a chirruping twang

I’ve been exposed to some of Prince Caspian this week. Here Lewis recognizes the powerful little connections between our worlds of memory and the simplest sounds or smells.

Archery and swimming were the things Susan was good at. In a moment she had bent the bow and then she gave one little pluck to the string. It twanged: a chirruping twang that vibrated through the whole room. And that one small noise brought back the old days to the children’s minds more than anything that had happened yet. All the battles and hunts and feasts came rushing into their heads together. (chapter 2)

Another passage made me recall thoughts about the subversiveness of any liberal arts education that is worth its salt. In an enslaved and broken world, any whole and freeing education will be insurrectionary in some sense.

“Hush!” said Doctor Cornelius, laying his head very close to Caspian’s. “Not a word more. Don’t you know your Nurse was sent away for telling you about Old Narnia? The King doesn’t like it. If he found me telling you secrets, you’d be whipped and I should have my head cut off.”

“But why?” asked Caspian.

“It is high time we turned to Grammar now,” said Doctor Cornelius in a loud voice. “Will your Royal Highness be pleased to open Pulverulentus Siccus at the fourth page of his Grammatical garden or the Arbour of Accidence pleasantlie open’d to Tender Wits?” (chapter 3)

And there is also the playful juxtaposition of two different attitudes toward Grammar: the punning Latin name of the fictitious text book author (Dry as Dust) versus the recognition of grammar as an introduction to a lush garden of language.

ooze of oil

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89):

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It’s a violation of this blog’s purpose to include much commentary on the passages, but I needed to write a prose reflection on this poem by Hopkins today and will include this gushy first draft (any feedback in the next couple of days will help me improve it before delivery):

Hopkins’ title and first line taken together form a simple chiasm (“God’s grandeur … grandeur of God”) with the “charged world” surrounded and throbbing at the center. Charge is an electrical term. It builds up over time. It is carried, potent and evenly dispersed (yet invisible), throughout the object.

Continuing this electrical (or scientific) language with “flame out,” “shining” and “foil,” we nonetheless shift to natural sunlight as the real source of the bright, piercing light. The world is only a mirror. We notice, too, the first introduction of violence as the cause of the brightness. Shook foil, creased and vibrating, reflects the light with almost overwhelming glory. It is the shaking that releases the potential, the built-up and hidden charge within.

This building up of a charge is echoed with “it gathers to a greatness.” Only now, with the “ooze of oil,” we are shifting to more ancient and agricultural images. “Crushed” is strongly emphasized by its solitary placement at the start of a line. It recalls and even intensifies the violence of “shook.”

Now the images come fast, harsh, jumbled, over-lapping, in a growing pile. “Generations that trod, trod, trod” maintains the agricultural picture (of olives or grapes being pressed under feet). It is fruitful and productive as well as wild, even wanton and destructive. This is an image of judgment, reinforced by the term “rod” in the previous line. Now we see the whole world, along with all of human history, as being charged, full of reflective potential, gathered to a pregnant greatness, ripe with oil for the pressing. At the same time, we (the trodders) are in rebellion against His rod. We do not recognize His bright and potent reign, although the world shines it out, drips with it, bleeds with it.

In this pile of negative and positive images, we feel tension. What is God using to shake out his grandeur, to press out this goodness, to harvest it? Despite (and through) our rebellion, our perverted labors, our abuse, the sufferings of the whole world itself are productive.

As listeners, we are by now involved and implicated in a brutal and ugly scene. This trodding is our own gross and heedless brutality. Even the oil (a source of light and life) is perverted and takes on a sinister sense as we witness a grimy, greasy fouling of the once shimmering foil. No light is reflected now from this crushed and dirty pulp. No longer charged and pregnant, it is violated and exposed by unfeeling generations of well-shod feet.

In the second stanza, we slow down and transition back to the opening lines, recognizing, even amid the bleary mess, a fullness and depth within the world. This being-charged-with-the-grandeur-of-God was too complete to be fully spent (shaken or trodden out). But this second recognition of fullness is less exuberant, more subdued yet more profound. We now face reverent words like “deep down” and “dearest freshness.” After the violence, the ugliness of searing toil, the smell of men who do not reckon with God’s rod, we find that this world cannot be ultimately marred. Whether we use the world well or we abuse her, only God’s grandeur can flame out. She is charged with nothing but goodness. She is fruitful and precious to her very pit.

Finally, blear and smear recurs as the world swoons away in blackness, until over the brown (barren) horizon “springs” a “morning,” a new creation under the hovering wings of the Holy Ghost. This second visitation of the Spirit brings to mind the first brooding of God over the darkness and chaos. But here, at this second dawn or birth, we see for a moment that the agent is, in some subsidiary sense, our own senseless marching, our own brutal trade. Heartless abuse and long suffering, in the deeper goodness of God’s economy, exposes or brings out only God’s grandeur. Christ’s own long-suffering and motherly Spirit puts even our facile abuses to the task of ushering life outward and forward, to the knowing of “dearest freshness deep down things.” Refreshed by the beauty that Hopkins’ language points to so faithfully, we might even be ready to walk unshod over seared and blackened earth. We might lay ourselves down and embrace the charged (and crushed) world with our own warm breasts and tender young wings.

delight of the eye

Another passage from Wilken:

When speaking of how God is known early Christian thinkers favored the metaphor of seeing, not hearing. In his response to Celsus, Origen cites a series of biblical texts that have to do with seeing: “Blessed are the pure in spirit for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jo. 14:9); and “Christ is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). From these he draws the conclusion that people come to know the “Father and maker of this universe by looking at the image of the invisible God.” Beauty is the corollary of seeing. In the Scriptures many of the key terms used of God’s self-disclosure, words such as glory, splendor, light, image, and face, have to do with the delight of the eye. When we speak of the pleasure the eye takes in what it sees the term that comes to mind is beauty. The psalmist wrote, “One thing have I asked of the Lord … that I will behold the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4).

As early as the second century the apologist Athenagoras of Athens included the term beauty in a list of words depicting God. The God we set before you, he says, is “encompassed by light, beauty, spirit, and indescribable power.” In his commentary on the Song of Songs Origen wrote that the “soul is moved by heavenly love and longing when it beholds the beauty and the comeliness of the Word of God.” God’s revelation can be seen from the perspective of its ineffable beauty as well as of its truth and goodness.”  (p. 20)

This point is central to the thesis of Wilken’s book (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God) and shows how the medieval triad of goodness, beauty and truth started to be understood as three modes of knowing God and his revelation.

tame as canaries

Jan Luyken etching, Parable of the mustard seed from the Bowyer Bible

When posting about the Bible as “a cornucopia of scenes and images” yesterday, this poem came to mind (much thanks to Christine Perrin for introducing it to my class and me). It recalls the burning bush as well as the tree of life, the great tree of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the prophet Daniel, and the mighty mustard tree full of nesting birds in Christ’s parable (Matthew 13:31–32, Mark 4:30–32 and Luke 13:18–19). It is by contemporary Russian poet Elena Shvarts.

The Book on the Windowsill

Like a lamb in a storm, or two and two crammed in a crate
I sit in these teeming branches, and tremble with fear.

A mighty tree is the word of God,
A laurel with leaves that whisper and rustle;
The prophets hang on it like thorn-apples,
Or fish on an angler’s line (jump hop!).
Confusion, darkness and beauty dwell in its shade,
Branches, fruit, a chorus of angels all singing,
Singing and weaving — what? Purple brocade.
Whales in the foliage spout fountains;
Birds fix predatory eyes on the berries,
Longing to cram their craws to the brim;
But down they go plummeting on scorched wings,
And sit caged in the branches, tame as canaries.
I cannot approach the tree in its thickets;
Yet you’re there in the heart-wood, the smouldering trunk.
The birds bob in the swirling leaves like bathers;
Jonah lies in the Whale at night, in the morning the Whale lies in him.
Down thuds an apple, and splits to show peacocks inside;
Eve wearing harlequin colours, and Adam with gilded feathers —
There’s Abraham, bright as a lemon. The hollows hold luminous spirits,
And on each calyx gazelles and fallow-deer graze.
Judith flies through the air, cracking nuts like a squirrel,
‘Holofernes!’ she cries, and preens her blue fur.
Noah is chanting and caulking a mighty barrel:
‘Lord, hear my cry when the water is high’ runs the song;
And Elijah wraps up the tree in golden ribbons of lightning.

They say you can’t read every word. If you do, you go mad.
It seems to be true: I can feel that my own mind is shaking.
Reason’s as ready to burst as an over-ripe pumpkin,
Just as the smug, stout-walled town of Jericho learnt.
So let me walk in my strange, light sleep, half-waking
And pass through the waterfalls of shades.
O Moses, when you came at last to the Promised Land
Did you ever feel you were something she’d dreamt?

a cornucopia of scenes and images

Another one of “the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life” is the influence of God’s word. However, Wilken stresses that the scriptures provided far more than an intellectual basis for the early church.

Christian thinkers were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something. The desire to understand is as much part of believing as is the drive to act on what one believes. …Christian thought arose in response to the facts of revelation, how its idiom was set by the language and imagery of the Bible, and how the life and worship of the Christian community gave Christian thinking a social dimension that was absent from ancient philosophy. (p. 3)

And from his introduction:

The intellectual effort of the early church was at the service of a much loftier goal than giving conceptual form to Christian belief. Its mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives. Christian thinkers appealed to a much deeper level of human experience than had the religious institutions of society or the doctrines of the philosophers. In this endeavor the Bible was a central factor. It narrated a history that reached back into antiquity even to the beginning of the world, it was filled with stories of unforgettable men and women (not all admirable) who were actual historical persons rather than mythical figures, and it poured forth a thesaurus of words that created a new religious vocabulary and a cornucopia of scenes and images that stirred literary and artistic imagination as well as theological thought. God, the self, human community, the beginning and ending of things became interwoven with biblical history, biblical language, and biblical imagery. (pp. xiv-xv)

Fresco of Adam and Eve in the catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter (Rome, A.D. 300-350).

quiet confidence in those who have gone before

My wife and I got a Kindle for Christmas form her family and often find ourselves reaching for it at the same time. One book that I particularly enjoyed reading recently was Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. I’ve cited it once already and will post several more passages as I go back through the long page of highlights that I generated. Here’s a short one from midway that touches upon many of the others.

One of the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life is a kind of quiet confidence in the faithfulness and integrity of those who have gone before. (p. 175)

Early Protestants (from the first generation of Reformers through the America Puritans of the colonial period at least) had a wide-spread, intimate and appreciative knowledge of the church fathers. This basic conservative (and biblical) instinct is something that we easily loose sight of in a fast-paced and entertainment-driven age. We survive and mature by receiving from our fathers (with thankful hearts) all that we can bear. Protestants need not feel threatened by this.

More worthwhile still might be to ask whether or not this really is among “the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life.” What other contenders are there, and do they conflict? Wilken raises several others himself in the course of his own efforts to conjure the thought life of early Christians.

we might all try minding our own business

These two reminders from C.S. Lewis about minding our own business have something profound to do with the office of prophethood and the spreading of truth. This fact that bold proclamation, intimate communication and strict attention to privacy are all mutually dependent is somewhat counterintuitive but true.

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

(The Horse and His Boy, chapter 11)

My children are listening to these stories repeatedly (and in indiscriminate order) this summer, so I also overheard this passage again earlier this week:

“But do you really mean, sir,” said Peter, “that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?”

“Nothing is more probable,” said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

“But what are we to do?” said Susan. She felt that the conversation was beginning to get off the point.

“My dear young lady,” said the Professor, suddenly looking up with a very sharp expression at both of them, “there is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying.”

“What’s that?” said Susan.

“We might all try minding our own business,” said he. And that was the end of that conversation.

After this things were a good deal better for Lucy. Peter saw to it that Edmund stopped jeering at her, and neither she nor anyone else felt inclined to talk about the wardrobe at all. It had become a rather alarming subject. And so for a time it looked as if all the adventures were coming to an end; but that was not to be.

(The Lion the Whitch and the Wardrobe, chapter 5)

therefore call one man

Today several friends spent the morning together reading poetry connected to Pentecost (June 12 on the church calendar). I had several other passages vying in my mind for today, but this poem by Czeslaw Milosz drove them all out for now.

VENI CREATOR

Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me–after all I have some decency–
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.

Berkeley, 1961

And here’s a little background on the poet:

Miłosz wrote all his poetry, fiction and essays in Polish and translated the Old Testament Psalms into Polish.

…In 1980 Miłosz received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since his works had been banned in Poland by the communist government, this was the first time that many Poles became aware of him.

…Through the Cold War, Miłosz’s name was often invoked in the United States, particularly by conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley, Jr., usually in the context of Miłosz’s 1953 book The Captive Mind. During that period, his name was largely passed over in silence in government-censored media and publications in Poland.

The Captive Mind has been described as one of the finest studies of the behavior of intellectuals under a repressive regime. Miłosz observed that those who became dissidents were not necessarily those with the strongest minds, but rather those with the weakest stomachs; the mind can rationalize anything, he said, but the stomach can take only so much. (poemhunter.com)

she remembered them years later

As this whole life is a kind of journey or exile, exercising the office of priesthood often involves a deliberate, steadying or arresting of time (cycles such as weeks, months, anniversaries and festivals help in this regard):

They were now in the palace garden which sloped down in terraces to the city wall. The moon shone brightly. One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them; so that Aravis (though she remembered them years later) had only a vague impression of grey lawns, quietly bubbling fountains, and the long black shadows of cypress trees.

Lewis is always interested in light and it’s transformational effects, especially sun light. Our whole world begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation under the light of God himself. Exercising the eyes of a priest often involves noticing these hints at what the world might truly look like.

Then suddenly the sun rose and everything changed in a moment. The grey sand turned yellow and twinkled as if it was strewn with diamonds. On their left the shadows of Shasta and Hwin and Bree and Aravis, enormously long, raced beside them. The double peak of Mount Pire, far ahead, flashed in the sunlight and Shasta saw they were a little out of the course. “A bit left, a bit left,” he sang out. Best of all, when you looked back, Tashbaan was already small and remote. The Tombs were quite invisible: swallowed up in that single, jagged-edged hump which was the city of the Tisroc. Everyone felt better.

(Both from The Horse and His Boy, chapter 9.)

nothing to yours

Yesterday, I listened in the car with my family to part of The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis). I teared up a little at this sentence: “The two boys were looking into each other’s faces and suddenly found that they were friends.” There are many goodbyes with family, friends and even brief acquaintances where I have felt that I was saying goodbye to someone that I had known for a long time and would really like to adventure with forever.

There is also the beautiful element of this story where Shasta gets a glimpse of his true self in the person of Corin. Significantly, however, the prince recognizes that, in some sense, the pauper’s adventures are more substantial than his own. It’s a hint, I think, about how we might view our current lives in the light of eternity. (All from chapter 5.)

“I’m nobody, nobody in particular, I mean,” said Shasta. “King Edmund caught me in the street and mistook me for you. I suppose we must look like one another. Can I get out the way you’ve got in?”

After hearing Corin’s story, Shasta adds:

“I’m a Narnian, I believe; something Northern anyway. But I’ve been brought up all my life in Calormen. And I’m escaping: across the desert; with a talking Horse called Bree. And now, quick! How do I get away?”

And here are their parting words:

“Thanks,” said Shasta, who was already sitting on the sill. The two boys were looking into each other’s faces and suddenly found that they were friends.

“Good-bye,” said Corin. “And good luck. I do hope you get safe away.”

“Good-bye,” said Shasta. “I say, you have been having some adventures.”

“Nothing to yours,” said the Prince. “Now drop; lightly I say,” he added as Shasta dropped. “I hope we meet in Archenland. Go to my father King Lune and tell him you’re a friend of mine. Look out! I hear someone coming.”

%d bloggers like this: