The other day, I took the train up to Manhattan to deliver a lecture. I was to speak on the role the arts play in teaching us to see the order of things, the harmony of the world that discloses intelligible patterns, and their relation to the divine mind who created them.
My exemplar in all this was, inevitably, Dante. Has any other poet in our history so ambitiously set out to map the spiritual and moral terrain of reality? In most literature, one can glimpse a view of the world just behind the dramatic action of the plot, but, in Dante, the view of the world is the plot. When Dante the wayfarer has seen God, he has seen all, and the poem ends.
To pass my time on the train, I paged through the manuscript of a monograph my Colosseum Books will publish this fall on the work of the poet Dana Gioia. I look forward to seeing it in print, as the author has done a fine job drawing into focus the work of a man who has contributed much, not only to poetry and literary criticism, but to opera and music, to the Church, and to our public life – through the several roles he has played over many decades.
A focus of the study, one that I wholly approve, is on Gioia’s sacramental imagination. In Gioia’s poems, the surfaces of things gleam, sometimes with the rugged beauty of California’s natural landscapes, sometimes with the manicured beauty of its cemetery without gravestones (or any reminder of death). Always, however, these proud surfaces conceal but cannot wholly absorb an excess, a darkness, a mystery, that may come upon us like a ghost in an old mansion, but is, in fact and finally, a summons from God.
As I read about Gioia’s poems, in the crowded train, a group of employees from some company boarded and took the aisle seats next to me and behind me. They had just closed a big deal after days on the road and were headed back to The City. It was time to celebrate. One went to the café car and returned with three cocktails for each. An old-timer downed his minis of Dewars straight. A young guy with a thick mop of dark hair slicked back in a wave sat over a trio of cans of beer. The one woman in the bunch had her splits of pinot grigio.
They kept shuffling seats. Whoever happened to be seated next to me would pull out a heaping paperback – one, I saw, on modern classical music, another, on the secrets of the CIA – and try to read for a moment, before getting pulled back into the cheerful ruckus.
That made reading my own book a bit difficult, and I drifted a bit, thinking of Gioia’s idea of the imagination as glimpsing mystery just behind things, as it were, and comparing it with a poem I published a few years ago on a similar subject. In “Autumn Road,” I had contrasted the claim that modern people reduce the world to “the most material meaning,” with what I think, or at least thought in the poem, in fact to be the case:
It seems that thoughts are leaning
Up against every fence post, and the earth,
Stared at, stares back and quietly brings to birth
Between us morals, words, and promises
Which we might overlook but can’t dismiss.
The world’s sacramentality lies, these lines say, not just in elusive and unbeckoned mystery, but in the way things seem intended, purposeful, and so speak to us.
The train stopped. The celebrants took their lubricated and loquacious leave of one another, and I hurried out of the subterranean station to catch a cab to NYU.
I arrived at the Catholic Center just as evening Mass was beginning. In the Gospel (Mark 8:14-21), the “disciples had forgotten to bring bread” and “had only one loaf with them in the boat.” This prompts Jesus to say, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees.” The disciples think Jesus says this “because they had no bread.”
Such stupidity causes Jesus to lose patience. He reminds them of the first miracle of the loaves –five broken for five thousand; and the second – seven loaves for four thousand – but it seems that the disciples just do not understand. All they think Jesus is talking about is bread. Bread. That’s all he is talking about.
“Do you have eyes and not see”? he asks, “Do you still not understand?”
In his homily, the Dominican priest reminded us that it was the feast of Fra Angelico, the medieval painter whose work, tradition holds, proves that he had seen beyond this world into Heaven. The disciples do not see beyond the literal meaning of Jesus’s words: leaven and bread means leaven and bread, that’s it.
And I began to think: this sacramental imagination we are talking about – that’s not something one just has. The disciples did not have it. They could not see what Jesus was trying to say to them through the miraculous bread, and they still could not see it, when he repeated the miracle, as if to drill it into their skulls.
Two hours later, I had given my lecture. A woman raised her hand. She launched into a stream of language, most of which I could not follow: she was Shirley Temple reincarnated; the building where we stood was the site of an ancient cult; all the pictures on the wall were secret symbols, and she wondered if any of them were the same symbols I had mentioned in the course of my lecture. As everyone knows, she said, Queen Victoria ran for president with Fredrick Douglass as her running mate. Everyone was reduced to uncomfortable silence by her lunacy.
Jesus in his anger insists that we cannot be dullards for whom bread is just bread. Our sight must be trained, deepened, to see into the depths of things. It has also to be disciplined, so that we see just what the Lord is trying to teach us and does not birth strange spirits of its own design. A true vision is as hard for us as for the first disciples.
*Image: Jesus Preaches in a Ship (Jésus prèche dans une barque) by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]