Recently I had a short contretemps with someone who said that her teenage son had come to a wonderful and intelligent conclusion about Homer’s Odyssey. He said that, when you stripped the beautiful language away, what you had left would make a good R-rated quest video game. She agreed with that assessment and grew angry when I suggested that, regardless of the young man’s native intelligence, he was in this regard ignorant, and probably had been encouraged in that ignorance by his teacher, who had set out to undermine Homer by setting against him a sendup of the Odyssey by Margaret Atwood.
I could ask what is left of Margaret Atwood once you strip away the bigotry, but that’s a pointless exercise. It would be far more satisfying, and more of an act of justice to Homer, to show the intricacy and the beauty of his verse, as well as the subtlety of his analysis of the human condition. That would involve a recovery of a method of reading that we have lost, not because we are foolish, but simply because literary and artistic traditions come and go. For instance, the epic poets and the dramatists of ancient Greece and Rome expected their readers, without direct authorial suggestion, to consider what one episode or one verse had to do with another, though unconnected by plot and separated by thousands of lines. So when we meet the Cyclops, the rough beast that lives a simple and brutish life and notably sees out of only one eye, we notice that Homer pauses to comment upon the fact that, besides their sowing no fields and forging no tools, the Cyclopses do not meet in assembly. Each Mr. Cyclops enacts a rough justice over each Mrs. Cyclops and their offspring, and — what makes my students in contemporary America a little uneasy — “every family ignores its neighbors.” Hear that, and then remember that in Ithaca without Odysseus, the fatherly head of the household and chief of the polis, no assembly has been held for nearly 20 years, and the sons of the richest neighboring families, 108 of them, have descended upon Odysseus’s home, slaying cattle, guzzling wine, and debauching the maidservants, while suing for the hand of Penelope in marriage.
My students are not used to reading so polyphonically, nor was I, when I was their age. But when my favorite professor at Princeton, Thomas Roche, showed me the coruscating language and plot devices of the plays of Shakespeare, glimmering and illumining one another in ways that a modern reader would find quite unexpected, I felt as if I’d been given far more than a new and useful tool: a new way of beholding the world of poetry. Of course, it was only new to me. I felt what I’ll call the joy of recovery. It was perhaps something like what Donatello felt when he traveled to Rome literally to unearth the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome. Or what C.S. Lewis felt when, with the eyes of faith, he returned to the pagan sagas of the northland that he had loved so well and saw them now as intimations of the truth.
So it is in the history of man. Dante returned to Virgil, Milton returned to Dante, Keats returned to Milton, Wallace Stevens returned to Keats. The work of Bach the elder — Johann Sebastian, the one we all remember now — lay forgotten for nearly a century, till Mendelsohn returned him to the world. Look at the vague brush strokes and the dramatic uncertainties of the late work of Titian, for instance in his lastScourging of Christ, painted when he was more than 90 years old, or that of Rembrandt in his own advanced years, and see if they do not anticipate, and perhaps surpass, the work of Monet and Degas and Pissarro, three hundred years later.
We do not forget forever. God will not allow it. And that leads to the immensely cheerful conclusion that no one will ever be able to tell the future, except to say that people will return to the past, as they have always done, for its seemingly inexhaustible font of wisdom. So will the Church, too; such instances of returning home, after years and years at sea, are at the heart of her history. For we too have known the joy of recovery, and will know it yet again and again.
Take, for example, something infinitely more significant than the reading of a pagan epic. Take the reading of Scripture. For many decades we have been taught, in schools of higher learning, how to identify an author, from what century he came, to whom he was preaching, what were his insights or his supposed prejudices, and what he simply could not have known. We have been taught, at its best, analysis, the reduction of a text to its constituent parts. But withal we have committed what I call the constitutive fallacy, which is the fallacy of believing that to identify what a thing is made of, who made it, where it came from, and even what it was made for is to know what it really is. At best, it is to know what it generically is, but the individual thing, and even the genus itself, abides in its mysterious wholeness.
If that is true of something beautiful but lowly, like my dog Jasper, it is infinitely more true of human poetry, and it does not even begin to access the riches of the word of God. So we must here engage in recovery. We must learn again how to read the word of God, taking our instruction from Jesus Himself, or St. Paul, or the writer to the Hebrews, or the Fathers, or such saintly theologians as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.
Hear for instance the words of Saint John: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” When we read these words with the eyes of faith — when we keep what lesser things we have learned from scholarship, yet also hold them in their place — what astonishing vistas of significance open out to us! It is no flight of sentiment, this saying that God is light. For we must recall the very beginning of creation, when God spoke the light into existence, saying, “Let there be light.” To read with faith is now to confront a profound mystery. God cannot create Himself, so there must be a light that is created and a Light that is uncreated — the Light of that same Spirit that was hovering over the “waters” of nothingness in the beginning, the Hebrew tohu v’bohu, the unmeaning, inane, nonexistent. Yet the creation of light is a clear and direct imparting by God of His very being, of meaning, wisdom, existence. That imparting is suggested by the Hebrew text.
The sacred author — and to read with faith is to trust in the divine inspiration of the man with the stylus — did not say, in Hebrew, “God said, ‘I shall make light,'” which he easily could have done, but rather, yehi ‘or, “Let there be light,” and yehi ‘or, “There was light.” The immediacy of the creation of light, and its essential relationship with the being of God, is suggested by the peculiarity of the Hebrew language, which “switches” verbal tenses after the conjunction, so that what was future or imperfect — “Let there be light” — becomes past and completed — “and there was light.” The verb is a form of the verb to be, which gives us also the mysterious Name of God that is no name, revealed to Moses out of another source of light, the bush that burns and is not consumed: “Tell them that I AM sent you.”
Our beloved Pope Benedict XVI leads us the way in recovering a faith-filled meditation upon the words, the specific and mysterious words, of sacred Scripture. What is true of the reading of Scripture is also, I believe, true of prayer, of worship at Mass, and of hymnody. I am not saying that the institution of the Novus Ordo was in error. I am saying, however, that the generous return of the Tridentine Mass, or of the traditions surrounding it, can be another source of rich recovery. For 40 years now, I have stood in line to receive the body of Christ. I have not been given the chance to kneel in adoration to receive it. I have not been given the chance to pause a moment afterward, to say a short prayer of thanks. I have not been given the chance to wait side by side with my fellow Christians, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, overschooled and underschooled. I have stood in line, as I have stood in line at restaurants, at theaters, and at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Why must this be so? Latin or English, or whatever language we speak, the body too speaks its language, and a kneeling man beside a kneeling child speaks with marvelous eloquence. I believe we will recover these acts of meaning.
I could continue — I could speak of Palestrina redivivus, or our suddenly remembering that there are such things as men and women and why we need them, or even Jesuits dusting off the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The truth returns. God has promised it. Do we forget things? Yes, all the time. But even if a mother should forget her child, says the Lord, He shall not forget us. And He will jog our memories, too. The saints that He makes are seldom shy.