Regular TCT readers may be wondering: When will David Warren return from his medical misadventures to his every-other-Friday appearances in this space? There’s some evidence that hope for a speedy come-back is not misplaced. He’s writing a bit despite an array of “issues,” and has described his recent exit from the hospital as emerging from a “cocoon of professional medical treatment.”
That word “cocoon” caught my attention because the Washington area and much of the Eastern United States are under a deluge of cicadas of the ominously named “Brood X” variety. They emerge, from a cocoon or some other place of repose, every seventeen years. The cicadas are fascinating to small children on neighborhood walks or in backyards, and to me.
And what a seventeen years it’s been.
These stunning phenomena of birth and rebirth from seeds, cocoons, and other hiding places seem programmed into Creation in many ways. Winter leads to spring, and all that changes of season entail.
I don’t think David meant “cocoon” in the kind of naturally beneficent way I’m describing here. And he wasn’t altogether pleased with the Canadian COVID restrictions that his cocoon keepers forced on him.
But coming out of major surgery for life-threatening illness is a kind of rebirth, even if some aspects of what you see these days might make you want another seventeen years in a cocoon.
Just as physical creation goes through constant rebirth and renewal, we seem to be built for spiritual rebirth and new beginnings as well.
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates awaits his death after being convicted for “corrupting the youth” of Athens with false teaching. He’s ardent to the very end about that most human of activities: conversation about the truth of things and “what is.” He tells his friends of his disappointment with his original search for the natural causes of things, the aim of philosophy in pre-Socratic days. These physical “causes” were not really causes at all, he realized, but ephemeral imposters.
So Socrates undertook a “second sailing,” as he describes it (some translators give it as “second best”). This new beginning, a new voyage, led him to logos, or reasoned speech, in order to seek causes in the forms, or pure (really, divine) ideas of truth, beauty, and goodness.
Socrates knew well how little he knew. But this second sailing opened lines of inquiry that would reverberate through all of Western history, in thinkers such as the early Church Fathers and St. Augustine down to Joseph Ratzinger, among many others
The contemporary French philosopher Pierre Manent draws on a classical understanding of politics to develop another instance of rebirth. In that classical appreciation, politics is not just elections and lobbying and PR battles. Its central aim is not the protection of individual rights as understood in the modern liberal tradition. Politics is, as Socrates claims, the art of bringing souls into good condition, similar to the way medicine promotes health for the body.
Manent describes the Greek city, the form of political community in ancient Athens, Sparta, and elsewhere, as signifying a “second birth for its members.” To be fully and truly human souls in good condition, we must undergo a rebirth in which we look beyond the cocoons of ourselves, our families, and our tribes to seek a broader common good.
This move beyond our immediate relations into a life of loyalty to a political community is, says Manent, tragic in a way because it conflicts with the profound pull of our family roots. But it is natural, spiritually and intellectually, for us to need and respond to this rebirth, just as it is natural for us to cherish our families.
It’s this political rebirth of healthy souls that modern Western nations now seem unable to manage.
The most profound rebirth we undergo is, of course, to be born of water and the Spirit in our baptism and in the Pentecost that the disciples and Mary experienced in the Upper Room, which we will celebrate this Sunday.
Christ explains the stakes of this rebirth to Nicodemus: without it, we cannot see the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus is confused, and understandably so. Can we return to our mother’s womb to be “born” again? Like Socrates before his second sailing, Nicodemus was looking for physical causes in this rebirth.
But Christ explains that both matter – water – and Spirit are involved in this rebirth. And Christ tells Nicodemus that if he won’t believe what He has taught about earthly things, or earthly causes, it’s not likely he will believe His teaching about heavenly or spiritual things.
The key to understanding that enigma, as Christ tells the disciples, would only come with the Advocate, after His departure. It’s the grace of that rebirth that we will be praying for Sunday.
I had a wonderful premonition of this rebirth recently as some dear friends and I made a Year of St. Joseph pilgrimage in, of all unlikely places, Washington D.C. On a beautiful spring day, with the cicadas out in force, we walked through the city and visited three lovely churches: St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill; the nearby St. Peter’s also on the Hill; and St. Dominic. All had doors wide open.
The barriers around the White House and the Capitol were still prominent and ugly. The one public political act we saw was a few people having their photos taken beneath electronic signs calling for an end to all restrictions on federal funding for abortion.
We are no little distance from a citizenry of healthy souls that Socrates thought politics should produce.
But inside the open churches, and in the gardens and waters that we passed, we found the sense that rebirth is a deeper constant, which transcends headlines. And that Pentecost is coming.
*Image: Visit of Nicodemus to Christ by John La Farge, 1880 [Smithsonian American Art Museum]