#39 — Destroying Frescoes of Happiness

The tendency to spread evil beyond oneself

In 1715, officials transferred Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch from its location at the Kloveniersdoelen, which served as rehearsal grounds for local militia, to the Amsterdam Town Hall. These officials wanted to place the painting between two columns.

The problem was, it wouldn’t fit. So they did the obvious. They trimmed it.

17th century copy with indication of the areas cut down in 1715. || Image from Wikimedia

Such a cavalier attitude toward art is completely unthinkable today. Modern cultures value historical works of art and go to great lengths to protect and preserve them.

Taliban destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan || Image from Wikimedia

When the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001, the world decried the destruction of art of such historic value — an artifact of the world cultural heritage. Prior to the destruction, a delegation offered something of a ransom for the statues, offering to pay the Taliban not to destroy them.

I am horrified at these acts of destruction, but how often do I commit worse acts with my words? Weil writes,

The tendency to spread evil beyond oneself: I still have it! Beings and things are not sacred enough to me. May I never suely anything even though I be utterly transformed into mud. To sully nothing, even in thought. Even in my worse moments I would not destroy a Greek statue or a fresco by Giotto. Why anything else then? Why, for example, a moment in the life of a human being who could have been happy for that moment? (49)

Cutting someone down with a comment or a gesture is infinitely easier and quicker dynamiting statues or trimming canvases, and what I’m cutting when I do that — a soul — is vastly more precious than even the most beautiful creation of humanity. Why am I so willing to do this while I’d never think of destroying this or that painting, this or that sculpture? Perhaps it has to do with the ease and the lack of immediate visible consequence. An injured soul reveals itself only in the eyes, in the tone of voice, in a slumped posture, and it can skillfully hide the injuries behind a mask.

#38 — Imagination and Void

Parched

Parched by BenedictFrancis

The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass (62).

Augustine famously said of God in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are rest-less till they find their rest in you.” Others have simply reformulated this as the “God-shaped hole,” the “terrifying bottomless abyss opening up inside us which we would do anything to fill” (Source). Yet perhaps Weil’s vision is a little more apt: it’s not a single hole, but a series of fissures that permeate our whole existence. That goes a long way in explaining why we’re so apt at blocking the various graces that we experience on a daily basis. We’re like kids with buckets of mud after an earthquake, trying to seal this crack, that fissure with something completely inadequate.

As alluded to earlier, Father Robert Barron rightly compares the substitutes with which we fill these holes to addictions. The analogy couldn’t be more apt. Addictions control us; we react without thinking through our conditioned addictions, and that false consistency — always “knowing” how to respond — gives us some sort of emotional comfort that accompanies the physical or psychological “comfort” that most addictions provide. And yet it is our addictions that close us off from so many positives in the world. Indeed, addiction in its severest form can become our world, at which point I suppose we’re living our whole life in a small little crack through which grace could enter.

#37 — Void and Evil

The world must be regarded as containing something of a void in order that it may have need of God. That presupposes evil (56).

The problem of evil for many is the single most convincing argument for an atheistic stance. Dr. Peter Kreeft, of Boston College, writes, “The problem of evil is the most serious problem in the world. It is also the one serious objection to the existence of God.” He continues,

More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief. And it’s not just an intellectual objection. We feel it. We live it.

Standford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it thus:

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

The problem of evil has a mirror image, though I didn’t see it for many years. For many years, I encountered only the standard responses about the limits of human knowledge and “the best of all possible worlds” argument. Then there are the theodicies, which all reduce down to the proposition that freedom of will necessitates the option to do evil. But the flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of good: if things are the result of atheistic chance, why is there beauty, and relatively speaking, so much of it? Indeed, humans seem obsessed with the creation of beauty, though we don’t always agree with the definition of “beauty” — especially in the case of modern art.

Thus, in a sense, Weil’s words constitute a kind of theodicy in miniature. Evil has often been described as a void, as a privation of good — and thus, having no real existence. It’s the absence of good. That does little to explain why a loving God wouldn’t do something about the evil that seems to suffuse the world, but it does reframe the issue in a way that puts evil in the proper relation to good: a void.

#35 — Beauty and the Soul

Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.

At the very core, all forms of beauty are the same. A lovely painting, the smile of a child, a moving piece of music, an animal in motion, gripping poetry, a bright orange sunset, fluid dance, and all other forms of beauty act upon the human heart similarly. Even in the most fleeting beauty, there’s a sense of timelessness and eternity. That paradox explains why we simultaneously assume the beauty is eternal and feel a pang of remorse from the nagging sense that it can’t possibly last.

My daily experiences with the beauty of my children are an incarnation of that paradox. They seem always to be changing, and the beauty of that moment is always so short as they learn more, master more, question more.

#34 — Chance and Meeting

“We want everything that has value to be eternal.”

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“Now everything that has a value is the product of a meeting, lasts throughout this meeting, and ceases when those things which  met are separated.”

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“That is the central idea of Buddhism (the thought of Heraclitus). It leads straight to God.”

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“Meditation on the chance which led to the meeting of my father and mother is even more salutary than meditation on death.”

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“Is there a single ting in me of which the origin is not to be found in that meeting? Only God. And yet again, my thought of God had its origin in that meeting.”

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And looking at our children, I have to think it was more than chance that led to my and Kinga’s meeting, but doesn’t every parent think that?

#33 — Is and Is Not

If God is, then everything else is not, writes Weil:

If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought. And this knowledge is extended to your sensibility only through suffering and death (84).

If God is, then everything else — including our suffering and death — is not. It’s a paradox of monotheism in general and Christianity in particular: when we speak of “God being,” we’re not using the verb “to be” in the same sense we do when speaking of our everyday reality. God’s “is” is not the “is” of the book that “is on my table.” God’s “is” is the “is” — the ground of every other “is,” and perhaps more appropriate written “Is.” Thomas Halik, explaining Meister Eckhart’s thought, expresses it thus:

He is “nothing” in a world of beings, because God is not a being among beings. And Eckhart goes on to declare that you must become “nothing” if you wish to encounter him. If you want to be “something” (that is, mean something, have something, know something, in short, be fixated on individual beings and the world of things), then you are not free to encounter Him (Night of the Confessor, 22).

God’s “is” can only be thought to be “nothing” in terms of our “is” because His is outside ours, the grounding of ours, the “Is.” Thus God gives Moses the name, “I Am.”

#31 — Monstrous Trinity

Money, mechanization, algebra. The three monsters of contemporary society.

I was never really all that comfortable with math. One would think, given the turn my theological predilections in my mid-twenties, that I would eventually have changed my mind on the topic. Not so. Math and I simply don’t get along.

Conceptually, it’s very appealing: no gray, all black and white. No maybes in math — unless there’s uncertainty in abstract math, which I can paradoxically both imagine and not imagine. The suggestion that it could be a monster of contemporary society strikes me as perhaps the first (coming 95% into the book) and only joke in the entire work. That it comes so late and stands alone as the sole example of humor makes me think perhaps she wasn’t joking.

One could argue that there is a clear line between the three in contemporary society: complex math leads to greater mechanization, which leads to a greater divide between the human producer and the money produced. That’s a very Marxist filter, though, and I’m not sure Weil would approve: she became increasingly critical of Marx as she entered her thirties.

And quite frankly, as I was last night, I’m too tired to think more of it. Oh for the end of Lent and 40 things…

#28 — Chance and Good

Beauty is the harmony of chance and the good.

The element of chance in our lives would probably overwhelm us if we knew its extent. A decision not to go with a newly-founded school’s students on a field trip to the Baltic might lead to a chance invitation to a bar where one meets a new friend. A chance meeting of one’s student with the friend’s neighbor might get you both invited to an eventual wedding, where one suddenly discovers that the friend is really someone more wonderful than one imagined.

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And from that string of chance — or is it more? — comes good. And so beauty.

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A chance walk on an uncommonly warm February day might lead to a meeting that leads to a dear friend.

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#27 — Monotony of Evil

Monotony comes in many forms.

Monotony of evil: never anything new, everything about it is equivalent. Never anything real, everything about it is imaginary.

It is because of this monotony that quantity plays so great a part. A host of women (Don Juan) or of men (Celimene), etc. One is condemned to false infinity. That is hell itself.

This is becoming one of those forms.

#26 — Eternity

Stars and blossoming fruit trees: Utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity.

How can utter fragility provide a sense of eternity? I’ve sat and thought about that for a while, and it seems one of those things that I understand intuitively but am unable to put into words. The fact that it could pass out of existence at any moment fixes it firmly to that moment, but eternity doesn’t seem to be about moments — it appears to be the opposite, in fact. Yet the usual way of thinking of eternity is to imagine it as infinite moments, one after another, in a never-beginning, never-ending line. Indeed, a line in the strictest geometrical definition. That’s the paradox of eternity: it’s every moment in a never-ending moment.

It is a succession of spring blossoms under an unchanging blanket of constellations.

#24 — Time and Incarnation

There is always a relationship with time to be taken into account. We must get rid of the illusion of possessing time. We must become incarnate.

The desire to possess time and the realization that it’s an utter impossibility is one of the marks of the transition to adulthood we all go through. It was a troubling time for me, as it is for most, because it means, on some level, the relinquishing of the idea of eternal youth. Perhaps that’s what the acceptance of one’s on mortality is about in some way.

It’s just this desire to possess time that Adam Duritz sings about in “A Long December,” a song that haunted me as I thought about things past that would never return.

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass

We can’t hold on to these or any other moments, and the continual effort to do so would only be a sign that we’re not maturing, emotionally or spiritually.

#23 — Creation

Creation: good broken up into pieces and scattered throughout evil.

Some days, I hate my job. That’s nothing new, I guess, but some days, working with over a hundred eighth-graders and dealing with all their hormone-driven nonsense, feeling that the evil — for lack of a better term, though it is hyperbolic — vastly outweighs the good, pondering whether teaching is not “good broken up into pieces and scattered throughout evil,” I want to stand up and say something like this:

I don’t care. I don’t care who called you a name. I don’t care who’s tapping a pencil and bothering you. I don’t care if you left your pencil in your last class. I don’t care if you didn’t have a pencil to begin with. I don’t care if you think last night’s baseball game was great. I don’t care if you’ve lost your book. I don’t care if you like someone. I don’t care if someone teased you about your haircut. I don’t care if you forgot to do your homework. I don’t care if you left your book at home. I don’t care if you don’t like someone. I don’t care if someone beside you passed gas. I don’t care who’s spreading rumors about you. I don’t care if the person seated behind you is tapping your desk with her foot. I don’t care if someone told you shut up. I don’t care if you’ll forget what you were going to say if you don’t say it now, to someone seated on the other side of the room. I don’t care if someone made a comment about your shoes. I don’t care if someone threatened to pour milk on your head. I don’t care if you wanted to talk to him. I don’t care if you don’t want to work with him or with her. I don’t care if someone made a joke about your grades. I don’t care if you needed some attention and so continually cut up in class. I don’t care if someone threw your book in the garbage on the way out. I don’t care about any of your childish, kindergarten problems.

All of these statements have been true. Sometimes many of them have been true at the same moment; at other times, only a handful. Usually, the moment passes and I remember that I do care. Of course, some of these things are so trivial that my concern matches their triviality, but I think you’re still too young to understand that fully. Still, the moment most of them become true most of the time or, heaven forbid, all of them are true all of the time will be the moment I realize I must leave teaching.

I thought for a moment this afternoon that that was the case.