Commonplace Book: May 2006 Archives

There are really two points to this post. The second is that radionics still exists and is practiced as medicine in some parts of the world. Most interesting. The first follows:

from A Far Cry From Kensington
Muriel Spark

At the time Abigail showed me her Box I was somewhat relieved to find it futile, because, as I pointed out, if the Box could do good it could also do evil. 'It stands to reason,'I said.

'Oh,' said Abigail de Mordell Staines-Knight, "how right you are. But don't let Ian hear you say so. To him it's impossible to do anything wrong with the Box. And in fact, it does nobody harm, let's face it.'

She was a really nice girl in spite of her name. I, too, didn't think you could do wrong with the Box, nor right with it, nor anything.

What I find interesting and worthy of further consideration here is that the ability to do good comes coupled with the ability to do evil. Moral neutrality is moral invisibility and perfect inviability. The only way something can have no moral content is if it is incapable of being used at all, and hence has no content period.

This is interesting to think about. The only object that is outside of moral questioning is the object that is utterly useless to anyone. That is not to say the objects themselves possess morality, but the morality stems from the use of them. If an object can be used and cause good, it stands to reason that it can be misused and cause evil. If an object has no use whatsoever, then it is truly neutral ground. For our present purposes the planet Venus is most likely a morally neutral object. The idea of Venus, however, may not be.

What is remarkable in the passage above is the way that Muriel Spark finds to put a very coherent, difficult, and perplexing question into an amusing scene. This trait, introducing moral complexity, is a key feature of Spark's novels and is one of the things that makes for such compelling reading. One is instructed or persuaded beyond the power of the events in the book alone. In a sense, it is the better part of art to be didactic. Once art has lost its ability to teach, it has lost its ability to mean and it becomes one more useless object. That isn't to say that art is completely encompassed by its didactic nature, but that the teaching element of art is ever-present in any true work of art. If nothing else, art teaches us to see anew. And in that sense Spark's novels are art.

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For one thing, you're probably tired of hearing about her and until I raise a great tide of readership, I shall simply have to continue to regale you with excerpts of her fine works. But for another, there's this:

from A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark

I had some savings and a small pension, so I had no need to find another job immediately. In the months between my abrupt departure from the Ullswater Press and Martin York's arrest I wasted my time with a sense of justified guilt. I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.

'Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest.'But no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest. About the time that the Ullswater Press folded up I recall reading a book about one of the martyred Elizabethan recusant priests. The author wrote, 'He was accused of lying, stealing, and even immorality.' I noted the quaint statement because although by immorality he meant sex as many people do, I had always thought that lying and stealing, no less, constituted immorality.

I think this character would have looked upon TSO's blog (at very least the title) with some great approval.

What is interesting here is that Spark has done something unusual for her works. The book is narrated in first person by a (so far) very likable narrator. This does not allow her the enormous distance she tends to keep from her characters. Nevertheless, this main character is cool, ironic, and sardonic--looking upon things as from a distance. She is among the more engaging characters in the opera so far.

I'll let you know how she gets on as the story continues. At very least expect a review within a week or so.

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Some Quotations

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On parents, found during research for the last post.

Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go. (Fred Rogers--Mr. Rogers)

Parents ... are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don’t fulfil the promise of their early years. (Anthony Powell)

Parents don’t make mistakes because they don’t care, but because they care so deeply. (T. Berry Brazleton)

Parents were invented to make children happy by giving them something to ignore. (Ogden Nash)

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Chesterton Cont.


And then you come upon passages like this :

from The Victorian Age in Literature

G.K. Chesterton

What the Brontës really brought into fiction was exactly what Carlyle brought into history; the blast of the mysticism of the North. They were of Irish blood settled on the windy heights of Yorkshire; in that country where Catholicism lingered latest, but in a superstitious form; where modern industrialism came earliest and was more superstitious still. The strong winds and sterile places, the old tyranny of barons and the new and blacker tyranny of manufacturers, has made and left that country a land of barbarians.

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Sacramental Love


from Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

"Listen, Otto, if I don't get back home to my wife and if you should see her again, then tell her that I talked of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here."

Magnificent--that the love of a man for his wife can outweigh the terrors of years in a concentration camp. (This was said toward the end of his time in Auschwitz.) That is the sacrament of matrimony--that everything takes on meaning and all that we face diminishes in the face of the love one person has for another in the presence of the Holy Spirit and of Christ.


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A View of Suffering and Joy


from Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.

It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys. Take as an example something that happened on our journey from Auschwitz to the camp affiliated with Dachau. We had all been afraid that our transport was heading for the Mauthausen camp. We became more and more tense as we approached a certain bridge over the Danube which the train would have to cross to reach Mauthausen, according to the statement of experience traveling companions. Those who have never seen anything similar cannot possibly imagine the dance of joy performed in the carriage by the prisoners when they saw that our transport was not crossing the bridge and was instead heading "only" for Dachau.

Suffering fills the available space. Nearly everyone has had that experience. Whatever cold we have now is the worst cold we have ever had. Whatever sorrow we are experiencing now is the worst sorrow we have ever or can ever endure.

What had never occurred to be is that joy is similar. The joy I feel at this moment is the greatest joy possible and so it is with all possible joy.

God lavishes His gifts in the extreme, not in the middle ground. God does not care for the lukewarm (witness His statement to Laodicea). So rejoice or suffer, but do it all in the fullness of what it is to God, for each is His will and gift for the moment.

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An Abbey in Its Time

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from The Abbess of Crewe
Muriel Spark

"In these days," the Abbess had said to her closest nuns, "we must form new monastic combines. The ages of the Father and of the Son are past. We have entered the age of the Holy Ghost. The wind bloweth where it listeth and it listeth most certainly on the Abbey of Crewe. I am a Benedictine with the Benedictines, a Jesuit with the Jesuits. I was elected Abbess and I stay the Abbess and I move as the Spirit moves me."

One wonders about what she might be talking. Surely we haven't ever encountered anyone who might declare to know more than revealed truth, one who insists that one's own way has been marked out specially by the Spirit so that what one wishes to do is exactly what the Spirit would have one do?

This is Muriel Spark at her most oblique and most perfect. And I will have to absorb the rest of the context to remark upon it with any acumen. But given this early off-the-blocks passage, I have high hopes for a most interesting novel.

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Nietzsche Quotation


I am no big fan of Nietzsche, but I stumbled across this as I was checking out the FLICKR site (believe it or not for work purposes--aggregated hierarchal schema). And I thought it insightful.

The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.

Possibly why moderation and temperance are Christian virtues. Or are they values? Either way, moderation and temperance tend to be important in Christian circles.

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Coupled with the thoughts that provoked the piece below, this really spoke to me this evening:

from a hymn by Fred Pratt Green

In the just reward of labor
God's will is done;
In the help we give our neighbor,
God's will is done;
In our world-wide task of caring
For the hungry and despairing,
In the harvests men are sharing,
God's will is done.

I don't know the proper attribution. If anyone does and will leave it for me, I'll correct this post. Thanks.

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Muriel Spark on Faith


or is it?

from The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark

Jane was suddenly overcome by a deep envy of Joanna, the source of which she could not locate exactly at that hour of her youth. The feeling was connected with an inner knowledge of Joanna's disinterestedness, her ability, a gift, to forget herself and her personality. Jane felt suddenly miserable, as one who has been cast out of Eden before realising that it had in fact been Eden. She recalled two ideas about Joanna that she had gathered from various observations made by Nicholas: that Joanna's enthusiasm for poetry was limited to one kind, and that Joanna was the slightest bit melancholy on the religious side; these thoughts failed to comfort Jane.

The Girls of Slender Means really does play to an ensemble class. While Jane and Nicholas do occupy a large portion of our attention, there are interludes of Joanna, Selina, Greggie, and others, so that no one voice seems to dominate the novel. And what Ms. Spark has to say about the life of faith comes through crystal clear in the persons of Joanna and Collie and in the excerpts of poetry included.

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John Drinkwater

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An Edwardian poet quoted in The Girls of Slender Means. This appealed to me.

Moonlit Apples
John Drinkwater

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn light.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no souund at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon,and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.

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The Secular Scripture

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from The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark

This became certain as Selina began to repeat, slowly and solemnly, the Two Sentences.

The Two Sentences were a simple morning and evening exercise prescribed by the Chief Instructress of the Poise Course which Selina had recently taken by correspondence, in twelve lessons for five guineas. The Poise Course believed strongly in auto-suggestion and had advised, for the maintenance of poise in the working woman, a repetition of the following two sentences twice a day:

Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.

Even Dorothy Markham stopped her chatter for a few seconds every morning at eight-thirty and evening at six-thirty, in respect for Selina's Sentences. All the top floor was respectful. It had cost five guineas.

Where faith and prayer are absent, something will rush in to fill the gap. Here, it is the seemingly innocent chant of self-confidence/self-esteem, that replaces, say, morning and evening prayer. But it isn't innocent because it is a prayer said to oneself, a chant designed to praise and adore the person within.

This is the form that all worship not outwardly directed takes. In fact, it seems to be the form that much outwardly directed worship takes as well. When one allows oneself to be carried away by distractions of one's own making: constant monitoring of the flow of Mass to be certain that no technical errors are made in the performance of the rubric, analysis of the lyrics of hymns to determine whether or not they are worthy of singing or truly give God praise, concern about the gestures or lack thereof made by one's neighbor, analysis of the homily to be certain that nothing heterodox has crept in, critiquing the voices of the readers as they perform their functions, and so forth, one is concerned primarily with oneself. This concern is expressed in the way of outward things, but the real message from all of this is, "I don't like the way things are going--they are not being done to my taste."

Self-worship creeps in in so many ways--the likes and dislikes that drive one this way or that, the little, seemingly meaningless "preferences" that fill up the worship service, flipping through the prayer book to find a new or different invitatory because one has prayed the old one to death, looking for a new song, a new psalm, a new translation, a new commentary. . . all things that relate to sensation and appetite transform the proper outward focus into a deliberate inner focus. One may as well be praying or chanting the Two Sentences.

Self-worship enters every time the attention is deflected from God to anything not God. And as with temptation, the mere deflection of thought is insufficient, it is the embrace of the distraction that marks self-worship.

I heard tell once of a priest in a parish who upon hearing an infant cry in the back of the Church stopped his homily and said, "Will you take that squalling infant out of here!" The person who told me the story had not been back to Church in twenty years. Nursing that offense is one form of self-worship. The offense itself was a form of self-worship. The error made being always to allow anything to come between oneself and God, and more particularly to allow anything not of charity to do so.

The possibilities of self-worship are endless and endlessly misleading. The reality of true worship, a single fine thread. Truly, "strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, wide is that path that leads to destruction." And each person chooses the way he or she will go.

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A True Gem


Here were no gaunt mistresses like Miss Gaunt, those many who had stalked past Miss Brodie in the corridors saying "good morning" with predestination in their smiles

--from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark.

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The Prime of The Prime


There is really no point in trying to excerpt anything from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; as truly wonderful as the film was, the book, as is often the case, excels it in every way. There is a tautness to the prose of the book, a tension that does not permit mere excerpting. As I was sharing a passage with my wife, I found what I wanted to share going on and on and on to the point where it would probably make for an excellent read-aloud for the two of us.

What is wonderful is both the sharp satire and the incisive view of the characters--the penetrating depth of observation that allows the writer to make a conclusion and carry the reader along without ever stating the conclusion. What is even more wonderful is that it is about the small-scale battles on the moral front that are fought every day--it is about the small choices and the little things that make a difference in a person and in destiny.

What is remarkable are the simple castoffs:

from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark

Rose Stanley believed her, but this was because she was indifferent. She was the least of all the Brodies set to be excited by Miss Brodie's love affairs, or by anyone else's sex. And it was always to be the same. Later, when she was famous for sex, her magnificently appealing qualities lay in the fact that she had no curiosity about sex at all. She never reflected upon it. As Miss Brodie was to say, she had instinct.

And yet these quick castoffs build into a picture of a character and of Miss Brodie herself.

The novel is narrated in and out of time and while the view seems to be omniscient, we gradually devolve upon one viewpoint character whose transformation from the Brodie days is quite significant in the impact of the story.

I'll write a bit more when I've finished the book, but I can see clearly why this book was a substantial advance in the reputation of Muriel Spark as a novelist. I had forgotten how well-formed it really is, how compelling, and how hilarious and serious.

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Charles Williams Quotation


from Descent into Hell

He went softly up, as the Jesuit priest had gone up those centuries earlier paying for a loftier cause by a longer catastrophe.

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A most profound and powerful book, perhaps the most important book by a psychologist in the twentieth Century (yes, I'm including Fraud, uh Freud.)

I was reminded of my desire to take it up again and at the end of his Preface, Rabbi Kushner gives me cause:

from Man's Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl

We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

And even though Frankl quotes Nietzsche approvingly, he earned the right, and by quoting, in some small part redeemed much of Nietzsche's awful thought--thus turning a cause of the Reich against the Reich.

This journey is harrowing, and it is even more harrowing because it could have been avoided and the author could have left and gone to America. But, to quote his own preface:

The question beset me: could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even to a so-called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie?. . . this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for "a hint from Heaven," as the phrase goes.

It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that the letter stood for one of the Commandments. I asked, "Which one is it?" He answered, "Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land. " At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land and to let the American Visa lapse.

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from the beginning of Tristram Shandy
Laurence Sterne

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—— Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,——I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and mis-carriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into; so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a halfpenny matter, - - away they go cluttering like hey-go-mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

There's a lot here beneath the comic bombast.

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Muriel Spark Strikes Again


While I don't find Aiding and Abetting as out-and-out funny as The Finishing School, there are moments.

from Aiding and Abetting
Muriel Spark

A young bespectacled lay brother bade them to wait a minute. Joe had telephoned in advance. Sure enough, Father Ambrose appeared as if by magic with his black habit floating wide around him. You could not see if he was thin or fat. He had the shape of a billowing pyramid with his small white-haired head at the apex as if some enemy had hoisted it there as a trophy of war. From under his habit protruded an enormous pair of dark-blue track shoes on which he lumbered towards them. As he careered along the cold cloister he read what was evidently his Office of the day; his lips moved; plainly, he didn't believe in wasting time and did believe in letting the world know it. When he came abreast of Lacey and Joe he snapped shut his book and beamed at them.

The story of Lord Lucan, a man who killed his nanny and attempted to murder his wife, who fled the scene and was reported being seen in various corners of the world thereafter, Aiding and Abetting is based on two true stories. The second is the story of a false stigmatic turned psychiatrist to whom Lucan comes to talk. Then there's the chase sequence. I'll fill you in when I've completed the entire work in the next day or so. Then it's on to a large number of Spark's books obtained from the local library. They're all VERY short, so they shouldn't take long to read at all.

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Reading Howard's wonderful Dove Descending, I am reminded of how much goes into the art of poetry--every ounce of the life of a poet, and all of the skill that goes into summoning words into living, meaningful, vibrant representations of what is in the poet's head. Eliot was one of the last to write truly meaningful "exterior" poetry. After him a seemingly endless parade of posturing, grinning, self-aggrandizing, self-destructive confessional poets who have as their wares only themselves and their numbingly wearing and wearying dreary dull lives. (Any life lived where the sole object of attention is that person in the mirror who hates me is not worthy of the word "life.") Eliot is one of the few with something important to say. And this is what I both love and hate about Eliot. Unfortunately, there are times when he is all too aware that he has something to say. And sometimes it shows.

But putting that aside for the moment. This morning opening up Howard I tripped over a passage that sent me back to the poem leading me to share with you this marvelous sentence.

"Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter."

It is literally dropped in from nowhere at the end of East Coker, and it is a magnificent and true observation. Love is only love when the self is out of the equation. That can only happen when here and now cease to matter. Howard makes the point a different way:

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

But what is this about love being most nearly itself when her and now cease to matter? Just that. The man in whom love has been perfected is at home in any place (here or there) and in any time (now or then). He has gone beyond the futility of nostalgia and wistfulness. He is as fully at peace under the lamplight as he was under the stars with his new beloved. No lamenting a lost youth for him. There is a time for this. It is appointed. The wise man of Ecclesiasitcus has already told us so.

(With that last sentence, I'm a little confused, perhaps because I don't know Ecclesiasticus the way I ought, but isn't it the wise man of Ecclesiastes who told us that "there was a time for every purpose under heaven?")

Selflessness allows the person to range freely and comfortably through time and space. No Billy Pilgrim here with the vertiginous careening through Trafalmadorian interference. Even unstuck in time, the person in whom love is perfected is not disoriented by where or when. Because the where and when is eternal. When love is perfected on participates fully in the life of God and thus partakes of eternity while here on Earth.

So once again, I encourage you all--all you fans of Flannery, you champions of Walker, you admirers of Waugh and friends of Spark; in short, all you who love and support Catholic literature--seek out Eliot's poem (you can find it on the web, if you don't care to embarrass yourself with pretentiousness in a library) and read it. And if it makes no sense, read it again. And if there still isn't an inkling, do Ignatius Press and Mr. Howard a favor and buy the book. You really will be glad you did.

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from Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
Fr. Thomas Dubay

An accurate synonym for conversion, as we are using the word here, would be transformation. Put simply conversion is a basic and marked improvement on the willing level of the human person. Even more pointedly, it is a fundamental change in our willed activities from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best. Anyone who is fully alive will find this a stimulating set of ideas. We can put the matter in still another way. Conversion is a change from vice to virtue: from deceit and lying to honesty and truth. . .gluttony to temperance. . . vanity to humility. . . lust to love. . . avarice to generosity. . . rage to patience. . . laziness to zeal. . . ugliness to beauty.

From the point of view of attention to and intimacy with God, supreme Beauty, supreme Delight, conversion includes a change from little or no prayer to a determined practice of christic meditation leading eventually to contemplative intimacy, "pondering the word day and night", lending to a sublime "gazing on the beauty of the Lord" with all its varying depths and intensities (PS 1:1-2; 27:4).

I love the works of Fr. Thomas Dubay. I have read most of them. Some take a good deal longer than others to internalize. It took me over a year to read and understand The Fire Within. I still have not completed, or even fully started The Evidentiary Power of Beauty. His writing is dense, sometimes difficult, but always fulfilling. So, too, it appears with this book. The passage noted above is one that I've read every day for the last week or so, trying to encompass all that is said here. The surface of it is clear enough. Conversion is the willing change of life for a better, more intimate relationship with God. But the real depths lie in the comparisons and in the things Dubay indicates may happen and in the underlying assumption that an increased intimacy with God will connect us with both with God and with a sense of beauty and wonder at His magnificence.

Significant to me is the last of the list of transformations--from ugliness to beauty. Now, this is an interesting point. By growing closer to God, ugliness will be transformed into beauty. Obviously Fr. Dubay is speaking of something other than mere physical appearance, because we know that God's intimates run the spectrum from the exquisite beauty of Rose of Lima and Elizabeth of the Trinity or Edith Stein, to St. Margaret of Castello. Physical beauty, while surely a gift from God, is not what Fr. Dubay is talking about here. So one assumes that he is speaking of a life imbued with beauty--with the ability to perceive the beauty that is God underlying all created things, and with a life that is lived beautifully--in union with Him. When we look objectively at the life of someone like Mother Teresa, we don't immediately say, "Oh, what a beautiful life." Our initial reactions may be more along the lines of, "What a heroic life," or "What a difficult life." But when we delve a little deeper, we break in upon sheer loveliness, a loveliness that was reflected in the person of this diminutive friend of the poor. She was not beautiful to look at in strictly aesthetic terms, but her loveliness was greater than that of her near contemporary in death, Princess Diana. Her life was a beautiful jewel in the slums of India.

As I continue to read this book, I shall probably return to this passage from time to time. It ignites all sorts of thoughts, and provokes all sorts of inspirations and influences. It serves as a road map and a clear sign marking out the territory. And Fr. Dubay has clearly made growth in sanctity a beautiful and desirable thing. While this is always a vague desire in the background, I sometimes think that it really a pretty boring preoccupation alongside, say, surfing or diving or parasailing. But the interesting point is that none of these things are in conflict with sanctity--only seemingly so. One can live a life completely devoted to God and still partake of the good things of the world--certainly not to excess and not to the point where it intrudes upon ministry; however, the licit goods are good for all. St. John of the Cross went for long walks through the country, enjoying the beauty that gave ample evidence of the glory and presence of God. Pursuit of holiness does not mean that the world is tossed away. Indeed, as the great saints show us, it often means a more authentic and more realistic involvement with all the goods of creation--a proper use, a proper ordering, and a proper caring for the things God has given to us.

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Wow, The Blogging Experience


. . .in a nutshell.

from Four Quartets: East Coker V
T.S. Eliot

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

It was the underlined section that first led me to post, but reading more carefully and more closely, it seemed that the remainder might also serve as comment on the blogosphere.

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from Four Quartets: "East Coker" III
T.S. Eliot

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

from Ascent of Mount Carmel I.13.11

St. John of the Cross

To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing,
To come to the knowledge of all
Desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
Desire to be nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something
You cease to cast yourself upon the all,
For to go from the all to the all
You must possess it without wanting anything.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its rest,
for when it covets nothing
nothing raises it up and nothing weighs it down,
because it stands in the centre of its humility.

In the third division of East Coker, T.S. Eliot embarks upon the journey into dark. At first this journey is equated with death, "O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark," is the first line of the section. He then goes through a litany of who "they all" are and the fact that they all go into the dark. He seems to make the point that the dark comes upon everyone whether or not they are prepared to enter it. Then, at the end of the section, Eliot segues to a different dark, another kind of death--the death, while yet willing, of the self and selfishness, which can only proceed along the dark way, the via negativa the "dark night of the soul." It is a dark night because cherished false images of self must die in the light of God Himself. Indeed, the light of God Himself is so light that it appear dark to those ill-equipped to receive it.

Death to self is not death of self. To travel to God in this life, one must die to self, to selfishness, to self-involvement, to all the illusions and images of oneself that have become so cherished. One must consent to being stripped down to the barest nothingness and reconstructed in God's image. This is terrifying, at least in the abstract. But when one stops to consider that nearly everyone experiences this to one degree or another without tremendous instantaneous repercussions, it becomes less terrifying and more inviting. Children are taught by the parents from very early on not to be selfish and self centered. They are constantly reminded "please, thank you, excuse me." They are constantly told, although not in so many words, to die to self.

When a person behaves in "conventional" ways, following the rules of courtesy or etiquette, that person dies to self a little. It isn't a major, earth-shaking trauma, but a small turning away from serving oneself and toward serving another. When one gives place, willingly or unwillingly to another, one dies to self--sometimes reluctantly and bitterly, engendering rage and a desire for vengeance. Sometimes willingly, engendering love and charity.

The death to self must be complete to continue on the path to God. These many small things add up, but each person is asked for more. Each person is asked, in fact, for everything. But most of the time they are not asked for every at once. It is a slow growth, a gentle path, as yet winding through the foothills that lead up to Mount Carmel. The steep ascent is another matter entirely, and there must be a certain amount of shedding of self that occurs before one can set foot on the mountain proper.

But everyone is called, and in this life or the next, all will Ascend through the darkness of the weight of self into the light of the Father. This is what purgatory and heaven are all about--shedding self to become God while remaining distinctly who one is in Him. Salvation--to be who one is without shame; to shine always with His light. But the path of salvation is dark because people tend to love themselves almost to the exclusion of everything else. So it is through darkness that we arrive at light, although as we travel, God's light is all around--so brilliant one calls it darkness.

Later: One is lead to wonder as well whether the first lines of this section of East Coker are not meant to hearken back to a previous poet. Tennyson seems to be referred to, particularly with reference to this poem:

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

But following the rule of three, one would have to find other correspondences before anything so bold could be asserted. Notes for a future consideration of the two.

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