Not Seven But Seventy Times Seven

March 9, 2011

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season during which all Catholics are obliged to go to confession.

I used to find this requirement rather perplexing. One ought to go to confession whenever one has committed a mortal sin, of course, but why must one go once a year, no matter what? Since most of us commit enough sins to necessitate confession multiple times per year, this is less a practical question than a theoretical one. What is it about confession that mandates it happen more than once?

I think part of my confusion stemmed from thinking about confession the same way I thought about baptism–as marking a complete break with one’s previous life. This is, I think, what baptism offers: a second chance, an opportunity to start fresh. And second chances are easy to comprehend. They tell a clear story–“I was a pagan, now I am a Christian.”

But third, fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, chances are harder to make sense of. And this is where my problem with confession lay. If every time one goes to confession, one is wiped clean, how can one have any coherent sense of identity? One can only be baptized once. To be baptized a second time is to say that the first baptism wasn’t sufficient, that it was a false baptism. Similarly, it seems, confessing a sin that one has confessed before negates those previous confessions, makes them false. To be wiped clean once is to tell a story, “I was a pagan, I am now a Christian,” but what is it to be wiped clean over and over, other than to say, “I am nobody, and every time I start to become somebody, I must erase that new identity”?

That was my old (subconscious) understanding of the sacrament. But the Lenten requirement got me thinking. If confession must happen every year, it is in a sense always happening. How could something that changes who one is be always happening? Only if it marked not a reversal, but an adjustment. It is more akin to the (continual) fires of purgatory than the (one-time) waters of baptism.

This is, of course, an obvious truth; but it is one that because it is obvious is easy to ignore. Once I realized it, I understood much more clearly the sacramental nature of confession: it mediates between the present and the eternal. It is, in a way, more sacramental than baptism even. Baptism, as a one-time event, can be used by any being whose life could be divided in two. Confession can be used only by being whose lives are not just “before” and “after,” but who exist truly in time, progressing gradually along the path to salvation.


Curtains, Pasteboard Masks

May 16, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ahab’s “pasteboard masks.” In chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” Ahab describes to Starbuck why he must kill the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.”

(Moby-Dick 140, Norton Critical Edition)

The physical world is a pasteboard mask put up over the spiritual world, the world of meaning, and what tortures Ahab is that he cannot know what is in that world, because all his knowledge comes from this one. It’s a question of epistemology, really. It’s like Saussure’s “sign=signifier/signified” equation – Ahab continually senses the signifier, the physical world, slipping over and covering up the signified, the spiritual dimension of reality, leaving him unable to perceive it directly.

And Ahab’s solution is to punch through – to find what lies beyond. But what really fascinates me about this is that finding out what lies beyond is the same thing as fixing what lies beyond. The relationship between signifier and signified is, after all, arbitrary, and forever shifting. I like to think of it (and I believe I read I came across this metaphor in Derrida, but I can’t find a quotation; in any case, Derrida certainly talks constantly about slipping and covering over) as a piece of paper lying on top of a desk. The paper is the physical world and the desk the spiritual. At one moment, a given point on the page may be over a given point on the desk, but trying to actually look at that part of the desk will require moving the piece of paper, at which point the two points are no longer lined up; that point on the page is now over a different point on the desk. There is no fixed relationship between the two. Ahab doesn’t just want to see what lies beyond, then, for what lies beyond is always changing. He want to find a way to fix what lies beyond in place – even if he fixes it at nothingness. He would rather have nothing than not know what he has.

And this lines up nicely with the constant mention of Ahab as self-crucified. Because the image of crucifixion, specifically of using nails to pierce the victim’s hands and feet, involves both striking through the physical body, that is, the pasteboard mask, and fixing the physical body in place using the very holes struck through it. In crucifying himself, Ahab attempts to transcend his physical body and to fix his own meaning (a rather gnostic quest, it seems to me). But in doing so he is destroyed.

So I’ve been thinking along these lines for the last several weeks, and wondering how it applies to the Christian understanding of Christ. Is Ahab, the exemplar protagonist-villain-as-anti-Christ in literature, actually like Christ in the nature of his crucifixion? Does that nailing involve a similar fixing of signifier to signified? Is the crucifixion like God taking a hammer and nail and pound his son into the physical world and out the other side, fixing it to – what, himself?

I wasn’t really sure how orthodox this explanation of the image of crucifixion was, but then in one of the readings for Mass today, I came across this:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ‘ by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, ‘ and since we have a great priest over the house of God, ‘ let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

(Hebrews 10:19-22, RSV)

That was good timing, I think. In this passage, St. Paul says that Christ has through his death and resurrection opened up a path through his flesh – the curtain, the pasteboard mask – which we must follow if we are to enter the sanctuary – the area of fixed meaning.

So that’s interesting. But this all leaves me slightly confused; because if God needed to nail signifier and signified together through the crucifixion in order to fix meaning, doesn’t that mean the Crucifixion (and the Incarnation as well – but, in this understanding, they seem roughly equivalent, since God entering the world is the same as God nailing through it) was necessary from the beginning of creation? In what sense, then, was it caused by the Fall?

I have three thoughts on the matter. The first, is that the Fall can be considered akin to the first sliding of the piece of paper across the table. Before it, the world was perfect, but fragile; aligned correctly, but unfixed. After it, God “realized” that he needed to nail it down. It doesn’t fit, of course, to say that God “realized” it; but the basic idea is that Creation occurred in two steps, the first, the laying down of the piece of paper, the second, the nailing in. And the nailing in occurred immediately after the laying down, but because the nail was placed in time, we perceive it as occurring billions of years after the creation of the universe.

My second thought is that I need to re-read what Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say about the matter. Because, as I recall, he talked a lot about the connection between creation and the Incarnation, and his idea of “instress” and “inscape” seems somehow related to all of this, though I’m not quite sure how, honestly. I don’t have an amazing conceptual grasp of GMH’s theology, though what I know of it, I find quite fascinating.

My third thought is that perhaps the reason the image doesn’t really fit with the gap between Creation and Fall – and in fact seems to imply that they were the same thing (which sounds like heresy) – is that any imagistic way of understanding theology is inherently flawed, and only useful in a limited context. This may well be the case. But then again, it may not.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

Poetic Flow Charts

May 2, 2010

For the last month in my Early Modern Literature class we’ve been reading 17th-century poetry. One of my favorite of the poems we’ve read so far has been John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet #5″:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite ;
But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, O, both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more.
But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.

One thing I find really fascinating about this poem is how complex a poetic image is developed over the course of just fourteen lines. Equally fascinating, though, is how diagrammatical it all is; one could, and I have, write up a flow chart showing the movement of imagery in the poem, for it proceeds in an exquisitely logical way. Observe:

(1-2)      |  mind/body (air/earth)
(3-4)      |  -> sin
(4)          |  -> death
(5)          |   ; bible
(6)          |  -> knowledge
(7)          |  -> voyage (water)
(8-9)      |  -> water (drowned/washed)
(10-12)  |  ; fire (sinful)
(12-13)  |  -> fire (purifying)
(14)        |  -> fire (pentecostal; sacramental)

Almost all of the major ideas of the poem are here. Now, the chart is not itself poetic; it’s just a flow chart, after all. But the fact that the chart is possible, and is so interesting in and of itself, is one of the reasons it’s such a great poem. Poems that don’t have this kind of complex thought going on – that just go on  and on about the same thing,  trying to evoke a mood – can be good, but I almost always find much less pleasure in them than intellectually stimulating poems like this.

I suppose that’s probably my mathematical instincts showing through. But come on – even if you like the ambiguity poetry can offer (and I do), don’t you need some structure before there is anything there to be ambiguous with?


Leviathan or Whale-God?

April 14, 2010

No, no, no, no, no. Just, no.

Here’s another person arguing for the reading of Moby-Dick where it is a sort of “anti-Bible,” heralding a new, post-Biblical, post-theological worldview. I find this reading simply perverse, and not true to the text. Unfortunately, it seems popular on both sides – with the Christians who dislike the book because they see it as atheist, and with the secularists who want to turn the book into another weapon against Christianity.

It’s true that the Whale at first appears to be an evil, impersonal force, the Leviathan, and Ahab to be justified in his quest to destroy it. But by the end of the novel Ahab is revealed as a demonic figure, and the Whale has been transformed, if not into the Christian God, at least into a benevolent one; perhaps that of the Old Testament. I don’t want to call Moby-Dick a Christian novel, because I couldn’t defend that claim and I’m not sure it’s true, but it has significant Christian themes running through it, and seriously, not parodically. And I really can’t see a way to read it as atheistic.

Melville does use Moby-Dick to create a new set of sacramental images – the whale, the doubloon, the tattooed cannibal – which he uses in place of those of Christianity, but even this, I think, is not a rejection of Christianity so much as an attempt to re-describe it (even if it is not entirely Christian in the end; like I said, Melville seems to me an agnostic). Actually, it reminds me more than anything of various imagery used by Tolkien in his writings on Middle-Earth. Consider the Silmarils, Galadriel’s phial of light, the rings of power, the sword that was broken. These are not Christian, but they’re not anti-Christian. Moreover, they help build a world that is compatible with Christianity but carries new meaning, and are able to do so I think partially because they are so new and startling in some ways, yet so old and deeply resonant in others.

It’s what literature is all about, really – finding new metaphors.


Ashes to Ashes

February 17, 2010

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For Catholics, it marks the beginning of a period of penance, ashes being a Biblical symbol of mourning and repentance.

Interestingly, when the priest places the ashes on your forehead, he intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What is the connection between dust and ashes? Dust is  a reference to earth, to our being made from clay with life breathed into us by God, while ashes are what is left over from a burnt-out fire. There’s interesting things going on here with the elements; earth, air, water, fire.

All of this is symbolic of human mortality, but also suggests that we also transcend our morality. I am reminded of a song by Dream Theater called “Wait for Sleep”. It’s about a girl lying in bed thinking about God and faith. Near the end of the song, the question is asked, “In with the ashes / Or up with the smoke from the fire?” I think this question can be taken different ways, but I interpret it as asking, is the fire of life destructive or purgative?


Those Who Live and Die for Numerology

January 4, 2010

During my Junior Poet panel I was asked a question about the first line of Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves – my exemplary poem which I have discussed elsewhere – involving medieval numerology. It starts with a string of six unimposing adjectives, then an ellipsis (“…”), then on the eighth beat, the adjective “stupendous.” The professor drew a parallel between this and the six days of creation, the day of rest, and the “eighth day” that is ETERNITY. 8=eternity.

I’d never heard of anything like that, though, and so answered with a “nope, never heard of that, sorry, interesting though.”

Anyway, that got me thinking a bit about numerology in general. What are we to make of using certain numbers to symbolize metaphysical concepts? And, even if we do decide it’s a good move, are we to take those symbols as anything more than conveniences?

I tend towards it being a good idea, mainly because my attitude is “the more symbols the better,” and many of them are so intuitive they will be used anyway. But, is there anything more to them?

From what I’ve read, a traditional Christian numerology would go something like this:

  1. unity – duh
  2. duality – duh
  3. divinity – Trinity, duh
  4. creation – 4 cardinal direction, 4 elements; humanity – one more than 3, so not divinity, and the 4 humors
  5. law – the Pentateuch
  6. incompleteness – one less than 7; humanity – man created on 6th day; evil – 3(divinity)x2(duality)=opposition to God
  7. perfection – on the 7th day God rested; concord between earth and heaven – 3(divinity)+4(creation,humanity)
  8. eternity, super-perfection – one more than 7
  9. super-holiness – 3(divinity)x3(divinity) (from Dante’s Vita Nuova)
  10. government – 10 Commandments, 5(law)x2(duality)
  11. ?
  12. Israel – 12 Tribes, etc
  13. treachery – Judas was the 13th at the Last Supper, one more than 12

Then there’s more stuff like 40=tribulation, 100=even more perfection, 666=lots of evil, etc. But I don’t like those because they’re relics of the base 10 system (which as I’ve said before is bad because it’s not universal). So – what about these?

I think my attributions for 1, 2, and 3 are not only inarguable, they’re unavoidable – the numbers don’t just represent those things, they are those things. Heck, my faith demands that I treat the number 3 with a strange sort of mysticism; God is triune and yet united. Here the symbols are not just symbols, they have real substance.

What about the rest of them? 4 as “creation” is fairly omnipresent – corners of the earth, elements, cardinal directions, humors – and it makes sense with it coming after 3=God. But in the end, is it any more than a convenient symbol? We no longer believe in the 4 elements or humors. On the other hand, creation really is determined by 4 dimensions – height, width, depth, time. So I’m willing to grant 4 a tentative place in canon of “real numerology.” And the same with 6, 7, and 8, all of whose meanings can be derived from only what we’ve said 1-4 are. But those associations are weaker.

I don’t really buy 5 and 10 as law and government, though – both because those are based entirely on revelation, not nature, and so seem are more likely to be human inventions, and because I don’t like the numbers 5 and 10 to begin with. (Personal grudge, I suppose.) 9 as super-holiness seems suspect as well; if squaring a number had that effect, why isn’t 4, uh, what, super-dualistic? I don’t even know what 11 would be; 12 as Israel I’ll buy as a useful symbol, but not as anything sacramental in nautre; and the same with 13 as treachery.

The issue with all of this, of course, is that different cultures have different numerologies. For example, in Oriental cultures 4 is death (though actually that works here, with 4 as creation/man… OK, take a different example). And if different people find different symbols in numbers, can any of them really be inherent?


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