Saturday, October 09, 2010
Athos 3: Can Paulinus Persuade?
Why does a man become a monk? What mind-set turns a man's eyes and thoughts inward, away from the world?
One clear and forceful answer is in a latin poem by Paulinus of Nola.
The story of Paulinus and Ausonius opens Helen Waddell's study of late Latin poetry - 'The Wandering Scholars'.
Ausonius: scholar, royal tutor, consul in 379, now old and in retirement on his estate near Bordeaux.
Paulinus, his favoured student, a short-time senator, who became an ascetic christian and the founder of a small monastic settlement at the tomb of St. Felix of Nola, in Italy.
Ausonius wrote to Paulinus, begging him to visit. Eventually Paulinus replies, explaining his choice of a secluded, contemplative life devoted to religion. Paulinus was married, and not himself a monk; but went on to become Bishop of Nola, and finally a saint.
Here is Helen Waddell's translation of Paulinus' response to Ausonius [the latin is appended].
Not that they beggared be in mind, or brutes,
That they have chosen their dwelling place afar
In lonely places: but their eyes are turned
To the high stars, the very deep of truth.
Freedom they seek, an emptiness apart
From worthless things: din of the market-place,
And all the noisy crowding up of things,
And whatsoever wars on the divine,
At Christ's command, and for His love, they hate;
By faith and hope they follow after God,
And know their quest shall not be desperate,
If but the Present conquer not their souls
With hollow things: that which they see they spurn
That they may come at that they do not see,
Their senses kindled like a torch, that may
Blaze through the secrets of eternity.
The transient's open, everlastingness
Denied our sight; yet still by hope we follow
The vision that our minds have seen, despising
The shows and forms of things, the loveliness
Soliciting for ill our mortal eyes.
The present's nothing: but eternity
Abides for those on whom all truth, all good,
Hath shone, in one entire and perfect light.
For those blessed by faith and hope, this is a powerful argument, maybe a final answer. These eloquent lines resonate even in the sceptical mind of this English physician:
"by hope we follow the vision that our minds have seen'.
Siegfried Sassoon speaks for me, unsure if Paulinus describes a reality which all may enter, if he is indeed describing a reality.
I thought; These multitudes we hold in mind -
This host of souls redeemed -
Out of the abysm of the ages came -
Out of the spirit of man - devised or dreamed.
I thought; To the invisible I am blind;
No angels tread my nights with feet of flame;
No mystery is mine -
No whisper from that world beyond my sense.
I think; If throughout some chink in me could shine
But once - O but one ray
From that all-hallowing and eternal day,
Asking no more of Heaven I would go hence.
Yes, that plaintive poem with its elaborate rhymes also resonates in me.
But I have received in my later years the vision of the Autopoietic Kosmos, perhaps the grandest unifying theory. It suffices.
I enjoy access to a wealth of reliable knowledge and understanding, far beyond the hopes of Paulinus or the dilemmas of Sassoon. We in our times must follow the vision that our minds have seen.
"To the solid ground of Nature trusts the mind that builds for aye" - but Wordsworth speaks as a nature mystic, not intending his words to have quite the meaning I attribute them.
So once again, my favourite quotation, from Rhazes, Persian physician in 10th century Baghdad:
Human perception and cognition alone give reliable knowledge;
The way of philosophy is open to all abuses;
Claims of divine revelation are false;
Religions are dangerous.
Not even the advocacy of Paulinus will persuade me into the way of the monk.
[ Appendix. Paulinus' original latin.
Non inopes animi neque de feritate legentes
desertis habitare locis, sed in ardua versi
sidera spectantesque deum verique profunda
perspicere intenti, de vanis libera curis
otia amant strepitumque fori rerumque tumultus
cunctaque divinis inimica negotia donis
et Christi imperiis et amore salutis abhorrent
speque fideque deum sponsa mercede sequuntur,
quam referet certus non desperantibus auctor,
si modo non vincant vacuis praesentia rebus,
quaeque videt spernat, quae non videt ut mereatur
secreta ignitus penetrans caelestia sensus.
namque caduca patent nostris, aeterna negantur
visibus, et nunc spe sequimur quod mente videmus.
spernentes varias, rerum spectacula, formas
et male corporeos bona sollicitantia visus.
attamen haec sedisse illis sententia visa est,
tota quibus iam lux patuit verique bonique,
venturi aeternum saecli et praesentis inane. ]