Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fire-Featuring Heaven

Here is part (slightly revised for this blog) of an article I wrote a few years ago for CHRISTIANITY AND SOCIETY JOURNAL. I wanted to include it here in part because it has to do with a sonnet written by Gerard Manley Hopkins: Spelt From Sibyl's Leaves. This sonnet does not conform to the standard of five stressed syllables per line; it goes for eight. Yet he wrote it as a sonnet and it has been generally so accepted. There is room, even in so strict a form as the sonnet, for some deviation.

Reading Difficult Poetry as a Christian Endeavor
Tears began welling up in my oldest daughter's eyes. “But I just don't get it,” Noelle sighed. Ruthlessly I refused to do her work, but rather repeated my earlier prompting, “Go back to what you know. What do you already know from the problem?” She was working on algebra story problems, and finding them to be as tricky and as quirksome as we all did when we first encountered them. She wanted to simply look at the problem and see the answer, as she had in earlier math.

How is she ever going to use this in real life? Will she ever encounter a situation in which she needs to figure out how many nickels and dimes Eliza has if she has three more nickels than Tori and twenty less cents than Al? What is the practical value of struggling for hours at the dinner table with our algebra?

That question has been raised by countless algebra students at countless dinner tables throughout the years. And countless parents have tried to answer it with examples of astronauts or architects using their algebra to do their jobs. And they are right; nearly everyone who has learned algebra uses it in one way or another in their normal lives. But there is a more universal and greater outcome of mastering such arts than simply usefulness. There is magic.

Let us first clarify what we mean by the word magic. Magic, as I am using the term, has nothing to do with Harry Potter playing quidditch while flying on his broomstick. Magic is the recognition of a connection between seemingly unconnected things. Magic is not merely a foolish notion of the past, but the daily experience of all of us. A couple of examples will hopefully persuade you to put down that rope and straw with which you are ready to burn me as a witch.

When I carry my two year old into her dark bedroom she points to the light switch and commands, “Light, light.” She doesn't look up at the ceiling, at the light fixture, but rather at the switch which is distant from the actual source of light. Why? She has recognized that there is a mysterious connection between the moving of the switch and the brightness of the room. Because she knows nothing of the electrons moving on wires hidden in the walls, their physical connection is hidden to her. Therefore, to her the connection between the switch and the light is magic, and she smiles when Daddy works that magic.

But I have wired rooms, and have put in the switches and the lights. I understand that there is a real connection between the two which is just hidden from our eyes by a thin sheet of drywall. Therefore am I beyond the magic? The switch is now clearly understood as not magic but technology, but the magic is far from gone. Rather, it has been superseded by a far deeper and more wonderful sense of mystery. How can those tiny wires carry all of that power? The power to light up a room, to run a blender, to kill a person, and to burn down peoples’ houses-- and the power to explode a bolt of lightening across the sky-- is all carried and controlled in those little wires in my walls! How? Magic!

But some physicist will exclaim that it is not really magic, that he can explain the movement of those electrons and why they stay in that wire and don't explode in lightening all over the place. What a wonderful thing to understand, and I wish that I did. But even for that physicist, the magic is not gone but rather superseded by an even deeper and even more wonderful set of mysteries.

Such has been the experience of scientists throughout history. Once it was widely believed that rotting meat spontaneously turned into maggots. Then Francesco Redi performed his ingenious experiment in which he demonstrated that they were rather hatched from the eggs of flies. This breakthrough largely paved the way for the movement from a magical understanding of the universe toward the current philosophy of scientism. But it did more than that. Though it removed one question from the realm of magic to the realm of science, it opened up more questions than it answered. One of those questions, What causes rotting? became the life work of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister. They had seen through the science of Redi into a deeper realm of magic.

And so it goes with science. Each answer provides not final illumination, but rather a new and deeper set of puzzles. The working of the world which had once been quietly accepted as mysterious has now become both infinitely more complex and more puzzling. And for those who have looked into such things, the workings of quantum mechanics, relativity, and time reveal a magic which is beyond the comprehension of the rest of us. Each layer of the onion is only hiding the wonder of the next. Alexander Pope recognized this in his “Essay on Criticism”:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way,
Th' increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

And that is why I love to see Noelle struggling with algebra, not to help her become a civil engineer, but to peel the onion and open new worlds of wonder to her eyes.

Deeper MagicThis process of moving from wonder into wonder is mimicked in most interesting fields of study, whether art or science. CS Lewis admirably illustrated it in theology many times, most notably in Aslan’s conversation with Lucy and Susan after he had returned from the dead. Remember that he had allowed himself to be killed by the White Witch in the stead of Edmund the traitor. Then, as the sun rose, the table on which he had been murdered cracked and he returned to life. He explained:

“It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
(The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)

While it would have behooved the Witch to look into matters more deeply, it is even more vital to us as Christ’s followers to peer closely. Jesus chided the Sadducees saying, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt 22:29). Let us seek to know both the scriptures and the God of those scriptures.

Eyes of Love
When you first met your future spouse (assuming that you have), you probably could have told me everything that you knew about that person in one or two sentences. Then after a year, you would have had to explain, give examples and exceptions and even after much describing you would have been unsatisfied. Later, after being married for a few years, you would have no idea how to begin describing her or him. The more that you know that person the less you are able to even attempt describing her or him. That is the way that it is with people; they are complex in a way that defies clear description. The only people that we can really describe comfortably are people that we don't know very well.

Just like in science and art, people will be found to be more complex and more interesting the more that we get to know them. There is no point at which we can say, “I finally understand that person. There is no more mystery in her or him to me.” Every new hint at an insight only provides the backdrop for seeing a deeper and fuller mystery in the inner workings of that character. Parents all experience this when watching delightedly as their children grow and find ways to express themselves; they provide a source of constant amazement. If we miss the amazement in others, it is not that mystery is not present in them, it is only that we are not watching rightly.

What is the right way to watch in order to reveal mystery hidden under mystery? I don't know a better name for it than love. The eyes of love help us to see clearly. It is said that love is blind, but that is foolishness. The eyes of love are blind to the useless information that would be revealed to the eyes of any stranger, the mere outward appearances. But they see clearly to much deeper levels, sights which are hidden to the stranger. It is only love that opens our real eyes to see what is more real than the surface. Love lets us know things which could not be known without love. To a large extent, we are enabled to know people because we love them; we are not enabled to love them because we know them.

So it is through our love for a person that he or she becomes infinitely more complex and inexplicable. Through love we begin to see beyond the surface, to peel the onion of discovery, with every new layer being more delightful and perplexing than the previous one. But this process is not easy; it does not proceed without sustained effort and a large investment of time on our part.

And if we only get to know our spouses and children through this sustained loving effort, how much more intense will be the time and work required to get to know God? For God's ways are not like our ways and his thoughts are not like our thoughts. And how much more rewarding will be the new discoveries?

How do we get to know God? Consider the following journey of revelation along which many of us have come. As a young man I had latched onto the words of John, “God is love”, and hoped with those words to deny him any wrath at my sin, and especially final judgment. At the same time I knew that he was the eternal judge and that I had no hope in him, I knew myself to be damned. I was a fragmented person and my thoughts of God were fragmented. Then in the months before my conversion I was brought to see clearly that God's love and his judgment could not be separated; he is a loving judge and his love is a discriminating love. I sharply distinguished between the objects of his love and the objects of his wrath. And I knew that I was not an object of his love.

Then one night, God took me by the hand and overwhelmed me with the knowledge of his direct love which he had been showering for years on ungrateful me. The immense beauty of such a God overwhelmed me and I wept with gratitude and sorrow, in awe of his majesty and in love with his beauty. And the words “God is love” were made new to me and I knew them as if I had never heard them before.

Over the years since then I have many times been stretched and torn by experiences and doctrine which, without calling his love into doubt, do require it to be proved again and again. And when he shows me afresh the boundlessness of his love, it is each time a new and deeper revelation that his love penetrates even deeper than the obstacles which I have put in its way.

Difficult Poetry
When we read only simple books and simple poetry, we develop a faulty expectation of the landscape across which we as Christian pilgrims trek. Our minds become attuned to the notion, taught by many of our devotional and self help books just as much as by television, that struggles may last for a moment, but full resolution comes by the end of the movie. No moral or emotional quagmire will ever last more than an hour and a half. Of course this is never directly stated, but this expectation becomes ingrained from repeated examples.

So also with simple poetry. A constant diet of poetry and other reading which lends itself to being fully comprehended after only one or two readings leads us to expect the same from life, regardless of what the direct message of the poem may be. The meaning of a poem lies in the full experience of the thoughts and emotions and attitudes engendered while reading and hearing it, not only in its prose translation.

Today there are many poets who seek to embody the difficulties and joys of discovery in their poems, not just in the words but also in the experience of reading and coming to understand their poems. They intentionally create difficulties for the reader to unite the struggle of the reader with the struggles expressed in the words. These poets can look back to Gerard Manley Hopkins as the originator (although he wasn't quite) and only real master of their craft. Here we will consider his poem, “Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves”:

Earnest, earthless, equal, attunable, / vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous

Evening strains to be time's vast, / womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.

Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, / her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height

Waste; her earliest stars, earlstars, / stars principal, overbend us,

Fire-featuring heaven. For earth / her being has unbound; her dapple is at an end, as-

tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; / self in self steeped and pashed -- quite

Disremembering, dismembering / all now. Heart, you round me right

With: our evening is over us; our night / whelms, whelms, and will end us.

Only the beakleaved boughs dragonish / damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,

Ever so black on it. Our tale, O our oracle! / Let life, waned, ah let life wind

Off her once skeined stained veined variety / upon, all on two spools; part, pen, pack

Now her all in two flocks, two folds -- black, white; / right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind

But these two; ware of a world where but these/ two tell, each off the other; of a rack

Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, / thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.

Please don't make your children memorize that. It is not a children's poem. All the same, it may be better for them than learning the following which I have heard repeated from many young mouths:

God is great
God is good,
And we thank him for this food.

Far from the hurried irreverence of the latter, “Spelt From Sybyl's Leaves” forces a pause, a long pause, and work on the part of the reader. One can not even get the pronunciation and enunciation correct without a little practice. At every step of the way the reader is met with the need for concentration and work.

It is a poetic warning its readers to watch for the moment when time will have run its course to the end and the impartial and unappealable judgment will begin. But more important than just the words is the series of thoughts and attitudes engendered in us as we struggle to unpack it. We probably begin with the certainty that whoever wrote it is an imbecile. What possible use could there be in reading such a pile of gibberish? We quickly move on to irritation at all of the strange accents which are marked (they are marked in the original; I couldn’t make this blog show the markings); they make our tongues hurt a little as we try to decipher their rhythms. After a few more readings we become downright angry that Hopkins has been so obscure. Why doesn't he make himself clear if he has something to say? Soon though, lines and phrases begin to sift themselves into pockets which are understood as fragments. We begin to see hints that there really might be a method behind this madness. Slowly, if we have been very patient and have worked very hard, we find emerging from the confusion a clear and somber warning of the final time when the clarity of God's judgment will send flying the shadows of confusion in which we now live.

Now the obscurity which once resided in these lines has been replaced by a surface clarity and a deeper mystery. The lines become at the same time beautiful and frightful, just as God is and his judgment will be. Look back at the series of emotions through which we have come in reading this poem. How nearly do they mimic the emotions through which many of us traveled when warned, just as this poem warns, to look with dread toward a coming judgment? And wasn't it only within a painful struggle that our minds were realigned to see that those warning us were not imbeciles, but rather had been speaking with clarity all along?

The value of reading such poetry is many sided. It gives expression to the struggle inherent in life and helps us to expect such struggle. It leads us to repent anew as we see ourselves once again rebelling against those who first led us step by step toward the Cross. It guides us to look gently on those who as yet do not see with the clarity of our eyes, and to realize that we probably do not yet see as we ought.

Such poetry is a fresh peeling of the onion; as we read it and re-read it, we are again moved from one level of magic to the next. And we experience again the wonder of it all.


Devika said...

"And that is why I love to see Noelle struggling with algebra, not to help her become a civil engineer, but to peel the onion and open new worlds of wonder to her eyes."

this was me in my making...i mean my father did so...

yet, when after under-graduation in mathematical science; he said -study a professional course, so that you may find a means for life..and then turn to your interests later...

and doing so was good i should say --

but a father should not work out sums for the child -- as you said, let her struggle..that reminds me of my maths teacher..who would give us worked out examples and then give us even more complex problems to solve on our own. she never explained us anything. except the basic percepts...

a problem with that one sometimes forget tend to forget the basics:-)

then its about reference is a wonderful learning experience to me..every aspect of it..

oh my, so much of lecturing of me and myself...

that was a really good post..the last lines i need to go again..there seems stuff to learn...


i have no children. hy husband is my only son and now takes the role of father to me i have enough time learnig life..and its representations...just a thought shared..

today i feel much light and happy :-)

wishes, Doug

Doug P. Baker said...

Thanks, Devika! And I'm very glad to hear that today is a light day for you!

mrs. sarah ott said...

i love how you explain love here to be a never-ending curiousity to one's mystery. and it is so true that the longer i spend with my husband the less easily i am able to define him. i am only left to wonder at him and find our love that much more magical. this is a fascinating article. if you dont mind i'd like to print it out to keep for my reading later in life.
i also liked this that you said, "The only people that we can really describe comfortably are people that we don't know very well."
life is truly magical. thank you for sharing this.

Doug P. Baker said...

Ah, Mrs. Ott,

You have picked out the things that I myself found the most fascinating and overwhelming when I was writing it. Yes, I'd be delighted if you wanted to print it out. See you here again!

By the way, Anchorage is a grand old town! I lived in Kodiak for a few years and visited Anchorage a couple of times. Always loved it!

Rosa said...

Thank you for posting this, Doug!

I appreciate the insights you offer here; I strongly believe that "magic," exists in the innumerable wonderments that God has placed in the universe.