Archive for ‘beauty & priests’

July 24, 2018

seems like everything means something

It was useless, except for the use they made of it, remembering together. There wasn’t much that felt worse than losing that shawl. There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard. That’s true about things. It’s true about people. It’s just true.

…Lila told the child, “The world has been here so long, seems like everything means something. You’ll want to be careful. You practically never know what you’re taking in your hand.” She thought, if we stay here, soon enough it will be you sitting at the table, and me, I don’t know, cooking something, and the snow flying, and the old man so glad we’re here he’ll be off in his study praying about it. And geraniums in the window. Red ones.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

July 7, 2018

words so terrible you heard them with your whole body

And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilty. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them, too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

June 7, 2018

cowled with smoke and starred with lamps

Modern Elfland
by G.K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’

May 19, 2018

the process of disenchantment is irreversible

From “Disenchantment—Reenchantment” by Charles Taylor (within The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now edited by George Levine):

These terms are often used together, the first designating one of the main features of the process we know as secularization, the second a supposed undoing of the first, which can be either desired or feared, according to one’s point of view.

But their relation is more complicated than this. In some sense, it can be argued, the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.

Let’s speak of “the enchanted world” to designate those features which disenchantment did away with. There are two main ones.

The first feature of this world is that it was one filled with spirits and moral forces, and one, moreover, in which these forces impinged on human beings; that is, the boundary between the self and these forces was somewhat porous. There were spirits of the wood, or of the wilderness areas. There were objects with powers to wreak good or ill, such as relics (good) and love potions (not so unambiguously good). I speak of “moral” forces to mark this point, that the causality of certain physical objects was directed to good or ill. So a phial of water from Canterbury (which must contain some blood of the martyr Thomas a Beckett) could have a curative effect on any ill you were suffering from. In this it was quite unlike a modern medical drug that “targets” certain maladies and conditions, owing to its chemical constitution.

One could sum this up by saying that this was a world of“magic.” This is implied in our term “disenchantment,” which can be thought of as a process of removing the magic. This is even clearer in the original German: Weber’s Entzauberung contains the word Zauber (magic). But this is less illuminating than it seems. The process of disenchantment, carried out first for religious reasons, consisted of delegitimizing all the practices for dealing with spirits and forces, because they allegedly either neglected the power of God or directly went against it. Rituals of this kind were supposed to have power of themselves, hence were blasphemous. All such rituals were put into a category of “magic.” The category was constituted by the rejection, rather than providing a clear reason for the rejection. It then carries on in Western culture even after the decline of faith—for example. Frazer’s distinction magic/religion. Only when Westerners attempted to make ethnographic studies of non-Western societies did it become clear how inadequate and instable this category is.

I talked about not being able to go back. But surely lots of our contemporaries are already ‘‘back‘’ in this world. They believe in and practice certain rituals to restore health or give them success. The mentality survives, even if underground. That is true; much survives of the earlier epoch. But the big change, which would be hard to undo, is that which has replaced the porous selves of yore with what I would describe as “buffered” selves.

Brings to mind when C.S. Lewis says:

For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

See also this passage about the “premodern self’s porosity.”

May 13, 2018

we find it hitched to everything else in the universe

From John Muir: Nature Writings (an anthology):

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains — beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.

…I have never yet happened upon a trace of evidence that seemed to show that any one animal was ever made for another as much as it was made for itself. Not that Nature manifests any such thing as selfish isolation. In the making of every animal the presence of every other animal has been recognized. Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, then more and more remotely for all the world and worlds.

…The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

I’m reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” where he writes:

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 Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

May 12, 2018

if the church no longer has “good” magic

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith:

One can see how this entails a kind of disenchantment: “we reject the sacramentals; all the elements of ‘magic’ in the old religion” (p. 79). If the church no longer has “good” magic, “then all magic must be black” (p. 80); all enchantment must be blasphemous, idolatrous, even demonic. …The Reformer’s rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or at least opens the door to its possibility. It is also the beginning of a certain evacuation of the sacred as present in the world. And that leads to a completely new understanding of social and cultural life as well. …The king or monarch can’t be any sort of “sacramental” reality.

…The “naturalization” that is essential to exclusive humanism was first motivated by Christian devotion. “The irony is that just this, so much the fruit of devotion and faith, prepares the ground for an escape from faith, into a purely immanent world” (p. 145).

…Most germane to understanding the point of this chapter is appreciating what Taylor calls “the triple embedding” of premodern societies, a configuration of society that goes along with what he’s been calling enchantment: “Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (p. 152).

May 8, 2018

the natural elements of bread and wine are so affirmed that they acquire personal qualities — the Body and Blood of Christ

By the Metropolitan John Zizioulas (shortened version of a lecture given at the European Orthodox Congress given in October, 1993 that was reprinted here):

Theology and Church life involve a certain conception of the human being: personhood. This term, sanctified through its use in connection with the very being of God and of Christ, is rich in its implications.

The Person is otherness in communion and communion in otherness. The Person is an identity that emerges through relationship (schesis, in the terminology of the Fathers); it is an “I” that can exist only as long as it relates to a “Thou” which affirms its existence and its otherness. If we isolate the “I” from the “Thou,” we lose not only its otherness but also its very being; it simply cannot be without the other. This is what distinguishes the person from the individual.

The Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity is the only way to arrive at this concept of Personhood: the Father cannot be conceived for a moment without the Son and the Spirit, and the same applies to the other two Persons in their relation with the Father and with each other. At the same time each of these Persons is so unique that their hypostatic or personal properties are totally incommunicable from one Person to the Other.

Personhood is inconceivable without freedom; it is the freedom of being other. I hesitate to say “different” instead of “other” because “different” can be understood in the sense of qualities (clever, beautiful, holy, etc.), which is not what the person is about. In God all such qualities are common to the each three Persons. Person implies not simply the freedom to have different qualities but mainly the freedom simply to be yourself. This means that a person is not subject to norms and stereotypes and cannot be classified in any way; its uniqueness is absolute. This means that only a person is free in the true sense.

And yet one person is no person; freedom is not freedom from the other but freedom for the other. Freedom becomes identical with love. God is love because He is Trinity. We can love only if we are persons, allowing the other to be truly other and yet be in communion with us. If we love the other not in spite of his or her being different but because they are different from us, or rather other than ourselves, we live in freedom as love and in love as freedom.

The other is a condition of our freedom. Freedom is not from but for something other than ourselves. This makes the person ecstatic, going outside and beyond the boundaries of the self. But this ecstasis is not to be understood as a movement towards the unknown and the infinite; it is a movement of affirmation of the other.

This drive of personhood towards the affirmation of the other is so strong that is not limited to the “other” that already exists but wants to affirm an “other” which is totally free grace of the person. Just as God created the world as free grace, so the person wants to create its own “other.” This is what happens with art: the artist creating a totally other identity as an act of freedom and communion. Living in the Church in communion with the other means, therefore, creating a culture. The Orthodox Church has always been culturally creative.

Finally, we must consider the ecological problem. The threat to God’s creation is due to a crisis between the human being and the otherness of the rest of creation. Man does not respect the otherness of what is not human; he tends to absorb it into himself.

This is the cause of the ecological problem. In a desperate attempt to correct this, Man may easily fall into the pagan alternative: to absorb Man into nature. We have to be very careful. Out of its tradition, Orthodoxy is called to offer the right Christian answer to the problem. Nature is the “other” that Man is called to bring into communion with himself, affirming it as “very good” through personal creativity.

This is what happens in the Eucharist where the natural elements of bread and wine are so affirmed that they acquire personal qualities — the Body and Blood of Christ — in the event of the communion of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, in a para-eucharistic way, all forms of true culture and art are ways of treating nature as otherness in communion, and these are the only healthy antidotes to the ecological illness.

May 8, 2018

perhaps that is exactly what encountering “the soul of a tree or a dryad” is like

We experience only a fragment of what is happening in the world. And what is out of our sight and sense is also, mostly, out of mind. Our conscious experience and intention run alongside the merely material happenings in our brains and bodies. Similarly, the presence of “fairies” is not ruled out merely because what happens “naturally” also involves the motion of material parts. Nor is it ruled out by the fact that there are very general “laws” to describe what happens: The laws of nature that we discover are not explanations but very general descriptions—and real explanations, if there are any, may lie in the conscious intention of spirits with their own agendas and inclinations. Martin Buber once remarked:

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

But perhaps that is exactly what encountering “the soul of a tree or a dryad” is like. Something is really there, and we describe it in the terms with which we are most familiar, while also knowing that those familiar terms are strictly inapplicable. Or rather, in applying them to trees or rocks or stars, we may suddenly find that they are unfamiliar terms, and that we hardly know even what other human creatures are. We may find that we are in Fairyland already.

From Stephen R. L. Clark, professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Liverpool in this article for First Things.

May 8, 2018

first become a poet

Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.

Wounded by Love by Elder Porphyrios (translated by John Raffan).

May 2, 2018

true beauty is not the idea of the beautiful

David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 176-177):

The harmony of Father and Son is not the absolute music of an undifferentiated noise, but the open, diverse, and complete polyphony of Father, Son, and Spirit.

…The most elemental statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, “God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures” (Oration 28.30-31).

…God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons. This cannot be emphasized enough: the Christian God, who is infinite, is also infinitely formosus, the supereminent fullness of all form, transcendently determinate, always possessed of his Logos. True beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the “mind” of God, but is an infinite “music,” drama, art, completed in–but never “bounded” by–the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life; God is boundless, and so is never a boundary; his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure variation–all dancing and delight. And because he is beautiful, being abounds with difference: shape, variety, manifold relation. Beauty is the distinction of the different, the otherness of the other, the true form of distance. And the Holy Spirit who perfects the divine love, so that it is not only reflective but also evocative–calling out to yet another as pure delight, outgoing, both uncompelled and unlimited–also makes the divine joy open to the otherness of what is not divine, of creation, without estranging it from its divine “logic”; and the Spirit communicates difference as primordially the gift of the beauty, because his difference within the Trinity is the happiness that perfects desire, the fulfillment of love; for the Spirit comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the joy he seeks, reinflecting the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as delight, the whole rapture of the divine essence.

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