Wisdom Is Vain Without Divine Love

St. Bonaventure begins his treatise on the mind’s ascension to God by warning the reader that curiosity without a love for God is dangerous. The reader must approach this journey by the “exercise of the affections more than the instruction of the mind” (Prologue, The Journey of the Mind to God).

He continues,

Wherefore, it is to groans of prayer through Christ Crucified, in Whose blood we are cleansed from the filth of vices, that I first of all invite the reader. Otherwise he may come to think that mere reading will suffice without fervor, speculation without devotion, investigation without admiration, observation without exultation, industry without piety, knowledge without love, understanding without humility, study without divine grace, the mirror without divinely inspired wisdom” (Prologue).

Bonaventure puts this essential truth another way a few sentences later,

The mirror of the external world put before them is of little or no avail unless the mirror of our soul has been cleansed and polished” (Prologue).

This view of education is markedly different from our current data-transfer model. Bonaventure’s invitation to learning is far more attractive, more desirable–and much more human.

John Calvin’s Prayer for Learning

David Calhoun’s excellent Knowing God and Ourselves begins with a prayer for learning from John Calvin. I plan to incorporate it into my medieval humanities course next year:

O Lord, you who are the fountain of all wisdom and learning…illumine my understanding, which of itself is blind, so that it may grasp the teaching that will be given to me; please strengthen my memory to be able to remember well, dispose my heart to receive what is taught willingly and with due eagerness, so that the opportunity you present to me may not be lost because of my ingratitude.
To do this, please pour out your Holy Spirit on me, the Spirit of all intelligence, truth, judgment, prudence, and teaching.

Grant that I may direct my study to the true purpose, which is to know you in our Lord Jesus Christ, to have full confidence of salvation and life in your grace alone, and to serve you rightly and purely, according to your pleasure.

Hear me, merciful Father, by our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is little doubt that education’s unofficial currency is love. To be more precise, its mission is to educe a love of the world–the kind of love without which there could be no world at all.”

Robert Pogue Harrison
Juvenescence (University of Chicago Press, 2016), 132

The constant, obvious flattery, contrary to all evidence, of the people around him had brought him to the point that he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer conformed his actions and words to reality, logic, or even simple common sense, but was fully convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and inconsistent with each other, became sensible, just, and consistent with each other only because he gave them.”

Leo Tolstoy
Hadji Murat (New York: Vintage Classics, 2009), 70

Further the Flight in Me

It’s Easter, the Sunday of Sundays, and I bring you a George Herbert poem for meditation. The form and simplistic style of “Easter Wings” can encourage a quick reading, but don’t make this mistake. Herbert packs a lot of imagery and theology into this tiny package.

Easter Wings
by George Herbert

My tender age in sorrow did begine:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

Structure

This poem is an example of shaped verse, where the image formed by the lines helped communicate the meaning of the poem. In this case, the lines look like wings (if you tip your screen or your head to the side) and also like an hourglass, and both flight and time are important themes.

Further, the two stanzas parallel each other in their movement: the first stanza discusses the plight and prayer of the poet, the second stanza extends these themes to all of mankind.

Notice also how Herbert uses structure within each stanza. The first half of each stanza discusses how sin diminishes one’s being, culminating in the short lines, “Most thinne” and “Most poore”. The second half of each stanza Herbert uses two bird metaphors to petition Christ to restore our being, and the lines consequently grow in length.

Metaphors

The bird metaphors in this poem require some explanation. At the end of the first stanza, Herbert prays, “if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me” (ll. 19-20). The verb “to imp” refers to the falconry practice of ingrafting flight feathers from one bird into the wing of another to help it fly better. This metaphor helps illustrate what Paul means when he talks about Christ’s life becoming ours.

The bird metaphor in the second stanza mentions larks singing. The skylark Herbert has in mind sings as it spirals up into the air beyond the reach of unaided sight. Herbert uses this image to describe what decayed and shrunken mankind can do because of what Christ has done on Easter.

On your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever you will. You order us to practice continence. A certain writer tells us, ‘I knew that no one can be continent except by God’s gift, and that it is already a mark of wisdom to recognize whose gift this is’ (Wisdom 8:21). By continence the scattered elements of the self are collected and brought back into the unity from which we have slid away into dispersion; for anyone who loves something else along with you, but does not love it for your sake, loves you less. O Love, ever burning, never extinguished, O Charity, my God, set me on fire! You command continence: give what you command, and then command whatever you will” (X.40, emphasis added).

St. Augustine
Confessions (New City Press), 263

Baptism and the Recovery of Christian Literature

In his new book Heavenly Participation, Hans Boersma argues that the natural and supernatural are not separated but interwoven realities, like threads in a tapestry.

This means that a flourishing Christian life requires cultivating an ability to see how the natural world participates in heavenly realities. Boersma quotes theologian Alexander Schmemann to make an interesting point about how the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper help cultivate this vision:

Christ came not to replace ‘natural’ matter with some ‘supernatural’ and sacred matter, but to restore it and to fulfill it as the means of communication with God. The holy water in Baptism, the bread and wine in the Eucharist, stand for, i.e. represent the whole of creation, but creation as it will be at the end, when it will be consummated in God, when He will fill all things with Himself” (Of Water and the Spirit, 49).

In other words, these two special sacraments of the Church teach us to see every created thing in a sacramental way.

Thus are the church’s sacraments simply the beginning of the cosmic restoration. The entire cosmos is meant to serve as a sacrament:  a material gift from God in and through which we enter into the joy of his heavenly participation” (Boersma, loc. 154).

I’ve just started Boersma’s book, but I’ve already seen a lot of resonances with C.S. Lewis and Augustine (both of whom Boersma has discussed). These quotes above remind me of how fairy tales can also reenchant our vision of the everyday world. Poetry and literature in the hands of the right author do the same thing.

Literary history makes the case that a “sacramental imagination” is essential to the Christian poetic. Seeing every created thing as itself and also pointing to deeper realities beyond itself is a poetic vision common to many of the greatest Christian authors.

Dante and George Herbert certainly had it. Gerard Manley Hopkins had it (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”). C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien saw the world this way, as did Flannery O’Connor. Even T.S. Eliot had this vision, though mostly as a photo negative (he lamented the absence of transcendence in the modern world) until he wrote The Four Quartets.

I’ve just begun Boersma’s book, but I’m already certain that it has profound implications for Christian poetics, arts, education, and parenting.

Living the Incarnation

It really is sad that Christmas comes only once a year. This holiday reminds us of many things we need to remember every day. First and foremost, Christmas reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation, an event that theologians and poets have struggled to describe.

The Incarnation is God becoming man, the Son of God taking on flesh to dwell among us. It is the Eternal Word becoming a wordless infant; the Infinite, Limitless, Unbounded Creator became an baby in a feed trough. It is the All-Powerful Creator who set the stars spinning through space, became powerless to control the movement of his own arms.

hands

Incarnation is a mystery in the ancient sense of the word: it is something we cannot fully understand, yet it shines bright light on the world. It teaches us how to look not just at Jesus, but also at each other and at all material things in this world. And this lesson is important because it can also keep us from making two grave mistakes–two Incarnational errors.