Star Gazing

Ernest,

Your letter reminded me of a beautiful moment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when just before entering the dooming gates of hell, Dante, the literary character, addresses Vergil, his guide, who tells him that Beatrice  has advised their journey.  What’s particularly moving about this passage, which I have quoted below, is the hope that Dante displays even in the face of what lies before him.  Just a few short paces off lie the gates of hell itself, with that infamous inscription carved into stone above the top: LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CH’INTRATE, “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

But Dante doesn’t do this, instead he finds all the more hope in what Vergil has told him:

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

“O compassionate, she who thus availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words, that I renew

To mee the primal purpose as before.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Be thou the leader, thou the lord and master!”

And even so I said to him.

When he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

Seeing through all the brutal devastation that lies directly in front of him, Dante is able to hope in something glorious that comes long after it.  By God’s grace and love, symbolised in the figure of Beatrice, ‘who availeth’ him, this woeful journey though the land of tears serves, even by its very ugliness, to but highlight the profound beauty and eternal splendour of a salvation yet to come.

Dante says he is moved with disiderio, ‘desire’, which comes from the Latin, desiderare, a word composed of two parts: de, meaning ‘concerning’, and sidera, meaning ‘the stars’ or ‘the heavens’.  So Dante is foreshadowing the last moment of the Inferno, when he and Vergil come forth out of hell—a place of unbearable darkness, where even the stars neglect to shine—to see once more, in the very last line of the book, something truly awe-inspiring:

 

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

We thence went forth to rebehold the stars.

 

This line inspired a moment in my twelfth symphony (2012):

 

 

I think life is a lot like this.  Gratitude for God’s small gifts in the present is a way of desiring; that is, a way of regarding the stars, our ultimate destiny in Christ.  By giving thanks for something like a familiar cup of tea, a good grade on a blog post, or a book consisting of something other than meaningless numbers and names, we are able, by an ironically short sighted act of thanks, to transcend all of our present despairs and adversities, liberated, by God’s grace, to live with an ever present hope in our eternal beatitude, to endure, even through the fiery pains of hell itself, with a perpetual and imminent longing for that ineffable vista of the stars.

 

Your servant,

TWM

φίλει ἐμὲ for now

bible

I once had a professor who took great pleasure in whining about all the short comings of the Christian Church. “Christianity,” he often complained, “is a very nay-saying religion.”  He went to great lengths to illustrate how negative and oppressive the Church has been throughout history. It’s curious, but I can hardly remember him ever saying ‘yea’ to anything.

I believe there is, however, something to be learned from these sorts of people. For some reason, whether it be valid or invalid, a significant portion of the world has accumulated a great abundance of animosity directed toward the Christian Church. Of course, we might find it pleasant to focus primarily on the ungrounded reasons for this hatred, or the fact that Satan hates the Church and so it is most natural for his dominion to hate it too, but I find myself convinced that there is also some truth—and perhaps even more than we’d like to admit—in the accusations others lay on the fallen Body of Christ. I think a particular favourite of secularists today is the ‘self-righteousness’ or ‘holier than thou’ conviction. It seems the modern image of a Christian is that of a highly judgmental and proud individual who finds self-worth in following a set of moral principles, or even a set of mere rules, more closely—as that individual perceives it—than anyone else.

I need hardly mention how this image is the product of an unbelievably scrutinising world, the sort of world that perpetually scours the Church for flaws and inflates them to no end—in short, a ‘nay-saying’ world. As Shakespeare observed, “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar III.ii.74-5). Vice is always more quickly made famous among mankind than virtue. But we must nonetheless consider why the Church suffers from this vice, even if it is not as severe as the world may exaggerate it to be.

The most evident cause I see is the same thing that keeps all the secularists out of the Church in the first place—fear.  We Christians often fail to realise from the start that if you don’t store up treasures here on earth, you will end up without any treasures here on earth—it’s that simple. A virtuous scholar who spends his life honestly pursuing the truth rather than outputting bizarre liberalism for the sake of acquiring fame and admiration will most likely end his life without either of those treasures; a mother and father who devote their lives to raising children and loving their family rather than pursuing prestige and fulfilment in the work place or elsewhere will probably never have that fulfilment; and a lonely custodian who does nothing more than clean up and offer an understanding smile to the occasional passerby will probably never acquire anything valuable on this indifferent earth.

Human beings are very attracted to the idea of becoming poor for love’s sake, but they don’t like poverty itself. And so the last temptation of a disciple of Christ is to find fulfilment in ‘religious merit’.  Once a man is striped of everything he thought he owned and is left naked with nothing but a Bible in his hand, he begins to clutch that Bible and exhibit a possessiveness over it that has only been intensified by being frustrated. But as he stands there, trembling in the fear that he has just thrown away everything of value that he ever knew, he has arrived at the precise moment when his sacrifice ought to be consummated. After all, he didn’t become poor merely for the sake of being poor, but in order that he might become rich. So he is demanded to let go and realise that even his sacrifice is worth nothing in itself, for only the blood of Jesus can save him—and so indeed he has become poor merely for love’s sake. But for some reason, this is among the most terrifying moments of the human experience.  This is when we start to realise that the phantasmagorical Jesus-dream we’ve been chasing for so long better be more real than the very beating of our hearts, for all that we are is resting on it.

In John 21:15-7 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  The Greek word that he uses the first two times is ἀγαπᾷς, meaning “Do you love me unconditionally?”  But Peter responds each time with, “yes, I φιλῶ you”, meaning “yes, I am fond of you”, or “yes, you are a friend to me”.  So the third time, Jesus asks “Do you φιλεῖς me?”, meaning “Am I a friend to you?”  And then something strange happens. The scriptures say that Peter was upset because Jesus had asked him three times “Do you φιλεῖς me?”  But this isn’t what Jesus did; Jesus first asked Peter twice if he loved him without limits—that is, if he loved him enough to give up everything for his sake—but it’s as if Peter never even heard this calling.

What are we doing?

Under our now Christian model of metaphysics as established by my seven previous posts on this topic, we must now better understand purpose.  It has been established that we, as humans, are made to serve a purpose created for us by God which is equal, in some sense, to the purpose he has for himself.  That is, God made us for the purpose of existing in the state that He is in “presently.”  The strange thing about this purpose is that, on the simplest level, we are not presently fulfilling it.  Instead of being infinitely loving, infinitely good, infinitely real beings, we are hate filled, imperfect, mortal ones.  So does this mean we have failed?

In many eastern philosophies and religions, it is believed that souls are subject to a tireless cycle of vain reincarnation until they finally perfect the act of living, and in so doing, achieve some perfected state of being which frees them from the cycle of birth and death.  In some cases, this whole processes is viewed as utter vanity, like Prometheus’ rock, striving after the unachievable only to return to the starting point, and thus the perfected state of being is a state in which an individual does not act and perhaps does not even exist.  In other cases, the journey is seen as valuable based on the fame and honor that can be achieved throughout the process (e.g. the cycle of heroism in greek and roman epic).  In reality, it seems to me that fame and honor would hardly be worth an endless cycle of birth, death and pain.

I bring all this up, because under our current model, it may well seem that life is much like that.  We are born, we sin, we are reborn.  Over and over again.  Constantly striving for perfection, but never getting it.  So why?  Why does God see it as fitting for us all to be sentenced to somewhere between zero and one hundred and twenty years of this aimless strife?  It is not an easy question, and I fear the answer I leave us with, while hopefully intellectually satisfying, will not sit well with us.  But that is well.  Such is a part of the nature of living in an unperfected order (a fallen order).

I turn to our model: we are beings that were given a choice to love God and to exist or to hate Him and die, and we have chosen the latter option.  Upon so doing, we were given a second chance, and this life is our decision process.  All this is as such, that a risen humanity might have a perfected understanding of what a joy it is to exist in God and the perpetually fallen may justly be allowed to creep away from that joy as they have chosen to do even with a “second chance.”  It is absolute nonsense for humanity to be given the perfected understanding of Heaven without experiencing Hell.  Wisdom is by definition the result of experience, and God could not have made a humanity that has the wisdom gained by the experience of Hell without having the experience of it.  For by doing so, He would defy the very structure of reality, i.e. He would defy Himself.

Thus earthly living is our second chance.  But why does it seem like an endless cycle of chances and ruins?  And why is it so long?

I feel quite confident that the answer to these questions is that neither of these things are the case: life is a single decision, a single second chance, and it is very short.  It does not really make sense for God to give the same eternal being multiple chances to make the decision between life and death (that is, without anything occurring in-between to change the being).  Even if we imagine the process from a chronological perspective, it is utter nonsense.  It is as if one were to ask an atheist if he believes in God and upon receiving his negation, re-ask the same question after no debate or persuasion.  It’s just silly.  Instead, when any of the faculties of the soul are being exercised (whether it be the intellect, as it is in this example, or the will as it is in the matter at hand), in-between prompts, the soul must go through some sort of transformational processes if we are to expect a different result.  Therefore, it is necessary that there exists our decision-making process, where we are allowed to experience a distance from God such that His very existence does not compel us to choose Him.  The length of this process, though it may not seem so at present, is negligible when held in perspective of eternity.

I am quite sorry to say that the doctrines don’t go much farther than that, and while they may provide a model of sufficient functionality as to feed the intellect, they are intrinsically destined to leave the rest of us in a state of uneasiness.  It does not satisfy the heart that its sole purpose of being would be merely to make a single decision.  And that is where the misunderstanding lies.  All of us, no matter how strongly convinced of the necessity of supernatural reality, are prone, at times, to naturalism.  The better half of the mind might know that sheer joy awaits us after death, but the will cannot help the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no travel returns.  And so also, while one may know very well that a better purpose awaits us in Heaven, it is almost impossible to not be bothered that nothing so grand exists in this life alone.

And in a sense it doesn’t,  “Vanity, vanity, said the preacher,”  but there is still much reason to live, for that single decision which summarizes the entire occurrence of our earthly lives is so very important that it is worth an entire lifetime of toil to make it properly.  It is worth every drop of sweat, blood, and tears that goes into everything you do from creating a work of art, to playing a sport, to taking out the trash.  In fact, it was worth infinitely more than all that, for the decision to live would not even be yours to make had the Infinite God not first decided to die.

Aesthetics

It is most common, in the music compositional world, that upon meeting a new person and discovering some of his or her thoughts or attitudes about art, one quickly finds that he or she is the sort of person for whom music is an outward action possessing little more personal connection to the self than the physical appearance. I do not wish to overly condemn the use of the physical appearance as a means of communication.  Though I am utterly appalled at the modern, superficial obsession with the body and all things temporal, I do not object to, but, on the contrary, encourage, the use of the outward appearance as a means of conveying the inward, and therefore it is even appropriate that the physical appearance should, at times, be considered a part of the entity that we call a mortal human being. It should, however, never be forgotten that all this is merely the mortal expression or embodiment of an everlasting splendor.  That being the end for which we have the outward appearance, we must consider how one should ‘design’ such a faculty.

Consequentially, it seems to me quite clear that the physical appearance should be among the least important parts of the embodiment.  While the way one carries, dresses, or takes care of one’s self physically does say a small thing about him or her, it is, doubtlessly, among the most impersonal of his or her means of expression.  It is also, therefore, the most barbaric and inhuman.  Thus, to hold art in a similar fashion seems to me utterly absurd, and even irresponsible, considering that it is capable of so much more. Rather than holding it at such a distance, we should let it contain our very hearts in much the same way that our bodies contain them physically.  Not that it is our ultimate love, but that it is among the most intimate embodiments of ourselves. Art is not something that exists outside of us, that we may sit around drinking tea and making rhetorical comments about˚.  No, art is the embodiment of the human experience; it is something that we are all invited to become a part of.

The acceptance of that invitation is an act that requires great courage and sincerity.  It is no small task to become a part of the human experience, the mortal beginnings of the immortal body of Christ, but that is the very thing that art demands of us.  We are not to be observers but members of art.  There should be no human scope which exists outside of the scope of a work of art–art is to be real.

It is for this very reason that great courage and sacrifice is required of the artist additionally.  No man should call himself an artist who creates a mere bit of light entertainment.  Art is not merely entertainment, an “escape from reality,” but rather the fuller realization of reality–there is a big difference between craftsmanship and artistry.  The artist is demanded to exist and to allow his existence to beget his art–thus making the perfect imitation of God’s creation of us.  He should, in fact, feel as though he has lost a part of himself into the work he has created†.

Indeed, there is no act of greater intimacy with the soul than that of artistic creation.  It is the act of stripping the spirit free of its mortal clothing leaving behind nothing but bare, naked humanity–or so is its goal.  Just as every other act done on the face of the earth, the act of art is incomplete.  It is the striving for freedom from mortal limits, but those limits remain ever in place until the end of earthly living.  We have but ‘la cima del purgatorio’ to await, and then too shall our souls be free of the outward appearance.

This is why John Milton so classically describes angels as being free to put on whatever physical form they desire at any given moment.  It leaves the soul (or, equally, the will) entirely exposed, bound to no immutable appearance, but entirely expressed in its every quality.

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˚ The irony is that I am writing this post about art and actually drinking tea throughout the entire process!  To be technical, the remark is more about the treatment of a work of art rather than of the subject of art in general.  Additionally, this point uses the notion of ‘the mockery,’ a concept about which I will likely post in the future (so tune in next time!).

† Art is much like the “tithing of the soul” in that it is an opportunity for the artist to give his soul back to God, to whom it belongs anyway (much like money), and in so doing display his absolute confidence that God will continue to provide.