Lent, Day 28: A Reflection on Language and Grace

This morning I found myself watching some documentary in which Shakespeare and especially Shakespeare’s History Plays were being considered.  As I watched, I was aware, as I always am, in reading or hearing Shakespeare, just how masterful Shakespeare’s use of language is.  But Shakespeare is not just some huckster, pushing a particular idea or view by casting it into beautiful language.  He is a philosopher of language.  He takes words and uses them in new ways (the example I always record is “But me no buts” from Hamlet, where he takes a conjunction, “but,” and uses it as a verb — but he does this all the time using verbs as nouns, nouns as verbs and the like).  In doing that, not only does he show himself a master of language, but shows, in his play, the very malleability of language.  In beautiful and poetic language, he demonstrates that language is not fixed, as we can always use it in new and creative ways, and because language cannot be nailed down, it cannot “define” any eternal verities.

And the fact of the changeability of language is a cause of wonder for me.  I’m just amazed whenever anyone uses language in some creative way, playing with language to suggest new possibilities.

For me, this masterful use of language by someone like Shakespeare (or Bernard of Clairvaux, a man who was considered a master of Latin style in his day, whence his nickname, Doctor Mellifluus. — the mellifluous or honey-tongued doctor) is maybe even more significant in that I think there is little we can “know” outside the realm of language.  There is a truth beyond language — certainly the truths of ecstasy and of agony, where we are reduced to a series of interjections, are something beyond language.  But the world we know we know and express through language, and language tends to color the world we see.  In his book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum describes the wonderful green color of the emerald city, but that color is entirely due to the spectacles given to those who enter the city.  It is the green glass of the spectacles that make the Emerald City green, not the city itself.  I think language can have that effect as well.  For Bernard of Clairvaux, much of physical desire is cast in terms of sin, so that, instead of experiencing sexual pleasure, or the pleasures of the palate, Bernard is likely to condemn them as leading one astray.  It is language, with its binary nature, that leads Bernard and other Catholic writers of late antiquity and the Middle Ages to equate the mind and soul with the good, and the body with the base or bad, and so asceticism is good, but sexual or other pleasures are bad (suspicious at least).

But when poets are at their best, and Shakespeare is a poet at his best, language becomes a way to celebrate language itself, and by playing with it, demonstrate both its limitations and suggest something more than the words alone can say.  Shakespeare’s history plays are a good example of his use of language and how he uses language to suggest something else, something more.  They are largely based on Hollinshed’s Chronicles, and in some cases — the scene between the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry over the legal justification for his war with France — Shakespeare lifts whole lines and passages from Hollinshed, but in others, he takes great liberties to comment on the historical record as well as open up broader issues (what makes a ruler?  the ability to command (Henry IV and Henry V have that), or divine right of kings (which Richard II has on his side, despite his poor qualifications as a ruler);  what does it mean to be a good man or a good son?).

In his very use of language, Shakespeare demonstrates a kind of grace — his verbal dexterity can entrance us.  But part of what makes it full of grace in another way is that it does not use that verbal dexterity like commercial peddlers do — to convince us to purchase a particular product (“he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me”) — but rather to raise questions, to expand the discussion and our views.  At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare has an actor, as “chorus,” come out and suggest that the author, by his words, should excite the imagination of the audience so that they can see the “vasty fields of France” in the small confines of the Globe Theatre.  And I guess that’s what I see in language, and what I want in language — something to excite passions, dreams, tears, laughs, and something to provoke thought.  And in doing so, language reflects something greater than itself, and that seems to me my path to grace.


Lent, Day 27, St. Bernard cont’d

Well, the next sections of selections from Bernard’s “Grace and Free Choice” didn’t have much for me to work with.  The chief point in these sections have to do with the fact that Free Choice is a given and cannot be lost ever.  The other two freedoms can be lost or their effect diminished by our making the wrong choices and sinning.  Bernard also emphasizes that those freedoms we have access to through grace and through the saving action of Jesus.

As a Unitarian I have trouble with the idea of savior — I don’t think there is only one way to enlightenment, or to “salvation.”  I do not believe that it is impossible for a Jewish person or one following the path of Islam or the Tao, or a Buddhist to attain enlightenment or come to something that might be called salvation.  The idea of God (or for me, the world or nature) as a backdrop always extending an invitation to us (what I see as “sanctifying grace”) must be open to all.  Otherwise it makes no sense.  For the religions we follow are often an accident of birth.  Born into a Muslim family, or Jewish family, or Buddhist family, one is likely to follow those paths.  Certainly my own Unitarianism, even as a Unitarian atheist (albeit one who likes religious metaphors which are often theist), is very much colored by my own Catholic upbringing, which makes me very sensitive to Lent, and to Lent as a time of reflection;  likewise, it leads me to look at the works of Catholic Saints, who still have a hold over me.  And the idea that one is punished for one’s upbringing seems misguided at best.

I do think that we can dull ourselves to whatever sense of joy and beauty seem to emanate from the world around us.  We can harden our hearts and look at the world as a battlefield where we must be soldiers and fight, or die.  And that would be the wrong path, but that is not an path I would want to follow.


Lent, Day 26, Digression on St. Therese of Lisieux

I just finished watching Therese: the Story of St. Therese of Lisieux (2004), dir. by Leonardo Defilipis.  It was an OK film, though I very much miss the austere beauty of the minimalist treatment of this story done in 1986 by Alan Cavalier.  That French version is quite beautiful in its simplicity, and that austere simplicity resonates with the story of Therese herself.  Therese Martin entered the Carmelite monastery at age 15, having obtained special permission to do so.  All of her sisters became nuns as well.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.  She is associated with the “little way,” a path to the holy through small matters, and small disciplines, and small favors done for others.  If Therese has one virtue that might be considered her cardinal virtue, it would be humility, which I find quite appealing.

I found myself most moved by this more recent film by the austere simplicity of the rooms in which the convent scenes were shot.  There was a Spartan plainness that I found quite appealing.  As I watched the film, I did find myself thinking of what Therese’s path seems especially aimed at — union with the divine.  We know the world, to a large extent, because our senses and the narrative into which we have grown up, presents the world beyond as an object for study.  We can even look at ourselves from the outside, or seem able to do so.  And science presents that way of approaching the world as the way of knowing.  But that way tends to wear one down.  There is another urging in our souls to become one with the world beyond, to let divisions slip away.  In my Catholic background, this is the way of mysticism.  But those moments of insight into union don’t last.  We are pulled back into thinking about our separateness, one from another, and one from the world.  And for those believing in a deity, they feel a profound separateness from the deity, and that feeling leads to a great sadness and even terror.  In this film, that feeling of separateness occurs a few time, and the actress, Lindsay Younce, did a fine job of showing the terror and crippling doubt in the young novice.

I don’t recall that feeling in the earlier film.  What I mainly recall is that Therese in the 1986 film looked on her relationship with Christ as that of a young girl and her beloved.  And I recall a scene in which she confides to another sister that, when she senses something like absence, she reflects on  how she might again attract the attention of her beloved.  That scene in the 1986 film had a sweetness about it that moves me even now, almost 30 years later (I only saw the film the one time).  I guess what moved me about that is the sense of reciprocal relation between Therese and God, or what I might see as a reciprocal relation with the world.  I am part of the world and so I affect it as it affects me.  At the same time, I find myself sometimes caught up in my own reveries and thoughts, caught up in my head, and aware only of separation (sometimes even yearning for loneliness).  But when I am in my best place, I find myself hearing the music around me, or seeing the wonder of things, and rejoicing in them;  and when things are not so rosy (times of pain or sorrow), at my best, I find myself hearing a different kind of music and taking on that pain and sorrow, as if in a dance, a slow and mournful dance, indeed.  It may be this idea of humbling taking up one’s place in the world, not looking to greatness (egoism writ large) but rather doing good for its own sake, and working together with the world.


Lent, Day 24 (Happy St. Patrick’s Day), and Bernard on Sin

The next selection from Bernard of Clairvaux’ “Grace and Free Choice” looks at sin.  It points out that the first freedom, that of choice, which is innate in us, and which is always ours, no matter the choices we make, is what led us to lose the other two freedoms, at least initially. In this, he is alluding, though he is not explicit, to the Fall, to the choice of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge.  That story, from Genesis, is always a bit troubling.  For, in a sense, the fall of Adam and Eve is the fall into language, the fall into consciousness.  Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve did not have to worry.  Everything was taken care of.  But that story is fantasy — it is looking at life as a child does.  And there is wonder in a child’s eyes, wonder that I hope never fully fades, but children don’t have responsibilities to the extent that adults do.  And, as we grow up, we have to weigh options.  We cannot simply do as we will.  One might say that we must learn how to live right.  Some would say that children know this naturally, but children are often cruel to others, as they don’t take into account other’s feelings.

Language is binary and so the world is divided, black/white male/female good/bad day/night and so on.  The reality of the world is not so easily divided into binary pairs, and we do a disservice to the complexity of the world in seeing things in black and white terms.  Seeing things that way also leads us into favoring one (male) over another (female) or one race over another, and that is wrong and hurtful.  But language also helps us get a handle on the world and to consider ideas.  It is language itself that makes it possible for St. Bernard to talk to us, even today.  And it was language that enabled Bernard to wrestle with theological ideas, to contemplate them, and to communicate them. We may use language to hurt others, but also to help and to heal.  And the beauty of language, its rhythms and sonority, is joyous.  We love Shakespeare not just for his big ideas, but for that wonderful play of language in his works.

I think that Bernard might say that my view of language and poetry has something idolatrous about it, but Bernard himself got the title of “mellifluus doctor” — the “honey-flowing doctor”  — because of his own beautiful language.  I think I may agree that we cannot save ourselves by ourselves, but we can use tools, like language, as a way of creating or invoking joy.  We can use words to create prayer, which can summon reverence and wonder into our lives.  Even if there is no personal god, it is possible to see the divine and describe it (in some limited way) through language.  And so, the language of Genesis, in which the story of the Fall is told, is itself a result of that fall.  In a sense, the fall into language and consciousness are what enable us to think big thoughts and to put them into language and share them, and play with them, and argue them.

I’m well aware of the harm that language can do.  Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can really hurt you.  The Auditor of Missouri appears to have committed suicide in part because of a vicious smearing campaign against him.  But words can also be used to do battle for the good.  We each have language we can use.  But we have to be careful about language — it’s a powerful tool, but should not be used to hurt others.  Just like anything else we may do, we have a responsibility to use our gifts responsibly.

At any rate, I choose not to bewail the fall into language and the fall into consciousness.  It is part of being human.  With it comes an awareness of mortality, and of sickness, which can be pretty scary.  But it also allows us to dream and to create and cast our own magic spells.  And these are great things, and beautiful, and wonderful, and full of grace.


Lent, Day 23, back to Bernard on Grace

Well, I really fell down on the job (well, technically, it’s not my job) of keeping a Lenten blog last Friday and Saturday.  I should have posted but didn’t get around to it.  I thought of making it up, but have decided that I’m just going to plug ahead and not worry about missed opportunities.

In the selection from “Grace and Free Choice,” 19, Bernard makes an interesting statement:

“To will, indeed, lies in our power as a result of free choice but not to carry out what we will.” 

His point is that we all, as humans, have free choice, but that does not mean that we, on our own, will always choose wisely. For Bernard, this is where grace comes in.  Grace, the free flowing sanctifying grace, that’s always in the air, whether we notice it or not, helps us to choose the better course, but we can always choose the worse course, either out of fear, or greed, or some other sinful urging. 

Though I don’t accept some free flowing grace from a creator or a savior, I think that being aware of the blessings of the world do help us make better choices, more in keeping with love than hate.  We can choose to see the world as a battlefield and life as a battle, or we can choose to see it as a garden or some field of opportunities of which we can avail ourselves.

He also says that when we sin, it is our fault, but when we do not sin, it is due to God’s grace.  Though I think nothing we do is entirely due to our own efforts, and so our saying yes to life and its blessings, which we may be encouraged to do by the environment itself, redounds somewhat to our credit.  Likewise, when we fall, I don’t think it can be laid entirely on our doorstep.  Conditions and environment have an effect on us.  That said, it is best if we take responsibility for times when we mess up, and if we take responsibilities to say yes to life and love.


Lent, Day 20 — 1/2 way point — a digression on “Doctor Mellifluus”

In 1953, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on the 800th anniversary of the canonization of Bernard of Clairvaux in the pontiicate of Alexander III.  In reading over the encyclical quickly, I noticed that Pius made some use of the idea of grace, that Bernard had natural gifts, but was also blessed by grace.  For me, another way of looking at it would be that he had natural gifts, but he also rose to the challenges of his time, and he rose to the challenge of composing compelling and beautiful prose in imparting his ideas.

There is a sense that Bernard could not have done it alone — we do nothing alone, but in the context of our times and with the help of our friends and the world around us, or by interacting with a challenging world and keeping faith with ourselves and others.

I also noticed that he kept coming back to the idea of Bernard threading his path through and past the empty rhetoric of others.  I’m guessing that Peter Abelard is part of that “empty rhetoric.”  I don’t know enough about Abelard to make a judgment, but in our own day, we have people who use language not to enlighten and inform, but to obfuscate and make things cloudy.  Look at the way legislation meant to harm a given group is presented as some sort of blessing, or how advertisers use language to cloud the issue and get the attention and money of suckers.  From the bit of Bernard that I read, I detect that he had a clean style, and one aimed at trying to get to the point.  And in the late Middle Ages that may very well have been unusual and special.

Language and its use remains fascinating to me.  I’m easily transfixed by people who use language well and aim (and often miss) to use language so myself.  But it is important that language not be aimed at confounding and confusing, but be of use in the world.  Bird song is lovely, but it has a purpose too.  And so should our use of language.  It should be graceful and gracefilled and work towards enlightening — the writer and his/her audience both.


Lent, Day 19, Bernard on “the Joy of Contemplation”

Today’s passage, from Bernard’s essay on “Grace and Free Will,” section 15, is very short.

The summary in a nutshell — very few people arrive at a true freedom from sorrow and freedom of pleasure, and then only briefly and rarely.  Bernard suggests that the contemplatives are best suited to this experience.  He says, “[O]n this earth, contemplatives alone can in some way enjoy freedom of pleasure, though only in part, in a sufficiently modest part, and on very rare occasions.”

This can be said of moments of revelation, of glimpses of eternity.  This is the sort of thing that happens when you experience flow, when you’re in the zone.  I think that contemplation or meditation can help facilitate this connection to the wider world, what I would call a glimpse of eternity (eternity not being the same as forever and ever, but a moment of insight and oneness).  But I think it is possible at almost any point.  I would say that being open to the possibility of such moments of insight and connection makes it more likely they will occur.  People who try to hard to achieve this probably miss it because they are so caught up in trying to get it, and that very fixation gets in the way.  But believing that such experience is possible and being open to such experience puts us on some sort of heightened awareness, and that very awareness makes us sensitive to such experience when it comes. But those moments are brief.  But so is the life of a rose, and lots of things we love.  It seems ungenerous of us not to be grateful for these brief moments — when they come, they are truly wonderful, and for me, that is enough.  For Bernard, these brief moments are signs of a long term future glory in heaven.  I have no such belief.  I think those moments are their own reward, and that readiness to feel is key to have the experience.


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