Thursday, October 23, 2008

GKC, Puns, and the Blessing of an Electrical Generator

Well, that's a mouthful of a title. I hope I can live up to it.

The pun, or play on words, has been a nuisance and a delight to those who speak and write for perhaps as long as we have spoken and written. As Chestertonians will recall, GKC makes a breakthrough worthy of Tolkien:
...none of these makers of imaginary scenes have tried to imagine what it must really have been like to see those things as fresh which we see as familiar. They have not seen a man discovering fire like a child discovering fireworks. They have not seen a man playing with the wonderful invention called the wheel, like a boy playing at putting up a wireless station. They have never put the spirit of youth into their descriptions of the youth of the world. It follows that amid all their primitive or prehistoric fancies there are no jokes. There are not even practical jokes, in connection with the practical inventions. And this is very sharply defined in the particular case of hieroglyphics; for there seems to be serious indication that the whole high human art of scripture or writing began with a joke. There are some who will learn with regret that it seems to have begun with a pun. The king or the priests or some responsible persons, wishing to send a message up the river in that inconveniently long and narrow territory, [Egypt] hit on the idea of sending it in picture-writing, like that of the Red Indian. Like most people who have written picture-writing for fun, he found the words did not always fit. But when the word for taxes sounded rather like the word for pig, he boldly put down a pig as a bad pun and chanced it.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:198, emphasis added]
Yes, I know this will be a bitter pill for some, but read it again:
Writing seems to have begun with a pun.
What a great line. Of course I might make a grand digression into the pun about Peter-the-Rock, but Fr. Jaki already has a whole book on that, called And On This Rock; it is a study of the biblical use of the word and some interesting aspects of that place "near Caesarea Philippi" where it all happened... but I will let that go for today.

Being a computer scientist who has to pick over every last bit about words, especially those which contain 32, or even 60, I ought not get into the matter of puns - but why not? I poked around to see what else Chesterton had to say, and found him slamming Samuel Johnson for once on the
...much controverted question of puns. I know all about the judgments regularly cited as if from dusty law-books in the matter. I know all about the story that Dr. Johnson said, "The man who would make a pun would pick a pocket." How unlucky that the lexicographer and guardian of our language, in the very act of purging himself of puns, should have plunged so shamelessly deep into the mire of alliteration!
[GKC The Well and the Shallows CW3:345]
But I have no time to study this just now, as I have something else to bring up about the matter.

I was poking through my copy of the Roman Ritual and considering the "Blessing of a Machine for the Generation of an Electrical Light". It is such homely things that make a Catholic so delighted, and cause the outsider such confusion: the bishop or priest, processing to the substation or generating plant, with the choir chanting the great Benedictus canticle first sung by Zachariah at the birth of St. John the Baptist, so apt for the thought of artificial illumination: "the Dawn from on high has visited us, to illuminate those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death"... but that is only part of the pun.

That comes a little later. After the Benedictus is completed, the bishop intones the antiphon:
Lux orta est justo: rectis corde laetitia.
that is,
"Light has risen for the just; joy for the upright heart.
which you quickly identify as coming from Psalm 96, which the choir then chants.

Now, in that psalm, comes this great line:
...Nubes et caligo in circuitu ejus...
...clouds and darkness in his circuit...
Yes. There it is. Biblical support for electrical engineering. Or is it just a pun?

Well, perhaps a little of both. The Roman Catholic Church is our mother, but she definitely smiles a lot too, and she does get her little jokes in from time to time, if you watch carefully.

But let us consider the actual blessing itself, which deserves a lot of study:

Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
Qui fecit coelum et terram.
Domine exaudi orationem meam.
Et clamor meus ad te veniat.
Dominus vobiscum.
Et cum spiritu tuo.

Concede nos famulos tuos, quaesumus Domine Deus, perpetua mentis et corporis sanitate gaudere: et gloriosa beatae Mariae semper Virginis intercessione, a praesenti liberari tristitia, et aeterna perfrui laetitia. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Domine Deus omnipotens, qui es conditor omnium luminum, bene+dic hanc machinam ad lumen excitandum noviter conditam; et prasta, ut ad te, qui es lux indeficiens, post hujus saeculi caliginem pervenire valeamus. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.
which, approximately is:
Our help is in the name of the Lord.
Who made heaven and earth.
O Lord hear my prayer.
And let my cry come to You.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.
Grant to us Your servants, we ask, O Lord God, to rejoice in perpetual health of mind and body: and by the intercession of the glorious blessed Mary ever virgin, to be free from present sadness and to throughly enjoy eternal happiness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

O Lord, almighty God, Who is the maker of all lights, bless + this machine newly made for the generation of light; and grant that after this age of darkness we may merit to come to You, Who are Light unfailing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Very wonderful: perhaps all electrical engineers and electronics workers ought to remember Who is the "unfailing Light".

Yes, there are several other blessings in the Roman Ritual: of eggs, of butter and cheese, of bread, of beer, of telegraphs (I wrote about that previously), of horses, of animals, of seeds, of bees - and on and on. Chesterton had some wonderful words about such homely and tender concern:
The whole point of this last position might be expressed in the line of M. Cammaerts's beautiful little poem about bluebells; le ciel est tombé par terre. Heaven has into the world of matter; the supreme spiritual power is now operating by the machinery of matter, dealing miraculously with the bodies and souls of men. It blesses all the five senses; as the senses of the baby are blessed at a Catholic christening. It blesses even material gifts and keepsakes, as with relics or rosaries. It works through water or oil or bread or wine.
[GKC The Thing CW3:258]
But even more relevant is this:
The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of something that was more than man. Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it. The senses had truly become sanctified; as they are blessed one by one at a Catholic baptism. "Seeing is believing" was no longer the platitude of a mere idiot, or common individual, as in Plato's world; it was mixed up with real conditions of real belief. Those revolving mirrors that send messages to the brain of man, that light that breaks upon the brain, these had truly revealed to God himself the path to Bethany or the light on the high rock of Jerusalem. These ears that resound with common noises had reported also to the secret knowledge of God the noise of the crowd that strewed palms and the crowd that cried for Crucifixion. After the Incarnation had become the idea that is central in our civilisation, it was inevitable that there should be a return to materialism, in the sense of the serious value of matter and the making of the body. When once Christ had risen, it was inevitable that Aristotle should rise again.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:493]
I would like to call your attention to the line "Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it." You might compare it with the verse in the Te Deum: "Non horruisti virginis uterum" = "You (God) did not despise the Virgin's womb." Which is exactly what GKC was saying.

Yes, that quote should be emblazoned on the walls of power plants and engineering offices to remind us of the real materialism which is the serious value of matter and the making of the body. Let us not forget this as we journey on towards the source of Unfailing Light.


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