… we grapple with this ‘law of sin’ (Romans 8:2) and expel it from our body, establishing in its place the surveillance of the intellect. Through this surveillance we prescribe what is fitting for every faculty of the soul and every member of the body. For the senses we prescribe what they should take into account and to what extent they should do so, and this exercise of the spiritual law is called self-control.
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.
Thanks to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for introducing me to this poem.
(said Mr Homegrown)
Nearly every day Raj and I spend quite a bit of time on the balcony of the 13th-floor apartment where his family lives. It’s above a major intersection with a couple dozen lanes of traffic meeting and surging with cars, trucks and buses most of the day. To the east between the high-rises we can see a slice of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. When my grandson sees a jet take off he squeals; a few seconds later we see it emerge from behind tall buildings to the north, and much smaller to the eye. But he is still watching it.
Emergency vehicles sound their sirens in the neighborhood at least a couple of times every day, and sometimes we will hurry out and try to spot them. If not, we’re sure to see one or several of Raj’s favorite Metro buses waiting at a stop light just below. We’ve shared the delights of cement mixers, dump trucks, car transports and motorcycles. Once it was three police cars in a line, lights flashing. On the balcony itself is Daddy’s bicycle, a vehicle he can even put his hands on, and examine small parts like wheel, reflector and pedals.
All of that transportation stuff would be exciting enough for a toddler, but there are a surprising number of experiences of flora and fauna as well. Pigeons and sparrows land on the rail. Spiders spin webs during the night and in the morning the birds swoop down and eat the spiders. One day we watched a slender and elegant fly as it crawled along the edge of the balcony for several feet, and as it made a left turn to cross the span and continue up the wall of the building. We watched it go all the way to the top of a window and disappear into a crack, and Raj waved good-bye. Then it came out of the crack again! He never lost his focus on that creature until it vanished again for good.
Raj doesn’t talk yet, but he uses many signs to communicate; some of these are standard sign language that many parents nowadays teach their babies, and others he has invented himself. By signs he can say “please,” “thank you,” “more,” “all done,” “Daddy,” “hot,” “cold,” “I like this food,” and at least several other things I can’t think of or that he doesn’t use as often. One experience he can indicate is of the wind.
Many times when we are looking over the balcony, a breeze will come up, and a few times when that happened I have mentioned it to him. One day we were standing at the railing in silent contemplation, punctuated by the occasional “Hmm!” from Raj that seems to be his comment on anything positive. This time, when the wind came up, he was the one who first noted it, by making sweeping, large and circular movements with his arms.
The balcony is the place to experience (and “talk” about) the heat of the metal wall at one end, when he runs the length of its patio and bangs on it with both little hands. There is an overhang above — perhaps the balcony of the next apartment up? — but not extending so far that one can’t stretch an arm into falling rain, or find very shallow puddles to splash in. Even with many high-rise buildings all around, the sky is huge and ever changing, often with clouds that are well worth talking about.
Our boy is never on the balcony without an adult companion, and from my first time out there with him we have enjoyed and refined our game of copy-cat. First, he would merely run full speed from one end to the other and back, and I would follow exactly. Raj added a certain arm-swing to his choreography, and the next day dance-y hops. Lately he likes to lead me in walking backward the whole way, sometimes stopping suddenly to line up our feet just-so, so that we can look at our toes side-by-side.
I’ve been impressed with the richness of this child’s life overall — full of stimulation and human warmth and at the same time very ordered and routine. Having a nanny to push you to the park almost every day is a boon, and currently several adults to make sure that you can eat and sleep at regular times even when there is a new baby in the house.
For a short time in his life, his days will include this simple balcony with no furniture typical of a patio area. His parents don’t want any items that he might learn to climb up on. Until this week when a larger plastic fire truck came into the household, no toys were allowed out there, because they could fall through the spaces or be thrown over the top.
For an even shorter time Raj has this grandma to play our particular balcony games with him. That space is simple and plain, and many adults not carrying a phone wouldn’t know what to do there. But it’s a fun playground where a toddler can exercise not only his short legs but his attention span. He can tune his senses to the life of the city and participate in a vast world.
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.