Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Oh, stop being so damned 'holy'!

I'd not intended to write an irritable post - but, with Duns Scotus on my mind (as I'll briefly explain in a moment), let's just say I'm valuing and displaying every element of my individuality - who I really am. If any of you have been 'followers' of mine, it will come as no shock that I believe caring for and 'giving' to others is extremely important. What exasperates me is not an attitude of 'I shall share what I have,' but one of 'I'm not good enough to have anything - and, if I give it away, it's for that reason.'

I know the favoured term is 'recession,' but let's be honest - we are in a full-fledged Depression, and have been for some years. This is not a 'paper recession,' where 'hard times' mean that people are making less than what they had hoped on investments. It is the real thing - struggle, desperation, fear, for many destitution. One lady whom I know, Barbara, regularly speaks of how she cannot even afford a pair of shoes or clothing for the past three years, and I find this totally believable. Yet, if anyone mentions abstract concepts about ostentation, winning a lottery and the like, Barbara has to jump in with 'if I won a million, I'd give it to charity - Oh, I know everyone says that (everyone? I wouldn't!), but I think I really would." (I'm using her only as an example - I have known many of this breed throughout my life.) I'm amazed that Calvinism - the idea of our depravity, of desire, even for what is not remotely sinful, as evil; the sense that God blesses his own with prosperity but frugality is an idol - has infected even someone who is Jewish. Tragic, indeed.

If poverty is a virtue, it is in its connection to gratitude (not least for creation and divine providence, define that as you will) and charity (by which I mean true love, not playing Lady Bountiful to people whilst treating one's employees like dead weight.) I certainly understand frugality, and I'll say cryptically that I had two times in my life when I was indigent and dependent on others totally for a time. Resigning oneself to a need for frugality is purely pragmatic. It is quite another matter when one, for example, will 'do for others' but cannot bear for anyone, even one's closest friends, to ever do anything for oneself. Knowing one, for example, cannot afford to buy shoes at the moment is just dealing with a situation - it's a far cry from feeling that, were one to be fortunate in getting past hardship, one is not good enough to be grateful for this, but must turn it over to 'charity', probably lest some bogeyman punish one for admitting one is good enough to enjoy the goods of creation.

It is as if only two extremes existed - utter greed, with no concern for others, or self imposed frugality because one is unworthy of everything. I've seen people who grew up in great poverty still enjoy whatever they had - even if it was watching a sunset and playing a card game with neighbours! I applaud this! Creation is good - we are created in God's image - others are a gift, not to be viewed as some potential source of wrong.

Earlier this week, I had intended to write a blog essay about Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry I enjoy, and his interest in the Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus. I still intend to do so, but could not seem to get my scholarly side in gear this week. One could write a dissertation on either figure - and still only scratch the surface.

I'll leave my comments, for the moment, about a single point. Hopkins, as his poetry shows, was a man of many conflicts. I can certainly understand how he could struggle with a Jesuit idea of heroism and self-abnegation (indeed, an ideal in which one should always seek not only to do good but 'what is most perfect'), by contrast with a Scotist stress on 'this-ness' in the individual as glorifying God. It is interesting that Duns Scotus' stress on the will and individuality (as opposed to deductive reasoning - however gifted he was in that!), with which I concur, is hard to fully value when the Western Church, for centuries, has tended to base asceticism on atonement for sin, deprivation and the like. When asceticism is viewed, rather, as a removal of distractions, and we hope to get past the false self (to achieve the potential for which we were created... pardon this Scotist for, as usual, borrowing from Thomas Aquinas) rather than annihilate our true identity, both virtue and art (both Hopkins' passions) can flower.

I suppose that all 'arty' ascetics can fear that their creative gifts can become distractions in themselves. I wonder if passion frightens us because it is strongly present in many sinful tendencies - and don't think for a moment that I mean only sexual passion. I am intensely sensual, and do not fear this in the least - it has many elements of joy and gratitude. I thrive on art, music, literature, aromatherapy scents, well-seasoned food, wine and espresso, self-expression in clothing. Yet I've read all too many works on the supposed spiritual life to know that, were I 'holy' ( all know I am not...), I should at least pretend that even a work of art is a distraction.

Heaven knows that Ignatius of Loyola did not abandon his military side in later years, and, however long before Gerard's time, had... rather a military mission in England. The Spiritual Exercises and related, discursive meditation can be helpful for many, but never were suited to me - and I dare say the 'desolation' prescribed within portions of these would be a far greater burden to Gerard, whose brilliance and literary gifts I envy (there - now you know what those of us who aren't inclined to promiscuity struggle with... and it's far more insidious and, I've heard, much less fun...), but whose scrupulosity (a problem with which I've never had to deal) would mean fear and conflict far beyond the norm.

Certainly, everyone on earth, particularly those who are devout and/or have high ideals, struggles with frustration, darkness and the like. Yet, since it's so much a part of me that to bring it to mind would be rather like exploring why I breathe, I tend to forget that not everyone (including those far more advanced in virtue than I) has the struggle with philosophical concepts, such as I can see in Hopkins. They are not matters of achievement. The frustration, in this specific sense, is not about a lack of wealth, recognition, and so forth. It is a conflict between hopes of being that which God intended, and seeing shortcomings to the point of doubting even one's own integrity.

Aside from his literary genius and insight, I admire that Hopkins 'spilled' the scope of struggle. (I'll mention illustrations of this in his poetry when I get around to the essay I mentioned.) He'll rejoice in the resurrection, but also set forth his anger, frustration, sense of futility.

For centuries, and even in our own day, spiritual exercises too often were based on 'I am worthless.' The 'first step' often was a meditation on death - I suppose to call one to conversion. It's a far cry from the hazelnut of Julian of Norwich - which I see as a reflection on a divine glory so great we can only catch a glimpse. This is "I am wicked - I must repent - I am worthy of nothing but hell." This would seem to imply that the Creator designated that as default location...