Monday, April 5, 2010

Practicing Simplicity in the Quotidian II

Continuing with Dietrich von Hildebrand's chapter on True Simplicity available online.

This is about how to bring the multiple thoughts, actions, and events of daily life into line with simplicity. I'm dating it for after Easter -- a holy Easter Monday to you all, let us rejoice that the victory is won! Here is how, according to von Hildebrand, to bring all our quotidian trivialities into conscious accord with that victory.

We must offer everything to God.

This is done in the regular morning offering in which we offer all our works, sufferings and joys to the Lord. St Francis de Sales recommends in addition to this spending a few moments in the morning trying to preview the day, especially the foreseen "battles" (whatever seems to be difficult for you). I've been doing this and it is helpful. Von Hildebrand says this is very important and brings everything in a direct relationship to God, but not sufficient:

..."This relationship is a highly formal one; it is established, so to speak, above the head of the thing in question. It may be of great value, but it cannot actually fill our lives with a truly sacral atmosphere. The good intention which underlies that general sacrifice of our actions and sufferings on the one hand, and our specific contact with the object on the other, are not deeply interrelated. .....The good intention itself is insufficient to baptize all things and connect their very essence with Christ, to consecrate the world intrinsically. It does not pervade the things which are under its sign, but merely directs them extrinsically towards God.
This is interesting because I'm one who tends to get "lost" in the day. I offer my day in the morning but sometimes by mid-afternoon have really lost sight of how I started.

We must thank God for all things.

"A more profound connection between the genuine goods of the world and God will arise from our consciousness of possessing every such good as a gift from God."
We do this at our table blessings and it may be well to become accustomed to doing it as a habit. Though it's so easy to forget! I remember it most when I'm tempted to complain. Even trials are permitted by God and can lead to good things so even our sorrows usually have some element that we ought to be grateful for. I'm not recommending masochism -- one example might be when Aidan was very ill. It made me newly grateful (1) that we continued to have him and (2) that the other children had had such an uncomplicated early life. We realized we had taken that for granted. In that way the shadows bring out light -- isn't that called chiaroscuro? Even if Aidan had died, we would have (hopefully) been grateful for the gift of the time we had with him.

GK Chesterton made gratitude and joy into a keynote of his philosophy.

We must see God reflected in created things.

The third way of connecting all our goods, tasks and activities with God

consists in a comprehension of the profound analogies that inhere in the nature of things. In a sense.... all that is, is somehow representative of God. In this rich hierarchy of levels, the sharpest distinction is between vestigium and imago. The created person alone is an image of God; every other created thing is only a vestige of him. We may propose to divine the analogy contained in every being, advancing up to the focal point where the inward relation between that thing and the causa exemplaris -- the primal idea or exemplar -- becomes discernible.
That last sentence is hard going and I don't claim to understand it fully. Causa exemplaris apparently means something like true cause or even something like source or prototype or form or model. The idea would be that every aspect of creation is contingent and doesn't stand alone.... it can be traced back and back and back. As Ronald Knox said everything is like a perspective view that ends, if you go far enough back, in God.

Von Hildebrand says this effort shouldn't be merely schematic, or a kind of allegorical interpretation. You can easily say how this could become an exercise in strained figures and frustration.

The Christian is to discover God in the cosmos, not only as its author (causa prima) but as its prime exemplar or paragon (prima exemplaris). Once he is touched by the lumen Christi, man will see the world with new eyes.
OK, that clarifies prima exemplaris, I guess! As for causa prima, this goes way back in philosophy. You don't have to be a Christian to see it, though many philosophers have tied themselves in knots trying to avoid the idea. It's what I said about tracing things back. Everything is caused by something else, so you ultimately end up with a First or Primary Cause, that causes but wasn't caused, or you end up with an infinite retrogression. I'm not sure if there's a third alternative.

I am going out on a limb and proposing that perhaps Pieper's ideas on leisure and contemplation may be helpful here. This "light" he speaks of is ultimately a gift, not something we can do in a step by step logical way, by human reason. When we contemplate something it's not like solving a math problem or figuring out how to juggle resources to make a house payment -- it's something more like sinking or rising into the reality of things. The material you are contemplating doesn't become abstract -- rather, in this process you perceive more fully its reality, its true being.

We must view all things with eyes of Faith.

Only when our entire vision of the cosmos is thus intrinsically imbued with the mystery of Faith, can we properly apply the phrase about our consecration of the cosmos to God. .... this connection with God is not something superimposed on the object; rather, it leads us through its innermost core to God. Therefore, it becomes possible for us to entertain a full contact with the object, to accord an ample response to its specific meaning, and yet at the same time to continue dwelling in the sacral atmosphere.
This response, he says, allows us to maintain intrinsic unity even when confronted with the multiplicity of things and duties. They are not simply formally offered to God, with the stamp of "good intention" -- they are actually recognized in themselves as being directly linked to God. This ongoing recognition allows us to see more deeply into the true nature of things as they are, not just as they appear in relation to us.

To put it another way, if there are two choices -- between perceiving something as it superficially appears to be, vs as it really is, we would probably prefer the latter. But seeing things as they really are doesn't essentially mean knowing how many atoms the given object contains, or how it reacts to this or that other substance, or what it does in certain physical conditions. I love the natural sciences because the more you know about how things behave and exist and act in relation to each other, the more truly awe-inspiring and mysterious the whole thing seems. It's like what CS Lewis said about the onion which expands inwards rather than outwards, so that every layer inwards is larger and more wonderful than the one before. But this knowledge is not the essence, in itself -- it's a gateway to the essential meaning, a via, a road -- not the destination.

There is one more item

We must conform our life to that hierarchy.

I'll have to save this one for another post.

Do you see how he's worked through from the more exterior to the deeper perceiving? Conforming our lives to reality is something that was taken as a reasonable given by the Greek philosophers. Because the Greeks saw man as needing integration so that all parts -- thoughts, speech, action -- would be united and focused towards one end, they (at their best) saw that one's life and actions had to be focused towards how things really were, not just towards what "looked" good or pleased oneself. Their view of reality was necessarily incomplete -- Revelation was where we got the truths needed for salvation. But it is only reasonable that words that don't match deeds are equivalent to lies, and thoughts that don't bear fruit in a consonant way of life are essentially sterile.