“If we are not careful,” warned Jean Daniélou in a remarkable little book written years ago called Prayer as a Political Problem—a book not much read then, nor remembered now—“mankind tomorrow will consist of a few monastic communities dedicated to pure contemplation, standing apart from an immense mass of atheists consecrated to the production of material goods.”
A horrifying prospect, he predicted, reminding him of Plato’s perfect world of a few rarefied souls sequestered serenely away while countless proles sullenly run the machinery that keeps it all going. The book first appeared in 1965 in a French edition, followed two years later in English. I first came across it in 1970 while a student in Spain, where I lived in the austere shadow of the Escorial, that massive poem in stone, which is how Ortega y Gasset described it.
The book, along with the setting in which it was received, left the largest intellectual impression of my life. From which, by the way, I have never recovered—neither from the impact of the book itself, nor from the surrounding culture of Catholic Spain where I first encountered it. And while I may not have entirely understood the argument at the time, I could certainly intuit from the context in which it was set—a world richly, wonderfully reminiscent of what nowadays we would quaintly call Catholic Christendom—that Daniélou was clearly onto something. “If we wish to avoid it,” he argued, meaning the whole nightmare world we are moving toward, “we must have imagery.” [Emphasis added.]
Imagery of the sort, let me add, which Spain herself had been steeped in for centuries, even as it was being leached away by the steady drip, drip of secularism. My own experience, brief as it was, roughly coincided with the last years of Francisco Franco, El Caudillo, who managed, more or less, to keep it all together. He died in 1975, after which the secular spirit became ever more triumphant, leaving in the end not only Spain but the entire European continent sunk in a state of post-Christian malaise.
“The crisis,” wrote Daniélou in a passage that has seared itself upon my memory, “came upon us three hundred years ago, with Galileo and Pascal:
For Pascal, as for Jansenism, there is a conflict, a ripping apart, an abyss between an interior experience which has no outside evidence of its existence, and a cold world which contradicts it…There is a tragic coexistence of a deaf world from which God is absent and a heart which is aware of God. The evidence of the heart is passionately preferred to the denials of the world. But such evidence, being purely subjective and incommunicable, is inaccessible to the mass of men…The world must speak of God; otherwise, man can normally have no access to him.
So, there was the warhead, aimed at the abyss which had sundered two worlds that need never have been split apart: that of an interior realm where God alone may be found (or, at the very least, desperately desired), and an external realm from which all the ladders leading to God have been removed; leaving everything flat as a map and man more divided and bereft than ever.
Having launched his provocation, Daniélou then issued a set of questions that continue to this day to challenge and provoke. “Is it really true,” he asked, “that the world is silent? Has the world ever been questioned? How can it speak if it has no language?”
Ah, but to give it a language, he said, is the task of art, central to which is the creation, “the constitution of a sacred cosmos.” Citing the poet Rilke, he added that it was no mistake of His when He joined the two spheres, that of the angels up above and the realm of the beautiful here below, “for the beautiful,” said Rilke, “is nothing but the first degree of the terrible.” Daniélou’s analysis here is worth reproducing in its entirety:
The world of beauty is the world of intermediary hierarchies which are irradiated with the glory that cascades down from the Trinity even into the formless opacity of matter. The beautiful is the world of forms between that which is above form, being the sphere of God, and that which has no form at all, being mere matter. The modern world shuts out that intermediate order. It recognizes nothing between scientific thinking and mystical possession, and in so doing denies completely the sphere which it is the function of art to reconstitute by giving back to the universe its depths.
Such a powerful argument for Daniélou to have made, freeing as it does the world of art for the transmission of beauty, that beauty which, as Dostoyevsky has reminded us, will save the world. And so, restore to the soul of man the wholeness which he lost three centuries ago. “Thus,” says Daniélou, “art and the sacred have a common destiny. Without art, the sacred cannot reach out to the mass of men. Without the sacred, art is swallowed up by technology.” Which can only cheapen and debase, turning it into an instrument of use, of exploitation, not contemplation.
What we needed then, and need now more than ever, is an art of mediation between the two, between the order of the sacred and that of the profane. A poetry of the transcendent, no less, to which I was first introduced by the finest teacher I would ever know, Fritz Wilhelmsen, who worked a complete sea change in my life, one for which I shall always be grateful.
Art and poetry, then, are vouchsafed to us by God for the purpose of giving voice to all that cannot be said but about which it would be an impoverishment to remain silent. Like the child’s sudden discovery of a shell along the beach, full of the sound of the sea, but reaching far beyond the sea to enable the child to hear the voice of God. If the work of the poet is to remind us, as C.S. Lewis says, “that water is wet and grass is green,” it is no less the work of the poet to show us something of a still larger and richer world, one to which Lewis himself gave testimony in his marvelous tales of Narnia. It is the world, “beyond the wardrobe,” where all is finally arrayed in beauty, giving off glints of God’s own glory.
But here’s the thing. It is all already and mysteriously within our reach. At this moment and in this place. Even the least of us are free to look. Yes, even the proles are blest, as the poet Richard Wilbur writes, to look “outside the open window,” leaving their servile lives behind, and suddenly to see, “the morning air all awash with angels.”
[Photo: El Escorial]