Thursday, 26 November 2015

New Reflections on the Contemplative Life

St. Francis in the Wilderness
Having emerged from a period of quietude on this blog, I thought it might be a good idea to share some of my recent thoughts. Lately, my considerations of theology, philosophy, liturgy, spirituality, art, music, education, and life in general have in many ways coalesced and united. They are still in the process of merging into a larger system of thought. My readings of late have been various but not unrelated, ranging from the reflections on the monastic life by Dom Columba Marmion and Hubert Zeller, to the philosophical reflections on life, liturgy, and art, by the Thomist thinker Josef Pieper. And several more authors to go along with them. A common theme in my recent thought, motivated by all of these writers, has been the expansion of the spirituality of the liturgy to the whole arena of human life in general. This manner of thinking is one that is deeply contemplative, one which sees the world through a lens that is informed by the liturgical or sacramental mindset of the Church, as exemplified especially in her monastic tradition and that of the Fathers.

All of this has been especially pertinent to me as someone who has been professionally and classically trained as a musician. From childhood my parents helped to instill in me a love of classical music, and I have played the piano from a very young age, performing and experiencing firsthand the riches of the classical tradition. Moreover I have very often been involved in the liturgical choirs of my communities, and am generally familiar with the repertoire of Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony. Liturgy and music have proven to be two of the most central aspects of my life, layman though I am. But recent studies have led me to see all of my musical experience in light of the liturgy itself, so that, even outside the context of the directly liturgical celebration, music has become to me something eminently liturgical.

A chapter on Music and Liturgy in Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy was especially instrumental in adapting my mind to this manner of thinking. Ratzinger has a way of uniting music and liturgy to life in general, opening up to an awareness of the whole of creation as a grand, cosmic liturgy, in which all creatures participate in the great song of praise. This vision of the world is deeply Biblical, echoing the words of the Psalms, and the song of the three youth in the furnace, which constantly attribute the praise of God to the works of creation: “Let the heavens proclaim the Lord…etc.” But this vision is also found in a philosophical form in the pagan thought of the ancient Greeks, such as Pythagoras and Plato, who saw the story of the cosmos as a divine musical composition. Music, like liturgy, bears a real relation to the work of God – indeed, “the work of God,” Opus Dei, is the name which is applied to the liturgy itself by St. Benedict.

Indeed, music is more than an arbitrary human convention: it is an art that springs from the depths of the nature of man – man who is the crown and pinnacle of the cosmos, the essential component that gives meaning to the whole. As such, music expresses the meaning of all creation, inasmuch as it is bound up in man himself. All of human desire, the inner straining after the true, good, and beautiful, is expressed in music. To the philosopher, music offers an opportunity to approach closer to the possession of the good, true, and beautiful; for the man informed by faith, music answers to the straining further after the triune God Himself. All of creation pertains to this condition of straining: no irrational or inanimate creature would be worth anything if it were not bound up somehow in the dynamism of human life. Music, therefore, by expressing the “weal and woe” of humanity (to use a phrase of Schopenhauer, quoted by Pieper), is also an expression of the meaning of the cosmos as a whole, the work of God.

This likeness of music to the liturgy itself is no accident. The book of Psalms – perhaps the single most important text in the liturgy – is notable for its employment of the whole range of human emotions in the service of divine worship. These are no mere animal passions. These are the passions transformed by the graces of supernatural knowledge and love, drawn up into and absorbed by the spiritual pursuit of God, the offering or gift of self. They are the very expression of that pursuit and that offering. Historically, the Psalms were not only the prayer book of the ancient Jews, but also the hymn book; indeed, to pray and to sing were practically the same thing for the Jews. Song is an expression of human emotion in its deepest essence, a complex reproduction of the spiritual life of humanity as such: whence its distinct and inexpressible power over the human spirit. It is only natural, therefore, that prayer be sung. Prayer: the expression of human selfhood in complete service to the almighty, and the direction of all passions and affections to worship and adoration – what better aid could prayer have but music, which intensifies and directs those very same affections in the very expression of them? Whence Augustine famously wrote that “He who sings prays twice,” and “Only the lover sings.” Liturgy, because it is so largely concerned with prayer and the offering of the self, with all its emotions and desires, must therefore be an eminently musical thing.

Something similar to what I have said of music may be said also of the other arts, and of course, the cosmos itself, in relation to the liturgy. All of the arts – practiced well (that is, of course, an indispensable condition) – can serve as a way of opening the human mind to the contemplation of the Truth. The arts, like music, play a sacramental role: they manifest the work of God, and thereby God Himself, to the one who sees with the eyes of faith. Hence, they afford an opportunity for the soul to offer itself to God in humble submission – to begin to be absorbed into the divine Beauty which peaks from underneath visible reality. The cosmos likewise is an opportunity for this experience. Indeed, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Viewed thus, all of life is transformed into an extension of the liturgy, a proclamation of God, an occasion for worship.

The saints were supernaturally alive with this contemplative, experiential vision of reality. They saw things through the eyes of faith, and thus were keenly aware of the divine Beauty which lies beneath the surface. Yea, more than this, they were aware of the divine Persons who exist all things by the presence of immensity (omnipresence) and who became present substantially in the souls of the saints themselves by a divine indwelling. The saints were absorbed into God, transformed, deified, lost in the “transluminous obscurity” of the divine which they were allowed to know in all things. In the words of the Pseduo-Areopagite, they were “patient of the divine things” by a certain “connaturality” or “sympathy” with them. Moreover, this mystical experience sometimes produced marvelous works of writing, poetry, and even music. The Confessions of Augustine are the work of a soul in tune with the universe and so in touch with God, a soul who breathed the life depicted by the book of Psalms, a soul who knew the depths of emotion conveyed in the music of contemplation: “How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face - tears that did me good.” Likewise, the Eucharistic hymns of Thomas Aquinas express the intimate contact with God which he attained through that great sacrament. The sublime music of St. Hildegard von Bingen cannot be described but as the very sound of a soul overwhelmed in divine ecstasy, attuned by the divine harmony.

Cancion de Angeles, by Bouguereau
These were men and women of faith: their experiences were of a supernatural level. By analogy, and at a natural level, there are also the poets and ancient philosophers who penetrated deeply into the meaning of things, saw and tasted the beauty and sweetness which lie at the root of every human longing. These were the men who found their way out of Plato’s cave, who reached beyond the boundaries of mundane existence and aspired to the true greatness that is man’s destiny (a greatness which is, paradoxically, man’s death to himself and renunciation of his present greatness, and an absorption into the greatness of Another). I am thinking of Plato himself, his student Aristotle, the poets and artists of human history, the Shakespeares and Keats’ and Shelleys, the Bachs and Mozarts and Chopins, the Boticellis and Da Vincis and Bouguereaus, and so many more – mystics in a natural but profound sense. These souls knew the ritual of life, they fulfilled to the best of their abilities the liturgical dimensions of human nature, so far as they were permitted within the bounds of nature. The example of these men demonstrates to us the inherent dynamism in man towards the fulfillment offered by the Christian life, which is first and foremost liturgical: the contact of the divine mystery, the experience and contemplation of the transcendent God, as it manifests itself in the opus Dei. Man, even in his natural state, is deeply aware of his calling to something greater than himself, something which he must possess. And so he desires to possess it. His life is marked by a constant straining for this possession.

Of course, men seek for this possession in various places, oftentimes the wrong places. Modern culture is marked by a disdain for the contemplative life just described: the vocations of the poet, the musician, and the cloistered monk all appear vain to modern man, who no longer appreciates the value of leisure. Our culture seeks human fulfillment in work and industry, in the active life divorced from contemplation. But as Josef Pieper shows in Leisure the Basis of Culture, this pursuit itself turns out to be vain in the end. Human life acquires its worth not from that which is useful or practical, but from that which is good on its own merits, for its own sake, per se; in other words, that which is the object of contemplation. In fact it is the most useless things that turn out to be the best and the most beautiful, the things of true value; whereas what is only useful turns out to be completely worthless.

Narcisuss, by John William Waterhouse
Another example is the modern tendency to exalt human selfhood as its stands. We live in a culture of narcissism. But as we have seen, the contemplative worldview which we have explored involves precisely the opposite of self-assertion or self-exaltation: it is the complete absorption of the self into the being of another. The ecstasy of the poets was the abandonment of themselves to the beauty which so captured their wonder and attention. Likewise, and even more so, the mark of the saints was the complete forgetfulness – nay, even renunciation – of themselves, to be completely united to God Himself. The story of these contemplative souls is a love story – not the love of self, but always the love of Another, whose Goodness is from and of Itself. Religion is indeed a kind of self-expression, but an expression of self-renunciation in submission to Another, not an expression of self-assertion. This is an especially important truth, the denial of which is extremely dangerous to the religious health of any human society. Any exaltation of the mundane, the ego, or the merely human risks neglecting the true value of any created thing, which comes not from itself but from God. All the contemplatives whom I have mentioned, whether artists, poets, or saints, recognized this truth in some manner. Either they implicitly experienced the bittersweet nostalgia for the divine perfection which is beyond all created goodness, or they directly experienced the divine sweetness itself by the gifts of grace and faith.
These are some of the thoughts which I have concluded, after considering the extension of the liturgical and contemplative mindset to the other areas of life. In brief, the liturgy transforms the vision of man so that he proceeds through all of life seeing the signs of God, and straining all the more after the sight of God Himself. By this account, man has a way of accessing God through all things, either in the distant manner of nature, or in the direct and experiential manner of grace. These thoughts may serve, moreover, to inform our understanding of education, which is the formation of the whole human person according to wisdom. Wisdom, as I have written on this blog before, comes in many forms, but all ordered towards the vision of God. The primary act of wisdom is contemplation, which is perfected by vision. Education will thus have vision as its end. The educated and cultured man therefore shares somehow in the character of the saints themselves, inasmuch as he is marked by the desire of this vision, “as a dear longs for fountains of water”; and for this reason he will live his life centered around and nourished by the sacred liturgy, and moreover always in accordance the spirit of its inner essence, which extends to all of human existence.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written! Thank you.

    One wonders if in the intimacy of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Logos is a Word chanted rather than spoken, sung within a sublime liturgy of the familial community of Divine Persons, contemplation, music and love.