Archive for July, 2008

The Wonder of It All

One of the great insights of G. K. Chesterton is that of wonder. Surely, he is not the first to notice the unique contribution of wonderment to our understanding of the world, but he has certainly articulated it better than most have ever done. Chesterton’s basic insight is that it really is not logical that the world is the way it is – it might have been very different, and yet it is as it is. In the chapter titled The Ethics of Elfland from his great book Orthodoxy, Chesterton says,

My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things… Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised earth.

For Chesterton, fairy tales are not as nonsensical as they might appear to us “grownups”. Fairy tales may contain many strange things – a cow jumping over the moon, a giant beanstalk that reaches into the clouds, a frog that turns into a prince – but they never contain logical contradictions. In other words, two elves riding on two unicorns to meet four other elves mean that when the meeting takes place there will be six elves and two unicorns in one location. Two and four still make six. The idea of unicorns may seem strange, but the existence of unicorns is not impossible precisely because we can imagine it. What we cannot do is imagine two elves plus four elves making zero elves. And it is here that a significant insight is gained.

How is it that there are things that can never be, such as 6+3=1 or dry water, but there are other things that could be, yet are not? Our world might have been a very different place. It is not a logical necessity that grass should be green or that horses should have four legs. Why couldn’t grass be orange or horses have six legs and we have four! The only reason we think grass must be green and that we humans must have two legs is because that is the way our world is, but this is no justification for their logical necessity. Perhaps fairy tales are really no stranger than our reality. In fact, we might say that it is strange that there are no elves or unicorns. If we lived in a world full of elves, the stories we tell our children might well include strange tales of tall, clumsy creatures called human beings. And what’s stranger still is that these human beings actually come in such a wide variety. Some are white, some are black, some are reddish-brown, some have large round eyes, some have short squinty eyes, some are tall, some are short, and on it goes. How strange indeed are these things called human beings! Just think what else might not have been. The sun comes up every morning and its long procession through the sky is concluded each day with the procession of the moon. But why might it not be something entirely different? Why should there be a sun at all? Why not a continuous procession of the moon and all the earth be nocturnal? How beautiful that would be, but our world is stranger still.

Indeed, fairy tales are no stranger than our present world. As Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography, “Existence is still a strange thing to me, and as a stranger I gave it welcome”.

Think about it.

If we would only look at the world as we did once upon a time in a nursery or in our parents lap while they read to us about Jack and his beanstalk; to see the world through the eyes of a child, filled with wonder, we would then see the world as it truely is.

The Necessity of Prayer for Contemplation

So if contemplation is so important for our lives, indeed it part and parcel to our transformation in Christ, how is it to be done? Dietrich von Hildebrand answers:

The true Christian must at any cost conquer a place in his life for contemplation. He must firmly refuse to let himself be dragged into a whirlpool of activities in which he is driven incessantly from one task to another, purpose succeeding purpose, without a pause. The present period of perpetual unrest, in which the machine has come to be the model, the causa exemplaris, of well-nigh all things, in which everything is caught in a process of instrumentalization, in which Leistung (“achievement”) with the emphasis on quantity and mere technical perfection, has assumed priority over being in a substantial and meaningful sense – this period of shallow hyperactivity is only too apt to drag us into that whirlpool of outward preoccupations.

All our actions, even those with a religious or moral importance, which therefore essentially appeal to the contemplative attitude, we tend to perform in the manner of discharging a duty or of acquitting ourselves of a task – not to say, of turning out the required output. We live in uninterrupted tension, never ceasing to be conquered about what has next to be settled; and many of us no longer know any alternative to work except recreation and amusement.

I believe this is what I called “noise”. So how are we to overcome all this noise and achieve a contemplative frame of mind1? von Hildebrand answers:

First, we should consecrate every day a certain space of time to inward prayer. There must be such a fraction of the day, in which we drop all our topical or habitual concerns before God, facing Him in complete emptiness, so as to be filled by the holy presence of Christ alone.

Yet, we must guard from performing the inner prayer as though we were dispatching a business among others, assimilating it to the rhythm of current tasks. We must really loose the spasm of activity and be dominated by the consciousness of departing in our inward prayer towards the superior realm of ultimate being, in radical transcendence of the aims and concerns which habitually rule the course of our thoughts.

All these we must leave behind, pronouncing a nescivi (“I have forgotten”)….

Inward prayer is the utmost antithesis to all tense activity: we cannot practice it fruitfully unless we succeed in extricating ourselves from the rhythm of affairs to be settled. To preserve that pragmatic attitude during our inward prayer is to falsify the latter’s essence to the point of absurdity.

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1 This is not to say our entire lives are to be spent in perpetual contemplation. Dietrich von  Hildebrand makes a sharp distinction between recollection and contemplation.  In Recollection “we become or make ourselves empty of pragmatical concerns, directing ourselves to the absolute…. In this respect, recollection is a preamble to contemplation…. Whereas our earthly life could not be purely contemplative, it should always remain recollected.”

Who Art Thou O Shakespeare!

I have never understood the debate that surrounds the particular Christian faith of Shakespeare. Oh sure, if we knew that Shakespeare was a Catholic that would shed new light on his plays, but is it really worth fighting for? To me, Catholics have always come off a little silly by trying to hammer Shakespeare into a awkward fitting Catholic mold. Perhaps Shakespeare was Catholic. Or maybe he wasn’t, and we have been right all along. We will likely never know, but are we really so much the worse off for not knowing?

In his latest book, Joseph Pearce has apparently taken up the old issue with new vigor. Much loved in Catholic circles for his work on the many great Catholic writers of the early 20th century (Chesterton, Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, etc.), it is sad to see that Mr. Pearce has taken such a beating in FIRST THINGS for his latest book, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (Ignatius 2008) (Amazon Link).

Robert S. Miola in his review of The Quest for Shakespeare has this to say about Pearce’s latest work:

In The Quest for Shakespeare, Joseph Pearce claims that the “real Shakespeare” was a secret Catholic. Pointing in the preface to his own “robust muse” and “Bellocian bellicosity,” Pearce goes on to mock contemporary writers on Shakespeare as “vultures,” “carrion critics,” “gossip and gutter-oriented ‘scholars,’” and “silly asses of academe.”

A promising beginning, you might think. Unfortunately, The Quest for Shakespeare proves to be a patchwork of other people’s work, indiscriminately selected, hastily stitched together, and served up with self-congratulatory fanfare. Seldom has such a slight book managed to combine ignorance and arrogance on such a grand scale.

The review does not get any kinder to Mr. Pearce. Attacked for its astonishing lack of scholarship, The Quest for Shakespeare does not fair well in Moila’s critique. At one point Miola says, “What he [Pearce] does not know about Shakespeare and the Catholicism of his times would fill several large libraries.” Ouch. In the end, it seems Miola is just fed up with Pearce’s apparent arrogance:

At a conceptual level The Quest for Shakespeare repeatedly exhibits the logical fallacy of association—the idea that identification of Catholic associates constitutes evidence of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. It never occurs to Pearce that a survey of Protestant associates could just as easily lead to the opposite conclusion. His work also exhibits the biographical fallacy—the unqualified conviction that one can read the author’s life from the work and vice versa.

This fallacy is widespread in Shakespeare studies, true enough, but the business of wrenching passages out of dramatic context as evidence of the playwright’s personal beliefs usually reveals more about the critic than about Shakespeare. Pearce endorses this method for himself—and then vents his spleen on anyone else who dare use it for different conclusions. Thus, for example, he ridicules the “doyens of postmodernity” for writing into the plays their own “prejudiced agenda.” As Pearce notes about much contemporary work on Shakespeare: “For the proponents of ‘queer theory’ he becomes conveniently homosexual; for secular fundamentalists he is a proto-secularist, ahead of his time; for ‘post-Christian’ agnostics he becomes a prophet of modernity.”

Quite right, one wants to say. But what shall we do when Joseph Pearce comes along to say, in essence: “You’re all stupid to think that Shakespeare is just like you. Actually, Shakespeare is just like me”? There is a parable about a mote and a beam that applies somewhere here.

Hopefully, the scholarship of Joseph Pearce isn’t as bad as all that. Having not too long ago expressed great interest in his new critical edition series from Ignatius Press, I still hold out hope that his scholarship in the arena of literary criticism will be able to stand on its own two feet. After the review in FIRST THINGS (a journal which is sympathetic to all things Catholic and conservative, mind you) I have my doubts. Nonetheless, I will withhold my judgement, and I look forward to Pearce’s rebuttle to Miola in the Correspondance section of the next issue of FIRST THINGS. At least, I hope a rebuttle is forthcoming. If not, I shall not know what to think of our beloved Mr. Pearce.

On Contemplation and Beauty

Our old friend, Dietrich von Hildebrand again. This time on the subject of contemplation. From Transformation in Christ, Chapter 6:

In order that contemplation may bring out its full meaning and attain its perfection, another feature must be present. The object must affect us not only with its isolated specific content, it must elevate us into the world of valid and ultimate reality. We must, in contemplation, meet that world as such, so as to acquire suddenly a comprehensive new attitude towards all things.

Who of us does not know the supreme moments when a great truth, a glorious beauty of art or of nature, or the soul of a beloved person manifests itself to our soul with a lightning-like splendor, gracing our eyes with a vision of ultimate reality and prompting us to exclaim, “O Lord, how admirable is Thy name in the whole earth!” (Ps. 8:10)?

That other feature of contemplation which must be present, to which the feature noted above is an addition, is the sense of timelessness. In contemplation proper, we are taken up out of the world of time, or rather, the temporal world around us ceases to exist.

In regards to the question in the second paragraph quoted above, I am afraid of the great awkwardness with which many people in 2008 would answer such a question. Dietrich von Hildebrand was by all accounts a highly cultured and educated man with a supreme appreciation for beauty, whether it be found in nature, art, or music. Perhaps only he could ask such a question with child-like naivete. He may have been unaware that not everyone has the gift of being able to appreciate beauty or even recognize it as he did. Nevertheless, I will trust, or at least hope, that everyone has had the kind of “supreme moment” noted above; if not a full realization of such contemplative joy, at least a hint of it.

However, if there are many who have not had such an experience, it is certainly because of the noise that fills our world. Without silence of heart and soul, contemplation is impossible. Our soul needs silence so that it can hear the voice of its maker.

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” I Kings 19:11-12 (RSV)

Compounding the problem of our inability to assume a contemplitive posture, we appear to have also lost a true appreciation for beauty. We are not sure why we need to study poetry anymore, or why we should care about making art that elevates the soul, or why we should care about the great works of Mozart and J.S. Bach. We can’t even agree about what is beautiful. I suppose even a trash can full of shit can look beautiful if you’re depraved enough to see it. Have you seen what counts as art these days?

I am reminded of the famous words of Fyodor Dostoevsky through his great character Prince Myshkin: “beauty will save the world.” It would seem so. Beauty will save the world because it will draw us back into contemplation. When authentic beauty is appreciated and reverenced in our culture, it is a sure sign that our souls have once again found value in silence and can once again hear the voice of God.

Imagine a world in which beauty is reverenced. What place would there be for war? How could rape or any sort of violence against a human being exist when the essential beauty of each person is apprecated in its fullness? How could pornography exist in a world that honors true beauty? Of course, sin will always be a reality of our world, but if our culture, with all its great power to influence and shape minds, would only embrace goodness, truth, and beauty, what a different place this world would be.

Indeed, beauty just might save the world.

True Simplicity

In Chapter 5 of Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand deals with, what he calls, true simplicity. By this he means a sole orientation of one’s life toward God, the unum necessarium. This simplicity is contrasted with a life devoted to one of many things, where consideration of God’s will is but one consideration among many. This kind of complex life is splintered because it is not solely directed toward God. To quote that famous passage from Saint Augustine, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”. When we try to serve God and mammon our lives become split. Sin introduces disunity in the soul, precisely because it takes our gaze from God. The true simplicity that should accompany a Christian life is now disrupted. Only when sin is removed from our lives, and this is accomplished only through a transformation in Christ, does unity reign within our soul as we direct our gaze toward God alone. As Dietrich von Hildebrand is quick to point out, true simplicity is very difficult to obtain and cannot be fully obtained this side of the beatific vision. However, this is the holiness of life to which we are are called. “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Lev 19.2)

From Chapter 5 of Transformation in Christ :

A person confined within his natural attitude may not squander his interests on a multitude of trivial irrelevancies: he may concentrate upon an important cause, consecrate himself to a noble vocation, or be overwhelmed with a great love. However, he will then be exhausted, as it were, by that one thing, valuable maybe, but yet only one among many human concerns. Everything else is obscured, and he cannot afford to pay adequate attention even to a genuine good if it be unconnected with the thing which now engrosses his interest.

It is not so with true simplicity, involving an exclusive devotion to the unum necessarium alone. With this, new forces spring up in the man; an abundance of spiritual intensity arises from his participation in the life of Christ. New torrents are released, of which he knew nothing before; he is now enabled to react adequately, in a far greater measure than in his former life, to human individualities and the manifoldness of situations…

How inexhaustible becomes thereby the capacity for devoting ourselves to our fellow creatures and to their legitimate cares. Only think of the saints: St. Paul for example, when he says, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is scandalized, and I am not on fire?” (2 Cor 11.29). This is a measure of love which transcends all natural categories. Or again, what a never relaxing intensity in attending to a variety of high tasks do we find in St. Albert the Great, adding the immensity of his scientific work to his monastic duties and his episcopal functions! With similar intent we may point to the life of a St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

From the natural standpoint, such a simultaneity of nobly performed duties might well seem impossible. But the saints could achieve such an abundance of life precisely because they were simple and by reason of their simplicity participated in the life of Christ.

In the preceding passage an important concept is taken for granted, of which Dietrich von Hildebrand treats elsewhere in Transformation in Christ. Simplicity in the natural order implies a narrowness of life (first paragraph quoted above), while simplicity in sole devotion to God implies great depth. The reason for this is to be found in the hierarchy of being. God, the alpha and omega, at the top, down to angels, to humans, to animals, to plant life, to non-biological matter, and so forth. When we orientate our lives toward God, we become focused on the unum necessarium, the ultimate and divine logos of the world, the source of life itself. This implies great depth, in that we are able to encounter the world in conspectu Dei (in view of God), and thus we are capable of seeing “things” (and people) as they really are. However, when our focus is on things of this world this depth of meaning is lost. No longer are we orientated towards the source of all life. We are instead focused on the things of this world, in which no light of meaning can be shed on anything else. We thus become narrow.

I cannot recommend highly enough a complete and careful reading of Transformation in Christ (Amazon link). It’s a lengthy book (500 pages), but it is not difficult. It was meant to be read slowly, and I suggest having a pencil or highlighter in hand. In fact, this is a work to be studied, not read. Transformation in Christ is one of the great spiritual classics of the last century, written by a truly great man. To learn more about Dietrich von Hildebrand, I highly recommend The Soul of a Lion (Amazon link), written by his wife, Alice von Hildebrand – a distinguished philosopher in her own right. Buy both together and get free shipping from Amazon!


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