Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Landscape Beyond the Leaf



In 1938 or '39, "Leaf by Niggle" was written, either in Tolkien's rounded, Hobbithole-like handwriting, or on a typewriter with impossibly crude, round keys on long, arching supports. I imagine him sitting at a desk in his home, a desk facing a lattice-like window patterned with the slow, downward dance of English rain, the drops shivering occasionally in wind gusts; perhaps, as he wrote, Tolkien wondered about the subtle, rather ominous rattling of the shingles on his roof: a true professor never knows quite what to do with ominous rattlings in a house--too practical a problem--so perhaps he simply incorporated the rattling into his short story about Niggle, and his neighbor Parish, who seem to live in perpetual rattling of shingles and rainstorms: I imagine Tolkien took the rattling into his fingers and his soul and made it, somehow, part of a great and deep parable about the landscape beyond the leaf, the work beyond work.

I just re-read "Leaf by Niggle" in the midst of great soul-pain: feeling rattled, blown about, unheard and unwanted in my own work, knowing somehow, simultaneously, how unworthy I am to be heard, how paltry is my work as a teacher and guide of young people in comparison to others, to my mentors, to the work of Our Lord in His lifetime. Within, we are all artists in a sense--we work on the art of rhetoric, or plumbing, or mathematics, or mothering and fathering. We have arts we perceive clearly as those we are working on, and we desire to be affirmed, to make a difference in the world.

Niggle, like myself, worked on his great painting, and like myself, he loved the sheen of light and color on single leaves; he built great landscapes around the leaves; they were details that drove meaning: like myself, he failed and was failed by his human community. His great work was housed in a shed on the remains of a garden; his neighbor Parish, an artisan-gardener, and a highly annoying neighbor to Niggle, was a neighbor who only saw what Niggle was doing as no more than a waste of good roofing canvas. Like myself, Niggle was selfish, and yet was deeply wounded by being unseen--and like me, he was never sure during his lifetime of what, really, his art, his great work, his passion was all about.

After Niggle's death, his canvas is used to patch roofs, namely Parish's; the great work becomes roof-tarp to keep Parish and his wife dry under their rattling shingles. One corner of the painting, a beautiful leaf-spray with mountains in the distance, is found later on the ground, fluttering in the grass below the roof. It is framed and put in the museum under the rather lame, generic title "Leaf by Niggle"--and eventually, even the meaning of 'Niggle' is forgot in the business of life, of rattling shingles and storms.

I resign my teaching post, my community, now, and in great sorrow and pain at the leaving; I am primarily a educator, one with great passion "to lead out"--into the light beyond the cave, I hope--also, though, I, like Niggle, paint--I leave at WCC paintings of leaves and mountains, and beautiful words of St. Bernard and St. Paul on the walls of the Latin Room; I leave my calligraphy and paintings of Dr. Carlson's beloved poems on the hallway outside my now empty office; my office name plate will come down soon, my title "Tami Kozinski, Faculty" is now defunct, and Mrs. K's office will become again an empty shell. My signatures "tkozinski '10" on my paintings and calligraphy will remain a little longer, but soon, very soon, "tkozinski" will have no meaning here anymore: just a name.

What is left? As the last semester wound down, I felt a failure in so many ways--so much sin in me, so many weaknesses as an artist, as a human being; I felt failed in many ways--unseen, unknown, unheard, flotsam and jetsam.

Then on a whim, I re-read "Leaf by Niggle"--it popped into my head as a help to my daughter, also struggling with feelings of failure in her art. We read it aloud together, and she had to finish reading it, as I was weeping almost with abandon by the end. In trying to help her, I was given also a great vision, a healing vision.

Niggle dies, leaves his art, his community, his neighbor, and must do penance; he must be healed in the hospital beyond the grave; when he learns the humble joy of diligence and anonymity, he is sent on to a land he recognizes as his own painting: it is the work beyond the paltry work, and it is built around the tree that contains all his beautiful leaves. He understands how to truly work on it now, and eventually Parish comes and joins him, providing necessary gardening artisanship--and they realize that they needed each other all along--Parish is astounded at Niggle's true vision, his work beyond his weakness, his art beyond his failures; Niggle is supported and able to finish the work because of Parish's expertise in gardening and his discipline.

I die, in a sense, now: Leaving, like all leavings--this leaving a profound one for me, a leaving of a deep part of my life's work, to help grow a beautiful institution that Our Lady wanted in Wyoming--is a death, but being here was also the hospital in which I began to learn my deep faults. I do not know if leaving here is a mistake and failure also (does Death also feel like a failure?); I only saw, like Niggle, what more I could have done, how I felt impeded or misunderstood, or how I could have done better.

Yet, in my pain and discouragement, in leaving, the Lord gave me the rare chance to see the real work I helped Him do here, and it was a landscape far beyond, but built around, single leaves: as they said goodbye, students began to tell me about the work I did, the image I placed in their souls, the leading out: it was the work in the soul of a young person for which the academics are only a precursor. I found that I was seen as a model of what it meant to be a woman, a person, a teacher, a learner, a follower of Christ; I was taken by surprise at the depth to which my simple leaves rooted themselves in young souls, the landscape the leaves built.

The real moments, the true leaf-spray in all the work, the years, the attempts? I kept being told that I "saw" them, or tried to; I "heard"...it was the leaves of love that did the real work, and opened the passageway to the mountains beyond, the mountains down which the Lord comes to meet the young souls. I recalled my inspiration, long ago, out of fear of the responsibility of teaching, to pray before each class for the Holy Spirit to use me as He wished : As a teacher, but more importantly, as one who, through writing and rhetoric, through counseling and just being,  I tried to free their voices, to hear and see who they really are and tell them they are loved and to have hope in the Lord.

Rare, I think, in this life, does the Lord give us the gift to see a glimpse of the harvest, of our real work: He does this to encourage, to humble us, to set us straight, and because He also wants us to know that He sees us--since the first childhood reading of Moses' desire to see God face-to face, I also have burned with this same desire--and now, through my own real work of trying to see others in the midst our mutual lousiness, I know He is face-to-face with us, though we are often blind, though we are disfigured and swollen at times. Using Martin Buber's great term "I-Thou as the look of lovers," I know He is face-to-face with us, because He has the human face of Christ. Through this face, God is always the Lover. He tells me through this also to remember that my art is only done also through the help of my colleagues and neighbors, even those who do not see me, or what I am doing.

Because of the glimpse of myself reflected in His eyes beyond my paltry attempts at painting leaves, I also know that each person brought into this world, even if only for a brief bird's life like my Ellie who died before even being born, has a real work beyond yet somehow based upon the imperfect art each pursues and is, and based upon the deep and great foundation of human and divine communion that is necessary for the making of a leaf.




Thursday, April 26, 2018

Kandylakia





Petros is driving away from Athena, east to the Aegean
chortling a bazouki beat
past olive, cypress, past angulated geometricized
confections in marble cement invaded by
tokens of human existence:
shirts pinned in positions of helplessness,
soggy towels, exiled plastic plants.

Hand on handle in the back, I am
hanging on in a filling west wind, my heart
rippling loose; I see Iris in the front
Germanically pondering the chances of death
as Petros sends horn-sounds around
the right side of a dwarf-Peugeot.

Roadside, a tiny church on a pedastal, a kandylakia, winks by.

I see inside for an instant.
Like the coal-lit eyes of the young Greek priest
I saw once pulsing along Athinas Street,
from behind small windows, a red-lit, smoky saint-face
watches, remembering
the world, and the long-ago accident that
pushed a soul through his gateway-iconastasis,
that soul-sized door.

I am still too composite for that door.
Rocking and flapping past the red light and the eyes,
the sea-red soil-olive air fills me still
like a lover's breath.

And yet I am thinking now of golden gateways
and how, if Petros flicks a finger wrong and we die--
could you but confect a kandylakia,
rooted in red soil, Agios Nicholas to watch for us, to beg for mercy, then
you could believe I slipped in
like a lover's breath---


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Fruit Trees




I have searched for you, Lord; Lord, you are ever calling me. And yet I am immersed in human language, those symbol-translations, rough-cut boulders as heavy, material-laden, weak analogies to the fluidity of the thoughts of the heart; I am always expecting you to speak to me in boulders, when you actually speak in that water, the wind, of the heart. I knew this better when I was eight, as I escaped the workaday world and lay for hours on a boulder in a pine forest on the Boy's Side of Anatolia College and watched for you in the light peeking through the needle-laden branches and the cloud-castles of a blue sky; like Elijah discovered, though,  I found you not most deeply in the light or the castles; you yourself were beyond sight and poetry. Like Elijah, when I kept my heart open to finding you, I heard your call in the small, gentle wind as it caressed the pine trees, and then me. You spoke to me beyond words, you gathered up my emotions, quieted my mind, sharpened my soul, and spoke directly to the center of my being, language clear and pure that cannot be adequately expressed in symbol or analogy or poetry, though perhaps the poets can come the closest to your language. I cannot write what you told me exactly, but it changed me, changed my life, forever.

Then I lost you, Lord; Lord, you ever called to me. Now, when I am tired of ambition, tired of trying to be something others want, exhausted by ego, I have begun to desire your voice, as I once did, childlike, again; the deer panting for the waters now, again, is one of your images calling me back. You had to crush my ego, my demands, and yet you have never let me fall irrevocably; you have helped me see that much in this world blinds us, but that nothing blinds us so much as pride and the fear that is the inevitable result of putting self at the center of the cosmos. When I began to leave all to you, I could hear you calling, though I had become again a neophyte in the language of the heart. So, you worked me through living parables, one after the other.

When you came to your people in Palestine, you became a living parable, and you told those who were not open to the language of the heart parables, "because though hearing, they are deaf." Your life on earth was a layered poem, an epic with many facets, many devices, many tropes and metaphors, to reach people of all kinds and all levels of openness, like a rhetorician who works simultaneously with a thousand tools, a master above all masters of the art of communication, and you did this, burdened by speaking with boulders to those who could not understand the language of soul-water.

You do the same with me, because my ears are clogged with the dust of this world now: ego, expectations, authority, property.

So, you called me again through another living parable; in a deep and hard decision, a life-changing one, you asked us to seek you, and gave us the grace to even desire, above all else, if only in the conscious part of us, our reason, our weak wills, Your Will. As a boulder-speaker, I was looking for you to just tell us the way. I told you, in the beginning, that "the desire in my heart is to be fruitful for You; it brings me the joy of being who I am meant to be; so Lord, I asked, please just tell me where you would like us to be fruitful; we both want this most deeply. To serve you and be fruitful for You."

Then there was silence; You seemed to recede. Why would you not tell us clearly? Instead, you began to make each way, each road leading away from this crossroads, equal; you kept us at an aporia, a point past which our reason alone could not go: I thought you were being evasive and cruel, and I cried out over and over; I was so afraid of making a mistake, of not following You.

In Adoration one evening, I heard you speak again in the water-language of the heart. You said something like "Of course you cannot go forward without Me; of course your way will be a disaster if it is outside My Will. You know what that is like, Tami. You have done it many times, and so yes, I confirm your intuition that You need Me. I am here." So, I went out, driving home in my beloved truck, rejoicing that the Lord would show us the way. Yet, the confusion returned, continued. My doubts, like the dirt rising to the top of the water when the pond is agitated, rose again and choked my heart.

It forced me to dig again, dig deep, with my husband, past the surface and into the layers of my true self. I found selfish desires from the past, wounding from the last ten years, and deep pain, and so much fear, and ambition, and ego, and also love and gratitude and forgiveness and repentance. I began to see that it must be about love, and trust. I watched my husband in his childlikeness and his humility; I watched him trying to lay down his life, his career, his desires, for me; I watched the beauty of masculinity pouring out self for the good of the family; I saw him struggling with his own wounds and fears. I felt alone, we felt alone, and confused, but I kept calling out to the Lord, more and more in the language beyond words, asking the Holy Spirit to speak for me, to call out the truth, good or bad, that still lay hidden in our hearts. I longed, with Moses, to speak to Him as a man speaks to his friend, face to face.

I began to see that we are, I am, hopelessly tangled in images, narrations, tangled in the boulders that choke the flowing river of the heart, and so as Lewis says, "How can He speak face-to-face to us until we have faces?" How can He speak to us clearly, pour out His water, when our hearts are boulder-like? So I went to His poetry, the translations of His fluid language into the pebbles that humans can finger, carry, more easily: I went to the Scriptures, and like a lost man searching for a trail under the leaves, I looked for him in David's cries, Jeremiah's exhortations and dehortations, in Isaiah's trumpet-calls. I looked for him in St. Paul's mysterious allusions. I called to all my heavenly family to help me, and I felt, sometimes, their presence as a fierce fire and clear, cold water, as pure and unadulterated joy that lives beyond the messiness of this life. They watched with me, they watched me like a mother watches, still and intense, as her small child tries to make his way across a narrow bridge over a rushing river. They were speaking to me but it seemed beyond language, somehow silent, or beyond me. Maddeningly, even, they seem to relate to me from the already completed pattern of my life, from that other shore, and so were responding with that end in mind rather than the immediate end I wanted, of just knowing the way forward. The answer was deeper, beyond the boundaries of my rational mind.

In my searching, I found again Jeremiah's poetic image of the river flowing from the east side of the temple, and I realized the Lord had given me that image many times during my life: the image that I, also, am meant to be His temple, and that water from my heart, where He lives in me, will flow out, and many fruit trees will be planted by and along and because of that river. He has promised me this, even when I least deserved this, even when He knew that I would go the wrong way; it is as if He says, "This is what I made you for, and I will bring it to fruition in your life, because my plans are not thwarted...I will bring to completion the work that I began in you when you first called to Me, came searching for Me among cloud castles as a child, came listening to the wind."

I found Socrates again in the Symposium;  I found, through him, Diotima, who says to Socrates, "This is the way of going": she is speaking about how, through everything we learn about, as we grow and mature, we are meant to ascend a ladder of love; we first only see the Good and Beauty in bodies, in physical objects, but as we grow, we begin to see that this Good in these particulars is more deeply expressed in the reason, in the will where virtues are developed, in the rational and then spiritual, and finally, to draw in another image from Plato's Republic,we come out of the Cave and are meant to "converse with Beauty" directly. Yet the lover of wisdom, of the Good, is speaking with Beauty (which implies a person with whom I can converse) and simultaneously must hold the glimpses of Beauty, what he cannot yet see fully, and must return to the Cave to draw others up towards this Good; in this life, we still must converse with Beauty and Goodness as He lives within the boulder-like particulars of our earthly life. In the Symposium, for example, Socrates is, at one moment, in contemplation outside Agathon's party, in direct contemplative conversation with Beauty, and yet after a time makes his way to the party and through the ensuing boulder-rhetoric, and just like Christ with 'those who cannot hear,' draws the others higher up the ladder of love towards a conversation with Beauty: one feels that Socrates, especially as he nears his death in the Phaedo and Crito, is living in two worlds: an increasingly pure conversation with Beauty and a difficult, painful, tiring conversation with those who still barter with boulders, an uncovering of Beauty where He is found in the particulars. Only one living in this tension, living along the Ladder of Love, ascending and descending, can truly teach.

Yet all things that have existence are good, and through their participation in Good Himself, they can speak to us in lesser or greater degrees of Beauty and Goodness Himself. It is not that we, in this life, can ever leave these earthly realities behind, and Christ has made it so that these earthly things will even be baptised into that language of water, of healing, of the heart, of His heart; in the fullness of time, in the fulness of Christ, creation will cease groaning and will become conversant in the language of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who is, in a sense, the spirit of Love that Diotima speaks of, that Love who 'sleeps out along the roads' always desiring and drawing us toward that Good and Beauty, and yet, beyond Diotima's wisdom, and Socrates'. He is also simultaneously the completion also, having no need, an eternal, complete, perfect Love creating within Himself a place of desire so that He can, in His mercy and self-giving, allow us a place in Him.  He hollows out a place for me so that I can "make up whatever is lacking in Christ's suffering." The Christian life, the Real Life, is a paradox of the union of particulars and universals; Christ is a living image of this paradox: He is God and man. Beauty and that in which it subsists can, in Christ, become one, can reach completion. It is a paradox. It is beyond language.

So, with Socrates, in my particular pleas for guidance, I felt deeply only that "I know what I do not know"; we stepped out in faith and in some darkness, but on one of two roads, two roads that He had made equally rich, equally blessed. And I realized the deep love in this; He had hollowed out a choice that we could make, really make, in peace and blessing. In that darkness of great light, a light so bright and full that it blinded us, I panicked again. What if I was fooling myself? What if we were harming ourselves and others, and being selfish? Only when you really try to be docile to the Lord do you find out how deeply selfish and stubborn you are; only when you try to fear the Lord do you realize how deeply brazen you are. You realize also that truly Satan roars around like a lion, ready to devour the straggling and the weak sheep of the flock, that fear and sin draw him like the scent of blood flowing from the wound in the leg of the lamb.

We reached out to mentors, the spiritual giants in our lives, those farther along the road to the Lord, both those older and younger than ourselves in the age of this life (for often that time-age means nothing in the realm of the Lord). They prayed and advised and encouraged. My mother gave me Isaiah 61, which speaks in another way about fruit trees being planted; it says that God will do the planting.

This morning, I listened again to the boulder-poetry given us by others who have tried to fear the Lord--Psalm 128; all I had to hear was the first few lines:

Blessed is the one who fears the Lord
The one who walks in the Lord's ways.
You will eat the fruit of your labor;
blessings will be yours;
The Lord will make you rich indeed.

I heard, suddenly, the Lord, speaking clearly in the language of the heart, and I cannot do it justice with these symbolic boulders, but I will try: He said to me, "Do not think about mistakes; you have done your best to fear me, both of you. No matter where you go, I will plant those trees; because you have tried, even imperfectly, to fear Me, because you have tried to cultivate the pure desire, in the heart, for My Will, I will condescend to follow you wherever you go. In fact, I will go out before you and the water will flow from you both, and I will plant my trees and make them fruitful. Because your husband is trying to not despise humility for My sake, and you are trying to lay down your will, even though you are both still proud, I will lift you both up."

I know that the lifting up, for the Lord, looks upside down to the world; it looks like a dumping into the dust, sometimes; but for those who look, ever, for Him as the source of joy, even His flinging one into the dust and beyond, His picking one up for any use, is happiness.

I have searched for you, Lord; Lord, you are ever calling me.







Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sea Glass

Along the edge of the sea
he dangled me:
I, faceted glass contraption
laughing in the light

Turning to seabird call
he let me fall
I, love contracted in glass
splintering in the sun

To the forgotten seabed
was I wed
I, many-mirrored star-shards
shining holes to heaven

Past the edge of the sea
He came for me
I, barnacled bits re-gathered
weeping in the light

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Buried Alive



Antigone, sentenced to be buried alive, bound amidst the watery glow of torches, hidden, silenced, left to crumple and shrivel, thirsting for water and light, hung herself before her lover, her bridegroom, could save her. She was made voiceless first by the fate of her father, then by the tyrant, the city, her own ego, the earth and stone isolating her, and finally by her choice to take her own life.

Antigone is a living archetype; she lives as a martyr-vision of thousands of particular Antigones. They live among us, and we don't see them, because we cannot see each other's souls bare, naked, without the masks and costumes worn to create an image, an eidelon, of some ideal: whether that is an uber-tolerant totalitarianism, a rigid conservativism, a position of power, or a victimhood. We don't see our own Antigone buried inside, that stunted, deformed, voiceless part of ourselves that has forgotten the light; we cannot hear, in the world around us, a million inner voices, our real voices, buried alive; we are left as fractured selves, dealing with receding, dying echoes of the cry within the walls, dealing with the anger and the despair at the meaningless silence that finally settles when too much time has passed.

When are we so wounded? How are we to be healed?

When does a child understand that his or her true voice is deformed, unwanted, in the eyes of those whose care it is to find, encourage, love, that voice? Where does good socialization end and enforced, silencing conformity begin? When are parents shaping an eidelon, an idol of their child, and when are we educating, or leading our child into a place of light, of truth: the truth of a God who has made him or her in His image, and is the true Father, true Teacher? When are we burying our children alive, and when are we providing space for them to speak and then, finally, sing, unashamed by the nakedness of their soul before others, before God?

When do we make those voices sing, like parrots, in our own voices?

For we are all born, like Antigone, out of, and into, deformity, our inheritance from our own Father and Mother; we are all brought into families struggling with deformity and deep flaws amidst flashes of love and light. Yes, to mature, we must negotiate our identity within our human community else we become egoists and narcissists. A true voice develops in negotiation with the Good, with God, with the flaws and beauties of ourselves and others; educare,"to lead out," means that we are given the tools and paradigms in which to freely, honestly negotiate; however, too often those in authority over us do not negotiate but rather demand, or ignore, or suppress. Many parents wish the best, and yet struggle themselves with voicelessness, with uncertainty, with deep fear in the face of a young soul so fragile and sensitive, so easily wounded, so beautiful in its intricate design, meant to be a fountain of light, an unrepeatable pattern of colors yet unseen.

The Father gave me a vision of you, young man, young woman, young Antigone, with your fragile ideals grown in the light fields of heaven, ideals that must, so often, be crushed before they can survive in this earth-encrusted world. Yet when I prayed to be a healer for you, young Antigone, I never guessed it would be out of a vision of the imperishable light within you, a vision of such beauty and power that all I can do is to use my voice, the voice I am finding again all the time, to lead you again to yourself, to love yourself, to unlock the stone and earth prison from the inside.

I see, Antigone, your Bridegroom ever watching you; He watches you, and waits, as you make your choices in the heavy nights to keep speaking in the face of contempt and ignorance or to begin to bury your true voice and craft another, one that you believe will be heard. I watch with Him, Antigone, as you are repeatedly condemned, corrupted, encrusted in the expectations of others, of teachers and would-be gurus, all those you looked to to lead you out; I close my eyes as you lock out the Bridegroom and begin preparation to hang your own voice, yourself.

The Bridegroom shows me His own vision of you and asks me to listen for the last vestiges of that voice, crying in the depths, under all your practiced tones of competency and complacency, that crying that your anger and despair and self-hatred are all pointing to; I listen, and sometimes I see the crushed counterpart, within you, to the vision He gives me. I find the pieces of that vision in your pain, and I try to use poetry, identity of ratio, analogy, challenge, but mostly the settling into my heart before you, the nakedness of my own past burial.

I tell you that I was also Antigone, that I buried myself alive in order to survive, that I built the prison and accepted my deformity as deserved, as identity. I condemned myself in my ignorance and ego. Then I tell you of the moment in the garden, when I, an old soul, a scarred soul, heard the Bridegroom whisper, "I have seen it all. I have been with you through it all. I have witnessed it all; I never left."

"I never left."

I tell you that your Bridegroom has always been with you as well, and about the mystery of the sin, of the burial, of the deformity, that will become the new note in an astounding, unrepeatable symphony of light; I tell you that you have never been alone, that your Bridegroom clings to you even as you hang in the darkness, and wishes to wed you still, and to lead you into the light, to heal you, to hear you.

He tells you that if you will let Him cut you down and if you take His hand, you will speak again, and sing, and that song will be shared, will fill the heavens with its intricate pattern of tone and word, will be an indispensable step within the Great Dance.

Friday, December 08, 2017

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: The Power of Capacity





A figure rises before me, coming into focus, lit clear now as the intervening years dissipate in the face of a breeze rising, then falling into the silence of clarity: a young girl watches, staring straight ahead.

And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 

As I watch her, silent as she is silent, I begin to get an impression in my soul; a pattern is created in my heart by her being. My mind, sifting the meaning of this pattern, searches for a word, a logos, a boulder-like, imperfect lingual analogy, a definition of the definition. A word comes to me: capacity. This young woman has a capacity that I cannot grasp fully with the grappling hooks of the mind. It is only when I try with the gentle tendrils of the imagination and the heart that I begin to understand. 

She has a certain space, but not quite emptiness; it is the space created by the handmaid sitting next to the ruler's throne, sitting cross-legged on the mosaic floor as they do in the East, hands upturned and laying, waiting on each knee; there is a space created, symbolically, by the posture of the body, a space, a welcoming which small children recognize as a space to crawl into, to curl into, to receive caresses. 

This body-analogy, though, my mind whispers, is not enough; the true capacity is that of the soul, a capacity that is only seen by the soul, all at once, for it is a soul-capacity:

And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

When the angel enters, I begin to understand more fully this capacity in the young woman. As one understands the wind by watching its effects on still lake-water, that sudden, mysterious fan-like pattern one cannot hold in the mind, I see in her eyes, in her stillness, that she takes in his presence, receives it fully, in the soul. Her capacity is indeed great. She has been gifted already with a great space in the soul, a God-sized space, and it is like a mold waiting for the gold to fill it. Yet her mind is a human mind, her heart a human heart; it is her soul-silence that reveals her capacity, a capacity of which she is, perhaps, in the mind, yet unaware, a capacity different from all others.

The angel has golden locks not akin to gold, but locks of living gold, and as he speaks, gifts, his lily-words, small stars of golden light rise from his head, out of his mouth. The young girl's mind, a handmaid to her capacity of soul, begins the attempt to grasp meaning, so that her will may be fully engaged:

[Mary] having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. 
And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.
Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever.
And of his kingdom there shall be no end.
And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?
And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren:
Because no word shall be impossible with God.

As he says the last words, the angel shakes with laughter, with a deep joy coming from a great vision, a capacity that sees the Face of God and knows the infinitude that is love. As he moves, and ripples, a great cloud of golden stars drift outward, towards her. 

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. 

The girl's response is related to her capacity, that infinitude of grace, and it will burst forth in a great power, an unearthly power that is not content to remain beyond the humble, but will transform dust, that formed dust, a dust breathing, thinking, hoping, wondering, waiting, clouds of dust helpless, mired in the bracken water of a polluted earth. 

And the angel departed from her.

As I watch her now, pondering in the room lit now by a soft dawn, the gold given way to the rose, I again sense her great capacity, a greatness of availability, of self removed to the corners, and I weep. Why? The tears fall because I know I stand before dust that has been transformed by grace to a level I had not known was possible; the angel's words come floating back:  Because no word shall be impossible with God. I see again the quivering joy, the golden-star locks thrown back in pure ecstasy; I meditate on this word 'capacity.' 

In our language, it has two meanings: 'the maximum amount that something can contain,' and 'the ability or power to do, experience, or understand.' The womb is a powerful, analogous example of this 'capacity' having, simultaneously, both meanings: it is an organ of space, of reception, wherein self must recede to the corners to allow room; even empty, the very ability to create space is potent, as the womb can provide space for another by expanding exponentially and eventually delivering this other being into the world. 

This young girl is given, because nothing is impossible with God, the simultaneous soul-and-body capacity to receive and deliver God; she was given the formative, foundational capacity in her own soul at her own conception. I see it already there, in the essential waiting, that readiness to receive, before the angel comes. His coming is the fulfillment of that which had grown with the girl, expanding with her over her young life. 

As Mary rises up from pondering and thanksgiving and goes to greet Elizabeth, I realize also that a capacity like hers has an inverse relationship to possession. We often mistake the desire to possess for the desire to love, but these movements of the soul have very different fruit. One delivers envy, the desire to devour, and death; the other, freedom, illumination, nurture, growth, and life. One has no capacity in its selfish fullness, the other selfless, waiting to be filled by God and His power. Love is the emptiness and power-from-emptiness that St. Francis, that living symbol, will, centuries later, embody when he strips himself naked in front of all Assisi. 

Mary sings to Elizabeth and John, a prophetess, with the power coming from a capacity never known in the world before; she sings to another mother and her child, as prophetess to prophet:

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.






Scripture verses from Luke 1:26-56, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)

Monday, June 19, 2017

C.S. Lewis: The Questioned Image




In his final book, The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes about the Mediaeval world view: "All the apparent contradictions must be harmonised. A Model must be built which will get everything in without a clash; and it can do this only by becoming intricate, by mediating its unity through a great, and finely ordered, multiplicity"(Lewis 1964, 11). This apparent rational suicide is tempered with the caveat that this model, to those in the era, was just that—a model. Lewis makes the comment that the Mediaeval person loved to codify, to build, to systematize; thus, it seems logical that the Mediaevals understood the poetic and sign-nature of their world-view, their image. Lewis' friend, Owen Barfield, in his profound and seminal book, Saving the Appearances, allows the modern reader an experience of this tension between the acknowledgement of the mysterious real and the use of a working image, or model; the one example that found a place-holding in my mind was his description of angels painted in the Mediaeval period as dressed in contemporary clothing, with wings as a symbolic indication of their differences, as if, in our day, we painted angels in prom dresses or business suits—well, how are we to dress angels? They aren't even dressed as we understand it; so, like the Hindu depictions of blue or many-armed gods, the symbolism, or the poetic, fantastical signs of wings or many arms were pointing to a higher reality, that of other or supernatural. We moderns risk thinking these ancients 'primitive' or 'childish,' or risk a hyper-focus on a gritty standard of scientific reality, or the ‘objective view from individual eye-holes’ that means we miss the higher Object which the peoples before us seemed to know were beyond our categories, our ability to portray them. Yet, at the same time, for the Mediaevals as for ancient cultures, the effect of the poetic in speech, drama, and the visual arts, was deeply powerful, even magical (Knight 2010, 254). Furthermore, the Western (through Ancient Greece and Rome) and Christian worlds—one thinks of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, particularly—understood also that human rationality, the highest human faculty, was in a fundamental relationship with the deeper imagination that “is a fusing, transforming, transcendent faculty that is creative in its power of changing and refining ideas and images” (Knight 2010, 254). These civilizations lived in a more healthy tension between the sweeping power of the poet and the inordinate faith in the individual, rational mind.

In other words, I think both Lewis and Barfield posit an essential humble acknowledgement from earlier Western ages like the Mediaeval that our lenses, our imaginum mundorum, are fogged and dusty, and that our languages—poetic, visual, scientific, theological, philosophical—are, via human power alone, too blunt and boulder-like to adequately describe the Truth as God sees it, as God is, and that the Muse is needed to approach Reality. The great Western thinkers knew this sublime and True sight and conversation was given from the time, out of time, when "we will see as we are seen, know as we are known, and not as through a glass darkly." Lewis writes, “No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical” (Lewis 1964, 222).

I also believe the major themes of The Discarded Image and Saving the Appearances are the same, if one looks not just at the work but at the rhetorical situation in which both were written; this has great import to how we understand our present darkness, and also it answers some personal questions I have had for many years about Lewis' theology.

First, the point I take from both writers: It is not an easy idea to write about in an essay, and even in a book, could I do it justice? It invites, no--requires--a strange variety of others at the table to adequately account for the strange variety of dead-pool imaginum mundorum we now live within: Joseph Pieper, Charles Peirce and his theory of semiotics, the sociologists Jacques Ellul and Charles Taylor, St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Romano Guardini, Charles Darwin, Emmanual Kant, Hegel, John Paul II,  St. Augustine, etc.. But nevertheless, let me take a stab at it; perhaps it is a small, humble start to a conversation.

It is the mark of the primitive not to recognize one's imago mundi or the Model one lives with, as image or model; in the early primitive, the communal image was, simply, reality; later, in Greek thought, attempts were made to discern between human imagination and the Real, between images and Forms. It is also the mark of the primitive not to recognize the inherent tension in us angel-beasts between the ability to discern truth constituting our rational mind (this is a manifestation of the unique, human Imago Dei) and the fact that our finite, fallible, original-sin-clouded minds, the rational and imaginative parts, cannot, alone, adequately explain or encompass Reality or communicate its simultaneous whole-ness and complex particulars. Of course, we can, though, use signs: lower, poorer, alternately too-simplistic and too-complex signs pointing to, as signs always do, Higher Objects. We can, in a sense, grope towards the Whole, towards the Real, towards God; we can know and receive hints of this Whole Real: Gerald Knight, in The Magical World of the Inklings, paraphrases Coleridge’s thoughts on this: “In [imagination’s] Primary mode it allows us to make ordered sense out of a host of sensory perceptions and in its Secondary mode gives expression to works of art or other forms of creative ability, or the appreciation thereof. Nature itself, that provides the sense impressions, Coleridge also divides [into] ’naturing’ or creative nature [and] ‘natured’ or created nature. This is a complete antithesis of the materialist viewpoint that all consciousness evolved from matter. Rather it considers all matter to be projected creations by denizens of a world of archetypal ideas and spiritual wills” (Knight 2010, 254). In other words, there is a true order, and purpose, for us to imagine and discern, not just electrons and quarks in a chance dance.

Though we are capable of taking in nature, in its essences, as created, and the Whole, we cannot, should not, assume that we can understand the Whole, the Real, completely on the basis of rational powers in a vacuum; this was the fundamental mistake of the Rationalists like Bacon, the Progressivists, the Cultural Evolutionists. We always require signs, in this life, and they are always copies, images of the mysterious, complex within the Oneness, the wholeness that must be understood first, through both the reason and the imagination, before one can know everything about a particular; one can discern the real question that should be posed to modern culture, a scream in the maelstrom, mostly unheard: "Do you see your model as an imperfect model? Or are you living, Matrix-like, within your own images; are you really now a primitive human who is lost because you have bought the lie to yourself?" As Lewis says in The Discarded Image: “Always, century by century, item after item is transferred from the object’s side of the account to the subject’s. And now, in some extreme forms of Behaviourism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too” (Lewis 1964,215).

The life-raft offered is the ability of a human being to recognize that we must deal in terms of the Whole, in images, in partial understanding of how real particulars fit within that great mystery (though pace Hume and Kant, we can and are meant to know truth, and order, and particulars, and wholes and parts, and essences) and as Guardini says, to continue—like Abraham—to be willing to hear the call of God past our suppositions—rationally, logically airtight though they seem—and to be ready to discard images that are shown to be false. Are we spiritually able to pull up stakes, to always question ourselves about the images we live with? Do I exaggerate when I claim that in modern and post-modern life, in a world saturated—no, flooded—with images, we have in many cases returned to the primitive belief that our images are all we can ever know about the Real? This was the anthrax letter given us via the likes of Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Emmanuel Kant; it is no surprise that they are considered the fathers of the modern world.

Thus, the rhetorical situation of Lewis' and Barfield's books was among the leavings of Kant, who claimed that all we can know of Reality is, simply, the imaginum mundorum we know within our own minds, an individualistic primitivism, instead of the ancient, communal primitive belief in images. Now, where are we? What is the rhetorical situation now in a world that considers itself post-modern, post-Christian, a secular utopia and dystopia all at once?  Do Lewis and Barfield still have something to say, and are there those who have picked up their standard and who continue to ask, to argue, for, simply, sanity?

Again, we live in a period in which Kant's 'imaginum mundorum in the mind' has become a cartoonish reality: we literally, with headphones and supremely portable screens, live quite a lot of our lives in a virtual reality of images; it is as if we are being slowly acclimated to the equation Reality=Image=Unanswerable Skepticism=Total Relativism=Total Dogmatism. Not only that, but our sciences—and like a good classicist and liberal artist, I include here philosophy, theology, mathematics, and the natural and social sciences—have become mixed like oppositional, complementary colours; there are dogmatic natural sciences and theoretical dogmas: rational contradiction, instead of sane tension, has become accepted; we have lost paradox, itself a sign pointing to a Higher Resolution, and live dogmatically within deep contradiction.

This deep contradiction is only possible if one presupposes deep pluralism as not an image or model, but as Reality itself; in other words, we can only accept these contradictions rationally as true, breaking the law of non-contradiction, if we adore as a first principle the lie that we truly know only the images in our heads. Thus, we have de-ascended, de-generated, de-progressed from those who understood their place in a larger, mysterious universe and believed in both the human ability to know the order of the Real through the givenness of a mind ordered to know that order, and in the fallible, limited nature of that mind in a hierarchical relationship with the Mind that created Order itself. We have decomposed because an order like that of the finely-tuned, exact universe we actually live in requires one who Orders, a Maker; when we believed in his absence, we lost belief in order itself, and rationality cut off from any order other than its own cannot be communicated or trusted.

Lewis expresses this degeneration in The Abolition of Man, and he follows in the footsteps of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and others of that time period, who saw, prophetically, this degeneration that was seeded in the conception of the modern era. Lewis speaks provocatively, for example, about the "suppositions" of the natural sciences; we call these suppositions "theories" and in the classical understanding of the sciences, questioning these suppositions as Socrates did, a kind of dialectical practice in terms of evidence and experimentation, was essential to a truth-seeking discipline. A good science is a questionable science ensconced in the real hope that we can find truth, can know reality more and more; this reflects also the classical Greek and Mediaeval humility about the scope of our abilities in the face of a mysterious universe, a deeply complex and yet absolutely ordered universe. Thus, in all the classical sciences, we find mirrored that Mediaeval tension between all that we can ascertain truthfully, permanently, and all that reaches, yet, far beyond us.

Yet modern 'suppositions' or 'theories' have now become no longer models, but inappropriately, unquestionable dogmas. A perfectly sane questioner can be labeled unassailably insane and run out of 'reality,' unable to affect the conversation, silenced, hopelessly marginalized. Theories can be surreptitious results of prior beliefs, not truth-seeking: for example, Lewis writes that dogmatic, pseudo-religious forms of natural and cultural evolution were not a result of "facts" primarily, but were theories born out of a prior belief in progressivism, the belief that in the progression of time, everything must be moving towards a certain natural and cultural perfection; it is the opposite of the Platonic and neo-Platonic conception of supplementation, or degeneration as one moves farther from the Origin (implicitly calling for a return, via reason, to the Origin, or as Plotinus put it, the One). Progressivism is a particularly Christian heresy, in my mind, a hybrid of a Calvinism (a kind of pre-destination and creation of the perfect Christian earthly state, or "city on a hill," an imbalanced loss of the mystical understanding of St. Augustine on the Kingdom outside of time, not of this world, and the fundamental natural and supernatural realism of St. Thomas Aquinas as found in On Kingship) and Bacon-ism, the belief that the rational mind, the sciences, can and should encompass, fundamentally use, nature, an attitude that presupposes a belief that our human images vis-à-vis nature are in fact, our reality to live within and can be perfected. It also supposes, à la Bacon, a pre-supposition that nature is a closed system, a kind of machine from which God is fundamentally absent. This is a theological and philosophical attitude to all the sciences that smacks of, ends in, Callicles' and Nietzsche’s will to power, rather than the humble questioning of Socrates or the receptive, humble scientist (a rare bird).

The shift from an understanding about when a scientific or cultural theory is 'suppositional' or theoretical to dogmatic theorizing (another post-modern contradiction that abolished man seems happy to live with) is a truly dangerous one, and it leaves us, simply, so locked in our silos that we are no longer able to pose the right questions or look at facts in a true scientific manner; furthermore, we will kill those who do ask those questions. Dr. John West, who wrote The Magician's Twin, on Lewis' attitudes to evolution theory, gives this example: In the 80's, DNA theorists, with a progressivist and strict secular evolutionist imago mundi, assumed that large sections of DNA that seemed 'useless' were indeed just that: junk. Thus, the "Junk DNA Theory" was readily accepted because it logically, rationally, upheld the dogmas of present science, in that these were large sections 'left over' from multiple chance variations over millennia. However, this theory has been overturned and it seems all that "junk" has deeper, still mysterious purposes that reach beyond our current understanding. We are beginning to be faced with the fact that we find evidence of a complete, ordered system, a fine-tuned being, not a body carrying evidence of chance variation and species-change. The real point Dr. West is making is that the scientists in the 80s did not know how to ask the right questions, the questions born from an acknowledgement of ignorance about a more beautiful, ordered, and mysterious, created reality, questions generated by an acknowledgement of our own temporary models, our signs, which may or may not encompass reality.

The most dangerous and tragic aspect of this is that we no longer understand how to question, and this ability is perhaps the fundamental tool for discovery of the great dance of truth, of love, of reality. We become dogs locked in our own cars, irrationally ready to defend our own silo-rationalities, unaware that we are becoming beasts, full of feeling and commitment, but lacking the necessary, fundamental virtues and tools that mark the truly human:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I see this deep concern and mission—reflected in Yeats' poem—permeating Lewis' books, and it births a 'supposition' regarding a question I've had about him for years.

Lewis has been to me, since childhood, a kind of spiritual father, a mentor, a living sign, as it were, pointing to the Good, True, and Beautiful. He was, at times in my life, the one thread that, in Chesterton's and Waugh's turn of phrase, God twitched to pull me back from the abyss. When I became Catholic, and discovered the riches of Tolkien and Waugh and others, I lamented that my main mentor had never come across the Tiber. I wondered why; I kept looking back across the waters towards the empty place on the bank where he once stood, wondering deep inside if he ever found bridges between his hallway of mere Christianity and the Door into a room that opens onto Heaven. Thus, I was always interested in anyone's theories about it, especially the musings of his Catholic friends and contemporaries. Some thought he could not get past his Ulster Protestant prejudices; some thought in his Englishness, his Christian turn meant a return to the English church. Some thought he wanted to stay beyond, away from, controversies about (to him) the more minor things that divided Christians—that essentially, he wanted to reach the common person, to provide a rational, simple, spiritual life-boat.

All of these reasons seem good and are possibly valid; but they are, using Lewis' own term, "suppositions" with various facts supporting each. To my knowledge, Lewis never himself absolutely declared anything that would finally silence the debate; he loved Chesterton and Tolkien, and his Protestant friends; he was a man who thought for himself, and he was, truly, as Tolkien portrayed him, Treebeard who says, "I am on nobody's side because nobody is on my side." I don't believe this was prideful, if Lewis felt this way; I theorize that it was a result of his deep commitment, intellectually, morally, and spiritually, to that tension he speaks of, over and over, between the belief that we can know truth and the conviction that we must also know how and when to ask the right questions, to see clearly our own fallibility in regard to our own imago mundi, even amidst those theological differences he saw as 'not mere Christianity.'

If one is committed, like Socrates, to the questions that climb to an eternal, mysterious, Real, to the Great Dance as portrayed by Lewis in Perelandra; if one is committed to that humble, rational receptivity towards a God that cannot, as Lewis says of Aslan, be tamed and domesticated and fit inside the human mind, then how does one view the Catholic Church from the outside?

The view from the outside of the Church, as I know from my own experience as a convert, is quite different from the one inside. It is a mystery--it is Augustine's "I believe to understand, I understand to believe" paradox. A lack of faith and understanding can mis-perceive a bunch of mindless sheep saying formulaic prayers and worshiping statues of those who have swallowed the kool-aid successfully in the past. Catholics, and Catholic dogma, can appear to build a prison for the questioner, a place where questions about God and theology are suspect just because they are questions. The outsider asks--because there is perhaps an unquestioned, dogma-like supposition that the Church is, like other churches one knows, a man-made institution--how can these Christians live within this image, and aren't they lost to the mysterious that cannot be contained in a human institution, in human tradition?

Then there is a liminal moment, God-given, when one sees a glimpse of what an institution that has a Divine Spirit looks like, is like, like Orual in Lewis' 'Til We Have Faces sees Psyche's castle "Tower upon tower, battlements, beauty"—one suddenly sees that almost unbearable tension, that simultaneously humble and overwhelmingly powerful, engulfing and creative love between Christ and His Church, that tension living between the human, fallible images and the Divine Reality; it is a continuing of the Incarnation. It is beyond sight, beyond reason, an image of truth that breaks in from the outside and shatters all others. I saw it simply, in one simple and profound moment, one image: the Eucharist residing in a crypt chapel underneath a Catholic church in Annapolis. I was given, literally on the doorstep, a liminal view—but absolutely clear—of the Hidden Christ in the foundations of the Church. It was the physical presence of Christ I'd looked for all my life, and I knew He was there, the way you simply know another person is in the room. My inner heart saw all at once, and said, in my real, true voice, "If Christ is here then this must be His Church." It was a sight I did not need to wrestle with, though it produced, of course, a thousand other wrestlings.

Yet, there are Catholics, individuals, who live in fear of questions, thus seeming to confirm the false image of the Church; there are also Catholics who live in awe of God and their own God-given permission to seek, and so can live the balance. These are rarer--but let it never be said that individual Catholics are the sum of the Church. We are more like patients in a hospital.

Perhaps, and this is only a "supposition" open to questions, Lewis was--as I was in many areas--taught in his modern, Protestant academic culture to see only a flat image of the Church, one which pandered its own competing image and was calcified against a culture of valid questioning and development. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but perhaps even Lewis was caught within an image without recognizing it as a false, formative model. It is hard, as a modern, to know the right questions to ask, to know when all questions fall silent in the Presence of absolute Truth, of Revelation.

Yet, the Lord asks us to walk this road, abandoned more and more to Divine Providence; he asks us, as Thomas Merton cried out, to supernaturally hope against worldly hope that our simple desire to please Him, to find him, means that He will find us and walk with us and teach us, as Our Lord taught the disciples along the roads and shores of Palestine, and at the foot of the Cross, the right questions, the right prayers, the humility necessary. It is, truly, the reality of His strength made perfect in our weakness, and the weapon-out-of-weakness to defeat the lies.

And as I believe Lewis tried to do as best he could, we must model it in the present maelstrom, especially those of us already within the Church.

Knight, Gareth. The Magical World of the Inklings. Cheltenham: Skylight Press, 2010.

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.