Learning and lamenting

From Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths’ essay, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning” (in Teaching and Christian Practices):

We lament our own incapacities: we are, in various ways and to different degrees, stupid, inattentive, lazy, domineering, and blind. Being catechized in the direction of studiousness rather than curiosity does not by itself remedy these defects, but it does bring them to consciousness exactly as defects and permit them to be lamented as incapable of removal by our own efforts. For the curious, by contrast, utopian as they tend to be, even when these defects are visible, they are thought to be removable: all we have to do is work harder and perfect our methods. Then, our defects will be smoothed away, and we will have made ourselves capable of comprehending what we attend to. Lament is not, for the curious, a value, but rather than a sign of weakness. For the studious, lament at one’s own incapacity for study and one’s failures as a student is intrinsic to learning. The extent to which it is forgotten or laid aside is the extent to which the path of studiousness has been abandoned. 

For Christian students, lament is prompted not only by awareness of the damaged and inadequate nature of our own cognitive capacities, but also by awareness of the damage to which the world, the ensemble of creatures has been subjected. The world is radiantly translucent, but it is not only that. It is also shot through with darkness. The divine light does not shine everywhere, but the places of shade and shadow exist only as its absence, its lack, its privation. They can be described only by negation, sought only by aversion (the closing of the eyes), and entered only by embracing the loss in which they consist. Such an embrace damages: the eye accustomed to the dark loses, perhaps temporarily and perhaps permanently, its capacity to see, it sustains damage, more or less deep. And the places of darkness are also places of chaos and disorder in which the demons of disorder – Leviathan, Behemoth, Diabolos – prowl, making less what was more, expropriating the beauty and order of the place of light and in doing so removing it from its proper glory and turning it into desolation, the place of dissimilarity, anguish, famine, and destitution in which the praise-shout becomes the wail of anguish, trailing gradually off into the peevish murmur of the self-wounding seeker of darkness. The regions of darkness are visible only by courtesy, as rents and tears in the seamless garment of light. They are the places in which knowledge becomes ignorance, vision becomes blindness, beauty becomes ugliness, harmony becomes discord, and, most fundamentally, life becomes death. To seek them is to seek nothing; to live in them is to live nowhere; to offer them is to offer the empty gift; and so to seek to live and to offer is to diminish, to hack at the body of one’s own being with the sharp sword of a disordered will until the body is limbless, bleeding, incapable of motion, approaching the second death from which there is no rebirth.

* * *

Even if we cannot be sure about our ability to discriminate the damaged from the undamaged, the beautiful from the ugly (and our lack of certitude about these things is one more occasion for lament about our own cognitive incapacity), we can be sure that we study is, at least in the contingent and sensible order, in some respects damaged in such a way that it resists the studious gaze, showing to that look an absence rather than a presence. And this is a matter for lament at least as much as the lacks evident in our own studious capacities.


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