This morning I attended the lovely Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week, cherished because it uniquely expresses the “bright sadness” of our preparations for the joy and victory of Pascha. In my parish we are able to hold these penitential services early in the morning, at a time when people might be able to attend before going to work. Even on my drive to church I felt the grace of the clear sky, a pre-dawn blue, with a friendly gibbous moon shining down on me.
Eight years ago after attending this very service I wrote a blog post about laziness, standing up straight, and what it means to be human. Whew! I feel a bit lazier of mind these days, so that I am amazed at all I learned from Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead and from just one chapter of Leon Kass’s book The Hungry Soul. I do often still remember the gist of the lesson, mostly when I am standing in church. If you don’t remember it well, I urge you to read it.
The article focuses on being physically upright, which helps us to be alert and attentive, ultimately to God and His will. It’s not hard to get distracted even in church, but at least we have in the Orthodox services many things to bring us back; for me it’s often necessary every minute or two, as I might simultaneously remember to put my shoulders back again and fix my gaze toward the altar. And especially during this week when we follow Christ to His voluntary sacrifice, our reverent attentiveness is facilitated by prostrating ourselves before God, which, though it is not upright posture, is the opposite of reclining in bed or watching whatever’s on TV.
When we are not in church, our Enemy probably has an easier time helping us to slouch away from Life, his methods so vividly portrayed in C.S. Lewis’s tale of correspondence between devils:
“You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep [your target] from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do…. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say… ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’”
One theme of Holy Week comes from Christ’s cursing of the barren fig tree, in the days just preceding his crucifixion. We exhort our own souls in the hymns of Bridegroom Matins:
Why art thou idle, my wretched soul? What useless cares cause thee to be lost in dreams? Why busy thyself with things that pass away? The last hour is at hand, and we shall be parted from all earthly things. Therefore, while there is time, rouse thyself and cry: “I have sinned before Thee, O my Savior! Do not cut me off like the barren fig tree!” In Thy compassion, O Christ, take pity on me who call out in fear:
“Let us not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ!”
Busying myself “with things that pass away”… yes… I mean, No! I don’t want to do that. Lord, help me to rouse myself!
After the service — I’ve also done this before and made a blog post out of it! — I walked around the church gardens and took pictures, with which I decorated this page. Wherever you are in your liturgical cycle or in your heart’s journey, I pray that your souls may flower and bear fruit after the manner of these beautiful blooms.
Since my first reading of Leon Kass on the subject of dinner parties, I’ve wanted to share my excitement via my blog, and also to use this enthusiasm to try to host the sort of event he writes about toward the end of The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature. That was many years ago, and since then I’ve read a similarly inspiring chapter in Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon.
But actually giving the kind of convivial feast these men describe is a project requiring scores of preparatory steps, none of which is simple to insert into my schedule, crowded as it already is with many entrenched patterns and habits of socializing, or resting after socializing. Until such time as I had participated at some level in a formal dinner party, all I would be able to do on my blog would be to copy passages from books.
That longstanding situation changed last month when I was surprised and delighted to be part of a dinner for eight, given by my goddaughter Sophia. Her labor of love fulfilled the vision I had been given in the books, such as this from Kass’s introduction to his chapter “From Eating to Dining,” on what can happen when the plans have been laid with care and the guests chosen and seated wisely:
“One could speak about freedom — the ever-increasing emancipation from the bonds of instinct and appetite and the progressive cultivation of self-command. One could speak about beautification — the adornment of self and surroundings, the grace of gesture and movement, the delight in taste and tastefulness. One could speak of friendship and love, beginning with the companionable sharing of bread and moving, through the appreciative sharing of speech, to the meeting and cherishing of souls. One could speak about the cultivation of the mind, beginning in speech liberated by the satisfaction of necessity and moving through playful conversation and wit in the direction of the pursuit of wisdom.”
Both authors emphasize that in praising the glories of formal dinners done right, they are not denigrating all the other more casual arrangements that can be blessed and sanctified by thankfulness and love. When I started to expound on this elevated form to one of my daughters she was quick to defend the value of the more humble sort of hospitality that our family has extended to hundreds of people over the decades, or the meals I have served to my husband and children. I said not to worry, this is something else.
In some ways the simple soup and bread served to one’s own family, or a feast given for those one goes into the highways and byways to find, expresses a more Christlike spirit. The many generous and delicious meals friends have bestowed on me over my life, especially when accompanied by true fellowship, lacked nothing in graciousness and satisfaction. But the formal dinner party brings together at once many elements that add up to a supreme joy in our common humanity, and a taste of that Supper of the Lamb that we will enjoy in the coming Kingdom. The party I attended, given by Sophia, definitely imparted that flavor.
The evening began with the House Blessing itself. In the days and weeks following Theophany it’s the custom in Orthodox churches for the priest to visit the parishioners’ homes with some of the water that has been blessed on the feast day, and to sprinkle it around in every room, as everyone present prays along with him and sings the hymns of Theophany from room to room.
So we had all started out by singing and praying together through the house, and then we came to the table and found our assigned places. I love to go to a party where someone has chosen my place for me, and this, along with the relatively small number of diners, was the first sign to me that it would be a good evening. Capon tells us that “assignment to place by name is the host’s announcement that he cares.”
Capon spends the first pages of his chapter telling us why cocktail parties are so unsatisfying. It may be that many of my readers are like me in rarely having been to a cocktail party, but I well know the feeling of being at other events that follow a model seemingly designed “to frustrate any real meeting of all concerned.” No host has taken you personally into consideration and thought about whom you might like to sit next to. This informal system fails “to provide each person with an assigned and proper place,” which prevents them from forming a company. Not enough care is taken with the guest list, and the guests are left to themselves, making for an impersonal atmosphere.
I know that I often go to parties with a sort of rescuer or missionary mentality, thinking that the best thing I can do is to find someone who looks even more alone or forlorn than I myself feel, and try to be friendly. Capon thinks the whole cocktail party effort is doomed to failure:
“Besides being inhuman, however, the exercise is unmerciful. Too much liquor too fast is only the half of it. What is just as bad is having to wander around like a lost soul while people spill drinks down your back and wipe dips on your front. We are homeless enough, without having to come in out of the cold to nothing better than a warm exile, followed by a cleaner’s bill.”
Obviously our own group, assembled by my friend, had the advantage of being a company from the outset. We sat down to find a short printed menu on our plates – short, but promising more than ample feasting – and soon we were drinking champagne and eating the lovely salad, and having lively though sober table conversation.
The bill of fare I have posted above for your enjoyment; our hostess had cooked everything except the bread herself. That mysterious fourth course was cheese, with jam she had made. And she did not have anyone helping her in the kitchen except one of our party who must have given most of his help early on. She made the whole operation look very doable, without appearing at all put out by her labors. On the contrary, she was purely happy to have us.
Capon calls the formal dinner party “a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls…It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight.”
Many of us have experienced a formal dinner party indirectly by reading Jane Austen or watching period movies or “Downton Abbey.” That doesn’t work for me, because we can’t enjoy the best parts of the experience, actually eating the food and having ourselves been cared for by the host. In these storybook events we can’t talk with our own real friends, but must instead participate vicariously in all the dramatic undercurrents of the fiction of which the dinner is a part.
So I’m for the revival of formal dinner parties given in our own homes, and not as a sort of historical reenactment. Each of us will practice this art in his unique way, customizing plans and expectations to accommodate his circumstances and particular ideals, perhaps opting for five courses as Sophia did, instead of the fourteen courses that Miss Manners says used to be common in some mythical time. If you are like me you will be required either to study up for a few years on the subject of wine or to settle for a much simpler offering in that department than what the dinner party pros can accomplish. But I agree with both Kass and Capon that wine is important.
You must choose your guests carefully. Capon reminds us that “To ask a man to break bread with you is to extend friendship, to proclaim in love that you want not his, but him….To invite guests is a courtesy, a courtly act: It confers greatness on all concerned, and therefore must never be done for mean reasons.” I think it is o.k. to have some quieter people in the group (Sophia had invited two little girls who were reserved.), but you must have a good number who know how to be convivial without talking too much. And you must think about how you seat them. I read one time that if you have two people who tend to dominate conversation, they may be restrained a bit by being seated side-by-side. That’s just an example of things that a good hostess thinks about. And if a group is larger than eight or ten, it is more likely that multiple conversations will spring up, which might divide the company and dilute the camaraderie.
Kass writes about the ideal dinner conversation, which “imitates the artfully prepared dinner. There is frequent change of course and topic. Each course in the meal is carefully prepared to look beautiful and to taste good, yet to be different from the rest. Conversation, too, will reflect that variety, yet each ‘course’ will please the palate of the mind. Because our interest is in both the speakers and the speeches, conversation enables us to taste, indeed to savor, the souls of our fellow diners — not their intimate private depths or their polished public personae, but that wonderful side of the soul at play, when it is unselfconsciously and immediately being its open, companionable, and responsive self.”
Along about the dessert course our host Sophia guided our dessert conversation by bringing out some books of poetry and prayers and asking us each to either read something from a book or to offer a story or song of our own, etc. Even the little girls could read, and did surprisingly well with 19th-century poetry. A humorous story was told about a grandpa, one read a Psalm, two of us sang scripture songs — we discovered that my goddaughter and I knew the same one that no one else had ever heard — and Pablo Neruda’s love poems were shared meaningfully. All of those offerings stimulated more conversation that truly did express the “tasty” souls of the guests.
Photos can’t very well express the rich texture of a small dinner party. Most of what you find online are of large wedding receptions or cluttered table decorations, or illustrations mocking these gatherings. I’m glad Leon Kass was able to find a work of art that I think does capture something of the sweetness of sharing such a meal, which is the one by Chabas above; I had to photograph the page in his book to share it here.
It looks as though the diners in that painting may be not only at the end of the table but at the end of their meal as well, and you will be relieved to know that I am at the end of my essay. My readers may wish that they had been spending this long while getting real nourishment for their souls instead of words about it. So I will quickly let Kass finish his paragraph and thought which I introduced at the beginning, because he sums up the highest ideal of the formal dinner party, and also describes the gift we guests received from Sophia that night:
“And one can speak also about piety and reverence, and the human impulse toward transcendence, beginning in awe and fear, and sometimes encouraged by wine, moving through feelings of gratitude and songs of praise in the direction of encountering the divine.”
In the Introduction to his book, Leon Kass writes of his purposes: “I hope to provide evidence that the modern corporealists — those who deprecate or deny the soul — and their modern rationalist or humanist opponents –those who deprecate or deny the body — are both mistaken, both about living nature and about man. I seek such evidence in an examination of eating.”
Here the author conveys an understanding of reality that is more in line with orthodox Christianity than that of many who profess Christ, for he sees that we are unified creatures; our bodies are essential to who we are, not just shells that we hope to escape. He even goes further than what I would assent to, stating that his meaning of “soul” is “primarily not a theological but a biological notion!” (Yes, he put that exclamation point there himself.)
You should know at the outset, however, that I use the term [soul] advisedly and without apology, even though I know that it will cause most scientists to snicker and many others knowingly to smile. These skeptics need to learn that it is only because they in fact have a soul that they are able to find such (or any) speech intelligible, amusing, or absurd. Indeed, only the ensouled — the animate, the animal — can even experience hunger, can know appetite, desire, longing.
It is not, then, only the scientists who are giving us only part of the picture, but also the teachers of humanities (I don’t want to call them humanists, as their vision is too stunted), whom Kass and his wife would call colleagues, as they both are themselves university professors in the humanities.
…the humanities have long been in retreat from the pursuit of wisdom. Analytical clarity, logical consistency, demystification, and refutation; source criticism, philology, and the explication of thinkers solely in terms of their historical and cultural contexts; and the devotion to theoretical dogmas – formerly romanticism and historicism, nowadays Marxism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, feminism, and many other “isms” – all these preoccupations keep humanists busy with everything but the pursuit of wisdom about our own humanity.
James Le Fanu
While I was in the middle of thinking about Kass’s book, I heard another writer on scientific topics interviewed on Mars Hill Audio. James Le Fanu is a physician and author whose book The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine won the Los Angeles Prize Book Award in 2001. He was speaking in the interview about his recent book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.
Le Fanu is also concerned about the reductionist and unsatisfying science that purports to tell us all there is to know. Before the notion of science appeared in the early 19th century the idea of the metaphysical was part of the common sense of mankind. Galileo and Newton and Kepler had an instinctive recognition that whatever science couldn’t explain, there was “something beyond.” Their study of Natural Philosophy was encompassed in the larger whole of the love of wisdom.
Nowadays, says Le Fanu, science is boring, and “to be a career scientist is to be in a very small hole,” as they are so specialized in their work, and in their education there is nothing like the older biology textbooks that were “full of awe and wonder and astonishment.” Le Fanu said that in the scientific journals he reads and in his talks with scientists, he has not noticed that any individual scientists are fully appreciating the mystery and glory of the human being.
But we assume that at least some of those scientists leave their holes each night and go home to prune the roses, eat a tasty dinner and play with their children, showing what Kass calls “the disquieting disjunction between the vibrant living world we live in and enjoy as human beings and the limited, artificial, lifeless, objectified, representation of that world we learn about from modern biology.”
As Kass is seeing the non-material aspects of our humanity demonstrated through the very material and natural activity of eating, so Le Fanu sees them revealed ever more obviously by the recent discoveries of science. Everything we learn seems to show how amazingly complex and unknowable by scientific study is “the most important part of the human experience…the nonmaterial thoughts and ideas and feelings and relationships..all the sorts of things we do the whole time….”
I loved listening to someone who is knowledgeable about the latest breakthroughs in the world of science talk about the “five cardinal mysteries” of the human experience. I ordered his book and have been relishing it on every level. Here is another man whose own soul is well-rounded and developed enough that he is a good writer, a practicing physician, and a person who can wonder at the Creation.
If we had a few more men like Kass and Le Fanu, true Natural Philosophers who don’t reduce life and reality to systems and ideologies, but who are willing to be open to that Something Beyond, the world would be a better place. Perhaps some of the upcoming homeschoolers who are getting a foundation in the kind of Poetic Knowledge that Charlotte Mason and James S. Taylor teach will have the ability to benefit from their scientific studies and to find them not boring but joyful.
The charming children we get to know in the recent documentary “Babies” are, at the end of the film, struggling to become toddlers, persons enjoying the upright posture that is a mark of homo erectus. They don’t even think about it, because it seems to be a given that children want very much to stand up and walk.
That is, unless you are Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead, who lives in an electric house that does everything for him; Tommy can’t bring himself to get out of bed or even stand up without assistance. But his story is meant to teach any self-respecting child to be self-respecting, to be human, and not lazy. He is the hero of a children’s book I liked to read to our children.
In the chapter on “The Human Form,” in his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature, Leon Kass examines how the erect and forward-facing posture that distinguishes us from most of the animal world contributes to our outlook and coordinates with our calling to be lords of creation, as it were. He takes many of his foundational ideas on this subject from the neurologist-psychologist Erwin Straus, and from his essay titled “The Upright Posture.”
In my reviews I’m skipping around in the book, but I should explain that the first chapters make a case for the primacy of form. That is, all living beings are more than a collection of the same kinds of particles. Even though absolutely all our material is replaced during our lifetime, we retain the same recognizable form. And as this is a book about the human soul, the subject is next narrowed to the human form. From there the author goes on to discuss what humans do with these bodies.
The uprightness of our form is what I am trying to stick to in this post. I think of this a lot now, when I wake up in the mornings and am lying in bed for at least a few seconds. Rarely do I have to get up with an alarm clock, for which I am grateful. And at this time of my life no baby is demanding that I get up to feed her and no child will be late for school if I linger a bit. This morning when I woke I realized that God had answered my prayer to be wakened in time to go to Bridegroom Matins, so I hopped out of bed.
But it isn’t always so easy. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could keep that verve that children have, that makes them get up, or cry to be let out of their cribs, as soon as they wake up? It seems that God gives us a special grace, when we are new to the world, to work hard at standing before we know what work is.
Though upright posture characterizes the human species, each of us must struggle to attain it. Our birthright includes standing, but we cannot stand at birth. Feral children who have survived in the wild were not found upright but were able to become so. As with other distinctively human traits (speech, for example), human beings must work to make themselves do or become what nature prepares them to be or do. Upright posture is a human, and humanizing, accomplishment.
Kass quotes Straus:
Before reflection or self-reflection start, but as if they were a prelude to it, work makes its appearance within the realm of the elemental biological functions of man. In getting up, in reaching the upright posture, man must oppose the forces of gravity. It seems to be his nature to oppose nature in its impersonal, fundamental aspects with natural means. However, gravity is never fully overcome; upright posture always maintains its character of counteraction.
And Kass elaborates:
Effort does not cease with rising up; it is required to maintain our uprightness. Automatic regulation does not suffice; staying up takes continuous attention and activity, as well it should, inasmuch as our very existence is at stake. Awakeness is necessary for uprightness; uprightness is necessary for survival. Yet our standing in the world is always precarious; we are always in danger of falling. Our natural stance is, therefore, one of ‘resistance,’ of “withstanding,’ of becoming constant, stable.
It doesn’t get any easier, does it? As we get older and weaker, the temptation is to sit down more often. I notice that tendency in church, where in my tradition we stand during the services, which means for one or two hours at a time we stand. What better attitude could we take toward The Holy Con-substantial Life-Creating Trinity?
Yes, we can prostrate ourselves, and I know people who do that when their ailing backs prevent their standing in prayer. But I notice in the Bible that after people fall on their faces before messengers of God, they are told to stand up. The Psalms speak of standing in His presence, and in the New Testament we are told, “…having done all, to stand.”
Stand firm, stand in the gap, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord…The posture is both a metaphor for and a support to our efforts, the whole Christian life being a struggle against laziness, even to the point of, “Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest.” (Hebrews 4) Perhaps if I stand a little longer than is comfortable in church, or work a few more minutes at my household chores before sitting down, it will make me call out to God and ask for help to be the kind of person He wants.
And if I doubt my ability, let me remind myself, “You’ve been doing this your whole life, resisting gravity, walking this precarious walk against natural forces that want to pull you down. You can keep doing it, you can!” I will call to mind the words of T.S. Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” And not forgetting the difference between the metaphor and the reality, I’m only too aware that some people who are no longer able to stand with their bodies are standing in the gap for me.
As to lying in bed, for most of us it is a near necessity, though the saints’ lives testify that some of them avoided it like the plague. One wants to avoid the condition described in Proverbs 26, “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” I haven’t yet figured out how exactly it fits in without spoiling my thesis, but I have to mention my dear G.K. Chesterton’s delightful essay, “On Lying in Bed,” in which he cautions tongue-in-cheek against legalism and hypocrisy, mostly about how early one rises:
A man can get used to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to these possibilities of the heroic and the unexpected. I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.
This drawing of Lazy Tommy illustrates what happens after he is all dressed and fed, and the long afternoon stretches ahead of him with nothing to do but propel himself up the stairs — not walking, but crawling, it should be noted — but his bed is the attraction that gives him that much energy.
I like this picture, only because it shows that even Tommy is capable of struggling. Maybe we could think of him as a late bloomer, crawling when he should have learned to walk — but at least he is showing some spunk. At the end of the book he experiences enough discomfort resulting from an electrical outage and the failure of technology that he resolves to “turn over a new leaf.”
As I finish this post we are in Holy Week. All through Lent I wanted to write something about the wonderful midweek services that we have (and at which I hope to worship tonight), but it seemed to be beyond my ability to capture even a bit of the sweetness in words. One thing I love about them is that all the Psalms that are called Songs of Ascent are read at each service. And the last of those, Psalm 134, provides a fitting picture of our souls’ posture before our God.