A Subtle Dragon


When I posted last I was poking around a little on Anthony Esolen’s page in the Touchstone archives and found an excellent article on the Quest called “The Lovely Dragon of Choice: The Freedom Not to Be Free.” I think I will make it the topic for discussion at tomorrow night’s men’s discussion group meeting in Griswold.

I recommend a careful reading of the piece. It is worth reading twice.

What I took away from it is the way in which the “Dragon of Choice” has insinuated itself, not only into the hearts of those who consciously purvey the culture of death, but also into the hearts of those who wish to be the champions of life. In fact, life itself is a quest full of adventure, something that is dissolved by calculation and cleverness. Esolen pegs “Modern Man,” and by that I mean not the “other guys” but all of us:

Modern man is afraid of the quest, and is not particularly fond of hunger and cliffs, either. He will not see that the very point of an adventure is that you cannot plan it. And to be in quest of the Holy Grail—that is, the mystery of Christ made manifest in our world under the humble appearances of bread and wine—is to be prepared for the appearance, sudden and awful, even on a bare rock and when one’s stomach knots with hunger, of the ineffable God.

The Eucharistic Grail, the object of our yearning and our quest, is not merely what we see, the form of bread and wine, but what we do not see, the substantial presence of Our Blessed Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. But it is even more than that. Eucharistic life is not only participation in the Holy Sacrifice, Communion and Adoration, it is not only a reverent liturgy or high liturgical culture; it is the same self-offering and radical obedience by which Christ submits Himself to sinful men and makes himself vulnerable on our altars, in our tabernacles, on our tongues and in our hands. Our Lord is not clever and calculating in the Eucharist. The altar is the Holy Sepulcher to be defended by Crusaders or defiled by His enemies. The adventure of the Cross is not over for Lord, nor for us.

Esolen, in fact calls it wisdom to throw choice away; he says that our hope lies not in choice, but in being chosen. I think this translates into a real openness to divine providence, which in the context of the culture of life, means openness to children, for example, and in the context of life in general, openness to the hazards of people we do not choose to live with.

Esolen is not denying that it is our particular gift as men, created in the image and likeness of God, to deliberate and choose between various options, but at the real heart of our choices there must be something more than calculation. There must be vision:

We cannot worship the Almighty, nor ought we to try to, without this artistic, willful, playful intelligence, this embrained choosing. Hence the precise symbolisms of color and gesture and matter in a high-church liturgy, or the delicacies of musical meter and pitch and tempo and rhyme in a Baptist revival.

But those same examples of art and liturgy show that this choosing-among, this intelligence, cannot be primary, cannot itself provide the criterion controlling the choice. The elegant painter chooses the red ochre for the stag because he sees something that precedes choice. He has a vision, perhaps, of the power and the vitality of the stag, and wishes to render the stag as red as he is to the hunter’s heart, though it may be redder than he is to the hunter’s eye.

I find Esolen’s insight here fascinating and exhilarating. I am all for a restoration of Catholic Culture, for a whole-hearted and vigorous commitment to the Christianization of the world in which we live. But the more I argue for it, the less I think it has anything to do with calculation and planning.

I am very much interested in creative intuition and the artistic impulse, which are so often driven by egoism and the addiction to self-expression. But despite the valid reasons the morally astute have to hold creative intuition in suspicion, I don’t think culture is served by slavish reliance cultural unity and by planning perfect Catholic communities.

From a Catholic perspective, there is a fundamental and very difficult question to answer at the heart of aesthetics:  What is the relationship between creative inspiration and grace?  Both Domincan and Franciscan schools admit a relative autonomy to the natural order, but not an absolute one.  Franciscans especially tend to see Christ at the heart of every wholesome inspiration.  It cannot exist without the truth, but neither can it exist when it is merely calculated.  Inspiration is inherently a dangerous thing.  And so it must be.  If we take the adventure out of creativity we have given up the quest.

I would like to see the following two paragraphs of Esolen inscribed on every orthodox, traditional door and gate, be it home, church, parish or church organization:

If a group of people get together and choose to form a village, they have formed not a village but a club, a clique. The true village embraces all the romance and adventure of a pirate raid: people next door who insist on keeping chickens; a troop up the street who yell like Huns on furlough; the near genius who drinks too much, who can take your car apart and rebuild it better than it was, but who cannot keep a job; Irish and Italian boys who get into brawls now and who marry each other’s sisters later.

There they are, the crazy lot of them, from the smug churchgoer to the even smugger atheist, thrust into one cranny of a continental crust, forced by the accident of birth not only to put up with each other but also to keep their streets clean, rebuke each other’s children, spike the punch on holidays, and bury each other at the last. When Christ asks us if we loved our neighbors, how many of us modern choosers will be hoping he means those nice people with the good grace to live far away in India, people whom we chose to help, rather than those strange and terrible beings who just happened to live on our block?

Creative intuition is partly about art and culture, but before anything else it is about a more fundamental aesthetic, the social aesthetic of family and community life.  Here more than anywhere else calculation is cancer.  What is needed is wisdom, the wisdom of the Cross.

I mentioned in an earlier post my suspicion with a recent attempt to create a Catholic village. I am more and more suspicious  of cultural solutions that are drawn like pictures to illustrate the approved form of Catholic life and distinguish it from those that are verboten. I am not suggesting we should reinvent the wheel or hold our venerable traditions in suspicion, but I am suggesting that our communities need to embrace the crazy genious, the atheist, the smug churchgoer and all the rest.  We need a real village.  We do not need any more clubs or cliques.

Cultural unity cannot be bought by calculation at the expense of vision.  Will there be dangers?  Of course there will.  Those who take upon themselves the Quest cannot expect otherwise.  As Joan of Arc once said:  “The men will fight and God will give them the victory.” Our Guarantor is God, not man.

I think the fear of “scandal” among some from those who are not “faithful” has become a pretext to become calculating, to become servants of the Dragon of Choice and to stifle the vision necessary to work effectively for a real restoration of Christian culture and for the salvation of souls. If we are really open to the Culture of Life, that is, to large families as God chooses them, then our families within the faith need also to be large. We shouldn’t be so calculated about those we live with and those we do not. The real adventure and quest is full of uncertainty and danger. Where would we be if Christ was calculating about what altars to come down upon and what tabernacles to dwell in? Do we presume that if He was fussy He would choose to dwell in ours?

I think sometimes we presume too much, and decieve ourselves into thinking that we have more figured out than we really have.  And in the end this is just willfulness.  Wisdom is not willfulness.  As Professor Esolen says, it is wonder.

It is to pray, to wait, to obey, to listen, to give over one’s own interfering and noisy choosing, the static of one’s life of half-sleep, that dragon of the noonday hour, in the hope that the wisdom will come. The pagan poets themselves invoke the Muse, and she, note well, is the one who chooses.

Somehow creative intuition and grace need to come together.  I would suggest that our Muse must be the Immaculate.  As St. Maximilian Kolbe says:

She alone must instruct each of us in every instant; She must direct us, transform us into Herself, in such wise that it is no longer we who live, but She in us, just as Jesus lives in Her and the Father in the Son. Let us grant Her permission to do in us and by means of us whatever She desires and She will surely accomplish miracles of grace: we will become saints and great saints.

7 thoughts on “A Subtle Dragon

  1. I so far have had the chance to only read through this once … it’s doubtful I’ll get through it again but it would take AT LEAST that to suck all of the marrow out of it. First of all, I commend P.C. for finding such a professor. I didn’t let my daughter look at this college when she was selecting schools .. maybe that was a mistake.

    Thought #1: “Beware of maidens in black silk.” Have I been that maiden? Asking reasonable questions to maintain control of a situation that seems to be spinning away from me. Have I been the destroyer of someone’s quest at times? Lord save me and save others from me should that be so.

    Thought #2: Dragon of choice. At first, I smuggly felt that I’m not pro-choice so this doesn’t apply to me. But, of course, it still does. I like choice! “We shop for schools, we demand ‘electives’.” Yep. I’ve never thought about my faith as being that of giving up my freedom to choose and allow my life’s course to be instead chosen for me. Once i chew on this I realize that, yes, indeed that is exactly what one does when he hands his life over to Christ.

    Thought #3: Forming a village. This one I have thought about before. With my initial conversion over 20 yrs ago (very evangelical-like), I went to visit the Amish communities and gazed at their other-worldly existence. I envied how they could separate so completely from the life around them. I marveled at their plain clothes, their horse and buggies, their gas lamps. I still do, to some extent. But, try as I did, I could never see where Christ did this. He always managed to find Himself in the thick of it all. In all these years of seeking His will for me, I’ve never felt Him call me to this type of existence even though, at times, I yearn for it. I don’t doubt that some are truly called to this as saints have gone to caves to separate and pray for the rest of their lives. Most are not, however. And, I think it gets very dangerous when people live this way. Whenever groups of like-minded people come together, there runs this risk of becoming *cultish*. Groups of people can follow along with almost anything and you wind up with these bizarre groups like some of the recent Mormon churches have dealt with. So I liked Esolen’s defining these groups as not villages but clubs or cliques. (No disrespect to the Amish nor to those trying to build the community in FL … just BE CAREFUL.)

    As Father Angelo has mentioned in past homilies, this can happen right at the beloved friary. Many a good, no GREAT Catholic family has felt shunned from there for mostly petty reasons. I know. They call me or I’ve been told of them through others. They miss the place but vow to never go back. I listen and try to encourage them to visit again one day .. we can only hope. In trying to keep a place that is holy and clean for our families we ultimately live in fear of it being destroyed like so many other things have been. But, Christ does not live in our fears! Patience and love would have solved many of those issues.

    Well, I have neglected my family over this wonderful article long enough. Fortunately it’s vacation week and everyone’s rather free-wheeling it but enough is enough.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Father! 🙂

  2. Great thought provoking post, Father Angelo!

    I’d like to offer a few of my own thoughts on this subject:

    Being “open to life” is much more than merely being open to all the children that God sends, that’s only a part of a much larger picture. Being “open to life” in a Catholic way is being open to all people; adults as well as children, neighbors we don’t agree with as well as those who are like-minded.

    As Father says:
    “If we are really open to the Culture of Life, that is, to large families as God chooses them, then our families within the faith need also to be large.”

    Being open to life is just that: Being open to LIFE in every situation. Not an easy thing at all, especially because it often requires that we not merely put up with but actually LOVE those who we find quite difficult to love. Not only is this not easy but rather impossible for most, if not all, of us. It is impossible in the natural realm but it is possible, by the grace of God, supernaturally.

    As Father also says:
    “I am suggesting that our communities need to embrace the crazy genious, the atheist, the smug churchgoer and all the rest. We need a real village. We do not need any more clubs or cliques.”

    After all, didn’t Our Lord embrace the crazed, the pagan, the smug churchgoer and all the rest?

  3. Anthony Esolen is the real deal. I’ve had the pleasure of making his aquaintance in recent years, and he is as warm and authentic as he is brilliant. He’s a senior editor at Touchstone, an ecumenical monthly “of Mere Christianity” that I couldn’t recommend more highly.He appears regularly in other publications as well… most recently in this month’s Magnificat.

  4. Speaking of communities being open to the Culture of Life, I would like to humbly throw in my 2 cents. If we are called as people of God to love our neighbor, this includes repentant sinners of all kinds. If we profess to be pro life, then that means that we profess to love post-abortive mothers and also repentant single mothers who chose life rather than abortion. We must be careful not to love them only when they choose life or when they suffer after making a mistake, and then shun them when they repent, change their lives, and try to join our faith communities. Are we to emulate Our Lord, or the mob with the stones?

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