Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Limits of Scholastic Consciousness

       'On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying,
       and I knew it not.' 
       -- Rabindranath Tagore, from the poem, "Lotus"

       A few months ago, I wrote a bit about the limits of literacy consciousness, and I appreciated the willingness of several readers to respond with their own thoughts. (Comments on that post are still open.)  In like manner, I am now taking up the closely related (but not identical) subject of scholastic consciousness -- which I simply mean to be that frame of mind, or kind of mind, that is developed by people who spend much time in schools poring over the words of others.  If I seem to speak critically, you will forgive me, for I am only criticizing myself:  I have spent about twenty years as a student in schools and universities, and about twenty more as a teacher in the same.  Forty years:  it sounds almost biblical.

       Here come a few related thoughts.


       Jewish tradition celebrates the Festival of Shavuot -- the commemoration of the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai -- with an all-night vigil in which, among other things, the Law of Moses is discussed by the participants.  One of the traditional ideas which relate to this custom is that Israel had not done well at keeping the Law because they had been "caught napping," as it were -- they were sleeping on the night before the Law was given, and they should have been awake, preparing.  The ancient, annual custom of vigilance is a sort of compensation for that lapse.  The quote given above from the poem, "Lotus,"  reminds me of the same sort of thing -- a sense of having been taken unawares.


      In that day when the Servant of All the Earth spoke to them directly, the scribes of the Law of Moses were warned by Him that although they searched the Scriptures (diligently, I presume),  they would not come to Him to whom the Scriptures referred.  In modern linguistic terms, we might say that they had confused the signifier (Scripture) with the referent (Himself).  The contextual question was, "How do you find Life?"  (The whole story can be found in the Gospel of St. John, Fifth Chapter.)


       I agree with the general consensus that St. Thomas Aquinas did a masterful job of developing the teachings of the Church into a more or less thorough scholastic tradition, and he deserves to be called a Doctor of the Church if anyone does.  I do not deny his sanctity;  indeed, I affirm it;  but I would like to make three observations:

       His scholarly considerations led him to consider deeply what is called "The Beatific Vision" -- that vision of God which is accorded to believers who have passed into Heaven.

       It appears that he was correct in this assertion:  that there is a Beatific Vision.  He was perhaps incorrect only if he supposed that death must precede it; the attested story is that it was granted to him in this life.  It is said that on the 6th of December, 1273, St. Thomas heard the Voice of Christ while at mass, asking him what he desired.  He had the wit, or the holiness -- is there a difference? -- to reply, "Only you, Lord.  Only you."  Upon which Something Happened.  Whatever it was, he abandoned his writing, and his writings, with these words, "All that I have written seems like straw to me." Three months later, and he was gone.

       It is that Something Happening that interests me.  Something apart from the old saint's scholastic labors.  Not that his scholarly mind precluded it from happening; but it certainly stood apart from all that, and it stood apart in some way that he felt had transcended all that he wrote.  "All that I have written seems like straw to me."


       The old Hebrew prophets had varieties of spiritual experience, as we all know:  dreams,  horrors, healings, ascensions, visions, angelic visitations, even something like holy madness, all worthy of much consideration and much to be desired.  But I want to focus on a particular experience among all these experiences.  The prophet Isaiah calls it "the Refreshing."  Christ, speaking to the Apostles, calls it "the Baptism of the Holy Spirit."  St. Paul famously equates them in his Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter Fourteen.

       Here is Isaiah, beginning the quotation where St. Paul begins it:

For with stammering lips and with a strange tongue
  shall it be spoken to this people;
To whom it was said:
  'This is the rest, give ye rest to the weary;
  and this is the refreshing';
  yet they would not hear.
And so the word of the LORD is unto them
  precept by precept, rule by rule,
  here a little, there a little;
  that they may go, and fall backward,
  and be broken, and snared and taken.

       Do you see in this holy poem, as I do, a contrast between that "refreshing," and a mindset that becomes, or reverts to, precepts and rules that fail to attain that Something Happening?

       In the schools where I have learned and taught, there has always been much of curriculum, scope, sequence, precept upon precept, rule upon rule, compulsion, approval, disapproval, problems, solutions, assignments, here a little, right answers, there a little, wrong answers, going, winning, losing, falling backward, succeeding, suspending, probation, dismissal, being broken, adulation, failing, being snared and taken, grades, degrees, scholarships, awards, honors -- any or all of which may have their place, I will grant you -- but I get the feeling that this is mostly creating a Paradigm of living, rather than Living.  It seems almost as "virtual" a reality as a video game or a soap opera or a Matrix.  Consensus Reality.  I think that this Paradigm affects us all, whether we are religious or secular, more than we know.


       To my fellow Christians:  I should like to hope that none of us confuses a merely precept-and-rule relation to God with the Real Thing; or if so, yet may we live long enough to enjoy some of the Beatific Vision which came to St. Thomas Aquinas.  (I am concerned, because in some sects and theological schools in Christianity, any reference to "spiritual experience" is immediately suspect, and is often treated as a dirty word.)

       To my non-Christian friends, I should like to hope that you, too, seek and see Reality;  but I encourage you to seek it outside the prevailing school-inculcated paradigm.

       If I may offer a suggestion to anyone, it would be a thoughtful reading and re-reading of the Seventeenth Chapter of the Gospel of St. John.  If Jesus Christ knew what He was talking about, and really meant what He really said . . . it changes everything in an utterly astonishing Way.
      Not the least of which is that the Universe is flipped inside out.

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       Comments are always most welcome.  Your thoughts are valued.


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