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Orientation and the Vertical

In practical sense experience, the vertical field appears to be the field of the common world in which we find ourselves thrown together with objects. And the horizontal field, by way of contrast, appears to be the field of our experience in this world. We orient ourselves in our horizontal field by orienting ourselves in respect to objects we find in this field, which is itself centered in us. But we orient ourselves in our vertical field by orienting ourselves in respect to the field itself, which is not centered in us; we find ourselves near the ground, near the bottom of the vertical field, in like manner with the objects around us. As active percipients we are, to be sure, at the center of a low-ceilinged practical field of vertical movement. What we must stoop to reach, appears “down;” and what we must stretch or leap to reach, appears “up.” But the point is that this entire practical field of vertical movement is itself perceived to be at the lower end of a downgraded vertical field directed from the heavens to the earth.

Being oriented in respect to the vertical field itself, we can be properly or improperly so oriented. That is, we can be right-side-up or up-side-down in it. The vertical field is the field in which our body direction is oriented. On the other hand, being oriented in respect to objects in our horizontal field but not to the horizontal field itself, it makes no sense to speak of a generally proper or improper horizontal orientation. That is, it makes no sense to speak of our being left-side right or front-side-back. For our orientation in our horizontal field, whatever it may be, is what first gives this field its order; its order must be consonant with our orientation in it. What is to our left is eo ipso the left-hand region of our horizontal field, and so for the other quadrants. The horizontal field of objects is the field of our body direction.

We may be improperly oriented in respect to objects in our horizontal field, not facing them when we should; but we cannot be improperly oriented in respect to our field itself. We may, more- over, be disoriented in respect to some objects in our horizontal field, lacking all sense where they are while still retaining a sense of an ordered horizontal field about us. A disorientation of this sort is the only failure of orientation possible in respect to our horizon- tal field. Any further disorientation involves a disappearance of the field itself; a loss of the sense of its order, not merely a sense of the loss of our right order in respect to it. I may sense that I am upside- down in the vertically ordered field; and I may try to “right” myself, bring myself into an upright, proper and effective orientation in this field. But I can have no corresponding sense of an ordered horizontal field in respect to which my body direction is out of order.

Objects thus appear to be encounterable and determinable only in virtue of our appearing to be thrown together with them, stuck with them for better or worse, in the vertical field of a common world. Active determination of an object in the horizontal field of our experience is our way of accommodating ourselves to it as in the same vertical world-field with it. The particular determination or significance that is effective is the one that meets the requirements of our living with the object in a common vertically ordered world. It is our contribution to actually bestow this significance on the object. But it is the world’s contribution to set the heaven-earth ordered stage on which, and conformably to which, this bestowal is possible.

There is then a phenomenological priority of the world-field—in which we must orient our off-centered selves—over the horizontal field of our self-centered experience in the world. This priority is reflected by the phenomenological priority of balance over poise; that is, the priority of our capacity for proper vertical orientation, in the world, over our capacity for effective orientation toward objects in our horizontal field of experience in the world. Balance in the vertical dimension may exist without poise in respect to circumstantial objects; but poise in respect to circumstantial ob- jects is impossible without balance. Poise is our capacity to cope effectively with circumstantial objects. We first have this capacity in virtue of our ability to stand erect, to balance ourselves in the vertical world-field. The equi-poise of balancing ourselves makes us capable of the directed-poise for responding effectively to our circumstances. Directed poise flows from equi-poise as from a gyroscopic center of our activity. As soon as we lose the central equi- poise of balance, our directed poise issuing from it flies off into an uncontrollable clumsiness. But our central equi-poise need not be lost by withdrawal back into it of all circumstantially directed poise. Our capacity to stand up21 normally gives us the capacity to act; but not vice versa. An effective poise or stance is an effective balanced poise. But good balance is not a well-balanced poise (in respect to something in our circumstances). (Samuel Todes)

O Oriens

The first meaning of “orient” is tied to the verb oriri, that is, “to be born, rise.” The sun is the oriens in the proper sense, because it is the star that rises. The rising of the sun orients the entire world, orients the day with its light. The very nature of the universe symbolically teaches man to orient himself, to begin and live the day knowing the direction of his path. The rising of the sun orients the time and space of the day until sunset. And they day that runs from the rising of the sun to its setting is a symbol of human life, stretched from birth to death. It is between these two poles that life must have its sense, its direction, and therefore it needs to be oriented.

… Before meeting the Lord, the Light of the world, our heart, life, ideas, relationships, all are confused. Let us just think of the confusion of thoughts and feelings in which the disciples of Emmaus found themselves…  All, before meeting Christ, are disoriented, do not know where to go, even and especially when they think they are on the right road, like the Pharisees, like Saul of Tarsus. It is important to recognize that this confusion is present most of all in ourselves, in our communities. But one should not think that this feeling of disorientation is necessarily negative. …Even when everything is going well, it can be positive for a person or a community to pass through moments in which one must reorient oneself, because this means that one is on the path, that one is advancing. One who is always seated or lying down will never feel disoriented, but he does not move, does not walk. In all situations, when we need to escape from confusion, to rediscover the direction of our life’s path, it is important that this take place not through our turning to ourselves, or to worldly guides, but, as we sing every day in the Benedictus, to the “sun that rises to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death,” the one who alone knows how and is able to “direct our steps in the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79). From the first centuries, the orientation of churches eastward taught the faithful to live their prayer as an act of returning to the right direction of life. Christ is to return from the east. From the east Christ has already come, rising like the sun each day, after each night, also after the spiritual nights in which we lose the direction of our life. (Fr. Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori Abbot General O. Cist.)

Why do apples fall?

All of us have had the experience of falling, and we fall just like apples.  We don’t have to speculate about how apples fall as though examining a specimen under a microscope, because we can see the event “falling” from the inside.  Before we study science or philosophize about nature, even as children we grasp the falling of other bodies by sympathy, by identifying imaginatively with the falling object sometimes even to the point of feeling vertigo when we see an object fall from a great height or flinching when we see bodies about to collide.

From this insider’s perspective, we know that there is a big difference between falling and being pushed. When I am pushed, pulled, or thrown, the experience is of having something done to me. But when I roll off a ledge and fall, the sensation is of my own body falling. The falling comes somehow from within; it is my body’s own thing.

But we must attend carefully here: each of us is a house divided.  While the body rushes downward, some inner animal claws and scratches to prevent the fall.  Think of the high dive:  I walk to the edge, look down, and my reason issues an order to my limbs:  “Jump!”  And yet I do not jump, because animal-me cringes away from the dizzying height to cling to the diving board.  This same animal-me resists mightily when I roll off a ledge:  rational-me may judge that everything will be fine; mineral-me falls from within; but animal-me cries out in betrayal.  The desires of the mineral are against the animal, and the desires of the animal are against the mineral.

So when I say that the body falls of itself, this is not to say that everything within me owns the fall.  But beneath my animal outrage at the victory of my lowest nature, I can still see that there is a vital difference between falling and being pushed or pulled.  It’s all the same to animal-me:  push, pull, or fall, animal-me resists with tooth and claw.  But the experience is entirely different for that side of me that I share with the rocks.  At that level, the falling is mine:  I own it. (Jeremy Holmes)

Cf. the latest episode of The Josias Podcast.

“It seems that we were better in our childhood”

Born into this world, an infant inherits two essential needs. The first is for meat, drink and sleep. These are the requirements of the flesh, without which the body cannot be the house of the soul and will not grow in height and strength. The other is a craving for knowledge. A baby will grasp at brightly coloured objects, it will put them in its mouth, taste them and press them against its cheek. It will start at the sound of a pipe. Later, when a child hears the barking of a dog, the noises of animals, the laughter or weeping of people, it gets excited and asks about all that it sees and hears: «What’s that? What’s that for? Why is he doing that?» This is but the natural desire of the soul, the wish to see everything, hear everything and learn everything. Without trying to fathom the mysteries of the universe, visible and invisible, without seeking an explanation for everything, one can never be what one should be — a human being. Otherwise, the spiritual life of a person will not differ from the existence of any other living creature. From the very beginning God separated man from beast by breathing the soul into him. Why then, on growing up and gaining in wisdom, do we not seek to gratify our curiosity, which in childhood made us forget about food and sleep? Why do we not tread in the path of those who seek knowledge? It behoves us to strive to broaden our interests and Increase the wisdom that nourishes our souls. We should come to realise that spiritual virtues are far superior to bodily endowments, and so learn to subordinate our carnal desires to the dictates of our soul. But no, we have been loath to do that! Raving and croaking, we have not moved farther than the dunghill next to our village. Only in our childhood are we ruled by the soul. When we grew up and gained in strength, we rejected its dictates, we subjugated our soul to the body, and contemplated the things around us with our eyes, but not our minds; we do not trust the impulses of the soul. […] There is not a flicker of fire in our bosom nor any faith in our soul. In what way, then, do we differ from animals if we perceive things only with our eyes? It seems that we were better in our childhood. We were human then, for we sought to learn as much as possible. But today we are worse than the beasts. An animal knows nothing and has no aim in life. We know nothing, but will argue until we are hoarse; defending our obtusity, we try to pass off our ignorance as knowledge. (Abai Kunanbaev, Book of Words, Word 7)

New Volume on Dignitatis Humanae and Tradition

The Dialogos Institute has published the proceedings of a colloquium held in Norcia on Dignitatis Humanae and tradition. The volume is particularly helpful, because all of the interventions agree that the traditional condemnations of religious liberty as found, say, in Quanta cura, are irreformable, but they give different explanations of the apparent conflict between Dignitatis and previous teaching. This gives the collection more focus and precision than is usual in such discussions. Alan Fimister’s provocative final essay attempts a synthesis of the main positions by a remarkable application of Augustinian ecclesiology. Tolle lege!

Consent and Morose Delectation

Moral theology is a beautiful thing to reflect on when one is reflecting on our happiness and the virtues by which we are ordered to it. But, alas, it is also necessary for moral theology to reflect on the ugliness of sin. This should not take an inordinately important place in moral reflections, but a certain amount is necessary, and actually helpful. I have been getting a number of Curious Cat questions recently on the sin known in moral theology under the fittingly ugly name of ‘morose delectation’. The most recent question dealt more generally with the problem of consent in internal sins:

What is a directly elicited act of the will (a term you’ve used in answering several other questions)? Perhaps relatedly, can you provide any principles for discerning whether one has fully consented to an act which is objectively grave matter? I know that anxiety, sleepiness, and distraction can sometimes vitiate consent but I don’t know how to tell whether one of these or some other factor is present to a sufficient extent in specific cases (in terms of deciding whether I can receive/need to go to Confession).

My response was too long for the Curious Cat format, so I paste it here. The subject is distasteful, but since it is a problem that is often brought up in confession, I hope that the response will none the less be helpful. Continue reading

Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself: A Sermon for Children

The Parish Church in Oeynhausen

The following is a reconstruction of my sermon today in Oeynhausen, where I celebrated a so-called “Children’s Mass” (the parish priest being sick).


Dear children, in the Gospel that we just heard Our Lord Jesus tells us the two most important things for us to do: to love God, and to love each-other. And he tells us how we ought to love each-other. Perhaps one of you noticed, He says: “love thy neighbor as _____” As what? Did any of you catch it?

[Children make thinking faces. One little boy pips up: As yourself!]

Yes, exactly! As yourself. You should love other people the way you love yourself. But what does that mean? I remember when I was little boy— a little younger than you, I think— I was fighting with my sister, and I pulled her hair and made her cry, and my mother scolded me and said: “You should love your sister as yourself.” I wondered what that meant, and my mother explained that it meant I should treat my sister the way I would want her to treat me. “Ah,” said I, “then I will play football with her, because I would want her to play football with me.” But my sister did not want to play football.

What does it really mean to love other people the way you love yourself? There are two kinds of love. One kind of love is the love that I have for chocolate. I love chocolate. But this does not mean that I want to make chocolate happy, to give it joy, to give it good things. No, it means I want the chocolate to give me joy; I want to eat the chocolate and taste its sweetness. To love other people the way I love chocolate would not be enough. If I love other people by wanting them to give me good things, give me joy, make me happy, then I do not love them in the right way. But there is a second kind of love. It is the kind of love that I have for myself. I love myself, and this means that I want myself to have joy and happiness and good things. We all love ourselves in this way. All of us want to ourselves to happy and have joy and good things. Or, does one of you want yourself to be sad, and have nothing good? [a shaking of heads]. So this is what it means to love yourself. And so, to love your neighbor as yourself, means to love the other people that you know (your brothers and sisters, your parents, the other children in your school) in this way: to want to make them happy and give them joy and every good thing. Not to make them frown cry, but to make them smile and laugh.

This is the way that God loves you: He wants to give you joy and happiness, and He gives you every good thing that you have. Let us pray to God today, and ask Him to help us to love Him with our whole hearts, and to love each-other the way we love ourselves.