Some of us have been in this world for a while; less than a century in many cases, but still, a growing number of solar years. We have the advantage over newborns and small children; too, over those who lack “an experiencing nature.”
This is a concept that was imported into literature, some centuries ago. It is not to be confused with hiking. It refers to a broad experience of life, not a visit to a national park, with perhaps some camping. In principle, I am not opposed to such activities, but they are not what I mean by the phrase.
In some respects, it is the opposite. A consumer of nature is a different thing from a student of nature. Even his enjoyment is limited by his ignorance. Sensual pleasure is, strange to say, not a memorable thing; or if it is, it is educating.
Sex gives a good example. Those who are “sexually active” – in the modern sense of copulating with various of the similarly inclined – are apt to forget names. This is because the persons with whom they copulate don’t interest them. Their “souls” are not forgettable; rather they were never closely observed.
Learning takes place in time. While it is true that a one-night stand uses this commodity, it does not take much, and essentially none, if the only skill employed was the animal one of contriving a seduction.
By contrast, the Christian and human institution of monogamous marriage – one oppositely-sexed mate, for life – is, shall we say, educational. The parties are blessed, or condemned, if they prefer, to grow in the knowledge of each other. Each becomes the other’s teacher.
Within a true marriage (on the traditional scheme) there is more to learn than how to extract pleasure.
I will use the example of loyalty. It is not a simple thing. Instead, it is present, or missing, in many dimensions. The truly married are compelled to trust one another, or at worst, to learn that one’s mate cannot be trusted. But there is time, to make corrections, on both sides.
We joke, or used to, that a woman marries because she hopes to change a man; a man because he hopes the woman will stay the same. The joke resonated because, in the experience of so many, a truth was buried. The woman starts out young and pretty, the man young and callow. They will, necessarily, change, as they grow old.
And yet as anyone who has done this (grow old) should know, there is a part of each that is unchanging; which is non-negotiable because it is definitive. Adjusting – making the best of it in both parties – is a moral education.
In the sentimental or pop-song version of “romance,” however, this feature is not so much downplayed as ignored. The game is the thing; and a game is soon over.
There are six other deadly sins, as Dorothy Sayers liked to point out, and I invite gentle reader to consider them in turn. Each involves a lifetime of discipline and enterprise, extending from the earliest consciousness to a deathbed. Pride was notoriously the “queen bee in the hive.” But even gluttony could be a killer of souls, were it not dealt with.
By an “experiencing nature,” I refer to a science that goes well beyond the latest, mostly false, dietary information from commercial websites. For a time, man is “married” to his own flesh, and thus to cravings which are as likely to defy as to complement reason. One learns to control what, as a child, was limited only by the authority of a parent.
One learns that gluttony does not pertain only to food and drink. In the season of Lent, we give up certain comestibles, but the taming of the body is not restricted to this time. Certain activities, as opposed to sweets and treats, involve gluttony.
Gambling may serve as my example here, and not because the gambler is prone to lose money. The investment not of cash but of soul – once again, the excitement of the game – is at issue. It is addictive.
Even jogging can be addictive. Who has the self-knowledge to put a pause on that? To adopt some alternative form of exercise, that doesn’t provide the “rush” that one is craving?
Conversely, even physical exercise – mastering what can be mastered of a human body in the world, and staying healthy in order to perform a range of tasks – is a contribution to self-knowledge, and to learning about the world. The “experiencing nature” is alive in this.
Schooling is a modern obsession, but at its (rare) most demanding, does not occupy every waking moment. It may come as no shock to my reader that “school” and “education” have been wantonly confused. The modern mind seeks credits, of one sort or another. It likes to count things, as a miser.
But there is more to wealth than gold and silver coins, and the very management of wealth in all of its transient subtle forms is part of what the pedagogues call “the process of learning.” The Mass is a school that gives no credits at all, for a worldling to trade on.
Here I shall make an explicit appeal to those capable of distinguishing mere “data” – which can be accumulated, stored, and measured – with that “wisdom” which exists beyond counting. Our knowledge of the world resides in the wisdom that informs not only skillful acts, but our whole being. It is what we die with, as we become invisible to the world.
Let us now consider the question: what have we learned, or are we learning, from the current Wuhan Flu catastrophe?
It would be good if we would learn, and then retain a few lessons about how to avoid or reduce such a misadventure in the future; very well.
But what can we learn from it, about life, death, and eternity?
*Image: Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh, 1890 [Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]