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Per Caritatem

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Guest Post by Kristina Zolatova: A Name for the Unnamed

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 17, 2013

Kind of Blue SessionsDr. Kristina Zolatova, featured for the first time here, is seeking suggestions for a title for her new poem (see below).  Since I have encountered so many creative people through my blog, I encouraged Kristina to post her poem on my blog in order to see what ideas might be presented. With that said, enjoy the poem and let’s hear your poetic and aesthetically attuned ideas (commentary on the poem is also welcome.)

 ***

Cast aside, televised and captured as an image.
But we all know that one-size fits none.
When “echoes” talk back, they signify
Actively, aggressively to the double, triple, it’s not so simple.
Interpellation meets improvisation and continues to this day.
Transgressing boundaries
Around me
Around you
Isn’t this what we’re called to do?
Not a diminishment of black, white, brown, or yellow.
Rather a collage, a harmony of multiplicity
Unfolding, (re)writing
And in-our-hopes uniting
“on the one” as we process toward a
Rhythmic, uninterrupted you-and-me—
In a word,
True solidarity.

Kristina Zolatova (Dec. 16, 2013)

Rowan Williams on Waiting, Quiet Reflection, and a Baby that Changed Everything

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

December 23, 2010

Nativity of JesusArchbishop Rowan Williams describes Advent as a “time of waiting.” He then unpacks what that means for the Christian and how our Western culture generally speaking (Christians included), have real difficulties with waiting.  We want immediate gratification; we don’t want to wait—if a webpage takes more than a few seconds to load, we complain, throw a fit, curse, or try to figure out a way to purchase a newer, faster, sleeker computer.  Waiting is a concept for twenty-first century globalized folks thoroughly infused with negativity.  We just don’t “do it” well.  Even so, as Williams explains, as Christians we are called to

“remember in Advent the time of waiting before the birth of Jesus, and [to] remember that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us as a time when people were indeed longing for something that would change everything, and yet at the same time not quite knowing what that something would be.

During Advent, Christians go back to that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us. They read again the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament. They read about how people were longing for an end to slavery, longing to be back home in some sense, longing to be at home with God again, longing for reconciliation. And all of that is expressed in the most powerful metaphors, especially in the prophesies of Isaiah, metaphors about the desert blossoming, metaphors about the rain falling, metaphors about day dawning after there’s been a long, long night.”[1]

The four weeks before Christmas have blown by and now our waiting, our counting and marking the days on the calendar before opening the gifts is nearly over.  But what about this other Gift, a far grander Gift, this baby born in a manger so long ago? What difference does His birth, His life, His Incarnation make?

“When Jesus comes into the life of the world with something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve. But this is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus has come into the world and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made? But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.

So again for Christians, Advent is a time when they do a bit of self-examination. Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light. And it’s a time of expectation and a time of hope. A time, therefore, also of quiet.”

Here’s another word we’re not particularly found of, nor very skilled at cultivating (myself included)—quiet, reflective periods of quietness in which we can ask ourselves “[w]hat would it be for the good news really to change me’ […]for that to happen I need some reflective time; I need some peace; I need to slow down; I need, you might say, to take my time about things. And so all those bits of our contemporary culture which are about rushing to get gratification, getting the results straight away, all those habits in our culture which so drive the crises of our culture, whether it’s the credit crunch or the environmental crisis, all those things we have to cast a rather cold eye on during Advent and say slow down, take time, let yourself grow and open up, rather like a flower coming to blossom – a time of expectation, a time of excitement, a time of waiting, a time of peace, a time where we’re clearing our hearts and our minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.”

With John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, both of whom learned to wait and to wonder at this Christ who would turn the world upside down, we too are challenged to “see what the reality of God is like,” which of course is not an easy task.   Truth be told,  “[i]t may be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. Death and judgment, and hell and heaven. It will be that experience of confronting the truth in such a way that you’re changed for good. We say yes to all of that even with the pain and the risk. Or God forbid we say no we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, ‘Well can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say well there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?’ During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth –the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for.”

Notes


[1] The full transcript may be accessed via the Archbishop’s webpage: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2040.

Balthasar on the Christian God’s Freedom to Die for Love and to Love unto Death

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

April 3, 2010

“The renunciation of the ‘form of God’ and the taking on of the ‘form of a slave’ with all their consequences do not Resurrection Icon_Russianentail any alienation within the Trinitarian life of God.  God is so divine that by way of the Incarnation, death and Resurrection, he can truly and not just in seeming become that which as God he already and always is.  Without under-estimating the depth to which God stooped down in Christ, but perceiving that this ‘supreme’ abasement (John 13, 1) formed, with the exaltation, one single reality, for the two movements express the self-same divine love, John was able to apply to both the categories of ‘exaltation’ and ‘glorification’:  yet in a way which is, (to use the language of the Chalcedonian Definition) asynchtōs, achōristōs; ‘without confusion’, ‘without separation’ (DS 302).  In this integrated vision, it is no longer contradictory for John to ascribe to the Son who died and was raised by the Father the power not just to give his life but also to take it up again (10, 18; 2, 19), as well as, thought this power, to raise up (11, 25) the dead both in time (12, 1, 9 and 17) and at the end of time (5, 21; 6, 39 etc., auto-anastasis ‘the Resurrection itself’ one might call him, imitating Origen’s celebrated neologisim).  In fact, the Son’s absolute obedience ‘even unto death, the death of the Cross’ is intrinsically oriented to the Father (otherwise, it would be meaningless, and not in any case an absolute, divine obedience).  Resting on the Father’s power, which is itself identical with the Father’s sending of his Son, the Son allows himself to be reduced to the uttermost weakness.  But this obedience is so thoroughly love for the Father and by that very fact is so altogether one (John 10, 30) with the Father’s own love that he who sends and he who obeys act by virtue of the same divine liberty in love—the Son inasmuch as he allows the Father the freedom to command to the point of his own death, the Father inasmuch as he allows the Son the freedom to obey right down to the same point.  When, accordingly, the Father grants to the Son, now raised into eternal life, the absolute freedom to show himself to his disciples in his identity with the dead Jesus of Nazareth, bearing the marks of his wounds, he gives him no new different or alien freedom but that freedom which is most deeply the Son’s very own.  It is precisely in this freedom of his that the Son reveals, ultimately, the freedom of the Father” (Mysterium Paschale, 209).

Dante’s Holistic Theological Poetry

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

October 25, 2009

Dante Beatrice Paradiso Canto 31For Dante the ultimate meaning of human history can be understood in terms of salvation history.  That is, Dante believes strongly in God’s providential guidance over human history; yet, within God’s providence there is a place for human freedom and deliberation.  God creates humans in his image, which entails the gift of freedom, and this freedom is to be used in the service of God. In the Divine Comedy, Dante tells of how he strayed from his own vocational calling (to be a Christian epic poet) and how, by God’s grace working through figures like Beatrice, he was able to fulfill his calling.

Dante understands the entire created order as sacramental in nature.   In other words, beauty, art, images, and the physical all have value in Dante’s worldview.  We see this in Dante’s relationship with Beatrice.  Beatrice was a particular, historical person, whom Dante at a young age came to admire and even love.  Apparently, Beatrice was a virtuous woman who was trying to lead Dante to higher things, the most important of which is the Christian God.  From some of his other writings (Convivio), Dante seems to have been “led astray” by false schools of philosophy or by using philosophy wrongly.  That is, Dante, instead of using philosophy as a handmaiden to revelation, exalted philosophy to the detriment of revelation.   As a result, Dante finds himself lost and in need of guidance.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante (the character) has to journey through hell and purgatory and after the purgation process, finally makes his way to paradise and ultimately experiences the beatific vision.  Vergil serves as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.  This seems to suggest that natural reason can only take one so far (even though one wonders how Vergil has knowledge of Purgatory).  This is not to devalue natural reason, as by the proper use of natural reason one can become virtuous.  Dante is thoroughly familiar with the Greek tradition of virtue as acquired by practice via the use of practical reason and which then becomes a habit that produces stable character.  Humans, in a way unlike any other animals, have reason and are able to deliberate and choose the good in various circumstances.   Dante readily acknowledges by his choice of Vergil as his guide and by the appearance of various unexpected characters in Purgatory (e.g., Cato—an expression not only of political freedom but also of moral freedom).

With his depiction of purgatory, Dante brings together the Greek tradition of virtue acquisition with the Christian tradition which stresses our need for the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  The theological virtues do not destroy the natural virtues; rather, they crown and complete them.  Dante also affirms the goodness of creation, art and beauty by his positive portrayal of the use of images and the sensory in Purgatory (e.g., singing, liturgical acts etc.).  Vergil’s role, however, is limited and after Dante has gained mastery over himself, Vergil hands the torch to Beatrice.  Under Beatrice’s guidance, Dante is taught a number of theological truths and undergoes a painful time of confession.  One can interpret this confession as Dante’s admission that he had been seduced by Lady Philosophy and has now seen the errors of his ways.

Beatrice plays a special role as a universal-particular.  That is, Beatrice was a concrete, historical person—Dante, after all, tells us that she did in fact die and that he knew her as a young boy.  Yet, in the pageant scene, she appears in the vision as an image of the integrity of the Church (as she chases off the “heretics” presented as foxes etc.)  Though Beatrice is Dante’s guide and is his superior with regard to theological knowledge, she is clear that Dante is not to worship her.  When Dante at times stares too fixedly at her, she immediately exhorts him to turn his attention to Christ.  (This is in keeping with Dante’s need to fulfill his calling.  The fact that he turned away from Christ and made philosophy an idol is the reason for his wandering in the first place).

Dante’s final guide is St. Bernard, a mystic and a poet.  With the choice of St. Bernard, Dante gives a literary picture of the traditional Catholic teaching of grace completing nature and the compatibility of reason and revelation.  That is, revelation, though supra-rational, is not irrational.  The Incarnation, as Dante makes  clear at the end of the poem, ultimately cannot be fully articulated by finite, human language.  St. Bernard, as a mystic points us to the mystery of the Trinitarian God whose Love opens the way for union with him.  With the completion of his Divine Comedy, Dante has fulfilled his life’s calling and thus has participated in the ultimate meaning of human history—to glorify God.

Dostoevsky on Sobornost: Are We Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers?

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

August 15, 2009

With the debates raging in America over healthcare reforms, I was reminded this morning while reading an article on Dostoevsky’s novel, Brothers Karamazov, of our lack of sobornost, an important teaching emphasized by the Russian Orthodox Church.  Sobornost (cоборность) is a Russian word meaning, “spiritual community of many jointly living people.”[1] Twentieth century Russian philosopher, Nicholai Lossky, father of theologian Vladimir Lossky, approached sobornost from a Hegelian-influenced perspective, viewing sobornost as a synthesis or even mystical unity that brings human beings together in order to work for a common, social good.  Sobornost is in many ways the antithesis of Western individualism, or any ethos that manifests a “so long as I’m taken care of, it’s not my problem attitude.”  In stark contrast, as N. Lossky expresses the concept, sobornost speaks of many individuals freely united on the basis of their common love for “absolute values,” and who are willing to relinquish (a kind of kenotic giving up) certain benefits for the sake of the good of the whole.Alyosha Karamazov

If you are familiar with Brothers Karamazov, you immediately perceive the way in which the sobornost theme permeates nearly every page of the novel.  In interesting essay entitled, “The Biblical Story of Joseph in Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov,” Richard C. Miller shows how this mystical connection of humankind plays itself out in the complex relations of the Karamazov brothers.  In particular, Miller focuses on the role of one fugal line in Dosteovsky’s polyphonic text, viz., Zosima’s interpretation of the biblical story of Joseph (of course mediated by Aloysha and thus adding another melodic line into the mix).  Among the many scriptural references in Brothers Karamazov (BK hereafter), we also encounter a long discussion on the book of Job.  As Miller explains,

the stories of Job and of Joseph are counterparts.  Job’s dealing with the nature of man’s relationship with God, Joseph’s with man’s relationship to his fellow man—his own brothers and his father.  […]  The two themes of these biblical works correspond to the two major areas of investigation in The Brothers Karamazov. Man’s relationship with God is the subject of great internal struggle for each of the brothers.  Alesha [=Alyosha] must face it after the death of his elder, Dmitrii [=Dmitri] confronts it in prison, and Ivan is persistently hounded by the problem almost from the first pages of the novel.  Both the Joseph story and Doestoevskii’s [=Dostoevsky][2] novel explore the motivation underlying fraternal and filial interactions.  In both works the protagonists are brothers who share the same father but were born of different mothers.  Although there is no one-to-one correspondence between the personalities of the major characters—Jacob and Fedor [=Fyodor], for example—the dynamics of family relations produce similar conflicts and passions.  The responsibility of each man for his brother, envy, vengeance for past wrongs, all feature prominently in both works (654).

Dostoyevsky PortraitNumerous threads could be taken up here, but I’ll have to limit myself to a few.  As Zosima’s story unfolds, we discover that his own conversion came about through his (mystical, grace irruption) realization of his intimate connection to humankind, that is, to all human beings, as well as to creation as a whole.  When Zosima was a young man, the woman he loved decided to marry another man.  Filled with vengeance, Zosima challenged the man to a duel.  The night before the duel, Zosima in a fit of rage beat his servant, Afanasey.  The next morning Zosima awoke to the singing of birds and the sun reflecting its brilliance in God’s creation.  He sensed a strange harmony of creation at play, which made him recall the words of his deceased brother, Markel who had been converted prior to his death.  Markel had come to see his solidarity with his fellow humans, which provoked him to proclaim, “everyone is guilty before every other human being of everything, and if only people would come to realize this, it would result in a kind of paradise on earth.” This experience moves Zosima to see his own guilt and to seek the forgiveness of his servant, as well as that of his thoroughly shocked dueling partner.  As a result of his conversion, Zosima constantly speaks of the need for active love which is a mark of true spiritual regeneration.  Each of the brothers (excepting Smerdiakov) undergoes this spiritual transformation, first through a falling to the ground and dying to oneself and then a rising to newness of life expressed in showing mercy toward others.

Gary L. Browning also takes up the theme of active love and our responsibility toward others in his essay, “Zosima’s ‘Secret of Renewal’ in The Brothers Karamazov.”  Browning highlights a key phrase in the novel, “each is guilty for all,” the force of which is lost in many translations, including Constance Garnett’s otherwise excellent translation, in which the phrase is rendered, each is “responsible for all.”  The Russian variants of this phrase, of which there are many scattered throughout the novel, all include forms of the verb, “виновать” (vinovat), which means “to be guilty.”  For example, when Zosima exhorts the Karamazovs, who were visiting him at the monastery, to love one another and all human beings, he says, “каждый единый из нас винован за всех и за вся,” (“every one of us is guilty for all and everything” [XIV]).  Is this just a pessimistic, nihilistic view of humankind and our relation to others?  No.  According to Zosima, the realization that we are guilty, not only for our own failings but are also implicated in the wrongdoings of all people  is  that which moves us out of our atomistic, self-absorbed and self-imposed shackles and frees us to experience love and  intimacy with God and others.

How are we guilty for all and everything?  Zosima tells us in his “Conversations and Exhortations,” gathered and mediated through Alyosha.  (Here Dostoevsky’s moral theory goes beyond both Kant’s and Mill’s, in a sense using sobornost to unite or synthesize what is best in both).  First, each of our lives provide inadequate examples for others.  (As a parent, this is strikingly clear to me).  In addition to bad examples, even our best examples do not have the power (solely in and of themselves) to fully liberate another.  This is shown in Alyosha’s failure to transform Fyodor.  Second, we judge others unjustly and with insufficient information.  Dostoevsky brings this home in a powerful way in Dmitri’s unjust sentence of guilty.  The medical “experts,” leading sociologists of the day, and a few clever witnesses were able to convince the jury of Dmitri’s guilt—all of which illustrates the way in which human judgment fails and often miserably.    What path then ought we follow? The path of confession, forgiveness and humble, active love—a path made possible by the One who died, fell to the ground, and a rose in new life which He offers to all who will receive it. 

Notes


[1] Ozhegov and N. U. Shvedova, Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language.

[2] Oh for the day when Russian transliterations are standardized!

Caritas in Veritate: The Mutual Implication of Charity and Knowledge and the Need for Interdisciplinary Dialogue Animated by Charity

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 10, 2009

In chapter 2, “Human Development in Our Time,” of his recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI calls for a commitment to interdisciplinary exchange among the various fields of knowledge in order to encourage genuine development of human beings.  This is a call to something beyond mere “joint action.”  The action must be directed to the proper end and must be animated by charity, as charity and knowledge belong together.  As Benedict explains,

In view of the complexity of the issues, it is obvious that the various disciplines have to work together through an orderly interdisciplinary exchange. Charity does not exclude knowledge, but rather requires, promotes, and animates it from within. Knowledge is never purely the work of the intellect. It can certainly be reduced to calculation and experiment, but if it aspires to be wisdom capable of directing man in the light of his first beginnings and his final ends, it must be “seasoned” with the “salt” of charity. Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile (CV, 2.30).

Here the Pope calls for a “thicker” notion of knowledge and speaks against a reductionistic view of Benedict XVIknowledge as mere calculation.  Knowledge as mere calculation-at least one dominate Enlightenment version-promotes both a diminished understanding of reason, reality and human beings because it immanentizes each and rejects any genuine transcendence that might complete, transform or direct it.

Charity, rather than an “appendix to a work already concluded in each of the various disciplines,” must serve as a dialogue partner from the very beginning.  Charity and reason are harmonious and when in proper relation to each other, they neither contradict nor devalue the other.  Yet, reason formed by charity acknowledges its own lack and remains open to possibilities beyond its grasp and control; that is, it remains open to an Other who has made known what true humanity is by becoming one of us and embodying love in the fullest sense because He is love.  This openness to something more than, something beyond human reason does not mean that we abandon the genuine insights of reason.  “Going beyond … never means prescinding from the conclusions of reason, nor contradicting its results. Intelligence and love are not in separate compartments: love is rich in intelligence and intelligence is full of love” (CV, 2.30).

Wisdom then calls for an interdisciplinary dialogue animated by love in the service of humanity.  In this picture, science, theology, and metaphysics actually listen to one another, appreciating the insights each has to contribute and striving to integrate holistically the truths  discovered and made clear in each respective field.  Perhaps such a vision simply isn’t possible in our age; however, something along these lines is needed as a target for which to aim given the fragmented condition of the various fields of knowledge and the refusal to engage in healthy dialogue between differing groups (with guilty parties found on all sides of the debate, including those representing the Church).   Noting the difficulties in our current situation, Benedict writes:

The excessive segmentation of knowledge[1] the rejection of metaphysics by the human sciences,[2] the difficulties encountered by dialogue between science and theology are damaging not only to the development of knowledge, but also to the development of peoples, because these things make it harder to see the integral good of man in its various dimensions. The “broadening [of] our concept of reason and its application”[3] is indispensable if we are to succeed in adequately weighing all the elements involved in the question of development and in the solution of socio-economic problems (CV, 2.31).

Notes


[1] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998), 85: AAS 91 (1999), 72-73.

[2] Cf. ibid., 83: loc. cit., 70-71.

[3] Benedict XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006.