The Immanence of God

This semester marked my first foray into the novels of Graham Greene. Although his books have been recommended to me for some time, I believe my delay in reading The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory worked in his favor.
There are elements in both novels that are (and of a right should be) repellent and to which an imagination in formation ought not be exposed. Greene, along with most other authors of his century, walks a shadowy line between degradation that does not bear speaking of and the agonizing truths of the human condition and our own age in particular. After rumination on both the aforementioned novels, it seems clear to me that Greene's portrayal of human frailty, vivid and harrowing as it is, more powerfully drives home the need and reality of God's grace.
The End of the Affair follows the sordidly mundane adultery of Sarah and the narrator as they find solace in each other and in their daily sin. Their situation is posed in such a way that the reader might almost sympathize; after all, Sarah's husband is dull and oblivious, while her lover understands her and needs her as much as she him. Greene is able to turn this on its head by Sarah's abrupt ending of the affair.

Greene's craftsmanship is marvelous as he follows the narrator's journey through confusion and sorrow to the full recognition that Sarah has chosen someone else over him. Just who that Someone is remains murky for him up to the end, as he continues to tempt Sarah to lapse back to their comfortable debauchery. The grace that saves her at the end is as sudden and difficult for him to understand as that grace which pulled her out of the relationship in the first place. In both instances, Greene manages to convey the jarring reality and harrowing nature of miracles and our unavoidable need for grace.

Grace glimmers through the entirety of The Power and the Glory as well. Disturbing in its portrayal of priests as drunkards and cowards, the novel reinforces the reality of ex opere operato. As a human being, the priest at the center of the story is perhaps even more flawed and sinful than the average Catholic Mexican. But the true importance of his role as a priest in the ravages of persecution in 1930's Mexico comes across with clarity, force, and beauty. This weakling somehow manages to stumble from village to village, confessing, baptizing and saying Mass; in spite of his worst vices, he understands that he is still "able to put God into their mouths." In the manner of a true classic, this message remains incredibly pertinent in the current age. This generation has more cause than many to understand the all too human frailty of our clergy, and it has never been more necessary to understand that the reality of the Blessed Sacrament is not predicated on the sanctity of the priest, thank God, thank God.


deep magic

Wendell Berry, that romantic, controversial, novel distiller of very old truths, set my mental cogs a-turning today. In Life Is a Miracle he offered a definition of a "classic": a work whose themes resonate with a sort of eternal freshness from age to age, one whose meaning does not grow old with the volume itself.
This definition has significant merit to it and especially recalls the task those in the Academy engage and pursue. Berry rightly (and in harmony with a multitude of prior essayists) condemns the mindless, obsessive demand for originality in current scholarly work, with the ever persistent cry for new discoveries in an arena whose proper field is truth, not novelty. Such a warning of course does not preclude man's perennial desire to know, identified by Aristotle as a basic human characteristic. However, it does illuminate a difference between those who view colleges or universities as institutions for data transferral or instruction and those who understand education as the cultivation of those particular mental habits which make humans the beings they are.
What a world it would be if college professors understood their vocation; that is to say, actually stood under their discipline and looked up in awe at the knowledge handed down to them, willing to be mastered by that truth so that they could actually lead their students out of the multitudinous caves of ignorance. As it is, the modern research university is dominated by those who prefer to stand in arrogance atop their discipline, looking down upon it as so much material to be dissected, mastered, and handed to their unfortunate pupils as discrete, unappealing bundles of information which neither enlarge their souls nor order their loves.
I believe there once was an ideal of liberal learning largely held by most civilizations which knew that there were things that it behooved a free person to know. After hearing Crassus expostulate on the need for an orator to be well educated and thus combine learning with eloquence, his interlocutor bursts out "But you have led me straight to the heart of the Academy!" In a flash of rhetorical brilliance, Cicero makes clear the goals of education: both to find the truth and express it well. Thus is De Oratore a classic, making apparent as it does the eternal verity of human education and the role of the Academy. We must "sing a new song to the Lord," releasing anew the intelligibility of the created world with our own particular song--a unique expression using an ancient medium, freshly communicating the permanent things.
If we accept that to be is to be intelligible, then in truth there are things to be discovered and known. But the hysteria for unique discovery has unleashed a tendency to focus on newness to the fatal exclusion of an entire inheritance of knowledge and wisdom that civilization has accumulated across the centuries. Knowledge is to adequate one's intellect to reality, not to divorce man's individuality from the integrated created order.


I will show you fear...

All over the world today, millions upon millions of Christians received Eliot's handful of dust upon their foreheads, reminded yet again of their inescapable mortality.
Ash Wednesday was a little different for me this year, since I put together and directed the music for tonight's Mass, the first time I've ever conducted a Mass like this. Mr. Applegate, my beloved choir director of ten years, was very much in my mind as I waved my arms about in an unconscious echo of his conducting style. Despite my own schedule and the various schedules of the students in my intrepid band of choristers, we were able to rehearse some Lenten gems on three different occasions. College students having their own idea of what constitutes sufficient notice of absences, there was a moment earlier in the week when I felt sure that I was going to pull together this program through sheer will power alone. But from the moment those haunting chords of Allegri's Miserere thrilled through the church, I knew Providence had sanctified our efforts.
Miserere domine, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam
So many of the treasures in the Church's storehouse of liturgical music have that uncanny ability to trap the meaning of the words in unforgettable phrases and chords that inevitably re-echo in your head once you happen upon the prayer in a different context. Measured, sad, inexorable, and shot through with just a hint of supernatural beauty, Allegri's Miserere encapsulates the cry of the penitent throwing himself upon the unfathomable mercy of his Creator. The repetitive nature of the verses captures the essence of persistence in prayer, while the soprano solo (the one facet of the piece that defies any listener's apathy) seems almost to leap from the church itself to the gates of Heaven, begging admittance with its unexpected and agonizing beauty. When the notes of the final resolution fade from the sacred space which suspends them, one ineluctable thought takes hold of every mind in the congregation:
Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris