saw in St. Francis what this experience is: it is the experience of a very humble, very realistic journey, day by day; it is walking with Christ, accepting his cross. In this poverty and in this humility, in the humility that is also lived in ecclesiality, is an experience of God that is loftier than that attained by reflection. In it we really touch God’s heart.

Today Dionysius the Areopagite has a new relevance: he appears as a great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, whose characteristic feature is the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is, that only indirect things can be said about him; that God can only be spoken of with the “not,” and that it is only possible to reach him by entering into this indirect experience of “not.” And here a similarity can be seen between the thought of the Areopagite and that of Asian religions; he can be a mediator today as he was between the Greek spirit and the gospel.

In this context, it can be seen that dialogue does not accept superficiality. It is precisely when one enters into the depths of the encounter with Christ that an ample space for dialogue also opens. When one encounters the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for everyone; polemics disappear, and it is possible to understand one another, or at least to speak to one another, to come closer.

The path of dialogue consists precisely in being close to God in Christ, in a deep encounter with him, in the experience of the truth which opens us to the light and helps us reach out to others with the light of truth, the light of love. And in the end, he tells us: take the path of experience, the humble experience of faith, every day. Then the heart is enlarged and can see and also illumine reason so that it perceives God’s beauty. Let us pray to the Lord to help us today too to place the wisdom of our day at the service of the gospel, discovering ever anew the beauty of faith, the encounter with God in Christ.


Three By Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

February 20, 2012

Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard, then worked as a reporter and editor. After military service, he taught at Bennington College, The New School, and Columbia University, among other institutions. His poetry books include Intellectual Things (1930), Passport to the War (1944), Selected Poems, 1928-1958 (1958, Pulitzer Prize), The Testing-Tree (1971), The Terrible Threshold: Selected Poems, 1940-70 (1974), The Coat without a Seam: Sixty Poems, 1930-1972 (1974), The Lincoln Relics (1978), The Wellfleet Whale and Companion Poems (1983), Next-to-Last Things (1985), Passing Through (1995, National Rook Award), and The Collected Poems (2000). Among his honors were Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Lenore Marshall Award, the Bollingen Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the Frost Medal. Stanley Kunitz served as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress from 1974 to 1976 and as U.S. poet laureate in 2000 and 2001. He died in New York City.

Father and Son

Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.
Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains. Strode years; stretched into bird;
Raced through the sleeping country where I was young,
The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.

How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it’s strange, from where she goes.
I lived on a hill that had too many rooms:
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear.”

At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothers
No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
O teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face.

The Portrait

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love.
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only, 
                                    and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.



The Philosophical Problem Of God Is A Limit Problem by Jean Daniélou

February 17, 2012

The paradox of philosophy, then, would seem to be that it is caught between two alternatives: either it is an assertion of the sufficiency of reason itself and a negation of God, or else it is an assertion of the sufficiency of God to himself and a negation of man. But the possibility of the coexistence of God and other things appears to be untenable. This brings us back to the problem of creation, which we must now examine more deeply.

The difficulty is as old as philosophy. We may say that it is the philosophical problem. Ancient thought had given two different answers. For Parmenides, only the One exists, and all multiplicity is an illusion. Thus God is affirmed, and the world is denied. This is what is called acosmism. In the Indian tradition it is the doctrine of Sankara, which drives Indian monism in the direction of world negation. Nothing ever existed but God alone; the rest is a dream from which one wakes, and philosophy is the awakening.

In face of acosmism [Vocab: Acosmism, in contrast to pantheism, denies the reality of the universe, seeing it as ultimately illusory, (the prefix "a-" in Greek meaning negation; like "un-" in English), and only the infinite unmanifest Absolute as real.This philosophy begins with the premise that there is only one real thing, and it is infinite, and non-dual; The Absolute. But the phenomenal reality of which we are normally aware is just the opposite: finite, and dualistic. And since the Absolute is the only reality, that means that everything that is not-Absolute cannot be real. Thus, according to this viewpoint, the phenomenal dualistic world is ultimately an illusion (maya to use the technical Indian term), irrespective of the apparent reality it possesses at the mundane or empirical level.], antiquity offers us another solution, that of pantheism, which, however, is in the last analysis only a less rigorous way of expressing the same concept. Here again creation does not exist, has no proper consistency. It is the unfolding of unity — or, in other words, being, which is one and is God, existing in a collected form, which is God, and in a dispersed form, which is the world. But it is enough for man to recollect himself, to pass from the divine that is in everything to the divine that is in hint. The rhythm of the life of man is thus identical with the rhythm of the cosmos, which is for him, too, expansion and contraction. This is the pantheism that in the West found expression in Spinoza.

The nineteenth century put the question differently. The development of the idea of progress led to the assignment of value to becoming and gave it a positive meaning. Reality is the perpetual arising of creative newness. Yet this appears to be annulled, and progress deprived of all creative value, in that everything super-exists preeminently in God.

Progress, then, does nothing but rediscover what has always been known and produce what has always existed. The preexistence of God seems to empty it of all content and necessarily leads to a philosophy of the eternal, which is the negation of the value of time. So modern pantheism, reversing the perspective, makes God not he who has always existed, but he who no longer exists. God, the absolute Mind of Hegel, is the end of history. History becomes theogenetics.

We may say that this constitutes the philosophy of the nineteenth century. Hegel gave it an idealist look. Strauss applies it to the history of religion. Becoming materialist with Marx, it retains none the less a religious basis, the idea of man the demiurge ofGod-humanity.

Teilhard de Chardin struggled to provide a version acceptable to Christians, but was only partially successful. We can estimate the extent to which it overflows the banks of systematic philosophy and has infected the structure of the modern spirit by reading this passage from Rilke:

“Why not prove that God is He who shall come, He who from all eternity must come, that He is the future, the completed fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? Don’t you think everything that happens is a beginning? Wouldn’t it be God’s beginning? What meaning could there be in our quest, if He whom we are looking for belonged already to the past?”
[Teilhard de Chardin, Lettres a un jeune poete, 1937]

In contemporary philosophy, this fundamental difficulty has found fresh expression in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Sartre, metaphysically elaborating the Nietzschean theme of the death of God as the condition for the existence of man, claims in the Preface to his Descartes that, existence being identical with creative liberty, man only exists if his free act is an absolute beginning, if no essence precedes existence. Les Mouches illustrates the theme in dramatic terms. Oreste exists only when he has killed Agamemnon. Merleau-Ponty in his turn criticizes the Christianity of transcendence and opposes to it what he calls a Christianity of incarnation, in which God becomes man, not in the Christian sense of the word, by remaining God, but by identifying himself with man. The existence of a God distinct from man seems to him incompatible with man’s existence, for man then becomes an object for God, and this annihilates him. God must therefore exist and man must not exist, or man must exist and God must not exist.

The existentialism of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty removes the obstacle in the sense of affirming man and denying God. It has its exact counterpart in the theology of Karl Barth, who renews the acosmism of Parmenides and Sankara. Taking up the solus Deus of Luther, he denounces all claims to human liberty, which seem to him usurpations of the absolute sovereignty of divine liberty. All that God does not work in man is nothingness. There is no knowledge of God except that which God works in the spirit, and any claim to a philosophical knowledge of God is idolatry and illusion. There are no virtues but those that the grace of God works in man, and any idea of merit, of a partnership of God with man in his salvation, is denounced as pride.

Man seems to Barth to be unworthy of damnation. Barth’s predestinationism leads, paradoxically, to a doctrine of universal salvation. Thus man is despoiled of the last thing that he imagined he could still call his own and subtract from the divine omnipotence: the right to go to hell in his own way. For, as Jouhandeau has well said, hell is the ultimate expression of the value of human liberty. To deny it is to say either that liberty is incapable of resisting effective grace or that sin is finally so absurd as not even to deserve punishment.

This reference to Barth draws our attention to the most striking aspect of the fundamental difficulty, which is that of the coexistence of the absolute power of God and of man’s divine liberty. But this is only an aspect of the problem. Let it be a question of the being of God and of the creature, of the power of God and of human liberty, and we are always brought up against the same difficulty.

For if God is all, does all, says all, where is a place to be found for anything else? Metaphysically, we can scarcely see how to justify its existence; we reach an apparently insoluble contradiction. Psychologically, human life seems tasteless, and man feels frustrated, dispossessed, expropriated.

Yet what appears to be a fundamental difficulty turns out to be a sign that we are working in the right direction. For in fact we are brought back to the principles that we stated at the outset. What really characterizes the problem of God, we were saying then, is that it is a limit problem — that it cannot be mastered by reason; and it is just through this that the reality of God comes to bear upon the problem in that which specifically constitutes him — that is, in the fact that he transcends reason.

Moreover, it is just to this that we are led by the fundamental difficulty. We are brought to the point of making two statements, which to all appearances are contradictory. On the one hand, all being loses itself in God; on the other, some being exists outside God. Or again, God determines everything, and yet human liberty determines itself. We are confronted here by a defect in logic, by the impossibility of making our two statements coincide; and they are both of the utmost importance.

Thus the error in all the answers we have found to the problem is just this, that they all fail to accept this opposition, and that they rule out one of the data in the problem. They boil down in the end to the claim of reason to master the difficulty. This is also true of the position of Barth, which returns finally to that of Parmenides, and which involves taking up a philosophical position contrary to analogy. Catholic theology has also made efforts to surmount the problem. We know what an important place the question of grace and liberty has held in its history. But finally these attempts have come to a checkmate; neither Banez nor Molina has found a satisfactory solution. This is a sign that we are really dealing with the mystery of God, which cannot be reduced to entire intelligibility by created mind, but remains fundamentally independent in a realm of sovereign subjectivity.

Yet there is more to be said. What characterizes limit problems is not only that they cannot be elucidated by reason, but that they compel us to leave the order of discourse, that they drive us toward conversion. Moreover, this is eminently true of the case we are considering. When Sartre and MerleauPonty say that the existence of God annihilates man, they are expressing something perfectly real. In that it means that God is the whole of being and that the whole of being comes into God, it means that man possesses nothing of himself; or rather the only thing proper to him is nothingness, for it is only the action of God that arouses him at every single moment from nothingness. Jacques Riviere felt this strongly when he said about sin: “This at least is really mine.” He was expressing in this way the fundamental truth that all goodness proceeds from God, just as all happiness does. What God asks of us is to let ourselves love through him, to agree to receive from him both being and goodness.

But this is what man refuses to do. For this acceptance is a confession of his utter poverty. It dispossesses him of everything. Moreover, man’s passion is to belong to himself. It is repugnant to him to acknowledge his complete dependence, to agree to receive himself at every single moment from another, to leave the entire initiative to God, to be able to hold fast only to something that exists before him and outside him, although this may be more himself than he is. This is why, when his metaphysical perspicacity brings him to acknowledge that all goodness comes from God, he revels in his sins; that all happiness comes from God, he revels in his misery; that all being comes from God, he revels in nothingness. For this is the only way for him to deny himself to God, if all that is comes from him, and if the acceptance of being involves the acknowledgment of his dependence.

But the fact that the being that I possess does not belong to me, but is received from another, does not mean, for all that, that this being does not exist. Such is precisely the condition of created being. There is no necessity in it, it is perfectly contingent, it introduces nothing new; and in this sense it is entirely gratuitous, or rather entirely under grace. I am not my own origin. Since my existence began, we have been two. My existence is in its very essence a relationship. I only subsist insofar as I am uttered by another. To acknowledge this fundamental dependence is simply to ratify what I am. I do not exist except insofar as I am loved. For me, to exist will be to love in my turn, to answer through grace to the action of grace.

Thus created being is not dispossessed of existence, as Sartre claims, but of the appropriation of existence. What I am dispossessed of is my will to self-sufficiency. From the beginning, I am drawn into the cycle of love, of grace and the action of grace. It is impossible for me to separate myself. I enter, then, into the region of “dissemblance”, according to the phrase of St. Bernard — that is, of nonbeing. By a remarkable paradox, it is in my will to sufficiency that I find destruction, while when I acknowledge my insufficiency, I assert my true self. The very notion of creature, which is correlative to the divine aseity [Aseity: (from Latin a "from" and se "self", plus -ity) refers to the property by which a being exists in and of itself, from itself, or exists as so-and-such of and from itself.The word is often used to refer to the Christian belief that God contains within himself the cause of himself, is the first cause, though many Jewish and Muslim theologians have also believed God to be independent in this way. Notions of aseity as the highest principle go back at least to Plato and have been in wide circulation since Augustine, though the use of the word 'aseity' began only in the Middle Ages.], can, then, be recognized only in that I accept myself existentially as a creature. And that, too, is a limit notion.

Thus we are led afresh to the idea of creation. It is this that expresses the tension between the existence of a God who exhausts in himself the possibilities of real being, and the existence of a reality before God, which yet has its own existence. But this idea represents a threshold on which philosophical thinking left to itself has never succeeded in standing upright. Gilson has correctly seen in this a category of Christian philosophy, insofar as it is only when relying on revelation that reason has accurately stated it. But even so, the idea remains mysterious. It is affirmed, but not plainly intelligible. It puts forward the two terms, but it does not grasp how they can coexist. Even this intelligibility is the expression, within the scheme of thought, of its reality in the order of existence.

What we said of the fundamental difficulty indicates, then, that it is at the same time the manifestation of the value of reason and of the limits of reason; and that it is just because it is both that it is the right way of putting philosophically the question of God. This applies to philosophy as a whole. It is altogether a threshold. Its supreme act is, therefore, to cross-examine itself, and to show by this means that the cross-examination, which affirms a realm beyond reason, is stipulated by reason.

Thus it will appear reasonable to affirm a revelation. A god whom reason dominated would be neither a personal god nor a transcendent god. It is by affirming at the same time that God exists and that he surpasses reason, that reason itself knows him to be God indeed. A more perfect knowledge of him would only be his free gift. He is subjective sovereignty, the darkness to which none is able to break through, but which is revealed when and how it wishes. And this is what we call the revelation.


The God Of True Philosophy by Jean Daniélou

February 16, 2012

Toward the end of his career, Rodin began to use giant hands in a series of original and idiosyncratic arrangements, with titles such as The Hand of God, The Hand of the Devil (1903), The Cathedral (1908), and The Secret (ca. 1910). The Hand of God (seen above) represents divine creation expressed in terms of the sculptor's art: the rough stone is both primeval matter and the sculptor's medium; the smooth, white emerging forms held by the hand are the bodies of the first man and woman, while the great, life-giving hand itself is a symbol of the original Creator, and, perhaps quite literally, of the sculptor as well. The Hand of God was another of Rodin's works that has had wide appeal, and there are numerous versions of it, both in marble and in bronze. This marble was commissioned from Rodin in 1906 by one of the Metropolitan Museum's trustees.

It remains for us to ask how the human mind can, by the sole light of intellect, rise to the knowledge of divine personality. The latter results from the absolute independence of God within being, from his aseity [vocab: God is self-existent, God has always been. Our Maker exists in an eternal, self-sustaining, necessary way necessary, that is, in the sense that God does not have it in Him to go out of existence, just as we do not have it in us to live forever. We necessarily age and die, because it is our present nature to do that; God necessarily continues forever unchanged, because it is His eternal nature to do that. This is one of many contrasts between creature and Creator]. In fact this being that necessarily exists, since it is necessary that there should be being which exists through itself, from the mere fact that it possesses existence in itself, is also necessarily a substance, because that is the very definition of substantial being. It is even the most perfect of substances — since the independence in being that defines substance is not complete in created substances (which are always at the same time dependent), it could only be from being that they receive existence; while in being, which is a se, there is, on the contrary, absolute sufficiency within itself to exist, a total independence within being.

It could not be a se without being, by the same token, in se. Every form of pantheism is hence excluded. The proper existence of the Creator is irreducibly distinguished from that which he communicates to his creature. Being subsists by essence in itself. “Ecce distinctio personalis: Ego sum qui sum.” [Summa Theologiae, Part I, q14., a2 and 2] God can say “I”.

We may notice, on the other hand, that the transcendence of a personal God is that of a spiritual and willing substance, one that not only subsists in itself, but moreover perfectly possesses itself through the will and perfectly knows itself through the intellect; it is the transcendence of a being who can say “I”. It follows, as we have said, that the divine personality participates, to a sovereign degree, in the “dignity” that attaches to the person as such, and which seems the first thing that comes to mind in the current use of the word; a person is contrasted with a thing in that it has a right to a certain respect. Pere de Grandmaison emphasizes this aspect when he defines the person as “a living, knowing, willing and loving ego whom one cannot, without doing him an injustice, treat as a thing, who cannot without revaluation be considered as such”.

If human personality implies this dignity, it is abundantly clear that, insofar as God has not been conceded personality, there is at least one sense, that of spiritual substance, in which man is not transcended. If God is not a person and man is one, insofar as he is a person, insofar as he judges and chooses; he escapes from the domain of God.

Perhaps it would be necessary to seek here for the deep reason that causes the wise men of this world to be reluctant to acknowledge God as a person. In fact it is for this reason that God deserves, to an infinite degree, that respect which we owe to a person as such — and which, in his case, is adoration. It is for this reason that we fundamentally depend on hint, not only in the physical, but in the moral order as well.

It is this — that it offends a person and violates the sacred rights of an infinite person — that underlies the gravity of moral evil and marks it off from physical evil. “Because man is a sovereign personality the notion of sin has meaning: to wound the order of that which is committed to the free-will of self-rule, is to wound God Himself.” [Jacques Maritain, Les Degrés du Savoir ]This also makes it clear, as Gilson remarks,  that the true idea of moral good and evil only appeared with the clear idea of a personal God.

Divine personality expresses, above all, the infinite abyss that separates God from his creature. God is sufficient to himself, the whole creation lies before him as pure nothingness, it adds nothing to what he already is. But to this first aspect there is added a second, which seems at first sight to contradict it: the very attribute that succeeds in making God inaccessible is at the same time the one that will permit us to enter into a relationship with him. “This sovereign personality”, says Maritain, “is at once that which removes Him farthest from us — the inflexible infinite stands face to face with me, a wretched mortal — and at the same time brings Him nearest to us, since the incomprehensible purity has a countenance, a voice, and has set me before it so that I may gaze upon Him, so that I may speak to Him and He to me.” [The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson]

A new aspect now appears in the notion of personality. After incommunicability, communicativeness; after self-possession, self-giving. We have to determine to what extent philosophy is justified in seeing this as an element in the constitution of personality. But we should take good note of the fact that in the current usage of the word this aspect is as primitive as the previous one. The very name “person”, the Greek prosopon, signifies at the same time that a being has a face of his own, and also that he faces other people. A person faces other people, the universe, God; he holds converse with another person, communes or communicates with him according to intellect and affection.”

But the contrast between openness toward others and sufficiency toward himself, which personality implies, is only too apparent. Possession and giving are opposites when it comes to material objects, whose possession by one excludes possession by another, but it is no longer the same when it comes to spiritual personalities. Not only can they give themselves, commune with one another without ceasing to possess themselves, but it is this possession that they have of themselves that permits them to commune with one another, just as the understanding of oneself is, as Max Scheler rightly said, “the first condition requisite in order that a person may be able to make another person understand who he is”.

Let it not be objected either that human personality is often self-centered, for this refers rather to shortcomings entailed by its connection with individuality and with its material condition than to the very essence of personality. “The human person”, says Pere de Regnon, “is inclined to refer everything to himself, and to refer himself to himself. I shall leave it an open question whether this is a necessary constituent of his nature or a vicious defect…. Of God, the opposite is to be believed.

When it is said that God is personal, it seems that with his transcendence what is meant above all is that it is possible to enter into communication, into communion with him. It is just in this that the God of true philosophy is to be contrasted with the impersonal God of idealism, and even with the God of Aristotle and Plotinus, who is indifferent to the world. This prepares the way for the revelation of the God of Abraham who “speaks” to his people, who “governs” them, who enfolds them in his “love”.

Yet these are characteristics of personality as such. As Pere de Regnon profoundly says, ” `Saying’ and `loving’ are directed towards a person, and consequently issue from a person, as against `thinking’ and `willing,’ which are acts of nature considered as the principle of activity.” ” If speaking and loving signify communicating oneself to persons and are characteristics of personality, it seems we can say that the power at least to communicate oneself forms part of the conception of personality.

This explains how when we said that God is personal we meant not only that he infinitely transcends us, but moreover that he knows us and loves us. Whereas divine personality seemed to us just now to be the basis of true morality, it becomes now the foundation of religion, that is, of the connections that unite man to God, since it is the divine personality that makes God infinitely far from us, and at the same time enables us to commune with him. Because God is a person, we can speak to him and love him, just as he speaks to us and loves us. As the divine personality permits us to distinguish true philosophy from false, it now permits us to distinguish true religion from its substitutes. “All spirituality is a dialogue; a spirituality that is addressed to an anonymous impersonal companion proves itself by that very fact a lying witness.” [Jacques Maritain, Les Degrés du Savoir]

But it remains none the less true that philosophy knows in a very different manner what the divine personality reveals about incommunicability, and what it reveals about communication and relationship. Under the first aspect, philosophy knows it as a necessity; so this is what it really means when it says that God is personal. Under the second aspect, on the contrary, it knows it only as a possibility. Philosophy really knows nothing about communication in God except that which he makes to his creatures by existing.

Yet creation, being a strictly contingent fact, and not being in any way required by the divine essence, would not by any means permit us to conclude that it is of God’s essence to communicate himself and thus to make the gift of himself a constituent element in the divine personality. Once again we reach a limit problem, which reason puts forward but cannot solve. Only the revelation of the Trinity will provide the answer.

Philosophical statement about God consists, then, in saying with Pseudo-Dionysus that he is all that is, that he possesses in himself in a preeminent fashion the value of all that is. We may comment here that there is often a tendency to identify God with such an aspect of reality. It is thus that Plato ranges God on the side of mind, by contrast with the world of matter. But this is ambiguous. For if it is true that God is esprit, it remains true also that the world of bodies is not alien to him. But he possesses in himself in a preeminent fashion both that which creates the value of mind and that which creates the value of matter.

Christianity is not a spiritualism in the Platonic sense of the word, which identifies the divine with the sphere of spirit. But Christianity implies also a materialist aspect. This is of great practical consequence, for it is by not making this sufficiently clear that Christians may well have given the impression to men who have more to do with matter, and who respected its potentialities, that they were strangers to them.

We may make a similar comment on other ideas. It is commonly said that God is immovable, and it is right to say so. The meaning is that God is entirely detached from the vicissitudes of becoming, from change and evolution. But this runs the risk of giving the impression that God is on the side of immobility and security, that he is opposed to novelty, to motion. Yet, if there is perfection in rest, there is also perfection in motion. If on the human level motion is a sign of insufficiency and thus unworthy of God, this only represents a shortcoming. But in God motion exists in its preeminent value, as pure act, as intensity of life, as immanent activity. This is what Bergson clearly saw, when he contrasted the becoming of time with the immanent activity of the mind in pure duration.

Here again, Pseudo-Dionysus expresses this universal analogy with admirable courage. He shows that it is false to say that God is great, unless we add that he is small, for there is a perfection in smallness, just as there is a perfection in greatness. God possesses the one quality just as much as the other. He is as near to what is small as to what is great. “The Scriptures celebrate God as Great, and under the mode of Greatness, and yet they also speak of that divine littleness which is manifested in a puff of wind.” Equally, if it is true that God possesses the perfection of that which is identical, he also possesses that which is active. “He is stable and immobile, dwelling always in the same place, and yet mobile, since He radiates through all things.”

This amounts precisely to saying that there is no reality that does not abound preeminently in God, in that all the perfection that it has is a participation of God in the limitations that belong to created being. Thus what we love in any creature is only that which is reflected from him. The whole world of the soul and the angels is a book that speaks to us of God and awakes in us a thirst that only God can slake, for it cannot give us the fullness of that which it prompts us to desire. “If the world did not speak so much of you,” says Claudel, “my weariness would not be so great.” It is this search for God among the creatures that are only his reflection, which is described in the Confessions of St. Augustine: “Beauty so old and so new, late have I loved you. You were within me and I was outside myself, and there it was that I sought you; I scattered myself among your works, and I withered at the touch of their beauty; and those things kept me far from you, which would not be themselves if they did not rest in you.”

Not only does all being exist preeminently in God, but it exists in him in a sufficient manner, that is, in an absolute fullness that exhausts every possibility. Plato had already noted this feature of divine being, when he said that God is without needs (anendees), that he is absolutely self-sufficing, since he expresses in himself the fullness of that which is; therefore he can receive nothing, he abides only in himself. This is the “aseity” that distinguishes him utterly from the creature, whose essence is to receive its being from another. Equally, God’s will is fully satisfied and fulfilled within himself, in the perfect possession of his fullness. Therefore he who possesses him possesses all in him. As Catherine of Genoa says, “He who desires some thing loses what he desires, to know God, who is all things.”

But it must be added that all this exists in God in a transcendent manner, that after having asserted that he possesses the being of all things, we must deny it, for God possesses this being in a manner utterly other than that in which he exists in created things; and this manner is entirely inconceivable to us; we can only assert it. He is not the being of all; he is the being who is beyond all, not through essence, but super-essence — according to a word dear to Pseudo-Dionysus — and “the unknowing of that super-essence, which surpasses reason, thought and essence, such should be the object of super-essential science”.

But this super-essential science is no longer philosophy. Only faith, which is participation in the knowledge of that which God himself knows, penetrates that darkness and knows God not only as he who is all, but as he who transcends all, not only the same, but the utterly other, not other than love but yet (to use a phrase of Pere Henri de Lubac) an otherness of love.

Finally, what philosophy can assert of God is that he is preeminently the being in whom the reality of all things is exhausted. But even this assertion will be the source of what we may well call the fundamental difficulty of philosophy, which no philosophy has entirely succeeded in overcoming, without the light of revelation. This difficulty is that, if God exhausts reality in himself, we cannot see how there can exist and how there does exist any other thing than he.


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