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A Monk’s Alphabet

is the name of the book by Jeremy Driscoll, mentioned in a post earlier this week. The title recalls Milosz’s ABC’s. In both books diverse subjects are listed alphabetically, often with no connection from one to the other. But there is much of Milosz’s Road-side Dog here as well, particularly in those passages which point towards a problem that the author is chooses not to solve, but rather bequeathes it to the reader who might wish to work on it later. It’s a generous act, though sometimes accompanied with anxiety, and is rather directly related to his poem “Inheritor”, about which Father Driscoll has also written. Under the title “Why Do I Let My Subjects to Others,” Milosz answers himself, “My subject may be useful to people who are tired by literatures of confessions, by an overflowing stream of perceptions, by shapelessness of a tale about oneself. Blessed be classicism and let us hope it did not pass away forever.”

Well, there’s no classicism quite so classic as orthodox Catholicsm, and who better to expound upon this particular theater of thought than Father Driscoll, whose book on Evagrius Ponticus’ Ad Monachos is the resurrection of a little known classic of Christian spirituality, and whose What Happens at Mass is quickly becoming a classic itself. Catholicism itself is a subject meant to be let, in that it absolutely cannot be claimed by a single individual. Therefore reflections pursued in a spirit of honesty are bound to bring with them the shock of recognition, or the thought, “How often I’ve wondered the very same thing!” An example of this is the passage “Fear of the Lord”, or, even better, “Legacy of the Enlightenment”:

I wonder how much my sense of the absence of God is due to my being a child of these times and how much is just in the nature of things across many epochs. From our times: God banished from culture and public life, believers made to seem naive and weak, science presenting us with too vast an expanse of the universe. The legacy of the Enlightenment, and all that. From the nature of things: because God could not be just another of the things on earth to be related to as one among others. he must be another dimension, and his absence points to this difference. It is absence only from some perspectives. From these his presence looks like absence. I try to think this through. These are interesting thoughts, and I think they are correct. But they do not always give consolation.

I’ve generally considered this before; I would venture that every Christian who has ever lived has considered God’s apparent absence, and that most rational people of our age have thought about this absence vis-à-vis the Enlightenment. To see it articulated as it is here can therefore bring out two different responses, and perhaps simultaneously. One is, uncharitably, “Well, obviously!” and the other is, enviously, “Why didn’t I say that?”, and I wonder whether both point to a problematic connection between writing and revelation. God seems absent. Apart from abiding faith and peak experiences, it has always seemed so, and in our time it seems so for reasons particular to our time. And yet God is a relational being, certainly from the human perspective. First in His covenant with the Jews, then in Christ, and then with the Church, and of course we can only wonder about what ways we are unable to discern. So when Father Driscoll writes elsewhere of God’s presence, this should be understood not as contradictory but as contrapuntal. As, for example, in “You”:

All my complaining about feeling God so distant from me – is this perhaps simply God’s necessary refusal to allow me to treat him as an “Other”? God is not an Other. God is God. He is the You in whom I live and move and have my being. My whole existence is an address of response to the One who addresses me by positing me. As such God cannot be distant from me. I can only be distant from this truth, which is meant to be the foundational truth of my whole life. This distinguishes me from all other animals, from trees, rocks and all other created realities (in this realm) that exist only in passive relationship to God. All things other than the human person are created as a result of the simple command of God,, expressing his will that they be. But the person is created as a result of the call of God. God calls a human being to respond to him, saying, “You.” God is my You whether I want it or not, whether I deny it or accept it. It is as such, and only as such, that we are here. To refuse the relation is simply to be in contradiction to what we are.

The passages selected here might lead one to think the book is filled primarily with difficult abstractions, but it isn’t. There are recollections of a boyhood spent in Idaho, an early love, and the sights and smells of Oregon and Italy, where Father Driscoll is a professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome. He writes about Czeslaw Milosz and his journeys to Poland in the last years of the poet’s life, and there is evidence of Milosz’s influence throughout. As Driscoll himself writes, “I learn my style by imitating.” He is a true inheritor.

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