The concept of kingship, considered throughout history and in multiple cultural contexts, varies quite a bit. Contemporary Americans tend to equate kings with tyrannical figures wielding huge amounts of arbitrary governmental power, whether it be the power of taxation exercised unhappily by George III at the expense of the Colonies, or the power of complete policy control as brandished by the Sun King, Louis XIV (“I am the state,” “L’état, c’est moi,” was his memorable way of expressing it).
Articles tagged with natural contemplation
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.
Ten years ago, an old friend, now a committed atheist, invited me to participate in an online discussion between atheists and Christians. As rancorous as some of the “discussions” were, I miss the tough back-and-forth probing of my own positions.
Poetry tills and harvests in the fields of metaphor.
When Shakespeare’s Romeo muses, “Juliet is the sun,” he is not making a statement that is literally true. But it is true. How so? Oddly enough, answering this question involves us in more metaphorical speech.
At what point did hominids begin to recognize musical pitch? Rhythm seems much more obvious, since so many of our bodily functions are rhythmic. We breath, we walk, we chew…Most noises in nature are chaotic, when judged by musical pitch. Even birdsong, while beautiful, is not precisely pitched, nor does it often make use of one pitch held for any identifiable length of time. What was the experience of the first person who heard that a sound could be one note? And who discovered the possibility of adding one pitch to another, that two pitches, with a long enough duration for each, could be heard in relation to one another? I would like to imagine this discovery as a revolution in awareness. A pitch emerges as order out of chaos, hints at fundamentals. This primal recognition is so far from us for whom music is a cheap commodity. It is not so easy for us to engage profitably with ideas like the Music of the Spheres or the myth of Orpheus.
Pythagoras achieved an insight when he heard the relations of pitches in the blacksmith’s shop. For the Pythagoreans and for Plato after him, harmony was represented by an enacted by musical pitch. Today, we have discovered that all of the cosmos can be understood as waves in vibration. But we cannot perceive this fundamental order without an accompanying silence.
[The second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is often understood as a duel between Orpheus=the piano and the Underworld=the orchestra. Listen to how the piano tames the orchestra and brings the chaotic rhythms and angular pitches into harmony:]
The Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father is the founding moment of the liturgy. The Good Shepherd went off in search of His lost sheep–us–by laying aside His dignity and prerogatives as Son of God and becoming flesh for our sake. Becoming obedient to the Father even unto death, He won our salvation and returned to the Father as the pioneer of our salvation. In our baptisms, we are united with Christ, and in the liturgy, we participate, really experience our own ascensions to the Kingdom of Heaven, as daughters and sons of God in the Holy Spirit.What an astonishing claim! And yet, it is our faith, the faith we profess every time we enter a church, recall our baptisms by signing ourselves with holy water in the form of the cross, and enter into the everlasting dialog of love between Father and Son. Yet because it is such an astonishing claim, we need practice in order to continually realize the Truth into which we have been received. Our minds need constant renewal, lest we fall back by a preoccupation with the earthly appearance of things. As I mentioned in the previous post, this vigilance requires us to hold in tension God’s transcendence, the goal toward which we move in our ascension in Christ, with God’s immanence, His real presence to us in all things through the eyes of faith. Thus the things of the world are transformed by contemplation, a gaze informed by faith, and this informing faith is oriented toward the Father “who is above all and through and in all [Ephesians 4: 6].”
In Gothic church buildings, this symbolism of ascent is signified by the long “vertical” shape of the nave. One enters at the baptismal font, the gateway to life in Christ, and moves toward the altar through stages, not necessarily “closer to God,” Who is in any case not at all bound to the sanctuary, but through the purification of the soul, the understanding and the will, so as to be more and more conformed to God. Christ the Mediator is symbolized variously by the direction East (from whence He shall come at the parousia), the altar (incised with five crosses, the five wounds by which the risen Christ is recognized), the priest (whose initial movement to the altar is a representation of Christ’s Ascension), and finally by the Blessed Sacrament Itself.
Christ goes forth from the sanctuary at two crucial moments in the liturgy. The first is the gospel procession, where the Word becomes flesh, as it were, in the human voice of the priest of deacon who proclaims it. The gospel book is carried in procession from the altar to the people. The second movement “outward” is the carrying of the Body and Blood of Christ from the altar (again!) to the people, who now receive Christ Incarnate in Holy Communion. In this latter case, there is a complementary movement of the faithful toward the altar, “caught up together with [those who have died in Christ]…to meet the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4: 17].”
Here I am describing a dynamic liturgy, with a lot of movement. It is not what most Catholics think of when they think of liturgy, which unfortunately seems to bring to mind standing and sitting in one pew and watching while the priest does a bunch of things far away. What I have described is quite possible, even desirable in the present “ordinary” form of the Mass, and to a certain extent the reforms that followed Vatican II have made this latent dynamism more obvious (and this represents a restoration of certain elements of the Mass that had fallen away in the Tridentine period, which I personally consider to have been a bit ‘bureaucratized’, with a liturgy too much influenced by the Roman Curia and not enough by monks!). Orthodox liturgy tends to display this dynamism more openly, and often Orthodox liturgists will draw connections between the in-and-out motion of the priests and deacons with the mysterious energies of God, that go forth and return to Him [cf. Isaiah 55: 11]. And this connection in turn is sometimes reinforced with references to Eastern theologians like Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). But this dynamism is everywhere evident in Catholic sources, especially through the thirteenth century. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas is entirely patterned on what is called the “exitus-reditus” movement of God’s creative and restorative Word and Spirit, breathing outward into creation and gathering inward toward salvation and exaltation.
Our monastery church is a neo-gothic structure. The first altar that we had built for the church was slightly larger than four feet square and stood in the center of the sanctuary, at the eastern end of the building. Though it served us well, it was slightly small both for the space and for the number of concelebrants typical at our Eucharistic liturgy. After a benefactor came forward to commission the great iconostasis that you see on our home page (and above), we knew that it was time to commission as well a new altar. Present liturgical discipline favors a stone mensa or “table” on the altar. If we were to do have a stone altar constructed, we had two choices, necessitated by the weight of the potential structure. We could first of all restore it as a ‘high altar’ against the easternmost wall of the church. This would be easier and more cost effective, since there was already an iron and brick support in place there, and since we were already celebrating Mass ad orientem. The other option was keeping it in place and building a new support. This would have been quite costly. Moreover, the building itself calls for the altar to be at the very head of the structure, as the “Head” Who is Christ.
When the iconostasis and altar were installed last year (and I will have much more to write about the icons, so stay tuned!), the architecture of the church really came into strong focus. I can say with some assurance that all of the brothers have found this new arrangement to be a tremendous blessing and aid to prayer. The danger of such an arrangement is that the very strong vertical thrust might lead guests to feel faraway from the action and left out, as if God had retreated somewhere relatively inaccessible and only peeked out for communion. How could we help newcomers to feel more welcomed, to have a sense of God’s nearness without undoing the brilliance of the transcendent recaptured in our high altar and iconostasis? This was the challenge that we took up when we began to plan the last phase of our renovation of the church, the construction of the new choir.
For the medievals, God was not distant and separate from the material world. To the mind of the Middle Ages, everything that exists has meaning, everything is a sign pointing to God, and everything is mystically connected. –Rod Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life
I would go even further, or perhaps simply draw out the implication of this observation in Dreher’s most recent book. Everything in the universe is a message from God, teaching us how to live with Him in love. Can we learn to understand this message? Can we learn the ‘language’ of creation? Or is this just a dream? After all, isn’t it possible that every person simply reads his own meaning into things? Isn’t this idea of the cosmos having an inherent meaning just a romantic, childish fancy that sober modern men and women have left behind?
Dreher underlines the fact that the meaning really was objective in his following sentence: “The point of life…is to let go of one’s ego and live in harmony with God and the cosmos.” Again, I agree with his observation of the medieval mind. If this is true, however, it would seem that merely personal interpretations of the cosmos would risk reinforcing the ego (and for Dreher, hell is “a dark and loveless place of absolute egotism”), and that harmony with more or less brute objects within the cosmos would require a degree of acceptance of how things are. This idea is profoundly at odds with the modern scientific view. But this modern view is at best incomplete, at worse completely erroneous, as I hope to demonstrate in future posts.
So how does one go about learning the language of the cosmos? Can we learn to say with St. Antony the Great, “My book, O Philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me?” Perhaps we should ask instead, “How did St. Antony come to this knowledge of the language of God?”
Antony learned this language within the monastic world of the third and fourth centuries. In this world, there are two disciplines required to learn the language of the Creator. The first discipline is the acquisition of virtue. Without virtue, our desires distort the meaning of things. For the temperate man, food is a sign of God’s love and constant sustenance of our life. For the glutton, food is there to serve the ego’s craving for pleasure. For the chaste person, sexuality is a wondrous and mysterious gift for building up the human family through mutual self-giving. For the unchaste, it is for personal enjoyment and domination of others.
The second discipline is the training of the mind in God’s language through meditation on the Scriptures, especially as explained in the liturgy and the homiletic writings of the saints. The Church Fathers made a great effort to read creation in the new light of the Resurrection of Christ. There is really very little arbitrary about this, and the persistence of certain kinds of reading support the idea that there is a kind of objective reading of things. This work is what the first systematic theologian of the spiritual life called ‘natural contemplation’. For the great monk Evagrius of Pontus, natural contemplation was about finding the ‘reasons’ for things. All things came to be through God’s Word, and therefore contain in them a message from God, a rationality and purpose. We are invited to decode this message.
And as Dreher so aptly puts it, the recognition of God’s loving presence in all things makes Him astounding near.
In most writings on the spiritual life since Evagrius, natural contemplation is left out. His system lists three stages of the spiritual life: the practical or active life of moral purification from the distorting passions; the acquisition of knowledge of the reasons for things, or natural contemplation; and then finally contemplation proper, the knowledge of God as God is, no longer mediated by created things. In simplifying this into the two stages of ‘active’ and ‘contemplative’ (and further distorting this ancient distinction by turning it into the canonical description of two types of religious life), we have lost the idea of natural contemplation.
When you speak of contemplation in religious circles today, most people are going to think of a withdrawal from created things to one’s inner world and direct converse with God. Contemplatives are sometimes criticized for disengagement with the world, for a kind of navel-gazing self-absorption. What the contemplative claims to experience as God is, I think, rightly called into question. Aren’t we just inventing an idea of God? Or confusing our feelings with God?
Natural contemplation undercuts the accusation of egotism and solipsism in the larger work of contemplation (so does the active life of acquiring virtue, but I will save that for a later day). Acquiring an understanding of God through His prolific ‘writings’ in the natural world requires us to be attentive to the reality of things. This was the insight that revolutionized the world of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” The living God has arranged every molecule, continually sustains each whirling electron and gives pattern to all manner of charged inscapes. When we attend with care to His works, reading them like the love letter to humanity that they are, we come to know the very mind of God. And then, when we close the doors of our senses and pray to God in secret, it is that God, not a wishful projection of our own insecurities, that we encounter.
God’s blessings to you!