November 27, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – One morning, in the middle of a winter in Austria, I leaned out of my office window and looked out upon the surrounding mountains, the silent trees, the snow hidden in clefts of rock, the solitary raven perched on a high branch. As my ears grew attuned to the quiet of the world, I heard the chirping of unseen birds and the faint sound of the wind blowing across the field. I saw four sparrows flying in perfect formation, a leaf skimming along the ground. The sky was grey. Things were somehow still and in motion, restless and at peace. It was for me a moment of wonder: so beautiful, so inexhaustible are these things—every single one of them speaking of God.
This, I imagine, is the sort of experience that prompted Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, to write one of his most famous poems:
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 is no secret that theology has suffered a tremendous decline in modern times. Yes, there are very fine individual teachers and authors, but as a discipline it has lost its queenly place among the sciences, its grandeur, its profundity, when we compare it with the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The same may be said of Catholic spirituality: were we to place most of the popular spiritual books published today in a balance, with the classics of mysticism in the other tray, no one can truly be surprised at how the balance will tilt. (In the following, I will speak of “theology” but I intend it to include spirituality as well.)
Can we explain this decrepitude? Generalizations are risky, but I nevertheless believe it to be true that theology is moribund because metaphysis or the study of being is moribund; metaphysics is moribund, because the philosophy of nature is moribund; the philosophy of nature is moribund because natural history, that is, carefully paying attention to natural things in their natural environments, is moribund; and this is so, because men are no longer looking and listening to the world, but watching television, reading newspapers, bending like slaves over the work desk or popping instant dinners into the microwave.
The only way that richly Catholic, profoundly speculative, affective theology will once again blossom is by a renewed immersion in the good and beautiful creation of God.
This is what Saint Augustine did: think of the famous passage in the Confessions where he poses his deepest questions to the world around him, and that world gives him an answer, because he is truly listening to it. This is what Saint Thomas Aquinas did, too. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (the religious name of Edith Stein) says that God is the primary theologian and the world is His theological Summa. In like manner Ronald McArthur, one of the founders of my alma mater Thomas Aquinas College, claims that Augustinian interiority is fundamentally different from Cartesian interiority because Augustine looks upon himself, as upon the world, with the warm wonder of a lover seeking his lost beloved, not with the cold gaze of rationalism that freezes whatever it looks at. Augustine, in other words, is looking for truth and understanding, Descartes for mastery and power.
Especially nowadays, people, in addition to living cut off from a “naked” experience of reality, can also make themselves blind to that which is to be seen or heard when they adhere to preconceived theories that render the mind incapable of making sense out of what the outer and inner senses present to it by way of experience. Put differently, it is possible for pseudo-science and ideology to paralyze or impede the intellect’s progression to the natural judgments on which the upward progress to theology relies.
That such a blindness can happen was obvious even to the pagan Greeks. In Book IV of his Metaphysics, Aristotle refutes the relativist who says—and maybe even convinces himself that he really thinks—that something can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect, thus undermining the possibility of any meaningful discourse, dialogue, and learning. Descartes might be taken as a vibrant example of this mental obtuseness (unless, of course, he was merely playing with his readers as a cat plays with a mouse) when he says in his Meditations that the people walking around the street outside the window might actually be automatons dressed up as men… for how could one really know otherwise?
This is the kind of swamp of confusion into which the undisciplined—or, as with the founder of analytic geometry, hypertrophically over-disciplined—intellect can sink. The typical modern man on the street has an undisciplined mind: he has been so brainwashed by errors, by swallowing contradictions of first principles, that he is not capable, in any habitual way, of making intellectual progress by a series of disciplined judgments and inferences.
A Descartes (or, to choose a more recent example, a Stephen Hawking) has, on the other hand, an unnaturally “disciplined” mind: so exclusively and narrowly is he trained in a certain way of thinking or a certain body of data, that he can no longer evaluate the full range of reality as it is given in spontaneous consciousness and apprehended by many different kinds of soul-acts. This is something Aristotle points out in Metaphysics, Book II, chapter 3. Once again, Aristotle is far ahead of us moderns, and that is one reason, among many, why liberal arts students should study Aristotle consistently and well.
Josef Pieper reminds us that creatures bear within themselves a trace of the incomprehensible mystery, the unfathomable depths, of their Creator. Gerard Manley Hopkins knew this and expressed it in brilliant verse. William Wordsworth knew it, too:
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
It’s not for nothing that students at Wyoming Catholic College memorize so many poems like these, while also spending so many weeks of their college career in the backcountry, in rugged and truly awesome wild places. It is part of the renewal of the ability to see, hear, and touch, to become aware of the world that has been pushed away from us through our windows, screens, and phones—this world that streams forth from the fingers of God at every moment, whether we know it or not.
Poets desire to have knowledge of singulars as such, of the very individuality of things in their real existence. They express this knowledge in descriptions and metaphors which, while being in tension with the goal of singling out unrepeatable experiences, nevertheless bring home to us the message and meaning of the world as a sequence of intelligible words that God is speaking to me, to you, at this very moment.
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