Downhill from the house, in the creek bottom next to the walking trail, the wild persimmon lives from ground level upward, trunk-to-trunk with the oak. Their branches and leaves intermingle. The hard persimmons on the tree’s north side hold tightly to their stems, waiting for their process from tannic tartness to fruity sweetness. Softer, most of the fruit on the south side have almost arrived. A few have released their hold and made twilight snacks for returning coyotes and deer whose signature tracks remain. The deer–and at least one human passerby–have also plucked the sweeter, low-hanging fruit. It is the season of waiting, ripening, and the harvest’s first-fruits. By mid-November persimmons throughout East Texas will lie rotting among fallen leaves, their sugary, alcoholic aroma proof of abundance, more than deer, coyotes, and others need. Yet that is no waste, but evidence of a superabundant, normal order of providence beyond mere reason. What intoxicating extravagance!
I’ve been reading a lot by and on Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and am becoming more impressed not only with his thought but that of his Christian friend Eugen Rosenstock Huessy (1888-1977). R-H prompted so much responsive thought and personal review in FR; what a conversation they had, but what if they had been given more decades to correspond? R-H was only one of FR’s correspondents, but perhaps the most important. More on them later.
Really, the title refers to two seemingly unrelated, provocative quotations this morning, from one of James V. Schall’s books. I recommend all of his books to you. The first quote from a chapter called “On Spiritual and Intellectual Life” simply is striking, I think it holds its power even out of context:
On August 22, 1957, Flannery O’Connor wrote a letter about her cousin’s husband, a man who taught at Auburn University. The professor finally had come into the Church. Flannery O’Connor explained his conversion as follows: ‘We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible (when he had gone to Mass with his wife), he knew there must be something else there to make people come.’ The mystery of conversion remains not merely a question of successful rhetoric.
The second quotation follows a Chesterton comment on Thomas Aquinas, “It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One.” (i.e., he was a realist who told others to “get real” in their thinking and believing). So, then:
Not everybody needs to be an intellectual. Not everybody is a saint. Yet we must acknowledge that it is dangerous for ourselves, for the public order, when there are no philosophers. We suspect it is even more perilous for there to be no saints. When we wonder why, the answer returns to “receptivity”, to the realization that the highest things, which we rightfully seek because of what they are, are not for us to “make” or concoct. Aquinas wrote:
Nature is a prelude to grace. It is the abuse of science and philosophy which provokes statements against faith. These mistakes can be confuted by showing how impossible or unconvincing they are. Remember this, that as the truths of faith cannot be demonstratively proved, so the denial of them sometimes cannot be demonstratively disproved, though any lack of cogency can be exposed (Exposition, de Trinitate, 2, 3).
It is well to make note that Aquinas was referring to proof on the mystery of the Trinity, just for context’s sake. Schall has much else to say, about the compatibility of the spiritual life with that of the philosopher (contrary to the presuppositions of many a twentieth-century philosopher), the “liberty of the sons of God” in seeing that “what is is larger than what we are,” (contrary to the modern era’s rejection of “a God larger than itself.”) He writes that “This openness we possess to all being is our grace and our blessing, what we have accepted because we receive, not make, our own being. When wonder is addressed by grace, we are. This is the spiritual life given to intelligent beings.”
We receive, not make, our own being. I wonder at, and like, that statement. The truth of it is strength for me today. I hope it is for you also.
Schall quote from Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, p. 347, in James V. Schall, “On Spiritual and Intellectual Life,” in Another Sort of Learning–Selected Contrary Essays on How to Finally Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found (Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 260-1; on Chesterton and Aquinas, pp. 267-8.
Some loved ones create delight by keeping their bird feeders stocked (with the avian-approved, “good stuff”) and waiting for the delight. Hours of it come in flashes of cardinals, blue jays, orioles, finches, variegated blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, mourning dove, sparrows, and the seasonal many others. They are delight on the wing, “wingborne” snatches of a common grace present in the general environment but focused at the feeders. Yes, there are the fat squirrels and the after-dusk racoons, interlopers in something not intended for them, but who are they to turn down a good deal in that extension of common grace? All are distinctive, and all take part in what is offered.
That wingborne delight comes from the givers’ provision. The “good stuff” is not cheap, nor is it second-rate, the kind some birds turn away from–they understand stingy giving and simply choose something else. The givers give for the sake of present and anticipated joy, liberally, and they get to share in grace redoubled. It all comes from a life-attitude, not a singular, selfish desire just to enjoy the local wildlife, but to show they share somehow in a common life borne of a common provision. It is so with the birds and is potentially true for all their relationships! As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.
The Father provides, and so do his children. Grace is a gift received and given. Providence is divine, but people pass it on to others. It is not only spiritual or only material, mostly these are inseparable in the gift. Either way or together, through the Spirit there is provision and there is delight. It is the wingborne foundation for a life of joy.
Our international culture lore and our use of domesticated birds abounds with the birds and the “wing-beat” of their work and significance: storks bring children to parents; the hummingbirds–Mayan divinities incarnate–do they not sip the gods’ nectar? The gospel dove descending upon the Son of Man (or in gospel songs on people as the Great Speckled Bird or the Snow White Dove); the swallows heralding spring at San Juan Capistrano; the American Bald Eagle, bird of peace first, then war; the albatross of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; the California Sespe condors–a weak flock though they are outsized fowl. The pampered peafowl of India. Moving closer to our hearts, and table habits, the Thanksgiving Turkey (the wild turkey does indeed fly, yes, Sir, Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia and the Pilgrims of Plymouth!), and, just as with the chicken-domesticators of the Indus Valley, 6,000 b.c.e., do we not all (well, most of us) partake of the yardbird, aided these days by the Arkansas Tysons and the Texas Pilgrims? And eggs, too.
About the wing-beat, in another entry.
R. Scott Rodin’s latest is The Steward Leader: Transforming People, Organizations and Communities (Intervarsity, 2010). Already I know the book demands a careful, deep reading (or, more accurately, like Scripture itself, the book demands a deep reading of the reader!). I want to mention by way of quotation Rodin’s take on honesty and humility in leadership; these are suitable, pithy statements from his first chapter.
. . . when God uses any of us to lead effectively, it is nothing short of a miracle. When we place the complex and demanding role of a godly leader next to an honest self-awareness of our sinfulness and incompetence, we are thrown wholly on the grace of God and his faithfulness if we are ever to lead anyone anywhere. (20)
. . . great, godly leaders have always worked at that miraculous intersection where humility and faith meet the awesome presence and power of God’s Spirit–and the miracle of leadership happens. (21)
Lest anyone mistake his drift, godly leaders are first servants, always.
To read the Christian classics old or new is to wander eventually into the thought-realms of Augustine or Aquinas–that’s what happens regularly–and I suppose it was Merton, decades ago, with stronger doses of Lewis, that fed my appetite. Presently A. G. Sertillanges (The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan from the French) is asking the hard questions and giving seasoned direction, though among others Aquinas stands invisible though perceptible with his hand on Sertillanges’ shoulder. What about my work, your work? Consider:
Everyone in life has his work; he must apply himself to it courageously and leave to others what Providence has reserved for others. We must keep from specialization as long as our aim is to become cultivated men, and, as far as concerns those to whom these pages are addressed, superior men; but we must specialize anew when we aim at being men with a function, and producing something useful. In other words, we must understand everything, but in order to succeed in doing some one thing. (120)
Sertillanges assumed the role of the liberal arts for general, foundational preparation, but he recognized the role for each person to work toward aptitudes, to excel in special vocation, and to so excel by a “probing of the depths” that all of knowledge and understanding is enhanced. (119-120)
This hews closely to life in community and in the church: one may not be all things to all the people, but one certainly may strive to be the epitome, the best, in serving out of giftedness. One’s singular service makes all the difference in the particular and in the whole.