no ancient to point the way

Thanks to colleagues for some time spent contemplating this poem by Billy Collins.

Scenes of Hell

We did not have the benefit of a guide,
no crone to lead us off the common path,
no ancient to point the way with a staff,

but there were badlands to cross,
rivers of fire and blackened peaks,
and eventually we could look down and see

the jeweler running around a gold ring,
the boss captured in an hourglass,
the baker buried up to his eyes in flour,

the banker plummeting on a coin,
the teacher disappering into a blackboard,
and the grocer silent under a pyramid of vegetables.

We saw the pilot nose-diving
and the whore impaled on a bedpost,
the pharmacist wandering in a stupor

and the child with toy wheels for legs.
You pointed to the soldier
who was dancing with his empty uniform

and I remarked on the blind tourist.
But what truly caught our attention
was the scene in the long mirror of ice:

you lighting the wick on your head
me blowing on the final spark,
and our children trying to crawl away from their

apparently contradictory and without point

From the Bonds of Imperfection by Oliver O’Donovan (a potent exposition of John’s Apocalypse):

As a scroll, it represents history; as a sealed scroll, its contents are unintelligible. So the prophet presents his problem: how can the created order which declares the beauty and splendor of its creator be the subject of a world history, the events of which are apparently contradictory and without point? Only if history can be shown to have a purpose can the prophet’s tears be wiped away and the praise of the creation be resumed.

turn off the limelight

From “The Superstition of School” (1923) by G.K. Chesterton:

Education ought to be a searchlight given to a man to explore everything, but very specially the things most distant from himself. Education tends to be a spotlight; which is centered entirely on himself. Some improvement may be made by turning equally vivid and perhaps vulgar spotlights upon a large number of other people as well. But the only final cure is to turn off the limelight and let him realize the stars.

the kiss burns his heart

“My intention is to end it with the following scene: Having disburdened his heart, the Inquisitor waits for some time to hear his prisoner speak in His turn. His silence weighs upon him. He has seen that his captive has been attentively listening to him all the time, with His eyes fixed penetratingly and softly on the face of his jailer, and evidently bent upon not replying to him. The old man longs to hear His voice, to hear Him reply; better words of bitterness and scorn than His silence. Suddenly He rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten- year-old lips. That is all the answer. The Grand Inquisitor shudders. There is a convulsive twitch at the corner of his mouth. He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, ‘Go,’ he says, ‘go, and return no more… do not come again… never, never!’ and–lets Him out into the dark night. The prisoner vanishes.”

“And the old man?”

“The kiss burns his heart, but the old man remains firm in his own ideas and unbelief.”

From Ivan’s story of “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky.

superimposed on the scientific method

St. Bernard has stated in a few words that “We search in a worthier manner, we discover with greater facility through prayer than through disputation.” …This is the additional value which is superimposed on the scientific method; it is the source of all understanding and all love. It is what will always distinguish the work of the spiritual man from that of the intellectual.

From The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: a Study of Monastic Culture by Jean Leclercq, page 211.

double darkness

Prayer by Thomas Aquinas

Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your light penetrate the darkness of my understanding. Take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of sin and ignorance. Give me a keen understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally. Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm. Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion. I ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Cited in Jens Zimmermann and Norman Klassen. The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education (197-198).

books written in a very foreign language

Letters To a Young Poet
Letter Four (16 July 1903)

You are so young; you stand before beginnings. I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

– Rainer Maria Rilke (Translator: Stephen Mitchell)

grateful recipients of common grace

We now turn to the notion of common grace, the idea that God’s incarnation enables you to roll up your sleeves and explore knowledge not only without fear but also in confidence that in God’s providence non-Christian minds have provided many great ideas that contribute to our renewed humanity.

…Common grace is a two-way street, and our full understanding of this issue will allow us not only to tolerate non-Christian contributions to knowledge but actually to seek truth in them that contributes to the renewal of our minds. We are not merely agents but also grateful recipients of common grace.

…John Calvin defined the inability of the fallen mind to see reality in the context of God’s love as the corruption of the entire person, including the mind: “Calvin did not think of corruption as affecting the being of the mind itself, for the mind is still maintained in being by the direct action of God. As a natural gift it is not removed but perverted.” Contrary to Enlightenment thinkers, Calvin did not separate the mind from the rest of the person. For Calvin, the mind has not lost its ability to think per se, but it has lost its proper framework for applying its insights; reason has lost its God-directed coordinate. Reason, as he put it, is corrupted “as far as its rectitude is concerned.”

…The mind itself and its Christian and non-Christian achievements alike are a glorious testimony to God’s gift of reason. Non-Christian insights are “wrong” only insofar as they miss the context in which all knowledge gains its full measure, namely, when it is dedicated and used for the glory of God. Intellectual achievements are not, in other words, the exclusive domain of the Christian. And so Calvin insists that we should learn from non-Christians in “physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar science … [lest] we be justly punished for our laziness.

The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education by Jens Zimmermann, Norman Klassen

weak on dragons

Thanks to my sister for this passage from Future Men by Douglas Wilson (which I have not read). Most of it is a quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Eustace Scrubb had stumbled into a dragon’s lair, but he did not know what kind of place it was. “Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”