by Father Robert Lauder
IT IS ALWAYS a pleasant experience when you think that you have some insight and then discover that someone has expressed that insight in print. The discovery that your insight has been expressed by someone in something that has been published is like a stamp of approval. This was my experience when I recently reread my favorite poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ No. 34.
Through the study of philosophy, more specifically the study of metaphysics which deals with all beings including the mystery of God, I have come to see in a new way that every being is like a message from God. Each being reveals itself or speaks itself in a unique way. A tree does it one way, an animal another, a person another.
Who is sensitive to the messages from God that each being is? When I think of that question I spontaneously think of a powerful scene in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. In the play the main character, Emily, has died and is in some place like limbo. She discovers that she can return to earth for one day. All the dead people in limbo warn her not to return, but not heeding their advice, she decides to return and chooses the day of her 12th birthday.
When she returns, she notices that she and her parents do not look at one another, and she cannot stand that they are not fully present to these wonderful moments. She asks the stage manager, who is a kind of spokesperson for God, if anyone appreciates the beauty of life every minute. He replies that the poets and the saints do a little.
I believe that each created reality, from atoms to angels, in some way speaks God. The nature of each creature resembles God. An angel resembles God more than an atom, a person more than an animal, but each being resembles God in some way. I believe God cannot create anything, even a cockroach or a tarantula, that does not resemble God and imitate God in some way.
Hopkins expresses this beautifully by saying the following: “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves — goes itself, myself it speaks and spells…”
The Jewish personalist philosopher, Martin Buber, claimed that there was a passive aspect and an active aspect to each being. The passive aspect enables us to categorize the being, to fit it into a group, to put it into a file and perhaps to have a clear idea about it even if the idea is not very profound. The active aspect is the dynamic center of a being, the uniqueness of the being that makes the being the particular being that it is and not another.
When a person knows the passive aspect of a being, Buber calls that type of knowing “orienting knowledge.” It is a type of knowing that is not deep, that seems to stop on the surface of the being. It is a type of knowing that does not penetrate to the mystery of the being known.
Buber denotes “realizing knowledge” as knowing the active aspect of a being. In knowing the active aspect of a being, the knower grasps, at least to some extent, the uniqueness of the other, gets beyond what the other has in common with others and grasps, to some extent, what makes the being this particular being and not another. In realizing knowledge, the knower comprehends, at least to some extent, the mystery of the other.
Knowing the active aspect is realizing in at least two senses. First, it means that the knower has reached the reality of the other, what is most real about the other. Secondly, it makes the knower more real. By penetrating to the core of the other, to the mystery of the other, the knower becomes more real because the knower is in touch with the depth of reality. The knower has gone beyond the superficial.
Probably orienting knowledge is necessary in certain areas of living. For example, I don’t expect to have a deep relationship with my automobile. Orienting knowledge, which frees me to drive, would seem to be an adequate way to know an automobile. But it is a tragedy if orienting knowledge predominates in education. Students should be helped to be receptive to mystery — the mystery of reality, the mystery of self, the mystery of other persons, the mystery of God.
It is even more of a tragedy if orienting knowledge predominates in religion. The experience of religion should be an experience of depth. We should be challenged to understand ourselves as deeply as possible and to understand our relationship with God as honestly and as truthfully as we can.
Next week, Father Lauder examines the mystery of being and the gift of creation.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.