Darwin’s Paradise Lost

“Man is descended,” said Charles Darwin, whose anniversary of death is today, “from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits,” thereby overturning untold millennia of belief that humankind had descended from the gods. Darwin of course arrived at this conclusion through the science he practiced, a science that requires for its pursuit of knowledge a particular sort of person. “A scientific man,” he explained, “ought to have no wishes, no affections, – a mere heart of stone.” Milton’s Paradise Lost, once his nightly bedtime reading, had long been laid aside when he made that remark. “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare,” he commented on one occasion, “and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.”

It seems fairly evident that these statements of his are not unrelated. Darwin’s theory of evolution is certainly no respecter of persons, as the category persons is to be found totally lacking from the picture of evolution he painstakingly developed. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s own handiwork, from Romeo and Juliet, through Othello and Desdemona, to Miranda and Prospero, with countless other characters cramming the stage along the way – the various plays in which they appear each being written, as has been said, in a white heat – is essentially and entirely a universe of persons, with Hamlet answering his own life-and-death questions, almost ingeniously, by the very mess he manages to make of things:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

What? Quintessence of dust? To be or not to be! But then, what on earth ever asks any question but a person? Even if Hamlet in speaking these words seems emphatically to deny the human being as spirit, he nevertheless affirms the person as spirit most emphatically in the very suffering of his own questions, in the very tragedy of his own answers. The universe does not ask questions out of itself, but the human person does, anomaly enough you would think for even the most unobservant of theoretical Darwinists. Besides, only a spirit can know if something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and only a spirit can decide what to do about it. A happy outcome or a sad outcome is equally a spiritual matter, especially when to be or not to be is the leading question. So, from what else will any answer, whether scientific, religious, or philosophical, come from but persons? The human animal thinks, and therein is he a person, whether his thinking is from a cold heart or a warm heart, which is the same as to say whether the thinking is bound by the brain or not. Even revelations from on high need angelic persons to hand them down, just as they need prophetic persons to accept them. To excise the person from the picture – whether the picture happens to be one of eons of evolution or happens to be a single Shakespeare play – is to deny the spiritual entity – the person – one is and to deny the person the other is, i.e., the personhood of the other who contemplates the picture. There is simply no such thing, nor has there ever been, nor can there ever be, as a person-less universe. We can of course try to imagine such an impossibility if we want – we can go all the way back to the Big Bang if we want – but all the time we are forgetting our own self, the very person trying to imagine it.

“It is a cursed evil to any man to become as absorbed in any subject as I am in mine,” Darwin lamented, and of course, that being the case, what room then for persons as objects of any scientific awareness?  “I am turned into a sort of machine,” said he, “for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.” Yet personality – personhood – is the fundamental fact of the universe: a fact not to be denied without sooner or later the acute danger of either despair or sociopathy befalling the person who denies this same unassailable fact, whether that denier be scientist, philosopher or, for that matter, investment banker or politician.

After all, there is no science to be practiced without persons practicing it, just as there is no science to be explained and no science to be understood without persons explaining or understanding it. Even Darwin on his deathbed said to his wife Emma, “I am not in the least afraid of death – Remember what a good wife you have been to me – Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me”, and then while she rested, he repeatedly said to Henrietta and Francis, his children, “It’s almost worth while to be sick to be nursed by you”, thus affirming as he neared death the incontrovertible, the irreducible fact of personhood in the framework of real existence. And what is the “good” that Darwin speaks of but the loving attention of the family members – i.e., the persons – who lingered attentively by his side, he the unquantifiable and immeasurable, the scientifically unverifiable, yet invaluable person they cared for and loved?

“The fundament upon which all our knowledge and learning rests is the inexplicable,” writes Arthur Schopenhauer, and he is absolutely right of course, for the inexplicable happens to be the personality – which is, to a greater or lesser degree, the revelation of personhood on earth – since the person, whether human or divine, cannot be explained by anything else in existence, it being the only fact in existence that is impossible to explain by anything else. Accordingly, the person is, was, and ever shall be the “fundament”, as Schopenhauer has it, from whence all questions about – and therefore all explanations of – everything else in existence proceed, including the intellect itself, the instrument by which person asks, and finds answers for, all questions.  “I am the I Am,” said the voice from the burning bush on Mount Horeb, the only explanation given to Moses and the only explanation necessary for him as, sandals off his feet in this holy place, he himself most certainly knew.

The anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot, contemplating the tenth Arcanum, the Wheel of Fortune, has this to say on pages 235-6 – among much else on other pages –regarding the scientific postulate of evolution:

The Card of the tenth Arcanum . . . teaches, through its actual context, an organism of ideas relating to the problem of the Fall and the Reintegration, according to Hermetic and Biblical tradition. It portrays the whole circle, including ascent as well as descent, whilst the “transformism” of modern science is occupied with only half of the circle, namely the half of ascent or evolution. The fact is that certain eminent scientists (such as Edgar Daque in Germany and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in France) advance the postulate of the pre-existence – be it only potentially – of a prototype for all beings, which is the ultimate as well as the effective cause of the whole process of evolution, and this postulate alone renders evolution intelligible. However, it in no way changes the fact that science works on the basis of the fundamental supposition that the minimum is the ancestor of the maximum, the simple is the ancestor of the complicated, and that it is the primitive which produces the more developed organism and consciousness, although for thought (i.e. reason) this is absolutely unintelligible. This basic scientific presupposition renders evolution unintelligible because it disregards half of the circle, namely that which precedes – be it only in ordine cognoscendi – the state of primitivity from which science takes its point of departure. Because one has to renounce thought and reduce it to lethargy in order to be able to sincerely believe that man evolved from the primitive and unconscious particles of a primordial mist which was once our planet, without this mist bearing within itself the seed of all possibilities for future evolution, which is the process of  “eclosion”, i.e. the process of transition from a potential state to an actual state. Thus Arnold Lunn, editor of the book Is Evolution Proved?, writes that he would certainly like to believe in evolution and accept it as proved, if he could surmount four difficulties, including the following:

. . . for the fact (is) that no evolutionist had produced a plausible guess, much less a theory supported by evidence, to suggest how a purely natural process could have evolved, from the mud, sand, mists, and seas of the primeval planet, the brain that conceived Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and reactions to the beauty of music, of art, and of Nature. (Is Evolution Proved? A debate between D. Dewar and H. S. Sheldon, ed. Arnold Lunn, London, 1947, p. 333)   

“I cannot persuade myself,” writes Charles Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”, thus forgetting Paradise Lost, forgetting the primal state from which Adam – that primordial person, father of us all – fell, bringing down a good part of Nature with him. “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write,” he commented, “on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!” As closely observant of nature as Darwin was, he needed another eye to see that other part of Nature, the part that did not fall, an eye that could see in every dawn the innocent promise of a new day for hand and heart, in the sea the fathomless depths of the longing soul, in the wheeling stars the destiny of human godhood – an eye in other words that could see life also as Shakespeare saw it – essentially as a “tragedy and drama of supreme dangers and risks” – with comic interludes interspersed to be sure – wherein the human person faces choices “that the traditional terms ‘perdition’ and ‘salvation’ imply” (cf. Meditations, page 236) – not a natural process merely.

But what meaning for Darwin the Fall, perdition, redemption, salvation?  For one who writes, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change” – what meaning? The eye that sees humankind as a species of mammal only, even if it sees humankind as the most highly adapted life-form on earth or for that matter in the whole universe – can find no meaning in the Fall, in perdition, in redemption, and accordingly in salvation. Human beings, however, seen each as a person capable of transcending the species homo sapiens, i.e., each considered as a separate species in him- or herself, unquantifiable and immeasurable, scientifically unverifiable, yet invaluable, each one potentially capable of moving beyond mere adaptation to a growing responsibility for the self and the world in which it lives, the matter is altogether different. Then each is potentially a unique moral agent with a divine destiny toward the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, first and the last. Then each is potentially an inward movement toward the I Am of all existence – a destiny which each person can fulfill or not, either working for the salvation of humanity and the Earth, or becoming the recalcitrant object of that work,

Today is the Feast of Saint Alphege (c. 954 – April 19, 1012).  A Benedictine monk in Gloucestershire when a young man, he later left the monastery to become a hermit in Bath, eventually becoming the abbot at the monastery there. He enforced a strict rule. He was appointed bishop of Winchester in 984. Continuing to live a life of great austerity, he virtually eliminated poverty in his diocese through dedicated aid to the poor. Appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1006, he refused to leave the city when the Danes and Earl Edric besieged it. He was imprisoned when the city fell for exhorting the Danes to desist from their murdering and looting, but was freed when an epidemic broke out to minister to the sick. When he refused however to allow a ransom of three thousand gold crowns to be paid for his permanent release, he was taken to Greenwich and put to death. Thus he refused the wide way of survival through adaptation, clearly choosing instead the straight and narrow path of salvation through sacrifice, a path he took not for himself only but, in the long view of evolution we can be sure, for all humanity and the Earth.    

“A moral being,” writes Darwin, “is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives – of approving of some and disapproving of others.” True enough, as far as the thought goes, but Darwin forgets in propounding this dictum that there can be such things as intuitions for the future, intuitions arising from the conscience of the human person, a conscience which, once awakened, continues to evolve through travail and suffering, creatively making sacrifice in all ages to come for the salvation of all.

Pax et bonum,
Randall Scott

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Zapata and the Wretched of the Earth

“Think occasionally of the suffering,” writes Albert Schweitzer, “of which you spare yourself the sight.” Which suffering, the good missionary doctor might have added, is easy to ignore for you of the borderless city, whose centre is everywhere, whose periphery is nowhere. Because in the mind of the city nowhere is the place of the wretched of the earth, they the ones who live on, by, and for the land, little peripheries of land no longer theirs but now completely the city’s – and that simply by naked right of money – as if we were not, every mother’s son (or daughter) of us, a child of Eve.   

“And it is clear,” writes Franz Fanon in the book of that title – The Wretched of the Earth –, first published in 1961, “that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization is simply a question of relative strength.”  

Or, as Emiliano Zapata, whose anniversary of death is today, defiantly declared , “I would rather die standing than live on my knees”. Whether it is a matter of colonization in the Mexico of 1910 and or a matter of colonization in the world of our day, it is still a matter of faceless banks and corporations and their lawyers, with whatever bombs dropped and boots put on the ground in the name of freedom and democracy are deemed necessary by the governments they control. Zapata, born on August 8, 1879, in Anenecuilco, Mexico, was killed on April 10, 1919, in the state of Morelos, Mexico. As a revolutionary he was a champion of agrarianism, fighting in guerrilla actions during and after the Mexican Revolution, this revolution lasting from 1911 to 1917. Frank McLynn, author of Villa and Zapata: a Biography of the Mexican Revolution (Jonathan Cape, 2000, p. 35f.) tells us:

                                                                                      . . . It was no accident that the great slogan of the Mexican Revolution (equivalent to “liberty, equality and fraternity” in the French Revolution) was Tierra y Libertad – land and liberty. The core problem of the Diaz years was the way the hacienda had encroached on village lands. Most villages had enjoyed their communal lands for centuries through customary right and had not filed documentary title to the territories in Mexico City. The hacendados and their lawyers took advantage of this to assert ownership in the village lands and water. By 1910 half of the rural population of Mexico had been reduced to dependency on the hacienda and many villages were hacienda pueblos. Even where the villages were not in hacienda territory, their inhabitants were often landless and had to work in the haciendas. The free non-hacienda villages were largely Indian and these were squeezed mercilessly until only a few retained their own ancient lands. Peaceful resistance was all but impossible, since the hacendados controlled the state courts and dominated local politics, making local democracy or free elections impossible.

                                                     The villagers could in a sense count themselves lucky,  for there was an even more exploited group of people: the peons who lived and worked permanently on the hacienda grounds, as opposed to the villagers who worked as day laborers. These peons were ground into the dirt by the nefarious system of debt peonage, common in the south, which made the states of Veracruz, Campeche, Chiapas and Yucatán the closest thing to the notorious serfdom of Russia and eastern Europe. The peon, indentured to the hacienda and unable to leave, toiling all day under the sun, at the mercy of brutal overseers and harsh discipline enforced by whips and riding crops, and perforce to buy all his needs at the company store, where debts were run up either honestly or dishonestly. When these debts were made heritable, so that the children inherited their parents’ debt, peonage became slavery in all but name. Echoing the cynical transactions in Gogol’s Dead Souls, owners bought and sold each other’s peons and used bounty hunters to track down fugitives, who would then be beaten to death as a bloody warning to the others.

    It is difficult to overstate the cynical savagery of debt peonage. Many peons owed up to three years’ wages in debt which could never be repaid, especially as their employers cynically fiddled the figures. One company storekeeper was reputed to add the date at the top of the page to each peon’s debt. The hacendados liked to keep their charges in ignorance, and on many haciendas schoolteachers were expressly forbidden to teach arithmetic to the permanent workers. Since Spaniards often held positions on the hacienda as keepers of the company store, clerks, foremen or managers, the gachupines were particularly hated, and Spain was always the main target for xenophobia in Mexico. The threat to all villagers was clear: if they lost their lands to the haciendas or became economically unviable, they would face starvation unless they became permanent employees on the haciendas and thus got sucked into the maw of debt peonage.

Although the state of Morelos did not suffer from the worst excesses of the hacienda system farther south, the mind of Emilano Zapata cannot be understood without appreciating the role of land in his mentality: both this mystical feeling for the soil of his ancestors, and his negative appreciation of what lay in store for the villagers of his state if they did not resist the big hacendados.

In the course of his campaigns, Zapata took lands from the haciendas, which he frequently burned without compensation, and distributed those lands to the landless. Often ordering executions and expropriations, he and his followers did not always abide by the laws of “civilized” war. Yet his picturesque appearance – drooping moustache, penetrating eyes, big sombrero – belied him, for he was a passionate man with simple ideals that he was determined to realize. Avoiding battle by adopting guerrilla tactics, farming their land otherwise with rifles on their shoulders, the Zapatistas went when called to fight and returned to their plows at the end of the battle. At times assembling thousands of men, Zapata paid these fighting farmers – their arms were captured from federal troops – by imposing taxes on the provincial cities, as well as by extorting from the rich. As for the nature of the Zapatistas as victors, we get a good glimpse of this in McLynn’s account of the entry of their vanguard into Mexico City on November 24, 1914:

Zapata’s men came not as conquerors or marauders but as awe-struck sightseers, gaping at the unusual features of the city. They were peaceful, deferential, simple folk, the classic country cousins up for the day in the big city, naively carrying banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe and displaying their rustic origins by their coarse white cotton clothes, Franciscan sandals and big straw hats. They wandered the streets like lost children, begging and panhandling for coins from passers-by, knocking on doors and politely asking if they could have some food. A terrified flaneur was approached by a group of Zapatistas wielding machetes who, he was convinced, wanted to kill him. However, they took off their huge sombreros, threaded them circularly through their fingers, and said in humble voices: ‘Young master, could you let us have a little money?’ The most famous story is that the Zapatistas opened fire on a clanging fire-engine speeding to an emergency, thinking it a kind of primitive tank, and killed twelve firemen.

    To the amazement of Mexico City’s bourgeoisie, there were no expropriations, except of houses belonging to Morelos planters. It was not long before the middle classes were pointing to the absence of speeches, proscriptions and confiscations, praising Zapata to the skies and contrasting him with the predatory and aggressive Carranza and Obregón. Where [Pancho] Villa and his chiefs always made straight for the most luxurious houses once they occupied a city, Zapata displayed a Cato-like asceticism by staying in a dingy third-class hotel a block away from the railway depot. He left city administration to his underlings and delegated to his brother Eufemio the task of showing provisional president Eulalio Gutiérrez around the presidential palace.

The man who four years earlier was an obscure village leader in Morelos was now master of Mexico City. To the oft-whispered question by an anxious urban bourgeouisie – ‘what does he want?’ – there was only one answer: nothing. Zapata always hated the national capital and could hardly wait to return to Morelos, but there was more than caprice or personal predilection involved here. A dislike of cities was imbricated in the entire Zapatista ideology, for cities represented the power of the state and its full-time officials, the ultimate anathema for all attracted by aspirations, but it was never so in the Leninist sense of aiming to capture the apparatus of the state and imposing a national ideology.

                                                          Few political movements have been more misunderstood than the one headed by Emiliano Zapata. Anarchism is a useful tag, as long as one appreciates that Zapata merely wanted euthanasia of all bosses, owners and overseers. In no sense was he actuated by full-blooded anarchistic theory like that of Bakunin, which was anyway an urban theory reflecting the concerns of city dwellers. The peasants of Morelos, with their white pajamas and banners of the revered Virgin of Guadalupe, were light-years away from the atheistic Russian anarchists. (Ibid. 264-5)

The peasants of Morelos, with their banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe . . .

     The core of Zapata’s own beliefs was his mystical feeling for the land, “the mother who nourishes us and cares for us”, in the words of the St. Francis of Assisi in the Canticle of Beings. The ideology of Zapata, then, envisaging a free association of landowning villages, was fundamentally nostalgic, backward-looking and defensive. This does not mean it was non-revolutionary; as more than one commentator has pointed out, the Golden Age of the revolutionary can be located in the past as well as the future. (Ibid. 266)

   The Mother – a golden age far, far in the past, yet the Zapatistas would resurrect its memory in a twentieth century revolution under banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  “Whether we and our politicians know it or not,” says Wendell Berry as part of an endorsement statement for The Dying of the Trees (1997) by Charles E. Little, “Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”  And so who is to say that Zapata did not know far more than any politician of his time about what human beings truly needed, about what truly needed to be done?  “If you don’t know where you’re from,” Berry reminds us, “you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.” Even though revolution never has been and never will be the answer, just as suppression, imprisonment, and execution never have been and never will be the answer,  Zapata and the Zapatistas, far more clearly than your typical city-dweller, knew nonetheless where we are from,  just as they had a clearer vision, under the banner of the Virgin, as to where we ought to be going.

“Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us,” writes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whose anniversary of death is also this day, April 10) in the Hymn of the Universe, “we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.” Matter, the Mother: forget where we are from, and how can we not help but forget where we ought to be going?  “The time has come to realize,” writes Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, “that an interpretation of the universe – even a positivist one – remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter. The true physics is that which will, one day, achieve the inclusion of man in his wholeness in a coherent picture of the world.” And this Zapata and the Zapatistas also knew very well, their picture of the world as coherent as that of any contemporary physicist and far more inclusive.  For did not the Holy Virgin in her seven sorrows give her Divine Son over to men to be mocked and scourged and nailed to the Cross? Did she not in her last sorrow stand at the foot of the Cross? And did not the Crucified One, dead and buried, rise from the Earth on the third day as the First Born of the Dead? And did He not say He would return again one day in the clouds in great glory, bringing with Him a new Heaven and a new Earth?

“In the final analysis,” Teilhard de Chardin reflects, “the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened?” Whether or not the wretched of the earth are “good” people, who will dare claim that, as a whole, that they are somehow worse than those who take their land away or than those who directly or indirectly sponsor the theft? Who will claim that they are somehow worse than politicians and somehow worse than the bankers and investors that control politicians? Of course over and over again what the wretched of the earth intend to do when their land has been stolen is somehow to take it back, which effort, in the case of the dark-skinned Zapatistas, was undertaken in the Mexican Revolution under the banner of the appropriately dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe.

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Magdalene of Canossa. Born in Verona March 1, 1774, Magdalene of Conossa belonged to an aristocratic family. It was after a serious illness when she was fifteen that she declared, to the horror of her relatives, that she intended to become a nun. An attempt, however, to try her vocation with the Carmelites failed, since as a member of an enclosed order she could not do what she wanted to do, which was, as she put it, to serve “Jesus Christ in his poor.”  

After leaving the order, Magdalene worked in hospitals, gave alms, visited the sick and destitute, eventually founding a religious order known as the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity.  According to Paul Burns (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Concise Edition, Liturgical Press, 2003) “Her practical work was sustained by an intense personal spirituality, with mystical experiences, which she tried to describe with their joyous rewards and their periods of dryness, in her Memoirs. She had a special devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, seeing Mary as becoming ‘mother of charity’ as she stood at the foot of the cross, an example of strength she constantly put before her Sisters. Her inspiration was the gospel, especially life as ‘only the gospel translated into practice’. In accordance with the vision of the kingdom of God set out in Matthew 25, she always saw the crucified Christ in the poor, the sick and the suffering.”

She died April 10, 1835, and she was canonized in 1988.

Seeing the crucified Christ in the poor, the sick and the suffering: “All the world is full of suffering,” writes Helen Keller. “It is also full of overcoming.” And surely the overcoming we accomplish is not only for ourselves, it is not only for humankind, but it is also for the Earth, who is our Mother, “the mother who nourishes us and cares for us”, the Mother of everything living.  “We are one, after all, you and I,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us. “Together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.” Accordingly, in that sense, are we not all of us, rich and poor, are we not all of us, every mother’s son (and daughter) of us — sinners that we are — the wretched of the earth, of Mother Earth, of Her who waits with eager longing for the revealing of the Sons and Daughters of Light?

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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The Mysterious Language of the Cross

“Since when has the world of computer software design been about what people want?” says Bill Gates. “This is a simple question of evolution. The day is quickly coming when every knee will bow down to a silicon fist, and you will all beg your binary gods for mercy.”

Of course Gates sees it that way, his God being an unforgiving God, God for him being the very spirit of computation, efficiency and profit. “In this business,” he advises, “by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late to save yourself. Unless you’re running scared all the time, you’re gone.” No wonder Gates has no time for religion. “Just in terms of allocation of time resources,” he says, “religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” Appeasing such a God is a full-time business for sure, and who does not know out of his own experience how fear can be quite the motivator? And certainly having no time for religion strongly indicates having no time for understanding the meaning of life, fear or no fear. Benjamin Franklin’s dictum that “time is money” of course everyone remembers, yet it is not so often remembered that he also said: “Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants.”

Well then, happiness. What of it? That money cannot buy happiness is universally acknowledged, but when Thomas Aquinas tells us in Summa Theologica that happiness is another name for God, what then? Especially so when we realize that Aquinas is referring to the crucified, to the dead and buried, to the resurrected God of Christianity, not to an impassive God three-times removed from humanity whose essence is computation, efficiency and profit, a God who could not care less about someone nailed to die on a bit of wood in some obscure province of an empire having long ago gone the way of all empires.

“Wise and honest people living in the world,” writes Saint Louis de Montfort, in The Love of Eternal Wisdom, “you do not understand the mysterious language of the Cross. You are too fond of sensual pleasures and you seek your comforts too much. You have too much regard for the things of this world and you are too afraid to be held up to scorn or looked down upon. In short, you are too opposed to the Cross of Jesus.”

Too opposed, Saint Louis de Montfort says, to the Cross of Jesus: too opposed to the God-Man crucified like a common criminal between two thieves. “Our crucifixes exhibit the pain, but they veil, perhaps necessarily, the obscenity,” writes Charles Williams. “. . . The death of the God-Man was both.” Too opposed to the Cross of Jesus, because, as Louis de Montfort says, “One must be humble, little, self-disciplined, spiritual and despised by the world to learn the mystery of the Cross.”  The spirit of opposition, specifically the spirit of bourgeois opposition, Wallace Stevens gets right immediately in the first stanza of his poem “Sunday Morning”:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice
.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

I remember when a friend, who happened to be an anthroposophist, perhaps wanting to demonstrate a spirit of open-mindedness, decided to accompany me one Christmas eve to a Roman Catholic midnight mass. Walking through the door of the church, this friend was confronted immediately with a large crucifix above the altar. Her eyes widened, her mouth fell open, and within seconds she was out on the street again, presumably never to darken the door of any Catholic Church again.

Yet Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy, whose anniversary of death in 1925 is today, the 30th of March, held that what happened at Calvary was absolutely essential to understanding the whole of evolution. A lecture for example entitled The Mystery of Golgotha delivered in Manchester College Chapel, Oxford on August 27th 1922, clearly shows this:

Humankind is reaching out to apprehend the Mystery of Golgotha once more with all the forces of the human soul; to understand it not only from the limited standpoint of present-day civilization, but so as to unite with it all the forces of man’s being. But this will only be possible if we are ready to approach the Mystery of Golgotha once more in the light of spiritual knowledge. Intellectualistic knowledge can never do justice to the full World-impulse of Christianity. For such knowledge only takes hold of the thinking life of man. So long as we have a Science whose only appeal is to our life of Thought, we must derive the sources of our Will (and these for Christianity are the most important) from our instinctive life, and cannot realize their true origin in spiritual Worlds.

Thus it will be indispensable to turn attention in our time once more to this the greatest question of mankind, inasmuch as the essence and meaning of the whole evolution of the Earth lies in the Mystery of Golgotha. I would fain express it in a parable, however strangely seeming. Imagine some Being descending from another planet to the Earth. Unable to become an earthly man, the Being would in all likelihood find the things on Earth quite unintelligible. Yet it is my deepest conviction, arising from a knowledge of the evolution of the Earth, that such a Being — even if he came from distant planets — Mars or Jupiter — would be deeply moved by Leonardo da Vinci’s picture of the Last Supper. For in this picture he would discover that a far deeper meaning lies hidden in the Earth, — in earthly evolution. Beginning from this deeper meaning which belongs to the Mystery of Golgotha, the Being from a distant world could then begin to understand all other things on Earth.

 As long as we have a science whose only appeal is to our life of thought we must derive the sources of our will from the instinctive life, says Steiner – instead of deriving the sources of our will, as he puts it, from “the spiritual worlds”. In other words, if we can never have any feeling for what happened at Golgotha, he is clearly suggesting, we might as well forget spiritual science altogether. “The prototype, the example on which one should reflect and model one’s self, is Jesus Christ,” writes Padre Pio in a letter to Maria Gargani. “But Jesus chose the cross as his standard, so he wants all his followers to tread the path to Calvary, carrying the cross and then dying stretched out on it. Only this way do we reach salvation.” Only this way do we reach salvation, whether we are Christian believers at Sunday morning Mass, or whether we are Christian esotericists meditating on the rose cross. Either way humanity cannot do without the crucifix, for neither a rose cross nor an empty cross has any power for the will, without the Crucified One finding a place in our imagination.  

“It always strikes me, and it is very peculiar,” writes Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, “that when we see the image of indescribable and unutterable desolation – of loneliness, of poverty and misery, the end of all things, or their extreme – then rises in our mind the thought of God.”

What better symbol for what Vincent van Gogh speaks of than the crucifix? Is this why Hitler, Stalin and Mao so hated the crucifix, why they wanted it banished from the sight of all eyes?  Claiming to be Christian, Hitler declared that Christianity rightly understood found in Nazism a potent ally.  Yet the crucifix was hateful to him, just as the Catholic priest, second only to the Jew, was hateful to him.

Today is the feast day of Blessed Maria Restituta, who was beatified on June 21, 1998. Born in 1894 to a shoemaker, she grew up in Vienna. She decided to join the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity at twenty, taking the name Restituta after an early Church martyr who had been beheaded. Stout and cheerful, she liked her pint at the end of the day. In 1919, she began working as a surgical nurse in Austria. When the Nazi’s took over Austria, she opposed the Nazi regime.  When the Nazis ordered her to remove all the crucifixes she had hung up in each room of a new hospital wing, her conflict with them came to head when she refused. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, Sister Maria Restituta was sentenced to death for “aiding and abetting the enemy in the betrayal of the fatherland and for plotting high treason.” Spending the rest of her days in prison caring for other prisoners, for which the prisoners were lovingly grateful, she was offered freedom if she would abandon the Franciscan sisters, but she refused. She was beheaded March 30, 1943 in Vienna. 

“The Cross is precious,” writes Saint Louis de Montfort, “because it enlightens the mind and gives it an understanding which no book in the world can give” — something that Doctor Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy, and the Blessed Maria Restituta, simple Roman Catholic nun and nurse, understood equally well, the heart having its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

 

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Love, Light, and Vision

Yesterday was the anniversary of Paul Irénée Couturier’s death on March 24 1953. A French priest and tireless advocate of Christian unity, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In 1933, he established a Triduum (three days of prayer) for Christian Unity at Lyon, which later became an Octave (eight days of prayer) in 1934, extending from the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter to the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.  Deriving from an Octave for Church Unity which had been established by two Anglicans in 1908, Couturier specifically offered his Octave for the unity of any and all baptized into the Christian faith, including Orthodox, Anglican, and other Christian groups. It was in 1939 that its name was changed to the “Week of Universal Prayer”.

Working to establish closer ties between the various Christian faiths, he also maintained a massive correspondence with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, creating and distributing a number of tracts on prayer for unity as well, keeping all the time in close communication with the World Council of Churches.

He studied the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a fellow scientist, becoming strongly influenced by Teilhard de Chardin’s view of the unity of all humanity in Christ, regardless of their beliefs. He grew to believe that praying for the increased holiness of all peoples would inevitably lead to a greater understanding of God, leading to therefore to a greater understanding of Christ by all peoples of the world.

Thus, for Couturier, understanding – or knowledge – was the key to religious unity.

“Knowledge,” writes Helen Keller, “is love and light and vision.” Simply said, yet so noble is this ideal of knowledge she might have been thinking of Sophia herself when she wrote that sentence. Knowledge as love, light, and vision: is there a better way to state in so few words what true knowledge is? Following Helen Keller, we could say accordingly that wisdom is the light of knowledge empowered by vision, permeated through and through with love.

“Wisdom shines brightly and never fades; she is readily discerned by those who love her, and by those who seek her she is found.” (Wisdom 6:12)

 “She is more beautiful than the sun, and every constellation. Compared with the light of day, she is found to excel, for day gives place to night, but against wisdom no evil can prevail.” (Wisdom 7:29-30)

“She spans the world in power from end to end, and gently orders all things. Wisdom I loved; I sought her out when I was young and longed to win her for my bride; I was in love with her beauty.” (Wisdom 8:1-2)

“The real community of man,” writes Allan Bloom, “is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers.” Regarding the community of those seeking truth together, the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot: a Journey into Christian Hermeticism has this to say (see my previous post of  “A Spirit of Conversation”):

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   .. “. . . It is through the fusion of opinions that truth lights up. Con-versation – the process of “together-versing” (flowing together) – is the very opposite of controversy, the process of “contra-versing” (flowing against). Conversation is the operation of the fusion of opinions; it is a work of synthesis. True conversation always has in principle the underlying statement in the Gospel: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). For all true conversation calls upon the transcendent Center, who is the way, the truth and the life.” (Letter XI Force, p. 276)

It is through the communication of opinions and the mutual valuing of them that a community of those who seek the truth may be born. If we understand opinion here to mean a belief not based on absolute certainty or positive knowledge but on what seems to be true, to be valid, or to be probable in one’s mind, in other words if we understand opinion to be that which arises as a judgment of our understanding, then we know how much Socrates is right to say that true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. How often can we say that our understanding of anything, including of our own direct experience, is totally comprehensive, leaving nothing out that might significantly alter our understanding of something or somebody? It is through the work of synthesis in conversation, just as the author of the Meditations on the Tarot suggests, i.e., in the operation of the fusion of opinions, that the truth can light up. It is then that opinion can become knowledge, real knowledge that becomes food for the soul.

 “Ignorance is the curse of God,” declares Lord Say in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, “knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.” And when Henry David Thoreau tells us that true friendship can afford true knowledge, since it does not depend on darkness and ignorance, he is telling us more probably than even he knew. It is through true friendship that we arrive at true knowledge. There is actually no other way. “I have called you friends,” says Jesus Christ to his disciples (John 15:15b), “for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” We can consider the following words from Rudolf Steiner found in The Christian Mystery: 29 Lectures on Christianity, 1906-1908 (Anthroposophic Press, 1998):

Christ says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:16). Everyone should say, “I am like a grape on the vine; Christ is my vine” (see John 15:5). Thus, Christ overcomes egoism in the organism of humankind. The Father-spirit, the spirit of our common origin, must enter into the individual I-beings. The I then works on the Father principle; then every I-being creates its own dwelling, yet all are united through the Christ principle. Christ said, “In my father’s house are many dwellings” (John 14:2). He was speaking of the I-dwellings that I-beings build for themselves. Christ, however, must prepare those “dwelling places”. But the Spirit who unites humanity must also come—that is, the Spirit of Truth.
    Spiritual Science should help people to understand what human beings have in common; it should bring a higher wisdom—the Spirit of Truth. When it comes to great wisdom we must free ourselves of what we desire. Only those willing to study the Spirit of Truth entirely without personal wishes are mature enough to receive it. The highest wisdom unites people with no personal speculation.
    The Spirit of Truth must shine out over human beings. Then, even though they are scattered in their various dwellings, the Spirit of Truth will unite them. In order to fit spirit into the house that the I builds for itself, the common Spirit of Truth must rule those I-beings. Christ promised his disciples the Spirit of Truth on Whitsunday. The disciples then spoke in many tongues, and all the various nations learned to understand one another. Regardless how great egoism may still become, every I-being who participates in the Spirit of Truth will have the spirit of community. Anyone who strives toward this goal must live in the spirit of John’s gospel. That is true spiritual science. Just as all plants incline to the Sun, just as they all grow toward it no matter what their location, so, too, all I-beings will turn to the Sun, to the spiritual light of truth.

The Spirit of Truth – which is to say the Holy Spirit, for, as Steiner points out, Christ promised His disciples the Spirit of Truth on Whitsunday. And we know that it was through Mary Sophia that the Spirit of Truth came to them, that the Spirit of Truth descended into Her Immaculate Heart and from that heart filled the hearts of the disciples, so that “there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.” Thus from hearts to heads, from heads then to the understanding of each to the other in an event of full inclusion—an event of true friendship—a community was born. For those of us who recognize Mary Sophia’s role at Pentecost, how can we do other than look to her as the mediator of the Spirit of Truth? Without Sophia, what wisdom is there to carry truth? Without Mary, what Sophia is there to know on earth?   

To paraphrase Steiner in a statement he made regarding anthroposophy as a path of knowledge, we can say that Mary Sophia guides the spiritual in human beings to the spiritual in the universe, visiting the soul as a need of the heart in the life of feeling. Whatever form spiritual knowledge takes in each human soul, such knowledge can be valid for the soul only to the extent that it meets this inner need. All those who discover in Divine Sophia what they themselves feel the need to discover can of themselves recognize in her divine being the Soul of the World, the Wisdom of Creation, the Holy Daughter of God.

It is through Mary Sophia, and it is through Her only, that the Spirit of Truth in its full purity can come into us and make us whole, just as it is through Mary Sophia – and through Her only – that the Christian community we call the Church can become one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic again, uniting all who recognize in Christ the true healer of Earth and humanity into one mystical body. It is through Mary Sophia – and through Her only – that the Church will come to include the believers of all religions worthy of the name, as a greater understanding of God leads accordingly to a greater understanding of Christ by these same believers.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation. May it signify for us what it was for Mary when the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” For it is only through her heart, the Immaculate Heart she has set in place of our own heart, that we will be able to say, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” It is only through her Immaculate Heart that Christ will then be born within us, within what has become our own heart, that Divine Son who is our love of truth, a love of truth which is nothing less than the Holy Wisdom of God dwelling within.

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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What Learning Is

“Disagree when necessary, but be in agreement about the truth.” – Saint Columba

“The real community of man is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers.” – Allan Bloom

Speaking as a potential knower, do I doubt the agreements I come to in community with others in regard to truth? Not if the truth it shares in common is a truth for me to stand by and to die for, not if it is my truth – not if I live and move and have my being in that truth. Is this truth to me a pearl of great price, a treasure in a field that, having found and covered up, I went off and bought with everything I had, so dearly (and gladly) have I paid for it? If so, very well then, having made this truth my own, I am now as a personality transcending myself in that truth, this truth I share in community with others.

But there is this matter of others beyond these others, the great mass of others who do not share this common truth, who live without this pearl, this treasure found in a field, this matter of personalities who seem entirely to subsist in the way of opinions strongly held, of beliefs untried, whose seeking is not truth itself, but whose seeking is comfort rather, comfort in various home-and-daily truths as higgledy-piggledy they happen to present themselves to be, “truths” fundamentally of mere accident and convenience it would seem, “truths” in any case costing nothing. But that one truth, however one may understand that one truth, however one might express that one truth, that single pearl of great price, that unique treasure in the field covered up and bought with all that one has – what is that to them?

Well then, do I delude myself? Am I arrogant toward these “others beyond others”? Is the pearl of great price, this truth I believe I have won so dearly, a commodity merely? Is it one idea in the noisy marketplace of many ideas, one of countless treasures to be found actually in anyone’s field, each field put up at auction as if it were some dustbowl farm among thousands of others, my own intellect auctioneer to my own subconscious desire of who-knows-what popping up to make its bid? Is there in fact a serious danger here to be reckoned with? According to the novelist Doris Lessing, there is indeed, for, in regard to the above questions, as expressed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside: CBC Massey Lectures (CBC Enterprises, 1986, p. 21 ff) she has this to say:

This business of seeing ourselves as in the right, others in the wrong; our cause as right, theirs as wrong; our ideas as correct, theirs as nonsense, if not as downright evil. . . .  Well, in our sober moments, our human moments, the times when we think, reflect, and allow our rational minds to dominate us, we all of us suspect that this “I am right, you are wrong” is, quite simply, nonsense. All history, development, goes on through interaction and mutual influence, and even the most violent extremes of thought, of behavior, become woven into the general texture of human life, as one strand of it. This process can be seen over and over again in history. In fact, it is as if what is real in human development – the main current of social – evolution cannot tolerate extremes, so it seeks to expel extremes and extremists, or to get rid of them by absorbing them into the general stream.

“All things are a flowing . . . ,” as Heraclitus, the old Greek philosopher said.

There is no such thing as my being in the right, my side being in the right, because within a generation or two, my present way of thinking is bound to be found perhaps faintly ludicrous, perhaps quite outmoded by new development – at the best, something that has been changed, all passion spent, into a small part of a great process, a development.

Certainly she has a point, even if in making that point she commits the logical error of claiming all truth subject to change with the exception of this one truth she has just pronounced, a truth which is supposed to endure henceforth through the ages, now she has unwittingly exempted it from its own principle. As it is obvious that Heraclitus needs a Plato to follow him if he is to make any real, any ultimate sense, so too does Doris Lessing need that same Plato, for Plato after all gave “the flux of change” its full due precisely in order to arrive at that which can never change, namely (let us remember) the ideals of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, however these loftiest of ideals might present themselves in the stream of time, however these ideals might live as differentiated mental pictures in individual persons of flesh and blood, however they might play themselves out as deeds in individual biography and in world history. What is there to learn, if not precisely that one thing of consequence – that principle – that does not change in any particular situation ? What would be the use otherwise? 

“This is what learning is,” Lessing declares in her 1969 novel The Four-Gated City. “You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” And it is here that she reveals herself, at least at this moment, a moment many years before her Heraclitian statement of October 1985 in Toronto, in the full glory of Platonic verity, the power of which surely cannot be gainsaid, it being simply the experience of us all, which belies the presumed Heraclitian one “truth” she tendered to us as eternally unchangeable, that there is no “truth” that does not change, this standing in awesome contrast to any other “truth” we would want to take hold of.  Truth of its own nature never changes. Our understanding of truth however – and by this I mean of course higher truth – can and must change as, morally maturing, we make truth more and more our own.

“Think wrongly, if you please,” Doris Lessing bids us, “but in all cases think for yourself.” She is right of course, but only to a degree, and only in certain ways, as I shall try to explain in the next post. Meanwhile, let us fully acknowledge the danger she warns against, this danger of everyone in a group thinking alike, of this thinking becoming a kind of living entity over and above the group requiring the obeisance of each person in the group for its ongoing existence, an entity indentified in the French esoteric tradition as an egregore. Like-minded people thinking together in community is one thing, people thinking alike in a group, thinking for example within a closed system of ideological adherence, which obviously amounts to no thinking at all, is an entirely different thing. The first is freedom, the second is imprisonment, and pity on the blind and deaf who cannot tell the difference!

Like-minded people thinking in community, people seeking truth together as potential knowers, can become as it were an island of peace against a sea of troubles, an island where Wisdom dwells, an island where Goodness visits, an island where beauty Blesses. Whatever the evil of the day, whatever the overriding threat of that evil in the mind’s eye of all possibilities of evil, rest assured that as love of truth leads inevitably to goodness and beauty, so peace in such a place passeth all understanding.

Tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Cuthbert (c. 634 –March 20, 687) an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop and hermit associated with the monasteries of Melrose and Lindisfarne in the Kingdom of Northumbria, who become in medieval times one of the most important saints of England, with a cult centered at Durham Cathedral. Famed for piety, diligence, and obedience, he spent much time among the people, ministering to their spiritual needs, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching, and performing miracles, his asceticism balanced by his charm and generosity to the poor, his reputation for gifts of healing and insight bringing many people to consult him. He was named of “Wonder Worker of Britain”. Later on in life he adopted the solitary life, retiring to a cave. He eventually settled on one of the Farne Islands, south of Lindisfarne. There he would receive visitors and wash their feet, subsequently confining himself to his cell, opening the window to give his blessing. While on the Farne Islands, he laid down special laws to protect the Eider ducks and other seabirds that nested on the islands, these bird protection laws having been possibly the first anywhere in the world. To this day eider ducks are often called cuddy ducks (Cuthbert’s ducks) in the dialect of modern Northumbria.

May Saint Cuthbert be an inspiration to all those who, as hermits in their love of truth and their longing for truth, learn to wash the feet of visitors, learn to open the window to them and to bless them. Thus may the community of those who seek truth meet together and come to know truth together as, washing the feet of one another, opening their windows to one another, blessing one another, they do as much for all others, for those “others beyond the others”. Thus in this way might the community of potential knowers, everyone thinking together individually in as many different ways as there are thinkers in the circle, in prayer to Holy Mary Sophia, united with Saint Michael, through the power of Her Divine Son – real thinking leading to real deeds – work for the salvation of the Earth and humanity.

“If we only looked at the way along which we are walking,” writes Saint Teresa of Avila in The Way of Perfection, “we should soon arrive; but we stumble and fall a thousand times and stray from the way because, as I say, we do not set our eyes on the true Way.”

To set our eyes on the true Way – more on this in the next post.

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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The Game of Truth

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” This pronouncement, sounding remarkably up to date, was made by Blaise Pascal more than 350 years ago. Unless, he says, we love the truth. . . .

“Truth is the cry of all,” comments George Berkeley, “but the game of few.” Yet how can we disagree with Kierkegaard, when he remarks that a personality is only ripe when it has made the truth its own?   “We have first raised a dust,” Berkeley observes, “and then complain we cannot see.”  Of course we have, and of course we do. Truth after all, the full truth, the truth no matter what, is costly, being for a few the pearl of great price, but for just about everyone else – subconsciously to be sure – a great bugbear of incalculable inconvenience, shame and, perhaps, even horror.

“I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus Christ in the Gospel, and will not the path we take to truth –should we decide to take it – affect the life of truth within us, so that as it is, so does it grow to be? “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The game of truth is a serious game for those who love truth, who would live by it, and who would have it live within them. “The pursuit of truth and beauty,” declares Einstein, “is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.”

Permitted indeed, for who is more serious about play than children, and there being a game of truth – and of course a game of beauty also — surely we can see the life there, in the pursuit of either truth or beauty: whether in music where notes are the medium, in painting where color is the medium, or in philosophy where concepts are the medium. Unless we become like children, we cannot enter the kingdom of truth and beauty, the goodness of which is God. Truth feeds the soul, just as beauty feeds the soul when it is true, when it is the radiance of truth in goodness. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” So must beauty be as truth in purest revelation, so must truth be as beauty in deepest conscience.

I am the bread of life. Truth will never fail to nourish those who continue in the living word of the Gospel. “All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth,” writes Berkeley, “— in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world — have not any subsistence without a mind.” And what is the mind without reason, the natural order of truth? Or for that matter, what is mind without imagination, which, as C. S. Lewis points out, is the very organ of meaning of what reason uncovers for us as truth? And one of the feats of the imagination in partnership with reason through ages of biblical understanding is an approach seldom taken in these days of scholarly criticism or its fundamentalist opposition: allegory. Allegory, one of four traditional levels of interpretation of Holy Scripture through centuries of faithful, intelligent reading – the other three levels being the literal, the analogical, and the mystical – can be a gratifying way to deepen the heart’s understanding of scripture, a way of co-operation of head and heart:

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

Now the following allegorical interpretation of John’s account of the feeding of the 5000 (6:5-14) is Martin Luther’s, as given in a sermon on a fourth Sunday in Lent (The Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume II, pp. 166-172, Baker Book House):

 I. THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND. 

I. In today’s Gospel Christ gives us another lesson in faith, that we should not be overanxious about our daily bread and our temporal existence, and stirs us up by means of a miracle; as though to say by his act what he says by his words in Matthew 6, 33: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” For here we see, since the people followed Christ for the sake of God’s Word and the signs, and thus sought the Kingdom of God, he did not forsake them but richly fed them. He hereby also shows that, rather than those who seek the Kingdom of God should suffer need, the grass in the desert would become wheat, or a crumb of bread would be turned into a thousand loaves; or a morsel of bread would feed as many people and just as satisfactorily as a thousand loaves; in order that the words in Matthew 4, 4 might stand firm, that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” And to confirm these words Christ is the first to be concerned about the people, as to what they should eat, and asks Philip, before they complain or ask him; so that we may indeed let him care for us, remembering that he cares more and sooner for us than we do for ourselves. 

2. Secondly, he gives an example of great love, and he does this in many ways. First, in that he lets not only the pious, Who followed him because of the signs and the Word, enjoy the food; but also the slaves of appetite, who only eat and drink, and seek in him temporal honor; as follows later when they disputed with him at Capernaum about the food, and he said to them in Jn 6, 26: “Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves,” etc., also because they desired to make him king; thus here also he lets his sun shine on the evil and the good, Mt 5, 45. Secondly, in that he bears with the rudeness and weak faith of his disciples in such a friendly manner. For that he tests Philip, who thus comes with his reason, and Andrew speaks so childishly on the subject, all is done to bring to light the imperfections of the disciples, and on the contrary to set forth his love and dealings with them in a more beautiful and loving light, to encourage us to believe in him, and to give us an example to do likewise; as the members of our body and all God’s creatures in their relation to one another teach us. For these are full of love, so that one bears with the other, helps and preserves what God has created. 

3. That he now takes the five loaves and gives thanks etc., teaches that nothing is too small and insignificant for him to do for his followers, and he can indeed so bless their pittance that they have an abundance, whereas even the rich have not enough with all their riches; as Ps 34, 11 says: “They that seek Jehovah shall not want any good thing; but the rich must suffer hunger.” And Mary in her song of praise says: “The hungry he hath filled with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Lk 1, 53. 

4. Again, that he tells them so faithfully to gather up the fragments, teaches us to be frugal and to preserve and use his gifts, in order that we may not tempt God. For just as it is God’s will that we should believe when we have nothing and be assured that he will provide; so he does not desire to be tempted, nor to allow the blessings be has bestowed to be despised, or lie unused and spoil, while we expect other blessings from heaven by means of miracles. Whatever he gives, we should receive and use, and what he does not give, we should believe and expect he will bestow. 

II. THE ALLEGORICAL INTERPRETATION. 

5. That Christ by the miraculous feeding of the five thousand has encouraged us: to partake of a spiritual food, and taught that we should seek and expect from him nourishment for the soul, is clearly proved by the whole sixth chapter of John, in which he calls himself the bread from heaven and the true food, and says: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled. Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life, which the Son of man shall give unto you.” Jn 6, 26-27. In harmony with these words we will explain also this evangelical history in its spiritual meaning and significance. 

6. First, there was much hay or grass in the place. The Evangelist could not fail to mention that, although it appears to be unnecessary; however it signifies the Jewish people, who flourished and blossomed like the grass through their outward holiness, wisdom, honor, riches etc., as Isaiah 40, 6-7, says: “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the breath of Jehovah bloweth upon it; surely the people is grass.” From the Jewish people the Word of God went forth and the true food was given to us; for salvation is of the Jews, Jn 4, 22. Now, as grass is not food for man, but for cattle; so is all the holiness of the outward Jewish righteousness nothing but food for animals, for fleshly hearts, who know and possess nothing of the Spirit. 

7. The very same is taught by the people sitting on the grass; for the true saints despise outward holiness, as Paul does in Phil 3, 8, in that he counted his former righteousness to be filth and even a hindrance. Only common and hungry people receive the Word of God and are nourished by it. For here you see that neither Caiaphas nor Annas, neither the Pharisees nor the Scribes follow Christ and see Christ’s signs; but they disregard them, they are grass and feed on grass. This miracle was also performed near the festive time of the Jewish Passover; for the true Easter festival, when Christ should be offered as a sacrifice, was near, when he began to feed them with the Word of God. 

8. The five loaves signify the outward, natural word formed by the voice and understood by man’s senses; for the number five signifies outward things pertaining to the five senses of man by which he lives; as also the five and five virgins illustrate in Mt 25, 1. These loaves are in the basket, that is, locked up in the Scriptures. And a lad carries them, that means the servant class and the priesthood among the Jews, who possessed the sayings of God, which were placed in their charge and entrusted to them, Rom 3, 2, although they did not enjoy them. But that Christ took these into his own hands, and they were thereby blessed and increased, signifies that by Christ’s works and deeds, and not by our deeds or reason, are the Scriptures explained, rightly understood and preached. This he gives to his disciples, and the disciples to the people. For Christ takes the Word out of the Scriptures; so all teachers receive it from Christ and give it to the people, by which is confirmed what Matthew 23, 10 says: “For one is your master, even the Christ,” who sits in heaven, and he teaches all only through the mouth and the word of preachers by his Spirit, that is, against false teachers, who, teach their own wisdom. 

9. The two fishes are the example and witness of the patriarchs and prophets, who are also in the basket; for by them the Apostles confirm and strengthen their doctrine and the believers like St. Paul does in Rom 4, 2-6, where he cites Abraham and David etc. But there are two, because the examples of the saints are full of love, which cannot be alone, as faith can, but must go out in exercise to its neighbor. Furthermore the fishes were prepared and cooked; for such examples are indeed put to death by many sufferings and martyrdoms, so that we find nothing carnal in them, and they comfort none by a false faith in his own works, but always point to faith and put to death works and their assurance. 

10. The twelve baskets of fragments are all the writings and books the Apostles and Evangelists bequeathed to us; therefore they are twelve, like the Apostles, and these books are nothing but that which remains from and has been developed out of the Old Testament. The fishes are also signified by the number five (Moses’ books); as John 21, 25 says: “Even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written” concerning Christ, all which nevertheless was written and proclaimed before in the Old Testament concerning Christ. 

11. That Philip gives counsel as how to feed the people with his few shillings, and yet doubts, signifies human teachers who would gladly aid the soul with their teachings; but their conscience feels it helps nothing. For the discussion Christ here holds with his disciples takes place in order that we may see and understand that it is naturally impossible to feed so many people through our own counsel, and that this sign might be the more public. Thus he lets us also disgrace ourselves and labor with human doctrines, that we may see and understand how necessary and precious God’s Word is and how doctrines do not help the least without God’s Word. 

12. That Andrew pointed out the lad and the loaves, and yet doubted still more than Philip, signifies the teachers who wish to make the people pious and to quiet them with God’s laws; but their conscience has no satisfaction or peace in them; but only becomes continually worse, until Christ comes with his Word of grace. He is the one, and he alone, who makes satisfaction, delivers from sin and death, gives peace and fulness of joy, and does it all of his own free will, gratuitously, against and above all hope and presumption, that we may know that the Gospel is devised and bestowed, not through our own merit, but out of pure grace. 

13. Finally, you see in this Gospel that Christ, though he held Gospel poverty in the highest esteem and was not anxious about the morrow, as he teaches in Matthew 6, 34, had still some provisions, as the two hundred shillings, the five loaves and the two fishes; in order that we may learn how such poverty and freedom from care consist not in having nothing at all, as the barefooted fanatics and monks profess, and yet they themselves do not hold to it; but it consists in a free heart and a poor spirit. For even Abraham and Isaac had great possessions, and yet they lived without worry and in poverty, like the best Christians do.

Of course the allegorical approach to interpretation of the bible, being an imaginative interpretation, is not subject to the strict demands of biblical scholarship in its standard of truth. The truth here is found in another realm, on another level. Yet truth nonetheless it can be to the one that takes it in with open mind and heart. Luther, of course, despite the reformation he was instigating, the justification-by-faith-alone doctrine he was promulgating, and the monks and friars he was disparaging, stood squarely within the (then) fifteen centuries-old Catholic tradition in bringing to scripture an allegorical interpretation, i.e., of permeating Christianity with thinking (a practice as old as the Gospel of John itself), allegory being but one means of accomplishing this. In our day, allegory as a means of interpretation has come into a kind of metamorphosis with the “spiritual-scientific” approach of Rudolf Steiner, as any study of his lectures on the gospels will reveal. For many, this spiritual approach to hidden truth – and to that monument of hidden truth the Bible – will go a long way to restore faith in Holy Scripture, especially so if (actually, only if) Steiner’s advice is heeded, which is that the spiritual-scientific mode of thinking should find its way into the heart.

Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540 – March 12, 604), whose feast it is today, writes, “There are nine orders of angels, to wit, angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim.” This is really the same as to say that there are nine levels of consciousness above the human. Even so, we have our thinking, and it is by way of permeating Christianity with our thinking – beginning of course with a good effort at literal understanding – that we can rediscover the deeper truths of Holy Scripture, helping us to enter a higher level of consciousness. As Saint Gregory says, “The seed of the word readily germinates when the loving-kindness of the preacher waters it in the hearer’s breast.” The “preacher” in this case being the heart-felt thinking, conceived by the Holy Spirit, that we ourselves bring to birth, because, purely and simply, we love the truth.

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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No Greater Mystery

“For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44)

“Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)

But what exactly is it that makes a person, or a place, or a thing, sacred? What is holiness? The idea of the holy has been with us since time immemorial, but how do we understand holiness in our day, in this time of economic domination and technological triumph, a time in which – in western culture at any rate – so very little is held to be sacred? How do we know when holiness is present – if, in fact, it is present? How do we experience holiness, if in reality we do experience it?

Such questions Rudolf Otto, eminent German Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion, who died tragically on this day in 1937, attempted to answer in his book The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1972), first published in Germany in 1917, first published in English in 1923. “Let us consider,” he writes in the Chapter 4 of that book, “the deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion”:

Faith unto salvation, trust, love—all these are there. But over and above these is an element which may also on occasion, quite apart from them, profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a well-nigh bewildering strength. Let us follow it up with every effort of sympathy and imaginative intuition wherever it is to be found, in the lives of those around us, in sudden, strong ebullitions of personal piety and the frames of mind such ebullitions evince, in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches. If we do so we shall find we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum’. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of — whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.

 . . . Conceptually mysterium denotes merely that which is hidden and esoteric, that which is beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar. The term does not define the object more positively in its qualitative character. But though what is enunciated in the word is negative, what is meant is something absolutely and intensely positive. This pure positive we can experience in feelings, feelings which our discussion can help to make clear to us, in so far as it arouses them actually in our hearts.

For this experience Otto borrows a Latin noun from Roman mythology, numen (the holy thing, force or deity) and coins an adjective, numinous. A numinous experience, he says, has the following elements: “awe-fullness”, “overpowering-ness” (or “majesty”) and “energy” (or “urgency”). These elements combined bring to the subject an experience of the “Wholly Other” (Chapter 5), which in turn involves yet another element which he describes in Chapter 6:

The qualitative content of the numinous experience, to which “the mysterious” stands as form, is in one of its aspects the element of daunting “awe-fullness” and “majesty” . . . but it is clear that it has at the same time another aspect, in which it shows itself as something uniquely attractive and fascinating.

These two qualities, the daunting and the fascinating, now combine  in a strange harmony of contrasts, and the resultant dual character of the numinous consciousness, to which the entire religious development bears witness, at any rate from the level of the “daemonic-dread” onwards, is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole history of religion. The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay to make it somehow his own. The “mystery” is for him not merely something to be wondered at but something that entrances him with as strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication; it is the Dionysiac-element in the numen.

Following the above characterization of a numenous experience, we could take as a fair example of this a passage found on page 38 of Trevor Ravenscroft’s book The Spear of Destiny (Weiser, 1982)

The air became stifling so that I could barely breathe. The noisy scene of the Treasure House seemed to melt away before my eyes. I stood alone and trembling before a hovering form of the Superman–a Spirit sublime and fearful, a countenance intrepid and cruel. In holy awe, I offered my soul as a vessel of his Will.

These words were purportedly said by Adolf Hitler after he had just such an experience as described above by Rudolf Otto, the noumen being in this case the Übermensch. “Faith unto salvation, trust, love . . . ,” writes Otto, “But over and above these is an element which may also on occasion, quite apart from them, profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a well-nigh bewildering strength.” Ay, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say. An element? Some thing? Some thing over and above, something beyond, love?

And what might that be, that something, that element, that “daemonic-divine object” waiting for us beyond love? Waiting for us beyond death’s door? Ay, there’s the rub —

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Whether Hitler actually spoke those words we have quoted or not, clearly – reading that passage from Ravencroft’s book – we meet with a serious difficultly in Otto’s idea of the holy. For him, holiness belongs to some unknown element beyond love and beyond all personhood, human or divine, in which love would be found, since there can be no love apart from a person that loves. For him, beyond love and beyond any person that loves there must be adaemonic-divine object” – something “Wholly Other”, something that may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread”.  And if we tremble before it, “utterly cowed and cast down”, having “at the same time the impulse to turn to it”, wanting “to make it somehow our own”, why then, according to this point of view, “in speechless humility of the creature in the presence of – whom or what? – in the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures” (and beyond all personhood whatsoever) we are experiencing the deepest religious experience available to any human being.

Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous as a mystery (mysterium), a mystery that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans) at the same time, has influenced many thinkers, among them Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, C.S. Lewis, Max Scheler, Joseph Needham, and Martin Heidigger.

Yet we have the apostle John in a letter (1 John 4:7-19) saying this:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

   God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Taken to heart, these words assure us that there is nothing over and above love – and nothing beyond the Person who loves – to cow us and to cast us down, unless of course it is Love itself that we do not know nor wish to know. Such a condition is powerfully presented in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The mere presence of Christ with his right hand raised sends some souls fleeing in terror. Unlove fears love, and genius reveals this spiritual fact unforgettably. In which case, mysterium tremendum let it be, whether in an encounter with the “Superman” or with some other element “beyond” love and “beyond” any person who loves.

There is a serious question as to the manner of Rudolf Otto’s death, for he died of pneumonia after he suffered serious injuries falling some twenty meters from a tower. Persistent but unconfirmed rumors have identified this fall as a suicide attempt. Suicide or not, his is a tragic story if only for the one, for the deepest mystery he seemed to have no inkling of, nor the greater part of humanity seems to have an inkling of, which is the Mystery of the Sacred Heart. This is a mystery that the Reformation and its subsequent Protestant development over nearly five centuries has sidestepped. This is truly tragic. It is tragic for all humanity, for Protestant and for Catholic alike,  and for everyone else too, since we are all  given a strong impression that there can be a Christianity without a Sacred Heart. In its heights and depths this mystery excels all mysteries, because this mystery reveals to us that God has a human heart. John knew this. John, listening to the beat of that Heart at the Last Supper, knew this beyond all else. He knew this beyond all else in the same way that he knew that Love is a Person, that Love is the Alpha and Omega of all that exists, just as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin knew in the twentieth century that Love is the Alpha and Omega of evolution.

“I believe that the universe is in evolution,” said Teilhard de Chardin. “I believe that the universe proceeds toward the spirit. I believe that in man the spirit is fully realized in persons. I believe that the supremely personal is the universal Christ.”

There is no greater mystery in the universe than the person and the life and death of the personality by which it loves – which is the same as to say there is by far no greater mystery in the universe than the human heart. “The heart is a small vessel,” writes Dimitri of Rostov, in The Inner Closet of the Heart, “but all things are contained in it; God is there, the angels are there, and there also is life and the Kingdom, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace.”

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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