Friday, June 3, 2016

Writing for Contemplation

There may be people for whom writing is a constant pleasure, but for me it is both a burden and a compulsion. As long as I can remember, I have longed to write, and felt the need to put down my thoughts in writing. Writing is thinking; I cannot work out an idea in my head, but must commit it to the page, working it out in the physical interaction with pen or keyboard (and thereby, oftentimes, purging myself of those ideas that fester in my mind, undeveloped because un-developed). In this, we can see the structure of the human person: the spiritual made manifest in the material, the material the very mode of the spiritual's presence to itself. Now, as an academic, I must write, in order to retain my job. But writing is so difficult; one longs to find

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together

But this is difficult, most of the time impossible. The Divine Plato reminds us that writing destroys the memory, and that it gives the appearance of wisdom without the genuine article. Writing freezes the vital play of discourse, the discovery of truth in the midst of contemplation. His criticisms of Plato aside, Derrida is surely right (in this if nothing else) that every word opens itself up to misinterpretation, to multiple interpretations, to deferrals, delays in meaning, misunderstandings, a lack of precise fit with the world. Yet writing is thinking, at least as I experience it; even the language of my thoughts is a written language, and it never quite gels with reality, at least not as precisely as I'd like it, at least not in such a way that I can recover in discursive thought those golden moments of insight and clear vision of existence that sweep down upon me from time to time.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

How should a Catholic, especially a Catholic philosopher or another sort of Catholic thinker (perhaps that is just to say, I hope, a Catholic), approach writing? Let us leave aside the claim that writing is self-expression. No Catholic thinker will want to do this, at least not in the sense that it is often meant, just as no Catholic thinker will want to be "original" This is not to say, of course, that a Catholic thinker will eschew insight or creativity, but always with a view to expressing reality, not for this nebulous "self-expression".

Writing in itself seems to be a form of production.  One writes in order to produce texts. This seems, at times, to be the approach in the academy. Writing is a servile art, there to bring forth a physical product. Some such arts are justified by their products: clearly, carpentry is worth while so that there can be wooden articles, and aerospace engineering so that there can be aeroplanes. But surely a Catholic cannot endorse the wanton production of excess products, physical things beyond necessity. And a Catholic thinker cannot spend his time in that sort of activity, at least not much of his time. There are too many books and articles produced already, and most of them never read, and unreadable anyways. The poet or the humor writer can write purely for the sake of the product, but that is probably not the case for the philosopher.

Perhaps the Catholic thinker just ought not to write. But then there will be no thinking, for to think is to write, and vice versa. The Catholic thinker must write--though he knows that the production of writings is useless and superfluous, contributing to a glut of writing the world could do without, and whose meaning will be lost in the flux of interpretations to which all writing (especially weak, unmuscular writing) is subject.

Why then write? The Catholic thinker should not write primarily as a productive activity. There are other sorts of activities: theoretical activities, and practical ones, and (rarest and most wonderful) theurgical activities. The old Greeks divided human activities into these spheres: some activities (the productive) we do to make things; some (the practical) we do just for the sake of good action, or for the sake of bettering ourselves and others, or to respond to or bring about some value; some (the theoretical) are activities of thinking, done for the sake of contemplating what is, and especially for the sake of the highest things; and some (the theurgical) are liturgical activities we do to worship God.

The writing of the Catholic thinker must fall into one of these last three categories, if it is going to be really worthwhile. One could write because one's writing serves the Church. But even this is a danger, just as writing for production is a perversion of the loftiness of the thinker, the philosopher's calling. Are not most of our social ills inflicted upon us by those who would "make the world a better place"? Do they not inflict their ideologies upon us often in a way mediated by writing? Let us aim higher than that (and then, perhaps, the world really will be a better place).

The Catholic thinker (or, again, let us just say, the Catholic) is called to something more: to the higher practical aim of moral virtue (and, indeed, to its perfection, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and their acts, the Beatitudes). My writing can serve my discipline, can inspire my (and others') reaching for these lofty heights of morality and holiness. I must write for this, even if no one should read my writing, even without the intention of anyone reading my writing. To write so as to become good--nay, to write so that my writing is a means of my becoming good: there is challenge worth more than finding words "precise but not pedantic".

The Catholic thinker is called yet higher: to contemplate the glory of existence, and of that Existence Who is Love. And even further, to not only contemplate, but to worship, to praise, to impetrate, at once in body and in spirit, in spirit made utterly incarnate and body entirely spiritualized. I must write for this as well, that my very writing (discursive though it may be) may be divinized, that my words may be words of praise. Augustine accomplished this, and Anselm, and Dionysius.

That my very writing may be a liturgy: not a production, not even merely something practical, but the very enacting of my contemplation, my embodied praise. Not to worry about what or how much is produced, because of the writing of books there is no end--but to make this endless writing the very glory of the calling of being a Catholic philosopher. To worry about words not for the sake of my own originality or to impress colleagues or even to teach others some new truth--but because the very writing of the word is a part of my divinziation, and the divinization even of my culture, my language, my people. In this liturgical act, even my poor words, my words that slide so easily off of reality or are so quickly en-shadowed, that never quite say what I want them to, may be raised up, may at last speak the mysteries I long them to express, may become immortal diamond.

1 comment:

  1. This is very well said. It calls to mind that the creed itself is a "symbolon." Words can never comprehend the mysteries that they signify, and yet this signification is much more than arbitrary assignment or nebulous expression. Though we may never have precisely the right words because words themselves are of a limited power, we still have words that must be used precisely in order to truly signify and call forth the mystery they point to. And to know what these words are and to know how a language itself ought to properly develop with new creations is to be immersed in a tradition of a way of speaking/writing/thinking. Hence the need, as you point out, not so much of originality as of a dialogue with that which is in all its splendor.

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