Letters to Peregrinus #49 - On The Bell

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet - Born c. 1525, in Brueghel, near Breda, or at Brueghel, near Hertogenbosch; died 5 September 1569, in Brussels, buried in Brussels, in the church of Notre-Dame de La Chapelle.[1] (https://doi.org/10.1093/benz/9780199773787.article.B00027554)
Dear Peregrinus (Tuesday PM in June):

St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX – “This, then, is the human life that is properly called happy, the life that enjoys both virtue and the other goods of soul and body without which virtue cannot exist. But, if a life also enjoys any or many of those other goods without which virtue can exist, it is happier still; and, if it enjoys all goods, so that no good whether of soul or of body is lacking to it, it is happiest of all. For life is not identical with virtue, since not every life counts as virtue but only a life lived wisely.”[2]

I greet you from the Ides[3] of June and expressing the hope that this letter will hunt you down and find you doing well (you are always doing good). If you are not well, then you must tell me, so that I know how to aim my prayers for you. How I wish that I knew how to pray as encouragingly as St. Paul could:
Philippians 13 I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you,  4 praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.* 7 It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, 10 to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.[4]

That remarkable man knew how to construct an encouraging prayer! And notice when he writes: “to discern[5] what is of value.”
We all must figure out how to live courageously, and how to give encouragement[6] in Christ to everyone whom God each day sends to meet us.[7] Yes, that is the spiritual gift that we can offer, and I think must offer, giving it without  fail to each other at this particular time in American society, but not falsely giving it.[8] Goethe once wrote in a letter (9 November 1768), “Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.”
Genuine encouragement is not generalized well-wishing. It means, rather, that the Encourager accurately perceives the specific challenge that the other person must face, now. The Encourager, by words and gestures, and with real presence to the other as other, inspires in him or her great-heartedness, or stout-heartedness (I love this descriptor), activating his or her soul’s powers (i.e., to re-animate the person)[9], knowing how through the Holy Spirit to rekindle boldness[10].
I (or you) feel genuinely encouraged when I perceive that my Encourager grasps sufficiently what I am fearing to face, recognizes what is at stake for me right now. The Encourager stands with me as one who himself or herself has had to be courageous, who knows only too well what it feels like to quake[11], to shudder, to have lost one’s confidence. And so when the Encourager encourages us, we are! He or she says such things as, “I believe in you. I see what you are facing, and I am confident that you have it in you to prevail. I’m staying right with you through it all if you need me … but really I do not believe that you will need me. I can’t wait to see how you figure this out.”
Peregrinus, you are this, an Encourager, and from you I am learning how to be one also.

The Healing of Imagination and the Unbinding of Thought

This painting (above) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder caught my attention. I remembered that I had seen it long ago, and so I went hunting for it until I found it. (I had thought it was painted by Hieronymus Bosch[12] [c. 1450-1516.])
What a canvas that is!
You, having now looked at it, may well have wondered why, out of all the beautiful paintings that I might have desired to contemplate, I chose one so full of calamity[13]! The painting is the very definition of calamity; it is alive with it, crawling with it; “bent” with it.
If I wished to construct a Bruegel imitation, then I could not do better than to splice together on a canvas screenshots of national News shows, of so-called “reality” shows, and of the so many violent and disturbing TV shows – humans assailing humans; head-shots and high body-count; guns buzzing and chattering; people screaming; the Medical Examiners’ stainless steel tables cradling the cooling corpses. Bruegel’s painting is a prescient[14] anticipation of what our TV screens, and computer screens, of the 20th and 21st centuries would display for us to see, so that our imaginations might be “colonized” by distorted and frightening images such as those that Bruegel painted into his canvas in the 16th century.
And, disturbingly, we have trained our imaginations voraciously[15] to feed such images through our eyes and ears, as if unaware how they poison our imaginations, and, as a result, how they damage our ability to think clearly.[16]
We might choose to understand Bruegel’s painting as a credible representation of our nation’s imagination, of what it has begun to look like after decades of welcoming into it so much ugliness. When people think ugly thoughts, and unhandsomely speak (which always means speaking too loudly), we can confidently conclude as to the degree of damage in their imaginations.
I am convinced, Peregrinus, that the “location” within persons where encouragement needs to go is into their imaginations. They need placed there images of beauty, of courage, of strength, of goodness, of hope; images of people who are grownups with mirth sparkling in confident and wise eyes. Notice the character of St. Paul – the kind of person he is; his capacity to encourage and inspire – shining through in that quotation from his Letter to the Philippians above.
Americans do not need clearer thoughts right now; they need a powerful and daily infusion of healing and inspiring images, which “re-colonize” our imaginations with strong and vibrant images of faith, hope, and love – images of goodness, courage, and beauty brightly burning in the person of the God-Man, in the Christ. Such an infusion of images will then begin to free our intellects from their bondage to our fallen and distorted imaginations, our bondage to heart-breaking memories. And, step by step, we can begin to think rightly, convincingly, and beautifully – “light (intellect) from light (a wholesome imagination).”

The Painting – Five Observations

I wonder if you would look at Bruegel’s painting, and then, when you have a chance, tell me what you see, and how you understand what you see. Let me remark some things that I notice in it.
FIRST - I notice the tension in my intellect as it strives to discover the intelligible pattern binding together all objects in the painting,[17] such that I might come to rest in an insight[18] followed by a careful judgment[19] as to what the painting is about. Yet, every time that I study the painting, my eyes jump from here to there in it, and my intellect is left unable to find peace. I am thinking that Bruegel has painted active and advancing disorder, showing human beings acting in defiance of intelligible pattern. It is as if he were portraying humanity in outright rebellion against order itself. I think of that famous saying of St. Augustine’s in The City of God – “The peace of all things is the tranquility of order,37 and order is the arrangement of things equal and unequal that assigns to each its due place.” [20] There is no tranquility at all in this painting! Perhaps that is Bruegel’s point.

SECOND - I notice the startling, the disturbing passivity – lethargy? – of Satan – that giant Sea-Monster-Satan on the left whose open maw[21] is the doorway of Hell. See It’s[22] eye – the one that we can see – and the blankness of it, devoid of[23] intelligence or cunning? As is the case with any Narcissist (what the Satan is), the otherness of others is always a threat to its unstable personality. The Narcissist matters only to himself or herself. As food loses its otherness when we eat it, becoming the substance of the Eater, so Satan is painted as a glutton who feeds into its insatiable throat the otherness of God’s lost children, absorbing them into Its own voracious[24] emptiness. The passivity of that Sea-Monster’s face is stunning. It suggests to me that human beings (whose vicious actions with and against one another are everywhere painted on this large canvas) do not need Satan to spur them on to self-destruction. We are being self-destructive on our own! Our internal disorders, expressed throughout the canvas in all sorts of outward violence and discord, are actually over-feeding Satan, so that Satan has the dead eyes of a chronic overeater – a beast engorged with an unlimited supply of over-rich food (people) that we humans are producing.
THIRD - The Representative Human Being[25] – the Dulle Griet – standing so enormous in the lower left center of the painting, appears to me to be competitive with the Satan. See how Dulle Griet’s left arm is not just holding on to stuff; It[26] is possessing it (money box, kitchen wares, white cloth bag bulging with more stuff, golden chalice, etc.). It lunges toward the Sea-Monster-Satan with sword at the ready as if to protect what belongs to It. To Bruegel, Hell is already well advanced on Earth by the living of this Earth – human beings at each other, malign and self-destructive, incognizant of how their behaviors “season” their flesh to make it more enjoyable eating, more tender between the devouring jaws of Satan.
FOURTH - Yet, God is master of His world; it belongs to Him. No disorder of human beings will, or has the power, to change that. And so I sought to discover where the divine Light was present on that canvas, in Bruegel’s vision of a nation hell-bent. Where is a symbol of that unconquerable Light on Bruegel’s canvas? I remember the Prologue to John’s Gospel, where it reads (in part):
3 All things came to be through him,
     and without him nothing came to be.
 What came to be 4 through him was life,
     and this life was the light of the human race;
 5 the light shines in the darkness,d
and the darkness has not overcome it. [27]

FIFTH - I believe that I found it. I was led to it by a sound – the sound of a bell tolling. Do you see that bell? (You have to see it first, and then you can begin to hear it.) It took me a long time to find it. But then I did. When you find it, consider this. It is ringing a warning to humanity to wake up, to grow up. But at the same time it tolls a summons to prayer and to a remembrance of God, Who is Lord of this world, no matter how earnestly fallen human beings seek to take it by storm. I was reminded of that poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)[28], written in 1864 even as the American Civil War (1861-1865) was tearing our nation apart. It reads in part (the first stanza, and the last two):
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
 Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"[29]
In the midst of all the terrible noise of Bruegel’s world and ours, the clashing, the howling and bellowing of ungoverned tongues, the ugly pronouncements, the roar of flames, the angry tramping feet of people marching against more than for … we have to exercise discernment to hear the sound of that single bell tolling – to “distinguish” that sound from among all the others … and to lock onto it. I hear it, do you? It gives me joy. So beautiful is that sound.
1 Kings 19 11 To this the answer came: ‘Go and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ The Lord was passing by: a great and strong wind came, rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a faint murmuring sound. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.[30]
Elijah heard what probably most anyone else would have missed.
I remember you, Peregrinus, who very often could hear the “bell” before I could. Thank you for the years of encouragement that you are to me, and by words and gesture and real presence, the encouragement that you have given to me.

Your old friend in Christ on the pilgrim’s road,



[1] Benezit Dictionary of Artists (Oxford Online) – “Following his marriage in 1563 came, not a tender pastoral scene, but the terrifying Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (Mad Meg). In a Bosch-like landscape, surrounded by the ravages of war, the horrors of vice and the gaping jaws of hell, the gigantic figure of the raging woman seems propelled by hidden forces.” And at Britannica by Melissa Albert – “It has recently been shown how closely many of Bruegel’s works mirror the moral and religious ideas of Dirck Coornhert, whose writings on ethics show a rationalistic, commonsense approach. He advocated a Christianity free from the outward ceremonies of the various denominations, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran, which he rejected as irrelevant. In an age of bitter conflicts arising out of religious intolerance, Coornhert pleaded for toleration. Bruegel, of course, castigated human weakness in a more general way, with avarice and greed as the main targets of his criticism that was ingeniously expressed in the engraving The Battle Between the Money Bags and Strong Boxes. This would have been in keeping with Coornhert’s views as well, which permitted taking part outwardly in the old forms of worship and accepting the patronage of Cardinal de Granvelle.”
[2] Saint Augustine, The City of God, ed. Boniface Ramsey, trans. William Babcock, vol. 7, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012–2013), 353.

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary at “Ides” – “In the ancient Roman calendar (Julian and pre-Julian): the third of the three marker days in each month, notionally the day of the full moon, which divides the month in half, i.e. the 15th of March, May, July, October, and the 13th of the other months.” Britannica explains it this way at the long entry “Calendar” – “The Julian calendar retained the Roman republican calendar method of numbering the days of the month. Compared with the present system, the Roman numbering seems to run backward, for the first day of the month was known as the Kalendae, but subsequent days were not enumerated as so many after the Kalendae but as so many before the following Nonae (“nones”), the day called nonae being the ninth day before the Ides (from iduare, meaning “to divide”), which occurred in the middle of the month and were supposed to coincide with the Full Moon. Days after the Nonae and before the Ides were numbered as so many before the Ides, and those after the Ides as so many before the Kalendae of the next month.”
* The day of Christ Jesus: the parousia or triumphant return of Christ, when those loyal to him will be with him and share in his eternal glory; cf. Phil 1:10; 2:16; 3:20–21; 1 Thes 4:17; 5:10; 2 Thes 1:10; 1 Cor 1:8.

[4] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Php 1:3–11.

[5] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to discern” – “To distinguish (one thing) from (also †fro) another. Also: to perceive or recognize (two or more things) as distinct; to discriminate between, tell apart.” When St. Paul prays that the Philippians grow in their ability “to discern what is of value,” he understands that many apparent goods compete for our allegiance, many of which are not good … at least not good for us Christians, or not good for you or me. St. Paul prays that by staying close to Christ – “putting on the mind of Christ” – the Philippians will be able to distinguish what Christ Himself judged valuable, letting go our allegiance to what Christ did not consider valuable.
[6] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to encourage” – “To inspire with courage, to animate, to inspirit”, speaking generally, but specifically it means, “To inspire with courage sufficient for any undertaking; to embolden; to make confident.”
[7] It is my conviction, born of decades of observation and seeking to understand, that rarely does God act directly for/in us (what the Theologians call “unmediated grace” or what St. Ignatius of Loyola called “a consolation without a cause”). Rather God’s mastery is perceived when one notices how God sends people to each other, so that we acknowledge each other and gain a discerning capacity to understand why God sent them to us. It pleases God for us to become friends with those whom He has sent to find us.
[8] What is false encouragement? I mean, perhaps primarily, an apparent “encouragement” offered by a person whose theology (his or her way of understanding God) is riddled with self-satisfaction. As a result, that kind of “encouragement” veils, but not well, a condescension (meant in the bad way) towards the one being “encouraged.” So, what I mean, is that their encouragement is not false; but the ones offering it are.
[9] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to animate” – “To breathe life into, to endow with life, give life to or sustain in life; to quicken, vivify.” Recall that the Latin noun anima means “soul.” Well, anima meant originally in Latin “air, a current of air, a breeze, or wind.” It then became a way of speaking about a person as “alive”; that is, when he or she was breathing – air moving, in and out. In this sense, the Latin noun came to mean “the breath of life” or “the vital principle” by which an otherwise dead body was recognized as alive.
[10] The Oxford English Dictionary concerning the adjective “bold” from the year 1000 CE - Of persons: “Stout-hearted, courageous, daring, fearless; the opposite of ‘timid’ or ‘fearful’. Often, with admiration emphasized.”
[11] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to quake” - Of a person, animal, limb, etc.: “to shake involuntarily; to tremble, shiver, shudder.” I recall the repeated line in the Negro Spiritual composed before the American Civil War, “Were You There”? – “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
[12] See: https://www.hieronymus-bosch.org/- Hieronymus Bosch, born Jeroen Anthonissen van Aken (c. 1450 - August 9, 1516) was an Early Netherlandish painter of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many of his works depict sin and human moral failings. Bosch used images of demons, half-human animals and machines to evoke fear and confusion to portray the evil of man. His works contain complex, highly original, imaginative, and dense use of symbolic figures and iconography, some of which was obscure even in his own time.

[13] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 15th century noun “calamity” – “The state or condition of grievous affliction or adversity; deep distress, trouble, or misery, arising from some adverse circumstance or event.” Curiously, and unexpectedly, this noun derives from the Latin name, calamus meaning “straw, corn-stalk” (!). It originally described what a field of crops looked like after a horrendous storm or falling of hail had flattened it, wrecked it - a beat-down from above.
[14] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “prescient” – “Having foreknowledge or foresight; foreseeing.”
[15] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 17th century adjective “voracious” - Of persons: “Excessively greedy or eager in some desire or pursuit.” This adjective is from the Latin verb voro -are (1) meaning “to swallow whole, to eat greedily, to devour.” I am using “voracious” here in the Latin sense, of “swallowing whole” to capture the idea of our indiscriminate devouring of images that are with discrimination aimed at our imaginations by national News organizations, by the TV and Movie industries, through Social Media, etc. These sources are powerfully sophisticated at the art of “colonizing” our imaginations, so that having done that, people in those institutions can begin the more subtle and powerful work of manipulating how we think about reality, how we judge what is true, what is genuine.
[16] We do not have the power to think without images; we must have them. Images of things, real or fantastical, is what our intellect works with/through/on. If our images are as ugly, distorted, damaged as those in Bruegel’s painting, then our intellect will also be ugly, distorted, and damaged.
[17] An “intelligible pattern” describes how our intellect works with experience. Experience qua experience means data before one recognizes a pattern in it – what we notice before we know what something is. For example, recall how Luke begins his Gospel: Luke 1:1-4 - 1 Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,a 2 just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us,b 3 I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, [the intelligible pattern] most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.
[18] An insight grasps what is possibly true, what something might mean. A responsible knower must put this possible meaning to the test of the data, making sure that nothing significant has been left out in the formulation of his or her insight, so that the knower can come to the confidence of a sufficient reason for the judgment he or he then makes: “This painting is about….”
[19] A judgment is the affirmation truth: “I know, and I have sufficient reason (s) to be confident in my judgment, what this painting means.”
*37 This thumbnail definition of peace as the tranquility of order has achieved classic status. See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II–II, q. 29, a. 1.

[20] Saint Augustine, The City of God, ed. Boniface Ramsey, trans. William Babcock, vol. 7, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012–2013), Book XIX, chapter 13, page 368. The full text of which this line is the conclusion is magnificent: “The peace of the body is, then, the properly ordered arrangement of its parts; the peace of the irrational soul is the properly ordered satisfaction of the appetites; the peace of the rational soul is the properly ordered accord of cognition and action; the peace of body and soul together is the properly ordered life and wellbeing of a living creature; peace between mortal man and God is properly ordered obedience, in faith, under eternal law; peace among men is the properly ordered concord of mind with mind; the peace of a household is the properly ordered concord, with respect to command and obedience, of those who are living together; the peace of a city is the properly ordered concord, with respect to command and obedience, of its citizens; the peace of the heavenly city is perfectly ordered and wholly concordant fellowship in the enjoyment of God and of each other in God. The peace of all things is the tranquility of order,37 and order is the arrangement of things equal and unequal that assigns to each its due place.” [20]

[21] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “maw” notes that originally the word referred to the “stomach” of an animal. But in the 15th century, the noun came to mean: “The throat or gullet; the jaws or mouth of a voracious animal or (occasionally) of a gluttonous or insatiably hungry person.” It is this latter use that I am deploying here.
[22] I find it helpful to imagine Satan as an “It.” It was Stephen King and his novel It (published 1986) that suggested this to me. This malign (created) spirit operative in the world is capable of presenting itself as either a she or he, and so it remains an “It” until it chooses how to appear.
[23] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 15th century adjective “devoid” - With of: “Empty, void, destitute (of some attribute); entirely without or wanting.”
[24] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “voracious” - Of animals (rarely of persons, or of the throat): “Eating with greediness; devouring food in large quantities; gluttonous, ravenous.”
[25] The Dulle Griet is female and, according to scholars of the work of Pieter Bruegel, a shrewish woman. But it would be my judgment that her gender does not matter, because what she represents is a frighteningly disordered, and disordering, Everyman.
[26] The pronoun I will use for the Dulle Griet is “It”, because the Dulle Griet is Satan-like in Its ravenous, insatiable covetousness.
d 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35, 46; Wis 7:29–30; 1 Thes 5:4; 1 Jn 2:8.

[27] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 1:3–5.

[28] The article on Longfellow at the Poetry Foundation notes: “But ‘the flowering of New England,’ as Van Wyck Brooks terms the period from 1815 to 1865, took place in Longfellow's day, and he made a great contribution to it. He lived when giants walked the New England earth, giants of intellect and feeling who established the New Land as a source of greatness. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William Prescott were a few of the great minds and spirits among whom Longfellow took his place as a singer and as a representative of America.”
[29] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, written early in the morning on Christmas Day, 1864.
[30] The Revised English Bible (Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1 Ki 19:11–13.

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