Albert Goodwin, "The Cloister Garden"

My dissertation is done. There are some typos to fix, many pages to print and bind, but the thing is done. Von Balthasar called his own dissertation his “giant child,” as if unsure what to do with it. I feel much the same.

What to do with the thing? Get it published, I imagine. That does not in fact tell me what to do with the effort, psychologically speaking. I stand at the top of a little mountain, one that felt very big and very impossible, and now I look around at the wide landscape spilling over the edges of the climb – wondering – what has this meant? The strange entwining of poetry and metaphysics, the odd marriage of Christ with His poets, the looming conflicts over language and meaning. These things, all these things, as they are found in the vertiginous mind of Hans Urs von Balthasar. What has it meant?

Before the conclusion of the dissertation begins, I inserted some lines from a poem of Francis Thompson’s called “To A Poet Breaking Silence“:

Ah! let the sweet birds of the Lord
With earth’s waters make accord;
Teach how the crucifix may be
Carven from the laurel-tree,
Fruit of the Hesperides
Burnish take on Eden-trees,
The Muses’ sacred grove be wet
With the red dew of Olivet,
And Sappho lay her burning brows
In white Cecilia’s lap of snows!

These lines in their riddles express far better than I could what it is that I set out to do. Acknowledging the profane origins of his art – that poetry in the West is rooted firmly in the Greek tradition, in natural knowledge, in things that are not explicitly Christian – Thompson asks to be taught how such an art might be brought into the service of Jesus Christ. “Teach how,” he writes, “the crucifix may be carven from the laurel-tree” – since it is the laurel wreathe that, in Greek and Roman myth, comes to symbolize poetry. Many Greek myths and ideas receive recollection in these lines: Hesperides, the garden of nymphs with its golden apple trees, comes to shine like Eden; the grove of the Muses, who inspire poets, inspire now through the blood that Christ’s face sweats with in the garden of Gethsemane; and Sappho, that mysterious giant of Greek poetry, rests now in the mysterious virginity of martyred Saint Cecilia, who died for singing to Christ.

The poetic tradition of the West, which is more ancient than Christianity, opens itself up to transfiguration in Christ. Not that it is marred through this encounter; no, all of its wealth is rather brought to bear in a new way. Yet it must also let go of itself, this tradition, and submit its symbols and forms to the fires of newness. There is risk here. Great risk.

Such was the risk when the Fathers and the Scholastics carried Greek philosophy through the doors of the Church. I can see now, at the far end of my dissertation and at the top of this little mountain, how they carried Greek art in with them too. Art and philosophy live and die together. Do they not also die in Christ, and live in Him?

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