Arts and Culture

Surrounded by Mystery

by Father Robert Lauder

First in a series

ONE OF THE experiences in teaching philosophy that I find interesting is discovering new insights in material that I have taught previously. I am not certain how this happens. Is it that the first time I dealt with the material I was not sufficiently attentive? Was it that with the passage of time I grew in knowledge that enabled me to see what I had previously missed?

The way I explain my experience of seeing something in familiar material that I have not noticed previously is that philosophy deals with mystery and it is always possible to go more deeply into mystery. This happened frequently last semester in a course entitled “Personalism” that I teach at St. John’s University. What led to the experiences was a book that I have read several times – “Person and Being” by Father W. Norris Clarke. S.J.

What I think Father Clarke did brilliantly in his small volume is use the philosophies of existentialism, phenomenology and personalism to uncover some important truths in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. In trying to report Father Clarke’s insights, I take full responsibility for the accuracy or lack thereof in my reporting. A good place to start is to remind ourselves that it is more accurate to say that God is creating the world than that God created the world. God’s act of creating is ongoing. If God stopped creating me as I am writing this column, I would return to nothingness. I would be involved in the greatest disappearing act in history. My being would disappear. I would cease to exist.

Any being that God creates resembles God. It is impossible for God to create anything that does not have some similarity to its Creator. So all that God creates is good, beautiful and shares in God’s truth. Because all being participates in God’s being and God is unlimited good, beauty and truth, every being, from angels to cockroaches, imitates God’s goodness, beauty and truth. I have difficulty seeing the beauty of some creatures, such as cockroaches, but I am confident an entomologist could explain why they are beautiful.

Each creature communicates its beauty, goodness and truth. It is as though every creature is a word from God. The way I think of this is that each creature “speaks” itself, offers itself to others, reveals itself by its actions. Some people seem more sensitive and receptive to these revelations. I think of poets, saints and mystics. My favorite poem is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ #34, sometimes called, “As kingfishers catch fire.” Hopkins expresses what I am trying to express. Here is the first stanza:

“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

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,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

Though every being speaks itself, when we reflect on human beings we find something special. Every human being has been given the gift of freedom. The free person can speak itself in a special way because of freedom and because of God’s invitation to humans to share in God’s own life of unfathomable love. The gift of freedom makes the person special among the creatures on earth. Because of this gift, a person can say “yes” to God’s invitation. A “yes” changes everything. In the second stanza of the poem, Hopkins poetically states how the person in grace – the just man – has Christ living within him:

“I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Recently a seminarian told me how discouraged he becomes when he sees evil and feels inadequate to battle it. I reminded him that if he tries to live morally and to live out his commitment to Christ, he will be doing everything he can do to battle evil.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

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