28 May 2016

'Seeing With Tears'--Shaping Students' Affections

This is from an article I wrote for our school newsletter, the Epiphaneia, Spring 2016. I have left the formatting as it appears in the newsletter:

In his award-winning book, Dante the Maker, William Anderson relates Dante’s poetic techniques and achievement to fairly modern psychological theories. In one passage, he writes:

If the dominant hemisphere [of the brain] is concerned with what Michael Polanyi calls “explicit knowledge,” then the other hemisphere enfolds what he has pointed out as our much greater reserve of information, our “tacit knowledge.”…The voices, music, and mental visions of the Purgatorio [the second cantica of the Divine Comedy] are examples of the working of this non-dominant hemisphere, revealing how its function, rightly understood and used, seems to lead inward to the repose of contemplation.

It is a complex idea, and the potential ramifications are no doubt endless. But to my mind there is a direct connection between the “voices, music, and mental visions” of the Purgatorio—along with all of its other essentially educational techniques, running the gamut from didactic speech to the reliefs carved by the hand of God into the side of the mountain—and our desire to practice “shaping students’ affections for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” For if students’ affections are to be shaped, and it must be admitted this is a daring proposition, then it will surely be less by explicit than by tacit knowledge. Indeed, I can’t help but think such a shaping will take place through something very like the Liturgy.

This is the basic intuition behind Reformed philosopher James K.A. Smith’s notion of liturgies “as pedagogies of (ultimate desire).” Of course, neither is it entirely unknown to the Protestant tradition before him. The great English reformer, Richard Hooker, famously observed:

Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto….Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression….

All of this is, of course, a commonplace among the Fathers. St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the “harmonious life” that “singing [the Psalms] seems to me to offer through symbols,” and St. John Damascene writes movingly of the effect upon him of liturgical art: “I have often seen images of this tender scene [the Sacrifice of Isaac] in pictures and I have not been able to pass from seeing it without tears, so skillfully does the artist bring this story to my sight.”

These men are obviously speaking primarily of the great tradition of the Church’s worship and liturgical arts. But the question remains, what does this shaping of the affections look like in the classroom?

I suggest it begins in two places: the material (or curriculum) and the teacher. The material, naturally, must be the best. We read the greatest, the most beautiful, the most true and morally good, but also in some cases simply the most important works of all time. They work in myriad ways upon students’ affections—through their language, their images, their stories, and often just in the spirit (or Spirit!) behind them, for “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” If this does not teach love of that which deserves it, I fear little else can.

In regard to the teacher, that giant of education, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has written: ‘The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.” Any teacher must be aware of his or her frequent failure to live up to this responsibility, but I daresay we can accomplish much here, in direct proportion, I believe, to our own love of the material itself. If the students sense how much we ourselves stand in adoration before the truths and beauties that we teach, then I think they must at least sense too the call of these upon their own hearts.

25 May 2016

'The eyes of the Lord' - Scripture, Rule, Florilegium

I had an interesting confluence of readings Saturday morning (21/8 May). My Old Testament reading (from the Authorised Version) was II Chronicles 13-16. As I read it early in the morning by candlelight, I was struck by the words of Hanani the seer to Asa king of Judah: ‘For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him’ (II Chron. 16:9).

But then, the same day’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, from Chapter 4, Quae sunt instrumenta bonroum operum, included the oft-repeated Benedictine maxim, In omni loco Deum se respicere, pro certo scire (Prov. V. 21), ‘To know for certain that God sees one everywhere’ [1]. As Dom Paul Delatte says of this passage, ‘This advice must be very important since St Benedict is constantly repeating it’ [2] He goes on to write:

For us this is no fiction of the imagination, but a living reality; nor have we a mere witness, but a Being who is at once spectator and actor, no man but God. And we Christians say: Nemo peccat videns Deum, ‘No one seeing God sins.’ The impeccability of the elect is due to their being for ever rooted in good by the uninterrupted contemplation of beauty. Now we by faith may share in this privilege of vision, and the ‘exercise of the presence of God’ may become something assiduous and constant, like our consciousness of ourselves. [3]

So while the words of Hanani and those of St Benedict serve different purposes—the one emphasizing God’s solicitude on our behalf, the other His watchfulness over our actions—the starting point of God as Witness of human acts is the same.

Finally, however, I turned to that day’s reading in a florilegium I’m reading through for the year: Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers. Each day pairs a Scriptural verse with a short passage from one of the Fathers, and the verse for that day was precisely II Chronicles 16:9! While the accompanying patristic passage, from Tertullian (not actually a ‘Father’ in the Orthodox sense, I know), does not explicitly refer to or comment on it, his words could be seen as an application of the second part of the verse to a specific kind of situation—that of persecution. Thus, he writes, ‘If suffering is completely in God’s hands, don’t we just leave it up to His will?...Why, when witnessing, don’t you be consistent, trust God, and say, “I will do my part. I won’t run away. God, if He chooses, will be my Protector”?’ [4] Placing Tertullian’s words in proximity to those of Hanani makes the latter relevant to Christians in the same way that King David’s Psalms often are. Furthermore, both Hanani and Tertullian find a complimentary development of the idea of God’s watchfulness in St Benedict and his commentator, Dom Paul Delatte.

[1] The Rule of Saint Benedict in English and Latin, tr. & ed. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, N.D.), p. 29.

[2] Dom Paul Delatte, OSB, A Commentary on the Holy Rule of St Benedict, tr. & ed. Dom Justin McCann, OSB (Latrobe, PA: The Archabbey Press, 1959),p. 75. Dom Paul points out, ‘He gives it in the Prologue, in the first and last degrees of humility, in the chapter “Of the discipline of saying the Divine Office”’ (ibid., p. 75).

[3] Ibid., p. 75.

[4] Christopher D. Hudson, J. Alan Sharrer, & Lindsay Vanker, comp. & ed., Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), p. 129.

24 December 2015

Acedia Revisited

Five and a half years ago I wrote a post on the 'deadly sin' of acedia, traditionally identified with the 'noonday demon' of Psalm 90:6 (LXX) and later translated as 'sloth' but expressing something much more complex than what we typically mean by that English term. In that post I primarily quoted some descriptive passages on the symptoms of acedia from Evagrius of Pontus and his disciple, St John Cassian. In the end, despite Helen Waddell's identification of the vice with what Thomas Gray refers to as a 'white melancholy', as well as with 'the sullen lethargy that is the sterile curse of the scholar and the artist', [1] I ventured the opinion that there was something particularly spiritual or religious about acedia that distinguished it from the scholar's lethargy on the one hand or from the largely medical problem of depression on the other. Although I did not say so at the time, I was tempted to regard acedia as something typical of desert monastics and probably not too relevant to modern men and women living in the world.

I have since had a major change of opinion. I think my former beliefs stemmed in part at least from a failure to realize the true nature of the ailment of which the Fathers wrote so eloquently about the symptoms, and thus a failure to recognize how those symptoms might translate in a more than superficial way to the life of a non-monastic who lives in a city rather than a desert. The book that helped me with this more than any other was Hieromonk Gabriel (Bunge)'s slim volume, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia. Fr Gabriel ventures 'despondency' as a better translation of the Greek term than 'sloth', though he insists as well that 'repulsion, boredom, inertia, indolence, lassitude, dislike, [and] dejection' be retained as other possible shades of meaning. [2]

But more importantly, Fr Gabriel offers an Evagrian pathology of the vice which I did not recall having encountered previously. Two passages in particular struck me, one from Evagrius's commentary on the Psalms, and the other from his twenty-seventh epistle, neither of which to my knowledge has yet appeared in English translation. I shall quote both of them:

Acedia is a simultaneous, long-lasting movement of anger and desire, whereby the former is angry with what is at hand, while the latter yearns for what is not present. [3]

Alone among the thoughts this one is an 'interwoven' one, since it results from hatred and desire. A despondent person hates precisely what is available, and desires what is not available. [4]

Although the English terms 'anger' and 'desire' may at first appear deceptively simple, in Greek they are in fact technical terms with a long and venerable philosophical history. [5] Evagrius is describing acedia in terms of the traditional Platonic tripartite soul, made up of the logos, or intelligent aspect, the thymos, or irascible, incensive aspect, and the epithymia, the appetitive or desiring aspect--which C.S. Lewis simply calls the head, the chest, and the belly. [6] The chest begins to resent 'what is at hand', which is always of course that which has been given us for our salvation, and to wish for 'what is not present' or available. The resentment of the former produces the torpor or boredom, while the desire for the latter produces the restlessness of the traditional descriptions. This was the key, I realized, to explaining what seemed like contradictory symptoms--the lethargy and inertia on the one hand, and the restlessness and inability to stay put on the other.

It also helped me to see at last the relevance of acedia to life outside of 4th-century desert monasticism. It is perhaps more apparent to a teacher with a three-month summer vacation than to most. One sits at home, knowing that there is reading and lesson preparation that needs to be done to prepare for school, but one simply cannot do it. One scrolls through Facebook, occasionally refreshing it, but this is done in the most listless spirit and fails to give any real enjoyment. The only prospects that appeal at all are leaving the house, hanging out with friends, or watching movies or television. If none of these are pursued the likeliest result is falling asleep.

But then it becomes more apparent how pervasive this two-fold ailment is in our lives. We avoid the things we need to do, and seek out distractions among things we don't need. Kathleen Norris helped here. The noonday demon lurks in all of the quotidian tasks left undone, and all of the pointless ones pursued or dreamt of. Norris writes:

One of the first symptoms of both acedia and depression is the inability to address the body's basic daily needs. It is also a refusal of repetition. Showering, shampooing, brushing the teeth, taking a multi-vitamin, going for a daily walk, as unremarkable as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance the ability to take pleasure in oneself, and in the world. But the notion of pleasure is alien to acedia, and one becomes weary thinking about doing anything at all. It is too much to ask, one decides, sinking back on the sofa. This indolence exacts a high price. [7]

I shall stop there for now. I plan to post more on this subject, particularly on the question of the relationship of acedia to depression, on its distortion of the true functions of the tripartite soul, and on its remedies, both patristic and more modern. In the meantime I suggest having a look at the descriptions in this post.

[1] Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (NY: Vintage, 1998), p. 163.

[2] Hieromonk Gabriel (Bunge), Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, tr. Anthony P. Gylthiel (NY: SVS, 2012), p. 46.

[3] Ibid., p. 54.

[4] Ibid., p. 57.

[5] They appear memorably in Republic 436a-b when Socrates asks, 'Do we do these things with the same part of ourselves, or do we do them with three different parts? Do we learn with one part, get angry with another, and with some third part desire the pleasures of food, drink, sex, and the others that are closely akin to them' (Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper with D.S. Hutchinson [Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997], p. 1067)? Furthermore, I think they can safely be identified with the charioteer and the two horses of the soul in Phaedrus 246a (ibid., p. 524).

It seems like a strange oversight that in her book Deadly Vices Gabrielle Taylor completely misses this connection of acedia by definition to the tripartite soul. I would argue that it leads her to overemphasise the effect of acedia on the chest at the expense of the belly. It is identified too closely with mere sloth or indolence, and not at the same time with the longing for something else. Taylor also seems to see the traditional teaching on acedia too largely in terms of behaviours, right or wrong actions, rather than of disordered thoughts or states of the soul, an identification she then feels compelled to try to correct or deepen. (Gabrielle Taylor, Deadly Vices [Oxford: Clarendon, 2008], pp. 16-20)

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (NY: HarperOne, 2001), p. 24.

[7] Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life (NY: Riverhead, 2008), p. 14.

20 December 2015

St Augustine on Unceasing Prayer

This is not really a proper post, but I'd like to leave a quotation here.

'Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God's sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless.'

Quidquid aliud agas, si desideras illud sabbatum, non intermittis orare.

—St Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, Ps. 37, n. 14:

01 August 2015

Rachel & Leah in Purgatory

From the beginning to the end of last school year, I met with a group once a week to discuss Dante's Purgatorio canto by canto. We had some very learned and insightful readers participating in that group, and there was a lot of really challenging discussion. At one point, we paused in some perplexity over a passage in Canto 27. While resting and admiring the stars, Dante tells us:

Thus ruminating, as I gazed at these,
sleep overtook me, sleep which many a time
brings tidings of a thing before it sees
The light; for in that hour when Venus shines
upon the mountainside her orient gleam,
ever enkindled by the fire of love,
A young and lovely lady in a dream
appeared to me upon the meadowland,
gathering flowers, and she said in song,
'Let anyone who may demand my name
know that I am Leah, and I go to make
myself a garland by my lovely hands.
Here I adorn myself for the delight
I will enjoy when looking in my glass.
My sister Rachel never leaves that sight
But gazes in her glass the whole day through.
She for her lovely eyes, I for my hands--
her yearning is to see, and mine to do.' (ll. 91-108) [1]

The allusion here is to Genesis 29:17 (LXX): 'And the eyes of Lea were weak. But Rachel was beautiful in appearance, and exceedingly fair in countenance.' But what was the significance of this verse to Dante?

Anthony Esolen's endnote on this passage says: 'Medieval exegetes saw in Rachel and Leah an allegory of the contemplative and the active life, inferring from the weakness of Leah's eyes a keenness of vision in Rachel, and inferring from Leah's fecundity a propensity for the practical virtues.' [2] Unfortunately, Esolen doesn't cite any examples of these exegetes. But while glancing through Richard Gamble's anthology of readings in education, The Great Tradition, I came across just such a reading in an excerpt from St Gregory the Great's homilies on Ezekiel. [3] I cite the original source, translated by Theodosia Gray and published by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies:

10. These two ways of life were, as was also said before us, symbolized by Blessed Jacob's two wives, viz. Leah and Rachel. For Leah is interpreted as meaning laborious and Rachel truly as a sheep, or a manifest beginning. Then the active life is laborious because it is fatiguing in work, but the simple contemplative strives also to see its beginning, viz. Him Who said: 'I am the beginning, for which reason I speak to you' (Jh. 8:25). Then Blessed Jacob had indeed desired Rachel but in the night accepted Leah because all who are turned to the Lord have desired the contemplative life and seek the quiet of the Eternal Kingdom, but must first in the night of this present life perform the works which they can, sweat with effort, i.e. accept Leah in order that they afterward rest in the arms of Rachel, in order to see the beginning. Then Rachel was a seer, and sterile, Leah truly purblind, but fertile, Rachel beautiful and barren, because the contemplative life is splendid in the spirit but, whereas it seeks to rest in silence, it does not produce sons from preaching. It sees and does not bring forth, because in zeal for its quiet it is less kindled in the collection of others, and does not suffice to reveal to others by preaching how much it inwardly perceives. Leah truly is purblind and fertile because the active life, while it is engaged in labor, sees less but when, now by word now by example, it kindles its neighbors to follow suit, it produces many sons in the good work. And if it does not avail to stretch its mind in contemplation yet it is able to beget followers from that which it does outwardly. [4]

All of this, of course, very easily explains the contrasts in lines 107-8--'She for her lovely eyes, I for my hands-- / her yearning is to see, and mine to do'--where eyes/seeing correspond to the contemplative gaze, and hands/doing to the works of the active life.

But what of the reference to a mirror? For one thing, if the gaze is associated with contemplation and therefore Rachel, why does Leah speak to Dante of eventually 'looking in my glass' (l. 104)? For that matter, why is even Leah gazing at 'her glass the whole day through' (l. 106)? At least one of our Dante Club members thought it suggestive of vanity. Esolen at least had nothing to say about it.

My guess was stimulated by the memory of a talk I once heard Fr Justin Sinaites give, and about which I once blogged here. Fr Justin made reference to something he'd read in Fr Andrew Louth's work about the Fathers' understanding of mirrors, and I made the effort to try to track down the passage to which he was likely alluding. I found it in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys:

[In Contra Gentes, St Athanasius the Great] speaks of the soul 'being a mirror in which it can see the image of the Father' (CG 8). And later in the same work he says: 'So when the soul has put off every stain of sin with which it is tinged, and keeps pure only what is in the image, then when this shines forth it can truly contemplate as in a mirror the Word, the image of the Father, and in him meditate on the Father, of whom the Savior is the image' (CG 34). This idea of the soul as a mirror which, when pure can reflect the image of God seems to be original to Athanasius. (There are faint hints of it in Theophilus and Plotinus, but nothing as clear and definitive as we find in Athanasius.)

...[W]hen the Fathers spoke of the soul reflecting the image of God like a mirror they were using an analogy to explain how the soul is the image of God. SO self-knowledge involves knowledge of God, because God has made the soul to reflect His image. The idea of the soul as a mirror reflecting God is thus for the Fathers...a metaphor that sees the soul as a real, though dependent, image of God and also suggests that this image of God in the soul is perceived in self-knowledge.

So Athanasius' metaphor of the soul as a mirror in which God is reflected suggests that there is a real similarity between the soul and God, and preserves the notion that self-knowledge is itself a way of knowing God. But it does this without suggesting that there is a natural kinship between the soul and God. There is no ontological continuity between the image in the mirror and that of which it is the image; so, in the case of the soul reflecting the image of God, this similarity discloses a much deeper dissimilarity at the level of substance. On this understanding, theopoiesis, divinization, will not mean the rediscovery of any kinship between the soul and God, but rather that, as it is purified, the soul more accurately reflects the image of God, or becomes more truly that image. [5]

I don't know whether Dante would have been familiar with some translation of St Athanasius's text, or whether he might have taken this image from some later Father, but it strikes me that this is precisely what is going on in Purgatorio 27. Recall again lines 103-6:
Here I adorn myself for the delight
I will enjoy when looking in my glass.
My sister Rachel never leaves that sight
But gazes in her glass the whole day through.
I believe that Leah is adorning herself by purifying her soul or heart through the practice of the virtues so that she can behold God, whereas Rachel has already begun the contemplation of His image by means of her 'lovely eyes'.
[1] Dante Alighieri, Purgatory, tr. Anthony Esolen (NY: Modern Library, 2004), p. 295.
[2] Ibid., p. 481.
[3] The passage is found in Richard E. Gamble, ed., The Great Tradition: Classic Readings On What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008), p. 239.
[4] Theodosia Gray, tr., The Homilies of Saint Gregory the Great On the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, ed. Presbytera Juliana Cownie (Etna, CA: CTOS, 1990), pp. 175-6.
[5] Fr Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), pp. 79-80.