Friday, May 21, 2010

Eighth day: the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit

I glanced, very briefly, at yesterday's post, and found that I had neglected a major point in my discussion on "repetition". I don't mean to quarrel - no - the issue is a very interesting one, and I do see a very large issue here - both in the sense that our Lord was warning us about "praying as the pagans" as well as in the sense that we must be steadfast in prayer, even while we are asking over and over again for the same thing.

But there is a far larger issue - one which I wonder about, since I am a computer scientist, and deal with words (and with repetitions) in very unusual ways. You might say that I get to see the "plumbing", the "basement" of such things - but then as Mark Weaver likes to say, "Somebody has to do the hard jobs". It's this sort of pondering which makes me speculate like this:
If a certain Protestant opposes my use of (for example) the Rosary because "we must avoid repetition in prayer", am I therefore permitted to pray the Our Father (the Lord's Prayer) only once in my entire life?

Would it be "repetition" to say it once a year, or week, or day?

And would it be "repetition" if we used just SOME of the same words?

Just where is the limit?
Well... not being a theologian, I cannot deal with that issue directly. But there are some interesting things I've learned from my own field, and from my Chestertonian style of poking around in other fields.

There are really three points I wish to make. Two of them come from something I told you the other day: in automata theory, which is the mathematics which governs all language and the theoretical producers of linguistic patterns - a study which includes all existing as well as all future computers as a trivial case - there is a very simple formula, A*, which we call "A-star". I won't try to teach you the fundamentals of automata theory here, though it would be fun if we could, maybe just five or six lectures would do it... Ahem! But this formula is simply the symbol to represent all possible "strings" of characters. Taking the set A to be the usual ASCII characters you see on your computer, A* contains every e-mail, every blogg-posting, every comment, the text from every web site - it contains the Bible and every other book - as well as every version of every book, pristine or full of typos. It contains all of Chesterton's writing (yes, even the stuff he tore up and threw out before it was printed!) and every word or phrase or sentence which can be written or spoken or typed or represented using ASCII, whether it be meaningful or nonsense, holy or silly, good or evil...

How? Simply because this A* contains every possible pattern of characters drawn from our starting set - in our current case, the ASCII characters you are presently staring at. This is possible simply because of two very simple reasons.

The first reason is because the starting set is FINITE. We usually call that set the "alphabet", though in ASCII we have the space and punctuation and digits and other things besides both upper-case and lower-case letters.

Now, I want you to think about this. (No I am NOT making an "anti-protestant" argument. I am pointing out something very splendid about the gift we call language.) Our ASCII characters are really just the usual English letters, together with some punctuation. Those English letters are just the old Roman letters, with J and W thrown in to help out, and a distinction made between U and V. If you go to Roma, you will be able to read inscriptions which are over 2000 years old - even if you don't know Latin, you will at least be spell out the words. And those Roman letters are just an adoption of the Greek alphabet - we call it "alphabet" from the Greek "Alpha, Beta" you know. If I had time, I'd explain about how G used to be third, and how Z got demoted from the seventh place and other fun things - or how those Greek letters came from an older Phoenician - or some Semitic characters... But this is not a history lesson. The point here is that this scheme of writing, unlike the hieroglyphs of Egypt, the ideograms of China, or certain other schemes, is a scheme which represents a certain vocal sound (they call this a phoneme) with a certain symbol. And one more thing - one VERY critical thing: there are ONLY JUST SO MANY OF THESE. Maybe about 40 or so in English.

All right. You get that? Our speech, and our writing, are founded upon a FINITE collection, either sounds we make with our mouths, or shapes we write (or type) - just this many, and no more. Now, we need to consider the second reason.

The second reason is because the length of the pattern (the "string" of characters) we compose from that starting set is also FINITE! I know, I've been told many times that I write lengthy postings. When I see you can purchase a terabyte-size disk drive (that means a trillion characters, or 1,000,000,000,000) for less than a hundred dollars, why should we worry about another few hundred words? The typical photograph takes up between 2 and 3 million, just for comparison, and the longest of my writings so far during the Great Novena is about 20,000. So there. Ahem! I could point out that the novels of (NAME of FAMOUS AUTHOR OMITTED) are lengthy too. But the point is not that these are lengthy... I remember Tolkien's comment in his introduction to the trilogy where he said the one complaint he got is that his work was TOO SHORT. Amazing! The point is that they are FINITE. They do come to an end. You buy the book, or download the web page - and there it is. Sure, I know near the bottom it may say those most dramatic of all possible words, "To Be Continued" - but I want you to hear how GKC puts it:
Life (according to the faith) is very like a serial story in a magazine: life ends with the promise (or menace) "to be continued in our next." Also, with a noble vulgarity, life imitates the serial and leaves off at the exciting moment. For death is distinctly an exciting moment.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:341]
Now, this phrase happens to appear elsewhere in GKC's writing, and it forms a major link in the larger study, the study of Story writ large, which he takes up in The Everlasting Man. (Yet I didn't mean to foretell this by mentioning Tolkien; you're just seeing the master structure put there, not by me, but by the Author. And no I do NOT mean Chesterton.) Here is the other quote, which will reveal a little of the point I have been babbling about:
People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel. Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease even to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a recognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story. In the fiery alphabet of every sunset is written, "to be continued in our next." If we have sufficient intellect, we can finish a philosophical and exact deduction, and be certain that we are finishing it right. With the adequate brain-power we could finish any scientific discovery, and be certain that we were finishing it right. But not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right. That is because a story has behind it, not merely intellect which is partly mechanical, but will, which is in its essence divine. The narrative writer can send his hero to the gallows if he likes in the last chapter but one. he can do it by the same divine caprice whereby he, the author, can go to the gallows himself, and to hell afterwards if he chooses.
[GKC Heretics CW1:143-4]
The point, you see, is that the prayer when it is just a finite string, be it written or verbal, is just that. Something has to repeat, since there are only so many letters to arrange, and only so many words: I expect one could find prayers to Ra or Apollo which are strangely similar to ones spoken to Jesus. (Chesterton examines the ubiquity of the externals of religion in (e.g.) Orthodoxy CW1:333, but I have no time to go into that today.) The point is not the "simple" repetition which may occur, intended or not, in the verbal forms. Nor is it the point of recapitulating a theme - that wonderful technique in music, about which nearly every single detail I have above stated must also apply, providing you transpose (hee hee) into the new idiom.

The point is that we are the baby in his mother's arms, murmuring the same simple things. We don't speak God's language - when He gave us the Our Father, He Himself "transposed" a little for us, into a key even a novice can handle - but you are forgetting what we have been told. You see, we've only mentioned two parts of the picture. There's one more thing... there is a trinity here too. There is not only the finite alphabet, and the finite sentence. There is a third something - and it is in essence infinite, and though it may be so far beyond our senses as to appear not merely finite, but empty, in reality it is the great mystery which permits the others to operate.

Are you BARKING MAD, Doctor? What on earth are you jabbering on about?

Oh... it's just the usual Chestertonian paradox of a thing being "too big to be noticed" ["The Three Tools of Death" in The Innocence of Father Brown] It often happens, so you need not feel dull. It's quite easy, like forgetting the identity of the free monoid. Ahem, sorry, that's the closest tech thing I can come to expressing the idea... but wait. Here's a better line, from a very wonderful Chestertonian text:
"Oh dear, all those words again," thought Milo as he climbed into the wagon with Tock and the cabinet members. "How are you going to make it move? It doesn't have a -"
"Be very quiet," advised the Duke. "It goes without saying."
[Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth near the end of chapter six]

If we are speaking, there is a necessary silence.

If we are writing, there is a necessary blank page.

If we are typing, there must be - er - let us say - sufficient empty memory.

And if we are praying, there is Our Gift, Who makes it possible for us to begin the communication. In this context, the Holy Spirit might be grasped as the "medium" of prayer, the Divine Network, the Mystic Page, the Holy Silence... No, I didn't invent this idea. I read it up in a letter from St. Paul:
Likewise, the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For, we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings.
[Romans 8;26]
Hence, even a little child repeating the same simple sounds with love (another name for the Holy Spirit) may be praying in a far richer manner than anyone but God can know...

Our point, then, is not so much to dwell on the mere mechanics of the words, though we should be concerned with propriety and with beauty. If we are going to a wedding banquet we ought to be properly dressed. [see Mt 22:11-14] And hence we begin to understand the point we heard about previously, about having the right intention. It is just as possible to babble on as the pagans by a non-repeating, non-traditional extemporaneous prayer as it is to be in deep communion with God through the repetition of simple phrases... But at this point we shall stop, and consider the subsequent point tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. I don't see how A* is finite. After all we can say: one, two, three,... which is at least potentially infinite.


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