By Michael Martin
I’ve been contemplating, probably for years, the cries of “Wisdom! Be attentive!” which appear at several significant moments of the Byzantine liturgy. They occur, for those who may not know, at the Little Entrance, as the book of the gospels is held before the holy doors; prior to the readings of the epistle and the gospel; at the Great Entrance, as the Holy Gifts are brought to the altar; and before the recitation of the Creed. It seems to me that there is more than a little in the way of a sophianic theopoetics here, as Sophia/Wisdom (from one side) facilitates or catalyzes the graces of Christ that follow and the paying of attention (from the other side)—so crucial an element of phenomenological intentionality—brings us ourselves into the presence of the mysterion. (The movement is inherently reciprocal.) It will be noted that no such announcement precedes the Consecration—an important point—but following the Consecration (and the Epiclesis) the text invokes the Virgin herself in the hymn known as the Megalynarion, “The Magnification of Mary”:
It is truly proper to glorify you, O Theotokos,
the ever-blessed, immaculate, and the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the Cherubim
and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim;
who, a virgin, gave birth to God the Word,
you, truly the Theotokos, we magnify.
Mary’s participation in the Incarnation is acknowledged here, however tacitly, as participation in salvation and in the coming-into-being of the Eucharistic gift. As the Wisdom/Sophia of Proverbs and Sirach participates in the Creation, the Virgin participates in the Redemption of that same Creation.
My investigation here is not about the liturgy, however, but about the ways in which phenomenology and sophiology discover the same phenomenon: the shining that illuminates the cosmos. This shining speaks in the languages of poetry, languages that take on a myriad of forms and are sometimes mistaken for science, sometimes for theology. As Martin Heidegger has it, “All reflective thinking is poetic, and all poetry in turn is a kind of thinking.” This thinking distinguishes itself, I would further argue, by attentiveness to what Hans Urs von Balthasar identified as the Glory of the Lord, a deeply sophiological term. Furthermore, such an approach is profoundly antithetical to some ways of doing theology. As von Balthasar writes:
In Neoscholasticism, when the feeling for the glory of God was lost—that glory which pervades Revelation as a whole but which is not perceived by conceptual rationalism, or concerning which it remains silent, or which it wholly removes by means of method—there perished also the sensorium for the glory of Creation (as “aesthetics”) which shone through the whole theology of the Fathers and of the Early and High Middle Ages. This sensorium passed preeminently to the poets and artists (from Dante to Petrarch, to Milton, Herder, Hölderlin, Keats…), but also to the great natural scientists (such as Kepler and Newton, the early Kant, Goethe, Carus, Fechner, Teilhard), whereby Neoscholasticism found itself doubly bereft and denuded.
This Glory is accessible to children—the formal employment of the technology provided by the epoché is by no means requisite—as Robert Kelly describes in the opening lines of his magnificent prose poem, “The Heavenly Country”:
Once I thought it was the place my father brought me and my mother to, between the rivers up north. The near river was full of white stones bleached in the sun, and the banks on the far side were red clay. At night it was almost cold, so we slept with blankets or walked out in sweaters early morning to see deer or whatever else might reveal itself to us. That it is a matter of It willing to reveal to Us I have never doubted.
This is an eminently Catholic, eminently sacramental, and essentially sophiological insight. And we all innately possess it; it is part of our baptisimal birthright. Only, I think, we are trained out of it through the deadening course of our education, perhaps the most invisible yet destructive of modernity’s many tragedies (and Catholic education—of which I am a survivor—is by no means less culpable than that of the mainstream). My late colleague, Stratford Caldecott, devoted much of his career to exploring a remedy for this poison. For him, as for me, this remedy can only be realized through an education attentive to the Glory of the World; that is, an education that simultaneously speaks the languages of rationality, theology, and poetry: in every sense of the word a truly Catholic language. This is a Catholicism hinted at in the Wisdom literature, literally fleshed out in the New Testament, and—following the collapse of traditional metaphysics in a postmodern, post-capitalistic, post-Christian, and (increasingly) post-human cultural milieu—a Catholicism that offers a much-needed corrective to the bastardization of ontology, the technological and ideological colonization of the human person, and the ascendance of postmodern nominalism so prevalent at our own cultural moment.
It is in the spirit of this idea of Catholicism that I have dedicated myself to a project of cultural renewal. So much of what I witness in Catholic or religious culture, alas, echoes so much of what is deadening in the culture-at-large. Indeed, even the so-called “New Evangelization” day by day shows itself to be nothing more than the old evangelization: Behold, I make all things old.
To that end, I am interested in hearing from poets, artists, scientists, adventurers, teachers, communitarians, distributists, scholars, and visionaries who hanker for something more living in Catholic culture. What I am not so interested in is theory distanced from practice. I’ve heard far too many proposals anchored in the theoretical (this may be an inheritance of the Neoscholastic patrimony that has stifled so much innovation in the life of the Church) that never make it to the ground. As any biodynamic farmer would tell you, renewal starts from the soil, not from the air.
Feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Martin is author of The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics (2015), Meditations in Times of Wonder (2014), and editor of The Heavenly Country: Primary Sources, Poetry, and Critical Essays on Sophiology (2016). He teaches philosophy and English at Marygrove College and runs an organic/biodynamic farm in Grass Lake, Michigan with his wife and children.
Copyright 2016 Michael Martin
Photo by hotblack (2015) via Morguefile