Category: fire on the earth

heavenly priorities

Rowan Williams:

I have said that I think there is a strong case for the exclusion of the Moscow Patriarchate from the [World Council of Churches], and that they have a case to answer…

The archangel of Muscovy and that of Canterbury have a crisis meeting in the heavenly chambers.
“Your man has lost the plot.”
“I could say the same about yours.”
“Touché.”

a warrant and a warning

Wendell Berry:

I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.

Sirach 3:21:

Seek not out things that are too hard for thee, neither search the things that are above thy strength. But what is commanded thee, think thereupon with reverence, for it is not needful for thee to see with thine eyes the things that are in secret. Be not curious in unnecessary matters: for more things are shewed unto thee than men understand.

 

post-Christian

The importance of Chesterton was for me long ago secured, but seems to regularly grow again.

Just want to note the common-cause here between Taylor’s thesis on secularity—a (unholy.. holy?) bastard of isolated Christian impulses, reconfigurations, and elite-led reforms attempting to set incompatible great goods on new footings—and Chesterton’s.

But you can add Illich (the search for agapé-analogues once it has been unredeemably institutionalised) and DBH (the necessary purgatory of a world that created, and so in fullness of time was forced to kill, a purely voluntaristic god with his accompanying mechanistic universe) to the list.


Does such a post-Christian diagnosis require a post-modern-inflected pluralistic mindset?

Something (something deeply Chestertonian) seems lost if we lose a reading of secular history with declamations of spiritual infamy and whoredom, of national-betrayal and enemies-under-the-feet, the kind which animated Christendom and Israel for all those millennia prior to our—disconcertingly recent—moral enlightenment.

wendell’s shadow

Jesus Christ said “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him.’1


Wendell Berry ends his essay ‘A Native Hill‘ with a poignant and beautiful, and (to my eyes at least) *very* Jungian rumination on his Shadow’s relation to his personal myth—the myth whose content is the subject of the essay.

The ‘Hill’ of the title dances with the Woods and the Land itself as apparent symbols of Berry’s Self, of the Centre he has found in and on his hill.

He wishes to be “as peaceable as [his] land, which does no violence”, into this eternal hill he has happily found his mind bury “like a live root system”, “what might seem arbitrary or accidental” in the forest, “is included in the design of the whole; what might seem evil or violent is a comfortable member of the household.” Indeed, “where the creation is whole nothing is extraneous”.

“The hill is like an old woman, all her human obligations met who sits at work day after day, in a kind of rapt leisure, at an intricate embroidery. She has time for all things. Because she does not expect ever to be finished, she is endlessly patient with details. She perfects flower and leaf, feather and song, adorning the briefest life in great beauty as though it were meant to last forever”.


And here is that rumination on his new relation to his Shadow that all this movement toward and constellation of the Self in nature has wrought:

Every man is followed by a shadow which is his death– dark, featureless, and mute. And for every man there is a place where his shadow is clarified and is made his reflection, where his face is mirrored in the ground. He sees his source and his destiny, and they are acceptable to him. He becomes the follower of what pursued him. What hounded his track becomes his companion. That is the myth of my search and my return.

Such worlds and symbols as Berry moves between have things to teach us about the connection of our inner psychological or spiritual work (depending on our vocabulary and proclivities) to the place which, and the people who, we move among and over and through.

The porousness in his treatment of these (normally separated) domains is what, I think, lends the essay its slightly-unsettling intimacy. The work of the essay is like that of Old Woman Hill, mirroring a journey of internal revelation through outward symbolism without the reader perhaps releasing the embroidery the rapt prose is busy knitting him into.

This paragraph—and the lived-parable of Berry’s death and resurrection in the woods which follows—are the high points of that patient work. But I do not think Berry is at as much peace with his Shadow as it would have us believe. For earlier, speaking of the wanton violence and reckless unknowing placelessness of his direct ancestors, he says:

…to testify to the persistence of their influence, it is only necessary for me to confess that I read the Reverend Young’s account of them with delight; I yield a considerable admiration to the exuberance and extravagance of their fight with the firebrands; I take a certain pride in belonging to the same history and the same place that they belong to – though I know that they represent the worst that is in us, and in me, and that their presence in our history has been ruinous, and that their survival among us promises ruin.

This is the language of purity and totalising mortification, there is no accommodating of these impulse which does not lead to ruin. These fire-lit shadows are no longer “acceptable to him”, they still pursue him, they still hound his tracks. The economic and cultural “exuberance and extravagance” which defines Berry’s America seem to have no other place in his history than anathematisation, repentance, and rejection.

Does he carry the work of integration into these dark parts of his woods? Do the Kentucky firebrands ever come home? Or are they orphaned by Berry just as they were by history and by fate?

the fable of the bees

BEEHIVE. Woodcut, 19th century (Photos Framed, Prints, Puzzles, Posters,...) #12407722

Mandeville’s The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714) has stuck vaguely in my mind since a politics class in college for its notorious claim that “private vice is public virtue”. Said claim influenced key economic thinkers, including—perhaps most notably—Adam Smith.

I am no amateur of political theory1 and the text is satire, but the exact origin of the thought (that private and public virtue could be so related) matters little, there can be little argument that such is, in fact, how our liberal economic reality is structured.

And well, what did we think was going to happen? I guess I am shocked I didn’t raise my hand in the politics class and ask how anyone could ever be stultified enough to claim something so obviously wrong-headed and false?

How did we get there? And how have we persisted with the idea for so long? Perhaps (like most of history) it was (and is) simply a rationalisation of an order emerging from a higher power—and not the good kind either.

Perhaps there could be comfort in the thought that it has all been a joke taken too far, a satire the elites (or more likely, the Machine) picked up and ran with. A great or nefarious misunderstanding, but originally a perversion nonetheless.

Yet what kind of moral universe must one inhabit (or have created for oneself) such that you could reach the point of believing black bricks (not only can, but do!) make a white house? diseased organs a healthful body?

Berry:

We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

We have made “personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world” yes, and shamelessly too, but Berry and we can now see very clearly (with several centuries of hindsight) the flaw in the original economic architecture: it takes no concern for any reality outside the beehive. The ‘Great Economy’ of sun and flower and pollen in which the ‘Little Economy’ of the bee’s kingdom subsists.


And this egregious and absurd error has metastasised so far beyond all conceivable scope that an absurdity has occurred: the Fable has dissolved its own ground, the Fable has killed its very bees.

“How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?”… Where are those who killed the bees of the field?

to quest, or not to quest

I want to connect an older post from Jung with some Wendell Berry.

Jung:

Dear Frau V.. 15 December 1933

Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live.
One lives as one can.
There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one.
If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell yo what’s what.
Moreover this way fits in with the average way of mankind in general.
But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which s never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other.
If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious.
Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live.
And then you know, too that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing.
Sc as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have too much money long to spend in useless speculation.
But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.

With kind regards and wishes,
Yours sincerely,
C.G. Jung

Kingsnorth on Berry:

Wendell Berry’s formula for a good life and a good community is simple and pleasingly unoriginal:
Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbours.
Love your place. Stay in your place. Settle for less, enjoy it more.

Charles Taylor:

The modern ‘Maximal Demand’: “how to define our highest spiritual or moral aspirations for human beings, while showing a path to the transformation involved which doesn’t crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity”

In the nature of things, Christianity offers no global solution, no general organization of things here and now which will fully resolve the dilemma, and meet the maximal demand [in disagreement with Jung here]. It can only show ways in which we can, as individuals, and as churches, hold open the path to the fullness of the kingdom… we can’t exhibit fully what it means, lay it out in a code or a fully-specified life form, but only point to the exemplary lives of certain trail-blazing people and communities [this then is what is going on with Berry-peddlers].

There is a hard distinction running through spiritual thought (and hence, the church—or should that be the other way around?), a division of “spiritual attitude”, of “religious sensibility” as Taylor demarcates it—and Taylor is the only one I have seen name it and talk about it at any length. I returned to him in the course of writing this most, and gosh it’s all in there, or most of it anyway. I’ll have to return to him and follow up.

But I have only made the connection with both Jungian thought and Berry’s thought. It is a tension between ‘dwelling’ and ‘seeking’, and while Taylor (rightly) argues that those who flatten the reality of the two (something he accuses the doctrines of the western church of directly doing)—and hence drive self-understanding to the extremes—do a disservice to everyone involved, the distinction is remains stark in concrete lives and leaves uncomfortable (unanswerable?) questions for the individual.

I—like many—fall back on Rilke (although that is perhaps to already have foreclosed as a seeker!), “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer”.
Our lives, the families, churches and communities we create will be our answers.


“There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one. If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church”. Well one must ask, is that what we want? Is it up for debate? And if it is—in any given life—then the ‘questers’ seem to win by default.

Berry’s distinction between ‘Boomers’ (“those who rush through and past”)and ‘Stickers’ (“those who find a place and make it home”) runs uncomfortably close to this same duality—for ‘Questers’ inherently have a disconcerting affinity with the pathologies of modernity; limitless exploration, colonialism, individualism etc. But are Questers fundamentally a modern aberration? Or are they possessed of spiritual aspirations with their roots much deeper in both human history and the human psyche? Completely legitimate—and completely Christian—aspirations?

Eternal aspirations, the kind that the contingent revelations of scripture and church simply frame and reframe but neither create or direct? Taylor dates the division above to the start of modernity, around the time of the Reformation, but it surely goes further, much further?

Rowan:

Perhaps [Gregory of Nyssa’s] most important contribution to Christian thought was (and is) his sophisticated development of Origen’s view of Christian life as unceasing advance, ‘straining forward to what lies ahead’.. because of its limitless nature, this journey is always marked by Desire, by Hope and longing, never coming to possess or control its object… human Nature is seen as essentially restless, precarious, mobile and variegated, because of its orientation towards a reality outside itself.


To shift from a theological-metaphysical key to a (more) physical-historical one. Might they be aspirations which pre-date the agricultural revolution and hence skirt—or have an authority which in some sense supersedes (by what mechanism you may rightly ask), like Melchizedek’s priestly order—the settled compromises and virtues of that cultural architecture?


“All the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts” declaims Ishmael.

As another frontier seems imminent—after the local woods, the remote mountain, the arthurian forests, the eastern steeps of the continent or the southern deserts, then the great ocean, the new world, and the oceans and heart’s of darkness even beyond that—men will, it seems, not be denied the white goddess who were not denied the white whale.

The Jungian connection brings into stark relief how the hero-myth, the grail quest, archtypes and narratives of being which form the substructure of the western soul—perhaps the human soul—partake shamelessly and often extravagantly in questing modes; questing is often the essentially human activity. Christ partakes in it, the patriarchs, our patron saints, and our deepest selves. How fundamental, it must be asked, is questing to being human? How much of ourselves is mutilated by agrarian sedentariness? Can a whole-questing (one which involves whole communities and families like in the paleolithic) ever be recovered once the machine of human techno-‘progress’ levels its way through all frontiers, leaving only the heavens?

What is the true relation between (supposedly) interior and exterior human questing? What of said technological grounds which have enabled the present post-agrarian ‘external’ forms: oceanworthy ships, the automobile, Raptor spaceship engines, gender-reassignment surgery, jungian psychotherapy etc.

One wants to say this is all just extension of aspirations that were and always will be present, aspirations that must be funnelled and directed into traditional (!) forms of spiritual practice; whether that be contemplative prayer, Ignatian excercises, active imagination, or the local charismatic church. But what of the physical necessity, the need for embodied questing (which Taylor doesn’t touch on at all)—the old hunter-gatherer itch for things remote—an itch which is culturally divorced from family and community and therefore must deeply impoverish one in order to be accomplished.

Robert Johnson:

I suppose that the historian Toynbee would say that here the two great archetypes of Western Europe were, once again, fighting it out on a primitive level within my individual soul: on the one hand, the settled landowner and townsman, putting down roots, seeking security, making a life in a stable community; on the other hand, the nomad [this Dionysian, sensual, nomadic quality] roaming the beaches of Solana Beach, California, instead of the steppes of Mongolia, but nevertheless roving, living by his campfire, refusing to be pinned down to a place, a job, or responsibility… If you go to your inner [nomad] and give him or her a chance to live, you find eventually that this bum is really a sunyasin, a wandering mendicant holy man, in disguise. And the nomadic wanderings turn out to be pilgrimages.

Pilgrimages with no family in tow, pilgrimages which further endanger the planet, pilgrimages which (of necessity) uproot and alienate the mendicant (and oh if only we were mendicant!) from any local spiritual dependence or authority. And yet, Berry and those like him, where is their spot on the map for pilgrimage, for its un-accomodated form threatens to suffocate the whole, and explode the world in its striving.

top soil

Wendell Berry:

A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted… It is making life out of death [and] in a time when death is looked upon with almost universal enmity, it is hard to believe that the land we live on and the lives we live are the gifts of death. Yet that is so and it is the topsoil that makes it so.

Are all these things not also true of us, of human souls. We die daily, new life lives in us daily too. We drain and retain energy, creativity, ideas, experiences, being. Our lives in a most fundamental sense are the gifts of death. We are the topsoil of all creation.

“We die daily. Happy those who daily come to life as well.” George MacDonald

…for soil is improved by what humans do not do as well as by what they do. The proprieties of soil husbandry require acts that are much more complex than industrial acts, for these acts are conditioned by the ability not to act, by forbearance or self-restraint, sympathy or generosity.

We are improved by what we do not do as well as by what we do (ask Lao Tzu). Perhaps we too have lost the ability (if we ever did have it) “not to act” in relation to ourselves—are not all the virtues listed more necessary in your relationship to yourself?

changing the world

Paul Kingsnorth, Prophets and Doomers everywhere and for all time:

It’s a phrase I used to use all the time, but now I’m almost embarrassed even to look at it. Changing the world. Changing the world. Changing the world. It’s such an astonishing concept: that we have, or could ever have, the agency, ability or knowledge to change the nature of a vast, complex planet we barely understand, when most of us can’t even change ourselves. And that we imagine the results would be good if we did. What could be more superstitious?

And yet, changing the world is exactly destiny of both the world and man; inaugurated by Christ, ratified by His Church. It’s Ellul (of all people) who makes this point somewhere: the Progress now in our hearts is historically contingent, and historically contingent on the Incarnation and it’s cosmic repercussions. If the New Testament makes anything plain it is that we indeed have “the agency, ability and knowledge” to change the nature of “a vast, complex planet we barely understand etc.” and much else besides.

‘Changing the world’ is of course a modern notion.

Is it? (see above).

For another, more everyday reason: the world is getting worse.

Is it? And I’m serious. Kingsnorth is convinced, every good prophet is, and convinced for good reasons. But such a stark claim, without any qualifiers, how can it do justice to the “nature of a vast, complex” world (a bigger thing than a plant, a *much* bigger thing in fact)? But surely it has to be admitted that if that claim, “the world is getting worse”, is true (in the very sense Kingsnorth means it) it is in an importantly narrow sense. And deference to the things Kingsnorth himself most values and loves and reveres and stands-in-awe of—in a word: worships—is what makes must make it so.

I fear—more, I feel convicted—in light perhaps of the surety and (helpful) curtness with which Kingsnorth here makes these claims, that they themselves partake in the totalising surety of the systems they purport to have seen through and resist.

Which of us can lay limits on His ways being far above ours?

And should not those tremble who dare?

 

 

 

empty houses

The truest representation of the America I encountered that I know of.

Perhaps, of course, because most of my truest free time was spent doing just this.. looking at empty homes at night.

The cover of Carver’s Cathedral always did haunt me.

breaking our hearts

“Beasts”, Wilbur:

Meantime, at high windows
Far from thicket and pad-fall, suitors of excellence
Sigh and turn from their work to construe again the painful
Beauty of heaven, the lucid moon
And the risen hunter,

          Making such dreams for men
As told will break their hearts as always, bringing
Monsters into the city, crows on the public statues.
Navies fed to the fish in the dark
Unbridled waters.

Where shall the crows perch now?