Category Archives: daily philokalia

A good reminder

“He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins, which are truly heavier than a great lump of lead; nor does he know why a man becomes heavy-hearted when he loves vanity and chases after falsehood (cf. Ps. 4:1). That is why, like a fool who walks in darkness, he no longer attends to his own sins but lets his imagination dwell on the sins of others, whether these sins are real or merely the products of his own suspicious mind.”

~Maximos the Confessor

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The Wrath of God

The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The wrath of God is the suspension of gifts of grace — a most salutary experience for every self-inflated intellect that boasts of his blessings bestowed by God as if they were its own achievements.

–Maximos the Confessor

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Experiences of Beauty

I finished my 25 page paper, that turned out to be about 30 pages.

The title was Experiences of Beauty: Theological Aesthetics in Jurgen Moltmann.

It’s a little long to post here, and I might someday want to do something more substantial with it. But, I think I can post a bit. Here’s the conclusion (and I’d be happy to send you the whole thing if you’re curious):

“We are here to be transformed,” Arthur Danto writes. Later on in his book he adds, “Beauty is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it.” We are left with the questions of what it means to be transformed and what kind of life we want to live, indeed what kind of life we are called to live. This call is not a moral demand that represses our creative instinct and separates us from this present world in exchange for some heavenly, bodiless, absorption into a nameless “Other”. Rather, this call is given by the Triune God—Father and Son and Holy Spirit—who exist in eternal community, united and yet diverse. This call, this work of restoration encounters us in time and encounters us in particular moments. The nature of this work is among the most important questions in theology. So, it seems particularly helpful to see how Jürgen Moltmann, a major contributor to systematic theology, has worked out this question, and more specifically to see how this work can help us better understand the nature and experience of beauty in our lives.

God is the maker of heaven and earth, indeed the remaker of heaven and earth. We are called not as slaves, but as heirs, to be conformed to his likeness, and join with him in an eternal dance of shared mutuality. Because of this we take particular note of the characteristics of the God who calls all of humanity back into an enlivening relationship. Among these manifold attributes is that of beauty. God is beautiful and God creates beauty. Our participation with this God of Beauty is one of passionate love, eros, in which we are caught up with each other in both constant desire and constant freedom. This Eros with us is God’s own Spirit, who with the Son and the Father, have worked and continue to work for the fullness of life and beauty in the cosmos. Our experience of beauty is that moment in which the Spirit who is raising us up recognizes with us, and within us, the glory of God’s work, wherein we experience a moment of shared life, and hope, and liberation that not only excites us with the fullness but pulls us into its creativity and enlivens our lives with a profound peace and delight.

This experience of beauty is an experience we share with God, an experience that endears us to him even in moments of struggle or darkness or frustration. We are given insight into his being, even as it is not always directly him we are seeing. He created what is good and continues to create, inspiring us in creativity, to take joy in what is beautiful in him, in this world, in music, in art, in relationships, and in all kinds of expressions. It is this intersection of Spirit and eschatology that I experienced on the lawn in front of Blanchard Hall, and have experienced in so many different, not always as profound, ways before and since then. It was an experience of God, a sharing with God of a moment that reflects the eternal moment of his perichoretic invitation. He calls us to share with him beauty of all kinds in our present experiences and in our future participation. Beauty is a gift from God, shared with God. And it is very good.

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The Loss and Recovery of Beauty in the Modern Period

Here’s the text of my presentation on the loss and recovery of beauty in the modern period for my Theology of Beauty Class:

A Walk at Dusk by Caspar David Friedrich

The loss and recovery of beauty in the modern period is fundamentally about identity.

Who are we? Who am I? Who are you? Art and society in general broke away from the religious and cultural impositions of identity, striking out for independence and assertion of being. Instead being defined rigidly by outside forces, there was a new expectation of discovery, discovery of new land, new vocation, new wealth, new spirituality. Much of this came from the understanding that the old models of control were bankrupt, unable to offer fulfillment or meaning, even if they offered a settled reality. There was a yearning for progress, and this meant striking out on your own to become your own person instead of who you were told you had to be.

So, it is not surprising that Willis, in his article on discovering creative symbolism outside of formal art, specifically chooses to look at ‘young people’. Erik Erikson, in his stages of psychosocial development, has as his fifth stage “Identity vs. Role confusion”, a stage which typically begins in adolescence. Those in this stage are, as Erikson puts it, “primarily concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are”. One website adds that a person in this stage, “needs to develop a sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to an ability to stay true to yourself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self.”

There are two parts to this. One is a rejection of the impositions others demanded. This rejection is not only about not feeling a fitting, but also in a heightened perception of the inadequacy, or worse, of what was insisted on. Beauty was a victim of this early identity assertion.

“Beauty is not always right.” (Danto 112)

“If there is to be art, it should not be beautiful, since the world as it is does not deserve beauty. Artistic truth must accordingly be as harsh and raw as life itself is, and art leached of beauty serves in its own way as a mirror of what human beings have done. Art, subtracted of the stigma of beauty, serves as what the world has coming to it.” (Danto 118)

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

Beauty was seen as a false assertion of a false reality, not in keeping with the often grotesque realities of society, and one’s own soul.

But, where to go from here? If we reject the cultural impositions of identity what are we left with? Incomplete selves. Where do we find a resolution for our identity that can encompass both aspects of reality—the beautiful and the grotesque.

It is here I think the works of the early monastics are helpful, especially as found in the writings contained in the Philokalia. Defined as ‘love of the beautiful’ these were, in essence extremely advanced texts on progressing in the Christian life, towards what the eastern would call, theosis. A love of the beautiful, according to the monastic texts, is a desire for our own progress and transformation, not just for ourselves, but for our communities, for those who come after us. This cannot be a mere form of limited beauty that treats our hope as an idyllic future. Our hope comes in this present, and we move beyond our depravity towards a restoration of the likeness of God, in which we participate with God, seeing this world and acting within it as his agents.

Weeping Woman by Picasso

Cassian writes on the holistic understanding of beauty (Philokalia, v.1, 96ff.) that encompasses what is spiritual, and physical, and dark, and light.

With this came a very strong awareness of reality as it was. The sharpening of the sense of this was considered the most important trait called discretion or discernment. Those who had mastered this were able to see the essence of things, good and bad, with it all able to point towards a sharpening and progression. This is why sins became so parsed and discussed, as in the lists of deadly sins. The more one knew about the darkness the better one was able to move past it, using the evil to propel towards goodness, using temptations to become stronger and more whole.

Brown writes “Our effort is to discern what is required of Christian artistry and taste if it is to have hopes of progressing from minimally spiritual exploration to maturely Christian transformation.”

And according to the monastics this means being willing to see the difficult and ugly as part of our own realities, not to be dwelled upon for its own sake, but to be used as a tool for progression.

“One has to work at seeing a painting as good despite its not being beautiful, when one had been supposing that beauty was the way artistic goodness was understood.” Danto 89

“My thought has been that it is important to recognize that the works might still be perceived as ugly even when we have come to see ‘artistic excellence’. The recognition of excellence need not entail a transformation in aesthetic perception.” Danto 107

But what do we bring to the art? Not in terms of aesthetics, though that is a part. In terms of spiritual maturity. Does the person who knows God the best have the best aesthetics? Should we train people to know art theory or to know God? The monks sought God, but also perceived the world.

Evagrios writes, “Spiritual knowledge has great beauty: it is the helpmate of prayer, awakening the noteic power of the intellect to contemplation of divine knowledge.”

“We have no idea how much extra-aesthetic information comes with the first glimpse.” Danto 107. How do we sharpen and hone this extra-aesthetic information? What we bring to art is often dismissed. Often what is emphasized is what we take away, but that is entirely dependent on not only the art, but what we bring to the art. The work, the scene, the place, the words, the object is like sound, not communicating in a vacuum.

What do we take away from art? This is tied to what we bring and what the artist is seeking to propel us towards. Artists too are those seeking identity, or having found it, are asserting it so as to push others in the direction they found helpful.

“But the artists were not simply concerned that the viewers should know what they were doing. Those viewers were themselves part of the society the artists were concerned to change. The problems were their problems too. The implication is that you are not just to look at what we, the artists have done: you have to help us change the world.” (Danto, 106; see also 133)

“We must endeavor to grasp the thought of the work, based on the way the work is organized.” (Danto, 139) .

We participate with the artist, learning from the embodied meaning of a work that contains a source for our own progression.

“Christian artistry and taste, I proposed, would do well to find new ways of being popular without being cheap; and Christianity would benefit, as well, from cultivating further a capacity for intelligent and imaginative religious exploration that is demanding enough to be unpopular.” (Brown, 230)

With this, like the monastics understood, there is a need for humility. We cannot always perceive what is there without training and guidance.

“Far from being a sign of excessive pride, therefore, submitting to artistic training and discipline can show a degree of humility that is all too often missing from programs of self-expression and from those kinds of artistry that consistently settle for easy or splashy effects.” (Brown, 254)

But is this only true for artistic guidance? Do we bring only our artistic perceptions to art? We bring our whole selves, so we are called to progress as whole selves, with our progression in one way bringing new light to other aspects.

Nor can we teach with an arrogance towards those who would seek to learn. Is transforming art only for the discerning? If theosis is a path, should there not be a path of aesthetics which allows for growth, milk to meat, in perception and depth?

The problem also comes in that we are unevenly ‘divinized’. We do not progress at the same speed, in the same directions, in the same modes. The area our imagination tends to occupy is our own area of strength, and we may tend to dismiss other forms. Thus, we have to allow for other forms of imagination, accepting that we participate as a community—as teachers and learners in turn. Those who are most advanced allow for those who are not. Because they perceive the nature of things and the person. Those who are not, who are striving or trying to prove, become the elitists or snobs. The most advanced monks were immensely accepting.

We have what we bring, and we have what the artist brings, often neither fully formed in identity, each trying to assert identity in expression and reception, while also still searching for the real self.

Where are we to go? To change the world as the artist, or other creative symbols suggest? If we are lost in despair, in the darkness of our sins or the chaos of the grotesque we lose our impetus for progress. Without hope we stay static or retreat.

Hope is found in beauty.

“It is as though beauty works as a catalyst, transforming raw grief into a tranquil sadness, helping the tears to flow, and at the same time, one might say, putting the loss into a certain philosophical perspective. Recourse to beauty seems to emerge spontaneously on occasions where sorrow is felt.” Danto 111

In moments of emotional need we feel drawn to hope and healing, the perichoretic attracts, drawing us back towards wholeness, or at least our comfortable approximation of it that we are used to in prior assumptions of our identity.

“Beauty is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it.” Danto 160

But, this kind of beauty itself can be restrictive, becoming a mere solace rather than a driving force for our continued advancement.

This beautiful solace in art is often considered ‘kitsch’.

A cottage

“Much art that aims at sublimity borders on kitsch.” (Brown, 230)

Kitsch is a judgment based on a particular, supposedly advanced, aesthetic. Is it, however, a valid judgment? The art we value is an expression of what we bring to it and what it brings to us. Thus the art we have is the art we deserve. See the art someone loves and we can see where they are at emotionally and spiritually.

Art becomes a tool for discernment, not only in how we view the art, but also in how we view the art viewer. Kitsch, maybe more properly defined not according to our aesthetic place, but rather according to how it works in the life of a particular person. Kitsch is, we might say, that which stifles progress or allows for stagnation. A precious moments figurine, or chapel, might be profoundly spiritual for one, a spiritual wasteland for another. Under the perspective of theosis we judge according to the situation and individual, not according to the object

“If taste is matter of perception, appreciation, and appraisal, and if it is always influenced by context and community, the first step in assessing claims regarding religious aesthetic taste is a move that is no less important for being almost a cliché. It is to try to listen to and through the rhetoric and sometimes curious logic of particular claims regarding music and worship so as to discern the underlying musical and religious perceptions, values, and judgments.”

Adding to this with right perception, maturity in spirit and aesthetic, art, music, the sorts of personal expressions Postrel emphasizes becomes a very precise way of perceiving the observer or aesthetic chooser not only the underlying aspects of the artistic object itself. We can diagnosis souls, knowing where one is and where one needs to go, in both the artist and those who resonate with particular expressions, as long as this resonance is about the real identity and not about assertions of a false identity in order to adopt someone else’s identity, which might be comfortable but is ultimately problematic.

But, moving past the false hopes of solace, we come to real beauty that both inspires, enlightens, and transforms.

“One cannot aspire toward the most developed and discerning taste without recognizing that taste must be discriminating—that not everything is beautiful and not all beauties are equal. Yet there comes a moment or state in which taste at its very highest, and the art associated with it, allows one to relish all that one hears and sees and touches, perceiving it as blessed in the eyes of God, and so to take delight in the whole world as beautiful and entirely enjoyable ‘in God’.” Brown, 264

Postrel and Willis offer us illustrations of a broader expression of the inherent spiritual in art, not in the formal production of art as communication, but rather aesthetics as choice and aesthetics as participation, what we select and what we express, that becomes a vital symbol of who we are.

However, we are left with a question. What we produce is a static representation of our selves. Is there more? People can express a diminished being, so expression itself is not inherently theosis. We can learn about people through their expressions and choices, and sometimes what we learn is that creativity is solely expressing ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Not by being same, but by expressing an artificial independence, a different look within the same overall, broader life philosophy and shallowness. Though, there are cues within to suggest a real glimmer of being. Is that enough? Especially if the materialistic shunts further, and deeper, expression. Is the ability to choose really an embrace of a deeper aesthetic? Are we a more reflective society because we can choose our toilets and faucets?

A faucet.  Buy online at Restoration Hardware

“We are here to be transformed.” Danto, 131.

This transformation cannot be simply an external beautification, but insists on whole transformation if we are to really find our identity.

But again, what is the direction of our identity? The monastics sought their identity in God, with God, participating with him now and through eternity, leading to a transformation into the likeness of God, something they realized goes beyond assertion of rhetoric or outside trappings, indeed transformed in a way that often is blocked by pure intellectual, rational methods.

“Philosophy is simply hopeless in dealing with the large human issues.” Danto, 137

“Perhaps we should also acknowledge that thought and further experience can, in turn, give rise to the symbol—the aesthetic and artistic symbol that, even as words begin to fail, is lifted up by illumined imagination, however imperfect, or by what has traditionally been called inspiration.” (Brown, 227)

Several Circles by Vassily Kandinsky

In contemporary considerations we can see the embrace of beauty and disgust in the framework of perichoretic participation in the works of Moltmann whose theology of hope is, in part, coming out of his core question of where was God in Auschwitz. Theology too sought to exalt humanity, running into the wall of humanity’s deprivation, which brought a loss of theology. Classical liberal theology was found bankrupt in the face of human depravity.

Beauty and theology often go together, it seems.

 Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells

The texts we read for this class session were quite, quite interesting really and I heartily recommend them: The Abuse of Beauty: The Paul Carus Lectures 21 (The Paul Carus Lectures) by Arthur Danto and Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life by Frank Burch Brown. We also read an excerpt from The Substance of Style by Virgina Postrel and Common Culture by Paul Willis

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Present and future

From Mark the ascetic:

When harmed, insulted, or persecuted by someone, do not think of the present but wait for the future and you will find he has brought you much good, not only in this life but in the life to come.

After the first part, I expected there to be something along the lines of God will judge, or will make right, or will avenge. Something Old Testamenty.

But it doesn’t go that direction. Instead it stays with us. By enduring those things we can gain spiritual wisdom and patience. Something I’ve realized again and again, as I’ve been seemingly perpetually bothered by nearby construction that day after day violates the seeming expected quiet of the forest. Needless construction that has taken far too long.

I’ve gone up and down about it. Realizing all that noise entirely undermines attempts to find quiet prayer or spiritual focus.

Then I realized I was growing in different ways. A training of sorts.

There have been a lot of these things in my life, persistent bothers and greater frustrations. That’s just the one on my mind today that makes me realize exactly how right Mark the Ascetic is, even as I wish it wasn’t true, and that God would send a lightening bolt to end the bother and always step in to solve every frustration.

When you sin, blame your thought, not your action. For had your intellect not run ahead, your body would not have followed.

To add to this, and echo a little other Philokalia, blame the thoughts but also analyze them. Learning my own mental state, path, influences, and whole mental context has been a wonderful way to address my deeper faults. Sinful actions are more often than not more symptom than the direct disease. There’s often some faithlessness, or entitlement, or something underneath it that provokes the sin, often in not always obvious ways.

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Blame and Temptation

Do not say: “I do not know what is right, therefore I am not to blame when I fail to do it.” For if you did all the good which you do know, what you should do would then become clear to you, as if you were passing through a house from one room to another. It is not helpful to know what comes later before you have done what comes first. For knowledge without action ‘puffs up’, but ‘love edifies’, because it ‘patiently accepts all things.’ (1 Cor 8:1; 13:7).

I always want to know what comes next so that I have a good basis to do what comes first. Learning how to just go ahead and do that first thing has been quite freeing. When I do it. Truth be told, it’s sometimes exhausting to step without seeing. But, we’re not called to see the giants as wee or weak. We’re called to attack them anyhow, even if they’re huge and strong.

After fulfilling a commandment expect to be tempted; for love of Christ is tested by adversity.

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A selection

Amy was around all weekend, keeping me, for the most part, away from the computer. So, she’s gone away, again, and I’m back to my posting.

This time the reading is from Mark the Ascetic, and since they are short little texts, I’m gathering a few that stuck out to me in my reading today:

First of all, we know that GOd is the beginning, middle, and end of everything good; and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

This isn’t particularly a new revelation. But, I feel it worth quoting because it’s not uncommon for people to charge monastics with a form of works righteousness. First, God works. Always, first God works.

When reading the Holy Scriptures, he who is humble and engaged in spiritual work will apply everything to himself and not to someone else.

This has been an important, continual, reminder for me. It’s so easy, especially when mad at church and christian leaders, to read the challenges in Scripture and say, “Yeah! They should have done that.” It builds the ego and adds a bit of righteous justification. Only, no one is helped by that. The Spirit is speaking to me, not to them, in my own personal reading. I have to trust God’s ability to speak to others. Meanwhile, I cannot settle in my own deficiencies just because someone else has other deficiencies. Instead, I should say, “Yeah, I should do that.” Everyone wins.

If a man has some spiritual gift and feels compassion for those who do not have it, he preserves the gift because of his compassion. But a boastful man will lose it through succumbing to the temptation of boastfulness.

Boasting can take a lot of forms. Sometimes the worst are not through words, but through self-promotion and denigrating others. We alienate others who we do not want to shine as we want to shine. The spiritual gifts are, according to 1 Corinthians 14, for the edification of the body of Christ. We are to help others, not highlight ourselves. We are to build others up, not promote our own abilities. We are to participate with others in a shared journey towards maturity, not put on a show so everyone can see how talented or spiritual we are. God is watching, and the gifts he gives he can also take away.

At the times when you remember God, increase your prayers, so that when you forget Him, the Lord may remind you.

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Prayer and Beauty

The Holy Spirit, out of compassion for our weakness, comes to us even when we are impure. And if only He finds our intellect truly praying to Him, He enters it and puts to flight the whole array of thoughts and ideas circling within it, and He arouses it to a longing for spiritual prayer.

While all else produces thoughts, ideas and speculations in the intellect through changes in the body, the Lord does the opposite: by entering the intellect, he fills it with whatever knowledge he wishes; and through the intellect he calms the uncontrolled impulses in the body.

Whoever loves true prayer and becomes angry or resentful is his own enemy. He is like a man who wants to see clearly and yet inflicts damage on his own eyes.

If you long to pray, do nothing that is opposed to prayer, so that God may draw near and be with you.

Spiritual knowledge has great beauty: it is the helpmate of prayer, awakening the intellect to contemplation of divine knowledge.

~Evagrios

Embrace prayer. Embrace holiness. Embrace knowledge. These three go hand in hand to lead us to fullness and stillness.

Though, doing this does not necessarily mean we’ll be free from storms and persecution. Maybe even the opposite. We do these things and we become dangerous to those who are opposed to fulness and stillness. And such can be found in all kinds of places, even the places where we might trust the most.

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status

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

~Evagrios

Tomorrow I begin school again. To become a theologian according to the academy.

However, I cannot forget that it is not my words about God that make me a theologian. It is my words for God, and with God, and from God, that I will be truly a theologian.

I must hold onto prayer. Growing in depth of the Spirit, even as now, I enter into a new phase of growing in depth of knowledge.

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