The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Homo Viator

On Wanderers, Chili Peppers, Rolled Cigarettes, Bakeries and a Small Cave in Palestine

I have never driven more than when I was a monk. That is an ironic situation, but it's true. Without getting into details in order to protect the guilty, I ended up helping to run the monastery business about an hour and a half from the monastery itself. (It was a bakery.) So every morning, it was up at a quarter past four for Matins, stay for about ten minutes, hop in the bakery van, and then we were off. It was tiring. I hardly got any sleep. And little else got done in my life other than making tea biscuits and cakes.

That must have made me pretty holy, right? Wrong! I was probably one of the most bitter people I could have possibly imagined. I hardly had any time for anything other than baking, and even the little time I actually spent in my cell, all I did was sleep. But the whole time I told myself that this was God's will. Maybe it was, but I didn't accept it with gratitude. And truth be told, I think that there are very few people who could have.

One day, after a long day of baking and the hour and a half trek back to the monastery, a man was sitting on the monastery porch. He had unkempt hair, a long beard, and looked as if he hadn't seen the sight of a bed for weeks. Nearby was his bicycle, packed with a pile of rather worthless belongings: clothes, rags, books, and a few icons. When I saw the icons, I knew he wasn't just another inhabitant of the run-down desert community looking for a hand-out. And his mannerisms and his manner of speaking proved that he was definitely someone who had led life on his own terms.

As the evening unfolded, his story only got more and more interesting. His adopted name was Obadiah. He had been a spiritual wanderer from monastery to monastery since 1972. For the last few years, he had lived in an Orthodox Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and decided that it was time to move on. He had crossed the desert from New Mexico to the Mojave in California on his bike in high summer. It had taken him almost two months. During that time, he had begged for food, went to religious sites, and slept in the open air. His bike broke a few weeks before he had arrived at the monastery, and he had been pushing it ever since.

The abbot gave the blessing so that he could stay on the monastery grounds overnight. That's all Obadiah wanted anyway, since his real destination on this leg of the trip was the Coptic Orthodox monastery about ten miles away. He had been to plenty of Orthodox monasteries, so ours was nothing new.

We went into the trapeza for dinner. I remember that it was an informal one since no one had had time to cook that day, and all we were having were leftovers. I remember that there was a particularly spicy dish that was probably left over from the Sunday potluck. I warned our guest that this dish was spicy, so he had best try it before he served himself a lot of it. He tried the dish, and a delighted smirk appeared on his face. He removed from his bag a small jar of dried chili peppers and liberally sprinkled it on this "spicy" dish. As a man with a Mexican palette, I was impressed, and dare I say it, a bit humiliated.

After dinner, we went on the porch again and continued talking. He rolled a cigarette and began to give me the in and outs of his way of life. Usually, he said, he slept outside. Sometimes he would be given a helping hand by people, other times he would be run out of town pretty quickly. He slept in ditches, fended off wild animals from his belongings, and endured all kinds of weather. He had a number of books with him: the Ladder of Divine Ascent, stories of the Father of the Desert, and other staples of the monastic tradition. Also, he said, he had started at his last home doing his own translation of the Prophecy of Isaiah with the little Hebrew he had picked up here and there. He told me that he would be heading north since he had never been there before. There were a few churches he wanted to see and people he wanted to talk to.

The next day, I got up at the same time and saw Obadiah for the beginning of Matins. By the time I got back that evening, he had already left. He was setting out for the Coptic monastery and hoped to spend the night there. Once again, my life returned to the same old routine of baking and little sleep.

About two weeks later, I was making some cakes on a rather hot and sunny day in Big Bear Lake. The room I baked in would get so hot that occasionally I had to go into the shop area in order to cool off a bit. The shop opened up on the main boulevard in the small valley between the mountains. As I entered the empty shop area, I saw a man walking by with a bike headed into the downtown area of Big Bear. It was Obadiah! "What the hell!?" I thought to myself. "Did we tell him we had a bakery in Big Bear Lake? What the hell is he doing here?"

He continued to walk by completely oblivious to being near the bakery of the monks he had visited a couple of weeks before over 90 miles away. I stood incredulous for about thirty seconds, trying to verify to myself if it was indeed him. Finally, I opened the locked door and cried out, "Obadiah!"

He turned around very meekly, recognized me, and walked toward the bakery.

At that point only Sean (Br. Spyridon) and I were in the building. We were so glad to have our visitor again since he broke the monotony of ovens, flour, rolling pins, and sugar. We began to offer him any bread and goods we had available to take with him. I even heated up some microwavable burritos, wrapped them in some paper, and reassured him that they would still be good in a few hours if he wanted to have them for dinner.

He had explained that he had come up to Big Bear after receiving a cold reception at the Coptic monastery, pushing his bike on the five thousand foot climb up the mountain. It took him a week and a half. He had been staying at an evangelical Christian retreat center, witnessing about the Spirit and seeing many baptisms in the lake. He said that he knew some people in San Bernardino and that he was going there. (I explained to him that he was pointed in the wrong direction.). He also explained how he wanted to go visit a convert bishop to the Syrian Orthodox church in Fresno. I jumped on the computer and tried to give him directions from Big Bear. Who knows if he followed them?

Having rested with us a while again, we saw him on his way. I looked at him vanish going over the hill on Big Bear Boulevard: a man and his bike, and the hardest working guardian angel that any mortal has been priveleged with.

Everytime I think of Obadiah, all I can think is that there exist in this world some very heroic people , and then there are just the rest of us schmucks. I had nothing on this guy! So what I dropped out of Berkeley to go to study for the priesthood?! So what I was withering my youth away on a monastic business venture that was making no money!? Have I ever slept in a ditch for the love of Christ? Did I really give up a sense of security like Obadiah had? I was nowhere near as real as this guy, nor will I ever be.

It is people like Obadiah that make me tire quickly of what passes for religion among most people. You can talk and talk and talk about the things of God, but until you have actually seen them, until you have actually seen a man who is totally dependent on God's love, then you in reality know absolutely nothing. Truth be told, I hesitate in writing ANYTHING that passes for theology on this blog, since I have seen the real deal, and no matter what I write I will always fall short.

But then again, that is the real reason for the season, isn't it? The main message of the Gospels for me has always been that we do not know the ways of God. And the more we guess them, the wronger we will probably be. Just as the Son of God was born in a manger in Bethlehem, so we will continue to be suprised by God. Let us get used to getting it wrong, then, in joy and in wonder.

Sometimes, while on the highway or looking out on the street late at night, I think that Obadiah may once again go by. Just as that small family from Nazareth went from door to door looking for a place to rest, so my friend wanders in the cold and the heat, through the rain and the glorious days of spring, towards the final destination of all flesh, towards our Father's house. If you see him, please open the door and give him a bit of rest for his weary head.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Two Years...

Three Cities, Two Names, Two and a Half Christian Confessions, 550 Posts, Lots of Delusions, and A Number of Faces Later

I have seldom given myself occasions to celebrate personal milestones on this blog. And personally, I think most of you could care less about what I am reading, what I like to eat, what I do when not blogging, the ins and outs of my relationship, etc. (And if you do, your life must be really boring.) But I just realized that I am reaching two years of doing this without any end in sight, so I might as well point this out.

Personally, I don't know why bloggers sometimes get so melodramatic and stop blogging, as if there is an unheard tortured voice in the background saying: "That's enough! The waters have dried up and the Muses have gone silent! Goodbye, cruel blogging world!" I guess there are lots of people who are just too busy to keep it up. But thankfully I have not hit that wall. I have run this little page even with some rather demanding time constraints, and truth be told, I really don't know how I have posted so much. Maybe I just feel I have a lot to show / say. It helps to be an egomaniac, I guess.

I refuse to give here the typical discourse about the benefits and pitfalls of blogging. I write and you read. And sometimes you comment (thank you for that, by the way). But this is a rather innocuous relationship. I would write even if you weren't reading anyway. The evil Arturo in me likes the fact that you do read. ("They really, really like me!!! I must be really cool!") Then I realize that I don't get paid for this, and the immediate benefits are few and far between.

The greatest reward of this blog is to actually meet and correspond with people I meet through this blog. For crying out loud, I met my significant other through this blog! But I have met enough people through this blog alone that it is well worth it. It is great to finally put a face to the people who read and comment. I would encourage you to e-mail me privately from time to time just so that I could know in a limited way who you are. And if you live in the Bay Area, I don't have many friends. Would you be my friend? I promise not to climb onto too many soapboxes.

And from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for reading. Please say an extra Hail Mary for me. God bless and Merry Christmas! Tommorrow, dear reader, I will post your Christmas present. Here, however, is another one, for those of you who like cheesy music in Spanish.


P.S. After tommorrow, I won't be posting until about next year. I am going out of town.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

De Verbis

Hay palabras que tienen sombra de árbol
otras que tienen atmósfera de astros
Hay vocablos que tienen fuego de rayos
Y que incendian donde caen
Otros que se congelan en la lengua y se rompen al salir
Como esos cristales alados y fatídicos
Hay palabras como imanes
que atraen los tesoros del abismo
Otras que se descargan como vagones sobre el alma
Altazor desconfía de las palabras
Desconfía del ardid ceremonioso
Y de la poesía
Trampas de luz y cascadas lujosas
Trampas de perla y de lámpara acuática
Anda como los ciegos con sus ojos de piedra
Presintiendo el abismo a todo paso

-Vicente Huidobro, del primer canto de su poema, Altazaor

There are words that have the shadow of a tree
Others have the atmosphere of stars
There are syllables that have the flame of lightening
And set fire to where they fall
Others congeal on the tongue and break when they come out
Like those fateful and winged crystals
There are words with magnets that attract the treasures of the depths
Others that unload like a carriage on the soul
Altazor does not trust words
He distrusts ceremonial artifice
And poetry
Traps of light and decadent cascades
Traps of pearl and the underwater lamp
He walks like the blind with his stone eyes
The abyss forshadowed with his every step

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Painting as Talisman

On the far right side of the painting the wind of spring, Zephyr, blows and pursues the earth-nymph Chloris. Frances Yates quite properly sees this wind as Ficino's own spiritus mundi, the spirit we have been trying to explicate all along. From the breath of Chloris come forth flowers, as she is transformed into Flora, in a kind of photographic stop-action in oil. Flora is the herald of spring, the season of Venus. On the other side of the canvas the three Graces do their round dance - Chastity in the middle with her hair close-bound and a wistful look on her face; Pleasure, to the left, has snakelike hair and loose garments; and close to Venus is Beauty, moderately dressed. The three deities are; first Venus herself, pictured with heavy breasts and swelling belly. Rather maternal in appearance, she seems to be giving her approval for what is taking place around her. Blinded Cupid is above her, taking aim with his burning arrow. And Mercury stands at the far left, pointing to the clouds.

Concerning love and the process of life Ficino had written: "There is one continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last in God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle." The painting shows this three-part circle, one of the circuits of the soul: the spring wind blows in the beauty of the earth as it brings forth its vegetation; the Graces dance in enjoyment of the world, blessed by the fond gaze of a motherly Venus; and Cupid aims his arrow at Chastity, who is already attracted by Mercury. There is a strong feeling of movement from right to left. One can imagine that music is an element in the Graces' dances and in the movement across the canvas.

-from The Planets Within: Marsilio Ficino's Astrological Psychology by Thomas Moore, explaining the philosophical significance of Botticelli's painting, Primavera

Friday, December 14, 2007

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Zoroastre

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Problem of Evil (Briefly)

AG and I had another encounter with my favorite atheist last night, and I should say that I proved once again that I will do almost anything for a good bite to eat. So this time around, I had to listen to some of his objections to a theistic universe. One of the main issues that he has is the problem of evil, which you can read all about right here.

While driving home, what struck me again is how much of a distaste I have for most philosophical conversations. When you arrive at the discussion, you have to assume that your interlocutor is making the same assumptions about the world as you are, and this is infrequently the case. Once you get into the thick of it, you will find that all you are doing is flinging polemical if polite phrases at each other, and both sides of the conversation only build on the assumptions that they started out with in the first place.

Argue all you want about the problem of evil, but the main assumption of the one posing it is always the expectation that the universe does not live up to his expectations. In other words, he thinks that he deserves better. I think that if I were dictator of the universe, the only people who would be allowed to pose the problem of evil would be the saints. Everyone else has no excuse. If we would just look at the disorder within ourselves, we would understand completely the disorder outside of us.

I do not mean to belittle tragedies such as genocide or the deaths of children. These are tragic, and no barrage of syllogisms can ameliorate the pain that these events cause. But there is a modern smugness about posing the question on why God created this universe where evil things happens. When the people who pose it are members of the most powerful, prosperous society in the history of the world who have no fear of getting their lap-top snatched in a violent assault, this exercise for me seems to be pure mental masturbation. No sufficient answer could ever be given anyway since he could always pose a universe that is better than the one he is living in now. Things would spiral into a sort of inflation of expectation that even God could not pay out this side of the eschaton.

But what else can you expect in trying to look for an answer inside yourself for these things? If I want one thing for all that I come across, it is not necessarily that they agree with me on anything important. I would rather that they break out of the molds that they have sealed themselves in so that they can see things in a new light. And for me that means stepping out of yourself and into the skin of the Other. As I have said before, the Truth is not within, it is outside of you. Only when you leave yourself and detach yourself from your own assumptions about the world can you finally return to who you really are, and then give yourself over to the Truth. Anything else, in my opinion, is merely a self-serving rhetorical exercise.

I have the feeling that my session over the plates of dim sum was the latter, not the former.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Just because I have a lot of time on my hands...

The genesis of this blog comes out of my commenting on the traditionalist Angelqueen forum. Once I realized that I wasn't really a classical traditionalist, and once my Internet perusing became more and more limited, I stopped hanging out at this bastion of reactionary thinking. Recently, however, with a slow-down in posting on many of the blogs I actually take the time to read, I began to go back to my old vice of posting on Angelqueen. And things haven't changed much around there.

Traditionalists really piss me off. They go on and on about the degeneration of culture and learning as it parallels the degeneration of Western liturgical consciousness, and yet they often end up as exemplars of the very things they condemn. Many clamor on and on about Latin, and couldn't even decline "puella, puellae" to save their lives. Many complain about the music of the Mass, but most couldn't tell you the difference between Palestrina and Monteverdi, and if they could sing a decent "Et cum spiritu tuo", that congregation might as well be the Vienna Boys' Choir. I guess this has a lot to do with the "Fox News / South Park conservatives"; that is, conservatives who are rude, brutish, and have absolutely no class. (I used to love watching William F. Buckley growing up when he was on late night on PBS. Those were real conservatives that you could respect because of their stodginess.) These conservatives are just as much the product of postmodern liberalism as the "politically correct" ideologues they condemn.

This time around, that which incited my ire was the dismissive attitude these cyber-trads had towards traditional Aztec dances done in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The only response of these posters was that this must obviously be an example of modernist enculturation, or at least be of very poor taste. And of course, it was assumed that these dances were done as a result of the "liturgical dance" craze. Never mind that these dances have been performed for centuries in villages in honor of the Virgin, and this tradition goes back longer than the existence of this country.

The people on this forum are significant examples of an unfortunate double standard. They can deck their houses with Christmas trees and Advent wreaths, even though these are clearly remnants of "devil-worshipping" pagan rituals, while they can ridicule devout dances performed for the Brown Virgin, saying that they are remnants of a culture that practiced human sacrifice. (And here they fail to mention that our own religion in based on human sacrifice, or rather, One Human's sacrifice, and that this practice also existed in pagan Europe.) The only difference is that of race; the pagan rituals of the Teutonic countries are acceptable because these were civilized peoples, while Mexicans will always be savages. And of course, they also fail to realize that "good old fashion American values" are a result of all of the "civilized" countries in Europe falling into heresy. Mexico, last time I checked, may have had problems with Masonic governments, but never with heresy.

This same mentality is also behind the "it's cute to be a brute" approach to scholarship and history. The fact that the people in the Valley of Mexico at the time of the conquest practiced human sacrifice meant that the ends justified the means in bringing this practice to an end. Many scholars now say that the Valley of Mexico had ten million inhabitants when Cortes arrived in 1519. By the end of the century, the population was a mere two million. Eighty percent of the inhabitants of that region was wiped out due to disease, enslavement, or outright slaughter. The capital of the empire, once larger than any European city, was reduced to rubble. But all of this was alright since the survivors converted to Catholicism!

And it is not as if the Spaniards didn't know what they were doing at the time. Even Fray Bartolome de las Casas expressed that the indigenous peoples should be evangelized by friars who preached the Word without coercion rather than by an invading force. Many argued about the morality of the invasions, and many were doubtful that any justification could be given. In the end, the practical interests of the Spanish won out, and the indigenous peoples were conquered with the reassuring thought in the back of the conquistadores' minds that their subjects may not be humans at all.

In our interlocutors' version of history, however, a concession to any type of moral ambiguity in this situation is an example of muddle-headed "political correctness". The Spaniards are the "good guys" no matter what they did, and the indigenous peoples were the "bad guys" because they had the misfortune of not having had the Gospel preached to them yet and of not being comfortable with the idea of being enslaved. But even when the indigenous people converted to Catholicism and used dances that were performed in a false religion in order to now honor the true God, they were still in the wrong, even if in some cases their ancestors have now been Catholic longer than those of these traditionalists.

I am certainly not naive about the history behind these events. Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spaniards was no Shangri-la, and this conquest was a war, even if an unjustified one. And whatever happened happened and we cannot change it. This conquest by bad Catholics produced some of the best Catholics on earth. But God does not smile on the means by which this was done. It is quite shocking to me how those who consider themselves the most Catholic can persecute people who have been loyal children of the Roman Church for half of a millennium now. By watching Lou Dobbs and promoting anti-immigrant hysteria they are more in bed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism than the liberal liturgical reformers who promote "liturgical dancing".

For me, it is profoundly hypocritical for Catholics in this country, traditionalist or not, to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe and at the same time mock the dignity of Mexicans on both sides of the border by regarding them as some sort of uncivilzied "brown horde". They may be a brown horde, but they are a devout horde. And last time I checked being civilized doesn't necessarily save your soul, but being Catholic certainly helps. Especially if you are a Catholic and devoted to the Most Holy Mother of God, which are traits that the Mexican people have always shown.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Some Notes on Science, Mystery, and Ancient Philosophy

For how shall we account for those plants called heliotropes, that is, attendants on the sun, moving in correspondence with the revolution of its orb, but selenitropes, or attendants on the moon, turning in exact conformity to her motion? It is because all things pray, and hymn the leaders of their respective orders; but some intellectually, and others rationally; some in a natural, and others after a sensible, manner. Hence the sunflower, as far as it is able, moves in a circular dance towards the sun; so that if any one could hear the pulsations made by its circuit in the air, he would perceive something composed by a sound of this kind, in honour of its king, such as a plant is capable of framing. Hence, too, we may behold the sun and moon in the earth, but according to a terrene quality; but in the celestial regions, all plants, and stones, and animals, possessing an intellectual life according to a celestial nature.

-Proclus, On the Hieratic Art

Recently, a commenter mentioned how many intuitions of Renaissance philosophers constituted "bad science". While I respect the opinion of this commenter on many things, here I have to disagree.

For people who are quantitatively challenged like myself, it is always a good idea to have someone close to you who understands the ins and outs of scientific discourse. In my case, my significant other is a professional scientist. So here I will try to duplicate what she told me in a recent conversation, and add some of my own thoughts if deemed appropriate.

The project of the Renaissance thinkers cannot be considered science because it can neither be proven nor disproven by quantitative analysis. However, science is not able to supply us with a complete world view, nor can a philosophy be extrapolated from scientific analysis. Not only that, but certain scientific theories, such as the theory of relativity or string theory in physics, are often reached by intuitive hunches about the world or a particular set of observations. In the case of string theory, there is still no concrete evidence that it is an accurate description of the physical world (in its smallest or largest scales), only an intuitive idea that things would make more sense, mathematically speaking, if it is.

In this way, we can see that my commenter was using a certain theory of "scientism" in order to create a dogmatic idea of what science should believe, not actually what it claims to be able to prove.

The Renaissance philosophers were also trying to reach some sort of theory of the world by trying to explain certain types of observations, often trying to explain phenomenon that we to this day cannot explain. Why are birds able to migrate across entire continents after only having been to a certain place once or twice? Why do sunflowers turn towards the sun in their budding stage?

How affected are we human animals by these phenomena?

Another example is the ancient intuition that the universe is composed of a ratio of numbers, going back to Pythagoras and beyond. What is the nature of this order that surrounds us? Why is it that there is a poetry built into creation, a sense of patterns that occur over and over again in all things?

Recently, I have read an interesting excerpt from Pope Benedict's recent encyclical, Spe Salvi. In it, he writes:

In this regard a text by Saint Gregory Nazianzen is enlightening. He says that at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ. This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today. It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.

I can accept that Christ conquered the demons of the air by His ascension into Heaven. I can accept that the universe is governed by a personal God who cannot be manipulated and not supernatural forces that are to be read into all events. But do these conclusions thus silence the cosmos forever? Does this make the idea of God as a detached watchmaker far more palatable for the Christian imagination?

It is arguable that the goals of many Renaissance Neoplatonists was not to advance the march of secular philosophy, but rather to detain it. The Middle Ages created the dilemma of the existence of two sometimes opposing truths: one for theology and one for science. These philosophers sought a way to reconcile this dualism that they did not create but was already there. Sometimes it took the form of natural magic, such as Ficino's astrology or the famous experiments of many now respected scientists concerning alchemy. Sometimes it was in recovering ancient texts, such as those of Plato and Hermes Trimegistus. But through all of it, there was a sense that the goal of human thought, to cite Nicholas of Cusa, is not to define but rather to invoke. We do not own the truth, but we rather witness its manifestations and behold its splendor.

And for me, that is a profoundly Christian, and dare I say, traditional project.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Philip Glass' Early Days

From a 2005 documentary

Sunday, December 09, 2007

De Musica

But let us return to the proposition that music consists first in the ratio, second in the fantasy, third in speech, followed by song, making music with the fingers, the music of the whole body in gymnastics or in dance.... The Pythagoreans, the Platonists, Mercurius, Aristoxenus - they all say that the soul and body of the world and of all animals consist in musical ratios. Even the sacred writings of the Hebrews hold that God disposes all things in number, weight, and measure.

-Marsilio Ficino, De Vita Coelitus Comparanda

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Si ociosa no, asistió naturaleza
Incapaz a la tuya, oh gran Señora,
Concepción limpia, donde ciega ignora
Lo que muda admiró de tu pureza.

Díganlo, oh Virgen, la mayor belleza
Del día, cuya luz tu manto dora,
La que calzas nocturna brilladora,
Los que ciñen carbunclos tu cabeza.

Pura la Iglesia ya, pura te llama
La Escuela, y todo pío afecto sabio
Cultas en tu favor da plumas bellas

¿Qué mucho, pues, si aun hoy sellado el labio,
Si la naturaleza aun hoy te aclama
Virgen pura, si el sol, luna y estrellas?

-Luis de Góngora y Argote

Thursday, December 06, 2007

On Vision, the Finite and the Infinite

Cusanus proposes that man must first accept the fact that no overlap can exist between the finite and the infinite. Accepting this separation allows the possibility of seeing the One in the many and the many in the One. In De Visione Dei, Cusanus sees the resolution of universal and particular exemplified in Rogier van der Weyden's self-portrait. The eyes of the sitter, following both stationary and moving observers, are coinstantaneously fixed upon one viewer and all others, taking part, in synchronous fashion, in the movement of one and all. Cusanus says that we can know the divine when (in a manner similar to the self-portrait) we begin to approach God from infinitely multiple points of view, collecting these views in a unified vision, a visio intellectualis. True knowledge then, lies in accepting particularity and "allowing it to unfold in all its richness." But even all this does not mean that we have mediated the difference between the finite and the infinite. Cusanus believed that any process beginning in the empirical would end in the empirical. To overcome this, we must replace the empirical with the spiritual, the spiritual universal content of humanity. Cusanus saw this universal content embodied in Christ, a natura media encompassing the finite and the infinite.

-Robert D. Huerta, Vermeer and Plato: Painting the Ideal

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fragments from Recent Correspondence

...I really enjoyed my time as an Anglican (if I could use that word). After the whole religious roller coaster ride of my youth, it let my mind air out a bit. But that is all that I really felt that I got: air. There was never anything really substantial there, and maybe I was doing all of it for the wrong reasons (a potential vocation, perhaps?) I just really needed a place where I could think things over, and distance myself from an institution (the Catholic Church) that I felt had "burned me" in a manner of speaking. Now I am fine with it. I suppose that if you're English, Anglicanism has a different feel. Since I was raised in a culturally Catholic enviorment, it was always going to be odd, so I "went home".

Truth be told, I enjoy now going into churches and knowing that whatever happens, the Church is no longer "my business". It must be that way for people who manage restaurants. If they go into another restaurant to eat, they might be too preoccupied about the running of the place to enjoy the dining experience. I used to feel that way about church, and maybe that is why I liked small venues. Now, however, I am comfortable just being a "pew warmer", one who merely gets what he needs out of church and then leaves...

Only once in a great while do I feel nostalgia for the religious life. Usually it's when I'm alone or riding the bus. I really can't connect any of those things to what my life is like now. I guess in a manner of speaking I just hide these things in my heart. I don't wish for such silly things as "more time for prayer" since having had periods in my life where I could pray for hours, I know that I will just squader them. I suppose even now all I wish for is a thankful and loving heart, and that can be obtained anywhere.

It is a funny creature, this eternity of ours. I used to wish that I would make an impact on history by becoming a great theologian, priest, or spiritual father. But now I realize how small everything is. And fleeting. "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing." This condition of creaturehood, this coldness, this helplessness, this searching for warmth and a kind smile in the sea of life is my only consolation now. If anything, in some small way, I wish to evoke this thankfulness in everything I write, say, and do. And I hope that when the sun sets on this little universe known as "Arturo Vasquez", I will be able to thank all who I have loved and who have loved me, and with a glimmer in my eye, to exit, until at last all of these little universes connect into the heart of the Most Holy Trinity.

Oh well, I just felt like being gushy...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

El Justo Juez

Does anyone have any knowledge of the history of this particular image of the crucifixion, known in Spanish as the "Justo Juez" or the Just Judge? I grew up seeing it, but I don't really know where it came from or the symbolism behind it. Any info would be appreciated, even tangential, anecdotal stories. I am especially relying on my readers who have some knowledge of Spanish/Filipino Catholicism.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress

On Saturday I went to see the San Francisco Opera production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. His first opera and a masterpiece of his neo-classical period, this production was set in 1930’s America and not seventeenth century England, and was full of entertaining special effects (such as an inflatable movie set trailer). Robert Lepage must be commended for the mise en scene and Donald Runnicles for the superb musical execution.

Above you can see and hear Dawn Upshaw’s performance of Anne Trulove’s famous aria from this opera. It was sung superbly on Saturday by Laura Aiken. William Burden was also competent in his portrayal of the protagonist, Tom Rakewell.

The actual theme of The Rake’s Progress combines comedic and Faustian overtones. Basically, the story is that boy meets girl, boy wins fortune and goes to the city, boy loses girl, boy loses fortune, boy almost loses soul and does lose his mind, and gets girl in the end when it’s too late (whew!) The moral is that idle hands and quick fortunes are not the surest way to prosper in life. The work is a collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden, who wrote the superb libretto. Both were trying to return to a simpler classicism in a fresh and pleasing way, and the work is a delight throughout.

In the program notes, I thought this quote by Stravinsky was especially illuminating:

In fact, these great [musical] progressivists sought to abolish or transform the very clichés I had tried to re-establish, though my restitutions were by no means intended to supersede their now conventionalized reforms.

Indeed, one can make too much of revolutions and innovations. I feel much sympathy with being a “curmudgeonly contrarian” as Auden is described in the program notes. If there is a problem with art these days, it is that it is too ideological and too obsessed with being “original” or “transgressive”. In Stravinsky’s music or Auden’s libretto, one feels the simple delight of unpretentious creation, without the self-consciousness of being an “innovator”. That attitude would be a healthy one in many facets of our lives.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Comment

I sometimes hang out at the Reformed Catholicism blog. Tim Enloe recently wrote this piece about the Pope being God in some medieval writings. Read the original post. Then you can read my comment, which I reproduce in its entirety here. (Hey, I gotta post something.)

I found this post very interesting, particularily since I have read many books on Neoplatonism lately. I would like to think that it is clear for most Catholics that Jesus Christ is the One to which all must return, and it is the Pope’s duty to facilitate that return. I don’t think the whole balance between the One and the Many can be adequately obtained in real life; many Orthodox theologians claim that this is the reason they do not accept the modern Papacy as well. But all of the jurisdictional squabbles, moral ambiguity, and ethnocentrism in Orthodoxy often mean that plurality often wins out over unity. The Neoplatonic categories are too neat to apply to everyday life.

As a Roman Catholic, I will say that I DO NOT believe that the Pope is God on earth. The Church as the Body of Christ is God on earth, and the Eucharist is the image and the promise of that presence; the Church as a whole is the light of glory and the pillar and the ground of Truth. I think the equation of God’ presence to the Pope’s authority is limited to a very few individuals during certain polemics with you Protestants. If anything, the Catholics I admire would think that their crucifix or their image of the Virgin of Guadalupe represents more the presence of the Divine in their daily lives, not the Pope. I think that the slow receding of “superstitious popery” (rosary beads, statues, novenas, etc.) facilitates a Newman-like scenario where one tries to justify doctrines and beliefs one is not really comfortable with, such as the intercession of the saints or purgatory. A son of a farmer in the Mexican countryside who becomes a priest and a theologian would have never formulated the development of doctrine because for him, the Church had always been one.

(My mother, when she first came to this country, used to make the Sign of the Cross everytime she passed a church, even if it was Protestant, since she did not know that there was any other church other than the Catholic Church.)

Authority, then, becomes the ultimate arbitor of what is Catholic. Since one is not comfortable with praying a Hail Mary or kissing the hand of an ecclesiastic, one has to justify it to oneself by saying that it’s somehow okay since the authority of the Church says it is. As if it was the Church hierarchy that invented these things. I am beginning to think this is untenable for a variety of reasons. Authority only becomes a refuge when daily life, the ethos of how the Gospels are historically read, comes into crisis.

I have been thinking recently that many of the things that you Protestants find objectionable were not the inventions of Popes or bishops, but rather practices that emerged in the lives of average layfolk that the Church hierarchy only approved of ex post facto. I can’t see how the intercession of the saints, for example, emerged from some sort of scholarly debates about Scriptures, but rather from our Catholic and very human habit of talking to dead loved ones. This happened with certain individuals, mostly martyrs, and the prayers worked. (That is what is often left out of these apologetic conversations: when we pray for the intercession of the saints, they respond. Just last month, I prayed to St. Joseph, and he came through.) The hierarchy saw some precedent in the Scriptures, and deemed it was okay to do this.

Sometimes authority has to step in and say what the layfolk are doing is not okay, like the recent condemnation by the hierarchy in Mexico of the cult to “la Santa Muerte”, the Grim Reaper, which is just unjustified superstition. But as in the approbation of Marian apparitions, the hierarchy only says that it is permissible to believe in them, and they prove no harm to the Faith. Again, I reiterate, the hierarchy does not create our religion; it regulates it. I like our current Pope, for example, since he is trying to give more deference to organically evolved liturgical practices over the practices created in the 1960’s by panels of “experts”.

In the end, I am not an enthusiastic advocate of the development of doctrine since I don’t think history is all that neat. If anything, I understand it more as “punctuated equilibrium”: new understandings and practices emerge all of a sudden, with some gaps in “development” and may (emphasis on “may”) look radically different from what came before. (Though one would have to ask to what extent historical imagination plays in all of this.) I don’t think this is particularily scandalous since this is how life is. In this case, one has to trust the “authority” of the Church, the whole Church, and defer to the way of life it passes down to us, from dipping our hand in the holy water font when we enter a church to listening to the Urbi et Orbi speech on Christmas and Easter (though that is far more recent). For me, that is the way to “read” the Gospel; in the context of the greater historical and spatial reality of the Body of Christ, not in the illusion of my own ideal of what the Church should be like.

My main problem with Protestantism, then, is also one of authority. You feel yourselves free to re-invent the wheel everytime you deem it convenient or desirable. Up to very recently, we Roman Catholics were quite conservative bunch in this regard. (I think it was the “devil incarnate” himself, Blessed Pius IX, who when it was suggested that St. Joseph’s name be inserted into the Canon of the Mass, objected that he could do no such thing, since he was only the Pope.) I don’t object to “private judgement”; I object to private judgement when it is accompanied by absolute authority to negate and destroy. That is why I find Protestantism so unappealing, and dare I say it, irrational.

And that is why, even if I have a thousand difficulties with Church, I would never leave it, since that would mean I would trust myself over and above the cloud of witnesses that has shined throughout history. And in my book, that is making me God over and above them.