Sunday, November 30, 2014

Immortal Longings and the Human Soul

Our souls have been flattened.  And we don't even realize it.

Here is a two-minute clip of Dr. David Allen White giving a fantastic lecture on Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.  What he says is so important that I'll even transcribe it for you below (my emphasis in bold) ...

This is [Cleopatra's] death speech.  "Give me my robe, put on my crown".  She's dying how?  As a queen!  OK?  She's going out in glory.  This is not Antony falling on his sword and mucking it up.  This is prepared, staged, deliberate, glorious, queenly, transcendent.  "Give me my robe, put on my crown.  I have immortal longings in me."
And there the word ["immortal"] is again.  It may mean either I have longings in me such as those immortal gods and goddesses do; I am like them, or I have longings in me for immortality.  I am now going to join the immortals.  The longing for immortality is in every one of us.  
We are currently in a very sad situation because those yearnings for immortality are still in us and no one believes in an after-life.  Since we worship in the temple of science at the end of the Age of Reason, we believe in flesh and blood and nature, period, and there's nothing beyond it.  You die; you're dead; the end.  This is in contradiction to what every civilized order has believed since the dawn of time.  We are the first people ever ... who think, "No, there's nothing.  You die.  You're dead."  
And yet the immortal longings show up now in bizarre ways.  It's the reason everybody is writing a screenplay, or wants to be a poet, or is writing a novel.  It's because, "I know there's something in me that should not die and go down to the dust," and therefore what the last two hundred years have said is immortality comes through great art, or making a great contribution to the world.  "I will cure cancer!  I will finally put an end to hunger!  I will go to Africa and cure AIDS!  And then I will be immortal!"  And all of our immortal longings are somehow encapsulated, made into minute little earthly desires.  This play shows real immortal longings and is smashing through the boundaries.
Dr. White's two-part lecture on this play brilliantly shows how it "smashes through the boundaries" in its verse, in its themes, in its very structure.  Click here to order the entire lecture series.  It's well worth it.

But compare what Dr. White says (and what William Shakespeare says) about "immortal longings" with what you hear at a typical suburban Mass.  In fact, let me tell you what I heard tonight.  It was not a bad homily.  But it was all about how in Advent we prepare to meet Jesus by making things better here and now.  Be kind, help those in need, Jesus was nice, you be nice, too - that sort of thing.  Others have called this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  I call it Inconsequentialism.   It's not wrong as far as it goes, but it's not fully Catholic, because it's a heresy, a tiny slice of what we believe, cut from the fullness of the faith.

We believe - or we should believe - that the here and now is dependent on something far greater. We believe that the immediate is informed by the transcendent.  This moment hangs upon eternity.  Our deepest longings are not for Marty Haugen music and banal art and architecture; not for glib and dull homilies that amount to mere platitudes; not for lukewarm benevolence and climate controlled comfort.  Our longings are for what Chesterton calls the "four lost notes", which we can almost hear, which we can almost play on our guitars, we poets, but which always somehow elude us, which are always more beautiful and mysterious than anything we have managed to sing yet.

Rod Dreher writes of a quality of Dante's Divine Comedy that he calls metaphysical realism.  He sees this quality in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but not (currently) in the Catholic Church.  What I take that phrase to mean is the belief that metaphysical things are real.   We're not Christians because we need an excuse to be nice to one another; we are Christians because we believe that Jesus is God and that we are destined for an eternal existence that is more awesome and terrifying than the blurry Unreality we have built for ourselves in our artificial lives where there is no such thing as gender, human nature, sin, or anything consequential, anything of consequence.  It's all much more tremendous than that - much more real than that.

In fact, let me be so bold as to say every word of our Faith is true - even the parts so many of us find "embarrassing" - the angels, the demons, Mary, the saints, the sacraments, the Second Coming (which every homily I've ever heard describes as the most harmless and lame experience you can imagine) - but what is most vividly real, more than anything else, is the power of the Cross.  And, since it's all true, it is a crime to dumb down the worship of God and to live insipid lives with flattened souls.  And some of the flattest souls you'll find around you belong to Christians.  We have become salt without savor, bland and inoffensive - hardly signs of contradiction to the much more lively and provocative world around us.  Our destiny, then, is to "trampled underfoot" (Mat. 5:13).

Elsewhere, Dr. White (our Shakespeare scholar) describes his conversion (again, my emphasis).

Now my student who had challenged me in class had converted about six months before I did. He had not been a Catholic either; he was simply an honest mind seeking the truth. He had walked into a Catholic Church and said to the priest, "I want to become a Catholic." It wasn't long before this young man was battling with the priest who was supposed to be giving instruction, because the priest was presenting a whole series of new ideas in a new way. This brilliant young man was rightly challenging these new ideas, saying to the priest, "No, Father, the Church teaches this...".
So you now had a convert instructing the priest in the Faith. My friend did not want me to go through that experience. He went all around the Philadelphia area until he found an elderly Irish Monsignor, out in one of the suburbs, who had the Faith. So once a week, I would take the train to go out there and receive real instruction from a priest who had the Catholic Faith. It was a great blessing.

It's sad and funny and tragic all at once.  We have come to a time when you can't assume that a Catholic priest (or for that matter a Catholic bishop) "has the Catholic Faith".  You all know what I mean.

And you all know this, what Dr. White experienced after joining the Church, when he began attending Mass at his local parish ...

Suddenly, I walked into something that looked just like the empty Protestant service I had left when I was seventeen. I'd been there, I'd seen it, I knew it. I thought, what is this? This can't be what I've joined, this can't be what it's about. Two thousand years can't have come to this! I've already rejected this. 

Of course the answer is not reverent liturgy alone.  But whether we're talking liturgy or art or music or any other great thing - and especially when we're talking love, the aspect of love called Eros (that face of love that makes Catholics extremely uncomfortable) - we are not made for safety, comfort, mere contentment, constraint.

We are made - God has made us - to "o'erflow the measure".  Antony & Cleopatra - sinners that they were - "overflowed the measure", and something mysterious and glorious is revealed to us in their story.


Here's another clip of Dr. White.  It's a brilliant description of the challenge facing Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing (a part I played over 30 years ago).  Dr. White shows how the "Kill Claudio" scene is a stirring call to manhood.  And he gives a tip of the hat to Dante and "metaphysical realism" in the process.

These lectures are great because Shakespeare is great because God is great.  May we, this Advent, at the very least stop shunning greatness.

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