#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

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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.

#36 — Elevation and Abasement

It’s a great paradox of Christianity, and though it has its roots in Heraclitus, it echoes throughout the history of Christianity (and other religions).

Elevation and abasement. A woman looking at herself in a mirror and adorning herself does not feel the shame of reducing the self, that infinite being which surveys all things, to a small space. In the same way every time we raise the ego (the social ego, the psychological ego, etc.) as high as we raise it, we degrade ourselves to an infinite degree by confining ourselves to being more than that. When the ego is abased (unless energy tends to raise it by desire), we know we are not that.

A beautiful woman who looks at her reflection in the mirror can very well believe that she is that. An ugly woman knows that she is not that (79).

T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, phrases it, “The way up is the way down.”

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant-
Among other things – or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

He similarly begins one poem in the quartet with the line “In my beginning is my end” only to end the poem with its reversal, “In my end is my beginning.”

Arthur Bennet phrases it still differently:

Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Of course, it all has its roots in the Gospels. John 3:30 sums up the proper relationship succinctly: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Yet it’s not just in this one short passage that we see this paradox that the way down is the way up.

Amen, I say to you, that you, who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of his majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting. And many that are first, shall be last: and the last shall be first. (Matthew 19:28-30)

In case we didn’t quite get it, there’s a repetition a few verses later: “So shall the last be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). And in Mark, we read a negative re-statement: “Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (10:43, 44).

Yet what is appealing about this? Why do almost all religions include a sense that the way to true greatness for humanity is abasement? Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the hardest things to do as a human.

#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.

Sixth Sunday of Lent 2013

Palm Sunday is not supposed to be like this: rainy, cold, miserable. The expressions tell the whole story: we’re not pleased with the lack of spring. It makes the whole process somehow just a touch gray, literally and figuratively.

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It’s hard to smile when the temperature outside never rises above the low forties, and the rain has been puttering down, on and off, for three days.

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Even the Boy, not feeling 100%, got a bit of the Polish-American Gothic vibe.

 

#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…

#29 — Divided Intents

I’m certain that somewhere, in all the notebooks she kept, Simone Weil wrote something applicable to today, something that I could pair with the pictures of the Boy and the Girl playing on the kitchen floor, the Girl pretending to teach E how to bake.

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Perhaps she wrote something about the importance of play, the relationship of siblings, or something equally profound. She does seem only to write about profundity in the journal excerpts collected in Gravity and Grace. With a title like that, though, one could hardly expect much frivolity. And considering her biography, it’s hardly surprising.

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Still, it would have been convenient to look at the topical index and find “Play” instead of just topics like “Evil” and “Illusions” and “Self-Effacement.” How can I find any suitable quote from such topics to go along with the day’s pictures?

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Perhaps if she’d had kids…

#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.