The Body of Notting Hill

A question from my children prompted me lately to sing a song that I’ve sung to wake them all up every morning for as long as any of us can remember. It’s the same song my mother sang to me, on those early unpleasant school days of my youth, to soften the harsh light of wakening. Let me repeat: I sing it pretty much every day.

But here it was, a Tuesday evening in Advent, and the words would not come to mind. Some of them would, but I could tell some were off. No matter how many times I tried, I could not recall all the words.

At six-thirty the next morning, however, I walked into the darkness of the youngest children’s room, and sang it from the heart. The words came to my lips without thought or effort. “Good morning, good morning. It’s such a lovely morning.” (The whole is a variation on “Good Morning” from the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain.)

This is an instance of what I was taught to call somatic memory: the mansion of the mind, in which we can become lost in thought, abstracted, as if entirely forgetful of the body – nonetheless will not allow any such forgetting. The body participates in our memory as much as the mind. Whatever may be said of angels, our human intellects are fashioned to be dependent upon the body. We require the senses to learn anything; they are the means by which we draw things from the solidity of the outside world into the vast spiritual interior of the intellect. But that’s only the start. Body and soul are woven into one.

Bishop Robert Barron writes about this unity in his fine book, The Strangest Way. He refuses a separation all too tempting to us. We’re accustomed to think of the stuff of the body as animal and inferior, whereas the stuff of the mind is viewed as spiritual and dignified. We often deprecate the goodness of external actions, for instance, if they were not intended by the mind; we often praise an interior intention even if it does not come to fruition in a bodily act.

Barron demurs. Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that the soul is the form of the body. There is, therefore, no place where the body is that the soul is not. If this is the case, then the practice of faith, the very physical actions of the body at prayer – the bending of the knee, the folding of the hands, the words upon the lips – or in works of mercy are themselves also practices of the soul.

The Incarnation of Christ, who is at once fully God and fully man, is a singular event, unprecedented and unrepeatable. And yet, it also reveals something universal about reality in general. The Logos, the creative Word, of God, has primacy over the material world it brings into being. And yet, while the world of his creation is inferior to the uncreated spirit of God, that world is by no means merely incidental. It expresses in itself something of the truth about our Lord and indeed is one of the pathways by which we journey back to him and come to know him. “Every creature is, in itself, a theophany,” writes Henri de Lubac.

*

The material world is a showing forth of the divine glory. Indeed, so adequate a means of that showing forth did it become that God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, reveals himself to us by his face. Christians are called to respect the bodily stuff of creation in its capacity to reveal God. We are also called to respect the bodily stuff of creation insofar as it’s not God, but a reality set in being by God’s loving act of creation.

In G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, all the countries of the world have been absorbed under the single, unified order of British civilization. Even Nicaragua (small but recalcitrant and patriotic) has been brought under the rational administrative thumb, the “cosmopolitan civilization,” of England’s “universal secretary,” the King.

But one day, an utterly unqualified fop of a man named Auberon Quin is appointed King and decides, out of pure caprice, to devote the rest of his life “to bringing about a keener sense of local patriotism in the various municipalities of London.” Hammersmith, Kensington, Bayswater, Brompton, and Notting Hill shall all, as it were, revive their ancient local deities, traditions, and allegiances.

For Quin, it’s all a joke. But a young man named Adam Wayne takes the program to heart and soon leads Notting Hill in a defiant rebellion to preserve its ancient soil against the encroachments of universal reason in the form of a major road. Wayne views his native neighborhood as the stuff of poetry, a pure Elf Land, where “the street lamps” are “things quite eternal as the stars.” The particular body of a particular place is to be reverenced in itself and for the transcendent beauty it reveals to the eyes of those who love it well.

Chesterton’s character has something of the Burkean conservative about him, embodying as he does that overused line of Burke’s about the love of “the little platoon we belong to in society.” But Wayne’s local patriotism is also particularly Catholic. He loves Notting Hill for its depth, mystery, and beauty – all of which help him better to remember and reverence what transcends them.

In recognition of ever-increasing global interdependence, Church teaching has long called for international institutions with what Pope Benedict called “real teeth.” And yet the Church also recognizes local patriotism and sovereignty as real goods not to be surrendered to, or absorbed by, “uniform regulation,” “technical solutions,” or especially “economies of scale,” as Pope Francis argues in Laudato Si’.

In that encyclical, the pope even pauses to appreciate that the favelas, those massive slums of Latin America’s cities, are also places that “weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community.”

Even the squalid particulars of the flesh into which we are born are worthy of our reverence, faithfulness, and defense. Only by entering into the particular do we arrive at the universal. Upon it we depend, just as we depend upon our always failing bodies even to perform those spiritual acts of thought and memory that kindle morning darkness into song.

*Image: Our Good Earth by John Steuart Curry, 1938 [Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Jeffrey Kirby’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Joseph R. Wood’s What Are We Waiting For?

 

James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.

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