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Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Winter Word on Jane

Indulge with me in a quick comparison of words in two Jane Austen novels. 

You should always take a quick spin through an Austen at Christmas, with the Coventry carol playing softly for ambience, because Christmas has such a thatch-roofed nostalgia (Thank you, Mr. Dickens) but also because we remember Ms. Austen’s birthday on December 16th.

Jane, presiding over our two examples.

Add to this the fact that the Literary Life podcast is traipsing through “Northanger Abbey” right now, and you see the absolute necessity.

And absolute necessity brings me round to my brief observation of the role of emphatic redundancy.

Angelina Stanford (of whom I am a shameless devotee) comments on the brief tête-à-tête between 
Catherine and Tilney towards the end of the book, regarding the careless use of the phrase “promised so faithfully.”

Tilney exclaims, “Promised so faithfully! –A faithful promise—That puzzles me. I have heard of a faithful performance. But a faithful promise—the fidelity of promising!”

As Angelina and her cohorts note, he is pressing Catherine to examine her faith in the promiser. But I was immediately reminded of the exact phrase on another careless tongue.

For Jane Austen, by no mistake, I am sure, has inserted just these words into this speech by Lydia Bennet at the end of “Pride and Prejudice:”

“But gracious me! I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. And I promised them so faithfully! It was to be such a secret!” she laughs.

And there you have it.

The redundancy itself, where a steady man’s yes could simply be yes, suggests that the value of words extends only so far as action corroborates them. To strengthen one’s words with exaggerated emphasis is, conversely, to invite suspicion. What necessitates the repetition if not a wariness warranted by a history of inconstancy?

Just as the necessity of reading Jane Austen in a snowstorm over gingersnaps needs no amplification, the faithfulness of promises requires no elaboration, unless the promiser herself gives reason for doubt.
Exhibit A: An appropriate accompaniment to Jane at Christmas.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Waltz of the Triad

We read to enter into the camaraderie of sojourners. We read to delight in laughter that is amplified by sharing, to bear the chastisement of bitter truths, to so exult in excellent words that words fail to convey the pleasure. In treading these yellowed paths, we echo with our betters that transcendental refrain, verum, bonum, pulchrum.[i] It is our battle cry, our password whispered at keyholes, our symbol toed in the sand. It flows through the liturgies of our lives, our studies, and our worship. 

 The words march in tandem, parallel lines pointing steadily upwards toward the greater three, the Trinity. I cannot think of truth, goodness and beauty without envisioning concentric triangles, the classical ideals outlined by, governed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The ideals reflect the manifold glories of God and let us taste holiness in sips. One day we will taste in draughts.

Bruni, wearing his enthusiasm on his sleeve.
Of course, today we want only the kind of knowledge we can add up in a ledger or reproduce in a double-blind test. But knowledge is One, with facets too numerous for the testimony of our senses alone. The beauty of form elucidates these mystic truths. “Poetical knowledge,” wrote Leonardo Bruni, “is of primary importance in our education, alike for its utility, as aforesaid—that wide and various acquaintance we get with facts—and for the brilliance of its language.” In his passionate vein he declares, “This is a knowledge which all great men have possessed,” and elsewhere, of other beauteous words, “Good God! So eloquent! so rich in expression!” Truth well spoken is “a pleasure like ambrosia and nectar.” [ii] Seven hundred years later, we must learn it again.
I tend to associate each virtue with one person of the Godhead. God is good. He sees his work and calls it thus. Jesus is Truth and says so unequivocally in John 14:6. The Spirit pierces our souls with beauty in shape and sound. Modernity can accept God (so long as he claims no distinctives) and Jesus (so long as he is meekly benevolent) and goodness and truth (so long as they are only private convictions). But the Spirit, and the beauty to which he awakens our desires, these are anathema. Either there is no Spirit and no beauty, or everything can be equally spiritual or beautiful, which amounts to the same thing.

We can’t live long with this suppression of the soul because we are image bearers. A fox feels the meadow grass cushion his feet in summer, the stiffness of the forest floor in winter, but he does not stop to marvel, or to meditate on the change. He feels the north wind with his ears erect, but he does not bow in gratitude. Wonder is a human gift, that bridge that turns taste and feeling and sound to revelation, and to celebration. The Word of truth engages our minds; beauty teaches our souls. “He alone is true, and He alone is good. If we understood this, we would understand how beautiful His holiness is, and we could not be kept from writing concertos and building cathedrals.”[iii] We reflect a good Creator.

In reality, no virtue of the triad is limited to association with one person of the Godhead. In fact, you could spin the smaller triangle like a wheel of fortune, and wheresoever it landed, you could contemplate anew the embodiment of this ideal in that person. The goodness of the Spirit, who comforts our grief. The beautiful feet of Jesus, bathed in oil and dust. God, our true Father. All virtues speak of God, and all their fullness is in him. “The practical importance of the doctrine of the Trinity,” Packer has explained, “is that it requires us to pay equal attention, and give equal honor, to all three persons in the unity of their gracious ministry to us.”[iv] Thus our pursuit of the transcendentals pull us ever deeper into mystery, and into worship. 

In this complex choreography, the invisible Spirit also attunes our physical senses to ever-greater depths of tangible beauty, and the Word made flesh fits our spirits to confess truth. Bruni’s fervor befits such lofty things. Words carry grave truths into us, achingly, via lovely vessels. We can bear the weightiest idea when by its noble raiment we recognize goodness. “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?”[v] So thunders the God who gives orders to the morning.[vi] Not safe, but good, these words drive me to silence.

In silence, notes become song. It is through the contemplation of the verum, bonum, pulchrum, all three in harmony, that we delight increasingly in the pleasures of God. And when that work is finished, we will worship in spirit and in truth and behold His goodness and not perish in its radiance.

[i] Trans: the True, the Good, the Beautiful.
[ii] Leonardo Bruni, “On the Study of Literature,” in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012), 338-9.
[iii] Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture (Moscow, ID: Cannon Press, 1998), 26.
[iv] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 42.
[v] Job 38:31, New International Version. In this passage, God affirms his sovereignty to Job.
[vi] Job 38:12, New International Version.