The words “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” have been much in my mind of late, and I thought of them again as a read a brilliant thesis on Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited by Elizabeth Quackenbush, a senior at Thomas Aquinas College this year. I suppose I must have been about 14 when I first read Brideshead, and I was completely dazzled. As Thomas Howard once wrote, Continue reading
The following passage was written by St Rafael Arnaiz Barón in 1934 when he had been forced to leave his monastery for the first time. Original: Apología del trapense, in: Obras Completas 267-269. Translated with the help of the German. When I first read this passage I thought of the distributist blogger Daniel Nochols, and especially of his would-be revolutionary commentator Owen White. I thought of it again when Pope Francis was elected, with his great emphasis on the question of poverty– from which we have much to learn.
When I left the church it was night. I did not direct my steps to the city center, but headed for the outlying neighborhoods … There one sees the usual: material and moral poverty… The dirty, black houses, occasionally gave a view of their badly lit interiors. The smell of dust and moisture, disheveled women screaming at the children, playing in the brook… Dirty, poorly lit streets,. The shops are sell nothing but the bare necessities … bread and sandals. Occasionally, a tavern which emits a smell of tobacco, wine and cheap food. All this under an overcast sky without stars…
These are the people, the poor people. Hunger is a commonplace, and the inhabitants of the city center, do not come here, lest they be disturbed by this misery. In the center there are luxury shops, the houses have a doorman and elevator, no neon signs in the theaters, and bright, clean cars glide across asphalt without without splattering themselves with mud or crashing into children playing in the brook.
And yet both the poor and the rich are children of God, all have the same miseries and the same sins… But one day, when God judges, how surprised we’ll be! The desperation of the hungry can be justified, but the selfishness of those who have money, and consider the poor a nuisance, that is unforgivable.
When those above forget God, what wonder that those below rebel?… Do not go to the poor to preach patience and resignation, but go rather to the rich and tell them that if they are not just and do not give of their possessions the wrath of God will fall upon them.
As I walked through these neighborhoods, I was overcome with indignation and shame. The God is banished from society, the more misery spreads. And if in a town which is called Christian creatures hate each other because of class interest, and are separated into rich and poor neighborhoods, what will happen on the day that God’s name is cursed by both?… If the poor are deprived of the idea of God, they have nothing left. Their despair is justifiable, their hatred of the rich is natural, their desire for revolution and anarchy is logical. And if the rich find the idea of God bothersome, if they ignore the precepts of the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus … then they have no reason to complain. And if their selfishness prevents them from approaching the poor, then they should not be surprised that the poor intend to seize their possessions by force.
Seeing society as it is today, what Christian does not feel pain in the soul to see it thus? … When I think that all social conflicts, all differences could disappear if we payed a little attention to the God who was so abandoned in the church I had just visited… When I think of the tragedy presented by human life, and that all this hatred and jealousy, selfishness and falsehood could disappear if we looked to God… When I see how easy it would be for men to find the key to happiness, but that in there blindness or madness they do not want to see… then I can only exclaim: Lord … Lord, look on your suffering people… The people are not bad, Lord… but if you abandon them, who will, Lord, survive? … What can we do ourselves? Nothing, absolutely nothing … If you averted your eyes from the world for even a moment, the whole world would sink back into chaos… Forgive us, Lord.
I am plunged into deep mire, and there is no standing. Ps 69(68):2
When Christ came into the world, he said, [...] a body hast thou prepared for me. Heb 10:5
Caro salutis est cardo. (Salvation hinges on the flesh). Tertulian, De Resurrectione Carnis, VIII
For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Heb 1:5
The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Is 1:3
The Psalm verse about being plunged into deep mud where there is no standing is usually applied to the Passion, but Charles De Koninck in Ego Sapientia (ch. 20) shows that it can also be applied to the Incarnation. The “deep mud” is the potentiality of matter into which the eternal Son, the pure act of Divinity, is sunk in becoming man. Fashionable theologians throw up their hands in horror at this sort of application. Not only on exegetical grounds, but above all because they are very sensitive to accusation that Christianity despises the body, and material reality. They hastily quote Tertulian’s famous pun, “Caro salutis est cardo.” (Salvation hinges on the flesh). But they seldom quote something else that Tertulian calls the flesh in the very same chapter of De Resurrectione Carnis: “huic substantiae frivolae ac sordidae” (this poor and worthless substance). Tertulian does indeed defend the body against Gnostics and Platonists – the body is neither evil nor pure privation, it is good and created by God – but neither does he have any illusions about its nobility, considered merely according to its nature. Indeed, it is the very lowliness of matter that enables the flesh to be the hinge of salvation. Continue reading
I have been reading a German translation of the writings of the 20th century Spanish Trappist, St Rafael Arnáiz Barón. There is no English translation of his writings, but here is a very rough translation of one wonderful passage. (Original: Hno. Rafael Arnaiz Barón, tomado de su “Obras completas”, Mi cuaderno – San Isidro, 12 de diciembre de 1936, Sábado, 25 años.)
The Antics of the Turnips
Three o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day in December. It’s time for work, and as it’s Saturday and very cold we don’t go out to the fields. We work in a room where lentils are washed, potatoes peeled, collards chopped etc … we call it the “laboratorium.”
There is a long table here with benches, and a window with a crucifix above it.
It is a gloomy day. The clouds are dark. The wind blows with fitful indecision. A few drops of water fall reluctantly, licking the glass. And above all there is the cold – a cold worthy of the season and the country.
The truth is that apart from the cold, which I can feel in my frozen feet and chilled hands, I see these things mostly in my imagination, since I have hardly glanced at the window. The afternoon is dark and everything appears sad to me. I find the silence oppressive, and it appears that some little devils are determined to tease me with what I call “memories”… have patience and wait. Continue reading
This year’s Big American Novel is the long-awaited, unfinished book that David Foster Wallace had been working on up to his death in 2008. The Pale King is about the dull lives of IRS bureaucrats, and, as DFW wrote in one of the notes appended to the manuscript (p.545), it has two “broad arcs”: the first arc has to do with boredom and paying attention and the differences between people and machines; the second has to do with with being an individual vs. being part of something larger, civics. Both of these arcs are closely related to the central theme of pretty much all of Wallace’s writing. Continue reading
Sulpicius Severus recounts an odd story about S. Martin of Tours, whose Feast we celebrate today. It was on last journey before his death, he and his disciples past by a river where a number of birds were gobbling up fish in a feeding-frenzy. S. Martin was not amused:
This [exclaimed the saint] is a picture of how the demons act: they lie in wait for the unwary and capture them before they know it: they devour their victims when taken, and they can never be satisfied with what they have devoured.
He then proceeded to command the poor birds to fly off to “dry and desert regions.” The birds obediently flew off, “to no small wonder of many.”
What had the poor birds done to be sent off to the desert? They were merely following their instincts. Every living thing lives only by devouring other living things, or in, the case of plants, at least by depriving other living things of the chance to live on this bit of earth. Continue reading
It seems to me at the moment that there are basically two ways of experiencing this season: with or without a cold. If a man does not have a cold the brisk air invigorates him, he looks at the falling leaves and so on as it where from above, contrasting the decay of nature with his own unconquered life. It seems to him that his destiny is not with the passing things of this world, but with the eternal things of heaven, who changing all things remain themselves unchanged. If he has a cold on the other hand (as I do at the moment) then he sees himself as part of the season, as caught up in the decay of all things, as very much mortal and subject to death, and his impulse is to pull the covers over his head and go to sleep till it’s all over…
There is, of course, a certain truth in both ways of experiencing it – man is both mortal and (in a way) immortal – but there is a danger of deception in both ways as well.
The Commemoration of All Soul’s in November is of course chiefly ordered to helping the poor souls in Purgatory, but in a secondary way it is also to help us – to remind us that we are mortal and that we must prepare ourselves to meet our judge. But the proper response to this reminder is not to go to sleep, but (as the liturgical readings keep reminding us at this time of year) to stay awake and watch…
No Novel has made me laugh so much as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The humor of Three Men in a Boat is remarkably universal. Comic writing is often the most time-bound and least universal sort of writing. The ridiculous has to do with the concrete; it is bound up with the fact that material. Man’s immortal soul is the form of an immortal body, and he is thus caught up in all the imperfections of matter. Much comic writing turns on the circumstances of embodied human life, the vagaries of culture; it tends to be full of references to particular events, politicians etc. This is what makes Aristophanes so obscure. There is a certain amount of such humor in Three Men in a Boat, but that is not its main mode of humor. What makes Three Men in a Boat so much funnier than its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, is that the latter is so much more particular, fueled primarily by concrete contrasts between Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. Three Men in a Boat on the other hand is fueled by the absurdities of the human condition an sich. The contrasts that it thrives on are the contrasts inherent in human life itself, the contrasts between matter and spirit, between eternal destiny and dependence on the trivial.
There is something very Pascalian about Jerome K. Jerome’s sensitivity to the contrasts of the human condition. It is not just a sensitivity to the absurdity of embodied spirit; it is a sensitivity to the fallenness of the world, to original sin, or, as J.K.J. calls it, “the natural cussedness of things in general.”
Perhaps the most Pascalian scene in Three Men in a Boat is on the morning of the day that the three men set out. Jerome and Harris wake up late and snarl bad-temperedly at each other till they see that George is still asleep:
There he lay – the man who had wanted to know what time he should wake us – on his back, with his mouth wide open, and his knees stuck up.
I don’t know why it should be, I am sure; but the sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up, maddens me. It seems to me so shocking to see the precious hours of a man’s life – the priceless moments that will never come back to him again – being wasted in mere brutish sleep.
There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused. He might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead of sprawling there, sunk in soul-clogging oblivion.
It was a terrible thought. Harris and I appeared to be struck by it at the same instant. We determined to save him, and, in this noble resolve, our own dispute was forgotten. We flew across and slung the clothes off him, and Harris landed him one with a slipper, and I shouted in his ear, and he awoke.
The Pascalian element is of course the brilliant juxtaposition of eternal destiny with the habit of diversion. Jerome and Harris cannot propose any alternative to the soul-clogging oblivion of sleep except the waking sleep of diversion.
I have discovered [Pascal writes] that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. [… ] When, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.
I have often thought that Pascal here gives us the key to understanding the monastic life. The monastic life consists in sitting still in one’s own chamber, in facing the misery of the human condition squarely, weeping over it, and watching and waiting eagerly for the coming of the master who frees us from it. Woe to the servant whom the master finds sleeping when he comes!
In his part of the Vita Prima William of St. Thierry writes (n.21) about S. Bernard’s scorn for sleep (rough translation):
What should I say of sleep, which in other men is a restoration after labor, a recreation of sense and mind? From that time till now he was awake more than is humanly possible. For no time did he regard as so wasted as the time of sleep. He held the comparison of sleep and death for very fitting; for as the sleeping seem dead to men, so the dead are sleeping in the eyes of God. Hence he could scarce keep his patience when he saw a religious in sleep who either snored too loud, or sprawled indecently; he thought such a one a carnal or worldly sleeper. The meagerness of his sleep was proportionate to the meagerness of his food; in neither did he indulge his body to satiety, in both he was satisfied if he had any at all. As for night-watches, he considered a watch moderate if he did not spend the whole night sleepless.
At the rare times when he slept he could truly make the words of the bride his own, “I slept but my heart was awake.” (Sg 5:2)
In his lecture “The Face of the Earth,” Roger Scruton compares the following two photographs:
What is it that makes the picture of the canal so different from the one of urban sprawl? The canal is, as Scruton says, “just as jumbled up,” with “just as many things competing for our attention.” Scruton’s explanation for why the canal is beautiful and the urban sprawl is not, is that if one looks at the details of the canal one sees what Wallace Stevens called the “blessed rage for order.” But Scruton doesn’t explain exactly what he means. How does the “jumbled” canal manifest rage for order? I think the key is Scruton’s statement that there are “just as many things competing for our attention.” That’s not quite right. In the picture of the automobile wasteland things are competing for attention—especially the commercial signs, each one seems to be saying “look at me!” But the details of the canal are not competing for attention. Newman once said “the very idea of order implies the idea of the subordinate,” and that is what one sees in the canal; each detail subordinates itself, it does not try to pull attention away from the whole, and therefore the jumble is ordered and beautiful. So it really isn’t what Wallace Stevens was talking about. It’s not a rage for order, it’s a love of order; it’s not the imposition of meaning on meaningless jumble, but the courteous subordination of each detail which allows the whole to emerge.
And now he is standing on the other side of this very wall; now he is looking through each window in turn, peering through every chink. I can hear my true love calling to me, Rise up, rise up quickly, dear heart, so gentle, so beautiful, rise up and come with me. (Sg. 2:9-10; Knox Translation)
Ronald Knox takes a rather curious literal interpretation of the Song of Songs, but one that solves a number of difficulties. Joe Zepeda’s brilliant TAC thesis argues for it rather persuasively. The interpretation is roughly this: the bride has been taken to Solomon’s court, but she is still faithful to her beloved from the country. Her beloved follows her to the city, and (in the above text) he is standing outside the wall of Solomon’s palace calling her. In his sermon “The Window in the Wall” Knox gives a figurative interpretation of the passage: Solomon’s court is the world of sensible, the beloved is of course our Lord, and the ‘window in the wall’ is the Blessed Sacrament.
It’s the irony of fallen existence that the sensible world, which should be a mirror of God’s glory, ends up being an ersatz for it. Just as Solomon (the ‘son of David’) is supposed to be the representative of God and the type of His Son, but ends up being His rival. In the Blessed Sacrament the Beloved comes to us without any sensible glory, calling us to leave the ‘gilded cage’ of our enslavement to creatures, and come out into the fresh air the Divine Life.
References: R. Knox, The Window in the Wall and Other Sermons on the Holy Eucharist (London: Burns and Oates, 1956) pp. 1-6. Joseph Raphael Zepeda, Fruits New and Old in the Song of Solomon; God’s Covenants symbolized (Senior Thesis; Santa Paula: Thomas Aquinas College, 2004).