Category Archives: philosophy

It’s about light and seeing.

This was a Sunday extra-full of intellectual stimulation, so much so that I feel I must write in order to debrief and process the swirling thoughts. (The church property was also graced with thousands of manzanita blossoms, with which I am decorating my post.)

As I have mentioned before, we are reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis this year in the high school class that meets, as they all do, after we have partaken of the Holy Gifts, toward the end of Divine Liturgy. Today I was amazed at the scope of philosophy and questions we touched on in half a chapter of the book: What is a person? What purpose should art serve? How can we resist the urges from without and within to imbibe and conform to the culture we are born into?

The fictional story is of ghosts who get a chance at Heaven by taking a bus trip from Hell. They have been in the process of becoming more or less human for a long time. Is it hundreds or thousands of years? Hard to say. Our narrator’s guide by the middle of the book is none other than George MacDonald himself, who explains a great deal of what is going on.

About one ghost who appears to the narrator not to be really wicked, but only “into a habit of grumbling,” MacDonald says, “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one — still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

The blessed spirits journey for ages to meet the excursionists from Hell, and try to persuade them to cast off whatever hinders, and to stay in Heaven. Today’s reading included such an interview, between two men who had known of each other in the previous life, where they were both artists. When the ghost arrives, he looks around briefly and immediately wants to start painting.

“I shouldn’t bother about that just at present if I were you,” says the blessed spirit, and goes on to explain, “When you painted on earth — at least in your earlier days — it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came…. If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

I wonder if George MacDonald struggled to keep his artistic focus on “telling about light,” if he ever found himself writing for the love of his own voice and to promote his reputation as a writer and storyteller. If so, he must have noticed, and repented. The glimpses of heavenly realities he was able to give have helped thousands to keep their eyes toward their life-giving Lord.

As often happens, the homily we had heard an hour earlier contributed to our lesson. This time Father John was telling us about the word peculiar in the King James translation, used in I Peter when the apostle is speaking to us who have been “called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It comes from a Greek word that tells us we belong to God; we are possessed. We mused about how this fundamental truth about our personhood can help us to come back again and again to that light, His light, and not get distracted forever from our purpose, and from His life-giving Spirit.

I was not through being challenged to think, and to try forming my thoughts into speech fast enough to contribute to a discussion, because our women’s book club from church was gathering around my table mid-afternoon. We certainly didn’t need to eat, but you know how it is, one may rarely have a gathering of any sort in our society without serving food, and it is fun! …so I did put out a few snacks, and tea things and mugs.

We were discussing The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. A couple of the younger women had read it 20 years ago, and liked it then. But they have changed, and did not enjoy it much. None of us thought it was great, and I only read half, and won’t say more about it here. Next time we are reading Wounded by Love by Elder Porphyrios, picked from a half dozen suggestions of literary sustenance for our Lenten journey coming up in a few weeks.

Okay, now I’ve made my little report, and I hope I caught a ray of light somewhere in it. At least from the darling manzanita.

He made comely poems.

I was so sorry to hear a couple of weeks after the event that the poet Richard Wilbur had fallen asleep in death. It’s interesting to read about the ambivalence within the community of literary critics regarding his work throughout his career and now at his passing.

The New York Times quotes its own reviewer David Orr who mused that “Mr. Wilbur had ‘spent most of his career being alternately praised and condemned for the same three things’ — for his formal virtuosity; for his being, ‘depending on your preference, courtly or cautious, civilized or old-fashioned, reasonable or kind of dull’; and finally for his resisting a tendency in American poetry toward ‘conspicuous self-dramatization.’”

Might it be that one’s opinion about Wilbur’s poetry has something to do with whether you appreciate his perspective on things? If when you read his poems you find they quicken your own love for life and the cosmos? In another quote from the New York Times: “’I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,’ he said in an interview with The Paris Review, ‘that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.'” My favorite not-so-recent article on Wilbur draws attention to his Christian vision and is found in First Things.

Over the life of my blog many of Wilbur’s poems have shown up here — which you might find by putting his name in the search box on the right —  and I’ve been wanting to post his poem “Worlds” for a year or more now. I first read it when David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God was fresher in my mind, and I had some brilliant idea that linked the two philosophers… that thought has dimmed to the vanishing point. Now I offer the poem as a picture of two ways of looking at the world, represented by Alexander the Great and Isaac Newton. If Richard Wilbur imagined himself in this poem, I’m sure he would hope to be found serenely playing alongside Newton, another man of faith and great vision. May God grant him the Kingdom.

WORLDS

For Alexander there was no Far East,
because he thought the Asian continent
ended with India.
Free Cathay at least
did not contribute to his discontent.

But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more serene.
To him it seemed that he’d but played
With a few shells and pebbles on the shore
Of that profundity he had not made.

– Richard Wilbur

 

A Breath of Wings

This poem at albits seems to me to describe the ways of a butterfly better than anything I’ve ever read. I used the word capture instead of describe at first, but that word sounds too violent for what the poet has accomplished, in engaging respectfully with such an otherworldly and mysterious fellow creature.

Recently I listened to Antonio López talk about what it means to have a technological perspective on our world. He self-consciously follows the thought of George P. Grant in noting that just by being inhabitants of this culture we live in, we tend to absorb and display a somewhat fragmented and fragmenting attitude toward the people and things around us, failing to see them as whole beings, seeing everything as “piles of stuff” that we may use or manipulate or control at will. He wants us to see the connectedness of everything, and to respect the interiority of each creature, and “let be.”

Some have said that for a writer, “everything is material,” meaning, everything we see, whatever happens to us throughout our days, appears to us as something to write about, something we long to distill into words so that we can know it better and share it with other humans.

It occurs to me that to have this attitude as my first impulse may be an example of this less than fully human, technological perspective; I immediately impose my thoughts and presuppositions on the thing or person before me. But that habit works against my deeper and purer self. If I want to be fully present with the world, with the people and things in it, I need to restrain my mind’s impulsive and constant forming of sentences, at least long enough to let my heart meet the heart of the “other,” and know communion.

Perhaps that is what this poet was able to do when he met a butterfly. It would explain how he was able to catch, not just the first thoughts that came to mind, but this divine vision to share with us.

A BREATH OF WINGS

Walking out with the trash
I saw a butterfly flash by

In a wink and a bright splash
Of light. It made me wish

The yard were lined in rich
Leafy plants that might catch

Her eye in the search for a place
To settle. How could I guess

That she’d choose a blank wedge
Of sidewalk next to my garage

Where grey concrete met brick
And no perch seemed attractive

To a breath from delicate wings.
That’s how I saw her, as a trick

Of nature: two fans of gauze
Waving crazily in the evening air,

Nothing more, nothing else there
But color that seemed to disappear

As she lit. What remained was a stick
On the ground with a flat brown flag:

The wings had closed up tight.
Was she taking a nap, I thought,

Or holding her breath in fear
Of me standing there, a sag

In my face, the blank mind caught,
Transfixed in a magical nowhere

Between this–and the next–flight.

-Albert Salsich

I like the way the sentences sometimes don’t match the lines of the couplets exactly, so that the rhythm of the poem mimics the way a butterfly swoops and flutters, “waving crazily,” and then surprises you when it comes to an abrupt stop on a flower or a sidewalk. It is a good one to read aloud.

The beholding of a butterfly was a gift of grace to the poet, and through his labor of love I’ve been doubly blessed: Through this vicarious meeting I have an expanded appreciation of butterflies, and also the joy of encountering an uplifting poem. I’m afraid to say much more about all the words — I did once write on words for this insect — and the form of the poem because I will get carried away in enthusiastic speculation and wonder, and never make it outside to look at more butterflies.

I hope you all might see a butterfly today!

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