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In Wonder, Love and Praise

Approaches to Poetry, Theology and Philosophy

by Martin Potter (Volume editor) Malgorzata Grzegorzewska (Volume editor) Jean Ward (Volume editor)
Monographs 224 Pages

Summary

This collection of essays explores poetry’s contribution to the expression of theological wonder, which can occur both in ordinary life and in the natural world or can arise in the context of explicitly supernatural mystical experience. Poets have a special role in capturing religious awe in ways beyond the power of discursive language. Some essays in this book approach the subject on a theoretical level, working with theology, philosophy and literary criticism. Others provide close readings of poems in which the engagement with a variously understood idea or experience of wonder is prominent, from the English-language tradition and outside it. Poets from culturally and historically different backgrounds are thus drawn together through the focus on the meaning of wonder.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Prolegomena: The Aporias of Wonder
  • 1. Mystics, Philosophers and Poets
  • Wonder and Desire in the Dialogue Between Theology and Literature
  • The Hermeneutical Circle: Between Mystery and Wonder in the First Spiritual Experience of Ignatius of Loyola
  • Wonder and Imagination in Ignatius of Loyola: A Study from Paul Ricoeur’s Work
  • Wondering/Wandering: Scepticism and the (Peripatetic) Enlightenment
  • Epistemologies of Wonder: David Jones and Catherine Pickstock
  • The Poetic Sources of Anthony Kenny’s Agnosticism
  • Epiphanies in the Ordinary: The Wondering of Poets in a Destitute Age
  • 2. Lovers and Strangers
  • Impersonal Beings, or Personal Thresholds of Incarnated Wonder? An Examination of the Beloved Women of Bonnefoy, Dante and Yeats in the Light of Maurice Blanchot’s “The Gaze of Orpheus”
  • “La Mystère, la Beauté, et la Mystique de la Nature”: The Poetics of Wonder in Henry Beston’s The Outermost House
  • The Roots of Eugenio Montale’s “Saddened Wonder”
  • 3. In Wonderment, Awe and Praise
  • “The wonder of his pittie”: Shock and Awe in George Herbert’s Temple
  • The Self and the World: The Modernity of Edward Thomas
  • In Wonderment: David Constantine and the Commonplace
  • The Burning Bush: The Wonder-full and Wonder-less in R. S. Thomas’ Poetry
  • The Poetic Magnificat of Elizabeth Jennings and Jan Twardowski, a Polish Priest-Poet
  • Notes on Authors and Editors
  • Index of Persons

Małgorzata Grzegorzewska and Jean Ward

Prolegomena: The Aporias of Wonder

Abstract: The text discusses various facets of wonder: from curiosity to bewilderment; from the child’s innocent amazement to the adult’s lust for knowledge and power; from the force that stimulates movement to the paralysing stupor of the mind. The authors invoke Jean-Luc Marion’s concept of the “saturated phenomenon”, which denotes the phenomena given to us “in excess”, in which intuition overflows intention, to provide a conceptual framework for the discussion developed in the volume as a whole. A reference to Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love divine, all loves excelling”, combined with scriptural description of Jesus, Love embodied, sets the discussion of wonder in the context of religious poetry and mystical discourse. The Christian mystery of the Incarnation is invoked as a way of connecting the abstract discussion of wonder with the phenomenon of the flesh. A mention of the Anglo-Saxon dream vision allegory, The Dream of the Rood, reminds the reader of the suffering involved in the experience of wonder. Viewed in this perspective, wonder is defined as a fissure, perhaps even a wound, which paradoxically makes everyday reality the locus of “love and praise”.

Keywords: wonder, miracle, epistemology, the saturated phenomenon, the Incarnation

The recent resurgence of philosophical considerations on the subject of the wondrous  –undoubtedly rooted in Martin Heidegger’s reassessment of the concepts of wonder  – reveals the ambivalence of this phenomenon. On the one hand, the term “wonder” entails the sense of curiosity that drives us to move relentlessly further and further with our questions about the nature of things, to challenge all certainties and interrogate every idea which presents itself as self-evident. In this sense, as Mary-Jane Rubenstein asserts, it is the Socratic “grounding principle” of philosophy (6). And surely philosophers should pay attention to doubt; they must be ready to put up with the sense of uncertain expectation and must heed the queries that pose themselves in the mind. On the other hand, one must not stop at the threshold of wonder if the pursuit of knowledge is to be continued. The grounding principle must then be “ungrounded” and the philosopher must take on the role of an “ancient mariner”, so to speak, becoming an eternal wanderer subject to the marine-god Thaumas, whose name literally means “the wondrous” (Rubenstein 6). Otherwise, “wondering” will shut down philosophical or scientific inquiry, instead of opening new horizons and leading to new discoveries. Commenting ←7 | 8→on Plato’s dialogue about the nature of knowledge entitled Theaetetus, Rubenstein claims that:

It seems, then, that there are two kinds of wonder: wonder that keeps the philosopher questioning and giving birth (if only to wind-eggs) and wonder that keeps him in stupefied assent to the very “self-evident” positions that Socratic thaumazein dispels. Yet it will become clear that this latter “wonder” is no wonder at all. Rather, such uncritical discipleship clings to inviolable theories in order to take refuge from wonder’s open sea of endless questioning, strangeness and impossibility. There is wonder, then, and there is retreat from wonder. (5)

Later in her study, referring to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rubenstein adds: “Wonder, precisely because it dismantles all subjective and otherworldly pretensions, reveals the ordinary as strange, contingent, and, in many cases, ethically insupportable” (193).

The authors of the texts gathered in this volume are well aware of the perils of genuine, ever fertile  – albeit risky  – wondering and of the temptation to retreat from wonder into the barren land of acquiescence, familiarity and likelihood, whether they are concerned with philosophy, poetry or theology, the three intertwined areas of interest in our book, or with the interplay among them. Theaetetus, not accidentally, is the starting point for Alex Villas Boas’ discussion of wonder and desire in the dialogue between theology and literature, which opens the volume. It is also with Theaetetus’ query about the nature of true knowledge that Anna Walczuk begins the last text in the book, in which she reflects on the expression in two modern poetic “magnificats” of a joyful and thankful response to the first of all wonders, namely the wonder of being. Poets are children in their always fresh perception of the ordinary, and of the extraordinary within it. We could say that in Theaetetus Socrates gives his interlocutor a lesson which is the philosopher’s version of Jesus’ spiritual teaching: “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3–4).1 In other words, in order to obtain wisdom, one must first humbly accept the predicament of “being lost in wonder”; one must always be ready to stop for a while, to “turn aside” and take one’s time, looking for some way through the dense wood of philosophical matter (both “wood” and “matter” in Greek are denoted by one word: hyle). In the twentieth century, it was Heidegger who recalled the Socratic ←8 | 9→principle that wonder stands at the origins and determines the end of philosophy: “To say that philosophy begins in wonder means philosophy is wondrous in its essence and becomes more wondrous the more it becomes what it really is” (qtd. in Rubenstein 1). Whoever says das wundert mich (‘it wonders me that…’) enters the field of philosophy and becomes a “wanderer”, in Rubenstein’s terms as well as in those adopted by Przemysław Uściński in his analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry in this volume.

Yet curiosity itself is a Janus-faced disposition of mind. It is akin to children’s innocent amazement at the sight of the always new horizon of being that opens with their every uncertain step on this wonderful earth. At the same time, however, it feeds the rapacious lust for knowledge which in Eden was the cause of the Fall, and which has ever since led all “forward wits” to damnation, as the Renaissance poet Christopher Marlowe reminds us. In the Epilogue to Dr Faustus, the Chorus warns “the wise”, who have witnessed the course of the magician’s “fiendful fortune”, “only to wonder [our emphasis] at unlawful things”, rather than letting their curiosity “entice” them “to practice more than heavenly power permits” (Epilogue, ll. 4–8). In this way the play draws our attention to the fake “wondering” which is the opposite of the child’s innocent joy in the newness of the world and of liberating Socratic inquiry. The retreat from wonder certainly does not entail a humble and unassuming recognition of the fact that every discovery leads to a new threshold of uncertainty. Instead, Marlowe ironically observes that “heavenly powers” (l. 8)  – like earthly authorities  – ruthlessly demand an obedience which makes the wise man’s mere stopping-place of wonder the fool’s permanent abode.

Marlowe, of course, was the last person on earth to preach simple-mindedness or compliance. But we should not be misled into believing that irony in the playwright’s work stems from a Renaissance “enlightened” rejection of medieval thought, perceived as trapped in the stupefying “enchanted” world of Christian religion and corrupt scholastics. Rubenstein pertinently reminds us that the first important objection to intellectually debilitating, facile wondering was raised by no less a person than the founder of scholastic philosophy, Thomas Aquinas. With his claim that to dwell in wonder is sloth, the “Angelic Doctor” disenchanted philosophy: “amazement and stupor shrink from the difficulty of considering a great and unaccustomed thing” (qtd. in Rubenstein 13; cf. Summa Theologica I-II.Q41.A4). Aquinas’ sober differentiation between things which amaze us because we do not know their reason and those which, like miracles, exceed our capacity to know their reason was, however, not the end of “wondering about wonder” in the history of philosophy.

In our times, Jean-Luc Marion crosses the threshold of miracle and opens investigation of phenomena given to us “in excess”, that is, those in which intuition ←9 | 10→overflows intention. Philosophy thus takes a theological turn, perhaps approaching the realm contemplated in Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love divine, all loves excelling”. This is not a poem about an abstraction; it makes us rediscover St John the Evangelist’s discovery that the infinite God who is Love yet exceeds all known loves, may “fix . . . his humble dwelling” (l. 3) in us as we “abide in Him” (1 John. 2:27, King James Version; cf. John. 15:5, KJV: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit”). Wesley’s hymn also develops the promise expressed in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord”.

Wonder tears down the veil of dissimulation and leads to truth. The pivotal moment of the hymn thus involves a change, the transformation of an individual. Moses experienced this when he saw the burning bush. He approached it with a child’s curiosity, just in order to “see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt” (Exodus 3:3, KJV), and ended up speaking with God. Conversation with God, in turn, leads to a love affair with Love. This is the background to the story of God in search of man and man in search of God in the poetry of R. S. Thomas as interpreted in this book by Katarzyna Dudek. The texts in this volume by Kathryn Wills, Stefano Maria Casella and Giorgio Durante also touch on the inexplicable phenomenon of the meeting of persons.

Wills and Dudek both draw explicitly on the phenomenology of donation. Villas Boas, in contrast, does not specifically invoke Marion, yet the conclusions which he draws in his essay point to the same fundamental connection between philosophy, poetry and the superabundant gift of Love divine which informs all the French philosopher’s works. Boas writes: “The role of poiesis here is to awaken a deeper desire and give a new existential logic to the encounter with the other, which may become a locus revelationis of Mystery. Poetry and otherness converge and unveil wonder as an excessive sense of agape” (25). As our own coming into being is the first of all wonders we encounter on earth, so the absolute and unconditional, endless Love (John 13:1) which finally awaits us, appears here as the ultimate goal of all our hopes, the telos of our being-in-the-world.

The last lines of Wesley’s hymn read:

Changed from glory into glory,

Till in heaven we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before thee,

Lost in wonder, love, and praise! (ll. 21–24)

The speaker looks ahead to the future form of things, after the ongoing process of change reaches the point beyond change. Here and now, however, even the greatest wonder of Christian wonders, miracle of miracles, that is the ←10 | 11→Incarnation, remains “spangled with spilling blood”, to use the image of the ancient poem known as The Dream of the Rood (l. 23).2 Although Mary-Jane Rubenstein, whose seminal analysis of philosophical wondering is a leading motif in our short reflection on the aporias of wonder, is not explicitly concerned with the mystery of the Incarnation, one element of her analysis brings us directly to this mystery. Rubenstein makes the remarkable suggestion that the etymology of the word “wonder” may be connected with “wound” (9). She goes on to interpret this wound as a perilous and painful opening, a fissure in the experience of wonder. In this way she helps us flesh out the concept of a wonder that is specifically Christian, wonder which cannot be separated from the memory of the Passion. Our book records wonders which, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “The Windhover”, “gash gold-vermilion” (l. 14). The “wonder of this pity”, to paraphrase Christopher Hodgkins’ title, is presented in his lucid analysis of George Herbert’s religious verse.

The founding text of what J. A. W. Bennett calls “poetry of the Passion” in the English tradition is the one referred to above, the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood, whose anonymous author explores the ambivalence of this wondrous “glory-tree” (l. 14). A song of victory mingles with a dirge for the dying Prince and the light of the mysterious “beacon” (l. 6) shines in the “deep midnight” (l. 2). The wood of the cross is decked in gems and in gold that is blood and blood that is gold; in this vision, the speaker sees “that unstill brightness / change raiment and colour” (l. 30–31). Now it is “clad in gold” (l. 32), now it is “slicked with sweat, / spangled with spilling blood” (ll. 33–34). The Dream of the Rood describes the sudden arrival of light that bedazzles the eyes, shining in the darkness. In the mystic’s nights of faith, God is not so much absent as intensely, indeed insufferably present. The first section of our book includes two texts which refer to one of the most important figures of sixteenth-century Spanish mysticism: St Ignatius of Loyola, whose experience of being wounded  – literally  – was fundamental to the wonder of his encounter with God. This is clear in both Rossano Zas Friz de Col’s account of the saint’s first spiritual experience and in Cristina Bustamante’s discussion of Ignatius in the light of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics.

It was John Henry Newman who reminded us of the need to “wonder at the Divine Mercy of the Incarnation, till we grow startled at it” (172). When we think of “the wondrous tree”, whose sight not only evokes a tender pity for the dying Man, but also causes the beholder to tremble at the thought of the price the Son of God of his own will paid for human iniquity, we may at the same time recall ←11 | 12→the startling epiphanies of the Old Testament, which are so often torn between admiration and awe. Embedded in the etymology of the Latin word mirus, wonderful, is the word “smile”; but there are times when the benign warmth of smiling wonderment gives way to unspeakable dread.3 When God speaks, the earth trembles; at His voice “the mountains quake …, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at His presence” (Nahum 1:5, KJV). In these eloquent biblical images the wondrous meets with the awesome and the terrifying. The ultimate promise, however, which informs the title and the content of this volume, is that in the end, we shall see Him “with unveiled face” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV), and beyond all shadow of fear, be “lost in wonder, love and praise”.

Here and now, however, just as for some being “lost in wonder” will mean the beginning of philosophical inquiry and for others an easy escape route from intellectual effort, the same predicament can either mark the birth of faith (and, if we cross the threshold of wonder, wonder yields the first-fruit of faith: love and praise), or the crisis, perhaps even loss of faith. Martin Potter calls the poet-artist David Jones “an explorer of the enchanted world”, always conscious that “the transcendent lies behind, and supports the existence of, perceptible things in the world” (x). But for many, if not most others, we live in what Mark Burrows, following Hölderlin, calls “a destitute age”. It is in this context that Burrows considers the religious strand in the “wondering” of modern American poets, which follows in the tradition of Emerson’s well-known assertion that “the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common” (53). Marco Damonte, in turn, draws our attention to Sir Anthony Kenny’s agnosticism as drifting apart from the certitudes of theism and atheism. Similarly, Monika Szuba, recalling the formulation of Max Weber, sets her reflections on the poetry of David Constantine within the horizons of a “disenchanted world”.

In such a world, few can go beyond the small epiphanies of an Edward Thomas, as discussed by Maria Fengler. Few can cross the threshold of wonder to move unequivocally towards “love and praise” of the “Love divine”. And perhaps, given that to be “lost in wonder, love and praise” is in Wesley’s hymn, as we have said, a vision of a future beatific state, one which has not yet come, it might be too much to expect from our poets and philosophers any more than an intimation of it. Nevertheless, we have seen fit to conclude this volume with Anna Walczuk’s account of the resoundingly joyful “poetic magnificat” of the English ←12 | 13→poet Elizabeth Jennings and the Polish priest-poet Jan Twardowski, because in spite of all their particularity, or even because of it, these poets touch on most of the themes that are important to the book as a whole. Above all, their understanding of the way that the ordinary can suddenly reveal itself as extraordinary chimes with the insights of so many of the poets and philosophers discussed in this volume, perhaps none more so than R. S. Thomas. Let us conclude, then, with some lines from the poem “The Bright Field”, which is central to Katarzyna Dudek’s analysis, in which Thomas writes thus of the human capacity for wonder:

. . . It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

Biographical notes

Martin Potter (Volume editor) Malgorzata Grzegorzewska (Volume editor) Jean Ward (Volume editor)

Martin Potter specialises in aesthetics and the writings of Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and David Jones. He is also a poet. Małgorzata Grzegorzewska is a specialist in Renaissance literature and drama and in connections between literature, philosophy and theology. Jean Ward’s research interests are literary translation and religious poetry, including Eliot, R.S. Thomas, and Elizabeth Jennings.

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Title: In Wonder, Love and Praise