The Fourth of July is, hands down, the loudest day in our Bridgeport neighborhood. It’s always amusing when we have a new person in the community this time of year, impishly warning them what is coming: an hours-long, non-stop barrage of explosions coming from every conceivable direction. Many of our neighbors leave for a few days, especially those with dogs. We, too, used to find a refuge away from the city. Hours of explosions throughout the night is not conducive to a contemplative atmosphere, to say the least. We’ve learned to make peace with the situation by watching edifying movies into the night and having a sleep-in on the 5th.
Articles under Jottings
A few weeks ago, while shopping, I heard a song that took me back to the summer of 1985. I had fond and tranquil feelings associated with the song and that summer. This struck me as odd, seeing that in 1985 my parents were in the midst of a divorce. The song, “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley (which I don’t particularly like), seemed to have taken me back to a much more specific memory. I spent a good deal of time that summer at a nearby park where the city of Green Bay organized a variety of activities. There were two girls, Dawn and Sally, who also spent time there, and we enjoyed flirting with each other in the then-innocent ways of fourteen-year-olds. One day, as I was aimlessly walking around a grassy part of the western end of the park nearest my home, I caught sight of them walking toward me. As if by some prearranged plan, they looked at each other and suddenly charged and tackled me to the ground, laughing. I was an extremely modest kid, disliking even to wear shorts in the summer except when playing basketball or running. I make this point because, in today’s hyper-sexualized world, it’s important to stress the overall chastity of this amusing expression of puppy-love, and the consequent effect, why it is what I remember about the summer of 1985. I wasn’t in the habit of thinking myself lovable at that time in my life, and I was genuinely surprised to have two attractive girls suddenly pay me such attention. Since that time, I’ve had experiences that evoked similar feelings, that of being lovable in spite of it all. Beginning in about my twenty-fourth year, I began to have this feeling more regularly, and almost always in connection with God rather than specific persons (though interaction with specific persons continued to occasion it).
Today is Debbie Reynolds’s birthday. She is the most energetic woman I’ve ever seen on screen. What strikes me whenever I’ve watched her dance is this: her mastery of technique is what makes her energy so intense and infectious. Her poise and carriage are never tense nor slack; she is an icon of the (apparently) effortless channeling of the potential into the kinetic.
Saturday, my host family took me to visit the town of Ely, which is near Cambridge where I’m enjoying a short sabbatical. Much of the medieval cathedral and its monastic buildings are still in existence. While I was there, the Worchester Cathedral Chamber Choir offered a short concert of pieces by Elgar, Handel, John Ireland, and others. Afterward, we all had tea. It was a splendid day.
We have the custom of watching one movie a month in the monastery. I pick out the movie, which is to say, we watch a lot of Alfred Hitchcock.
Kurt Vonnegut’s prescient short story Harrison Bergeron begins:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.
A few weeks ago, I compared Jordan Peterson with the medieval theologian Peter Lombard. I didn’t go into great detail on my own intuition in this matter. After some ill feelings about the analogy, I’ve come to reaffirm it in my own mind.
“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus [Acts 4: 33].”
This power that the apostles had was the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just before the Ascension, our Lord instructed them, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…to the end of the earth [Acts 1: 8].”
Fresh takes on towering historical icons like Saint Paul and Saint Augustine are rarer than book publishers would like to claim. This is in part because of the stubborn presence of actual words that any interpreter must confront. Many moons ago, I discovered all of this to my dismay as I labored over a thesis on the Letter to the Romans. I felt decidedly less clever at the end of it all than at the outset. The text of Paul’s epistle had this funny way of funneling my fresh insights back into the common stew of Pauline studies. In other writers, I have sometimes discovered apparently novel interpretations, only to find later on the very same interpretation lodged in a patristic tome of old.
Eventually, one finds this general sense of agreement a comfort, at least if one believes in and is searching for Truth. It would disconcerting, to say the least, to find that the Church has been misreading Saint Paul for nearly twenty centuries, even if one were himself or herself the Vessel of Correction. Most new ideas about the Bible or the Church Fathers have in common a willingness to ignore counter-evidence from those same stubborn texts that rerouted my barque back into harbor.
So it was with no small delight that I read Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People some years ago. Amidst teaching assignments at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Cape Town, Ruden has been a prolific author and translator for nearly a decade. What makes her work on Saint Paul so compelling is her awareness of classical culture and her sympathy for the earthy realities of life in antiquity. She is able to depict Paul as a great champion of love and freedom by stripping away the anachronisms accumulated over five centuries of interdenominational debate. She writes with a light touch, an assurance that avoids the preachy or polemic tone.
The reader can imagine how excited I was to see that, after tackling Virgil’s Aeneid and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, she turned her Latin skills to a Christian classic, Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I’ve begun making my way through it, and so far Ruden’s quirky but compelling take has won me over. I’ve read chunks of Confessions in the original Latin, and I’ve read four or five different translations. Most translations tend to err in the direction of pious seriousness. In my opinion, this is a disservice to Augustine, whose poignant observations on boyhood games and love of puns have slowly charmed me away from the early impression I had of him as a dour, mitered scold. Being not much more of a Latinist than I am an expert in Saint Paul’s Greek, I had been keeping my arriviste opinion to myself. Then I was emboldened by the endorsement of the “unsurpassed biographer of Augustine,” Peter Brown.
Brown’s NYRB review of Ruden’s translation focuses not so much on the changed tone of Augustine himself, but on the effect that this change of tone has on the depiction of God. Since the 1981 publication of previously unknown letters of Augustine by Austrian scholar Johannes Divjak, Brown has made a point of softening the adamantine image of the bishop of Hippo. If you read Brown’s biography (you should!), be sure to read the revised edition that contains Brown’s reappraisal. Browns’ influence is such that scholarly opinion has been following his lead. I want to emphasize here that the interpretation of Augustine as a proto-Puritan with Jansenist scruples is, like the Saint Paul of Luther’s imagination, a modern production. Anyone familiar with Saint Augustine’s “afterlife” in the Western Middle Ages will quickly become aware of the love that both monks and schoolmen shared for Augustine’s prodigious output, and for the man himself. As was the case with Saint Paul, Ruden’s new translation of Confessions is a vindication of the bulk of Catholic testimony regarding Saint Augustine, a genuinely fresh take that succeeds in restoring, in a modern idiom, an older appreciation for his humanity as well as his genius.
Calvin College’s James K. A. Smith will have none of it. I found it a bit disheartening when an intellectual of his status and caliber gave up on Ruden literally after one line. He claims to have been chastised by Brown’s review into questioning himself. This probing self-doubt seems to have lasted about two minutes before he’s back trying to burnish the statuesque, seriously pious Augustine. His big beef? Ruden’s decision to translate dominus as “Master” rather than as the (supposedly) traditional “Lord.” Smith seems to concede that “master” is a legitimate option–for a classicist. But the rest of us, he believes, want not accuracy but a “devotional classic.” It is telling that Smith begins his review openly admitting that when it comes to translations his preferences are nostalgiac and emotional and not rational. And, frankly, it is irrational to insist that Augustine say what Smith thinks he ought to say, based on his queasiness with the (modern, American, contextual) connotations of the word “master.”
Smith does ask two important questions: “which afterlife of words is most germane to the project that Augustine himself is engaged in? Which history of connotation overlaps with Augustine’s endeavor?” This gets at the heart of my difference from Smith on a number of related issues. Different confessional traditions will answer these questions differently. I would like to think that Benedictines, whose Rule of Life is deeply influenced by Saint Augustine’s own experience as a monk, who read large portions of Augustine’s work–ranging across the different genres of treatise, Biblical commentary, homiletic, and personal letters–at the daily liturgy, and whose institutional history includes at least two centuries of direct engagement with international politics, have as good a claim as anyone to bearing the standard of Augustine’s project/endeavor. From my (Catholic, monastic) perspective, Jean Calvin’s interpretations of Saint Augustine are just those sorts of “new” interpretations that can only exist by suppressing counter-evidence and dissenting voices.
And, in fact, English-speaking Catholics readily use the word “Master” to address God, for example, in the misattributed “Prayer of Saint Francis.” “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console…” English-speaking Orthodox will be familiar with this translation of the prayer of Saint Ephraim, “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth…”
But more to the point, we are arguing about a word choice in a modern language. Before the Reformation, and for plenty of Catholics since, God is Dominus. It is understood, at some level, that whether we use Lord or Master, what we mean is Dominus or Kyrios (perhaps even Adonai). Whatever connotations have attached themselves to Lord or Master in the past five hundred years, a span in which the English language has largely developed apart from direct influence by Rome or Constantinople, they may well be part of the shared distortion that has afflicted the memories of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. More power to Sarah Ruden for inviting us to step back from our allegiances and question ourselves.
St. Ignatius of Loyola died on this date 561 years ago. He did not set out at first to be a saint, but a soldier. Then Providence intervened. A cannonball shattered his leg, and as he was recovering from this terrible compound fracture, he underwent this remarkable experience:
He asked for some of these books [of knight-errantry] to pass the time. But no book of that sort could be found in the house; instead they gave him a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of the saints written in Spanish….When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy.
Ignatius’s circumstances didn’t change. His joy and sadness did not depend on the healing of his leg, or on his future prospects as a soldier and a dandy. In other words, our contentment in life, or lack thereof, is not, primarily, a function of the external circumstances of our lives. What determines the emotional shape of our lives (and therefore, that aspect of our lives that really matters!) is our thinking.
This profound insight of Saint Ignatius comports with ancient monastic wisdom, both in Christian and Buddhist forms. The difference between Christianity and Buddhism, in this regard at least, is that traditional Christianity does not aim at avoidance of suffering by the elimination of the ego. Rather, the Gospel allows the newly, intentionally reborn self [in the image of Christ] to embrace joyfully the suffering that comes from standing out to the full, which is to say, the suffering that comes with sainthood. Our suffering is embraced “for the sake of the joy that was set before” us [Hebrews 12: 2]. We do this by changing the way we think, by the “renewal of our minds [Romans 12: 2].” How is this done? By, among other things, faith in God’s promises.
This future-oriented, eschatological thinking finds yet another interesting corroboration in the insights of Jewish psychotherapists Viktor Frankl and Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Both men asked this question: “Why is it that, under experiences of extreme stress, some persons not only continue to function but even thrive?” It’s good to note that Frankl himself was a Holocaust survivor. Both men experienced quasi-Ignatian moments of insight. Frankl’s very language echoes the experience of Ignatius [my emphases in bold]:
Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the [prisoner] marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Frankl and Friedman both challenge us to change our thoughts, to substitute thoughts of love, hope, purpose, and meaning for thoughts of hatred, anxiety, frustration, and resentment. I will be returning to Friedman, whose overall insights are especially counter-intuitive in our present world (which, from the perspective I’m adopting here makes them actually more persuasive). For today’s feast of Saint Ignatius, let me offer one more example of a change of thinking, this time a literary one. As Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins trudge their way through the soul-killing terror of Mordor, Sam experiences this moment of insight. It changes nothing of the external horror to which he and Frodo have been consigned. But it does something quieter, yet more radical. It changes Sam’s heart, and, in Tolkien’s story, this small, hidden change of heart changes the world.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.