Sunday, May 16, 2010

Third day: the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit

Yesterday we considered briefly the mysterious power of language - itself so wonderful and so transcendent that it would take several books to begin any real study, and that before we begin to address specifics like grammar or writing style.

It is this strange and somewhat lopsided treatment of the subject which can disturb some engineers and scientists. They proceed, much as our present-day Luddites do, to attack the tool with itself! You see it everywhere: web-sites and bloggs and political societies and even some academic institutions, arguing bitterly against "technology" as if it were somehow opposed to the liberal arts. Yet, all these always have web sites, and electric lights and word-processing software and laser printers. It might be understandable if they skinned their sheep to make their parchment, and scraped soot from their chimneys to make their ink... but of course they are bound to the tradition of a much higher technology, just as the cranky old "liberal" hypocrites who speak of "change" and "questioning authority".

All of these have forgotten Chesterton's great epigram on the subject:
A cosmos one day being rebuked by a pessimist replied, "How can you who revile me consent to speak by my machinery? Permit me to reduce you to nothingness and then we will discuss the matter." Moral. You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.
[GKC quoted in Ward's Gilbert Keith Chesterton 49-50]
The greatest technology is language, which also happens to be a great tradition, formally bound to ART writ large, that is, formed by human contrivance in all its parts; a thing far more unchanging than it is subject to change, and a thing which exists only, and most strictly, upon the force of authority.

All right. But what do we do with this language? Granted, the mathematicians have finished their studies of it: we know, and can assert, that all possible phrases, indeed, every possible collection of symbols of every human tongue, be it ancient and lost, or yet to exist, natural or contrived, Esperanto, Klingon, Quenya and the rest - every sentence, paragraph, book, volume, poem, and utterance, is contained in the simple symbol A*. That is, the star-closure of the free monoid over a given alphabet A. Sure, it's true - but what does that give us?

You are lost due to my symbols. I will paraphrase in the classical tongue. The A* of the automata theoreticians might be nothing more than the Greek hexameters on the palm-leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl, the ancient prophetess...
In her cave she was accustomeed to inscribe on leaves gather from the trees the names and fates of individuals. The leaves thus inscribed were arranged in order within the cave, and might be consulted by her votaries. But if perchance at the opening of the door the wind rushed in and dispersed the leaves the Sibyl gave no aid in restoring them again, and the oracle was irreparably lost.
[Bullfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology 220]
Yet, as with all prophecies, there ought to be an interpretor - even St. Paul points this out. Moreover, as we know from the real study of ancient tongues: the Egyptian hieroglyphs or the Cretan Linear, we need a "rosetta stone" to link one tongue to another, or the meaning of the text will forever lie beyond our grasp.

We do not even need to go quite so far back in history to see examples of such confusion. At the beginning of the chapter called "The Age of the Puritans" in Chesterton's A Short History of England there is an example of how distorted some histories have become:
We should be very much bored if we had to read an account of the most exciting argument or string of adventures in which unmeaning words such as "snark" or "boojum" were systematically substituted for the names of the chief characters or objects in dispute; if we were told that a king was given the alternative of becoming a snark or finally surrendering the boojum, or that a mob was roused to fury by the public exhibition of a boojum, which was inevitably regarded as a gross reflection on the snark.
[GKC A Short History of England CW20:535]
I happen to like his two examples: a "most exciting argument or string of adventures" - but there is a better example which links the ancient Sibyl forward to something even more exciting:
That St. Francis would have burned all the leaves of all the books of the Sybil, in exchange for one fresh leaf from the nearest tree, is perfectly true; and perfectly proper to St. Francis. But it is good to have the Dies Irae as well as the Canticle of the Sun.
[GKC St. Francis of Assisi CW2:129]
Now you may not know that the Dies Irae is the Sequence (the poetic text) which is (or should be) used at Masses for the dead; it mentions the Sibyl as prophetess along with David. But you may not know what the "Canticle of the Sun" is. You may recall Chesterton's famous epigram "The greatest of poems is an inventory." [GKC Orthodoxy CW1:267] The "Canticle of the Sun" is the great poetic inventory written by St. Francis, enumerating the various members of the Creation and praising God Who made them. (You may have sung a version called "All Creatures of Our God and King".) It has quite a strong pagan tone, except that instead of deifying the various beings, it praises God their creator - much as Psalm 148 or the famous "Song of the Three Young Men" in Daniel 3.


So this must rank as the first of all uses of language - praise and thanksgiving to the Creator for all His creation. And it is. When we speak of prayer, there is often taught a simple mnemonic (an aid to memory) to remind us of the Four Ends (purposes) of Prayer. It is not in Greek hexameter, but it is an acrostic, and you may regard it as something quite a bit more authentic than the the leaves of the Sibyl... the mnemonic is ACTS:
A - Adoration
C - Contrition
T - Thanksgiving
S - Supplication

And the first, "adoration" is hardest of all.

According to the Five Verbs of the Gloria, about which I hope to write some other time... oh, you are wondering what they are? Here you go:

Laudamus te. = We praise You.
Benedicimus te. = We bless You.
Adoramus te. = We adore You.
Glorificamus te. = We glorify You.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. = We give You thanks for Your great glory.
Now, as I was saying, according to the Five Verbs, "praise" is not the same as "adore" - and yet praise is a form of adoration. It would go beyond the scope of our study to proceed on this, but the very fact that these five verbs are specifically addressed to God, and are somehow parallel to the first three "Ends of Prayer" I listed above - this suggests something important in our use of Language.

It suggests that we must have knowledge about the basics - the sun, the earth, the food we eat, the air we breathe - even the death we must one day face - and see them all as gifts of God. This is nothing more than our knowing the meaning of words - we link our mental, spoken, written (typed) phrases - be they mere fonts or phonemes or symbols, members of A* or leaves of the Sibyl - to REALITY.

And in bowing down humbly to this awesome truth, we likewise acknowledge the Artist Who arranged it for us, to serve, to inspire, to delight. You may not be a scientist in a lab coat, but you were once a child, and you and I are both children and shall always be children when we touch Reality, when we look around:
He sees around him a world of a certain style or type. It seems to proceed by certain rules or at least repetitions. He sees a green architecture that builds itself without visible hands; but which builds itself into a very exact plan or pattern, like a design already drawn in the air by an invisible finger. It is not, as is now vaguely suggested, a vague thing. It is not a growth or a groping of blind life. Each seeks an end; a glorious and radiant end, even for every daisy or dandelion we see in looking across the level of a common field. In the very shape of things there is more than green growth; there is the finality of the flower. It is a world of crowns. This impression, whether or no it be an illusion, has so profoundly influenced this race of thinkers and masters of the material world, that the vast majority have been moved to take a certain view of that world. They have concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the world had a plan as the tree seemed to have a plan; and an end and crown like the flower. But so long as the race of thinkers was able to think, it was obvious that the admission of this idea of a plan brought with it another thought more thrilling and even terrible. There was someone else, some strange and unseen being, who had designed these things, if indeed they were designed. There was a stranger who was also a friend; a mysterious benefactor who had been before them and built up the woods and hills for their coming, and had kindled the sunrise against their rising, as a servant kindles a fire.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:396]
Prayer is the Language by which we communicate with that Mysterious Benefactor...

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Thursday, I do so appeciate you taking the time to find these most fitting, most inspiring excerpts for the solemn novena... God reward you!


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