Plotinus on Beauty

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“Pythagoreans Celebrate Sunrise,” Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869. (Source).

A wonderful passage, taken from Ennead I.6. The translation is drawn from this page.

VI. For, as the ancient Oracle declares, temperance, fortitude and every virtue, aye, and wisdom herself, are purifications. Wherefore the sacred mysteries are right when they say enigmatically that he that is not purified shall, when he cometh to the House of Hades, lie in the mud. For, through their baseness, the filthy are friends of the mire, just as swine, whose bodies are unclean, delight to wallow in it.

For what is true temperance unless it be not to give oneself up to the pleasures of the body, and to flee from them as being neither pure nor belonging to that which is pure? And fortitude is not to fear death; and death is the separation of the soul from the body. He who desires to become alone will not fear this. Again, great-ness of soul is contempt of mortal concerns, and wisdom is the exercise of intellect turned away from that which is below and leading the soul upward to the heights.

When therefore the soul is purified, she becomes form and reason, altogether incorporeal, intellectual, and wholly of the divine order whence is the fountain of beauty and all that is akin thereto.

The soul borne upwards towards intellect puts on a marvellous beauty. Intellect, and that which comes from Intellect, is the beauty which truly belongs to her and is not foreign to her; because, when united to It, and then only, is she truly soul. Wherefore it is rightly said that the beauty and good of the soul consist in her assimilation to God; for it is thence that her beauty comes and the gift of a better lot than her present one. Moreover, beauty is that which has real being, but ugliness is the nature opposite to this. It is this that is the first evil; just as beauty is likewise the first of things beautiful and good. Or it may be that goodness and beauty are one and the same. Therefore, we must investigate the beautiful and good, and the ugly and evil, by the same process; and in the highest rank we must place the Beautiful Itself, which is also the Good Itself, of which Intellect is the immediate emanation and the first beautiful thing. But soul is beautiful through Intellect, and other things are beautiful because they, in turn, are formed by the soul, whether it be in actions or in pursuits and studies. And as to bodies, when these are spoken of as beautiful, it is still the soul that makes them so; for she, as something divine, and as it were a portion of the Beautiful Itself, makes beautiful, in so far as its nature will permit, all that she touches and overcomes.

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Plotinus. (Source)

VII. We must ascend, therefore, once more to the Good, which every soul desires. If anyone has beheld It, he will know what I say, and in what manner It is beautiful, for it is as good that It is desired, and all appetency is towards goodness. But the attainment of the Good is for those who mount upward to the heights, set their faces towards them, and strip off the garments with which we clothed ourselves as we descended hither. Just as those who penetrate into the innermost sanctuaries of the mysteries, after being first purified and divesting themselves of their garments, go forward naked, so must the soul continue, until anyone, passing in his ascent beyond all that is separative from God, by himself alone contemplates God alone, perfect, simple and pure, from Whom all things depend, to Whom all beings look, and in Whom they are, and live, and know. For He is the cause of Being, Life and Intelligence. If, then, anyone beheld Him, with what love would he be inspired, with what desire would he burn, in his eagerness to be united with Him! With what bliss would he be overcome! He that has not yet beheld Him may desire Him as Good, but, to him that has, it is given to love Him as Beauty, to be filled with wonder and delight, to be overwhelmed yet unharmed, to love with true love and keen desire, to laugh at other loves, and to despise the things he formerly thought beautiful. Of such a nature is the experience of those who have beheld visions of Gods or angels—no more do they seek aught of the beauty of other bodies. What, then, shall we think of one who beheld The Beautiful Itself and by Itself, pure and untouched by flesh or body, existing neither in earth nor in heaven, because of Its very purity? For all these are contingent things and mixed, nor are they primary but proceed from It. If, therefore, he beheld That which provides for all things, which, remaining in Itself, gives to all and receives nothing into Itself, and if, remaining in the contemplation of This and tasting of Its bliss, he should be assumed into Its likeness, of what other beauty would he then have need? For This, since It is Beauty Itself and the First Beauty, makes those who love It beautiful and beloved. And this is the greatest and ultimate task which lies before the soul, for the sake of which all her toils are undertaken— not to be left without portion in that most sublime vision, to obtain which is to be blessed by the vision of blessedness, but not to obtain it is wretchedness. For not he that has no share of beautiful colours or bodies, or of power or dominion or kingship, is unfortunate; but he that lacks this one thing alone, for the sake of which it were well to let go the possession and kingship and rule of the whole earth and of the sea, aye, and of the heaven itself, if a man, by leaving behind all these and looking beyond them, might be converted to This and behold It.

VIII. What, then, is the way? What are the means? How shall a man behold this ineffable Beauty which remains within, deep in Its holy sanctuaries, and proceeds not without where the profane may view It? He that is able, let him arise and follow into this inner sanctuary, nor look back towards those bodily splendours which he formerly admired. For when we behold the beauties of body we must not hurl ourselves at them, but know them for images, vestiges and shadows, and flee to That of which they are reflections. For if a man rushes towards them, seeking to grasp them for Beauty Itself, then it will be as though he should desire to grasp a beautiful image mirrored in water, and, like him of whom the myth tells, should sink beneath the surface of the stream and disappear. In like manner, he that reaches out after corporeal beauties, and will not let them go, will plunge not his body but his soul into gloomy depths abhorred by intellect, will remain blind in Hades, and both here and hereafter will have converse only with shadows.
How truly might someone exhort us—”Let us, then, fly to our dear country.” What therefore is this flight, and how shall we escape, like Odysseus in the story, from the enchantments of Circe and Calypso? There it tells symbolically how he remained unsatisfied although pleasant spectacles met his eyes and he was surrounded with all the beauty of sense. Our Fatherland is that country whence we came, and there our Father dwells. What, then, are the means for our escape thither? Our feet will not take us there, for all they can do is to carry us from one part of the earth to another. Nor will it avail to make ready horses for a chariot or ships on the sea: all these things we must let go. We must not even look, but with our eyes all but closed we must exchange our earthly vision for another, and awaken that, a vision which all possess but few use.

IX. What, then, does this interior vision see? When it is but lately awakened it cannot behold splendours too dazzling. The soul, therefore, must be accustomed first of all to contemplate beautiful pursuits, and next beautiful works, not those which are executed by craftsmen but those which are done by good men. After this, contemplate the souls of those who are the authors of such beautiful actions. How, then, may you behold the beauty of a virtuous soul? Withdraw into yourself and look; and if you do not yet behold yourself beautiful, do as does the maker of a statue which is to be beautiful; for he cuts away, shaves down, smooths and cleans it, until he has made manifest in the statue the beauty of the face which he portrays. So with yourself. Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labour to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendour of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine. If you have become this, and have beheld it, and dwell within yourself in purity, and there is now nothing which prevents you from thus becoming one, when you have nothing foreign mingled with your interior nature, but your whole self is true light and light alone, not measured by size nor circumscribed by the limitation of any figure, not to be increased in magnitude because unbounded, but totally immeasurable, greater than all measure and mightier than every quantity—if you behold yourself grown to this, having now become vision itself, take courage and ascend yet higher, for now you need a guide no more. Gaze intently and see! This eye alone beholds that mighty Beauty. But if it approach the vision bleared by vices, unpurified, or weak through cowardice, so that it cannot bear to gaze upon such glory, then it sees nothing, even though another should be at hand to point out that which all may see. For he that beholds must be akin to that which he beholds, and must, before he comes to this vision, be transformed into its likeness. Never could the eye have looked upon the sun had it not become sun-like, and never can the soul see Beauty unless she has become beautiful. Let each man first become god-like and each man beautiful, if he would behold Beauty and God. For he will first arrive in his ascent at the region of Intellect and there he will know all the beauties of form, and will say that this is the beauty of Ideas, for all things are beautiful through these, the offspring and essence of Intellect. But that which is beyond Intellect we call the nature of the Good, from which the Beautiful radiates on every side, so that in common speech it is called the First Beauty. But if we distinguish between the Intelligibles, we may say that Intelligible Beauty belongs to the world of Ideas, but that the Good which is beyond these is the fountain and principle of the Beautiful. Or the Good and the First Beauty may be considered under one principle, apart from the beauty of the world of Ideas.

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Dante sees the Primum Mobile (Source).

 

Our Lady of the Cenacle in Armenian Iconography

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Figure A. Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. From the source: “MINIATURES – Erevan, Matenadaran, MS 8772, Gospel, Aght’amar, Vaspurakan, 1391, artist Dzerun, Pentecost. Photo: Dickran Kouymjian.” (Source)

Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.

Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?

As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.

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Figure B. A Greek-style Russian icon of 1497. Note the emptimess of the “Teacher’s Seat” at center. (Source)

In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.

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Figure C. A Russian-style icon with the Mother of God in the “Teacher’s Seat,” date unknown. (Source).

The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.

Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essayFigure A.

Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.

A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:

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Figure D. Description from source: “This Armenian Gospel book was produced in 904 of the Armenian era (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet, son of Vardan and Dilšat, and was illuminated by the priest Xačʿatur.” (Source)

Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.

Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.

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Figure E. An Armenian Pentecost icon without Mary, but with a blue dove of the Spirit. (Source)

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Figure F. Pentecost icon of unconfirmed but probably Armenian origin. Same blue Spirit, roughly the same placement of the Theotokos. (Source).

It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.

And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.

Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.

Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).

On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.