Comments on StAR, 7.2 March-April 2017
Wounded Beauty：Suffering and the Arts
By Peter Milward SJ
To Joe Pearce,
Once again I don’t know how you manage it, but you always find something new and surprising for each issue of StAR. Yes, there is indeed beauty in the Crucifixion – as St Paul says, “We know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified” – combined of course with belief in the Resurrection. As Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens discovers, “Nothing brings me all things.”
Still, I have two general points of criticism, referring to two big gaps in the issue as a whole. First, there is the problem of evil as presented in the OT, and notably in the Book of Job, as well as the Prophecy of Jeremiah, “Why do sinners’ ways prosper?” – as also notably echoed in one of Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets”. There the divine answer comes to Job out of the whirlwind, as God poses unanswerable questions to Job. Where was Job in the beginning of the world – and where were those who take scandal from the many instances of innocent suffering in human experience? None of them were in existence, and so how can they answer such a question? Anyhow, as God implies, how insignificant is the problem of evil in contrast to the significance of being – as he goes on to point out in all the animal creation, in which he takes special delight.
The second gap I can’t help noticing from my Shakespearian viewpoint. After all, where does Shakespeare deal with this problem more impressively than in King Lear, which is for this reason the greatest play not only in Shakespeare’s but also in world drama? What is so impressive about it is the way it leads up to two endings, one indescribably joyful in the reunion of father and daughter, Lear and Cordelia, at the end of Act IV, and the other unutterably sorrowful in the death of Cordelia and the coming of Lear on stage with his dead daughter, at the end of Act V. And what is no less impressive about these two endings is that the one reveals the Christian mystery of the Resurrection and the other, the Christian mystery of the Passion, culminating in a reproduction of the Pieta (with the sexes of grieving parent and dead child reversed).
It even seems to me that a whole issue of StAR might well be devoted to the mystery ofKing Lear, especially in view of its Biblical overtones, which would be recognized by contemporary audiences whether Catholic or Protestant, while looking to the religious situation of the age when the Catholic recusants were suffering under the insufferable and enduring the unendurable persecution orchestrated by the Cecils, father and son.
As for the particular articles in this issue, I note that at least Stephen Shivone is ready to consider “Shakespeare’s Lear on the heath”, and to ask why Shakespeare presents “the blinding of Gloucester on the stage”, which is for him so “obscene”. Only, without pausing to deal with these two problems, he recognizes “the beauty that ‘bears it out even to the edge of doom’, in Shakespeare’s moving formulation” – without reflecting how this formulation fits in with the context of Sonnet 116. Otherwise, this is indeed a fine article, though rather excessively devoted to the writings of Flannery O’Connor.
Then, I much appreciated John Beaumont’s “Note on the Problem of Evil”, as underlining what I have had to say about the two main gaps in this issue, while emphasizing the two important points proposed, one by Germain Grisez, that Jesus himself “is the real Christian response to suffering”, and the other by Ralph McInerny, “One ought to start with the problem of good. Why do so many good things happen to us?”
As for Matthew Akers’ article on Owen Barfield, I felt what a pity it was that he wasn’t allowed to “discuss Catholicism in Shakespeare’s plays” but had to devote his time and energy to the mundane details of law. Yet when he returned to literature he remained too much under the shadow of CS Lewis, who had no time for Shakespeare.
Next, what a fine poem you have included from my good friend Desmond Egan on Saint Romero, with “such beauty” in this “saint of the suffering” and even “the doubting”, while sitting “with all who are in darkness”, thereby paradoxically showing us “how to live”. Yet another poem I very much appreciated was that by K. D. Bush, on the “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”, with the lovely refrain, “And I learned from my mother that Our Lady dresses in Blue”, followed by the ending rhyme, “And still my soul yearns deeply for you.”
As for Mary Ordos’ article on Dostoevsky, she seems to provide the keynote to the whole issue with the words of that Russian saint, “Beauty will save the world.” What, we may ask, does he or she mean by such an unexpected statement? It is, needless to say, as implied on the cover of this issue, the beauty of Christ crucified, in whom, as she says, “suffering”, though “a kind of ugliness, becomes paradoxically the source of greatest beauty”. It also echoes the Russian tradition of “Holy Fools”, who may be traced back to St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. (I also have a book on The Way of the Fool.)
What a fine article, too, was that by Ronald Buttarazzi on “Michelangelo’s Rejected Stone”, with the personal application to us readers, “We are all like that rejected piece of rock until we let God find us abandoned and alone.” Then in the outcome we may realize, with T. S. Eliot, that “the blows, the disappointments, the rejections… were simply following a master plan” – I mean with reference to Eliot’s suggestion (which he never followed up) of a “pattern in Shakespeare’s carpet” (on which I have another book).
Sadly, I haven’t had the opportunity of seeing Hamilton or meeting Joe Scheidler, whose great crusade – in the teeth of all opposition – has been to “protect babies from the great sacrament of the anti-church, abortion”, to the refrain of my favorite Psalm 42, about the deer panting for streams of water. I also love his picture with Kevin and Ann.
Again, what a pity it was that in his words on “Transcending Adversity” Donald DeMarco – with due allowance for his emphasis on music – failed to put in a word for Friar Laurence and the unnamed Duke Senior on “adversity’s sweet milk philosophy”, which comes to the dramatist straight out of A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.
Again sadly, the one book by CS Lewis – and I may claim to have read almost all of them – I could never appreciate was his Grief Observed. I have found it too maudlin – with my apologies for the pun on Magdalen College.
Also sadly, in spite of my annual devotion to Handel’s “Messiah”, I have never attended a concert on Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion”.
Yet another admission of sadness has to do with James Joyce, whose writings I confess I have never read, though I have dipped with a degree of incomprehension into Ulysses. Yet one thing that has impressed me in the book review by Mike Aquilina is the kindred spirit identified by Fr Colum Power in Joyce with the founder of Opus Dei Josemaria Escriba. After all, there seems to be all the difference in the world between the Society of Jesus, under whose shadow Joyce was brought up and whose influence remained with him till the end, and Opus Dei, who have notoriously provided Dan Brown (rather than the Jesuits) with the villains of his Da Vinci Code.
Yet another book review which has deeply impressed me is that on Pierre Manent’s view of Radical Secularism and the Islamic Challenge. To my mind it is alarming the way the Western world with its post- or rather anti-Christianity is even welcoming the many Muslim refugees pouring into the declining lands of the EU, without undertaking the necessary discernment. After all, there is a difference between Christian refugees, whose coming to Western nations has contributed to their rich diversity, and the Muslims, whose religious and social customs prevent them from mixing with local populations. Now it looks as if the post-Christian West is about to be taken over by the Muslim East.
Finally, I have to put in a word of grateful astonishment at finding a book of my own, that on Mary, reviewed, and that so favorably, by Clara Sarrocco. To tell you the truth, though I shouldn’t say so, I think so highly of this book that I undertook to send a copy to the Vatican, for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and he kindly responded with a book of his own duly autographed by him. (I also note that the kind reviewer is a specialist on my former teacher at Oxford, C. S. Lewis, and I venture to hope that she has read my other book on A Challenge to CS Lewis, published in 1995 by the Associated University Presses in New Jersey.).