Meditations on things literary, medieval, religious, and social

Inchworms and Narrative


The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of a stunt pilot’s turning barrel rolls, or an inchworm’s blind rearing from a stem in search of a route. At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence.
-Annie Dillard, “Write Till You Drop,” The New York Times,  May 28, 1989

I am a fan of Annie Dillard–but then, I don’t actually know anyone who isn’t. Her prose is simultaneously light and heavy, somber and comic, her insight gently penetrating. Because writing has been a vocation for me for so long, I have attended closely to her words of advice over the years, squirreling away her images and metaphors–the ones I didn’t entirely grasp–for later consumption. And so last night as I was thinking about writing, I recalled her description of the inchworm:

Few sights are so absurd as that of an inchworm leading its dimwit life. Inchworms are the caterpillar larvae of several moths or butterflies. The cabbage looper, for example, is an inchworm. I often see an inchworm: it is a skinny bright green thing, pale and thin as a vein, an inch long, and apparently totally unfit for life in this world. It wears out its days in constant panic.Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What! No further? Its back pair of nubby feet clasps the grass stem; its front three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a footing. What! No further? What? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles its green inch, and places its hind legs just behind its front legs. Its body make a loop, a bight. All it has to do now is slide its front legs up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. It throws up its head and front legs, flings its upper body out into the void, and panics again. What? No further? End of world? And so forth, until it actually reaches the grasshead’s tip. By then its wee weight may be bending the grass toward some other grass plant. It’s davening, apocalyptic prayers sway the grasshead and bump it into something. I have seen it many times. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim. And now — What! No further? End of world? Ah, here’s ground. What! No further? Yike!
Why don’t you just jump? I tell it, disgusted. Put yourself out of your misery.

The Writing Life, 6-8.

Dillard’s metaphor of the inchworm is widely understood to be about the writer and her encounter with the Unknown of the blank page. But I think Dillard is talking about human existence as-such, the fundamental state of every human being, whether we acknowledge it or not. The advertising industry thrives on our ardent desire to forget our true condition, which is that we are born, we live for a span on this earth, and we die. If we don’t confront this reality we miss the opportunity for perspective, and perspective is the seed from which all narrative grows. And narrative is, as it were, the DNA of Human Life. It is the stuff of the “humanities.” It is what we were, what we are, and it can offer us a glimpse of what we might become. Narratives are the stories we tell ourselves and one another, and their natural habitat is the spiral domain of drama—repeated in infinite variations. Drama is inherent to existence. The incidentals may change, but the structure is always the same. Build up, climax, resolution. Birth, life, death. The pattern is everywhere, if we recognize it—that is, if we can obtain enough perspective to see the stories, and not simply be told by them.

The inchworm’s dilemma is the stuff of drama, and it is the stuff of narrative as we human animals experience narrative in real time. There is a build up—movement down the stalk without knowing exactly what will happen next. There is a climax, a problem: we no longer feel the supportive stalk below—the proverbial bottom falls out. We flail. Eventually we find a way forward, and move on to the next episode. So it goes. Eventually the inchworm will transform into something with wings, and I suppose to continue the metaphor, this is what happens when we recognize the pattern and simultaneously live it and stand apart from it at the same time. When we are no longer -just- told by the story, but share in the telling. Like Augustine and his Confessions, when he looks back—when he sees his story with the perspective of one who has passed beyond the immediate events—he stands both inside and outside of his life. He stands in a place of perspective. It is the gift we are given (if we are lucky) as we age; it is what makes us good and then better at our jobs after ten or twenty years. A professor of English told me when I was in college that most writers don’t achieve their maturity or hit their stride until they are 40. I understand now why this is: because it takes at least that long to have come through enough cycles of drama to stand outside of them and actually see them as we live them. This is what Dante possesses at the time he writes the Divine Comedy—he has passed through the dark wood and now he can write about it. He can be inside the story and outside of it at the same time. He has perspective. In fact, the whole Comedy seems to be about perspective—seeing things in their proper place. Seeing desires, behaviors, hopes, loves, in their proper place. It is a narrative about narrative, and it is no wonder that it remains such an important pillar of our core humanistic curricula.

Over the years I have built up an apologetic argument for myself to accept that I am on this earth for the span I am given to tell stories.  It has reached the proportions of a philosophy of narrative. All that I have learned over the years, even my academic arguments, circle around the importance of narrative. I think of it as a kind of medicine, as important to our animal existence as vaccines and antibiotics. We are rational (sometimes!) animals, and narratives describe what happens to rational animals when they ride dragons or topple dictators or give birth to quadruplets. As animals we have animal desires, and narratives describe our pursuit of these desires to both good and bad ends. The “village” we need to exist and learn and grow remains available in stories, in narratives, even as such actual villages have long since gone the way of the dodo. But the village remains. And as we trust and venerate some teachers and not others, we know, deep down, which narratives are true, both tragic and comic. This is because we can sniff out the distinction between fearless honesty and shameless mendacity. We can know the difference between a good joke and a bad one, between generosity and cruelty.

Seeing is its own reward, even when what is seen sears the heart with sadness. We continue to live inside the world because most of us do not want to or cannot spend our lives on a mountaintop or in a monastery. But we understand the importance of what the monastically-minded seek: reality, truth, peace, some measure of cessation of suffering. In one of my favorite Bill Murray movies, The Razor’s Edge[1], Murray plays a man who emerges from World War I emotionally damaged and in search of meaning. He travels the world and grows from his experiences, but it is not until the end, in the wake of a personal tragedy, that he announces, “I used to think Sophie was my reward for living a good life. But now I realize—there is no payoff.”

This statement is another bit of wisdom that has percolated in my brain for many, many years. It seemed to me for a long time somewhat nihilistic, or at the very least, stoic. Now, thinking about narrative and how essential seeing is to that process of recognition and release, I think of Darrow’s statement in a different way. It’s dead simple, and we’ve all heard it before, but here it is, again: each moment is the gift. There is no day that will be better than all the others, full stop. Looking back we recognize how precious certain moments were, but the day your daughter enters the world is not confined to one day, a prospect that seems equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. The morning you wake up to receive your degree in front of loving family and friends, despite your best efforts to the contrary, will feel pretty much like every other day except that afterwards you will do some time flailing around looking for the next stalk to grab hold of. There is no day that offers the pot of gold–even winning the lottery tends to have the effect of making people more miserable than they were before they won the money. The big payoff is an illusion—it simply doesn’t exist. What we get instead is simply everything every day, and if we fail to accept it in hopes for a “big win” down the road, we are doomed to tragic endings until we figure it out.

We need narratives to teach us this, to show us how to live and offer us the opportunity to teach others. The humanities are every bit as important to our existence as the sciences, and we will do well to stop thinking of them as either/or propositions in an educational curriculum. So here’s to stories and the people who tell them. They offer us an essential part of our humanity by reminding us we are animals who can do magic.

[1] Murray adapted the film from Somerset Maugham’s book The Razor’s Edge (1944); I have read the book and I think the film is better at capturing the essence of what Maugham seemed to be attempting to do.


“Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat” (1971)


Christmas comes like this: Wise men
unhurried, candles bought on credit (poor price
for calves), warriors face down in wine sleep.
Winds cheat to pull heat from smoke.

Friends sit in chinked cabins, stare out
plastic windows and wait for commodities.
Charlie Blackbird, twenty miles from church
and bar, stabs his fire with flint.

When drunks drain radiators for love
or need, chiefs eat snow and talk of change,
an urge to laugh pounding their ribs.
Elk play games in high country.

Medicine Woman, clay pipe and twist tobacco,
calls each blizzard by name and predicts
five o’clock by spitting at her television.
Children lean into her breath to beg a story:

Something about honor and passion,
warriors back with meat and song,
a peculiar evening star, quick vision of birth.
Blackbird feeds his fire. Outside, a quick 30 below.

-James Welch

Mr. Reynolds


How do you tell someone that they are walking around shining like the sun?

–Thomas Merton

Mr. Reynolds was my junior high English teacher, and my junior high and high school track and cross-country coach. I just learned that he died today. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but I have thought about this day, and what I would say about him. I have deep respect and love for practically all of my teachers (yes, all of them), but he was more than just a teacher to me. He was one of the single most influential people in my life.

Mr. Reynolds was the kind of person you would want to know, for more than one reason. All of those reasons put together made one magnificent man. Year after year he taught classes full of small-town Montana kids English language and literature and coached those same kids after school on the windy track a few miles out of town.

But he didn’t just teach English, or improve our running form. Mr. Reynolds had a sense of humor, about himself, and about the world. This is the most important thing he taught me: to be able to laugh at myself–because until I did so, I would never be the best that I could be. It wasn’t until years later, taking a seminar on Dante’s Divine Comedy, that I realized the profundity of humor. Dante’s hell is full of the self-conscious (much like a junior-high English classroom); purgatory is full of painful growth. And paradise? That’s where you smile, “not for the fault, which returns not to mind, but for the Power that ordained and foresaw. Here we contemplate the art which so much love adorns, and we discern the good by reason of which the world below again becomes the world above.” (Canto IX)

I don’t know if Mr. Reynolds was a religious person. If he was, he never talked about it. But he didn’t need to. As St. Francis was to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” His life, dedicated to teaching and coaching young people, was like his own special mission field. He took us all in, from all kinds of backgrounds, and helped us to do well, so that in the midst of the chaos of youthful insecurity, fear, anger, powerlessness, sometimes abuse or worse, we could begin to love ourselves by accomplishing something, by digging down and finding out what we were made of.

My own relationship with Mr. Reynolds started in English class. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I ended up majoring in English in college. As a kid my nose was buried incessantly in novels, and I liked to write. Mr. Reynolds encouraged my writing, and when in the sixth grade he found I was writing in the style of Jane Austen, he told me I needed to stop it, and to write about what I knew. All of Reynolds’s English students can recall watching the film I Remember Mama. I don’t really remember the film now, but I remember that it was about writing about what one knows.

In the classroom and on the track he was demanding, but like a good general, or a Benedictine abbot, he knew how to push those who needed it, and go a bit easier on those who struggled. On the (often long) bus rides to events, he went over strategy, but more frequently when he approached my seat, he had a joke on his mind:

R: “Palmbush…did you ever hear the one about the termite?”

Me: “No.”

R: (pause). “A termite walks into a bar, and asks, ‘is the bartender here?’”

Then he’d smile at himself, and at me–“Get it? Bartender?” waving his hands a little, before continuing on down the aisle to tell the joke to somebody else, or offer up a little known fact about Ted Bundy or the Green River Killer.  Once, when he could tell I wasn’t doing very well, we talked a bit on the bus about anxiety. “Do you feel like when you go to bed, you can’t stop the thoughts running through your head?” he asked.  He was one of the few adults with whom I was open during that time. Around him, I never felt judged or bad about myself.

I still run on my own for pleasure, and very often, especially when I’m tired and struggling to finish, I hear his voice from the stands. “Come on Palmbush!!!!! Go!!!!!” And I immediately remember to think about my form, put my chin down, and keep going. Once at finals in a hurdle race I fell down, only two hurdles from the finish line. Stunned for a second, I heard above me, “GET UP PALMBUSH GET UP!!!” I jumped up, threw myself over the last two hurdles, just managing to qualify.

There are more memories, and I know many people who have as many or more about Mr. Reynolds. Mine aren’t anything particularly special or unusual, but I wanted to say something about him, to remember him, today, as befits a person who lived with such largesse, with the boundless grace that accompanies those whose lives are devoted to the service to others.

2012 Republican Ideology in Light of One Family’s History

I have always enjoyed hearing my dad tell the story of his grandparents, despite the fact that this story ended in failure—and failure on more than just an economic level. The reason that I like it is because it is a story of Herculean effort, and there is an element of romance in that. However, the reality of that failure had consequences in my dad’s life, and so, in the life of each of his four children. And those consequences have given rise to both good and bad: good, in the sense that we grew up with an urgent sense of the need to succeed (and we were lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity in which to do so); and bad, in the sense of being scarred by difficulty and pain.

Two inventions: Flax harvester, and Milk Pail Holder

Such is life, more or less. I do not pretend to try to justify the ways of God to man. But when it comes to politics—a human system that endeavors to imitate as closely as possible the ways of God—in short, when there is the opportunity for dialogue—I think it’s important to contribute to the conversation.

First, some background. Andrew Palmbos and his brother Bert came to the United States from the Netherlands at the turn of the century. When they got to Ellis Island and didn’t have enough money to satisfy the immigration officials, they worked as janitors until they could raise enough money to make their way West. Eventually, after a stint picking blueberries for their uncle in Michigan, they arrived in Montana. Advertisements had been circulating describing “dry-land farming.” Andrew settled down in Conrad, Montana, and pursued a dual project: farming, and the invention of farm equipment. He made regular trips to Washington DC to patent his inventions, but was never able to make good on them. In the meantime, he had made the acquaintance (via a church pen-pal program) of my great-grandmother, Ytje Ysbrandy, a Frisian woman. He returned to the Netherlands, they were married in Franneker, and then returned to Montana.

Long story short: the farm failed. My great-grandfather never made any real money on his patents, and when he contracted tuberculosis at a rather young age, his son, my grandfather Henry (who had shown such promise in school that the superintendent of Montana schools trudged onto the farm to ask Andrew if Henry could attend high school—to which Andrew replied “no”) he was forced to abandon formal education and take over the failing farm.

More inventions: Ditch and Levee, Fruit picker

The bank ended up owning the farm, and Henry didn’t fare well, destroyed, in the end, by alcoholism. My grandmother raised her three children more or less on her own until she later remarried. My dad, faced with little to no financial support, went to a two-year college and then enlisted in the Navy. During this time, he met my mother, a native of New Jersey, while stationed at Fort McGuire Air Force Base. He served two tours in Vietnam, lived with my mother and older brother for two years in Japan, and then took the whole show back to Montana. And that is where my siblings and I grew up—on the fringe of society. Surrounded by geographical beauty, yet submerged in a life plagued by economic, climatic, and emotional desperation. My dad certainly had PTSD; this we only realized much later. Both my parents worked all the time. We worked hard in school because we knew that this was our only way out. When I went away to college, I realized that most people consider Montana a brilliant place to visit, to ski, to recreate. But for those of us who grew up there, we recognized that in order to survive, we had to leave.

My family’s story is full of drama. It is certainly an American, pioneering, story. But I wonder sometimes if the prize of that drama is worth what it generated. Times were different for my great-grandparents and grandparents, no doubt. But this may be the point. Today, choices are available that weren’t available to my grandmother. My dad’s family flatly failed to make it on the difficult highline of Montana. No Ayn Rand-style success story here. My father and his sisters grew up poor and demoralized. There was no help for them outside of the church, but that was limited by the fact that my grandmother had divorced my grandfather (the local Presbyterian minister berated her, despite the fact of physical abuse).

When I hear the Republican party optimistically announcing that success is there for the taking, if only you want it badly enough, I shudder. I know my great-grandfather worked himself to death, trying to make a living farming and inventing. He failed. Because he failed, his son’s destiny was circumscribed by his choices. And so it went. By the grace of God (not by “no work, no eat” political policies) we made it out of our desperate situation. Yet I can’t help but wonder if some of the damage done—for instance, my mother’s need to work two jobs so that when I came home from school, no one was there—might have been alleviated or eradicated had our social system been more compassionately developed.

Yes, some make it. Good for them. But everyone doesn’t, everyone can’t. To create policy based on a citizenry full of successful entrepreneurship is a form of refusal to recognize the reality of human nature and human existence.

The Noonday Demon and the World “Sanza Gente”

In 2001, Yale graduate (’85) Andrew Solomon published The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. The title was derived from John Cassian’s Sentences, in which the ascetic Evagrius of Pontus describes the eight principal demons that can afflict a new monk in his practice (this later developed into the notion of the “seven deadly sins”). Acedia is the “noonday demon” of Psalm 91:5-6– “His truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday devil.”

Evagrius describes acedia as

the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk towards the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving, or not moving at all, and that the day has at least forty hours. After this, he continually draws the monk to his window; he forces him to go out of his cell to look at the sun and calculate how much time still separates him from the ninth hour (the hour of Vespers and the meal), and finally to look about here and there to see if some brother is not coming to see him. (Cassian, Conferences, X.I)

Solomon analogizes depression with the noonday demon, but most scholars will tell you that Evagrius and his followers considered acedia to be more of a matter of temptation of the flesh than a mental illness. And yet, what “temptation of the flesh” meant, exactly, to Evagrius and his contemporaries is harder to say. Interestingly, Solomon explains depression as “the flaw in love,” an idea that the sixteenth-century mystic St. John of the Cross explored in great detail. His Spiritual Canticle, a rendering of the Song of Songs, acknowledges the ‘dark night of the soul’ (even if people don’t know anything about St. John of the Cross, they have heard of the ‘dark night of the soul’): the analogy is the soul’s experience in the absence of the Beloved (God). After coming through this dark ordeal, the soul is then united with God, as the Lover is reunited with her Beloved. The expression ‘dark night of the soul’ has come to indicate darkening of religious feeling, awareness, or sentiment, but I think this anesthetizes the power and force of the source of the analogy, which is, after all, the agony of the absence of love.

. . .

“Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection.” (Noonday Demon, 3).

. . .

Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love. (Song of Songs, 2:5)

. . .

My brother gave me the book Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke when I was seventeen. I loved the book, but felt convicted by it, too, especially when he says

To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But l ºearning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is–solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate–?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things. (pp. 53-54)

Rilke is one of my favorite poets, and I wouldn’t want to quibble with him, but this little prescription has always annoyed me. Okay. We must ripen, become something in ourselves…but to become –world– for ourselves, for another’s sake? I never knew how to do that. I still don’t.

In fact, every time I’ve tried to become “world for [myself],” I’ve fallen into the depths of despair. It’s hard to explain, but it feels a bit like a nightmare in waking life. Pure, overwhelming, panic. Acedia. Like I will crawl the walls or throw myself in front of a train. And this is because, I maintain, it is impossible. In the words of Joe Banks, from the excellent movie Joe vs. the Volcano (1990),

Joe: Do you believe in God?

Patricia: I believe in myself.

Joe: What does that mean?

Patricia: I have confidence in myself.

Joe (pause): I’ve been doing some soul searching lately, asking myself some pretty tough questions. You know what I found out? I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself, I get bored out of my mind.

What I’ve come to realize is that myself is entirely not the point. The only way out of me, out of a dark, tiny hole that can only ever get smaller, and to emerge into something larger, (“further up and further in!”), is to try and enter into God. How to do this? I suppose recognizing that God is all around, in billions of billions of forms (that book! your neighbor!) and all I have to do is wake up and look around. It’s hard to explain—it doesn’t translate perfectly into language. But the point is, I am not where it’s at. And once I get that, I don’t mind being with myself, because I’m really not anymore.

. . .

The trap of the self is well known; it is expressed particularly well in Buddhism and Christianity.  But there is nothing really that can describe the utter anguish, that particular feeling of abject spiritual poverty. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, perhaps.

The handmaiden of depression is often pride. Not always, but sometimes. Depression is difficult for both the sufferer and those around him or her. The sufferer elicits sympathy, but also anger. Why? Some of it is because those who love the sufferer feel helpless. But it is also because depression is myopic. There is a failure to recognize and respond to others.

In canto 26 of Inferno, when Dante and Virgil reach the eighth circle of hell, they come upon Ulysses, who, like all of the souls in hell, proceeds to tell the duo how he came to his present state.

I put out on the deep, open sea alone, with

one ship and with that little company by which I had

not been deserted… (100-102)

‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred

thousand perils have reached the west, to this so

brief vigil

of our senses that remains, do not deny the

experience, following the sun, of the world without

people. (112-117)*

Out of pride? Curiosity? Ulysses attemped to sail with his men beyond the sun, to the “world without people,” sanza gente,—-and he and his men end up shipwrecked, the sea closing over them (142). The idea of the “world without people” strikes me as a very good description of what happens when I slip into depression. I attempt the impossible—that is, to become “world for myself”…an endeavor that, when approached in this way, can never lead to me becoming “world for another.”  And the world sanza gente is a description to me of that cold, dark place where all hope is lost; it is the very essence of hell. It can only be a place completely devoid of the gift of perspective, a gift attained by the self-assuring, self-sacrifice of the awareness of others.

Incidentally, Dante begins Inferno by describing himself,

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to

myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost…

And like one with laboring breath, come forth out

Of the deep onto the shore, who turns back to the

Perilous water and stares:

So my spirit, still fleeing, turned back to gaze

Again at the pass that has never yet left anyone alive. (canto I.1-3, 22-24)

Unlike Ulysses, however, Dante survives his shipwreck—climbing out of the pit of myopic self-obsession of hell, trudging up the mountain of purgatorial self awareness, emerging into the realm of paradise, where, as Folco puts it in verses 103-108 of canto IX, “Yet one does not repent here; here one smiles–not for the fault, which we do not recall, but for the Power that fashioned and foresaw. For here we contemplate the art adorned by such great love, and we discern the good through which the world above forms that below.”

*Dante, Inferno, Robert Durling and Robert Martinez trans.

“The Soft Animal of Your Body” and Prayer

It isn’t really important, but I wonder if Mary Oliver is a Thomist. Her poem, “Wild Geese,” is one of my favorites:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

The most striking line in the poem for me is this one: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.”

Your standard Christian, I think, will struggle with this poetic advice. First of all he or she will usually say that as human beings, we are like–and yet mostly unlike–animals. And if we just went around letting our soft animal bodies love what we love—well, what then? You’re just going to go around following your bestial instincts?—or at best, your own subjective moral code? How can that be right?

The thing that this perspective doesn’t take into account is how hard it is to know what we actually love.

When I recently remembered Oliver’s poem, inspired by the coming of the new year and unseasonably warm weather that has allowed me to spend the last several days outside on the trail, it occurred to me that its irresistible truth lies very near to the “materialism” of Thomas’ understanding of what it means to be human, and to both his and Julian of Norwich’s thoughts on prayer—anyway, as far as I have been able to come to understand these things through the work of Denys Turner and in my own thinking.

As for the particularities of being human, for Thomas we are not a fallen species striving for some lost perfection in ourselves, but rather we are a species whose pinnacle of perfection—that is, the pinnacle of what it means to be human—can be seen in Jesus Christ. We tend to think that Christ’s humanity is somehow lessened by his lack of sin, but Thomas says no—Christ was in fact the perfect model of humanity. And so in our own efforts to know and become our truest selves, we are seeking to become fully human. As Turner puts it:

If we know God “rationally” it is as rational animals that we do so, and not as quasi-angelic hybrids…the arguments for God are rational because they make their way to God beginning from the world human beings inhabit as animals and interrogate rationally. Thomas does it in one way, as we will see. In a very different—direct, dialogical—rhetorical style, Augustine does so, too:

And what is this God?  I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he;” and everything in the earth made the same confession.  I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above us.” I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants answered, “Anaximenes was deceived; I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars; and they answered, “Neither are we the God whom you seek.” And I replied to all these things which stand around the door of my flesh: “You have told me about my God, that you are not he.  Tell me something about him.” And with a loud voice they all cried out, “He made us.” My question had come from my observation of them, and their reply came from their beauty of order…all these messengers of the senses report the answers of heaven and earth and all the things therein, who said, “We are not God, but he made us.” My inner man knew these things through the ministry of the outer man, and I, the inner man, knew all this—I, the soul, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of earth about my God, and it answered, “I am not he, but he made me.” (Confessions, 10.9) (Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, ch. 4, forthcoming, Yale University Press)

Our truest selves are the people we are when we comprehend fully what it is that makes us happy, which is to say, when we know our own wills.

Another way of putting all this would be that a person’s “will” consists in what he or she can be said “really” to want—except that the meaning of the word “really” is too ambiguous to be clear.  In one sense of the word “real,” a person’s “real” wants are shown most convincingly by what they do, and rather less so by what they say they want. For self-deception is all too present a possibility…. The sense in which Thomas means “will” to be identified with my real wants is this: whatever else I may want, in wanting it, what I really want is happiness. Unfailingly that is so. I may be wrong as to what will make me happy. Indeed, most people are some of the time, some are most of the time. But while I may pertinently ask of any course of action or way of life the reason for engaging in it, “why is it desirable?,” Thomas says it cannot make any sense to ask what makes happiness desirable…Thus far Thomas is following closely Aristotle’s argument in book one of the Nicomachean Ethics. He continues to do so when he goes on to say that of course anyone can be mistaken as to what will make them happy—indeed it is all too easy to be misled into courses of action that are bound to be unhappy-making. Perhaps, even, it is easier to be wrong about the way to happiness than to get it right. At any rate, human beings have to learn how to be happy both in the sense that they have to learn what kind of life will in fact make them happy, and in the sense that they have to acquire stable dispositions so as to be happy in the event. And what today we are likely to call the “moral” life for Thomas is more simply described as the “happy” life. Moreover, we can say that for Thomas a person succeeds in living the happy life when she gets to do, regularly and routinely, what she “really wants.”… More problematic is the case where there is something wanted but not known—the case, centrally, where our deepest desires are hidden from us by veil upon obscuring veil of upbringing, of socialization, of personal insecurities and fears, of relationships abusive and abused, of desire unfulfilled and frustrated; and in this sense of “want,” in which we want something but for all these reasons do not know what it is, we do not know our own “wills.” For what we will is happiness; and what we really will, whether or not we know it, is whatever it is that will make us happy. The moral life, therefore, consists first in those practices that enable the discovery of what it is that we really want, the happy life. And, for Thomas, within that general practice of self-discovery, a principal means of tracing the way back to what we really want is prayer, oratio. (DT, Aquinas, ch. 5)

I’ve heard people say that you should never pray for yourself, as if petitionary prayer were a kind of a sin. And of course, saying prayers all day long for yourself instead of for your lonely elderly neighbor, or a friend who has lost a child, does seem insensitive. But to act as if you hadn’t any needs, or that your needs were irrelevant or unimportant is a kind of dishonesty. Speaking for myself, praying genuinely for what I want or need is a freeing experience that functions on a number of levels I don’t entirely understand. Something happens. And a good part of what happens is the discernment process that happens in the very act of my bringing my desires before God. As Turner observes in Thomas’ thought, we see the world from a very specific standpoint: not as “quasi-angelic hybrids,” as the Platonists have it, but as human beings, complete with all needs and desires of human animals.

And our only available starting point for that practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore we ought to pray for what we think we want, regardless. For prayer is “a hermeneutic of the human will” in that, by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be “unfolded,” “explicated,” so as to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, “implicated” in all the opacity of their experienced form. Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, secundum sensualitatem. For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire—for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is—we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will. Therefore, Thomas concludes, we ought always to pray for what we think we want; for Jesus prayed as he did in Gethsemane so as to teach us just that lesson, namely that it is “permitted for human beings naturally to desire what [they know] is not God’s will”; and, as if in reinforcement of what for many is a startling thought, he cites Augustine to the same effect, commenting on the same prayer of Jesus: “It is as if [Jesus] were saying: ‘See yourself in me: for you [too] can wish something for yourself even though God wishes something other’.”  Only thus, in the prayer of honest desire, is there any chance of our discovering what is our true desire, our real will. (Turner, Aquinas, ch. 5)

Much like Thomas, but in her own distinctive way, anchoress Julian of Norwich also saw the unique quality and potential of prayer. Like Hildegard of Bingen, or Elisabeth of Schonau, Julian received a series of “showings” on her deathbed about which she later spent twenty years writing. Julian’s process of unravelling the meanings in her visions is a balancing act: one the one hand, she sees that ultimately “love was His meaning,” and that “sin is nothing,” but she cannot, will not, abandon the Church’s teachings on sin and punishment. The tension in Julian’s work—the conundrum of holding opposing pieces of information in mind at once—never relaxes. And the question of prayer—its purpose and efficacy—is another aspect of that tension.

Statistically, “successful” petitionary praying is a hit-and-miss business. In moments of fine prayer, Julian tells us, a person may feel a particular intimacy of and with God. But otherwise than in such comparatively set-piece and staged occasions of contemplative peace, prayer–“my lament// Is cries countless”–,and whether or not “countless cries” make any difference to what happens seems, in practice, impossible to say–for they are “like dead letters sent// To dearest him that lives alas! away.” As with how things turn out generally, so in particular with petitionary prayer–there seems to be little consistency in our relationships with God. And that, Julian admits, can trouble us. For if Christians are inclined to think that the love of God is possible, then the thought will probably come to mind unforced that the divine will should be a trifle less indeterminably elusive than it is in their experience. After all, we know that we would not get on very successfully loving any other person, a spouse or a friend, say, if getting on the inside of their reactions were quite so random an affair as ours seems to be with the will of God. So Julian knows that the ordinary practical problem with prayer is no different from her general problem with her shewings themselves. And that problem about prayer concerns how to put these two things together: God’s promise that he answers all prayers, because from all eternity he has willed to do so, with the apparently random cussedness of what actually happens. (Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian, Yale UP, 2011, 158)

Turner sees in Julian’s understanding of her vision concerning prayer, or “beseking,” shades of Thomas’ thought, namely that,

God is minded from the start to bring about what he wills by means of our prayers–which is merely Thomas’s expansion of what Jesus went on to say as Matthew reports him: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). It is the Father’s knowledge of what we need that is the cause of our asking…for we pray out of grace, which is his alone to give. It is because the initiative of prayer is not with us, but with God, that Julian can be so certain that God gives us what we beseech in prayer. Hence, just as Augustine saw that it was within his seeking–as its ground–that God was to be encountered before ever he could be discovered as that seeking’s object, so the Lord tells Julian: “I am the grounde of thy beseking. Furst it is my wille that thou have it, and sithen [next] I make the[e] to wille it, and sithen I make the[e] to beseke it–and thou besekest it! How shoulde it than be that thou shuldest not have thy beseking?” (Turner, Julian, 161)

The only problem is that we are either too afraid or too unaware of ourselves as human beings to bring before God what it is that we want, in order to understand what it is that we need.

We are a mystery to ourselves. We do not always know what we want, and sometimes this is a straightforward case just of being undecided whether we want this rather than that, like being undecided whether to take a job offer or not. But sometimes it is more like this: we thought we knew what we wanted, only when we get it, it turns out that in truth we did not and that we “really” wanted something else; we were mistaken about what we wanted. Or sometimes it is as when I realize now that I was in love with so-and-so, though at the time I did not know it; I thought it was just friendship or some such. In such cases, our not knowing what we want is not that we are undecided as between two or more known wants; it is rather that there is something that we want, only we do not know it. (DT, Julian, 162-163)

. . . .

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

This is the magic of poetry—to be able to say in one line what some of the best theologians in human history have labored over in volumes.


The Word

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

-W.H. Auden, from “For the Time Being”

From the time I started reading, maybe even before I could actually read, books were a place to find the sacred. And the sacred took all kinds of forms–different lives, times, people–but underneath the contingencies of the situation in the narrative, there it was, quietly breathing. When younger, I didn’t think too much about why. All I knew was that I loved to read, I was addicted to it. I disappeared into books. They gave me more joy than anything else could, except, perhaps, for our cat. As I’ve grown, I’ve thought about the power of literature and its relationship to the holy. Literature and art, both. But literature has its own structures and ways of communicating, and in truth it has been primarily literature I’ve considered, though in college it was film, too.

There are books that tell you exactly what they are about, and there are books that are about a story, but that do something more than tell a story. Textbooks are lovely to me if what they are about tells me something about the world that I want to know. Usually theology texts, or history texts, sometimes science (for the layperson) texts. I don’t read much literature anymore, and I don’t know why this is. I suppose I became jaded when I encountered contemporary literature because it was so different to me, in my twenties, than the books I had read as a young girl and teenager. So painfully different–full of disillusionment, irony, and sarcasm, where the books I had always most loved and admired were usually deadly earnest, and magical one way or another. I read Jane Austen and the Brontës with baited breath; Tolkien’s majestic tales in a state of enraptured awe; C.S. Lewis’s cozy fantasies first and later his Christian apologetics, and lots of things in between. Back then, I craved books like I craved water and food. And I still do, but the appetite has changed. All the same, I remember that a good, generous, well-written book or poem reaches out of the page and touches the hand or shoulder of the reader, and says, “You’re not alone.” And that can make the difference, truly between life and death. It can be that powerful. It can be that mind altering. It can induce perspective, and perspective is the enemy of tragedy and hopelessness.

Literature isn’t everything, of course; it can mirror the magic of what happens in community. I get angry at authors, agents, and publishing houses who don’t understand this function of literature–as though it could be there simply for consumption and nothing more, that there is no greater need in a person, no spirit that craves communion.

I know my opinion isn’t popular. We’ve done away with the idea that objective truth is something real that could be conveyed to another human being. Now it is all about the subjective experience, the experience of the “I” amid a sea of other “I’s. And we are supposed to be interested in these subjective experiences simply because they are entertaining, or interesting in an anthropological sense. Maybe anthropology could be a branch of theology, but I do not think it could replace it. Because in anthropology, we only get part of the story.

Saint Nicholas, and Three Very Lucky Ladies.

Fra Angelico


I don’t know if I was 7 or 8 when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. I think I was sitting on the couch, staring at our unusable fireplace, trying to imagine a fat man climbing down it (okay…if he didn’t suffocate) and then climbing back out of it (…impossible!). From that time onward, I didn’t think much about where or how the whole thing originated.

It was my great good fortune to take a course with Caroline Walker Bynum last fall, and it was there that I learned some things about Saint Nicholas. His story as we know it comes primarily from Jacobus de Voraigne’s Golden Legend. Professor Bynum pointed out to us a miniature painting on the upper right corner of an Italian triptych (see photo below). The triptych is mid-sized, and was likely an altar piece for a small group of people; the painted reference to the Saint Nicholas story might indicate the nature of the group or club (they might have been a group of anonymous philanthropists).

The actual story of Saint Nicholas is fascinating. It’s no wonder he’s risen to his current level of fame. Below, a précis of his achievements :

  • On the day of his birth Nicholas stood up unaided in the bath while being washed, after which point he took his mother’s breast only twice a week, once on Wednesdays and Fridays (!);
  • After being named bishop of Myra (against his will), he passed whole nights in prayer, he mortified his body, he shunned the company of women, he was humble in his attitude towards others, he was an effective preacher, ardent in exhorting men to good, severe in his denunciation of evil;
  • It is stated in one chronicle that Nicholas took part in the Council of Nicaea;
  • Sailors who called on the name of Saint Nicholas received his aid: “’You have called me, and here I am.’ And he promptly set about helping the crew with the sails and cables and the rest of the tackle.”
  • During a famine, Saint Nicholas went to the harbor to meet merchant ships loaded with grain, and was able to get enough from the sailors for the starving people (enough for two years!) while replenishing the sailors’ supplies so that the emperor’s officials didn’t know any had been taken;
  • He appeared in the night to the emperor Constantine to berate him for unjustly imprisoning three princes—“have them released at once, or I will ask God to start a war in which you will be overthrown, and your corpse will be the prey of wild beasts!” He also appears to the emperor’s prefect, and the princes are eventually let go;
  • And, as with any good saint, his miracles didn’t cease after death: “a stream of oil flowed from his head and a stream of water from his feet” which heals many sick people (this reminds me somehow of Ingmar Bergman’s film, Silent Spring).

My favorite story about Saint Nick, though, involves a destitute father and his three daughters, and it happens to be the story painted on the triptych Professor Bynum showed us (and is represented in the right side of the Fra Angelico painting above). It goes like this:

Having inherited great wealth after his parents’ death, as a young man, Nicholas went around trying to see how he could help people. His neighbor,

“a nobleman who had fallen on hard times, was about to prostitute his three young daughters, hoping by this shameful business to raise enough money to support his family. When the saint learned of this he was appalled at the thought of such a crime: he wrapped a sum of gold in a piece of cloth and threw it into the nobleman’s house one night through a window, then stole away again.”

Nicholas comes by for three nights, throwing in a bag of gold each night, so that the nobleman can marry off all of his daughters (notice in the miniature, he’s throwing three golden balls in the window at once, and in some of the legends, he returns every year to give the gold, just before the daughter turns of marrying age).

A decidedly more gruesome story (and one that doesn’t appear in the Golden Legend, but according to Professor Bynum was also floating around) was that the destitute man owned a meat shop, and his plan for survival was to kill his daughters and grind them up for meat. In France, there is an old and well-known song about a butcher who slaughters and cuts up for meat three young children who go to his house for shelter after gleaning in the fields (Hansel and Gretel anyone?); when Saint Nicholas comes to the butcher’s house seven years later he knows what has been done, and resurrects the children. Here is the song, in French:

Il était trois petits enfants,
Qui s’en allaient glaner aux champs.
Ils sont tant allés et venus
Que le soleil on n’a plus vu.

S’en sont allés chez un boucher,
“Boucher, voudrais-tu nous loger?”
—”Allez, allez, mes beaux enfants,
Nous avons trop d’empêchement.”

Sa femme, qu’était derrière lui,
Bien vitement le conseillit,
“Ils ont, dit-elle, de l’argent,
Nous en serons riches marchands.”

Entrez, entrez, mes beaux enfants!
Y a de la place assurément.
Nous vous ferons fort bien souper,
Aussi bien blanchement coucher.”

Ils n’étaient pas sitôt entrés,
Que le boucher les a tués,
Les a coupés tout par morceaux,
Mis au saloir comme pourceaux.

Quand ce fut au bout de sept ans,
Saint Nicolas vint dans ce champ.
Il s’en alla chez le boucher,
“Boucher, voudrais-tu me loger?”

“Entrez, entrez, Saint Nicolas!
De la place, il n’en manque pas.”
Il n’était pas sitôt entrç,
Qu’il a demandé à souper.

Voul’ous un morceau de jambon?”
—”Je n’en veux pas, il n’est pas bon.”
—”Voulez-vous un morceau de veau?”
—”Je n’en veux pas, il n’est pas beau.”

“De ce salé je veux avoir,
Qu’y a sept ans qu’est dans le saloir.”
Quand le boucher entendit ça,
Hors de sa porte il s’enfuya.

“Boucher, boucher, ne t’enfuis pas!
Repens-toi, Dieu te pardonn’ra.”
Saint Nicolas posa trois doigts
Dessus le bord de ce saloir.

Le premier dit, “J’ai bien dormi!
” Le second dit, “Et moi aussi!”
A ajouté le plus petit,
“Je croyais être en paradis!”

It seems that in addition to being a garden-variety, miracle working saint, Nicholas, from the beginning, was a symbol of exchange-free gifting. We’ve absorbed and adapted bits and pieces of his story—his presence on the seas and miracle of food production conflates him with Christ; his tossing gifts through the window has become Santa Claus tossing gifts down the chimney; and—stay with me here—his nighttime appearances to Constantine sound the slightest bit like Jacob Marley’s nighttime appearance to Ebenezer Scrooge…. No? Alright.

Merry Christmas!

*From “St Nicholas,” The Golden Legend, trans. Christopher Stace (Penguin: New York, 1998).

A Walk around the Block.

I went for a walk around the block. The “block” where I live now is the apartments at PTS, the married student housing. I can do that now. A few years ago, when I was living in New Haven, I didn’t go out after dark generally. Not on foot, especially. It was because of fear, exacerbated by regular reports from the University head of security that a mugging had occurred at such-and-such place, sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes in broad daylight. A classmate of mine had been mugged, and it left him broken for many months after as he tried to piece together the meaning of the event for himself. I had my car stolen (luckily, teamed up with a friend, we found it that same night). Suffice it to say, I felt hedged in there, unsafe. And that troubled me. A problem-solver by nature, I had no solutions to the problems in New Haven. The night we recovered my car, we talked with some members of the police department for about an hour while I waited for the tow-truck to take my car out of the lot where it had been parked by a nameless, faceless thief. The men we spoke to had been working as police officers for years in New Haven. They seemed tired, and sad. They didn’t have answers to the problems. If they didn’t, how could I?

Often in life, I err on the side of caution. I like to blame this habit on my father, who has seen much of the world, largely while in the military. He was smart to instill in his three daughters the idea, “watch out.” I realize now that I would do the same, if not more, in a neurotic drive to control what is inherently out of my control. But living life with one eye open, so to speak, has its price. You get tired easily. Other people seem potentially sinister.

My dad served in the Navy as a pilot in Vietnam. When he returned, having seen friends put into body bags and carrying many of those body bags back to the U.S., he lost any trace of innocence he had managed to retain growing up in grim circumstances. Back then there was little understanding of PTSD. My dad had it. We know it now, but he didn’t know it then. So after the war, with my New Jersey native mother and an infant son in tow, they moved first to Okinawa, Japan, and then back to the small town in Montana in which he grew up. He was hiding. But you can’t really hide when you’ve lost your innocence. It’s an inside matter.

On my walk around the married student housing in Princeton, which I had inhabited years before as the guest of my benevolent sister and brother-in-law, I realized that Princeton, for all its lovely safety and peace, was not the same for me. I had lost my appreciation for the insulated town’s sleepiness and tree-lined avenues, sequestered away several miles down Route 1 from the everyday tragedies that took place in Trenton (which was basically another version of New Haven but without an Ivy League school dropped in its midst). I recognized that I no longer felt the unbridled bliss I used to feel when walking in the evenings in Princeton, taking my safety and ease of existence for granted—but I also realized the gift of having been able, at one time, to do so. Recognition of the gift didn’t make it sweeter than the days when I simply experienced it.

Holy Hildegard: Things the Devil Says, Part 1.

“What use to you is toiling foolishly? Look to the world…” –Devil, Ordo Virtutem*

Word has it that Hildegard of Bingen, a polymathic German nun who lived from 1098 to 1179, is going to be canonized and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI next October (she will make the fourth female Doctor, joining Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Therese of Lisieux). Anyone who studies the medieval period knows about Hildegard, and for good reason. She was a Jack-of-All-Trades, and master of all. She’s known for her visions of “the living light,” which she recorded over a ten-year period with the assistance of her good friend, the monk Volmar. She was also a composer, poet, dramatist, cosmologist, and physician.

My own interest in Hildegard lies particularly in her composition of a play called the Ordo Virtutem, or the “Play of Virtues.” I think it offers a rare glimpse into the life of a medieval cloistered nun, as well as Hildegard’s sharp intellect, spiritual wisdom, and deep love and desire to teach the women in her care.

The play involves a main character—Anima, the Soul—whose curiosity and desire lead her away from the protective care of the Virtues who “dwell in the heights” (Humility, Love, Obedience, Faith, Chastity, and Contempt for the World, Knowledge of God, Fear of God, Heavenly Love, Innocence, Discipline, Mercy, Modesty, Victory, Patience, Discretion).  The trouble begins almost immediately. Anima, initially joyful (felix), quickly feeling weighed down and burdened (gravata; incidentally, one of the definitions is “impregnated), says “Oh heavy toil, oh harsh weight that I bear in the dress of this life: it is too heavy for me to fight against my body.” The Virtues know what’s coming—before the Devil even makes his physical appearance, they encourage Anima to persevere, exhorting her, “You must overcome the devil in our midst.” Anima asks for the Virtues to “support her” (Succurrite michi), to which Knowledge of God tells her, “See the dress you are wearing, daughter of salvation: be steadfast and you will never fall.” But Anima is unhappy (unfelix), replying, “Woe is me, I cannot perfect this dress I have put on! Indeed, I want to cast it off!” “O infelix conscientia, o misera Anima,” the Virtues sing, and Knowledge of God attempts to direct Anima to apply her senses to their true aim: “You do not know or see or taste the One who has set you here.” But Anima takes her senses and misdirects them—“God created the world: I’m doing him no injury—I only want to enjoy it!” And now the Devil (Diabolus) makes his appearance, aiding and abetting her abandonment, shouting at her, “What use to you is toiling foolishly? Look to the world: it will embrace you with great honor.”

The Virtues call the Devil’s voice “plangent…of the greatest sorrow” (maximi doloris), but he has found his way in with Anima, and now attacks the Virtues themselves. “As for you, Humility, you have nothing that you can give your followers: none of you even know what you are!”

The Devil makes this argument numerous times throughout the play, in some form or another. Later he says, “You don’t know what you are worshipping!” When Anima eventually makes her way back to the Virtues and wants to rejoin them, the Devil berates her, “Who are you? Where are you coming from? You were in my embrace, I led you out. Yet now you are going back, defying me- but I shall fight you and bring you down!” Anima calls on “Queen Humility” (regina Humilitas) for aid, and all of the Virtues bind the Devil up. It is as this point that he makes his most poisonous, barbed attack:

“You don’t know what you are nurturing, for your belly is devoid of the beautiful form that woman receives from man; in this you transgress the command that God enjoined in the sweet act of love; so you don’t even know what you are!”

Tu nescis quid colis, quia venter tuus vacuus est pulchra forma de viro sumpta—ubi transis preceptum qod dues in suavi copula precepit; unde nescis quid sis!

Chastity rebuts by claiming that she “did bring forth a man, who gathers up mankind to himself” (Unum virum protuli, qui genus humanum ad se congregat contra te). The Virtues sing a final (rather brief) chorus before the processional and end of the play.

Maybe it’s just me, but Devil’s hard parting shot lingers, both because of what he says, as well as when as he says it—at the end. There is very little of the play left. There is only Chastity’s rebuttal, and the several lines of song left for the Virtues to sing—one verse of which is sung from Christ’s perspective:

“Now remember that the fullness which was made in the beginning need not have grown dry, and that then you resolved that your eye would never fall until you saw my body full of jewels (plenum gemmarum). For it wearies me that all my limbs are exposed to mockery: Father, behold, I am showing you my wounds (Pater, vide, vulnera mea tibi ostendo).”

We are reminded that even though Christ prayed for the cup to be taken away, it wasn’t, and we remember, too, that he died crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Like Christ, the nuns have had their “wounds” exposed in Hildegard’s play; this exposure is a first step toward healing, but the cure will not be immediate.

The Ordo reveals to us Hildegard’s acute psychological sensitivity to the fears, hopes, sadnesses, and needs of the nuns under her care. These women would have come from noble families, and would have been given to the abbey as children or young women for any number of reasons. More rarely, they might have chosen of their own accord to enter the cloister. But even such a “choice” would have been mitigated by the rocks and hard places of options for a medieval woman, even a noble woman. In the end, a woman would be property—at most she might choose whose property she wanted to be. The cloister would have been, in an external sense, the closest thing to independence a woman could get. But such freedom came at a price, and Hildegard understood that price.

For some of Hildegard’s nuns, too, the problem would have been double-edged: having come from nobility, their sense of freedom would have naturally been greater than that of someone who had never known wealth and prestige. These women would have struggled harder with a rule that required discipline and the subjugation of desires that in their former lives they would have been allowed to indulge (and indeed, which certainly their family members back home were indulging).

“You don’t even know what you are!” cries the Devil. It’s a great insult, worthy of the likes of Oedipus. Having escaped the standard roles available to women of their time (frying pan), the nuns then found themselves in the difficult position of having no definition (fire). If they could no longer be defined in terms of their relationships to men, who were they?  And so Hildegard wrote a play in which the nuns of her abbey could literally be the Virtues.  Occupying a role changes a person, as in a debate when forced to argue for a position one might not actually hold. Suddenly you find that you understand things you couldn’t have from your former vantage point, before you inhabited a new position. Hildegard’s nuns embodied the Virtues on the stage, enacting for themselves and each other the private battle that each of them must have known intimately.

*Translations by Peter Dronke

**If you haven’t seen it, check out the film Vision (2009) about the life of Hildegard. It’s written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and stars Barbara Sukowa, Heino Ferch and Hannah Herzsprung. It’s quite nicely done. I found it on ITunes. In German with English subtitles.