Letters to Peregrinus #64 - Things Visible and Invisible

Christ Healing the Blind Man by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE)[1], Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 30 – on Mercy - I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei ix.), mercy is heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress[2], impelling us to succour[3] him if we can. For mercy takes its name misericordia from denoting a man’s compassionate heart (miserum cor) for another’s unhappiness. [4]

Fleming Routledge on J.R.R. Tolkien – “It is very important for readers to understand that his [Tolkien’s] concept of Pity is rigorous, demanding, preemptive. In a letter he described his concept of Pity this way: it “must restrain one from doing something immediately desirable and seemingly advantageous.” He contrasted this with the bogus pity “whose real roots are in satiety, sloth, or a purely non-moral natural softness.” Tolkien's conception of Pity is unsentimental and exacting, requiring a sacrifice of self-interest.[5]
Dear Peregrinus (4th Week of Eastertide):

 Happy Eastertide[6] to you, old friend. Be sure to write to me about any insights you gained during Holy Week this year, because I gain so much from the depths I discover inside of your insights. It is one thing for me to receive from you an insight; it is quite another for me to understand what it means and, eventually, to be able to make that insight my own.

What we Know for Certain is so Small

Isn’t it striking to you how very little we Christians profess as certain?

All that we affirm as certain about Deep Reality[7] can be printed out on half a sheet of paper. We call these affirmations or statements of truth the Creed, by which we usually mean either the Apostles Creed (4th century) or the Nicene Creed (325 CE) or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 CE)[8]. We are certain of these realities, because God made them exist, and through Time, God has revealed them to us.

But being certain about realities is not the same things as understanding them sufficiently.

Understanding[9] (the central work of intellect) gives us the ability to explain (to ourselves and to others) why and how and to what end these things are true (i.e., real). But for us properly to understand what is real, we also must have matured enough to conform ourselves – in thoughts and actions and affections – to the truth, to reality. Only by “walking in the truth” can we understand it.

 3 John 1: Nothing gives me greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.c [10] [my emphasis]

We must get “inside” reality, trying it on, walking in it, to correct mistaken assumptions that creep in when we merely “think about” what we are told is real. St. Paul writes:

1 Corinthians 2:16 For “who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to counsel him?” But we have the mind of Christ.g [11] [my emphasis]

St. Paul gets at this best when he speaks to the people of Athens from the rock of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31)

24 ‘Since the God who made the world and everything in it is himself Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands.* 25 Nor is he in need of anything, that he should be served by human hands;o on the contrary, it is he who gives everything—including life and breath—to everyone.* 26 From one single principlep he not only created the whole human race so that they could occupy the entire earth, but he decreed the times and limits of their habitation.q* 27 And he did this so that they might seek the deityr and, by feeling their way towards him, succeed in finding him; and indeed he is not far from any of us,* 28 since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist,s[12]  [my emphasis]

While what is certain we can print on a half sheet of paper; our effort to explain to ourselves and to others what those realities mean fills libraries all over the world with books and articles and minute investigations; it fills museums and churches with paintings and sculptures; it fills music halls with oratorios and passions and plays.

Those “certain things” of the Creed we quickly learn are so much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside (as is every person we know). Deep Reality, as is the case with the realities that Science explores, is an inexhaustible source of wonder and understanding and creativity.
Peregrinus, I want to demonstrate how attention to even the smallest part of the Creed can open up a person towards meanings that he or she had overlooked. I want, perhaps to your horror (!), to consider the conjunction “and”!

Exploring just One Part of One Line

πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Θεὸν
Credo in unum Deum
We believe in one God,
πατέρα, παντοκράτορα,
Patrem omnipotentem;
the Father, the Almighty,
ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς,
factorem coeli et terrae,
maker of heaven and earth,
ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων.
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
of all that is, seen and unseen.[13]  

The conjunction “and” is used twice in the first sentence of the Creed. In both cases, it coordinates (rather than subordinates) two things. In the first case, there are the realities of “heaven and earth”; in the second case, there are the realities of things “invisible” (unseen) and “visible” (seen). In the geometry of thought, we might say that the former is about “up there” (in Heaven) and “down here" (on Earth) – Jesus prays, “on Earth as it is in Heaven”; the latter is about “out there” (accessible to our senses) and “in there” or “within”[14] (inaccessible to our senses, but accessible to our understanding).

 The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to coordinate” – “transitive. To make co-ordinate; to place or class in the same order, rank, or division.” And, further, “To place or arrange (things) in proper position relatively to each other and to the system of which they form parts; to bring into proper combined order as parts of a whole.”

 When the Creed coordinates two things, it does not mean that they sit side by side in the sentence (they do, but that’s not the point). The conjunction[15] indicates that an act of understanding has occurred.[16] It is an understanding of reality that the Creed wants us to have – to grasp the relationship between two things. This relationship remains invisible except to one’s understanding.

Mark 7: 17 *e When he got home away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are even you likewise without understanding?[17]

First, the Creed means that these two realities are of equal significance. (A subordinating conjunction signals that one of the two things that is conjoined derives from, or is dependent upon, the other thing.[18]) The Creed (in the line I am highlighting here) affirms that co-equal parts of reality – heaven and earth; visible and invisible - belong to each other intrinsically and are of equal significance from God’s perspective. To “miss” this, or to fail to “catch on” to this fact means that we have not had the insight expected of us by the Creed.

Consider the significance of that notorious “and” in these lines from Genesis 1, and what a mess resulted historically when human beings (especially men) overlooked, or ignored completely, what God Himself had conjoined, what God Himself “coordinated” at our creation as male and female. The insight expected of us by that “and” failed to happen.

 27 God created mankind in his image;
 in the image of God he created them;
 male and female* he created them. [19]

Second, it means that what God coordinated (conjoined; related intrinsically to each other) “let no man put asunder” (as the lines in the Marriage Rite have it). Whenever we, for any number of social and cultural reasons, overlook, or disregard, or disdain one of the two coordinated elements – and now this is very important - we lose contact with the truth, the reality, of both elements: of heaven and earth, of what is invisible and what is visible, and, to use my outside example from Genesis, of male and female. We, in short, understand insufficiently, and distort, both realities.

Peregrinus, I was surprised to realize how little I had considered the significance hidden inside “and”! It never came home to me with such force until now that we Christians must become bi-lingual; that is, able to learn the language of, and to speak with eloquence about, the things of heaven and the things of earth, the things invisible and the things visible.

But then, this only makes sense, because we human beings are coordinated beings, beings of co-equal material (seen) and spiritual (unseen) aspects, who are far larger on the inside than we are on the outside. Human beings qua human beings were made in Christ, and especially through His incarnation, to be both “of heaven” (invisible) and “of earth” (visible). e are, as the ancient formula puts it, “in the world” (visible) but “not of the world” (invisible).

Therefore, it is necessary[20] for us human beings to learn how to consider both the visible and invisible aspects of any person. We need this discipline more than ever in our American moment.

Consider, for example, how we culpably[21] misunderstand a fellow citizen when we react in a foul way to what we see, ignoring what we cannot see (his or her motives, upbringing, cultural influences, fears, etc.). When we are upset by what we see of a person, we to our detriment release ourselves from the hard and patient work of finding out why (invisible) a person is as he or she is. And for us to gain any sufficient access to his or her “inside” means that we have earned his or her trust. This too is hard work, expecting patience.

Jesus never missed perceiving both the visible and invisible aspects of a person, which is why His “real presence” alone could heal people, restore them, gave life to them, and abundantly. Remember what Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee who had invited our Lord to his house for dinner, and then that notorious woman from town who came in to weep at Jesus’ feet?

Luke 7: 44 Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? [22]

No, he could not “see” her, because Simon only saw what was visible about her, not what was invisible. Jesus, unerringly, saw both aspects. No wonder she was so overflowing with gratitude and tenderness for Him!

Recall how astonished Matthew, a Tax Collector, must have been, when Jesus saw him wholly– what was visible and invisible about him.

Matthew 9: 12 When he heard this he replied, ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.* 13 Go and learn the meaning of the words: Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice.f And indeed I came to call not the upright, but sinners.’* [23]

What does this mean?

It means that we train ourselves to consider both what a person says (heard) and what he or she has not said but also means (unheard); what a person makes known to others (visible) and what he or she may be kept from making known to others (invisible), because of systemic bias in society and through the culture that legitimatizes that bias.

Once again, Peregrinus, I admire the way that the Creed, even in a single word of it, can compel me to think again about the realities it affirms, and how by doing so, the Creed leads me to see clearer other parts of reality that I had not considered sufficiently.

Mercy as a Practice of “And”

Recently I was startled by an insight from St. Thomas Aquinas, OP (c. 1225-1274 CE) – see the quotation that I have put at the head of this letter – concerning mercy.[24] I had thought that I knew what mercy meant. I was wrong, because I had understood only a part of it.

The Oxford English Dictionary [OED]at the 13th century noun “mercy” – “Clemency and compassion shown to a person who is in a position of powerlessness or subjection, or to a person with no right or claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected, esp. in giving legal judgment or passing sentence.”

This definition from the OED (above) is how I have understood it. But what Thomas Aquinas taught me was the necessity that we search for the reason that clemency and compassion are appropriate. Getting that reason right makes all the difference to the feelings of compassion that we experience.

What is this reason? Christ-like mercy may be exercised when a person has learned to seek, and patiently to find, both the visible and the invisible aspects of someone. (Consider again the example of Matthew the Tax Collector.) There is a work of understanding we often fail to do, a work directed toward understanding the inside of a person, his or her invisible aspect coordinated with his or her visible aspect. And this sufficient understanding of both must precede, and educate, our “clemency and compassion.” I had overlooked this fact about Christian mercy. Without my realizing it, I had considered mercy as primarily a work of the heart, overlooking how it is also, and significantly, a work of sufficient understanding.

And the priority of reason was also new to me. If a work of knowledge is not achieved first, then our “clemency and compassion” is blind and will inevitably fail in its transformative work inside the other person. At worst, clemency and compassion flowing from ignorance about what really is going on inside the other person is mere do-gooding and condescension … it is a “bleeding heart” meddling in another person’s life. It is not merciful to do this to another person. It is not what Jesus taught us about mercy, the divine mercy.

 Well, old friend, it is now Thursday in the fourth week of Eastertide. I need to be long at work this weekend on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who is our Guest at The Night School this coming Tuesday evening. Here is one of many pieces of beautiful text from Tolkien, one that we can both take with us into this weekend in May:

The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam [Gamgee] saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear, he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep. [Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings, Book VI, Chapter 2, “The Lake of Shadow”. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]



   [1] Britannica – “St. Thomas Aquinas, Italian San Tommaso d’Aquino, also called Aquinas, by name Doctor Angelicus (Latin: “Angelic Doctor”), (born 1224/25, Roccasecca, near Aquino, Terra di Lavoro, Kingdom of Sicily [Italy]—died March 7, 1274, Fossanova, near Terracina, Latium, Papal States; canonized July 18, 1323; feast day January 28, formerly March 7), Italian Dominican theologian, the foremost medieval Scholastic.”

   [2] The perhaps hidden point about how St. Thomas expresses this is that one simply cannot guess as to the source of the other’s distress. We must strive, if we care really and not just in a fake, self-gratifying way, to understand the nature of that source of his or her distress, and then how exactly does that person feel his or her “distress”. “Distress” is a very broad term. St. Thomas teaches that any “heartfelt sympathy” (a feeling) must be preceded by genuine knowledge (an act of intelligence) about the nature of the other person’s distress.

   [3] The Oxford English Dictionary “to succour” – “to help, assist.”

   [4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.). St. Thomas recognizes that only an act of understanding is capable of grasping the nature of the particular unhappiness that is in a particular person’s life.

 [5] Fleming Rutledge. The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings (Kindle Locations 816-819). Kindle Edition.
  [6] Eastertide is name for the period on the Church’s liturgical calendar stretching from Easter to Pentecost (seven times seven weeks, plus one = fifty – Pentecost means “the fiftieth day”). The “tide” suffix means: “A portion, extent, or space of time; an age, a season, a time, a while.”

   [7] By “Deep Reality” I don’t mean a different kind of reality. There is only reality; the rest is un-reality (and how human beings have a taste for unreality!). What I mean is Reality seen, if you will, from the perspective of the Holy Trinity: how and why all things were made; how all things are intrinsically related because of the single Intent of the Divine Persons; and so forth. The realities that Science investigate can be known, but such knowledge not even Science claims is absolute. At best, Science, when it has not lost its humility, claims: “We are certain of this (principle, law, or scheme of recurrence in Nature) … for now, until new discoveries overturn everything we had thought was settled and sure.”

   [8] In typical Catholic practice, we have used the Apostles Creed with the Rosary; we have used the Nicene Creed when teaching Catechism or when students of Theology are first taught about the Christological controversies of the first four centuries of the Church; and, finally, we have used the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed at our Sunday celebrations of the Eucharist.

   [9] The work of understanding can be defined by the questions it asks. For example: What is this? What is its nature? Why is it the way it is? Of what elements is it constituted, and how do they fit together? How does this reality relate to everything else?
   c 1 Thes 2:11–12; 1 Tm 1:2; 2 Tm 1:2; 1 Jn 2:1; 2 Jn 4.

[10] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 3 Jn 4.
g Wis 9:13; Is 40:13; Rom 11:34.

[11] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Co 2:16.
* 7:48–50; 1 K 8:27
* 2 M 14:35; Ps 50:12
* Gn 2:7e; 2 M 7:23 •Gn 1:27seq.
* Gn 10; Dt 32:8 •Dt 4:29; Ws 13:6; Is 55:6 •Ps 145:18; Rm 1:19

[12] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Ac 17:24–28.

[13] Gerald L. Bray and Thomas C. Oden, eds., We Believe in One God, vol. 1 of Ancient Christian Doctrine (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 128.

[14] For example, St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2: 11 Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within?”

  [15] Catherine Traffis on the Grammarly website (https://www.grammarly.com/blog/coordinating-conjunctions/) writes: “A coordinating conjunction is a word that joins two elements of equal grammatical rank and syntactic importance. They can join two verbs, two nouns, two adjectives, two phrases, or two independent clauses. The seven coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.”

[16] Consider how often in speech we hear the conjunction “and” deployed: there is this and this and this, etc. We “attach” one thing to another. Yet, and this is the striking thing, there is no cognition going on. A conjunction in any language ALWAYS indicates an act of thought, an understanding of how and why one thing is conjoined to the other thing. When we, whether in speaking or in writing, conjoin two things without understanding why they are conjoined, means, well, that we are not thinking at all.
   * Away from the crowd … the parable: in this context of privacy the term parable refers to something hidden, about to be revealed to the disciples; cf. Mk 4:10–11, 34. Jesus sets the Mosaic food laws in the context of the kingdom of God where they are abrogated, and he declares moral defilement the only cause of uncleanness.
e 4:10, 13.

[17] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mk 7:17–18.

[18] Catherine Traffis on the Grammarly website (https://www.grammarly.com/blog/subordinating-conjunctions/): “A subordinating conjunction is a word or phrase that links a dependent clause to an independent clause. This word or phrase indicates that a clause has informative value to add to the sentence’s main idea, signaling a cause-and-effect relationship or a shift in time and place between the two clauses.” Examples of subordinating conjunctions are: because, as, since, though, provided that, because of, unless, in order that, with the result that, now that, until, even though, etc.
* Male and female: as God provided the plants with seeds (vv. 11, 12) and commanded the animals to be fertile and multiply (v. 22), so God gives sexuality to human beings as their means to continue in existence.

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

[20] This “it is necessary” corresponds to a divine imperative: we must seek sufficient understanding; that is, an understanding that coordinates with how it is that God understands us.

   [21] The Oxford English Dictionary at “culpable” – “Deserving blame or censure, blameworthy.”

   [22] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 7:44.
* 1 Tim 1:15
* =12:7; Ho 6:6; Lk 19:10

[23] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Mt 9:12–13.

[24] Years ago, I remember reading a study of early Christianity by, I believe, a Yale scholar, Wayne Meeks, though it could have been Robert Louis Wilkens of the University of Virginia. In that study, the scholar described how it was that the Romans (during the Roman Empire) considered the Christian commitment to mercy as downright inappropriate and potentially able to cause enormous harm to the common good. (We do not forget how the “common good” during the Roman Empire applied directly to only about 15% of the millions of people who lived in that Empire.) The Romans were people of justice (giving a person what he or she deserved in relation to the Roman Law).
 The Christian commitment to show mercy was to the Romans an exercise in the service of injustice, when a person received mercy instead of punishment for his or her violations of the Law. To a Roman citizen, Christian mercy meant to let people get away with stuff, and no good could come of that!
 But the Romans had to conclude wrongly about Christian mercy, because Roman Law focused on what was visible to the Roman magistrates (what a person did; what a person said, etc.), ignoring completely what remained invisible unless diligently sought out (why a person acted that way or spoke that way; what social circumstances compelled a person to act outside of the Law).

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