Friday, August 15, 2008

Mortal soul

Every now and then a book shows up -- at the back of a closet, in a box in the attic, on a shelf in a secondhand bookshop -- that jogs one into the past, to some early moment of discovery, to the you you once were. Someone mentioned here recently Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, and I felt a shiver of deja vu; there was a time as a young man when I was all atwitter about that book. Even as everyone else was reading Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, I was absorbed by the Glass Bead Game, maybe because I was trying at the time to mush together a monkish Catholicism with some hard-nosed science, not very successfully. What prompts this musing now is another book that just fell off my shelf, H. A. Reinhold's The Soul Afire, an anthology of the writings of the great mystics, dedicated, no less, to Jacques Maritain. The book was first published in 1944, with an imprimatur by Francis Cardinal Spellman, but it was the Meridian edition of 1960 that coincided with my youthful plunge into the exhilarating and murky depths of EuroCatholic spirituality.

Consider just a few of the section headings: The Eros of the Intellect; Knowing in Part, Darkly; The Restless Heart; Holy Indifference; The Flesh, Error and Sin; All Things Are But Loss; The Still Small Voice; The Loving Pursuer; The Dark Night; The Wounded Heart; The Great Silence; The Loving Gaze. Heady stuff for a restless young man experiencing religious feeling for the first time. John of the Cross, Hildegarde of Bingen, Richard Rolle, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Genoa, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Good Lord, no wonder the wounded heart.

Meanwhile, the light of a joyful empiricism was glimmering there in the distance, like a light at the end of a long dark tunnel, or sunlight seen from the depths of a pond, a perfectly natural light that illuminates the world of nature. And you know the rest of the story, the eventual emergence into a robust scientific agnosticism.

But we never leave our past completely behind, nor should we necessarily. It is our respective pasts that make us who we are, that shape our individuality. From those youthful days of the soul afire I retain a sense of mystery, a sense that even in the light of science we see as through a glass darkly. I remain at this late stage in my life the loving pursuer who listens -- listens to the still, small voice in the great silence.