Don’t Even Try (Again)

On the General calendar tomorrow’s Mass has the Epistle to Philemon and the Gospel of the man who tries to build a tower without calculating the costs (on the Cistercian calendar we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lady as a Solemnity). So I thought I would revise some thoughts that I posted on this Sunday three years ago.

tower_of_Babel.jpg

S. Paul’s tone in the epistle is remarkably peaceful and  joyful. An old man alone in prison, it seems that Onesimus has been sent to him as a consolation. He says that Onesimus has become a son to him, and is as dear to him as his own heart, “whom I would have retained with me.” But he sends him away quite joyfully. In his place I would have found plenty of excuses to keep him with me. After all, I am in prison, I need Onesimus far more than Philemon. Moreover, it is hardly fitting that Philemon, a Christian, should keep another Christian as a slave; he ought not to return. I think it is often the case that while fooling myself into thinking that I am giving everything to God, I am in fact finding excuses to retain some little consolation for myself. (“Lord, I give everything to you, I shall even forgive so-and-so, but not till tomorrow, today I need to savor my anger… This little consolation I must have..”)

Perhaps we do not have the same tranquil joy in the faith that Paul has, because we are always trying to retain something for ourselves. I think this is the key to the Gospel: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” We must “hate” everything in which we are tempted to seek our consolation apart from the Lord. The two parables that our Lord gives in explanation have puzzled me for a long time. In the usual interpretation the tower refers Christian perfection. Thus Cornelius a Lapide concludes that it is better not to become Christian at all if one is not willing to give up everything. Although I was taken in by this initially, I now think that this cannot possibly be right. For if it was no one could become a Christian. Who looking at his resources can really says that he has enough to build that tower? And we don’t have a choice; we are commanded to become Christian. (As Notburga points out.)

S. Thomas gives a somewhat more subtle interpretation than a Lapide in the very last article of the IIa IIae. It is the magnificent article in which he argues that one ought not to deliberate long before entering the religious life. Objection 3 brings up the tower parable, taking the tower to refer to religious life. S. Thomas does not disagree that the tower refers to the religious life, but he gives a different interpretation of what calculating means:

Again it need not be a matter of deliberation whether one ought to renounce all that one has, or whether by so doing one may be able to attain to perfection; whereas it is a matter of deliberation whether that which one is doing amounts to the renunciation of all that he has, since unless he does renounce (which is to have the wherewithal) he cannot, as the text goes on to state, be Christ’s disciple, and this is to build the tower.

But I am still not convinced. It seems like the whole point of the parable is “don’t even try,” don’t build the tower. And the next parable seems to reinforce this, “don’t fight the war.” Therefore I propose a different interpretation of the tower. The tower is the attempt to retain something as our own. Towers were, in fact, often used as look-out points to watch over one’s possessions. It seems to me that our Lord is saying, “don’t even try; you don’t have the resources to keep something for yourself.” Whenever we try to hold on to something as our own, and to find our consolation in that rather than in God, then God becomes suddenly our enemy, threatening our stuff; we seem like a king with ten thousand facing twenty thousand. So our Lord says “don’t even try; give up all your possessions.” “Every one of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be my disciple.”

So I think S. Paul’s tranquility is the result of having really given up everything, and experienced that everything which we give up we receive again transformed. And this is what he tries to teach Philemon:

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season from thee, that thou mightest receive him again for ever: Not now as a slave, but instead of a slave, a most dear brother

Everything which we give up we receive again a hundredfold; not as a slave (ordered to us) but as a brother (ordered together with us to God).

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An Education in Desire

Titian Introduction   - 38

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (detail)

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

Jokes as Common Goods

Surely Advent of all seasons is the time when one ought especially to remember St Benedict’s warning against “speech provoking to laughter,” (Regula Benedicti, VI) and yet seldom have I heard such uproarious laughter in the monastery as at chapter the other day. We were discussing the fact that during the recitation of the rosary some people omit the “Amen” after the Our Fathers. Now, in German the last petition of the Our Father runs “erlöse uns von dem Bösen. Amen”. (deliver us from evil. Amen.) One of my confreres (the venerable old man pictured above) recounted that as a child he always heard it (an therefore prayed it) as,  “erlöse uns von den bösen Damen”. (Deliver us from the evil ladies).

Why is it that on hearing really good jokes one immediately wants to tell them to others? Continue reading

The Only Thing Worth Writing About

Pale King Cover

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

Don’t Even Try

In yesterday’s reading from Philemon I was struck by S. Paul’s peaceful and  joyful tone. An old man alone in prison, it seems that Onesimus has been sent to him as a consolation. He says that Onesimus has become a son to him, and is as dear to him as his own heart, “whom I would have retained with me.” But he sends him away quite joyfully. In his place I would have found plenty of excuses to keep him with me. After all, I am in prison, I need Onesimus far more than Philemon. Moreover, it is hardly fitting that Philemon, a Christian, should keep another Christian as a slave; he ought not to return. I think it is often the case that while fooling myself into thinking that I am giving everything to God, I am in fact finding excuses to retain some little consolation for myself. (“Lord, I give everything to you, I shall even forgive so-and-so, but not till tomorrow, today I need to savor my anger… This little consolation I must have..”)

Perhaps we do not have the same tranquil joy in the faith that Paul has, because we are always trying to retain something for ourselves. I think this is the key to yesterdays Gospel: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” We must “hate” everything in which we are tempted to seek our consolation apart from the Lord. The two parables that our Lord gives in explanation have puzzled me for a long time. Preaching on them yesterday, I departed from the consensus of the Fathers in my interpretation. The Fathers all interpret the tower as Christian perfection. Thus Cornelius a Lapide, after summarizing the Fathers concludes that it is better not to become Christian at all if one is not willing to give up everything. Although I was taken in by this initially, I now think that this cannot possibly be right. For if it was no-one could become a Christian. Who looking at his resources can really says that he has enough to build that tower? And we don’t have a choice; we are commanded to become Christian. (As Notburga points out.)

S. Thomas gives a somewhat more subtle interpretation than a Lapide in the very last article of the IIa IIae. It is the magnificent article in which he argues that one ought not to deliberate long before entering the religious life. Objection 3 brings up the tower parable, taking the tower to refer to religious life. S. Thomas does not disagree that the tower refers to the religious life, but he gives a different interpretation of what calculating means:

Again it need not be a matter of deliberation whether one ought to renounce all that one has, or whether by so doing one may be able to attain to perfection; whereas it is a matter of deliberation whether that which one is doing amounts to the renunciation of all that he has, since unless he does renounce (which is to have the wherewithal) he cannot, as the text goes on to state, be Christ’s disciple, and this is to build the tower.

But I am still not convinced. It seems like the whole point of the parable is “don’t even try,” don’t build the tower. And the next parable seems to reinforce this, “don’t fight the war.” Therefore I propose a different interpretation of the tower. The tower is the attempt to retain something as our own. Towers were, in fact, often used as look-out points to watch over one’s possessions. It seems to me that our Lord is saying, “don’t even try; you don’t have the resources to keep something for yourself.” Whenever we try to hold on to something as our own, and to find our consolation in that rather than in God, then God becomes suddenly our enemy, threatening our stuff; we seem like a king with ten thousand facing twenty thousand. So our Lord says “don’t even try; give up all your possessions.” “Every one of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be my disciple.” (I would be interested to see what Berenike thinks of this attempt at an answer to her question).

So I think S. Paul’s tranquility is the result of having really given up everything, and experienced that everything which we give up we receive again transformed. And this is what he tries to teach Philemon:

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season from thee, that thou mightest receive him again for ever: Not now as a slave, but instead of a slave, a most dear brother

Everything which we give up we recieve again a hundred fold; not as a slave (ordered to us) but as a brother (ordered together with us to God).

 

The Window in the Wall

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).