Monday, May 31, 2010

This life can be so wonderful. To think of nothing weightier than accomplishing the day's task, to observe a baby's wonder at the spinning of a little paper windwheel, to savour the rich taste of kielbasa in one's sandwich, and to look forward to a warmly lit room with one's heart warmly lit by beer and fellowship. Surely these are the best things!

Yet, I can remember an afternoon, with my first cousin twice removed sitting in my lap as we read a story together. We were warm in the chair, as I read her a fairytale from an ornate, leatherbound volume. The rain pattered a pleasant tattoo on the roof, and the soft touch of our chenile blanket was like Heaven. The story was interrupted abruptly, as three year olds tend to end all their activites, and so I went to the kitchen to enjoy a cup of cinammon tea. To be warm and dry while the rain fell without gave me the kind of comfort bestowed by a Psalm or an Irish drinking song. Yet...

I drew closer to the window, my reflection disappearing as I leaned forward to glimpse the pewter darkness beyond the pane.

'What choo lookin' at, Rachel?' Elaine inquired in her sweet, piping voice. I turned my eyes across the broad field neighbouring our sweet yellow home towards the naked, great pines lining its eastern border, a sable vanguard against the umbrous clouds. I looked to the north. The maples' leaves turned over in the wind, revealing their silver underlining in ripples of shimmering brilliance.

I opened the door. The smell of wet rock and earth flooded my nostrils, and the mixture of the summer's heat, imbued with the wet cool of the storm enveloped me. Elaine raised her blonde eyebrows and gave me a quizzical look with her brown green eyes.

'Let's go out in the rain,' I said and made a flying leap into the downpour, leaving a sceptical child at the door. Gone was the warm comfort of the tea, and I was soon wet through. Onto the spongy lawn I trod, dancing about with no music but the rhythm of my blood, longing to be one with the heartbeat of all things. Gone was the desire for individual security and protection, only the wild desire for All remained, to bring every potency into act and to make a moment into forever. I turned with a laugh to see that Elaine had joined me, turning about with her arms outspread and also laughing.

Later, slipping on fresh, dry clothes, which brought comfort to my damp, chill skin as potent as a narcotic thrill, I admitted to myself that I wanted both. My individuality and unity with something greater. The security of community and the harrowing journey of solitude. I wanted home, and I wanted the epic.

Fiction is of course no help for resolving the dilemma. Dorothy of Kansas and Oz returned home after admitting there was no other place like it. Odysseus returned to Ithaca a thoroughly humbled man, and exalted his Penelope above any of the goddesses whose beds he had shared. Yet, Thumbelina never returned home. She became the queen of the flower elves, and Frodo Baggins departed to Valinor, his beloved Shire having failed to heal his wounds. The morals of poetry are cloven in two. One party cries out for the simplicity of the heart, and the other chants the praises of higher, greater things. One says this life is good, and so be content. The second says this life will end; do something that will echo into eternity.

The reasonable, balanced man would likely say that neither of these two extremes are perfectly right, nor completely wrong. The first lacks truth, and is inclined towards the bigotry of personal and familial interest. Tea Party affiliates of the United States do not wish to dominate foreign politics, nor would they assist foreign countries out of any kind of charity.

The second division lacks humility, and is too inclined to push the interests of what it thinks is right. It is the grand empire that would aristocratically see the oneness of all men and dictate unto them broad-mindedly, but it would also insist on their adherence to this greater whole. The coldness of this form would be willing to sacrifice the small for the great, individual lives for generations not even in existence.

G. K. Chesterton, a hobbit in ways and a wizard in mind, said that he hoped to see somewhere in the Eternal Jersualem an object with the familiar, homely semblance of a lampost. No doubt this was the quotation that prompted C. S. Lewis to include so random, yet wonderful, an object in his mythical realm of Narnia. When the hero of Tolkien's autobiographical allegory, an artist named Niggle, stepped out of the Purgatorial Workhouse on his way to Heaven, he saw a polished, brilliantly coloured train waiting him for at the station.

These men with such epic, grand tastes shared the desire to somehow reconcile the two opposing views just related. To have the peasant in his colourful, cheery garb sit at board with the solemn, erudite sage trimmed in ermine--to have Molly Malone breaking bread congenially with Aristotle. The writers mentioned wanted a common ground which embarrassed neither party, and did not attempt to mix the brilliant black and white of their aspirations into a dirty, mottled grey.

Can man's condition allow for this? Is it possible to throw one's self into the wild, climbing the mountain towards enlightenment, going farther and farther beyond all known boundaries, and at last, when one drops to his knees in exhaustion, to look up and see the warm light of a fire beckoning him through curtained windows of an ornate, gaily painted pub? To travel to distant realms, striving to rise above one's own culture in search of common humanity, and then suddenly to be clapped on the shoulder by someone with a smiling face who inexplicably knows your name?

One must sojourn through this life, with all its imperfections and disappointments, only to endure the agony of death however it comes. We shall fall into that state utterly naked and alone in spirit, if not in flesh as well, and watch the world fall away from us, existence fall away from us. At His own moment of darkness, the most resigned, detached Teacher this world has ever known cried out, 'My God, My God, why hast Thou abandoned Me?'

Is it possible, or is it the most nefarious joke ever played on man, that after this dreadful moment, the soul that chose Goodness in her life, will realize that she has just now begun to live in the truest sense of the word? After the weariness of life, will she have strength for eternity? Will she even want what awaits her, namely the contemplation of Mystery beyond our understanding, the Beatific Vision?

According to Tennyson (and many others concur), the aged Odysseus, as he surveyed the state he had built after returning home from war, was satisfied with what he would leave behind. But he was not satisfied with what would be his end. He suddenly discovered that he had not drunk 'life to the lees,' that there was use yet in his wits and limbs, and beyond him there was a world which he could sometimes glimpse, but never fully contemplate. He longed to find this world.

His military companions long dead, Odysseus gathers his friends: his beloved Penelope, the old farm hands, the faithful servants, all that is left of the elderly in his househole, and makes for the ships. This time he shall not return to Ithaca:

...for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses)

This life cannot make one perfectly happy. Even if one could possess all the goods tallied up to provide joy, bliss would still be imperfect. St. Teresa of Avila once observed:

The third property of water is that it satisfies and quenches the thirst; for it seems to me, that thirst implies the desire of something we stand much in need of, and which, if it cannot possibly be obtained, kills us. (Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection)

We thirst for adventure and long for security. We fear death and pale at the eternal. Our hearts are set on the temporal, which we wish to endure forever. Man wants to know what is at the bottom of all existence, but can an effect hope or even desire to know its Cause?

Over a millenium after the Philosopher's flesh was swept into dust, centuries after the Son rose in the East and set the West aflame, a big, lumbering man was sitting on a hard bench in a stony cell. Whether he wrote by a shard of sun or the aureole of a candle, his own illuminated mind brought forth these words:

Respondeo: as stated before, our end (i.e., the purpose of humanity) is twofold.

Did he pause after that? Or did he scribble on furiously?

First, there is the thing itself which we desire to attain...Secondly there is the attainment or possession, the use or enjoyment of the thing desired. In the first sense, then, man's last end is the uncreated good, namely. God, Who alone by His infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man's will. But in the second way, man's last end is something created, existing (in him, and this is nothing else than the attainment or enjoyment of the last end. Now the last end is called happiness. (Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundae Partis: Question III, Article i)

So God will give us Himself, but in what way? So that we can truly contemplate His infinity? His eternity?

Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence. To make this clear, two points must be observed. First, that man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek: secondly, that the perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object. Now the object of the intellect is...the essence of a thing...Wherefore the intellect attains perfection, in so far as it knows the essence of a thing... Consequently, when man knows an effect, and knows that it has a cause, there remains in the man the desire to know about the cause...and this desire is one of wonder, and causes inquiry...

If therefore the human intellect, knowing the essence of some created effect, knows no more of God than "that He is"; the perfection of that intellect does not yet reach simply the First Cause, but there remains in it the natural desire to seek the cause. Wherefore it is not yet perfectly happy. Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. (Summa Theologiae: Prima Secundae Partis, Question III, Article viii)

The atheist and fabulous mystery novelist, Colin Dexter, wrote through the lips of his irascible hero, Inspector Morse, these poignant words: 'I wish to God there was a God. A just God, dealing out judgement and mercy.' In the end, we all admit in our moments of sincerity that we want an explanation for existence. At the last, after all of man's inhumanity to man, we want someone who can show us the tapestry that will finally allow us to forgive evildoers completely, embracing existence with renewed joy. In a world of such horrors, we want there to be something so Beautiful behind it all that It would annihilate ugliness. We want it, we want it. Oh God! can we have it?

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The Problem of Infinity: Do We Wish to Be Made for It? by Rachel Rudd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Warsaw, Poland
Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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