On: Gregory of Nyssa; muggles actually exist; the extravagant wake of St Antony of Egypt; a short history of hermits; St Augustine on the contemplative life; misreading Dillard and Chesterton; the word “quiddity” and whether you should use it; wanting something more than Mumford and Sons.
Book One of Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses is a brief, factual survey of Moses’ life containing little to which even the most astringent literalist could object. Then comes Book Two, “The Contemplation of the Life of Moses,” wherein Moses’ life is interpreted to signify, in fine detail, every human struggle toward theosis. The narrative of Moses’ life must “be understood according to its real intention,” Gregory suggests before explaining that Pharaoh wanted to kill the male Isrealites, but not the females, because “the material and passionate disposition to which human nature is carried when it falls is the female form of life, whose birth is favored by the tyrant,” however, “the austerity and intensity of virtue is the male birth, which is hostile to the tyrant.” In this way, all true Christians must be born male and threaten tyrants. And what of those Christians not born male? Not to worry. “We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, molding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.” That’s all within the first page of Book Two. Then comes the assertion that the Incarnation of the Word is Moses’ snowy hand, that Christ is the staff which becomes a serpent to devour other serpents, and, that the burning bush which is unconsumed by the fire of God’s presence is a revelation of Mary’s virginity, which is not destroyed though Mary’s womb contains and delivers the presence of God to men.
This kind of interpretation requires some explanation, and while I’ll not pain you to explain it all here, Gregory stakes his interpretive strategy in a definition of truth as an “apprehension of Being,” coupled with a brief investigation of the infinitude of God as simple Being itself.
What about those who don’t like such esoteric modes of interpretation? “He who has some insight into these things right away becomes a god to those who resist the truth, who have been distracted to a material and unsubstantial delusion. They disdain the discussion of Being as so much idle talk, as Pharaoh says, “Who is Yahweh, that I should listen to him? I do not know Yahweh” [Exod 5:2]. He considered valuable only the material and fleshly things which characterize lives governed by the most irrational sense.” That Gregory deems an interest in “material” things to be “unsubstantial” seems as bold and mysterious a claim as a reader of Late Antiquity is apt to find. After all, is material not substantial by definition? Is there substance beyond substance? Gregory seemed to think so. Set the controls for the heart of the sun, then.
This is perhaps a long and winding introduction to a second address on the subject of muggles, and their questionable existence, but a necessary one, as well. Previously, I suggested that while there is much to admire about the presentation of academia in the Harry Potter films, the impenetrable wall between muggles and magicians offered little help to the moral imagination of teacher or student. I would like to set aside that issue for a moment, and take the discussion of muggles in a different direction, because I don’t believe that the muggle/magician dichotomy is entirely misguided. Why? Because, to some extent, muggles do exist, and it makes good sense that classical Christian students should see themselves as magicians.
If only one word were allowed to describe muggles in the Potter films, it should be “incurious.” Magical busses blow through downtown London, buildings magically part like the Red Sea to reveal more magical buildings hidden between, human beings magically disappear at train stations, the Millennium Bridge gets blown up by magic, kids shoot down the Thames on magic brooms, and yet the muggle world seems content to masticate and read the newspapers. The Dursleys, who raise Harry, are regularly exposed to magical things, but reflect on the meaning of none of it. They are aware of a world beyond their own, rules beyond their own explaining, and let alone being uninterested, the Dursleys despise magic. The magicians of the films rarely worry of “being caught” by the muggles, creatures of infinite distractibility and zero inquisitiveness.
While magicians and muggles might run parallel to any number of character types in our world, magicians have always struck me as persons living contemplative lives and muggles, active lives. Wildly unfair, I know. People who live active lives are not actually uninterested in the life of the mind, and, what is more, the Potter films are stocked with numerous magicians who seem only slightly less doltish than the Dursleys. And yet, the magician is a person who has recognized something divine in himself and desired to seek it out, unearth it just a little bit more, while the muggle deals entirely with material things, or “unsubstantial” things, if you are St Gregory of Nyssa.
The distinction between the life of contemplation and the life of action took root in the Christian imagination during the 3rd and 4th centuries, when scores of young men were drawn into the anchorite lifestyle, abandoning the city for the wilderness. The life of contemplation was largely ascetic; a contemplative person read a little, wrote a little, but prayed for most of the hours of a day, sleeping very little. Imagine for a moment that you knew your life was going to end in three minutes. What would you do? Would you finish that sandwich you’re eating? Use the bathroom? Start watching a film? Lay down to sleep? Most people of whom I have asked this question say they would sing and pray to God for those three minutes. Contemplatives lived most hours of the day, most days of the week, most weeks of the year as though their lives would shortly end. They did not marry, ate little, slept little, spoke about football with their friends very little, worked at soup kitchens helping the poor very little, but prayed, repented and meditated on the law of God constantly. Persons who live the active life, on the other hand, live in cities and in community with wives, neighbors and enemies. The active person works for himself, for others, for his children, and is beholden to the cares of the City of Man, the “affairs of this world, and how to please his wife,” as St Paul writes in Corinthians, contrasted with the unmarried man who is “concerned with the Lord’s affairs, and how he can please the Lord.” Although most people will heavily tend toward the contemplative or the active life, these two ways of living are not mutually exclusive. In Book XIX of the City, St Augustine writes:
Accordingly no one is prohibited from the search after truth, for in this leisure may most laudably be spent… holy leisure is longed for by the love of truth; but it is the necessity of love to undertake requisite business. If no one imposes this burden upon us, we are free to sift and contemplate truth; but if it be laid upon us, we are necessitated for love’s sake to undertake it. And yet not even in this case are we obliged wholly to relinquish the sweets of contemplation; for were these to be withdrawn, the burden might prove more than we could bear.
Augustine does not speak as though the contemplative life is the basso continuo of every Christian life, but for readers of the City, he assumes it is. In writing the City, Augustine does not assume an audience akin to the typical devotional work written today for overburdened housewives or engineering students struggling with lust. He writes for persons who know Cicero and Virgil, and teaches that they will sometimes be called away from their books, sometimes have to set down the pen or unlock the bedroom door, go out into the world and pull an ox from a ditch. And yet, for his readers, that kind of work is a diversion, unusual. Like later medieval thinkers, Augustine does not consider labor a sanctifying revelation in and of itself… a man seems better off “free to…contemplate truth,” not saddled with a “burden” undertaken for another in love. Of course, the contemplative life might have emerged from the ascetic, hermetic life, but has never remained confined there. Boethius was a statesman, a father and husband, although The Consolation of Philosophy bears witness to a life committed to mystical, metaphysical meditations on God’s being. Anselm was an archbishop, involved in all the mundane affairs of saeculum and state, and yet his Proslogium opens with a call to lift up the mind above the world governed by the sun. Christians have always understood that a healthy mind will, following the liturgical and natural rhythms of a year, sometimes be given to contemplation and mystical sublimation by holidays, and sometimes be given to the toil and anxiety typical of Cain’s city, where we sojourn.
This all seems of some moment because I have noticed, more and more over the last several years, an unchallenged and novel hostility to the validity of the contemplative life which seems to have grown up in a number of Christian circles I sometimes read. Earlier this year, an up-and-coming Christian writer penned an article for a major Christian website which began with a denunciation of technical philosophical language (“prolegomena” and “quiddity” are words for highbrow prigs and elitists, apparently), a quick caricature of “thinkers” as people with pursed lips, creased brows and yellow fear of creation. “Thinkers” meditate and contemplate reality, and in so doing, ignore insects and rivers and meteorites, which are the real essence (I guess I’ll not say quiddity) of God’s glory revealed to man. Discussion of Being is more or less “so much idle talk.”
Annie Dillard, GK Chesterton and Wendell Berry have recently become the core appeals of an unusual new kind of a Christian anti-intellectual aesthetic. This aesthetic prides itself on being “Incarnational,” and so nature becomes a text to be mystically interpreted; a mode of thinking is “Incarnational” when something natural is contemplated as bearing the written glory of God, in much the same manner Annie Dillard wrote dazzling meditations on God’s personhood in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, prompted by her minute observations of nature, more often as nature is red in tooth and claw. Chesterton’s wonder that plain old grass is green gets writ large, so large there seems little room for the kind of wonder that, say, Anselm felt in the Proslogium when contemplating whether Gabriel was circumscribable or not.
The new anti-intellectual aesthetic allows for the mysticism of poetry, but only poetry which grants theological profundity to natural things, to mundane and common and earthly things. This aesthetic allows for contemplation, but only in the moment of action; “If you want to know something about Jesus, change a diaper,” or “If you want to know about the personhood of God, build a tree house.” Academic study is subject to material advantage; classics are read to make better bakers, lawyers, filmmakers and so forth. Any shirt more fashionable than LL Bean is pharisaical, any news station more subtle than Fox has made a deal with the devil, any food prejudices against McDonalds or gluten are eggheaded, and any pop music more avant-garde than, oh, Mumford and Sons is feigned and pretentious. While I have yet to hear anyone offer a good definition of what is and is not “hipster,” it seems as though anything above the fiftieth percentile in cultural awareness is for hipsters and therefore false or ugly.
Of course, I say all of this not to condemn Dillard or Berry or Chesterton, who were all creative, lively enthusiasts of creation who interpreted reality much like St Gregory of Nyssa interpreted the life of Moses. There is something intensely ironic about dismissing mystics and philosophers who use big words, favoring instead a Dillard or Chesterton, because both of those writers were standing on the shoulders of Late Antique anchorites, Desert Fathers, hermits, stylites and so forth. If there had been no Gregory of Nyssa, if there had been no Anselm, there would be no Chesterton. While it is true that Christ might be known in the changing of diapers and building of bird houses, He is also known in the reading of books, the praying of prescribed prayers, and in the kind of contemplation commended by Thomas Merton, who said that “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life,” and that contemplation “is not vision, because it sees without seeing, and knows without knowing. It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images and words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows, the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by unknowing, or, better, we know beyond all knowing or unknowing.”
Students who are educated in a truly classical and Christian methodology are being trained— whether they recognize it, whether their teachers recognize it— to be intellectuals, to be philosophers, to speak of Being, to know without knowing. It should not be surprising when young men and women who are truly open to the intellectual tradition are not satisfied with common things, with average things, and make demands for more recherché wisdom, poetry, food, clothing, books. While the caricature of muggles in the Potter films is unfair and imbalanced, I would suggest there is a problem if classical Christians students do not recognize the difference between the contemplative life commended in the margins of the City of God or the Republic and the active life most young people are prepped for in American high schools.