Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Male Religious Poets

An osprey hunting down a fresh catch last Sunday at Alki Beach, West Seattle.

An osprey hunting down a fresh catch last Sunday at Alki Beach, West Seattle.

The last installment of this blog broached Paul Elie’s claim that fiction has lost its faith. Elie’s attack seemed to limit itself (wisely?) to the novel. It’s possible he didn’t think poetry has lost its faith. My response also went against the grain of Rachel Held Evans and her claim that Christians must assimilate because they have fallen off the cliff of respectable mainstream intellectual culture.

Tracy's The Analogical Imagination is the best place to start for a theology of the literary arts.

Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination is the mandatory starting place for anyone who wants to reflect upon the theological implications of the literary arts. It’s a contemporary classic.

Paul Elie probably meant to exclude poetry from his accusations of faithlessness, because it took me several hours last night to whittle down the list of poets who write from within a religious imagination. Their confessional identities vary from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran, and several other denominations. You will find among them winners of the following awards: Nobel, Pulitzer, T.S. Eliot, several PEN Faulkner awards, and so on.

These are not obscure figures by any stretch of the imagination. In other words, the head ain’t rotting and the fish is fresh.

I’d like to give you a taste with some representative poems (or fragments) from each one of these writers. Tomorrow we’ll take up the novelists, who, as you’ll see, contrary to Elie’s claims, are legion.

By the way, most of these writers were previously featured in IMAGE Journal, which is consistently a top five American literary journal in terms of circulation.

Nota Bene: The links given with each poet’s name land upon their prose collections. The ones included with the name of the collections whose stunning pictures grace this post land upon these very poetry collections. Please remember to follow the unique links featured in this post.

"Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,  A feature for our regard; and will keep;  Of worldly purity the stained archetype."

“…Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,
A feature for our regard; and will keep;
Of worldly purity the stained archetype…”

Geoffrey Hill from the Broken Hierarchies

“In Piam Memoriam”

1

Created purely from glass the saint stands,
Exposing his gifted quite empty hands
Like a conjurer about to begin,
A righteous man begging of righteous men.

2

In the sun lily-and-gold-coloured,
Filtering the cruder light, he has endured,
A feature for our regard; and will keep;
Of worldly purity the stained archetype.
3

The scummed pond twitches. The great holly-tree,
Emptied and shut, blows clear of wasting snow,
The common, puddled substance: beneath,
Like a revealed mineral, a new earth.

“…Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”

Wendell Berry from the New Collected Poems

from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

…Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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“…For even the godless feel something in a church, / A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is? / A trembling unaccounted by their laws, / An ancient memory they can’t dismiss…”

Dana Gioia from Pity the Beautiful

from “The Angel With a Broken Wing”

…I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

 

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“…poor thing, one is tempted
to say, so transformed
by its contact with you
is everything–“

Franz Wright from God’s Silence

“Transformation”

It gets late early now
This is
when I like to visit
you at the top of your hidden
still green stairway, holy
Mother with the downcast
eyes as a girl of sixteen
almost unnoticed the right bare foot pinning
the serpent with the one-
leafed little apple in its jaws
poor thing, one is tempted
to say, so transformed
by its contact with you
is everything–

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“…Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.”

Adam Zagajewski from Without End

“Try To Praise The Mutilated World”

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

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“…Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition; / like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete / with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?…”

Les Murray from Learning Human

Poetry And Religion

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds – crested pigeon, rosella parrot –
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

9780374526788

“…The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open…

Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground

from “Clearances”

…In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in their whole life together.
‘You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?’
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened…

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“…these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.”

Scott Cairns from Compass of Affection“Possible Answers to Prayer”
Your petitions—though they continue to bear

just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

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Paul Mariani from Epitaphs for the Journey

“Quid Pro Quo”

Just after my wife’s miscarriage (her second
in four months), I was sitting in an empty
classroom exchanging notes with my friend,
a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed
glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was,
he surprised me by asking what I thought now
of God’s ways toward man. It was spring,

such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango
Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia
behind each blast of wind. Once more my poor wife
was in the local four-room hospital, recovering.
The sun was going down, the room’s pinewood panels
all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly,
I surprised not only myself but my colleague

by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant
on Vanni Fucci’s figs, shocking not only my friend
but in truth the gesture’s perpetrator too. I was 24,
and, in spite of having pored over the Confessions
& that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure
I’d seen enough of God’s erstwhile ways toward man.

That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky
shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking,
cedarscented cabin off Lake George, having lied
to the gentrified owner of the boys’ camp
that indeed I knew wilderness & lakes and could,
if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down
the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain

(I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents
at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying
not to disturb whosever headboard & waterglass
lie just beyond the paperthin partition at our feet.
In the great black Adirondack stillness, as we lay
there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out
through the broken roof into a sky that seemed

somehow to look back down on us, and in that place,
that holy place, she must have conceived again,
for nine months later in a New York hospital she
brought forth a son, a little buddha-bellied
rumplestiltskin runt of a man who burned
to face the sun, the fact of his being there
both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son,

this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst,
best, just last year, this same son, grown
to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow
everything he had to the same God I had had my own
erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?

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“…A feeling as if crowds drew through the streets / in blindness and anxiety on the way toward a miracle, / while I invisibly remained standing…”

Tomas Tranströmer from The Great Enigma

“Kyrie”

Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark.
A feeling as if crowds drew through the streets
in blindness and anxiety on the way toward a miracle,
while I invisibly remained standing.

As the child falls asleep in terror
listening to the heart’s heavy tread.
Slowly, slowly until morning puts its rays in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.

=======================

Eleison.

It was intellectually (I had to eliminate so many writers I love), physically (the whole process took a long time), and emotionally (since these poems hit so close to the heart) exhausting to select these poems. I hope you do enjoy them. May they spur you on to read more of these writers. Tomorrow we tackle the novelists!

The fist installment in this series was “A Fish Rots From the Head Down” and there is now one on living novelists here (quite a diverse bunch, wouldn’t you say?).

For other Cosmos The In Lost posts on poetry look here and throughout the blog.

Previous Top 10 lists from this blog can be found here.

Please consider donating some funds through the home page of this blog (upper right hand corner).

A True Opium for the People is a Belief in Nothingness After Death!

Hans Memling, Last Jugdment, stolen by pirates bought by the city of Gdansk, PL: Hell Ain't What it Used to Be

Hell ain’t what it used to be!  (Hans Memling, Last Judgment, stolen by pirates & bought by the city of Gdansk, Poland. YESSS.)

When was the last time any of you (who don’t attend fundamentalist churches) heard a good and theologically sound hellfire sermon? The last, no the only one, I’ve ever heard was in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here it is in its glorious entirety if you need a memory refresher (BE AFRAID!):

Over the last two centuries Hell has been banished from the Catholic imagination more effectively than Adam and Eve from Eden. I suppose the last blows came sometime during the long 19th century dominated by Napoleon, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach.

The infernal trenches of World War I gave hellfire a slight rebound. The whole messy experience cast hell from oblivion back into our world, but not the underworld. It became a truism to say that people not infrequently make hell on earth. The concentration camps and gulags of World War II firmly entrenched hell upon the face of the earth.

Now, to some extent, we also still half-heartedly believe that sin is its own punishment. But why can’t Hell be both the state after life and a state in this present life? I’m all for a Catholic both/and here.

Now, you might ask yourself, why is the author obsessing about hell? Reading the headlines has left me in a bit of a foul mood. Consider what the AP recently said about poverty in the United States:

“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

Four out of five is not a misprint as far as I know. It has unfortunately checked out on all the searches I’ve done so far. I’m still hoping it’s wrong, after all, this is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world. Then again, our family of five has always been well below the poverty line, so it’s a little comforting to know we’re not alone.

Then this picture showed up on my social media radar as if to drive the point home:

"A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death--the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged." --Czeslaw Milosz

“A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” –Czeslaw Milosz

I also happened to be reading (because who doesn’t read five things at time?) the book-length dialogue between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka entitled On Heaven and Earth. There the future Pope Francis forcefully reminds us of the close tie between authentic religion and social justice:

“Hence the [classical] liberal conception of religion being allowed only in places of worship, and the elimination of religion outside of it, is not convincing. There are actions that are consistently done in places of worship, like the adoration, praise and worship of God. But there are others that are done outside, like the entire social dimension of religion. It starts in a community encounter with God, who is near and walks with His people, and is developed over the course of one’s life with ethical, religious, and fraternal guidelines, among others. There is something that regulates the conduct of others: justice. I believe that one who worships God has, through that experience, a mandate of justice toward his brothers.”

One should not forget that the mandate toward social justice is solely a Judeo-Christian invention. The pay raises of Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, coupled with the poverty awaiting most of us, signal a return to the much more cruel gods of Graeco-Roman religion. Whether we like it or not, we can look forward to a massive, but unintentional, experiment in comparative religion. It’s unavoidable, since I don’t foresee CEOs suddenly having epiphanies like this one:

Finally, these perfidies of American betrayal and greed bring us to my dissertation topic (what else?), the poet Czeslaw Milosz. After you read a passage from one of his works below you will agree he also happened to have a finely-honed feel for theological reflection.  The following reflection, which comes from the section “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism” (props to Bunuel) in the collection Road-Side Dog, turns Marx upside down, or at least shakes up a well-known phrase of his real good.

“Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

It's a dog's life.

It’s a dog’s life.

You might object by saying that you can be a nice lad or lass (even point out Sweden as a sociological examplewithout the afterlife and the threat of judgment hanging over your head. But Sweet Viking Jesus would tell you otherwise. Swedish ethics are influenced by revelation through and through, as is the rest of the West, and everyone influenced by globalism, meaning… pretty much everyone.

What’s more, those who aren’t believers (Swedes aren’t the only ones. Jag är ledsen!), but hang on to the Christian ethic of protecting the weak and the victims, are probably the worst fideists of all!

They are embedded in something they can’t justify, something whose origins they’ve willfully obscured, but deep down they know that empty phrases about Gilgamesh, Odin, or Kant won’t get them anywhere.

So, given where the world is heading, our eviscerated public square, and who is at the helm… how about we pray that there’s a Hell?

There is a caveat: nobody gets a free pass.

The musical coda is a song from Bill Mallonee that first got me thinking seriously about these issues way back when.

Eternity in a Dunghill: Infinity & Perspective

Two spirits preside over the book: Alberti, the Renaissance author on art and architecture, whose passionate interest in perspective and point of view offers a key to modernity; and Nicolaus Cusanus, the fifteenth-century cardinal, whose work shows that such interest cannot be divorced from speculations on the infinity of God. The title Infinity and Perspective connects the two to each other and to the shape of modernity.

Publisher blurb: Two spirits preside over the book: Alberti, the Renaissance author on art and architecture, whose passionate interest in perspective and point of view offers a key to modernity; and Nicolaus Cusanus, the fifteenth-century cardinal, whose work shows that such interest cannot be divorced from speculations on the infinity of God. The title Infinity and Perspective connects the two to each other and to the shape of modernity.

You’ve no doubt encountered Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” It begins with:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I’ve stepped into a variation upon this theme. It appears in the remarkable work, Infinity and Perspective, by Karsten Harries (who seems to be a former student of Louis Dupre). Take in the full glory of my serendipity with this photo and caption tag-team :

" . . . God's creative power is fully present in every thing: even in the tree we were considering, even in a dunghill, God is fully present." --Karsten Harries

” . . . God’s creative power is fully present in every thing: even in the tree we were considering, even in a dunghill, God is fully present.” –Karsten Harries

In some ways this statement makes Timothy Treadwell’s nature mysticism more palatable and orthodox than it seemed when I first watched Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man (“It’s her life!”):

Now, Infinity and Pespective roots the origins of (post-)modernity and its critique in the thought of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). Harries notes how this is due to a shift in metaphor usage (one that encourages my mash-up above) that occurs in the writings of Cusanus (not Copernicus [Kopernik in the Polish original], not Galileo, not Bruno):

“But what about Cusanus’s transference of this metaphor [of an infinite sphere whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere] from God to the cosmos? I suspect that to Cusanus it seemed only obvious. As a Christian thinker he believed that everything created has its origin and measure in God. As he puts it in book 2, chapter 2 [of On Learned Ignorance] “every created thing is, as it were, a finite infinity or a created god” (II.2, p. 93). Our tree, for example, is such a finite infinity. Like every part of creation it shares, if Cusanus is right, in infinity. It is a contracted infinity.”

Clerics, always up to no good. I recently read one of them also invented the fax machine. Anathema sit!

Clerics: always up to no good. I recently read one of them also invented the fax machine. Anathema sit!

He continues:

“Similarly Cusanus understands the universe as such a finite infinite: like God in its infinity, unlike God in that instead of divine unity, we now have a multiplicity, a manifold spread out in space and time. If both oneness and difference are accepted, not only will the metaphor’s transference from God to the cosmos seem justified; but, since the metaphor joins extension and infinity, it can be said that it does greater justice to the cosmos than to God, who is beyond extension.”

How much more exciting is this than our heresy of the definite, bounded, and measurable?  It is exemplified by words frequently attributed to Robert F. Kennedy (Eternal rest grant unto him!), “What gets measured, matters.”

All in all, I’d like to return to the Orientalization of Poland as Catholiclandia sometime. I’ve already gestured toward my native realm’s “finite infinity” in posts here, and in the comments section of a post here. Might as well start the endless hermeneutic, probably tomorrow.

American Idol

Czeslaw-Milosz-Quotes-4

Sarcasm anyone?

That something went wrong with the post-conciliar Church is a truism of both left and right Catholics.  The right thinks it went too far and was too much “in the spirit of” anything goes.  For the left it didn’t go far enough, or wasn’t interpreted enough “in the spirit of” anything goes.  These debates are boring enough to drive away people in droves.  They merely reflect, bow down to, the dominant political trends of this nation.  The fact that former Catholics are the second largest religious group in the United States is both a sign of a post-Protestant America and a sign of American Catholicism’s inability to make much of its opening in the public square.

Doesn’t Catholicism have anything to offer in itself?

Czeslaw Milosz captures some of the reasons behind this abject failure:

And there was a holiday in Megalopolis.
Streets were closed to traffic, people walked in procession.
The statue of a god, slowly moved along:
A phallus four stories high
Surrounded by a crowd of priests and priestesses
Who tossed about in a whirling dance.
A service was also being celebrated in Christian churches
Where liturgy consisted of discussion
Under the guidance of a priest in Easter vestment
On whether we should believe in life after death,
Which the president then put to the vote . . .

The desperate attempt to be accepted also has its right-syncretist equivalent as a recent prayer distributed by the USCCB reminds us:

Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty

“O God our Creator,
from your provident hand we have received
our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You have called us as your people and given us
the right and the duty to worship you, the only true God,
and your Son, Jesus Christ.
Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.

We ask you to bless us
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be ‘one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

My reaction?

How the Church expects to survive by wrapping itself in the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge to the Flag is beyond me.  Which brings me to the following choke by the Diocese of Brooklyn:

Unfortunately not The Onion

Unfortunately not The Onion

This is not a bad joke, as documented by the Millennial blog.  In fact, such plagiarism is not new.  It dates to way back before Vatican II.  It is part of a long tradition, starting at least with John Courtney Murray, of bending the knee to the flag while breaking the back of Catholic universalism.

For example, do you remember this proud moment when American Catholics finally went mainstream?

Stephen L. Carter, in his God’s Name in Vain, documents what the statement, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all” really meant.

Kennedy was actually letting the electorate know he wasn’t going to follow the Vatican’s severe pressure on him to do more to fight racial segregation.

The context makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Sure, other countries do it, but here I’m talking exclusively about American idolatry and the American Church’s surrender.  American Catholics really shouldn’t allow themselves to be stuck with this (caution: foul language):

Perhaps one ought to pray for another declaration of independence?

 

The Blogs of Others: Beauty’s Vengeance

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm.  Be careful about what books you give to others.

My friend Anders liked these essays so much he now has a tattoo with the title on his arm. Be careful about what books you give to others.

As Adam Zagajewski advised in a poem I posted here.

. . . Only in the beauty created
by others is there consolation,
in the music of others and in others’ poems.
Only others save us .  .  .

The first bit of savings I would like to pass on comes from Sophie  Lippiatt’s blog “Something for a Rainy Day.”  It’s an entry entitled “Beauty.”  Here’s a sample:

“The instinct to pursue and perceive beauty in ourselves and other people (as well as in the world around us) is as natural, ancient, and positive an instinct as the earth itself. It helps us to empathise and connect with the outside world, and to promote justice and truth in freedom and love. Beauty, when understood in the limited and damaging sense that our culture currently understands it, is a dangerous and terrible thing that traps men and women into cycles of despair, eating disorders, and self abuse. It is a very good and noble thing to reject this and to try to change it, but I, for one, am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the fight against misconceptions and misrepresentations of beauty in the media by turning against beauty altogether. I believe that beauty is worth the fight. After all, beauty, when understood in its right and fullest sense, just might help to save the world.”

DSCN8986

One of my many pictures of Warsaw brutal.

Sophie’s thoughts about brutalizing architecture earlier in the post really struck a chord with me.  I did not grow up in the beautiful environs of Oxford.  I grew up around the brutalized architecture of postwar Warsaw, which could easily out-brutalize the most brutalized neighborhoods of Manchester.  To me Warsaw is the architectural equivalent of a botched abortion.  I like to think of myself as not-so-secretly Krakovian.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise for beauty there.

Warsaw after WWII: not much promise there.

On the other hand, Scott Dodge at Καθολικός διάκονος emphasizes the dangerous side of beauty:

“One of the things Pasolini that is palpable in Mama Roma is the desolation that results from the lack of beauty, the deleterious effect it has on us, assaulting our humanity. This brings me back to beauty and our need for it. The late John O’Donohue, in his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, observed, ‘We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the need of our soul.’ He goes on to note that, culturally, we live an age of the ugly. This last observation caused him to turn to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, specifically to Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic [the following passage is from the first volume of The Glory of the Lord]:

Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man… Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”

eckberg dolce

Ekberg in La Dolce Vita is not gratuitous at all if you follow the links.

Finally, a reminder from Adam Zagajewski:

“Moment”

Clear moments are so short.
There is so much more darkness. More
ocean than terra firma. More
shadow than form.

Communio Website Redesign!

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If you don’t know what Communio is then you’ve been living under the wrong theological rock.

They’ve always had a website with lots of great .pdfs from the best theologians around (not all the articles are available online, but quite a few of them are).  Now they have a website with a user-friendly design.

Here’s what they’re all about:

Communio was founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. It stands for the renewal of theology in continuity with the living Christian tradition, the continuing dialogue of all believers, past and present, “as if all were simultaneously in the circle.” Now published in collaboration with thirteen other editions in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, Communio is truly “catholic” and international in scope. (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was instrumental in the establishment of the Polish edition.)

The English-language edition of Communio is a quarterly issue that regularly carries articles on philosophy, the arts, and the relationship between Catholicism and American culture. Emphasis is placed on exploring the meaning of John Paul II’s call for a “new evangelization.” Indeed, in every issue of Communio, an effort is made to reestablish the bond between prayer and theological reflection, the loosening of which lies at the heart of so many contemporary problems.

Communio draws upon the best theological writing in thirteen languages, but it is broader than a theological journal; it strives to let the “symphony” of Catholic truth resound in its pages – not only for specialists, but also for any person concerned with uniting faith with culture. Subscribers can participate in the development of the Review by joining or forming Communio Study Circles that gather around the world for fellowship and reflection on articles or themes from the journals. Readers can also look forward to reprints of memorable, often hard to find short pieces by pioneers of the Catholic renewal such as Bernanos, Blondel, Chesterton, Claudel, Dawson, Day, Delbrêl, Gilson, Guardini, Péguy, Pieper, and others.

Enjoy!

You can start with an article from D.C. Schindler on why we need Paul Claudel.  Make sure you click on the .pdf link to get the whole article.

Zbigniew Herbert Tempers the Rational Fury

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of the two greatest Polish poets of the 20th century.  He is part of a poetic duo, or duel, with Czeslaw Milosz.  Milosz was more of a mystic, Herbert a skeptic.  Milosz was almost always critical of Poland, whereas Herbert entrenched himself within the Polish tradition.  I want to avoid the dreaded words “nationalist” or “patriot,” but Hebert was both in the best sense.  It’s possible to be both without undercutting the universal reach of one’s writing.  Michael Hofman, the translator of German literature (oh the irony!), confirms this what he said in Poetry some years back:

“Zbigniew Herbert died in 1998. He was a very great and idiosyncratic poet—something in me wants to say a peerless poet—and, it is reported, a perennial Nobel bridesmaid. It was ironic—and no doubt wounding—that during the period of his expectations, in 1980 and 1996, two other Poles of, as I see it, manifestly lesser gifts and importance, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, were chosen by the Academy and decorated by Carl Gustav.”

The rivalry with Milosz resurfaces in those comments.  There’s even a quasi-mythological dinner party quarrel between the two poets documented by Cynthia Haven here in the post on “The Worst Dinner-Party Ever.”  

More biographical and bibliographical information is available here.

Spinoza's home, couldn't find the bed.

Spinoza’s home.

“Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” [Mr. Cogito is a persona Herbert frequently used to disabuse his readers of their Cartesian prejudices.  While reading this poem it’s important to remember how much Spinoza fought the biblical notion of a personal God.  Spinoza’s god was an impersonal force.  Think back to Simone Weil’s comments in yesterday’s post here.]

Baruch Spinoza of Amsterdam
was seized by a desire to reach God

in the attic
cutting lenses
he suddenly pierced a curtain
and stood face to face

he spoke for a long time
(and as he so spoke
his mind enlarged
and his soul)
he posed questions
about the nature of man

–distracted God stroked his beard

he asked about the first cause

–God looked into infinity

he asked about the final cause

—God cracked his knuckles
cleared his throat

when Spinoza became silent
God spake

—you talk nicely Baruch
I like your geometric Latin
and the clear syntax
the symmetry of your arguments

let’s speak however
about Things Truly
Great

—look at your hands
cut and trembling

—you destroy your eyes
in the darkness

—you are badly nourished
you dress shabbily

buy a new house
forgive the Venetian mirrors
that they repeat surfaces

—forgive flowers in the hair
the drunken song

—look after your income
like your colleague Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

—be cunning
like Erasmus

—dedicate a treatise
to Louis XIV
he won’t read it anyway

—temper the rational fury
thrones will fall because of it
and stars turn black

—think
about the woman
who will give you a child

—you see Baruch
we are speaking about Great Things

—I want to be loved
by the uneducated and the violent
they are the only ones
who really hunger for me

Foolishness to the wise.

Foolishness to the wise.

now the curtain falls
Spinoza remains alone
he does not see the golden cloud
the light on the heights

he sees darkness

he hears the creaking of the stairs
footsteps going down

Oh look, there's my name!  Herbert combines well with Auden.

Oh look, there’s my name! Herbert reads well alongside with Auden.

What follows is a short-short story, a favorite genre of Herbert’s.  You can find some more of them on the Artful Dodge page here.

“Spinoza’s Bed”
by Zbigniew Herbert

IT IS AN amazing thing that our memory best retains images of great philosophers when their lives were coming to an end. Socrates raising the chalice with hemlock to his mouth, Seneca whose veins were opened by a slave (there is a painting of this by Rubens), Descartes roaming cold palace rooms with a foreboding that his role of teacher of the Swedish Queen would be his last, old Kant smelling a grated horseradish before his daily walk (the cane preceding him, sinking deeper and deeper into the sand), Spinoza consumed by tuberculosis and patiently polishing lenses, so weak he is unable to finish his Treatise on the Rainbow. . .A gallery of noble moribunds, pale masks, plaster casts.

In the eyes of his biographers Spinoza was unmistakably an ideal wise man: exclusively concentrated on the precise architecture of his works, perfectly indifferent to material affairs, and liberated from all passions. But an episode in his life is passed over in silence by some biographers, while others consider it only an incomprehensible, youthful whim.

Spinoza’s father died in 1656. In his family Baruch had the reputation of an eccentric young man who had no practical sense and wasted precious time studying incomprehensible books. Due to clever intrigues (his stepsister Rebecca and her husband Casseres played the main role in this) he was deprived of his inheritance. She hoped the absentminded young man would not even notice. But it happened otherwise.

Baruch initiated a lawsuit in court with an energy no one suspected him to have. He hired lawyers, called witnesses, was both matter-of-fact and passionate, extremely well-oriented in the most subtle details of procedure and convincing as a son injured and stripped of his rights.

They settled the division of the estate relatively quickly (clear legal rules existed in this matter). But then a second act of the trial unexpectedly followed, causing a general sense of unpleasantness and embarrassment.

As if the devil of possessiveness had entered him, Baruch began to litigate over almost each object from his father’s house. It started with the bed in which his mother, Deborah, had died (he did not forget about its dark green curtains). Then he requested objects without any value, explaining he had an emotional attachment to them. The judges were monumentally bored, and could not understand where this irresistible desire in the ascetic young man came from. Why did he wish to inherit a poker, a pewter pot with a broken handle, an ordinary kitchen stool, a china figure representing a shepherd without a head, a broken clock which stood in the vestibule and was a home for mice, or a painting that hung over the fireplace and was so completely blackened it looked like a self-portrait of tar?

Baruch won the trial. He could now sit with pride on his pyramid of spoils, casting spiteful glances at those who tried to disinherit him. But he did not do this. He only chose his mother’s bed (with the dark green curtain), giving the rest away to his adversaries defeated at the trial.

No one understood why he acted this way. It seemed an obvious extravagance, but in fact had a deeper meaning. It was as if Baruch wanted to say that virtue is not at all an asylum for the weak. The act of renunciation is an act of courage-it requires the sacrifice of things universally desired (not without regret and hesitation) for matters that are great, and incomprehensible.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Finally, you might want to read a great article on the continuing influence of Spinoza upon what’s called the “turn to religion” in French philosophy.  It’s by my professor Douglas Collins and has more citations per hour than anything else on the face of the earth.  It’s called “L’Amour intellectuel de Dieu: Lacan’s Spinozism and Religious Revival in Recent French Thought” and I think it’s invaluable.  Doug is also famous for getting some eccentric student reviews–see what I mean here.