Homesickness for Alien Places

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“Homesickness” by Rene Margritte (1940). Used under Fair Use by Wikiart.

There are times when, after coming back from a sojourn overseas, we start pining for it. Sometimes, this pining can be the afterglow of a holiday destination after having to face the imminent return to the office.

At other times, however, this pining stems from something more than a mere reluctance to go back to the drudgery of work. This variant of the experience of pining for foreign places often takes the form of a kind of homesickness. This experience can be particularly visceral when one has lived in that foreign land, but they even come with respect to places that the person has not even visited. Regardless of context, these alien lands often stir our hearts, and we may often find ourselves whispering to ourselves that one’s home was not where you are now, but in these foreign lands. For those that go through such an experience, it becomes particularly poignant when that tug of the heart only goes stronger with each passing season.

The experience of homesickness for places other than one’s own can be a theologically rich moment of reflection. At one level, this experience can be an analogue of a much deeper longing within us, for a native land that is not only unvisited by us, but one that categorically transcends the whole cosmos. This experience of homesickness can be a reminder in the Letter to the Hebrews that we “are seeking the city that is to come” (13:14), and that until then, our hearts remain restless until we are restored to that place we have never been to, to borrow the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions. In other words, our experience of longing is but an analogue of a God given impulse to seek a more heavenly destination.

At the same time, however, precisely because this experience is only an analogy, there can also be a danger that our longing for other places can become an occasion for the operation of vice, particularly of the vice of acedia. As RJ Snell wrote in his Acedia and Its Discontents, this longing for another place can a vice-ridden restlessness when it becomes a longing for a utopia, and a neglect of where we are now. Those who have lived in the place that they long for may protest that the longing is anything but utopic, but as Michel de Certeau reminds us in his Practice of Everyday Life, our worlds always shift to such an extent that the place we thought was there never really remains. Thus, even when we have had a real contact with that other place, that longing can nonetheless still be the result of the vice of acedia, whispering to us to abandon all we have and where we are.

It may seem that those who harbour these longings are doomed to spend their lives with their longings unresolved and always at risk of predisposing ourselves to vice, and in many respects, that is true. We are however, also given in the Eucharistic Liturgy, a forum with which to reflect upon this longing. We are, in the Eucharistic Liturgy, not only abstractly engaging in a form of prayer, but also gathering a people who are acting upon their longing for a place we have never been – the eschaton. Yet, the vice of acedia is resisted precisely because of the incarnate nature of the Eucharistic lord, the Body of Christ compels us never to abandon our posts here on earth.

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Discerning Before Utopia

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“The Daydreamer”, Creative Commons

This post was spurred on by two things, a class given on discernment at Campion College Australia and reading a letter in a section of the monthly journal Traces, put out by the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

In going through the contingencies of life, discerning God’s will is always hard to do. The challenge becomes particularly acute when we realise that discernment is almost always mixed with our desires and the frustrations of those desires by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Being creatures driven by the heart, as James KA Smith noted in his Desiring the Kingdom, it would be impossible to eliminate the restlessness that desire instills in us and the eagerness or anxiety that will find its way in the discernment process.

The reasons for our eagerness can be gleaned when one considers how desire operates in the context of what Graham Ward calls a “subject position” in his book Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. Ward suggests in that book that desire does not allow us to keep still within our subject position, which is always made up of a whole range of social and cultural factors. Rather, our desires put us onto what he calls “projects” which, as the word suggests, projects us forward, pressing us against the confines posed by the factors that make up our subject position. In many respects, our eagerness inevitably will drive us to want to break many of these confines, and urge us to strain towards “where we want to be”. This is what Ward calls in his book “utopic horizons”.

However, our eagerness is often met with frustration because, as the name “utopia” suggests, our desires very often push us towards places other than where we are now. We believe that where we are now are but obstacles to our discernment and to the fulfilling of our vocation. We want to escape where we are and what we are doing, so that the will of God can finally be done.

This desire to escape our circumstances is understandable, but it must be juxtaposed with observations by Rabbi Edward Feld and Fr. Luigi Giussani. In an essay on the 23rd Psalm, Feld noted that, though the journey in the psalm is marked by many changes and much buffeting by the circumstances of life, the sheep are nevertheless still “on the right path”. Fr. Giussani put it more succinctly, saying once that it is in the circumstances that one seeks to escape where one’s vocation, one’s call resides. Discernment thus is not dependent on an escaping of those circumstances, but by pressing against them and feeling their texture press back upon us.

Prayer After “The World Spins Madly On”

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Wikimedia Commons

Almighty God,

You moved your servant to listen to “The World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies, that short, beautiful song of unfulfilled longing, broken promises, and utter helplessness in the face of this barbarian called life that you have let loose on us.

In this song you remind your servant that of all the contingencies of life, people, days, places, memories, words are just that – things that pass by us and are not meant to stay with us. You make us reflect on the only perennial thing in this contingent universe, mankind’s need to say goodbye to these contingencies. All these things, they come by our lives for but a moment.

But in the words of our father Augustine, we desire these temporary things to last an eternity. And in our efforts to make our own heavens on earth with the temporary things of this earth, we only render our heavens into foretastes of hell, creating glimpses of that separation that awaits those who, like those angels in ages past, declared their refusal to serve you, knew what it meant, and meant it with their hearts.

And in this song, O Lord, you cause us to ponder how the world does not care as these hells multiply, in our own lives and in lives all over its continents. Little wonder that we are jaded, O Lord, as our cries of agony of loss, small and large alike, are just met with the world simply moving on. Our world is so cold, and our search for comfort in this world for the pain of our loss only seems to compound this pain, as the sheer contingency of all things tears away our comforts that we have band-aided over our wounds.

But in your wisdom, you deign to heal our wounds borne from our bindings to those that would only leave us. And indeed, you deign to heal them with these very contingent things to which we cling, but in so doing you create your own portals to a truly eternal life. With water, oil, salt, bread, wine, bodies and words, you put together a vault of the sacramental life to immerse us in, thus showing viscerally to our own senses that our longing for the eternal can be fulfilled. Our recurring pain need not be the only eternal – nay it was merely an illusion – experience in this mad world, nor do they need to be meaningless knocks of fortune. Let these portals you have created, O Lord, take up these temporary things of this world gone absurd, such that they do not just get meaninglessly lost in the passage of the moments.

May it please you that, in the moment when moments march no more, you would in your mercy show us how every instance of loss and being lost in this life of ours – and yes, even the end of that life when we shall lie motionless in bed for the last time – forms the threads in this cosmic tapestry of your saving work.

For our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Praise be the name of the Lord, both now and forever.

 

Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince

 

People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

Hangry Eyes: Our Ravenous Seeing

 

Eric Carmans Hungry Eyes is an awfully corny song which, combined to the dance moves and fashion statements of the movie Dirty Dancing, form the quintessential signpost to the overall corniness of the decade that was the 80s. Corny though it may be, is there some ancient truth buried beneath the refrain, especially the line which goes “One look at you and I can’t disguise I’ve got hungry eyes”?

Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, authored by Chanon Ross and referred to in last week’s post, seems to indicate as much. The book makes the less than subtle claim that part of the religious aspect that ties the act of seeing to worshiping, mentioned in a previous post, is the consumptive aspect that ties seeing with consuming. Moreover, this kind of consuming far from passive and far from tranquil. It is tied with domination and aggression.

Ross refers to a passage in the Confessions, where Augustine recalls his friend, Alypius, and his addiction to the spectacle entertainments of the Colosseum in ancient Rome. Ross makes much of a line in the Confessions, in which Alypius’ addiction to spectacle was expressed in consumptive terms using the words:

he saw the blood and gulped the brutality, he fixed his gaze there and drank in the frenzy.

Another example used by Ross is the Roman theologian Salvian in his On the Government of God. In it, Salvian similarly makes a link between the gaze and eating. Commenting on the consumption of victims by wild animals in the Colosseum, Salvian imputes guilt on those that watch this violence, saying that

…the victims seem devoured almost as much by the eyes of the audience as by the teeth of beasts.

We may excuse ourselves by saying that our gaze is not fixed on anything so visceral or overtly violent. Nevertheless, the consumptive logic of our seeing persists, and Ross suggests that it is Christ who, in giving of himself as a spectacle to be raised up, takes in our consumptive gaze and redeems it by turning it into the gaze on a gift freely given.

When a Dead Body Attends Mass

One morning, probably due to a combination of liturgical illiteracy and bad timing, a coffin with a body was casually wheeled into a suburban parish in the middle of the Eucharistic liturgy, in preparation for a funeral which was to come immediately after.
So there it was, a dead body, cutting through the almost boring familiarity of the space between “Let us pray” and “One God forever and ever”.
At first glance, a dead body casually gliding into a non-funerary liturgy might seem to some slightly odd. Other folk might seem irritated at the funeral director’s awkward sense of timing. After the initial awkwardness and rage, however, the presence of the coffin and the corpse therein can be seen to be not an interruption but a correlation, a visible reminder to those attending the Eucharist at just what the Eucharist is about.
What is striking in this action is the sight of two bodies facing each other. On the one hand there is the dead body of the deceased, while on the other is the paradoxical body of Christ, the body that is sacrificed yet is brimming with life that is passed onto those who receive it.
In a way, the Eucharistic body is not completely juxtaposed with the dead body. Indeed, as Graham Ward reminds us in an essay on the Eucharist in his City of God, the Eucharistic body is the archetype of the human body. It is no accident that St. Augustine, in his sermon on the Eucharist, once described the Eucharistic Body as “who you [the congregant] are”.
Set against this backdrop, the body of the deceased is not longer a mere dead piece of flesh. As mentioned in a previous post, bodies also prophecy to a future moment. The ancient Church looked to the body as a signal to the last day when these bodies, long waiting for their restoration, are brought back to life as it was on the day of Christ’s death. The dead body, in other words, is a signal to that end of history where the glorified body of Christ is made fully manifest.
As the body – both the Eucharistic Body of Christ and of that of the deceased – catapults our imagination to that future moment, they also pull as back to another moment in the past, indeed the very first moment in history in the Garden of Eden. For in was in that garden when creation enjoyed uninterrupted communion with its Creator, and the Eucharistic Body of Christ, in drawing us to Communion with Him, draws us also to a restored Eden. The flowers arranged on top of the coffin offer this little hopeful glimmer of that thing both ever ancient and ever new.

On Death and Pies

A homily at Sunday Mass drew attention to the link between sacramentality and food (a previous post has also similarly broached this link). The homily made particular reference to the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast. 
In the movie the erotic dimension of French Catholicism unexpectedly visits a pious Protestant town in the form of opera and food. These seemingly carnal pursuits, far from leading to the downfall of the town, end up stirring and reviving emotions and bonds that were once deemed non-existent or irredeemably broken. One character, a playboy turned cynical military man, is even led to declare his realisation of the infinitude of mercy and a life surging with grace through eating a pie. 
The homily drew attention to the name of the pie, Cailles en Sarcophage (Quail in a Sarcophagus). The sarcophagus is a tomb, a flesh eater which is, unfortunately for the quail, vividly evident in the pie. The death of the quail, and the flesh-eating properties of the pie, are in turn swallowed up by the diners. 
Read in a sacramental lens, this simple act of eating a pie can be seen as an analogue for the ultimate sacramental action, namely the Eucharist. The Eucharist – which literally means thanksgiving – constantly reminds us that the Eucharistic food is given to us through the goodness of God, mediated through the earth and the vine. The sacrifice of the Mass, remembering the Passion of Jesus Christ, is then eaten by the congregation, and death is quite literally swallowed up. 
In a strange twist, however, Augustine reminds us that in the Eucharist, we are consumed by what we consume. And what ultimately gets swallowed up is our death , as we become swallowed up into the body of Christ that we have previously eaten. The revivifying of emotions and bonds in Babette’s Feast is a faint echo of that Eucharistic action where, in our being swallowed up by the Christ that we have swallwed up, the words of 1 Corinthians 15:54 are enacted
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.