The literary journal Image, a journal of the arts and religion, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with an issue featuring various writers and artists addressing what it means to be fully human. I was moved by this essay by poet Robert Cording, “Love Calls Us to One World at a Time“, whose title is a riff on one of my favorite Richard Wilbur poems. Both poem and essay celebrate the inextricable union of finite and infinite, spirit and matter–a creative tension that the religious mind is so often tempted to resolve in favor of rejecting this world, not realizing that this disconnects us from direct experience of God and the people He has given us to love. Cording writes:
A few days before his death on May 6, 1862, Henry David Thoreau was asked by Parker Pillsbury, a former minister become abolitionist, that question so many would like to have answered. Noting that Thoreau was “near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury asked Thoreau how the “opposite shore” appeared to him. Thoreau, according to the biographer Richard D. Richardson, “summed up his life” with his answer: “One world at a time.” Thoreau’s reply, polite but firm, was in accord with the way he deliberately chose to live his life. Just months before his death, he was still collecting material for projects on the succession of forest trees and seed dispersal, newly taken with nature’s economy of abundance and its genius of vitality. Years earlier, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau had come to a similar understanding: we need, he said, “not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth…. We need to be earth-born as well as heaven-born.” Thoreau, who is too often mistakenly placed under the convenient label of pantheist, was not choosing to be “earth-born” over and against being “heaven-born.” He believed, rather, that both births depended on each other. To be “heaven-born” did not lie in redirecting attention from the natural to the supernatural, but in seeing more deeply into the sources of the natural. Those sources, like creation itself, were always a mystery.
In his famous poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Richard Wilbur enacts the way love calls us to extend ourselves toward a world which will always remain irreducible in its otherness and yet open to our understanding and recognition. In Wilbur’s poem, the soul cannot exist free of the body’s restrictions. Each day it must learn to keep a “difficult balance” in a world which asks us, as Wendell Berry has said, “to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is.” As Thoreau’s life had taught him, if we try to leave behind the earth, if we choose religion simply to quiet our fears and prop up our hopes rather than connect us with the sources of life, we ignore the call of love and heed only the usual summons of the self and its needs….
…Great art, according to Iris Murdoch, delights us “because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.” In her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she uses Plato’s system of thought to give, ironically, a place to art and the artist that Plato did not envision in The Republic. Murdoch argues that the moral life in Plato is a “slow shift of attachments wherein looking (concentrating, attending, attentive discipline) is a source of divine (purified) energy…. The movement is not, by an occasional leap, into an external (empty) space of freedom, but patiently and continuously a change of one’s whole being in all its contingent detail, through a world of appearance toward a world of reality.” We know, of course, that the simple exposure to and even the study of great art may or may not lead to transformation, to care for the other. Art requires our consent, and in Murdoch’s view, our “morally disciplined attention” in order to enact the change from “a world of appearance toward a world of reality.” What we may learn from art is its closeness to morals, since for Murdoch the essence of both art and morals is love. And love, as Murdoch defines it in her essay “The Sublime and the Good,” “is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real”; it is the “discovery of reality.”
Great art is the enemy of fantasy; fantasy always leads to the creation of idols. Our weakness as human beings is our tendency to make idols of whatever is at hand, whatever makes the world easier, more understandable, and meets our most immediate needs. Poets have always argued that the imagination is the opposite of fantasy. Imagination is an exercise in overcoming one’s self, of extending oneself towards what is different from ourselves. And, in their loving respect for a reality other than oneself, imagination and art call us to attend, with devotion and care, to a world which will always remain a mystery, but a mystery in which love calls us to the things of this world where we may become most fully human.