Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Secret of Life - and of Learning

Dear B.,

I'm glad that I'm making Eric Voegelin somewhat accessible to you.  Yes, I agree, he's difficult. 

Speaking of difficult, these past few days have been a bit of a struggle for me, but also profoundly meaningful.  At my worst, I tend to doubt Love itself.  Awful, I know, but true.  Because, I think, it's easier to cut love out of our lives than to live with it - to cut it out rather than to live it out.  We thereby become impervious and invulnerable - though the price we pay is to live a life of hardened despair.  Our friend Jack put it quite well, I think.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

And the soul, as I've often written to you, is the Vulnerable Thing.

And nothing is really possible without love, without the Eros that draws us beyond ourselves, without this humble vulnerability that reaches out to what is Beyond.  This is what frustrates me about some of my students; some of them have no clue that this is what learning is.  They think that taking a class with me is gaming the system.  Just parrot what I want to hear, push the right buttons on the online quiz, feed me the party line they've memorized, dutifully represent the "system" that they think I'm trying to uphold and in return I should give them something called "grades".  It's all a game.  But those are the bad students, not the good ones.

For on the contrary, to be a student comes from the Latin word for "to be eager" - to approach something with longing, desire, love.  "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God."  (Psalm 42:1) This eagerness, this desire, this zeal cannot be taught.  It is the precondition for learning.  It is a form of love.  It is what makes the lover willing to endure ordeals and disciplines.  For it is Eros that engenders Wisdom in the soul, as Plato taught and as Voegelin reiterates.  If Mary had not loved and sought after God, would the Spirit have engendered Jesus in her?  He comes to those who seek Him, whose hearts thirst for him as the hart thirsts for the flowing stream, for the living water.  Without the uncertainty and vulnerability of love, neither wisdom nor life can be engendered.

But we are so dreadfully afraid of this longing, this desire, this love - with good reason, for we know that love for us fallen creatures can easily become lust, greed, addiction.  We also know love can be rebuffed, rejected.  And so some well known Catholic preachers these days (I am told) are busy renouncing all "passion" as evil, and this isn't new.  Even spiritual classics like The Imitation of Christ are largely admonitions to a stoicism bordering on Quietism - as if all that holiness consisted of was not feeling a damn thing.  Just sitting there with a goofy grin on your your face.  In other words, Buddha, not Christ.

But without this love (this "Eros", though the modern world has corrupted that word to mean sexual desire only, whereas it's far more than that) - without this Eros, we cannot see what is Good, and seek after it.  We cannot see God and seek after Him.

I know, I know.  I'm a poet at heart and sometimes I sound hackneyed.  But it's only hackneyed if it becomes a mere system.  To live like this is not a system.

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