Archive for the ‘Anthony Esolen’ Category


The Most Abandoned Soul by Anthony Esolen

July 11, 2014
Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ, the original of which is located in the Mediterranean Sea off San Fruttuoso between Camogli and Portofino on the Italian Riviera.

Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ, the original of which is located in the Mediterranean Sea off San Fruttuoso between Camogli and Portofino on the Italian Riviera.

The following was recently selected the 2014 Awards Best Essay Prayer and Spirituality First Place by the Catholic Press Association. Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College, a senior editor of Touchstone Magazine, and a regular contributor to Magnificat. He is the translator and editor of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House) and author of The Beauty of the Word: A running Commentary on the Roman Missal (Magnificat). Reblogged from Magnificat.


Which among you, asks Jesus, having one lost sheep from a hundred, will not leave the ninety- nine and seek for the one in the wilderness?

That saying has always struck me as strange, as convicting us of hardheartedness. For the fact is, many of us would leave that hundredth sheep to die. I confess that I would. It’s only a sheep, after all. Better tend to the ninety-nine, and take some much-needed rest.

These things will happen. The man has divorced his wife for another woman, and now, having abandoned her in turn, is drinking his life away in a bar. Well, we may pray for him from a distance, if we remember. But the rest of his family is all right, the ninety-nine of them, and we can take comfort in that. One sheep is only one, and is much like another anyhow.

The Souls of Purgatory
That is not Jesus’ way. Even if there had been but one sinner to redeem, he would have shed his blood for that one, and suffered the agony to the end. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of each world of sin: of each lost sheep in the wilderness. We calculate advantages to ourselves; calculating sheep are we. But there is no calibration in the love that Jesus gives. It is full measure, shaken together and spilling over. It is life, and that in abundance.

Sometimes, when the grace of God pierces our self-satisfied hearts, we feel an impulse of that all-forsaking love. The impulse may be slight enough, but it is precious. One night, during a dark time in my life, I was driving home past a large maximum security prison, ringed with fences and barbed wire. And the thought came to me that there was someone there whom no one outside cared for, whom no one visited, whom the other prisoners shunned and the guards did not like.

Whoever he was, I prayed for him then, because the loneliness weighed upon me like a mountain. But the self-satisfaction returns: “Look here, I’ve managed to round up at least eighty or so, these stupid and shaggy creatures,” never considering my own stupidity, my fleece tangled with filth and dank with the scent of the wolves from whose jaws I was snatched, and whose presence I hardly suspected. Then it might behoove us to remember the souls who have been saved, who are aware of the pain and loss that might have swallowed them up for ever, and who are assisted by our prayers: the souls in purgatory.

Prayer for the Holy Souls
Here, then, is a beautiful prayer for those members of the Church Suffering:

O Lord God almighty, I pray thee by the Precious Blood which thy divine Son Jesus shed in the garden, deliver the souls in purgatory, and especially that soul among them all which is most destitute of spiritual aid; and vouchsafe to bring it to thy glory, there to praise and bless thee for ever. Amen.

The most abandoned soul in purgatory: most forgotten by the living, most alone, most poor in merits, farthest from the sight of God.

The prayer reminds us of that terrible hour in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed and sweat drops of blood, while his three chosen friends, Peter, James, and John—even the beloved John — abandoned their Lord and fell asleep. Jesus in his humanity knew no comfort from those friends. He was one with the Father, and the Father’s will was that he should bear upon his shoulders, stretched in agony upon the bitter cross, all the accumulated sins of mankind.

An angel was with him, messenger of God; and we may well think of the angel on that first Passover centuries before, who slew the first born of Egypt to set the children of Israel free. This time the victim will be Jesus, Only Begotten Son of the Father: God himself, suffering to unleash the sacraments of love and eternal life.

One With the Most Abandoned
When we think of the aloneness of Jesus, it is impossible to say of a fellow sinner, “Well, he has driven everyone away, and now suffers what he deserves.” We are not permitted to speak in that fashion. It may be that in the sinner’s destitution he is drawing close to the heart of Jesus, whose hand even now may be resting upon that lost sheep’s shoulder. Likewise, that least of souls in purgatory enjoys an incomparable gift which we do not yet enjoy. He, despite his suffering, and also in and through his suffering, is already among the saved, and God’s grace protects him from committing a single sin, while we can hardly endure a day without indulging our pride, or falling back into sloth and cowardice. Sheep indeed.

But to pray for the souls in purgatory is like playing a prelude which begins in darkness and moves always toward light and joy. Consider now this companion to the previous prayer:

O Lord God almighty, I pray thee by the Precious Blood  which thy divine Son Jesus shed in his cruel scourging, deliver the souls in purgatory, and that soul especially among them all which is nearest to its entrance into thy glory: that so it may forthwith begin to praise and bless thee forever. Amen.

It is a wonderful thing to know that the most abandoned among us, through the blood of Christ, will stand at the doorway to paradise, no less than the greatest of saints will have done before.


On David Crawford’s “Is Religious Liberty Possible in a Liberal Culture?” – Derek Jeter

March 24, 2014
The Obama administration contends that the health care mandate does not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution because certain religious organizations will be exempt from the rule. First, this argument fails on its face. Catholics, like many religious organizations, manifest their faith in numerous ways outside of the walls of their house of worship or other nonprofit organizations. They are involved in a variety of businesses, including those in education or medical care. Furthermore, a private business owner, who is devout in his beliefs, should have the full protection that the Constitution affords him, even if he is not working directly for a church or nonprofit organization. A person’s right to believe what he wants to believe, and practice his religion as he sees fit, should not be diminished in any way simply because of his choice of profession.

The Obama administration contends that the health care mandate does not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution because certain religious organizations will be exempt from the rule. First, this argument fails on its face. Catholics, like many religious organizations, manifest their faith in numerous ways outside of the walls of their house of worship or other nonprofit organizations. They are involved in a variety of businesses, including those in education or medical care. Furthermore, a private business owner, who is devout in his beliefs, should have the full protection that the Constitution affords him, even if he is not working directly for a church or nonprofit organization. A person’s right to believe what he wants to believe, and practice his religion as he sees fit, should not be diminished in any way simply because of his choice of profession.

Last Sunday I was supposed to have attended my Communio meeting at St. Clements but found that a head cold precluded my attendance. The article for our discussion had the straightforward title of “Is Religious Liberty Possible in a Liberal Culture?” David S. Crawford was the author and the short answer to the question was delivered in the last paragraph of the article:

And this is why liberalism’s protection of religious liberty is highly suspect. Religious belief — in fact, any belief — remains free only insofar as it can be expressed in the image and likeness of liberalism. To put it differently, liberalism will inevitably tend to protect “religious liberty” insofar as both “religion” and “liberty” are defined in liberal terms.

Questions of this sort all seem reducible to “What do you mean by ….” or an examination of the terms of the discussion. In fact the weakness of Crawford’s article is that he winds up with this as a conclusion when it should have been a starting point. In his defense, the whole landscape of the issue of religious liberty is a spaghetti-like confusion of terms and understandings.  

In this case we would be dealing with “What do you mean by religious liberty?” Crawford, as seen above had found even more terms to deal with (both religious and liberty). I have several posts on payingattentiontothesky here that deal with the conflicting views of freedom between modernity and the Church and this one seemed to be yet another I could throw into that pot, which is exactly what I plan to do here. Let’s start with freedom, an underlier to liberty. And let us return to what freedom used to mean as opposed to the sillier ideas of today (freedom of choice is one I would nominate right off).

“It is hard to recall the medieval definition of freedom, freedom was understood, rather, as a growing into the habits, the virtues, that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.

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

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

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

When the radiance of the Lord’s grace,
which lights the flames of true

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

Thomas cannot do other than love. In that very propensity, as of a rushing river, consists his freedom… In his way, Dante has foreseen our modern notion of freedom  and he has rejected it. That is not because such false freedom is often directed toward evil, as when it becomes the license to snuff out the life of an unborn child. It is, rather, because any freedom that severs us from one another, from our memories of those who came before us, is built on a lie about being.

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

One senses almost immediately in this paragraph the competing notions of freedom that the religious presents to the modern. For in the modern we encounter the notion of “Freedom from,” freedom from the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family. Precisely what severs us from each other. “It seems not to matter that such freedom presupposes our alienation from one another. Existential alienation is a small price to pay for enlightenment, the fulfillment of the progressive movement, or the satisfaction of appetites.” [Anthony Esolen].

When we look to scripture to assist us to understand this medieval notion of freedom we see in the Psalms a hint:  

“All things, says the psalmist, declare that “he made us; we did not make ourselves.” Even the atheist must agree that we did not make ourselves. The statement expresses contingency and dependence, and these are plainly discernible by reason. I did not come into the world self-made. Indeed, I came into a world already present for me to enter: an intelligible world, not a congeries of arbitrary and unrelated forces. Had there been no such world, I would not have existed.

To claim, then, that we did make ourselves would be to deny the real contingency of our beings –  which would also be to deny the web of relations into which we have entered by our being and without which we must cease to be. Deep at the heart of this denial is the prideful sin of ingratitude.

We see that we are provided with what we could not have provided for ourselves: not only the material conditions that support our existence — our food and drink, the care of our parents  – but the fact of our existence itself.

Yet we respond with a lie. We repeat what Satan implicitly affirms at the bottom of hell, the loneliest words ever uttered: “I am my own, I am my own! My mind is my own, to fashion what truth I shall please. My body is my own, to dispose of as I please. My will is my own. I rise –   by my power. I exist — by my power.”
[Anthony Esolen]

The Church in the modern world is the last bastion that opposes that lie. She proclaims that truth of Jesus Christ that Pilate confronted and needed to ask “What is truth?” when, in an irony for the ages, truth stood before him “I am the way and the truth and the life.” [John 14:6]. And so it is that everyday Catholics are confronted with a world that knows not the truth that sees no intelligible world but a congeries of arbitrary and unrelated forces. It’s a wonder we don’t all join the Taliban and start shooting families at local restaurants.

This is the mindset of those who embrace not a Church based natural law but the unnatural and almost bizarre conclusions of legal positivism — a school of thought in philosophy of law and jurisprudence which posits that that there is no inherent or necessary connection between the validity conditions of law and ethics or morality. Therefore, in legal positivism, the law is seen as being conceptually separate (though of course not separated) from moral and ethical values, and it simply sees the law is posited by lawmakers who are humans.

No U.S. Supreme Court dictum in decades faced such vilification as has poor Justice Kennedy’s 28 words in Planned Parenthood vs Casey 505 US 833 (1992). Yet here is  the heart of progressive liberalism’s doctrine of freedom rings out:

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

And to get the “right” to “your own concept of existence,” you need to enshrine this on the altar of choice. Choice is what progressivism worships. I would point out that the Scriptures in numerous instances defend the right of choice but they do not make it the do-all end-all of this life. No, we know what the way and the truth and the life is. But the wealthy young man in the parable is allowed to walk away: he couldn’t sever himself from his riches. How many of us would join him?

Let us affirm, as Dante did, that freedom is a good thing and that the word good has substance to it. What, then, is freedom good for? If it is supposed that some contingent beings are free, then freedom must be good for them, and for them as contingent beings. But then freedom must unite them, precisely because they do not possess their existence from themselves. Such beings can be, together, a law unto themselves — autonomous — if they recognize that the law in question is not one they give themselves. That is, if they recognize and accept their contingency.

They will then see that the law that binds them together depends not on any one contingent being nor on all contingent beings taken in a collective but rather on the fact of contingency itself. It will depend on what it means to depend — one on another, and all together on a world that no contingent being has made. They will thus be free in their gratitude for that world, in their humble recognition that their existence is not necessary, and in their love for all those who share their mode of being and on whom they rely.
[Anthony Esolen].

But this is not the impetus that created logical positivism. Here we see humans denying that any moral or ethical considerations should impact the decisions of a court. These are the courts that find for gay marriages and abortion. Decisions that are based upon rights, equality and freedom of choice. These sound noble at first but dissolve when you consider the rights of the unborn or of adopted children to be raised by a mother and father, the equality of entities that are not equal and were never intended to be or deny the very idea of true complementarity. All there is is autonomy and choice:

If this is autonomy, if this is what it means to be a law unto oneself, then law is the first thing that must die. No genuine communion among such autonomous beings is conceivable. We would be left with a chaos of isolated atoms of will, sometimes rebounding against one another in war or in the falsely called love that is often worse than war, but always essentially alone.  To deny that “we did not make ourselves,” either explicitly or by our behavior, is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world and the community into which we have entered.
[Anthony Esolen]

The above actually says it all. Under the secular state we are isolated atoms banging around each other with a phony love of our fellow man.

The following on freedom I found in a little book, The Christian View of Humanity by John Sachs, which I was assigned in one of my seminary classes. It was a quick outline of a Christian anthropology and one of its conclusions on the topic of freedom was expressed thusly:

In the end, freedom does not refer so much to the rights of private, individual human beings, as it does to the foundation of a living communion of love. Freedom is the capacity and responsibility for human community and divine communion.

Sachs pointed out that freedom was about making choices in our lives and it was about our capacity to choose who we are going to be so that we can become a person. We are not just objects thrown into existence. We are also subjects, responsible agents, persons, who are challenged to affirm our personhood. It may be we are challenged to say something, to do something or to become someone. Our lives do not unfold in some haze of fatalistic determinism. We are far more than that and we all know that – even those (I think)who make choices that reflect that moral relativism summed up by a shrug of the shoulders and a “Whatever.”

[Such diverse thinkers as Maurice Blondel, Karl Rahner, John MacMurray, and Eric Erikson tell us], we are constituting our very selves through such choices. The values I choose to live by, how I deal with those aspects of myself and the world which I can’t change, the profession I choose to dedicate most of my time and energy to, how I choose to treat my family and respond to the needs of those around me — all have a profoundly formative influence, both upon myself and upon others.

Life is not only a gift, it is work as well. As the great catholic theologian Karl Rahner put it, “freedom is the capacity to dispose finally of oneself, to make oneself once and for all.” This is the central project of our adult lives.


Blessed Are the Poor — Anthony Esolen

March 7, 2014
As the great Karl Adam says, "Jesus loves the poor not simply because they are poor but because spiritually they are more capable than the rich of hearkening to the message of the coming kingdom, of hungering and thirsting after justice."

As the great Karl Adam says, “Jesus loves the poor not simply because they are poor but because spiritually they are more capable than the rich of hearkening to the message of the coming kingdom, of hungering and thirsting after justice.”

Jesus, strong in stature, His constitution toughened by years of the hard physical labor of His trade, and by His hale attraction to long walks, mountains, and the wilderness, climbed a hillside so that the crowds of people could hear Him. Among them were men, women, and children, the old and the young, the healthy and the sick, people who knew they were sinners, and people who didn’t. And Jesus, in a voice that must have made the hillside ring, uttered words unlike any that men had heard before: “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God!” (Luke 6:20).

I’d be a liar if I said I know what those words mean. We could spend the rest of our lives, I think, meditating upon this first and most fundamental of the Beatitudes and never come to an end of drinking of its wisdom.

That is, if we want to drink of its wisdom. The noblest of the pagans would have shrunk from it. Aristotle, a practical philosopher if ever there was one, held that to be really happy a man needed some wealth, not so much for comfort as for the pleasure of being generous with it. You can’t be a great benefactor to your city unless you have some means.

What he would have said about the poor widow whom Jesus praised, who gave her small coins to the Temple, and who therefore “cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury” (Mark 12:43), I am not sure. He probably would have praised her too — but to call her “blessed,” that might have required a stretch of the imagination. Or more, infinitely more. It might have required the lifting of his human mind and heart to a new reality — as a sapling transplanted into another and brighter world.

But what do those words mean? Jesus was not sent among us to be a social worker, armed with a sheaf of strategies for eliminating poverty from the world. Indeed, He seems to suggest that that will never happen. “The poor always ye have with you” (John 12:8), says He. But that does not mean He is indifferent to the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. He goes out to meet them. He feels deep pity for them. He inveighs against those who abuse them from their positions of prestige and wealth.

It is not hard to see Jesus’ preference for the company of sinners as also a preference for the poor. For who could be poorer, or more miserable, than the tax collector in His parable? The Pharisee strides with insouciance to the foremost reaches of the Temple, where he contemplates the riches that God has showered upon him. He does not know it, but he is essentially falling down in adoration before man’s favorite idol — himself.

“God, I thank thee,” he says, “that I am not as other men are” (Luke 18:11), for instance like the tax collector he noticed as he passed him by. And this Pharisee goes on to mark off, as a man taking inventory of his precious goods, all the righteous deeds he performs, as, for instance, giving to the United Way, and suchlike. Meanwhile the tax collector, “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Come with me to a prison cell. The most brilliant scholar of his day there sits at his desk, writing. He has been charged by his enemies with treason. It is essentially a political assassination. He is awaiting an unjust death, and, ever since the half-barbarian Goths came to be the overlords in the western empire, executions are horrible and cruel.

Perhaps he knew what sort of death he would die, from having watched others. One account has it thus. His enemies soaked a leather thong in heated vinegar, to stretch it. Then they bound the man hand and foot, and tied the thong around his forehead. The thong would take a day or two to shrink, slowly, agonizingly, resuming its original size, crushing the bones and penetrating the brain.

So the man, Boethius by name, is writing. He pretends in his own person to be moaning the treachery of Fortune, who once blessed him with honor and now has taken everything away. But in the midst of his sorrow he is visited by a figure of surpassing splendor. It is Lady Philosophy. She will lead him back to the threshold of his true dwelling place.

She does not say that the things that men pursue, such as wealth, fame, honor, power, and pleasure, are bad in themselves, but that they are only partial goods and that anyone who seeks them alone or even in combination with one another both gives himself over to the whims of Fortune and misses the true and unchangeable good he really seeks.

This is especially true of the wicked: for instance, those liars and power-grabbers who have conspired against this just man’s life. “Consider how terrible is the weakness of wicked men!” she exclaims. They fail not merely in the quest for some earthly good, but in the quest for the greatest good of all, for the fulfillment of their beings as creatures who are made to love the good and the true. Consider, she says, that if God denies the wicked His mercy, He may allow them to continue in their ways, rich in the things of the world, and utterly destitute. For happiness, says Lady Philosophy, is not something that man can scramble up on his own, in measurable amounts. It combines in itself the goodness of all good things. It can be found only in God. Indeed, it is itself God.

What God gives, no man can take away. We can only refuse the gift. So Boethius, with his whole life snatched from him, awaited his execution filled with riches. He had been reduced to a poor prisoner in a cell. His enemies gloated. Yet just because he had the Lord, he had everything. As Saint Paul says, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). If the people of the nearby countryside are worthy of trust, Boethius died in a state of grace. They revered him as Saint Severinus, after one of his Roman names. His bones are honored in a tomb in the cathedral at Pavia, in northern Italy, where rest also the bones of Saint Augustine. His bones rest there, but his soul sings in Paradise.

Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of God, and I look about my own home and say, “How can this be?” For I have worked hard to provide my family with good things — a comfortable and attractive home, and a cottage far away for vacations in the summer. And I look at the alumni whom my school — a genuinely Catholic school — most pointedly celebrates, and they are not housewives and plumbers and carpenters and janitors and kindergarten teachers, but those who have made a “success” of themselves in the world of business or medicine or, Lord help us, politics. Those are the stories we like to hear. We especially like to hear them about ourselves.

There is the danger. In one sense it does not matter how much we have in our bank accounts. Jesus did not come to preach the evil of personal property. That would be the companion error to believing that our salvation comes from property. “Except ye be converted,” says Jesus, “and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). There is nothing in all the sagas and chronicles of the ancient pagan world that prepares us for such a saying; the closest, perhaps, is the sight of the aged and blind Oedipus, humbled by unspeakable suffering, led by the hand by a young girl, his loyal daughter Antigone. What can Jesus mean by it?

A little child has nothing of his own, but receives everything as a gift. This we can do whether we own a yacht and enjoy sailing it on the high seas, or whether all we can do is tie an old tire to a tree for our children to swing on. Is this what He means by the blessing of poverty? That we heed the word of Saint Paul, and buy, as though we “possessed not” (1 Corinthians 7:30)? Is this the whole of it, that we do not set our hearts on such things, as if we were their masters? Perhaps.

And yet there is the danger. “He hath filled the hungry with good things,” says Mary, dwelling with joy upon the wonderful thing God has done for her, “and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:53). The danger is that the things will stuff us full, and we will not be hungry for what really satisfies. The danger is that the things will be heaped so high that we will not see the vast homeland beyond. The danger is that the things will so distract us with their racket that we will not hear the still small voice that fairly broke the heart of the prophet Elijah.

But maybe there is more. Maybe I underestimate the very blessings of poverty. Let us engage in no sentimentality here. A life of poverty is not easy. It strikes fear into the heart of fallen man, as does the approach of the ultimate destitution, the thing we all fear. Says Dante, speaking of the young Saint Francis:

Still a lad,
Against his father he swept off to war
to win his lady love: and such was she,
no one for her unfastens pleasure’s door,
As not for death.

Francis’s father accused the boy of stealing money from the family till, to buy mortar to repair the local churches. Before the bishop and the town elders, in the public square of Assisi, he threatened to disown his son, but before he could do that, Francis disowned him instead, stripping off his clothing and tossing it back to him. That was his wedding embrace of the lady in whose honor he sang, Lady Poverty. Others fear her as they fear death, but, as Dante puts it with almost terrifying power, that Lady

was constant and so fierce
that when his mother Mary stood below,
she alone wept with Christ upon the Cross.

The world tells stories of people who work hard and go from rags to riches. It also tells stories of people who through their own folly or wickedness go from riches to rags. But Christians tell stories of those who through poverty — and often the material poverty we seek to eliminate — reap untold riches. This is not because we scorn the good things of the world, but because we seek what is above. Saint Francis himself, as that poor man of God, would fall in love all the more joyously with the beauty of the earth, even preaching to the birds.

This is hard for us to understand. A secular person might say, “Yes, I see what you mean. You are advocating a simple life, like the one that Thoreau lived when he retreated to Walden Pond. Then he could appreciate the beauties of nature, and not be encumbered by the cares of the world.” No, that is not it at all. Thoreau was animated less by love than by disdain. Sure, he was in a better position to love the natural world while living in a hut by the side of a lake than while living in town. But the joy of Saint Francis is missing.

That is because Thoreau’s self-imposed poverty was a protest against the way his fellows lived. Saint Francis, in his poverty, did not betake himself to the woods to escape the evils of Assisi. He preached in that town he loved, by his way of life. He was so obviously enraptured by his bride, Lady Poverty, that he attracted others to him, and soon there was a community, one whose spirituality would breathe in the art and poetry and song and life of the Christian West for hundreds of years. Thoreau died with a grumble; Francis, with a hymn.

Perhaps it takes a Christian artist who himself knew the pangs of hunger and the embarrassment of debt to help us to understand. The novelist Leon Bloy was a poor man with a family. He wrote fiery satires against the self-satisfied rich in France at the turn of the twentieth century and how they subjected the poor to indignity, squalor, thievery, and contempt. But in his novel The Woman Who Was Poor, we see the noble heroine Clotilde, after she has lost her infant son to disease, and after her beloved husband has laid down his life while saving others from a conflagration, give up everything and live as a beggar in the streets of Paris.

She has known great suffering. Her mother tried to sell her off to prostitution. Her mother’s bedmate was a filthy sot who once tried to rape her, with her mother’s tacit consent. When her child died, an evil and debauched woman neighbor spread the rumor that Clotilde and her husband had smothered him. And yet she has the riches of Jesus. Has she been unhappy?

Her final words are simply these: “There is in the end only one unhappiness: not to have been one of the saints.”

As the great Karl Adam says, “Jesus loves the poor not simply because they are poor but because spiritually they are more capable than the rich of hearkening to the message of the coming kingdom, of hungering and thirsting after justice.” I imagine a palace atop a steep mountain. There is a legend that within that palace is unending and unquenchable joy. Every so often, a strain of music can be heard from it, but it is soon drowned out by the bustle in the plains below. Every so often, a radiance can be seen from its turrets, like the northern lights, but it is soon smothered by the glare of the shops and streetlights below.

In the city of the plains, people bustle. You can read about them in the newspapers. Their stories sell. Their bodies sell, too, and sometimes the buyers won’t have the story without a picture of the body. There is also a vast mart called an exchange, where people, jittery, breathless, hunted, suspicious, buy and sell stocks. Much of the bustle in this city on the plain is devoted to the elaboration of emptiness. You can buy emptiness in bright boxes. You can wear it on your shoulders. You can erect monuments to it. You can consume it, and in more than one way.

Now I imagine a young man at the base of the mountain. He has heard a distant echo of the strains of joy coming from the palace. He sees the steep narrow path that leads to the palace gates. It is called, by the city folk, the Eye of the Needle. They tell terrible stories about people losing everything who venture on that road — prestige, money, power, pleasure, and other objects of ultimate importance. All at once he sees a stranger before him. The stranger looks upon him with love. He says, “Come, let us go up to the altar of God.”

Now, the young man has a camel with him. The camel is heaped up with boxes. One box is full of diplomas, from the University of the World, Mammon Polytechnical, and Self-Lifting High. The young man is proud of them. He plans to use them to do good things. There is another bundle tied up with a rope. In it are pillows and blankets and sheets he has bought from an exchange called Astarte’s Secret. The young man is taking them along, just in case. He isn’t a dissipated fellow, not one to find himself ever feeding pods to swine, but he isn’t a Puritan either. It is important to be prepared — that is what he has learned as a scout.

Then there’s a contraption with iron weights, for making his body handsome and strong, and a keg of beer, for doing the opposite. Medals, mirrors, letters from girls, pictures of himself, memories of victory, all heaped up on the camel, for the great adventure of life. This adventure, for most, means meandering about the plain, looking into the shops, dragging camels along, trying to keep the boxes from falling over, until the play is over.

“Come with me,” says the stranger, smiling. And the youth replies, “I want to — I do. But what do I do with all my things?”

“You will lose nothing true. You may lose much that is untrue. We in the palace do not trade a genuine pleasure for a genuine pleasure. We cast away shadows and give what has substance. You can only gain. Aren’t you hungry for it? Don’t you thirst for it?”

“But what am I to do with my honors from the University of the World? I know I’m not the most important person alive, but I did think I would do something with myself. That was my plan, at least.”

“Anything of truth you have learned there,” replies the stranger, “you will not only retain, but you will find bearing fruit a hundredfold. But the chaff will be blown away. You must forget about honors. Think of your hunger instead. Think of joy.”

“Maybe I can try to climb the pathway with my camel?”

“You may try, but you will fail. The poor beast cannot make it. This is not a path one climbs by being weighty and great. It is a path one climbs by being light and little. Take the boxes off the camel’s back, and then lead him too, if you love him.”

“I don’t know… Can I think about it?”

“That isn’t true, is it? You don’t want to think about it. You want to think about something else instead. Come, isn’t that so? Here, turn that noisebox off for a moment — I have a melody to give you. Or take down that neon light. I have a sunrise to give you.”

“Why,” says the young man, “you are a trickster! You don’t want me to have less. You want me to have even more. You want to give me things. Why should I exchange these things for those things?”

“Because my gifts are true, and you know it. Please now, let’s take these boxes and bundles off the poor camel. May I?”

What shall we do? Shall we let Him unload the stuff? He is waiting to give us all good things, if He can but find the room for them in our hearts. Why, He is waiting to give us Himself, if we would only come to Him as children. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.


The First Good News – Anthony Esolen

August 1, 2013
My darling Jussi of 17 years passed the other day. During the past 5 or 6 years we were inseparable and if I ever went out, I never once opened my apartment door without calling his name. When I studied meditation I used him as a touchstone. I never knew anyone who was more of a presence and I taught myself to be like him, to simply be, in other words. For several days I was grief stricken but slowly my body has reoriented itself to a world without him. Yet still my sadness cuts like a knife.

My darling Jussi of 17 years passed the other day. During the past 5 or 6 years we were inseparable and if I ever went out, I never once returned, opened my apartment door without calling his name. When I studied meditation I used him as a touchstone. I never knew anyone who was more of a presence and I taught myself to be like him, to simply be, in other words. For several days I was grief stricken but slowly my body has reoriented itself to a world without him. Yet still my sadness cuts like a knife.

I wrote an essay on Catholic Time  back in 2011and I still think back on it. It was really a collection of thoughts from various writers on what I called Catholic Time. This is another entry that I came across recently that captures so much of what Catholic Time is. Read and enjoy.


When my first child was born, my daughter, Jessica, she fit within the crook of my arm. I held her and fed her from a bottle, and smiled at her, and chattered, and looked at her eyes, which seemed to come from another world. So my wife said, and I believe she was right.

Yes, I know that the skeptics will laugh at me. The skeptics, those so poor they do not even know how poor they are, we will always have with us. When I say “another world,” I don’t mean that our little baby existed somewhere, waiting patiently for a body to dwell in. I mean that she was new. She came to us from outside ourselves. My wife and I were not her ultimate beginning.The first good news for all of us, the first joyful story of our lives, is that there is a story at all, and an Author who has loved us into being.

Hear the proclamation by the beloved John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The words we speak, says Saint Augustine, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In fact, we can say a word only if we allow the sounds we make to pass away. But that, he says, is not so with God. The eternal Word spoken by the Father is the Son, who was with the Father “in the beginning.” We mustn’t think of that as some first moment in a string of moments, the first domino to fall in a chain of dominoes.

What John means is that at the heart of everything, before there were the heavens and the earth, and now during the time wherein we changing creatures dwell, and after these heavens and this earth shall be no more, stands the Word, through whom all things are made. The Word is not only in the beginning. The Word is the beginning and ever will be.

Several centuries before Jesus was born, the wise men of Greece asked the question, “What is the arche — the beginning, or the foundation — of the world?” They did not ask what was their own beginning, and that was probably their greatest mistake. Some of them said that air was the beginning, meaning that at the basis of all things is that ever-changing air. Others said it was water, because we see that water can take the forms of solid, liquid, and vapor.

Still others said it was both air and water, and fire and earth to boot, combining to constitute mud or iron or flesh or whatnot. Some of a more mathematical bent, noting the beautiful harmony inherent in natural things, said that it was number — and indeed the Jewish writer of the book of Wisdom would say that God created the world “in weight, measure, and number” (Wisdom 11:20). The Stoics said that it was something they called logos, or “word,” the intelligible and everlasting order of the world.

But there is something funny about all these suggested beginnings, and that is that they don’t really begin. They are attempts to explain what underlies everything we see about us, but there is no sense that the whole world, from its foundation to its consummation, is a story with a beginning that is ever beginning anew, and an end, the kingdom of God. And that end, where is it but also present in the beginning and, as Jesus says, even now at hand, at the very gates (cf. Mark 13:29)? So when Saint John reveals to us, “In the beginning was the Word,” he is not at all saying that the Greeks had it right. He is correcting them, we might say — if we keep in mind that his correction blows their world sky high, as high as God and His heaven! For the Word we are talking about here is not static.

Nor is it something pronounced and then done. The Word is Christ, the wisdom of God. When the Lord speaks, says the prophet Isaiah, his Word does not depart from Him in vain. The Word makes things happen; it is a two-edged sword; its Spirit is a mighty wind upon the waters, making them bear fruit; it enters the heart of the believer; it parted the seas for the Israelites and fed them bread from heaven; it immerses the Christian in living waters and gives him the bread of heaven.

So we Christians believe, really, in a beginning, and not just something or other that happened first in time. A beginning actually begins something. Think now of the things that begin and of the holiness of their coming to be. A good Christian man and woman pledge their lives to one another. I see a photograph of my own father and mother, impossibly young and radiant, he in a white suit and black tie, she in a wide flowing white gown, holding a bouquet of flowers. They were, as is just and right for young people, ardent in their love.

My father was a good man and a devout Catholic, but he had been tempted to preempt the beginning of their married life. He is now with God, I trust, and will not blame me for telling the story. My mother gently refused him, and for that act of purity and true love he was to thank her forever after, and he told her how glad he was that when he was weak, she was strong. They waited until the true beginning, and the Word of God, Christ Himself, was with them.

They settled down to live in rented rooms, just around the corner from the church. They couldn’t afford a house in those days, not even to rent. And there, in the privacy of the night, by the grace of God, the two became three. They became a family, although it would be a little while yet before they became aware of it. We read in Genesis that the Spirit of God was brooding upon the waters, when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The wonder of creation, of bringing light out of darkness, of beginning, is renewed again with all holiness when the Christian man and woman, made one in Christ, bring into being a living soul.

For each little child is like a church, bigger on the inside than on the outside — more vast than all the rest of the universe, and timeless. The universe is seeded in time, but the child is oriented toward the time beyond time. The universe is bounded by what is, but the child is oriented toward what is to be. Every time a child is conceived in the holy embrace of marriage, it is the Word that speaks sacramentally again, and we can cry out with the psalmist, saying, “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth” (cf. Psalms 104:30).

And I was born and christened after my father, Anthony, from whom I had in part my beginning in the flesh, and made my small entrance into the Church, both the one just around the corner, and that never-failing one founded by Jesus and to be brought to its joyous consummation.

How many, indeed, are the things that begin! In holiness only do they begin; otherwise they merely start up for a while and then fade. Many centuries ago, a youth named Anthony wandered into a church in Egypt and heard the gospel about how Jesus spoke to the rich young man with love and said, fairly pleading with the lad, “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (Mark 10:21).

Do we see the invitation? Jesus does not paint for the young man a fable of flowery fields and easy conversation at the riverside. It is a cross that he will have to carry, but it is Jesus whom he will follow. If he takes up the offer, he will be as naked as a babe entering a new world. But the gospel says “he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). He saw only the darkness of the door and did not enter.

But others did. On that day in Egypt a saint was born. For Anthony took the good news to heart. He sold his inheritance and gave the proceeds to the poor. Then he began to live for God above all, advancing like a brave young soldier into the desert to pray and to do battle with the enemy, and many they were and are who would follow in his traces. When Francis, dressed in all his finery, rode past the leper with the festering sores and, against the promptings of his fallen nature, returned to him to kiss his mutilated hands, a saint was born.

For Francis took the good news to heart and began to live for God above all, gathering about him a veritable army of fellow soldiers and friends, and teaching Christian hearts to be children again, singing for grateful joy, for the beauty of creation, and the infinitely greater beauty of Jesus.

Then by all that is holy, let them begin — let us return again and again to those words of power, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Not so long before Jesus was to give Himself to be slain by wicked men — that is to say, by us — only a few days before His Passion, the followers of Jesus, His good friends who hardly understood a word He said, were squabbling over who would be greatest in the Kingdom. They were bound to time, and they thought in time. They thought that the Kingdom would come to be, in the same sense that the Roman Empire had come to be, only that the Lord’s kingdom would not fail. They had in mind the wrong sort of kingdom, and the wrong sort of beginning.

So Jesus took a little child and set him in their midst. And he said, “Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me” (Mark 9:37). What did he mean by that? Surely that it is only by humbling ourselves, by emptying ourselves of all our supposed importance, that we can be filled with God. Yet I think now that perhaps the child also stands as a reminder of those quiet and momentous beginnings, when something new enters the world.

For the child’s life is full of beginnings. He comes to be. He leaps in his mother’s womb. He is born, is separated from his mother, and opens his eyes. He sees the eyes and the face of his first love in the flesh. He is baptized with water and the Spirit and anointed with holy oil. He hears his name and does not know it. He hears his name and does know. He takes his first toddling step. He speaks a word. He opens the word of God — I opened it, in the days before I have any clear memory, and read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

We are then to be like that newborn, or like the child in the strong hands of Jesus, who heard those words of beginning, and who shall suppose that the child did not take them to heart, just as Anthony and Francis did? When did God say, “Let there be light”? He said it in the beginning that was, and he says it in the beginning that is now. When was the Word with God? In the beginning, before the light of the universe, and now, before the light that enlightens the heart of man. He says to us, “Come with me, and I will make you live.”

Recall the old miser in the Christmas story that we all know and do not understand. In the house of his poorly paid clerk, he hears one of the sons reading to his brothers and sisters from a book: “And he took a small child, and set him in their midst.” Their brother, the little crippled boy, is gone, but remains a fount of blessing for them all, even in their grief. Then the heart of old Scrooge begins to break — or begins to beat; it amounts to the same thing. He will repent. He will keep in his heart the feast of the littleness of Christ.

When he awakes that morning and finds to his joy and surprise that it is Christmas Day after all, he hardly knows what to make of it. “I don’t know anything at all,” he cries. “I am quite a baby!” Indeed he is. So was I, for a few moments of special grace, when I looked into the eyes of my daughter and knew for the first time that I was something new in the world, a father. So must we all pray to be. Little children sit on a parent’s lap and sing out in their small voices, “Tell the story again!”

Just so, God, the eternally young, spangled the heavens with stars and peoples the world with creatures greater than the stars, with little children. “Tell the story again,” they say, and they mean, “Let it all begin again! Go back to the beginning!” And our Lord Himself, who desires that we should be like little children, tells us over and over, “Let there be light again! Turn back, turn to the beginning!”

Well may He do this, and well may He Himself be the light from darkness that enlightens every man. For the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father (cf. John 1:14).


On Philip Larkin’s High Windows by Anthony Esolen

April 5, 2012

Philip Arthur Larkin, (9 August 1922 – 2 December 1985) is widely regarded as one of the great English poets of the latter half of the twentieth century. His first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published in 1945, followed by two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), but he came to prominence in 1955 with the publication of his second collection of poems, The Less Deceived, followed by The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). He contributed to The Daily Telegraph as its jazz critic from 1961 to 1971, articles gathered together in All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–71 (1985), book cover above, and he edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973). He was the recipient of many honors, including the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He was offered, but declined, the position of poet laureate in 1984, following the death of John Betjeman.

Kudos to Esolen for his reading of Philip Larkin. If you wish to read more of his essays, more under the category listing on the right.  I’ve adapted the following for readability and emphasis.  From Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good to view the article in original form.  Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.


The sexual revolution puts forth a vision of paradise in which we rig up some nifty devices to guarantee infertility, consider neither holiness nor virtue, and believe in the blessings of no one and nowhere and nothing.

The recent controversy over whether a church, or indeed a single individual, may be compelled to purchase health insurance that provides free coverage for contraception, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization suggests that Americans may yet reconsider the wisdom of what has made the controversy possible in the first place. That is the sexual revolution.

I find it instructive here to glance backward before that revolution, to a poem that celebrates its arrival, and that in fact presents to us several of the crucial elements or motifs of the current controversy: contraception, the Church, a certain vision of freedom, and a supposed maturation beyond the need for the strictures of the past. The poem is “High Windows,” by Philip Larkin. It is, technically and rhetorically, a brilliant work. It is also fundamentally dishonest and self-contradictory, from beginning to end. Here it is in full:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives –
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Paradise — a perfect garden of delights, with young people rutting and hallooing down the slide to happiness without end. And yet this vision of carefree nature rests upon a strange submission to technology, and a depersonalization of human love.

Consider that opening sentence. The “couple of kids” are evidently not free, no matter what Larkin may say, and no matter the casual obscenity that surprises us out of careful thought. For the girl in question must ingest the artificial estrogen, or must insert a blocking device into her body. Why must she do so? Precisely because neither she nor he intends the natural result of their engaging in a reproductive act. But in what way is this an expression of being free of care? They must take great care beforehand, so that they may pretend that they need not care while engaging in intercourse. They are not ready for a child, but they do what makes for children, and hope that none will come.

Thus they are not naked to one another, as an innocent Adam and Eve in Eden. They disrobe, but they hide. They push to the side all “bonds” and “gestures,” conveniently vague. That is, they refuse to be free with themselves, each one giving wholly to the other. The bond of marriage that sets a couple truly free, that gives a man and a woman the confidence to devote themselves forever to their mutual good and that of their children, is simply dispensed with. It is relegated to irrelevance, like “an outdated combine harvester.”

But that analogy, startling and effective though it may be, is downright strange. Larkin uses it to suggest something ungainly and absurd, but his ironical contempt seems to have prevented him from noticing a contradiction. For there is nothing inherently silly about a combine harvester. It is a tool for reaping the goods of the earth. It does its work quite well, and only becomes “outdated” when a new combine harvester is invented that will do that same work better. The work of a harvester depends upon fertility. The work performed by the “bonds and gestures” of marriage is also oriented toward fertility, like the free and glorious fertility of a beautiful garden — a paradise.

But in this poem the whole idea of reaping a good harvest is replaced by reliance upon pills and a diaphragm. It is therefore an artificial and sterile paradise, dependent upon tools that bring to pass a willed infertility. What’s the use of a harvester, when there is no life?

But that state of affairs will be “the life,” as Larkin imagines a wishful hedonist saying to himself forty years back. That life is defined largely in negative terms. There will be no God; meaning that there will be no felt presence of God, no pangs of conscience as regards sex, no virtue to aspire to, no duties to fulfill, and no sins to confess and to expiate.

One might also add that there will be no sense of holiness; no sacred promise to devote one’s life to one’s spouse; no victory over the importunacy of the flesh; no shielding the sexes from abusing one another. This will be like going “down the long slide.” There will, apparently, be no broken hearts, no one cajoled into saying with the body what is not held in the mind, no children living without a father, no visits to the abortuary, nothing but living “like free bloody birds.”

Which brings us to another contradiction. When we think of birds leaving the earth behind and soaring where they will, we naturally think of freedom. But birds in flight are doing what they do by nature. So too, when mating season comes they join to beget and raise offspring. Even if Larkin meant the word “birds” only as a colloquialism for “lucky stiffs,” or something of the sort, his hidden contempt for nature has gotten the better of him.

The couple of kids he sees are not at all free in the sense of being unrestrained (for they must engage in complicated evasions), or in the sense of being generous (for they withhold their fertility from one another). Nor are they at all like the birds. Instead they desire exactly the opposite of what the birds in mating season desire. They do not want chicks. They want nothing.

So we arrive at the end of the poem, when Larkin presents us with the “religious” experience of someone whose pocket of prophylactics protects him from needing the priest. He has removed human love from the chapel of marriage. But now he wishes to place it back in a chapel of his own. He wants to bless it with the clarity and the “sun-comprehending” of “high windows,” like those of a great church. What is here? There are no stories to behold in the windows; they are colorless. There is nothing beyond the windows either, nothing but “the deep blue air,” the endless nowhere of the sky.

We will all enter paradise, then, when we scoff at nature, rig up some nifty devices to guarantee infertility, consider neither holiness nor virtue, and believe in the blessings of no one and nowhere and nothing. To quote Milton’s Belial, that must end us, that must be our cure.

Where is that promised paradise of no one and nowhere and nothing, Mr. Larkin? Visit a prison, and ask the men in the cell blocks to recount their sexual histories, and those of their mothers and fathers. Visit a hospital, and see the faces of women who have determined to violate their inmost natures as the givers of life. Visit a neighborhood — if you can find one; for your paradise has placed transience and infidelity at the heart of the most intimate of human relations. You with your quaint erudite use of obscenity! The streets of your nation and the sullen youth who roam them make you look like a monocled Edwardian with a taste for French novels.

And this is the world we must protect, even at the cost of our Constitution and our civil liberties?


Poem: Hurrahing in Harvest by Gerard Manley Hopkins

July 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear.
(Sept. 24, 1870)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Son Bore the Wood

July 29, 2010

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio 1590-1610

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then one night God delivers a startling command:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Dost Thou Love Me?”

July 27, 2010

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1600

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he returned. (402)

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

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

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

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

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


Poem: The Lantern Out of Doors by Gerard Manley Hopkins

July 8, 2010

G. M. Hopkins

A poem I hadn’t noticed until Anthony Esolen introduced it in his chapter on Hopkins from Ironies of Faith. The interpretation that follows is so true and rather sad in some ways but in the end deeply affirming of our Catholic faith.

Before the poem, a short bio on the poet written by Fr. Joseph J. Feeney, S.J.

Hopkins the Poet, Hopkins the Jesuit
The major, the finest, poets of Victorian England were Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yet Hopkins was almost unknown until 1918 when his book Poems was first published, as edited by his friend Robert Bridges, then Poet Laureate.

Born on 28 July 1844 in London suburb of Stratford, Essex, Gerard Hopkins grew up in the London’s Hampstead, among a comfortable family talented in word, art, and music. In 1863 he went up to Oxford where he did brilliantly and anguished over religion. With the counsel of John Henry Newman, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church on 21 October 1866, and after finishing Oxford in 1867 he taught for some months at Newman’s Oratory School near Birmingham.

Hopkins entered the Society of Jesus on 7 September 1868, and did his novitiate in London and his philosophy in Lancashire. After a year of teaching in the Jesuit Juniorate, he began theology at St. Beuno’s College in beautiful North Wales where, in the winter 1875-76, he flashed into poetic splendor with the long, great ode “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” His annus mirabilis as a poet was 1877, the year of his ordination, when he wrote eleven sonnets including “God’s Grandeur,” “The Starlight Night,” “As Kingfishers catch fire,” “Spring,” “The Windhover,” “Pied Beauty,” and “Hurrahing in Harvest.”

In October Hopkins left Wales, his “Mother of Muses,” to teach and minister variously in Derbyshire, London, Oxford, Bedford Leigh, Liverpool, Glasgow, and (after tertainship) Stonyhurst College. In these middle years Hopkins wrote fine prose sermons and such excellent poems as “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” “Henry Purcell,” “Felix Randal,” and the poignant, wonderful “Spring and Fall.”

In 1884 Hopkins went to Dublin as Professor of Greek at University College and examiner in the Royal Univeristy. But on Stephen’s Green his chronic depression was magnified by bad eyesight, political irritation, spiritual desolation, and exhaustion from grading hundreds of examination papers.

In 1885-86 he wrote seven sonnets, the “Terrible Sonnets” or “Dark Sonnets,” which scream with pain amid technical perfection. But other poems express patience, even jubiliant hope in Christ, though his final poem describes a “winter world ” in which his “sweet fire” of poetic inspiration has waned. A few weeks later, on 8 June 1889, he died, a victim of typhoid fever.

Hopkins’ poems, first published in 1918, grew into fame after the second edition of 1930. Hailed as experimental and strikingly modern, they display rich music, novel rhythms, clustered words, craggy strength, and poetic power. Later, Hopkins had distinguished followers: notably such important modern poets W.H.Auden, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, David Jones, and Dylan Thomas.

The Lantern Out of Doors
Sometimes a lantern moves along the night
That interests our eyes And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
there, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

We think we love, but how slow and lukewarm our hearts are! How fortunate that salvation depends not on our love, but on God’s. Hopkins seems to have been as naturally curious about other people as anyone alive, but he is honest about how far this love of neighbor takes him:  not far.

Many a man would not travel with the lantern carrier to the end of the first stanza. But we are each of us that lantern carrier, traveling the darkness alone. And more: we are that darkness, too. For the physical or intellectual beauty of a man has to fight its way to us: it has to “rain” “rich beams” “against our much-thick and marsh air.” Then we notice him, we of the dismal marsh: a beautiful man with a lantern, going somewhere.

Where does he go? The way of all flesh. He fades into death or, what serves as well for the speaker, into distance. With that, the speaker loses all interest. The metaphor is financial as well as psychological. Death or distance buys up everything we have invested, and then “out of sight is out of mind.” Thus Hopkins says, with sadness, that even friendship is little more than the flickering interest kindled in us by a lantern swinging in the hand of a night traveler.

No, we do not know love from ourselves. That is the affront Christianity delivers to the sentimentalists who divorce the dignity of man from God. The sentimentalist will make a god out of love; Christianity asserts that you do not even know what love is unless in some fashion you know God, for it is God who is love, the Creator and no other. He chose us that we might choose him. We do not say he is our friend, deriving the image by analogy from human friendship. Rather we say that all human friendship is the far and shadowy reflection of God’s true love for us.

For here in a world of night foundered wayfarers, there is yet one who seeks us out. We may “wind our eye after” someone in whom we are interested, but we do not follow. Christ follows. Moving among us mind-misted people of the marsh, who half forget even as we begin to love, is one who not only remembers, but who loves and amends what he sees.

We think we enjoy fellowship, says Hopkins, but that is but an interruption of our solitude. Yet in the same solitude, unseen by us and unsuspected, walks Christ. His interest does not flag, because His is the creature, as His are the winnings. He buys us back from death and distance; He loses, so to speak, that He may win. He alone is our “ransom” and “rescue.” In the beginning, now, and evermore, Christ is ours before we know we are His, closer to us than we are to ourselves, our “first, fast, last friend.”


Robert Browning and the Irony of Humility

July 6, 2010


Robert Browning


Anthony Esolen uses Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book here to demonstrate how the richest irony presupposes truth and order. In his book Ironies of Faith he also shows how irony is used by Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens and Gerard Manley Hopkins to reveal the mysteries of Christian faith.


Before I define what irony is, let us examine what habits of mind are necessary for understanding so subtle a feature of language. Those habits are all the more necessary as the language of Christendom grows more distant and the culture more foreign.

Cleverness is not the answer. I would like to illustrate why by turning to a masterpiece of Christian poetry. Robert Browning wrote his longest and most difficult work, The Ring and the Book, precisely to show human beings failing to interpret correctly the actions and motives of one another. They fail not because they are dim-witted, but because their moral compromises limit their vision. Pride — and its concomitant assumption that everyone must be just like oneself, only not quite so intelligent or strong-willed — is the problem.

Browning derives his plot from the account of a notorious series of trials in late-seventeenth-century Rome. Violante, a childless wife, finds a woman of the streets who has recently given birth to a girl. She pays her for the baby and passes it off to her husband Pietro as their own. They christen her Pompilia , and together they live well enough for people with no hereditary title. ‘Worried that the secret of the birth will come out, Violante seeks to marry Pompilia away as soon as she can to someone with the title they lack. She finds one Guido, an Aretine and hanger-on at the cardinal’s court, no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege. He is a short, middle-aged, cowardly, ugly, embittered, and poverty-stricken aristocrat. The marriage is a hugger-mugger affair, Pietro not even present. Guido expects a large dowry; Pietro imagines the wealth of Guido’s ancestral home. When that castle in Arezzo proves dilapidated and cold, and when Guido treats the parents with brute tyranny, they flee to their old home in Rome, leaving Pompilia behind.

There she bides, patient and unhappy, subjected to Guido’s tyrannical whims and to the obscenity of his brother, a canon of the church. When the parents suddenly turn about and attack their attacker, testifying that Pompilia was not their daughter (and that therefore Guido was not entitled to her dowry), Guido counters by attempting to tar her as an adulteress. Fic uses maids and “friends” to try to press Pompilia into compromising herself with a local priest, the dashing Giuseppe Caponsacchi. He goes so far as to compel her to “write” letters at his instruction: he holds her hand and forces the pen along, as she can neither read nor write, nor does she know the content of what he has her compose. Caponsacchi, however, who has never spoken with or met Pompilia but only looked upon her sad, strange beauty once and from afar, sees through the ruse and resists.

Pompilia entreats first the governor of Arezzo, then the archbishop, while weeping like a child, pleading to he rescued from the evil that threatens her, body and soul. But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.

At that, Pompilia turns to her last hope. She has never spoken to Caponsacchi. By all rights she should know nothing about him. But she does know. She has looked into his eyes once and seen — her knight.

Browning dares the reader to play the archbishop or the governor, to smile and shake his head and say that such “knowledge” is for fairy tales and not for real life (whatever that is). But a true man is what Pompilia sees. She manages to send him a plea to come take her away. After some days of hesitation, for he knows that no one will understand, and that he is about to destroy the churchly career his superiors have chiseled out for him, Caponsacchi submits to the promptings of a holy love. He sweeps her away to Rome. Just before they arrive, they are overtaken by Guido and his henchmen — Pompilia sleeping in a bedroom in a wayside inn, the priest watching over her.

 So incriminating are the appearances that Guido might have slain her on the spot and been pardoned. But he is a coward; the priest raises a sword to defend Pompilia, and when the henchmen pinion his arms, the girl herself seizes a sword and raises it against Guido. At this point he retreats and decides to take legal action. The trial of charge and countercharge ends in stalemate: Guido is allowed to keep the dowry, Caponsacchi is removed to a retreat house, and Pompilia is committed to a convent outside Rome. When, a few weeks later, she is found pregnant, the court mercifully remands her to the home of her mother and father, under provision that she not leave. There she gives birth to a son, whom she names Cactano, after a recently canonized saint, for as she sees it, Guido has no part in this son — only heaven.

Infuriated by the perceived insult to his honor, Guido steals to Rome during Christmastide and knocks at the door where the family dwells. When they ask who is there, he utters the magic word, “Caponsacchi.” When Violante opens, he slashes her in the face. He and his fellows cut her mother and father to pieces, and give Pompilia what should have been a dozen death-stabs. But Pompilia does not die, not yet. Guido is discovered fleeing back to Arezzo and is brought to Rome to stand trial. Pompilia gives her full testimony from the bed where she will soon die — the testimony of a young woman in love, chaste love, with her champion, the gallant Caponsacchi The priest and Guido testify and Browning provides us with the “opinions” of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls “Tertium Quid,” the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney — worldly men, not exactly had and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.

When Guido is convicted and sentenced to death, he appeals to the pope, Innocent XII, himself old and dying. The pope responds that while, everyone might have expected Guido to long outlive him, as it is, in all his weakness the pope will live another day, while Guido shall not see the sun set again.

What Browning shows us in this tangle of purity and wickedness, and half-virtue and shadowy half-vice, is not only how difficult it is for us to “read.” That is what critics of Browning put forth: he is the poet, they say, of multiple points of view, himself coolly distant from judgment. We are granted the irony of seeing that the same events might he viewed in a variety of ways, with all kinds of arguments to justify them.

But the irony Browning relishes is deeper than that. The spokesman for “Tertium Quid,” a cool aristocratic skeptic, dismisses Pompilia’s claim of innocence as incredible and dismisses Guido as a coward who in part got what he deserved. And he expects the pope to do the “reasonable” thing, to commute the sentence. Tertium might well be a modern trader in literary criticism. He is well-heeled, smiling at outrageous claims either to surpassing virtue or to surpassing wickedness. He pretends to a careful examination of evidence, hut actually he works for self-advancement, whispering into the ear of his lordly master just what his lordly master is to believe of all the brouhaha. Yet the irony cuts against him and against all skeptics: for Browning reveals that Pompilia was not only innocent but miraculously pure. We who cannot believe are the ultimate objects of his admonition.

Pompilia is also the most acute “critic” in the poem — she, barely seventeen, who can neither read nor write, and who was married, as she says, “hardly knowing what a husband meant” (7.410). What makes her wise? Browning identifies it unhesitatingly. Pompilia’s humility enables her to move outside herself, to imagine what it might be like to be someone else. So she is the only one in the poem, aside from the similarly humble pope, to excuse the whore who sold her away:

Well, since she had to hear this brand  — let me!
The rather do I understand her now, —  
From my experience of what hate calls love, –
Much love might be in what their love called hate. (874-77)

So too she reads the virtue in Caponsacchi, though he — trained for worldly expectations, and having priested it so far among the gentry — struggles honestly and abashedly to find the same. And, ironically, she knows that others will “know” better:

So we are made, such difference in minds,
Such difference too in eyes that see the minds!
That man, yon misinterpret and misprise –
The glory of his nature, I had thought,
Shot itself out in white light, blazed the truth
Through every atom of his act with me:
Yet where I point you, through the crystal shine,
Purity in quintessence, one clew-drop,
You all descry a spider in the midst.

One says, “The head of it is plain to see,”
And one, “They are the Feet by which I judge,”
All say, those Films were spun by nothing else.” (7.918-29)

We judge by what we see, and unless we love deeply, we see ourselves. So will a cheat watch the fingers of everyone else at the card table.

What do the Romans make of the evidence? Most often, Browning shows, evidence is a motley’ thing, patched up with fads, haff—heard news, clichés, smug assumptions about how all people must be, self—satisfaction, and, in the case of the, professional Fisc and his hilariously slick—talking opponent Lord Hyacinth of the Archangels, the false alleys provided by a little learning and a heap of rhetorical trash. Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and the pope also have to weigh evidence; but humility opens their hearts to insight. Here is Pompilia, trying to express a joy in bearing a child who xviii never know his mother, but who will probably hear the lies:

Who is it makes the soft gold hair turn black,
And sets the tongue, might lie so long at rest,
Trying to talk? Let us leave God alone!
Why should I doubt tie will explain in time
What I feel non’, but fail to find the words? (7.1756—61)

Her words profess incapacity — and speak to the heart. God, who unties the tongue of the infant, will reveal to Gaetano the truth. An innocent child will hear when all the world is deaf.

The pope hears and understands. We meet him in his chambers, pondering the mystery of evil, knowing he is not long for this world, and wondering what fruit of all his shepherding he will have to show in the end. The world regards him as powerful, but the world is wrong. Consider with what humility and love he regards Pompilia:

I see in the world the intellect of man,
That sword, the energy his subtle spear,
The knowledge which defends him like a shield— Everywhere; hut they make not up, I think,
‘the marvel of a soul like thine, earth’s flower
She holds up to the softened gaze of God!
It was not given Pompilia to know much,
Speak much, to write a book, to move mankind,
Be memorized by who records my time.
Yet if in purity and patience, if
In faith held fast despite the plucking fiend,
Safe like the signet-stone with the new name
‘That saints are known by, — if in right returned
For wrong, most pardon for worst injury,
If there be any virtue, any praise,–
Then will this woman—child have proved — who knows? –
Just the one prize vouchsafed unworthy me. (10.1019-29)

No one sees what is really going on, says the pope; no one can read the narrative of the world from God’s point of view. Yet he sees, humbly enough, that the finest harvest from his priesthood may be just this one poor soul, the illiterate Pompilia, a “woman-child,” of whose virtue and sanctity Innocent considers himself unworthy. She never wrote a book, or even her own name. The papal historian will not remember her. But the Recording Angel will. Does that assertion strike the reader as credulous sentiment? Beware. The problem with skeptics and cynics is not only the faith they lose, but the faith they gain. It is what the pope identifies as Guido’s telltale mark, “That he believes in just the vile of life” (10511). On the night before his execution Guido can “see through,” with what he thinks is ironical acuity, the façade of the pope’s goodness:

The Pope moreover, this old Innocent,
Being so meek and mild and merciful,
So fond o’ the poor and so fatigued of earth,
So . . . fifty thousand plagues in deepest hell (11.55-58)

So the spokesman for “Half-Rome” can also “know” what a curly-haired young priest is all about, “Apollos turned Apollo” (2.794)1 He’ll not “prejudge the case” (68o), he insists, yet so far does prejudge it that he pieces events out with his own sly imagination, picturing the contretemps between Pompilia and Caponsacchi, things that never happened at all: “Now he pressed close till his foot touched her gown; / His hand touched hers” (803-4).

If we must he blind, would it not he better to be dazzled by a piercing light? In this way Pompilia is blind, and therefore she sees — and it is actually there — the virtue of a man, Caponsacchi, who is yet to become the man she imagines. If she is blind to the faults of a less-than-chastely spent youth, it is because she is dazzled by the greater light. These are her dying words, spoken as if even now Caponsacchi were her saving knight, and not she his saving damsel.:

So, let him wait Gods instant men call years
Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul,
Do out the duty! Through such souls alone
God stooping shows sufficient of His light
For us i’ the dark to rise by. And I rise (7.1841-45)

Criticism and Gossip
THE RING AND THE BOOK is a storm of irony, currents and crosscurrents of knowledge and ignorance surefire plans foiled, certitudes that wither awry, and un-possibilities come to pass. To understand the irony we must adopt the stance of Socrates, who in humility, perhaps in mock humility, insisted that he was the only man in Athens who did not know anything. For irony, as we shall see, has to do with what people think they know, or what they think they can expect. All criticism that does not begin in the humility of wonder must end up as the one or the other half of Rome: when correct, correct by happenstance; pretending to analyze, yet studying nothing with that patience that invites us to learn from what is beyond us; mired in gossip, and often gossip with a clear incentive in money or prestige.

From gossip we learn nothing new. If Mrs. Jones flirts with the delivery man, we may find it shameless; but we know nothing more from our self-pleasing gossip than that she has done what we would not (usually, let it be noted, because we happen not to be tempted that way). But of what it might he like to be Mrs. Jones, or the poor workman, nothing. Gossip preempts, then deadens, our half-hearted attempts to enter imaginatively into the life of another. If we could glimpse the world for a moment through something distantly like Mrs. Jones’s eyes, our understanding of her action might be very different. We might then be ready to invite her to tea, or to lock her up. There is no logical reason to suppose that our imaginative entry into her world must make us think the better of her; the pope saw into Guido, and found the lizards of our lower nature. Consider how uncomfortable you would feel if your admirers could enter your thoughts for the twinkling of an eye.

But perhaps I have miscast the action. Most of us are not endowed with what Keats called “negative capability,” the imaginative power whereby we empty ourselves and assume the minds and souls of others. If we are to work our imaginations, we must love or hate. If we hate, we will, from our position of moral superiority, see our own vices smiling back at us, as Browning’s Romans do, the vices we would possess if we were like the people we judge; but, thanks he to almighty God or to a sound education, we are not like them. He whom I imagine is no better than I am. So the Fisc, to win his case for Pompilia, will not concede that she had any love affair with the priest, nor that she committed adultery (unless the priest took his importunate way with her while she slept). Fine; but see how his “defense” patronizes her supposed weakness of character and turns her into a common flirt:

And what is beauty’s sore concomitant,
Nay intimate essential character,
But melting wiles, deliciousest deceits,
The whole redoubted armoury of love? (9.229-32)

No beauty that reflects the grandeur of God, this. The Fisc’s vision is imaginative indeed, drearily so, and many “truths” of the petty and misleading variety can be derived from such a thing. We can happily note the small wickedness of others, and miss the darkness that is our own.

The truly educative act of imagination is spurred by love: that turn of the mind towards the fellow sufferer on his way to the grave. It may he tinged with pity; it need not be, and may be better if not. I turn towards him because he means something to me — he is as I am. Such an act of imagination begins in humility. I am no better than is he whom I imagine. I may be worse. In any case, I will be more apt to aspire to assume his virtues than to assign to him my vices. My understanding of him will thus be far subtler and far richer, far more fulfilling than if were moved by hate. For virtue is to vice as manliness is to machismo, as womanliness is to effeminacy, as any full-blooded reality is to its caricature. In this vision, by an act of humble imagination, I recast my inner world in the image of someone else.

Unfortunately, much of what passes for criticism is little better than idle gossip. Its initial spur is often not honor for the work of genius at hand, but the desire to say something clever. That is not fertile ground for love; thus, neither for the imagination. Yet the result can be impressive in a perverse way. Milton’s Satan, hating Eve, saw his own vices potentially in her, and thus could squat like a toad at her ear, imaginatively entering her and attempting to pollute her. Nor could Nietzsche have misunderstood the Bible so well had he not hated it so thoroughly.

With far less of fallen glory the same can be said of many a critic of Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton. Their words all but confess that they dislike the deepest beliefs these men either possessed or struggled vainly not to possess. Having delivered beauty, sex, love, sport, religion, education, youth, age family life, and even the care of newborns to an obsession with politics, the modem critic sees his own political face everywhere. Lorenzo and Jessica in the Merchant of Venice sing their rallying love-hymn to the night; the critic sees tiresome struggle for power. The traitor Macbeth is beheaded; the critic snickers and says that Malcolm will probably prove worse.

Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know
Is it possible to come to wrong conclusions on every important point? If our criticism were subject to random chance, we would be bound to get many things right. But the more intelligent we are, the more consistent our conclusions will be, and if we start from false principles, the more consistently wrong they will be. Take for example a young critic of medieval and Renaissance English poetry. Suppose that he is thoroughly conversant with the language of those old texts. Suppose also that he knows the history of England — and not just the wool trade or the tin mines or other now fashionable niches of economic history. Grant that he knows it well enough to place the poetry in its historic context, the better to understand what the words on the page mean. Grant him the rare knack for catching the well-turned phrase or the well-hewn line. Such a critic must still fail if he does not also understand what it might he like to believe in the Christianity which was the shared faith of Chaucer, Spenser. Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, and Milton.

Can such an understanding he attained? If not, why read books? I am a great lover of the poet Lucretius, though he is a materialist and, for all practical purposes, an atheist, while I am not. When I read Lucretius, the skeptic, the satirist, and the scientist in me can relish his attack upon superstition. So could the ancient Christian polemicist Lactantius, who enjoyed the poetry and then used it as a sabre against paganism. But Lactantius could hardly have done so had he not entered into the spirit of Lucretius.

For the sake of understanding materialist poetry, then, I become provisionally and temporarily a materialist. As C. S. Lewis says, what the critic requires is not so often a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of belief. It is too easy to respond that such self-transformation is an illusion. Of course we cannot leave our minds behind. The point is that our minds possess myriads of possibilities, usually dormant, inactive, unrealized. Good reading sets them in motion. For the sake of Lucretius’ great poetry I allow the materialist in me to take the stage and declaim. That Lucretius’ voice is still bound up with my own does not matter. It could not he otherwise; nor do I require it. All I require is that humbling release of what I am and what I believe now, surrendering to what I might have been or to what I might have believed had I been more like Lucretius. I say with Alyosha Karamazov, who tries to understand his brother Ivan, “I want to suffer too” (The Brothers Karamazov, 287). I surrender in imaginative love.

Now there is a catch to this surrender. The farther you are from the faith of the author you are reading, the more readily you will acknowledge the need to surrender yourself, but the more difficult it will be. The closer you are to the author’s faith, the easier the surrender would be, could you ever he prevailed upon to see the need. In the case of Christianity, it is as Chestcrton puts it. You had better be in the faith completely or out of it completely. The worst position, if you want to understand it, is to be partly in and partly out, or to have a passing, culturally based familiarity with its surface. You are neither so familiar with it as to probe its depths, nor is it so strange that you are moved to approach it with care. You take the attitude of Petronius, or of “Tertium Quid,” You’ve seen it all before.

Apply a two-dimensional Christianity to the mature allegories of Spenser and Milton, and at once you will discover discrepancies and incoherence. Why don’t Spenser’s Guyon and the Palmer kill the witch Acrasia? Are they still tempted by her Bower of Bliss? Why do the devils in hell discourse on philosophy? Has Milton rejected his classical education? Are faith and reason to part forever? Many such false dilemmas arise because the critic has failed to understand the subtleties of the Christian faith.

And Christianity is the subtlest of faiths, yet of a wondrous simplicity “I thank thee,” Jesus observes with biting irony, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 1:25) The kernel of the faith can he grasped by a child. We are sinners. The Lord who created us not to sin sent his obedient Son to die for us. That Son rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father. We may join him in heaven if we have faith.

Christianity is the opposite of a mystery religion: the creed is short and openly professed. Yet its simple tenets belie unfathomable depth. “Matter is a form of energy.” We all know this Einsteinian truth — a child could be taught it, and, to the limits of his capacity, really believe it. But what does it imply? What does it mean? “There are three persons in one God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, a child could learn the formula, but what does the Trinity imply? The wise and prudent are struck dumb. A religious anthropologist may chatter about the symbolism of three, and how all cultures attach a mystical importance to it, and on and learnedly on. But to the clean of heart it may reveal the mystery of existence itself. So Dante implies in his invocation to God:

O Light that dwell within thyself alone,
who alone know thyself, are known, and smile
with Love upon the Knowing and the Known.
(Paradise, 33.124-26)

Merely to exist, to be a knowable object, is to have been made by the God of knowledge who knows and is known, whose being is love, and who has loved into being all things that have been, are, and are to come.

Pride is blinding; the moral problem becomes epistemological.  Suppose we assume that the lanky fellow across the table is a dullard. When he remarks of someone else’s immorality, “For them as likes that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they likes,” we will find our prejudice confirmed. The statement is tautological arid evasive. But if we knew that the man was Lincoln, we might see the wry condemnation hiding beneath the hayseed humor. We will know, when he assumes the self-deprecatory air, not to take him at his word. When we later discover the same man condemning that behavior, we will know that it is not he who is inconsistent, but we who underestimated him.

Irony and Knowledge
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE to do with irony and faith? Much, if we consider what irony is. Until fairly recently, most writers on irony have defined it as speech that means something other than (or opposite to) what is literally said. The problem with this definition is that it is at once too narrow, too broad, and beside the point. Liars mean other than what they say, but the lie is not in itself ironic; and you may, with irony, mean exactly what you say, but in a way that your audience (or perhaps a putative audience, more foolish than those who are actually listening to you) will not understand. The definition is beside the point, since moments of dramatic irony, or what some have called “irony of event,” may not involve speech at all, but only strange turns of fate.

Contemporary literary theorists have attempted to distill the essence of irony, that which underlies both the winking assertions of ignorance made by Socrates, and concatenations of events that seem (but only seem) to suggest design, or that demolish any sense of design. Irony, they assert, is a universal solvent: no theology or epistemology can contain it. It dissolves— — “deconstructs” every assertion of absolute truth

The trouble with this view of irony now prevalent in the academy is that it enshrines one sort of ironic statement or event and ignores the rest. Worse, the kind of irony it enshrines is destructive, and the first thing it destroys is irony. If there is no objective truth — if irony must undermine and destabilize — then, once we have noticed the fact, there is no more point for irony, just as it makes no sense for the skeptic to embark on a quest for knowledge, when there is no knowledge to be had. How, after all, does one then proceed. by irony, to undermine the “truth” that every truth can be undermined? If all speech is inherently slippery, why trouble oneself with the subtleties of irony? Why pour oil on a sheet of ice?

But in fact, irony commonly is used to exalt rather than undermine. It can stun us with wonder and raise our eyes to behold a truth we had missed. All kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes await our attention, but we are too dulled by habit to notice. Then irony — verbal or dramatic — awakes us. Consider:

1. A bystander watches as a professor, holding forth to his suffering companion on the epistemological subtleties of irony, steps dangerously near a banana peel.

2. In King Lear, Gloucester tries to refuse the help of his son Edgar, whom he cannot see and does not know: “I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled When I saw,” (4.1. 18-19)

3. In II Henry IV (and apparently in real life, too) the usurper King Henry, who had wanted to atone for his sin by fighting in the Crusades, removes to die in a room called “Jerusalem,” noting that it had been foretold to him that he would die in Jerusalem. (4.5 236-40)

4. St. Paul sings a hymn of Christ’s Atonement:

Let this mind be in you, which Was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that even tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father
(Philemon 2:5-11)

5. In Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe, the jealous husband Orgon squirms under the table where his wife Elmire has put him, listening as his protégé Tartuffe, the one man he is amazingly not suspicious of attempts to seduce her. (4.5)

What do the cases have in common? The first verges upon slapstick; the second involves a lesson learned in an unusual way; the third hinges upon a play on words; the fourth is a theological reversal of expectations; the fifth is a piece of staged ignorance. Each involves a problem of knowing. The irony lies in a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows. This clash is staged to let the reader or the audience in on the secret. We are, then, not merely watching ignorance, but ignorance unaware of itself and about to learn better, or at least about to teach by way of its own incorrigibility. The irony reveals, with a kind of electric shock, order where randomness was expected, or complexity and subtlety where simplicity was expected.

Each case involves a staged clash of incompatible levels of knowledge:

1.  The professor thinks he knows a lot about the subtlest things, but misses the humble and material banana at his feet. The bystander probably knows a great deal less about irony, but he does see the hazard and, if he possesses either a profound moral sensibility or none at all, will stand back to enjoy the tumble. The apparent intellectual hierarchy belies a richer order: the great intellect is not so wise. He “deserves” to slip, falling victim to the very thing, irony, about which he declaims so proudly. Had he known less about it, he might have looked to the sidewalk in time.

2.  Only after Gloucester loses his eyes does he ‘see” how rashly and unjustly lie has treated his son Edgar. The irony, a reversal of expectations accompanied by a deepening knowledge, is richly theological as well. For there is an order at work, bringing about Gloucester’s sight through blindness, and his reconciliation with his son through suffering. The man before him is that wronged son, whom he has seen in disguise and taken for one Tom-a-Bedlam, the “poor, bare, forked animal” that “un-accommodated man” is (King Lear, 3.4. 105-106). Now it is the wronged Gloucester reduced to misery who requires assistance from Mad Tom. Gloucester does not yet understand what his “way” is, why he has been blinded and what he must suffer still. He says he has no way, yet his meeting with Edgar shows that a way has been designed for him nonetheless. He will walk towards a final, terrible resignation to his punishment and reconciliation with his son. And Edgar wii1 he his eyes — his spiritual guide — along this way.

3.  We “know” that Henry might have died in any room or might have died falling from a horse on a holiday hunt. He had hoped to die in the Holy Land, and when he learns the name of the room, he finally sees the design and resigns himself to its justice. For us, that death feels right–better than if he had died a-crusading, better than if he had been hanged at the Tower of London. The usurper should not be granted a matyr’s death; better that he should he disappointed by his hope to expiate the crime. The place of his death reveals a more subtle order than either he or we had expected.

4.  The chasm between human expectations and divine will has never been sung more powerfully. The prophet cries, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah: 55:8), but here Saint Paul fleshes out that cry with specifics that seem impossible to hold simultaneously. If Christ is equal with God, why should He, or how can He, empty himself, making himself of no reputation?  How can God become obedient to God, obedient unto the shameful death on a cross? How can submission exalt? For Christ is not exalted despite his humility but in it and through it. For the believer, then, Paul’s hymn reveals complexities in the notions of equality and hierarchy: because Christ was the Son of God, He set aside that equality, and in his obedience He is set above all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. He is equal to the Father because he obeys.

5. This brilliant stage business shows dramatic irony at its purest. Of this double-plot no one, not even the audience, can see everything. Elmire knows she is chaste, but as she leads ‘Tartuffe on, to prove to her husband under the table what a fool he has been to trust the charlatan, she must worry lest her trick backfire and Tartuffe ravish her before Orgon manages to get out from under there. For she cannot see him, and cannot be sure that he will come to his senses even when he hears Tartuffe making love to her. Meanwhile Organ can only fry in imagination: he hears but cannot see the couple, and must restrain his wrath and jealousy long enough to let Tartuffe hang himself for certain. The audience, too, can see Tartuffe and Elmire, and so they know’ what Orgon must learn; but they cannot see Orgon, and must guess, from his awkward and frantic movements under the table, what must be going through his mind. Finally, there is Tartuffe, master trickster, steeped in ignorance, believing himself so clever yet missing so obvious a trick — for I do not think Orgon can remain as still as a chuchmouse!

It is, then, not the unexpectedness of a thing that produces irony—a violin flung at a man’s head is unexpected, but not ironic — nor is it ignorance that produces irony — after all, if he saw the violin he would duck. Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers are in a better position to see the truth. That is the sort of thing we feel as ironic. A violin flung at a man’s head is not ironic. A man missing a sharp as he tries to hum the Kreutzer sonata is not ironic. The same man botching Beethoven as the violin sails his way — now that is ironic.


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