Thursday, 25 December 2014

Dom Gueranger - The Mystery of Christmas

From The Liturgical Year

Everything is Mystery in this holy season. The Word of God, whose generation is before the day-star [Ps. cix 3], is born in time - a Child is God - a Virgin becomes a Mother, and remains a Virgin - things divine are commingled with those that are human - and the sublime, the ineffable antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple in those words of his Gospel, THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH, is repeated in a thousand different ways in all the prayers of the Church;- and rightly, for it admirably embodies the whole of the great portent which unites in one Person the nature of Man and the nature of God.

The splendour of this Mystery dazzles the understanding, but it inundates the heart with joy. It is the consummation of the designs of God in time. It is the endless subject of admiration and wonder to the Angels and Saints; nay, is the source and cause of their beatitude. Let us see how the Church offers this Mystery to her children, veiled under the symbolism of her Liturgy.

The four weeks of our preparation are over - they were the image of the four thousand years which preceded the great coming - and we have reached the twenty-fifth day of the month of December, as a long desired place of sweetest rest. But why is it that the celebration of our Saviour’s Birth should be the perpetual privilege of this one fixed day; whilst the whole liturgical Cycle has, every year, to be changed and remodelled, in order to yield that ever-varying day which is to be the feast of his Resurrection - Easter Sunday?

The question is a very natural one, and we find it proposed and answered, even so far back as the fourth century; and that, too, by St Augustine, in his celebrated Epistle to Januarius. The holy Doctor offers this explanation: We solemnize the day of our Saviour’s Birth, in order that we may honour that Birth, which was for our salvation; but the precise day of the week, on which he was born, is void of any mystical signification. Sunday, on the contrary, the day of our Lord’s Resurrection, is the day marked, in the Creator’s designs, to express a mystery which was to be commemorated for all ages. St Isidore of Seville, and the ancient Interpreter of Sacred Rites who, for a long time, was supposed to be the learned Alcuin, have also adopted this explanation of the Bishop of Hippo; and our readers may see their words interpreted by Durandus, in his Rationale.

These writers, then, observe that as, according to a sacred tradition, the creation of man took place on a Friday, and our Saviour suffered death also on a Friday for the redemption of man; that as, moreover, the Resurrection of our Lord was on the third day after his death, that is, on a Sunday, which is the day on which the Light was created, as we learn from the Book of Genesis - ‘the two Solemnities of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection,’ says St Augustine, ‘do not only remind us of those divine facts; but they moreover represent and signify some other mysterious and holy thing.’ [Epist. ad Januarium.]

And yet we are not to suppose that because the Feast of Jesus’ Birth is not fixed to any particular day of the week, there is no mystery expressed by its being always on the twenty-fifth of December. For firstly we may observe, with the old Liturgists, that the Feast of Christmas is kept by turns on each of the days of the week, that thus its holiness may cleanse and rid them of the curse which Adam’s sin had put upon them. But secondly, the great mystery of the twenty-fifth of December, being the Feast of our Saviour’s Birth, has reference, not to the division of time marked out by God himself, which is called the Week; but to the course of that great Luminary which gives life to the world, because it gives it light and warmth. Jesus, our Saviour, the Light of the World [St John viii 12], was born when the night of idolatry and crime was at its darkest; and the day of his Birth, the twenty-fifth of December, is that on which the material Sun begins to gain his ascendency over the reign of gloomy night, and show to the world his triumph of brightness.

In our ‘Advent’ we showed, after the Holy Fathers, that the diminution of the physical light may be considered as emblematic of those dismal times which preceded the Incarnation. We joined our prayers with those of the people of the Old Testament; and, with our holy Mother the Church, we cried out to the Divine Orient, the Sun of Justice, that he would deign to come and deliver us from the twofold death of body and soul. God has heard our prayers; and it is on the day of the Winter Solstice - which the Pagans of old made so much of by their fears and rejoicings - that he gives us both the increase of the natural light, and him who is the Light of our souls.

St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ambrose, St Maximus of Turin, St Leo, St Bernard, and the principal Liturgists, dwell with complacency on this profound mystery, which the Creator of the universe has willed should mark both the natural and the supernatural world. We shall find the Church also making continual allusion to it during this season of Christmas, as she did in that of Advent.
‘On this the Day which the Lord hath made,’ says St Gregory of Nyssa, ‘darkness decreases, light increases, and Night is driven back again. No, brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins on the day when he shows himself in the brightness of his coming, which is the spiritual Life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this circumstance of our Saviour’s coming. Nature seems to me to say: Know, O Man! that under the things which I show thee Mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night, that had grown so long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had reached its height by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward its duration shall be shortened, until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger, and his position higher in the heavens: learn from that how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth.’ [Homily On the Nativity.]

Let us, my Brethren, rejoice,’ cries out St Augustine: [Sermon On the Nativity of our Lord, iii] ‘this day is sacred, not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of him who is the invisible Creator of the sun. ... He chose this day whereon to be born, as he chose the Mother of whom to be born, and he made both the day and the Mother. The day he chose was that on which the light begins to increase, and it tvpifies the work of Christ, who renews our interior man day by day. For the eternal Creator having willed to be born in time, his Birthday would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of his creation.’

The same holy Father, in another sermon for the same Feast, gives us the interpretation of a mysterious expression of St John Baptist, which admirably confirms the tradition of the Church. The great Precursor said on one occasion, when speaking of Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease [St John iii 30]. These prophetic words signify, in their literal sense, that the Baptist’s mission was at its close, because Jesus was entering upon his. But they convey, as St Augustine assures us, a second meaning: ‘John came into this world at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases.’ [Sermon In Natali Domini, xi]. Thus, there is mystery both in the rising of that glorious Star, the Baptist, at the summer solstice: and in the rising of our Divine Sun in the dark season of winter.

[It is almost unnecessary to add that this doctrine of the Holy Fathers which is embodied in the Christmas Liturgy is not in any degree falsified by the fact that there are some parts of God’s earth where Christmas falls in a season the very opposite of Winter. Our Lord selected, for the place of his Birth, one which made it Winter when he came upon earth; and by that selection he stamped the Mystery taught in the text on the season of darkness and cold. Our brethren in Australia, for example, will have the Mystery without the Winter, when they are keeping Christmas; or, more correctly, their faith and the Holy Liturgy will unite them with us, both in the Winter and the Mystery of the great Birth in Bethlehem. - Translator’s Note.]

There have been men who dared to scoff at Christianity as a superstition, because they discovered that the ancient Pagans used to keep a feast of the sun on the winter solstice! In their shallow erudition they concluded that a Religion could not be divinely instituted, which had certain rites or customs originating in an analogy to certain phenomena of this world: in other words, these writers denied what Revelation asserts, namely, that God only created this world for the sake of his Christ and his Church. The very facts which these enemies of our holy Religion brought forward as objections to the true Faith are, to us Catholics, additional proof of its being worthy of our most devoted love.

Thus, then, have we explained the fundamental Mystery of these Forty Days of Christmas, by having shown the grand secret hidden in the choice made by God’s eternal decree, that the twenty-fifth day of December should be the Birthday of God upon this earth. Let us now respectfully study another mystery: that which is involved in the place where this Birth happened.

This place is Bethlehem. Out of Bethlehem, says the Prophet, shall he come for/h that is to be the Ruler in Israel [Mich. v 2]. The Jewish Priests are well aware of the prophecy, and a few days hence will tell it to Herod [St Matt. ii 5]. But why was this insignificant town chosen in preference to every other to be the birth-place of Jesus? Be attentive, Christians, to the mystery! The name of this City of David signifies the House of Bread: therefore did he, who is the living Bread come down from heaven [St John vi 41], choose it for his first visible home. Our Fathers did eat manna in the desert and are dead [Ibid. vi 49]; but lo! here is the Saviour of the world, come to give life to his creature Man by means of his own divine Flesh, which is meat indeed [Ibid. vi. 56]. Up to this time the Creator and the creature had been separated from each other; henceforth they shall abide together in closest union. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the manna which fed but the body, is now replaced by the Ark of a New Covenant, purer and more incorruptible than the other: the incomparable Virgin Mary, who gives us Jesus, the Bread of Angels, the nourishment which will give us a divine transformation; for this Jesus himself has said: He that eateth my flesh abideth in me, and I in him [Ibid. vi 57].

It is for this divine transformation that the world was in expectation for four thousand years, and for which the Church prepared herself by the four weeks of Advent. It has come at last, and Jesus is about to enter within us, if we will but receive him [Ibid. i 12]. He asks to be united to each one of us in particular, just as he is united by his Incarnation to the whole human race; and for this end he wishes to become our Bread, our spiritual nourishment. His coming into the souls of men at this mystic season has no other aim than this union. He comes not to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him [Ibid. iii 17], and that all may have life, and may have it more abundantly [Ibid. x 10]. This divine Lover of our souls will not be satisfied, therefore, until he have substituted himself in our place, so that we may live not we ourselves, but he in us; and in order that this mystery may be effected in a sweeter way, it is under the form of an Infant that this Beautiful Fruit of Bethlehem wishes first to enter into us, there to grow afterwards in wisdom and age before God and men [St Luke ii 40, 52].

And when, having thus visited us by his grace and nourished us in his love, he shall have changed us into himself, there shall be accomplished in us a still further mystery. Having become one in spirit and heart with Jesus, the Son of the heavenly Father, we shall also become sons of this same God our Father. The Beloved Disciple, speaking of this our dignity, cries out: Behold! what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the Sons of God! [St John iii 1]. We will not now stay to consider this immense happiness of the Christian soul, as we shall have a more fitting occasion, further on, to speak of it, and show by what means it is to be maintained and increased.

There is another subject, too, which we regret being obliged to notice only in a passing way. It is, that, from the day itself of our Saviours Birth even to the day of our Lady’s Purification, there is, in the Calendar, an extraordinary richness of Saints’ Feasts, doing homage to the master feast of Bethlehem, and clustering in adoring love round the Crib of the Infant-God. To say nothing of the four great Stars which shine so brightly near our Divine Sun, from whom they borrow all their own grand beauty - St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and our own St Thomas of Canterbury: what other portion of the Liturgical Year is there that can show within the same number of days so brilliant a constellation? The Apostolic College contributes its two grand luminaries, St Peter and St Paul: the first in his Chair of Rome; the second in the miracle of his Conversion. The Martyr-host sends us the splendid champions of Christ, Timothy, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Vincent, and Sebastian. The radiant line of Roman Pontiffs lends us four of its glorious links, named Sylvester, Telesphorus, Hyginus and Marcellus. The sublime school of holy Doctors offers us Hilary, John Chrysostom, and Ildephonsus; and in their company stands a fourth Bishop - the amiable Francis de Sales. The Confessor-kingdom is represented by Paul the Hermit, Anthony the conqueror of Satan, Maurus the Apostle of the Cloister, Peter Nolasco the deliverer of captives, and Raymond of Pennafort, the oracle of Canon Law and guide of the consciences of men. The army of defenders of the Church deputes the pious King Canute, who died in defence of our Holy Mother, and Charlemagne, who loved to sign himself ‘the humble champion of the Church.’ The choir of holy Virgins gives us the sweet Agnes, the generous Emerentiana, the invincible Martina. And lastly, from the saintly ranks which stand below the Virgins - the holy Widows - we have Paula, the enthusiastic lover of Jesus’ Crib. Truly, our Christmastide is a glorious festive season! What magnificence in its Calendar! What a banquet for us in its Liturgy!

A word upon the symbolism of the colours used by the Church during this season. White is her Christmas Vestment; and she employs this colour at every service from Christmas Day to the Octave of the Epiphany. To honour her two Martyrs, Stephen and Thomas of Canterbury, she vests in red; and to condole with Rachel wailing her murdered Innocents, she puts on purple: but these are the only exceptions. On every other day of the twenty she expresses, by her white Robes, the gladness to which the Angels invited the world, the beauty of our Divine Sun that has risen in Bethlehem, the spotless purity of the Virgin-Mother, and the clean heartedness which they should have who come to worship at the mystic Crib.

During the remaining twenty days, the Church vests in accordance with the Feast she keeps; she varies the colour so as to harmonize either with the red Roses which wreathe a Martyr, or with the white Amaranths which grace her Bishops and her Confessors, or again, with the spotless Lilies which crown her Virgins. On the Sundays which come during this time - unless there occur a Feast requiring red or white or, unless Septuagesima has begun its three mournful weeks of preparation for Lent - the colour of the Vestments is green. This, say the interpreters of the Liturgy, is to teach us that in the Birth of Jesus, who is the flower of the fields [Cant. i 1],we first received the hope of salvation, and that after the bleak winter of heathendom and the Synagogue, there opened the verdant spring-time of grace.

With this we must close our mystical interpretation of those rites which belong to Christmas in general. Our readers will have observed that there are many other sacred and symbolical usages, to which we have not even alluded; but as the mysteries to which they belong are peculiar to certain days, and are not, so to speak, common to this portion of the Liturgical Year, we intend to treat fully of them all, as we meet with them on their proper Feasts.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Dom Gueranger - The Mystery of Advent


If, now that we have described the characteristic features of Advent which distinguish it from the rest of the year, we would penetrate into the profound mystery which occupies the mind of the Church during this season, we find that this mystery of the coming, or Advent, of Jesus is at once simple and threefold. It is simple, for it is the one same Son of God that is coining; it is threefold, because He comes at three different times and in three different ways.

‘In the first coming,’ says St. Bernard, ‘He comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, He comes in spirit and in power; in the third, He comes in glory and in majesty; and the second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.’ [Fifth sermon for Advent].

This, then, is the mystery of Advent. Let us now listen to the explanation of this threefold visit of Christ, given to us by Peter of Blois, in his third Sermon de Adventu: ‘There are three comings of our Lord; the first in the flesh, the second in the soul, the third at the judgement. The first was at midnight, according to those words of the Gospel: At midnight there was a cry made, Lo the Bridegroom cometh! But this first coming is long since past, for Christ has been seen on the earth and has conversed among men. We are now in the second coming, provided only we are such as that He may thus come to us; for He has said that if we love him, He will come unto us and will take up His abode with us. So that this second coming is full of uncertainty to us; for who, save the Spirit of God, knows them that are of God? They that are raised out of themselves by the desire of heavenly things, know indeed when He comes; but whence He cometh, or whither He goeth, they know not. As for the third coming, it is most certain that it will be, most uncertain when it will be; for nothing is more sure than death, and nothing less sure than the hour of death. When they shall say, peace and security, says the apostle, then shall sudden destruction come upon them, as the pains upon her that is with child, and they shall not escape. So that the first coming was humble and hidden, the second is mysterious and full of love, the third will be majestic and terrible. In His first coming, Christ was judged by men unjustly; in His second, He renders us just by His grace; in His third, He will judge all things with justice. In His first, a lamb; in His last, a lion; in the one between the two, the tenderest of friends.’ [De Adventu, Sermon III.]

The holy Church, therefore, during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming. For this, she borrows the fervid expressions of the prophets, to which she joins her own supplications. These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church, are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people; they have a reality and efficacy of their own, an influence in the great act of God’s munificence, whereby He gave us His own Son. From all eternity, the prayers of the ancient Jewish people and the prayers of the Christian Church ascended together to the prescient hearing of God; and it was after receiving and granting them, that He sent, in the appointed time, that blessed Dew upon the earth, which made it bud forth the Saviour.

The Church aspires also to the second coming, the consequence of the first, which consists, as we have just seen, in the visit of the Bridegroom to the bride. This coming takes place, each year, at the feast of Christmas, when the new birth of the Son of God delivers the faithful from that yoke of bondage, under which the enemy would oppress them. [Collect for Christmas day]. The Church, therefore, during Advent, prays that she may be visited by Him who is her Head and her Spouse; visited in her hierarchy; visited in her members, of whom some are living, and some are dead, but may come to life again; visited, lastly, in those who are not in communion with her, and even in the very infidels, that so they may be converted to the true light, which shines even for them. The expressions of the liturgy which the Church makes use of to ask for this loving and invisible coming, are those which she employs when begging for the coming of Jesus in the flesh; for the two visits are for the same object. In vain would the Son of God have come, nineteen hundred years ago, to visit and save mankind, unless He came again for each one of us and at every moment of our lives, bringing to us and cherishing within us that supernatural life, of which He and His holy Spirit are the sole principle.

But this annual visit of the Spouse does not content the Church; she aspires after a third coming, which will complete all things by opening the gates of eternity. She has caught up the last words of her Spouse, ‘Surely I am coming quickly’ [Apoc. xxii. 20]; and she cries out to Him, ‘Ah! Lord Jesus! come!’ [Ibid.]. She is impatient to be loosed from her present temporal state; she longs for the number of the elect to be filled up, and to see appear, in the clouds of heaven, the sign of her Deliverer and her Spouse. Her desires, expressed by her Advent liturgy, go even as far as this; and here we have the explanation of these words of the beloved disciple in his prophecy: ‘The nuptials of the Lamb are come, and His wife hath prepared herself.’ [Ibid. xix. 7].

But the day of this His last coming to her will be a day of terror. The Church frequently trembles at the very thought of that awful judgement, in which all mankind is to be tried. She calls it ‘a day of wrath, on which, as David and the Sibyl have foretold, the world will be reduced to ashes; a day of weeping and of fear.’ Not that she fears for herself, since she knows that this day will for ever secure for her the crown, as being the bride of Jesus; but her maternal heart is troubled at the thought that, on the same day, so many of her children will be on the left hand of the Judge, and, having no share with the elect, will be bound hand and foot, and cast into the darkness, where there shall be everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the reason why the Church, in the liturgy of Advent, so frequently speaks of the coming of Christ as a terrible coming, and selects from the Scriptures those passages which are most calculated to awaken a salutary fear in the mind of such of her children as may be sleeping the sleep of sin.

This, then, is the threefold mystery of Advent. The liturgical forms in which it is embodied, are of two kinds: the one consists of prayers, passages from the Bible, and similar formula, in all of which, words themselves are employed to convey the sentiments which we have been explaining; the other consists of external rites peculiar to this holy time, which, by speaking to the outward senses, complete the expressiveness of the chants and words.

First of all, there is the number of the days of Advent. Forty was the number originally adopted by the Church, and it is still maintained in the Ambrosian liturgy, and in the eastern Church. If, at a later period, the Church of Rome, and those which follow her liturgy, have changed the number of days, the same idea is still expressed in the four weeks which have been substituted for the forty days. The new birth of our Redeemer takes place after four weeks, as the first nativity happened after four thousand years, according to the Hebrew and Vulgate chronology.

As in Lent, so likewise during Advent, marriage is not solemnized, lest worldly joy should distract Christians from those serious thoughts wherewith the expected coming of the sovereign Judge ought to inspire them, or from that dearly cherished hope which the friends of the Bridegroom [St. John iii. 29] have of being soon called to the eternal nuptial-feast.

The people are forcibly reminded of the sadness which fills the heart of the Church, by the sombre colour of the vestments. Excepting on the feasts of the saints, purple is the colour she uses; the deacon does not wear the dalmatic, nor the sub-deacon the tunic. Formerly it was the custom, in some places, to wear black vestments. This mourning of the Church shows how fully she unites herself with those true Israelites of old who, clothed in sackcloth and ashes, waited for the Messias, and bewailed Sion that she had not her beauty, and ‘Juda, that the sceptre had been taken from him, till He should come who was to be sent, the expectation of nations.’ [Prov. viii. 31]. It also signifies the works of penance, whereby she prepares for the second coming, full as it is of sweetness and mystery, which is realized in the souls of men, in proportion as they appreciate the tender love of that divine Guest, who has said: ‘My delights are to be with the children of men.’[Gen. xlix. 10]. It expresses, thirdly, the desolation of this bride who yearns after her Beloved, who is long a-coming. Like the turtle dove, she moans her loneliness, longing for the voice which will say to her: ‘Come from Libanus, my bride! come, thou shalt be crowned. Thou hast wounded my heart.’ [Cant. iv. 8, 9].

The Church also, during Advent. excepting on the feasts of saints, suppresses the angelic canticle, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis; for this glorious song was sung at Bethlehem over the crib of the divine Babe; the tongues of the angels are not loosened yet; the Virgin has not yet brought forth her divine Treasure; it is not yet time to sing, it is not even true to say, ‘Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will.’

Again, at the end of Mass, the deacon does not dismiss the assembly of the faithful by the words: Ite missa est. He substitutes the ordinary greeting: Benedicamus Domino!  as though the Church feared to interrupt the prayers of the people, which could scarce be too long during these days of expectation.

In the night Office, the holy Church also suspends, on those same days, the hymn of jubilation, Te Deum laudamus.’ [The monastic rite retains it. Tr.] It is in deep humility that she awaits the supreme blessing which is to come to her; and, in the interval, she presumes only to ask, and entreat, and hope. But let the glorious hour come, when in the midst of darkest night the Sun of justice will suddenly rise upon the world: then indeed she will resume her hymn of thanksgiving, and all over the face of the earth the silence of midnight will be broken by this shout of enthusiasm: ‘We praise Thee, O God! we acknowledge Thee to be our Lord! Thou, O Christ, art the King of glory, the everlasting Son of the Father! Thou being to deliver man didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb!’

On the ferial days, the rubrics of Advent prescribe that certain prayers should be said kneeling, at the end of each canonical Hour, and that the choir should also kneel during a considerable portion of the Mass. In this respect, the usages of Advent are precisely the same as those of Lent.

But there is one feature which distinguishes Advent most markedly from Lent: the word of gladness, the joyful Alleluia, is not interrupted during Advent, except once or twice during the ferial Office. It is sung in the Masses of the four Sundays, and vividly contrasts with the sombre colour of the vestments. On one of these Sundays, the third, the prohibition of using the organ is removed, and we are gladdened by its grand notes, and rose-coloured vestments may be used instead of the purple. These vestiges of joy, thus blended with the holy mournfulness of the Church, tell us, in a most expressive way, that though she unites with the ancient people of God in praying for the coming of the Messias (thus paying the debt which the entire human race owes to the justice and mercy of God), she does not forget that the Emmanuel is already come to her, that He is in her, and that even before she has opened her lips to ask Him to save her, she has been already redeemed and predestined to an eternal union with Him. This is the reason why the Alleluia accompanies even her sighs, and why she seems to be at once joyous and sad, waiting for the coming of that holy night which will be brighter to her than the most sunny of days, and on which her joy will expel all her sorrow.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Further Note on Death and Plato


In a previous post I discussed how interesting it would be to compare the various perspectives on death offered in the writings of the great classic thinkers. Of particular interest to me is Plato's idea of death, and its influence on the thinking of men down through subsequent history. Plato's conception of death views it as the soul's "liberation" from the body. In a sense this is true, insofar as death is the separation of soul and body. But the added idea of liberation from the body rests on the assumption that the body is something like a cage within which the true human self, the soul, is trapped and waits to be set free. Plato viewed the human person as essentially spiritual; the body was not an essential part of the man, but a prison in which the soul was contained. Strictly and philosophically speaking, this is an incorrect view of the nature of man. C.S. Lewis once said, if I remember correctly, "I am a soul. I have a body." But in fact, according to a more Catholic and Thomistic philosophy, it would be more properly said that "I am a union of both soul and body." When we die, the soul and body will be separated, and remain awhile in a kind of imperfect state until the Last Judgment, when all the bodies of the death will be resurrected to be rejoined with their souls and glorified in heaven - or punished eternally in hell. In any case, the full perfection of the man requires both the body and the soul, because both are part of the essence of man.

Nonetheless, the Platonic way of speaking does, I think, have a mysterious appeal to the Catholic instinct, and I have seen it used in many contexts in which the Christian approach to death has been described. For example, I remember that in praying the Monastic Divine Office some weeks ago, commemorating a particular saint (whose name escapes me - she was female I know), I found that the collect described the death of the saint precisely in terms of the soul being freed from the body. I found this Platonic way of speaking quite delightful. Even if, in strict and absolute terms, it is incorrect that death is strictly a liberation from the body, in the Christian worldview this way of speaking can take on another significance - and not one entirely disconnected from the Platonic view - which is quite loaded with truth:

In this life, man is subject to the effects of Original Sin, one of the primary of which is concupiscence: the rebellion of the flesh against the spirit. The moral goodness of the human soul is thus limited and impeded - "trapped" and "encaged," so to speak - by the sinful inclinations of the body. Life is therefore a constant struggle between the "law of the members" of the body and the law of the spirit. Happiness or beatitude can only be attained after the liberation from this constant struggle with the body. Hence, in a very real sense death is the liberation of the soul from its enslavement to the concupiscence of the body, provided that the fight has been well fought during life. So the Christian ought indeed to have a vision of life and death that is semi-Platonic, inasmuch as the Platonic vision is "baptized" by the Christian understanding of the body and its concupiscence.

In closing to these reflections, I offer a segment from a long poem by the Anglican priest and "metaphysical" poet, and a fallen-away Catholic, John Donne. The entire poem is titled "On the Progress of the Soul," and the following is a profound segment wherein he speaks to the soul on the nature of death and its desirability. The description is notably Platonic, I find, and for that reason I quite admire it. The Platonic idea seems to have been adopted widely by poets and classic writers; and even if they did not employ with its Christian interpretation in mind, I still find it to be a beautiful and fascinating understanding of death. Donne, however, I would suspect to have intended the Christian understanding, since he wrote a great deal of poetry that was well inspired by his Christian theology (albeit which was Anglican). Here is the excerpt:

Think further on thyself, my soul, and think
How thou at first wast made but in a sink.
Think that it argued some infirmity,
That those two souls, which then thou found’st in me,
Thou fed’st upon, and drew’st into thee both
My second soul of sense, and first of growth.
Think but how poor thou wast, how obnoxious;
Whom a small lump of flesh could poison thus.
This curded milk, this poor unlitter’d whelp,
My body, could, beyond escape or help,
Infect thee with original sin, and thou
Couldst neither then refuse, nor leave it now.
Think that no stubborn, sullen anchorite,
Which fix’d to a pillar, or a grave, doth sit 
Bedded and bathed in all his ordures, dwells
So foully as our souls in their first-built cells.
Think in how poor a prison thou didst lie,
After, enabled but to suck, and cry.
Think, when ’twas grown to most, ’twas a poor inn,
A province pack’d up in two yards of skin;
And that usurp’d, or threaten’d with a rage
Of sicknesses, or their true mother, age.
But think that death hath now enfranchised thee; 
Thou hast thy expansion now, and liberty. 
 Think that a rusty piece, discharged, is flown
In pieces, and the bullet is his own,
And freely flies; this to thy soul allow.
Think thy shell broke, think thy soul hatch’d but now.
And think this slow-paced soul which late did cleave
To a body, and went but by the body’s leave,
Twenty perchance, or thirty mile a day,
Dispatches in a minute all the way
’Twixt heaven and earth; she stays not in the air,
To look what meteors there themselves prepare;
She carries no desire to know, nor sense,
Whether th’ air’s middle region be intense;
For th’ element of fire, she doth not know,
Whether she pass’d by such a place or no;
She baits not at the moon, nor cares to try
 Whether in that new world men live, and die;
Venus retards her not to inquire, how she
Can—being one star—Hesper and Vesper be;
He that charm’d Argus’ eyes, sweet Mercury,
Works not on her, who now is grown all eye;
Who if she meet the body of the sun,
Goes through, not staying till his course be run;
Who finds in Mars his camp no corps of guard,
Nor is by Jove, nor by his father barr’d;
But ere she can consider how she went,
At once is at, and through the firmament;
And as these stars were but so many beads
Strung on one string, speed undistinguish’d leads
Her through those spheres, as through the beads a string,
Whose quick succession makes it still one thing.
As doth the pith, which, lest our bodies slack,
Strings fast the little bones of neck and back,
So by the soul doth death string heaven and earth;
For when our soul enjoys this her third birth
—Creation gave her one, a second, grace— 
Heaven is as near and present to her face
As colours are and objects, in a room,
Where darkness was before, when tapers come.

John Donne, 1572-1631

Friday, 28 November 2014

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy  Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822
I have lately been reading a good deal of English poetry, and have found myself experiencing a kind of yearning for the profound grasp of beauty and insight that the poetic masters were able to attain. In the following poem, Percy Bysshe Shelley describes the sentiments of a soul seeking after the Spirit of Beauty but encountering difficulties in the pursuit. Beauty - of a spiritual sort and not merely sensible - is wont to pass to and fro before human vision, sometimes present and sometimes gone; and when gone, its absence fills life with a kind of gloominess. And yet the poet ever remains faithful to his pursuit and worship of Beauty, and entreats her to bestow upon him the joys which he cannot express in words.


The awful shadow of some unseen Power
         Floats though unseen among us; visiting
         This various world with as inconstant wing
 As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
                It visits with inconstant glance
                Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
                Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
                Like memory of music fled,
                Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
         With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
         Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
                Ask why the sunlight not for ever
                Weaves rainbows o'er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
                Why fear and dream and death and birth
                Cast on the daylight of this earth
                Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
         To sage or poet these responses given:
         Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter'd charm might not avail to sever,
                From all we hear and all we see,
                Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o'er mountains driven,
                Or music by the night-wind sent
                Through strings of some still instrument,
                Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.

Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
         And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
         Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
                Thou messenger of sympathies,
                That wax and wane in lovers' eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
                Like darkness to a dying flame!
                Depart not as thy shadow came,
                Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
         Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
         And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call'd on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
                I was not heard; I saw them not;
                When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
                All vital things that wake to bring
                News of birds and blossoming,
                Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
   I shriek'd, and clasp'd my hands in ecstasy!

I vow'd that I would dedicate my powers
         To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
         With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision'd bowers
                Of studious zeal or love's delight
                Outwatch'd with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum'd my brow
                Unlink'd with hope that thou wouldst free
                This world from its dark slavery,
                That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate'er these words cannot express.

The day becomes more solemn and serene
         When noon is past; there is a harmony
         In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
                Thus let thy power, which like the truth
                Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
                Its calm, to one who worships thee,
                And every form containing thee,
                Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Perspectives on Death

I have lately thought it would be interesting to do a study of the various perspectives on death found in the great writers, philosophers, theologians, poets, saints, and other thinkers. In the reading I have done, which is not quite yet extensive, I have already encountered some interesting ideas. Of particular interest to me is the question of whether, and why or why not, one should desire death. Plato argues in the Gorgias (if I remember rightly) that because the philosophic man seeks to know the truth and thus have wisdom, he should desire death. Knowledge is essentially the attaining of the incorporeal Forms which exist in a separate realm of pure reality. The soul, which is immaterial, is hindered from the perfect attainment of these Forms by its encagement in the body. Therefore the soul, especially of the philosophic man, has a deep desire to be free so that it might be able to attain perfect knowledge. A man should therefore desire death, especially if he wishes to satisfy that highest part of him, the intellect, which is in the immaterial soul.

I find particularly interesting to contrast this with the Epicurean view, as expressed by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, that man does not have an immaterial soul. The soul is rather composed of tiny invisible atoms which direct and constitute the life of the body. But because both body and soul are composed of matter, it is in their nature to disintegrate; whence it comes that man must die. Lucretius argues that a man who genuinely desires to know and love the truth about the nature of things will accept this truth and be satisfied with it. Indeed, he should even desire its fulfillment, because his non-existence is the only escape from the pain and misery of life. Lucretius does not believe in an afterlife, so he has no concept of a positive reward or happiness to be gained after death. Rather, he argues that the fact of non-existence alone should be comfort to a man who fears pain: non-existence is painless, and he who does not exist cannot regret the miseries of his past life either. The fascinating comparison between Plato and Lucretius is this: Plato argues that man should desire death because he is essentially an immaterial being, that is, a soul contained within a body. Lucretius, on the other hand, argues that man should desire death because he is essentially a material being, in whose nature it is to die.

In the Christian understanding, death is desirable, not in itself, but as the necessary step before everlasting life. Death in itself is not seen as a good; indeed it is one of the consequences of Original Sin. All men must suffer death in the end. But death is conquered by the Redemption through the death of Christ on the Cross, and hence we have nothing to fear from it. We may even look forward to it, as the door to our fully reaping the benefits, in the afterlife, of Christ's work of salvation, provided we cooperate in this life with the graces which God gives us. 

This is in some sense a mean between the extremes presented by Plato and Lucretius, though I tend to think it more closely resembles the Platonic account, insofar as it is only after death that a man can fully rest in the attainment of Truth. But whereas Plato saw death itself as the good wherein the Truth is attained, Christ teaches us that death is merely a necessary step before the attainment of that Truth, and that, at the end of time, we will in fact be resurrected whilst still resting in the fullness of Truth.

The Christian understanding is not altogether unlike Lucretius' idea either, in that the death of a good man does free him from the misery of earthly life. But the crucial difference is that the man must in fact be good; if he has lived a bad life, obviously, he will only encounter worse misery after death. Lucretius denies all this, because he denies the merit of religious belief and the idea of an afterlife. He adheres to a materialistic worldview, in which suicide is altogether acceptable if life is miserable for a man. But the Christian is not permitted to take this path. His belief in an afterlife must give him pause, as it did Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Christian is certainly permitted to sigh after the next life, to long for death, if he lives in the peace of a good conscience. But he entrusts the time of his death to God, who alone is the Lord and Master of life.

So many more perspectives exist among the great writers of human civilization. The above thoughts are simply an example of how some of those perspectives could be collected and compared...