Merton Paper, Intro

Here’re the first paragraphs of the introduction to my new Merton paper, “Under a Doom-shaped Sky, Or Hats off to the Human Condition”.  The paper discusses Merton’s book-length poem, Cables to the Ace.  There are a couple of qualifying footnotes to these paragraphs, but I have omitted them.



Worship is a norm of human life.  Merton knew this–knew what David Foster Wallace knew when he later commented:  “Everybody worships.”  Merton’s alternative title for Cables is Some Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding.  —Liturgies because human life lives up to its nature almost always already in this one respect:  it is worshipful.  The question is not typically whether it is worshipful, but what is worshipped, and even more, how it is worshipped–because here the how determines the what. Merton’s poem repeats the basic structure of liturgy; it is loosely composed of litanies, entrances, hymns, homilies, etc.  –Merton’s poem is familiar liturgies in two senses.  First, it is largely, almost entirely in the vernacular.  And, second, and more important, because what it liturgizes is modern life, our ordinary life (despite the fifty years between the poem’s publication and now).  Even those parts of the poem hard to understand create the nagging feel of a song you recognize but cannot name. The words of Cables are on the tips of our tongues. –The poem is familiar liturgies of misunderstanding because the liturgies are wrong–worshipful in the wrong way, worshipful of the wrong object.  And because they are, they are display the way our lives are down-destroyed instead of upbuilt by our life, our life with our language, a life we cannot avoid, even in silence.  These are liturgies of deformation, not of formation. They are the bad news; they are the tidings of unhope.

Let me start by dwelling on that last point.  Christian liturgy upbuilds. That is not all it does, of course.  Its intentional structure is worshipful, worshipful of the triune God.  Participants in it are thus ordered toward God, not toward themselves.  But in virtue of participating in what is ordered toward God, they are themselves ordered toward God, and such ordering is always upbuilding. Now, this is not two different intentional structures, a worshipful one and an upbuilding one.  It is one structure that has a particular effect on its participants in virtue of their participation.  To the extent that we enter into the how of the liturgy, we reach toward its what, its object, but participating in the how also changes our what, what we are.  Participant liturgical knowledge is connatural knowledge–and that is a bit of grammar.  We become what we know and know what we become:  blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

This is importantly reverse-true of what Merton takes to be our familiar, unChristian liturgies, our liturgies of misunderstanding. Cursed are the impure in heart, for they shall see UnGod, Gog or Magog, the False. Our participation in these liturgies results in our deformation.  We become what we ‘know’ and ‘know’ what we become.  Connatural ‘knowledge’, in this case, is damning ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowing’ nothing we hasten our own nothingness.

Florovsky on the Apocalyptic Struggle

It is precisely because we are already engaged in the apocalyptic struggle that we are called upon to do work as theologians. Our task is to oppose the atheistic and anti-God attitude, which surrounds us like a viscosity, with a responsible and conscious profession of Christian truth… Unbelieving knowledge of Christianity is not objective knowledge, but rather some kind of anti-theology. There is in it so much passion, at times blind, often obscure and malignant… Here again, theology is called not only to judge, but also to heal. It is necessary to enter into this world of doubt, illusion and lies, in order to answer doubt as well as reproach. But we must enter into this world with the sign of the Cross in our heart and the name of Jesus in our spirit, because this is a world of mystical wanderings, where everything is fragmentalized, decomposed and refracted as it were through a set of mirrors.

In Statu Viae (MacKinnon)

…But this at least can be said without prolonged invasion of the theological field.  There is no escape at any point from the fear that our very seriousness about ourselves is sound and fury signifying nothing.  The medieval schoolmen would have said:  inevitably so, for man is poised between being and non-being; he draws his existence from the self-existent God.  The movement of human thought must reflect man’s situation in being.  Because he is poised between being and not being, he will never see his existence as something assured.  Again and again, in taking stock of himself, he will not find easily arguments which will assure him that his standing is secure.  At their wisest the schoolmen would never allow that by a formula we could somehow escape the most fundamental conditions of our existence.  In the end they would have said:  the proof of the pudding is in the eating; a necessary implication of their insistence on the primacy of being over thought.  And perhaps we must say the same.  There is no other proof possible that a seriousness in life is justified than is found in living.  One cannot by magic escape the conditions of humanity, assume the absolute perspective of God.  If it is better to arrive than to travel, we are still inescapably travelling in statu viae, to use the old phrase.  And our perspectives are necessarily those of travellers, at least for most of the time.  But there still remains a difference between the traveller who takes the measure of his road and the one who seeks to be oblivious of its windings.  –D. M. MacKinnon, “Death”

Is Stupidity a Sin? (St. Thomas)


Article II.–Is stupidity a sin?

R.  Stupidity implies a dulness of perception in judging, particularly about the Highest Cause, the Last End and Sovereign Good.  This may come of natural incapacity, and that is not a sin.  Or it may come of man burying his mind so deep in earthly things as to render his perceptions unfit to grasp the things of God, according to the text:  “The sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God;” and such stupidity is a sin.

2.  Though no one wishes to be stupid, still people do wish for what leads to stupidity, by withdrawing their thoughts from things spiritual and burying them in things of the earth.  So it is also with other sins; for the lustful man wants the pleasure to which the sin is attached, though he does not absolutely wish for the sin; for he would like to enjoy the pleasure without the sin.

A. E. Taylor on Bradley and Religion

Bradley on Purgatory

Possibly some of my readers who know Bradley only from his books may be surprised at a remark called from him by a passing reference in the same conversation to Purgatory. “But what do you mean by Purgatory? Does it mean that when I die I shall go somewhere where I shall be made better by discipline? If so, that is what I very much hope.” In another mood, no doubt, he might have dwelt on the intellectual difficulties in the way of such a hope, but it was characteristic, or at least I thought so, that he evidently clung to it.

Bradley the Mystic

Bradley’s own personal religion was of a strongly marked mystical type, in fact of the specific type common to the Christian mystics. Religion meant to him, as to Plotinus or to Newman, direct personal contact with the Supreme and Ineffable, unmediated through any forms of ceremonial prayer, or ritual, and like all mystics in whom this passion for direct access to God is not moderated by the the habit of organised communal worship, he was inclined to set little store on the historical and institutional element in the great religions.

Bradley on the Incarnation

Thus while the conception of the meeting of the divine and the human in one ‘by unity of person’ lay at the very heart of his philosophy, he was wholly indifferent to the question whether the ideal of the God-Man has or has not been actually realised in flesh and blood in a definite historical person. Like Hegel, he thought it the significant thing about Christianity that it had believed in the incarnation of God in a definite person, but also, like Hegel, he seemed to think it a matter of small importance that the person in which the ‘hypostatic union’ was believed to have been accomplished should be Jesus the Nazarene rather than any other, and again whether or not the belief was strictly true to fact. The important thing, to his mind, was that the belief stimulates to the attempt to the achievement of ‘deiformity’ in our own personality.

The God of the Philosophers (Herbert McCabe)

It is true that philosophers, generally speaking, are the most dogmatic of men, but they cannot claim any divine authority for their dogmatism.  The kind of philosophical reflection that is called “natural theology” exists because God made the world and men.  I think that this reflection can lead to the conclusion that there is a “beyond” that transcends all that we can know.  Broadly speaking, we look at the world and it has a created look about it, which is as far as we can go.  There used to be an idea (invented, I think, by Pascal) that the God of the philosophers was a different kind of being than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Now of course the God of the philosophers that Pascal had in mind may very well be different from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the God of my philosophy (and here I am at one with St. Thomas) is not well known enough to be different from Yahweh of the Old Testament.  Philosophy tells us almost nothing about God, certainly not enough to set up a rival religion.  –The New Creation

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