About Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson is an English Teacher. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Wheaton College, M.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri, and M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John's College. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Image, The Christian Century, and Christian Scholar's Review.

Virgil, The Aeneid

AeneidReading great books involves a juggling act. The reader must adroitly balance text and context, evaluating a work on its own merits while embedding that work in the “great conversation” across time and space. After filling a lacuna in my education by reading Virgil’s Aeneid, I find myself juggling. As much I try to handle The Aeneid independently, I cannot resist comparison to the epic poems of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Virgil, following the Roman pattern, borrows and adapts from the Greeks to craft his own poem about the founding of Rome. To apply a musical metaphor, creative improvisation deserves praise even though the score is not original. In his excellent guide, Virgil: The Aeneid, K. W. Gransden writes: “Despite Virgil’s immense and continuously proclaimed debt to Homer, the true value of the Aeneid lies in its transformations of Homer, in the way in which the larger themes and values of the Homeric world are modified by the ‘later’ sensibility of the Roman poet.”

Gransden lucidly explains how The Aeneid is in conversation with its Greek predecessors:

His masterstroke was to see in the story of Aeneas an opportunity to create a structural and thematic reworking of both the epics of Homer. The Iliad is a story set in the war between Greeks and Trojans; the Odyssey is the story of one Greek hero’s homecoming after the sack of Troy. Virgil reversed this sequence: the first half of his epic tells of the journey of the Trojan hero Aeneas after the fall of Troy in search of a homeland, the second half of Aeneas’ arrival in Italy, of the war he was obliged to fight to establish his settlement, and of his victory over a local chieftain, Turnus. The ancient Life of Virgil described the Aeneid as quasi amborum Homeri carminum instar: ‘a sort of counterpart of both the Homeric poems.’

Going into more detail, he writes:

It is clear that Virgil intended his poem to fall into two ‘halves’ corresponding structurally to the Odyssey, which also falls into two halves: Odyssey 1 to 12 describes Odysseus’ nostos or homecoming from Troy; books 13 to 24 describe his actions after arriving home in Ithaca, including the killing of the suitors of his wife Penelope. The first half of the Aeneid (books I to VI) describe Aeneas’ journey from Troy to his new home in Italy, while books VII to XII describe his actions in Italy, including his killing of Turnus, a rival suitor to the Italian princess Lavinia who is destined to marry the stranger from across the sea. Thus in one sense the whole of the Aeneid might be called ‘Odyssean’ in that it reflects both the theme and the structure of the Odyssey; it begins in media res (in the middle of the story) as had the Odyssey, and includes a ‘flashback’ in which the hero narratives his previous adventures to a royal host who has sheltered and succored him. But there is a further complication, in that the second half of Virgil’s poem is about war, its mise-en-scène is a battlefield: Odysseus’ killing of the suitors at the end of the Odyssey is in comparison merely a violent domestic episode which takes place inside Odysseus’ own palace. So Virgil turned from the Odyssey to the Iliad and modeled his last six books on Homer’s tragic poem of war. Nor can we oversimplify Virgil’s structure by assuming that there is nothing ‘Iliadic’ in the first six books of the Aeneid and nothing ‘Odyssean’ in the last six.

Finally, Gransden claims:

Aeneid VI is the pivot of the whole poem. It is the transition from the ‘Odyssean’ to the ‘Iliadic’ Aeneid, as it is Aeneas’ personal transformation from the role of wanderer to that of dux (commander, leader), from exile and near-despair (as articulated in his speech during the storm, when he wishes he had died at Troy) to a sense of mission and responsibility, the result of his meeting with his father in the underworld.   

To summarize, I would say the “Odyssean” Aeneid involves the drama of adventure and romance while the “Iliadic” Aeneid involves the tragedy of war. Evidence for this interpretation can be found in the very opening lines of the epic, known as a proem or brief statement of the poem’s subject:

Arms and a man I sing, the first from Troy,
A fated exile to Lavinian shores
In Italy. On land and sea, divine will –
And Juno’s unforgetting rage – harassed him.
War racked him too, until he set his city
And gods in Latium. (trans. Sarah Ruden)

Arms signals the martial theme of the second half while man signals the humanist theme of the first half. Recall the the proem of The Iliad concerns arms:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. (trans. Robert Fagles)

Now recall that the proem of The Odyssey concerns a man:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. (trans. Robert Fagles)

The genius of Virgil lies in reversing the sequence of Homer’s poems, compressing the Greek bard’s forty-eight books (the combined total for The Iliad and The Odyssey) into twelve, and then developing a hero admired by pagans and Christians alike for his piety and bravery.

Since I have always been partial to The Odyssey over the The Iliad, it came as no surprise that I favor the “Odyssean” Aeneid, especially Book 2 on the fall of Troy, Book 4 on the passion of Dido and Aeneas, and Book 6 on Aeneas’ visit to the underworld. That said, there are unforgettable moments in the “Iliadic” Aeneid, such as the death of Trojan warriors Euryalus and Nisus (Book 9), the council of gods at Mount Olympus (Book 10), the subplot of Camilla, the Amazonian figure and leader of the Volsci (Book 11), and the climax of Aeneas killing Turnus (Book 12). My impression is that Virgil’s best epic similes reside in the “Iliadic” Aeneidwhere he repeatedly invokes the muse, starting in Book 7:

Goddess, direct your poet. Savage warfare
I’ll sing, and kings whose courage brought their death;
The Tuscan army; all Hesperia rallied
To arms. This is a higher story starting,
A greater work for me.

War, it appears, strains the poet more than adventure and romance, hence the “-er” suffix in the comparative adjectives of “higher story” and “greater work.” Virgil’s invocations to the muse in the second half of the poem amount to what contemporary poet Mark Jarman calls an “unanswered answered prayer”: they were “unanswered” because Mount Helicon is not home to patron goddesses of art but “answered” because Virgil’s writing is undeniably inspired.

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On Christian-year spirituality

Robert E. Webber, arguably more than any other individual, was “instrumental in the awakening of American evangelicals to their ancient Christian heritage. Today, one can witness the use of ancient liturgical practices by many evangelical churches across a remarkable spectrum of denominations. Webber’s broader ancient-future orientation has been adopted by many younger evangelicals and churches. And a steady stream of evangelicals continue to follow Webber on the road to Canterbury and the Anglican tradition” (The Robert E. Webber Center for an Ancient Evangelical Future).

Having read his landmark book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, I am now motivated to read another title in his “Ancient-Future Series” by Baker Books: Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Besides the Book of Common Prayer and its ordering of worship, nothing has given more style, shape, and substance to my faith than practicing “Christian-year spirituality,” which is alternatively called the “liturgical year” or “church year.”

What is the Christian year? Webber defines it as “A discipline of personal and corporate worship through which we are formed into Christlikeness. We intentionally enter into Christ by living in the pattern of his saving deeds and anticipating his rule over all creation” (33). More simply, he defines it as “life lived in the pattern of death and resurrection with Christ” (21). Webber writes:

This spiritual tradition was developed in the early church and has been passed down in history through the worship of the church. It enjoys biblical sanction, historical staying power, and contemporary relevance. Through Christian-year spirituality we are enabled to experience the biblical mandate of conforming to Christ. The Christian year orders our formation with Christ incarnate in his ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and coming again through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Pentecost. In Christian-year spirituality we are spiritually formed by recalling and entering into his great saving events (21-22).

Webber reminds us that Christian-year spirituality is a means to the end of union with Christ, “If we see the Christian year as an instrument through which we may be shaped by God’s saving events in Christ, then it is not the Christian year that accomplishes our spiritual pilgrimage but Christ himself who is the very content and meaning of the Christian year” (24). Put differently, “Without Christ there could be no Christian time.”

Here are some salient passages in my reading so far.

On Christian-year spirituality 

The very heartbeat of time, the source of meaning and power for the cycle of all time, derives from and returns to the death and resurrection of Christ in which God was uniquely active reconciling us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). It is Christ in his saving event who is the source, the summit, and the very substance of both objective and subjective spirituality (24).

Christian-year spirituality is nothing less than the calling to enter by faith into the incarnation, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s saving action is not only presented to us through the practice of the Christian year, it also takes up residence within us and transforms us by the saving and healing presence of Christ in our lives. As we enter the saving events of Jesus and especially the paschal mystery in faith, Christ shapes us by the pattern of his own living and dying so that our living and dying in this world is a living and dying in him (26).

How can we as members of the church participate in a present spirituality that is rooted in past events and anticipates a future event? The answer to this question is that we are shaped and formed spiritually by Christ in the church through a worship that continually orders the pattern of our spirituality into a remembrance of God’s saving deeds and the anticipation of the rule of God over all creation (27).

“The Christian year is the Word proclaimed and enacted” (28).

On the cycles of light and life

The emphasis of the cycle of life is on the incarnation, whereas the central motif of the cycle of life is the death and resurrection. However, there is fundamental unity between these cycles. Both have to do with the paschal mystery and the salvation of the world. One dwells on the incarnation while the other enters into the death and resurrection. One accents God coming among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; the other recalls the purpose for which he came – the self-giving sacrifice of his life to free the world from the domain of Satan and thus secure forgiveness and healing for the peoples of the world. Consequently, as we reflect on both the cycles of light and life, we are drawn into the inescapable fact of how the birth and death of Jesus are of a single piece, a garment that cannot be rent into two without doing violence to the Christian message.

There is also another way the cycles of light and life are brought together; both follow the pattern of expectation, fulfillment, and proclamation. Advent is expectation, Christmas is fulfillment, and Epiphany is proclamation; Lent is expectation, Easter is fulfillment, and Pentecost is proclamation. Thus there is a historical progression into both Christmas and Easter as well as spiritual procession from each. When we recall and relive the experience of God’s people who pilgrimage into and out of the incarnation or into and out of the death and resurrection, we mark our own spirituality with expectation and fulfillment (95).

On the special nature of Sunday

“Sunday . . . is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year” (30).

Historically Sunday is the day of God’s re-creation, the day that promises that God will renew the face of the earth. Historically Sunday worship expresses three truths: It remembers God’s saving action in history; it experiences God’s renewing presence; and it anticipates the consummation of God’s work in the new heavens and the new earth (169).

For the individual (as opposed to corporate) dimension of Christian-year spirituality, a devotional work can help walk you through the current season. Here are some recommendations:

Cycle of Light: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

  • Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough Publishing House)
  • Sarah Arthur (ed.), Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
  • N. T. Wright, Advent for Everyone (A Journey Through Matthew; A Journey with the Apostles; Luke)
  • Rowan Williams, Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral 
  • Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas
  • Edwin H. Robertson (ed.), Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons
  • Walter Brueggemann, Names for the Messiah: An Advent Study

Cycle of Life: Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time

  • Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing House)
  • Sarah Arthur (ed.), Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide
  • Sarah Arthur (ed.), At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time
  • N. T. Wright, Lent for Everyone (Matthew Year A, Mark Year B, Luke Year C); The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion
  • Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Paul: Reflections for the Season of Lent; Meeting God in Mark: Reflections on the Season of LentThe Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and ResurrectionChoose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury CathedralChrist on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment; Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel
  • Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany; Sermons to the People: Advent, Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is On the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter
  • Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words
  • Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus ChristThe Seven Last Words from the Cross
  • Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent

On building a library

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This is one of my favorite home libraries because of its diverse geometry, its blend of a traditional and modern aesthetic, its masculine appeal, and its complementary color scheme of blue and orange. The paint color reminds me of Gentleman’s Gray by Benjamin Moore: “Formal and masculine, this blackened blue leans toward classic navy, suggesting beautifully tailored suits and traditional pea coasts” (Source: Cory Connor Designs)

My intellectual awakening occurred in high school, owing to some gifted teachers. To feed my appetite for learning, I obtained books. During and immediately after college, I added titles to my library at an alarming rate, making it impossible to read everything. Now, as I get older, I regard myself as the curator of my beloved library rather than an acquisitor. Philosopher James K. A. Smith’s words below ring true to my experience, giving me peace with the prospect of unread books when I die:

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right?

A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?

At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I. Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.

Source: “Mortality and My Library” (Fors Clavigera)

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A dandy in dilemma

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Wilhelm Marstrand made the choice of caricature and emphasized the all too large head and the correspondingly weak body as that peculiar to Kierkegaard. The umbrella is on the same occasion re-introduced as a diagonal line, the extremes of which are carefully fixed in relation to the edges of the paper; it functions almost as a lever that can move rythmically up and down with its mid-point exactly at the heart. This was well-chosen, it must be said, because Kierkegaard had an exceedingly personal relationship to his umbrella. On a loose scrap of paper from 1840 he could – under the heading “My umbrella, my friendship” – thus make known: “It has become so dear to me, that I always take it with me whether or not it rains or shines; yes, to show it that I do not love it merely for its usefulness, I sometimes walk up and down the floor in my rooms and pretend that I am out, support myself on it, put it up, support my chin with its handle, bring it up near my lips, etc.” (Source: Royal Danish Library, “Marstrand’s drawing from 1870“)

dandy (noun)
1.  a man unduly devoted to style, neatness, and fashion in dress and appearance.
2.  informal, dated: an excellent thing of its kind: this umbrella is a dandy.

ORIGIN: late 18th century: perhaps a shortened form of 17th-century Jack-a-dandy ‘conceited fellow’ (the last element representing Dandy, a pet form of the given name Andrew).

In Isak Dinesen’s Carnival: Entertainment and Posthumous Tales, Søren Kierkegaard is described as “that brilliant, deep, and desperate philosopher of the forties [1840s], a sort of macabre dandy of his day.” While scholars debate Kierkegaard’s status as a dandy, I am fascinated by an ironical pastiche of the man and his pseudonymous technique in Lars Gyllensten’s 1949 article, “Søren Kierkegaard,” :

Søren Kierkegaard is a dandy in dilemma, who makes himself a priest in defense. He is a prevented priest, who makes himself a dandy in defense. Because of this he is neither dandy nor priest, for the priest can never trust that he is not a dressed up dandy. The dandy cannot be sure that he is not a priest in disguise. Whether he is a dandy, or he is a priest, he regrets it either way. He always has to entangle himself, and therefore he is always treacherous. Either he is one who entangles himself dishonestly against the one whom he unrighteously entangles, or is the one who is being entangled dishonestly against the one who righteously entangles him. The highest of all is to be an absolute human being. But each possibility can be regretted, and that, though, is a little something to make use of.

Why do I cherish the image of Kierekegaard as an entangled and treacherous dandy/priest? Because what is true of him, in particular, is true of humans, in general: we are riven between opposite appearances, mysterious and admitting no final judgment except by our Maker. Like Kierkegaard, I am two men—a dandy and a priest, torn between the aesthetic and religious spheres of existence. These spheres are reconcilable through a sacramental vision, where matter participates in spirit—contrary to the Manichean division. But in our disenchanted world, I strain to see with sacramental eyes. Sometimes lived experience feels like “a dandy in dilemma.”

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“The Fork”

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Copenhagen is, and was even more so in Kierkegaard’s day, a small town with an even smaller community of intellectuals. Nearly everyone who did not actually know Kierkegaard personally, knew of him, if for no other reason, because he was so often caricatured in popular periodicals such as Corsaren and Folkets Nisse. . . The caricature above was published in The Corsair in 1848. It depicts Kierkegaard beating up on the newspaper Berlingske Tidende for its having the audacity to praise him when this, according to Tudvad’s caption to the drawing as it appears in his book, was a privilege Kierkegaard granted only to Bishop Mynster. (Source: M. G. Piety, “Kierkegaard as Cult Figure“)

From Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff:

When he was born, Søren Aabye had three sisters aged sixteen, thirteen, and eleven, and three brothers aged seven, five, and four. Three of each sex was nice symmetry, and their double names added a peaceful sort of harmony. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard broke the equilibrium: As the conclusion to the flock of seven children he seems to have been as unplanned as the manner in which it all began. Nor was he an easy boy to deal with. Indeed, according to his second and third cousins he was a rather mischievous little fellow whose company was better avoided. One of these cousins thus described him as “a frightfully spoiled and naughty boy who always hung on his mother’s apron strings,” while another noted laconically that “as usual, Soren sat in a corner and sulked.” At home he bore the nickname “the fork,” because that was the utensil he had named when he had been asked what he would most like to be: “A fork,” the freckled little boy had answered. “Why?” “Well, then I could ‘spear’ anything I wanted on the dinner table.” “But what if we come after you?” “Then I’ll spear you.” And the name “the fork” stuck to him because of “his precocious tendency to make satirical remarks” (pp. 8-9).

From Kierkegaard’s Metaphors by Jamie Lorentzen:

The pet name/metaphor for Kierkegaard the polemicist and rhetorician extends to Kierkegaard the literary stylist and metaphorist. His childhood name in the family home speaks first to one form of metaphoric writing, namely, satire. In specific reference to his nickname, Kierkegaard’s niece, Henriette Lund, considers her uncle as having a “precocious tendency to make satirical remarks.” But the metaphor for Kierkegaard the author need not end there. “The Fork” befits his metaphoric style: it has more than one prong to “spear anything” one wanted, just as a good metaphor has more than one “prong” (at least one tenor and one vehicle) in which to “spear” any meaning more fully than a univocally communicative form. Metaphor offers Kierkegaard the poetically forked tool by which to speak with greater effect ideas in any sphere of existence. Further, the “forked tongue” implication of the nickname exposes Kierkegaard as one who entertains, if not traffics in, acts of deception (p. 41).

Drinking in its voluptuousness: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

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Photograph by Christopher Benson. Taken on the Air Dolomiti flight between Munich, Germany and Venice, Italy.

Whenever I travel, I read literature with settings in the places that I visit. On my recent holiday, I read the world-famous masterpiece, Death in Venice (1912), by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. This novel could not have been more fitting because the protagonist begins in Munich, where my family started our trip, and then progressed to Venice, as we did.

Published on the eve of World War I, a decade after Buddenbrooks had established Thomas Mann as a literary celebrity, Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but aging writer who follows his wanderlust to Venice in search of spiritual fulfillment that instead leads to his erotic doom. In the decaying city, besieged by an unnamed epidemic, he becomes obsessed with an exquisite Polish boy, Tadzio. “It is a story of the voluptuousness of doom,” Mann wrote. “But the problem I had especially in mind was that of the artist’s dignity.”

I am haunted by this story, with its stately prose and allusions to Greek mythology. The themes of Death in Venice are the luster of youth, the languor of age, the threat of mortality, the danger of beauty, the frustration of desire, and the intensity of erotic longing. Mann also trained my eyes to see Venice, a city that symbolizes enervated beauty. Here are some favorite passages.

On art

On a personal level, too, art is life intensified: it delights more deeply, consumes more rapidly; it engraves the traces of imaginary and intellectual adventure on the countenance of its servant and in the long run, for all the monastic calm of his external existence, leads to self-indulgence, overrefinement, lethargy, and a restless curiosity that a lifetime of wild passions and pleasures could scarcely engender (p. 23).

Innate in every artistic nature is a wanton, treacherous penchant for accepting injustice when it creates beauty and showing beauty for and paying homage to aristocratic privilege (p. 47).

On solitude

The observations and encounters of a man of solitude and few words are at once more nebulous and more intense than those of a gregarious man, his thoughts more ponderable, more bizarre and never without a hint of sadness. Images and perceptions that might easily be dismissed with a glance, a laugh, an exchange of opinions occupy him unduly; they are heightened in the silence, gain in significance, turn into experience, adventure, emotion. Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can also beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden (p. 43).

On the sea

“I shall stay, then,” Aschenbach thought. “What better place could there be?” And folding his hands in his lap, he let his eyes run over the sea’s great expanse and set his gaze adrift till it blurred and broke in the monotonous mist of barren space. He loved the sea and for deep-seated reasons: the hardworking artist’s need for repose, the desire to take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity, a propensity – proscribed and diametrically opposed to his mission in life and for that very reason seductive – a propensity for the unarticulated, the immoderate, the eternal, for nothingness. To repose in perfection is the desire of all those who strive for excellence, and is not nothingness a form of perfection? (p. 55).

On the sun

Was it not common knowledge that the sun diverts our attention from the intellectual to the sensual? It benumbs and bewitches both reason and memory such that the soul in its elation quite forgets its true nature and clings with rapt delight to the fairest of sun-drenched objects, nay, only with the aid of the corporeal can it ascend to more lofty considerations (p. 82).

On beauty

On the grass, its mild slope propping up their heads, two men lay sheltering from the day’s torrid heat: one elderly, one young; one ugly, one beautiful; the wise beside the desirable. And with compliments and witty, wheedling pleasantries Socrates instructed Phaedrus in the nature of longing and virtue. He spoke to him of the intense trepidation the man of feeling experiences when his eye beholds a representation of eternal beauty; he spoke to him of the desires of the base and impious man who cannot acknowledge beauty when he sees its likeness and is incapable of reverence; he spoke of the holy terror that seizes the noble man when a godlike countenance or perfect body appears before him, how he trembles and loses control and can hardly bring himself to look, yet respects it and would even make sacrifices unto it as he might unto a graven image were he not fearful of seeming foolish in the eyes of men. For beauty, my dear Phaedrus, and beauty alone is at once desirable and visible: it is, mark my words, the only form of the spiritual we can receive through our senses and tolerate thereby. Think what would become of us were the godhead or reason and virtue and truth to appear before our eyes! Should we not perish in the flames of love, as did Semele beholding Zeus? Hence beauty is the path the man of feeling takes to the spiritual, though merely the path, dear young Phaedrus, a means and no more . . . And then he made his most astute pronouncement, the crafty wooer, namely, that the lover is more divine than the beloved, because the god dwells in the former, not the latter, which is perhaps the most delicate, most derisive thought ever thought by man and the source of all the roguery and deep-seated lust in longing (pp. 83-85).

Nature trembles with bliss when the mind bows in homage to beauty (p. 85).

He was more beautiful than words can convey, and Aschenbach felt acutely, as he had often felt before, that language can only praise physical beauty, not reproduce it (p. 95).

“For beauty, Phaedrus, mark thou well, beauty and beauty alone is at once divine and visible; it is hence the path of the man of the senses, little Phaedrus, the path of the artist to the intellect. But dost thou believe, dear boy, that the man for whom the path to the intellect leads through the senses can ever find wisdom and the true dignity of man? Or dost thou rather believe (I leave it to thee to decide) that it is a perilously alluring path, indeed, a path of sin and delusion that must needs lead one astray? For surely thou knows that we poets cannot follow the path of beauty lest Eros should join forces with us and take the lead: yes, though heroes we may be after our fashion and chaste warriors, we are as women, for passion is our exultation and our longing must ever be love – such is our bliss and our shame. Now dost thou see that we poets can be neither wise nor dignified? That we must needs go astray, ever be wanton and adventurers of the emotions? The magisterial guise of our style is all falsehood and folly, our fame and prestige a farce, the faith that the public places in us nothing if not ludicrous, and the use of art to educate the nation and its youth a hazardous enterprise that should be outlawed. For how can a man be worthy as an educator if he have a natural, inborn, incorrigible penchant for the abyss? Much as we renounce it and seek dignity, we are drawn to it. Thus do we reject, say, analytical knowledge: knowledge, Phaedrus, lacks dignity and rigor; it is discerning, understanding, forgiving, and wanting in discipline and form; it is in sympathy with the abyss; it is the abyss. We do therefore firmly resolve to disavow it and devote ourselves henceforth to beauty alone, which is to say, simplicity, grandeur and a new rigor, a second innocence, and form. But form and innocence, Phaedrus, lead to intoxication and desire; they may even lead a noble man to horrifying crimes of passion that his own beautiful rigor reprehends as infamous; they lead to the abyss; they too lead to the abyss. They lead us poets thither, I tell thee, because we are incapable of taking to the heavens, we are capable only of taking to profligacy” (pp. 136-137).

On a relationship by sight alone

There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily – nay, hourly – yet are constrained by convention or perhaps caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or word. There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual knowledge and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem. For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge (pp. 92-93).

On passion

For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby (p. 100).

Yet it cannot be said he was suffering: he was drunk in both head and heart, and his steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot (p. 102).

Aschenbach sat at the balustrade, occasionally cooling his lips with the mixture of grenadine and soda water sparkling ruby red before him in the glass. His nerves took in the vulgar tootle and soulful melodies with avidity, for passion dulls one’s sense of discrimination and yields in all seriousness to charms that sobriety would treat as a joke or reject with indignation (p. 110).

He might then lay a farewell hand on the head of that taunting deity’s agent, turn on his heel, and flee the quagmire. Yet at the same time he felt infinitely far from seriously wishing to take such a step. It would lead him back, restore him to himself, but there is nothing so distasteful to oneself when one is beside oneself (p. 124).

Tadzio walked behind his family, usually letting the governess and his nunlike sisters pass ahead of him when the street narrowed and, sauntering along on his own, he would turn his head periodically to glance over his shoulder with his unusual twilight-gray eyes and make certain his admirer was still following him. He would see him and did not betray him. Intoxicated by this knowledge, lured forward by those eyes, tied inextricably to his passion’s apron strings, the love-smitten traveler prowled on after his unseemly hope – only to see it slip away from him in the end (p. 134).

On Venice

The air was still and noxious; the sun burned intensely through the haze, which colored the sky a slate gray. Gurgling water lapped against wood and stone. The gondolier’s call – half warning, half greeting – was answered from afar, from the silence of the labyrinth, by some curious accord. Clusters of blossoms – white and purple, redolent of almonds – hung down over crumbling walls from the small gardens overhead. Moorish window frames stood out in the murk. The marble steps of a church descended into the water, where a beggar, in affirmation of his indifference, squatted with his hat out and showed the whites of his eyes as if he were blind. An antique dealer posted outside his lair beckoned the passerby ingratiatingly in the hope of fleecing him. Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and was concealing out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton (pp. 103-104).

The mnemonic power of scent

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke to the mnemonic power of scent: “Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” During my recent travel to Italy, I purchased two fragrances that will strengthen my memory of Venice and the Amalfi Coast.

With a little research, I discovered The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant Of Venice represents the Art of Perfumery of Venice. It draws attention to the everlasting role of the city as an essential force in the perfumery tradition throughout the world, and it is intended to highlight the tradition that made Italy, and particularly Venice, central to the history of perfumery. The Merchant Of Venice is a luxury line that offers a large assortment of exclusive Eau de Parfum and Eau de Toilette, along with body care and household products and accessories.

The line is inspired by the “Mude,” the maritime trade routes that covered a very large area from Asia to Africa, and on to Europe as far as the Northern Seas. The “Mude” started from Venice and reached many different harbours, which in turn were the destination of other commercial routes. These ports were the exchange centres for raw materials and finished products.

This system enabled the Republic of Venice to acquire the knowledge and raw materials that otherwise it could not directly attain from within its own mainland. Through master craftsmen such as the muschieri (perfumers), venditori de polvere di Cipro (Cyprus powder haberdashers) and the saoneri (soap makers), new techniques of production were invented that made the Venetian perfumes and cosmetics highly sought after products in all the Royal Courts of Europe.

The flagship boutique is “housed in a prestigious, ancient chemist shop located in San Fantin, at the heart of Venice and immediately adjacent to the world famous opera theatre, La Fenice.” This video helps to visualize the space.

img_7720168522.pngI chose Byzantium Saffron from the Murano Collection: “This collection of essences speaks about the long journeys from the fascinating cities of the Orient to the enchantment of Venice, the main destination of the ancient Mediterranean routes. The spices, the aromas, and the rare essences were expertly selected by merchants from among those that were most aspired and precious.” Here is a description of Byzantium Saffron:

According to Greek mythology, saffron is central to the legend of young Crocus and Smilax. With the classic elegance of its amber notes, Byzantium Saffron embraces and enriches the passion of this ancient idyllic love. These notes, combined with Indonesian patchouli, make the perfume the olfactory pass-par-tout of those who love travelling in luxury to the most intriguing and exuberant lands.

The ingredients are Greek red saffron, white suede accord, Indonesian patchouli, and crystal amber.

To capture the Amalfi Coast, the choice was obvious: Carthusia. In the video below, Silvio Ruocco explains the heritage and craftsmanship of Carthusia, Capri’s famous perfumer.

I settled on Io Capri:

Dedicated to the goddess in whose honour Emperor Tiberius built one of the most important imperial villas in Capri, “Io” is a dynamic and decisive melange, both sophisticated and modern, that combines the sweet tones of wild fig tree with the cheerful, stimulating ones of tea leaves.

The head notes are lemon, wild mint, eucalyptus, aromatic litsea, star anise, and orange; the heart notes fig, wild flowers, tea, apple blossom, jasmine and citronella; the base notes seaweed and tobacco flowers.

io_capri.jpg

A panoramic view of the Bible: promises made, promises kept

9781433514159In a single sitting, I read What Does God Want Of Us Anyway? A Quick Overview of the Whole Bible by Mark Dever, the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Having read the Bible my whole life, I sometimes lose sight of the “big picture.” Dever’s succinct book admirably succeeds in providing a panoramic view of the Bible.

Every Christian should be able to answer these questions:

  • What is the point of the Bible?
  • How would you sum up the message of the Old Testament?
  • How would you sum up the message of the New Testament?

Here’s how Dever answers the questions:

  • The point of the Bible is Jesus Christ. “The Old Testament makes promises about Christ, and the New Testament keeps promises in Christ.” John Stott: “We love the Bible because of Christ. It is his portrait. It is his love-letter.”
  • The message of the Old Testament can be summed up in the phrase “promises made.”
  • The message of the New Testament can be summed up in the phrase “promises kept”

Here are some facts worth remembering:

  • The Bible consists of 66 separate books, authored by “at least 30 distinct writers, scattered over a period of some 1,500 years, and embrace specimens of nearly every kind of writing known among men. Histories, codes of law, ethical maxims, philosophical treatises, discourses, dramas, songs, hymns, epics, biographies, letters both official and personal, vaticinations” (B. B. Warfield, “The Divine Origin of the Bible”)
  • The Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) consists of 39 books:
    • the beginning 17 books “form the narrative from creation to the return of the exiles from Babylon about four hundred years before Christ”
      • the first 5 books make up the Pentateuch, or the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy)
      • the next 12 books (Joshua to Esther) are referred to as the Histories
    • the middle 5 books (Job to Song of Solomon) are called the Writings; “they focus on some of the more personal experiences of the people of God. They are  largely collections of wisdom literature, devotional poems, and ceremonial literature from the temple”
    • the last 17 books are the Prophecies (Isaiah to Malachi), divided by 5 major prophets and 12 minor prophets
  • The New Testament (or Christian Scriptures) consists of 27 books:
    • 4 documentaries on the life the Messiah, Jesus Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
    • 1 account of “how Jesus continues to be active in the world as his church expands to all nations” (Acts)
    • 21 letters (or epistles) that “describe what it means to live as God’s specially covenanted people,” including 13 written by Paul and 8 written by James, Peter, John, Jude, and one unknown author (Hebrews).
    • 1 revelation that “presents the consummation of our salvation. We are finally in God’s place, under his rule, and in a perfectly right relationship to him. The heavens and the earth are re-created, and the struggling church militant becomes the resting church triumphant” (Revelation)

Here are Dever’s helpful synopses of the books in the Bible:

OLD TESTAMENT

HISTORICAL NARRATIVE: the first 17 books

  • Genesis describes how the world and the first humans were made. The garden of Eden presents the model of God and man living in perfect peace, which we will not see again until the final heavenly city in the New Testament book of Revelation. This peace is devastated by the fall, of course. God then initiates his plan of salvation through Abraham and his descendants. At the end of Genesis, God’s people – the nation of Israel – are bound in slavery in Egypt.
  • Exodus follows the history of God’s people from the death of Joseph in Egypt through the exodus to the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, a building that symbolizes God’s presence with his people. God uses Moses both to deliver the law and to deliver his people in the exodus.
  • Leviticus presents a digest of God’s law given to his people in the wilderness. These laws highlight the problem of how sinful humans can approach a holy God. Holiness is the theme of the book of Leviticus.
  • Numbers mostly tells the story of the people of Israel traveling to the Promised Land. It describes several dramatic instances of the people’s unfaithfulness, together with God’s persevering faithfulness.
  • Deuteronomy is called Deuteronomy because it presents the second giving of the law (deutero = second; nomos = law). The people have reached the end of their forty-year wandering. The older generation has died off. So now God repeats the law for this new generation as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.
  • Joshua describes the conquest of the Promised Land and its apportionment among the twelve tribes. The people were ruled by Moses’ successor, Joshua.
  • Judges comes next with the story of fourteen judges who ruled over Israel (or regions of Israel) after Joshua. The people continually reverted to lawlessness, and the times were well summed up by the phrase, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg. 21:25).
  • Ruth is a little story set during the days of the judges. It functions as an Old Testament annunciation story, preparing the way for the birth of David.
  • 1 and 2 Samuel are about the last judge, Samuel; a “false-start” king, Saul; and the first real king, David.
  • 1 and 2 Kings turns the focus to the reign of David’s son Solomon, followed by the fall of both Solomon and his line. The kingdom divides into two parts during the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, and it’s mostly downhill from there. Apart from several noteworthy revivals, both the northern and southern kingdoms gradually dissolve amid immorality and idolatry.
  • 1 and 2 Chronicles present a kind of interesting summation of everything from Adam through the beginning of the exile. Their focus is on David, Solomon, the role of the temple, and then the kings of the southern kingdom leading up to the exile.
  • Ezra describes the return of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple.
  • Nehemiah continues the story by describing the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, a partial fulfillment of God’s promises of restoration to his people.
  • Esther is the last book of history. It is a story of God’s providential deliverance of the Jewish community inside the Persian Empire late in the exile.

THE WRITINGS: the middle 5 books

  • Job is a story about a righteous man who is tried by God. We don’t know when Job was written.
  • Psalms are poetic prayers of praise, confession, and lament to God. Almost half of them appear to have been written by David. The collection was written over a wide span of time.
  • Proverbs present the wisdom of Solomon and others concerning the practical issues of life.
  • Ecclesiastes, again probably by Solomon, recounts one man’s search for the path to happiness and meaning in this world. It reads like the account of a man walking down the street at night, shining his flashlight down a number of dead-end alleys and saying, “This is no good; this is no good; this is no good . . .”
  • Song of Solomon is the collection of love songs between a bridegroom and his bride. It emphasizes the importance of loving relationships.

THE PROPHETS: the last 17 books

5 major prophets

  • Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom, called Judah. The first thirty-nine chapters are composed of prophecies leading up to the captivity. Chapters 40 to 66 then point to a future restoration and redemption.
  • Jeremiah uttered his prophecies in Jerusalem during the years the city was besieged, a siege that ended in the city’s fall in 586 BC. He then continued to prophesy for seven years after the city’s fall.
  • Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah’s lament over Jerusalem’s siege and destruction.
  • Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon during this same time. He had actually been carried off from Jerusalem and taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. along with with a number of other Jews. Trained as a priest, Ezekiel prophesied against Judah up to the fall of Jerusalem, and then he turned to promising God’s judgment on the nations and the restoration of God’s people.
  • Daniel, part prophecy and part history, chronicles the story of a Jewish captive in Babylon and how God used him in that place.

12 minor prophets

  • Hosea prophesied to the northern kingdom (generally called “Israel”) at the same time that Isaiah prophesied to the southern kingdom. Hosea spoke of Israel’s unfaithfulness, while God used Hosea’s adulterous wife as a living example of how Israel had been unfaithful to God.
  • Joel preached about the coming judgment of God on the southern kingdom. Then he promised that God’s blessing would follow their repentance. (That’s really the main theme for most of these prophets.)
  • Amos predicted the judgment and restoration of Israel, the northern kingdom, while Isaiah was prophesying in the south.
  • Obadiah uttered his very short prophecy of judgment against one of Judah’s neighbors, Edom. He also promised restoration to the shattered Israelites.
  • Jonah, when called to prophesy to the Assyrian city of Ninevah, fled and was swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of the fish, he prayed, repented, was delivered, and obeyed.
  • Micah prophesied at the same time as Isaiah and Hosea. He spoke to both Israel and Judah concerning judgment and deliverance.
  • Nahum, who lived about a century after Jonah, spoke out against Ninevah concerning the coming judgment of God. He also promised a future deliverance for Judah.
  • Habakkuk reminded God’s people living in a time of evil that God’s judgment is certain, and that they can put their trust in his promise of restoration and ultimate protection.
  • Zephaniah promised that judgment would come upon Judah. He also called them to repent, and he promised future blessing.
  • Haggai was a contemporary of Zechariah. He may have been born in captivity in Babylon, but he returned to Jerusalem and prodded the people to get on with rebuilding the temple.
  • Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, prophesied two months after Haggai and presented a series of wild dreams that attacked the religious lethargy of the people and foresaw the messianic age.
  • Malachi, perhaps a contemporary of Nehemiah in post-exilic Jerusalem, also attacked the religious apathy of the people and promised a coming Messiah. He was the last Old Testament prophet.

NEW TESTAMENT

GOSPELS AND ACTS

  • Matthew was probably written for a Jewish community. He stresses Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, such as the many prophecies about his birth. Matthew includes five major teaching sections, each of which shows Jesus to be the great prophet promised by Moses.
  • Mark chronicles, perhaps, the apostle Peter’s recollections. The book does not say that, but various things in the book make us think Mark compiled Peter’s recollections about Jesus for the Roman Christians, maybe around the same time Peter was killed for being a Christian. Seeing the first apostle killed, the church may have wanted to commit these things to writing. Mark’s account is the shortest of all the Gospels, and it may be the oldest.
  • Luke, the third Gospel, is sometimes called the Gospel to the Gentiles. Luke stresses that the Messiah has come not just for the Jewish people but for all the nations of the world, and he puts to good use the Old Testament prophecies that make this promise. Luke also wrote a second volume, the book of Acts. Acts is “part two” of Luke’s work. It shows how Jesus actively expanded his church through the Spirit. So even after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, his work continued as the church grew and as God established this new society. Luke concluded his narrative with Paul imprisoned – but still ministering – in Rome.
  • John may be the most beloved of the Gospels. It is different from the other three Gospels in some ways. It does not teach a different theology but it has an especially clear emphasis on Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and the fact that the Messiah is God himself. John explicitly states this purpose for his Gospel in chapter 20: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ [that is, the Messiah], the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

PAUL’S EPISTLES: “His letters are ordered in the New Testament from longest to shortest – first, letters to churches, and then, letters to individuals”

  • In his first letter, Romans, Paul explains that God has been faithful to his covenant through Christ. Through Christ, God has provided a righteousness for his people, which is accounted to us by faith, as was the case with Abraham.
  • 1 and 2 Corinthians were written to a church with a lot of troubles. The church lived within a very secular society, so Paul tried to help them sort out how to live holy, special, distinct lives in an unholy culture.
  • If you want just the sharp edge of Paul’s teaching, Galatians is a good summary. He is clear about what he is saying, and he is clear about what he is not saying.
  • In Ephesians Paul writes about the church God is creating. God had always planned to create the church, and it is a new society calling together both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.
  • Philippians – often called the happiest book in the New Testament because Paul does not seem to have a cross word to say – encourages its readers to rejoice in the Lord.
  • Colossians is about Christ’s supremacy over all and some implications this has for our lives.
  • 1 and 2 Thessalonians are two of Paul’s earliest letters. Apparently, a number of people in Thessalonica had heard about Christ’s second coming and, misunderstanding it, had quit their jobs. They were just hanging around like fanatics, waiting for God to do something. So Paul writes and tells them to get a job.
  • Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy to Timothy, a young minister he discipled and trained. The letters were intended to encourage this young associate in his work as an elder. Second Timothy is probably the last letter Paul ever wrote.
  • The letter to Titus was written to a ministerial friend Paul had left on the island of Crete to establish elders in the new churches and to complete other unfinished business.
  • Paul wrote a very short letter to Philemon. Philemon was the owner of an escaped slave who had found Paul and become a believer. It is interesting to see how Paul deals with a slave owner.

GENERAL EPISTLES

  • The author of the first letter in this second set, Hebrews, is unknown. Hebrews helps us understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments as well as what it means for us to be the new-covenant people of God.
  • James is a very practical letter. He describes how to live the Christian life with a practical concern for others.
  • 1 and 2 Peter are relevant for the church today because they were written to Christians who were beginning to undergo difficulties for being Christians. . . Both of these letters encourages Christians to persevere in the faith, with Christ as their example. The second letter also warns about the danger of false teachers.
  • 1, 2, and 3 John are three brief letters written to encourage Christians in their lives of love and faithful obedience to the Lord.
  • Jude is a brief letter, similar to 2 Peter, warning against false and immoral teachers.

REVELATION

  • Revelation describes the consummation of God’s people, in God’s place, in right relationship to him. The church militant becomes the church triumphant – the victorious church in heaven. And the whole heavens and earth are re-created forever.

Why I am reading “The Aeneid”

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Andrew Wyeth, “Wind from the Sea” (1947)

This summer I am filling a lacuna in my education by reading the great Roman epic of Virgil’s Aeneid. A trip to Italy provides some extra motivation. But the deepest reason owes to one of my favorite authors, Willa Cather, who found inspiration in Virgil’s work. Her novel My Ántonia includes an epigraph from Virgil’s Georgics, “Optima dies . . . prima fugit,” which is explained later when Jim Burden studies Latin at the University of Nebraska:

One March evening in my sophomore year I was sitting alone in my room after supper. There had been a warm thaw all day, with mushy yards and little streams of dark water gurgling cheerfully into the streets out of old snowbanks. My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star like a lamp suspended by silver chains – like the lamp engraved upon heavens, and waking new desires in men. It reminded me, at any rate, to shut my window and light my wick in answer. I did so regretfully, and the dim objects in the room emerged from the shadows and took their place about me with the helpfulness which custom breeds.

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the Georgics where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. “Optima dies . . . prima fugit.” I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. “Primus ego in partiam mecum . . . deducam Musas“; “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” Cleric had explained to us that “patria” here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country”; to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my own country.”

We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing of a great feeling, though perhaps I alone knew Cleric intimately enough to guess what that feeling was. In the evening, as I sat staring at my book, the fervor of his voice stirred through the qualities on the page before me. I was wondering whether that particular rocky strip of New England coast about which he had so often told me was Cleric’s patria. 

As a Christian, I am reading The Aeneid to deepen my hope for a patria that claims my affections. If this earth does not provide me a little neighborhood, heaven promises being-at-home, as St. Paul said to the Philippians: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that ables him even to subject all things to himself” (3:20-21).

“You are my Beloved”

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El Greco, “The Baptism of Christ”

For 20th century Christian writing, Henri J. M. Nouwen is to spirituality what C. S. Lewis is to apologetics. I recently completed my first book by NouwenA secular Jewish friend of the Catholic priest made a request, “Say something about the Spirit that my secular friends and I can hear.” The result is Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular Age. 

Taking his cue from the baptism of Jesus, when the Spirit descends, like a dove, and a paternal voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you” (Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22), Nouwen makes a surprising move by arguing that this vertical communication between the Father and Son is also a horizontal communication between the Son and humanity. What is “the most intimate truth about all human beings”? We are God’s Beloved.

These words do not “reverberate in every corner of [our] being” because we fall into “the trap of self-rejection.” Our dark side says, “I am no good  . . . I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.” The heavenly voice cannot be heard when worldly voices drown it out, saying: “Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.” We have trouble imagining ourselves adopted into the family of God. Therefore, Nouwen says the greatest challenge is to claim our Belovedness as “the core truth of our existence.”

Here is my favorite excerpt:

Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.

Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.”

Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: “I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse . . . yes, even your child . . . wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”

Nouwen’s book deepens a longing to “hear these words as spoken to [me] with all the tenderness and force that love can hold.” Of course, these words are not new. St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome with the confidence of our baptized status as God’s Beloved: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).