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Looking East In Winter, via Vesper Flights

By Hannah Matis

Rowan Williams’s new book, Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition, is a challenging and crystal-clear exploration of the Philokalic tradition. If my moral fiber were sturdier, I might compare it with a bracing dive into the ocean at dawn. As it is, I can only recommend both it and a recent podcast in which Dr. Williams expands further on some of these themes. Although many of the essays in Looking East represent lectures and papers that have been delivered elsewhere, they have a remarkable degree of internal coherence. The Philokalic tradition, Dr. Williams argues, offers “a stark critique of the myth of the untouchable inner ‘selfhood’ but also the intrinsic role of bodily located modes of knowledge.” This latter contention may surprise those who have hitherto associated the Greek monastic tradition with denial of the body, or believe a sophisticated and highly conceptual philosophical tradition to be antithetical to present-day notions of embodiment. It would not surprise me if it were precisely these hang-ups and concerns that the former Archbishop of Canterbury is aiming to relieve.

Almost the premise of the Philokalic tradition and the starting point of Looking East is its diagnosis of humanity’s abiding problem: we are driven by our self-interested desires, the passions, to the extent that we can no longer see ourselves, other people, or the world around us without distortion. This distortion extends to our relationship with our bodies: “our problem is not that we are embodied spirits, but that we are incompletely embodied spirits.” The passions lie. Far from connecting us more deeply or more securely to the world, they invariably create “gaps,” dissociation, and inevitably, isolation. This is not Augustinian original sin, but it is not a million miles away from it, either; anyone who believes Orthodox theology to offer a more “optimistic” anthropology than that of the Western church should realize the similarities in the ultimate verdict. “The passionate mind lacks hospitality.”

We all must be healed. But that healing must come from beyond ourselves if it is to help us achieve any degree of integration as people, as people with other people, and as people within creation. Like the Trinity whose image we bear, we are fundamentally relational beings and exist in orientation to the other; “we are carried out from ourselves in excess.” Dr. Williams argues that one of the key misunderstandings of “gnosis” in the Philokalic tradition is the idea that this knowledge comes to take us elsewhere, preferably some higher plane. In truth, gnosis actually means, if anything, enhanced embodiment and a fuller awareness of it, and crucially, the awareness of the other as “excess,” as beyond our self-driven and self-centered perceptions. What divinization really means, therefore, is not the acquisition of glittery superpowers, but more fully “to be the conduit of generative gift to the rest of the finite order, each finite agent giving in its own unique way the life that has itself been given.” We become, in short, like Christ, ever-living, ever poured and pouring out. The connection to the Eucharist is, I hope, already plain. “Eternal reality is productive of its own reflection, inseparably moving into otherness.” And no, this does not mean pantheism. The other must legitimately get to be the other, or we’re trapped in solipsism on a scale cosmic enough to rival the Marvel Comic Universe. There’s plenty of room for a theology of the Holy Spirit here, though. I still think Abelard would have enjoyed this. Eriugena too.

I want to stop here, not least because I am not the proper person to take you through the subtleties of the Christology and trinitarian theology explored here. Next I would like to go in a slightly different direction, namely the implications of the Philokalic critique for Christian environmental ethics. Dr. Williams clearly recognizes these, giving particular attention to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. But I think I can enlist another, and perhaps unexpected, ally.

Helen Macdonald burst from academia into popular prominence, at least in the U.K., in 2016 with her book, H is for Hawk. The book is difficult to categorize by genre: most obviously, it is a memoir and raw and personal exploration of the author’s grief and mourning following the unexpected death of her father, a photographer. But it is also a trained naturalist’s record of her careful raising of a goshawk over the course of this same time — as she later confesses, her subliminal desire to become a hawk and so to disappear. The book is also — Macdonald is her own best and most honest critic here — a more academic study of what meanings and associations human society has transferred onto hawking in the past and onto wild birds of prey more generally. And finally, it is a close and compassionate analysis of the tortured soul of T.H. White, the author of the Arthurian retelling, The Once and Future King, on which Camelot was (oddly) based, and the events in the author’s life that preceded and inspired the book. The long prelude to The Once and Future King, the first and probably its best act, is The Sword in the Stone, which can — I believe, should — be read by itself. Disney films notwithstanding, The Sword in the Stone is a loving and vivid recreation of the medieval childhood of Arthur, here called Wart, as Merlin transforms him into a series of animals, including a merlin, a type of hawk.

Macdonald has recently published a new collection of essays, Vesper Flights, which are both painstakingly observed studies of nature and a searching moral critique of the perpetual human penchant to anthropomorphize it, and which so often damages it as a result. Our distorted need for connection, to feel that animals love us back in the way that we desire, so often causes irreparable harm when we do not stop to learn what a wild creature in the wild needs without reference to us. Nature should not be our mirror, however much we may project ourselves onto it.

Macdonald is an atheist, which, I surmise, is as much as anything a function of her lifelong obsession with carefully, quietly disappearing into the countryside to observe what is immediately in front of her. But in one of the final essays in Vesper Flights, “The Numinous Ordinary,” she turns unexpectedly and, I sense, a bit awkwardly, to religion. “Trying to think and write after reading [theology] feels a little as if I’m trying to learn glass-blowing on my own.” In the essay, Macdonald describes a dream about God which she once had as a teenager:

It—for this was no He—was tall, roughly the shape of a human, lacking eyes and any kind of facial feature, and Its surface perfectly reflected everything around it. A slowly moving, purposive mirror that spoke things that weren’t words that I could feel in my bones, deep subsonics. It burned unbearably hot and unbearably cold at the same time. I don’t recall It had any regard for me in particular, nor why It should have been in my dream, but then, I suppose, I was not supposed to, and that was perhaps the point.

Macdonald goes on to say that the dream did not make her believe, then or since. However, the act of writing about nature has gradually driven her back toward theology, in part for its conceptual richness. Even for a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, if you’re committed to writing about something real but complex and beyond the bounds of ordinary human personal experience, Trinitarian theology is one avenue of imaginative precedent.

Throughout Looking East in Winter, I found myself thinking about Helen Macdonald’s teenage vision of God. It is neither trinitarian nor particularly Christian, but it does demonstrate rather nicely a real truth about God who is God: focused outward to such an extent that God reflects and mirrors the other without damaging the world through which God passes, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Individual purification in the Philokalic tradition, of course, is often described as a process of polishing oneself like a mirror. “God is such that only God can represent God truthfully. But at the same time … the repeatability of the divine life we call ‘Father’ manifests the relational character of divine life: it can be shown that it is always already shared.” If we are to move away from the mere instrumentalization, the use and abuse of nature to fuel our distorted fantasies about and projections onto it, we will need a measure of Philokalic detachment. Not to see the world differently; to see it as it is.

Dr. Hannah Matis is associate professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary.


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