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Midwinter Spring, Sempiternal Though Sodden

The syllabus for our final class today in Theological Aesthetics read "Wolterstorff and Conclusion."  I chose my warmest coat when I left my apartment this morning, but the exertion of my hurried pace made me uncomfortably warm as I rushed to class, exacerbated no doubt by the ebb and flow of anxiety about the four essay topics spinning my head.  Professor Hare arrived a few minutes late today, a first, and moved briskly through his final thoughts about Wolterstorff and unity, richness and intensity, as well as the fittingness of a work of art to the purpose of worship.  And then on to the "Conclusion" part, which we all hoped and expected would be a review for the final exam.

Professor Hare brought us back to Raphael's painting The School of Athens, in which Plato and Aristotle, the princes of philosophy, are pictured at center.  Plato points upward, Aristotle inward.  Plato indicates that the forms are beyond us, Aristotle that we find what we need by looking within.  The focal point of the painting is right between the two.

Immediately, C.S. Lewis' words from The Last Battle rang in my ears: that wonderful cry, "I have come home at last!  This is my real country!  I belong here.  This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...Come further up, come further in!"

I was moved to reflect on the past semester with all its ideas about aesthetic contemplation.  How far beyond me this semester has gone, digging into texts that were nonsense to me until the third pass, mapping a metaphysical universe that brought my imaginative capacity to its limit.  Just as significantly it has driven deep within me, unearthing old loves, bringing to memory unforgettable aesthetic experiences with sublime beauty.  And importantly, as with this line from The Last Battle, conferring greater genius and meaning upon things that have burrowed deep into my mind and heart, perhaps at a time when I knew not why.

Professor Hare continued with his concluding remarks. "Kant is finally wrong about disinterestedness.  And Wolterstorff was wrong to separate aesthetic merit from goodness and truth.  As a Christian, that truthfulness and that goodness will be manifested especially in Christ, and in Christ's death and resurrection, which brings us again and at last to the beauty of the cross." A deeply meaningful and expected conclusion.

"Which is why I want to read 'Little Gidding'."  A surprising turn for the last half hour of the semester, and one that brought up a poem that is deeply lodged in my private heart, and deeply loved.  These words caught me like a surprise encounter with an old beau; it posed no danger but came into the unsuspecting present with a crack as the old love appeared.  I admit, though, that I have very little idea what any of The Four Quartets are about.  I sense a deeply satisfying conclusion to the tried and suffering consciousness of Eliot, he who ushered in the modern age with a view of "The Wasteland."  He knew Christ when he wrote these last poems, and so even though I don't understand them, I know if I hold on to them long enough, they'll tell me a story of redeemed intellect and the transfiguration of despair into hope.

Professor Hare proceeded to read aloud, progressively less aware of his audience as his head began to drop into the page, his body curling around the desk to enclose the text before him.  His voice grew deeper and lower as he read, the crispness of his British diction soft and malleable around the American verse.  We strained our ears to keep apace, all fingers silent on the keyboard keys, every pen at rest on the blank page.  Three or four times our lector's voice faltered in a tightening throat, and he expressed no shame over his tears.

He read for the last thirty minutes of class.  He did not speak when he rose from the desk and left the room at the poem's conclusion.

This is actually the second time a legendary theology professor as ended a semester's work with a recitation of this poem.  The last time, I sat in a tiny office with Denys Turner as he, too, wept his way through "Little Gidding", closing a reading course I'd taken with him and three other students.  Denys' tears were common, and yet they, like Professor Hare's, never failed to incite in me a panic of emotion. Knowing what I know about those two men, I know their tears are charged with all the knowledge of our age's most brilliant academic discourse, as well as the puerility and frailty of a battle-weary heart laid utterly bare before Christ.  They are my intellectual standard-bearers, drill sergeants, generals, and surgeons.  To see their posture folded around verses they've read their whole lives, to hear tension in the voices that guide me on my way, to watch their lined faces contort around pursed mouths and wet eyes - ah, that they are for a moment overcome with love is - for me in the baby steps of my intellectual odyssey - simply more than I am equipped to bear.  

As for "Little Gidding," I don't have much more understanding of the poem than I did yesterday, except a few valuable insights into Heraclitus, the flame, and the rose.  But that first sentence:

"Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic."

I left the classroom to find that it wasn't my haste that had warmed me this morning, but that today, the third of December, the temperature is an outright balmy 62 degrees. There's a fresh glow of green on the grass that browned weeks ago, the sun is yellow in a cobalt sky, and the shadows are black and long on the radiant sidewalks.  I meandered around Yale's central campus for an hour after class, wearing a cotton shirt and carrying my jacket.  Midwinter spring.

I've now made it two words into this poem, but that's two words closer to the tears that I humbly pray will fill my own eyes when I, in the twilight of my career, will crumple around this very text with love that overtakes me.

Comments

  1. This is beautifully written and jogs memories of education at its finest. It recalls the great teachers who changed my life in isolated moments of great beauty that both blessed and wounded. What a rich day this was. Thanks for sharing it.

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