Category Archives: philosophy

Gathering of things new and again.

The newly opened plum blossoms are the sweetest thing this week:

In the house, the refurbished little half-bath downstairs and the all-new full bath upstairs saw major progress. The little one was torn apart last July when it was discovered that a drain had been leaking into the wall. The wall was replaced, and eventually everything else, but the painting hadn’t been done until this week, so I only now hung the mirror I’d bought many months ago. It’s such a small space I had a hard time taking a picture of that.

The mirror is a sort of champagne color and I was a little worried about it blending in with all the other tones. But nothing unlovely jumps out at me at this point. I want eventually to have towels in there that are bright and contrasting, maybe in the aqua realm?

I’ve made a couple batches of Sesame Flax Crackers that my former housemate Kit and I discovered a couple of years ago. They are so easy, I don’t understand why I couldn’t manage to make them again before now. But then, the last 15 months of demolition and construction have been pretty consuming of my mind’s juggling skills. I could read philosophical novels and sometimes write about them, but I couldn’t take the few steps to bake crackers.

When Mags and I met via our blogs many years ago (we have still not met otherwise), we were both interested in reading the philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard. I am pretty sure I’ve never read a book by him before, even though I somehow managed to write a term paper in high school comparing him to Sartre. It seems laughable now — or is it? Just now I’m feeling thankful for the confluence of people and events that made it possible for me to even hear about existentialism in my little high school out in the sticks. I wrote much more about this in a previous blog post that was a pre-book review: here.

Anyway, I bring it up again because neither Mags nor I ever got around to reading Kierkegaard — until now! We are reading “together” The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, which is short, and consists of what are essentially sermons, but because Kierkegaard was not an ordained minister he didn’t think it appropriate to call them that.

My friend with whom I co-taught the high school class at church for two years gave me other books by Kierkegaard and much encouragement in my philosophical readings. I read a lot more online about what would be good to start with, and chose this book because I was pretty confident that we could finish 90 pages, no matter how challenging, and maybe get some momentum going for more of Kierkegaard. You know I will update you!

Surprise – the freesias are opening. I never even noticed the buds. Two insects found this first flower before I did. And lastly, below, my dear, dear little azalea plant that was part of a flower gift when my husband died five years ago is blooming right now. It has never been so beautiful!

Die before you die.

The day after I wrote about feeling my mortality, I was prompted to think more on the subject, first by Father Stephen Freeman, in an article about hospitals vs. hospice, and the importance of visiting the sick. When he was chaplain on a hospice team:

“It was the first time I ever saw a doctor listening carefully to nurses and chaplains. There was nothing ‘active’ that could be done other than providing comfort and support. The team stood in awe before the reality of dying, inevitably sharing the knowledge that what a patient was facing would be our own lot in time.”

For several years I’ve had more of that awareness myself, that every moment I go on living it is only because of God’s will and sustaining power. This understanding was only heightened when I was weak and sick, and not distracted by all the “active” things of my typical days, and could be in awe of the fact of existence.

This morning, I have a further reminder of death, and the scripture that tells us, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints.” A woman about my age fell asleep in death this week and I will be helping to prepare her body for burial in just a couple of hours. We will pray and anoint her with oil and commend her to Christ, before she is moved to the church for her funeral. It is always a holy thing to join with a sister at this stage in her “journey to the kingdom.”

In the short movie linked below, the musings of a 97-year-old philosopher as he calmly and “philosophically” considers his own death show a sensibility much more deeply human and nuanced than what he wrote in his book on the subject when he was younger. Though he feels that he lost half of himself when his wife of 70 years died, at the same time he doesn’t want to die; he has just started noticing the beauty of trees the way he never did before. The intellectual history of his own mind tells him that “there is no point” to life, so it doesn’t make sense to him, he calls it foolish, that he should mind saying good-bye. But he does mind.

Maybe it was the death of his wife that shook up his life so that now he calls death “the one thing central to my existence.” And he doesn’t have it figured out. Though now he likely knows more than he did then, because he has actually crossed that river; the movie was made by his grandson in his memory. There is a short article with a little more information at The Atlantic.

Father Stephen: “The monastic tradition of the Church has the notion that we should always keep death before our eyes. In a culture where sickness and death are hidden from view, such a notion can seem morbid and wrongly formulated. St. Paul said of himself, ‘I die daily’ (1Cor. 15:31).

“More completely, he said, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20).

“These are not morbid notions, but remembrances of the truth. If you lived on the edge of a cliff, only disaster could come from forgetting that fact. We remember the truth of our existence (including its end) so that our life might be shaped by the conscious remembrance of the name of God. When we pray, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,’ we proclaim the futility and emptiness of our self-existence, while more profoundly proclaiming the goodness and kindness of God in Christ who, in us, tramples down death by death.

“There is a monastic saying in Orthodoxy: ‘If you die before you die, then you won’t have to die when you die.'”

They lack nerves, and the tiny interior.

In this poem I recently encountered, the poet doesn’t say whether he himself believes in Platonic forms, only that “they” claim to know that this principle orders the minds of angels, and what the effects of its working is. It’s my understanding that Plato’s idea of forms is not in accord with Christian theology; one writer on the subject claims that “Maximus the Confessor remains to this day the single most important figure in Orthodox cosmological thought,” and that “his doctrine of the logoi of things can in no way be reduced to a static world of Platonic forms.” There is no Huge Principle, but there is Almighty God, the great “I am.”

Another thing I wonder about is the location of the “tiny interior” mentioned; I should think it is more in the heart than the brain, this place where the Maker shares His secrets. Both of my wonderings are based on my slight understanding of philosophy and theology; what I do feel more certain of is that angels are basically very different from humans. Christ took on human nature, because it was we humans who needed His solidarity with us, and His quickening of our dead spirits. But having been created “a little lower than the angels,” we were “crowned with honor and glory.”

Whatever all of the attributes of angel nature may be, it is given to us humans to enjoy the senses and their joys, which in the following poem by C.S. Lewis are seen as guards against the richer angel-type experiences that we could not in our earthiness bear. I see these sensory experiences as much more than that, and where the poet evokes the way they can fill our hearts to overflowing, such as when we “drink the whole summer down into the breast,” isn’t he describing more than a purely sensual experience? Quite possibly a thankful, prayerful heart can know mystical secrets of the trees and stones, as their secrets would be not other than whatever the Creator in kindness might reveal of Himself in and through them – and beyond.

ON BEING HUMAN

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know — the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
— An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang — can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
— An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

-C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for introducing me to this poem.
(said Mr Homegrown)

Certain and deep green clover.

I drove more than an hour round trip to the dentist today and listened to A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton on the way. At the same time I was drinking in the information all my senses were sending me, especially the visual. Glory!

I stopped on the way home to take pictures, in the only spot that gave me room to pull over, and where there happened to be some fava beans growing in the field, maybe “drop-ins” (as my Syrian neighbor used to call volunteers) left over from a long-ago planting.

I was sad to hear on the recording about Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360–270 BC) and how, according to this admittedly simplified and somewhat satiric introduction, he constantly doubted his senses and intuitions and even what common knowledge had been handed down through the ages. He focused on man’s inability to know anything for sure. Many funny legends — such as, his friends had to protect him from falling off cliffs, etc, because he couldn’t trust what his eyes were telling him, that he was on the cliff’s edge — are told about Pyrrho, who wrote nothing and probably was not as crazy as his Skeptic philosophy might have made him if carried to extremes.

I thought about what G.K. Chesterton said about modern skeptics: “It is assumed that the skeptic has no bias; whereas he has a very obvious bias in favour of skepticism.” 

As I was looking at the poppies and the green fields, the cows and blue sky and the clouds, yes, I was certain that I was not hallucinating. That was truly deep green clover and a purple flower. And I knew that God meant for me to receive all these gifts from nature and the Creator without doubting everything at the outset. We should protect our children from the skeptical mind which does pervade modern society in more subtle ways, so that their natural human receptivity to the world and inclination to believe are not deadened. The best way to guard their minds against error is not to teach them to doubt, but to nurture them in beauty and truth.