Friday, 11 February 2022

Of Arts and the Animal part 2

 A Christian Essay in Aesthetic Value

The divine simplicity contains in itself all complexities. The creature does not represent God merely in a generic sense, the richness of the divine perfection is such that it is not exhausted although every creature ever created communicates unique aspects of the divine essence in the very haeccitas that constitutes it an individual creature distinct from all others. This is true of you and me and the tree on the corner; whilst, unlike her Calcutta cousin, the Lord’s pavilion cat makes no claim to be divine, she is shot through with divinity in every aspect of her being and dwells ever in the divine presence, sharing with the redeemed in the ‘liberty of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom VIII). Furthermore, she and the Mountains of Mourne, as words of God entirely contained within the Eternal Word, find their place at the heart of our faith as we kneel before the Eucharistic presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

What does all of this mean for us, who stand within the created order as the audience God has created for the communication He offers in His creation? To start with it enables us to find our place in the world, to orientate ourselves, which means to know where we stand in relation to Christ the Oriens, O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis. O Dayspring splendour of eternal light and sun of justice come and enlighten those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death (commemoration at 2nd Vespers of St Thomas 21 Dec).

We begin by acknowledging that we are by nature utterly dependent upon the things of this world and see that this dependency is a sacramental symbol of the manner in which we are sustained by our Creator and theirs. We receive from Him not only that which makes our way of life possible, our daily bread, but that life itself, our human nature, and our existence.

The first consideration arising from this is that in our limitations and our dependence upon the divine bounty for all that we are and all that we need we are truly very nearly nothing at all; each of us is but a little gobbet of something delineated against the world (and still more, against a nothingness we can hardly imagine, but into which all creation would resolve itself were it not subject to God’s constant care). The second consideration is of the divine fruitfulness from which we have received and continue to receive all things, on which account we may be confident that we shall continue to receive still further blessings as we take our place in the reception and communication of the divine goodness. Turning from the dogmatic to the ascetic, we learn from St Bonaventure’s great work on the spiritual life the Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum, that meditation upon these twin considerations is the highest form of prayerful contemplation because by enabling those who would reflect upon the attributes of God to understand this world of creatures, their own environment, in terms of the action and manifestation of the divine goodness, this ‘cherubic meditation’ allows them to see and to relate to God in all things and through all things, dwelling (like Puss) always in His presence until, finding Him in themselves and themselves in Him, they may reach the heights of a mystic union with God that goes beyond all conscious thought and holds them even in this life as close to the throne of heaven as the seraphim. The life of St Francis was spent in precisely this meditation upon the divine seen through the natural; “led by the footprints he found in creatures he followed the Beloved everywhere” (Vita St. Francis by St. Bonaventure quoted in St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists). It is this reflection upon the divine bounty and the contingent nature of our existence that gives meaning to the evangelical counsel of poverty, enabling those of us who are not monks or friars to share in the spirit of their vows, developing a sense of detachment from that which belongs to the divine bounty so that it serves us in its usefulness rather than have us serve it in our vanity – the liturgy gives us St Dominic for our example as it speaks of his crossing the wave of vanity in the ark of poverty for the welfare of the people. “In fiscella paupertatis flumen transit vanitatis, pro salute populi” (Dominican Missal).

            The prerequisites for such a meditation are, clearly, that one should be able to appreciate one’s own utter dependence upon the gifts of the divine bounty given through the natural world rather than believing in a mythical self-sufficiency of technological progress; and also the possibility of relating to our fellow creatures of every species in a direct, personal and unmediated fashion in order to receive the divine self-communication in them rather than simply to reinforce an artificial narrative derived from our own intellectual constructs. I will leave it to you to decide how far our media culture militates against the fulfilment of these prerequisites and move on to my next point.

To be continued...

By Prayer Crusader St Philip Howard

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