When was the last time you took notice of the brightness around you? It could have come, perhaps, with a glance out the window, or simply by observing the light flooding into a room. For most of us, I suspect, it just seems to blend in with everything else. Sometimes, though, even we who see only dimly cannot miss it.
A recent experience: I was alone and “off-trail” in the coastal hills of northern California. It was winter, so the sun hung low. It had just stopped raining, and rays of sun began to light up everything in view, such that every blade of wild grass and every leaf (just so aligned) on the entire forested hillside sparkled as if individually bejeweled.
What made it even better is that I had just been reading some of St. Hildegard of Bingen’s letters. And in them, she – the twelfth-century mystic, and our newest doctor of the Church – provided me with a means of interpreting what I was looking at:
God the Father is brightness, and that brightness is brilliant beyond imagination. Many people try to separate God from his brightness. They see his brightness all around them in the beauty of his creation, but they do not ascribe this beauty to him. This brightness is the Father’s love. All things are brought into existence through his love, and we are surrounded by his love.
One of the great joys of reading is coming upon a line like that, something that rings true – that stands out in its brightness, if you will. Here is another one I came across recently, from the book Peace of the Soul by Fulton Sheen: “Pleasures of the flesh are always greater in anticipation than in realization, but the joys of the spirit are always greater in realization than in anticipation.”
It’s a pity that this kind of book – which deals with psychology and much else crucial to human happiness – is generally not consulted by the colossal cadre of psychologists now entrusted, as the name itself implies, with the care of the human soul. It’s full of passages, like the one above, which are worth contemplating because of the soundness of Sheen’s anthropology – his theologically informed understanding that deeply illuminates what makes man tick.
I suppose books like his are deemed works of religion rather than a work of the psychological “sciences.” But that does not mean that psychologists don’t have a certain anthropology of their own. The deeper, and most urgent question is: whose view of man is correct, more nourishing, more liberating? And what are people, in such great numbers, seeking deep down: someone to talk to, or the healing of their souls? Or is the answer in our time “both,” in several new ways.
(Altarpiece at the Rochuskapelle, Bingen am Rhein, Germany)
Take “Rental Relatives,” another illuminating phrase that recently came my way. It has to be one of the saddest byproducts of the demographic meltdown now affecting so much of the globe. Sobering statistics  about that meltdown are everywhere, and those are sad, too. But in Japan these days, they now resort to “renting” relatives – on weddings or other special occasions in which immediate or extended family members had always played an important part. It was their presence, as much as the event itself, that made a feast to begin with. Only now there simply aren’t enough siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles to throw a proper party. So you rent some relatives to fill the void. Rental Relatives: an idea that casts light on much that’s gone wrong with us in America too.
I was driving by a couple of Catholic churches around the town in California where I live. And I’ve been struck by a conspicuous black banner draped across their walls. As it happens, the banner is part of an ecumenical initiative. It reads: “Torture Is Wrong.”
The grammatical structure of the banner is extraordinary in its simplicity: X = wrong. That’s it. No shyness about moralizing, which is typically frowned upon. Can you imagine the “W word” – wrong – being baldly applied to anything that really touches daily life?
I am not here to say torture is right, or even to argue at present the finer points regarding the interrogation of terrorists bent on unleashing savagery upon the unsuspecting. But I am here to say that the banner, though ethically pristine, strikes me chiefly as a politicized statement.
Is it designed to persuade, to inspire? To witness to truths of which the surrounding population is not already convinced? Perhaps. To me it seems less a brightly shining truth and more akin to an exercise in self-congratulation.
If we are truly concerned about condemning uncivilized behavior – and re-cultivating an appreciation of the law within – in an “ecumenical” fashion, it would be much more thought-provoking, I think, to paraphrase Aristotle’s luminous observation: “Man without law is lower than the beasts.”
The full passage, from his Politics (Book I, 1253. a31), might not lend itself as readily to a banner: “Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.” But, then, that’s the thing about what’s truly enlightening, it takes real thought and appreciation.
And if the choice confronting us, as Alasdair MacIntyre argued in the 1981 classic After Virtue, is between Aristotle or Nietzsche – that is, between respect for natural law and objective morality on the one hand, and the nihilistic will to power on the other, I think something like this would bring much greater light to any passerby.
“God the Father is brightness.” And that light is all around us, if we will have eyes to see.