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Blog

Filtering by Tag: wonder

Choric Space

William Coleman

Christ_the_Pantocrator The whole of my school sat within the nave of an Orthodox cathedral, learning the language of icons. Think of the way language works, our guide, Joshua, said. We experience far more than we can express. Our words are the tips of icebergs. 

I looked again at the painted dome a hundred feet above us: Christ the Pantocrator, within a circle of light blue. Think about the metaphor, he said. Our words are not detached from the reality we hope to convey. They’re part of it. They’re the surface of the known and the unknown.

His own words ebbed; morning prayer had begun. We rose. The priest was coming down the aisle. He stopped before the twin doors that stood before us, the threshold between our place and the space where the altar lay. Small beneath the surging interior, the priest willed himself smaller, bowing as the cantor chanted, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

The rapid words nearly lost their meaning, nearly dissolved into the substance that gave them rise—the human thrum of pure and urgent need—but they did not dissolve; somehow, they grew more integral. I was aware of the words’ surface meanings, even as I felt the unseen gravity in which those meanings participated; in no time, I was consciously outside this ritual’s import and helplessly within its radiant compression.

And I was not alone. As Seamus Heaney puts it in The Cure at Troy, his version of Philoctetes, such space in choric:

[…] my part is the chorus, and the chorus Is more or less a borderline between The you and the me and the it of it Between the gods’ and human beings' sense of things. And that’s the borderline that poetry Operates on too, always in between What you would like to happen and what will-- Whether you like it or not.

The chorus of Ancient Greece entered and exited like curtains, moved and had their say in a circle of space between the audience and the players, fluidly entering and exiting the drama, becoming one person, returning to twelve. They shared in the action and were outside it. And the hilltop rose around them, row upon row.

When the moment had passed, the students, my fellow faculty, and I made our way to the conference we’d come to see. I watched as learned men dissected and diagnosed the secular age, derided the destruction of mystery by the forces of science; I watched a man return again and again to the subject of same-sex marriage as though trying to come to terms with a blight. His parting words, the end of an answer to a curious member of our assembled body, were “And that is why I am not hopeful about the future.” The theme of the conference was wonder.

“How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick.” The words, of course, are Whitman's, but they were my words, too. All morning, they arrived to fill the space other words left empty. Sitting in the fellowship hall, I longed for awe, for the choric space Whitman found: “[R]ising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself/In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Small wonder my thoughts floated back to the nave.

"The Tree of Life" and Our Collective Cultural Discomfort with Recognizing "The Glory"

Mary McCampbell

4 TreeofLife3 A few years ago, when preparing notes for a class discussion on Terence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life, I began to feel very uncomfortable about typing notes and viewing the film simultaneously. I realized that Malick’s film, which pushes the viewer into a disorienting space where he or she must explore what the film’s opening voiceover calls the “two ways to live”—the way of nature and the way of grace—, demanded my complete attention. Watching the film felt like participation in a sacred act, and my rather clinical academic analysis seemed like a violation of sorts. The film is both abstract and concrete as it invites us to consider the relationship between its macro-narrative — God, the creation of the world, and the moral structure of the universe — and its micro-narrative of the O’Brien family as they grapple with questions of suffering, justice, and the knowledge of God. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) follows the self-serving, purely pragmatic “way of nature,”until he finally realizes that “I dishonored it all and did not notice the glory.”O’Brien learns that, in order to love his family, God, and the creation, he must notice its complexity and allow himself to be ushered into a space of awe and wonder.

The Tree of Life, a highly conceptual, impressionistic coming of age film focusing particularly on the internal landscape and spiritual journey of son, Jack O’Brien, is also a film that causes its viewers to think about their own relationship with beauty and its ultimate source. Our attentiveness, or lack thereof, to the “glory”of the film tell us something about our own sojourning, about the particular kind of attentiveness, amidst both pain and beauty, that is formative in the development of our own spiritual autobiographies. By forcing his viewers into a sometimes uncomfortable state of confusion, Malick often leads us into a state of wonder.

The film demands patience, contemplation, attentiveness; and these are things that many moviegoers, nurtured on quick and easy Hollywood feel-good formulas, are not ready to give to it. Sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno claimed that popular art has been “standardized;”by this, he means that what he called “the culture industry”provides simple, formulaic “art”forms that are created in order to tell us what we want and then sell it back to us. In this sense, we are formed in the image of our culture as we find comfort and false sustenance in these things that we have been trained to think we need and love. Perhaps this is one reason we (the American public) find ourselves so uncomfortable in front of abstraction that cannot be understood immediately.

In a sense, we are culturally trained to become Mr. O’Brien; we learn that the most important things are instant and formulaic, giving us a false sense of fulfillment because they meet one of two goals: increasing our power (through wealth, efficiency, etc.) or entertaining us. These are the standardized norms of mass American culture, and anything that challenges these norms is often simplistically labeled “boring”or “weird.”How fascinating it is that Mr. O’Brien is played by Brad Pitt, the twinkling star of so many mass produced Hollywood flicks. Interestingly, many moviegoers felt led astray, cheated, and angry when seeing this film; they wanted their money back.

But Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien teaches us to be humble in front of the mystery of both beauty and suffering; he teaches us to become like children and re-enter a state of wonder: “I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the glory. I'm a foolish man.”

Explaining Up vs. Explaining Down

Justin Ryals

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The 17th century theologian and poet François Fénelon is quoted to have said,

There was nothing in me that preceded all [God’s] gifts, nothing able to receive them. The first of His gifts on which all the others rest is what I call “myself.” He gave me that self. I owe Him not only all that I have but also all that I am. Oh incomprehensible gift which our poor language expresses in a moment but which the human mind will never arrive at understanding it and all its depth. This God, who has made me, has given me myself to myself. The self I love so much is simply a present of His goodness. Without Him I would not be myself. Without Him I should have neither the self to love nor the love wherewith I love that self, nor the will that loves it, nor the mind that knows it. All is a gift. He who receives the gifts is himself to first gift he receives.

Sed contra, Francis Crick has stated,

“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: “You're nothing but a pack of neurons.” (Astonishing Hypothesis, 3)

Could there be a more astonishing gulf than between these two metaphysical approaches to human existence?

The Fénelon quote, other than being exquisitely beautiful, might be said to represent a view of reality that explains everything “up,” ultimately into the realm of the infinite, of infinite value, meaning, beauty, joy, and love, “and this we call God,” as Aquinas might say. “That which was from the beginning” (1 Jn 1:1), therefore, is reflected and imbibed throughout all of finite reality, informing the matrix of meaning in which we live and move and have our being.

On the other hand, the Crick quote might be said to display the approach that ultimately explains everything “down,” into ever more divided and basic material, getting into the realm of the inconceivably small, and finally into nothing--if not in a absolute sense, certainly in the sense that meaning, value, beauty, reason or the like simply did not exist “in the beginning.” It appears inevitable that this view could at the end of the day yield only some variety of nihilism, both in an almost “literal” and philosophical sense. If nothing is the beginning of all things, then reality at bottom is ontologically “blank.” By what criteria could anything ever be said to have any meaning, or human life any value, which have their ultimate basis in the nihil of a yawning void? That which is not present in the source cannot be present in what is derived from the source.

Not incidentally, in the “downward” model man can in theory master reality and fully explain it, fit it inside his head (at least once it finally becomes modified through technology). In the “upward” model man rather receives reality; he is the recipient of a gift. G. K. Chesterton, who believed, “The test of all happiness is gratitude” (Orthodoxy, 98), captured the wonder of existence as a gift when he stated that no man has “really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything,” adding,

At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy. (Autobiography, 97)

If indeed we have received our entire reality purely as gift--even the reality of ourselves--can we also be masters of reality (even our own “little realities”)? Might it not be that only when we’re receptive of reality as gift, as revealed both in the wonder of creation and in the gospel--with Jesus Himself being the concentrated form of reality and its gift (Col 2:9)--that we’ll be of such posture as to receive God’s outpouring love revealed there, flowing into ourselves and from thence outward toward others and all creation?

(Painting by Teun Hocks)