Reflection on Balaam’s Praise

JMJ

מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob! How fair your dwellings, Israel! 
– Numbers 24:5 (Jerusalem Bible, 1968)

The chant “Ma Tovu, Ohehlecha Yacov” is often used at the beginning of the Friday Evening synagogue service. The congregation chants slowly and gently, as if chewing on a text for meditation. Sung in Hebrew, to a traditional tune, it seems almost like a line of the Psalms. The quoted text, though, is from a gentile: Balaam, who is called a prophet in Numbers. He would not have spoken in Hebrew – although the tex is recorded thus. What is sparking the writer’s interest though is that Balaam uses the name of God. In the Jerusalem Bible (1968) this is driven home by rendering the name of God as “Yahweh” in the text. This translation also notes when Balaam uses “Shaddai” (almighty). Balaam’s later history is not so good: in Deuteronomy, he is slain for his leading the Israelites astray. In Revelation, Balaam is described as a stumbling block, showing King Balak how to seduce the people. Without regard to the historicity of the text, it’s interesting that, despite conflicts in later sections, the final form of the story included in Numbers posits a major prophetic revelation outside of Israel.

Balaam is one of several important speakers in the Bible who are not members of or ancestors of Israel: Job, Balaam, Jethro, Melchizedek, and King Cyrus are each given very important functions in the story of the Hebrews. Collectively these seem to add a depth of complexity to Israel’s identity as “the Chosen People”. God is clearly working through other nations as well.

What does it mean that the Jewish scriptures allow for this Gentile to know the Name of God? Genesis 4 says that Enosh was the first to invoke the name of God – Yahweh is mentioned by name in Genesis 4:26 of the Jerusalem Bible – but the same Chapter puts the divine name first in the mouth of Eve. According to an article on Wikipedia, which the writer quotes with some trepidation, the Divine Name occurs 165 times in Genesis.

The implication seems to be that the knowledge of the Divine Name is spread throughout the human family and we need only be reminded of it.  Israel seems, thus, to foreshadow the Church is in the world as “the Sacrament of Salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶780), with Israel serving as a sacramental of the Name. The term is taken on purpose for a sacramental is more of a reminder of the thing, than a mystical conveyance of the thing itself. Balaam singing “Ma tovu…” then becomes a prayer of the Gentile. “Israel, you are so beautiful: you call me to remember the true God.”

Balaam knows he can say nothing but what Yahweh tells him to say. He can say neither more nor less (Gen 22:20, 22:35, 22:38, etc), even though Balak asks him to curse Israel. Balaam says, “How shall I curse one when God does not curse? How shall I denounce when God does not denounce?” (23:8) Although only tangentially related to this essay, we might well ask the same thing today regarding the Saints of the Church whom we are asked to curse in the name of political correctness.

The Prophecies of Balaam are now of note: “See, a people dwelling apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob? Who can number the cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the just! May my end be one with theirs!” (Gen 23:9b-10). God promised to make Israel’s children to be numbered like the sands of the sea. Balaam is seeing the measuring rod by which all nations are judged. They are a people “dwelling apart”. In fact, the boundaries of the nations are based on the numbers of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:8). 

I have seen no evil in Jacob / I marked no suffering in Israel. / Yahweh his God is with him; / in him sounds the royal acclaim. (Gen 23:21) His God is with him – but His God is our God as well. As I noted, they are the sacramental of the name. 

Now Balaam becomes “the man with far-seeing eyes.. one who hears the word of God.” (24:3-4a, 15-16a) and he sees what God commands. Yet the prophecies in chapter 24 are Messianic! A Gentile is making these prophecies of the coming king. A hero arises from their stock, he reigns over countless peoples. His king is greater than Agag, his majesty is exalted. (24:7) I see him-but not in the present, I behold him-but not close at hand: a star from Jacob takes the leadership, a scepter arises from Israel. (24:17) Again this seems to underscore Israel’s position as among the nations of the world by virtue of this coming king. Here it is being confessed by someone not from the Twelve Tribes and so adding importance. Even those “out in the world” recognize our importance. 

If Israel serves as a sacramental of the Divine Name in the world then the ways others know the name mark moments of grace present and active. Melchizedek can bless Abraham because they both know the same God – even though Abraham is seemingly closer to God (in terms of their relationship) than the priest-king. Jethro knows of Yahweh (Ex 18:10), so that Moses can be ready when the Burning Bush happens. Rahab’s awareness of God (Joshua 2:8ff) opens her eyes and heart to helping the Hebrew spies. In various ways, these Gentiles serve as sacramentals for Israel: reminding Israel of his duty to God, or reminding Israel of God’s faithfulness.

These passages call out to the present writer because he has journeyed long in other paths, seemingly rejecting God. These passages seem to be signs of hope!  God can speak through these other people and traditions. This is echoed in writers from the Eastern Orthodox tradition who can hear Christ in the “old testaments” of other religions, for a good example, see Christ the Eternal Tao by Fr Damascene, a very “traditionalist” Orthodox Monk. This book is a favorite of the present writer as it bypasses syncretism yet shows well how God used another religion to prepare for Christ.  Likewise, Missionaries, when meeting a new people, search for connections in the local culture so that the Gospel can be preached using local signposts. 

As noted, in later books of the Bible Balaam is not a “good guy”: quite the opposite. So it’s clear that having the right ideas about God (at least sometimes) does not prevent one from going astray. In fact, it might be argued that Balaam’s nearness to what Israel was learning about God made it easier for them to follow him into his own errors. We cannot heed every word of every person outside the faith who uses the Divine Name. It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Mat 7:21).  There are a lot of shenanigans caused by people who use the Name of Jesus or Christ. A Course in Miracles is a good example of how bad things can get if one is outside the faith and just misusing the faith left and right! Yet Balaam shows us it is possible for someone outside to be “connected” (even if for a moment). His song is still sung in the Synagogue. 

If Israel is seen as a sacramental of the Divine Name, a reminder that God is “the One who Is” or “the Existing One” as he is named by the Byzantine liturgy, all of us can sing, How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob!  Israel has shown us all the way to the Tabernacle of God. Balaam, though, indicates that even it is possible for those outside the community to be faithful in their own way. They can – on occasion – even be used by God to show the community her own mistakes. It could be possible for God to use non-Christians to correct our missteps. 

Psalm 7×7

JMJ

Sicut Patres Nostri
of Huw, A Lament sitting on the dock of the Bay

AS OUR FATHERS before us
So we sit by the waters
As by Babylon of old
by the waters of the Bay
Do you remember us, Lord?

The Saints have told us
Of your faithfulness, your love
Your power
You came with them to defeat their enemies
You swept before them in victory
That the Gospel might triumph
But we reap a different harvest
As we are despised not for your love
But for our victory
Their statues are toppled
Their names slashed
And your Name then slandered
Do you remember us, Lord?
We retrench and advance
but you do not go with us
And we fail
Do you remember us, Lord?

Our Fathers told us
Of days recently passed
Millions gathered in the park
Rosaries waving, families praying
Cameras filming
Yet now we cannot get permits
To pray without masks
To walk without harassment
To save children
Do you remember us, Lord?

We know naught happens but you allow it
Naught comes to pass but your will
Our semantics quibble over
Permissive or possitive
But it comes from you
Make us to know our sins
Give us contrition
That we may repent
Send us here our purgatory
That we may be purified

Our Fathers have told us that it was by your might
Trusting too much in princes hoping in strength
Did we fail in your name
Failing to offend those who offend you
Because of their power?
Have we forgotten our way?
Our new weakness your ancient Gospel
Our new death the way to renewed resurrection
Do you remember us, Lord?

Our Lord spoke to us saying we would not be loved
We would be rejected and hated for his Truth
Which is only ever Love
The world rejects us because of our sins.
Our pride in our power.
Have we forgotten you, Lord?

Your weakness is our strength
Trusting the might that was ours formerly
We lost our way in Babylon
And here, we mourn by the waters
The Bay laps our feet as we pray

We have sinned against heaven and before you
As our Fathers repented so do we
And as bread is lifted and cup is raised
Again. The work of human hands.
Show us the light of your love
That we may know the way
That we may walk with you
That we may know the way to walk
That the world may see you
As we see you
That the world may know you
As we know you
As you know us

We will praise you
Not for our power but for our weakness
Which is like yours
Weak even to death
Not for our passage of laws
But for our love winning hearts
When you then sweep before us in victory
Your Gospel will triumph
Even to resurrection
And we reap your harvest
From a world craving your love
That men may see our good works
And praise you
And we will know you then as you are
Again as you are always
Amen. Amen.

Prayer of the Heart

JMJ

THE WAY OF A PILGRIM is a classic text of 19th Century Russian Orthodox spirituality, carrying forward the tradition of the Jesus Prayer or “the prayer of the heart”. I read the text once, as a new convert to Orthodoxy, because that’s what you do, but I was troubled by many words that seemed to be too newagey for me. They were very triggering for me – since I have a past in that world. What got me was talk about “unifying the heart and the mind”. This sounds (for those with the same history) like certain exercises in Western esotericism. So, on the advice of a wise priest, I didn’t go there. There’s enough in Orthodoxy – indeed in Catholicism as well – that one needn’t get trapped by one or another spiritual practice.

Recently, reading a book for my class in Old Testament, I came across this line:

To an ancient, the brain had no thinking role; it ran the senses of hearing and seeing and smelling. The heart did the thinking, and the kidneys gave the emotional feelings of joy, fear, and sorrow.

Reading the Old Testament, An Introduction, 2nd Ed.
by Lawrence Boadt, Paulist Press, 2012

I’ve been wondering what it felt like to “think in the heart”. I seem to naturally “hear” my thinking voice in my head, between my ears, in my brain. Working on the assumption that there’s no reason – at all – for that voice to located in any one part of our bodies, it seems that it’s set there by social construction: a child is told things from birth about where feelings and thinking (etc) happen inside and so it seems to be true.

Now, here this passage from A Way of A Pilgrim:

He opened the book, found the instruction by St. Simeon the new theologian, and read: ” ‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.'”

Translation from Russian by R.M. French

You see that that the writer is quoting St Simeon, a writer from the 10th Century. It’s certainly not newage stuff, but, as I mentioned, such language is used in that world too. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. Such language is quite common in both eastern and western religious traditions. Is is possible that this quest to put the “thoughts” in your heart is, in fact, an attempt to return to the way things were in the past when we all “knew” the heart was were thinking was? In other words, is this ancient and common spiritual practice a way to fix something that went wrong when we let the brain take over the thinking voice? There seems to be some sort of human awareness that this is broken.

The modern world seems to live in data and head-space, as if to say the heart is meaningless (except for “love” by which they mean gushy feelings and sexual pleasure). I have no further thoughts on this at the present time. It seems, though, as if the spiritual traditions of the world only “work” if the heart is doing the thinking.

In the Glory of the Cross

JMJ

FROM the Office of Readings for the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday:

The cross is our trophy raised against the demons, our sword against sin and the sword Christ used to pierce the serpent. The cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the only-begotten, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the angels, the guarantee of the Church, Paul’s boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world.
– St John Chrysostom

It’s not only Jesus’ cross of which he speaks! Each of us have a cross to bear, our trophy against demons, our sword against sin. It is the Sword (of our lives) that Christ uses to pierce the serpent.

This Cross – which is pain and sorrow for us, which is different for each of us, which may be a “thorn in the flesh”, an addiction to sin, a sexual temptation, or a disordered affection, or a disease – this cross is the Father’s will, the glory of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the Angels, the guarantee of the Church, our own boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world… if we but let God use it as he would.

Mediation… and you

JMJ

At the end of Messiah Handel composed a four minute long Amen that fugues its way through some classic baroque forms and progression ending, finally, with five very firm Amens presented as 3 and 2, with a break of four beats in total silence between them. Listening to the entire piece, it seems that silence is exactly the purpose of the last two hours. There is a chill of eternity in the silence and the slide of angels’ wings. I see the Dore engraving which heads this post: a silent swirl around the Divine Majesty.

We stand in that silent swirl at Mass and we discover it’s not silent: for the entirety of it sings continually, Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth! The hymn continually unites us to the one place, the one time, the one moment: the eternal now of what Dante called the White Rose of Paradise. We might, these days with our eastern overlap, think of it more as a lotus and we would not be wrong. The ancient Hindu geometric figures convey the same thing imagery of many-petaled forms around an all-embracing center. Recently in a discussion of this flower formed around the All-Holy Trinity in Dante, it was asked why everyone wasn’t rushing to the center: let me get in there! But, of course, that’s thinking as humans do. In submission to the will of God and yielding place to the others in the dance, one arrives exactly at the place where one should be. No location further in is desired or needed and to move out of place in the dance would be a sin. What, though, is the purpose of the dance?

Think of a prism, how light pours in on one side and is refracted out from another side. While never denying that God cannot reach eternity and infinity, being everywhere present and filling all things, he gives us that omnipresence and filling to reach ever more hearts drawing them in. God is the ground of being so each individual that participates in the act of being mediates God’s presence. For man, made in the image and likeness of God, our being is rooted in God and our hearts can contemplate the logoi or “words” in present in all created beings because we, too, through Baptism and the Church, participate in the Logos as God the Son is incarnate in human nature, restoring us to our place in the dance. We become the prism(s) through which the light is refracted to others around us. We are the way grace is actualized in the hearts of those around us (that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven).

The Saints mediate this light to us, and the Church does so through the Sacraments: each one being a moment in time that is an actualization of the one eternity intersecting with us here. But that intersection pierces all of time: as the Incarnation is the presence of God in time, so now, the Son of God is the presence of humanity in Eternity. Each offering of the Mass is the one perpetual offering of the Son to the Father on the Cross by the Son. The Church is the Body of Christ offering himself to the Father though all of time.

This perpetual act of mediation frames literally everything the Christian does: God is in direct contact with everyone, but in his grace and in his humility, he is pleased to use everyone in mediation of this direct contact. It is no less direct here, for as the Consecrated Bread of the Eucharist is actually God so is his presence through mediation in your life and the life of those around you.

Let us close by returning to Handel and the silent, eternal song of Sanctus! Even music, well done, shares in this act of mediation: for we are creators like Our Heavenly Father, in whose likeness we share. Our creations, too, can serve as points of divine mediation. God can be present in the things we make, celebrating his glory even when not intended as such. This is why we can read the Gospel in E.T. as easily as in the Narnia stories. True acts of creation are, themselves, mediations of the one creator. Handel is reported to have composed the Messiah in 24 days and when he left his writing desk he is said to have exclaimed, “God has visited me.” Anyone who feels this in the music, or who sees it in the beauty of art or a building, or even in the beauty of another person, can confirm that God is present. For him who can read the signs, the same is true in mathematical code, or textual composition. As God is creator so are we and as we are ravished by beauty, so is he to give it to us by our own hands.

Danse Macabre 2021

JMJ

ALL HALLOWS EVE enchanted dark
A stroll I took in chill
To see the children on their lark
And thus a pipe to kill

The sunset orange watching pass
And night on coming strong
When deep from Mission hill and grass
I heard a haunted song

Then followed I this tunèd curse
Until I found the source
And deep beneath Dolores firs
I saw a morbid course

And dancing came the doomèd mob
In pairs of flesh and bone
A line was paced to plaintive sob
And cold as chiseled stone

Now though I thought in fright to flee
Before my feet would fly
Their rhythm’d steps came round me
That each might pass me by

And silent were the corpses all
But skeletons well said
Without the breath or fleshy pall
Upon their bony head

They spoke addressing me by name
Well done to find us here
And will you make our chorus fame
In gruesome verse appear?

I nodded silent as I typed
In thumbs upon my screen
unbidden verse my phone had striped
In pixeled eerie sheen

The first pair came in courtly swirl
And round me then to go
The bone man led a regal girl
Whose years made dancing slow

An empress grand she ruled the globe
A century bears her mark
Now unamused in weeds her robe
Death has a Victory stark

The second pair now came aside
In black and white a boy
The bones and he hob’d horses stride
With a candle as a toy

At altar knelt he near the south
And well he served the priest
But now for prayers he has no mouth
We take both great and least

The third pair came a man in suit
With marching hails the chief
and wearing chains of free world’s loot
The leader of their grief

We get them all said clacking jaw
In top hat or in none
No leader yet the world has saw
Who has this dance not done

And next there came in sleeves o’er long
A song book in her hand
The lead soprano with her song
And shin bones for her band

Her voice oft piped on eagles wings
Her hands on guitar strummed
But deeply buried gravèd things
Like songs have her made dumb

Antifa dancèd by my side
With Patriot Prayers in tow
Their axes choppèd each their hide
An eternity of woe

One skeleton prancèd by their side
The two had but one soul
Eternally now matèd they
And in one space they troll

Up next came an boy with bat
A beard and muscles slack
The dodger blue upon his hat
Was fading now to black

In leaving Brooklyn bone man said
The team betray’d their home
And round the world the cursèd dead
as traitors made to roam

A priest came next his back to me
His robes array’d for Mass
In Dance his face I n’er did see
Tho him did thrice me pass

His liturgy was drama trim
The showman ever play’d
And so in death his penance grim
His face away is staid

A cardinal with Capitol
Was turning on the ground
The skeletons would take their tole
As each his body found

A tech bro came: lyft, scooter, vape
And options like the dew
the ghosts of startups round him drape
and dreams are all askew

A data science preacher stood
behind her keyboard dark
with graphs and charts both mighty good
Predicting earnings dark

But prophets cannot profits tell
An ivory dancer said
And Mammon leaves one strait to, well…
It’s just enough she’s dead

An Abbot tall with croizer’d hand
was further down the queue
As bones did by him stand
like all the others too

A Jesuit came down the pike
Accompanying his charge
No heresy he didn’t like
His tent was mighty large

A politician found her mark
and made a Arabesque
So firm her planks her promise, hark!
To voters now address’d

A crowd came next in mournful band
Unmaskèd in the park
Unwilling now they hold death’s hand
Weeping in the dark

Another crowd then by me danced
their arms withal unshot
at common good they looked askance
and now in death are hot

And sovereign citizens arose
to proudly strut their stuff
no rights will their death oppose
the demons call their bluff

And then a greater crowd there came
Not was mask’d or led
but of their own will they came
to fall among the dead

Then Death herself the reaper grim
astride the path did stand
and all around her rais’d a hymn
this morbid bony band

We get them all We slay them all
And none can say us nay
We wake them all we take them all
as night ore-takes the day

And last alone some lonely bone
said to a novice sent
Tis I, I said and dropped this phone
and dancing off we went

Sorrowful Mysteries of Virtue

JMJ

DURING THE SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE (ascesis, podvig, jihad) to acquire the virtues there are three opponents that must be defeated: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the course of this battle, the self is also conquered, but it cannot be so until the other three are defeated. Of course none of these can be defeated without the help of the graces offered by Our Lord in his Church and through the intercession of our brothers and sisters, especially the saints – especially the All Holy Theotokos and Blessed Virgin, Mary. Our Lady has offered many weapons to her knights in this crusade, most especially the Rosary. By way of meditation, here are the Sorrowful Mysteries considered as part of this battle.

This comes as a meditation and prayer for those who are working in the Courage Apostolate, but it may be of use for others.

I

In the Garden we struggle to understand what is happening. In the Dark Night we have to discern the three enemies and beg God’s grace to fight them. The death of what we think or imagine to be ourself is upon us. We must learn to see the false self, also, as an enemy. In fact we are called to slay this shadow before we can even offer our own gifts upon the altar. This will be the first (but not final) sacrifice. We must ask for courage, yes, and we must also accept the humility of obedience. Not my will, but thine be done.

II

At the pillar we face the Devil: who presents us with our own desires, memories, cravings. By the impiety of our straying he has power over us. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: …we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. In the course of all that we have have seared our conscience and can only hear the whisperings of evil. All that we thought (previously) as “good” we must discard. What we face is the lashings of our addictions, the chemical imbalances we have created in our own brains by our actions. Eventually, as mentioned, we realize this means even our own ideas of who we are and what we have become. We must let these false goods die so that the real good may rise.

Of course the three things against which we struggle are never present alone. If one is there the other two are near. If one feels strongest the other two are just waiting to tag in. And so the world and the flesh are here as well. For what we have learned is engraved in our flesh and what we have learned we have learned from the world.

III

Under the Crown of Thorns we face the World and most especially we face the mockery of the world. In some cases we may be blessed to suffer actual persecution, but mostly mockery. We may suffer the relatively gentle mockery of allurements, or the fierce mockery of former compatriots in our sins. We may find our brows bleeding from the smiting of coworkers who reject us. We may feel the spittle of angry political opponents.

Most especially, we may find our hearts wounded by fellow Catholics who, rejecting Church teaching, try to lead us astray. We must offer this mystery especially for these who often defend our sins as cover for theirs or, perhaps, they feel they are doing a favor by “speaking out” when they are only speaking the voice of the World and not the Church and the heart of Christ bleeds for them too.

The devil tempts us all in our weakness and our flesh more but increasingly less willingly caves in. We find ourselves continually trapped in a three-way battle over ourselves.

IV

At the last carrying the cross we face the Flesh but always, really, we fight on all three fronts continually. Here, at last, though the victory is won in patience. We must learn to only keep going, to only just carry on. Here, no fall is too great as long as we only get up again and keep on keeping on. The flesh becomes stronger in virtue as its vices are weakened. Here each time we lift the cross again, it rises easier and easier. Yes, we must still die on it, yes that final sacrifice is coming, but here we are being prepared to make that offering.

The devil calls us back to our flesh. The world says Don’t leave me. Schylla and Charibdis seek to destroy us, but only keep on, one foot in front of the other. In the end the victory is death. But it is glorious.

V

The triumph is the Crucifixion. We have finally destroyed all our false selves. Now, at last, we can be crucified. For to crucify something false is to offer strange fire. Here at last is the final victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil. Death removes us from their power struggle. Death also opens us to God. Every little death is a prefiguring of this final sacrifice. Every little death takes us farther from them until at last we can be entirely God’s own. It is possible in life even for if you die before you die then when you die you will not die. But for most this death continues after death until, at last purged of all death, we can live, finally.

Bicameral Minds on Perelandra

JMJ

Julian Jaynes’ epic 1976 work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argues that the human mind had a major evolutionary change as recently as 3,000 years ago: that the left and right brains used to talk to each other and that this conversation could be perceived as an external voice, as the voice of God. This stoped about 1,000 Before the Christian Era. Jaynes suggests this is the real origin of all religion – the human brain talking to itself. He further posits that the evolutionary opening-up of this conversation (so that it became more unified) resulted in our modern mind – the way our “internal conversation” is all “internal”. Except in cases of certain mental illnesses, we don’t think of or experience the various voices in our head as anything but our own consciousness. The change 3,000 years ago left us hungering for that directive voice in our head. This is a very cursory view of the theory, but the book is worth a read: it explores everything from Homer to the Hebrew Prophets and modern experiments. Perelandra, CS Lewis’ meditation on man, woman, and the fall, presents a different idea of this bicameral conversation in a prelapsarian culture on Venus. A man and a woman are situated by God (Whom Lewis named Maleldil) on a planetary Eden. A tempter and a defender are sent from Earth to mix things up. Ransom, the protector, encounters the Eve of Venus or the Lady, as she is called in the book, just in time to begin the battle with evil. The story plays out in a different way from our own Eden story. There’s much else to meditate on and there’s spoilers below this paragraph: if you’ve not read it you should – you may want to pass this post by. That said, though, we’re going to focus on the bicameral conversation and implications for our human, earthly faith.


As Ransom begins to interact with her he finds the Lady strange and somewhat childlike, even silly. She grows wiser, even as he watches! She seems to be constantly growing more mature. She is somehow plugged into the Holy Spirit in an active, two-way conversation. At times this conversation is very present, pulling her full attention away from whatever is before her. At other times the conversation is somehow under the surface, but it’s always available to her awareness but never intrusive. When Ransom says something about Earth or our history – forgetting that the Lady has never been to Earth – suddenly she understands. “Maleldil is telling me…” she says when he asks her how she knows. Maleldil tells her about space travel and Mars. Other things, which are deemed less important, Maleldil does not share with her even when she asks.

The Lady of Perelandra is fully engaged in what Jaynes would call a Bicameral Conversation- except it’s actually God she’s talking to. It can be somewhat frustrating for the reader: there’s no plot device that this ongoing conversation cannot trigger. Deus ex machina except it’s actually Deus himself, not a machine. You keep waiting for her to stop talking to Maleldil and to become an active part of the book. It’s as if there’s someone outside of the sphere of reality that is interfering with what could otherwise be an excellent book about good and evil, women and men. One keeps expecting her to pull out of the conversation or perhaps to grow up. Maybe later she will mature and God will let her stand on her own? But by the end of the book – when the evil has been destroyed and she has not fallen as our first parents did – the conversation is still going. She has become infinitely wiser and yet God still whispers in her ear.

Even reading the book several times, this conversation with someone offstage constantly annoyed this writer. Why was this character – and her husband as well – so immature, even at the end of the book when they were infinitely wiser? By “immature” here what is indicated is there’s a sense where the characters in this constant conversation with Maleldil have a sort of crutch in the mind of the reader: can she (later they) not make decisions on their own? Are they condemned to be children forever? Even when they are sitting on their thrones triumphant, Lord and Lady of their own world, Maleldil is whispering in their ears about what should be done next, about what choices can be made, about how to live. Even when the “good guy” makes choices he seems to be able to do so on his own without little whispers in his ear.

For our first session of class this semester, studying the Old Testament with Wendy Biale, we were asked to read the opening parts of God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology by Dominique Barthélemy, OP. In discussing Eve’s Fall, Barthélemy notes that “it seems to me to be neither at the moment when Eve began to doubt, nor when she committed the act, but when she left herself open to the fascination of the doubt, when she entertained the doubt. It was precisely then that she became responsible; at the moment when she began to dwell pleasurably on the eventuality, on that doubt which touched on the motive of the divine command, when she let her mind play with what the serpent suggested. It was not the fact of having heard, it was not the fact of having acted, it was the fact of having lent her ear willingly, of having reflected and dwelt on the possibility, of having as it were forgotten in that moment all her daily experience of God’s dealing with their lives, of God’s dealing with creation, and having preferred instead the most unlikely eventuality, which was at the same time the most terrifying: that she might be sport of God… There we have that fragile second when there is indeed still real liberty of choice and then, an instant later when there is liberty no longer. Although nothing has been done, one has toyed with and welcome the idea that it might possibly be done. And in this toying, the decisive element takes the form of a sort of crazy attraction to what is worst.” (Emphasis added.)

What Eve did was to push God away for a moment to think on her own to make up her own mind. She knew what the command was but, having embellished it on her own above and beyond God’s command to not-eat (we shouldn’t even touch it, she added) Eve takes the place of God in her own mind, “wait, maybe I have this wrong”. Sin occurs exactly in that moment where we say, “Everyone hush! (Including you, God…) Let me think for a moment.” In that moment of silence we seem to automatically drift to the worst possible reading.

Even in that moment of Eve thinking on her own – or attempting to – God was still there for the Word can never be silent, but Eve, having made the choice to pull out of the conversation, kept going. The end result was that her tuning device, if you will, could no longer pick up that station and neither can any of her children. Even for us, with the restorative grace of Baptism and continual fortification of the Sacraments, the channel is always just-slightly-enough out of tune. We pick up part of the conversation with care, and none with ease. And now our psychologists posit that the ability to do so, at all, is a sign of devolution at least if not outright mental illness.

So, for the modern or post-modern reading Lewis’ story now, the Lady seems forever childish precisely because we have no way of imagining what that ongoing conversation would be like. We may, for moments, tune in: hands held up in silent prayer and bliss before the exposed Eucharist, the joyful awe of the conception of our children, the peaceful bliss of Viaticum, but it seems painful to sustain, like a holiday that has gone on too long and we only want to get back to regular work just for the sheer normalcy of it all.

Is it possible to sustain it longer? Can we offer to God our on-going conversation? We are not sinless like Eve or the Lady of Perelandra. We are off a different sort, now, but maybe. We have different offerings: stumbles, pricks in the flesh, weak joys, half-baked ideas, spiritual blog posts generated in off moments in parking lots. We might be able to offer these to God as a sort of firstfruits to see if they can be blessed. The normal process is to suddenly cry out for help as we sink beneath the waves, but Peter first said, “If it’s you, call me to come to you…” We might be able to sustain the action more and more each time, with practice. Pray for strength, make the essay with grace, fail and try again. Eventually, it may be possible to pray for the enter tire morning commute. As the Catechism points out, “praying” is the relationship itself. It’s not the particular words we use or the rites, it’s the relationship. It’s not something you can do sometimes. When one is married, one is married always. The only reason to pretend otherwise (even in the house, first thing in the morning) is to prepare for adultery. You’ve already done it in your heart at that point.

As with other relationships, this one starts out small. We cannot sustain it: even though we are designed for it, we are not strong enough. By grace we can be brought forward, able to hold on longer. After a while we may be able to sustain a portion of a holy hour or a walk in the park aware of being In the Presence.

Jaynes seems to be right in that our mind used to, at one point, be better tuned to this conversation. It may even be the Left and Right brains as he theorizes. It follows that having severed the connection in Eden millennia ago, the whole physiological and psychological process would continue to break down. Even in evolution it is true, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” It is possible to imagine that 3000 years ago something else broke.

But by grace, we can begin to repair the instrument.

At the end of Perelandra the Lady and her Lord, having triumphed over the temptation, are enthroned and ruling over Creation is a way that humans have not been able to do since our First Parents fell. As a result, everything is disordered – even the creation itself groans under the weight of our initial misstep. On Perelandra the human beings became as gods in their own right. We only do so by grace and, mostly, after death. We have literally no experience of what this would be like. As this writer noted his frustration with the childishness of the Perelandran Lady, so he must also note his sadness that he cannot be so childlike. As this writer finds her on-going conversation with God to be a sort of crutch, so he can only limp along, on hobbled feet, sad that his pride will not let him have such a crutch. Yet it is so in hope: for filled with grace it is possible that healing can come. One day, Maleldil may be telling me.

It was precisely in her willingness to keep listening to the conversation that the Lady of Perelandra was able to avoid what was, indeed, the only pitfall: trying to stand on her own, apart from the Ground of Being that is God himself. He is not a crutch so much as the very thing we stand on at all, where the Word is the act of standing, and the Holy Spirit is the power to stand. We would not be without beingness Himself. We pretend otherwise at our own peril.

Sonnet XVI: Harrow

JMJ

Alone by Abraham he watching stands
And turns to John the Cousin as they smile
Isaiah grins at Moses laughing while
Judith and Esther wait in garland bands

Now righteous pagans rise to hear the trial
Lao tzu has joined him and Gautama too
The final stanzas of hells songs are through
And yawning gapes the maw of death most vile

As light breaks open hades darkened rue
And angels chaining demons part the throng
Comes Jesus here to one for whom he’s long
Been grieving. Joseph, Daddy, chaste and true

And riven hell releases hist’ry’s clans
As Son and Abba weep ore claspéd hands

Solar Wind

JMJ

EACH STAR HAS A field of energy that is going both outward and inward. The outward energy we call a “wind” because it is unseen and “blowing” outward from the star: it is the light, itself, actually. If you can see the star you are “in” the wind from that star. Our star, Sol, being closest we are in this wind the most, of course. There are eddies and cross-currents, and shadows, if you will. It would be possible to “sail” on this wind. In fact there are designs for such ships: they are as beautiful and graceful as sailing ships on our seas. As much as there is outward, there is also the inward energy which we call gravity. The mass of the star literally curves space and pulls things towards it. Again: if you can see the star’s light, the gravity is also present. Sol’s gravity is closest to us and affects us the most, but all objects have gravity so the gravity from our nearest neighbor, Luna, has a heavier pull on us. Gravity – although it holds everything together – is a weak force and it is made weaker by distance. Light and wind go much further.

Every once in a while a star’s gravity might “catch” a passerby, even millions of miles away and that object begins a long journey inward, towards the star. If the item is small it may – eventually – just get pulled into the star and consumed in the fire. If the item is a bit larger and moving fast enough, its velocity and trajectory may take it around the star and shoot it back out into space, only to slow down later and come back for the same trip. This might take millions of years to complete, but the same process will repeat. As it comes in, pulled by gravity, the solar wind will push off bits and pieces. The object will, over much time, get smaller and smaller. Eventually it will not be able to escape the star again – and it will get pulled into the fire. Else, it may – somewhere out in space – just disconnect from the gravity, get pushed away in the wind, and never come back. If the item is frozen, covered in some gas or liquid, it may melt at high speed, throwing off a tail of reflected light and so, instead of an asteroid, we have a comet. These things may pass us, here on Earth, as we go on our own way and we see them and smile, gaze in awe, or make a wish. We, too, are held in place by gravity against the solar winds, our home’s size, trajectory, and speed keeping us just where we need to be to live.

Now, let us consider the comet and the star, as a sign of the soul’s journey to God.

For this image, though, God would be the only star in all the universe. Yes, we have other things that we think are stars, but they are not really stars at all. As the comet gets closer in love, the tail is all that is superfluous blown away – think of confession, the struggle for virtues, the acts of self-sacrifice, the withering of the ego. Each time the comet circles closer, losing its speed and trajectory, and the orbit grows smaller. The away and return gets shorter. In the end, all refuse jettisoned, it falls into the fires of eternal love.

And even for far-distant things, the choice is only to ride the gravity in or to let the solar winds blow one into distant eternities away. Coming closer means the fires get hotter, the winds stronger. If the soul holds on to anything here, she will be blown further away. She must let it all go, let it all go, let it all go behind as she falls closer and closer to the star. And she is a she, passive, drawn forward, as the star is a he, the active drawing forth. With God, the entire cosmos is she, passive before the one active mover of all.

There is a further realization, for God is everywhere present, filling all things. There is not “distance” from God: there is no center. There is no place towards which the gravity draws or from which the winds blow. That a soul is not flooded with fear at the light, or blown apart by the wind, that a soul is not burned instantly, and still must move forward to see more is, itself, an act of grace. God has hidden himself that he may be found. He woos us, but we must allow ourselves to be wooed.  God’s action of withdrawal is the opening for us to follow. His hiddenness calls us to find him. His fading light in the distance becomes the dawn of our faith and that faith becomes the light for others. “Just as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II Q. 188, A. 6)

We live and move and have our being in the star, yet the darkness, too, is real: as the comet moves forward, the refuse burns away and the light is more revealed. God is love. And we are nought but loved, even in the fire that cleanses us. And the refuse, itself, becomes our glory for we leave a beautiful passing.