A Lovely Sight

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Love alone is capable of sight.

But what do I love, O God, when I love Thee? Not the beauty of a body nor the rhythm of moving time. Not the splendor of light, which is so dear to the eyes. Nor the sweet melodies in the world of sound of all kinds. Not the fragrance of flowers, balms and spices. Not manna and not honey; not the bodily members which are so treasured by carnal embrace. None of this do I love when I love my God. And yet I do love a light and a sound and a fragrance and a delicacy and an embrace, when I love my God, who is light and sound and fragrance and delicacy and embrace to my interior man. There my soul receives a radiance that no space can grasp; there something resounds which no time can take away; there something gives a fragrance which no wind can dissipate; there something is savored which no satiety can make bitter; there something is embraced which can occasion no ennui. This is what I love when I love my God.

Our feet of flesh feel so firmly planted on the earth, while our spirits ache to soar beyond this mortal vale. How often we perceive the intangible aspects of our selves as a wisp of smoke or a transparent ghost, through which the solid chucks of rock that form our home can pass without a care.

The modern world has in many respects slain the soul, standing in triumphant stance, yet even as this withered notion lies dying at our feet we still feel the tug towards something more, something good, something beautiful. Perhaps we have finally noticed, too late to resuscitate an asphyxiated spirit, allowing our even our art to become simply an artifact.

It’s easy to divide ourselves into two, but this divorce can only end in murder. For if to have the feeling, to see the sight or to hear the sound is nothing beyond the sense in its action, the reception becomes more real than the receiver, until even the reception loses all meaning and coherence.

Or the ideal may have its revenge, and only the spiritual has solid form- these bodies of flesh at best a temple, at worst a prison.

The biblical picture of man is not rooted in a tension between body and soul, but in the wholeness of the union, without which each cannot be truly itself. In fact, it would not be an itself at all.

There is instead the radical notion that this fragile frame of bone and blood is who I am; without it I as who I am would have no coherence. We can feel the frustration of the seeming limitation of embodiment, but the irony is that this very feeling is in itself the vindication. It opens up the space in which I can approach the world, in which I can commune with God.

This embodied nature of our existence molds and shapes the way we relate to reality. In this manner our senses are not just a purely physical action, a mode of perceiving the data of the world or receiving the images around us. Rather, there is a spiritual analogue to sense, as St. Augustine suggests in the opening passage.

To be open to the world that God has created, to be open to love- these demand of us a willingness to receive. Much like the eyes must be open to see, and in the act of seeing offer a stance of humility to the world, so our entire posture of self in relation to God must be one of acceptance, ever ready to be dazzled by the sublime or content with the mundane. After all, while an eclipse may take our breath away, the awe of a sunset is no less for its regularity.

In this manner, the way in which we perceive reality in all its panoply is wholly conditioned by the way in which we receive it- either with gratitude and humility, or entitlement and resentment. If we open ourselves to God, we must do so with eyes wide open.

Our senses are such that we are by default always ready for the new, for the unknown. In fact, the very embodied nature of our being routinely expects the unexpected. Yet when it comes to our posture towards the divine we often settle for silence, never waiting with baited breath or anticipating anything beyond the shallowness we far too often bring to the altar.

As Dionysius the Areopagite states, we know of God that he is and what he is not. Such knowledge implicitly creates the divide, for if we are, then we are what God is not. This tension forms the chasm we seek to bridge, a divide distilled deep in our being. Our eyes feel too physical, and even to gaze beyond seems a fool’s errand.

But in Jesus the God who is what we are not becomes what we are. The sight in which all being has its foundation finds itself within that field of view. This perfect union of God and Man directs us to see the underlying reality of what it is to be: To truly be what we are we must become what God sees of us.

If our sight (as in the thought of St. Thomas) is by its very constitution present to things external to itself, then to be in union with God is to be present and open to God’s being, in an analogy of how God is always present and open to us. This vision of finding itself within the gaze of Seeing itself is nothing less than the Beatific Vision, which is, in the Incarnation, finally shown to be both the Beginning and the End of our being.

Here we discover Beauty in all its fullness and in all its irresistibleness, in all its fire and in all its purging. Desire which could be quenched but left destitute for the filling now finds depths it never knew, a satiety that overflows. It is not merely the intellection of a mind nor the perception of a spirit, but even (and necessarily) the feeling where the totality of who we are are in our body-soulness ceases its struggle against itself and finally rests at ease in the presence of its Creator.

This attitude is the relinquishing of flight, the gladly acknowledged peace of the blissful humility of not being God.[1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Seeing the Form] For God has taken the burden, so to speak, of becoming man upon himself. The early church’s axiom was that which was not assumed was not healed. The Incarnation is not simply a salve on the wound, but a complete transformation; not a changing that leaves itself behind but a transfiguration that carries itself to greater heights. Our flesh has ceased being an obstacle; it has become a means and a mediation. It has ceased being a veil to become a perception.[2. Paul Claudel, Sensation du Divin’]

God does not call us away from our senses but rather makes them the locus for meeting with him. Jesus didn’t require that Thomas disdain the viscerality of his doubts, to subsume them under a flesh-less faith, but instead stretched forth his hands so Thomas could touch the wounds.

Love alone, according to St. Augustine, is capable of sight.

To love God is to be open to reality with gratefulness, to be present to God in the totality of our being. In this way we receive, and since God is the source of love, this is the way we love.

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Jason Watson

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