Sheer Poetry

JMJ

The reason, however, why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvelous.
– St Thomas Aquinas

WHEN THIS QUOTE Surfaced in my Twitter timeline this morning, there was first an urgent recourse to Google. The reader is strongly advised to Google any random quotation: so many float around and around with no citation and no original source. Did you know that St Francis ever said nor wrote that bit about “use words if necessary”? Really. There is no source at all – except the internet. Google everything. Anyway… there was recourse to Google. This one is authentic. It comes from St Thomas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 1, Lesson 3. For a better context:

Further, he points out that perplexity and wonder arise from ignorance. For when we see certain obvious effects whose cause we do not know, we wonder about their cause. And since wonder was the motive which led men to philosophy, it is evident that the philosopher is, in a sense, a philo-myth, i.e., a lover of myth, as is characteristic of the poets. Hence the first men to deal with the principles of things in a mythical way, such as Perseus and certain others who were the seven sages, were called the theologizing poets. Now the reason why the philosopher is compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonders.

Note that there is “concerned with wonders” instead of “the marvelous”. That seems to be a translation into English done by whoever translated Josef Pieper’s On Leisure into English. I don’t have the book handy, just this context from Wikiquote:

And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics [I, 3]: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the “wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation towards the “wonderful” (the mirandum — something not to be found in the world of work!) — on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the “wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return
.
– Pieper, J. (2015). Leisure: The Basis of Culture. United Kingdom: Ignatius Press.
(The translation itself is from 1963. I don’t own the book, so I’m not sure, but it’s possible the second half of the book, The Philosophical Act, is a different text? This Aquinas quote with “wondrous” is also the Epigram for the Philosophical Act.)

Update, my friend R. indicates The Philosophical Act “Was Heißt Philosophieren?” was a series of lectures delivered around the time he wrote Leisure, so they’ve been published together in English (as Pieper recommended).

Pieper says it’s not easy to fathom why poets come in here. Your host does not fancy himself a philosopher, but would love to be tagged with St Thomas’ phrase, “theologizing poet” and he has heard at least one philosopher divide between theology and philosophy. Perhaps Aquinas turned a corner here where Pieper was out of his ken.

So, venturing into Theology, let’s turn a corner ourselves to the Epistle of St James. In 1:22, James invites his readers to “be doers of the word, not hearers only”.

First, there’s Word, λόγος Logos. Logos here is the same word as is used in John 1: “The Word”. It’s the mind, the thought/plan/pattern behind everything. It’s the Wisdom of God active in the world and in each thing in the world. Every thing in the world has its own logos, it’s own participation in God’s wisdom. Contemplating the logoi (plural) in God’s creation eventually brings us to contemplation of The Logos, that is, Jesus himself.

Then, consider Doer which here does not mean “someone who hears the gospel and responds with actions”. It’s a verb serving as a noun. It conveys the same difference as between, “you love me” and “you are my lover”. This is important because the word, in Greek, is ποιητής poietas, a maker or a poet. In today’s internet lingo we would say “creator”.

St James’ whole phrase, in Greek, is Γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου ginesthe de poietai logou: Become poets of the Logos.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting: poets are not always the Good Guys in philosophy. St Thomas must have known that Plato had banished almost all poets from the Republic. The reason being that poets tell mythological lies – think Homer, here. Poets that teach virtue can stay, though. These poets ov virtue are, perhaps, the ones to which Aquinas is comparing philosophers. But, of course, Aquinas is also a theologian. Thomas knows that poets of virtue are welcomed in the Heavenly Kingdom, but he does not know Greek so he doesn’t know about “poets of the Logos”. Yet, not only can we see the philosophers of the past and present as poets of virtue – dealing in the wondrous – we can also see them now as poets of the Logos as well. Yet there’s more here: for St James calls us all to do that. This poetic action is the vocation of all Christians! In fact, to not do so is to have failed to live the faith fully.

This means the Philosophical Act of Poetry is part of our Christian Action in the world: we are called to mark out the threads of Christian Poetry from the past (as I mentioned in my post yesterday) but also to weave those threads of wonder into the on-going tapestry of time today and going forward. We are creating soul for the world. We are not permitted to escape this duty. It is the real evangelism: to make the good news incarnate around us.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

From a letter to Diognetus

Cheap Thomism

JMJ

When I first converted to Orthodoxy, entering the Church in 2002, I asked Fr Victor Sokolov (Memory Eternal!) to bless my apartment. Upon arrival, he did a sort of brief inspection of my space including a long perusal of my bookshelves. At that time my library was much larger than it now is, containing the accumulated reading of a couple of decades. (I sold my books slowly to used bookstores, including one massive, $600 buyout during a yard sale that paid for my relocation to Asheville, NC.) On the shelves at that time was a section I called “scripture” which, in addition to a KJV Bible, a JPS Tanakh, and several patristic texts, also included a Tao te Ching and a copy of The Book of the Hopi. Also on the shelf were The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Father – who knew my spiritual peregrinations – took the Narnia boxed set off the shelf and said “This is the Orthodox Truth. We say, ‘taste and see’ and no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search.” He was referring to the Narnian story of Emeth, a young Calormene soldier who, despite never having worshiped Aslan a day in his life, finds himself in Aslan’s eternal Paradise. Aslan says to him, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash [the false god]… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” The Wiki adds, Aslan’s comment can be understood as a development of Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” That verse will come back in a few paragraphs.

This whole incident came to mind in a conversation with a friend, R., who was schooling me in a subject I’ve never studied: Philosophy. This is of particular importance as I’m now taking my first class in the topic. Reading the textbooks, I’ve noticed that I have read works by many of the philosophers involved, but not as topics. Rather, I read for instruction: one of the books on my “Scripture” shelf was Number LXXI of the Bollingen Series: The Collected Works of Plato. I remember once, after reading the Phaedrus, that I was at work in a bookstore. A man purchased a copy of the same text and I tried to engage him in conversation about it: he was horrified to discover I had read the text for Plato’s (Socrates’) ideas about love (usages of which appear some 230+ times in the text, depending on the translation). Rather, he insisted, you should read the text to learn about rhetoric. I’m still not sure about that, but the idea of reading a text to only learn the style or means of the text – and not the actual content – seems silly. I read the Presocratics and the Pythagoreans in College, but I read them to “try them on”. What was it like to think this way? What does it mean that the Cosmos is based on Number? I have always read books that way. What if the answer really is 42? Another friend once asked me on Twitter, “Is there any religion you have not tried?” And yes, there are rather a lot, but the journey through my quest has been fifty-six years long.

Yet the style and means (if those are the right words) are important as well as the content: this all came up in a conversation on hermeneutics. This involves the interpretive framework.

When I was reading these works in college, trying them all on, seeing what worked for me, the interpretive framework was, exactly, me. I wanted to construct a system and a map that worked for me. At this time, wrestling with issues of morality and personal praxis, I wanted a religio-philosophical system that made room for all the choices I was making in that struggle. If I decided XYZ was good, I wanted my “religion” to support me. So, a bit of this, a bit of that, add a pinch of Plato and some Taliesin, and all was good… for a little while. Then, suddenly, something was off. So I would weave in some of the Vedas, and perhaps a soupçon of Hopi, with a large side of Mary Daly. Howsabout a bowl of Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and maybe some Táin Bó Cúailnge? Why don’t we try adding some Sufism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Fr Matthew Fox, OP, (as he then was)?

At any point, as you might expect, I came out of the buffet line with a plate piled higher than my eyeballs with stuff, but no way to eat it except all at once. If you’ve ever been to a Golden Corral you know just exactly what I mean here. I’d eat it all – or toss it out – and start again. Sure, none of this was intended to fit together, but it was all true in a way. The one thing needful was a binder or mortar. Imagination can provide that or any one of several newagey text books. In situo this was a Quest for the Holy Grail, but – as I came to realize – it was really the spiritual version of Hoarding. With myself as the only measure of what was true or not, I would pick up anything that would fit and hope that later it would be possible to iron it all out into something fabulous. Later never comes though, and at a certain point, you get tired of making up stuff.

So I dropped it all. Only to find myself reading some of them again in class. Confusing, to say the least. The last time I read The Republic it was to imagine a better world. The last time I looked a Pythagoras it was to learn Sacred Geometry – as if it were true, mind you, not as a way to make really nice pictures. (The Cloisters Apocalypse as well as almost all pre-modern Christian Cathedrals are designed using these methods, for example.) What is going on now?

So last night’s phone conversation with R.

Is there Truth in there at all? Then it is our, Catholic truth. This is not some newagey relativism. This is the Catholic Faith from the earliest days:

But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.
– St Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 46, From the 2nd Century

And St Thomas Aquinas too – pulling in the “Emeth” verse I mentioned above:
Commenting on the text, “And no man can say the Lord Jesus…” (1 Cor. 12:3), Ambrose says: “Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit.”
Augustine says: “The true is that which is.” But every act of existing is from God. Therefore, every truth is from Him.
Just as the one is interchangeable with being, so is the true, and conversely. But all unity is from the first unity, as Augustine says.
Therefore, every truth also is from the first truth.

Questiones Disputatae de Veritate Q1. Article VIII. Is every other truth from the first truth?

Let’s run with that Ambrose line… Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit. Omne verum, a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est. In my Freshmen year Western Civ class at King’s College a group of students argued with the professor that only Christianity had any truth, and I said, “If a Hindu man tells me it’s raining, I’m going to take an umbrella with me.” That was before I even knew what Church Fathers were, or went off on my religious hoarding phrase.

The proper framework, though, is not oneself but rather Truth – that is to say – the Church’s teaching, Christian Orthodoxy. The Truth: Jesus. We do not read someone in a vacuum, to learn how to become a follower of Philosopher X. Rather we read X in the light of the fullness of Truth revealed in Christ and known to the Church. We read to see if Philosopher X may lead us into deeper truths or to see how other people – from outside of the church – grasped hints of the Truth later revealed. It seems some writers have nothing to offer because they start from horribly mistaken assumptions (such as “there is no truth at all”). Yet, even then, if we read them from within the interpretive framework of the faith we may find something of value. Or not.

St Thomas Aquinas did this work for us already. The Summa is, of course, predicated on the work of Aristotle. To understand Aristotle, though, Aquinas spoke with Muslims and Jews in his day and learned from them. He also critiqued them. Pagan, Jewish, and Muslim thought went into St Thomas’ brain and out popped Christian theology. That’s not all. His work is a summation, yes: it documents the Sine Qua Non of Catholic theology. But it’s not the faith itself. It’s not a schematic to which all things must conform.

There are two ways to work with St Thomas, then. Here’s the cheap Thomism of the title: You can study his content, or you can work with his interpretive framework. You can cite chapter and verse in the Summa (Cheap) or you can take what you learn there and go do things with it (Valuable). The latter gives us a way forward while the former seems to be inimical to the spirit in which St Thomas worked and to the spirit of his teachings. Yes, cite the truth in his content and grow, but also his style, and his means. We need to see that Thomas is writing about Love, but also we need to see how he is writing, and what work he does to get there. We need to emulate all of this process. This is costly work – and of great value.

There are those who leave the church (or refuse to come in) for a lot of reasons that have more to do with “rejection” than with “seeking Truth”. There are a lot of things out there that call to them: pleasure, money, power, and perceived freedom. In our conversation, R. noted that the faith is an organic composition, like a tree growing wider and branchier, leafier and fruitier with every day. In contradistinction, creating one’s own framework for things requires an ongoing manual process, a continual work of construction: a techne rather than a fide. Every inbound item must be edited, simplified to fit into the framework we’re building. We must constantly organise and evaluate. The end result may be a well-constructed edifice but it will be infinitely more an “organized religion” than Catholicism. It can be laid out in spreadsheets and analyzed for data. It’s a mental map forced into reality: a pattern of things seen filtered through one’s own, very personal, very subjective choices; tables of correspondence that are meaningless to others and communicate nothing.

In the organic and divinely biological framework provided by the Incarnation of God, what some of my more hippie forebears called “The Christ Event”, the entire world is an “Old Testament” leading mankind to Truth or, to paraphrase The Bible Project, we believe that all of human culture and history is a unified book that leads to Jesus. Like Father Victor said, no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search. Jesus takes all truth to himself – for he is the Truth. Only taste and see: you cannot help but be drawn deeper into his Love. If you set out for Truth, at first your choices don’t matter one bit: you’ve made the ultimate choice already and all other things must fall in line. Eventually, you’ll find that every little choice is conformed to that initial act of your will. Find the Truth. Your freedom to do whatever you want becomes the Freedom to Achieve the Truth. Having decided to seek the Holy Grail, you find Jesus.

Where we go from there is entirely up to us: as long as we have that framework, we are resting in the Everlasting Arms, safe and secure from all alarms.

St Thomas, pray for us!

An Infinity of Love

JMJ

Spillway at Fontana Dam, North Carolina

At our monthly meeting, the Dominican Tertiaries were discussing Aquinas’ Summa, Part 1, Question 12. How God is known by us. I noted that this was where Aquinas and Palamas parted company. Article 1 states clearly (after ditching a few objections):

Unde simpliciter concedendum est quod beati Dei essentiam videant.
Hence it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God.

But then there are 11 articles of rolling it back and what we discover is that Aquinas says, ok, the blessed can see God’s essence but everyone is not equally blessed. This discovery of a hierarchy in heaven stressed our conversation for a while. It was agreed that the Theotokos as “higher than the Cherubim” – a title we do not use for any other saint – indicates a hierarchy; and it was also agreed that to us, here, anyone in that blessed dance is equally blessed because we cannot, from here, even look at the light directly. There was also concurrence with the idea that a humble Christian soul taking her place in that assembly would simply say – without envy or pride – this place and no other by his grace is where I dance to the divine Komos.

But then the conversation ended and we moved on to other topics.

Thomas goes on to explain theosis, and the intellectual process (the learning process) by which grace reveals to us the Divine Essence, first through hints, then through actions and, in the final analysis, through direct contact. Thomas calls theosis deiformitate in Latin, “deiformity,” and says we shall grasp the divine essence to the degree of our deiformity.

Hence the intellect which has more of the light of glory will see God the more perfectly; and he will have a fuller participation of the light of glory who has more charity; because where there is the greater charity, there is the more desire; and desire in a certain degree makes the one desiring apt and prepared to receive the object desired. Hence he who possesses the more charity, will see God the more perfectly, and will be the more beatified.

I left it there until today when we came to the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux.  In today’s Office of Readings we cite St Bernard, writing 200 years before Aquinas as saying,

The Bridegroom’s love, or rather the love which is the Bridegroom, asks in return nothing but faithful love. Let the beloved, then, love in return. Should not a bride love, and above all, Love’s bride? Could it be that Love not be loved?
 Rightly then does she give up all other feelings and give herself wholly to love alone; in giving love back, all she can do is to respond to love. And when she has poured out her whole being in love, what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent of that original source? Clearly, lover and Love, soul and Word, bride and Bridegroom, creature and Creator do not flow with the same volume; one might as well equate a thirsty man with the fountain.
  What then of the bride’s hope, her aching desire, her passionate love, her confident assurance? Is all this to wilt just because she cannot match stride for stride with her giant, any more than she can vie with honey for sweetness, rival the lamb for gentleness, show herself as white as the lily, burn as bright as the sun, be equal in love with him who is Love? No. It is true that the creature loves less because she is less. But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given. To love so ardently then is to share the marriage bond; she cannot love so much and not be totally loved, and it is in the perfect union of two hearts that complete and total marriage consists. Or are we to doubt that the soul is loved by the Word first and with a greater love? 

Bernard has us wonder how it is possible that we – mortals as we are, and finite – can Love God, who is infinite and Love himself. How it must this relationship be ordered since it cannot be one of equals. How will she match “stride for stride with her giant” in love? Bernard sees that the bride loves the bridegroom by virtue of his love for her: God’s love pouring into us allows us to love God – and others.

This, then is the heavenly hierarchy: CS Lewis and Dante see it extending through Purgatory and Hell. Our capacity to love – possessing more agape – is the degree to which we can be “Deiformed”.

The smallest part of infinity is also infinity.

If our heart is open to God’s love we can love him with the infinity he pours through us. We can love him as he loves us at least briefly.

The saints love us in the same way: with that infinite love that is not their own – yet is.

It pours out of them more perfectly on to us, for the act of Kenosis is the supreme act of charity. The saints shed on us God’s love for us as we, opening, begin to pour it back and on our neighbours like streams of living water rising from within us.

Baptism begins the flow, Eucharist and Confession, prayer and meditation, contemplation and adoration, open and flow out the spillways on to those around us and return it thereby back to God. We cannot love infinitely from here, but we can love infinitely if God loves through us.

Here, in this place and no other, by his grace will I dance.