30 July 2012

Imitating the Bees—Logismoi & Comparisons

No, I have not forgotten my promise to write a report on the CiRCE Conference we went to in Louisville two weeks ago. In fact, I have already made a beginning, but have yet to complete it. In the meantime, besides all of the summertime activities that have conspired against me, our air conditioner went out during church on Saturday, and this with a week before us of temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and rising. [1] We spent a hot and sleepless night at home, and then after lunch on Sunday, I came home to get some things before we headed over to my parents’ house to spend the night. There was a funeral this morning, and we only just returned home this afternoon. All that is to say, that I certainly plan on finishing up that post sometime this week! 

In the meantime, I have a couple of things to share on a theme that is important to the raison d’être of this blog. In a 1999 critique of Met. Kallistos’s popular book, The Orthodox Way, a critique which by now should be familiar to most Orthodox on the more traditionalist side of things, Hieromonk Patapios of the Old Calendarist monastery of St Gregory Palamas in Etna, CA, writes: 

Furthermore, when Bishop Kallistos cites the Talmud to the effect that the glory of God is man, and then goes on to quote the famous statement of St Irenaeus of Lyons that ‘the glory of God is a living man’, can he be sure that, despite their external similarity, the same intention lies behind both of these remarks (one clearly Christocentric and the other obviously not), or that they really mean the same thing? If he cannot be sure, then what is the relevance of the quotation from the Talmud? [2] 

Now, the reason I took note of this statement when rereading Hieromonk Patapios’s article the other day is that much of what I do at Logismoi might well fall under the same critique. It’s true that I don’t typically compare the Fathers with non-Christian writings, but my recent posts drawing on Roman Catholic authors like James Taylor (here and here for instance) might be seen by some Orthodox as a species of the same thing. Indeed, I do not wholly deny the charge. It may well be that the statements I have taken from Roman Catholic or Protestant authors in order to compare them with comments by the Fathers or other Orthodox authors do not ‘mean the same thing’ as the latter. Actually, I am rather certain that the distinctive Orthodox doctrine of the uncreated energies of God could be found to pose a fundamental obstacle to attempts to reconcile many theological statements across the East-West divide. My aim in making such comparisons is not to insist that these authors are saying exactly the same thing or that ‘the same intention lies behind’ their remarks’, but, first of all, simply to point out connections that naturally occur to me (as I frequently say, ‘This reminded me of something else...’), and second, to pose the question of whether there mightn’t be something in common between them. I typically avoid making any real claim that there is, if only because I sometimes fear that it might just look that way because I want it to. 

By an interesting coincidence, I was reminded of this recently not only by Hieromonk Patapios’s shrewd rhetorical questions, but also by some statements of one of these Roman Catholic authors themselves. In The Death of Christian Culture, John Senior writes: 

The best of us are prone to sophistry when an obvious truth contradicts a strong desire. Recent ecumenical commissions from various churches have tried to create approaches to unity by reconstructing their articles of faith so as to make room for contradictory articles of faith held by others. [3] 

Having quoted a troubling example (which I hope to share on Logismoi soon), Senior concludes, ‘The only rational way for Protestants and Catholics [and Orthodox, of course] to get along together is to practice the difficult virtue of tolerance—not to falsify their claims by ambiguities.’ [4] 

I must admit that for various reasons I do in fact have ‘a strong desire’ to find points in whatever I read that can be reconciled with or that at least bear a modicum of similarity to Orthodox belief. But I do not want my irenicism in this respect to be mistaken for a facile kind of ecumenism. I believe, with Fr Georges Florovsky, that the Orthodox Church ‘is in very truth the Church, i.e. the true Church and the only true Church.’ 

I believe this for many reasons: by personal conviction and by the inner testimony of the Spirit which breathes in the sacraments of the Church and by all that I could learn from Scripture and from the universal tradition of the Church. I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases I can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the Una Sancta
I know well that my claim will be disavowed by many Christians. It will seem an arrogant and futile claim. I know well that many things I belive with full and uttermost conviction are disbelieved by others. Now, I do not see any reason whatsoever to doubt them or disbelieve them myself....This does not mean that everything in the past or present state of the Orthodox Church is to be equated with the truth of God. Many things are obviously changeable; indeed, many things need improvement. The true Church is not yet the perfect Church. 
The Church of Christ has to grow and be built up in history. Yet the whole and the full truth has been already given and entrusted to the Church. Revision and re-statement are always possible, and sometimes imperative. The whole past history of the Ecumenical Councils is evidence of this fact. The holy Fathers of the Church were engaged in this task. Yet on the whole, the ‘deposit’ was faithfully kept and the testimony of faith was gained in accuracy and precision. Above all, the sacramental structure of the Body has been kept integral and intact. Here again, I know that this conviction of mine may be rejected as an illusion. For me, it is a matter of evidence. If this is obstinacy, it is the obstinacy of evidence. I can only see what I actually do see. I cannot help it. But in no way am I going to ‘un-church’ anyone. The judgment has been given to the Son. No one is entitled to anticipate his judgment. Yet the Church has her own authority in history. It is first the authority to teach and to faithfully keep the word of truth. There is a certain rule of faith and order that is to be regarded as normal. What is beyond is just abnormal. But the abnormal should be cured, and not simply condemned.... [5] 

I have quoted Fr Georges at length because I want my position to be as clear as possible, and it is identical with his. I want all that I write here to be read in light of these convictions. I shall continue to make comparisons, to find the best that I can in non-Orthodox and even non-Christian culture. But I want this project to be as it was always intended to be—a carrying out of St Basil’s injunction to imitate the bee in carrying away pollen from various flowers, not an attempt to iron out differences across creeds and cultures.  

[1] Of course, some of my most consistent reading material of the last year—John Senior and his student James Taylor—has argued persuasively that climate control is inimical to the ‘poetic mode of knowledge’. Indeed, it is a position I had come to, though without the aid of that expression, on my own some time ago. The trouble, however, is twofold. First, our modern buildings are built to be climate-controlled, so if the AC breaks, there is no way to naturally cool it and it becomes unfit for human habitation. (My own house would seem to be exempt from this, having been built before AC. But it was long ago sealed up and insulated by the landlords. Even the windows are painted shut.) Second, I do in fact currently have a pregnant wife to consider. I make up for these things myself by leaving the AC off in the car when I’m driving without her and simply rolling down the windows—which has to be done by hand in our car! 

[2] Hieromonk Patapios, ‘Critical Comments on Bishop Kallistos’ The Orthodox Way’, Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVI, 3 & 4 (1999), p. 35. 

[3] John Senior, The Death of Christian Culture (Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008), p. 16. 

[4] Ibid., p. 17. 

[5] Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, ‘The True Church’, tr. Linda Morris, Ecumenism I: A Doctrinal Approach, Vol. 13 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, ed. Richard S. Haugh (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1989), pp. 134-5.

26 July 2012

'Before it's light / the birds waken'—Wendell Berry & The Northern Thebaid

Fresh from hearing Wendell Berry speak at the CiRCE conference in Louisville last week, I was reading one of his poems on the porch yesterday—‘The Handing Down’, which centers around an aging man, his memories of the past and his thoughts of the future. At one point, in section seven, Berry writes: 

He has dreamed of a town 
fit for the abiding of souls 
and bodies that might live forever. 

He has seen it as in a far-off 
white and gold evening 
of summer, the black flight 

of swifts turning above it 
in the air. There’s a clarity 
in which he has not become clear, 

his body dragging a shadow, 
half hidden in it. [1] 

These lines remind me of two accounts of visions from the Lives of the Northern Russian monastic Saints: The Northern Thebaid. Both of these Saints spent a considerable amount of time living a semi-eremitic life in the forests before attracting disciples and founding monasteries that later grew into enormous institutions—really, small cities in the wilderness around which secular cities later developed. Following the order of Berry’s images, I’ll begin with St Cyril of White Lake (Belozersky): 

...Once, when he was singing the Akathist before the Icon of the Theotokos and had reached the eighth kontakion: ‘Seeing the strange Nativity, let us become strangers to the world and transport our minds to heaven’—suddenly he heard a voice: ‘Cyril, go forth from here to White Lake (Belo-ozero); there I have prepared a place for you where you can be saved.’ Together with this voice there shone a great light from the northern side; the Saint opened the window of his cell and saw as if by a finger the place shown to him where now the monastery stands. His heart was filled with joy from the voice and the vision, and all night he remained in prayer; but this night was for him already as most bright day. [2] 

The old man’s vision of a town ‘fit for the abiding of souls / and bodies that might live forever’, which he sees ‘as in a far-off / white and gold evening / of summer’, recalls for me St Cyril’s vision of light indicating a future monastery. The connection works, whether it is the heavenly city itself that the man sees, since the monastery is a type of that city, or another earthly city that, like the monastery, as also only a type. But it was actually ‘the black flight / of swifts turning above it / in the air’ that first reminded me of The Northern Thebaid. In the Life of St Sergius of Radonezh, we read: 

It happened late one night that the Saint was keeping vigil, performing the usual rule and praying for the brotherhood, when he heard a voice calling, ‘Sergius.’ He was astonished, and, after praying, he opened the window of his cell and beheld a marvellous vision. An extraordinary radiance shone in the heavens; the night sky was illumined by its brilliance, exceeding the light of day. A second time the voice called, ‘Sergius! You pray for your children; God has heard your prayer. Behold what a great number of monks has come together in the Name of the Holy Trinity, in your fold, and under your guidance.’ 

The Saint looked and beheld a multitude of beautiful birds flying not only to the monastery, but all around the monastery; and again he heard the voice, saying, ‘As many birds as you see, by so many will your flock of disciples increase; and after your time they will not grow less if they will desire to follow in your footsteps.’...[3] 

In Berry’s poem, there is no clear or necessary connection between the vision of the town and the ‘swifts turning above it / in the air’. They may just be an incidental detail, a touch of nature added to an otherwise otherworldly experience. But for the Saint, the birds clearly signify something. Indeed, the voice he hears tells him outright that there is an analogy between the ‘multitude of beautiful birds’ and the ‘flock of disciples’ that will multiply and fill his monastery. It is an instance of Nature herself turned prophet. 

But is there any reason to believe that Berry’s birds in this stanza may be connected with the town? Are they, like St Sergius’s birds, a symbolic image of souls? Perhaps. Just a little bit earlier in the poem, in section five, Berry writes: 

Before it’s light 
the birds waken, and begin 
singing in the dark trees 

around the house, among the leaves 
over the dampened roofs 
of the still town 

and in the country thickets 
for miles. Their voices 
reach to the end of the dark. [4] 

Now, I think there can be no doubt that these are literal birds. But they may also be fortelling the birds of section seven, indicating, it may be, their function. For this passage, which is essentially about an early morning vigil, reminds me of another poem, but one which continues the connection we see in The Northern Thebaid. In his ‘After the Night Office—Gethsemani Abbey’, Thomas Merton writes: 

Praises and canticles anticipate 
Each day the singing bells that wake the sun, 
But now our psalmody is done. 
Our hasting souls outstrip the day: 
Now, before dawn, they have their noon. [5] 

So the Trappist monks of Kentucky, like the birds, are arising to sing before dawn. Of course, they are inside the abbey church, not outside in the trees. But in the final stanza the poet evokes briefly the image of the land around their monastery, via its buildings: 

But now the lances of the morning 
Fire all their gold against the steeple and the water-tower. [6] 

In Allen Tate’s words, ‘Vision, giving us clear visual objects, through physical sight, moving steadily upward towards its anagogical transfiguration, is the first matrix of the vast analogical structure.’ [7] So perhaps Berry’s birds singing before the dawn suggest something of what the inhabitants of this town ‘fit for the abiding of souls / and bodies that might live forever’ must be up to. For what better preparation can we find for eternal life than doxology? And what else does the pilgrim discover as it rises ‘towards its anagogical transfiguration’ than the throngs of souls and the cœlestial choir singing the praises of the Most High? 

[1] Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (NY: North Point-Farrar, 2001), p. 43. 

[2] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) & Hieromonk Herman (Podmoshensky), eds. & tr., The Northern Thebaid: Monastic Saints of the Russian North (Forestville, CA: Fr Seraphim Rose Foundation-St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), p. 55. 

[3] Ibid., p. 31. 

[4] Berry, p. 41. 

[5] Thomas Merton, Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, enlarged ed. (NY: New Directions, 1967), p. 48. 

[6] Ibid., p. 49. 

[7] Allen Tate, ‘The Symbolic Imagination’, The Southern Critics: An Anthology, ed. Glenn C. Arbery (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2010), p. 291.

22 July 2012

Habent sua fata libelli: Preliminary Post-CiRCE Post

In my last post, I promised a full report on the CiRCE Institute conference in Louisville last week. I fully intend to keep that promise, but as it’s going to take some work, and as I’m still recovering from the experience (including a physical injury!), I intend to fulfill a simpler task with this post and postpone the report for a couple of days.

The title of the post is a Latin phrase meaning—for those barbarians unlearned in the mother tongue of the West—‘Books have their fates’. It is taken from the 2nd-c. grammarian, Terentianus Maurus (see a brief account on this great but short-lived blog of Latin quotes). I use it to indicate the theme of this post—the fate of three books borne all the way to Louisville from Wichita, KS, by intrepid Eighth Day Books employee, Joshua Sturgill. After the gruelling trip from the gentle Midwest to the geographically vanguard state of the Confederacy, these three books were fated to return to the rolling plains, only this time a bit farther South, to the Red Earth of Oklahoma and the Taylor home, with its sprawling library. 

One book set out from Wichita already in full knowledge of its fate. I texted Joshua at least a week before the conference to request that he bring along a copy of the recently published English translation of St Nicodemos the Hagiorite’s Χρηστήθεια των Χριστιανών. I have dabbled in the original Greek of it, having brought home from Thessaloniki a fine copy of Rigopoulos’s edition, but I was eager to acquire the first English version, translated by Hieromonk Patapios with Monk Chrysostomos and Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, and featuring an introduction by the Archbishop, and published by the late Constantine Cavarnos’s Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. [1] 

Part of my interest in the English edition was due precisely to its inclusion of an introduction by this hierarch, an Old Calendarist and loyal son of the Fathers but nevertheless a perspicacious scholar whose writing is consistently marked by a balanced and moderate application of the traditions of the Church to modern life. This was much needed in the present case. The Greek moral theologian and philosopher, Chrestos Yannaras, has written, ‘Nikodemos’s legalistic pastoral theology tends inevitably to moralism, transforming the Church’s Gospel into a codified deontology governing conduct. His Chrestoetheia of Christians (Venice, 1803), in particular, is typical of European eighteenth-century pietism.’ [2] 

As I have argued previously (here for instance), such judgements are grossly overstated, and indeed, sad caricatures of a golden volume that Cavarnos has more justly and reverently called ‘one of Nicodemos’ most original and most edifying books’. [3] My interest in Archbishop Chrysostomos’s introduction was due in part to a desire to see St Nicodemus defended once again, but in part to a desire to see what are admittedly some pretty strict moral guidelines made a bit more palatable to modern Anglophone readers. These things I believe His Eminence accomplishes rather laudably if far too briefly. The subject deserves a full post in its own right some day, but for now, a brief quote must suffice: 

Once more, the focus of St Nicodemos’ teaching on personal morality and comportment must be seen within the the Hesychastic tradition. If many of the constraints on human behavior undertaken by the Hesychasts are similar to those that one may find in pietistic morality, our attention should not be drawn to these similarities in a superficial or simplistic sense. The goals and context of pietism are not those of the Hesychast....And finally, we must understand that the Saint’s emphasis on setting a high standard of behavior towards which every Christian must ideally strive is not just a matter of pietistic posturing. It is an important element in the Hesychastic life, wherein a mark set very high serves, from a motivational perspective, to direct an aspirant’s efforts and actions to the apogee and summum bonum of spiritual development, the achievement of which is not always as important as the intention and assiduity put forth in pursuing it. [4] 

I have begun with this discussion of the eruthrochomaic fate of this new translation of St Nicodemus largely to establish my Eastern street cred, for the other two volumes whose destiny yesterday led them to casa Taylor are decidedly more occidental. The first was a tiny but expensive little hardcover edition of John Henry Newman’s Rise & Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays. As interested as I certainly am in Newman’s pedagogical theories, I actually bought this volume more for the two short ‘Benedictine essays’ than for the study of universities. Despite their being available online, having seen multiple references to them in James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge I felt that I ultimately needed my own hard copy of these fascinating pieces (from which I have already quoted here). Here is a sample: 

While manual labour, applied to these artistic purposes, ministered to devotion, on the other hand, when applied to the transcription and multiplication of books, it was a method of instruction, and that peculiarly Benedictine, as being of a literary, not a scientific nature. Systematic theology had but a limited place in ecclesiastical study prior to the eleventh and twelfth centuries; Scripture and the Fathers were the received means of education, and these constituted the very text on which the pens of the monks were employed. And thus they would be becoming familiar with that kind of knowledge which was proper to their vocation, at the same time that they were engaged in what was unequivocally a manual labour; and, in providing for the religious necessities of posterity, they were directly serving their own edification. And this again had been the prace of the monks from the first, and is included in the unity of their profession. [5] 

Finally, trying quickly to choose a small and inexpensive book that wouldn’t be too ‘historical’, I settled on Josef Pieper’s Tradition: Concept & Claim. [6] Pieper’s much lauded Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which I discovered much too late in life, was one of the highlights of last summer, and I could not resist a book by the same author on the subject of tradition. The purchase seemed especially fitting, since the translator is CiRCE conference fixture and eccentric geocentrist E. Christian Kopff, author of The Devil Knows Latin. I have already read Kopff’s ‘Translator’s Preface’, which promises to give, in ‘most cases’, ‘idiomatic and clear English explanations of Pieper’s meaning’. [7] I have just begun Kopff’s alluring ‘Translator’s Introduction: Reflections on Tradition & the Philosophical Act in Josef Pieper’, where he discusses, among others, Hans-Georg Gadamer and the latter’s vindication of tradition in Truth & Method. [8] I will surely finish reading the translation itself sometime before school starts. But for now, here is the epigraph: ‘“The only reason we are still alive is our inconsistency in not having actually silenced all tradition”—Gerhard Krüger, Geschichte und Tradition.’ [9] 

[1] It is interesting to note, however, that despite the IBMGS publishing credit and unmistakeable title page, the jacket seems much more reminiscent of the English translation of the Evergetinos—completed by some of the same cast of characters, but published by the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies—than anything else in the IBMGS catalogue. One wonders if perhaps the CTOS has somewhat coopted the IBMGS in the wake of Cavarnos’s repose! 

[2] Chrestos Yannaras, Orthodoxy & the West: Hellenic Self-identity in the Modern Age, tr. Peter Chamberas & Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2006), p. 136. 

[3] Constantine Cavarnos, St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Vol. 3 of Modern Orthodox Saints (Belmont, MA: IBMGS, 1994), p. 45. 

[4] Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, ‘Introduction: The Person & Writings of St Nicodemos the Hagiorite & a Critical Assessment of His Essay on Christian Morality’, Christian Morality, by St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, tr. & ed. Hieromonk Patapios with Monk Chrysostomos & Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna (Belmont, MA: IBMGS, 2012), pp. l-li. 

[5] John Henry Newman, Rise & Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays, ed. Mary Katherine Tillman, Vol. 3 of The Works of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Birmingham Oratory Millennium Edition, ed. James Tolhurst, DD (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2001), pp. 416-7. 

[6] Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept & Claim, tr. E. Christian Kopff (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 2010). 

[7] E. Christian Kopff, ‘Translator’s Preface’, Pieper, p. xiv. 

[8] Kopff also discusses John Rawls, ‘who suggested a way to escape from the traditions and historical forms of actual societies’ (‘Translator’s Introduction’, Pieper, p. xxi). Ironically, I met Rawls’s niece, a confirmed traditionalist who is aghast at her uncle’s ideas, at the CiRCE conference! 

[9] Pieper, p. ix.

17 July 2012

'Gaze Serenely upon the Things of this Earth'—CiRCE Conference & Eco

We’ll be leaving at five in the morning tomorrow for Louisville, KY, and the CiRCE Institute’s annual conference on classical education, on the theme ‘A Contemplation of Creation’. Last year’s conference, on the theme ‘What Is Man?’, was a real treat, my wife and I having been sent by a generous Providence Hall parent, Chris Dickerson, as a sort of scouting expedition for our school. Not only did I get to chat a bit more with CiRCE founder Andrew Kern, whom I had met previously when we both spoke at the Climacus Conference in Louisville, but I also had lunch with the charming Armenian Orthodox moral theologian, Vigen Guroian. 

This year Providence Hall will be returning in force. I hope to reconnect with prior acquaintances, meet a few new ones (not the least of whom will be the generous Logismoi reader, Kimberly Jahn), and, of course, buy a few books from good old Joshua Sturgill at the Eighth Day table. We may also stalk speaker Wendell Berry a bit. I hope to make a full report sometime next week. In the meantime, I shall leave you with an interesting quote to ponder from Umberto Eco’s excellent Art & Beauty in the Middle Ages, tr. Hugh Bredin (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1986): 

The view that the Middle Ages were puritanical, in the sense of rejecting the sensuous world, ignores the documentation of the period and shows a basic misunderstanding of the medieval mentality. This mentality is well illustrated in the attitude which the mystics and ascetics adopted towards beauty. Ascetics, in all ages, are not unaware of the seductiveness of worldly pleasures; if anything, they feel it more keenly than most. The drama of the ascetic discipline lies precisely in a tension between the call of earthbound pleasure and a striving after the supernatural. But when the discipline proves victorious, and brings the peace which accompanies control of the senses, then it becomes possible to gaze serenely upon the things of this earth, and to see their value, something that the hectic struggle of asceticism had hitherto prevented. Medieval asceticism and mysticism provide us with many examples of these two psychological states, and also with some extremely interesting documentation concerning the aesthetic sensibility of the time. (pp. 5-6)

16 July 2012

'He Put No Difference Between Us'—Ss Peter & Paul in Radner & St Maximus

Last Thursday, 29 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. I had thought about doing an old-school Logismoi post for the Apostles, but unfortunately things were much too busy for the full treatment and I let it pass. A perusal of a borrowed book the other day, however, convinced me that I should at least do a post connecting back to their feastday, even if it wasn’t one of my traditional Saints’ posts. 

I have more than once, I am sure, mentioned my enthusiasm for John O’Keefe’s and R.R. Reno’s Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Well, my tremendous esteem for the merits of the authors’ arguments and conclusions led me to reread with careful attention the preface to the volume, wherein they acknowledge the various influences and intellectual debts that contributed to the book. One passage that caught my attention was this: ‘The work of Ephrem Radner defies epitome, but the fabric of his many publications is woven with figural patterns of biblical interpretation. He is a rare contemporary practitioner of an ancient art.’ [1] 

I don’t quite remember how it happened, but somehow or another I shortly afterward discovered the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, edited by Reno, which ‘advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture’, and could be seen in some ways as a commentary attempting to carry out what O’Keefe and Reno present in Sanctified Vision. [2] I recalled having seen the series at our local evangelical megastore (which I was distressed to find no longer carries it, although the Christian romance section has certainly expanded), but I had never carefully examined it to discover its approach. Fortunately, my boss, the headmaster of our school, has what I take to be the entire series to date in his office, and I was surprised and excited to discover that the volume on Leviticus—surely a unique text for demonstrating the rich exegetical possibilities of the ‘Nicene tradition’—was written by that ‘rare contemporary practitioner of an ancient art’, Ephraim Radner. 

I realise I’m taking the long route to get back to Ss Peter and Paul. What does Ephraim Radner’s commentary on Leviticus have to do with the two chiefs of the Apostles? It so happens that interpreting Leviticus as Christian Scripture provides a direct connection: St Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16, which presupposes the distinction between clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11: 

For I am the Lord who brought you up [ἀναγαγὼν ὑμᾶς] out of the land of Egypt to be your God; and ye shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy. This is the law concerning beasts and birds and every living creature [πάσης ψυχῆς] moving in the water, and every living creature creeping on the earth; to distinguish between the unclean and the clean [διαστεῖλαι ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν ἀκαθάρτων καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν καθαρῶν]; and between those that bring forth alive, such as should be eaten, and those that bring forth alive, such as should not be eaten. (Lev. 11:45-7, LXX) 

Compare then, the vision of the Apostle Peter in Acts: 

On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: and he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: where in were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.’ And the voice spake unto him again the second time, ‘What God hath cleansed that call not thou common.’ This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. (Authorised Version) 

Clearly, St Peter is professing his fidelity to the distinction outlined in Leviticus 11. Just as clearly, the same God who gave to the Israelites the category of ‘unclean’ in Leviticus, is telling St Peter that He Himself has ‘cleansed’ all things. The exhortation to ‘be holy’ is not negated, however, and indeed, St Peter himself quotes it in I Peter 1:16, but it is no longer tied to the observance of dietary laws. 

In his commentary on this chapter of Leviticus, Radner draws on the mediaeval Benedictine writer, Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075-1129), whom Jean Leclercq notes as an exemplar of the use of ‘Old Testament texts...for expressing the loftiest realities of the New Testament,’ in whom ‘we sense the shadow of the whole archaic Eastern [patristic] background’. [3] I shall quote Radner at length: 

For Rupert of Deutz (Patrologia latina 167.796-801), the pentecostal focus in Lev. 10 [he connects the fire that devours the sons of the Prophet Aaron in Lev. 10:2 with the tongues of fire of Pentecost] explicates the framework of Lev. 11 in terms of the mission to the Gentiles entrusted the church by God. That is, the outline of distinction that Aaron (and Moses) provide the people—in terms of animal life, food, and even the touching of carcasses—properly embraces the distinctions of the peoples and their place within the providential calling of God. From the perspective of the New Testament, this coordination of elements is almost natural. It is, after all, Peter himself, in the course of his calling by God to turn to the Gentiles with the church’s first deliberate Christian evangelistic effort in their direction, who is presented with a threefold divine vision treating specifically the question of clean and unclean foods (Acts 10:9-16)....Rather than seeing Peter’s vision as a simple nullification of the Levitical laws of distinction, Rupert of Deutz understands these laws as the reflection of this single providential goal, by which the whole of the world will be brought into right relationship with God, gathered into the heavenly sheet. The vision sets in motion Peter’s visit to the Gentile centurion Cornelius in Caesarea, who is baptized despite his fundamental nonadherence to the breadth of the Levitical laws. Hence the Levitical laws pertain to—they advance toward and present—this goal of Gentile baptism, both in terms of reference and object; they do not contradict it. [4] 

Thus, the taking up of the animals without distinction into the four-cornered sheet is a symbolic revelation of the taking up of the peoples of the earth without distinction into the Church, where ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galations 3:28). In the words of St Irenaeus of Lyons, ‘For the God who had distinguished through the law the pure food from the impure, that same God had cleansed the nations through the blood of his Son, and that is the God whom Cornelius worshiped.’ [5] 

I have not been reading Radner’s commentary through, and so it was a look at the index for Greek Fathers, particularly for St Maximus the Confessor, that led me to the chapter on Leviticus 11. Unfortunately, the great 7th-c. Father is only cited once by Radner—when the latter writes: 

The allegorical reading—both Jewish and Christian—by which the sacrificial animals of Leviticus refer to those beastly, irrational, or wild (Maximus the Confessor [in Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 1979-95: 2.273]) aspects of the self that require subjugation is in fact congruent with and perhaps even founded upon the presuppositions of this reality of distinction and offering. [6] 

A look at the text from the Philokalia which Radner cites is interesting. It is a Maximian anthology known as ‘Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, & Virtue & Vice’. The part in question is numbered as the ‘Fifth Century’ of such texts in the English Philokalia, whereas it is the ‘Seventh Century’ in the Greek. The greater part of this century, including all of the chapters I will excerpt below, is taken from the treatise To Thalassios: On Various Questions relating to Holy Scripture. It is there that St Maximus dwells at length on what he calls ‘the spiritual contemplation [ἡ πνευματικὴ θεωρία] of...the written law’. [7] The simple statement—in chapter 50—of the allegorical reading of the animals as passions to which Radner is referring is believed to be the work of a 10th-c. scholiast. [8] St Maximus’s own comments in chapter 51, which the scholiast is presumably explaining, takes for granted the ‘passion’ reading: 

By spiritual sacrifices is meant not only the putting to death of the passions, slaughtered by ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6:17), and the deliberate emptying out of all life in the flesh, as if it were blood; the term also signifies the offering up of the moral state we have gained through the practice of the virtues, together with all our natural powers, which we dedicate and offer [προσαγωγὴν ἀφιερουμένων] to God as whole burnt sacrifices, to be consumed by the fire of grace in the Spirit, so that they are filled with divine power. [9] 

The ‘fire of grace in the Spirit’, an obvious allusion to Pentecost, is only the second tie into Rupert’s connection of Leviticus with Pentecost. In chapter 49, the Confessor writes: 

The mystery of Pentecost is the direct union with providence of those things that are in its care. It is the union of nature with its principle, the Logos, under the guidance of providence; and in this union there is not the slightest trace of time or generation. Again, the Logos is our trumpet (cf. Lev. 23:24), summoning us with divine and hidden knowledge. He is our propitiation (cf. Lev. 25:9), since He expiates our offences in His own person by becoming like us, and divinizes our sinful nature by the gift of grace through the Spirit. He is our booth or tabernacle (cf. Lev. 23:42), since He is the realization of that immutability with which our inner being, conformed to God, is concentrated on the divine, and also the securing bond of our transformation into an immortal state. [10] 

Indeed, it is a shame that Radner does not make more use of St Maximus in his commentary. The Confessor comments specifically on St Peter’s vision itself in Questions & Doubts 116, where he responds to the question of what is signified by the sheet and the beasts that were on it: 

Since, according to the vision by the prophet Ezekiel, ‘their work was like a wheel within a wheel’, and through these a perceptible as well as an intelligible world are depicted as existing within one another—for the intelligible world is in the perceptible world by types, and the perceptible world is in the intelligible world by its logos—therefore, all of the perceptible world was shown to the Apostle. For the letting down by its four corners’ signifies the world composed of four elements, existing as clean in the intelligible world according to the logos that exists inherently in these things. And he heard, ‘rise up, kill, and eat,’ that is, ‘by (your) nous raise yourself up from that which is according sense, and “kill and eat”, which means by the distinction of reason divides sense perception, [11] and taking up these things spiritually make them your own.’ 

Or, it also signifies the church that is supported by the four foundations of the gospels or, again, by the four cardinal virtues. And the beasts and reptiles depict the different human customs which, from the Gentiles, are going to (change over to) the faith in Christ. And the ‘kill and eat’ shows ‘first, by the word of teaching, “kill” the evil in them and then “eat”, making their salvation your own just as the Lord also made it food for himself.’ [12] 

Of course, this post has been mostly taken up with St Peter, and for reasons of length I do not intend to devote equal space here to St Paul. But I will point out that St Peter’s experience of the vision, and his subsequent baptism of Cornelius, ‘Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 2:16), connect him directly with the great Apostle of the Gentiles. ‘And’, in the words of Didymus the Blind, ‘through the figure shown by the linen cloth and through the granting of the grace of the Holy Spirit in like manner to the nations according to faith [cf. Acts 10:44-8], he [St Peter] made the case that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.’ [13] 

St Paul of course makes himself a compliment to St Peter, ‘For He that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles’ (Gal. 2:8). But the baptism of Cornelius makes clear that the division in their duties is not a strict one, and St Peter at the Council of Jerusalem says to the apostles and elders: 

‘Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the Gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did unto us; and put no difference between us and them [διέκρινε μεταξὺ ἡμῶν τε καὶ αὐτῶν], purifying their hearts by faith.’ (Acts 15:7-9) 

Once again, we see here that the erasure of difference between Jew and Gentile is signified by the erasure of difference between clean and unclean animals (the words of Acts 15:9 and Lev. 11:47 are not the same, but the phrases nevertheless echo one another). But if the separation of Jew and Gentile is abolished within the Church, how much more so that between these two holy Apostles? St Paul tells us ‘when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face’ (Gal. 2:11), but in the words of St John Chrysostom, ‘there was here a deep though hidden understanding between Paul and Peter’: 

Paul does not now say this to condemn Peter, but in the same spirit as when he said those who are ‘reputed to be something’ [in other words, St Paul does not in 2:9 deny that St Peter really is a ‘pillar’], he now says this too....And so Paul rebukes and Peter voluntarily gives way. It is like the master who when upbraided keeps silent, so that his disciples might more easily change their ways. [14] 

Thus, the witness of the Church to the spiritual unity of these two Apostles, testified to by their co-commemoration and the liturgical texts which praise them as ‘separated in body, united in the Spirit’, [15] is also expressed in the exegetical consensus of the Fathers. 

 [1] John J. O’Keefe & R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. x. 

[2] R.R. Reno, ‘Series Preface’, Leviticus, by Ephraim Radner, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos-Baker, 2008), p. 11. 

[3] Jean Leclercq, OSB, The Love of Learning & the Desire for God: A Study in Monastic Culture, tr. Catharine Misrahi (NY: Fordham, 1961), pp. 102-16. 

[4] Radner, p. 107. 

[5] Francis Martin, ed., with Evan Smith, Acts, NT Vol. V in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), p. 128. 

[6] Ibid., p. 110. 

[7] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1990), p. 267. 

[8] See ibid., p. 395. 

[9] Ibid., p. 273. 

[10] Ibid., pp. 272-3. 

[11] I’m not sure I understand the grammar of Prassas’s translation at this point. 

[12] St Maximus the Confessor, Questions & Doubts, tr. Despina D. Prassas (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois U, 2010), p. 103. 

[13] Martin, p. 125. 

[14] Mark J. Edwards, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, NT Vol. VIII in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), p. 26. 

[15] First sticheron at Lord I have cried, Tone 2, by St Andrew of Crete, from Great Vespers for the Feast; from the translation of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), here.

12 July 2012

Liturgical Consummation, Part II: St Venantius Fortunatus

It’s been a while since I posted the first installment in this series, so even faithful readers (if I have any!) may have forgotten about this. But this is the second example from the excised three-part illustration of my thesis about the ‘liturgical consummation of literary genre’ from a forth-coming paper entitled ‘Likeness & Approach: M.M. Bakhtin, C.S. Lewis, & the Liturgical Consummation of Literary Genre.’ For a little more background and context, see the first post, on St Ephrem the Syrian. 

b) St Venantius Fortunatus 

In Inferno XXXIV.1, [1] Dante pays a back-handed compliment to the hymn Vexilla Regis of St Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530-c. 600)—still sung during Holy Week in some churches—by using its first line to refer ironically to the figure of Satan. Samuel Duffield calls it ‘surely one of the most stirring strains in our hymnology’, [2] and Christopher Dawson has written of St Venantius that ‘the moment he is touched by the liturgical spirit his tired rhetoric is miraculously transformed into the mighty music of the Vexilla Regis’. [3] The Merovingian poet uses the four-lined stanzaic form in iambic dimeter characteristic of St Ambrose of Milan. [4] Though the meter is nominally classical, the form itself signifies the initial cracks separating Christian poetics from the rigid forms of the ancient genres. Charles Williams quotes the judgment of one historian of Late Antiquity on the old meters in Latin: 

The aristocracy of Greek metres, with their delicate music of quantitative syllables, had maintained a precarious hold over Latin verse, the natural roots of which were fixed deep in the stressed peasant rhythms of threshing-floor, spinning-wheel, and country dance, the gnomic saws of the rustic oracle, and the heavy tramp of the marching legionary. [5] 

In other words, St Ambrose’s simple, stress-based use of the dimeter, [6] employed here in St Venantius’s triumphant hymn, is a deliberate eschewing of the ancient generic verse-forms; it is an art ‘subordinated…to the new requirements of the liturgy and [written] for the Church and the people’. [7] Such poetry is already, in its form, in its use of the Latin language, taking into account the voices outside that of the poet—it is again a ‘chorus’ like the poetry of St Ephrem—and the ‘low’ forms that properly reflect their discourse. It leaves behind monoglossia and the ‘literature of ruling social groups’. [8] Helen Waddell writes, ‘It is the little byways [of poetry] that Fortunatus made accessible to men for whom the Roman road of the epic was too stately’. [9] His poetry inaugurates a ‘new authenticity’ and makes available new subjects, unknown to the ancient genres. [10] 

These observations should be borne out in an analysis of the first and fourth stanzas of the hymn in question: 

The standards of the King go forth, 
Shines out the blazoned mystery, 
The Cross whereon the Lord of men 
As man was hung. 

O Tree of beauty and of light, 
With royal purple dyed, 
Well wert thou chosen then to bear 
That sacred load. [11] 

‘The standards of the King’ bring the worshipper into the realm of nearness by likeness, of which royalty is perhaps the most obvious example, but it must not be forgotten that a royal procession is after all a popular spectacle. More importantly, the equation of the vexilla with the Cross [12] (made in the Latin in the second line rather than the third) signifies the ultimate way of approach. In the height of irony, ‘the Lord of men / As man was hung’ (literally, ‘the author of flesh as flesh’). The Christian God accepted the most ignoble death that the Greco-Roman world had to offer, and it is by imitating Him and following the way of the Cross that the Christian attains to His own royal dignity. Furthermore, in the paradox of the Arbor decora et fulgida (4.1), the Cross itself, while an object ‘of beauty and of light’, is still a humble piece of rough-hewn wood. In Waddell’s words, ‘[The Cross of Vexilla Regis] is not as the Latins took it, the symbol and the sign: to Fortunatus, it is still the tree as it grew in the forest, foredoomed to its great and terrible destiny’. [13] On Waddell’s reading of the Cross as Tree, St Venantius’s poetic voice teems with the chorus of the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, represented by Radegunde, who ‘was his finest inspiration’. [14] In this choral perspective, even the lowly trees of the earth are lifted up in being chosen to bear the Lord and to ‘shine out’ His mystery by becoming a royal standard. Just like the tree that fashioned the Cross, the human being who must bear his or her own cross is not near to God by likeness, but is able to become near to Him by precisely this approach. 

[1] On Dante’s use of Vexilla Regis, see John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1986), pp. 169-70. 

[2] Samuel Willoughby Duffield, The Latin Hymn-Writers & Their Hymns (NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), p. 93. 

[3] Christopher Dawson, Religion & the Rise of Western Culture: Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949 (Garden City, NY: Image, 1950), pp. 38-9. 

[4] Carolinne White, Early Christian Latin Poets (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 45-6. 

[5] Qtd. in Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent, 2002), p. 80. 

[6] Giulio Cattin points out that in St Ambrose himself, the change is still not complete: 

With Ambrose, hymnody took on a new and definitive shape; the short line of four iambs (each consisting of a short and a long syllable) is linked to ‘quantitative’ metrics, but already attention is being paid to the position of accent in the line, and a process of evolution is under way tending first to make long and accented syllables coincide, and ultimately to yield the complete predominance of the tonic accent as the constructive principle of versification. 

(Guilio Cattin, Music of the Middle Ages I, tr. Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1984), p. 18) 

[7] Dawson, p. 40. 

[8] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas, 1998), p. 4. 

[9] Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars (London: Constable, 1958), p. 28. 

[10] Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, tr. Joseph B. Solodow, rev. Down Fowler & Glenn W. Most (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999), p. 723. 

[11] Helen Waddell, More Latin Lyrics from Virgil to Milton, ed. Dame Felicitas Corrigan (NY: Norton, 1977), p. 123. Here is the Latin text of these stanzas, as given in ibid., p. 122: 

Vexilla regis prodeunt, 
fulget crucis mysterium, 
quo carne carnis conditor 
suspensus est patibulo. 

Arbor decora et fulgida, 
ornata regis purpura, 
electa digno stipite 
tam sancta membra tangere! 

[12] Duffield, in his rendering of the second line as ‘The cross upon them [the banners] cheers the sky’ (93), seems to miss the point of these lines. St Venantius is not referring to a symbolic cross emblazoned on the royal banners, but to the True Cross itself, being carried in solemn procession to the church at Poitiers. Thus, the ‘royal banners’ is an ironic, or alternately, a theological reference to the relic. 

[13] Waddell, Scholars, p. 28. 

[14] Ibid., p. 29.

10 July 2012

Scripture, Creation, & the Mystery of the Incarnation

Sometime this last week I was reading some more of James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge, when I came across a passage that, as usual, reminded me of some other things I’d read. At the time I just made a mental note and went on. Then today, I was back in Reflections of a Humble Heart (it’s a tiny, short book, but I’m reading it very slowly), and found something very similar. I thought the time had come for a post. First, Taylor quotes John Senior: 

The theory, not in the sense of hypothesis but of intellectual insight, of this way of spirituality [of Benedictine monasticism] is based upon the fact that there are two Revelations, the one in the Book of Nature where the visible things of this world signify the invisible things of the next, and the other of the Book of Scripture where the invisible things of the next are made visible in the life and death of Christ. [1] 

Then Taylor continues: 

To learn to ‘read’ by first learning to listen to the voice in the book of nature, which includes our own human nature, was the first task of the monk, as a prerequisite for taking up later the book of Scripture, which often contains both ‘voices’ as in Psalm 18. The clear connection is still with us here, echoing what St Augustine said, that one cannot really read and know the words—the signs of things—without first a knowledge of the things themselves, which we must come to love. [2] The pre-Christian audience of the Homeric and Virgilian epics and the unlettered peasants of the Christian, premodern world could never have grasped, as they did, the spiritual dimensions of the poets in the first case and the supernatural teaching of the apostles and disciples in the second, had they not already read deeply first in the book of nature. [3] 

All of this got me thinking along several different lines, but there was one in particular that my reading of Reflections today highlighted—the ‘two Books’. At one point, the elder in Reflections reminds the brothers to whom he is speaking of the words of another elder: ‘My children, God gave us two sacred books that always direct us to salvation: The Holy Gospel—this Book of books that reveals everything to us—and the vault of heaven, which, like some enormous and open book, teaches us about God.’ [4] 

Of course, while he is speaking specifically of the sky, and not of the general creation in this particular passage, what the elder says here about the two Books is very closely akin to Senior’s and Taylor’s observations above. It also reflects an ancient patristic tradition. I’m sure examples could be multiplied ad nauseam, but there are two I particularly like, one of which I was just discussing Sunday evening with a student I’m tutoring, and the other which I found after a short perusal through the second volume of the Philokalia (St Maximus’s volume). 

The first example is rather difficult to put together, but to me it suggests an essential connection between the two Books. In his Oration 28, the 2nd Theological Oration, St Gregory the Theologian is talking about how some ‘corporeal factor of ours will always intrude itself’ in our knowledge of God. Then he writes: 

‘Spirit’, ‘fire’, and ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘righteousness’, ‘mind’, and ‘reason’ and so forth, are titles of the prime reality, are they not?...How can the simple, unpicturable reality be all these images and each in its entirety?...Because though every thinking being longs for God, the First Cause, it is powerless, for the reasons I have given, to grasp him....Either it looks at things visible and makes of these a god—a gross mistake, for what visible thing is more sublime, more godlike, than its observer, and how more so, that it should be the object, he the subject of worship?—or else it discovers God through the beauty and order of things seen, using sight as a guide to what transcends sight without losing God through the grandeur of what it sees. [5] 

The ‘titles of the prime reality’ listed at the beginning of this passage are all of course Scriptural descriptions of God—what St Dionysius the Areopagite calls ‘divine names’—and Lionel Wickham has each one footnoted with a book, chapter, and verse in his translation. In other words, these titles are taken from the first of our two Books, the Book of Scripture. But note that the point of this passage, perhaps more difficult to discern because of the lines I have omitted due to length considerations, is that each of these titles carries inescapably ‘natural’ connotations for us. In other words, they are not ‘sheerly incorporeal’ in human experience. So, while they are taken from the Book of Scripture, that Book got them from the other Book, the Book of Nature. 

This becomes clear in the last sentence of the quoted passage. St Gregory is saying that, like natural forces or material things, these terms can become a temptation to idolatry if we take them too literally, if we stop at their surface. [6] We must read them anagogically, lifting our understanding up to what transcends all created things. But the way that St Gregory describes this anagogy links the Scriptural titles firmly with their source in creation, when he says that thinking beings should discover ‘God through the beauty and order of things seen, using sight as a guide to what transcends sight without losing God through the grandeur of what it sees’. 

This is almost a classic statement of natural theology. Compare St Paul in Romans 1:20—‘Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made’—or the Prophet Solomon in Wisdom 13:5—‘For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.’ Just as we read Scripture anagogically, lifting our minds from the corporeal words to the Logos incarnate in them, so we ‘read’ creation itself, using our senses—in the words of St Theodore the Great Ascetic—‘in order to grasp the Creator through His creation, seeing Him reflected in created things as the sun is reflected in water, since in their inner beings they are in varying degrees images of the primal cause of all.’ [7] 

Of course, this leads directly to the second quote I found today after reading the above passage in Reflections and then rummaging around in my patristics stuff. It will seem beyond obvious now, but in the ‘First Century on Theology’ St Maximus writes, ‘The mystery of the incarnation of the Logos is the key to all the arcane symbolism and typology in the Scriptures, and in addition gives us knowledge of created things, both visible and intelligible.’ [8] So, the key to interpreting the two Books is the same—the mystery of the incarnation of the Logos. We read the heavens through the regula fidei just as surely as we read Holy Scripture through the same rule. In the words of the anonymous elder quoted by another anonymous elder in Reflections, what we find there via such a hermeneutic is the love of God made manifest in the sending of His only Son into the world (I John 4:9): 

In the nocturnal hours these [the pages of the Book of Creation opened up in the heavens] are pages of black parchment with silver lettering, instructing us concerning the eternity and mysteriousness of the life to come. In the daylight hours these are pages of light blue parchment inscribed with the gold and crimson of the rising and setting sun and the whiteness of the clouds. These inscriptions teach you about God’s goodness towards you, for not only has God given you all this beauty for your delight, but He also covers you with His Providence and His love. And so, the night sky speaks to you about the almightiness and inscrutability of the Creator, while the daytime sky speaks to you about the love and goodness that your Heavenly Father has for you. [9] 

Postscript: As I mentioned my thinking being spurred along several different lines, I may have to revisit the initial quotations and write some follow-up posts in the near future, if I have time. 

[1] John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008), p. 98; qtd. in James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998), p. 37. 

[2] Referring to St Augustine, ‘The Teacher’, Ancient Christian Writers No. 9 (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1964), p. 185. I don't have a copy of this or any other edition of 'The Teacher' here, so I merely give the citation as it is found in Taylor.

[3] Taylor, p. 37. Note that Taylor, following his professor, John Senior, is implying a strong pessimism about the ability of moderns—not having read so ‘deeply in the book of nature’—to grasp such ‘spiritual dimensions’ and ‘supernatural teaching’ to the same degree that premoderns did. This would be a good topic for a future post. Suffice to say that I completely share their pessimism, and I regard everything that the Fathers say in what follows as very nearly beyond our reach for this reason. 

[4] Monk Basil, Reflections of a Humble Heart: A 15th-C. Text on the Spiritual Life, tr. Mary Mansur (Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos, 2007), p. 41. 

[5] St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 28.12, 13; On God & Christ: The Five Theological Orations & Two Letters to Cledonius, tr. Frederick Williams & Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2002), pp. 46-7. 

 [6] Cf. St Maximus the Confessor’s comment in the ‘Second Century on Theology’ 73, in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1990): So long as we only see the Logos of God as embodied multifariously in symbols in the letter of Holy Scripture, we have not yet achieved spiritual insight into the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Father as He exists in the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Son, according to the saying, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father...and I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ (John 14:9-10). (p. 155) Witness, also, the anthropomorphite heresy described by St John Cassian in Conference 10. 

[7] St Theodore the Great Ascetic, ‘Theoretikon’, Philokalia 2, p. 45. 

[8] St Maximus, Philokalia 2, p. 127. 

[9] Monk Basil, p. 41.

New Literary Arrivals

As an update to my Return to Books, I thought I would mention some packages of joy I received in the mail yesterday. In the earlier post, I wrote that I had been sadly forced to pass up a couple of titles that caught my eye at Books at Cummin Station in Nashville. First of all, the ever-opportunistic Maximus Greeson decided to take advantage of my misfortune to go grab one of those titles for himself, inducing me to go online and find an even cheaper copy to order immediately. 

As many readers may know, questions about ethics in, of, and around literature are particularly interesting to me. A recent reference to Wayne C. Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction [1] (Berkeley, CA: U of CA, 1988), the location of which reference I have unfortunately forgotten, had me thinking again how much I would like a copy of that book. According to Martha Nussbaum’s blurb: 

In this rich and fine book, Wayne Booth...makes out a compelling case for the coherence and the importance of ethical criticism. And he does this with a vigor and openness of engagement that remind readers constantly of their own experiences of literary absorption and delight....It is to be recommended warmly to anyone with a concern for the rôle played by the humanities, and by the interpretation of texts, in our public culture. 

I have previously benefited from dipping into (not to say reading through!) Booth’s Modern Dogma & the Rhetoric of Ascent and The Rhetoric of Fiction, and am looking forward to partaking of this one as well. The other title that slipped through my fingers was Northrop Frye’s The Great Code: The Bible & Literature (NY: HBJ, 1982). Very shortly after posting about that week’s book experiences, I received an e-mail from Dale Nelson kindly offering to send his old copy of Frye, which he thought he would likely never get round to reading. Inside was a photocopy of ‘An Appreciation of Northrop Frye’s The Great Code’ by John F.X. Sheehan, SJ, who writes, ‘Northrop Frye may be the last educated man. He has written a truly remarkable book. Its erudition is staggering, but forgivable, as it comes to us through the medium of extremely graceful English.’ [2] 

 [1] The title is echoed by the title of a study of the literary influence among the Inklings by the charming and learned Diana Pavlac Glyer—The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent, OH: Kent State, 2008). I have not read the book, but I saw Glyer give a wonderful lecture that presented some of the ideas. 

[2] John F.X. Sheehan, SJ, ‘An Appreciation of Northrop Frye’s The Great Code’, Renascence 3 (Spring 1983), p. 203.

09 July 2012

'A Perfect House'—Elves, Monasticism, & Leisure

In this post I mentioned John Senior’s comparison of his first experience in the refectory of Fontgombault abbey to Odysseus’s words about the banquet in Book IX of The Odyssey

When Odysseus begins the recitation of his wanderings, addressing the lords and ladies at the palace of Alcinous in Phaecia, he says (in E.V. Rieu’s Penguin edition): 
'I myself feel that there is nothing more delightful than when the festive mood reigns in a whole people’s hearts and the banqueters listen to a minstrel from their seats in the hall, while the tables before them are laden with bread and meat, and a steward carries round the wine he has drawn from the bowl and fills their cups. This, to my way of thinking, is something very like perfection.' 
Such a banquet in the Odyssey is in the secular order the pale reflection of an evening meal in the religious order here, which is not something like, but the life of perfection itself. [1] 

Well, I was recently reminded afresh of monastic-Homeric connections when reading James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge. Taylor quotes from a fascinating essay by John Henry Newman, ‘The Mission of St Benedict’, of which I shall give slightly more than he does: 

And therefore have I called the monastic state the most poetical of religious disciplines. It was a return to that primitive age of the world, of which poets have so often sung, the simple life of Arcadia or the reign of Saturn, when fraud and violence were unknown. It was a bringing back of those real, not fabulous, scenes of innocence and miracle, when Adam delved, or Abel kept sheep, or Noe planted the vine, and Angels visited them. [2] 

Newman’s examples are, of course, appropriately biblical. But everything he says here tends to remind me of the passage I quoted here from Dame Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon

Exactly similar movements must have been made a million million million times since the world began, yet the thrust of her arm seemed absolutely fresh. Well, it is so in the Iliad. When one reads of a man drawing a bow or raising a shield it is as if the dew of the world’s morning lay undisturbed on what he did. The primal stuff of humanity is very attractive. [3] 

I think this is part of what attracts me about monasticism. It attracts me about Homer, children, trees, beer, and music. It’s the festal, the contemplative, the wonderful, the poetic. 

But to Senior’s analogy in Homer I can add another, fuller one, which will take some time to expound. As I was rereading Tolkien with my students last year, I had a realisation. In The Hobbit, the narrator says of Rivendell—‘His [Elrond’s] house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ [4] But when Frodo arrives there in Book 2, Chapter 1 of The Lord of the Rings, the quotation, now attributed to Bilbo as the feigned narrator of The Hobbit, is slightly different: ‘That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all”. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.’ [5] 

First of all, note that ‘work’, which was included in the original comment, is now missing from the list of activities. I find this significant for Tolkien’s portrayal of Rivendell in LOTR. But this is not the only reference to the kind of activities typically engaged in at Rivendell (I shall add italics for emphasis in the next several quotes). In the very next sentence after the quoted passage, we read, ‘As the evening drew on, Frodo woke up again, and he found that he no longer felt in need of rest or sleep, but had a mind for food and drink, and probably for singing and story-telling afterwards.’ So here, we find a repetition of a few of precisely the same activities as Frodo tries to choose among them. 

But there is more. Shortly after awaking, Frodo is visited by Sam, who expresses an interest in the singing, to which Frodo replies, ‘But you shall be merry tonight, and listen to your heart’s content.’ A little later, Gandalf is pointing out the Hall of Fire with the comment: ‘Here you will hear many songs and tales—if you can keep awake. But except on high days it usually stands empty and quiet, and people come here who wish for peace, and thought. There is always a fire here, all the year round, but there is little other light.’ [6] When Frodo finally discovers Bilbo in the Hall, he asks, ‘What were you doing?’, to which the old hobbit replies, ‘Why, sitting and thinking. I do a lot of that nowadays, and this is the best place to do it in, as a rule.’ [7] A little further on, Bilbo says, ‘And I listen and I think. Time doesn’t seem to pass here: it just is. A remarkable place altogether.’ [8] 

As I reread these passages, it dawned on me that with the exclusion of work from the list, all of the activities associated with Rivendell become ‘leisure’ activities, that is, they are all fundamentally contrasted with work in the sense of ‘hustle and bustle’ but also in the more particular sense of activity directed toward some utilitarian end. [9] Furthermore, while the hobbits seem to be prone to falling asleep, and everyone knows they love their food and drink, the remaining activities are precisely contemplative ones, whether listening to song or story, or thinking. In other words, like philosophy itself according to Josef Pieper, these activities are forms of ‘theorein, or speculari (to observe, behold, contemplate), consisting in a purely receptive gaze on reality...untouched by anything practical’. [10] 

Of course, ‘leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit’, [11] and there is a feast at Rivendell. But Tolkien concentrates on the qualities and appearance of the persons present rather than the elements, as in Odysseus’s praise of the feast, contenting himself with ‘The feast was merry and the food all that his hunger could desire.’ [12] On the other hand, Tolkien’s description of the music which, in this case, follows the eating, is striking indeed. It is not only an example of what my friend Michael Milburn points out is one of Tolkien’s definitions of Faery—‘Enchantment’ [13]—but also evidence that, in Pieper’s words, ‘music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul, an Exercitium Metaphysice Occultum.’ [14] Here is Tolkien’s description of this part of the feast: 

Frodo was left to himself for a while, for Sam had fallen asleep....But those near him were silent, intent upon the music of the voices and the instruments, and they gave no heed to anything else. Frodo began to listen. 
At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall become like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. [15] 

This experience of falling asleep in a dark hall lit only by flames, while beautiful voices sing beautiful melodies fit to words that one understands little, is familiar to me, and likely to many other Orthodox, from the monastic vigils of the Holy Mountain. [16] The connection becomes clearer when Bilbo points out that the music is a sacred song, a hymn to the ‘archangel’ Elbereth, remarking, ‘They will sing that, and other songs of the Blessed Realm, many times tonight.’ [17] Compare Frodo’s experience with that of Elder Porphyrios at his first vigil on the Holy Mountain: 

One night there was a vigil service at the Kyriakon, the church of the Holy Trinity. This was very shortly after I had arrived, during the first few days. Our skete was celebrating its feast day. My elders left in the early evening for the church and left me in the hermitage to sleep. I was young and they thought I might not be able to stay awake until the morning when the vigil would end. 
After midnight Father Ionnikios came and woke me up. ‘Wake up and get dressed,’ he said, ‘and we’ll go to the church.’ 
I jumped up at once and in three minutes we had arrived at the Holy Trinity church. He ushered me into the church first. It was the first time I had been inside. I was overwhelmed! The church was filled with monks standing upright in an attitude of reverence and attentiveness. The chandeliers shed their light everywhere, lighting up the icons on the walls and on the icon stands. Everything was bright and shining. The little oil lamps were lit, the incense exuded fragrance and the singing resonated devoutly in the otherworldly beauty of the night. I was overcome with awe, but also with fear. I felt that I was no longer on earth, but that I had been transported to heaven. [18] 

Notice that the setting and experience are quite similar, down to the details, and just as Frodo is transported into a realm of ‘visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined’, so the young Elder Porphyrios was ‘transported to heaven’. There is even the concern with sleepiness. Sam is already asleep and Frodo himself falls asleep. Bilbo observes: ‘It is difficult to keep awake here, until you get used to it,...Not that hobbits would ever acquire quite the elvish appetite for music and poetry and tales. They seem to like them as much as food, or more. They will be going on for a long time yet....’ [19] 

Why do the hobbits become so sleepy? Because Rivendell is a monastery, and the elves are monks. The hobbits, like Elder Porphyrios at his first vigil, are fresh from the world. They are not able to enter fully into the contemplative experience of festal celebration. They are still fixated on the lower activities of Rivendell—food and drink and sleep—and are not able to stand through so many hymns. But in Pieper’s words, ‘the heart of leisure consists in “festival”’, and ‘if celebration and festival is the heart of leisure, then leisure would derive its innermost possibility and justification from the very source whence festival and celebration derive theirs. And this is worship.’ [20] The elves, like monks, enter fully into this experience—they can ‘run and not be weary’: 

And so since you will thirst for the words of the poetic canons, of the Psalter and of all the church service books, and since you will desire to read, hear and take them to heart, as soon as the simantron sounds, you will run at once with love and eagerness to hear the first words of the daily cycle of prayer...Our soul is gladdened and our hearing is sweetened as we hear the hymns and something happens within us. [21] 

[1] John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008), p. 102. In the original post, I quoted the translation of Robert Fitzgerald.

[2] John Henry Newman, Rise & Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays, Vol. 3 of The Works of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Birmingham Oratory, Millennium Edition (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2001), pp. 385; qtd. in James Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998), p. 35. 

[3] Dame Rebecca West, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (NY: Viking, 1943), p. 1044. 

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There & Back Again (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 48. 

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 219. While making extensive use of the Lord of the Rings Companion this year, I began to realise acutely that I need a copy of the new edition of LOTR, which has been carefully corrected and emended in many places. 

[6] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 224. 

[7] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 224. 

[8] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 225. 

[9] Eating and drinking of course, can be seen as serving the utilitarian end of nourishing our bodies, but we do not choose to eat primarily for such an end, but more for the enjoyment of it. 

[10] Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, tr. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 1998), p. 77. 

[11] Pieper, Leisure, p. 33. 

[12] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 221. 

[13] In his terrific article, ‘Coleridge’s Definition of Imagination & Tolkien’s Definition(s) of Faery’, Tolkien Studies, Vol. VII, ed. Douglas A. Anderson, Michael D.C. Drout, & Verlyn Flieger (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia U, 2010) pp. 55-66, Michael writes: 

For when Tolkien expresses regret at having used the word ‘Magic’ to define Faery (since it ‘should be reserved for the operations of the Magician’), he offers another words instead: ‘Enchantment’, a term he uses to refer to the ‘elvish craft’ of ‘“Faerian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records’, i.e. fairy-stories, ‘the elves have often presented to men...’ (On Fairy Stories 63-64). Tolkien explains, ‘Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside...’ (64). This means that if you are present at a Faerian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it’ (63). (pp. 59-60.) 

[14] Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art & Contemplation, tr. Lothar Krauth (SF: Ignatius, 1990), p. 39. 

[15] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 227. 

[16] I have also experienced in a monastic setting—the women’s monastery of the Archangel Michael on the island of Thasos—precisely what Tolkien describes when he writes, ‘[S]uddenly it seemed to Frodo that Arwen turned towards him, and the light of her eyes fell on him from afar and pierced his heart’ (232). 

[17] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 232. 

[18] Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love: The Life & the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, ed. Sisters of the Holy Convent of Chrysopigi (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2005), p. 11. 

[19] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 231. 

[20] Pieper, Leisure, p. 50. 

[21] Elder Porphyrios, p. 164.